Monday, April 26, 2004

Leftover Spam

Last month, I wrote about the junk mail that piles up in my mailbox like leaves on an autumn lawn, though not nearly so picturesque or colorful.

And still the spam keeps coming in ever-increasing volume and even less entertaining forms:

Prescription Drugs. Now, I realize that Americans are thoroughly screwed when it comes to prescription drugs. The companies that manufacture said drugs charge premium prices for them, with their stated reasoning being that since they spent the cash to research and develope the drugs, they're entitled to charge whatever they want to in order to recoup their expenses. Okay. I get that. But when the choice for some Americans--especially seniors whose sole income is likely their Social Security check--is between paying for drugs they need to survive or, say, rent and food, something is way out of whack. The funny thing, though, is that these same drugs are available for a lot less in other countries. And when one of those countries is as tantilizingly close as right over our northern border--yeah, Canada, I'm talking about you--who can blame anyone for taking a little trip to save a good chunk of change? Even as expensive as gas is these days (and will increasingly become over the impending summer months), you'd still save money driving to Toronto or Montreal for your prescriptions than if you walked to your neighborhood Walgreens or CVS.

All that said, would I buy prescription drugs from a site that clogged up my mailbox with blind solicitations? Two words: Fuck. No.

Software/Hardware. I'm an old-fashioned sort in many ways, but one of the most prominent manifestations of this personality trait (flaw?) is that there are certain things I won't buy online. DVDs? Sure. Books? Why not? Porn? Not so much anymore--"When masturbation's lost its charm, you're fuckin' lazy," or so Green Day sang--but when I did buy, I did quite a bit of it via e-mail. But a printer for Polly Jean? Or software that I can't be certain would be compatible with her delicate innards? I'd be more likely to walk down my crumbling back porch, pile up what little paper money I have, douse it with lighter fluid (which I do have, despite the fact that I don't smoke much more than three cigarettes a year) and light the pile up.

Hi. Oh, but this fascinates--and infuriates--me to no end. My e-mailbox has been crammed to capacity lately with messages from addresses I've never heard from--all of them with attachments that they want me to pop open. Now, I may be an idiot in many ways--spending money recklessly, falling in love unwisely, working at a dead-end job eons longer than I ever should have--but even I am not addled enough to double-click a ZIP or EXE file from someone I don't know. Shit, I won't even do that from someone I do know unless I'm expecting an attachment from a friend. Once, Sailor J sent me a scan of Richard Roeper (said by far too many to be my celebrity twin) with his arm around a woman who was a dead ringer for a mutual friend and former co-worker. But she had titled her e-mail "Hi" and I had to to ask her, "What the bloody hell are you thinking? Don't you know that assholes are sending e-mails like that to spread viruses?" She confessed that she didn't know, and I felt bad for going off, especially since she's one of the few readers I have left.

But the sheer volume of these infected e-mails--sometimes as many as a dozen a day--surprised me. So I asked out tech at work what the blue fuck was going on. "The virus-writing community..." Wait...there's a virus-writing community? Do they get together for coffee or have conventions? " having a competition to see who can write the nastiest virus and cause the most damage on the Net." How absolutely darling. It's hard enough to maintain a site on the Web without these evil rat bastards trying to take me and Polly Jean down for the count. And to make things extra special, it appears that some of this dicksmacks have appropriated's address to send some of these infected e-mails (or so I'm lead to believe, from the "mail delivery failure" notices I get from places like Canada, Great Britain and Hungary).

There's little more disheartening these days than seeing that my e-mailbox has a dozen messages in it, but not one of them is from a friend I haven't heard from in a bit, a close associate who's read the latest update and enjoyed, or some random stranger passing along a rare compliment. When only spammers are paying attention to you--and scant attention at that--it might just be time to pull the plug once and for all.

The spammers would have plenty of other, more tasty targets--they wouldn't miss me at all.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The Coldest Stare

Tonight, I sat out on the top stair of my building's back porch--a gray, decaying thing that shakes violently whenever I cart a load of laundry up it or a load of trash down and has somehow escaped the notice of city inspectors, despite an allegedly stepped-up effort by the city to check out such structures in the wake of a porch collapse last summer that killer 13 partygoers in Lincoln Park--and looked up at the stars.

You can't see very many stars in the city. Only the brightest ones can cut through the haze of street and alley lights that hovers over Chicago like a permanent cloud. When I worked in Evanston at the Evil Publishing Company, I could stand on the El platform, waiting for the southbound Purple Line train, and look south to the metropolis, covered in yellow-gray gauze. Not that Evanston was that much better for star-gazing; its proximity to Chicago virtually makes it as difficult to study constellations as it would be standing at State and Madison, even on the most crisp winter night.

I never realized how little I could see above until I got away from the city.

A decade ago, my girlfriend at the time had an invitation to go to a wedding in Livonia, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. We took the South Shore electric train to South Bend, were picked up by her parents (who lived--and live--in Berrien Springs), had dinner, then drove off across the state. Or maybe we spent the night and drove the next day. My memory--sometimes a remarkable thing, sometimes a Rubik's Cube of images that never quite fit onto one side--doesn't have that one in order. But she drove her parents' Ford Taurus across the state of her birth and fiddled with the radio dial, desperate to find something only moderately awful in the air.

And I? Just. Stared.

The night sky had slid over Michigan and brought friends with it. Burning white points of light. Thousands of them. You couldn't properly make out constellations, because they brought the rest of their galaxies with them. I'd been to the Adler Planetarium and read about the stars, but this was the very first time I'd actually seen how many I couldn't see at home. Upon a subsequent visit to my girlfriend's parents' home, I walked out after dinner and stretched out in their gravel driveway. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I couldn't count all the stars I saw--the arc of the whole Milky Way lay before me, revealing points of light as they looked before the hundred or more light years it took them to travel to this little, angry world, to my wide brown eyes, and no amount of time spent flat on that gravel would have let me take it all in.

Tonight, it's pretty clear in Chicago. And like I said, the brightest stars still do cut through the city lights, and I've spent many a night out here. Sometimes with a Red Dog dangling from between fore and middle fingers, getting killed too quickly for the good of my body or my mind. Sometimes with a cigarette or two, when the burning of my lungs and nostrils was welcome distraction from the rest of my life. Sometimes just listening to the brass windchimes I bought at a Pier 1 years ago and kept wrapped in red paper, waiting for the day when I'd hang them outside my first house. But I never bought a house--never had that kind of scratch, and likely never will--so I gave up, cast away the red paper and let the windchimes sing. The past couple night have been breezy indeed, so they've had a lot to sing about.

Last September, I was sitting out here, staring up at the evening sky or out at the pear tree a couple yards north or down at my bowling shoes, when the wooden storm door behind me rattled. Without getting up, I leaned back, turned my body halfway, and yanked the door open. Lottie was standing in the doorway, eyes wide, meowing to come out. Most nights, I'd just shag her back in and tell her she was being silly. I'd done that with the Girlish Girls ever since Ms. Christophee managed to sneak out and spent the night on the street, only to be found the next morning, huddled against the mottled brick of our apartment building, shaken and dirty but otherwise unharmed.

That September night, though, I didn't shag her back in. Instead, I patted the peeling surface of the porch, beckoning her out.

On all of the other occasions lottie had taken to explore the porch, she'd stalked every inch of the landing, sniffing out rival cats or squirrels or possums on the prowl for my next-door neighbor's discards. But on this night, she walked right up next to me, sat down beside me, and watched the stars with me. Maybe because she didn't search the porch because she was sick, hadn't eaten in a couple of days, and just didn't have the energy for it. Or maybe she knew what the vet would find the next day. Maybe she knew she was dying. Maybe I knew it, too.

We sat there together for a long time. I looked up at the stars as I had so many nights before, and spoke the words I'd spoken so many times before that I had ceased to be certain that I was speaking aloud at all: "Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight." On previous occasions, I'd wished for mundane things, like a new job or the love of a woman. But that night, with this large, loving tabby beside me purring hard enough to shake this old porch to splinters, I wished as hard as I'd ever wished for anything for her to get better. To be okay. To not suffer any more than she already had. And the stars looked back at me with the coldest stare and didn't answer.

Three days later, she she had to be put to sleep. There was nothing else to do.

Tonight, the door rattles behind me again. I stand, turn, open the door. Ms. Christopher looks up at me, pleading for the opportunity. No, the dimwit hasn't learned a thing from her experience with getting lost. But I don't shag her back. I open the door and welcome her to sit with me. And she does (after a lengthy search of the premises, of course). And we watch the stars together.

I still wish on stars from time to time, though maybe not with the same level of conviction displayed in wishes past. But I keep in mind a line of dialogue from an episode of M*A*S*H, in which a wounded soldier believes himself to be Jesus Christ and army psychiatrist Sydney Freedman asks him if it's true that God answers all prayers.

"Yes," the wounded soldier answers, tears streaming down his cheeks. "Sometimes, the answer is 'no.'"

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Review: The Hands of Orlac (1924)

The director (Robert Weine) and the star (Conrad Veidt) of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari reteam for this first film version of Maurice Renard's story of a concert pianist, Paul Orlac (Veidt), whose hands are destroyed in a horrific train wreck. Through experimental surgery, Orlac's hands are replaced with the hands of an executed knife-wielding killer named Vasser. (Such surgery wouldn't be possible in the "real" world for several decades.)

Orlac's father, who hates Paul and refuses to lend money when his wife begs for such, is later found murdered, and Vasser's prints are found at the scene. Is Paul the real killer? Do the transplanted hands have a mind of their own? And who is the mysterious stranger (Fritz Kortner) with steel hands, claiming to be Vasser returned from the dead and blackmailing Paul for his dead father's fortune?

Weine tries to add nightmarish touches throughout the film. And a couple of sequences--an actual nightmare, in which Kortner's face hovers above Veidt's bed, and a scene in which Veidt stumbles through darkness, with only his face and outstretched hands visible--are effectively spooky. Unfortunately, the conclusion of The Hands of Orlac, in which Kortner's character is revealed to be a common criminal engaged in an elaborate scheme to drive Veidt mad and steal his father's cash, is not only ridiculous, but it also severely undercuts whatever mood had been established before it.

Not there was any consistent tone to begin with. Relatively restrained sequences with the blackmailer (who also bullies Orlac's maid into aiding in the scheme) are side by side with scenes of a pallid, bug-eyed Veidt staring at his hands like they don't belong on his body (which, of course, they don't). And that conclusion plays like Weine trying--and failing--to do an imitation of Fritz Lang's bizarre crime films, like Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. The removal of even a hint of supernatural presence makes the whole film feel like a cheat and makes it more like American films of the time, in which the villain who seems like an otherworldly monster turns out to be a criminal, a lunatic or a mad scientist (and, sometimes, all three at the same time). Compare this approach with Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932), which is primarily a crime thriller, but maintains a supernatural subplot--hinting, at the very least, at madness, if not possession by the dead Mabuse--that it doesn't back off from or explain away.

The first Hands of Orlac may have been a misfire for its director and star, but ten years later, Renard's story was successfully remade as Mad Love, directed by cinematographer Karl Kreund (who also directed the Karloff version of The Mummy at Universal) and starring Colin Clive as Orlac and Peter Lorre as the mad, obsessed Doctor Gogol (who sews the murder's hands on). This silent version of the story--available only through independent video companies working with less-than-perfect prints--pales in comparison.

Thursday, April 1, 2004

This Sporting Life: Bad Sports

The National Hockey League (NHL) regular season ends Sunday. Of course, in Chicago, the NHL regular season ended quite some time ago, if it can honestly be said that it started at all. For our city's rumored representative in the NHL, the Blackhawks, never really showed any of verifiable evidence of having actually "played" any games this season.

Video footage is alleged to exist of individuals dressing in Blackhawks uniforms and skating in arenas in cities like Buffalo, Vancouver and Calgary, but dressing like hockey players and actually "playing" hockey are not the same thing. I can't say with any certainty that similar footage exists of these pretenders skating on United Center ice--the owner of the Blackhawks, William Wirtz, has refused for years to allow regular season home games to be telecast locally. Better for Chicago viewers in the long run, really, though not so good for local electronics stores, which surely would do fantastic business replacing the television sets of irrate hockey fans angered beyond reason at the athletic atrocities flitting across their soon-to-be-shattered screens.

Raise prices beyond reason. Deny local fans TV coverage of home games. Trade away any player that might be worth more than a nickel. I'm not sure you could come up with a more perfect way to destroy a fan base if you tried. Even if, as General-Manager for-the-umpteenth-time Bob Pulford claims, the draft picks acquired in trades over the past year are key to rebuilding the franchise, by the time this team is watchable again there may be no fans left to care.

I grew up as a hockey fan. Played the game in the alley behind the apartment building we lived in on Ohio Street. Took multiple pucks/puckballs to the head (explains a lot about about me, doesn't it?) while playing goalie in my brother's borrowed pads and mask. And most of my friends were big hockey fans, too. Why? Because even if we couldn't make it to the Chicago Stadium (long since razed) to catch a game, we could watch on TV--at least if we could point the rabbit ears on the back of the black-and-white portable set in the family room in the proper direction to get the signal to look like something other than a reenactment of the Blizzard of '67.

Hockey isn't entirely dead in Chicago, though. We also have an AHL (minor-league) team, the Wolves, and they have a nice little fan base of their own. In fact, on a couple of occasions this year, they've outdrawn the Blackhawks. And the Wolves televise all of their games. Coincidence? No such thing.

Oh, but if the Blackhawks were the only stupid sports franchise in this city, we could just ignore them and, eventually, they'd just go away. They might anyway, but we'll still have plenty to cringe at.

The Bulls had a grand stretch that ended six years ago--my God, has it really been that long?--but have been an embarassment to the sport of basketball ever since. You can argue forever whether or not the team's owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, was right to "break up the dynasty" (as he has often been accused of) or, at the very least, not make an effort to keep the team together for at least one more championship run, until all the hair on your head turns gray and falls out. But no one can argue about the quality of the team since that last banner was raised at the United Center--the Bulls have been, and are, dreadful.

And the most frustrating season of that horrid run has been the current one, in which the new general manager, John Paxson (replacing the much-loathed Jerry Krause) brought in new players and, when the team faltered, a new coach--and, amazingly, the team actually got worse. Even more amazing is the fact that attendance at the United Center has been excellent--among the NBA's best, in fact. Are these people masochists? Do they like burning money? If so, could they spare some from the fire and slide some to me? A fiver, even? No? Well, then. By going game after game, they're only ensuring that the product on the court will continue to reek.

There is hope for sport in this city, if one looks elsewhere. The Chicago Fire, our soccer team, is pretty bloody good. The Bears hired a new coach and have brought in new, experienced players, so next year might be different. The White Sox (also owned by Reinsdorf) lost several key players, but they happen to be in the weakest division in baseball, so they have a chance to succeed. And the Cubs? They almost made it to the World Series last year and spent some money in the off-season for the first time in a long time. If Mark Prior's elbow and Achilles tendon start to behave themselves, this baseball season could be, at the very least, entertaining.

At the United Center, though, it might be time to call the EPA in. There's something very toxic on Madison Street.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Review: Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Sequels are tricky, remakes even more so. But a remake of a sequel? That's just begging for trouble. And when you consider that this is Zack Snyder's first effort as a feature film director (he previously worked in commercials) and that James Gunn is responsible for writing the abysmal live-action Scooby-Doo and its needless sequel, the 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead should be an outright disaster. But it's not. In fact, on its own terms, this new Dawn is scary, nasty and wickedly funny.

I'm just not sure it's really a remake.

It's true that Gunn and Snyder use the same basic scenario as George Romero's revered original Dawn of the Dead, a loose sequel to his zero-budget cult classic, Night of the Living Dead: The recently dead have risen to feast on the living, and a determined group of survivors holes up in a shopping mall while the undead mill about outside, clammoring to get inside and pick them clean. And there are certainly specific, respectful nods to the cast of the Romero's Dawn: there's a shop in the mall called Gaylen Ross (who played the female lead in the original); Scott Reiniger turns up as a general; Tom Savini plays a county sheriff; and Ken Foree is a televangelist who gets to say the tagline, just like he did in the original--"When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth."

Only the dead in the new Dawn don't "walk the earth." They run. Fast.

In that sense, Dawn of the Dead owes a lot more to Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later..., in which humans infected with a biological weapon that turns them into mindless, bloodthirsty savages, than to any of Romero's zombie epics (or, much more recently, Resident Evil), in which the dead move so slowly you can practically dance past them. (That made sense, in a way. If the radiation or virus or whatever--a reason is hinted at in Night of the Living Dead, but no explanation is offered in either version of Dawn--that reanimates the body only activates certain parts of the brain, then a lack of coordination is to be expected.) Try that with these jacked-up zombies, and you'll be lunch before you make it half a block.

This different approach to the material is evident from the opening frames. Ana (Sarah Polley) works in a hospital in Milwaukee, where a patient with a bite wound has been brought. She thinks little of it, drives to her suburban home, has a brief conversation with a cute little blonde girl (cue ominous music) and has sex with her husband in the shower, thus missing the news bulletins blaring out of her TV. In the morning, she and hubby are awakened by the little blonde girl--now looking not nearly as cute with blood running from her mouth--who promptly rips hubby's throat out. He dies quickly--and just as quickly is back up again, wild-eyed and trying to put the bite on Ana, who wisely jumps out the bathroom window and makes a run for it. To where? Anywhere that's safe. But that's the problem: nowhere is safe. Not anymore.

In an opening credits sequence as effective as any I've ever seen, images of befuddled reporters and officials are intermingled with flashes of zombie mayhem, all to the tune of Johnny Cash's apocalyptic "The Man Comes Around."

Ana hooks up with other survivors, like Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a tight-lipped, take-no-shit Milwaukee cop; Michael (Jake Weber), your average nice guy; and Andre (Mekhi Phifer) and his pregnant girlfriend, Luda (Inna Korobkina). They take refuge in the local mall, only to find three security guards (Michael Kelly, Kevin Zegers and Michael Barry) who don't take kindly to others invading their hiding place.

More survivors arrive later, and the rest of the movie becomes an ongoing battle between the entrenched living and the dashing dead, who wander around outside the mall until they spot fresh flesh and rush for supper, infecting the survivor with their bite. And the survivors, to their credit, are all amazing shots, able to hit zombies in the head (the only way to stop them for good, you know) as they barrel forward. And trust me: a lot of heads get blown off in Dawn, which somehow only got an R rather than an NC-17; guess it didn't have enough sex for the MPAA to give it the more adult rating. (That seems to send a dangerous message: Sex and any discussion of it is to be discouraged, while violence is not acceptable, but preferable.)

With all the fighting and flying, there isn't much room for character development (even with some characters starting off looking bad or good and ending up the polar opposite), though the action does slow down long enough for moments of quiet observation: a game of chess between Kenneth and Andy (Bruce Bohne), the gunshop owner across the street from the mall, played with binoculers and dry-erase boards; Andre and Luda playfully debating whether to give their child an African or Russian name; an infected survivor waiting to die and revive as another survivor stands vigil, awaiting the moment when the trigger must be pulled.

Even though Romero's 1978 screenplay is credited as the basis for this latest Dawn, much of it has been tossed in favor of speed and brevity. That's not necessarily a bad thing; one of the legitimate criticisms of Romero's original is that it runs too long (over two hours, and even longer in the "director's cut") and it's pacing is too languid. While that certainly allows more room for character development and social satire (zombies = typical mall shoppers), it also allows for less attentive viewers to nod off before the gut-muching conclusion. No chance of that happening in the new Dawn: the zombies just keep on coming in menacing swarms well photographed by veteran cinematographer Matthew Leonetti (who shot Poltergeist, among many others), and slow patches are few and far between.

The lack of fidelity to Romero's original also means that the pointed but unsubtle social commentary is almost entirely absent here. That's not a criticism of Snyder or Gunn. The two movies have entirely different goals. Romero wanted to poke fun at the consumer mentality; snyder and Gunn are much more interested in action/adventure and snarky dialogue.

Still, there are hints of commentary here and there in the Snyder/Gunn Dawn: An overhead view of the suburb Ana lives in seems to imply that a zombielike state of conformity already exists, lacking only the zombies themselves; a brief debate about what to do with an infected survivor echoes past arguments over the treatment of AIDS patients, and the zombies themselves could represent how quickly everything, including the human race, becomes obsolete. Society's house of cards folds in record time--what took an undetermined time in Romero's Dawn (weeks, perhaps) and days in 28 Days Later... takes mere hours here.

Without Romero's interest in overt commentary, though, the shopping mall location ceases to make sense. Romero chose the mall for its satirical possibilities, not because it would be the best place to go when the dead rise, especially given their proclivity for massing there. Maybe Snyder and Gunn would have been better off setting their zombie holocost in a hospital, a warehouse, a high school--anywhere but a shopping mall--and calling their movie something other than Dawn of the Dead. That way, they'd have been spared the comparisons and their work could have stood--or, more appropriately, stumbled and rumbled--on its own.

Unavoidable comparisons aside, though, this new Dawn is good-humored, dark, gross fun well done. It may not be a classic like the original, but it's energetic and entertaining--and that's all it needs to be.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Review: The Golem (1920)

German actor Paul Wegener co-wrote, co-directed and played the title role for the third time in his career. (He played the Golem for the first time in a 1915 version, then, oddly enough, in a sex comedy titled The Golem and the Dancing Girl in 1917; Wegener co-directed both of those movies as well.

Rabbi Loew, who sees in the stars that misfortune is to befall the Jews of Prague, comes up with a pretty extreme plan to save them: He creates a monster to rescue them from oppression. Loew makes a statue of clay, obtains the proper mystic word to animate the statue from a demon named Astaroth, and brings this statue, named the Golem, to life to defend the ghetto when the Emperor declares that the Jews must leave by the end of the month. Loew takes the Golem to the Emperor's palace, where the clay behemoth quite literally brings down the house and convinces His Majesty that he might want to reconsider that whole "Get Outta Here!" position.

This is all grand and skippy...until the Rabbi's assistant, who is in love with the Rabbi's young daughter, uses the Golem to knock off his romantic rival. Disaster ensues, and the Golem goes out of control and starts tearing up the town, starting a huge fire and killing innocent townspeople until the spell that animated him in the first place is broken.

Wegener's Golem, with his enormous stature and stiff, jerky movements, provides the template for later movie monsters such as Universal's Frankenstein and the Mummy--especially the 1940s versions of these beasties, when they'd been reduced to the level of supernatural henchmen. There are also particular scenes that seem familiar now, like when a girl in the palace presents the Golem with a flower, or when the Golem hurls the lover from the top of the Rabbi's tower to his death, or when the enormous Golem confronts the little blonde girl at the end of the movie. All of these scenes can be found, in one form or another, in Universal's Frankenstein series, particularly James Whale's Frankenstein, which displayed Whale's knowledge of (and influence by) the great German Expressionist horror films.

The architecture in The Golem also strikes a familiar note: It has the oddly angled rooftops and walls first seen in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and later employed in several Universal pictures, especially Murders in the Rue Morgue (itself a thinly disguised remake of Caligari), The Old Dark House (also directed by Whale) and Son of Frankenstein (not directed by Whale, but intentionally mimicking his style and visual sensibilities).

It may be this familiarity with its elements that robs The Golem of its excitement for modern audiences, as well as an utter lack of characters to care for.

Since the Golem is little more than a tool--first for good, then for evil--he doesn't elicit sympathy. Rabbi Loew engages in black magic--one of the reasons the Emperor states for wanting the Jews out of Prague--to bring the Golem to life and willingly lets his creation kill people at the palace to make his point, so he doesn't exactly come off like a good guy either. And the Rabbi's assistant incites the Golem to kill the daughter's boyfriend, and what is his punishment for all the resulting harm the Golem causes? Nothing. It even looks an awful lot like he gets the girl in the end.

The Golem is certainly a cinematic landmark, showing the way for many of the movie monsters to come. That doesn't, however, make it a great movie on its own terms. Interesting? Certainly. Influential? Undeniably. But a classic of cinema as a whole, much less the horror genre in particular? Not exactly, though it's genre fans will find it worth a look, if only to see where the Frankenstein Monster and Kharis the Mummy learned their dance steps.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Review: Susperia (1976)

Italian horror films tend to be a bit more to the gory side of things than their American counterparts. This is not necessarily a good thing: On both sides of the Atlantic, splatter pyrotechnics tend to take the place of creativity and originality.

Master Italian stylist Dario Argento is more inventive than most, and his films are, consequently, several cuts above the average splatter flick. Susperia is probably Argento's most famous film, and while it's shot with a great deal of ingenuity and features respectable acting, it also features some of the most disturbing, upsetting murders ever committed to film.

A pretty, petite American student (Jessica Harper) goes to Europe to study at a dance school...but you just know it's not merely a dance school, don't you? The headmistress (Joan Bennett) is a witch! The school is a coven! And bad things happen to students who figure this out--very bad things.

Within the first fifteen minutes of Susperia, the audience is made to witness a murder that has to be one of the most gruesome events in any horror film. A student escapes to a friend's apartment and is attacked there by...well, something (all we really see is a silhouette and a hairy paw). The poor girl is smothered, yanked through a window, stabbed slowly and repeatedly (including a smashing closeup of a knife entering an exposed, still-throbbing heart), and-finally--is hung and flung through an overhead stained glass window.

This murder takes damn near forever to play out and is accompanied by the howling, clanging soundtrack provided by The Goblins (whose music turned up in numerous Argento films as well as in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which was co-produced by Argento). This is but the first of three truly nasty murders--all explicit, all taking place over a series of minutes, all carried out in disgusting (if inventive) ways.

It's a shame that Argento goes to such great lengths to show dismemberment and torture. He creates great mood throughout the film and manages to give the audience the impression that they're constantly being watched and measured for murder. But Argento's more spectacular visuals--a pane of glass bisecting a young woman's head, another young woman falling into a sea of barbed wire, and more maggots than you'd ever want to see in several lifetimes--overpower whatever mood he creates.

Consequently, Susperiaisn't so much scary as it is upsetting. After that first murder, I was more depressed than anything else and pretty much just wanted to turn the VCR off. But I stayed with the movie to the bitter end, at which point I didn't feel like I'd watched a masterful horror film; I felt like I'd passed a test. And tests, if I remember anything from high school, aren't meant to be enjoyed.

(UPDATE: In 2007, two of my very best friends, JB and Sister Dee, came over to La Casa del Terror to watch movies that each of us, for one reason or another, needed to give a second chance to. My choice was The Shining, JB's Pulp Fiction. Dee's selection? Susperia. I gave it a second chance that night as well, and was pleasantly surprised: While I still found the violence repellent, I found Argento's visuals, especially his use of color, appealing. There was more than gore going on there after all. Sometimes, you have to take a second look to see something for the first time.)

Friday, March 5, 2004

Spam Sandwich

This site doesn't get much e-mail--hell, it doesn't get much traffic of any kind, really. But like everyone else with an e-mail address, I get junk mail. Lots of it. For every message from a reader, I get ten from solicitors of one flavor or another. I just wish the flavors came in more varieties:

Penis Enlargement. There must be a lot of guys out there with tiny dicks. Or, at least, guys who think their cranks are minuscule. Because a majority of the spam I get is about penis enlargement, with such subtle subject lines as "Hey Adoresixtyfour make you're cock ENORMOUS" or "My wife loves me my King Dong." (Yes, their grammar and spelling are sterling, too.) And while I'm touched by the concern for the welfare of my male member, I'm sorry to report that their entreaties and efforts are badly wasted here. For one thing, size was never an issue for me--none of my girlfriends ever complained about any lack of length or width, and one, upon seeing my penis for the very first time, said, "Oh my's HUGE!" I do not say this to boast in the least--it is not, in fact, anything remotely close to "HUGE!" Maybe it was the perspective from which she viewed that most private part of me, or maybe, compared to those she'd seen before, it was, indeed, larger than what she'd experienced previously. Whatever the case, it certainly didn't need enlargement. But on another, more pertinant point: My sex life ended about eight years ago, so even if my cock were dragging along the sidewalk behind me ( hurts to even think that!), I haven't met any woman in recent memory who wanted to touch any such portion of my anatomy, much less who actually gave a damn how big it is.

Erectile Dysfunction. Apparently, not only do guys on the Information Superhighway have little wicks, but they can't keep their candles up, either. This was also never a problem for me: the last time I had sex (or the last time I can remember, anyway--give me a damn break, it's been nearly a decade), I was able to go for 45 minutes without coming down. And, again, my sex life, like Generalisimo Francisco Franco, is still dead (and about nearly as long, too). So stop offering me perpetual hard-ons, kids. They're wasted on me.

Paris Hilton. Okay, I didn't give a shit about the hard-partying elder heir to the Hilton Hotels fortune before she filmed herself honking the bobo of Shannen Doherty's ex (a tape which somehow made it out onto the Internet--an accident, I'm sure) or before she and the fugly daughter of Lionel Ritchie starred on a "reality" show in which they treated average, decent, hard-working citizens with less regard and more contempt than they would show for the flop dropping out of her little yipping dog's ass. And I still don't. So go away. Now.

Auto/Homeowners Insurance. Look, dicksmacks. I don't own a car. Never have. Probably never will. And the only way I'll ever be able to afford property in this God-forsaken city is if I (a) bribe the right alderman, (b) hit it big in the Lotto or (c) purchase an empty lot in a gang-/drug-infested neighborhood, dig a hole in the middle of it with my bare hands and call it home. And even if I did own a car or a house, I wouldn't be dumb enough to go without insurance. Then again, spammers think I have a microscopic trouser snake that I can't keep up, so maybe they really do think I'd be dumb enough to drive or buy property without insurance. But would I be dumb enough to buy insurance from somebody I couldn't look in the eye? Nobody's that dumb...are they?

"YOUR ASSISTANCE IS URGENTLY NEEDED." Why, certainly, I'd just love to give my phone number, address, social security number, savings account routing info, etc., to someone who randomly e-mails me out of the blue. Does anyone actually fall for this nonsense? Somebody must have, because I get at least one of these pleas a month, usually from a "gentleman" who claims to be someone called Bates Alan, a Nigerian dying from emphysema who needs help getting his money out of his country and into the hands of people who can use it to help others. For one thing, I had a dear uncle die a slow, painful death from emphysema, so I don't find its use in an obvious scam to be particularly amusing. For another, "Bates Alan"? I know I'm a stupid American and all, but I'm also a movie buff: Alan Bates was a longtime British character actor; the use of his name in this scheme is even more idiotic when you consider that he died recently, therefore putting his name in the news and under the noses even of people who don't frequent the Internet Movie Database. So not only are you a disgusting ratfuck, but a stupid one as well. Don't ever let me catch you, "Bates Alan"--I'll use your kneecaps for my Saturday morning oatmeal.

RE: Account suspended. The messages look official enough, with the eBay or PayPal logos (sometimes both, since eBay recently bought PayPal) prominently displayed with their basic layout, colors and fonts used. But why would they be asking for my password and my credit card number when they already have...oh, of course. It's because the messages aren't from eBay or PayPal or any other reputable organization that would jeapordize its reputation by soliciting such information via e-mail. They're from ripoff artists who want to steal my identity or, at the very least, run up thousands of dollars in charges on my Visa or DiscoverCard. Thanks so much, but I can take a wrecking ball to my credit rating without any help from knotheads like you. Really.

Whatever happened to people I know or love--or, in rare cases, both--sending me "Hey, how's it going?" or "I just got this fab job!" or "Just wanted to say, hi"? Why are the majority of the e-mails I get from people I not only don't know, but don't ever want to know? Is e-mail now just another means of shoving a hand into my pocket to take what little I have left? Is the Internet, as a means of hearing from people you care about, about to be as obsolete as letterwriting and making calls on anything but a cellphone? Or is the volume of this shit just dispiriting?

I don't know. My head hurts. And I think I just got another spam from somebodyoffering me Viagra again. Or computer equipment. Or a share in a Brazilian goldmine. Or....

Monday, March 1, 2004

Oscar Hangover 2004

Y'know, it's a seriously good thing I didn't have money riding on Sunday night's Academy Awards when I made those predictions yesterday. Because if I'd put my money where my mouth was, there'd be no room in it for my foot.

Damn, but I fucked up those Oscar guesses.

I mean, I wasn't completely shut out--at least I got Best Director (Peter Jackson) and Best Picture (Lord of the Rings: Return of the King) right. And I did correctly guess that Sofia Coppola would take Best Original Screenplay for Lost in Translation, even if it wasn't one of the categories I was focusing on.

But all the acting categories? My predictions were quite versatile, really--they blew and sucked at the same time. Not one of them came true. Closest I came was Best Supporting Actor, where I flipped a coin and picked Alec Baldwin; had the 1964 silver quarter come up heads, I'd have chosen the winner, Tim Robbins.

It figures. The one year I veer from the norm and pick a whole leased dumptruck full of upsets, all the favored performers take their categories. And if I had to be wrong about Johnny Depp winning Best Actor, couldn't Bill Murray have won? Nope. Widely acclaimed thespian and widely acknowledged dicksmack Sean Penn had to take it. At least he showed up, which gave viewers a chance to see his wife, Robin Wright (Penn). The Princess Bride! Yay! Unfortunately, she was there with Dicksmack. Boo!


Well, even if my picks stank like the third week of a garbage strike, at least I was home for the festivities. No, I didn't eat the Reggio's pizza or drink the Red Dog--after an afternoon with JB and Sister Dee having drinks at Cesar's and dinner up the street at Thai Classic, I was already lit and full, thank you.

And my companions made certain that I'd be home in time to enjoy the telecast--as much as I could stand of it, anyway. It's always fun to see the fashions, both good--Angelina Jolie, usually gorgeous, was a goddess in white satin with hi-beams fully juiced--and bad--Uma Thurman proved that you can indeed make a dress out of mismatched kitchen curtains an hour before the show. But there was way too much Billy for me: too much Billy Bush, who annoyed every celeb he "interviewed" before the show (Angelina looked fit to go Lara Croft on his retarded ass); and too much Billy Crystal, who proved yet again that he's really not that funny. Or clever. Or even mildly amusing. And if I live to be 100 (unlikely, but stranger shit has happened--trust me, it has), I nevernevernevernever want to see Billy Crystal even close to naked again, much less naked three damn times. If America wants to go all Puritan and get pissed off about too much nipple showing, how 'bout a beatdown on Billy? Please?

But no. He went on. And on. And so did the show. Why can't they keep it down to three hours? Hell, if you cut all the jokes about how long the fucking show is, you'd probably lop off 20 minutes right there. Or, if the show really has to run nine hours, why not do it on a Saturday night, when most of us don't have to get up and go to jobs we hate the next morning? And can the presenters just present, instead of being forced into reading TelePrompTered-to-Death jokes that have been written and rewritten for months and still aren't the least bit giggle-inducing? As much as I enjoyed watching Liv Tyler put on her cute l'il horn-rimmed glasses, that time could better have been spent handing Annie Lennox her l'il gold statue that much sooner.

But as much as I bitch about the Oscarcast's epic length and monumental lack of humor, you know I'm going to watch it again next year. And you know you're going to as well.

And yeah, as much as I blew it this year, I'll make predictions again next year. Hey, it's a big mouth--there's enough room for both Size 11 1/2 feet in there.

Sunday, February 29, 2004

And the Oscar Goes to...(2004 Edition)

Most years, the company I work for has an Oscar pool. (Actually, we have a pool for damn near everything--Oscars, NCAA, Super Bowl, us, we're sick.) This year, though, for whatever reason, there was no Oscar pool. Just as well--I couldn't afford to jump in and swim anyway.

That doesn't mean, however, that I don't have picks to make.

Best Director. I have to admit that I never understood this award. I mean, wouldn't the guy (and all but three of the nominees in the history of the Academy Awards have been guys, including this year's sole female nominee) who directed the Best Picture winner be Best Director by default? No? Okay. Fine, then. So why can't this category at least mirror the Best Picture nominees? Why nominate Fernando Meirelles for City of God when he clearly has no chance of winning? (Besides...wasn't City of God released in 2002? Are the Oscars becoming as ridiculous and elasic as the Grammys?) What, was Seabiscuit directed by the horse?

Anyway. Peter Weir doesn't stand much of a chance--Master and Commander: This Title Is Too Damn Long is a fine movie, I'm sure, but it didn't do so hot at the box office and didn't win much at the other award ceremonies leading up to the Oscars. Clint Eastwood is hugely respected in Hollywood, and Mystic River has been said to be his best directorial effort yet; he already has a statue, though (for Unforgiven), so he's not likely. Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation was the best movie I saw in 2003, but this is only her second feature (after her stunning debut, The Virgin Suicides) and she'll likely get rewarded with the Best Original Screenplay award.

So, that leaves...Peter Jackson. He won't be getting Best Director for Return of the King, but for all three Lord of the Rings movies, which are really one really long movie chopped in three.

Best Supporting Actress. The Supporting Actor categories are usually hard to predict, and some of the most pleasant surprises happen down here, with longtime actors getting their due (Sean Connery, Jack Palance or Judi Dencsh) or younger actors getting the official establishment seal of approval (Angeline Jolie, Jennifer Connelly). This year? Hard to say. Marcia Gay Harden, Patricia Clarkson and Holly Hunter are all respected veterans. But this is Renee Zellweger's third nomination in recent years, and Hollywood just seems to love Squinchy McPinchface. But Cold Mountain got a pretty cold shoulder from the Academy (no Best Picture, Best Director or Best Actress...sorry, Nicole) and Squinchy's young--she'll get nominated again.

So the winner? Will be Shohreh Aghdashloo for House of Sand and Fog. Why? Because this will probably be the only time she gets nominated, and her performance could wring tears from a stone.

Best Supporting Actor. This is where a veteran is more likely to be rewarded for perseverance. That Ken Watenabe got nominated at all for The Last Samurai, whose previews never failed to make me laugh (itty-bitty Tom Cruise in Samurai armor...snerk!), will have to be his award. Same for Djimon Hounsou for In America, though he could pull off an upset like I think Aghdashloo will for Best Supporting Actress. And Benicio Del Toro already has one of these. So I think it comes down to Tim Robbins and Alec Baldwin. Robbins has been consistently good throughout his career--and vocally liberal. Will that hurt him in an America shifting significantly to the right? Or will his performance push those thoughts out of voters' heads? Alec Baldwin has always been underappreciated as an actor, perhaps because he's made some shitty choices in his career (I mean...The Shadow? The Cat in the Hat? The hell?) along with the good ones. And his now-former wife, Kim Basinger, has an Oscar that most reasonable people think she should give back. Flipping a coin now...

The silver 1964 quarter says...Alec Baldwin.

Best Actress. Naomi Watts? No Chance. Samantha Morton? Sorry. Keisha Castle-Hughes? You're kidding, right? Diane Keaton? Hmmm...intriguing. But unlikely, especially since she won for Annie Hall more than a quarter century ago. Charlize Theron hit all the notes the Academy loves in her performance in Monster--she shook off her glamour and beauty, gained weight, hid herself under repugnant makeup and sank so deeply into the role of serial killer Aileen Wuornos as to be entirely unrecognizable. Just the pictures of her scare the shit out of me. But some Academy members might kick back against the verdicts of some critics, like Chicago-based Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper (who many have told me I resemble--please stop), who've declared the performance one of the best in the history of cinema. Which gives Keaton a chance. And wouldn't it be nice for a female comedic performance to get one of the top awards, since they so rarely do? Yes, it would.

Still, it's Theron's to lose...and she will. To Keaton.

Best Actor. Ben Kingsley won this one 20 years ago. Jude Law is an Academy fave, but Cold Mountain will likely get shut out (unless Zellweger snags Best Supporting Actress). And the big buzz is going to Sean Penn for Mystic River and Bill Murray for Lost in Translation. Penn is acknowledged as the best actor of his generation--and as a world-class dick. Murray has a prickly reputation, too (and no, it's not just Lucy Liu who thinks he's hard to work with), but his subtle, sweet performance here deserves the top award. I hope he gets it. I really do.

But because both he and Penn are both so heavily favored, I think they'll split the vote and allow Johnny Depp to slip past and take the Oscar. No, his performance in Pirates of the Caribbean: This Title's Too Damn Long, Too wasn't the best of the year, or even of his career. But his turn as Jack Sparrow ("That's Captain Jack Sparrow), a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and a particularly soused Keith Richards, elevated Pirates from likeable diversion to excellent entertainment. Sure, Depp should have been nominated before now--for Edward Scissorhands or What's Eating Gilbert Grape or Ed Wood or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas--but he'll win for Pirates of the Caribbean.

Best Picture. My thinking here is along the same lines as my reasoning for Best Director: Peter Jackson will win for the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy, not just Return of the King. I'd love for Lost in Translation to win here, but...the One Ring will rule them all.

So now it's time for me to settle in with a Reggio's pizza on the plate before me, two or three or five Red Dogs in the fridge and Ms. Christopher curled up at my feet--time for me to see just how far out of my ass my predictions are.

Oh...and Happy Leap Day, one and all.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari wasn't the first horror film by a longshot--numerous filmmakers had tried to scare their audiences, from the bullet-shaped spaceship Georges Melies jammed into the eye of the Man in the Moon in A Trip to the Moon to Thomas Edison's version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to several cracks at Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Nor is Caligari the best example of silent horror--many of the genre films of the following decade would eclipse Caligari in terms of story and shocks (especially Murnau's Nosferatu).

But no matter what you think of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it probably qualifies as the single most influential film in the history of cinema.

Think I'm overstating? Not only did it shade the monster films, in both Germany and America, that followed it--The Golem, Waxworks, Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, Dracula (both English and Spanish versions), The Old Dark House, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mummy, etc.--but it continues to exert its influence to this very day in movies like Dark City and the first two Batman films (and most of Tim Burton's other films, too).

And there are plenty of movies in between that bear the mark of this early film example of German Expressionism, an art movement in which angles and perspectives are exaggerated to provoke emotional responses. The transfer of this artistic approach to film manifests itself in the form of interior sets with odd angles and painted-on shadows, characters lit from below (as if the lighting were emanating from the ground--or from Hell itself) and nightmarish scenarios in which evil is not merely a concept, but a tangible, living presence. (Such techniques also found their ways into non-horror films, especially the "film noir" crime dramas of the 1940s.)

The basic story: a couple of young students (Fredrich Feher and Hans Heinz von Twardowski) and the girl they both adore (Lil Dagover) go to a local fair and encounter Caligari (Werner Krauss), a hypnotist who keeps a somnambulist--a sleepwalker--in the enclosure of the title. The somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), can predict the future, it's said, and when he tells one of the students that he'll only live until the following dawn, it turns out to be true. It probably doesn't help that Cesare helps his own prediction come true by leaving his cabinet (on Caligari's orders) and murders said student himself. While the surviving student looks for the killer, Cesare continues to kill and then kidnaps the girl, marching through dreamlike sets and pursued by angry villagers (the first of many, many such pursuits in cinema). Cesare falls over dead for no obvious reason, the girl is saved, and Caligari is revealed to be an asylum director obsessed with an ancient story of a hypnotist who controlled a somnambulist and used him to carry out evil deeds.

If this were all there were to the story, Caligari would be a nightmarish experiment and probably would hold up far better than it does. Unfortunately, this central story is bookended with the story of a young man (Feher, the surviving student in the story) committed to an asylum. This story explains the other, central story away as a delusion in the mind of the young man, thus robbing it of all of its power to confuse and frighten the audience and undercutting the possible comparisons that could be drawn to the recently concluded World War I.

This also qualifies as a dubious first in horror cinema, as many other movies, especially those of James Whale in the 1930s, would be re-edited, reshot and otherwise fucked with to make them more conventional and commercial.

Everything is safe and normal, you see--it's all the ravings of a paranoid mind and nothing more.

Still, you can't deny the power of the meat in the Caligari sandwich. Few other films convey the off-kilter look (even the title cards are distorted and angular) and logic of nightmares the way this movie does. (Orson Welles's adaptation of Kafka's The Trial is probably the closest, but even that film announces itself, through voiceover by Welles, that it's all a dream.) If only director Robert Weine hadn't been forced to tell us that this was a nightmare and nothing more, Caligari might have held up as a truly scary movie, instead of influencing countless movies with its visual style while reducing itself to a footnote and a curiosity to be sought out only by film students and horror-film completists--instead of being "just" a starting point for all the dreams and screams on the immediate cinematic horizon.

But The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari continues to fascinate, more than 80 years after its premiere in Germany, as a recent successful re-release on DVD amply proves. Caligari may not hold up as well as some of the film that immediately followed it, but without Caligari, they may not have followed at all.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Review: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

At the end of George Romero's low-budget horror classic, Night of the Living Dead, it appeared that humanity had a firm grip on the whole flesh-eating zombie thing, chasing down and shooting the undead creatures and consigning their corpses to enormous bonfires.

But appearances, as they say, can be deceiving.

By the time Romero's Dawn of the Dead kicks in, it's all-out war between the living and the dead-and the dead are winning, by sheer force of numbers. (As a priest in the film puts it, "When the dead walk, senors, we must stop the killing or lose the war.") Four survivors--two TV station employees (Gaylen Ross and David Emge) and two National Guardsmen (Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger)--decide to make a run for it in a traffic copter and wind up in a suburban shopping mall, where the dead stumble through the department stores and the food court like...well, your average shoppers.

Romero takes a somewhat different approach for this sequel, going for intentional laughs and satire--aren't the zombies the ultimate consumers?--and presenting the ultra-violent proceedings in full color (as opposed to the stark black and white photography of the original). So full of blood and (literal) guts was Dawn, with heads exploding, arms being chopped off and bodies being ripped limb from juicy limb (all performed with stomach-churning conviction by special-effects wizard Tom Savini, who also has a small part in the film as a member of an evil biker gang), that it would have become the first movie ever to receive an "X" rating strictly on the basis of violence, unlike most movies receiving the "X"--or its modern equivalent, an "NC-17"--applied almost strictly for sexual content; Romero chose to release Dawn without a rating. (Just remember, kids: it's okay to show someone getting shot to death, but never okay to see a nipple--not even Janet Jackson's.)

But what saves this from being an unrelenting splatterfest is Romero's literate script, where the actions of the characters raise moral and ethical questions about rampant consumerism and what exactly constitutes "survival." At one point, bikers pin down a zombie and strip her of her jewelry (don't worry--they pay for it in the end), while others loot stores and trash the joint simply because they can. (How is this behavior that different from what we saw years later in the Los Angeles riots or the swarming of fans after sports championships? Not much.)

And Romero develops the characters well enough this time around that we care about their eventual fates and can't necessarily predict who lives and who dies (only to live again, if you call that living). It also doesn't hurt that the performances are uniformly more professional that in Night of the Living Dead, especially Foree, who projects cool and clam even when surrounded by scores of grasping hands and snapping jaws.

Even so many years later, when so many other films have equaled or exceeded the level of carnage exhibited in Dawn of the Dead, it still stands out as the rare sequel that, in its own way, equals the original, with enough frights and food for thought to make it a lasting success on the midnight movie circuit (where I caught it in 1982).

Dawn's only major flaws are its length (well over two hours and even longer on the "director's cut," which features some extended scenes, most of which don't add much) and its musical soundtrack, which goes from creepy (provided by co-producer Dario Argento's favorite group, Goblin) to annoying and insipid (canned music reportedly inserted by Romero himself, including one passage in that "director's cut" that was previously used in the opening credits for Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

Too bad Romero went on to make a third zombie film, Day of the Dead, which is as bad as the first two are good. Rumors have persisted for years of a fourth film in the series, but financing for a project sure to rate an "NC-17" is hard to come by. In the meantime, there are plenty of knockoffs, ripoffs and remakes--including Dawn of the Dead, opening soon at a theater near you. Expect a review here when the zombies are turned loose again....

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Get Back to Where You Once Belonged

The first two albums I ever bought for myself--purchased on the same Saturday afternoon in the records department of the original Goldblatts department store on Chicago Avenue--were Beatles albums. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road, to be specific.
There weren't the first albums I ever owned--that distinction likely resides with one of the many K-Tel albums that commuted from the discount bin at Woolworth's to my Christmas stocking on a annual basis. (And that made for some oddly shaped stockings, let me tell you.) And they certainly weren't the last Beatles albums I ever purchase. At one time or another, just about every one of the Fab Four's discs have found their way into my music collection--an eclectic selection where you can find James Brown next to Tito Puente, the Rolling Stones beside Patsy Cline, Traci Lords sandwiched between Jimmy Scott and Johnny Cash--in one format or another: Vinyl, CD, even eight-track.

One Beatles album that never made the grade, though, was Let It Be.

I don't think the omission was intentional or conscious. It's not like wandered into Laurie's Planet of Sound, picked up a well-worn LP and dropped it from my hands as if singed by brimstone. It's not worth all that drama. I guess it has more to do with the lack of weight Let It Be, the last release of new music from the group, has when compared with other Beatles efforts. Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road...those were albums. Let It Be, a project cobbled together by producer Phil Spector from the remnants of contentious recording sessions intended to produce a rough-edged, back-to-the-basics album, is more of a collection of unrelated songs, with no more significance in the bigger picture of the Beatles' catalog than, say, Hey Jude or Yellow Submarine (both of which made my collection, but only because they'd been given as gifts).

Let It Be remains a point of controversy amongst music fans, who argue its merits or lack thereof. Did Spector salvage an abandoned project, or did he marr classic pop songs with his formerly successful "Wall of Sound" production style? Was John Lennon right to praise Spector's efforts? Was Paul McCartney justified in being outraged at the way Spector treated his tunes, most especially "The Long and Winding Road"? Did the Beatles go out with a bang, a whimper or merely a "meh"?

I always fell on the side of "less is more" and thought Spector had overdone some of the songs--"Across the Universe" is a simple, spiritual Lennon tune smothered in strings and heavenly chorus (though it must be pointed out that Lennon himself loved what Spector did with the song), and "Let It Be" was tweaked from its single version with added guitars and an amped-up solo that breaks the solemn mood McCartney carefully constructed. (Then again who am I to critique Spector's production skills? I own several musical instruments--including an acoustic guitar, several harmonicas (all inherited from Grandma) and a kazoo purchased for me by Red Secretary from a Cracker Barrel in Stevensville, MI--none of which I can play.)

The result, contrary to the promise on the album cover of "the warmth and freshness of a live performance, as reproduced for disc by Phil Spector," is a scizophrenic effort with studio chatter (mostly Lennon snarking, sometimes mean-spiritedly), which was part of the original concept of engineer Glyn Johns, bookending songs that sound anything but live.

And now, decades later, the debate, long since relegated to background buzz, has been dialed up to eleven again with the release of Let It Be...Naked.

The intent of Naked, it would appear, it to strip away all of the layers Spector added to take the songs back as close to their original forms as possible. All of the studio chatter is gone now, as are two song fragments--"Dig It" and "Maggie Mae"--that were little more than elevated studio chatter themselves. One song recorded during the sessions but not included in the film, "Don't Let Me Down," has been added into the mix, and the remaining songs have been reordered and digitally remastered.

But have the producers of Naked succeeded? Partially. But they've also partially vindicated Spector's production as well.

To be sure, the digital scrubbing these songs have received has made them sound more intimate and warm, especially the songs recorded on the rooftop of Apple Studios in January 1969--the last public performance the Beatles would ever give. "Get Back," which now leads off the album, sounds like the Fab Four are playing in a small club--maybe the Double Door, where I saw Cheap Trick a few years back and where the Rolling Stones once jammed--rather than a polished studio version, which is what Spector used for the original album, despite the impression created by sandwiching it between Lennon comments, including his famous "I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition." (Some critics of Naked have complained about the omission of this comment--and, to be fair, the song does sound truncated now--but the Beatles recorded three takes of "Get Back" on that cold January day, with the first being a warmup and the last being played amid attempt by police to control the rapidly gathering crowd, so take two is probably the one that was cleaned up for Naked; to include Lennon's snark would have created just as false a version as Spector had.)

"I've Got a Feeling," "Dig a Pony" and "The One After 909" all sound more immediate, too, playing almost like the boys are actually having fun. Even so, it becomes obvious that there wasn't that much of Spector's influence to strip from these songs--his production amounted to little more than knob-twiddling on a number (possibly even a majority) of tracks on Let It Be.

"Across the Universe" benefits hugely from the Naked approach, lifting the orchestra and chorus and returning it to the simple hymn it was intended to be. And George Harrison's "I Me Mine" sounds fantastic, too, without the strings and things Spector layered it with. Curiously, though, the producers of Naked chose to retain Spector's edit of the song--which cleverly pads out the length of the song by repeating lyric passages--rather than using any of the original, unedited takes, none of which run much past a minute and a half.

It's the "big songs," though--"The Long and Winding Road" and the title song--that have received the most attention from critics, both over the years and now.

The version of "Let It Be" that appears on the album has always irritated me like the sound of a dentist's drill on rotten enamel, mostly because a perfectly lovely version of the song (written about McCartney's mother) came out in single form two months before the album was released. Spector's additions seemed needless, messing with a song that didn't need his "help." The version on Naked goes back beyond the single cut, which is certainly an improvement over Spector's monkey business, but not necessarily an improvement on the single. And maybe it wasn't intended to be--if the idea of Naked is to remove as much evidence of post-production as possible, the version of "Let It Be" certainly achieves that, if it now sounds underproduced compared to the two later versions.

No song on the original Let It Be had more attention lavished on it by Spector than "The Long and Winding Road," which became a full orchestral production number under Spector's direction--and, consequently, a staple on easy-listening radio stations ever since. Perhaps I've been conditioned by those decades of play to be used to Spector's bombastic version, but the stripped-down take on Naked sounds not merely underproduced, but like a demo--a rough one at that. It's neat to hear McCartney's piano work and Ringo's delicate support on drums, but the song sounds too slight without more work. Spector may have overdone it by a long shot, but he had the right idea: "The Long and Winding Road" needed work to qualify as a listenable song, much less single material, and this Naked version just doesn't get there.

So is Let It Be likely to be subplanted as the "official" version by Let It Be...Naked? Not really. Naked is an interesting alternate version, but not much more. It isn't Johns' Get Back, nor is it absolutely free of Spector's influence. It's a hybrid of those two, obviously leaning more heavily toward the former, and it gives the listener an idea of what it was like to listen to the Beatles record one of their least-satisfying albums. (A second disc included with Naked, titled "Fly on the Wall," adds little to this experience--the second disc would have been better spent with rough takes of other songs played and/or recorded during those sessions, or it should have been left off entirely.)

And neither side of the argument can ever be entirely satisfied, no matter what Apple or the surviving Beatles--Ringo, whose work on Let It Be is highlighted to even greater effect on Naked, and Paul, who has been accused by many critics of orchestrating Naked to finally get it the way he wanted it--do. Me? I've still got all my other Beatles albums to keep me happy, and I don't need to get into a pissing match with anybody over an album most critics agree is, at best, a lesser, shambling, patchwork thing compared to what had come before: music that reshaped the industry--and listeners--for good.

Monday, January 19, 2004

A Couple of Poems About Childhood


The only thing
I can remember
about Grandpa

before his funeral
is the night
he and Dad

punched holes
in the clear
plastic tent

my brother and
I had constructed
on the perfect

grass in the yard
of the rented
red brick house

on Huron Street.
As we curled
for the night,

Dad turned on
the garden hose,
knowing we would

come running inside.
Grandpa crossed his
gray arms, laughing.


I never see the playground
anymore, the painted-on bases
and paved-over sandbox lost
in the fog of Gees, cased in
blacktop running like mascara
'round the old school bricks
and the sixth grade teacher with
the Santa Claus face telling me
"When you grow up, son, don't
let your shoulders be round."
I never see him anymore, gone
like a limps shoelace to Hell
with the rest of those furball
stares and worn tarot-card days
showing a child with plaster-cast
wrist too young for phone numbers
and blamed for bad handwriting,
reaping watermelon candies and
swingset privileges with a little
thunk, never looking for the day
of revival to be thought up and
scripted out like that ringing
up the ears of Saturday monrning
cartoon shows and movies where
the monsters never win--wanting
to go with Don Kessinger grace
but only lying flat, hours
rickety dried clover warped
out of the ground. Who knew
who flushed the gritted teeth
like Dad did every Sunday
mornings when "Who the God-
damn hell do you think you
are?" swam out in Budweiser
waves and whistled through
the bunkbeds like wheeze?

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

By 1923, Lon Chaney had worked his way up through the motion picture business from being an extra to playing bit parts to getting featured character roles to receiving star billing. But with his performance as Quasimodo, the title character in this, the first widely regarded adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (there had been at least two other versions before this), Chaney became a superstar.

Even now, more than 80 years later, Chaney's performance is something to marvel at. He manages to hit emotional notes that one wouldn't have thought possible, given the physical restrictions of the role--heavy makeup, a weighty rubber hump (how weighty depends on which source you listen to) and a harness to alter his posture. He is still able to appear menacing, terrified, pitiful, enraged at turns, all expressed through pantomime and expressive eyes. (Actually, just one of Chaney's eye is visible--the other is covered with makeup--thus making his skill at expressing feeling with a look all the more remarkable.) Combine this ability to convey emotion with his incredible, self-applied makeup (which Chaney based on the descriptions from Hugo's novel), and Chaney's Quasimodo is certainly a memorable one.

It's a shame that the rest of the movie doesn't hold up nearly as well.

Maybe I'm being too hard on this "Hunchback." Maybe its melodrama didn't seem nearly so stale all those decades ago. Maybe I just have a problem with silent film adaptations of Victor Hugo stories (I wasn't too thrilled with Universal's The Man Who Laughs, either). Or maybe Chaney's performance really is that much better than anything else in the movie. Any way you look at it, though, one thing is clear: When Lon Chaney isn't on screen, The Hunchback of Notre Dame drags badly.

The story is familiar by now. The gypsy girl Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) inspires varying levels of love/lust in three very different men: Jehan (Brandon Hurst, who played villains in many silent films), vile brother of the saintly Arch-deacon of Notre Dame; Phoebus (Norman Kerry), captain of the king's guard; and Quasimodo, who feels genuine gratitude toward the girl for giving him water after he's been whipped publicly for trying to kidnap her at the urging of Jehan. Also on hand is Clopin (Ernest Torrence), the self-appointed "King of Thieves," who looks on Esmeralda as his daughter and tries to keep her from the arms of Phoebus, a playboy who learns, much to his own surprise, that he really does love the girl.

A lot of time is spent on the romance and Jehan's plotting to either get Esmeralda or make sure nobody else can have her. There are also plenty of subplots, including dealings between Jehan and Clopin and the rantings of Esmeralda's true mother, who realizes much too late that the gypsy girl upon whom she has heaped so much scorn is really her flesh and blood.

Maybe if the center of all of this activity, Esmeralda, were a stronger presence, the melodrama swirling around her would at least seem justified. But Miller, while pretty, doesn't project the kind of sexual aura that would draw so many men to her. She just doesn't have the raw energy that Maureen O'Hara possessed in RKO's remake, or the exotic allure of Salma Hayak in the 1996 made-for-TV version. Miller's Esmeralda just doesn't seem to be worth all the fuss.

Still, this Hunchback is consistently good-looking, with some fine, elaborate sets (including a remarkable reproduction of the facade of Notre Dame) and detailed period costuming, and is worth a look if only for the career-making performance from Chaney. But for a more exciting rendition of this story, look to William Dieterle's 1939 Hunchback instead. It may not have Lon Chaney, but it at least doesn't induce sleepiness in the viewer when Quasimodo is off-screen.

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

This Sporting Life: Swing and a Miss

January in Chicago means many different things to many different people. Alleys lined with discarded Christmas trees and wrapping paper. Sidewalks covered with ice slick enough to send visions of lawsuits dancing through pedestrians' heads. Recoveries from New Year's hangovers and various New Year's party embarrassments (snogging your boss's wife, shagging your boss's girlfriend, spilling a very sticky drink on either--or, worse, both, etc.). Dreaming of a warmer, brighter, happier place.

For some, thoughts of sports warm the bones. In Chicago, unfortunately, this is often cold comfort, especially in recent times. The Bears, playing in what looks like a spaceship that crashed upside-down, have just concluded another depressing season and fired their coach the day after it ended. The Blackhawks, in their umpteenth year of denying televised home games to their dwindling fan base, have suffered through injuries and indifferent play and have fired their general manager. The Bulls have been dismal since winning their last championship and fired their coach in November, provoking slightly better play on the court, but not nearly enough to spark genuine optimism. And other Chicago teams like the Wolves (hockey), Rush (arena football) or Fire (soccer)? They get less press coverage than the annual mulching of Christmas trees by the Park District.

Which leaves baseball, which starts spring training in about six weeks. And there may be cause for interest there, despite the lack of big moves by the Cubs, who came within five outs of finally making it to the World Series for the first time in my lifetime; or the lack of any moves by the White Sox, who hired a new manager (former Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen), then let most of their arbitration-eligible players go elsewhere in an effort to cut payroll, essentially running up a white flag before the first pitch has been thrown.

Still, the upcoming baseball season at least hints at optimism. And in this gray month, we'll take what we can get. And we can't even wait until spring training. Nope. We start ramping up now, when the Hall of Fame inductees are annually announced.

As is typical with my hometown--which, despite being the third largest city in America and one of the largest on the whole freaking planet, has an amazing inferiority complex--the press focuses hard on the players who have even the most tenuous connection with the city, the implication being that we wouldn't care unless it's about us. (Whenever a disaster happens--flood, plane crash, avalanche, etc.--the newswriters make sure to tell us whether or not Chicagoans or former Chicagoans were involved.)

So whenever the Hall of Fame vote comes around, the local newspapers, TV stations and radio talk shows first report who didn't make it from the local teams, then report who did make it. Example: On the cover of this morning's Sun-Times, the blurb reads as follows: "Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Bruce Sutter miss Hall of Fame." You have to flip to the back page of the paper to find out who did earn induction: Paul Molitor, who had more than 3,000 hits in his career and was a World Series MVP; and Dennis Eckersley, who became one of the most dominant relief pitchers in the game after spending years as a starter (including three with the Cubs, who traded him off after he developed a drinking problem, but before his shift to reliever--marvelous timing as always, Cubbies).

Molitor was one of the most consistent hitters in the game and deserved to get in. Eckersley was a great pitcher (as a starter or a reliever) and deserved it as well. No arguing that.

Sandberg? One of the best to ever play second base in the majors, a perennial Gold Glove winner, a former MVP. Never made it to a World Series with the Cubs (who has?), but certainly worthy of induction. He got more votes this year than last; his time will come.

Dawson? A feared hitter, great with a glove, won an MVP award with a last-place Cubs team in 1987. Unfortunately, he was an outfielder, which means the competition to get into the Hall is greater at his position. Also never made a World Series, with the Cubs or anybody else. May make it someday, but it may take years.

Sutter? A pioneer short reliever whose career was cut short by injury, but whose dominance at the position when he was healthy was incredible. His chief pitch, the split-fingered fastball, was virtually unhittable--it looked like it was rolled along a perfectly smooth, invisible table and then just abruptly fell off the edge. If he belongs in the Hall of Fame (and I think he does), then so do Rich Gossage and Lee Smith (ex-Cubs all).

As for Pete Rose, who never played for either side of town but is generating a lot of buzz here, there and everywhere by finally admitting that he bet on baseball games while managing the Cincinnati Reds in a book to be released tomorrow...shut up even more, Pete.

You did something you knew was illegal, lied about it for more than a decade and then only fessed up when you had an opportunity to make some coin from the confession. I think you should be eligible for the Hall of Fame--you were definitely one of the greats of the game as a player, and there are certainly quite a few less-than-sterling characters already inducted, like racist Ty Cobb or boozing womanizer Babe Ruth. But yet maintained for years that you never bet on baseball at all, and now you say you did, but never against your own team and never from the clubhouse. I don't see how I could believe anything you say at this point. Yet you want to manage again? I wouldn't trust you to tell me which direction the sun rises in. Go away.

The debate as to who deserves what when can go on endlessly without resolving a thing. But all this talk of trades not made and the Hall of Shame√Čer, Fame, just whets my appetite for the season itself and gives me something else to think about than how to keep from busting an ankle while carrying out the garbage or how much my head hurts from the wind chill or how little sun I can see.

But the sun is out in the daytime, even when it's behind the clouds. Spring training starts next month. I haven't fallen on my ass once in 2004. My cup? More than half full for now. I'll take what I can get.

Thursday, January 1, 2004

Review: Black Sunday (1960)

Cinematographer Mario Bava's first official solo directorial effort manages to combine the trappings of the better Universal horror films--castles, graveyards and deep, cold shadows--with the graphic flourishes of the more recent Hammer efforts--blood squirting, corpses rotting and women whose dresses never quite have enough fabric to cover their ample, um, talent.

The result? A great-looking, surprisingly satisfying effort that succeeds in spite of its plot flaws and limitations.

The opening scene serves notice to the audience that this isn't your parents' monster movie. A witch (Barbara Steele, with luminous skin and slightly wonky teeth) is about to be burned at the stake for her blasphemies when the villagers take the extra precaution to tacking the "Mask of Satan" (the original title of this movie) to her lovely face. Just before the scene fades out for the credits, we see the mask pounded into place and a jet of black blood shooting out the top of the witch's head. Yick!

Fast forward to a couple hundred years later. A couple of doctors are traveling through the countryside when their carriage breaks down in front of the very cemetery where the witch and her vampire assistant (Ivo Garrani) are buried. They run into the descendant of the witch (also played by Steele), and the younger doctor (John Richardson) is immediately smitten.

The older doctor, though, makes the mistake of cutting his hand and accidentally bleeding on the body of the entombed witch, who just happened to be unearthed by a convenient earthquake (and who has scorpions crawling out of her eye sockets--do they have scorpions in Europe?). This revives the evil old broad, who through force of will brings her vampire buddy back to active duty, and the two of them set about bringing her back to full strength so that she can take the place of her young descendent and return to full, real life.

This may all sound pretty stupid--and, let's face it, it really is. But this is one of those rare cases where style really does compensate for lack of substance. There are some scenes in Black Sundaythat give the viewer a significant case of the creeps, such as when the young descendant's father, already fretting over the possible return of the witch and her servant, finds out much to his horror that sometimes, in the black of night, those distant sounds that keep growing closer and closer really are exactly what you suspect them to be and that, once this fact is confirmed, your doom is all but assured.

Despite the crepe-thin story, the bad dubbing (Italian horror films--and westerns, for that matter--are usually shot silent and dubbed later) and the cliched conclusion (with good triumphing over evil), Black Sundayworks because Bava knows how to create great mood and make the most of inexpensive sets, proving once and for all that you don't have to spend a lot of money to make a good movie.

Black Sundaymay not be the overwhelming, classic horror experience that some critics have claimed, but it is a stylish, efficient, brisk little gem, and it established Barbara Steele as a star of the genre for years to come.

No More Tears

I could spend this entry--and many, many more--expounding on all the reasons why 2003 was an evil, foul, vile year.

But most (if not all) of those events that made last year suck so hard (and not in a good way) have already been covered on these pages. It would be a massive waste of my space and your time to dredge any of them up here yet again.

Let's just say that every time I thought I'd cried myself dry, I found a new reservoir of tears, a new reason to cry; every time I thought things had gone as low as they could go, the elevator sped down to a new sublevel of pain and the sprinkler system went off yet again.

I made it through the year, though. I survived. Like always. But rather than merely survive, I'd like to live a bit more. And since I have no great desire to be redundant--not today, anyway--I prefer to look ahead. 2003 is nothing but a memory now, and a mostly bad one at that.

(Though, to be entirely fair, it wasn't all bad. It's just that the worst in life always overshadows the best. It's always easier to bitch about what you don't have than to appreciate what you do.)

But the old year dies quietly, with a Reggio's pizza, a bottle of fine Champagne left over from this year's HMB (courtesy of Sailor J), a Bela Lugosi movie or two, and a large white cat curled uyp in my lap as the fireworks exploded over Monroe Harbor and guns were emptied into the air just a few doors away in all directions.

And the new year is here. A fresh start. A clean slate. Mostly symbolic, it's true. My credit card bills still need paying. My rent is still due. I still have to go to work tomorrow. And my bed remains nothing more than a place to try to sleep every night.

But 2004 has finally arrived, a year fairly lactating with great promise. Beginnings. Endings. New directions. Challenges. Changes for the better. In direction. In career. In health, wealth and mood.

And, more than anything else, hope. For better things. For happier times. For dreams. For life. For living.

Any day that makes me feel this good--this hopeful--can't be all bad.

Happy New Year, everybody.