Wednesday, February 23, 2011

If I were to rank the Coen Bros. movies, which would be a silly thing to do...

...the list might look like this. But then, most of these I've only seen once, and in the case of the one that comes dead last, I gave up halfway through. Still, the Coens remain in the top echelon of my favorite filmmakers; even if I don't like everything they do, everything they do is still worth seeing, and usually interesting in some fashion or another. Right? Right. Your list is your own, but mine is like this:

1. The Big Lebowski
2. O Brother Where Art Thou?
3. The Hudsucker Proxy
4. True Grit
5. Intolerable Cruelty
6. The Man Who Wasn't There
7. Fargo
8. Miller's Crossing
9. Raising Arizona
10. Blood Simple
11. Burn After Reading
12. A Serious Man
13. Barton Fink
14. No Country For Old Men
15. The Ladykillers

I should watch some of these again. Hell-- all of them.

Monday, February 14, 2011


What Bill's thinking/watching/reading/writing/doing. This is the shape of my head.

//Black Sabbath is another one of those Italian giallo films-- I'm a bit addicted now. This one lent Ozzy's band its name and Pulp Fiction its structure, according to the infallible internet. "A Drop of Water," the first story in the American version and the last in the Italian, makes the whole film. Once again, it's all about the colors-- gorgeous, eerie, unsettling colors, adding to the general Poe vibe of the whole story. It very much looks and feels like a short story from EC Comics-- in fact, the whole movie is basically an issue of Tales from the Crypt or Vault of Horror or what have you, including its own creepy host character, played here by Boris Karloff, who also appears in one of the stories, looking like a vampiric Mark Twain.

//Mike Norton's Battlepug.

//Giger bar.

//Great Gatsby reconfigured for the NES, like some even-more-feverish fever dream version of Michael Jackson's Moonwalker I played on the Sega Genesis. Damn those spectacles.

//Jack Nicholson's Joker = Jack Nicholson's R.P. McMurphy in whiteface.

//Matt Seneca writes about racist caricatures in Will Eisner's Spirit:
When I try to think of a comparison for the comics field's benign neglect of Eisner's Spirit work, the first thing that jumps to mind is the recent, much-maligned "New South" edition of Huckleberry Finn, which replaces all Mark Twain's original-text uses of the word "nigger" with "slave". New books for a new world. But it's not a perfect comparison because Ebony White, the ridiculously offensive racial caricature above, was the Spirit's sidekick for the better part of a decade -- and this being comics, there's no easy way to replace Eisner's cringe-inducing pickaninny with a more palatable depiction of the black kid who helped Denny Colt's alter ego out of many a jam when he wasn't commenting wryly on the hero's tangled love life.
Berlatsky rebuts:
Cutting out “nigger” from Huck Twain defaces one of the great anti-racist texts we’ve got; doing so lies about the nature and the contours of the struggle against. On the other hand, Ebony White doesn’t show Eisner struggling with racism. It just shows him being racist. And when you talk about Ebony White as part of a “textured, carnivalesque America of yesteryear,” you come really close to celebrating it for its racist caricature. Because that textured, carnivalesque America? It was really racist — more racist than Mark Twain’s America, in many ways, which still had a strong strain of racial idealism and hope which got crushed after massive Southern resistance to Reconstruction.
And Seneca rebuts again in the comments, etc. Anyway, it's an intriguing argument, with two valid sides to it. When's the last time both sides of a piece of internet discourse made valid points? Never?

//Tina Fey, sayin' stuff:
I know older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves, and they still work. The women, though, they’re all “crazy.” I have a suspicion - and hear me out, because this is a rough one - that the definition of “crazy” in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.

The only person I can think of who has escaped the “crazy” moniker is Betty White, which, obviously, is because people still want to have sex with her.
I wish I was half the woman she is.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


What Bill's thinking/watching/reading/writing/doing. This is the shape of my head.

//So Matt Seneca wrote this pair of pieces about Grant Morrison's short-lived revamp of Wildstorm's Wildcats and Authority properties, both of which suffered from crib death after an issue or two, never to return. That makes them little nothings, overlooked and ephemeral curios, but that also makes them fascinating. Were these comics too beautiful to live?

I've got nothing to say about the glo-pop sex scenes of Wildcats that Seneca hasn't already covered, but The Authority intrigues me, mostly because I dug it out of the bins and read it on the toilet (BIFF BAM POW, TOILET NOT JUST FOR SHITTING ANYMORE) today. And the toilet is the perfect place for this comic, which goes out of its way to achieve banality:
It's astonishing to see stuff this actively drab in a mainstream comic, to own a commercial object that gives up this hard. The total lack of motion on the page, the failure of the grid to cohere into a single design unit, the choppy cropping that always fails to hit whatever germ of drama this rather pathetic scene might contain... there's really no comparison to make, nothing I can think of that makes this much of a point about getting the mechanics of its medium wrong. ...

Like I said, this isn't just mediocrity -- it's aggressive mediocrity, visual art by a couple of talented artists working at evoking something. That something, of course, is the "real world" the comic's titular characters are set to collide with, and while it's still drawn on a page and printed on thousands of copies more, it gets closer to the gray ghost-guts of de facto existence we've got going here on Earth-Prime than anything pretty or even half-assed would be able to.
Of course, this being a Grant Morrison comic, this is done on purpose. In fact, the complete devotion to reproducing the mundane makes this the most visually important comic book of the past decade, outside of, I dunno, We3 (which was also a Morrison book, you see).

I'm not really sure who deserves the most credit here, but let's just say that Gene Ha (lines) and Art Lyon (colors) combine to create the most brilliantly drab comic of all time. There is no How-To-Draw-Comics-the-Marvel-Way dynamism, no outlines around the panels, no bold four-coloration. Objects and whole panels go blurry, come at odd angles. Heads and bodies get chopped off, like someone's not framing the image correctly. Panels and moments linger on mail dropping through the slot, alarm clocks, ashtrays, cups of coffee, cell phones-- these are the things we look at during the day. This is what real life looks like when broken up into static moments. Pause a movie, it's not always going to be a perfect image-- blurs set in. Pause life, you might catch us staring at our breakfast.

This is a superhero comic? The title characters don't even bother to show up in the first issue, coming late to the party. Most of the action is about a guy waking up, looking for his phone, going to work, and losing his wife. Sad white folks gettin' divorced-- that's true literature! These nine panel grids of introversion, they're the visual equivalent of the Raymond Carver style of writing hammered into me in college. Clipped sentences, sad actions. Grays, browns, a bit of mauve-- the yawning colors of reality. At least, in comparison to the bombastic colors of comics from days gone by.

Small actions fill this comic-- hitting the "End" button on one's cell phone, stirring your cuppa-- the kind of actions we don't see in comics, that occur between the panels if at all, that aren't important. Here, they're given importance, shown to us instead of kicks and uppercuts. We do these things on automatic in our daily lives, and here, Morrison, Ha, and Lyons point them out. The dialogue is naturalistic, the actions realistic, the colors muted. This is the comic folks would read in a superhero universe, to escape from their fantastic, over-the-top lives. This is a comic for superheroes, not about them.

//So at last I saw Dario Argento's Suspiria, a 1977 Italian horror classic, which does the opposite thing that The Authority does-- Argento bathes this film in primary hues, drowning the viewer, and the characters, in a four color soup not unlike what your parents secretly think all your comics look like. The name of the genre is giallo, after all, a word which means "yellow" in Italian, and refers to the sickly color of old paperback novels. Suspiria is far from a hacky B-movie, however; it is, in fact, a secret A-movie, with a visual auteurism that serves as a clear influence on stuff like Sam Raimi's Evil Dead, which came out a couple years later, and some of Tarantino's stuff. The story/script is clunky, the acting is often dreadful, but the way the camera moves is magnificent, the soundtrack is chillingly awesome, and the use of color in this film surpasses every other movie I've ever seen. In terms of how it looks and sounds, Suspiria was probably a decade ahead of its time. They literally do not make them like this anymore-- the printing process that gives this film its glorious Technicolor atmosphere is deader than disco now. Hell, it was on the outs at the time.

Being a movie about a ballet student drawn into a psycho-horror nightmare, it would probably serve as a good companion piece to Black Swan (haven't seen yet), and Natalie Portman's name was even floated for a possible remake. Remakes, though, are usually for suckers-- today's horror films, despite all the torture porn, can't live up to the ballsiness or sheer weirdness of their predecessors. These movies were gritty and visceral, by virtue of being filmed with practical effects in bizarre conditions. When the zombie fights a shark in Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2-- the best zombie movie ever made, even if it's technically worse than its fellows in every respect-- that was done by having a guy dressed as a zombie mess around with a drugged-up shark, something you probably couldn't-- wouldn't want to-- get away with today. When George Lazenby fights some guy in an Ozsploitation movie whilst on fire, he's actually on fire.

I spent a lot of time reading about Italian horror today-- movies with titles like The House with Laughing Windows, Naked Girl Killed in the Park, Planet of the Vampires, Don't Torture a Duckling, Twitch of the Death Nerve-- and ended up with another dozen things on the ol' Netflix queue. Our current American horror flicks are the latest bastard descendants of these grimy, exploitative, psychosexual, shitty weird movies cooked up by crazy Italians and Australians and what have you. Tracing this stuff back to the source gives you the real, primordial experience-- less practiced and refined than modern movies, but also less artificial. They're weirder, sillier, funnier, scarier. These fascinating old movies don't exist in our canon; they lurk, and feed on those that cross their paths.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Essential X-Files

Here are the ones worth watching, if you're not as crazy as me and decide to spend half a year watching the whole thing. These aren't the only good ones-- there are a lot more-- but these are the crown jewels. You will note, however, that none of them really have anything to do with the main conspiracy plot, though several are informed by their context. To be honest, all the conspiracy episodes bled together in my brain, and it's hard for me to distinguish any specifics.

In chronological order:

Beyond the Sea (Season 1, Episode 13): In the early years, Scully was often used as a go-to damsel in distress, always needing to be rescued by Mulder and the power of his convictions. Here, she takes over, as she has her first real crisis of faith. Her father dies, Mulder needs her, and an apparent psychic on death row (Brad Dourif, being awesome) is the only one who can help. Gillian Anderson acts the hell out of this one.

Humbug (Season 2, Episode 20): Auteur screenwriter Darin Morgan's first full episode. Mulder and Scully investigate mysterious deaths in a circus sideshow community. Here, Mulder and Scully are the freaks of the week, and it's everyone else who looks at them funny.

War of the Coprophages (Season 3, Episode 12): Mulder investigates a town-wide infestation of roaches. He and Scully have an episode-long duel over explanations thereof. Extremely funny and clever. Darin Morgan again.

Pusher (Season 3, Episode 17): One of the earliest episodes written by Vince Gilligan (later to create Breaking Bad), this episode just happens to be a really, really well-crafted monster-of-the-week, played as straight as an arrow. This time, our monster's just some guy, who can talk anyone into doing anything.

Jose Chung's "From Outer Space" (Season 3, Episode 20): The seminal, and final, Darin Morgan episode. Considered to be one of the finest episodes of any television show. An author (Charles Nelson Reilly) investigates some weird stuff and crosses paths with our heroes. I... I don't even think I can encapsulate this one. Read what Todd VanDerWerff said instead. The truth is what we make of it. The truth is what we believe. Nothing sums the series up better than that.

Home (Season 4, Episode 2): The darkest episode of television I've ever seen. The nicest small town in the world's darkest secret-- the inbred family on the outskirts of town-- seeks an ugly vengeance. I can't believe this ever made it on network TV.

Paper Hearts (Season 4, Episode 10): Tom Noonan plays a serial killer of children who may be responsible for the disappearance of Mulder's sister. Things twist from there, but Noonan plays a better creep than anyone else alive, and sells the whole thing on his performance.

The Post-Modern Prometheus (Season 5, Episode 5): Chris Carter tells a bizarre story (in black and white) of a modern Frankenstein's monster obsessed with Cher. Yes. It's awesome. And weird.

Bad Blood (Season 5, Episode 12): The Rashomon episode! Every show has one. Mulder and Scully remember events surrounding vampiric attacks differently, and hilarity ensues.

Triangle (Season 6, Episode 3): Another off-kilter Chris Carter episode. Each "act" is done in one extended shot, Rope-style, as Mulder is lost in the Bermuda Triangle and finds himself in 1939-- but surrounded by folks who look just like the people in his modern life.

X-Cops (Season 7, Episode 12): The X-Files crosses over with COPS as the reality show happens upon an investigation by Mulder and Scully, who continue to chase a monster that no one describes in the same fashion. Brilliantly filmed, it's about all the wild fears one has in a bad neighborhood, and how panic acts as a virus.

Other Favorites/Honorable Mentions: Ice (The Thing, but with Mulder and Scully), Eve, The Host (Fluke Man!), One Breath, Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose (Darin Morgan, Peter Boyle, and the nature of life and death), Quagmire, Memento Mori, Drive (how Vince Gilligan met Bryan Cranston), Orison, Hollywood A.D. (Garry Shandling, as himself, as Mulder. Yes.).

The Truth Is Outre

I just spent the past five-and-a-half months watching the entirety of The X-Files, a pop culture curio-turned-phenomenon-turned-curio-again that I had somehow missed in its entirety when it was on the air (I was too busy watching Batman and SWAT Kats to notice, I guess; then I discovered Buffy, and that was that). Had I found the show as it aired, I'm sure it would have turned into an obsession to rival that of Fox Mulder's; with time and distance on my side now, I can look at it more objectively. What the hell was the X-Files about?

One could say it was about The Truth; after all, that's what Mulder searched for all those years. The Truth, however, is an ambiguous concept, something the writers seemed to understand. Answers are hard to come by in life. Often, they never do, and when they do, they're rarely easy. Every time Mulder thought he found what he'd been looking for-- evidence of a worldwide conspiracy, or the existence of alien life, or what happened to his sister-- the rug would pull out from under him, and he'd tumble down a different rabbit hole. The truth is out there, remember-- it's never here and now. It's weird, it's scary, and it sounds stupid when we try to explain it to other people. It's never what we really want to hear. Perhaps we're better off not knowing.

The X-Files is also about belief, or, at least, wanting to believe. Mulder's the resident "believer," but Scully's the heart of the show, and it's her beliefs that drive the storyline-- not necessarily in aliens or ghosts or fluke men, but in faith, in God, and in Fox Mulder. The entire series showcases the death and destruction Mulder leaves in his wake during his quest. Scully is the first to be caught up in this, and outlasts all others. She sacrifices everything she has for a mission that's not even hers, all because she believes in one man. That belief is the only thing either of the two leads has in the conclusion of the show, a convoluted, unsatisfying ending that leaves our heroes broken and alone. A lot of poor writing goes into those final moments, but in many ways it's the only possible ending-- two people holding onto each other, in the shadow of a nigh-incomprehensible colossus they can neither control nor escape.

The show sheds light on hidden corners of America, where monsters, myths, folklore, and legends live, where superstitions are always true and the more improbable answer always turns out to be the right one. The X-Files mythologized America, and it's in the standalone, monster-of-the-week type episodes that this comes out. The series often lost the plot, as it continually expanded the nature of its ongoing conspiracy arc, in needless and confusing ways. That aspect of the show does not conclude, but rather peters out. The standalones however, do what their name implies, standing the test of time and lending the show its real strength.

Is there a happy ending? No; the show doesn't really end at all, in fact. Mulder and Scully should ask themselves-- was it all worth it? I'm not sure what they'd answer. As a viewer, was it all worth watching? Well... 70-75%, sure. When it was good, it was damn good. Were those last couple years a slog? Yes. (Robert Patrick is the most watchable thing about them. He gives it everything he's got, but at that point, he's the only one trying.) Will the truth set you free? Perhaps not. If your belief is strong enough, however, the truth doesn't really matter.

Sorry for the poorly-written rambling above. I spent a lot of time watching this damn show, and I have to make some record of it. Coming soon: the Essential X-Files.