Tuesday, April 9, 2002

Tuesday Bluesday

Tuesday is my least favorite day of the week. By far.

Monday isn't so bad, really. No, I don't like being back at work, but my body hasn't quite figured out that the weekend has concluded and, thus, I move about in a fairly zombie-like state for the better part of the day.

Wednesday is Hump Day. No, I don't mean it's the day for humping; get your mind out of the damn gutter before I join you down there. (Although, on second thought, if humping is what you need to do to get you through your day...well, then, don't let me stop you.) But that Wednesday is the day we go "over the hump" and head on down the Slip-N-Slide toward the upcoming weekend.

Thursday? Well, it's almost Friday, now isn't it?

And Friday is...well, Friday. End of the week. Pass "Go." Collect $200. Repeat if necessary.

But Tuesday? Tuesday. Just. Sucks. Think about it. It's a day past Monday, so my body has now awakened to the fact that the weekend has, in fact, ended, and is screaming, in every language that it knows, "Dear fucking Jesus! How did that happen? I can't be back here at work! No! For the love of God, Montresor!" (Oops. Sorry 'bout the Poe reference. My inner English major must have rolled over and hit the snooze alarm or something. I'll try not to let that happen again--not today, anyway.)

And the following weekend is still too far in the future to properly contemplate. Well, okay, you can contemplate it if you wish, but come on: it's fucking Tuesday. Thinking about the weekend now will just depress you even more than being at work on a Tuesday already has.

And the weirdest shit always goes down on Tuesdays. I've seen plenty of friends get fired on Tuesdays. My dad had his bypass surgery on a Tuesday (he died the following Friday). And September 11? Yep. A Tuesday.

Is there a point nestled in all this talk of Tuesdays? Not really. Am I just taking up space (and, consequently, your valuable time) with all this talk of Tuesdays because I didn't really have the time or brain capacity to write anything more meaningful this week? You bet. And do I have anything at all nice to say about Tuesdays? Anything at all? WellÉdon't the new videos and DVDs come out on Tuesdays? That's a nice thing, right? Right?

(Insert sound of crickets chirping here.)

Okay. So that's not enough to keep Tuesdays from sucking. Then again...doesn't Tomato Nation get updated every Tuesday? Or just about, anyway? That's a good thing, to be sure...a great thing, even...guess Tuesdays aren't a total sinkhole of suck after all.

Nah. Tuesdays still Hoover major ass. Just not as much as I thought.

At least once Tuesday is over, the rest of the week is better. But sooner or later ("sooner" seeming to be the more constant of the two), the next Tuesday rolls around. Then we do what we have no choice but to do: Tuck our heads down, plow forward and deal.

Or we could just stay home and play with our cats.

Whatever works.

Thursday, April 4, 2002

Review: Phantom of the Opera (1925/29)

It's something of a miracle that this, the first of many film versions of Gaston Leroux's novel, is watchable at all.

First, consider that its director, Rupert Julian, was, by all accounts, a tyrant on the set despised by the entire cast and crew, but most especially by its star, Lon Chaney. Second, previews for the film went poorly, leading Universal to re-edit and reshoot scenes numerous times, including a completely reshot ending directed by western/comedy specialist Edward Sedgwick. (The original ending had Erik the phantom, played by Chaney, dying at his organ of a broken heart; footage of this ending no longer exists, but stills of it have turned up in movie magazines for decades.) Comedy scenes were jammed in, then taken out again. (Pioneering female director Lois Weber also aided in the subsequent editing process.) And lastly, when the movie was reissued with a soundtrack in 1929, more scenes were shot and inserted, including a spoken introduction by a character in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House.

It is this later, revised version of Phantom that is most readily available today, as prints of it are more watchable than the few prints extant of the 1925 edit (and even these vary from print to print, with some including other scenes and continuity shifts that others don't). But since the sound discs were later lost, the sound scenes inserted (including the spoken-word intro) are rendered mute and, upon viewing, even more glaringly disconnected from what surrounds them than they did upon their initial release.

All of this post-production futzing leaves us with a drastically (though not fatally) flawed product. There is really only one element that hold Phantom of the Opera together and makes it a classic, no matter which release print you view: the physical, frightening, sympathetic and performance by Lon Chaney.

Denied facial expression for much of the movie--either by the mask he wears for the first half of the picture or the restrictive, horrific makeup he created for Erik's face--Chaney gives most of his performance with the rest of his body, but most especially with his hands. Consider the scene in which we see Erik reaching for Christine (adorable Mary Philbin) from behind. We can't see anything but Erik's hand, yet Chaney is able to convey, through gesture alone, desire and apprehension--and thus generate immediate sympathy for the Phantom, even though we know he's the villain of the piece. Later, he's able to convey menace with the way he points his finger when Christine asks about the coffin in his "home" beneath the Opera House: "That," he helpfully explains, "is where I sleep," his hand elegantly inclining toward the casket in question. And body language is all Chaney has to work with in the masked ball scene (filmed in two-strip Technicolor), where, as the Red Death, he terrifies and rebukes the whole crowd and, when he spies Christine with Raoul, her true love (played by Norman Kerry, who also co-starred with Chaney in Hunchback of Notre Dame), his open hand slowly contracting into a fist is all the explanation we need to know how betrayed and angry Erik feels at that moment.

Of course, Chaney still gets emotion across with his face through the layers of self-applied makeup-which, no matter what account you choose to believe, was, at the very least, uncomfortable--especially in the justly famous unmasking scene. The look on his face--and most particularly in his eyes--encompasses surprise, rage and, yes, sadness. He trusted her to do as he told her and not remove his mask. He loved her in his own, demented way. Even disfigured madmen don't want their hearts broken.

Chaney's presence lends gravity to the rest of the film, which would fly off into the air and never come back down without his performance to tether it to. The pacing is rapid and serial-like, with Philbin's Christine coming off as a damsel who keeps finding new ways to put herself in distress (when Erik tells her he'll let her go only if she doesn't see Raoul again, does she somehow think he won't be watching her every move?) and Kerry's Raoul the prototype for the dashing but nonetheless useless hero who would populate many a horror Universal horror film in years to come.

In addition to Chaney's performance, Phantom of the Opera also boasts some of the finest production values of any of the Universal horror pictures, with a detailed recreation of the Paris Opera House and dark, damp catacombs for Chaney to lurk around in. (At one point near the conclusion, the Phantom races past the Notre Dame set--no doubt an in-joke referring to Chaney' earlier success as the Hunchback.)

So even with all of the shifts in continuity and material being plugged in and yanked out again, Phantom of the Opera manages to remain the best, most definitive film version of this story, despite more elaborate productions (Universal's own remake in 1943, filmed in Technicolor) and more violent interpretations (Hammer's distasteful remake in 1962), mostly on the star power of Lon Chaney, who creates his most memorable character and gives the audience, in the unmasking scene, one of the greatest moments not only in the history of horror films, but the history of cinema itself.

Monday, April 1, 2002

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

But you can forget the peanuts. And the Cracker Jack? I'll take a pass on that, too. Get me two hot dogs, plain, and a cold Red Dog and I'll be just skippy. Thanks.

I'm an atypical guy. I don't spend my Saturdays epoxied to my TV screen, watching whatever sporting events happen to be on until my eyes virtually bleed with glorious, glorified exhaustion.

Don't get me wrong. I like sports well enough. Football's okay, I guess, even if it's really simulated war that often leaves grown men on painkillers and crutches for much of their lives; it's nice to have on in the background when cleaning La Casa del Terror or taking a nap on a chilly winter afternoon. And basketball is fine as well, even though, like most Chicagoans, I lament the fact that our city has been without a professional franchise for years and...wait...what's that? Chicago still has a pro basketball team? Really? Which one? The Bulls? Really? Huh. I stand corrected (or I would if, I were, in fact, standing; but as I'm sitting at a rebellious keyboard, pecking out these words using only my two middle fingers, I'll sit corrected, thank you).

And hockey? Man, I used to love me some hockey back in the days when all the kids would watch the Blackhawks on TV, then go out to the cobblestone alley bisecting out block and play the game until the sun left us hungry for more and the aqua light from the wooden posts took over. (I played goalie and played it well.) This was, of course, before the Blackhawks' ownership decided that it was more important to protect their season ticket holders, who numbered somewhere under 20,000, than to show the game to the millions of potential fans in the metro area and allow the sport to stay in the hearts of those alleyway players and grow in the hearts of their children. Oh well.

But baseball? There you have the sport I have affection for. No. "Affection" isn't quite right. "Passion." Yeah. That's more on the ball. "Passion."

I can't pinpoint where that passion sprang from. I can Marlowe back as much as I want through afternoons spent on living room floors, elbows tripod-propped, eyes straining at the enormous (or so it seemed then, as all things did, I suppose) back-and-white Zenith, to watch the Cubs on WGN (tactfully turning from the screen whenever they ran a commercial for Creature Features so as to not meet the gaze of the line drawing of Lon Chaney, but feeling that gaze hot on my neck anyway) or the White Sox on WSNS (whose signal always came in like every game was being played in a blizzard and photographed by men with inner ear infections perpetually affecting their sense of balance) and wonder what specific moment lit the fuse.

Was it Burt Hooten's no-hitter, which seemed so much like a magician's slight of eye to the eight-year-old boy on that living room floor on Ohio Street? Was it the throw from deep in the shortstop hole that Don Kessinger, tall and lanky and graceful as a dancer, seemed able to make while in mid-air every single time? Was it the shower and the goofy softball uniforms and the patchwork lineup of the '77 White Sox, dubbed "The South Side Hit Men" in the daily papers, a nickname so politically incorrect that even the suggestion of such would likely get a columnist canned now?

Was it the doubleheader in Montreal where the first game went 18 innings with the Cubs winning on a shoestring catch (shown later on replay to be not a catch, but merely a trap, more slight of eye) by Rick Reuschel, stout of stomach but swift of leg, only to see the Cubs get hammer 15-0 in the second game, which ended somewhere just east of 3 a.m.?

No. The exact moment is unknowable. But there the passion lies, if such an emotion as passion can ever be said to "lie" rather than "gallop" or "frolic" or "bust a move." Other sports are background noise. Baseball is intimate, a whisper near enough to the ear for its breath to be felt. Baseball is pastoral, the poet's game. It is the grace of everyday working and living and dying. Even when its season passes, as all seasons must, the promise of another season is enough to warm the coldest January day, to melt the snowflakes before they can even hit the ground.

So. Baseball season kicks in again today. It's not near--it's here. And I'll watch the games, the fuse burning still, even though bleacher seats at Wrigley Field cost more than I can afford on my best days and Old Comiskey is little more than a parking lot with a brass plate marking where home used to be, surrounded by open space and uninspired architecture pretending to be the sport I adore. I'll watch the games. And a large part of me will clasp hands with those fragments of my childhood that were innocent and good. And that smile you may well see pasted to my 38-year-old face like so much Colorforms fun? That's the eight-year-old on the living room floor staring up at the Zenith all over again. That's innocence. That's peace.