Posted by: thewearyprofessor | April 11, 2012

October 1985 and the Fate of Classic Films

One night in October 1985, 20 year-old me finished his retail shift at a mall bookstore and rushed to that evening’s film class. It was held in one of the college’s art classrooms, a cluttered room full of long scratched wooden tables and steel-legged stools. Storage cabinets and counters with draped sculptures-in-progress lined the walls and vague smells of clay and paint cleaner lingered. There, each week, a hesitant and stuttering young adjunct set up a freestanding square screen and a clattering 16 millimeter projector and unspooled whatever battered prints of classic films the college happened to own. He would provide a brief and completely unmemorable introduction about the movie and director. This night it was Citizen Kane and Orson Welles.

More than 25 years later, nothing from that semester lingers in my memory except that night’s class. It was an evening I will likely never forget. Although it sounds like a leaden and over-used melodramatic pronouncement, that night changed my life.

90% of the people reading this essay have likely seen Citizen Kane already, so there is no need to discuss what I saw. The other 10% should immediately drop everything and view it NOW.Thatcher Library

When the fluorescent lights snapped back on after two hours, I was more impressed with a film than I had ever before been in my life. The photography and bravado of the storytelling technique was unlike anything I had seen. Out of the many facts he mentioned, most of which I later learned were wrong, one thing the instructor said in his introduction resonated: Orson Welles co-wrote, directed and starred in this movie when he was not yet 25. He was only a few years older than me at the time, and here I was ringing a register and oogling college girls. I needed to learn more about him.

A brand new biography of Welles had just been released in hardcover, Orson Welles by Barbara Leaming. The next day at the bookstore I brought a copy with me into the backroom at lunch and read the first couple of chapters. Sufficiently impressed, I decided to buy it that day.

Although you could not hear it in the back room, a local radio station played continually on the sales floor. As I glanced at my watch, reluctantly closed the book, and left the stockroom to return to work the news came over the station that Orson Welles had died the previous evening—within hours of my viewing his masterwork Citizen Kane. I recall taking the book from under my arm and looking at that youthful and slightly abashed face on the cover. I was stunned. At virtually the same time I was seeing his film career’s bright beginning, his life was ending.

I bought the book, and bought every subsequent book I could find on Welles. I sought out his films on VHS, and a few years later, on laserdisc. Although none impressed me in quite the same way Citizen Kane did and does, there was something about each one that resonated. I would find myself replaying shots and camera moves in my mind. Always a film fan, raised from the cradle on Universal Abbott & Costellos every Sunday and weekday 4:30 movies, during October 1985 I became a film scholar.

In graduate school I pursued both my passion for film and my Welles fixation. I became a graduate assistant in the film department, projecting reels for classes, holding workshops, teaching the occasional class, etc. Although my course of study was English, Film Studies was a subsidiary of the English Department at the university I attended. When it came time to tackle my master’s thesis, there was only one topic I considered. Before editing it down, I had written almost 150 pages on the narrative illustration of memory in Citizen Kane. It had taken me more than two years of research and over 50 viewings of the film.

Subsequently, I embarked on a career in academia and introduced many students to Welles and Citizen Kane for the first time. Teaching frequently uncaring and uncooperative students at a community college, this was often a disheartening experience. How do you respond to dismissive criticism of one of your beloved treasures along the lines of “It sucks for a lot of reasons, but mainly because it’s old and in black and white”? Occasionally a student would roll her eyes and ask “Why couldn’t he just tell the story without being so confusing?” Others would ask plaintively,“Why would ANYBODY think that crappy piece of shit was great?”

Would it have done any good to discuss the myriad ways in which it was wonderful? Would it help to tell them seeing it for the first time that night had so moved me that I redirected my life to study and teach film and narrative? I tried, and sometimes I succeeded, but I always emerged hurt at a primal level.

What was wrong with them?

Or was it them?

Was it, in truth, me? Was I embracing a form of expressive and meticulously crafted film that had passed out of fashion forever except among a small cadre of buffs and scholars? What relevant relation did Welles and Kane have to the productions now screening at the multiplex and filling dozens of cable channels each moment of the day?

Nitrate stock burns, but all films fade. First they lose their newness, then their lustre, then their popular relevance. This struck me again when Casablanca was recently rereleased to theaters “for one night only” in celebration of its 70th anniversary and nobody of my immediate acquaintance wanted to accompany me to see it. Either it was old news and they had seen it, or it was such a product of yesterday that they did not even want to.

This makes me inexpressibly sad.

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Posted by: thewearyprofessor | September 26, 2009

DVD Review: Super Capers

Director: Ray Griggs   Star: Justin Whalen  2008 94 mins.  Rated PG  Lionsgate DVD Released 7/2009

Inept superheroes confront inept baddies in an inept parody.

 

I am The Weary Professor, but as many readers of this blog know, outside of cyberspace my secret identity is mild-mannered professor Frank Jay Gruber.  This being the case, my natural inclination must be to bestow all possible goodwill and benefits of the doubt to a superhero movie in which the main hero calls himself Gruberman and spouts lines referencing a Grubermobile.  Sadly, this film rapidly used up all of the goodwill, borrowed a few more doubt benefits, then blew through those before the hero even donned his first tailored costume.

Click to Purchase at Amazon.com

Click to Purchase at Amazon.com

Writer-director-actor Ray”Orson Welles” Griggs obviously targeted Super Capers as a spirited and loving send-up of the cavalcade of comic book crusaders that have cavorted on TV and movie screens for the last forty-plus years.  He undershot the target by more than the length of a single bound.

Even the most outlandish parodies need a viable and moderately interesting plot upon which to hang their jokes.  Griggs could have begged, borrowed or stolen the plot of any familiar superhero saga he wished, lampooned it and escaped legally unscathed by citing the parody clause.  Instead he concocts a convoluted story about an evil judge/super villain who sets up a wannabe superhero to take the fall for a bank robbery by having him sentenced to a reform school for inept heroes, only to be defeated by a recreational vehicle’s sudden ability to traverse the fourth dimension.  I probably should have provided a spoiler warning for the above summary, but no one could follow the plot I outlined without first being strapped down and forced to endure the film.

Lest I seem too disparaging, I must mention some positive aspects.  The cinematography is actually quite good, the color palette is admirably bright and cheery, the CGI special effects are surprisingly effective and the Lionsgate DVD presents the film in a very nice anamorphic transfer with a solid slate of extras for any NTSB inspectors who want to study the reasons for the crash.  All of this is outweighed, however, by the script’s disappointing attempts at humor, the director’s consistent lack of comic timing and the generally smug and amateurish performance by Lois and Clark’s Justin Whalen, the film’s lead actor.  The director and film editor apparently share the same comic philosophy: “If you stare at the joke long enough, then it’ll be funny.”  In a  film where the jokes spend more time hanging in the air than the superheroes do, the script is so full of comedy Kryptonite that it should be sealed in a lead box and dropped into the Pacific.

There are a handful of amusing nods to genre fans scattered among the film’s painful 94 minutes.  My favorite is when Gruberman (I DO love that name) interacts with a cab-driver played by Adam West.  He’s driving his trusty 60’s George Barris Batmobile, converted into a taxi by the addition of a dome placed atop the open-air cockpit reading “air-conditioned cab”.  West hands the would-be hero a rubber-stamped “signed” photo and pointedly informs him there’s no charge, an act particularly amusing to anyone familiar with West’s mercenary attitude and pricing at autograph shows.  Here the full impact of the joke depends on inside knowledge, a potentially fatal flaw for a movie courting mainstream success.  How many modern audience members spot the nudge-nudge fan humor in having June Lockhart, the mom on Lassie and Lost in Space, cameo as one hero’s mother?  How about the film’s score echoing SF themes of the past or the dialogue mimicking Return of the Jedi so blatantly that the characters themselves realize it?  In a better-structured parody with laughs to spare and solid plot elements these love letters to fans could be excused, like the moment in the second Naked Gun movie when Lloyd Bochner unexpectedly runs across the screen screaming “It’s a cookbook!”; a reference which elicits nothing among most audience members, but leaves fans of the old Twilight Zone shaking with surprised laughter as they recall his particular episode.

The film’s attitude is amiable and I wish I could recommend Super Capers as an enjoyable time-waster.  Unfortunately, it is only a time-waster.

The Weary Professor grades it a D (taking into account extra credit for the name Gruberman and the Batmobile taxi).

Posted by: thewearyprofessor | September 19, 2009

Book Review: The Strain

Click on Image to Order from Amazon.com

Click on Image to Order from Amazon.com

Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan – The Strain (Book I of The Strain Trilogy) New York: William Morrow, 2009.

The visionary genius behind Pan’s Labyrinth returns to the vampire underworld for the first time since Blade II.

At one point in The Strain a few intrepid vampire hunters cluster around the coffin of the chief bloodsucker and ready their tools for attack before lifting the lid.  “Too easy,” the authors say, and of course it is.  The mastermind is at least one step ahead of them.  This is a familiar moment in the horror genre, one we have all seen in countless books and movies.  It is also indicative of the challenge filmmaker-turned-novelist Guillermo del Toro and his co-author Chuck Hogan face when crafting a vampire novel in the early 21st century. 

Some genres almost collapse under the weight of their own clichés.  Vampire fiction is one of them.  Although far removed from the pulp adventures of Varney the Vampire and the melodramatic pathos of Anne Rice, The Strain is still constrained by the basic ground rules of the class.  Sunlight and decapitation are always bad for the vile creature, while darkness and a box of soil to rest in are always good.  Necking takes on its usual specialized meaning, and there are bound to be the usual sympathetic characters exploring dusty confined spaces with lots of twists and turns.  Predictable?  Certainly.

But would we want it any other way?  As readers and viewers we approach a vampire story with certain expectations, and if they are not fulfilled we seek elsewhere to feed.  For this reason, any discussion of a modern vampire story boils down to this:  How stylishly and well does it take us through the familiar motions?  In the case of The Strain, the answer is masterfully.

Set a barely a year in the future (why even bother?), the book opens with a planeload of corpses arriving at New York’s JFK Airport.  The setting is integral to the vibe of the story.  Since 2001 it’s hard to even think of New York City without recalling explosions, falling towers and plumes of smoke and debris.  Arguably the liveliest city in the world, New York has also sadly become a painful reminder of vulnerability, mortality and sudden death.  

This makes its use here as a convenient locus of residual evil and a natural focal point for demonic activity woefully appropos.  In a similar vein (forgive the pun) as Richard Matheson’s classic novel I Am Legend, vampirism is treated as a rapidly spreading biological scourge and the course of the disease outbreak is described vividly.  Rather than vampires relying on the usual extended canine teeth, del Toro and Hogan give their beasts a retractable snakelike appendage that snaps at their prey, draining blood and spreading infection from a distance of several feet.  This lends some originality to the book’s feeding and battle sequences, as these vampires eschew the usual sensuous embracing of their victims or snapping back heads to expose necks.

The novel is carefully plotted, but perhaps too carefully at times.  It seems almost as if each key moment were storyboarded in the infamous idea notebooks del Toro carries with him everywhere and Hogan’s task as prose stylist was to fill in the gaps between images, weaving words between story points.  Yet even with the over-attention to plot there remain several gaps in logic that readers must leap over or ignore.  How, for example, does one vampire overcome the entire crew and passenger complement of a jetliner instantaneously?  How does a wanted man manage to move all over New York using his own mobile phone and credentials without being immediately traced?  These are merely the most obvious concerns.

Some readers may also be disturbed by other authorial choices, and here I must offer a slight spoiler warning.  Skip the rest of this paragraph if you would prefer, like the vampires themselves, to remain entirely in the dark.  The abandoned tunnels beneath and surrounding the World Trade Center site, stockpiled with bodies, comprise the headquarters of the vampires.  The leader is also shown feasting on inmates in Jewish concentration camps.  This commingling of real and imagined horrors may be distasteful to some.

Reportedly The Strain was originally intended as a film or television project.  For whatever reason, it was rejected and del Toro and Hogan molded the material into a trilogy of novels, of which this is the first.  Often betraying its filmic roots, the book’s darkly imaginative images continually unspool in the reader’s mind in succession rather than flowing as natural prose.  Since the reader is expected to feed again on two more books to be released annually, the novel’s ending is less than satisfactory.  It is also rather predictable, and the reader may arrive there before the authors do. 

Still, The Strain is darkly atmospheric fun and is highly recommended for any admirer of del Toro’s cinematic forays or Hogan’s novels, as well as anyone interested in the latest permutations of the vampire mythos.

The Weary Professor pulls out his pen with the blood-red ink and grades this book a B.

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