Tuesday, October 30, 2007

End of October reading and viewing

I've finished my annual October re-reading of Lovecraft. This year, I read most of The Dunwich Horror and Others, a hardcover collection from Arkham House which includes some of his best stories, including Cthulhu Mythos tales (the original "Call of Cthulhu," "The Whisperer in Darkness," and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth) and non-Mythos stories like "The Music of Erich Zann," "Pickman's Model," and the frequently anthologized "Cool Air" which was adapted for Rod Serling's Night Gallery (as was "Pickman's Model," though I never saw that one). The Mythos stories are long and, if you're not in the right mood, rather draggy. The plots are all fairly similar in construction: a first-person narrator tells of his involvement in an incident in which someone has meddled in the rites of the Old Ones, usually having used the Necronomicon, an ancient book of spells and rituals by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, to allow the horrifying beings to return to earth. The meddler (or some innocent bystander) always meets a bad end, and often the narrator himself is scarred for life in some way by his own involvement.

The Old Ones, horrible gods from our distant past who seem to be exiled out in infinite space, are rarely actually seen, though we do have a sense that they are large humanoid creatures with tentacles. We see some gross flying beasts in "Whisperer" and a freakish race of half-human/half-fish people in "Innsmouth" (the basis for the fairly decent Lovecraft movie Dagon, technically also based on an early Lovecraft story called "Dagon"). The non-Mythos stories are shorter and often more immediately creepy, "Erich Zann" being one of his very best--the narrator befriends a lonely old man who plays unearthly music and can apparently see beasts from another dimension out of his attic window. Oddly, I actually like the 70's movie of The Dunwich Horror more than the story (like most Lovecraft adaptations, the movie is only "inspired" by the story, rather than being a close adaptation), but "The Colour Out of Space" is a way better story than its film version, Die Monster Die.

I got an idea for a Lovecraft drinking game: every time he uses the word "blasphemous," have a drink. Of course, you'd never get to the end of a story, because that is his favorite adjective, whether it's appropriate to the noun or not--what the hell are "blasphemous angles"? Still, I quite enjoyed immersing myself in Lovecraft's baroque fiction again.

On my classic movie blog, I've reviewed a number of horror and sf films I watched in October, but one that didn't fit the blog was House, a mediocre 80's haunted house movie. A writer, troubled by the disappearance of his young son and the subsequent breakup of his marriage, moves into a haunted house, has ghostly visions, gets his neighbor and his ex-wife involved, and may get a shot at redemption by saving his son after all. The low-budget FX are OK and the supporting cast is so-so. The star is William Katt, the prom boy in Carrie and the star of the TV show "Greatest American Hero." He's handsome and he fits the Stephen King-ish lead character pretty well, but as usual with this kind of film, it all falls apart in the final third, and the internal logic that has been set up fails, too. My favorite horror film of this October was Hangover Square, part of a new boxed DVD set from Fox. I haven't decided what's up for Halloween night--probably a Universal classic, like the original Dracula, or Bride of Frankenstein. After all these years, the first 20 minutes of the Lugosi Dracula still gives me chills.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The fuss over Dumbledore

Full disclosure: I am gay, but I am also not a Harry Potter fan. I have seen all the movies, but quit reading the series after the first book. It was a good young adult book, and I might have become a follower if the series had come out when I was 13, but I really don't get the huge popularity of the series among adults.

At any rate, the current fuss over J.K. Rowling's public remark that the character of Dumbledore was gay is astonishing. The audience who heard her at Carnegie Hall applauded her, but many columnists and bloggers are up in arms about it. At a public reading, an audience member asked her if Dumbledore had ever been in love, and Rowling replied, "I always thought of Dumbledore as gay," and said he'd been in love with a wizard named Grindelwald. Barbara Kay, in the Canadian National Post, says that kids shouldn't have to be confronted by issues of sexuality in their literature. Except I believe that Harry himself handles such issues in the books and movies, not about his sexual orientation, but about sexual attraction. (And, honestly, the Potter books wound up having more adult readers that kid readers.) Jeffrey Weiss, in the Dallas Morning News, says to Rowling, "If you didn't put it in the books, please don't tell us now." Except then he backtracks and says it's OK if she talks about some things, like how she came up with certain characters or ideas. of the implicit compact between author and reader" by making such comments about her work after the fact. He points out that making Dumbledore gay in the books would have strengthened her theme of tolerance, but that making a casual remark about it later is an easy out. He does have a point here; an openly gay character in the Potter series would have made an unmissable statement, even though it might also have increased the book burnings.

But frankly I think all of these commentators are overreacting, possibly out of various levels of discomfort with gay people. Rowling softened her revelation by saying she's always thought of Dumbledore as gay. She did not describe him engaging in sex (as I imagine he has in some of the fan fiction out there), she didn't give him a political agenda based on his being gay. She didn't even say, "Yep, he's gay!" In the same way that many readers have imagined fuller pasts and futures for literary characters, she imagined a fuller past for Dumbledore. Somehow, I think that if she had said, "Dumbledore was a cannibal," or "Dumbledore murdered helpless old ladies," or "Dumbledore was an existentialist," the commentators would have kept silent. It isn't really the encroaching of an author on the "integrity" of a work's relationship to its audience that truly bothers these people. A reader can always say, "Well, I've never thought of Dumbledore as gay," and let it stand at that. The real problem here is homophobia--it's still OK to express your dislike for gay people in public discourse as long as you don't use the word "faggot." Even though I think that Mabe has an interesting point, I wonder if he would have bothered to bring it up if the issue had been vegetarianism rather than homosexuality.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fall harvest: Beatles, geeks, and pies

The fall season is now fully underway and nothing much is sticking with me. My highest hope was for the Julie Taymor movie Across the Universe, the story of a boy, a girl, and a decade (the 60's) as told through Beatles songs. The New York Times review gave me high hopes, making me think of Moulin Rouge, a musical I fell in irrational love with, but the movie wound up being more like Mamma Mia: enjoyable songs but a tedious narrative--though with Meryl Streep currently shooting the film of Mamma Mia, that might wind up surprisingly good. Jude, a nice working-class lad from Liverpool, goes to the States to find his birth father and winds up in the company of a rich kid, Max, and his friends as they try to find their places in the turbulent times. There's drugs and protest and free love; Max winds up in Vietman and Jude falls in love with Max's sister Lucy.

The narrative certainly seems to have been meant to be secondary to the musical numbers, all Beatles songs sung by the cast, but sadly even the musical aspect leaves something to be desired. Things start well with a wonderful "Hold Me Tight" in which we cut back and forth between a high school hop in America and a scruffy bar band in Liverpool. "Dear Prudence" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" are also promising, but there's just not enough electric splash to the production numbers. It's mostly John Lennon numbers for the storyline, and mostly Paul McCartney numbers for onstage performances (by Dana Fuchs as a Janis Joplin-type and Martin Luther McCoy as a Jimi Hendrix-type --BTW, Joplin and Hendrix wind up together, happy, and unburdened by addictions at the end; hooray for fiction!). The leads, Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood, are pleasant but bland, but this is not actor's movie as none of the characters are really allowed (or probably even meant) to come alive. I did like the games Taymor plays with character names: with a lead named Jude, you know "Hey Jude" will pop up eventually, but other names, like Max and Sadie and JoJo do not lead to "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" or "Sexy Sadie" or "Get Back." Saddest of all, the visuals are not spectacular enough to make a big-screen viewing essential. Wait for the DVD. Maybe "Sexy Sadie" will wind up in the deleted scenes.

On TV, I'm enjoying The Big Bang Theory with Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons as physics geek roommates, and Kaley Cuoco as the sexy but sweet waitress who lives across the hall. The way the plot is developing, Galecki is getting interested in Cuoco, but I like reading a gay subtext into the geeks' relationship, and that is a compliment to their acting. Galecki and Parsons make the characters feel like intimate longtime friends, and sometimes Parsons's dialogue and his snippy, almost nervous delivery feel just a shade gayish. We also like Pushing Daisies (cast pic above), with Lee Pace as a piemaker who can touch dead people and bring back to life (briefly, at least). With a cop who knows about his secret power, he goes to morgues and questions the recently murdered for clues about their demise. He has a girlfriend (Anna Friel) who he brought back to life to stay, but the catch is that he can't ever touch her again. The show is whimsical, colorful, and wonderfully stylized with a look and tone unlike anything else on TV right now. I also love Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene as Friel's eccentric aunts, and the always delightful Kristen Chenoweth as a pie shop waitress with a thing for Pace--they let her burst out in song a couple of weeks ago, singing "Hopelessly Devoted to You," and that just added to the lively sense of the unpredictable that will keep me coming back to this show.

I still have the debut episode of Viva Laughlin on the DVR but since it's already been canceled, I can't decide whether to erase it, or go ahead and watch it to see just how bad it is/was. We also slogged through the Ken Burns' documentary The War on PBS. A little too long and too dully reverent, mostly due to the somber music. The stories themselves are worth reverence and didn't need the extra emotional tugs of the music and slow pacing. I'm glad to have watched it, but won't be needing the DVD.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

You've got to get on to get off

For a brief shining moment in the 70's, during the "porno chic" era, there was a dream (a wet one, perhaps) among some filmmakers that mainstream Hollywood films could be made with scenes of hardcore sex, not just for titillation but in the service of legitimate narrative thrust. It never really happened here, although there have been a handful of European films with explicit sex scenes (and at least one American indie film, The Brown Bunny, which was a critical and commercial disaster). The movie rating system is one big hurdle (and to my mind, not so much the system itself but the way the ratings are handled by theaters and communities, but that's a different blog rant), and it's not at all clear to me that this kind of thing could work well aesthetically. The only mainstream films with explicit sex I've seen are Caligula and Devil in the Flesh, and frankly both were interesting only as highbrow porn. The sex was almost completely incidental to Caligula, and though integral to the plot of Devil, it didn't make it a better film.

John Cameron Mitchell, best known for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, has made an indie narrative film with hardcore sex scenes. Though the movie, Shortbus, didn't ultimately come together for me, it is an honorable attempt and, had it been made in the 70s, it might have triggered a whole new genre of film. Shortbus focuses on the sex lives of seven New Yorkers, including a female couples counselor who has never had an orgasm, her unemployed porn-addicted husband, a gay male couple who are thinking about getting into a menage a trois, and a lonely dominatrix named Severin whose real birth name, when revealed, provides the movie's funniest moment. Their lives intersect at an after-hours sex club/cabaret/meeting room called Shortbus, presided over by drag performer Justin Bond, playing himself. Though all the story lines are rather melodramatic, they all seem to have relatively happy endings--though a major fault of the film, for me, is that the most intriguing character, Severin, doesn't really get a satisfying wrap-up.

The movie opens with a montage of hardcore sex scenes, mostly played for laughs (or at least smiles), acclimating the audience to what's ahead, though actually, there isn't all that much explicit sex later on; primarily an orgy sequence which while explicit is not shot in pornographic detail, and a gay three-way which is more funny than sexy. The integration of sex works well here and, while it is occasionally mildly arousing, anyone, gay or straight, watching this film just to get off will be disappointed. The acting varies wildly from weak to solid, with the best coming from Sook-Yin Lee, the therapist, and Lindsay Beamish as Severin. Justin Bond gets the best line as he surveys the orgy crowd and says to Lee, "It's just like the 60's ... only with less hope." The movie looks great (had it been done in the 70's, it would have been grungy and dark, but this is colorful and crisp) and has some wonderful CGI work for short connecting sequences which swoop through New York City. I'd give Mitchell a B for what's on the screen but an A for effort and intent.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The call of Lovecraft

I re-watched The Dunwich Horror and Die Monster Die recently as part of my annual immersion in all things H. P. Lovecraft, a writer of horror stories who was little known in his day but who has become quite popular since his death in 1937. I'm not sure how widely read he is, though virtually his entire oeuvre of over 60 works (mostly short stories and novellas) has remained in print from a variety of publisher, and he's even got a volume in the Library of America series, though I suspect that many young people know him more from several popular video and role-playing games based on his work. (My sweetie even found a small green plush toy of the fearsome Ancient Dark God-Beast Cthulhu which he bought for me--see below.) I first encountered Lovecraft in college, back in the 70's; I can still vividly recall the circumstances of reading that first story, "The Call of Cthulhu," in the OSU library, in a comfortable reading chair up on the 3rd or 4th floor, looking out the huge window on the cloudy, blustery October day. I read several stories that quarter, and bought all the Ballantine paperbacks that were available.

Ever since then, I have made a point of reading or re-reading at least a couple of Lovecraft stories every October. The thing about his stories is that, while I enjoy them, they are not, individually, all that memorable. I have probably read some of his stories 5 or 6 times without retaining any knowledge of the plot or outcome--though the outcome is often some horrifying sight, unspeakable yet rendered IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Aside from that first Cthulhu story, the only other stories I remember well are "Dagon," about a race of water creatures, and the novella "At the Mountains of Madness," about an expedition to Antarctica that finds the ruins of a very scary and ancient site which was once home to some Ancient Monsters from the Stars. His writing is dense and long-winded, and often in the first person, with a narrator either relating something that happened to him in the past, or something that happened to someone else (usually a tale found in a journal or diary after the subject's death or mysterious disappearance). This means the stories lack the tension and immediacy of the writings of, say, Stephen King, but they do have atmosphere, and though the tales sometimes run together in the memory, they do build up a cumulative power over time. I'll report back as I do my Halloween Lovecraft reading over the next couple of weeks.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Six degrees: H. P. Lovecraft to Barry Manilow

I was watching a DVD of The Dunwich Horror, a 1970 adaptation of an H. P. Lovecraft story about Unspeakable Blasphemous Ancient Eldritch Gods--you can read my review later this month on my Classic Movie blog. Anyway, the theme music, by Les Baxter, who wrote the scores for scores of American International horror films of the era, is a catchy ditty that kept reminding me of some pop tune of the 70's. I finally recalled that it was the same melody as "The Palace of Versailles," a song on Al Stewart's album Time Passages (one of my all-time favorites of the 70's). On the CD liner notes, it says that the song is based on "The Earle of Salisbury" by William Byrd, a 16th century English composer. So, this may be a tortured "Six Degrees" game, but...

HP Lovecraft wrote "The Dunwich Horror," which was made into a movie featuring a score by Les Baxter, who snitched the theme from William Byrd; the same piece of music was snitched (with appropriate credit) by Al Stewart, who in the 70's was on the same record label as Barry Manilow.