Thursday, December 1, 2016

Better Off In Your Head--THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?

SPOILER ALERT. I ain't playin', I'm just sayin'.



1935
Horace McCoy


A failed actor who later found some success as a contract writer for RKO Studios, Horace McCoy turned his time as a nightclub bouncer in the Dallas area into a Great Depression-era novel that failed to grip the imagination of his homeland, but earned serious praise from French existentialists.

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is told through the eyes and mind of Robert Syverten, a young wannabe director of Hollywood films (or even just movies). Loitering outside Paramount Studios, he meets an embittered extra named Gloria. She's a runaway whose success as an actress is equalled by her success as a suicide. They are but two of many on the smog-choked, sun-streaked periphery. However improbable their goals, the strength of their ambitions is distressingly clear. Hoping that a studio executive (or a producer, or a director) will cut 'em a big break (and an even bigger check), some of these cloud-hoppers head  towards the Pacific Ocean. Some keep going straight, but others go up, to an amusement pier above the water, joining other folks in one of many dance marathons held in the structure.

Robert and Gloria join 143 other couples in the quest for $1000 prize money. The rules are simple: keep moving, keep moving, and don't stop moving. The last pair standing wins. Breaks allotted for food and rest. 288 people basically sealed inside a gymnasium? The second-most degrading con job I can think of.

The story is told mostly through Robert's eyes and mind (the parts that aren't, concern his murder trial), but my obsession lie with Gloria. One of the saddest sacks in 20th century English literature--parents dead, pervo uncle, she's "sore on the world," and it shows. Robert considers her plain-looking (and I can't prove him wrong): too blonde, too small, too old to attain one of her unshakable dreams. Put out and off-putting, she's the sort of "unlikable" that hurts.

To drum up interest, the marathon's promoters pull all kinds of stunts, none more daring than the "elimination race" held at the end of every evening, a derby where the couples speed-walk around a circular track, and around, around, around, with the losers sent home. The tricks work. The crowds swell. Media coverage intensifies. Some couples land local businesses for sponsors. Hollywood stars drop by. Gloria goads Robert into approaching a director of some renown, and he does it, 'cause he's almost as desperate as she is, and he knows she's too fearful to make step two. Berating a pregnant hillbilly and sleeping with a sleazy producer--those are things she has no problem doing. Helps pass the time, y'know? The younger and prettier Gloria probably did the reverse at least once, as well.

Our two anti-humans can't much stand one another, but a faithful attendee by the name of Mrs. Layden finds them the bee's knees, openly rooting for them to be the last ones standing, wanting to help them even after the marathon is concluded, 'cause they're so clearly worth it (and she is so clearly unable to read people and see life as anything other than a soap opera).

After 879 hours, only 20 couples remain--Robert and Gloria among them. Do they have a chance? Of course not. The competition ends prematurely, not with a bang or a whimper but with a burst--gunfire breaks out, killing a poor innocent audience member. Such a shame. Well, maybe security will be tightened for the next one, eh?

Because, there's going to be a next one.

Robert and Gloria go outside--for the first time in over a month--and head for the edge of the pier. Gloria won't make it as an actress, but she still has her other dream--oblivion. She removes a pistol from her purse and asks Robert for mercy. He grants it, remembering when his grandfather did the same for a wounded family horse.

Just as he pulls the trigger, Robert sees Gloria smile for the very first time since he's known her. After all, what makes a person happier than a dream come true?

If McDonald's sold a burger called "The McCoy," it would be two all-grief patties, nothing special, let us please kick our bunions against the concrete because excruciating pain is all we can reasonably expect in an unreasonable world.

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? made me want to down a glass full of whiskey, and then start eating the glass. I love it. I mean I never want to read that book again (the paperback would probably send thick black gunk bubbling up and over my toilet bowl if I left it in the bathroom) but I'm glad I read it once.



1969
Director-Sydney Pollack
Writers-James Poe & Robert E. Thompson


"People are the ultimate spectacle."
 
In the early '50s, actors/producers/tennis chums Charlie Chaplin and Norman Lloyd were on the hunt for a big-screen project. Lloyd tossed out a few grand to purchase the rights to McCoy's novel, planning to cast Charlie's son Sydney and Marilyn Monroe in the lead roles.

Then Charlie's re-entry permit into the US was revoked (thanks to J. Edgar Hoover's vendetta against "commies in Hollywood"), effectively putting the kibosh on all that.

In 1955, McCoy died and the rights to his works reverted to his heirs. Frustrated over what had transpired, they refused to deal further with Lloyd (who as of this post is 102 years old and still acting). Enter young Sydney Pollack, a director unafraid to lay it all out and bunch it all up. Michael Sarrazin (a French-Canadian non-star) and Jane Fonda (star still ascending) were cast as Robert and Gloria.

Vital to a quality adaptation is realizing what can be and cannot be dropped.

The filmmakers wisely omitted three especially bleak, violent moments: podunk James slapping Gloria after one too many snide remarks; another contestant smacking hell out of his fainting partner, his intent growing ever more homicidal with each blow; and the gunplay that ends the marathon. 

Time and place (Great Depression-era Hollywood) remain unchanged, although the prize money is now 1500 big 'uns. Robert and Gloria do not meet beforehand, instead being forced together when her original partner skips out.

It's one thing to picture the crowds aggregated to gawk at the scruffy spectacle of desperation in constant motion, quite another to have it pictured for you. Day after day, privileged flesh fill the bleacher to find amusement at the pathetic animals on the gym floor.

(They get charley horses, don't they? Inevitably.)

Seeing the derbies is better than reading about them, especially in the hands of someone like Pollack. Urgency surpassed only by uselessness. Rocky patters on about how the contestants epitomize "the American way" of life, and he ain't far off. Going 'round in a circle, under false pretenses, for scant recompense…exuberance knocking into stolidity…old life besides young life besides life yet to be. There's much dancing, even some singing, but no flash (until the last eighteen minutes anyway), no vertical expression of a horizontal desire, unless you're determined to die flat on your back. The weariness that permeated the pages bleeds through the frames. This is degradation as entertainment.

Ostensibly the dancers are brave and bold, but the truth is much darker. Time moves slower for them than everyone else in that gym...yet it's running out faster. Frequently infantilized by the master of ceremonies ("our little hard-luck lady," he calls Gloria in a moment of classic understatement), treated despicably by promoters, pitied by the kindest hearts in the bleachers, these zombies shuffle between heroic and dishonorable.

James and his wife make the transition from novel to film, but two even more memorable characters were added solely for the film: old guy sailor Harry Kline (Red Buttons) and Alice (Oscar nominee Susannah York). The latter did the whole "diva breakdown in a shower" way before Mariah, while the former...oh God.

Oh my God.

Since the shooting was dispensed with, the impetus for our main characters' exit comes with the revelation that the so-called great cash prize will be but a pittance after deductions. Again, not flashy, not sexy...but it feels inevitable. Much more natural, and believable, than what occurred in the novel (which had a feel of McCoy blasting his way through a wall).

The final moments of Gloria (and Gloria and Robert) are soul-shattering. Out on the pier, as the contest continues behind them, they have their first meaningful conversation.

On my list of all-time favorite performances in a film, Fonda's portrayal of Gloria--the woman rode hardest and put away wettest--is definitely top 30. Sydney Pollack would go on to earn a reputation as an outstanding director of actresses, and he amazed Fonda by actually caring what she thought about her character. Although brutal and serrated, movie Gloria is more palatable than her papyrus counterpart, more Bipolar II whereas novel Gloria raged incessantly and spat acid onto the face of anyone fool enough to stand too close. Both are unforgettable, although I've never yearned for any amount of time spent underneath the skin of either. (Atop, different story.)

Hollywood felt much the same way; Horses still holds the record for most Oscar nominations (9) without one for Best Picture. The sole gold went to Gig Young for his portrayal of Rocky, the facile MC who fills the gymnasium with empty words and sentiments. Whether or not he deserved to beat out Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider is up for at least lukewarm debate.

Not hard to figure the reason for the near-shutout: Horses is basically misanthropy porn, a nihilistic marvel, a sledgehammer to the sternum, glum and disturbing. It's the type of film the industry nods at, but never strikes up a conversation with.

Back to Jane. Fonda lost Best Actress to Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I can't argue against Her Majesty, on g.p., but Fonda shoulda won for her gloriously bitchy evocation of God's one and only during a stage play put on by two of the contestants.

(No, scratch that. Mags, love ya honey bunches of "hell yeah!," but the conclusion of the deadly derby, when Gloria has to cross the finish line with Harry on her back, that's what awards are for.)

(No! The last scene, on the pier, raccoon-eyed and ready to die....)

Michael Sarrazin beat out Warren Beatty for the lead male role. Crisis averted, really--two years removed from Bonnie and Clyde, could he have really pulled off the hard-luck schlub role? Would you believe a guy who looked like young Warren Beatty couldn't make it in Hollywood? No way, you'd expect him to seduce Gloria, Alice and every other broad in that gym. Sarrazin should have earned an Oscar nod just for not getting steamrolled by Fonda. Shame this was his only real big role (contract issues kept him from being cast as Joe in Midnight Cowboy).  



BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
The novel is a tough, wiry read, but only in the emotional sense. The words are blunt, the actions blunter, and the author makes his point without resorting to strident language.

The film is a tough, wiry watch. It's as claustrophobic as possible while managing to avoid the "arthouse" label. It gets far more right than wrong, even dropping the movie title in the same scenario as the book.Sure it eases up on the hopelessness a smidge, but it's still two hours in the barbers chair without any small talk.

MIND THE GAP 
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is life in a cracked nutshell. Everything you care about will no longer matter once you allow it to speak. The future, what's that? Pointless as the present, as the past. Life is a grim and sordid craps game.

The book is better, ultimately, since written nihilism beats out visual or musical nihilism all of the days in all of the ways. But I could understand anyone who prefers the film, just because, you know, colors

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Better In Your Head?--THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ

                               
1900
L. Frank Baum
Illustrations by W.W. Denslow


Dire need does things to a man.

Having failed at acting, chicken breeding, and oil hawking, Lyman Baum found himself at a crossroads. His mother-in-law suggested he try writing fiction. Receiving so many rejection letters he immortalized them in a journal he titled "Record of Failure," Baum persisted until a publisher finally bit on Mother Goose In Prose. Two years later, he joined forces with illustrator W.W. Denslow for Father Goose, His Book, which turned out to be the best-selling children's book of 1899.

Baum followed up his success by staying within the genre, but drawing upon his own experiences (including boyhood nightmares of a scarecrow in hot pursuit and the yellow brick roads of a nearby city) to create a unique story rather than piggybacking on established ones. In one of the most hubristic moments in writer history, Baum actually framed the pencil he used to write the manuscript for what he intended to title The Emerald City and kept it hanging in his study.

Sometimes, a person just knows.

An episodic adventure written in the still-popular third person omniscient style, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is timeless. One might suppose--adhering to the conventional wisdom--that since the film was such a bewitching visual marvel, the source novel must be a florid masterwork.

Latecomers to the book may be taken aback by certain things, and those are the things I would like to focus on rather than attempt a rehash of one of the world's most famous tales.

--The Munchkins are approximately the same height as Dorothy. Also, though overjoyed at the sight of a crushed Wicked Witch of the East, they resist the urge to break out in song.

--The Good Witch of the North appears to bequeath Dorothy with the dead witches silver shoes and a forehead kiss that will provide the young girl magical protection.

--Dorothy and Toto follow the yellow brick road--after spending a night inside the killing house, eating bread and butter and changing into a nice gingham dress (Dorothy, I mean, not the dog). Her first night out, she stays at the opulent home of a Very Important Munchkin named Bog.

(The young girl's motivation is the same as the film: return home. Sure, the family farm in Kansas is superficially a desolate place; the grass, the paint, the people, all drained of their color by a merciless sun. Yet, it's home. And as she will later tell a travel companion, "There is no place like home.")

--The stuffed and stupid Scarecrow's origin story is pedestrian, but the Tin Woodman, wowee zowee. Love thwarted by wicked interference. At the behest of the girl's crooked mother, the Wicked Witch enchanted the Woodman's axe to lop off his limbs, one by one. Each time, a kindly tinsmith is able to replace what was lost. Even the terror of decapitation ("at first I thought that was the end of me") can't keep him down! At last, the axe bisects him. The tinsmith worked his magic yet again, but couldn't provide a heart. With no ticker, the Woodman's arduous feelings vanished. He took to the woods and all was well, least till he got caught in the rain (as often happens to the consciously lovelorn).

--The group are made to wear green glasses upon their arrival at Emerald City. Glad the movie changed this.

--The Wizard appears in a different form to each of them: a giant head to Dorothy, a pretty lady to the Scarecrow, a ludicrously-limbed beast to the Tin Woodman, and a ball of fire to the Lion. Wish the movie had kept this.

--The Witch sends forty wolves, forty crows and forty black bees at different times. All end up comprising hideous piles of death. There is, however, no evading the Winged Monkeys.

--The Wicked Witch puts Dorothy to work. She manages to trip the poor girl out of a single silver shoe by placing an iron bar on the floor and then casting an invisibility spell. (So why not use magic to get both shoes? Why not just push her down?) Peeved, Dorothy grabs a nearby water bucket.

Best moment to not make the movie:

"I am Oz, the Great and Terrible."
"I am Dorothy, the small and meek."

A good book to crack open over a bowl of hot soup. Dorothy and the gang spend much more time en route to the Wizard, and without a song to pollute the air. At its best, Baum's prose is like tickling a baby's feet; at worst, like being tickled by a porcupine's quills. The trek to see Glinda is one long bath in bottled water with soaps and shampoos nicked from hotels. Fighting Trees, a giant spider, Hammer-Heads…none of this is as exciting as it should be. These are superfluous non-threats, nothing more.

Furthermore, other than Dorothy herself, I didn't find myself really caring much about any other character in the book. The Lion made me laugh a couple times, but so does Kathy Griffin, doesn't mean I give a shit about her life. 

55 novels, dozens of short stories, hundreds of poems, and still Frank Baum died broke. Not to mention...
1939
Director-Victor Fleming (primary)
King Vidor (sepia sequences; replaced Fleming after latter left to work on Gone With the Wind, which would win arguably the most impressive selection of Best Picture nominees in Oscar history--including The Wizard of Oz)
Writers-Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson & Edgar Allan Woolf (anywhere from ten to fifteen scribes contributed to the final script)
Lyrics-Edgar "Yip" Harburg
Music-Harold Arlen


....Baum's story had been adapted into several short films and a successful stage musical by the time MGM spent a then-exorbitant $2.7 million to put it on the big screen in revelatory Technicolor.

No suspense: The Wizard of Oz is superior to the source material. By turning the story into a musical fantasy and cutting down on the violence, the filmmakers were able to toss the junk and present the public with what remains one of the crowning jewels of the medium.

The Technicolor isn't just there to coax sounds from the audience. It's a crucial part of the narrative. The moment the sepia tones give way is one of the great reveals in cinematic history. (What audiences then must have felt and thought!) No kidding that ain't Kansas. Alive and lively, Dorothy is helpless to do anything other than absorb the abundance.

Making it a musical? Brilliant. Are all the songs brilliant? No. (The entire Munchkins sequence is akin to ingesting fifty Cadbury Creme Eggs in a single sitting.) Still, "Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead" remains the go-to tune when you are super-happy that someones heart has stopped beating and "Over the Rainbow" is a unforgettable heart-clencher of a ballad that might be the finest recipient of the Best Song Oscar.

The acting is uniformly enjoyable. 17-year-old Judy Garland plays 12-year-old Dorothy close to perfection. Frank Morgan's multi-role turn is only questionable if you let your mind wander in the realm of "what-ifs" once you learn that W.C. Fields and Ed Wynn were considered before him. Probably my overall favorite performance is Bert Lahr as farmhand Zeke and the Cowardly Lion. He's a blubbering comedic landmine, careening from terrifying jungle cat to terrified kitten, his face and voice made to entertain.

Film Glinda, like book Glinda, is "end result uber alles." Dorothy wouldn't have made her necessary personal journey if she'd been told straight away how to get back home. You know, like Jim and Pam had to go through all those sitcom contrivances during Season 3 of The Office in order to earn their happy ending, instead of just banging on his desk at the end of Season 2. This is totally like that.

All that said, the movie screwed up the ending. The producers decided to make it all a dream, assuming that audiences of the era were far too sophisticated to give time and money to a silly fantasy film. In Baum's book, Dorothy really did experience winged monkeys and Kalidahs (bear bodies! Tiger heads! The illustration of them plunging to their deaths is just adorable), while fearing she would never see her loved ones again. The stakes were high, and real.

Otherwise, the film is a masterclass in how to take a good story and make it great. The key? Get people to care. Give the characters personalities, expand the world in which they live. Add a nosy neighbor intent on having a small dog killed. Boooo. Don't just have Dorothy's companions tell her what they want from the Wizard, give them literal song and dance routines. Yayyyy.

As a bonus, even the effects hold up well, especially during the twister. (The Wicked Witch going Liu Kang on Scarecrow is pretty all right, too.)

The twist that the Wicked Witch can only obtain the slippers upon Dorothy's death is a great one, more demented than anything Baum dreamed up. Or not. See, in the book, those cursed winged monkeys actually speak. Holy crab cakes, can you imagine watching the film as a child, and already just the sight of those things has set your subconscious mind to NIGHTMARE for the next three sleep cycles, and then the monkeys open their mouths and words come out. 



BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
No. The film is defter, cleverer and feeds the head to satisfaction.  The Wizard of Oz is an enduring part of pop culture, of our shared language--and virtually none of the words were taken from Baum's book. "We're not in Kansas anymore" isn't in there, nor is "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"


MIND THE GAP
A rare example of the visual trumping the text, and while I recommend Baum's book to anyone who loves the movie, I'm not going to insist.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Better In Your Head?--THE CHOIRBOYS

SPOILER ALERT. So don't get all aggrieved.

1974
Joseph Wambaugh

Joe Wambaugh's first two novels were instant bestsellers, penetrating looks into the world of the lowly beat cop, and their influence on me (as writer and reader) cannot be overstated. Novel number three (the first to be published after his reluctant retirement from the Los Angeles Police Department) moved millions of copies on its way to changing the face of American crime fiction. The Mystery Crime Writers of America placed it #93 on its list of the Top 100 Crime Novels, which is impressive, but listen--this book changed my life. I don't have a shirt to show ya, though, so lemme continue.

While not high literature, the former Detective Sergeant's scatological sociology piece has been celebrated by better wordsmiths than I. Stephen King once called Wambaugh "one of those necessary voices…sometimes angry, sometimes illuminating, often wise, always funny and fascinating." Tom Wolfe and James Ellroy both heaped praise on The Choirboys, the latter citing it as the world-shaker that sent the stories tumbling out of his head and onto the page.

The reader is told right off--bad shit's gone down with the so-called "good guys." How bad, and how much, is to be revealed. First, we're immersed in the worlds of ten "choirboys," LAPD uniform officers who travel in pairs--where, paradoxically or not, they reveal their individual selves.

--Herbert Whalen, nicknamed "Spermwhale," is approaching retirement. He has the veteran's disdain for people, yet strives to treat them fairly. His partner, Baxter Slate, is good-looking and well-spoken, a Classical Lit major unable to shake a poor experience in the Juvenile Division.

--Nam buddies Sam Niles and Harold Bloomguard could not be more dissimilar, personality-wise. The latter needs their friendship as much as the former longs to end it.

 --Henry "Roscoe" Rules and Dean Pratt comprise perhaps most entertaining set of partners. One's a racist goon who gets off on abusing suspects; the other's a passive stringbean who gets drunk with alarming ease.

--Spencer Van Moot, the only other choirboy out of his thirties, is a gratuity hound who can "bear any pain but his own." Willie Wright is called "Father" thanks to his tendency to lambaste his comrades for their dastardly sinfulness (as he himself gets shit-faced while waiting to bang one of the cocktail waitresses that visit the 'Boys during their "practices").

--The two non-white Choirboys ride together: Calvin Potts (so broke he has to pedal to work) and Francis Tanaguchi, a third-generation Japanese-American who identifies more closely with the culture of the barrios in which he was raised.

Ensuing chapters place us alongside them on the beat, and what a goddamn ride. The scenarios they inhabit sent my heart plummeting--or rocketing. (The center cannot hold? How 'bout when the center fails to exist?)

When the demands of maintaining law and order get too tense, too electric, when eruption felt imminent…someone would call a "choir practice," their colloquial for after-hours decompression sessions held at a local park. Food/booze/sex aplenty, but nothing so abundant as complaining. The job, the supervisors, their families--these protectors and servers bitch about anything.

Two extended choir practices are featured. What keeps these sequences from reading as text versions of Police Academy is the character development. Whether you find them obnoxious, fragile, despicable or sympathetic, you will think of these men as more than a uniform. Quippy, if not exactly witty, the choirboys are entrusted with a power that seems absolute to the people they interact with, but which is impotent compared to the men in the big buildings making big decisions.

Which is the book's only kinda-weakness: Wambaugh's "Up yours Krabappel!" glee in painting "the bosses"--every cop above the rank of Sergeant--with the roller he's careful to hide behind his back when writing about the street soldiers. The men in charge are bumbling at best, corrupt at worst. They are vindictive, obsequious prevaricators whose advancement depends on their willingness to obfuscate and overlook. The choirboys, conversely, are just normal guys trying to cope with an abnormal amount of responsibility, and if they want to get kill-screen with some booze and bennies, or run a train on some trashy cop groupies, they've earned that goddamn right, goddamnit!

And then Sam Niles, drunk and in the throes of a claustrophobia-induced panic attack, kills a teenage boy. The others concoct a cockamamie story that collapses quicker than a house of cards, with devastating career consequences. 

Sam is not the tragic character, though. That dubious honor belongs to Baxter Slate, still clinging to the idealism of youth as he wonders at the "worthlessness" of humanity. All around him the evidence mounts, until he decides at last "(t)here's not enough dignity in mankind for evil." Slate illustrates the author's larger point: the mental and emotional hazards of police work are more frequent, and more severe, then the physical hazards. His end struck me from out of nowhere on initial reading; my second go-round, the clues were sadly unmissable.

But, Roscoe Rules--more abrasive and less thoughtful than Baxter---illustrates that same point. Police work probably did not make him a crass bigot, but it destroyed any chance he may have had for revelation and redemption.

No cop book prior could boast the exhilarating dimensions of The Choirboys, but it was not without precedent. Wambaugh's debt to Catch-22 is evident throughout.

--Both novels feature men who die after involvement with prostitutes.

--Both are rife with nasty, clueless supervising officers.

--Catch-22 has an insensitive military doctor who refuses to help the men, while The Choirboys has a thoughtful department doc who wants to help but feels bound by bureaucracy.

--A trooper who sees everything twice, an officer who (when inebriated) says everything twice.  

--Catch-22 is named after an illogical set of requirements re: airmen and their duties. Early in The Choirboys, a supervisor is singled out for praise for typing up departmental regulations that Wambaugh tells us "were perfect. No one could understand them."

Likewise, the humor in The Choirboys is as bleak as a penguins prospects in Hell, but there's enough of it to make this of the most genuinely hilarious novels I've ever read. Very little in the way of plot, but the stories are unforgettable. It is a validation of the three-dimensional portrayal of police, if not the profession. Certainly dated, nonetheless indelible.

Respect the ducks, y'all.
1977 
Director-Robert Aldrich
Writer-Christopher Knopf (Wambaugh successfully sued to get his name removed from the credits)

"Anyone who liked the book will probably be appalled by the movie"--Vincent Canby, The New York Times

Inevitably, a novel scarfed up by millions will cause hypersalivation in unsavory types. With a well-respected director at the helm, and the author's direct input, the film adaptation of The Choirboys should not have turned out to be such a futzburger, but boy howdy. Impure visual junk food, and I mean the junkiest junk food, like this is the Carl's Jr./Hardees of '70s "comedies."

Released two days before Christmas 1977, despite the lack of anything holiday-related in the actual movie (not even calling a woman a "ho") Aldrich borrows the novel's movement--one vignette to the next--but can't make it three steps without tripping over something, be that something his own feet, his own arrogance, or his own ignorance. Thereby turning a long prelude to a tragedy into a long tragedy.

Where to begin with this shit show? Proudly non-PC, in a time before PC was a thing to be or not to be. Meaning? Race-baiting and gay jokes ahoy. And the women? We don't exist, except as meat puppets. Imagine Hill Street Blues adapted for the big screen by the creative team behind Porky's. But much, much worse.

The movie's pre-credits sequence is the beginning of the book, which makes complete sense story-wise, and raises hopes for a faithful adaptation. The opening credits then destroy that hope. "In the Hall of the Mountain King" blares on an organ as the camera settles on a church facade. Hey, the saint depicted on that stained glass window is wearing a cop hat. Heh. Then…fist smash straight into a boisterous choir comprised of manly men. Welcome to Mood Whiplash 101…class will be in session for the next two hours.

But, but, the cast! Oh yeah, stellar. Charles Durning as Whalen is closest to the picture in my mind when I read the book. Louis Gossett, Jr., James Woods, Charles Haid, Randy Quaid, Burt Young don't really match as well (Haid especially) but hey, good actors every one. Several character names are changed for…the hell of it? Pratt to Proust, is that supposed to be literary humor?

The director's agenda is apparent to anyone familiar with the source material. Tanaguchi's prankster side is featured, but no reference to his cultural confusion, not even a quick line about him craving a taco or a shot of him wearing a sombrero at choir practice. A montage of Van Moot driving store to store, accepting free items from grateful proprietors just might have worked. You know, something to indicate these guys are more than gun-wielding cookie cutters. Slate's philosophical bent is integrated into the action unnaturally, and Perry King's stilted recitations don't help.

Rules and Pratt are more successful, the lout and the pout. Quaid's look reminds me of Scott Wilson from In Cold Blood, and Tim McIntire as Rules makes such a wonderful rampaging asshole I'm kinda sad he never had more notable work.

Roscoe is also the centerpiece of the film's best scene, coming a half hour in, --"Roscoe and the Duck." It concludes with Rules cuffed to a tree, naked from the waist down. All good humor melts away when a gay man and his dog stroll by. Thank God the dog is a poodle dyed pink so I realized beyond the silhouette of a suspension that her owner is as gay as a greylag. The guy is instantly besotted--"A naked man!" he proclaims, in his best Paul Lynde gone verklemmt, despite the fact that Rules is wearing a biker jacket. (People in the '70s thought homosexuality caused partial blindness, I suppose.)

Unsurprisingly, the film's other genuinely funny moment also concerns Rules, and is a mash-up at that: an outdoors ceremony marked with random zingers from his peers about how much of a scrote he is.

The moment ribald farce takes a dramatic turn is handled somewhat surely, but then, it takes another dramatic turn! Motts sends the retired Whalen a letter, absolving the old guy for turning informant on the other choirboys to save his pension. He also includes a newspaper article quoting Police Chief Briggs--the man who scared the confession from Whalen--about the deadly events in the park. Livid Whalen returns to California and threatens to expose Briggs for lying, withholding evidence, putting ketchup on hot dogs, you name it. Briggs, for some reason, does not tell the roly-poly retiree to go take a flying fuck at a rolling donut. Instead he capitulates, and the other choirboys have their suspensions lifted. Yay! Happy ending! Good guys win!

How galling. If Wambaugh had smashed a red bow on his novel, it would have felt utterly false and made the preceding pages a heart-goring sham.

The "park fairy" Niles (excuse me, Lyles) blasted had a name, and even his own chapter, wherein we learned that the hooting and hollering of the choirboys provided a sliver of comfort for a young man wrestling with lust and shame. Which is why I find the end credits absolutely reprehensible-- vaudeville music over clips of the characters laughing. A kid was killed by one of y'all. Parents lost a son.

Oh wait, I forgot...emotions are faggoty, and strictly for faggots.

As puerile as the finished product turned out, the omissions of "Filthy Herman" and the puke blanket are almost stunning. Less so, the absence of scenes showing these men as street savvy yet vulnerable. Aldrich simply didn't think enough of the characters to surround the flesh with blood.

One could claim Aldrich was aiming for the Rabelaisan, but I doubt he gave the required damn. Simply put, the director didn't get the book. Of Wambaugh's various complaints Aldrich remarked, "He wrote a dirty, tasteless, vulgar book, which I think I've managed to capture." The author's insistence on the turmoil experienced by men who make a living seeing each other at their worst meant nothing to Aldrich. I mean, he used screen wipes.

"I don't know how to feel sorry for a cop," Aldrich told an interviewer. "It's a volunteer force." No one asked Aldrich to feel sympathy. Wambaugh's cops are not glistening heroes, nor are they incompetent miscreants. Simply, he sniffed out a gravitas for military service that he couldn't detect for mere police work, and that is why The Dirty Dozen is a classic and The Choirboys is a crap sack. The potency in the drama is diluted by over-reliance on farcical shenanigans. Aldrich doesn't tell a story, he mutters it, frequently shrugging and making agitated hand gestures.

In the novel, Whalen becomes enraged when he notices that a picture of his former partner has been removed from the wall honoring deceased officers. He berates the nearest desk-bound officer, explaining how his old friend stressed the three things a cop needed to be successful at the job: common sense, a sense of humor and compassion. "He lost his sense of humor," Whalen concluded.

In the context of the film, the scene feels less like an acknowledgement of the police work's true nature and more an attempt to justify the profusion of slapstick in the script.

Sloppy, sophomoric and entirely regrettable, The Choirboys even manages to mess up a Joe Kapp cameo.



BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Are you fucking kidding me? A fucking seven-hour shadow puppet adaptation of the book (without intermissions!) would be more enjoyable! Multiple exclamation points throughout a single sentence!

MIND THE GAP
Huge. The widest gap in the history of gaps. Call your mom, there's a new sheriff in town!

Seriously…I beg of you…instead of watching the movie, read the book at least twice.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Better In Your Head? Books Vs. Movies, The Introduction

Calling foul on conventional wisdom doesn't happen near as often for my liking. Questioning conventional wisdom has resulted in discovering that the Earth is a sphere, homosexuality is not a mental illness, and financial wealth doesn't guarantee personal happiness. Not bad. But when I consider the hokey aphorisms and spineless theories forming the foundation of a supposed success story, I don't wonder why the world burns.

Course, the opposite of conventional wisdom is common sense. Either way, a paucity of resources.

However, there is one merry given in life: the book is almost always better than the movie.

Right?

Movies, fine medium they are, really have no choice but to screw up a book. Often significant chunks of prose must be excised to keep the film's plot reasonable (to say nothing of the running time). Simplification is the rule.

The novelist is encouraged to use descriptive prose. A glacial pace can be one of the elements that makes a work of fiction great. A book does not come with a predetermined duration. You may read it in one day, or across several days, or even several weeks.

The writer works their word magic and trusts the reader to follow along. The writer realizes that their internal images might not match up with that conjured up by the reader, especially when it comes to character descriptions. But that's a necessary sacrifice. Then, along comes the director--with his cinematographer, his editor, his composer, his goddamn cast--and, well, can you read To Kill a Mockingbird without seeing Gregory Peck?

What I set out to determine with this review series is not if the cliche is true--of course it is. What piques my pen is seeing for myself how wide the gap in quality really is. While I won't be doing every single damn adaptation ever made--not for lack of desire, mind--you can look forward to 55 books and 59 movies given the Trapper treatment. Some obvious, some not, all worthy the scrutiny. 

Let us go.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Go For the Ribs



HARDWIRED…TO SELF-DESTRUCT
11/18/2016


I do not ask Metallica to make Master of Puppets 2: The Thrashening. I ask of them what I ask of any artist, in any medium: create at the highest level of which you are capable.

Eight years after Death Magnetic shocked me by being an actual immersive musical experience, the world's most famous heavy metal band return with their tenth album. To celebrate the feat, they gave it not just the crappest title in their catalog but also the crappest cover.

They also passed on Rick Rubin, and anyone suspicious of the album's prospects due to the absence of Rubin in the room (honors went instead to his right-hand man, Greg Edelman) likely wish they could tickle the guy's belly, or eat the food from his beard.

"Hardwired"--The album runs close to 80 minutes, so straight away, the 3:09 runtime of the first song reveals it to be a maddening tease. Oh yeah, "Hardwired" is a nice three minutes by the fireplace with Dad, thumbing through a thick, gorgeous photo album, page after page imbuing you with a natural warmth, until the old man slams the thing shut and tosses it towards the logs. 

Ethanol to ethernet, man is phasing himself out. Not unfair to consider this an updated "Blackened," just more straightforward and less mournful. 

"Atlas, Rise!"--Greek Titans on the losing side of war wind up having to hold up the Heavens forever. Just a myth of course, fantastical stories intended to impart lessons. Doesn't stop people from willingly assuming the Atlas role, positive that the excess weight will serve to increase their all-around strength rather than pancake their poor frame.

Circular saws with the rotational kinetic energy of a yo-yo wielded by Muscle Milk-guzzling motorheads whose lives would have been drastically different if not for the invention of the contact lens deserve their own mythology as well, so kudos to Metallica for trying to make that a thing!

"Now That We're Dead"--Romeo and Juliet, but with more snarling and less style. Not that the song is dumb, no really, move past the title. Oscar Wilde paraphrased within!

I was able to comfortably close my eyes and follow the doomed lovers from rush to rush, field to field, in their shared defiance of decrepitude. They are unblighted--their skin will never go papery, their vision will not dim. They are forever, but only they will ever know.

"Moth Into Flame"--Social media's effect on mental health is social media's effect on every damn thing else. Incremental progression is commendable, but still accomplished at a remove. Without more direct sources of positive reinforcement, the incomplete fragments comprising the Internet can ruin a person.

Mind you, Metallica aren't into compassion--or any judgment, really. Metallica are into seamless transitions, from jaggedly intriguing verse to a chorus that…I don't understand pizzas boasting more than two cheeses. At a certain point, the human tongue will no longer taste anything beyond "melted."

Kirk's work is decent. Know what else I describe as "decent"? Patty melts. Sam Bradford's throwing arm. Your mama's head game.

"Dream No More"--Hardwired has been frill-free till…now. Take "The Thing That Should Not Be," cross it with "Sad But True" and "Dream No More" is the somehow underwhelming outcome.

Cthulhu is as metal as face-fucking a groupie, but those double-tracked vocals ain't. If you find watching still waters a fun way to pass the time you'll never get back," Dream No More" will thrill as it chills.

More songs about sand golems, please.

"Halo On Fire"--If Hardwired is a box of donuts one dozen strong (and it isn't, but my sweet tooth's a brat), then "Halo on Fire" is the Long John.

"Confusion"--AKA, "Regrettable Solos." Subtitled, "Johnny Get Your Fistful of Antipsychotics."

Yeah man, fight fight fight, for the rights of deplorable and decent alike! Have some more fruit salad, hero! We love your grim, handsome face! Until you return home and experience more difficulty reacclimatizing than you'd anticipated. There are resources available to facilitate recovery…but since you're a tough guy, you should ignore them and enjoy that discount at Golden Corral instead.

"ManUNkind"--Thank you for your service, Congressman Les Winan, but man is now as ever the prime enemy of man. James Hetfield cannot stress this enough!

"Here Comes Revenge"
--Black-robed and white-faced, the men meander their way to a sensible, unsurprising crescendo.

"You ask forgiveness, I give you sweet revenge." Look out, Phil Towles. Actually, wait...don't. James needs to ask forgiveness for that "revenge-ah!"

"Am I Savage?"--Nope. Not evil, either. WOKKA WOKKA WOKKA.

Connect the dots, oh wow, it's a boar. The should-be respite four minutes in ticked me off initially--oh, now is the time to sound redolent of that moment in an RPG when you realize you have to solve a goddamn forest maze?!

Then the RKO…that crunchy fifteen-second segment that forced a wet spot onto the center of my panties. Then Kirk shows up, and I'm all, is this fucking awesome still or is this auditory trickery on par with U-God's "Triumph" verse?

"Murder One"--A review series dedicated to the Big 4 of British Metal? It almost happened.

I spent some time researching opinions on the racket-gangs that would comprise such a motley crew, and was able to reach a safe consensus of Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Motorhead. Now, I love Sabbath and Priest. Early Maiden were massively influential on the look and sound of the genre. Motorhead, well, the number of songs by them I really enjoy can't hold a candle to the number of Lemmy interviews I've sought out. Mr. Kilmister's irascibility outshone his band's music, to the benefit of the media and well, fucking Motorhead, truth be told. Go track-by-track through their 22 studio albums? I'd rather give free blowjobs in a Greyhound bus station.

Anyway, "Murder One" is a tribute to the late Lemmy that would fit tidy on any one of those 22.

"Spit Out the Bone"--This, you motherfuckers, THIS. The soundtrack to escaping quicksand, only to have your skull smashed in by a heartless, bloodless, skinless mercenary machine unaffected by our silly noises. Because the cure for humanity's ills is, check this shit out, the elimination of humanity.

Metallica could have easily reheated twelve plates of spaghetti (or a dozen slices of pizza) and had metalheads worldwide all, "Oh my God, this is the best thing I've eaten since the early nineties!" Instead, they give us the single bowl of hot syrup for the dippin' that would have made Homer Simpson's patented Space Waffles the unquestioned greatest breakfast food ever.

"Man overthrown! Spit out the bone!"

The crick in my neck ain't from headbanging, it's from watching the drunk blind guy trying out a tightrope. Classic, classic.

If Metallica can still crush and spin so bastardly, why the hell don't they do it more often? Such restraint is not cute, ya pricks.



Metallica in the 21st century are hardwired…to make great four-minute songs into good six-minute songs. There's little for listeners to be offended by, and little for the band themselves to be defensive of. Well done, I guess, but that's a stupid thing to do to a steak.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Soldier For Each Star In the Sky

FOR ALL KINGS
2/26/2016


Forget Not-Man, he's old news. Anthrax are their own mascot. If the band members don't have a 60" x '48" print of that album cover framed and hung somewhere in their respective domiciles, there ain't no more heroes no more.

For All Kings differs from its predecessor Worship Music in two significant areas: lead guitar is now handled by Shadows Fall founder Jon Donais (no big deal really) and the songs were written for Joey Belladonna to sing (huge deal really).


"You Gotta Believe"--Such an Anthrax song title. Confidence has always been the single trait separating them from their comrades, be it in their approach to life or to aping younger bands in the genre.

From the first, the band lets us know that the gloomy days of "Panthrax" can't even be felt by the most sensitive worm. After several blows direct to the nose, the fist unclenches for a stinging slap. Such a dick move. But, I love it. (Not like it was MY face.) Until the dull soloing begins. Misplaced languidness is really more of a Megadeth thing, guys.

"Monster At the End"--Of every Choose Your Own Adventure story gone awry. Joey's really going with that voice! His actual tone is fine; the choices, the flourishes, I would say he should have thought twice, but maybe he did.

Heavy as an Easter Island Head in the midst of an existential crisis.

"For All Kings"--Old-school Belladonna, crown-spearing riffage…the way the band holds everything aloft, it's difficult to not feel awestruck in the presence of such gilded metal.

"Breathing Lightning"--Balancing the urges is no mean feat; nah, it's fuckin' nasty. Metal means what? Frenetic and untamed. Until it means atmospheric and focused.

"I stalk this land with just one purpose"--to keep doing "the right thing." Which is? Hardly a mystery. Keep sniffing the air if you haven't figured it out halfway through.

"Suzerain"--Atomic wedgies, hydrogen noogies, but then the chorus is old guard Bard-style. How'd we go from catapults to launch pads?

Anthrax are merchants of metal, willing and able to embrace melody and buoyancy in the same arms that clutch speed and power, which is why For All Kings will wind up on my "Best Of" list at year's end.

"Evil Twin"--Think Hebdo, not Hebner. The monster at the everywhere.

Fuck off, y'all. This is razor blade to the throat after you just taped the mouth shut. This is splitting shotgun shells for a salad. Sharpen the sword only to jab at the enemy with a rusty spoon.

"Blood Eagle Wings"--Here's the advance tracklisting for the new Anthrax. One of those songs is eight minutes long--care to venture a guess?

The intro piece fills me with jealousy towards all archers that have ever lived. Everyone who's ever scaled a mountain, regardless of height or fame. Can't tremble behind the ice and fog for too long; the mountains are still there, somehow, and I can always pay for lessons.

Joey Belladonna was put on this planet to belt the crap out of choruses. And to sing the "Star-Spangled Banner" before sporting events in Chicago. 

"Defend Avenge"--A general can't lead the men (and the cross-dressing women) in his battalion if the a.m. cobwebs just won't clear. How did wars ever end in the days before Visine and energy drinks?

"All of Them Thieves"--The dirt's been soaked with liquid rehash, and Joey doesn't step into the earth with enough strength to make a print worth any investigators time.

"The Battle Chose Us!"--Up, puppets! After nine songs of fighting, Anthrax have now settled down, stirred yet unshaken, to process the losses. Who knew their destiny was to be the American Iron Maiden?

"Zero Tolerance"--Desire does not necessarily abate with age so much as it refocuses. The differences between sublime and ridiculous are much less distinct than, say, those between Sublime and R.E.M. So a success story should be celebrated, and a rousing one deserves a cake not bought fully formed, decorated with an icing of regal hue, some cryptic seal in the center.



Anthrax always wanted to be Metallica, even in the days before Metallica were Metallica. They were never as successful, either commercially or critically or creatively, but with the critical assist of a fresh motivation, Anthrax have made peace with the present and in doing so, have accomplished something none of the other Big 4 could do this year: left me more excited for their future releases.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Don't Rest In Peace


REPENTLESS
9/11/2015


(Oops, they did it again.)

For the record…I don't like that this review is a thing. Because I don't like that a Slayer album sans the direct presence and influence of Jeff Hanneman is a thing. Tom Araya's reticence versus Kerry King's stubbornness, never was there a possibility that the greatest metal band ever would actually hang up the horns.

Despite misgivings, again, Slayer are the best their genre has yet boasted. How could I not root for 'em? Remember that other album they released on 9/11, and how it treated your scalp like the lid of a tennis ball can?

After years of filling in for Hanneman on stage, former Exodus mastermind Gary Holt finally takes his place in studio. Alleged bad business once more sent Dave Lombardo towards the exits…enter Paul Bostaph, after fourteen years of not sitting around waiting for Slayer to ring him.

So that's a Slayer album without two of the original members.

"Delusions of Saviour"
--A nearly two minute intro Kerry wrote after listening to the conclusion of Pearl Jam's "Black" while giving baths to his pet snakes or whatever the hell. As a mood-setter, it beats the odd-smelling pee out of candles named "Essence of Twilight" or "Guest on the Third Day".

Short, enjoyable, goes nowhere, oh shit life metaphor.

"Repentless"--Is not a word. Did Kerry the King not know of the perfectly extant word "unrepentant" (inconceivable!)?

Flame-tosser, still. Kerry writing about the world through the eyes of his late great P.I.C., although honestly it could be about King just as well (the lyrics are just that aggressively angst-soaked). The Seasons-esque intro devolves into a stand-around riff hardly worthy of the legend, but then woo, the fellas start decimating faulty appliances on a timer and all is all right. (Until you realize they left nine washing machines and refrigerators virtually untouched.)

Amidst a riot-ready spray of bad language, King manages to flip a cliche ("What you get is what you see") and I tend to nod appreciatively at such gymnastics, but still…"repentless" is so not a word that my poor autocorrect is audibly weeping.

(Imagine King penning a tune through the eyes of his old drummer. "Pay me what you owe me, motherfuckers!" ad nauseum.)

The solos make me wanna flip off some stupid kids.

"Take Control"--Darkening skies, brightening gazes. Maniacs will incite mania if need be, sending up plumes of smoke and flame into the sky while blades clash and blur below.

Wow, no profanity? Oh wait, spoke too soon--this one's a wedding night.

"Vices"--Outta the way is what I'm gonna get this thing.

"A little violence is the ultimate drug/Let's get high!"

"Vices" is at best unfinished; at worst, undecided. No, actually, at worst, it's that fucking lyric up there. Does Araya come through to salvage it somewhat? Look at those words again. Tell me what you think could make them palatable when spoken aloud. Then tell me how long you've been a syrup-sipper.

When Araya shuts up and the tune can lumber 'long on a trio of wheels, finally I can dig into "Vices."

"Cast the First Stone"--War ships, eh? War with Lego, is that what the situation's deteriorated into? I got two big feet for all the Lego in the world. The imprints and the pains are barely worth the receipt.

"When Stillness Comes"--"Spill the Blood" another 'gain. Slayer do "storytime with a sociopath" so well, but they have also done it better in the not-too distant past. 'Bout as spooky as snakes in a can, but I have to give it up for producer Terry Date, even if many of the bands he's worked with have been the aural/moral opposite of James Baxter rollin' on a beach ball, he cuts 'em from sternum to navel with an expert touch.

"Chasing Death"
--Men tend not to do the emotion stuff well, meaning the extent of the helplessness the other guys felt at watching Jeff's losing battle with the bottle will never be fully expressed. (I'm sure there was at least one night that ended with bloody fingers.) The "slave of discontent" earns a screaming heap of disgust and disbelief. The tough love approach is a risky one--try it on me and one of us won't live to regret it.

"Oblivious to the end"--well shit, how would they tell the difference?

"Implode"--I choose to believe the song begins at 0:48.

The apocalypse is thunderously overrated, the supposed imminent zombie apocalypse especially. Extremely picky eaters are supposed to bring about the "extermination of the swine"? Eff zombies, pigs are coming! For thirty minutes, apparently!

Bostaph's best is far from Lombardo's best, but that's not as far as some fanboys might claim.

"Piano Wire"--Inarguably the most-anticipated song on Repentless, "Piano Wire" was rejected from inclusion on World Painted Blood thanks to an underwhelming Araya performance. After the death of its composer, however, Tom gave it another, apparently vastly improved go.

How fitting Jeff's last song concerns Nazi atrocities. While not fit for the pantheon, "Piano Wire" shows why his presence will be missed: doesn't fuck about, values the insidious over the straightforward, doesn't demand that Tom scream like the world's angriest teenager trapped in a middle-aged man's creaking body.

"Atrocity Vendor"--Tom and Kerry time! Dunno which man brought the Elmer's glue and which one brought the soft-batch scissors, but the best thing about Slayer's art projects is this: frequently, they depict horrors I would hate either I or my loved ones to suffer through, but would totally love to see my hated ones endure.

 "You Against You"--Solo less than a minute in. Dunno what makes me more nauseous, the sight of the impotent hard-on or the smell of the fumes.

"Pride In Prejudice"
--"Finality to the fuss," indeed.

A single gunshot signals the beginning of the scene. The anti-hero emerges, his definitive stance in an amorphous world nearly as inspiring as his unwavering belief in the self. What followed I totally missed, too concerned that I don't qualify as a real American since I've yet to be shot at. (I've had a gun pointed at me in a non-playful manner once; maybe I can be Russian?



Once carcass kickers nonpareil, once apple pie shit-inners with no equal, Slayer have fallen a few rungs on the ladder whose primary material escapes me at the moment. Repentless is better than Diabolus in Musica and Divine Intervention, but is the whitest shade of pale alongside God Hates Us All and Christ Illusion. (Compared to the classics? No, let's not be cruel.) Forget virgin sacrifices, the worst sin Slayer commit here is that of indistinction.