Thursday, August 31, 2017

i'm not here to tell you who you are

Roger Ebert ends his review of Joe Versus the Volcano with a great bit:

What's strongest about the movie is that it does possess a philosophy, an idea about life. The idea is the same contained in "Moonstruck": that at night, in those corners of our minds we deny by day, magical things can happen in the moon shadows. And if they can't, a) they should, and b) we should always in any event act as if they can.

First a note: Roger references Moonstruck because John Patrick Shanley wrote both and directed Joe Versus the Volcano. Second, though, I love especially that last line. That we should always act as if magical things can happen is one of those ideas that so many movies put forth--from the eternal recurrence of Groundhog Day to the hyperrealism of American Psycho, from the time travel of About Time to the deliberate fantasy of Moulin Rouge. And, yes, Moonstruck. Joe Versus the Volcano takes place in a reality where miracles can happen, where desk lamps can foreshadow the the final act--

(notice, Joe's lamp has the Moai-style stone statue but no people; invoking the population drop of Easter Island, while also offering a nice moonlit island, peaceful and serene)

--and all the women in Joe's life can be identical without anyone noticing.

On that note, Vincent Canby at the New York Times says in his review of the film, "Miss Ryan plays with equal distinction the three different women with whom Joe becomes involved, though no point is made by having one actress do the three parts." The three parts Ebert describes as "grungy, waspish and delectable." DeDe, Angelica, and Patricia. The latter two are half-sisters, of course, so their similarities make sense. The question--to counter Canby's assessment and to echo Ebert's about "magical things"--is this: why have one woman play all three parts?

First of all, I had to doublecheck the timing, here. I mean, who was Meg Ryan at the time? I knew Top Gun and Innerspace were previous, but forgot about Armed and Dangerous and wasn't sure if The Presidio or When Harry Met Sally... were before or after Joe Versus the Volcano. Meg Ryan was already one of America's sweethearts by the time this movie came out. So, there was an expectation about the romantic comedy leanings perhaps, an expectation of Patricia Graynamore delayed by the presence of DeDe and Angelica. Two things worth commenting now as the movie passes: 1) DeDe is almost ready to run off with Joe; I mean, as a character, she's ripe for the same escape he has, except she doesn't have the hope of death to drive her to change her life; 2) Graynamore, were it a name said more often in the script, would be far too on-the-nose, but as it is, I like it; it separates the dreary life Joe has been living--including DeDe--from the more colorful world he enters when he gives up on the regular day-to-day; in that, this film is as much an indictment of the bullshit schedules of modern civilization as Groundhog Day is, reminding us, warning us, that offices and time clocks are unnatural appendages we should excise. As Paul Hannam (2008) puts it in The Magic of Groundhog Day, "As an individual, a regular structure is fine if you are happy in your routine. The difficulty arises if you are not happy, if you are not at peace, if you see no magic in everyday life. It is not so much outer repetition but inner repetition--repetitive thought patterns--that create the Groundhog Day Effect" (pp. 7-8). Joe turns that crank, not knowing what gas might be released where, because he is leaving the past behind in a self-indulgent fit of self-destruction, like George Monroe in Life as a House or Johnny Baxter in Snowball Express or Jerry Maguire in Jerry Maguire not flipping out, or Lester Burnham's letter and blackmail in American Beauty; burn the bridges and move along, because the world is brighter on the other side.

Joe notices DeDe. Of course he notices her. As he tells Mr. Waturi (Dan Hedaya),

Don't you think I'm aware that there's a woman here? I can smell her like a flower. I can taste her like sugar on my tongue. When I'm 20 feet away, I can hear the fabric of her dress when she moves in her chair. Not that I've done anything about it. I've gone all day, every day, not doing, not saying, not taking the chance...

As a self-conscious, timid romantic, trust me, I've been there. Proximity when you can't take the chance--it's as soul-leeching as the pointless job and the soul-rending fluorescent lights. Later, now that he has had the guts to ask her to dinner, he calls her the "door to the universe." Now, he is really speaking more generally, but consider it more specific; DeDe, Angelica, Patricia--they all serve as Joe's doors to new chapters of his life, new segments of his universe. He asks DeDe (25 minutes in), "Did I ever tell you that the first time that I saw you, I felt like I had seen you before?" At the end of the film, he asks the same thing of Patricia. Three women, three acts. DeDe is at work and in the restaurant. Angelica is in the city at large, the expansion of Joe's dying world. Patricia opens that all up, offers Joe the whole world, the ocean, the island, the moon, and, as she puts it, his "whole life".

Still, the volcano haunts Joe the whole time. It's on his lamp. It's on the exterior wall of the restaurant where he eats with DeDe--a billboard advertises FIRE IN PARADISE. (And there are so many great visuals here; I could spend many a day in this blog breaking them down... The colorful apartment windows, the neon FORTUNE sign, Joe's hats and his changing outfits, the ducks, crooked paths, even the trunks. Not to mention the moon. (Shanley loves a good moon, doesn't he?)

Act One belongs to DeDe. Upon hearing that Joe is dying, she flees. She can't spend the night with him because his news raises her defenses; she's in the same boat he has now left behind. He's swimming off into the world but she can't. She's still too scared. She has "the job in the morning." But, Joe has a type. Like anyone would. There's a reason he thinks he had seen DeDe before (and later that he had seen Patricia before). He has seen her, in every woman that he noticed but was too afraid to talk to, every woman he was ever attracted to but never acted on that attraction. Joe is as far from the impulsiveness of Ronny Cammareri as he can be. But, he has a type. And, the details have to change just as he changes. By the time he meets Angelica, he has gone shopping, he has gotten a haircut, he has purchased those premier steamer trunks (and isn't it amazing how the display room makes their introduction like a religious experience?); he is not Joe Banks anymore. He's someone else.

It's roughly half way through the film that Joe meets Angelica, and her name is important. She's an angel come to carry him away from his own dead self, so to speak. He has been reborn. And, he comes to the City of Angels. She pulls him out of reality. Shopping marks a realistic transition, but what about that fade from Angelica's painting to her and Joe sitting in that same spot in the same car? The film has disconnected itself from reality, and now Joe is offering Angelica advice about life. And, while Angelica's place in her life is entirely different from DeDe's, she also is stuck. Differently stuck, but stuck. It's easy to imagine both DeDe and Angelica being inspired by Joe, escaping their respective traps... Except that sort of thing isn't easy at all, is it? Our traps are our traps because we put ourselves into them. Sure, society builds them, and other people are there to keep us inside, but what matters most is our own complicity in our imprisonment. Like Phil Connors, trapped in his life in Pittsburgh but freed in the time loop in the small town of Punxsutawney, Joe Banks must be trapped again on the yacht with Patricia, then on the strapped-together steamer trunks, before he is again small enough to see his place in the universe. To see that there was never really a trap but in his own mind, "the daily grind of endlessly repetitive tasks, mind-numbing encounters with the same people, and meaningless activities and conversations" (Hannam, 2008, p. xix). It takes Phil Connors day after day after day of the same thing to realize that it is never the same thing unless he makes it the same. Rita Hansen is the same person on day one of the time loop as on the last day, but Phil has changed enough to see her differently. DeDe to Angelica to Patricia--this is just a more literal version of that. She is the woman Joe sees everywhere. She is different versions... Or different illusions of the woman he wants. Patricia is the confident version, one who isn't stuck despite spending her time on that yacht. She has the world around her and can go anywhere. She tells Joe,

My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know, everybody you see, everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake, and they live in a state of constant, total amazement.

Now, I wonder about that coming from her father. We only meet him briefly, but it's hard to imagine that he is one of those awake people, manipulating Joe the way that he does, running businesses he knows nothing about. But, imagine that he said it once upon a time, and Patricia latched onto it, took it to heart. And, sure, she lives off her father just like Angelica does, but she does it differently. She uses his boat to live, she doesn't experience her father's money as the only thing keeping her alive and, at the same time, the prison keeping her from doing something she really wants to do. Patricia clearly lives, and she wants the boat for herself.

Angelica and Patricia share Act Two. (Or, if you don't care about balancing the three acts, or don't mind a four-act structure, then DeDe is Joe's Act One, Angelica his brief Act Two, Patricia his Act Three (and his Act Four, and potentially his Act Five, but we don't get to see that). Plot Point One was Graynamore coming to Joe, hiring him. Graynamore was the storm to upset Joe's life even more than the brain cloud diagnosis did. That diagnosis set Joe free, but the film is not about his freedom, it is about his journey to Waponi Woo and the larger freedom that might come from that. Plot Point Two is not an act of a rich man but an Act of God, as it were. A storm leaves Joe and Patricia without their boat, saved only by those steamer trunks and some bottled water. And then Joe has to face that moon, and face, if not God, his own actual self. "Dear God, whose name I do not know," he says. "Thank you for my life. I forgot how big... Thank you. Thank you for my life." It needn't be taken as suggesting the literal existence and presence of God (anymore than Phil looking up after the Old Man dies in Groundhog Day) but it is a religious experience, Joe's Road to Damascus moment. And, it's a strange sort of poetry. To not feel so small, Joe must be faced with just how small he truly is... Or perhaps, how big he truly is, because we are all infinite and expansive, as big as we choose to be on the inside. "I forgot how big..." He doesn't finish that line. He just lets it hang there. Shanley and Joe letting us interpret it as we see fit, because, of course, this is our movie just as it is theirs. Our universe just as it is Joe's. Our world. Our magic.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

the door to the universe is you

Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe

Who had a very lousy job...

I worked office jobs in my 20s. The opening scene of Joe Versus the Volcano is amazing in its satire (and it's awesome that both Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack (who played it relatively straight in Airplane! are in this), workers all dressed in black, trudged through a muddy parking lot, turnstile doors, a zig zag walkway, all to enter a factory that makes medical devices and leaks exhaust into the air. The lighting inside makes everyone look sickly, the hat rack doesn't even work right. It's no wonder that Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) feels like he's always sick. Effectively, he is. His job drains away his life. Or as he tells DeDe (Meg Ryan) (regarding his shoe), "I'm losing my sole."






Strictly speaking, Joe Versus the Volcano is not a bad movie. But, I'm going to end this month of bad movies with it because 1) it was one of the first movies recommended when I asked for bad movie recommendations and 2) it is a bad movie for a lot of people. This kind of dark and strange is not most people's cup of tea. But me--just recently, I loved Brigsby Bear, which most people would probably just think odd. Last year, two of my favorite movies were Swiss Army Man and The Lobster. Usually on my top five films ever (if I bother to make a list) are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (640 641 642 643 644 645 646), Zero Effect, Adaptation. (908 909 910), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (647 648 649 650 651 652 653)...

I like strange movies... Well, I like most movies. Some more than others, of course, but most any movie can be likable if you give it time. That's what I've been doing here this past month; watch the bad movie until I can figure out how to appreciate it. As I already appreciate Joe Versus the Volcano, I won't have to wait for it with this one. But, I'm also going to have to round off this month and what it means... Except I think I just did that. "[M]ost any movie can be likable if you give it time." That and this: most any movie deserves to be given a little time. Movies take time, movies take effort. And, if you're doing it right, watching movies should take some effort as well.

Ideally, as I see it, it should be like this: the filmmakers, the actors, the writers, the directors, the crew members who hold the booms and set up the lights and operate the cameras and everything else--they put a piece of themselves into the film, and you take it out, you mix it up with a piece of you, a piece of the person next to you in the theater, or on the couch at home, and somewhere it all gets twisted into something else entirely. The movie changes you, and you change it, and it's not as lifechanging as quitting your job and setting sail into the South Pacific, but it's something. A movie isn't just a movie.

Like this movie. Joe takes a little piece of DeDe and a little piece of Angelica (Meg Ryan) and a little piece of Patricia (Meg Ryan) and each interaction changes him (and changes them), makes him a more complete person... The irony of the film, of course, is that Joe's journey toward his suicide is what gets him living. And, that's not just a cinematic conceit, either. The decision to do something opens so much within a person. For example, girlfriend I lived with in Arkansas for a while, we were both damaged people, clinging to each other when we should have been trying to make our lives better. One of the best nights we had together was our last, before I finally left to return to California. Just knowing it was over alleviated the anxiety and stress of being there. Joe has left the doldrums of his life. "At the end of his tether, death seems like the only way out of the nightmare he perceives his life to be," Hannam (2008) writes about Phil Connors. Joe Banks has his own hypochondriacal Groundhog Day Effect going in the slow-paced nightmare of his life, working a job the saps that his will and his health so that while he works beside DeDe, he can't even ask her out until after he's quit. His brain cloud diagnosis, like Phil Connor's time loop, is not a bad turn in itself but a trigger into a good one. In the doldrums, Joe's life is awful, repetitive, draining, and incessant. Knowing it will cease, the lighting changes.

What you need is to clear your head.

Carry whatever baggage you have into the theater with you, but leave it there, let it go, add to it, transform it, erase it, expand it, embrace it and forget it at the same time.


Hannam, P. (2008). The Magic of Groundhog Day. Rancho Sante Fe, CA: Waterside.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

how many times do we have to chase you kids?

From the Los Angeles Times, April 9, 1967: "Hippies... many officials see them as a serious threat to today's young people."

In 1963, counsellors and campers at were run off from a summer camp outside Rosman, North Carolina after "'Hate literature was distributed around [the nearby] town saying some very untrue things about the camp--that we were sex perverts, Communists and God knows what else,' [camp counselor Bruce] Grund said" (NYT, 1963).

In 1964, Reverend Frederick C. Wood, Jr. stirred up controversy when he suggested that sex was a "good." "Premarital intercourse need not be 'bad' or 'dirty,' he said. 'Indeed, it can be very beautiful.' (NYT, 1964). In 1959, Leo F. Koch, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Illinois was dismissed from his position after purportedly condoning premarital sex. Koch wrote a letter to the school paper, which included this:

With modern contraceptives and medical advice readily available at the nearest drugstore, or at least a family physician, there is no valid reason why sexual intercourse should not be condoned among those sufficiently mature to engage in it without social consequences and without violating their own codes of morality and ethics.

A few months later in 1960, Roger Ebert (yes, future film critic) writes about that letter for the same paper and he describes "Police [patrolling] lovers' lanes and [shining] spotlights into suspicious cars." He writes, "If actual sex was observed, arrests were made" (Ebert, 2010).

I was reminded of this stuff (all from research I did for my paper "Smash Monogamy: Sexual Revolution to Political Revolution", originally written for one of my last classes as a history major and later published) when the cops in "Manos": The Hands of Fate stop that young couple from making out in their car... twice. Because, really, it feels like "Manos" has something to say.

It's interesting that Troll 2 was inspired by writer Rosella Drudi being bothered when several of her friends became vegetarians. And The Room, according to Tommy Wiseau himself, talking to Elina Shatkin at LAist, came from him researching drug problems and "the third party" "within a relationship". Filmmakers with something to say just go ahead and make movies, it seems, regardless of skills. Of course, Harold P. Warren, who made "Manos", was just an insurance (and later fertilizer) salesman who made a bet with a visiting location scout that he could make his own popular horror film. Two months and $19,000 later, he had "Manos": The Hands of Fate. Badly written, badly acted, badly edited, but he did it.

And, despite certain intervening details, like the scenes with the couple getting interrupted by the cops supposedly only exist because that actress had broken her leg and couldn't play the role she was supposed to, I feel like, deliberately or not, Warren had something to say here. I mean, look at the monster movies from the 1950s, with giant ants and whatnot--they're latching onto paranoia about nuclear energy and the bomb, they're running with real fears and turning them into entertainment. Whether it's Warren's own feelings or just a more general mood around America, "Manos" is clearly latching onto paranoia about hippies and the counterculture, about strange people living away from society as we know it, who will abduct and corrupt whoever comes to them. Margaret and Debbie become wives to the Master, Michael replaces Torgo as his Igor/Renfield. Of course the road to the Master's house has a young couple making out. Of course that same road has inept police officers who cannot do their job to save their life. That road, metaphorically speaking, is the road to the hedonistic hell that is the counterculture. That the Master's wives fight amongst themselves is a secondary issue, implicitly suggesting that the counterculture cannot stand forever (even if it can win in this particular instance).

Imagine a movie with more of a budget and I expect the Master's wives would not retain those white gowns but spend more time naked. (Similar issue with Hobgoblins; trying too hard to bother with real nudity and sex scenes, but also not trying hard enough to hire actresses willing to turn some group wrestling into an orgy.) Robert Houriet, writing about a commune called Oz for the New York Times, describes the clothing optional lifestyle on the commune: "The men wore little but jeans, the women wore the long, loose dresses and there was a considerable amount of group nudity" (p. 89). The wives' costumes invoke more than mere nudity may have, though. The diaphanous white suggests something virginal (and of course a wedding gown), but that white is interrupting by a red sash. Purportedly, the sash was supposed to suggest a tail but I see it more as a symbolic representation of menstruation, marking them as women worthy of the Master; remember, Torgo and several of the wives all say the Master wouldn't want the little girl. (Although, in the end, she is among the wives.)

Torgo's deformity--while he is supposed to be a satyr, the film never explains his gait--is both a) the only reason he can be trusted around the wives and c) invokes another sense of the counterculture: along with the satanic nature of the Master, Torgo's deformity suggests that there is nothing good to come from the counterculture. Its unprotected premarital sex. Its STDs. Its drugs. Los Angeles Times, 1967: "[B]ecause of the hippie movement, today's runaways are exposed as never before to the three-letter hazards of pot, LSD, STP and sex" (p. F1). We don't get to see Michael and Margaret and Debbie (and Poppy) before they have gone on this vacation. But, that lack of detail simply universalizes their situation. They could be any nice, wholesome family (with a dog) taking a break from work and school to exercise their freedom and privilege on holiday. That is the horror of "Manos". That any good family could be corrupted by satanic, hedonistic, strange and unusual folk on the periphery of society.






Bonus detail: “Row Row Row Your Boat” was the anthem of Timothy Leary’s enclave in Millbrook.







Ebert, R. (2010, January 12). Making out is its own reward. Roger Ebert's Journal.

Houriet, R. (1969, February 16). Life and death of a commune called Oz. New York Times. pp. SM30-1, 89, 92, 94, 100-102.

Houston, P. (1967, September 3). Young girls running away at a record rate. Los Angeles Times. p. F1.

Los Angeles Times. (1967, April 9). Hippies--Menace to selves, youth and society? Los Angeles Times. p. FB.

New York Times. (1963, July 15). Campers in Jersey after Carolina riot. New York Times. p. 22.

New York Times. (1964, December 7). Minister defends lenient sex view. New York Times. p. 42.

Shatkin, E. (2007, April 27). LAist interviews Tommy Wiseau, the face behind the billboard. LAist. Retrieved from

Monday, August 28, 2017

there is no way out of here

Any time spent with bad movies must include "Manos": The Hands of Fate.

Why do they sing "Row Row Row Your Boat"? Hell, why, in Troll 2, was that the "song I like so much" for the mother?

What is this background music?

It's almost poetic that the subtitles on Amazon Prime's copy of the movie are timed ahead of the bad voiceover. It's like they wanted to see if they could make the experience even worse.






Considering the technical difficulties--they couldn't record sound and could only film up to 32 seconds at a time--this film isn't that bad... Well, except for the atrocious dialogue and the bad acting.






The other couple that keeps making out and getting run off by the cops--is that going to connect to the "plot"? (It's been a while since I've watched this movie and I don't remember.)






I can't help but feel like there is some deep message to this movie. Like some commentary on the sexual revolution or women's liberation... But, ti's just so... Boring? And bad. Actively bad. This one may take a while to appreciate.

the game was an outlet

This weekend, my daughter performed in Twelfth Night three times and had a voice recital. There were rehearsals three times a week for several weeks now and I generally sat around and worked on this blog during those (the rehearsals and the play were 30 something miles away, so it wasn't worth it to, you know, drop her off). And she's got auditions for new things coming up quite soon. For me, fall classes get started this week and I'm teaching a new class I haven't taught yet (though I have covered some of its material as a debate coach). My son's college classes for fall get going tomorrow. My older daughter's last year of her bachelor's gets going in September. My ex (with whom I share an apartment) has already returned to teaching this past week. Like most anyone, we are all so very busy.

But, with the right distractions, the right amusements, I at least have figured out how to deal with the stresses of modern life... Until Trump tweets something inane or puts some bullshit policy into place to fuck with LGBTQ folks or Muslims or immigrants or refugees or women or democrats or anyone and everyone when he threatens "fire and fury" and, implicitly, nuclear war. But, I watch the season finale of Game of Thrones tonight, or Mazes and Monsters again right now, or I play a few hours of Dungeons & Dragons today--started a new character today after my last one was killed by a storm giant/werewolf/god last session--and it is painfully obvious that fantasy is a necessary part of civilized society. We need villains and we need heroes and we need the occasional bit of violence. If we can manage that in our heads, or with some actors and a bit of CGI, all the better. And if we can make friends because of shared interests, then life is better...

But, also dangerous, because not everyone has harmless interests. Because not everyone, when positioned in an enclave with others with whom they share whatever interests, wants to let the other enclaves remain... other. Because not everyone can respect other interests... Some interests are so strange as to be frightening. And, most importantly, some interests, however they may have started, whatever pains and hardships might be deep within their roots, become things that should not be respected.

I come back to Fiske (2002); the simple version is that "People typically seek other people who are similar to themselves, being comfortable with others they perceive as members of their own in-group" (p. 123) But, then it can so easily turn wrong; "From comfort follows, at best, neglect of people from out-groups and, at worst, murderous hostility toward out-groups perceived as threatening the in-group" (ibid). I love that sentence; Fiske puts the murderous tendencies of disparate groups right next to a casual neglect. My mind turns to a weird comparison: the almost innocent rivalry between jocks and nerds in a movie like Revenge of the Nerds and the hatred that led to that death in Charleston a couple weekends ago, when white supremacists met up with protestors and injurious acts were inevitable.

Me--all I want to do is teach high school and college students to express themselves clearly (in case you're new to this blog, I mostly teach basic college freshman level public speaking courses), and I want to watch some movies, spend time with my kids when I can (as they get older, that time diminishes), and play games (like Dungeons & Dragons every Sunday) and do other nerdy things (we went to Ren Faire and the Pirate Invasion of Long Beach and recently did an escape room) with my friends. I don't need to indoctrinate other people into my hobbies... Though admittedly, it saddens me sometimes that all the movies I showed my kids when they were younger did not incline them toward movies so much that they (well, the younger daughter, anyway) might go to more than a couple with me in a year. I have my political views, and I express them in this blog surprisingly often, and I express them on Twitter and Facebook, but I don't really need everyone to think like I do. The world would be a boring place if we all thought the same on every issue, if we didn't have differing hobbies and different casual interests, or different ideas about how to improve the world... And really, if you're ideas don't improve the world, that's where I start to draw the line. Take for example transgendered individuals. If someone feels (and already, I feel my words don't express fully the truth of the matter) that their body and soul doesn't match society's dictates as to gendered behavior, what does calling them crazy help? If dressing differently, if acting differently, if hormone treatments or surgery makes them happier, and your life goes on as it already was, who the fuck are you to denounce them? I figure, if your interests, or your way of life (to write it larger), don't hurt other people (or lead inevitably to other people being hurt) then do your thing. Be who you need to be. Fuck other people's beliefs or forbiddances if your actions don't actually get in the way of their lives... Racism. Sexism. Ridiculous prejudices that have no legitimate basis aside from old fears and superstitions. These are the things that need not be respected. Listen to them, sure. But respect? No. Challenge them. Deny them.

And, in the face of certain prejudices, certain belief systems, how can you also not turn to force to stop them? The roots of some things are far too deep to use other methods, I suppose. But, that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. That doesn't mean you turn to fire and fury.

And, in the lesser moments, the life stuff between the political, find your fantasy. Find your escape... Again, I don't like that word. I return to Neil Gaiman's line:

People talk about escapism as if it's a bad thing... Once you've escaped, once you come back, the world is not the same as when you left it. You come back to it with skills, weapons, knowledge you didn't have before. Then you are better equipped to deal with your current reality.

He's not really talking about escape. I see escape as something else. What you have is a prison. You leave it, never intending to return. It's more like a vacation, a holiday, and exercise that makes you better when you return to your usual. I take that word escape to be something more implicitly permanent. If you need something like that to get through life, then there's something wrong with life. Unfortunately, today there is something wrong with most every life, if for no other reason than we all share this damaged world full of prejudices and wars and rumors of wars.

I would prefer that all my wars be fictional (or historical), that violence be imaginary, that no one hate someone else for petty, stupid reasons. But, that's not the real world. I wish I had more time to write fiction regularly again. I wish had more time to play games. I wish I had more time for movies and television and comic books. Hell, I wish I had more time to formulate more substantial political arguments. Instead, it's busy, busy, busy.

And, it occurs to me that Bokononism isn't too bad a religious framework for life, believing deliberately in untruths (called "foma") to "Live by the foma that makes you brave and kind and healthy and happy." But, it also occurs to me, that every religion is exactly that, a bunch of untruths that masses decide to mutually believe in (or pretend to believe in) to make their lives more palatable...

So, find your karass, your ka-tet, your in-group, your tribe, but--and I'm going to be cheesy and silly and trite now--when it seems like some other tribe's beliefs or practices are in conflict with yours, get the fuck over yourself and try to actually walk a mile in their shoes, see things from their perspective, and get along... I was going to quote Anne Frank about people being good at heart, so I looked up the exact wording and I found other lines from her that are beautiful profound and simple, and it disturbs me that we have her diary because of the holocaust, and it amazes me that someone so young can figure out things we all should fucking know already.

Like this: "How wonderful is it that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."

Or this: "In the long run, the sharpest weapon of all is a kind and gentle spirit."

Or this: "Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness."

And the one I was looking for:

It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again...

I rant and I try to make sense. I occasionally lash out with anger. I would prefer to leave the world better than it was when I got here. To be a good person... Hell, to each day be a better person than I was the day before. Or something approximating as much. It saddens me that making the world better feels so impossible sometimes. Like a rant is all I have, my voice alone into a darkness where no one can hear it, or will hear it, a darkness where it will not echo and resound but just go on out into infinity and be forever lost.

I want poetry. I want storytelling. I want friendship. I want love. But, sometimes--and especially when my depression and anxiety gets to me--all of that seems pointless, exercises in futility, tilting at windmills and shadows when the world goes on toward destruction and entropy.

Other times, though, in the midst of a good movie, or having a good time playing a board game with my kids, or playing Dungeons & Dragons with friends, or teaching and seeing my students engaged, it feels like it's worth it. Like every insistence on joy and fun is a refusal and protest, and the world's worst aspects are held at bay, and life is actually good, or can be.

I mean, Robbie cannot tell reality from fantasy in the end of Mazes and Monsters but his friends still come to him, still play the game with him because that's what you do. Still, Kate's voiceover in the end, part of the book she's written about all this, is not particularly hopeful:

And so, we played the game again for one last time. It didn't matter that there were no maps, or dice, or no monsters. Pardieu [Robbie's character] saw the monsters, we did not. We saw nothing but the death of hope and the loss of our friend. And so we played the game until the sun began to set and all the monsters were dead.

i will end with two important points. First, the story here was inspired by paranoid religious bullshit and, in reality, a game like Mazes and Monsters, or Dungeons & Dragons, will not detach you from reality or drive you to kill someone in an alley in New York and not remember the details. That's just a stupid panic with no basis in reality. Second, even with the downer ending, the monsters are all dead. And a subpoint here: while the voiceover seems like a melancholy, the final visual is these four friends walking off to mutual fantasy and adventure. That is hopeful. That is positive. And, that is, oddly enough, real.


Fiske, S.T. (2002). What we know now about bias and inter group conflict, the problem of the century. Current Directions in Psychological Sciences, 11(4), pp. 123-128.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

the ones that exist in our minds

In 7th grade--can't remember if it was fall semester or spring semester, but 7th grade was '87 to '88--I was rereading Joe Dever's Lone Wolf books. Particularly, I was reading The Caverns of Kalte (that's the second book) again during a lull in math class... I had probably already finished my math work--I was amazing at math, would get a couple years ahead by the end of high school. And the assistant teacher, whose name was Mr. Mentell or some spelling--we called him Mr. Mental--happened to look over my shoulder when I'm at an image of a big tentacled monster.

This one, I think.

He asks to see my book, and doesn't give it back after class. That night, we get a call. The next day, my mother is in the principal's office with me and the vice principal... And I can't remember if Mr. Mental was in the room. But, long story short--the religious private school that this atheist attended kindergarten through twelfth grade decided that those books (which, if you don't know, we're basically Choose Your Adventure books with a RPG twist, tracking stats and keeping track of supplies and that sort of thing) were devilry. That night, my mother would ask a bunch of questions about those books, I would avoid answering, I would cry a bit, and in the end, my collection of Lone Wolf books was in the trash, and I resented the shit out of Mr. Mental, the vice principal, my mother, my school, my church, and religion in general.

And they were late to the paranoia over RPGs anyway.

The novel Mazes and Monsters came out in 1981. This TV movie of the same aired at the end of 1982. June 9 1982--in between the publishing of the novel and the airing of the film, the Dungeons & Dragons panic had its big fomenting moment--Irving Lee "Bink" Pulling II (and I keep wondering if his character was called Bink or if that was just a nickname he had, but I haven't seen an explanation of the Bink) shot himself, June 9, 1982. His suicide note included "'unexplainable-type' phrases, apparently references to the game" according to one investigator (Zibart 1983). "Sheriff's deputies said the youth's room was filled with 'Dungeons and Dragons' paraphernalia" (ibid). It's rarely a positive reference when they use the word "paraphernalia". Supposedly, Bink's character had been cursed recently within the game. Robert A. Bracey III, the principal of Patrick Henry High School where Bink attended, was sued by Bink's parents. They had a Dungeons & Dragons game running as an "organized school activity" with a schoolteacher as the Dungeon Master. A far cry from my own school. At my school, we invented our own role playing games and played them after school sometimes. When not getting in trouble, of course. Bink's mother, Patricia Pulling, would become famous over this. She blamed the curse for her son's death. Well, that and the more general religious paranoia about the game leading young people to the devil and witchcraft. Patricia founded a group called BADD--"Bothered about Dungeons and Dragons"--in 1984. I can't find the original source for this, but the rationalwiki page on BADD says Patricia predicted 500 game-related suicides a year, while BADD actually documented about 7 a year. The CDC "found no causal link between D&D and suicide" (BBC 2014). Pulling would go on to be an "expert" witness in trials, for example the murder trial of Darren Lee Molitor in 1984.

Monsters and Mazes is more directly based off James Dallas Egbert III, who disappeared from his room at MSU in 1979. A private investigator linked his disappearance to D&D but "Egbert suffered from, among other things, depression and drug addiction, and had gone into hiding - in the utility tunnels under the university - during an episode of self-harm" (ibid). He would later shoot himself in 1980.

It seems to me like a common problem among parents and authority figures, among conservative religious parents and authority figures especially, that they externalize the cause of kids' problems. It's certainly much harder to face your child's (or your charge's) mental illness than it is to blame some game you know very little about.

Interestingly, I write that as Kate talks to Daniel about Robbie's recent behavior. While the premise is silly because the film ignores this part of things, that we don't really see Robbie's behavior changing as much as we could is one of the only real flaws about the movie itself, as a TV movie. Instead we get Daniel going to explore the caverns (and Kate following) to try to cheat. Kate talks about Robbie blessing people; that's a visual that could be interesting. But, more importantly in context of what I'm talking about today, Kate notices Robbie's changing behavior and is concerned. She knows the game Mazes and Monsters, she knows it's not the evil thing some paranoid religious folks would think it is, so she sees Robbie's behavior for something else entirely--a mental breakdown.

But, on the note of suicide and depression and mental illness in relation to D&D, I think it's worth pointing out that it is the same youths (or adults) suffering from mental illness or other problems in their lives that might turn to games to make friends, that might turn to games to--coming back to yesterday--escape. It's like the conservatives who cite the suicide rate among young transgender individuals as proof of their mental illness, when it's more a reaction to their inability to fit in in a world where a good portion of the population treats them as defective or insane, rejects them from the mainstream, and celebrates when our president denies them the opportunity to serve in the military...

I didn't intend to bring this to current politics but the transition is too easy sometimes. My kid turned to witchcraft and she's sullen and withdrawn. It must be that witchcraft led to the withdraw, and certainly not the other way around. My kid is transgender and killed himself. It couldn't possibly be because I rejected him and treated him like shit and kicked him out of the house. It's all too easy to see people making the same blaming mistakes again and again...

Like the detective's questioning Kate, "Robbie a doper? Downers? Drink?" Looking for external blame.

Patricia Pulling herself writes in her book The Devil's Web:

I did not feel the shame as I have heard that so many families do when their has been a suicide, but I did feel extreme pain and, to some degree, anger. Yes, anger. Anger that I had not known what was going on in my son's mind, and anger and guilt that I must have lacked something that would have allowed me to know that I had a child in trouble. I did not feel that Lee [her husband] and I were to blame in any way for what had happened, but I wondered why we hadn't seen that something was very wrong. What could have caused our son to become so disturbed, and how did it happen to subtly? Had I not been paying attention? (pp 7-8, cited in Stackpole 1990)

The great thing about Mazes and Monsters is that while its lack of commentary (and allowing the detective's questions and suppositions to go unchallenged) suggests that the game Mazes and Monsters drove Robbie crazy, it offers up enough detail that there is more to Robbie's problems: his missing brother, his problematic history with the game (which could go either way, as far as blame goes), his strange dreams about the Great Hall. It also offers up other clues counter to the game's blame in Kate and Daniel and Jay Jay. They have their personal problems (mentioned here yesterday) and their reasons to play. But, they also have healthy lives, and they manage their college careers.

(There's also something worth exploring in Jay Jay's mother's redoing his room, first as a sterile white room that he compares to a hospital but which reminds me of the room at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, later as a homage to Casblanca. Or the inherent fantasy involved in dating when Kate's problem is that every guy she gets together with leaves her. Or the disconnect between what Daniel wants to do with his life and what his parents want; their dream for their son is, itself, also a fantasy.)

This movie aired as paranoia over Dungeons & Dragons was hitting its stride. But the movie doesn't fully latch onto that paranoia. Which may be its saving grace. For a TV movie from 1982, it's not that bad. There's some silly acting choices and cheesy music, but that's par for the course on TV in 1982.


BBC. (2014, April 11). The great 1980s Dungeons & Dragons panic. BBC News. Retrieved from

Stackpole, M.A. (1990). The Pulling report. Retrieved from

Zibart, E. (1983, October 27). Judge rejects suit tying suicide to fantasy game. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Saturday, August 26, 2017

the most frightening monsters

I haven't watched many made-for-tv movies for this blog. (12:01 comes to mind as one I did watch, 12 Dates of Christmas another.), but they almost have an immediate excuse for their badness. The tv budget and, if the movie is old enough, the film quality just are not going to be anywhere near most films that were released into theaters. Mazes and Monsters has the added excuse of being based on a novel inspired by some bullshit paranoia--namely that playing Dungeons & Dragons can make you a) be a satanist, b) go crazy, c) kill yourself (or, per this movie, the worst possible option d) try LARPing).

(I'll talk more about that paranoia tomorrow, maybe. Today I'm just going to enjoy the film.)






It's a bit simple (but not unrealistic) that Robbie (Tom Hanks) joins up with the Mazes and Monsters group because of the attractive girl Kate (Wendy Crewson). But, I like that immediately after playing with them the first time, we get a montage that establishes that they're becoming friends. Speaking from experience, it is quite easy to become friends with people you roleplay with, quite easy to form real-world bonds after spending such times together.

Hell, even people I only play with occasionally, or just once (not the ones I play with every Sunday) are some of the nicest people I know. Like taking a little time to not be ourselves grants us some perspective and empathy. In a 1947 essay, J.R.R. Tolkien writes:

Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in [a negative] way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.

C.S. Lewis talks about Tolkien in a 1966 essay: "Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, 'What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?' And gave the obvious answer: jailers." More recently, Neil Gaiman writes,

People talk about escapism as if it's a bad thing... Once you've escaped, once you come back, the world is not the same as when you left it. You come back to it with skills, weapons, knowledge you didn't have before. Then you are better equipped to deal with your current reality.

Fantasy writers, all of them, of course. Me too. And I run a D&D game and play regularly. I'm obviously a fan of escapism as such. Not a fan of the term, as I've suggested more than once in this blog. But, look at the characters in this film, for example. Jay Jay (Chris Makepeace) is a college sophomore at age 16, he's a loner not entirely by choice. Robbie is still dealing with grief over the disappearance of his brother. Kate has relationship problems. Daniel (David Wysocki née Wallace) wants to design video games but his parents dismiss that as a hobby. These are people who can't have their lives the way they want their lives. So they find other lives to live part time.

Escapism that takes effort, that takes time, that takes real thoughts and real feelings--that's my kind of escapism.






As a film--I mean, like, structurally--Mazes and Monsters isn't really that bad. We know up front that Robbie has some problems when he played the game before. He plays it again, he starts to lose touch with reality. The film arises out of paranoia about Dungeons & Dragons, but it's really something more like an exploration of a guy with mental health issues. Good for him he's got friends, people who care and notice when he's acting strangely. Robbie goes missing, his friends (and the police) look for him. It's tv, so it's not quite the 3-act structure of a feature film. Unlike the apparent inspiration, logically, the film is not actually suggesting that Mazes and Monsters (i.e. Dungeons & Dragons) will ruin you; four players and only one goes crazy--that's not the best odds, but it's hardly suggesting the game is a backdoor for everybody into devil worship. The over-the-top acting in parts isn't even that bad, in context.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

he would never want me to see anything

Doing something different; since Mystery Science Theater 3000 actually covered Hobgoblins once (episode 908), I'm watching that.

It's actually amusing when the silhouettes aren't talking, like the movie writes its own jokes, because, well, it does.






I was hoping the MST3K jokes might make the slow parts less slow. It's not really working. Mr. McCreedy showing Kevin around is still boring.

And Kevin's relationship with Amy is still really strained. I'm pretty sure she hates him and wants him to be a misogynist asshole. He's a horny 80s movie guy, though he is hesitant to admit it, and he really wants to be that misogynist asshole. If only the hobgoblins had gotten near both of them at the same time, they might have had a more interesting relationship... and sex. Seriously, they apparently live together, but she is more interested in Nick, more interested in Roadrash, And calls Kevin pathetic after the guy with military training beats him in a stick fight. (Plus, Kevin isn't actually much of a catch.)

Kyle's relationship with Fantazia might be healthier.

Nick still makes a single move over and over in his fight with Kevin. Extra jokes can't fix that.






Best MST3K line so far: Crow asking, "Can we make it a rule that, in the future, films have to be made by filmmakers?"

Either MST3K or whoever put this episode online (I'm guessing the latter, because there's a bit outside the viewing with Crow answering a phone call about interspecies attraction) cut out Kyle's first phone sex with Fantazia.

Weird detail: earlier Nick casually threw his sunglasses onto the lawn after being greeting by Daphne. When Daphne wrestles with the hobgoblin on the lawn, she suddenly has sunglasses on. I guess she found them during the fight.

It's always good in later viewings of a film to notice new things. I also just noticed that Fantazia (the second phone sex call is in this video) has a blown up Monopoly property card on her wall.

Also, Kevin is blind. He asks Amy, Nick and Daphne where Kyle is--the three of them are sitting, exhausted on the couch--but doesn't notice the open front door, and Kyle and Fantazia talking on the porch, even though that open door is a few feet behind him.











The movie, like any bad movie, is actually more entertaining the more familiar with it I become. but, it's still not good. The concept is okay, but the execution is just... not.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

make it rated x

Hobgoblins is a good example for exploring why a bad movie is bad... Well, there can be many reasons, but this is a big one. Like the more (in)famous Troll 2, Hobgoblins' biggest mistake is not knowing what it wants to be... Or rather, failing entirely at being what it seems to want to be by not going far enough. Troll 2, for example, leans toward serious sexual moments with Creedence but backs off before it goes too far. Instead, perhaps because it was made by Italians directing a bunch of Mormons, it aims at being quaint, being kid-friendly. Hobgoblins makes that same mistake. Phone sex worker magically shows up in person, but is there any sex? Nope. Amy secretly desires to be a stripper, apparently, but strips down to about the same amount of cloth you'd see in a Jane Fonda Workout take from this same decade. Sure, her lyrics are leaning toward explicit. Like that line about showing everyone she's not wearing any underwear, but then the hobgoblins turn everything to chaos and violence before anything gets particularly "adult".

Similarly, there's the rocking van... Twice. Yeah, it's a funny visual, and its brevity makes it even funnier. But, it's aiming for cute when this film should be aiming for raunchy. We don't need an orgy like the end of Perfume, but this film should at least be as explicit as Porky's. I mean it. The supposed power the titular Gremlin-ripoffs have is to make you act out your fantasies (and they even make you imagine other people for those fantasies if other people aren't already around). I'm reminded of a French movie--The Turn On (aka The Click)--which operates on a simple premise: Guy invents a remote control that can make women get horny and take off their clothes. The premise, obviously, pushes into soft core porn territory more than family-friendly fare. But, so does the premise of Hobgoblins.

Take the dichotomy of Amy and Kevin as compared to Nick and Daphne. Or Daphne's immediate critique of the video Kevin brought to watch with Amy because it doesn't have "at least one X rating." Nick has been in basic training for two months, and Daphne implies that all he'll want after two months is sex. Meanwhile, Kyle goes off on his own (in Kevin's house) to call his "girlfriend" the phone sex worker...

And that bit is ridiculously tame while trying really hard to be explicit:

Hi, it's me, Fantazia. Thanks for calling. I'm going to see a movie today. It's only rated PG. I want you to show up and make it rated X. Sneak in the rear door. And when the lights go down, drop your pants and show me a full moon. Wave the lunar eclipse and block the projection feed. Next, pull me down and roll me on those sticky floors. Lick that artificial butter flavor off my body. Then, take my clothes and leave me naked so when the lights com up, I'll be the second feature...

That's basically it; we miss the end because Kevin walks into the room. A 976 number if you remember those. 1) they cost way too much and 2) there's no way she'd be telling a quick, complete story like that in so short a time because of #1. But also, who's fetish is that? Even when Fantazia magically shows up later because of the hobgoblins, there's no movie theater involved. Instead they drive to "Reputation Road" to "go all the way." Except they don't "go all the way"; instead, "Fantazia" leaves the car and proceeds to try to push it over the edge of the dropoff. This hobgoblin isn't really interested in the fantasy, any more than the director seems to be. When that would make the movie more interesting. Amy's song and dance may suck but at least it's interesting. At least it suggests something might actually happen. This film has sexual innuendo and implicit promises of sex, but just can't be bothered to "go all the way." And, I think that's a mistake. Especially in a film that has Fantazia say that line about making the film rated X. That is exactly what Hobgoblins needs... And more of the Old Guy, and a lot more of the hobgoblins themselves. Those puppets are hilarious, and people fighting with them is an awesome visual. And the Old Guy is just so melodramatic about everything, and he is acting the crap out of every line (even though he can barely act). But, since the puppets are cheap and, well, are puppets, they can't have much screentime. And, I'm guessing the Old Guy wasn't available for the entire week of production. And some of that $15000 budget had to go to the pyrotechnics and that car they destroy. So, how do you liven up the rest of your film? Take a page from Tommy Wiseau and throw in some sex. And, if it looks as amateurish as the rest of the film, all the better. I mean, you have to know your movie is bad. No one is making Hobgoblins and thinking this is a great film. Hence the sexual innuendo. Hence the rocking van. Hence (purportedly) adding Nick just to add more action (even if that action is badly done). Hence the limited locations... The studio, the house, Reputation Road, and Club Scum--that's basically it. Watch some bad action movies from the 80s, watch some Skinemax, you'll see ridiculous plots, horrible acting, the same silliness that is all over a movie like this. But, they "go all the way" and give you something more to watch when the puppets aren't around.

Amy being a dick to Kevin, Daphne being a dick to Amy--these things are funny, but they're not enough. Kyle seeming 80s coded gay but then going on about his "girlfriend" and apparently getting off on licking fake butter off Fantazia on the sticky floor of a movie theater--this is amusing. Daphne beating the hobgoblin with a spade--this is great. Nick sacrificing himself by jumping onto a grenade--awesome. Nick apparently surviving that--ridiculous and hilarious. (Though the grenades after the first one are clearly part of the hobgoblin-induced fantasy, the film doesn't bother to explain this; you just have to figure it out or be confused.) But, so much of the film drags when the hobgoblins aren't on screen.

The second Fantazia call, by the way:

Hi, it's me Fantazia. Thanks for calling. I need a new house pet to impress my friends. Now, hurry before the zookeeper comes. Help me hide this iguana on my body. [Alters her voice] Uh, can I help you, miss? [back to her own] Oh, yes, Mr. Beastmaster. Something just crawled up my leg. Oh, see if you can find it. [changes her voice] I think you'd better come back to my office with me. [her own] Now, wait a minute. Are you sure your office is in the baboon pit? Oh, Mr. Zookeeper, what do you think you're doing? This isn't the children's petting zoo. [changes her voice again] I have a new house pet for you, miss. Ha ha ha ha. [her own] Oh, Mr. Zookeeper, I could never take a cockatoo that size.

Then there's a record scratch sound and the fantasy turns real because, like Creedence in Troll 2, she's outside waiting for Kyle. And, I've got a few thoughts: 1) was the ratings board for this movie a bunch of people who didn't speak English, so the stupid puns were an attempt at cleverly getting sex jokes past them? 2) is the phone sex supposed to be as awful as it clearly is? 3) What the hell is the theme to this sex line? First the movie theater thing, now a zookeeper fantasy--that doesn't even involve the guy calling her, which is odd.

Sidenote: when Nick says he can think of a fantasy involving the number three, why doesn't it happen? There's clearly a hobgoblin nearby still or Amy wouldn't immediately after rebuffing him open up the newspaper and get her Club Scum idea.

Now, ridiculous fantasies are fine. But, the movie's real fantasies end up being just as ridiculous. The KISSING ONLY and ALL THE WAY signs. Amy's song and dance and flirting with Roadrage, Nick and all his grenades... At some point, the movie needed to take the fantasies seriously, and let the fantasies become really dangerous and frightening. Like when Jack goes into Room 237 in The Shining--nude woman, obviously out of place, something's off, but the comes for him like it's a seduction, then abruptly, she turns into that rotting bloated woman. It's simple but it works. Getting Kyle to drive up to Reputation Road just to push his car over the edge--that's dumb. But, seducing him, maybe even acting on that movie theater fantasy or that zoo fantasy, then--I don't know--eating him, you know, or somehow fucking him to death--that's what this movie needs. Maybe it's too much for a cheap 80s movie. But, I can imagine a remake of this thing that's disturbingly funny instead of stupidly funny, dark and scary instead of just silly.

I want that movie. I want the movie this one wishes it were.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

i have tried to prevent this from happening

I'm watching a movie I've never seen before. It's called Hobgoblins. I wanted some ridiculous awfulness tonight.

Starts simple enough. Old security guy at a film studio showing the ropes to a younger guy. Younger guy opens a vault he shouldn't hears some strange gurgling then... falls to his death? Off a stage? Inside the vault? What was gurgling? Did they not have the puppets that day of filming?






This thing cost only $15000, reportedly, and it shows.

And, it is not apparent from the film so far what the plot is, or is going to be; this guy Kevin got hired to replace the dead guy, but then we left the studio lot to meet some of Kevin's friends--his girlfriend Amy (who seems more into Nick than Kevin), Nick who's in the military, Nick's girlfriend Daphne, and the (coded) gay friend Kyle. Kyle called a (G-rated) phone sex line for some reason, and now Nick is "teaching" Kevin how fight, and the music is all dramatic and now the van is rocking after Nick and Daphne got inside... And that lasted 20 seconds. It can't have been any good.

I'm wondering, what is this movie? And, now Kevin's at work, talking to the old guy about his girl problems. I'm not sure this thing had a script. Things are just kinda happening and the dialogue is pretty bad.

Some guy sneaks onto the lot, pulls a knife on McCreedy, and Kevin thinks he did something impressive by firing a gun into the air. I'm waiting for this to go somewhere. And doofus--this is Kevin's new name--just decided randomly to leave his walkie talkie on the floor. And, I kinda want him to get eaten, or whatever the still-unseen-at-half-an-hour-in hobgoblins did to the previous guy...

Yes, they show up finally, and they're driving a freakin' cart!

And, Doofus just said what I'm thinking: "I don't understand. What just happened?"

And, we get a flashback to a hobgoblin showing up in a spaceship, when Old Guy was younger. And this movie just got awesome.

Old dude is monologuing the crap out of this exposition.

And, we're back with Kevin's friends, having a really lame dance party.

Old Guy said the hobgoblins make your fantasies come true, but this one just decided to attack Daphne instead, then she wrestled him for a moment than beat the shit out of him with a spade (off screen of course).

And, Nick almost set off a grenade in the living room.






This movie needs more Old Guy monologuing.

Although, the makeout point ("Reputation Road") having signs for an KISSING ONLY section and an ALL THE WAY section is... mildly amusing.

And, there was the budget--crashing a car down a hill and it explodes. (Plus some grenades later. And lighting a guy on fire.)

Oh, this editing is amazing. Kyle says, "I'm trying to" before Kevin says "Hit the creature."






And now is the scene in the low budget film in which the band the director knows (or is in) play an entire song, and there are no hobgoblins anywhere nearby, haven't been for ten minutes or so. And, now Amy is dancing, for a long time...

This movie needs more hobgoblins.

And I miss Old Guy.

Really, though, I don't understand what they were going for here. The dialogue includes a lot of adult subject matter--threesomes, vibrators, faking orgasms--but the action is barely more adult than Troll 2.






And then the hobgoblins go back into the vault... Oh, SPOILERS. The main characters basically did nothing. But, Old Guy blew them up, I guess. Which he could have done 30 years ago, but didn't.






But, hey, silver lining: I didn't get into a rant about Trump or World War III.

Monday, August 21, 2017

the descent into ishtar

Marco Rubio just referred to Trump's strategy for Afghanistan, laid out in great detail in an amazing speech this evening as "good" strategy and an "excellent" speech. Which would be fine except I was lying about the great detail and the speech being amazing. I mean, don't get me wrong, it was a TelePrompTer speech so it had complete sentences and it made relative sense, but it was half Trump mansplaining the existence of ISIS, telling the same tired story about how Obama pulled out of Afghanistan too early and that's why ISIS exists, and then being really vague about what he's going to do about it. More troops. More war. No end. Last week it was nuclear war with North Korea, not a land war in Asia, next he's going to go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line.

I kid because I'm tired and angry. This shit is distracting me from my movie tonight... Hell, it's making me want to draw direct comparisons. Hapless Americans pushing the Middle East (even though the film takes place in northwest Africa) to the brink of war because they don't even know that they know nothing about anything. Rogers and Clarke. Trump. Same difference. Same shit, different decade. Clarke says early in the film, "People would rather suffer with what they have than try the unknown." Profound and trite at the same time. So fucking true that it should be obvious, but most people don't pay enough attention to notice. If you've got the same shit going on, the same wars, the same movies (or remakes or reboots), and you've got the same job to go to every day, you can be comfortable in your Groundhog Day... It's Hannam's (2008) Groundhog Day Effect writ on a global scale, over the hearts and minds of so many people that the momentum is just too much to stop, too much to face, but also too much to ignore. But the guy who can't spell "heal" and stares at the sun directly during a solar eclipse has to leave his mark on the world beyond all the shitty hotels with his name in giant capital letters. Damn the Muslims, down the brown people and the black people and eventually any color but white... And a whole lot of the white folks too. Because, who can imagine our intelligence agencies acting any less inept than the various spies in Ishtar with Trump at the helm? And, the fastest way to unite a people is to imprison or kill everyone who disagrees with what you want the mainstream to be.

So, yeah, another sequel to all the wars so far in Afghanistan. Or is still the same fucking movie still playing after all these years? We'd like to think people learn from the past, that countries learn from the past, that monuments to confederate generals would be reminders of bad choices, not remnants of an ideology to celebrate and embrace... But there I drifted off the subject of Ishtar, of Afghanistan, of Trump and the wars and rumors of wars and all that bullshit that makes it far too easy for supposedly good Christian folk to ignore real problems in the world, urgent problems, because Jesus is going to show up soon and none of the starving people, or folks with poisoned water in their pipes, or cops gunning them down in the streets, or religious zealots cutting off their heads (yeah, I'll include that, too) just won't matter any more...






Ishtar and Donald Trump don't go together well. Brings up my leftist ire. Makes me want to rant and rant until there's nothing to rant about anymore.

Maybe if Trump watched some Ishtar, he'd make better choices. Or if he watched anything but Fox News. Watched anything that didn't praise him...

It occurs to me that, had no one called Ishtar one of the worst movies ever made, I probably wouldn't like it as much as I do watching it these last three days. My expectations wouldn't have been so low, and it wouldn't have exceeded them so much.

(If Trump's lucky, he'll do the same, exceed my expectations, which should be easy enough; all he really has to do is construct actual sentences and not promote and defend white supremacy or threaten genocide. That's not much to ask, is it?)

Like, maybe it's not really that good, but I was expecting a piece of shit. Instead, I'm finding a slow starter that makes for some pointed satire about how America infects other countries with its misguided and misinformed efforts to affect change.

And Clarke just said another good one: "You never appreciate your own country until you leave it." And, it occurred to me, that line is a good paraphrase of a point I try to make about movies. It's not escapism. Not really. It's just being someone else, being in someone else's story for a little while, because that alters the way you see your own story, the way you see yourself. If you just watch the news that agrees with you, just read the reports that praise you, just watch the movies that fit snugly into your worldview, then nothing ever changes. You gotta get out of your comfort zone from time to time, gotta challenge yourself. Gotta read books, watch movies, listen to other people's stories and really hear them, see them, understand them, appreciate them. Not just interrupt to just fit them into the gaps in your story.






I'm a strange mix of emotions today, a strange mix of directions, a strange mix of politics and cinema, and I am tired. In a week, fall classes get going, and I spent today cutting some video clips for a new class. I've got syllabi to finalize, I'm away from home most nights this week, and lately I don't sleep very well...

Ishtar is an imaginary country in the Middle East (or at least Northern Africa). It's a place where political parties and religious factions are constantly on the brink of war. And suddenly I'm reminded of the America they sing about on the boat in An American Tail, some imaginary place where everything will be okay. Where your natural enemy is nowhere to be seen. Where the streets are made of cheese, and no one is wanting.

If only our politicians had a little more imagination, at least as much as a family of Russian mice, or Elaine May.

Instead, they've got none. And, we get the same wars, the same debates, and progress, when it happens, happens slowly, and is fought at every turn.

this country's on the brink of civil war

It's the first half of Ishtar that is the problem. If you can just work your way through that, it gets better. The whole torture of that first hour, the awfulness of Rogers and Clarke's songs, their absolute lack of upward career trajectory--it even gets paid off when Clarke breaks down in the desert and asks, "What have I done with my life, Lyle?" And Ebert calls the desert sequence pointless. The desert sequence is the point. It's the answer to the question of the first half...

Specifically, look at where the movie begins and ends. The same song in both places.

Telling the truth can be dangerous business;
Honest and popular don't go hand in hand.
If you admit that you play the accordion,
No one will hire you in a rock 'n' roll band.
But we can sing our hearts out.
And, if we're lucky, then no neighbors complain.
Because life is the way we audition for God.
Let us pray that we all get the job.

It's trite. It's simplistic. But, it's oddly true. These two guys are exactly who they want to be. Except, the world doesn't like them, their women leave them, and they cannot make it as songwriters. But, they can still prevent a war just by being themselves. This movie is at once the greatest argument for giving up on your useless dreams when you have failed time and time again, and an indictment of the idea that you should ever give up who you are. But look at the compromises they make. For each other. For an attractive woman. For a potential peace. They defer their dreams until they can manipulate the system to give them what they want. They have their cake and eat it too, as it were.

I mean, who needs a woman who won't stick with you because your dreams aren't panning out? (Or a man.) Who needs an audience that won't listen to you, when--and this is increasingly true with the Internet and social media--you can just find another audience? You can do anything you want; you have to put your mind to it. A bullshit saying that is more true everyday. But, on the Internet (or on reality television) you can get pretty damn far with some ego and a little bit of charisma. Don't need actual skills. Don't need real talent or something useful for the masses. Hell, I write a blog about movies and barely say anything useful most of the time. But, a little promotion and I could have a whole lot more readers than I've got now, I could turn this into something lucrative. Or I could be president. I mean, you tell your kid they could be president someday, and now there is literally no reason for anyone to not be good enough for that office; we lowered the bar to the ground on that one. Inherit a bunch of money, fail at a bunch of businesses, and for some reason, a whole lot of people will still love you later. Lie all the time and say horrible things about people just because you can, a whole lot of people will still love you later. Make a bad movie, though... Direct Ishtar (and be a woman) and you will never (or barely ever) work in Hollywood again. The world is unfair but sometimes it's unfair in your favor. Tweet the right thing at the right time and you will become famous for a while. Maybe fifteen minutes. Maybe until the next trending tweet distracts everyone from the distraction that was you.

But, speak out, speak up, be yourself, or be someone else. Do what you want to do... I'd add but not at the expense of others but we all know that's just my bleeding heart liberal bullshit talking; you can climb over whoever you want to reach the top and you'll be applauded for it as much as, if not more than, you'll be spit upon. Because we're all just a bunch of assholes a good part of the time, and we love a good asshole who can manage to get ahead. Nice guys finish last, and all that. Nice girls too. Nice men. Nice women. Nice whatever you want to call yourself. The world don't like nice. We actually do need a show called Real Moments in the Lives of Assholes and Smartasses. It would be the most popular show ever. We love an asshole. Especially a lovable asshole, but really any asshole who can do shit better than we can, or who has more money than we do. We're suckers for simplistic measures of personal worth. Which just makes us bigger assholes.

And, we back into our corners. And we lash out. And we lash out. And we bleed. And we die. And then we do it again. Because en masse, we can't learn a lesson to save our lives. Literally.






And, I know I talk in circles, that I contradict arguments I've made previously. I preach peace and love and denounce the violent, then I preach violence and anger and denounce the pacifist. Sort of. Mostly, I just talk about movies. A political satire like Ishtar, though--a slightly misguided, very uneven piece about how America manipulates the other countries and peoples of the world to its own ends, even when it's (led by) a talentless hack who can barely spell or put together a complete sentence... Or write a song worth singing. Telling the truth can be dangerous business. But, so can lying through your teeth be. Honest and popular don't go hand in hand. No shit. No one wants to hear the truth, especially when it's ugly. We want a snake oil salesman to tell us how great we are, how easily we could be greater. We want a madman to tell us that They are out to get us, and if we could just unite and destroy them, we will be glorious.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

stop being so stupid

The only time I saw Ishtar from beginning to end was on a plane. We were flying to England, I think [My sister tells me it was a trip to Hawaii.]. The movie felt longer than the flight. But, I have very little memory of the content from then. I've seen scattered moments from the film in the intervening years, but I have never sat down to watch the whole thing again. Supposedly, it's one of the worst films ever made; that's a superlative I should have sought out before now.

Yet, here I am.






Twenty-two minutes before we get to the desert. I remembered none of that from seeing this before. And now, it feels like a different movie... And, I'm reminded of Spies Like Us, which also had a couple losers getting inadvertently involved in international affairs. Except, with better comedy, and, considering the timing (Spies Likes Us came out in 1985, Ishtar in 1987), Spies Like Us made for a better twist on the tail end of the Cold War... Except I'm not sure this movie is even trying to do that. This is Warren Beatty doing a favor for writer/director Elaine May with the intent of making a Hope and Crosby-type movie. I've seen some of those but that was even longer ago than I saw Ishtar. I don't know how successfully this manages to ape those.

So, I find myself looking at box office numbers. Opening weekend, this movie was #1, but the next weekend Beverly Hills Cop II came out and nothing came close to that movie's numbers that weekend. #1 it's opening weekend despite a lot of negative word of mouth about its production...






The political plot going on is far denser than the film so far has earned. Overthrowing a tyrant? They're just a horrible lounge act desperate for cash... Then again, I come to back to Spies Like Us. If those guys can avoid World War III, these guys can probably help this woman...






I kinda wish I was watching Spies Like Us right now. The lead characters here are just to passive in their own story, and the story is so slow. Good ol' Roger Ebert described well these two characters:

It's hard to play dumb. There's always the danger that a little fugitive intelligence will sneak out of a sideways glance and give the game away. The best that can be said for "Ishtar" is that Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, two of the most intelligent actors of their generation, play dumb so successfully that on the basis of this film there's no evidence why they've made it in the movies.

The scenes without them are more engaging--the various spy guys talking about which other spy guys nearby are from what country ("No. The ones dressed as Arabs. The ones dressed as Texans are Arab agents... "No, the Bermuda shorts. The ones in Hawaian shirts are tourists."), Charles Grodin talking to the Emir--citing the kalashnikovs "we sold you" as proof he knows who tried to kill the leads.

Okay, the camel dealer offering a dead camel was actually quite funny.

The blind camel bumping into people is pretty good physical comedy, too.

Okay, maybe it's the second glass of wine, or maybe the script just got far better. "The water has to last you about another 48 minutes." "Why, what happens then?" "We run out of water." That's actually good stuff.

"Who told you that?" indeed.

It's like someone else wrote the first hour of this thing. Slog through all that and it's going to get interesting.

I must disagree with Roger. He calls this part of the film

the long, pointless sequence in the desert that begins with jokes about bling camels and ends with Hoffman and Beatty firing machineguns [sic] at a helicopter. It probably is possible to find humor in blind camels and helicopter gunfights, but this movie leaves the question open.

No, this movie answers that questions, and the answer is in the affirmative. There is humor in blind camels and helicopter gunfights. Except for this: they don't shoot at the helicopter at all. The helicopter's arrival scatters the weapon auction Hoffman is faking his way through (with the same sort of racist gibberish used in Team America: World Police years later), and then the helicopter leaves.

"This isn't really a good time to get depressed." --oddly hilarious.

Ah, I spoke too soon. Helicopter came back and they did, indeed, shoot at it. Then two helicopters. And it's hardly "pointless". In fact, this is the plot itself. (Roger also claims there's no plot.) The CIA wants these guys dead, and so do the rebels. Except for Beatty's real-life girlfriend, and the random guide who drove her out to find them.

"How would he know?" Funny stuff.

Friday, August 18, 2017

you can accomplish something glorious

Really, it is simple to understand part of it. Just because you're a bankable actor, or a proven director (having graduated from music videos to feature films), doesn't mean that your life is guaranteed, that you will always have money. Sometimes, you have to make bad movies, or at least not so great movies, to stay alive, and for your career to stay alive. Michael Caine, for example, quite famously said of Jaws: The Revenge, "I have never seen it... but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific." Not every actor can make $20 million a film, and even if they can, you cannot live on that forever if you plan to stay in the limelight. You gotta keep making movies to be able to keep making movies. And, they can't all be the greatest film ever, they can't all be Oscar-caliber, they can't all be blockbusters.

For example, it's hard to find the original source for this (it's quoted all over the Internet), Michael Ironside, who plays Katana, supposedly said:

I hated that script. We all did. Me, Sean, Chris... we all were in it for the money on this one. I mean, it read as if it had been written by a thirteen year old boy. But I'd never played a barbarian swordsman before, and this was my first big evil mastermind type. I figured if I was going to do this stupid movie, I might as well have fun, and go as far over the top as I possibly could. All that eye-rolling and foaming at the mouth was me deciding that if I was going to be in a piece of shit, like that movie, I was going to be the most memorable fucking thing in it. And I think I succeeded.

Oh yeah.

I mean, how fun would it be to make this movie. I mean, without the interventions of the film's producers and insurance companies, and without the economic problems in Argentina at the time. Sword fights, flying harnesses, stuntwork on top of trains and trucks, the opportunity for seriou over-the-top performance. Highlander II is playing now on my TV but I also went to the theater today to see Brigsby Bear (which I won't SPOIL much because it is awesome and worth seeing if you're in for a quirky, heartfelt drama made by the guys from Lonely Island). That film, at least in part, is about a group of friends making a movie to complete a TV show that will never be completed. They've got the costumes, they've got a camera, and they've got the gumption and creativity to just go out there and make something. And, I love that. It's the kind of thing I wish I had the will to do when I was younger. Just go out there and make it myself. I wrote a few screenplays (that I still think are pretty good) that would have been cool to put out there as actual films. Even if their budgets never got above what I could scrape together myself. Even if the actors involved weren't really that great. Even if hardly anyone ever actually say the thing. It's the reason I can forgive, and actually enjoy, Troll 2 because Rossella Drudi had an idea, had something to say, got together with her husband and they made that movie. They cast nobodies and locals and just did it. That's a good excuse for a movie being bad. A better one than what I said above. Highlander II may have had to deal with economic issues, and producers and insurance folks taking creative control once production had problems, but up front, before they got that far, they had Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery, Virginia Madsen, Michael Ironside and John C McGinley, they had millions of dollars, and they had a built-in audience, even if that audience might not have been huge. It was their ball to drop and they dropped it. Taking that metaphor further, just getting the ball of Troll 2 off the ground was enough of a feat.

I was going to say that it's far easier to imagine people enjoying the Troll 2 set than the Highlander II set, but maybe that's not much of an example. The crew there, notably spoke mostly Italian, the actors were a bunch of locals who auditioned to be extras, and there was a lot of confusion on the set, and no complete script. Something like El Mariachi might be a better example. Detailed stunts, action sequences, a simple, straightforward revenge plot. And, nary a wasted shot.

Highlander II just feels like no one was having a good time. Director hated it and wanted his name taken off. Actors were just in it for the money or to get to visit Argentina (reportedly, that's the only reason Madsen took the job), and the backers were (appropriately) nervous and forced the film into a corner they thought would mean the most money. The actually artistry was bankrupted by the need for money. Cynical "Hollywood" at its worst.

Still, sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do, so you can keep on doing it.

And, you (I) gotta watch bad movies so you (I) can keep watching good movies...

In fact, one of the problems with being too strict with my theme this month is there's little room to talk about good movies. Wind River, The Glass Castle, Annabelle: Creation, Detroit--I've mentioned them but not said enough. And today, Brigsby Bear was awesome, quirky and weird but with heart.