Wednesday, November 29, 2006


The really good news is, according to, if I buy Barbara’s DVD (a production of ABC News) and the three-disc edition of The Maltese Falcon at the same time, I can save almost $10 off my total purchase!


(The following post is a belated entry in Tim Lucas's Joe Dante Blog-a-Thon, in celebration of the director's 60th birthday, which was yesterday, November 28, 2006.)

In the world of Joe Dante, I started in 1981 with The Howling (1981) and worked backwards. Fortunately, for me, there were only two other Joe Dante movies to catch up with at the time, Hollywood Boulevard (1976) and Piranha (1978), and consequently so many more than two to enjoy in the subsequent 25 years. But catch up with those two rogue Dantes I did in the next year, an assignment lasting precisely 174 minutes in toto, and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I first became aware of Joe Dante about a week or so before I first saw The Howling, on a double feature with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that played at a now-defunct drive-in on the north end of Eugene, Oregon. The drive-in was lined all around with big pine trees, which gave the lot a distinct impression of being nestled much further away from the outskirts of town than it actually was, its secluded forestry fostering an illusion of isolation that was perfect for heightening the fear factor of both movies. Just a few days before the movie opened here, I happened to catch Dante and make-up wizard Rob Bottin on a segment of Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow program, and I was tickled by the cheek of these upstarts, who had managed to get the jump on John Landis’ more highly touted An American Werewolf in London, which would bow later that summer. They were delighting in Bottin’s revolutionary real-time werewolf transformation effects, which, for my money, far outstrip Rick Baker’s work for Landis in terms of shock and awe value, as well as in homegrown, low-budget grue-tinged surrealism. (For all its over-the-top gore, there’s nothing in American Werewolf quite as shocking as the moment when Robert Picardo picks a slug out of his skull cap just before undergoing Bottin’s presto-change-o, or the Big Bad Wolf silhouetted against those backlit blinds as he prepares to do in Dante regular Belinda Belaski.) And while they were digging getting Snyder to dig on their version of the oft-told werewolf tale, you could tell that, even though they weren’t actively putting down Landis’s film, they thought they’d done more interesting work too, and they couldn’t believe their good fortune in being able to promote it to the public ahead of time.

Both being graduates of the Roger Corman Film Finishing School, this was probably the first time either one had ever had such an opportunity. Hell, it was practically the first time either of them even had anything like a budget to work with. And despite Dante and actors Dee Wallace Stone and Picardo pointing out the movie’s deficiencies, budgetary or otherwise, on The Howling’s terrific DVD, it’s a movie that feels like a step away from its low-budget roots, and also a delirious reveling in them and what the director learned from his experiences. Amazingly, though he’s been involved in 12 features and many TV segments since then, this quality of youthful exuberance, as Tim Lucas rightly describes it, is a hallmark of Dante’s work. Of course, Dante also fills his frames with terrific jokes, perverse, often subversive subtexts, and off-kilter compositions-- there’s a certain Mad magazine/EC Comics influence at work here too, as well as an aesthetic allegiance to the work of the Warner Brothers cartoon stable, which juices his movies with energy and inspiration. Yet despite his being taken under the Amblin’ Entertainment umbrella, where he was ostensibly being groomed in the image of Steven Spielberg, he’s really had only one major hit in his 30-year career as a director—Amblin’s Gremlins, which many took as a none-too-subtle deconstruction of Spielberg’s Close Encounters-E.T. sensibility.

One of the best things about Gremlins (certainly my least favorite of his movies) is the simple fact that it kept Dante working throughout the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. He kicked the ‘90s off, however, with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, which would stand for 13 years as the most delirious and inspired live-action approximation of the Warner Brothers universe yet realized (until a certain other movie came along in 2003). Unfortunately, the movie was a flop at the box office, and consequently Dante would see only two more features released theatrically in the decade. (There were two TV movies and three excursions into episodic TV as well.)

Disagreements with the studio and the screenwriter marred Dante’s most recent big release, Looney Tunes: Back In Action. But despite its underwhelming performance with ticket buyers (and Dante’s own disappointment, often expressed in interviews when the subject of the movie comes up), there are those of us who find the movie exhilarating, exhausting and hilarious, a perfect crystallization and expansion of the Warner Brothers universe and its stable of characters. (My daughter, three years old at the time, went with me on opening night, and we saw the movie two more times together before it closed its very short theatrical run. We have, however, stopped counting how times we’ve spun the DVD…)

I love Joe Dante movies far more, I’m afraid, than this entry in Tim Lucas’s Joe Dante Blog-a-Thon, in honor of Dante’s 60th birthday (Tuesday, November 28, 2006), can ever possibly convey. Circumstances and time have conspired to keep me from devoting as much time as might like to the diversity of comic styles or the rich political and cultural subtexts running amuck through his work—for further investigation here, there is no one more erudite on the subject than Jonathan Rosenbaum. And I didn’t end up with enough time to write about the Dante movie freshest in my mind either, his snappy, loose-limbed update of the A.I.P. drive-in classic Runaway Daughters, which the director did for Showtime in 1994.But I do have time for one pretty good Joe Dante story, one which I’ve told before (so please forgive me if one or two of the times were on this blog), one which capsulizes the outside-the-lines appeal and approach that I find so captivating and exciting about Dante’s movies. Somewhere around Halloween 1988, I talked my best friend, Bruce, into accompanying me to a lecture at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. (I didn’t really have to talk too hard.) The speaker, director Joe Dante, would be hosting an informal discussion of horror movies, fielding questions about the genre (and, presumably, his own work within it), and showing lots and lots of clips on the Academy’s spectacular big screen. I don’t really recall much of what went on that night, apart from spotting Leonard Maltin in the audience, but I certainly do recall nervously approaching the microphone to ask Dante a question about Explorers-- he confirmed my suspicions that it was a movie very close to his heart. I remember also that there were a lot of clips, some of them skirting the borders of “horror” and spilling over into suspense, science fiction and even action-adventure, and Dante’s enthusiasm for each and every one of them was palpable, contagious—we left the auditorium that night wanting to go home and rent or see everything he’d talked about, even the stuff we’d already seen a thousand times.

The highlight of the lecture, however, came when Dante completely broke format and began talking at length about Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Here was a movie that certainly did not fit into the outline of Dante’s program, yet Bruce and I, and the rest of the audience too, were enjoying immensely watching this director build up a head of steam over a movie that seemed so unlike his own. (Of course, Dante would reference Leone directly in The ‘Burbs and Small Soldiers, movies yet to come, and it shouldn’t have been too surprising that someone with Dante’s encyclopedic knowledge of film and film culture would have an appreciation for the great Italian director.) Finally, Dante admitted, “I know that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly doesn’t have anything to do with tonight’s stated theme—horror movies—but I just thought that it would be a shame to get the use of this big, beautiful screen and not take full advantage of it. So without further ado, here’s the climactic graveyard scene from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly!” The curtain went up, and we all watched Tuco’s long run around the perimeter of that grand, circular cemetery, accompanied at top volume by Ennio Morricone’s blaring, brilliant score. Talk about a hard act to follow, and Dante admitted as much even as he flung headlong back into the realm of horror movies, giddy that he’d gotten to indulge a personal thrill that, if my reaction, Bruce’s reaction, and those all around us was any indication, was a thrill for a lot more people than just Joe Dante.
And that’s a Dante movie in a nutshell—- skewed, off-center, perverse, weirdly funny, unpredictable, deep-dish fun for fans, willing to tread just about anywhere, and close enough to a mainstream sensibility to pass (if you’re not looking too closely) as part of that mainstream. But Joe Dante at 60 is just as irreverent as he was when he took his first directing credit 30 years ago, along with Allan Arkush, on Hollywood Boulevard, and his movies have remained vital and true to his steady sense of genre intelligence and awareness of the world as well. I wish Looney Tunes would have been a success if only to have facilitated another run like he had post-Gremlins. But with the Masters of Horror series, and the unpredictable projects that will continue to pop up to delight Joe Dante fans, and Joe Dante himself, I feel confident in predicting that he’s got a long way to go. I look forward to taking that journey with him.

Joe Dante’s Movies I Like (in order of my preference):

Explorers (1985)
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Looney Tunes: Back In Action (2003)
Hollywood Boulevard (1976) (click title to read lots more on this one!)
Homecoming (2006)
Twilight Zone: The Movie (third segment) (1983)
The Howling (1981)
The ‘Burbs (1989)
Runaway Daughters (1994)
Matinee (1993)
Small Soldiers (1998)
Innerspace (1987)
Piranha (1978)

Joe Dante Movies I Don’t Much Like (in descending order):

Gremlins (1984) (though there is plenty to like, and I’m certainly in the mood to give it another chance)
Amazon Women on the Moon (1987; segments only)

(I must admit, here and now, that I have not yet seen The Second Civil War (1997), though I remain on the lookout for it. Here I go to Netflix, in fact…!)

Happy birthday, Joe Dante!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


'Tis the season, as they say... for merciless stomach flu, that is. The Cozzalio household has been under siege by the meanest bug to land in these here parts in a good long while, and no one has been spared, not even the carpets (if you know what I mean). Both daughters got sick separately, on either side of Thanksgiving Day, and have been recuperating in relative silence ever since. Their mother and I were both slammed in the middle of Saturday night—the Mrs. is still reeling at home and trying to work, while I have made my way out into the brave world and am attempting to be a constructive breadwinner from the office today. (The looks from those around who don’t seem to be convinced that I’m entirely well are pretty rich, but not as rich as the ones I got in CostCo Saturday night after being vomited on while waiting in line at the register. The oh-so-accommodating and understanding dupes in Borat had nothing on these warehouse shoppers as they attempted to avert their eyes or pretend they didn’t notice as my daughter and I, covered in purplish, chunky goo, marched stiffly to the restroom.)

All of which is to say that this week may not turn out exactly how I once envisioned it—not a major deal, usually, but there are two blog-a-thons happening that I definitely want to participate in, both of which may not be able to receive my full attention as a result. Tim Lucas’s tribute to Joe Dante is one I don’t want to miss, but it’s looking like my contribution will be much shorter (and a little later in this evening) than I’d like. And Andy Horbal has a major Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon brewing for the weekend—with a little help from Matt Zoller Seitz I may be able to get a few words in on this one, but again, with the flu last week and a major furniture rearrangement on tap for this weekend (new bunk beds) I’m not sure just how deep it’s gonna go. Fortunately, Andy’s “thon” runs all weekend, so I refuse to give up hope.

But now let’s catch up where we can, shall we? As promised, here (after a wrestling match with technology that I’m still not sure I’ve won) is my 1998 visit to the haunted hills of Horrorwood, Karloffornia, a long-delayed pilgrimage to the Ackermansion, the world-famous home of Forrest J. Ackerman—part two of my contribution to Flickhead’s Forrest J. Ackerman Blog-a-thon! Again, thanks to Flickhead for the wonderful blog-a-thon idea. And I apologize if the audio is not the clearest on these videos—they were never meant to be seen by anyone but me, my wife and my best friend. So please forgive the complete and utter lack of production value, continuity, logic and/or focus on subject matter and enjoy, if at all possible, this tour through the tattered, messy splendors of Forrest J. Ackerman’s Ackermuseum.




Friday, November 24, 2006


For those who don’t know the significance of Forrest J. Ackerman, I refer you to Flickhead’s excellent, very personal history of Forrest J. Ackerman’s legacy. Flickhead is busy hosting a Forrest J. Ackerman blog-a-thon in celebration of the man’s 90th birthday, which also just happens to be this very day. Lighting 90 candles is a big job, so let me offer some assistance.

To invoke the name Forrest J. Ackerman in a room full of (mostly) men and (some) women of roughly my age (tail-end baby boomer movie buffs) is like playing a game of “Spot the Monster Geek”—pointed ears are likely to prick up and bloodshot eyes are likely to twinkle at the mention of his name, and then the outing is complete. But those of us raised on Famous Monsters of Filmland, the magazine that Ackerman founded with publisher James Warren, have never been much on cloaking that geekdom-- those who loved monsters and horror as kids were usually pretty vocal about it, in the hopes of connecting with yet another fellow night traveler. So discovering Famous Monsters at exactly the right preadolescent age was, for most of us, a clarifying moment, one which confirmed that, yes, despite the claims within the taunting dished out by classmates and friends who just didn’t get the whole monster thing, there were other freaks and nerds who shared this particular obsession, and other older people who were sympathetic to the cause of horror and science-fiction fandom.

(The first issue of Famous Monsters I ever bought-- my dad would slip me Mad magazine when I was sick, unbeknownst to my mother, but it was my mom who facilitated my initiation to the glorious world these pages held in store.)

Among the ranks of Famous Monsters fans—many of whom, like Joe Dante, Stephen King, John Landis and Steven Spielberg, have become somewhat famous themselves since well before the magazine stopped publishing in 1983—Forrest J. Ackerman was fandom personified, a kind of geek godhead. From high in the Horrorwood Hills of Southern Karloffornia he preached the gospel of a specific kind of movie love, particularly for the early works of Lon Chaney Sr., German expressionist masterpieces like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis, and, of course, the Universal stable of monsters, to a generation who had steady access of all manner of horror classics from this period (and later, into the ‘50s and ‘60s) when Universal and other companies unleashed their horror stables onto local afternoon TV syndication and regular weekend horror movie programs, hosted by the likes of Seymour (Fright Night with Sinister Seymour) in Los Angeles and Victor Ives & Head, played by Jimmy Hollister. (Sinister Cinema on KATU-TV in Portland, Oregon—this is the one I grew up on.)

And Famous Monsters was the Bible—no corny science fiction or horror film was considered beneath discussion, no bad pun, usually generated from the mind of the Ackermonster himself, was too smelly to print (he did, however, scrupulously avoid the risqué), and the arms-wide-open enthusiasm for all kinds of fantastic cinema was infectious and often paved the way to an appreciation of other genres and film forms as well. Ackerman was the indisputable center of the Famous Monsters universe, and for hard-core monsters like me and my friends in junior high and high school making a real connection with him and that universe was big-time validation, first contact, a foot in the door to a future populated with people who might not automatically denounce a horror fan for his or her unalloyed monster love. (A friend of mine had a picture of himself done up in full vampire regalia printed in the magazine once—he feasted on that little bit of celebrity for months. And I sent in a junior high school class picture of myself to Famous Monsters in 1972 and after a few issues passed promptly forgot about it. Imagine my mixture of delight and horror when, in 1979, during my sophomore year of college, I strolled into a drug store in Eugene, Oregon, thumbed through a new issue of FM and discovered a six-year-old picture of myself under the heading: “Wanted! More Monsters Like..."

(The Boris Karloff memorial issue, featuring a typically excellent painting by regular Famous Monsters contributor Basil Gogos.)

I had the pleasure of speaking with Forrest J. Ackerman on three occasions during different times of my life. The first was on the phone, from my dorm room in Eugene, around the same time I made the discovery of my eighth-grade mug in the back pages of the magazine. My best friend Bruce and I were killing an afternoon as we often did—hanging around, reading, yapping, and avoiding our studies. Bruce was thumbing through the current issue of Famous Monsters and came across some monsterrific drawings by a young horror fan by the name of Paul Clemens, and we began to wonder if this was the same Paul Clemens who was currently starring in a Marsha Mason weepie entitled Promises in the Dark. The drawings were several years old, and since we figured Clemens was roughly our age, or maybe a little older (there was no IMDb in those days to rapidly verify our curiosities about carbon-dating celebrities), we figured that they must be the same person. But just to settle the matter once and for all, we decided to call Forry himself and ask him. Where we got the cheek to do this, I’m not entirely sure, but Directory Assistance had his name and number, so boldly we dialed, and also trembled slightly as the line rang. After a few rings, a youngish-sounding man picked up, and I asked if this was Forrest J. Ackerman’s residence. The man, who I remember assuming to be the Ackermansion manservant, said that yes, it was, and would I like to speak to Mr. Ackerman. After I quickly said yes, a few moments passed and the next person I heard was the unmistakable voice of Forrest J. Ackerman (I remembered what he sounded like from his brief cameo in the utterly forgettable Dracula vs. Frankenstein). He had a very convivial phone presence and was very patient with these two fans that traded off talking to him about all things monster, for probably no more than five minutes total. (Something tells me this was not the first time he had ever fielded a cold call from a star-struck Famous Monsters enthusiast.) And he did confirm that the artist Paul Clemens was the same young man who was now starring in a movie with Marsha Mason. Satisfaction! Later we told another friend, another Forrest J. fan from way back, what we’d done, and he was horrified, convinced that we’d called and goofed on this icon of childhood fantasy fandom. On the contrary, we were thrilled to have talked sincerely with him for even five minutes, and perhaps a little embarrassed to be as thrilled as we were.

About eight years later Bruce, his wife, and I were visiting the old Hollywood museum that used to be located next to the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. The museum was packed with authentic costumes, props and other significant memorabilia from the annals of Hollywood history, and as a visitor to Los Angeles (I was still about two years away from becoming a resident) it was a fascinating place to visit. (Bruce, who had been living in Los Angeles for a couple of years by then, loved it too.) He and I got distracted by an exhibit of costumes from Gone with the Wind and were marveling over the detail on one of Scarlet’s dresses when Bruce noticed his wife over on the other side of the room talking to an older gentleman. “Look,” Bruce said, “some old guy has Pattie cornered and is telling her some story about the old days of Hollywood, and she can’t escape!” We both quietly watched and laughed for a moment or two. I don’t remember which of us noticed that the part of the room she was standing in was an exhibit of science fiction props and models and posters and such. But as soon as we did, we took a little closer look at the old guy who had Pattie’s ear. “Jesus, I think that’s Forrest J. Ackerman,” I said. Bruce quickly agreed, and we made our way across the floor, sidled up next to Pattie, introduced ourselves (I don’t remember if we told him about the phone call) and attempted to wedge ourselves into the conversation they were having. The four of us stood around, Mr. Ackerman holding court and describing several items in the display cases, which he told us were lent to the museum from his private collection. “You mean, from the Ackermansion?” Bruce asked. Forry lit up instantly and said, “Yes, indeed! You know about the Ackermansion?” We explained our lifelong connection to Famous Monsters, and he ended up extending an invitation to us to visit his famous, expansive digs in the Hollywood Hills. Why we didn’t take him up on it, I don’t remember exactly, and I’ve always regretted it. But I do remember laughing for the rest of the day at the image of Pattie stuck talking to a monster buff icon whose identify was completely unknown to her, while the big horror fans were gazing at them both from a distance, from a shrine to Tara, of all places.

Thirteen years later, in 1998, I finally would take Mr. Ackerman up on his rather open-ended invitation. After having lived in Los Angeles for 11 years, I decided it was time to visit the Ackermansion before, for whatever reason, it was too late. My wife, good sport that she was (is), agreed to accompany me, and we made a pilgrimage one Saturday afternoon. Not long after our visit, he was forced to sell off his collection and vacate the house permanently, so I feel fortunate that the last time I would meet Forrest J. Ackerman in person would be when he was still surrounded by his glory, within the hallowed walls of the Ackermansion, every square inch of space taken up by the most amazing, astounding, expansive, and increasingly tattered and worn collection of horror and science fiction memorabilia ever assembled under one roof. Of course I brought my video camera and shot about 22 minutes of footage, never thinking that anyone but me, my wife, and Bruce would ever be interested in seeing it. But now, in the age of YouTube, the footage is available for anyone who cares to see the Ackermansion from the inside, in living, blood-curdling color.

Alas, technical difficulties beyond my control are preventing me from uploading my video to YouTube so all might enjoy it. So until I get my techno-act together, please enjoy this parody of the opening of James Whale’s Frankenstein, shot for a film by Paul Bunnell entitled That Little Monster, which finds F.J.A. in the role of the concerned master of ceremonies warning the audience of the horrors to come originally embodied by Edward Van Sloan. Come Monday, I will deliver a new post that will feature my tour of the spectacular splendors of the Ackermansion. I apologize for the delay, but if it helps assuage the pangs of anticipation, think of this as chapter one in one of those serials, like Radar Men from the Moon, that Forrest J. Ackerman and Famous Monsters of Filmland helped to introduce to a TV generation of monster freaks and fans. Only I will guarantee that my part two will deliver the goods, unlike those serials which placed the hero in inescapable harm’s way at the end of one chapter, only to improbably yank him to safety at the beginning of chapter two. For now, have the happiest of birthdays, Forry! See you Monday!

UPDATE 11/28/06: My battle with technology is over! Available now for your viewing pleasure, a three-part video of My 1998 Tour of the Ackermansion! Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


(Photo grabbed from a live Web cam this afternoon on the Port Angeles, Washington Web site. This is what it looked like this morning at 11:29 a.m. in Raymond Carver's world.)

I don't think Robert Altman ever really burrowed into Raymond Carver-- Short Cuts was an Altman movie (and not one of his good ones, in my minority opinion) grafted onto a skeleton bolted together from Carver's work. But today, as I contemplate the Thanksgiving holiday with the loss of a great film artist still looming in my consciousness, I'd like to give thanks by posting two evocative poems by Carver, another great artist lost to us before his work was really finished-- poems which find the longing and pain and enthralling beauty in the commonplace, poems that paint a picture of a beautiful part of the world that was so much a part of Carver's artistic vision as a poet and storyteller, a part of the world that had nothing to do with Short Cuts.



So early it's still almost dark out.
I'm near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.

When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren't saying anything, these boys.

I think if they could, they would take
each other's arm.
It's early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.

They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn't enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.


"This Morning"

This morning was something. A little snow
lay on the ground. The sun floated in a clear
blue sky. The sea was blue, and blue-green,
as far as the eye could see.
Scarcely a ripple. Calm. I dressed and went
for a walk -- determined not to return
until I took in what Nature had to offer.
I passed close to some old, bent-over trees.
Crossed a field strewn with rocks
where snow had drifted. Kept going
until I reached the bluff.
Where I gazed at the sea, and the sky, and
the gulls wheeling over the white beach
far below. All lovely. All bathed in a pure
cold light. But, as usual, my thoughts
began to wander. I had to will
myself to see what I was seeing
and nothing else. I had to tell myself this is what
mattered, not the other. (And I did see it,
for a minute or two!) For a minute or two
it crowded out the usual musings on
what was right, and what was wrong -- duty,
tender memories, thoughts of death, how I should treat
with my former wife. All the things
I hoped would go away this morning.
The stuff I live with every day. What
I've trampled on in order to stay alive.
But for a minute or two I did forget
myself and everything else. I know I did.
For when I turned back i didn't know
where I was. Until some birds rose up
from the gnarled trees. And flew
in the direction I needed to be going.



“Since you’ve gone/My heart is broken/Another time…”
-- Keith Carradine, Allan Nichols, Cristina Raines, Tom, Bill and Mary reunited singing Gary Busey’s ballad “Since You’ve Gone”, from Nashville

(Thanks to David Hudson.)

"Mr. Altman loved making movies. He loved the chaos of shooting and the sociability of the crew and actors — he adored actors — and he loved the editing room and he especially loved sitting in a screening room and watching the thing over and over with other people. He didn't care for the money end of things, he didn't mind doing publicity, but when he was working he was in heaven.

He and I once talked about making a movie about a man coming back to Lake Wobegon to bury his father, and Mr. Altman said, 'The death of an old man is not a tragedy.' I used that line in the movie we wound up making — the Angel of Death says it to the Lunch Lady, comforting her on the death of her lover Chuck Akers in his dressing room, 'The death of an old man is not a tragedy.' Mr. Altman's death seems so honorable and righteous — to go in full-flight, doing what you love — like his comrades in the Army Air Force in WWII who got shot out of the sky and simply vanished into blue air — and all of us who worked with him had the great privilege of seeing an 81-year-old guy doing what he loved to do. I'm sorry that our movie turned out to be his last, but I do know that he loved making it. It's a great thing to be 81 and in love."

- Garrison Keillor, from today's Prairie Home Companion newsletter
(Thanks, Jen.)

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Robert Altman taught me how to see movies, and I went into his classroom kicking and screaming. As a young kid keeping up with film culture largely from the sidelines, I became obsessed, at an age far too young to actually see the movie, with Altman’s 1970 hit M*A*S*H. I read as much as I could about it— one or two reviews and the occasional newspaper article were about all I could get my hands on, but I did smuggle Richard Hooker’s novel, on which the movie was based, into my junior high locker and read it surreptitiously, voraciously. I wouldn’t see M*A*S*H in its theatrical release—I was even denied access to the slightly recut PG-rated version that bowed a few years later in re-release. The first time I actually saw M*A*S*H was when it aired on the CBS Friday Night Movie, back in the days when bowdlerized version of theatrical hits premiering on TV were mini-events of their own. It was panned-and-scanned (again, back in the days when regular citizens really had no idea what cropping movies for TV was), broken up into bits to accommodate commercials, its profanity and nudity and blood sanitized for my protection. And yet I still laughed my ass off, because I was finally getting to see some version of the film.

Even as I became more and more film aware in my high school days, vacuuming up every movie I could get in front of my eyes in my isolated Southern Oregon hometown, and familiarizing myself with directors and films that I knew had little or no chance of ever being shown on TV or in the local movie theater, I watched from afar as Altman unleashed Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Images, The Long Goodbye, California Split and Thieves Like Us, helping to shape and populate what many would come to consider one of the golden ages of American cinema. I knew of the movies from the usual sources, and I had ran across a couple of Pauline Kael’s reviews thumbing through The New Yorker in the county library, but not a single one of Altman’s early ‘70s pictures after M*A*S*H played in my hometown.Then came the summer of 1975. Kael’s famous (in some circles, infamous) rave for Nashville paved the way for its studio, Paramount, to expect a big hit. And although the movie was a high-profile release that garnered similarly moonstruck reviews from almost every critic, in box-office terms the movie did not, as Kael put it, zoom off into the stratosphere. Another picture, released a week later, did instead—it was called Jaws. I was 15 years old, and that was the movie I wanted to see. Nashville, a movie about which I barely had an understanding, in terms of “plot” or anything else that might conceivably hook me into it, could wait.

And wait it did. Later, during the winter of that year, Nashville came to town and so my buddies and I decided to go see what all the pomp and circumstance was all about. We were all flummoxed by the movie’s loose-limbed approach to narrative—who can keep up with all these people and their comings and goings? I thought it looked lousy (and really, for a great movie, I still think its cinematography is rarely more than pedestrian) and it had this vague air of self-satisfaction about it that kept me at arm’s length and really turned me off. And we all made the assumption that making a movie about life, and seeing a movie about life, was the same thing as experiencing life—so why pay $5 to go see some country singer clip her toenails and then get shot, or watch a bunch of redneck show business types run around, bumping into each other for nearly three hours, when you could walk outside the theater and see it for free? (In answer to a question recently posed by Matt Zoller Seitz, it had obviously not occurred to me that Nashville was, in any way, choreographed or directed.) Clearly, at age 15, I had not seen enough of this real life I was on my soapbox about to understand what was going on in Nashville. In fact, I hated the movie.

At age 17 I was off to college as a declared film studies major, and suddenly I found myself surrounded by people who loved to say words like “Altmanesque” and who seemed to think that Altman was the greatest American film director. How could the guy who made Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, a more boring, pretentious piece of crap than even Nashville, be America’s greatest director? I would see Nashville again on ABC-TV the following year, but where the iconoclasm and spirit of M*A*S*H managed to shine through network TV’s attempts to snip it away, Nashville seemed cramped and uncomfortable and even more incomprehensible on the Sunday Night Movie.Two more years would pass, years during which I began to stretch a little bit of the hometown cocoon out of my hair and off my back and learn a little bit about life’s demands and disappointments (all in the context of the relatively protected university setting, of course). I had finally seen a few things and been through a few things and learned about a lot of things that were uncomfortable, disturbing, challenging to my smug assurance that I knew so very much about films and music and the way people interacted with each other, the way the world turned. Then one night my best friend announced that he had been reading about Nashville and wanted to see it again, this time on the big screen. (His first encounter had been that muddied-up ABC version.) So off to the cinema we went.

I remember coming out of the revival house where we’d just seen the movie feeling like I was walking on air. This movie, which had so confused and infuriated and repelled me over the last four years, suddenly seemed different—wise, rich, complex, rewarding, perplexing, but in a way which seemed to invite me to swim in the vastness of its canvas, a canvas that seemed to encompass everything that I found equally fascinating and daunting and miraculous and horrifying about the country in which I lived. I was enthralled by Nashville, from the spinning record album and hollow huckster tone of the mock- KTel ad campaign that made up its opening title sequence, all the way through the climactic and devastating assassination, and one desperate soul who seizes her chance and rallies the stunned crowd, mass witness to murder, with a song of either haunting apathy or blind optimism (depending on how you look at it), all before the camera pans up from the stage, which is draped with a giant American flag, to the sky, the song still ringing out long after the image has disappeared. Seeing Nashville with open eyes for the first time was equivalent to having the world opened up to me for the first time. It was like suddenly being able to see the concurrent patterns and streams of thought and impulse and irrational behavior and calculated behavior and emotion and desire and political machinations and corrosion and self-destruction and bliss of everyday experience all at once, and to be able to begin to understand the meaning that part of it, or all of it, could have in any given moment. If one movie could grant me this kind of clarity of vision, or at least the license to pursue the investigation of a vision and understand how deeply that vision could permeate a soul, whether the viewer’s or the director’s, then I knew I absolutely must begin to get familiar with Robert Altman’s work as a whole. I’d seen Three Women and A Wedding and Quintet in theatrical release, and in the fall of 1980, my senior year at the University of Oregon, as if by providence, my film professor ran an entire term of Altman films, starting with M*A*S*H and going all the way up through Three Women, to be capped by that year’s Christmas release of Popeye. It was, needless to say, a revelatory experience, and I’ve seen most of those films three, four, five, ten times again since then. And the day that the professor screened Nashville, I was there for the 7:00 a.m. preview screening and the midday preview screening, both held for students who could not make the regularly scheduled 7:00 p.m. evening screening. And I was there at 7:00 p.m. too. No movie I’d already seen ever looked the same to me again after seeing Nashville, and every movie I saw after these screenings, and I mean every movie, I would see through the prism of Altman’s great, pulsating, vibrating, living and breathing vision of this country.

I was lucky enough to speak to Robert Altman once, at a screening of The Long Goodbye on the UCLA campus in 1992, just a couple of months before The Player was released and sent him along on yet another career revival. I went with a friend who had given me a copy of the old magazine Films In Review which had a picture of Altman on its cover, taken on the set of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. After the film was finished, critic Michael Wilmington hosted a Q-and-A that lasted about a half hour, during which he raised the ire of the crowd more than once by being a bit too loquacious at the expense of the director, who sat in silence while Wilmington opined. After the Q-and-A, Altman stayed down front and received several visitors, many of whom had scripts in their hands, with good humor and patience. My friend poked me in the ribs and encouraged me to head down the stairs, and after a few moments I finally did, magazine in hand. When I finally got to the floor I waited behind several others in front of me, trying to compose what I was going to say in my head while simultaneously trying to eavesdrop on the conversations he was having with the others in line. Finally it was my turn. Those piercing blue eyes looked up at me as I offered the magazine to him. “Could you sign this, please?” I asked, and he rather pleasantly replied, “Sure!” And then, after all my spontaneous rehearsals, all the brilliant things I was sure I was going to say flew straight out the top of my head and all I managed to get out was: “I just wanted you to know how much Nashville moved me as a young filmgoer. It really changed the way I saw movies.” Robert Altman extended my pen and my magazine back to me and said, simply, “You know, that means a lot to me. Thank you.” I shook his hand and headed back up the stairs toward where my friend was sitting. And I’m pretty sure that, just like when I came out of that screening of Nashville in 1979, I never touched a step on my way back up to my seat.

I can’t even get a meaningful grip on the emotions that are churning in me this morning as I try to grasp the fact that Robert Altman is gone. He lived an amazing life, and he had a career that might be a model for any director, were it not for the fact that the very iconoclasm and individualism that informed it, his irreverence for the bean counters and the powers that be, coupled with the artistic highs and lows that marked his brilliant journey, his particular stretch on the timeline of film history, couldn’t possibly be repeated. And I can’t imagine a better swansong for Altman than A Prairie Home Companion, a lilting movie of overwhelming sweetness and sadness, a microcosm version of Nashville with the shadow of death woven into the very tapestry of comedy and song and fear for the future on which the movie thrives. Altman was, by most accounts, a joy to work with, and those who would say that would probably also say that he could be a difficult bastard at times too. And he famously stood up for the least of his films too, in the face of critical assault and audience indifference. Edward Copeland recounts a moment during an interview during the promotion of Pret-a-Porter (Ready to Wear)-- a film I like a whole lot more than just about anybody I know—when Altman spoke of the critical drubbing his movie was in the process of receiving, putting it in the context of other such “failures” as Brewster McCloud or Three Women:

"’I think it's a lot better film than anyone will discover until about a month after it's opened and played,’ Altman said at the time. ‘I find that all of these films are like your children and you tend to love your least successful children the most, but they're finished and the cord's cut and it's out there and it ... doesn't belong to me anymore.’"

As Edward has observed, Altman himself now belongs to the ages, and he has left a body of work that will, I think, go unmatched in terms of its breadth, its valleys and its peaks, its persistence of vision, its mixture, as seen in the quote above, of sentiment tinged with bitter realism, its recognition of life as an untamable force which occasionally might be viewed with any semblance of unifying, edifying perspective, in two-hour bursts of brilliant color, sound, scope and thought. It’s good to know that his work will live on, and in the age of DVD it will live on supplemented by his words and observations and memories, as Altman was one of the most prolific of directors in supplying commentary tracks for his films—the DVD editions of M*A*S*H, Nashville, Three Women, California Split, The Player, Short Cuts, Tanner ’88, The Company and A Prairie Home Companion all have them.

But on a day like this, DVD commentaries are pretty cold comfort. When I arrived at the office this morning there was an e-mail awaiting me from That Little Round-Headed Boy, followed quickly by three or four other friends who all expressed condolences to me as they relayed the sad news. I’m so glad that the office was empty at that hour of the morning, because I’m not sure everyone who could have been nearby would have been as understanding of my reaction. In a way, I’ve already written my obituary for Altman in the form of a four-part career retrospective in honor of his 81st birthday and the honorary Oscar he received at last year’s Academy Awards. (You can read part one, part two, part three and part four here, and access a ton of other submissions to Matt Zoller Seitz’s Robert Altman Blog-a-Thon, of which my tribute was but a small part, here.) So for now I’m just going to go back to my work and try to think of all the great moments and movies that came courtesy of Robert Altman, and try not to think about the fact that there will be no more of them. I feel the same sort of loss today as I did in 1993 when Frank Zappa died, or in 2001 when we lost Pauline Kael. I feel, in a very real, substantial way, the way I always have when I’ve heard of a favorite teacher’s passing. And that’s how I’ve come to see Robert Altman, as perhaps the best teacher of film it’s ever been my privilege, through his films, of knowing. Thank you, sir, and God bless.


Further reading on Robert Altman on this very sad day:

Keith Uhlich has a fine tribute and a collection of links to more on the director at The House Next Door and invites your own tributes as well.

Jim Emerson has compiled an Altman Home Comapnion for Roger Ebert’s Web site, and offers some Moments of his own, including a great story about interviewing the director in the days just before the release of The Player.

Richard T. Jameson writes about Altman’s influence in a fine appreciation at MSN.

Edward Copeland remembers interviewing Altman in 1994.

And David Hudson is compiling and long and increasingly invaluable lists of links to a wide variety of Altman tributes and reportage at Green Cine Daily.

UPDATE November 22: Here's Jim Emerson again, recounting some of his own observations, as well as fragments of Altman's universe that that passed through his thoughts while mourning the director's passing, in a lovely piece entitled Altman: Life Beyond the Frame.


Sunday, November 19, 2006


This week at the Drive-in Trailer Park it’s James Bond week. To commemorate the release of the 21st official 007 movie, Casino Royale, I’m reaching back to about 1973 for a drive-in ad culled from the early ‘70s re-release of a Connery Bond triple feature, most likely intended to make the transition to the Roger Moore era a smoother one. The ozoner was getting rid for a double feature comprised of faux porn and a barely raunchy sex comedy starring Larry Hagman and Joan Collins, so it’s unlikley anyone mourned this partciular eviction for too long, even if the new tenants were anywhere from eight to 12 years old. Seems that the ad copy guy at the newspaper was having a bit of fun at Her Majesty’s operative’s expense, however—“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to have thighs!

And then a nod to Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, author of the novel Cheaper by the Dozen (with her brother Frank Gilbreth Jr.) who died last week of natural causes at the age of 98.
I could not find a trailer for the 1950 film version of Cheaper by the Dozen (although trailers for the crass Steve Martin remake and its sequel are all over the Internet), so I’ve settled for the Clifton Webb connection— here then is Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Wagner and a host of others starring in Jean Negulesco’s 1953 Titanic.

Then there’s the trailer for my favorite 007 movie.

Finally, I was so excited about stumbling upon this last trailer that I don’t even care that it relates neither to James Bond or Clifton Webb. I only knew that I must post it, a trailer for one of my favorite drive-in classics of the mid ‘70s, a kung fu-spaghetti western hybrid starring Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh in The Stranger and the Gunfighter.

Friday, November 17, 2006


Jim Emerson has had a virtual comedy symposium going on over at Scanners for a couple of weeks, sparked perhaps by Borat, but also by some general musings about why some movies or comedy bits or actors make us laugh and some don’t make us laugh, perhaps as mysterious a subject as there is in a consideration of the movies. Sometimes laughter seems inexplicable; something will strike you funny, and perhaps your reaction to it might seem oversized, given the amount of energy to get the laugh in the first place—I think of just about any expression that comes across the face of bulldog character actor Eugene Pallette and am likely to split a seam laughing, though you’ll never catch Pallette working too hard for that result. But even when you think you don’t really “know” why some bit or a line hits you just right, if you think about it (and it doesn’t diminish the comedy if you do), you could probably figure it out.

Or as Jim put it, “There are those who say... that to analyze comedy is anti-comedic. I could not disagree more strongly. I say if you don't understand why you're laughing, when you're laughing, then you don't appreciate the comedy and you may as well not be laughing at all, since any old reaction is probably comparably appropriate for you. You could be crying or sneezing and it's probably the same thing." I generally agree with this premise. But I also think that when you’re in the presence of greatness, as you usually are when you’re watching Catherine O’Hara do just about anything, but particularly when she inhabits her wobbly chanteuse Lola Heatherton on the old SCTV series, sometimes it is enough to just be in the presence and let the laughs wash over you like a wave, or prick you like a flowery cactus. Really great character comedy of the caliber that O’Hara achieved with this particular creation isn’t comprised of jokes, it’s comprised of observation, of slightly exaggerated reality, of recognizable human foibles—vanity, overreaching ambition, foolishness—woven into a fabric that only has to be touched to give up some of the treasures it has to offer.

One of the things going on at Jim’s site is his open request for titles of movies (the more obscure or underrated the better) that make you weep with laughter, and as you might expect, such a request has already been met with a boatload of enthusiastic responses. Jim offered his own, setting a restriction of five films, which he then broke by citing six:

I Was Born, But... (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

The President's Analyst (Theodore J. Flicker, 1967)

Taking Off (Milos Forman, 1971)

How to Get Ahead in Advertising (Bruce Robinson, 1989)

Coldblooded (Wallace Wolodarsky, 1995)

Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (Kelly Makin, 1996)

When I responded to his request, I took it a step further and cited seven, and that after ruthlessly hacking my original list down from 19, which itself is still leaving off about 583 other qualified candidates. What follows is my response to Jim’s request for a personal list of real laughers, augmented by the 12 other picks that I left off in an attempt to at least appear to be playing by Jim’s rules. As the wise guy once said, dying is easy, comedy is hard… and whittling down a list of comedy favorites to five choices may be even harder. Here’s my list, in alphabetical order:


The Big Lebowski (1998; Joel and Ethan Coen) It got some of the most indifferent reviews of the Coen Brothers’ career, coming directly after Fargo, but this is actually one of their most intricately written, robustly performed movies and certainly their funniest. One gasping-for-breath highlight is Walter’s observation regarding one of his cultural heroes—

Walter: Have you ever heard of a little show called Branded, dude? “All but one man died there at bitter creek”?

Dude: Yeah, I know the fucking show, Walter. So what?

Walter: Fucking Arthur Digby Sellers wrote 156 episodes, Dude.”

Dude: Uh-huh.

Walter: The bulk of the series.

Dude: Uh-huh.

Walter: Not exactly a lightweight.

Dude: No.

Walter (slight pause): Yet his son is a fucking dunce. Go figure.

Blazing Saddles (1974; Mel Brooks) There were a couple of Woody Allen comedies I saw (Bananas, Sleeper) before I was exposed to Blazing Saddles, but Brooks’ western send-up was the first movie that made me howl and gasp and clutch my sides for almost a full 90 minutes. Several people in my high school approached me the day after I saw it at the hometown movie house and said, “Hey, I heard you at the movies last night!” So of course I had to see it again that very evening. I’d did it for Randolph Scott, but most of all I did it because it felt so good. Mongo punching the horse, the “Rock Ridge” musical montage that introduces us to the town, and, of course, the campfire scene are all classics, but the line that made me laugh the hardest when I saw it last year was Sheriff Bart’s plea to the townspeople to stick by him and recognize that evil Hedley Lamarr’s imminent assault on their town might just be a signal that the villain is at the end of his rope:

Bart: Folks, can’t you see that this is the last act of a desperate man?

Howard Johnson: We don’t care if it’s the first act of Henry V. We’re leaving!

Now, that’s comedy!

Buffet Froid (1979; Bertrand Blier) Blier’s surreal urban landscape of alienation, in which Gerard Depardieu finds himself involved in an escalating series of senseless murders, just gets odder and odder as it goes along. But each gasp of horror expelled by Depardieu’s Alphonse Tram finds its opposite in my equally perplexed fits of giggles, until the film finally sucks both Tram and the audience down the rabbit hole altogether.

Cold Turkey (1970; Bud Yorkin) Speaking of escalating madness, how about the poor, nicotine-addicted citizens of Eagle Rock, Iowa, who become the focus of a Big Tobacco publicity stunt—if they can quit smoking for one month, they’ll win $25 million. The comedy is rooted in sharp, mean character observation and packed with hilarious moments courtesy of a who’s-who comedy cast that includes Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart, Bob and Ray, Jean Stapleton, Graham Jarvis and a host of others.

Dumb and Dumber (1994; Peter and Bobby Farrelly) “That John Denver was full of shit!”

Horsefeathers (1933; Norman Z. Macleod) My introduction to Groucho, Chico, Harpo and, yes, Zeppo, came on a rainy Saturday afternoon airing of this classic on TV. For some reason I decided to tape the audio on my cassette recorder, so to this day there is somewhere in a box in my closet a recording of me howling like a maniac when Harpo, driving Professor Wagstaff around the first of many bends, proves he can burn the candle at both ends...

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949; Robert Hamer) The term “black comedy” gets tossed around a lot to describe various gross-outs and over-the-top assault exercises these days. But this Ealing Studios effort, as purposefully genteel in appearance as the smooth surfaces of British codes of behavior that often serve to hide the most ghastly attitudes, is as pitch-black as any ever made. We’re seduced into sympathizing with the film’s narrator (Dennis Price), a murderer who commits his crimes out of a sense of thwarted entitlement, and when the movie delivers its final twist, it’s bone-chilling and hilarious.

The Lady Eve (1941; Preston Sturges) There aren’t many movies, comedies or otherwise, I might be tempted to describe as perfect, but this would be one of them. Perhaps Preston Sturges’ finest hour, this is an essential example of the screwball comedy. Barbara Stanwyck would never be sexier, and who knew Henry Fonda could take a fall like that?

Local Hero (1983; Bill Forsyth) As has been asked more than once on this blog, what ever happened to Bill Forsyth? The man has virtually dropped off the map, and yet he practically redefined “whimsical” and made the whole idea of whimsy palatable again in a very non-whimsical time (the ‘80s) through a series of delightful, off-kilter, minor-key comedies. And Local Hero is the best of them. No other movie I can think of has made me laugh so hard, made a remote place on Earth (the Scottish coast) seem more beautiful than is possible, and then broken my heart with wistful longing so thoroughly. (See also Comfort and Joy.)

The Man With Two Brains (1983; Carl Reiner) For some, it's The Jerk ("It's him! It's him! What's him doing here?!"). But for me the apex of Steve Martin's career in comedy cinema came with this giddy marvel ("Clamp... Metzenbaum scissors... Somebody get that cat outta here...") in which, among other things, the eternal mystery of Merv Griffin is finally solved.

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983; Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam) The Circus's most caustic movie. More laughs per minute in this one than any of their other comedies, by my jolly estimation, and worth mentioning if only for the cut to Terry Jones (in drag) washing dishes in a dreary Yorkshire kitchen as another in a seemingly endless series of newborn babies drops unceremoniously, and barely acknowledged, from under her dress and onto the floor… leading, of course, into “Every Sperm Is Sacred.”

National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978; John Landis) Aside from its uncanny ability to populate its well-observed locations with unusually authentic and riotously funny “atmospheric background casting,” this movie is the rare beast that actually seems to get funnier with each passing year. Personal highlights: Dean Wormer trying to unravel a phone cord from his deliriously drunken wife’s thigh; and the title card “Greg Marmalard ‘63, Nixon White House Aide, Raped in Prison ‘74." The last true blooming of the uncut Lampoon spirit before it gave way to the Griswold family, grisly sentimentality, and an unfortunately resilient reputation for bad movie comedy.

A New Leaf (1971; Elaine May) Cut from the same cloth as Kind Hearts and Coronets (but, unlike that film, not quite able to see the grimmest strand of its storyline through to the bitter end, courtesy of studio interference), this nearly forgotten comedy is an oddball treasure. A spoiled trust-fund ne’er-do-well (Walter Matthau) is staring down the possibility of his money teat drying up, so he convinces a clumsy, ugly-duckling botanist (May), who happens to be super-wealthy, that he loves her, all the while planning to kill her and steal her fortune. The movie is anything but smooth sailing, narratively speaking (It was taken away from May and recut before release), but it’s still a marvel to behold these two great comedic performances wringing laughs out of humiliation, horror and maybe even true love. (I doubt we’ll ever see the movie May wanted to show us, but I still hope there’s a future on DVD for this one, even just the theatrical version.)

1941 (1979; Steven Spielberg) One of the great symbols of wretched excess in film history is actually a gargantuan comedy that still has room for the occasional light touch-- John Williams’ orchestral pixie dust that accompanies the puffs of smoke emanating from John Belushi’s stogie, for example. 1941 is the most unruly movie Spielberg, who directed from a script by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, has ever made, and given that unruliness, it has some of the most amazing comic set pieces ever staged—the U.S.O. dance, the attack on Hollywood Boulevard, the systematic destruction of Ned Beatty’s impossibly located seaside home. And it’s so crammed with terrific actors doing hilarious things—Belushi, Slim Pickens, Warren Oates, Robert Stack, John Candy, et al, that I can barely think of it without at least smiling. The big laughs come when I watch it, as I anticipate doing again and again. (For another great Zemeckis/Gale contribution to pitch-black comedy, see Used Cars.)

One Two Three (1961; Billy Wilder) "Those East Germans’ll be on you like the hot breath of the Cossacks!" So will this movie. Cagney’s breathless blowhard, a Coca-Cola magnate who straddles the Berlin Wall in an attempt to keep his boss's daughter from dallying on the Communist side with a handsome Bolshevik, sets the pace for what may be the most ruthlessly rapid-fire comedy ever made.

Richard Pryor Live In Concert (1979; Jeff Margolis) I’m not sure what I was expecting when I wandered into this movie during my sophomore year in college, but what I nearly got was cardiac arrest from laughing, the real fear of which was intensified by Pryor’s agonizingly funny re-creation of his own heart attack (His pained whimpering gets this response from his angry organ as it applies yet another horrendous squeeze: “Shoulda thought about that when you was eatin’ all that pork!”) A brilliant performance. I honestly fear for my own life whenever I watch this movie.

Rock-A-Bye Bear (1952; Tex Avery) More laughs per square inch and second of running time (seven minutes) than any movie I’ve ever seen. This Tex Avery MGM cartoon features Spike the bulldog getting a job guarding the winter home of the world’s most noise-sensitive hibernating bear. Heart-stopping, liver-collapsing, lung-shattering, eyeball-exploding laughter ensues. You may not make it out the other end alive. I didn’t.

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999; Trey Parker) The movie that’s bold enough to ask: “What the fuck is wrong with German people?” Screamingly hilarious satire that leaves no sacred cow unbutchered. Leatherface had nothing on the slash-and-burn tactics of this movie. David Edelstein accurately described it as this generation’s Duck Soup.

Tanner ‘88 (1988; Robert Altman) Altman fans and political junkies know how hilarious this movie is, and there’s hardly a “joke” in it. But this is a hilarious movie. What seemed daring and mind-boggling in 1988 still seems daring and mind-boggling, but looking at the movie from the perspective of six years of the Bush administration, and a through-the-wrong-end-of-the looking-glass view of America before 9/11, the laughs tend to stick in the throat a little more than they did before. Even so, this is perhaps the greatest instance of Altman’s wizardly ability (helped along considerably by Garry Trudeau’s writing) to tease consistent laughter not out of situations, but out of the simple (and incredibly complex) way humans—politicos or no—communicate and interact and bludgeon each other with propaganda and disinformation. And have Pamela Reed or Michael Murphy ever been this good?

So, what movie comedies would make your list?


Boys and ghouls, Forrest J. Ackerman, founder and publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland and hero to a generation of monster movie geeks, the ranks of which include Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, Joe Dante, John Landis and many others, turns 90 years old next Friday, November 24. As a way of saying happy birthday to Forry, number-one resident of Horrorwood, Karloffornia, Flickhead will be hosting a blog-a-thon that day from his eponymous blog to celebrate this milestone. I know Flickhead would love to see testimony and tribute from everybody for whom Forry was a major childhood influence, in the hope that we can help make it a special birthday indeed and somehow get word of our endeavor to Mr. Ackerman himself. (Speaking of hopes, maybe Tim Lucas can get word to some of those notables that he knows and give them a chance to chime in too!) And as always, if you are blogless but would still like to write something in tribute to the curator of the Ackermuseum, please feel free to contact me by e-mail and I will be glad to post your contribution alongside my own next Friday. Flickhead will undoubtedly be posting links to all the contributors on his Forrest J. Ackerman Blog-a-Thon home page on Friday as well..

Of all the blog-a-thons in the short history of the blog-athon, this is one I’m particularly excited about. Thanks, Flickhead, for the terrific idea!


Whatever side of the fence you end up on with Martin Scorsese films like Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed, one thing seems inarguable—the man is an invaluable force in the field of film preservation. His latest announced endeavor, a three-year initiative launched by the director and organizers behind the fledging Rome Film Festival, aims to preserve a slate of Italian films heretofore fallen under the evil influence of scratches, fading, discoloration and other abuses. The titles of the films under consideration have yet to be decided upon, save for one: Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West will get the full restoration wash-and-wax in time to be unveiled next fall at the second Rome Film Festival. When I saw it the summer before last on the big screen at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood, I thought it already looked pretty damn good—the symptoms described in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section yesterday didn’t seem to be afflicting the print I saw. But any effort to preserve and spruce up a great movie like this one is, I think, to be applauded, especially since there don’t seem to be any plans to piece together a different, “expanded” version. Perhaps the Rome Film Festival appearance will be the forerunner to a modest big-screen re-release in the States as well. I’ll keep you posted. Cue Harmonica.


Here’s another reason for some thanksgiving over this coming week: Robert Cumbow, author of Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter and Once Upon a Time: The Films of Sergio Leone, has made a welcome return to the cyberpages of 24 Lies a Second.

Mr. Cumbow has given 24 Lies readers a whole bunch of treats in the past year or so, with excellent articles on Altman and Coppola and his widely praised and wonderfully in-depth submersion into the universe of Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, certainly the best piece I’ve ever read on this mind-boggling movie.

Now he’s back on the 24 Lies beat again with a brand-new piece, this one sure to delight everyone who always knew in their hearts that David Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi opus Dune was far more personal than the work-for-hire disaster its reputation in the entertainment press at large would suggest. In fact, Mr. Cumbow postulates it is this 1985 film that supplies a critical metaphor for the way David Lynch makes films. The piece is entitled, and delightfully so, ”David Lynch Folds Space… Because He Is The Kwisatz Haderach!”

(Can’t you just hear little Alicia Roanne Witt lisping her way around that one?)

I’m so happy to have a serious critical consideration of Dune out there, as part of an overview of Lynch’s career, and that it comes from Robert Cumbow is even better. Not only does he clue us in that Herbert wasn’t just flying loose and free when he came up with the term “Kwisatz Haderach” (it derives from the Hebrew expression meaning “jump from the path,” the archaic equivalent of “short cut”—and in Hebrew folklore, “Kwisatz Haderach” is the ability to jump instantaneously from one place to another), but his extrapolation of the concept of folding space, originating in the book and interpreted in the movie, is used to organize and understand Lynch’s intuitive approach to the art of filmmaking:

Dune’s “explanation” of travel without movement, of the folding of space, is a sly announcement of not only the vision but the technique that David Lynch brings to the screenwriter’s and film director’s art…

It’s always struck me as odd that when a film depicts someone with superior physical powers—a gunslinger with an impossibly fast draw and accurate aim, or a martial artist with the ability to turn a leap into sustained flight—no one ever asks why and how he can have such ability; but when a character has superior mental acuity, there is always a need to explain it. Sherlock Homes always had to explain how he deduced (actually induced) factual conclusions based on observed phenomena. The whole purpose of Dr. Watson is to be exasperated by Holmes’s easy-seeming investigations and discoveries, to demand explanations from Holmes, and to be ultimately satisfied by them. Special Agent Dale Cooper has the same sort of powers of observation. Early in
Twin Peaks he asks Sheriff Harry Truman about his love affair with Josie Packard. Harry, Watson-like, asks him how he knew. Cooper shrugs it off: “Body language.” This is Lynch’s joke on the Holmes-Watson tradition, as well as on the then-current vogue for interpreting character from posture; it’s really no explanation at all—certainly not the kind of explanation Holmes would have given and Watson would have accepted. As Cooper continues to display his uncanny mental agility, Truman compares himself to Watson, then settles comfortably into the role of taking on faith something he admits he cannot understand. When Harry decides to let Cooper in on the “Bookhouse Boys,” he organizes a meeting at the Double R Café. Norma Jennings serves the coffee, and Cooper immediately asks Ed Hurley, “So, Big Ed, how long have you been in love with Norma?” Big Ed is astonished, but looks to Harry, not Cooper, for an explanation—and all he gets is Harry’s accepting shrug. The message is that Cooper’s powers don’t have an explanation—they just are.

This is a key to the world and vision of David Lynch, in which dreams, visions, imagination, accidents, and coincidences have the same value as observation, interpretation, and reasoning, and are treated with the same degree of reliability. Many writers and artists since the Romantic era have urged the acknowledgment of the irrational as entitled to equal time with the rational; but David Lynch is one of the few artists—certainly one of the very few film makers—whose style and technique exemplify that conviction.”

There’s much, much more from Robert Cumbow on David Lynch, and it’s available just by folding a little space of your own and hightailing it over to 24 Lies a Second.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006