Friday, July 29, 2016


As I was last night preparing to edit this post, I was also watching TV, hunting out background noise; I flipped from an in-progress TCM showing of THE LAST DETAIL (1973)--at the moment dimwit sailor Randy Quaid has an embarrassing premature ejaculation at a brothel--to an in-progress EPIX showing of THE WRAITH (1986)--right as a paunchy, noticeably 13 years-older Randy Quaid exclaims: "let's clean up this mess and get the hell out of here!" Coincidence?

That kind of random allusive irony is one of the reasons I flip indiscriminately in the first place. In post-modern circles that's called "shifting" or "drifting." The random flipping through channels to create a tapestry of meaning through disconnected sound bytes and images, shifting has antecedents in tarot and the I Ching. It's the post-modern tarot, where you don't need someone to read for you, you just need a liberal arts education. Even so, it gets old fast. I always have to land eventually; fuel is limited. That's why in the summer (my most reviled season) I stick to re-watching classics I've seen a zillion times. Though they offer no surprises there are plenty of things still to see, detailsiu I missed the first 60 times around. my favorite films from childhood--the monster movies of the 30s-50s-- seem to change with each viewing. As I mature and understand the world and science and military codes, the films change. The cheap monster movies of the 50s, especially the kind where the highest levels of government are represented by two old character actors dressed like generals standing behind a barren conference table in front of a big chart--or, if budget allows, a photo of the Washington Monument posing as a window.
For this alcoholic, they are relaxation and air conditioning personified.

Take character actor Morris Ankrum: put him in a general's cap and let the magic flow. Give him another higher up, head of the Navy or something, and set them bickering back and forth with a scientist and his girlfriend, each trying and failing, and trying again, to whip a riveting purse out of a sow's ear scene. Page after page, they'll never give up. "Why don't you do something!?" cranky Jeff Morrow shouts to Ankrum in THE GIANT CLAW (1957). "We in the military know what we're doing, son," Ankrum replies."But you need to keep reminding us." It's that kind of elliptical round-the-bend go-nowhere dialogue roundelay that makes such scenes indelible. The quartet 4epeatedly moves from condescending disbelief ("another one of your practical jokes!" or "You were probably seeing a shadow of a cloud!") to exasperation, to apology (once the evidence is conclusive), to paternal consolation, to American jingoism, to squawking failure, to  condescending disbelief, around and around again in eccentric circles of blame-outrage-apology-pep talk seldom seen outside Eugene O'Neill plays.

My beloved THE GIANT CLAW, one of my infallible summer perennials, gamely folds this all in with copious newsreel stock footage of airplanes, guys in headphones turning dials, snowy fields, and radar stations, all as deep officious narration concerns itself with all levels of government and military procedure. Hey, in the dead days of summer, director Sam Katzman can shovel all the stock footage he wants, long as it's of the frozen north, soothing to my AC-hungry brow. Eventually of course, we settle down to the quartet: Morrow, Mara Corday, and the two old generals piloting the "B-22" --so obviously a model you can see some kid's glue residue thumbprint on the fuselage--saving the day.

And I haven't even mentioned the monster, by now of course it's on its flap into legend: a turkey marionette given a comically menacing head with googly eyes. I haven't even mentioned hearty Pierre as a random Canuck woodsman. You can't make this shit up. You're in the small nation of Sam Katzman country, i.e Katzmania now, buster. And you're either a citizen or you're quickly facilitating voluntary self-deportation as fast as your remote can carry you.

And how does one become a citizen of Katzmania? You're born into it. You've grown up with Giant Claw on its endless Creature Feature local TV appearances through the late-60s to early-80s, and even as a child you laughed at it's absurdity. It was as if Big Bird or some obscene muppet show cast-off had somehow infiltrated adult military 'serious' programming, like Harpo Marx at the custom's desk. As a kid regularly excluded from adult conversation, seeing them trying to pass this thing off as a threat was very comforting.  Now, forty years later, you come back from the doctor after waiting for the results of your first chest X-ray after 33 years of smoking. You're needing see a monster you can sneer at and safely destroy with some atomic spitballs, something to bring icicle familiarity like a snowman pining puddleward as he meshes into the hot asphalt of your hellish reality. Not that I'd ever drink water (except constantly) but water never runs out.


To enjoy a film endlessly over and over, decade after decade, it must have--as Hawks famously said--a few good scenes and no bad ones. And every year I find new bad ones in some old favorites and new good ones in others. The Big Sleep for example never falters, The plot just becomes clearer until you know who killed whom better even than Chandler himself. And then the preview version shows up, like a gift from movie god, with new scenes, others different, and all of it sparkly and holy.

But then there's the previous Hawks-Bogie-Bacall joint, To Have and Have Not (1944), which has all sorts of inconsistencies that become apparent around the 20th viewing. First off, there's the money issues, which bother me more and more every time: A guy supposedly as sharp as old Bogart's Harry Morgan is supposed to be would never let a shifty American tourist run up an $825 tab on his boat, not without paying at least a deposit. Dude's got no deposit, no fishing ability or coolness in evidence, but Harry takes him out again and again. That seems pretty stupid, Harry. In the heat of summer this financial foolishness makes me as stressed out as if I was reading a false bank statement. I'm stressed out in ways old Jeff Morrow and his hearty Pierre never made me. How can such a cool customer like Harry be so naive? If I can't trust Bogie to take good financial care of himself (and others) via advance deposits and pay-as-you-go arrangements, how can I sink into Hawksian male bonding contentment, that 'finally found a worthy alpha male' trust and adoration that relieves the stress of COPD or some other smoking related breathing ailment for a movie devotee like myself? Not even mentioning how Bogie himself died--the terrible price of looking so damned cool, for meeting Death halfway, like a sport. 

Making things worse is Harry's insistence on "carrying" booze-damaged Eddie (Walter Brennan), the requisite Faulkner idiot man-child (or shaky old rummy) whose 'dead bee' rants and sickly sweat glaze bespeak a terrible smell of alcohol seeping through unwashed pores, a smell that must hang fetid over the boat, drawing massive flies when the ocean wind isn't blowing, which it never seems to. Take it from me, I was massively hung-over out on boats every summer from 1987-92 - and everyone on the boat could smell me, even after swimming in the salty ocean, even with a nice breeze. And Eddie is pretty useless. A sometimes-too-hammy Brennan chews up a lot of screen time with his precious little bits of business, time that would be better spent on romantic banter between Steve and Slim, for never was a girl more stunning and radiant and otherworldly cool than Bacall is here. Considering this first meeting of Bacall and Bogie-- perhaps the greatest instant onscreen chemistry in all of cinema--how nice it would be if... well, they could have had a lot fun if... yeah, if they weren't in a waterlogged once-more-to-the-misinformed waters of Casablanca early 40s Warners strait. 

But the strait must be followed, to the point of insanity. We can mark, for example, the moronic behavior of the Free French--who here try to hire a boat by packing a dozen shifty-eyed resistance fighters "inconspicuously" upstairs in a Vichy spy-watched hotel to beseech Bogart to help them (after he already said no); or the way the Victor Lazlo-stand-in is so eager to surrender at the first sign of trouble (getting shot as a result), because--ala Ilsa--he has to tote a wife with him. Sure, such French ineptitude and cold feet can be read as a subtextual comment on their army's infamously behind-the-times strategies, mixed with a salute to their dauntless courage when the chips are down and the incompetent generals all surrendered; but there's still some mighty inconsistent things going on here. I don't profess to know all the details of life in the years right up to America entering the war, the slow boil as more and more American began to stand up for the little guy, even knowing the tragic cost of getting involved. The determination to stay neutral, even in the face of all the injustice and atrocity going on in both Asia and Europe, eroding and eroding, and ex-pat rumrunner types like Harry Morgan being right on the front line, both the Free French and Vichy trying all their tricks to get him onto their side (puppy dog eyes or threats). And to get back to the deadbeat fisherman client, why would he disparage Vichy because a flag is left out past 5 PM? That's pretty stupid, too, like loudly insulting Hitler while in the bleachers at the Nuremberg Rally just because you saw an out-of-season hydrangea in his car.  In a sense, it's a slow and relentless build that in the web of history we've imagined to last a bout five minutes, but in reality one might have been an American drinking with and working with Nazis for years while abroad, all without ever feeling threatened by them or that we were betraying any ideals or national urges.  If Hitler hadn't declared war on us after Pearl Harbor we might never have joined in on the Atlantic side. It's that tipping point moment that the Casablanca-to Have and Have Not Bogart trades on. He genuinely tries to stay neutral, but can watch little guys being pushed around for only so long...

"I ain't got no stinger!"
If not for the great dialogue and every second Bacall is onscreen, would this film even be remembered today as anything other than another tired Casablanca retread, to be filed next to all the other mediocre attempts, like Huston's Across the Pacific? What if Ann Sheridan or someone played Bacall's part, the way she almost did Ilsa Lund in Casablanca? One shudders at the sorry state cinema would be in today. Bacall was proof we didn't have to endure Ann Sheridan any longer. Real beauty could exist side by side with wit, warmth and decency and most importantly, deadpan cool. No disrespect meant to Sheridan, who had a certain maternal blue collar oomph, but she wasn't no Hawksian woman, except in I was a Male War Bride. She was almost too Hakwsian in that one.

Lucky for me then that the first time I saw To Have and Have Not was back before the internet could chew it up for me. As far as I was concerned it was just another of my then-hero Hawks' films, and so I got to soak up Bacall and her match 'fresh.'  Man, I was knocked out, kicking the air and howling like that wolf in "Bacall to Arms.

Also, I might add, I was closer in age to Bacall than Bogie then, and now... veering up to my big 50th birthday, I find myself envying the acumen and wit of Bogie, no matter his age, and realizing in a blind flash my brain is giving out on me, making me so much less indulgent of Brennan's manchild drunk thing than I was when drunk or a child, or even a man. Is that dotage? I dislike Brennan's rummy and his whole dead bee schitck like old Hoke would dislike someone stealing his rocking chair at the end of The Searchers.

CLAW For the Morrow

One can't always remember the first time they saw a beloved film, but sometimes they can help us remember farther back than we're even supposed to. For example, there was never a time when I hadn't seen The Giant Claw. I was laughing at that bird since before I could crawl. I was born into it, my love of bad movies forming around it's 5 AM showings while I waited for Saturday morning cartoons to start, the bird materializing with an unearthly screech into being as if magically lifted out of the dumpster behind some deranged puppeteer's workshop. As a kid regularly lost trying to follow adult conversation, a kid who would pretend to read by holding up some novel or something and flipping through the pages, here was a chance to laugh at the adults for a change.

To enjoy the film without that inherited lack of good judgment you would need to have a special yen for moments like Mara Corday in a red-eye passenger (propellor-driven) plane delivering an uncalled-for and condescending rant against Jeff Morro under a shared blanket of comfy twin engine roar; how--with everyone else on the plane dead asleep--she starts shouting at him for showing her his giant space bird orbiting patten spiral drawing. If you ask why Corday is shouting and picking a fight with our Morrow when her own non-intergalactic bird theories don't add up at all, then you're probably not ready for this level of high concept science. Sherlock Holmes said that when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however implausible, is the truth. Corday would shout into your ear that Holmes is a fictional character and therefore his theories are worthless.

But smart women scientists know they too are fictional characters because animus-dominated women 'scientists' lack self-awareness, and Katzman should know. He's cribbing from the best, and the worst, of the sci-fi monster movies that came before, and so Corday seems to be shouting at Morrow mainly because Katzman thinks that's what happens in these kinds of films, not to impugn the character of women in more impressive entries like Them! wherein the same character is an astute and open-minded arthropodologist.  One can no sooner lump the Claw in with Them! as compare a frosty Bergman movie to a Long Beach train station. And in this case Corday is right, because the truth is ridiculous, for not only is the thing that's been attacking so many aircraft and buildings a space bird but its invisibility to radar is to due its an anti-matter shield, and YET we can see the strings! This plus an early scene of Jeff buzzing the American Air Force Arctic Radar Station in one of his jets maybe explains her and the military's preliminary incredulity. Test pilot Morrow's an example of the wolf crier endangering the whole tribe because his valuable wolf intel is, thanks to his previous pranks, ignored. Corday is the opposite: because she can see the wires, the bird's not real, even as it eats her. Women.

Make him a sergeant and give him the booze (THEM)
On the other hand, Owlin Howlin, playfully singing and throwing a sheet over his head, presuming --as any drinking man one would--that the giant ants outside his window are just delirium tremens (above), has the right attitude towards these things. You can always believe the reports of a man who doubts his own eyes over the man who presumes himself above hallucinations. Yet I love The Giant Claw and only like Them! I love all scenes on sleepy red eye 40s-50s passenger planes, for they are early examples of a giant slumber party in the sky, succinctly delineating the appeal such films hold for me, a fusion of nostalgia and late night repetition that would be lost on anyone who's never slept all night in a cross country bus or train and woken up in some stout old black lady's lap, her snoring away above you as if some giant mountain, the usual distance between you dissolved into the rhythm of the all-night rails. Is there any more succinct illustration of the way societal norms are structured? Olivier Assayas gets in in Boarding Gate, but whom else?

There's a reason why writers say they do their best work at five a.m. and watching films at four or five in the morning offers the same dreamy poetic freedom from 9-5 adult reality. Whether you're the kid getting up to it or the tripper coming  down to it, catching The Giant Claw as the sun rises, by chance, changes your life. Joy abides in that space between dark and dawn, kids and stoners unite. The child laughs at the adults for fobbing this ridiculous puppet as a serious monster. And the hipster adult feels he's never been so happy to be an idiot, and the writer is... born?

Stock footage to cool the blood in sweltering pre-dawn summer (DEADLY MANTIS) 
That said, the VHS dupe I made of TGC in the early 80s only started about halfway through (right as the big bird munches on a parachuting pilot) and now on DVD, in full, it's much too clear for such dearth of detail, forcing the poverty of the sets and mismatched emulsion damage of the stock footage to the fore and demanding I re-evaluate my hitherto unswerving loyalty. Considering about 1/4 of the film consists of military stock footage, with shots of running panicked populace seemingly lifted out of the Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and It Came from Beneath the Sea ("bigger" Katzman productions), I realize it was better when uniformly streaked and blurred, occasionally disrupted by color bursts of "Crazy Eddie" TV commercials or "Creature Double Feature" tags. I prefer not to see the sheen of hungover sweat underwriting the faces of participants in what should be cold climates but luckily some of the good things have carried over. I still have my admiration for Morrow's ease with termite lines and moments--like where he's barely in bed after that flight before the brass is once again summoning him--a tireder actor there's never been. Morrow 'gets' it. His only fault is his flat delivery of the line "so's my sleep!" when the MP tells him he he needs to come with them because "it's important." Every other line reading? Sublime.

Alive in the frosted cornflakes
Now of course there are 'literally' millions of films that are better than The Giant Claw, and dozens of them even telling more or less the same story, from the Arctic de-thawing / hatching on down that ole map from the North Pole. But those other tellings have Harryhausen or Willis O'Brien animation and/or Jack Arnold direction and/or decent budgets.  But some of 'em ain't as good. Consider the similar Deadly Mantis (same public domain radar installation stock footage) which taps into the same obsession with the North Pole and Canadian air defensive radar shields: "the Pine Tree" and "Dew line" -- tapping into some conception of 'the Cold War' coming from "up there" as we realized Russia would go over the pole, down past Canada, to more expediently nuke us then by going across either ocean, so Canada functions as a kind of go-between and the cold North calls us like a magnet (1). Keep watching the skies, because Canada  hangs above us like Damocles' icicle

The Deadly Mantis, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the six-armed giant octopus in It from Beneath the Sea, and our friend the Giant Space bird all start off way up there--top of the sky map--from the North Pole on down. The Thing, the first, best and smartest/smallest, stayed up there; the rest maraud their way downwards, killing eskimos, pilots, trawler crews, and Canadian lumberjacks, as they  migrate south to a major port city. At first no one believes the lone witness--a shipwrecked sailor or downed pilot-- some narrow-minded doctor even thinks he needs a padded cell; catching wise, the witness changes his story, blames the heat or stress, and so the scientist's hot assistant seduces the truth out of him. The best of the lady scientists work on perfecting the weapon or strategy that stops the creature/s, while the worst roll their eyes and make sandwiches. Deadly Mantis has (its girl) Alix Tilton doing more than her part to help but being belittled as she goes by dopey feints towards Fordian sentiment, like the stuttering radar men asking her to d-d-dance before the inevitable shot of the monster leering through the window trying to cut in. (Claw's Mara Corday is spared this indignity, having already endured it in 1955's Tarantula).

Perhaps it's worth looking again at The Deadly Mantis (1957) but unlike The Giant Claw--which is unforgettable and seems to last five hours--Mantis is the most anonymous film in all of science fiction and over much too quickly. I still can't remember what happens in it. Siphoning the gas tanks of everything that came before it sutures together such a framework of stock footage and stock tropes it could be about any of the radioactively-awoken giant monsters in any of the other films and star anyone (its cast criminally void of any notable charisma or even notable lack thereof). This all somehow makes it too dull to follow but not too dull to turn off, thus it's ideal to fall asleep to or have on while you come down from a panic attack. Watch it 100 times in a row you'll still remember nothing about it whatsoever, yet never be quite all the way bored. It's also the most obliquely para-sexist stealth-feminist of the lot ("we're taking you home young lady," notes the military guy after she's singlehandedly coordinated the 'map of weird 'accidents' which chronicles the bug's trajectory and discovered the pattern). In its disregarding of all that sexist nonsense (Morrow would be the last person to patronize or stop Corday from doing anything), Claw earns its wings, no matter how goofy the effects.

Naturally a few years back when Sarah Palin mentioned she could see Russia from her house I understood at last why all these films were set up there, and at the same time I had to add her to the list of Northern threats ever-ready to rain down montages of panicked citizenry, radio speakers, mobilizing infantry, maps with dotted lines running across various parallels between the US and the North Pole, and cornflake snow hurled in through open portals as people exit and enter the impoverished radar offices. "Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) - able to contact any part of the globe in three minutes." Eskimos point at the sky when the mantis' forelegs get caught up in the fisherman's kayak drying racks; the monster attacking the Washington monument (a favorite Katzman target, reflecting --as I'm sure most feminist horror readers will note--the overlap of red-baiting, tour guide patriotism and castration anxiety).

And in the case of le Claw, there's a great catch-all representation of a French lumberjack loner (Louis Merrill), who--with his faithful dog-- finds Corday and Morrow in the wilderness after they alone survive the latest plane crash deep in the Canadian pines. Naturally he has the name of Pierre. Good Pierre. Jaunty Pierre, He gives Morrow and Corday his homemade applejack while recounting the tale of the a giant predatory flying witch many have seen in these parts and how all those who saw this giant witch died. And before they were attacked the shadow of its giant wings passed over the house --an ill omen, monsieur.... an ill omen.

Fascinatingly, Morrow--who's encountered this giant bird about 20 times already and still everyone doubts him--shouts in Pierre's face as if there's some unseen and unheard waterfall right off camera, "you saw an eagle, Pierre!" Never could the space bird and the old flying witch of local superstition be the one and the same thing. Never! The mind reels, it's like Dorothy yelling at the Tin Man for thinking scarecrows can talk. You heard the wind, Tin Man! The wind!

But again Morrow saves the reel, singlehandedly etching some warmth out of the proceedings by guzzling a second glass of the Pierre's home-brewed jack. A shine beads his eyes, twinkly as the reflection of the bear fat slicking his dark black hair; ending every sentence with the name Pierre, Morrow says shit like "This is great stuff, Pierre" or "that's a superstition, Pierre!" or "another drink, Pierre!" The constant use of his first name keeps him separate from the college educated Corday and Morrow. Rather than deal with their own issues they fuss over him like he's an infant. Eventually, though they all agree: the thing only chases you if you run. Later-- on a revisit-- Pierre runs, thinking he can perhaps outrace a bird the size of a small apartment building. It's the kind of moronic lack of logic that a kid would not notice, but it all fits to make CLAW the classic it is. You see... kids in the 70s didn't need special effects -  our fertile minds filled in all the blanks.

Besides, maybe if they didn't practice clear-cutting, Pierre and company wouldn't have supplied such a perfect space for a massive nest.

But now, 100 viewings later... I wonder what happened to Pierre's poor dog.

"my gun is gone!"
There's so much wrong with CLAW that one loves it like a child; Jack Arnold's TARANTULA (1955) by contrast is good enough that its missteps irk one. Supposedly a doctor, John Agar's idiocy is unrivaled. There's three eaten cattle, mysteriously drained of all meat and the only clue is a huge puddle of strange milky liquid. "Quit worryin' about that white stuff and find out who killed my cattle!" exclaims the rancher. It's as stupid as Morrow telling Pierre he just saw an eagle when there's literally a giant bird floating overhead. Agar and the sheriff (Arnold regular Nestor Pavia) need the cattle to die by a giant puddle of venom twice before Agar even smells it. "Print this as a straight accident," he notes to his reporter friend. Still, he fails to connect the sudden flourishing of acromegaly to a nearby lab's use of radioactive growth serum when there's nothing else at all going on in a 100 mile radius. It all shows Agar is not the right person to trust as far as a barometer of public opinion. Eventually he does wise up, "we gotta keep our minds open and our mouths shut." Talk about locking the barn after the horse is gone...

But TARANTULA stays off my summer list in general because it's set in the desert --too hot. And I like military stock footage, and hate to see any animal in a cage, even gerbils, man. When I'm in my isolation chamber screening room--my feet in tissue boxes and my nails long and yellowed, gibbering to myself and pressing rewind over and over though tapes are long gone--any film that reminds me too much of the shabby contours of my own querencia is to be avoided. No prisons or cages for Bigfoot. No, dear friend, for the concretization of my frontier's sad closing I need a hero bigger than any giant arm chair arachnid...

I need Hank.

"Never when you're sober"

I've seen Touch of Evil a few dozen hundred times. Another repeater is Psycho, which came out two years later and seems almost a remake, alike as two sister craft - on some level. What unites the two isn't just the post-modern cool of Janet Leigh but the idea of her checking into a lonely motel run by a repressed beanpole virgin... a hotel that's become separated from the main highway at which she is the only guest.... Doll.

Did Hitchcock see Touch and feel cheated that the Grandy boys (and girls) didn't cut Janet up in the shower instead of lugging her back to some seedy hotel for a "mixed party"?

The main--as in "the"--murder that centers PSYCHO finds a mirror in the third act of TOUCH OF EVIL, the murder of Uncle Joe Grande, his tongue and toupee dangling over Leigh's drugged unconscious sleeping face. The PSYCHO murder was out of the blue, terrifyingly final, with a faceless killer in a motel room in the dead of night. In TOUCH, by contrast, the victim has time feel trapped, subsumed by mounting dread, trapped in the motel room as the killer puts on gloves and closes shades, all while pacing around the room asking questions that ensure he's not suspected in anything. We watch with growing discomfort and sympathy as poor Uncle Joe tries to keep his cool while instinctually shrinking into corners, like a terrified mouse dropped into the terrarium of a hungry snake uncoiling slowly from its nap, certain its prey has nowhere to run.

But at its core, over the course of millions of viewings, Welles shows his one auteur flaw, one that Hitch lacks --deep-seated masculine narcissist envy of rugged handsome leading men, masking itself as contempt for the he-man type, so--being forced to cast Charlton Heston as a Mexican with "practically cabinet status in the Mexican government"--- he makes him a sexually-panicked virgin desperately avoiding sleeping with new wife Janet Leigh (he's playing a Mexican after all, and that would displease the Southern Markets), while at the same time using her as an excuse for not focusing fully on his job--so he does neither his job nor his honeymoon well. He goes around blaming everyone else for his sexual dysfunction and taking sincerity at face value. "Captain," he says of a shaking Mexican suspect about to get the third degree, "he swears on his mother's life." Later, after he's nattered on about the law he decides, "I'm no cop now, I'm a husband!" and uses this as an excuse to trash to the Grande's gin joint. Yeah, Orson sly infers, you're a husband but you're a terrible one, and a lousy cop. No one so into the law should feel they have the right to shunt it aside when it's time to be a 'husband'! Dude, if you wanted to be a husband you'd be in bed with her right now instead of pussyfooting around with the leather-jacketed Grande boys. Don't yell at Dennis Weaver for taking your gun if you're dumb enough to leave it with your wife, even though she doesn't even know it's there, or she'd surely have opened fire on the Mexican gang bangers. She certainly had time to get it out of the case. "Who the hell does Quinlan think he is? Pinning a murder rap on my wife," Vargas says, showing he's just as sexist as Quinlan is racist. Maybe when he pinned the murder rap he wasn't a cop he was a wounded lion? Is that any more righteous than the 'husband' loophole.

But hey, at least Hank and Uncle Joe keep her entertained. Us, too.

Vargas on the other hand constantly leaves her behind in the interest of protecting her (he can barely get her an ice cream without incident) and if he's such a high-standing cabinet member why doesn't he find a nicer town for a honeymoon? He's like the president taking his bride to Coyote Ugly for their honeymoon and then getting indignant when girls dance on the bar. A husband this incompetent we wouldn't see again until Mel Gibson leaves his wife and kids to run barefoot through the woods after leather boys in the first MAD MAX.

It took me a hundred views to notice this: The last time Quinlan sees Heston's Vargas before the final shootout, he's in Dietrich's brothel, looking at the cigar box toreador postcards on the wall below the mounted bull. The mirror is the size of the other pictures, to make sure we get the comparison, but on smaller screens it's easy to miss. Quinlan, finally lurching him to his feet, the barbs still hanging in the head, ready for his final dangerous charge. The spectacle of the bland young buck of 'the law' made small when going up against the titanic girth of unbearably odious other- this massive wounded animal-- is new to me now that I'm Quinlan's age. Vargas is just one of a bunch of bland tiny cog 'pretty boy' bureaucrats and Welles' persecuted artist is the ageless and eternal (but mortal and highly iconoclastic) monster. "Vargas is one of those starry-eyed idealists," slurs Quinlan to Pete. "They're the one's making trouble in the world." Hank's famous intuition was right; the kid really did plant that bomb. Vargas would have let it go at "he swears on his mother's life."

And Vargas made all his own trouble from the get-go. He could have just walked away, gone on the honeymoon. Instead he destroyed the career and sobriety of a man who framed a lot of people but nobody that wasn't guilty... guilty. Think of how much more crime-ridden things would be in his town without him. He 'made' his partner an honest cop by keeping the secret of his own dirty tricks from him. Isn't that what being an adult really is all about?

But Vargas, since he's so mercilessly hounded by Welles' black humor subtext, doesn't bother me enough to keep away. I can watch TOE any old time. I love Welles the actor and I love Joseph Calleia ever since his turn as sleazy Nick Varna in THE GLASS KEY, staring at Alan Ladd with the patient focus of a cobra who may or may not strike; I love he can be this likable little cop as well, a role so different it took me years of viewings to notice they were the same person. And I love Uncle Joe and his hopped-up boys.... and Leigh in her underwear is a blessing unto man.

There are other films however where small, random things keep a film out of my rotation of summer stock staples, reasons unique to me. My Hawks' repertoire doesn't include his MONKEY BUSINESS, for example, purely because of Cary Grant's grey buzz-cut and my embargo on any movie that shows animal testing even if the ape seems to have a fine time (but a cage is a cage). Ginger Rogers' as a born-again teenage virgin grates too--she plays it much too shrill and broad, and I say this as someone who loves Ginger seven times out of ten. Mainly though it's Gant's gray hair buzzcut. It itches  the back of my neck just to see it, those stabby little bristles. I can smell the barber shop talc like a slap in the face that takes weeks of humiliation and discomfort to erase, wash out, grow back. What kind of guy associates a military grade crew cut with being young and feckless? I'm no fan of I WAS A MALE WAR BRIDE neither. Cutting off a horse's tail to make a wig... ridiculous and unfair to the horse. How's he gonna bat flies away from his arse? The horse I mean.

But hey - Tarantino films for the most part always hold up to repeat viewings, the horses are bedded down real cherry...  though DJANGO is so harsh it's hard to relax to, so that's not on heavy repeat. On the other hand, I've already seen HATEFUL EIGHT six times. It's perfect for hot summers since it occurs during a blizzard. Sure, there are things that don't work for me, like the high voiced fey narrator (Quentin himself, successfully masking a lot of his vocal tics) and the anachronistic White Stripes song (though one anachronistic song works - David Hesse's "Now You're All Alone" in the second to last chapter).

But other shit works great, like the Mexican's "Silent Night" --an out-of-tune but effective rendition  on live piano (his soft "goddamn it" after flubbing a note) gamely counterpointing Samuel Jackson and Bruce Dern's antithetical veering from 'shared a battlefield with this man' post-war bonding ("most of my ponies"), to post-war bitter ("I did better than my damn no-good brothers") to Jackson's harsh gloating tale ("It was cold the day I killed your boy!") to goad him into drawing first (thus making the killing legal). Great writing, elaboration and organic mastery of the way things start one way and wind up the complete opposite in the same setting without any one single noticeable change occurring - a gift lost on 99.9% of screenwriters. 

Morricone's score is one of his absolute best, not even in a 'fond dotage' kind of icon indulgence, with a theme mixing elements of earlier work (the tick-tock watch chime motif from For a few Dollars More, the urgent low end piano of Property is No Longer a Theft) with the relentless low-register cacophonic crescendos of his signature giallo-style and the loping bassoon notes of one of his more playful westerns (part of the 'post'-Sundance Kid wave, where every movie had a recurring romantic flashback set to an 'cute' 70s pop song) and the thud-thud bass under them all. Like the film's theme of real death and forgery patriotism as the building blocks of US democracy, it's a score that evokes his past without leaning on its tropes, not a mere homage but a new classic that uses the old songs like a palette rather than a crutch.

Like those references, each actor's speaking style seems intimately cared for, woven into the fabric. There are deft Hawks references and Anthony Mann pauses in the speaking, and above all the kind of careful diagramming of hostages and killers that makes good movies like Rio Bravo so clearly logical in structure ("If anything happens to us, your brother's liable to be accidentally shot"). Compare Fistful of Dollars (1966), for example, wherein the mean bastard whose been in a familial war with the house across the way decides to just kill everyone in that other family. It's like why the hell didn't the other do that first? Where was the hostage or other key thing stopping them? It shows the disinterest Leone has with the logistics underneath the western, or why duels were even invented. In the hands of someone with western savvy the motivation is clear: lots of witnesses around mean you can't shoot a man not actively trying to shoot you first, which only gives you a split second to legally kill him. Witnesses for later courtroom scenes abound in the folks lining the streets, so rules must be followed - hence too two gunmen agreeing to draw at the exact same time, as in a duel with seconds and all rules obeyed.

Rio Bravo and Red River are endlessly rewatchable in part because Hawks knows all these rules, and he knows the kind of prodding by which two gunfighters "paw at each other and see what they're up against." Hawks sneers at "killing is wrong" Kramer revisionism (he made Bravo as a response to High Noon) while Leone doesn't really seem to understand either philosophy: the law and self defense and witnesses never enter into it and killing is never condemned except by labels like "The Bad" flashing onscreen. His gunmen are doing it that way because that's the way it's done in movies, and Morricone's electric guitar makes any other gesture seem half-assed.

For Hawks (and now Tarantino), everything is based on hostages, lines of fire, and having guys who are "real good" shots, who don't get all mushy over killing sex or seven guys in a two-second gun battle and if you have the boss in your gunsights it doesn't matter how many of his men are there are because he'll be the first person shot. We always know the rules in Hawks, so things always make sense -- its the kind of logic that's so enticing, and it makes us loyal, wins us with ballsy courage, like Arthur getting his enemy to knight him mid-battle in Excalibur, knowing with so many witnesses no other possible recourse is open to his former foe other than future loyalty.

But cop violence and 'stand your ground' laws have been making it real clear why you always need to wait for the owl hoot to draw first, even if he's black. What makes Hateful Eight so wondrous is that it's not just great in itself but the most hopeful film about the future of the country since Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, so optimistic about the joining of east and west, left and right, urban and rural. And in the process it's also the most sharp-eyed about the reality of violence, and the thin blue line of law cohering out of the twilight of a whiteout. Jackson's character is even based on the real life Bas Reeves, a black bounty hunter working in the Colorado mountains. Here he's also a a murdering cavalry officer who joined the war to "kill white folks" and so his partnering with the future sheriff ex-"Ni--er killer of Baton Rogue" - ex-Confederate officer, has a real optimistic glow. We may have our differences, skin, hate and so forth, but these other guys and girl in their sights are slime and on that we can all agree.

Russia and America were both horrified by the Nazi camps they were each liberating as they advanced into Germany in 1945 --their common brotherhood in humanity was reaffirmed by their shared horror.... for awhile anyway. These things are what makes movies like this so resonant. In a world of shit, we found a guy worth scraping off.

What makes EIGHT work for endless revisits is that no one has dominion over nobody and due to it's being shot on 70mm film it's probably the most gorgeous looking work to come along on HD in some time. The dark shadows glowing in a whole spectrum of deep yellows and purples of the sort I hadn't seen since the Criterion clean-up of the RED DESERT smog. I could spend eternity looking at those fields of Wyoming snow, the carriage thundering along to Morricone's ominous twang and sing-song metronome, the bright yellow lining of Samuel Jackson's cavalry jacket, the mix of steam and pipe smoke billowing from the mustached and/or grinning mouths of Jackson and Russell, glowing in the ambient light. Could do without the "Hey Little Apple Blosson" ditty but there's the offhand way Kurt Russell assures Daisy he'll stop her cold with a bullet if she tries to escape and then paternally wipes some stew from her chin with his napkin, or pours her a slug at the bar.

The whole idea of being holed up in this cozy joint during a raging blizzard is a fine inverse mirror to the art of holing up in the AC with your stack of movies during a heat wave. And mostly, I love that Quentin sets up the victims of the Domingray gang massacre in such vivid detail with so few strokes and makes most of them black without anyone calling attention to it, a kind of color-blind casting that works well because we've already heard much about them, and never pictured them black, only dead--and racist (Minnie hates Mexicans), or the cold dispassionate way the gang are all shown first sweet-talking their victims, getting them up on ladders, buying candy, speaking French, etc, then shooting them point blank, and looking down at their still twitching bodies and scared eyes with only clinical killer abstraction.

Ya mind seein' pictures yet?
Over numerous viewings too I've come to see how thoroughly Jackson's Major Warren steals the show. He floats in the blood to the top. That's not unusual for Jackson in a Quentin film. He swims in QT's rich language like a cold pool. In DJANGO he had but a few vicious scenes. This role makes up for the shortage. It's a film about eight hateful characters but Jackson is the one who takes command, who believably inspires change and loyalty in Goggins' Confederate. They make a kind of nice mirror to another future black cop/bounty hunter and white crook/sheriff against a lawless horde film, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13.

See them on a double feature and hey, you'll never spend a better four hours indoors, in the AC, under the shadow of the Hawks, in the dead of night, cuddled next to whomever crawls into your row, be they black or white, thin or fat, rich or poor, we all wake up spooning in a few dozen hours. Whether that's really true or not, whether authentic racial divide healing is just a lot of smoke, it's America, man--it's never just bad apples or all-fresh, it's constant only in its peerless ability to incorporate fiction into its own history, mythologizing itself as it kills it's way through the darkness. Watching it we feel somehow like our own broken psychic bones are knitting, maybe set wrongly and maybe right, but knitting nonetheless.

Of course you may find there's not many places to go afterwards in the summer icicle canon... Carpenter, Hawks, the train, the big bird...

Damn it, you know, Pierre, we still have... a long way... to go...  but hand... in motherfuggin' hand... we'll get 1982 back again.... not that we want to. Just that it's the only place still open.

Your loving conqueror,


1. Sometimes in deep meditation I can feel my aura being pulled toward the north pole, and I have a theory it acts as a kind of soul energy release transmitter, beaming our unused psychic wave energy off-grid to power you know what.

1 comment:

  1. Spurwing Plover25 September, 2016

    I saw THE DEADLY MANTIS and where it climbs the Washington Monument and attacks the bus


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