Saturday, November 27, 2004


We’ve heard for a couple months now from Dodger fans who didn’t understand why Paul DePodesta hadn’t already signed Jim Tracy. Why would Depo let Tracy dangle, after assuring him that he would return as the Dodgers manager? Was Tracy asking too much money? Too much time? Did DePodesta have another prospect in mind?

So now that Tracy’s return has been made official by the Dodgers’ announcement Wednesday of a two-year deal (terms not disclosed), it’s time for the Tracy haters to start hatin’ again. My friend Steve called me, distraught, as soon as he heard about the deal, and he threatened to either boycott the Dodgers in 2005 (it’ll never happen) or mutilate himself in a very personal way (might happen) because of this disastrous news.

But just how is this bad news for the Dodgers or Dodger fans? Admittedly, Tracy’s managerial style is not exactly aggressive and in-your-face, and he’s occasionally too reticent when it comes time to insert or remove pitchers, reticence that plays like indecisiveness and that sometimes come back to haunt him. But he’s well-liked by the players and coaches, over four seasons he’s had four winning seasons, and he’s the first manager to win a Dodger postseason game since the heyday of Tommy Lasorda in 1988. Depo’s not exactly betting the house by bringing Tracy back. The best-case scenario sees Tracy leading the team, hopefully after a couple of tasty free-agent acquisitions to fill holes on the mound and behind the plate, to another division championship—the Giants look poised to help make that happen again in 2005—creating bounty for the team and the fans and writing an insurance policy for his job when 2006 winds to a close. At worst, Tracy completely flops in 2005 and by the All-Star break takes a Jimy Williams-type dive, the Dodgers bring in another manager and eat a contract that turns out to be judiciously short and relatively calorie-free.

The odds are strong that the reality of 2005 will resemble the former rather than the latter. But hey, if Tracy does fold up like a rickety upper-deck chair, at least Tracy haters will be able to say “I told you so,” right? Congratulations. Unfortunately, if that happens it’ll probably mean the team won’t exactly be in the catbird seat, league standings-wise. And I would hope that even if you’re a Dodger fan who doesn’t like Tracy, you’d be able to find it in your heart to at least wish him well in between flaming curses as the season gets underway. Take one for the team, Steve—Tracy’s the boss for the next two years. Everything that goes wrong will not be his fault; nor will he reasonably be able to take credit for everything that very well could go right. Tracy wouldn’t expect that credit, though I suspect he’d pony up for the blame like any honorable chief would. So how is Tracy returning to a job at which he’s had more success than anyone in 16 years anything, at this point, but good news?

Wednesday, November 24, 2004


Forgive me, but I really don't care what Oliver Stone has to say on the subject of Alexander the Great, and I'm not interested in watching Nicolas Cage unearth any kind of National Treasure. Yet I'm inordinately excited to see The Spongebob Squarepants Movie. Such is my reality. With few dollars to spend on theatrical films these days, and even fewer opportunities to make it out of the house even if I was stinking rich, I've got to be choosy. And it says a lot about the state of American film (at least to me) that I'm willing to pass over work by an Oscar-winning director (who, I admit, has never made films, other than Salvador and Nixon, that I admired) or starring an Oscar-winning actor who at one time, before he got the Bruckheimer Jones, was considered one of the best and most original of his generation... in favor of a big screen adaptation of a TV cartoon about a chatty, fast-food addicted loofa.

There are plenty of titles in 2004 that I missed on the big screen that I'm hoping to catch up to on DVD, such as I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (still on schedule for tonight, after my oldest finishes her screening of The Secret of NIMH and heads to bed), Control Room, Gozu, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Hunting of the President, Ju-On, The Story of the Weeping Camel, The Ramones: End of the Century and, it seems, Team America: World Police, Tarnation, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession and Beat Takeshi's Dolls.

As for what lies ahead, there seems to be less of interest coming to a theater near me than usual this holiday season, which is a development that, come to think of it, meshes rather well with my newly restricted multiplex diet. But the next month or so is not entirely without its promises...

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU I have (unreasonably?) high hopes for the new Wes Anderson film based on its refreshingly dry trailer and because I'd see just about anything that features Bill Murray front and center (well, not Garfield: The Movie).

BRIGHT FUTURE New ways to get thoroughly unnerved, courtesy of Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure). It's something to do with a two guys and a jellyfish, and the less I know about it going in the better.

SIDEWAYS Election is one of the best films of the '90s. Can Alexander Payne's new film come close to it? Paul Giamatti and Sandra Oh are two good reasons to seek out stadium seating anyway, but Virginia Madsen's getting the kind of attention that might signal a full-on career revival.

THE AVIATOR Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow? I'm there!

BAD EDUCATION This is the kind of complex filmmaking for adults that seems increasingly rare, but seems second nature for Pedro Almodovar. If he continues the streak started by Live Flesh and extended by All About My Mother and Talk to Her, Almodovar may be ready to move into the master class.

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS Superstar-in-waiting Ziyi Zhang headlines the second martial arts epic of the year from Zhang Yimou (she had a much smaller role in the director's Hero, made in 2002 but only released here this past August). She could be the Ginger Rogers of a new wave of fight-choreography-as-dance masterpieces.

OCEAN'S TWELVE Redundant? Perhaps. Unnecessary? Almost guaranteed. Steven Soderbergh could get the worst reviews of his career for this sequel to his own spiky remake of the Rat Pack original, and I'd still go see it before I went anywhere near Christmas with the Kranks.

MILLION DOLLAR BABY David Poland at has got me really excited about this one. So soon after Mystic River, to hear such effusive advance praise for another Clint Eastwood movie is cause for elevated expectations, indeed.

NOTRE MUSIQUE New Godard. If it plays in Los Angeles longer than a week, I've got a shot.

I'm also intrigued by Closer, Ray, Kinsey, Enduring Love, A Very Long Engagement, I Am David, The Assassination of Richard Nixon and In Good Company, but if I have to choose (and I will have to choose), these titles definitely comprise the second tier.

So, here we go, enthusiasm in check, into the first Christmas season in three years with no astonishments from Peter Jackson to look forward to-- Hey, wait! The extended version (50 added minutes) of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King comes to DVD on December 14. By God, all of the sudden I am pretty excited for the holiday movie season!


It's late on a school night, the work week is about to come to a pleasant and early finish, and I've just wrapped up a session with a counterful of filthy pots, pans, plates and sippy cups. Edgar G. Ulmer's Bluebeard, starring John Carradine as a homicidal Parisian puppeteer, kept me entertained amongst the soap suds courtesy of my portable DVD player-- I had rented Mike Hodges' I'll Sleep When I'm Dead as my feature of choice for tonight's edition of Dirty Dishes Cinema, but a quick glance at the damage told me it wasn't quite a 108-minute job (the running time of this potentially nasty British noir, which I will save for Thanksgiving Eve), and that Ulmer's economical 70-minute thriller was more suited to the scale of tonight's undertaking. I dried the last spoon just as "Fin" came up over a shot of mockup of a bridge over the Seine, on which floated (SPOILER ALERT!!!) Carradine's lifeless body, chuckled at my ability these days to so accurately size up just how many crusty cereal bowls and murky drink glasses it takes to get through a feature film, and unconsciously started mulling over all the things I should be thankful for in the days approaching the holiday and, of course, beyond. It's not, as it turns out, a short list, but I'll give it a shot before the swirling sands of sleep form a towering dune from under which I won't escape until my daughter comes calling at the crack of dawn...

When I raise a glass on Thanksgiving, these are some of the things I'll be thankful for:

My wife Patty, who has gone through so much for our little family in the last seven years, and who continues to inspire me with her generosity, her beauty, her humor, her perceptiveness, her intelligence and her capacity for love. The only thing she truly lacks is the confidence and the ability to understand even a fraction of how wonderful she really is. She'll think this is weird, but everything she's given me, and the richness with which she's infused my life, always makes me think of a certain line from an old ZZTop song...

My gorgeous daughter Emma, who I love beyond my capacity to understand, who sings Christmas hymns and country tunes with abandon and enthusiasm, and who surprises me every day as she insists on leaving toddlerdom a little further behind on her journey to become, as Collodi (or Walt Disney) might have put it, a real little girl...

My gorgeous daughter Nonie, who I love beyond my capacity to understand, who never lets Emma's shadow get too dark and wide, who is a more relentless little diaper-laden jukebox than even her big sister, who never denies me when I need to hear her laugh, and who recently sat with me through The Incredibles and made yet another dream come true for her old dad...

My son Charlie, who never knew us beyond the voices he could hear from within the womb, and who I believe lives on in the souls of his sisters...

My parents, who were much smarter and full of love than I ever gave them credit for when I was a kid...

Patty's parents, who put the lie to every in-law joke ever told...

My best friend Bruce, who knows me better than anyone save my wife; the endurance of our friendship is something I'm frankly in awe of, and something which I strive never to take for granted...

Marlen, Letty, Nan, Trini, Miriam, Nancy and Juana, the women who take such good care of our daughters every day while Patty and I type and edit and type and edit and type...

People I've worked with over the past 17 years who started out as colleagues and became good friends-- Andy, Brian, Liz, Jennifer, Stephanie, Leslie, Blayne, Rob, Steve, James and Beverly...

This blog, which affords me the chance to, as my friend Katie so aptly put it recently, face up to the terror of writing, get the writing into some shape and form, allow it to be read and hopefully enjoyed, and spark my creativity and stamina as well...

Turner Classic Movies, a new semester of film school every month...

The privilege of hearing Vin Scully at work...

The appearance of both California Split and Charley Varrick on DVD before the end of this year...

Frank Zappa's "Montana" and the You Are What You Is album...

The increasingly rare opportunity to go fishing...

The double cheeseburger at Pie 'n' Burger on California Street in Pasadena...

The fact that Peter Jackson, Joe Johnston, Robert Altman, Guillermo Del Toro, Pedro Almodovar and Walter Hill make movies...

Seeing Cesar Izturis and Alex Cora make a "routine" double play look like it was choreographed by Fred Astaire...

My memories of the Alger Theater and the Circle JM Drive-In Theater in the Lakeview, Oregon of my youth...

Cary Grant in anything, but particularly Notorious...

Sophia Loren, Michelle Yeoh, Carole Lombard, Claudia Cardinale, Maggie Cheung and Shelley Duvall in anything, but particularly More Than a Miracle, Supercop, Nothing Sacred, Once Upon a Time in the West, Irma Vep and Popeye...

Jon Weisman's Dodger Thoughts blog...

Steely Dan's "Don't Take Me Alive" and the Everything Must Go album...

Rain (particularly Oregon rain... more on that in an upcoming post)...

The sublime final shot of Monsters, Inc., and also the whole ending of The Station Agent, perhaps the most mysteriously "right" closing of a movie I've seen in years...

That drive-in movie theaters are not dead yet...

Randy Johnson and Eric Gagne on the mound, as well as my sense of empathy for the poor bastards who have to try to hit what they so masterfully send to the plate...

Pauline Kael, who, more than any film professor, lit the light for me...

David Edelstein, Manohla Dargis, A.O. Scott, Chuck Stephens, Stephanie Zacharek, Charles Taylor and Matt Zoller Seitz, film critics who keeping the flame burning against increasingly steep cultural odds...

Steve Finley's walk-off grand slam, October 2, 2004...

Darin Morgan, Clyde Bruckman, Jose Chung, The Lone Gunmen, Bill Macy and the "Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me" episode from the second season of Millennium (go ahead, connect the dots-- it's fun!)...

Multnomah Falls, just outside Portland, Oregon...

...and the fact that I can so easily smuggle 94% fat-free Orville Redenbacher Smart Pop and diet soda into just about any local movie theater and thus successfully avoid laying down twice the price of a (discount ticket) on relatively crappy movie snacks.

I often feel I don't deserve a life this good, but I'm grateful for the bounty anyway, as well as the desire to continue to make it as good as I can for my beautiful family and faithful friends.

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all...

Friday, November 19, 2004


Turner Classic Movies has, as usual, plenty of good stuff to offer this weekend. A few of the titles I'll be looking for are:

Strange Illusion (1945) A visit to an insane asylum courtesy of Poverty Row director Edgar G. Ulmer. Saturday, 11/20, 5:00am PST

Northwest Passage (1940) The true story of Roger's Rangers and their fight to open up new frontiers for Colonial America. Features Spencer Tracy, Walter Brennan and Robert Young. Directed by King Vidor. 11/20 8:30am PST

Lawman (1970) By-the-book sheriff Burt Lancaster takes on corrupt town boss Lee J. Cobb in this western, one of the only movies directed by Michael Winner (Death Wish) I can think of that could be classified as good. Robert Ryan is terrific here too. 11/21 1:30am PST

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) Unusual entry for Alfred Hitchcock into the realm of screwball comedy is a fantastic showcase for the luminous Carole Lombard. Robert Montgomery co-stars as the other half of a bickering couple who discover they were never legally married. Don't miss this. 11/21 3:15am PST

Thursday, November 18, 2004


The dank and derivative horror thriller Saw opens on the photographing of a grotesque murder scene, each shutter click tricked out with discordant screeches lifted directly from the soundtrack of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which also began with extreme close-ups of rotted, mangled flesh illuminated by a sudden flash and those same agonized shutter screeches. Any modern horror film that jumps out of the gate with this kind of borderline plagiarism had better have something else up its sleeve, and that something turns out to be its titillating high concept: two men (Cary Elwes and screenwriter Leigh Whannell) wake up chained at the ankles to the walls of a shit-smeared bathroom located they know not where; one is told he must murder the other in six hours time, or else the deranged serial killer responsible for their imprisonment will execute his wife and daughter. As an ostensible means to escape, both are supplied with flimsy handsaws inadequate to cut through their shackles, but more than sufficient to cut through flesh and bone…

Whannell and director James Wan structure the movie as an over-elaborate A.D.D.-addled series of flashbacks, interwoven with that nasty men’s room scenario, which detail the killer’s previous Se7en-esque attempts to teach his victims lessons in appreciating life through wildly improbable Rube Goldberg murder methodology. I say over-elaborate because Wan and Whannell’s imaginations as storytellers and technique as filmmakers never seem quite nimble enough to imbue the film with a sufficient subcurrent of dread and perversely moralistic fury to carry it beyond the insider references and tonal plagiarism that prove to be its meat and gristle. Inevitably, Saw ends up collapsing under the weight of its own narrative contraptions.

There is, however, another link to the Tobe Hooper film, a more indirect and most likely unintentional one, and it ends up being the unexpected source of the only real power the movie possesses.

In the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (or as I used to refer to it, oddly enough, Saw), poor Marilyn Burns spent the last 30 minutes or so of the movie in a state of unrelieved terror at the hands of Leatherface and his family that seemed uncomfortably real, horrifically pure. Few, then, were surprised when stories about the making of the film, detailed in the commentary tracks and bonus material on the movie’s DVD release, revealed that much of Burns’ hysteria was indeed the real thing. Hooper’s methods in staging much of the action surrounding Burns’ torment at the hands of Leatherface and family were said to be less than sensitive. Those methods, along with the Texas heat, no budget to allow for actor comfort, the grisly subject matter, and several actual injuries to the actress, are said to be reasons why Burns holds few fond memories of the making of the movie, and also perhaps partially why hers is one of the most vivid portrayals of pure fear in all of horror cinema.

As a junkie who ends up at the center of one of the killer’s puzzle traps, Shawnee Smith’s face spends nearly a third of her time on screen masked by a heavy metal framework that has been designed to rip her jaw off. She must retrieve the key to unlock the mechanism without setting its nasty purpose in motion, a key that has been embedded in the abdominal cavity of a man lying motionless next to her, who turns out to be not quite dead. Now, as frightful and potentially fatal situations go, this one is a lot more convoluted and cumbersome than the relatively elemental threat of dismemberment by chain saw, and Wan’s hyperactive camerawork during the sequence in which Smith tries to free herself does a lot to undermine the possibility of protracted audience agony inherent in the setup. But if you’ve seen the one-sheet for Saw, you’ve seen a distillation of the core of what’s effective about the scene, a core that Wan’s jittery camera often won’t let us settle on but can’t ultimately dilute. That deadly headgear allows us to see Smith’s eyes, and she uses them to project the most palpable straight-to-the-spinal-column sense of naked fear since those infamous close-ups of Marilyn Burns’ bloodshot, tear-soaked peepers darting about, looking to find escape where there is none, from 30 years ago. Smith’s eyes visible amongst the gears and rods surrounding her skull and face, alive with electric jolts of terror, is the image used in the movie’s advertising, an image promising a level of intensity that her performance delivers but, alas, the movie in toto does not.

What really raises Smith’s brief appearance (she’s in the film for not much more than five minutes, which prompted David Edelstein, film critic for the online magazine Slate, to describe her as “criminally underused”) to another level, though, is what she does as she recalls her night of terror later in a police station. She is the only one who has managed to survive a torturous scenario laid out by the Jigsaw Killer, and the film cuts back and forth between her telling of the horrific event and the event itself. Many an actor, eager to grab attention at any opportunity, especially given such short screen time, might extend the character’s hysteria from the depths of the dungeon straight into the interrogation room. But Shawnee Smith risks accusations of underplaying (a rare-enough phenomenon in any film, but especially so in a hyperactive horror thriller) to suggest post-traumatic shock through trembling quiet, denying us the chance, with a down-turned face, to look into those eyes again and see what ripples of the horror that we saw earlier might remain. This simple, inconspicuous choice, the contrast between the wide eyes that witness madness and the closed ones that retreat away from it, and consequently from all comfort, provides an added pulse of identification that Marilyn Burns was never allowed to explore, and it single-handedly makes Saw worth seeing. When Smith delivers the kicker to the scene, a line which somewhat subversively suggests that the killer, by forcing her to commit murder in order to save herself from a gruesome death, has functioned for her as a sort of homicidal psychotherapist, she doesn’t punch it home for showy effect. She infuses the words “He helped me” with equal parts regret, disgust, amazement and confusion, and with enough subtlety that the resonating, dissonant tones from the utterance could easily be lost among the cacophony and moral chaos of the movie that surrounds it. It’s a terrific performance.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004


Film critic Manohla Dargis, late of the LA Weekly and The Los Angeles Times, has written a terrific article about the resurgence of cinephilia in the digital age, and given the eulogies written over the last 10 years on the death of film culture Dargis's conclusions are remarkably optimistic. Check out the article here:

You may have to register (it's free) to access this article and other online content with The New York Times. Although it may not always be the case, this time it's worth the extra 15 seconds.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004


Well, at least the American League got it right. Guerrero spurred the Angels on to a division title and inspired the whole team to step it up a notch to get there. Even though Arte's Angels (hey, there's a catchy new name!) went down to defeat at the hands of America's Team of Destiny (or as I like to think of them, the Cursed Little Bandwagon That Could), Guerrero deserved the honor.

Too bad the writers are too blinded by the spotlight shining on Barry Bonds to come to the same conclusion for the National League.

Yes, Bonds' personal stats were amazing and, in most cases, league-leading. But to this observer, the phrase "Most Valuable Player" implies a value as applied not to one player's ever-increasing glory, but to that player's ability to elevate his team, to demonstrate that that team's fate would have been considerably different had he not been on the roster. If a player is most valuable primarily to himself, then how can he really be the Most Valuable? Certainly you can say that the 2004 Giants, with their mediocre batting order, would have been a lot further away from the postseason than they ended up without Bonds. But the fact is, the Giants still watched the postseason on TV like the rest of us schmoes.

Adrian Beltre, on the other hand, much like Guerrero, spurred his team on with a breakout performance in 2004, contributed mightily to 52 come-from-behind Dodger wins, and was instrumental in keeping them in the National League West lead for all but a couple of weeks or so over the course of the season. (Oh, yeah, and the Dodgers won their division too.)

So the writers award Barry the MVP honor because swings the bat like no one else in the history of the sport and he forces the managers to change their pitching strategy like no single other player ever has. Good! He should be keeping them on their toes, making them squirm. Adjusting to the talents of every batter in the opposing lineup is integral to how managers do their job, and if managers choose to pitch him out it's because they're trying to win a game, not contribute to Barry's highlight reel.

But Beltre's league-leading home runs, his all-around power at the plate and ability to use the entire field, and his prowess as a third baseman (that's offense AND defense-- how many of these writers gush on about how Barry can't or won't run down a ball in left field?) aren't good enough for more than six first-place votes?

Well, Adrian, Randy Johnson pitched a perfect game on the worst team in baseball this year, and he came in second in the Cy Young voting too. That oughta cheer you up a little before you put on the big suit and head up to Mr. McCourt's office with Mr. Boras for your big meeting. Here's hoping you're at third base in Chavez Ravine next year and for a good long while after that. The MVP award can wait.


I realize it's not exactly an obscure object of desire or a movie that's gone wanting for a promotional budget, but don't discount The Incredibles based on its omnipresence in the marketplace or its positioning as a "kids" film. Yes, my two-year-old was thrilled, but so was I. Pixar started strong out of the gate with Toy Story, picked up speed with A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2, and continued their streak with two amazing films-- Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo-- that many reasonably might have assumed would be their peak. But somehow, through not just the groundbreaking technology used to tell the story, but more importantly through the old-fashioned alchemy of surefooted, intelligent cinematic storytelling itself, The Incredibles pushes Pixar to new and unexpected glory. Simply put, it is as good as you've heard-- written and directed by Brad Bird (The Iron Giant), it's Pixar's finest hour. One day (and judging from the clever but uninspired trailer for their upcoming feature Cars, that day could arrive sometime next summer) Pixar is going to deliver a movie that's not an instant classic, a movie that deserves, say, only three stars out of four. By any other measurement of artistic achievement, that's a success. But the way these geniuses craft their particular gems, when that happens it's going to feel to moviegoers a lot like what Dodger fans felt when Eric Gagne finally blew a save. But let's not think about that-- for now savor the opportunity to see one of the best movies of the year on a big screen. The Incredibles-- no hype-- truly is.


Just a little clarification about my first post...

When I reread my description of myself as an "ex and frustrated film critic," I think I made myself sound like I'm a disillusioned career professional in between gigs or something, and I think I came off not just a little presumptuous as well.

I wrote film reviews for the Ashland Daily Tidings from 1983-1986, and though I do have a bachelor of arts degree in Film Studies from the University of Oregon, this three-year freelance newspaper gig is, to date, my only professional experience writing about film.

However, the "frustrated" part is accurate, though I'm hoping my experience with this blog will be a positive creative outlet for the kind of writing I like to do.

Also, I'm a little concerned, because I will probably be focusing mostly on film writing, that the title of the blog may be somewhat deceptive. I hoped the title would invoke the world of film, through the allusion to Leone's wonderful spaghetti western masterpiece, as well as my love for the Dodgers. However, I don't expect that my writing about baseball will be that prolific or particularly insightful, because even though my enthusiasm for the sport is very intense and I like to think of myself as a thinking fan, I'm not entirely confident about my ability to navigate intellectually in that world. And I may never be, if some of the quality and insightfulness of some of the blogging and commentary on the sport I've seen in the past two years are to be my standard.

These may just be rookie blogger jitters, and they may not. So, depending on which way the wind blows, a new title may be coming down the road.

Finally, for anyone who may have been put off by the length of "Pleasures Worthy Of Guilt," don't worry-- I don't have the time to ramble on at that length every time out. That article was written several months ago under different circumstances, but I thought it'd be fun to see it in print somewhere, since those to whom I submitted it seemed to disagree! Most will be far shorter, maybe even just two or three sentences, but hopefully worth both writing and reading, no matter what length.

Monday, November 15, 2004


I was first introduced to the concept of a "guilty pleasure" (one not related to the tribulations of adolescence and/or ruler-happy nuns thwacking out at the slightest transgression, at least) through the auspices of Film Comment magazine back in the late '70s. At that time the magazine ran, as a recurring feature, articles written by various luminaries of film-- directors and actors, usually, with the occasional high-profile writer or cinematographer thrown in for good measure-- who would recount the sodden treasures of their film-going pasts, ones that helped make them the artists they were or in some way retained particular personal meaning for them. Of course the whole point of the series was the revealing by these figures of cinema of their dirty little secrets, their love for films disregarded, ill-regarded, derided or otherwise forgotten by critics, audiences and film historians.

It was here that faithful readers first learned of director John Carpenter's illicit appreciation not of the Howard Hawks of Rio Bravo (keen-eyed viewers of his Assault on Precinct 13 would have already connected those dots), but also the Howard Hawks responsible for films deemed too silly even for all but the most rabid auteurists, films like Land of the Pharoahs and Red Line 7000.

Paul Schrader elaborated on his guilty pleasures-- the films of Bresson, Ozu and Ford. Certainly not the typical Hollywood B-movie or grind house fare usually cited, but instead films that spurred his loosening of the theological constraints of Calvinism and caused him to plumb the depths of guilt and despair left over from his religious upbringing and rechannel it into a highly personal and controversial career as a screenwriter and director.

But in perhaps the single most well-known "Guilty Pleasures" article Film Comment would ever publish, notorious Baltimore resident John Waters, himself responsible for more intermingling of the concepts of "pleasure" and "guilt" than any other director up to that time (August 1983), would throw into stark relief the whole idea of what exactly might constitute the "guilt" in a guilty pleasure. Imagine, if you can, the filmmaker who unleashed Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble feeling guilty about anything. You can't? Okay, for the sake of argument, say that you could. What would you imagine inspiring an old-fashioned bout of metaphysical hand-wringing within the not-so-tortured soul of the man who could gleefully stage a mind-twisting rape scene in which the victim (female) and the perpetrator (male) were played by the same actor (Divine)?

Certainly not the odd horror film or neglected film noir that might routinely pop up on most anyone else's list. No, Waters shocked cinephiles worldwide with his admission that he was secretly a fan of, as he put it, "what is unfortunately known as the 'art film.' " Waters summed up his career as making low-brow films for high-brow theaters but admitted that up till then he had only acknowledged the influence of the trashiest of films on his oeuvre. By the end of the article (subsequently reprinted in his book Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters), the director had braved the ire of those who might accuse his selections of being "purposely perverse" and revealed himself to be an art snob in love with Woody Allen's Interiors, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema and Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom, Ingmar Bergman's Brink of Life, and anything by either Marguerite Duras or Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

But the shock waves of Waters' celluloid confessional would not stop within the pages of Film Comment. A scant four years later would see the release of a PG-rated film by the director, itself recently transformed into an equally family-friendly (not to mention Tony Award-winning) Broadway smash. Perhaps Waters' "guiltiest" admission might have been the desire to, if not become a "mainstream" filmmaker (on his own terms, of course), then at least have access to more of a mainstream audience than would have even glanced at an ad for Desperate Measures, much less paid money to see it.

The 1980s welcomed John Waters' Hairspray, but by the time of that film's unleashing upon an appreciative public, forces like Saturday Night Live and, more importantly, David Letterman had already helped pave the way for a world in which the most shocking act a provocateur like Waters might perpetrate would be sneaking in the back door on something like a PG rating and subverting audience assumptions from within. The idiom of irony as epitomized by Letterman had become, for better or worse, more even pervasive and predominant in American pop culture as the 1990s dawned, and it was beginning to become difficult to find any rogue element of the cinema that hadn't been embraced, accepted or written about in some current of the mainstream (Even the dabbling by mainstream audiences in '70s porn like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, certainly a genuine, if momentary phenomenon, pales in comparison to the generally widespread acceptance of porn star celebrity and sensibility found today on sports talk radio, The Howard Stern Show, Maxim magazine and its multitude of imitators, the E! channel, and just about anywhere else except the Pax Network.)

Now when you see an actor like Jeff Bridges write about his guilty pleasures (as he did in a recent issue of Film Comment), the very title of the series seems a misnomer. Bridges starts off his brief article promisingly with a terrific story related to his inability to shake certain images from John Boorman's notoriously incoherent sci-fi epic Zardoz. But unfortunately the rest of the list ends up being not so much a tool to illuminate a particular sensibility as an opportunity to rattle off anecdotes about movies made by friends (director Matthew Bright's Freeway) or featuring father Lloyd (Rocket Ship X-M), brother Beau (Village of the Giants), or himself (The Yin and Yang of Mr. Go, American Heart).

So what now, now that almost every new season sees the unveiling of a $100 million comic book adaptation and horror films that were once perceived as among the cinema's most vile transgressions (Tobe Hooper's 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) are remade by A-list Hollywood hotshots and gross ten times the original film's budget in the first weekend? What now, when box-office grosses and Ashton Kutcher's love life get more press ink than the movies themselves (unless, of course, that coverage consists mainly of sound bite-riddled junket sessions conducted by star-struck "entertainment reporters")? Are there any films left to feel guilty about?

Well, certainly the answer has to be "yes." But if the denizens of pop culture have become excessively forgiving when it comes to what can be embraced, then it's time to shed the self-aggrandizing aspects of putting together such a list and get back to exposing the hard-scrabble nuggets at the bottom of the cereal box. Any attempt to justify one's personal junkyard dogs of cinema can be agonizing and embarrassing, particularly if you're keen on cultivating some measure of intellectual respectability or credibility among those involved in the conversation. So just forget the attempts to impress your film savvy friends, because they're not likely to be impressed by much at this point anyway.

At this point on the chronometer of pop culture, better to just come clean. Regardless of genre, style or subject matter, the films that make up my "guilty pleasures" list are those that, like Waters', might cause some genuine embarrassment on my part at their revelation during casual conversation; films that would expose me as an irredeemably pretentious fake if I tried to justify them on any level other than their basest appeal (no deconstructionist arguments in defense of The Love Bug, please...); films that I like or enjoy despite the fact that they are, on one level or another, indefensible and/or plainly bad when held to any rational standard of taste or judgment.

Compiling my list, then, signifies a threefold purpose: 1) To identify those films that insist on a certain degree of genuine shame folded in with their appreciation, not just movies of ill repute that are actually wonderful but that everyone else is just too stupid to value; 2) To once again examine the guilt in the guilty pleasure; 3) To engage in a simple act of soul-cleansing admission. But let’s not get too heady here. The bottom line is, like most list-making processes, the very act of attempting to justify personal, irrational responses to largely impersonal cinematic artifacts tends to rather easily devolve into a somewhat indulgent and onanistic enterprise. So what better exercise, then, than this for the harvesting (and perhaps exorcising) of reel after reel of movie guilt?


Robert Altman is, I would say, a director with scant familiarity with guilt. He would score points for flying in the face of logic, demographic evidence and studio interference at just about any point in his long career. But when he cashed in the critical cachet he’d earned with 1990’s The Player, he earned a place on the list of the most purposely perverse directors of all time. While not exactly replicating the artistically dubious incoherence of Quintet, a film which finds little favor even with the most ardent Altman cultist, the director returned to the large scale free-form canvas of Nashvillle, Brewster McCloud and O.C. & Stiggs and used it to create what plays like the most slapdash seat-of-the-pants train wreck of his career—the fashionista wet-dream comedy Pret-a-Porter (Ready to Wear) (1994).

Filmgoers who seemed ready to participate in another big Altman party laced with the same kind of acid insider bite that suffused The Player seemed confused and put off, that is if they decided to attend a screening during the film’s short theatrical run at all (few did). As a card-carrying member of the Altman cult myself, I found myself enchanted by what most found undisciplined and unfocused in Altman’s approach, that is, his enjoyment of the people he shovels in and out of the frame and his tendency to let them play out their improvisatory strings until they teeter just on the brink of making fools of themselves (some, like Danny Aiello in an agonizing and apparently heavily truncated plot line that finds him in drag for no discernible reason, topple right off that brink while the director looks the other way).

To some this streak of indulgence comes off as a sly form of misanthropy. But I think Altman loves his actors, and indeed showcasing the unpredictable impulses of their behavior, too much for this charge to be much more than an convenient albatross hung around the director’s neck by lazy entertainment reporters who like to parrot familiar refrains rather than observe what’s right in front of them. And what’s in front of them in Pret-a-Porter is without doubt a claustrophobic Parisian pile-up, a “satire” of the colossal vanity and gossamer relevance of the fashion world that at times barely seems to have a point of view itself. It’s easily the messiest film of Altman’s shaggy career, dogged perhaps by its director’s indifference to the shadow of folly and the whims of expectations.

But, like Brewster McCloud with its occasional visitations of raven doo-doo upon unsuspecting heads, Pret-a-Porter is carefree enough to risk self-satirization (not to mention a giggle over the sanitary standards of the City of Lights) by introducing the motif of its sophisticated actors continually trodding through dog shit. It’s also a lot more fun than its reputation suggests, although I’ll be damned if I’ve ever been able to convince anyone of it. The bottom line is, any film that finds an opportunity for Sophia Loren to recreate (with a twist) her lingerie-clad seduction of hammy-to-the-end Marcello Mastroianni from Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow could otherwise have completely collapsed on itself and would still get a round of applause for me.

On the subject of the cured meat, the history of theatrical ham has many legendary performances that live on in the memories of those lucky enough to have actually seen them-- Zero Mostel’s Tevye, Ron Leibman’s Roy Cohn, Quentin Tarantino’s Harry Roat-- but largely their grandeur is preserved through first-and-second-and-third-hand accounts by writers striving mightily to perpetuate even a degree of the actor’s overscaled achievements. Ham on film, however, comes packed with preservatives, and for every actor who has appeared on film, there is an actor who has, at one time or another, scaled that Olympian pork roast and lived to regret the nondisintegrating properties of digital film preservation and, of course, the DVD.

I first saw Rod Steiger in No Way to Treat a Lady (1968) on the ABC Sunday Night Movie when I was perhaps only 10 or 11 years old, and I thought it could possibly have been one of the most terrifying movies ever made or that could possibly ever be made. Just the idea of a serial strangler who uses his craft as a stage actor to worm his way into the good graces of his potential victims was enough to stoke my movie-fed nightmares, and I was in awe of Steiger’s ability to warp his image into so many different configurations-- a kindly neighborhood priest, a jolly German electrician, a dowdy transvestite barfly-- all of which go from relatively benign to insinuatingly evil in a corrupt twinkle of the actor’s eye. Then, some 20 years later, I saw the movie again and was somewhat disturbed to find out it was, in fact, a slightly creaky, more-than-slightly black Oedipal comedy, and while Steiger was obviously in on the joke it clearly never occurred to him that modulation in the pursuit of actorly effects was any kind of virtue at all. For this is the Oscar-winning actor, never known for his subtle approach, pounding the pipe organ of his craft with all stops pulled and rattling the rafters at top volume. It wouldn’t be until his cameo role in The January Man, some 21 years later, that he would again come as close to blasting a capillary on-screen as he does in his wild death scene in this picture. Credit director Jack Smight for turning Rod loose on the scenery and letting him graze like the Tasmanian Devil, and credit Rod for gulping down as much at one time as he does, for his Thespic gluttony here is truly remarkable to behold.

But what about a movie so populated with memorably bad acting that, no matter how hard I try, whenever it shows up on cable I simply have to stop what I’m doing and see it through to the besotted, bloody end? And given my inability to resist the rancid pull of The Boys from Brazil (1978), what am I to do now that I own a copy on DVD? Am I cursed to watch this bloated Sir Lew Grade international prestige production again and again until the very indestructible nature of the DVD begins making mockery of my increasing enfeebled body and mind? And what responsibility should Sir Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, James Mason, director Franklin Schaffner shoulder in furthering that enfeeblement? (Actually, this is probably not a question that would have bothered them much even when they were all alive…)

Mason provides the most grounded of the thrills here, mincing about the Amazonian hideaway of Dr. Josef Mengele (Peck!) in a very large scarf and fedora, insinuating many potentially negative things about the doctor’s prospects for continuing his loopy attempts to clone Adolf Hitler. “Your operation has been cancelleddddddd…” he hisses to Mengele at one point. “No!” comes the rather emphatic, curiously stilted reply. “Your…operation… has… been… cancelled!” Peck’s decision to have Mengele sound as if he’s speaking phonetic English instead of simply German-accented English, or of course just plain old German (this is, after all, a Sir Lew Grade international prestige production, where all English seems phonetic and overdubbed) lends a stodginess to his entire presence, a sense of his being uncomfortable in his own skin that adds layer upon layer of weirdness to the performance, but precious little credibility (I blame his shellacked hair and makeup too).

Peck was never what I’d call an actor of tremendous spontaneity, but the way he barks at an old biddy who screams for a doctor after he hurls her apparently traitorous husband to the floor during a ballroom celebration (“I… am… a doctor… you…idiot!”), or the way he woodenly attempts to cajole one of the little Hitler boys of the title into accepting his true ancestry, all while an angry Doberman waits impatiently poised to clamp down on his crotch, makes him seem the most ossified representation of Third Reich evil ever presented on screen.

As for Sir Laurence Olivier, suffice it to say that this is the pinnacle of his many late-career paycheck performances in which he basically let loose his inner imp and let it run wild with an accent (this time, a slightly sibilant Austrian one). His Nazi-hunting Ezra Lieberman will live in glorious testimony to a great actor’s desire to push the inherent silliness of his calling right up to the edge of the abyss and blow raspberries to those already plummeting into the void who had not the discipline to know how far to go or even how to get there (paging Danny Aiello!).

And while I’m at it, one final shout-out to Jeremy Black, the neophyte actor given the task of embodying at least four of the boys from Brazil, the little Hitler clones who would, if Mengele’s darkest machinations were to see light, each repeat the circumstances of the dictator’s youth and similarly flower into the charismatic power of his tyrannical adulthood. The Internet Movie Database assures me that this is the only time young master Black’s talents were ever put to use on film, and connoisseurs of Wretched Performances, Youth Division ought to mourn this particularly cruel turn of cinematic fate and regularly revisit his one lasting piece of acting fury. His may be the most astonishingly witless and thoughtlessly unshepherded performance by a child actor before or since, although Spencer Breslin (of Disney’s The Kid and Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat) seems to be gearing up for a career-long challenge to Black’s status as king of the heap. His nasally congested rejoinder to Mengele’s climactic delineation of the nefarious genetic goings-on into which he is inexorably entwined—“Oh, man you’re weird”—is a hallmark of the involuntarily deadpan, and the only sane response to someone who loves this movie as much as I do.

There are pleasures worthy of guilt in just about any genre you can name, and some, like The Boys from Brazil, are prime examples of strange genre subsets all their own—what other movie so clumsily and without conscience warps historical and political tragedy into the rich narrative manure of pulp science fiction and cheap suspense? (And I’m not merely posing a rhetorical question here—if anyone knows of another steaming pile of this ilk that satisfies and expands the boundaries of the big-budget/international cast/historically derived schlock thriller so thoroughly, please contact me.)

But the actor that can represent his own subgenre of crap classic is a find indeed. I’m not talking about your John Waynes or your Schwarzeneggers (or Seagals or Van Dammes or Dudikoffs) or any of the countless other actors who virtually defined the particular genres in which they succeeded at the box office. In addition to being identified almost solely within one genre or type of film, each one of these stars has at least one credit that could in most circles be recognized as a good movie—Wayne’s The Searchers, Schwarzenegger’s The Terminator, ahem, Seagal’s Above the Law, Van Damme’s (damn, I sense my thesis starting to fall apart here—gotta get out, quick), uh… Double Impact, and Dudikoff’s… okay, there is no good Michael Dudikoff movie.

However, few actors have challenged the time-honored requirements of comedy, domestic drama, romance and action with such woodenly consistent results as the inimitable Patrick Swayze, the man who would be, and I would suggest eventually became, the ‘80s answer to Jan-Michael Vincent. Swayze’s career often paralleled the blush of romantic folly embodied by Vincent films like Sandcastles, Buster and Billie and Baby Blue Marine with the likes of Ghost, Dirty Dancing, Three Wishes and Father Hood .Some were hits, some were flushed from popular consciousness in a little less time than it took to read their universally negative reviews. But all were attempts to cash in on the romantic soulfulness the actor’s handlers persuaded several tabloid TV shows and magazines that he had in spades back in the Reagan/Bush era.

Patrick was more per-Swayz-ive in action clunkers like Youngblood and Next of Kin-- the latent hostility behind the actor’s vacant, vaguely bovine stare, a definite liability amidst the shameless suds of Ghost, worked better when he was allowed to wield a shotgun and swear occasionally. But two Swayze efforts from the late ‘80s-early ‘90s, both of which tread a path also taken by earlier Jan-Michael Vincent works, would set the bar inordinately high for what I’ve come to fondly think of as the Idiot Epic (known on cable as “Movies For Guys Who Like Movies”).

Swayze’s sleepy turn as the NYU philosophy major who works as a bouncer in a rough-and-tumble bar (you’ll have to insert your own joke here, because the movie refuses to) in director Rowdy Herrington’s relentlessly asinine Road House (1989) was the actor’s correlative to Vincent’s B-movie classic White Line Fever (1975). That movie, designed to quickly cash in on the trucking/CB radio craze that was sweeping the country at the time, had a down-and-dirty exploitation picture pedigree courtesy of director Jonathan Kaplan, a veteran of the Roger Corman school of creative low-budgets, and an unbridled energy that didn’t allow the viewer the time or the desire to contemplate the sillier elements of the story.

Herrington is a far less talented director than Kaplan—Road House is lumpy and lurchingly paced, whereas the more stripped-down Fever hurtles along with the unstoppable force of an 18-wheeler with no brakes on a steep downgrade. But it turns out the director wasn’t named Rowdy for nothing. He plops Swayze down in the midst of one spectacular fistfight after another, risking severe and mind-numbing repetition and virtually jolting his nearly somnolent lead actor into a constant state of agitation. And damned if Swayze doesn’t come alive (well, almost) as he pounds and punches and kicks and snaps bones in scene after scene. The movie, and the actor, finally take on a kind of shit-kicking glow, the radiance of which can reduce a viewer like me, who in the real world wouldn’t be caught dead (or more likely would be found dead) in the kind of barroom brawls staged here, to a state of gleeful yahoo-itis, where a kick in the groin is as good as a kiss on the cheek. Road House could be the best Idiot Epic ever made, and it must have made Hal Needham green with envy.

Swayze would seal his unspoken bond with Vincent just three years later in near classic form. JMV searched for the perfect wave (along with best buddies Gary Busey and William Katt) in Big Wednesday (1978), director John Milius’ ode to end-of-an-era male bonding among the surfer subculture. But Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991), cresting just ahead of the burgeoning popularity of the “extreme sports” movement, would take Swayze well past the rose-colored nostalgia and relatively sensitive bravado of Milius’ vision and straight through to the uncut adrenaline rush that would come to define an entire generation’s approach to fun in the sun.

Bigelow’s sensibility is serious, and the lean, spectacular set pieces she stages are among the best that can be found in modern action cinema. But her propulsive attitude toward the story, the narrative structure of which could be most generously described as ridiculous, is typically shaken up by her cast’s various ineptitudes, deficiencies and excesses. As Bodhi, leader of a band of bank-robbing thrill-seekers, Swayze, alternately stoic and loony, embodies the movie’s corruption of Milius’ macho-philosophic worldview. Cast mates Keanu Reeves (whoa-ful undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah, who infiltrates Bodhi’s commune of crime), Lori Petty (Bodhi’s hard-as-nails girlfriend who, naturally, falls for Johnny), John McGinley (chewing scenery as few others could, or would, as Johnny’s apoplectic boss) and Gary Busey (again, chewing scenery as few others could, or would, as Johnny’s meatball sandwich-scarfing partner—“Gimme two!”) ultimately merely frolic in the shadow cast by Swayze’s somewhat ripe, sun-damaged baddie—Bodhi is a deceptively whirligig psycho best friend and mentor who justifies his violent crimes through his pursuit of the ultimate wave and, cursed practicality, the need to fund it. The actor revels in the extremes of the character and his director’s willingness to indulge them in his performance, and he has hardly a moment in the movie, right up through the deafening conclusion where Bodhi is not saved from drowning under the wave he’s been after all along, that he doesn’t look foolish. But it’s a foolishness armored by conviction. That may not be enough to keep me from cringing whenever I revisit Swayze at work here, but at least makes me believe it’s probably his finest hour on screen.

Speaking of foolish conviction, it’s difficult to imagine a rival in all of cinema to approach the overripe, headlong, giddy and gasping pretense of the oeuvre of director Ken Russell. This British director, who never encountered a subject he deemed inappropriate for the excessive whirling-dervish fantasias that comprise his personal style, has made peculiarly entertaining mincemeat of a multitude of historical and biographical subjects—the ghastly horrors of religious and political hysteria in 17th-century France (The Devils); the flamboyance and emptiness at the heart of the life of a legendary screen idol (Valentino); the bombast and grotesqueries revealed in heavily fictionalized accounts of the lives of the composers Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers) and the titular Mahler. But these triumphs of questionable taste, impure testimony and narrative lunacy pale compared to the kaleidoscopic incoherence of Lisztomania (1975).

I can’t imagine another filmmaker who would even momentarily think that an outlandish “biography” of Franz Liszt (Roger Daltrey!) which posits the reluctant celebrity of the Viennese composer as a kind of pioneering instance of rock stardom was a good idea. But the brio with which Russell invests this bizarre enterprise made those few who took him up on his challenge and actually paid to see this madness genuinely question his sanity. If singular achievement is any director’s goal, then Russell, in a career filled with films that could not be mistaken as the work of any other artist or hack, truly came into his glory with Lisztomania.

Patchy details of Liszt’s life are intermingled with phantasmagorical musings on the roots of nationalistic evil-- Wagner, Liszt’s chief rival, is depicted as a literally vampiric predator who claims Liszt’s daughter and whose Aryan musical ideals come lumbering to life in the form of a Hitlerian Norse god of a Frankenstein’s monster. When Russell tires of this theme, he flits off and indulges his predilection for treacly or otherwise clumsy sketches-- Liszt’s romantic longings are cast anachronistically in the iconography of a silent Chaplin comedy, and the movie opens with an tryst interrupted by a jealous husband that devolves into pixilated parody of silent-era swashbuckling action. And then there’s the real showstopper, a one-of-a-kind sequence of grandiose sexual panic that encapsulates the movie’s recurrent phallic iconography-- Liszt’s insatiable appetites and incumbent paranoia inspire a Busby Berkeley-inspired musical number beginning with our hero being engulfed in a massive vagina and culminating in his sprouting a nine-foot erection, which is promptly straddled and danced upon by a bevy of wild-eyed, high-stepping dance hall girls… just before it’s inserted into a guillotine.

I’m sorry-- did I forget to mention that I love this movie? I’d be hard-pressed to think of another movie whose “ideas” are so supremely silly, so obviously the product of a sophomoric lack of discipline, whose “vision” is so robustly, ingloriously tawdry and downright ridiculous, yet which I find so unaccountably engaging. I also know of absolutely no one who will back me up in my fondness for this one-of-a-kind folly, and I think I prefer it that way. It’s a gigantic load, to be sure, but it’s my gigantic load. And of course Russell’s, who probably jettisoned for good what little of the cultural cachet he’d secured for himself with well-regarded films like Women in Love and The Boy Friend by unleashing this wonderful monstrosity on the world. And as willfully strange as this director seems through his films, he probably prefers it that way.

Finally, it’s time to admit my weakness for stereotypical representations of a particular social group with which I have a more-than-passing familiarity: white trash. I’ve always had a kind of nostalgic attraction to the (for me) primal pull of the rural fantasy of the Ma and Pa Kettle series. Though she resembled her not a whit, Marjorie Main’s Ma seemed to embody so many of the rough-and-tumble characteristics of my own grandmother that it was (and still is) easy for me to transpose the fictional woman with my memories of the real one and allow Ma Kettle to take on a kind of vitality that she might not necessarily have for anyone else. And Pa Kettle is only Pa Kettle if he’s played by Percy Kilbride, who turned the depiction of sloth into a down-home art form. Parker Fennelly, replete with anachronistic Pepperidge Farm-type accent, replaced Kilbride as Pa in the last film of the series, The Kettles on Old MacDonald’s Farm, but he never approached the kind of easy charm with which Kilbride so effortlessly imbued the character.

Regional filmmakers Ferd and Beverly Sebastian created product for the drive-ins of the deep South throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, their most widely hailed work being the sweaty vigilante programmer Gator Bait (1976). Swamp sexpot Claudia Jennings (and all of her pulchritudinous charms) made this ketchup-and-cleavage drama a huge hit nationwide, but the Sebastians’ little-seen sequel, Gator Bait 2: Cajun Justice (1988) is the one that, for my money, seals their status as nonpareil purveyors of bad behavior (and questionable breeding strategies), Southern division. Your bodacious heroine is killed in the first movie? No problem. See, she has a big, burly brother with a redheaded Daisy Mae for a wife, who can get sexually assaulted and otherwise tormented by every known variety of swamp rat and toothless gas station attendant until big brother has just… had… enough! GB2 is distinctive largely in its mise-en-scene, which makes the undeniably tacky Billy Jack look expansive and visually choreographed, and in its cast of apparently authentic local “talent,” which probably looked an awful lot like the folks who saw out the twilight days of outdoor picture shows in their pickup trucks watching incredible heaps like this one. If you’ve got a taste for it, it’s a little bit of redneck heaven.

When I’m feeling more introspective and I want to indulge in white-trash stereotypes couched in a base of reality, garnished with genuine talent and/or relatively serious intentions, two films immediately leap to mind. Few documentaries feel more whimsical, so honestly inquisitive, yet at the same time so back-door condescending as Errol Morris’s Vernon, Florida (1981). The non-fiction specialist’s curious visit with the citizens of a small backwoods town, highlighting their various eccentricities and downright oddities, is undeniably hilarious, moody and charming. But Morris also coasts on loads of smirking subtext, and his use of the camera and techniques of editing maximize the sense of an outsider (Morris, us) standing back far enough from these local yokels so that we can’t miss how not just eccentric, but downright weird they are compared to everyone else. Morris’s sense of empathy would expand profoundly by the time of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997), but this is his most complete journey so far into an actual community and if it yields fascinating, troubling results, the later work would prove out the lessons learned by the director during his time in this little town.

Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky followed up their devastating journalistic documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), chronicling the hysteria of an Arkansas town desperate to pin guilt for a triple murder on three local teenagers, with the even more disturbing Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000). The film depicts the teenagers bereft of the flippancy they displayed in the face of murder charges in the first film. Here they are behind bars, convicted of the crime and serving time, despite increasing evidence that points to the stepfather of one of the victims. In tracking events in the wake of their conviction, though, the film ends up raising serious questions about the imposition of the filmmakers into the very case they’re observing. Like Morris, they get seduced by the elements of life in this environment that play up to a sense of superiority on the part of the viewer. But unlike Morris, they have a truly charismatic, and possibly psychotic, person at the center of their inquiry in that stepfather, who often addresses the camera directly with his tortured observations, justifications and various attempts to discount the mounting suspicion swirling about him. This is one of several recent documentaries (including Capturing the Friedmans, any film by Nick Broomfield, and Berlinger and Sinofsky’s own Brother’s Keeper) that implicate the audience, and their own filmmakers, to an uncomfortable degree and make us believe we’re being given access to aspects of lives to which we have no right. Couple that with the skill and urgency of this film’s approach, its inexorable narrative pull and its (perhaps inevitable) emphasis on elements of a social group many non-Southern urbanites might find disturbing, and you have the very essence of a guilty "pleasure."

The journey toward the restoration of the guilt in my guilty pleasures, though amply primed by the previous entries, can be ultimately only be fulfilled by consideration of the two great experiences in the dissection of white-trash culture of my formative movie-going years. When I was 13 years old, I conned my dad into accompanying me to a screening of Deliverance at our hometown theater. By the time it arrived there, the movie had already been in release for about a year, and through the grapevine of locker room whispers and classroom chatter I knew full well what horrors it held when I began suggesting to my dad that we catch that new outdoors movie (the local movie calendar highlighted only the image of four men in silhouette carrying a canoe, so my attempt at reductive capsulization of the film’s plot seemed to have some basis in reality). But I didn’t count on my mom coming along, and consequently having to sit between them for the duration of the feature. By the time Ned Beatty was forced to begin his pathetic porcine impersonation, I truly knew what it was to squirm with the helpless desire to be anywhere else, and I could feel the laser intensity of my mom’s gaze burning a tiny, white-hot hole through my temple. But even after all that, Deliverance was still a great movie, and I think so to this day—I just never mention it to my mom.

Greatness is not an accolade likely ever to be bestowed upon the film version of Kyle Onstott’s epically lurid sex-and-slavery page-turner Mandingo (1975). But my (non-Kettle) grandmother was a big fan of the book, and when I became interested in it because of what I’d heard about the movie, she inexplicably conspired to lend it to me so I could read it unbeknownst to my parents (who were probably still stinging from being taken on that whole Deliverance deal). I could lie and say I had some overriding sociological interest in the subject matter, given that the mid-‘70s of my youth were a time when the fruits of the civil rights movement of the ‘60s were being given a chance to either ripen or rot. But truth be told, being a fan of the idea of the blaxploitation explosion in American movies (I had yet only seen Super Fly and Shaft, but kept up with the latest developments in this particular phenomenon through the movie pages of the Portland Oregonian), and being a typical 14-year-old boy, it was, yes, the lurid aspects of the story that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

So imagine my surprise when the movie showed up at the local theater and my grandmother asked me if I wanted to go see it. With her. That surprise was topped only by my mom’s indifferent shrug when I floated the idea to her. “What the hell,” she seemed to be saying, “If you’re not already corrupt or otherwise warped by what I’ve allowed you to see myself, then I guess you’ll be okay--either that, or watching this stuff in the presence of your grandmother will be the back-breaking straw that sends you merrily on your way to a fulfilling career as a racially motivated sex criminal.” (Thanks, Mom!)

So we went off to the movies, Grandma and I. Those milling about the tiny lobby of my hometown movie theater, the Alger, who had an inkling of what the evening’s entertainment held in store offered us an assortment of odd, uncomfortable glances. Nonetheless, we marched right on up to our seats in the front row of the balcony and settled in for whatever the Motion Picture Association of America deemed inappropriate for children under 17 unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian. And Mandingo did not disappoint.

Turns out, the first time I ever saw a man simulate an orgasm on screen was right there with Grandma sitting next to me. It was Ken Norton, the impossibly muscled titular figure, lured upstairs for a vengeful tryst by and hovering over the lady of the plantation, played with prodigious teeth and gums perpetually and frightfully bared by Susan George. Norton groaned and shuddered like he’d just taken one in the kidneys from Muhammad Ali, and Ms. George seemed suitably impressed as well. Strangely, I never flinched with embarrassment (except perhaps a little bit for the actors), and neither did my grandma.

We giggled into our popcorn at some of the lines given to James Mason as the old massa, whose physical deterioration—he seeks respite from the tortures of rheumatoid arthritis by setting his bare feet on the belly of a slave boy laying at the foot of his rocker—is echoed by the rotting, unkempt condition of his plantation house. We reacted with appropriate revulsion at the fight staged at the auction site between Norton and another slave who ends up with a large chunk of flesh missing from his shoulder. And we had the same reaction upon Norton’s flogging at the hands of his master, Perry King, whilst hanging upside-down in a barn, the twist of the scene coming from the knowledge that King has been somewhat respectful of and relatively friendly with Norton’s character up to this point, his savagery tempered somewhat by his ambivalence. No such respect remains, however, when King realizes the color of his newborn son, connects the dots between Norton and George, and promptly forces the slave into a boiling pot of laundry water before he fatally perforates him with a pitchfork.

When the lights came up, Grandma and I were, for the moment at least, ashamed to be white, ashamed to be implicated in the perpetuation of attitudes that once enabled and endorsed such atrocious crimes against human beings, and we discussed with some seriousness the ghastly tragedy of slavery as we drove home. In the almost exclusively Caucasian confines of my little hometown, this constituted some sort of revelation, a vivid experiencing of some degree of truth that had only been abstract or textbook in nature before. I expected to groove on some sex and violence during Mandingo, and I’d be lying if I said those expectations went totally unfulfilled (I can’t speak for Grandma on this point, God rest her soul). But what I didn’t expect was to be moved by it in any way, serious or not.

I saw Mandingo again in my early 30s, and I was able to appreciate the attempts by the screenwriter Norman Wexler to inject some allegorical wit into Onstott’s narrative, some threads that might lead the viewer to connect a time when American society openly dealt in the enslavement of a race of people to a period some 110 years later when much lip service was being paid to the easement of race relations with little actual progress on display. And though the actors and Richard Fleischer’s direction are little better than pedestrian (that may be a generous assessment of Norton’s acting talent), and though the movie may at heart be simply a piece of exploitation (it was certainly marketed as such), I was struck by the fact that it comes off as pointedly, and powerfully, anti-racist as it is lurid. The more permissive context of a theatrical film allows the cauldron of Mandingo’s concerns, both violent and sexual, to boil at a more confrontational temperature than decorum might otherwise allow. As a result the movie, despite the participation of Anglos Wexler and Fleischer (not to mention Onstott, whom I've always rather presumptively imagined, with no prior knowledge or available research to confirm it, was also white), is much closer to the unchecked anger of blaxploitation, particularly Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, than to the sober mainstream TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots.

As an white adult reflecting on Mandingo in 2004, the question lies in not being entirely sure if, in addition to displaying some of the anger of blaxploitation, it doesn’t also sometimes tip the scales toward a sort of reverse-racism laced with extra added heaping teaspoonfuls of white liberal guilt, much different from the kind born of firsthand oppression in which van Peebles’ film trafficked. By fueling the fires of such potentially contradictory emotions with campy performances by the likes of Mason and George, while simultaneously existing as a politically correct and morally confused satire of the ongoing tragedy of race relations, Mandingo defines itself, for me, as the guiltiest pleasure of them all.

No, wait, let me tell you about the time my Ma Kettle grandma and I watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part Two together and laughed like it was a Mack Sennett comedy…

The Good, the Bad and the Dodgers

First, an admission...

I am an ex and currently frustrated film critic with a strong desire to write about a medium I love and at the same time not contribute to a junk Internet culture that values quantity, immediacy and accessibility over genuinely considered thought, cogent analysis and good writing.

Second admission:

I am a Dodger fan who is hopeful about the future of the team, but not without reservations, coming off of years of frustration as a fan and trying to maintain the healthy buzz of the team's 2004 performance amid darkening clouds on the horizon like the McCourts dogged pursuit of the ADD generation at the expense of tradition and talents like Ross Porter and Nancy Bea Hefley.

It is perhaps a goal that may ultimately be at cross purposes, but I hope to find through this blog an opportunity to express and expound upon my love for movies (a lifelong love) and my love for the Dodgers, and baseball in general (a relatively new love, born largely during the strike of 1994, stoked by Ken Burns' brilliant filmed history of the sport, and enflamed during the anticipated arrival of a son, Charlie, who was stillborn a week before his due date in the summer of 1997-- my love for the game, I think, is informed by him and helps keeps his spirit alive for me).

The title The Good, the Bad and the Dodgers is intended as a way to integrate the joys of viewing films thoughtfully, the good and the bad, with the joys of watching the Dodgers, good teams and bad.

There will likely be no rhyme or reason to this blog, at least for the time being. I intend to write regularly (as I'm sure all bloggers do when they first get things going) about whatever subject strikes my heart, my head or both. I take as my inspiration the wit, analytical acumen, enthusiasm, proflicagy and serious intent of Jon Weisman at Dodger Thoughts, with complete awe and respect for how he manages to create such a complete and delightful online experience while juggling work and family, along with the absolute expectation that I could never match it (if I do somehow come anywhere close someday, well, won't that be a surprise for me and anyone else who happens upon this site?) Hopefully, after time, there might be a reason, a coherent feeling and approach on this blog that might attract a readership with a reasonable anticipation of what I might be up to and, of course, a desire to follow along. But for now I am content to have the forum and the opportunity to indulge it and find my way in my own time...

So let me talk about my loves, my disappointments, my prejudices and my hopes for the future of movies and the coming baseball season (and baseball movies too, of course!) And whenever I find something compelling written by someone else, I hope to be able to pass that along as well. Hopefully there might be a few out there who might find what lies ahead worth reading, and maybe even commenting on. I feel like I'm stepping out on a high wire for the first time...

Maybe I should start with something I wrote recently... More to come...