Saturday, July 26, 2014

Some Notes On The Stand

I recently reread The Stand for no particular reason other than I felt like it. I'm honestly not sure how many time I've read it at this point, more than three, less than a half dozen (though I can clearly remember my first visit to that horrifyingly stripped bare world as I can remember the first reading of all the truly great King stories). It's not my favorite of King's work,  but it is arguably his most richly and completely imagined. It truly is the American Lord of The Rings, with the concerns of England (Pastorialism vs. Industrialism, Germany's tendency to try and blow it up every thirty years or so) replaced by those of America (Religion, the omnipresent struggle between our liberal and libertarian ideals, our fear of and dependence on the military, racial and gender tension) and given harrowing size.

I'm happy to say that The Stand holds up well past the bounds of nostalgia and revisiting the world and these characters was as pleasurable as ever. But you can't step in the same river twice, even when you're revisiting a favorite book. Even if the river hasn't changed you have. This isn't meant as any kind of comprehensive essay on The Stand. Just a couple of things I noticed upon dipping my toes in the river this time.

-First off I should say that I'm an agnostic when it comes to the original cut vs. the extended edition.  On one hand there is a lot of great stuff in the extended cut that I would hate to lose. Fran's argument with her mother basically defines the character for the first half of the book and adds a lot of depth. The segment near the end of the first book that cross cuts between a series of survivors who were immune to Captain Trips but just couldn't hack it in the brave new world is some of the best writing of King's career and the final disquieting epilogue where Flagg is reborn is invaluable. Though Harold Bloom is probably waking up in a cold sweat as I type this, it brings to mind nothing so much as the haunting ending of Blood Meridian. Flagg may leave the stage ruminating that fate is like a wheel but, "He says he will never sleep, he says he will never die," would be just as fitting of an epitaph.

On the other hand, it's hard not to agree with Meredith Borders that plenty of the extra material just hurts the pacing. I for one wouldn't be at all sorry to lose the infamous Kid segment of the novel, if only because it cuts the amount of people I can recommend the novel to in half (I was planning on buying a copy for my little sister this time out and then it was like, "Oh yeah...") A third cut of the novel would probably be gratuitous, but it's hard not to wish for a happy medium between the two versions.

-I think part of the reason that Hollywood has had such a hard time adapting The Stand, beyond its length, is that it genuinely is an ensemble piece. Stu Redman looms large in the memory, and he probably is King's most successful and sympathetic every man this side of Johnny Smith, but if he has more pages dedicated to his POV than Larry Underwood, Nick Andros, or Fran Goldsmith (note how well the names in The Stand stick in the memory) then it is by the slimmest of margins.  The Stand is not the story of a single hero. The hero of The Stand is humanity as a collective. The story of the eternal desperate battle between the better angels and devils of our nature. That's a large canvas, and frankly I'm not sure it's something you can convey in three hours. If you try and force a traditional story structure on that it all kind of falls apart.

- On a similar note, for a character who looms so large in a certain segment of the popular conscious I was shocked by just how little Randall Flagg has to do in The Stand. He is a great villain but he's a great Harry Lime villain, building notoriety in the tension of his absence and in how others react to him. If you asked me to pick my favorite villain in any media, Flagg would be near top of the list but why?

Setting aside Flagg's appearance in dreams and scenes that infer his disembodied presence is spying among our heroes what do you actually see Flagg do? After his (admittedly impressive) introduction walking the backroads at the start of the plague and the scene where he breaks Lloyd out jail (another great scene, though the less said about the one where he harasses an old colleague dying of the super flu and then literally grabs the name Randall Flagg out of a glove box the better) he basically disappears from the novel. Once "off screen" he becomes the focus of every one's attention, talked about fearfully in harsh whispers and grandiose statements.

By the time Flagg finally does reemerge in the last two hundred pages of the novel, you basically watch him do nothing but fuck up from one end of book 3 to the other. Losing two prisoners to suicides he can't prevent, nearly getting blown away by a septuagenarian, losing his unborn heir, having half his arsenal destroyed and all his pilots killed by a disturbed lackey and last but certainly not least, accidentally triggering an atomic bomb in the heart of his strong hold.

So why are we so scared of this guy again?

Understand I'm not disparaging King or Flagg. Just noting that his characterization is a trick, a really, really good trick, even an enviable trick, but a trick.

Of course the revelation of Flagg's ultimate nature fits right in with the idea of Evil as a powerful, but ultimately unstable and self defeating force. One of the major themes of King's career. "The half life of evil is notoriously short," one character says in one of the best lines of the book and the practitioners of evil in King's universe are usually ultimately, "Bumhugs" not matter how powerful. If nothing else this reread of The Stand finally brought me to peace with Flagg's abrupt exit from The Dark Tower universe. Flagg's ending in the saga in which he played such a part may be ignominious but it is hardly out of character.

And yet the idea of The Dark Man walking down those lonely roads, face filled with good cheer, his bootheels worn to nubs, his jean jacket on in the Nebraska cold and Vegas heat alike still gives me such a chill.

-Before we leave the subject of adaptation behind entirely, it should be noted that the structure of The Stand is deeply weird in other ways around. To use a term that has been thrown around a lot lately in equal parts derision and praise, The Stand is a novel with a lot of world building going on.

After the slow motion car wreck that is book one and before the final act of book three, the bulk of the novel is taken up by questions of how to survive in the post Trips world. How to boil water, and scavenge for antibiotics, how to hold town meetings and elections, the best modes of transportation, how to get the power back on (in On Writing King revealed that this last one sparked something of an existential crisis). King basically turns the death of the world into a kind of play ground. On the page it's all compelling stuff, on screen it's hard not to see how it wouldn't end up a series of vignettes.

-When I compared The Stand to The Lord Of The Rings, I wasn't being idle. The book does very much feel like an American answer to Tolkien (In fairness King actually brings up Watership Down as his point of comparison, about half a dozen times to two Tolkien references. Either way it's all British epic fantasy to me).

King actually knowingly inverts Tolkien in some interesting ways. Making the protagonists all distinctly working class, when Tolkien's Hobbits were pretty much landed gentry.  Posing Flagg in some of his visions, on "a great high place" as Tolkien posed Sauron. And in my favorite tongue and cheek touch, putting his Mordor in the West rather than the East.

But to me the most interesting touch on Tolkien is how he handles The Gollum character, neatly splitting him into two between Harold Lauder in the east and Trashcan man in the west. All three are pathetic, ultimately pitiful characters who are ultimately instrumental in destroying the evil that they would serve. In Harold you have the travel with our heroes, the two faced, split identity between the well liked "Hawk" and the scheming, obsessed, hate filled "Harold Emery Lauder." In Trashcan Man you have the precious obsessed half man, deformed both mentally and physically by what he covets, who ultimately destroys evil not by overcoming it, but by giving in and following his worst impulses to their hideous logical conclusion. Gollum drowns the ring in fire, Trashcan Man consumes Las Vegas in flame. Gollum turns his back on the fellowship offered by Frodo in favor of his old obsession with the ring, Harold rejects, betrays and attempts to kill all of heroes , mostly because of being unable to let go of his old obsession with Fran. All three are given totemistic items to embody their obsessions, Gollum the ring, Trashcan man his A-Bomb and Harold his Ledger.

But what I find most fascinating about King's take on the character is the way he plays with the concept of fracturing identity, the Gollum/Smeagol divide that is present in both characters but manifests itself in totally opposite ways. Both characters are given the opportunity for reinvention in the post Captain Trips world, here is the end of our introduction to Trashcan Man as he merrily burns his hometown to the ground

"-Carley wasn't a kid anymore, any more than he was himself.
Maybe now he could be Don Elbert again, instead of Trashcan Man...
...From behind a perfect fusillade of explosions, God's ammuntion dump going up in the flames of righteousness, Satan storming heaven, his artillery capain a fiercely grinning fool with red, flayed cheeks, Trashcan Man by name, never to be Donald Merwin Elbert again."

Compared To:
"Harold's hair was longer than ever, but it was no longer dirty and clotted and tangled. He no longer smelled like a shootoff in a haymow. Even his blemishes were clearing up, now that he had laid off the candy. And with the hard work and all the walking, he was losing some weight. He was starting to look pretty good. There had been times in the last few weeks when he had strode past some reflective surface only to glance back over his shoulder, startled, as if he had caught a glimpse of a total stranger."


"In that hour or instant, he became aware that he could simply accept what was, and that knowledge had both exhilerated and terrified him. For that space of time he knew he could turn himself into a new person, a fresh Harold Lauder cloned from the old one by the sharp intervening knife of the superflu epidemic...
Harold sensed it and hated it."

And most blatantly...

"All of a sudden the old grudges, the old hurts and the unpaid debts seemed as worthless as the paper money choking all the cash registers of America.

Could it be true? Could it possily be true... 
Stop it! Stop it! You might as well be wearing handcuffs and legchains with one word stamped all over them. But! But! Can't you stop it, Harold?"

But of course Harold can't stop it. And his words in his penultimate scene, "I am doing this of my own free will," reflects Eleanor Vance, another of horror literature's more pitiable narcissist's final, chilling, "I am doing this me! Me! Why am I doing thi-".   

In other words in The Stand we have one character who positively can't wait to take on a new identity and one who holds on to his old one kicking and screaming. He creates a Smeagol who just can't wait to be Gollum and a Gollum who refuses to ever consider leaving Smeagol behind. And King posits that both stances are ultimate equally corrosive.  

- Every book is going to date because of the attitudes of its time, but there is one rather amusing moment in The Stand, where a supporting character is revealed to be a lesbian and Stu's reaction is more or less, "What??? A G-g-g-g-gay?" and then a pun is made over him not understanding the term bisexual.

Now I'm not trying to take King, or even poor Stu to task for this. Dayna is ultimately a minor character, but she's also arguably the most overtly heroic in the book.  Stu's reaction isn't hateful, just confused. Keep in mind Stu's supposed to be a good ole boy from Backwater, Texas circa 1990 and was originally a good ole boy from Backwater, Texas circa 1978, so his reaction isn't even necessarily inaccurate.

All I'm trying to point out is how alien that reaction would read in a book released today. As a straight dude it's not really my place to shake my head and marvel, "My how far we've come." But it's hard not to notice that less than twenty five years later Stu's reaction isn't just dated, it reads as borderline nonsensical.

-And yet aside from a few moments like this the thing that struck me on this read of The Stand is just how forceful a vision it remains. Like my reread of Carrie last year, The Stand convinced me more than ever that King's work, will last. Trying to predict what will and won't last in literature is a fools game, but The Stand, like King's best work, is dated only on the surface, the raw strength of its vision radiates as strongly as ever.

Consider this, The Stand is a book that is very tied in with the anxieties of King's Boomer generation. A world where the military industrial complex has let Thanos run riot baby and the country destroys itself in an orgy of death with a feeling uncomfortably close to relief. But consider the events themselves, journalists are assassinated, the policy of mutually assured destruction is enacted, protesting students are gunned down by the army, disinformation is spread, racial tensions flare up into violence (the mini race war that breaks out in an occupied television station is one of the ugliest things I've ever read and is still probably one of the finest moments of purely horrifying fiction). In short the worst case scenario predicted by the students protesting Dow Chemical comes to horrific life.

And yet this image of rapid destabilization, of incomprehensible action and then an equally blind and terrible reaction will resonate just as strongly with our still rattled post 9/11, post Katrina consciousness.  Compare the apocalypse in King's book with how dated Chris Carter's boomer based vision in The X Files looks, despite being much more "current". Carter's conspiracy, which lest we forget hinged on the terrifying, omnipotent organization known as FEMA, looks laughable. King's is still chilling. King has created a nightmare that resonates equally well with two extremely different sets of social fears and anxiety. To borrow a phrase from King himself, "Man that's not just good..." 


If you've enjoyed my ramblings about The Stand, perhaps you will consider purchasing Son Of Danse Macabre, which contains many more ramblings about Stephen King, including extended ones about The Shining and Pet Semetary. 2.99 Cheep! On The Kindle and The Nook


In case you missed it, I'm writing for a new venue now called Agents Of Geek. It's mostly book and comic reviews (Here's one of Seconds that I'm particularly pleased with) though occasionally I touch on film as well. 

It's a good crew over there so give it a look. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Fan's Note

"If the crux of ardent fanhood holds a touch or more of madness, then Cleveland fanhood is a bug eyed, shit smeared lunatic, howling for a God who's never going to come."

Scott Raab, The Whore Of Akron

"It's easy to win. Anybody can win.” 

Philip K. Dick, Scanner Darkly

What does it mean when the awfulness of the only team you've ever truly loved is so apparent that their unrelenting shittiness is considered a fitting premise for a film? When their incompetence is so taken for granted that the feelings that others hold for your team have moved past derision into the realms of condescension and finally, most terribly, pity. This was a question I had cause to contemplate as I waited in line to purchase my ticket for Draft Day, a movie whose entire plot is set upon the crux of how much The Browns suck at football.
 Not that I had cause for a lot of hope going in. Kevin Costner hasn't exactly been raking in the quality scripts lately and by my count Ivan Reitman hasn't made a watchable film in twenty years.  Ghostbusters notwithstanding I don't have the affection for his earlier work that others of my generation have (surely I cannot be the only one who thinks that Meatballs would work much better without the bizarrely prolonged quasi rape scene). But one's team is not the subject of a film everyday and I'm nothing if not loyal.

For years I've answered questions about The Browns with a sheepish grin and a quick change of subject (but always honestly). When pressed on why I'll say something about growing up watching them. That is only a half truth.

Because I really didn't start to enjoy watching football until my late teens. So the post season contending "cardiac kids" of the late eighties were never a conscience memory for me. What is a conscience memory are the nineteen starting quarterbacks we've had since the reformation (count 'em). It's watching with a slack jaw as Jeff Garcia whipped the ball into a referee's crotch with sniper's precision and force. It's Brandon Weeden managing to trap himself under a giant American flag during the pregame. It's having my heart broken watching Jim Brown: All American as the documentary about the greatest player ever to wear a Browns uniform opened with Brown giving a pep talk to the Baltimore Ravens and declaring that Art Modell, AKA the worst man who ever lived, should immediately be inducted into the hall of fame. It's watching Peyton Manning throw a game to get home field advantage in the post season, keeping us out of the playoffs with a 10-6 record in the process. It's watching hyped saviors without number be they Kellen Winslow, Braylon Edwards, Brady Quinn or Peyton Hillis all fail to deliver and implode spectacularly. It's about watching Mike Holmgren suck salary as a GM, doing about as much to earn it as a statue of a walrus carved from platinum would have. It's about a never ending litany of, "Holy shit what's next?"   

Most of all it's never giving up hope in all that time. Never being content to be the lovable losers, (as one friend has been known to growl between quarters, "We're not the fucking Cubs"). We go into every season genuinely believing that it will be different this year, or at least there's a chance it will be.

So why do I do it to myself?

In part I watch The Browns because it connects me to Cleveland. A city I love but will never truly be a part of. I've spent enough time there to have it permanently influence who I am (not to mention instill a life long craving of Swenson's Galleyboys). Though many of the people I have loved the most in my life live and have died there, it will never be home the way that California, or even Austin is. I go there as a welcomed outsider and when I do visit it's almost as if I spend my time looking for an alternate universe version of myself; one that I am keenly in tune with every Sunday in the fall. Or maybe I can't help but relate to something that has been on the receiving end of so much love and support and yet never comes within swiping distance of achieving its full potential.

I watch The Browns because it's taught me the value of loving something that doesn't love you back. Something that doesn't make its rewards immediately evident. The love of a fan that has never been tested is a poor and brittle thing. Dynasties are pumped up by fair weather fans and bandwagoners. Anyone can love a winner; it takes character to do the other thing. It takes pride to love something that long. There are of course the fleeting moments of glory and the friendships one makes with fellow expats and true believers. In other words I'd say being a Browns fan has done me good and will do me good and I saw God bless it. Keep your humbugs I will stay with Dayenu.

Draft Day
gets that. I don't want to oversell the movie. It's less the kind of film that will blow you away as it is the kind that will pleasantly surprise you on cable or netflix, its pleasures are modest. Modest but real, it's the good Kevin Costner who's shown up this time, grumpy, stoic but charming and Jennifer Garner and Dennis Leary both make surprisingly good foils for him.  The movie has a deep bench as they say, with an enjoyable ensemble populated by the likes of Frank Langella, Terry Crews, Pat Healy, Chadwick Boseman, Ellen Burstyn, Sam Elliott. Hell even Diddy and Tom Welling acquit themselves well. The script is filled with a few exchanges that really crackle and Reitman mostly gets out of their way, shooting in two shots and editing to their rhythm (only a few distractingly permeable split screens spoil the effect). Reitman shoots Cleveland without indulging in rust belt condescension, or trying to glamour  it up. A montage set to a sports radio, starting with the team's extending to the hopeful of today sums it up beautifully.

Draft Day
may ultimately be nothing more than comfort food for fans who need it ("I cried like six times," said the friend I went with, I suspect he was only half joking). Nothing more than a fantasy. But it is a fantasy that looks appealingly achievable. I know the day is coming. I'll be waiting for it this Autumn and the next and the next. 

Friday, February 28, 2014

Night Film

The term "literary thriller" is one of those phrases that is almost always taken as a pejorative even if it is rarely meant as such. The implication from the genre side being that the author is too self conscience to really deliver the genre goods and from the literary side that however good it might be it is still only a thriller old chap. The unspoken agreement is that everyone would have been happier if they had just stayed where they belonged.

But then you have a book like Night Film for which no other term will do. Marisha Pessl's novel is a dark mystery that has more on its mind than its solution, a horror novel that might not be a horror novel but then again might very well be, a thriller where the hero spends most of the time running, terrified he's about to get his ass kicked. In other words, it's a literary thriller and is intermittently brilliant as it is frustrating. 

Night Film follows McGrath a journalist, disgraced in the aftermath of a disastrous investigation of a reclusive cult filmmaker Cordova. Cordova, a filmmaker of Kubrick's genius and Argento's perversity, who bears a pronounced resemblance to David Lynch on a Rolling Stone cover we get a look at, has been a recluse for years, isolating himself at his private studio "The Peak" and releasing a series of increasingly disturbing films to increasingly rabid fans who put the cult in cult audience. Cordova fed McGrath false information through an anonymous source that McGrath was all too eager to release, destroying his career in the process. Now years later Cordova's daughter commits suicide and McGrath realizes that the mysterious young woman had been trying to contact him. He launches an investigation into her death, searching for the information she may have been trying to deliver, plunging himself back into the disturbing world around Cordova. Recruiting two young witnesses to the daughter's final days, they begin investigating the people closest to Cordova and his daughter, drawing out a portrait of them second hand like an occult Citizen Kane.

The book builds the presence of Cordova well, through a series of news stories, blog posts and message boards that get the tone just right. But it's also in this key information that the cracks start to show. At one point a character describes a later film of Cordova's as "his first out and out horror film," before going on to describe a series of earlier films that sound a hell of a lot like horror films. I might sound like I'm nitpicking here, but for a book that is about and has been marketed to a group of people as minutia obsessed as cinephiles, these details matter. Much more problematic is the treatment of McGrath's character, who  despite the fact we are told over and over again that has been disgraced and out of work for years has no problem affording his Manhattan apartment and solves nearly every problem he comes across by throwing money at it. I'm not asking for a fifty page account of McGrath's financial woes,  but the incongruity between McGrath's life and means is indicative of Pessl's worst tendencies as a novelist. It smacks of laziness, shorthand, of assuming no one will notice because it is "just a thriller" and who the hell cares about character consistency? The shorthand comes in other ways too, I don't know if it was an editor or agent who told Pessl that genre fiction has to have at least forty percent of its words italicized but whoever did should have one of their teeth knocked out so every time they run their tongue over the divot that has been left there they remember not to give that kind of shitty advice.

And yet when Night Film works, it kills. The dual Cordova's make compelling figures all the more entrancing for being so elusive and Pessl's central trio is likable. The mystery she builds around Ashley's final days is well constructed. She (for the most part) takes the time to make the details of Cordova's fictional Oeuvre feel right, as well as the obsessives who surround them. Individual set pieces like the wonderfully disorienting raid on The Peak, which features a remarkably matter of fact glimpse at the supernatural, are best in class stuff.

And then we come to the ending...

Often times the thing that truly marks a literary thriller is lack of confidence. The author feels too self conscience about the supernatural or other gauche elements of the genre and has to build themselves an out. While I have no intention of revealing the final elements of Pessl's story, suffice it to say it starts to look like Pessl intends to do that, but then she doesn't, not quite not really.

Normally "ambiguous" endings are all too often an excuse by authors to play to tie. And while you could easily accuse Pessl of doing that, I don't think that's quite it. The ending of Night Film does not so much play to a draw as it puts a cunning opponent in a stalemate. Which is not the same thing. The ending of Night Film, which could have easily felt no more profound than a stoned dorm mate taking a bong hit and saying, "Like the truth is pretty hard to know if you think about it," is instead genuinely disquieting. A sense that though we are skipping out before all is revealed that is A OK with us because we may not want to have all be revealed.

All of Night Film is like that, just when you think it can be safely dismissed, just as you're sure you can write it off as a disappointment it outmaneuvers your expectations in a way that is well... literary.


A few other matters of importance:

If you're reading this site you probably already know who Jeremy Richey is, which is why you would also know that it's a very, very good thing for film fans at large that he is starting his own print magazine. A print magazine that I just so happen to be slated to contribute to. I'm extremely excited at the prospect of writing for Art Decades and its humbling to be included with such a great slate of writers.

Jeremy is currently running an Indiegogo campaign to help with set up expenses and if you'd contribute you would have our thanks. 


I'm equally enthused to be working once again with Muriel Awards. AKA what would happen if film awards were picked by folks who actually cared about film. It's always a blast to read the carefully considered pieces that go up each year, and this years slate has been particularly good.

Check it out. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Top Ten Films Of 2013

6th Annual Southland Tales Award For Film I Liked For No Damn Reason: The Great Gatsby:
In all fairness this one could also have easily slipped into Overhated. While Luhrman’s take on Gatsby is certainly, if we are to be generous, a misinterpretation (Psst… Daisy is not supposed to be a good person). There is more than enough here to make it worth watching. DiCaprio himself makes a fine Gatsby his boyish charisma changed to boyish insecurity, his natural charm a thin veneer. But the complaints about the film’s style crossed the line into bizarre. Luhrman is an acquired taste and his take on the material is certainly distinct but what the hell did the people complaining about the gaudiness expect? I’d just as soon watch a staid, restrained Great Gatsby as I would a staid, restrained Titus Andronicus. Luhrman’s Gatsby may not be perfect, but at least it’s not embalmed.

Overhated: Man Of Steel: No it wasn’t the perfect Superman film we were all promised but like all of Zack Snyder’s films The Man Of Steel was just eccentric and weird enough to make me really like it. Prog Rock Record Cover Krypton was fun. Digital Jedi Russell Crowe was fun. General Zod as played by 70’s Christopher Walken as portrayed by Michael Shannon was fun. The ending was apocalyptic but caused more genuine dread than anything I’ve seen in a blockbuster that comes to mind. As for the neck crack heard round the world, look I didn’t hear you all complaining when Christopher Reeve straight up tossed three people into a bottomless pit.

Underrated: Elysium: Sometimes it just plain feels like no one had as much fun with a film as you did. But how that was possible when the film in question involved a Cyborg Hobo Samurai played by Sharlto Copley, the most impressively realized Sci Fi world this side of Children Of Men and gore that would make Dead Alive era Peter Jackson blink, I am still not sure. It might not be subtle but then again neither was Metropolis.

Most Pleasant Surprise: Oz The Great And Powerful: With words of reshoots and a few iffy trailers I walked into Oz full of apprehension. But while Oz might be a second tier Raimi film, never quite reaching the emotional depth it’s striving for, it is a Raimi film through and through. A PG Army Of Darkness driven by an eccentric sense of humor, a genuine generosity and doesn’t skimp on its horror imagery. As pleasing and unexpected as a china girl with a butcher’s knife.

Most Disapointing: Carrie: The only movie of 2013 that left me genuinely heart sick. A waste of potential on every level so flagrant that it’s downright criminal.

Worst: Parker: Nearly as criminal as reimaging Donald Westlake’s consummate sociopathic motherfucker of the ages as a cuddly robin hood type with a strict list of moral rules. Fuck you.

10. Much Ado About Nothing: Call it slight, so is the play. But Joss Whedon’s noir restaging plays to his strengths. All of them. From his affection for his cast and characters, only matched by his love of putting them through the shredder. Simply put, Much Ado About Nothing is tailor made for Whedon and while it can be argued that all he does is get out of the plays way, that’s A) infinitely better than getting in the play’s way (see Branaugh, Kenneth)  and B) It’s Shakespeare what else does he need to do? Call me undiscerning but I can’t help but be thoroughly happy watching a great filmmaker pull off one of my favorite love stories with this level of ease. “Get thee a wife,” indeed.

9. A Band Called Death: I cannot imagine anyone who has ever tried to create any kind of art walking away from A Band Called Death without being enormously affected by it. Not so much a recording as a redress, A Band Called Death is a funny, moving portrait of the joy of creating music, fraternal love and that of a man who never lost faith  that he had created something worthwhile even as he lost his grip on himself. If you’re not smiling when the end credits role I think there might be a part of you missing.

8. Pacific Rim: No film plastered as sloppy of a smile on my face as this one. Del Toro once again unleashes his imagination on the biggest canvas he’s gotten to play with yet and the results are as always spectacular and singular. Genuine imagination and heart are rare qualities in movies, and nearly extinct in blockbusters. Del Toro has told a story that digs up your inner twelve year old and gives it a high five, and does so with more exuberance than seems strictly possible.

7. Lords Of Salem: It’s been a strange mixture of bizarre and gratifying watching the response to this film. For every Noel Murray, Tim Brayton, Kevin Olson, and Bill Ryan (though he may deny it) who has gotten behind it, there have been people whose response has been downright hostile. I’ve had not one but two people literally insult me to my face for daring to recommend a Rob Zombie film to them. It’s been strange.

Which is fitting because as I said in my review Lords Of Salem is one weird fucking movie. To quote the aforementioned Mr. Brayton it does genuinely feel like Dario Argento suddenly remembered how to make movies again and tried to atone for Mother Of Tears with a fourth“Sisters” movie. It’s a film with its own queasy unique energy that burrows under your skin and stays there.

6. Before Midnight: Even with all of the praise that has been heaped upon it I still think Before Midnight has been underrated. People haven’t acknowledged just what a risk it really was. As lovely and true as the first two films in the sequence ring they’re both idealizations to the point of being fairy tales. Before Midnight takes that idealization and dumps on fifteen pounds of reality stuffed in a twelve pound bag. Creating one of the most caustic relationship movies this side of Husbands And Wives. It could easily have fucked everything up. Instead in a way that feels damn near alchemic Before Midnight doesn’t just work well on its own, it makes Before Sunrise and Before Sunset into better movies. It’s bitter, but never hopeless and all the more moving for being so hard won.

5. To The Wonder: A lot of people came down hard on this one and while it is the least of Malick’s films I cannot help but be still be overwhelmed by it. In part the frustration is understandable, at its core To The Wonder is a story of failed grace, and that by definition is going to be frustrating. And yet it’s such a beautiful and moving portrait of an attempt, anchored by a performance by Javier Bardem so naturalistic that I am fairly certain that most of the cast was simply not told that he wasn’t actually a priest. Make no mistake, this one is going to endure.

4. Gravity: I’m pretty sure that the breath I inhaled during the opening credits of Gravity is the same one I exhaled as the final credits began to roll. It’s as pure a visercial experience as I’ve had in a film, as if Cuaron somehow extended the car chase sequence in Children Of Men to feature length. Yet those dismissing it as such are missing the point. Like To The Wonder, Gravity is a work of poetry not prose. It doesn’t need any justification, it justifies itself.

3. The World’s End: I’ve talked to people who have had fairly uncomfortable reactions to this movie and that’s kind of why I love it. Make no mistake The World’s End is bleak. A movie that starts at rock bottom and continues to tunnel until it explodes like a depth charge and starts the stunning comic anarchy of its last two acts. That bleakness never leaves the film, few lines have rung as bitter and true as “Nothing happened.” (one of the exceptions being “I fucked up my life because I like the way you sing.”)

Like all of Wright’s films The World’s End functions both as a parody of its genre and a superlative example of it. Ending with a kind of brazen pride in the fact that humanities defining attribute might be its ability to fuck things up. Now please tell me that Roger Moore has a part in Ant Man.
2. Upstream Color: Remember the first time you saw a David Lynch movie, before you were exposed to endless repetition, parody and attempts to ape his style. Remember the pervasive wrongness of it all and the horrid intractable logic behind it. Now take that feeling of unease and make it absolutely heart broken as two people try and rebuild in the aftermath of what can only be described as a mental rape, and you’ll maybe start to get why Upstream Color is among the most remarkable experiences I had in a theater this year.

1. The Wolf Of Wall Street: This is a film that’s almost hard to write about given just how infuriating some of the willful misinterpretations of it have been. Suffice to say if you cannot tell that Scorsese holds Belaforte and all that he represents in complete contempt, even after showcases a room full of men in five figure suit beating their chests and yowling like the apes at the beginning of 2001 before the monolith civilized them, even after he casts himself as Belaforte's first victim, even after he has them recreate part of Dryer’s Joan Of Arc, even after he has them repeat the Freaks chant for the love of Christ, then I’m not sure how you’ve found your way to the internet to deliver your opinions. Make no mistake this is Scorsese's depiction of hell no less than Shutter Island, with Matthew McConaughey serving as a cornpone Mephistopheles.

It is Scorsese’s genius that he doesn’t treat Belafortes story with any kind of dignity or gravitas but warps it into a degenerate farce. This is Scorsese’s most Felliniesque film (he would have loved the midget tossing) with displays of degenerency that would be at home in a surrealist film if they weren’t, you know, real. 

As far as I'm concerned at this point DiCaprio's collaboration with Scorsese is every bit the equal to Scorsese's with DeNiro. They both dig into to playing a character with no redeeming facets, nor any interest in acquiring them, DiCaprio in particular throwing himself into the role with such abandon that it makes the days when he passed on Patrick Bateman because he was afraid it'd look bad for his image seem like a surreal memory. Whether it's having a lit candle jammed up his ass, or the already legendary Quaaludes scene, a work of extended physical comedy that makes the most outlandish of Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey look restrained and dignified there's a dedication that's stunning.

71 years old and Scorsese still hits harder, more creativity and with better accuracy than filmmakers half his age can dream of. As long as he's making movies I look forward to many more years as good as this one.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top Ten Oh Bloody Hell Eleven Books Of 2013

11) The Flamethrowers:

Following a rootless young woman as she drifts from the Bonneville salt flats, through the pretentious art scene of 70’s New York and into violent revolution in Italy, The Flame Throwers paints a portrait of a character who is adrift in a world that is unmoored. Written with an eye for character, place, a wry sense of humor and a just this side of detached style that recalls vintage McMurtry, but wedded to a sinister undercurrent and global spanning, time slipping narrative that makes it feel like something else entirely, The Flamethrowers is hypnotic, ineffably disturbing and unlike anything else I read this year.

10) The Ocean At The End Of The Lane:

Neil Gaiman’s fable is deceptively slight and simple, but like all of the great man’s work it contains multitudes. Bringing the mystery and terror of childhood to life in a way that few books have. 

9) Double Feature:

What more canbe said of Double Feature than that one critical moment of schadenfreude made me laugh so hard in public that I actually disturbed passersby? It's not isolated either, and a consultation with a severely incapacitated poetry professor provoked a laugh nearly as loud. To give too much of the plot away would be the very definition of spoiling the fun, suffice it to say that Double Feature follows the estranged son of a B movie icon, whose own career as an aspiring director takes some unexpected turns. Intercutting a modern day Amisian farce with wistful remembrances of the initial fracturing of the father son relationship. Funny and humane, Double Feature's final chapters do wraps things up just a touch too neatly. But then again there are far worse sins for a novelist to have than an abundance of generosity towards his characters. Funny novelists are rare, funny novelists free of misanthropy are virtually as common as Dodos. I eagerly await King’s next book.

8) The Double:
Despite featuring what is without a doubt the worst author’s photo I have ever seen, George Pelecanos delivered a superb sequel to The Cut. As he did two decades ago with Nick’s Trip Pelecanos really finds his rhythm on his second go round. The Double deepens Spero Lucas, an Iraqi war veteran who works as a PI, making him a flawed man who try as he might can’t solve everything. And who Pelecanos seems to understand to his core. The plot of The Double starts with a neat set up and ends with a fray of unsolved strands and unavenged deeds, with Lucas not so much saving the day as performing triage the best he can. Pelecanos tends to abandon reoccurring characters after three or four books, but I truly hope he shoots for a longer run with Lucas. He has a rare hero here and despite his flaws Lucas earns that designation, one with a lot to learn and a lot to lose. Most authors would kill for a character this rich. I eagerly await seeing him do so.

7) In One Person:
About fifteen years ago Tom Wolfe engaged in a vicious feud with John Irving and I’m not even going to pretend I was on Irving’s side. But looking at their last two novels side by side I cannot help but feel that some particularly vicious act of literary karma has taken place. Wolfe has descended into shrill self parody going from one of the most engaged working writers to one of our most tone deaf, meanwhile Irving has produced two of his most vital works. Novels every bit as strong as those he wrote in his eighties heyday. I’m not saying Voodoo is involved but I’m not saying it’s not.

Either way In One Person is a remarkable novel. Crafted with Irving’s trademark open heartedness. This is simply put one of the most sympathetic novels, let alone mainstream novels, involving transgendered sexuality, or hell sexuality in general, that I've come across. Funny, tragic sweeping and generous In One Person shows Irving’s skills to be fully intact.

6 & 5) Doctor Sleep, Joyland

As do these two numbers. As I've written before I was genuinely frightened that reengaging with one of his best works would derail King’s late period winning streak, I needn't have feared. Doctor Sleep shows King doing what he does best, ripping into a porterhouse of a narrative, populating it with characters both light and dark worth getting invested in and setting up stakes that truly matter. King doesn't try and best The Shining, he just uses it as a base to tell one hell of a yarn. And if it takes it’s time getting started it’s only because how clearly it all matters to King, both the legacy of his original novel and Torrance’s experiences with addiction and recovery which feel nearly as raw as the material in On Writing.

Joyland, is a slighter novel, but no less pleasurable. Time, place and character have always been King’s tools as a novelist and Joyland excels at all three. Even if it does occasionally feel as though King would like to pull a Colorado Kid and just forget the whole mystery thing.  A few fans groused that together they represented a softer King, this being the same guy who recently wrote the end of Duma Key, Full Dark No Stars, and cheerfully BBQed an entire town at the climax of Under The Dome. But as I said of his son’s novel, generosity is no vice in a novelist.  Watching King practice his craft over the last seven years has been a pleasure. I can’t wait for the next three decades or so.

4) The Republic Of Thieves: Now this is an interesting little bugger. No one in the fantasy genre writes quite as well as Scott Lynch. Oh sure Patrick Rothfuss has the whole conversational literary style down pat, and Sanderson has his efficient world building and can plot like a mofo. But where Rothfuss can occasionally be ponderous when his humor fails him and slide into self parody when his reach exceeds his grasp (“Bless the moon for sending me this lusty young manling” and so forth) Lynch slides through his narratives with the propulsion of a con man convincing you to get a second mortgage. And while Sanderson makes his world building unobtrusive Lynch makes exploring his world feel not like a chore but fun

Lynch through fans for a loop by backing away from the high stakes of the first two novels for what seems like a particularly ingenious game of Spy Versus Spy. For all but the last thirty pages or so of the six hundred fifty page novel, all that seems at stake for the characters in The Republic Of Thieves is their hearts. It is testament to Lynch’s skill that seven year hiatus or no, this seems more than enough.  

3) You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me:

If you know Nathan Rabin, chances are you will be unprepared. I walked into You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, expecting one of Rabin’s trademark outsider looking in works. In the vein of his famous Year(s) Of Flops, or his sojourn through country music. That’s not what this is.

You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, is one of those happy books that increases your good opinion of the author (especially nice when you already like the author in question a great deal). Showing him capable of more than you expected. Simply put You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me is self laceratingly honest, incredibly dedicated and howlingly funny. Rabin never condescends to his subject matter and instead throws himself into the loathed subculture of The Juggallos and Phishheads with an intensity that recalls Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels. No I’m not shitting you.

Take that aforementioned work and mix it with the hurt, passion and soul of Scott Raab’s The Whore Akron and you might have some idea of what You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me reads like. Buy it. Buy it now. The next three books might be “better” but You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me is easily the most undervalued book of the year.

3)Bleeding Edge:

This is the first Thomas Pynchon novel that hasn't read as a period piece to me (which is not to say the first he has written) and to be honest that kind of sort of scares the shit out of me. But it’s hard to be unnerved for so long when the man holding the fun house mirror up to your own time is such a charming host. Bleeding Edge has all the head long energy, virtuosity, absurdest humor and manic paranoia of Pynchon’s best work. A cross between the Gospel according to Groucho Marx and Kafka’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
Pynchon remains line by line the most brilliantly unpredictable writer I've come across. Like a man who walks into a drawing room with a sledgehammer which he uses to tap out a delicate version of Fur Elise. Slapstick broad one page (Perhaps no moment of my reading in 2013 was quite so odd as realizing that Thomas Pynchon had made a fucking Daikatana joke), almost unbearably delicate and poignant the next.

Like King Pynchon hasn't so much softened as he has chosen to highlight elements of his work that served as a background hum. Here he adds a wholly unexpected portrait of observant Judaism sans the usual neuroticism and regret, as well as a dedicated portrait of family life. Neither of which shield Pynchon’s heroine from his trademark waves of conspiracy and counter conspiracy and shadowy organizations who never quite coalesce. But which, Pynchon seems to suggest, might serve as consolation enough.

The world Pynchon writes is the world I see outside my own window (how perfectly Pynchonian was PRISM?) this is welcome news.

2) The Wes Anderson Collection: Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection isn’t merely a scrupulous piece of criticism blended with an incisive career spanning interview. Instead it is a book with such a keen understanding of its subject that the book feels less like a book on Anderson as his films as it does an object from one of Anderson films. Few books have brought me as much pleasure. In fact only one book has…

1) N0S4A2: It seems dismissive to describe N0S4A2 as a complete blast and dishonest to call it anything else. At it’s core it’s a page turner, with a stripped down roaring engine of a story. The kind of book that has you glancing at your clock at 3AM as you try and convince yourself that you’ll function perfectly fine at work with five hours of sleep so you might sneak in a few more chapters.

But it only works that deviously because of how thoroughly Hill invests himself in his characters and in his world. N0S4A2 isn't a throwaway, and Hill’s empty devils and tattered angels aren't merely cardboard cut outs and or victims. But people who matter. Hill’s darkness is not simply the darkness of grotesquery but the darkness within the human heart, to be rejected or fed at our will. He gives evil its weight, and as a result good gets its own as well.

Simply put N0S4A2 is a great story told to its full potential by a master storyteller in full command of his craft. And if there’s anything better than that I haven’t found it. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Unlockeing Keyhouse

After 5 years and 40 densely imaginative issues Locke & Key is drawing to a close on Wednesday. And I'm going to lose my monthly dose of literary smack.
So in tribute to what has been for my money the best book on the racks for over the last half decade. I want to do a little something different. Rather than look back on the highlights of the run I think I'll let you discover them for yourself.
But Locke & Key also offers a puzzle of another sort. Hill is a novelist and has peppered Locke & Key with all sorts of literary references. Some are fun tributes, others offer hints to the mechanics of Hill’s world offered nowhere else in the text, some might hint at whatever end is coming tomorrow. Here are a few of the more prominent ones.

H.P. Lovecraft: Locke & Key follows three siblings, Tyler, Kinsey and Bode, who move with their Mother from California to their ancestral home of Lovecraft, Maine in the wake of a family tragedy. There they find themselves heir to their family legacy, a series of reality bending keys. If you are in a horror story there are few worse ideas than moving to a place called Lovecraft Maine. Perhaps only Satansberg, OH and That-Place-Where-All-Those-Camp-Counselors-Were-Butchered, TN can compete.
The Lovecraft influence actually lay dormant for most of Locke & Key’s run as the book developed its own intricate mythology. But the Lovecraft DNA reared its head with a vengeance in the first issue of the Clockworks arc, “The Lockesmith’s Son”. Revealing (via a fantastic Drag Me To Hell reference) that the mysterious Black Door buried beneath the ancestral Locke home leads to the Lovecraftian Gods, the Great Old Ones. Making it approximately the 798th portal to the Great Old Ones that protagonists in horror fiction have stumbled upon.
I have mixed feelings about Hill making the Lovecraft connection explicit- well explicter. On one hand it’s not the first time Hill has used the device, his novella “Voluntary Committal” hinged on a similar reveal. But as Lovecraft himself noted, “…the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown" and ironically Lovecraftian horror has become a very well known quantity. Hill’s homebrewed mythology was up until that point not. Which brings us to…

N0S4A2: In Hill’s latest (and absolutely phenomenal) novel, N0S4A2 the Locke Family makes a cameo on a list of Inscapers. N0S4A2 was an ambitious book, among other things it ties Hill’s previous work into one cohesive universe using the concept of Inscaping.
To simplify, Inscaping is the power to make imaginary things real, or to be more precise, the ability to bring the things inside of your head into the real world, whether they’re actual physical things or abstract concepts (such as when Kinsey Locke first removed and then imprisoned her capacity for grief and fear). Hill uses the Head Key to literalize the process, which allows characters to physically open the mind and access whatever is within it.
Inscapers can be benevolent or malevolent but all eventually pay a great price for the use of their ability. The Lockes are no exception.  
Bill Waterson: In one of the oddest stand alone issues, the first issue of Keys To The Kingdom, “Sparrow”, found Gabriel Rodriguez drawing almost the entire issue in the style of Bill Waterson. It tells the story of youngest Locke sibling, Bode, as he uses the keys to explore the wilderness, recruiting a flock of sparrows in the fight against the evil stalking the family.
What at first seems like an out of left field choice pays off brilliantly, utilizing Waterson’s signature style to bring the New England winter woods to starkly beautiful life. A simple, unshowy mastery and respect for nature and wildlife were always a hallmark of Watterson’s art. It’s put to beautiful use here, as is the emotional transparency of Watterson’s signature character style.
But the true brilliance of the reference comes at the end of the story. After all what is such a situation for a child than one of Calvin’s daydreams come to life, with the stakes risen to terrible proportions.
Ray Bradbury: Bradbury is one of Hill’s biggest, yet least cited influences. Hill has played with Bradburyian conventions before. His first published collection, 20th Century Ghosts, featured the short story “Last Breath” which could have come straight out of The October Country. He also contributed “By The Silver Water Of Lake Champlain” to the collection of Ray Bradbury tributes, Shadow Show.
The Locke & Key standalone “Open The Moon” finds Hill once again trying on Bradbury’s voice for size (the issue is dedicated to him). Exploring Bradbury’s style at his most wistful, “Open The Moon” tells the story of a Locke ancestor’s attempt to use the keys to create a refuge for his terminally ill son.
The story is true to Bradbury’s voice, paying tribute to his singular ability to blend whimsy and sentiment with melancholy, to take the awareness of the omnipresence of death and to use fantasy to disarm it.


The Tempest: But by far the text most central to Locke & Key is The Tempest. The image of the Shakespeare play performed with real magic is introduced in “Intermission” the first issue of Headgames, arguably the best issue of the entire run. It’s an event returned to time and again, the lynchpin that sealed the fate of the Locke family.
Echoes of The Tempest can be seen across Locke & Key. Like The Tempest, Locke & Key is about a child (or in this case children) kept in ignorance of their legacy by their parents. It also doesn’t take much to connect The Tempest’s magical character Ariel, sealed in a pine, to the main antagonist of Locke & Key the demonic Dodge who begins the story sealed in a well.
But I am most interested in how The Tempest might hint at the ending of Locke & Key. The Tempest ends with Prospero, a practicing sorcerer, drowning his book of spells. Given the handy grotto beneath Keyhouse, where several of the principles are now trapped, it’s possible that the story might end with The Locke children drowning their keys.
However, it is possible that another, darker, meaning is hinted at by the reference to The Tempest. After all among the play’s most famous lines is the phrase, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
If you REALLY want to hear me geek out about Locke And Key (and other things Joe Hill) over an extended period of time, be sure to check out my book Son Of Danse Macabre, available on
The Kindle and Nook.  2.99 Cheep!