Archive for July, 2012

Does Nolan’s Batman make people crazy?

Posted in Cinema, Random Weirdness with tags , , , , , , , on July 26, 2012 by davehurwitz
Go look in your copy of Miller's Dark Knight.

Arnold Crimp

Not long after I heard about the so-called ‘Batman Shooting’ at the Century Theater in Aurora, Colorado, I remembered a similar incident from Frank Miller’s seminal Batman comic, The Dark Knight Returns.  A single page depicts Arnold Crimp, an obvious schizophrenic, opening fire on the audience at a porn movie.  I am hardly the only person to notice this odd coincidence.  A number of people on-line and in traditional media have offered their views, many of them radically misinterpreting that single page.  Miller’s intent seems pretty clear to me.  Crimp’s interior monolog cites ‘Father Don’ and backward-masking on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” as motives for the shooting, but says nothing about Batman.  In fact, the shooting is only linked to Batman by a newscaster shown in the final panel of the page.  Miller seems to be saying that the media is eager to blame Batman for violence he did not inspire.

With an introduction like that, you might reasonably expect me to spend the rest of this post defending Batman and his most recent cinematic incarnation.  I wish I could.  I support free expression, and I’ve enjoyed Nolan’s Batman trilogy, both as entertainment and as social commentary.  But there is something about Batman, particularly Nolan’s Batman, that seems to bring out the crazies.

First, there were the well publicized death threats against Marshall Fine, whose largely negative review of The Dark Knight Rises led Rotten Tomatoes to unplug its comments feature for the first time ever.  Next came the shooting itself, about which a great deal has already been written, none of it very enlightening.

If that had been all, I would be left with little more than an uneasy feeling in the back of my skull and very little to add to the conversation.  But three or four days before either of these incidents, I read an unusual article in Film Comment, one that adds a new dimension to argument over Batman as a public touchstone.  J. Hoberman’s “Cine Obamarama” deals mainly with black Presidents in film, but devotes a small section to the Caped Crusader.  Specifically, he describes how various political candidates have responded to Nolan’s movies.  To quote from Hoberman’s article:

Those teeth!  That flag!  Aagghh!

John McCain, Batman Fan

“The summer of 2008 also belonged to the being that Senator McCain was eager to identify as his favorite superhero: Batman…  The Dark Knight was rich with 9/11 references but even more insistent was the movie’s ongoing meditation on civic responsibility, due process, and the legitimacy of torture.  The Joker was Bin Laden in greasepaint.  Batman, not coincidentally the richest man in Gotham City, was understood as our leader against the master terrorist–and Batman recognized no limits.  Right-wing pundits gratefully embraced the movie as a glorification of their fantasy.”

The idea that any presidential candidate would so eagerly identify himself with Batman, a vigilante law-breaker and (in some versions) borderline fascist is frankly disturbing.  It would be like admitting to an admiration for Richard Nixon.  As if that weren’t bad enough, Hoberman closes his discussion of The Dark Knight with this horrid little factoid:

“A poster applying Heath Ledger’s Joker makeup to President Obama began appearing at Tea Party rallies during the summer of 2009.”

Trust me, you probably don't want to see this anyway.

And then there’s Christopher Nolan himself.  In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Nolan had this to say about Bruce Wayne:

“I find him a very aspirational figure… the ways he tries to push himself, physically and mentally, and dedicate himself ruthlessly to a cause… there’s something obsessive about that.  Even disturbing.  But there’s something admirable about it, too.”

Or is there?  Is it right to admire a figure, even a fictional one, that arouses so much bizarre public behavior?  I enjoy Batman as a character, but the more popular he becomes, the more I begin to fear what he stands for, what people might decide is acceptable because of his example.

Frankly, I’m not sure what I’m trying to say with all of the above, except that I’m worried.  I’m worried as a citizen and as a father.  I’m worried about a world where Batman is the best hero we’ve got.  For a few minutes in a theater in Colorado, I’m sure there were people who devoutly wished that Batman was real.  But on the whole, I think we’d be better off without him.

Dave Hurwitz

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My Guilty Pleasures

Posted in Cinema with tags , , , , , , on July 9, 2012 by davehurwitz

I read Film Comment, mostly as an antidote to Entertainment Weekly. My favorite regular feature is Guilty Pleasures, a page or two where big name actors and directors fess up to the films they’re ashamed to admit they enjoy. (Really Jodie Foster? Team America: World Police? Seriously?) I’m obviously not a Hollywood bigshot, so I doubt Film Comment would be interested, but I’ll cop to half dozen of my guilty pleasure movies right here. Let the disgraceful revelations begin.

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)

It's a bird!  It's a plane!  It's a bad movie.Despite the hopeful subtitle, there never was a sequel to this movie, at least not on the big screen. The titular adventurer (Fred Ward) is a New York cop who gets recruited by an off-the-books covert agency that polices the sort of folks who are immune to normal law enforcement. On his first outing, Remo investigates an arms manufacturer with ties to the military. By modern standards, this isn’t much of action movie. Lame fist-fights. Lackluster stunt sequences. Willfred Brimley. What makes this film for me is Broadway vet Joel Grey as Chiun, the cranky Korean martial arts master tasked with whipping Williams into shape. (As if anyone were capable of whipping Fred Ward into shape.) Grey’s Chiun is racist, misogynistic, and bad tempered. He’s also hilarious.

Hudson Hawk (1991)

Anybody seen my ambulance?Newly released from prison, cat burglar Hawk (Bruce Willis) just wants a cappuccino, but evil millionaires Darwin and Minerva Mayflower (Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard) have kidnapped his old partner (Danny Aiello) to secure Hawk’s services for one last job. This simple sounding premise in no way conveys the madness that is Hudson Hawk. Andie MacDowell talks to the dolphins! Bruce and Danny do the worst job of acting paralyzed ever filmed. James Coburn appears as a purple-camo wearing CIA honcho with a team of agents who take their code-names from candy bars, or was it STDs? David Caruso delivers the performance of his career, if only because his character can’t speak. And did I mention the singing? Bruce and Danny coordinate their heists by singing classic jazz tunes! All in all, this is the goofiest movie on this list, and the one I enjoy the most.

Undercover Blues (1993)

Mommy & Daddy need a bath.Jeff and Jane Blue (Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner) are married super-spies vacationing in New Orleans with their infant daughter. They’re just looking to relax and see this sights, but nobody believes them. Not the local cops. Not the branch office of the FBI. And especially not Paulina Novacek (Fiona Shaw), a former KGB hardcase turned mobster who is not at all happy to see them on her turf. Despite the action movie plot, this is very much a comedy. Many of the laughs come courtesy of Stanley Tucci (who, even nineteen years ago, had very little hair) as Muerte, a local thug who makes the mistake of trying to mug Jeff Blue. Quaid destroys Tucci with an umbrella-stroller to the strains of Flamenco music, and Muerte spends the remainder of the film attempting to exact his revenge. The rapid-fire banter between Quaid and Turner (not to mention Quaid and everybody else) has a screwball comedy feel. The man himself may be a guilty pleasure.

Thunderbirds (2004)

Lady Penelope has a proper wash.A sequel of sorts to the 60’s kid show about the altruistic Tracy family, who save the day with the help of high-tech planes and vehicles launched from their own private island. While the original show was created using ‘Super-Marionation’ (meaning puppets) the film is live action. I enjoy this movie in part because I used to build models of the Tracy rescue planes out of Legos when I was a kid, and it’s fun to seem them all grown up as big budget special effects. But an equally large dose of pleasure comes from Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope, the pink wearing, six-wheeled car driving English aristocrat and secret agent who is, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way. Watching her pine for Bill Paxton’s Jeff Tracy, or kick serious ass while still remaining suitably proper, is as almost as much fun as watching her pine for David Tennant in “The Girl in the Fireplace.”

Sahara (2005)

We're surrounded.  By boxes of money!This adaptation of the Clive Cussler novel bombed at the box office, and I still don’t understand why. It’s got exotic locations, witty repartee, and plenty of shooting and explosions. This is the movie XXX should have been, a James Bond style adventure without the pretentious James Bond style. The byplay between Matthew McConaughey’s Dirk Pitt and Steve Zahn’s Al Giodino is the highlight of the film. (African war zone! Ship of death!) It really seems like these two have been friends forever. Equally amusing, in it’s own way, is a bonus interview with Cussler in which he bemoans the fact that McConaughey’s natural hair and eye color aren’t the same as the fictitious Pitt’s. Get a grip, Clive.

The Green Hornet (2011)

Britt Reid is confused... again.Hornet diehards hated this movie, and rightfully so. This is no straight-faced homage to the classic pulp character–who has taken on a criminal persona to fight crime in radio, TV, comics, and films since the 1930’s–but a sometimes crass buddy comedy disguised as a superhero movie. Seth Rogan’s Britt Reid is a schlub, a whining, self-indulgent party dude who is neither as smooth nor as clever as he seems to think he is. I normally shy away from this kind of lowbrow humor. But there is something about the way Rogan plays these ludicrous baby-men. His line delivery is just a hair over the top, giving the audience just the tiniest hint of self awareness, a hint that I’m never sure is real. Rogan’s acting reminds me of the music of Micheal Bublé. I can’t decide whether either man knows that he’s a gigantic cheeseball. Throw in Christoph Waltz as Chudnofsky, the gangster with a crippling midlife crisis, and the end result is a lot of stupid fun.

Stupid fun seems to be the key ingredient in my guilty pleasure movies. Some action. Some laughs. A little romance. Some days we all need these things. None of these films are Citizen Kane. But they all make me smile. And for a movie, sometimes that’s enough.

Dave Hurwitz

What are your guilty pleasure movies? Leave a comment and let us know.

The Rot Also Recommends…

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , on July 5, 2012 by davehurwitz

A novella by the illustrator Richard A. KirkThe Lost Machine by Richard A. Kirk

If you recognize Kirk’s name at all, you probably know him as the talented and successful illustrator of a number of creepy books.  He has provided the art for many of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s titles from Subterranean Press, as well as for authors like Clive Barker and China Mieville.  Kirk’s style suites Kiernan’s work particularly well.  His drawings often include natural forms–puff balls, fungi, extinct giant insects–as well as broken bits of machinery and repurposed detritus.  Kirk renders all of this in clean lines and subtle shadings that border on the hyper-real.

The Lost Machine is Kirk’s first foray into fiction writing, and I’ll confess that I bought the novella mostly for the illustrations.  Then I read it, and found myself pleasantly surprised.  Kirk’s visual clarity and flair for arresting images are just as present in his writing as they are in his artwork.  With a few phrases, Kirk can suggest what would, in the hands of another writer, be chapters of back story.  Check out his description of a rather unusual shoreline, as an example:

“Lumsden Moss and Irridis stood on the Sea of Steps, looking down through the haze at the sea.  Hundreds of limestone steps descended into the water and beyond.  On either side, the steps stretched away for miles, interrupted only by the gargantuan engine houses that moved the cable cars between the top of the stairs and sea level.  It was a calm day and the steps, worn from over a thousand years of use, echoed the undulations of the sea.”

We never learn who carved these steps or why, nor do I think we need to.  What amazes me is how this simple paragraph suggests decades of effort and toil, the crowning achievement of a vanished society, the meaning of which has now been lost.  Rather like European man’s first view of a pyramid, only less explicable.

I don’t want spoil the story for anyone, so I’ll confine myself to saying that the The Lost Machine is a quest of sorts, played out across a civilization that was once greater than our own, but which has succumbed to an ecological catastrophe.  It’s a quick, entertaining, and thought provoking read.  And the illustrations are fantastic.

Dave Hurwitz

Buy The Lost Machine directly from the author here.

Book Review: The Drowning Girl

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , , on July 3, 2012 by davehurwitz

The New Novel by Caitlin KiernanIn 2009’s The Red Tree, Caitlin R. Kiernan gave us something we’d never seen from her before, a first-person ‘found manuscript’ detailing the protagonist’s slow descent into madness. Red Tree is a complexly structured novel—there is a ‘found manuscript’ within the found manuscript of the novel itself, for example—shot through with unsettling bits of Rhode Island folklore. The story ends with Kiernan’s signature lack of concrete resolution. As I wrote in a September 2009 review, “In the end, what the reader gets is not so much a narrative as a bouquet of dark hints, strange moods, and suggestions of the intolerable…. Not only is the evil in The Red Tree not vanquished, it is never clearly defined.” Kiernan’s latest work, The Drowning Girl, bears a superficial resemblance to The Red Tree. While it is also a first person document from a compromised protagonist, The Drowning Girl is more ambitious, more heavily stylized, but ultimately more conventional than its predecessor.

India Morgan Phelps—a.k.a. Imp—is a madwoman, a paranoid schizophrenic making a tenuous living as a landscape painter and art store clerk, maintaining her precarious sanity with therapy and medication. Almost simultaneously, two women enter her life, the patient M to F transsexual, Abalyn Armitage, and the manipulative Eva Canning. When the book opens, Imp is alone once more. Abalyn has been driven away and Eva is simply gone. The book itself is Imp’s attempt to record these relationships and their inevitable collision. Complicating matters is Imp’s unreliable memory, which contains two versions of her first meeting with Eva Canning and how that lead to her break-up with Abalyn. As Imp herself makes clear, only one of these versions can be real.

In each version of the story, Imp equates Eva with a figure from local folklore. In one memory, Imp identifies Eva with Perishable Shippen, the ghost of a murdered girl that haunts the Blackstone River, pulling unwary bathers to their doom. In the other, Imp sees her as the wandering spirit of the last wolf in Connecticut, a wolf in the shape of a girl. Each version of Eva is also associated with work of a different artist. ‘Mermaid’ Eva may be the source of inspiration for the final, unnerving works of turn of the century painter Phillip George Saltonstall, while ‘Werewolf’ Eva may have played model and muse to the transgressive Albert Perrault. Both men are dead, both in accidents that might not have been accidents.

Reading The Drowning Girl is even more challenging than all of this would suggest. Part of the difficulty arises from the haphazard way in which Imp records these two possible pasts. Events are related in no discernible order, the two versions of the story shuffled together like incompatible decks of cards. In addition, Imp is clearly not keen to write about certain things. Her ‘manuscript’ is rife with digressions and semi-relevant tangents. And then there is Imp’s madness. At a certain point, the ‘past’ being described in the manuscript collides with the ‘present’ of its writing, and the impact sends Imp sliding down into paranoid fantasy. Though this section of the novel is thankfully brief, the stylistic devices Kiernan uses to depict Imp’s descent left me doubting my own sanity….

A Note from the Reviewer:

There were, at minimum, two more paragraphs to this review. At least, I think there were. It’s hard to be sure. I wrote this piece in early May. Before I could get it posted to the blog, my hard-drive died. It took a long time to get my computer up and running again. When I finally did, I discovered that the flash drive containing backups of my documents held only a partial version of the review. To be frank, it’s been so long since the original composition of this piece that I no longer remember how it was supposed to end. I’ve tried to recreate it from scratch, but it just didn’t happen. I’m left wondering if I ever really finished it at all.

Suffice it to say that one of Imp’s twin realities gathers strength and probability, forcing Imp to confront the event that split her world in two. Readers familiar with Kiernan’s themes and obsessions will not find it difficult to guess what this event is, especially if they have read the pair of short stories on which this book is based. As I said above, for all the wild experimentalism of its execution, The Drowning Girl is, at bottom, strangely conventional.

The Drowning Girl is not an easy read. It is Literature with a Capital L.  Readers looking for a spooky beach book had best inquire elsewhere. Those who hunger for something rather more substantial, and who are willing to put in the requisite effort, will find much to reward them in these seemingly disjointed pages.

As for this review, I think I shall leave it unfinished. The novel is all about uncertainty, after all. The treachery of memory, and the blind spots in our brains we inflict upon ourselves, for the sake of our sanity and survival. In the end, I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to Kiernan’s achievement than this.

Dave Hurwitz