Today is a day. Today is a day like any other. In Pittsburgh, the sky is overcast with intermittent rain shows. The temperature hovers around 40 degrees. This is what happens in January. Sometimes it snows and wrongly convinces us all that January is not always gloomy in Western Pennsylvania.
A Writer’s Manifesto
Right now, just a few hours south, the inauguration of our 45th President of the United States ushers in an era that more closely approximates something out of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley or, well, Mike Judge — who perhaps most correctly predicted this day in the prescient documentary Idiocracy. Somewhere Three Doors Down is playing in celebration of something. That alone warrants concern.
But I’m not here to engage in any kind of political or ideological discussion. Not right now. This is more about how we react as artists. We’ve probably Tweeted and Re-Tweeted, shared Facebook posts, and even made some of our own. Is that the best use of our talents? Is that the best use of our creative energy?
In the time since the election, I’ve been wading through a swamp of disbelief. Guess what? There’s no drain in a swamp. A swamp just is. I’d love nothing more than to pull the plug on this shitshow. It’s not that easy. We can’t bury our head in the rising tide of muck and filth. And we can’t just hope it all dries up.
As artists, we cannot be sent into a tailspin of malaise. Use this anger and anxiety. Use this hatred and passion. CREATE. WRITE. PAINT. Do whatever it is that poets do. (I kid.) Use this to inspire yourself to pick up your pen and do what you love. What you set out to do. Exact change through your artistic contributions. Now for a writer’s manifesto, a personal statement about how I plan to endure.
So today, on January 20th, 2017 and for the foreseeable future, I vow to do the following:
Respect the Presidency but refuse to respect the man elected president. And for the record, I did not like George W. but I still respected him as a man that always intended to do right by his country.
I will not say his name. I will call him Captain Cuntmonkey or Senior Pendejo. Coming up with the most creatively derogatory names as a regular mental exercise.
I will not legitimize. Never legitimize. The man is a cartoon gerbil and should be treated as such. This is not normal.
When all this gets you down, write more.
Put something of yourself out in this world rather than retreat inward. Be bold. Allow yourself freedom from your inner critic. Trust your instincts. Surround yourself with good people and trust their instincts. Collaborate.
Join me in ushering in an era of personal accomplishment and creative entitlement. Our collective, creative renaissance begins today. This is our Resistance.
Whenever we lose another celebrity the Interwebs assemble into two primary factions. 1. Those that mourn. 2. Those that begrudge the need to mourn. The latter faction shames the former for feeling sorrow in the wake of the celebrity death. “Celebrity” assumes that we had no real life connections to the deceased — that they were merely a face on the screen or a voice on the radio, merely a fictional personality.
I never knew Carrie Fisher. I never spoke to her at a press junket or a fan convention. Zero direct or indirect contact. But as long as there’s been a “me,” there’s been Princess Leia. Let’s start at the beginning. I was born in 1978, the year after the release of Star Wars. I saw the film at such an age that I do not recall any moment in my life that predates knowledge of the film.
I lay no special claim to the following statements, and I know for a fact that I am not alone.
Carrie Fisher was my first crush. Of course, I crushed on Princess Leia and the hair buns and the “into the garbage shoot, flyboy” confidence, the girl that led a rebellion and, lets be honest, the girl that wore the gold bikini. I was of a certain impressionable age. There was just no getting around it. I was and remain only human. Like many others, Leia was my earliest exposure to cinematic badass femininity.
Of course, as I grew older I distanced the Princess Leia character from the actress Carrie Fisher.
Princess Leia belonged to that unassailable, ideal part of my childhood. The part that worshipped all things Star Wars, watched the original trilogy movies on a loop, went as an Ewok one Halloween, made my mom design different Star Wars-themed birthday cakes each year, paused my VHS tape and counted the number of stormtroopers present when Darth Vader arrives on the Death Star and requested that many stormtrooper action figures for Christmas. I had Star Wars bed sheets and posters of all three movies over my bed. I received phone calls on my Darth Vader telephone. These memories cannot be taken from me. They remain pure, perfect nostalgia.
I came to see Carrie Fisher meanwhile as a beautiful, damaged, three-dimensional human. As I struggled with feelings of depression during my early 30’s, I looked to her — someone who’d lived with mental illness — as a figure of hope. Someone who knew what bottom felt like and spoke openly about her experiences, using her celebrity to bring awareness to an issue that remained, apparently, off-limits for dinner conversation. And she did so with wit and wisdom and brazen self-awareness. She’d experienced darkness and as a sort of self-satirist could make light of her troubles without undermining the struggles of anyone else. The world seemed healthier, more honest and more colorful with Carrie Fisher dishing stories about her addictions and the absurdities of her life in Hollywood as Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia and daughter of Hollywood royalty, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher.
This week we all had to say goodbye to that voice, that wit, that beacon of hope. I have mourned her passing on social media and in the privacy of my home. For the first time in all of our years together, my wife suggested we watch Star Wars to celebrate Carrie, but I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t ready to admit that she was really gone. Instead I cleaned the house and blared John Coltrane on vinyl. I wasn’t ready to recognize that the 19-year-old woman who’d catalyzed these films that I’d loved throughout my entire lifetime with the line “Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” was really gone.
No, I never met Carrie Fisher, but I have shed a few tears over her passing. I will mourn her as an actress. I will mourn her as a voice of reason amidst the madness of our self-obsessed modern culture. And I will mourn the passing of part of my ideal, unassailable youth — my now somewhat imperfect nostalgia. It sounds selfish — but that is our frame of reference for “Celebrity” — the ways in which they’ve touched our lives through their art. I will mourn because I feel sadness, and that’s the first step toward being better, no matter the scope or scale of that loss.
And now having just finished the first draft of this bl-g post, I’ve learned that Debbie Reynolds has also passed. And just like that– another radiant beacon of positivity has been extinguished. As fans of cinema we loved them both like family. I cannot imagine the feeling of loss within their real family.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade – 1960’s
Country of Origin – Japan
#18. Kuroneko (1968)
Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko, the Japanese title for Kuroneko takes the prize for most literal name of a transcendent piece of cinema. (I assume.) The literal English translation, “A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove,” paints a very precise picture. Kaneto Shindo’s film showcases bamboo groves and black cats, oftentimes in the same image and beautifully rendered. Truth in advertisement.
Of course, such precision fails to convey nuance beyond the light and shadow. Even without nuance, however, Kuroneko is a beautiful film. A collection of still images could populate an entire gallery installation.
A band of traveling samurai rape and murder Yone and her daughter-in-law Shige. They burn down their house, take their food and depart. A black cat appears and licks the bodies of the women. The women return as spirits having pledged to avenge their death by murdering all samurai. All samurai includes Shige’s husband Gintoki who’d gone off to war in the faraway north. They lure their samurai to an illusory estate in a bamboo grove (a spot near where their house once stood), seduce, then destroy. When news of these samurai butchers reaches governor Raiko, he sends Gintoki to destroy the spirits.
The term “elegiac” resonated while watching Kuroneko. The word itself rolls off the tongue and inspires non-specific romantic pining, sort of like Hector Elizondo. Literally “elegiac” means an expression of sorrow for something now past.
The women react to the lives they’ve lost, the blissful illusion of sanctuary. A home, a family, the belief in the altruism of a protective warrior class. As farming peasants, as women, Yone and Shige represented the lowest tier of the caste system, other than ethnic minorities, convicted criminals, etc. (the “burakumin”). Despite their status, they lived a contented existence. A violent death and total disillusionment ferried them back to their vengeful purgatory where they are charged with more than just measure-for-measure revenge. Within this context of mourning the loss of their life and a worldview of untarnished pastoral purity, the notion of Kuroneko as an elegy becomes especially potent.
Let’s further consider the definition of elegiac within poetry. I had to brush up on the broader strokes of the elegiac couplet because it’s been almost twenty years since I last used or studied the term. Greek lyrical poets used elegiac couplets for themes on a smaller scale than the epic. The couplet stands on its own but contributes to the larger work. Individual, isolated pieces of the whole. Though for this conversation the specifics don’t necessarily matter as much as the function of the elegiac couplet. Let’s dig up some of that Freshman English class.
Each couplet consists of a hexameter verse followed by a pentameter verse. The following is a graphic representation of its scansion. Note that – is a long syllable, u a short syllable, and U is either one long syllable or two short syllables:
– U | – U | – U | – U | – u u | – –
– U | – U | – || – u u | – u u | –
In it’s original Greek and eventually Latin usage, the elegiac couplet was considered a lesser art form. Elegiac poets liberally borrowed the themes of the epic in order to lend more gravitas to the shorter, more accessible elegies. As a horror film, also typically considered lesser art, does not Kuroneko struggle against the same kind of bias? The themes of Kuroneko resonate well beyond the horror genre.
The beauty of the couplet manifests in poetic simplicity. The same holds true for Kuroneko narrative, which relies on light, shadow and often silence. Fog dances among the bamboo forest, the reeds of which appear overdeveloped during processing and reinforces the haunting estate’s isolation. Pure whites and pure blacks. Only the fog lies somewhere in between. Nothing but blackness appears beyond the forest. This turns the most minimal of set designs into limitless space.
Though Shindo handles the seduction of the samurai with a deft touch, and an eye first concerned with visual poetry, Kuroneko embraces the thematic essentials of a horror film. He begins the film with the massacre of the women and their home, but shows none of the samurai’s overt trespasses. The violence agains the women is left to the imagination — only an image of their charred bodies — but our imagination is often more potent. The women, however, exact their pound of flesh by biting their victims in the neck, ripping throats like a big cat killing its prey.
When Gintoki arrives at the women’s lair, the film strays from any horrific imagery and moves toward a Shakespearean tragedy. Two lovers, reunited. An unnatural coupling of man and spirit. Shige surrenders her soul to hell for one more week with her husband. Meanwhile Gintoki’s mother, bound by her oath to destroy the samurai, offers her son no family discount.
Whether you’re spellbound by the imagery or wrapped up in the sworn vengeance of the wronged women, Kuroneko casts a timeless spell. Conservation of language. The visual poetry of the black and white image. Revenge and honor. Love and death. The shattered sanctuary of home. Elegiac, indeed.
After finishing Kuroneko, I sat in silence, watching the Criterion menu. The ultimate sign of respect for any film — silent reflection. (Though, on the flipside, I also sat silently after finishing Nightmare on Elm Street 2 because holy hell that was one terrible movie.)
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade – 1970’s Country of Origin – Italy
The Advance Word: I knew only what I’d read about Delirium in Howarth’s giallo guide, which was that Delirium was a trippy, unique entry in the giallo genre.
“There is nothing quite like a Renato Polselli film. You may take that as a good thing or a bad thing, but there is no denying it: the man had a style and sensibility which was uniquely his own. And Delirium is truly one of his most, well, delirious and absurd films.”
After reading this introduction to Delirium in Troy Howarth’s So Deadly So Perverse, I hopped on my phone’s Amazon app and ordered Polselli’s Delirium. Shortly thereafter I found myself in a Twitter conversation with someone who mentioned Delirium as one of his favorite giallo films. For whatever reason, I was not aware of the Lamberto Bava Delirium (Le foto de Giola) so when I engaged him in conversation, thinking we were talking about Polselli’s Delirium, he returned a mighty confused tweet because he didn’t know about Polselli’s film. We shared a good virtual laugh about that, and then I went onto Amazon and added Bava’s Delirium to my order.
Howarth speaks the truth, my friends. I’ve seen a good chunk of gialli, but I’ve never seen a film quite like Renato Polselli’s Delirium.
Everything about the film feels slightly askew. From the jarring guitar-driven score (by Gianfranco Reverberi) to the often uncomfortably brutal sadism and masochism to an intermittently tender husband/wife relationship between our main character/pervert/psychiatrist and the woman who apparently loves him. The actors overplay and underplay scenarios with equal measure. Some are even prone to those dastardly hysteria-driven comas. Polselli seems aware that he’s written and directed something awesomeful. Awesomeful in a way, however, that suggests that every objective misstep is in fact intentional. The frenetic editing, the stilted dialogue, the hyperbolic acting, disquieting episodes of S & M — all of it feels like Polselli constructed Delirium with the intent of receiving side-eye for 100 minutes. The following trailer for Delirium should give you a sufficient dose of said crazy.
The movie opens with our main character, Dr. Lyutak (the bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay), ogling and then murdering a young girl in a fit of psychosexual depravity. He returns home where his marital impotence interferes with conjugal sexy times. His wife Marcia (Rita Calderoni) begs him to do whatever he wants. This brings out a dose of strangulation and a hint of murder before Lyutak dials it back… because he loves and respects her too much. Later he gives her a late anniversary card. His heartfelt words involve being a failure as a man but a supremely successful scientist. That’s just pillow talk, baby.
Lyutak becomes a primary suspect of the initial murder. As you would when you’re a COMPLETE F’ING LUNATIC. He’s cleared of charges, however, when someone else commits a similar murder while Lyutak’s being questioned. (Isn’t that how it always goes?) This means there’s another deranged psychosexual killer on the loose, and poor Marcia’s still a virgin. The body count piles up, and the investigators continue to look the other way while Lyutak becomes ever more unhinged. The fact that nobody identifies him as a stark-raving lunatic becomes increasingly more comical.
Blue Underground’s DVD does a nice job of presenting a film that’s likely never been treated very kindly. I’d comment further on the intermittently harsh soundtrack, but for all I know Polselli intended it that way.
I don’t know if I can outright recommend Delirium, but I found it to be an intermittently brilliant, often comical head trip. Recommended, with reservations. If you can handle the brutal scenes of violence against women — not necessary gory, mind you, but wholly unsettling — then you might find plenty to enjoy in Delirium’s psychosexual depravity. From a certain angle, this could be an uneven, underrated giallo masterpiece. From another angle, it could be bungled trash. As Black Sheep said, “The choice is yours.”
DVD Verdict: Plenty layers of weirdness to dig through. I can see myself revisiting this to further investigate the burning question on everyone’s mind regarding Polselli’s Delirium: WTF?
The summer takes its toll on my sanity. Time, though more abundant, disappears in a blink. The kids are always there. Staring. Demanding food and entertainment. But as much as I’d like to blame the children for all that ails me, including this cough I just can’t shake… there’s something else that’s been bothering me, like a t-shirt with a scratchy tag.
It’s about Ghostbusters.
Yes, again, goddammit. I’m stuck in a recursive loop.
For my next trick I’ll write about Ghostbusters.
I’ve written about Ghostbusters (1984) a few times. (Here as a part of mental therapy and here as a thinkpiece about time passage and perception.) I’ve even written about the trailer and misplaced Internet rage for Ghostbusters (2016). I spend a lot of time thinking about Ghostbusters. Next I’ll discuss how amazing it is that Kate McKinnon’s hair in Ghostbusters (2016) is an homage to Egon’s hair in The Real Ghostbusters. 3000 words, minimum. It’s come to my attention that the four times I saw Ghostbusters in the theater in 1984 may have played too formative a role in my childhood development.
But today, I’m going to pen a bl-g post that shouldn’t need to be written. Even now it feels like wasted breath… or more accurately wasted key strokes, but the latter sounds far less dramatic. Like writing about how the sky is f’ing blue.
I’m writing this to remind you that Ghostbusters (1984) is actually that good.
(From now on I will liberally substitute “1984” for Ghostbusters (1984) and “2016” for Ghostbusters (2016) to save on those wasted key strokes.)
I’m looking at you, asshole on Letterboxd who watched Ghostbusters (1984) for the first time and said “If this was your childhood, there wasn’t anything to ruin anyway.” That guy wasn’t alone; he was just the biggest asshole. Just scan the latest first-time watches of 1984 on Letterboxd and you’ll find a glut of viewers using similarly incendiary language. I’ve kept a sideways eye on these ongoing first-watch developments (which, I’ll admit is masochism on par with reading the comments on Huffington Post) when I should have run screaming from this activity like Ray Stantz from the New York Public Library.
These comments exist as a hyperbolic reaction to the “you’re ruining my childhood” idiots. (Disclaimer: I do not condone the “ruining my childhood” behavior either.) But what gives you the right to fire back at me, the innocent bystander championing both 1984 and 2016, to claim my childhood experience was the rippled Charmin to your mindless Internet dump. Don’t unleash your cynical me-first derision unless you have something constructive to say — the one little caveat here is that your cynical me-first derision, by nature, offers nothing constructive whatsoever and is really just a plea for attention.
The Internet Troll Quarantine
I compartmentalized these comments in my “Internet Troll Quarantine,” which is like sending the lepers to Crete, except in my head and less sunny. I could manage the troll queue, but then I read the following comment in the New York Times, courtesy of one of my favorite film critics, A.O. Scott:
I have to say it makes me very happy when big commercial movies provoke serious political arguments, but before we dive into that particular fray I want to make a few statements I trust will not be terribly controversial. 1) Kate McKinnon should be in every movie from now on. 2) The new “Ghostbusters” is like the old “Ghostbusters” in that it gives comic performers who gained popularity on television and in more provocative projects a chance to widen their appeal and increase their earning potential with a mainstream action-comedy. 3) The old “Ghostbusters” isn’t that great to begin with.
Yes. Mm-hmm. Kate McKinnon should be in every movie. And totally. The new Ghostbusters is in many ways like the old Ghostbusters. Right on, A.O. BUTHOLD THE PHONE. “The old Ghostbusters isn’t that great to begin with”? You’ve been a lighthouse of reason and sanity in these dark and foggy cinematic times, A.O. Scott. And now you’re shattering one of the few unassailable truths in my cinematic worldview? Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria.
Sky is blue. Grass is green. Rain is wet. Ghostbusters (1984) is great. No? What’s with this sudden reassessment?
Let’s first get a few things straight. I’ll speak plainly so not to confuse anyone. I’ve always been in favor of reviving the Ghostbusters franchise. New actors, old actors. Whatever. The franchise for various reasons was never allowed to reach maturation. The choice to cast all women was a logical and somewhat inspired twist on the formula. Casting Kate McKinnon was the best decision anyone in Hollywood has made this year.
I’m not here to offer a point-by-point comparison between 1984 and 2016. They are different entities. But I will highlight one specific failure of 2016 to prove a point.
Now to use Alton Brown to make a random point about screenwriting
The original Ghostbusters screenplay by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis has been heralded as one of the finest examples of Hollywood screenwriting. Every scene contributes to the film’s forward momentum. I argue that not one scene is wasted. But how would I define a wasted scene? A scene that exists for one reason alone. Alton Brown would call them unitaskers and explain why unitaskers have no place in his kitchen. Unitaskers are scenes that hit narrative beats without conflict or humor… or vice versa. Unitaskers are exposition. Find me a scene in 1984 that doesn’t function on multiple levels. A good movie minimizes the use of these one-purpose scenes, but sometimes they’re inescapable. Great movies avoid them altogether.
1984 also benefited from a largely extinct collaborate creative process. The screenplay as blueprint allowed freedom for improvisation. Jason Reitman, son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, confirmed that most, if not all, of Bill Murray’s dialogue was improvised. Outside of Adam McKay, who allows his actors that kind of freedom? To take this one step further, what studio would allow such a thing on the set of a big budget film? The improvisation works within the framework of the script due to the focused momentum hurtling toward a satisfying, logical finale. Modern moviemaking has been castrated by the big business of making movies. Mass appeal. Managed and massaged for global consumption.
It is precisely this satisfying finale that sets 1984 apart from other frivolous blockbusters and Ghostbusters (2016) in particular. 2016 meanders toward its end. It dwells in scenes that function only as comedy with no forward push. I’m thinking specifically at the moment of the two scenes of back alley gadget trials. 1984 demonstrated proton packs, traps and other gizmos on the job, in scenes that furthered the narrative.
“It just occurred to me we really haven’t had a completely successful test of this equipment,” Ray says as he, Egon and Venkman ride the elevator up. Egon switches on Ray’s pack and backs away. While the gadget porn scenes in 2016 offer a fun detour, they contribute nothing to the narrative progress. They’re throwaway bits of comedy.
These wasted unitaskers likely contribute to the long, overblown effects-laden finale (an all too common pitfall of modern blockbuster cinema). Distract with effects and noise and maybe the audience won’t notice that we haven’t earned this ending. The new Ghostbusters resolve their respective paranormal crisis by using a vaguely established nuclear device on Ecto-1. Toss the hearse in the pit and blow it up. Bingo bango. This, of course, functions parallel to “crossing the streams.” Each is treated as a brash, irresponsible last-ditch gesture that threatens humanity should it fail. 1984, however, established the perils of “crossing the streams” way back at the beginning of the film when busting their first spook in the hotel ballroom.
“There’s something very important I forgot to tell you.”
“Don’t cross the streams.”
Thus, when facing Gozer and the team of paranormal exterminators has run out of available options to close the dimensional portal, “total protonic reversal” has already been established. The audience recognizes the logic, feels as if they too could have come to the same conclusion. The most effective resolutions are the ones that the audience *would* have expected if they weren’t too busy being entertained. Meanwhile when 2016 tosses the Ecto-1 into the abyss and lights the radioactive fuse, this choice comes from nowhere.
The screenplay in Ghostbusters (2016) completely breaks down during the final third of the film. This isn’t an isolated phenomenon. I don’t mean to single out Ghostbusters (2016) as some sort of anomaly. How many movies have you seen in the last year alone that fall apart while trying to conclude a narrative? It’s a screenwriting failure that can be traced to the scenic level. Plant the seeds for the ending in Act One or early in Act Two. Harvest in the finale. When that doesn’t happen, however, the quick fix is misdirection through effects and noise. I’m oversimplifying the screenwriting process, but this lesson was cribbed directly from the lecture I received on the second day of my undergraduate Screenwriting class.
I forgive you A.O. Scott, but I won’t forgive the nostalgia-shaming trolls.
Too many writers. Too many ideas. Too much interference from studios. There are many reasons that even great scripts fail between conception and reaching the screen. If it were easy, every movie would at least portray a sense of narrative competency and Ghostbusters (1984) wouldn’t be a quintessential piece of Hollywood escapist filmmaking. It’s actually 1984 that remains the anomaly. And yes, A.O. Scott, it is that good. I’ll let your momentarily lapse in judgment slide.
Ghostbusters is also an inextricable part of my childhood. It is actually perhaps my most vibrant slice of personal nostalgia. Remakes, reboots, spinoffs cannot change that — but don’t you dare troll 1984 by casting unwarranted derision because you want to set yourself apart, to elevate your opinion above mine by using my nostalgia against me.
I’ll admit that nostalgia plays a role in my affection for Ghostbusters (1984), but appreciating Ghostbusters does not require nostalgia. Sure, some of the matte effects look dated, Gozer’s dog puppets are comically rooted to the floor, and maybe the gender politics seem slightly questionable… but don’t you dare doubt the reasons that 1984 remains excellent entertainment. Nostalgia is not a dirty word. It’s also a legitimate reason that someone can enjoy a movie. No one’s frame of reference is less important than yours. If you care to read more, I wrote about Nostalgia and moviewatching in my #Bond_age_ essay on Moonraker.
Oh and a few more truths.
The 1980’s f’ing ruled and Ghostbusters remains one of the best things ever. If you disagree, I wouldn’t open my fridge tonight if I were you. Someone might get the munchies.
A bl-g about classic and not-so-classic movies, music and nostalgia by James David Patrick