Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Better In Your Head?--FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH

1981
Cameron Crowe


"You dick!"

SPOILER ALERT, writing about a book that's basically a bunch of short chapters without a centering plot is harder than graduating high school.

Cameron Crowe started writing for Rolling Stone at the tender age of 15, not long after graduating from the University of San Diego High School, a Catholic prep school that didn't really count as the high school experience. But what did Crowe care? The Seventies had just basically started, he had four years left of adolescence, and as a representative of America's premiere music magazines, he was out on the road spending quality time with rock royalty.

The editors of these magazines were obsessed with appealing to, selling to and being accepted by one demographic above all others: "the kids." Not the snot-noses who watched Sesame Street; the ones who bought records and attended shows, who wore the shirts and spread the word. Teenagers. The Powers That Were (and Are) didn't care about the parents. Go for the kids.

With a new decade looming, the 22-year-old Crowe decided to finally have the real high school experience--and write about it. With everyone all enthralled by the kids (not to mention his resume), Crowe wouldn't need to twist any arms to get published. He convinced the principal of Clairemont High School in Redondo Beach, CA to let him spend a year undercover as a senior and the result was Fast Times At Ridgemont High.

The book is "a true story," albeit one that has been fictionalized to avoid lawsuits and hurt feelings. Names were changed to protect the adolescent and poetic license was probably taken since we are after all dealing with something in excess of 200 pages.* How much did Crowe himself actually witness? How much is exaggerated, and by how much?

Decent questions; and like all questions, ultimately pointless.

Crowe wisely removed himself from the teenage wasteland, focusing instead on six students: self-styled ladies man (and Philly transplant) Mike Damone; Damone's  best friend, the reticent Mark "Rat" Ratner; blonde and curvy sophomore Stacy Hamilton, with whom the Rat is smitten; Linda Barrett, a worldly senior with a fiance, the mentor to many younger female students, but she considers Stacy her dearest protege; Brad Hamilton, Stacy's big brother, a Super Senior with the choicest fast food gig in town, flipping and dunking for Carl's Jr.; and Jeff Spicoli, a blonde surf-rat whose immaturity and insolence is impressive even by 15-year-old standards.

Throw in a wealth of minor characters and voila! High school in all its dick-measuring, sex-haunted, semi-glazed glory. Crowe jumps foam one coarse vignette to the next, everything from yearbooks and class rings to overdoses and abortions. The threads are sparse, but two stand out.

Stacy is the first character we hear from, and in many ways hers is the most interesting year. She lies about her age to lose her virginity to a 25-year-old veterinarian, then consents to a date with mild Mark. She invites him to her bedroom to pore over photos, but when push comes to shove he can only manage a meek cheek-kiss. She gives up the goods to Mike Damone and winds up having an abortion on her mother's birthday. Mark finds out, but the drama is brief, and we sense that the sensitive pair might have a future together.

Then there's brother Brad, whose journey from fake tragic hero to actual hero is so great. I hope that guy grew up to manage at least two In-N-Outs.

The longest chapter is dedicated to the events of Grad Nite. From 10 pm to 5 am, juniors and seniors in formal dress descend upon Disneyland to have some a good time free of sluggables, smokeables, or snortables. Nothing spectacular happens. I can't deny the disappointment the chapter left me feeling, but then again, I have to credit the writer for clearly resisting the urge to fabricate. (Although, if Crowe had acted on his great idea just a year earlier…)

Do I recommend this book? Sure, if you've got $85 to drop on a used paperback. Used hardcover, close to double that. Or you can be like me and download the EPUB file. You can tell someone has more money than they deserve when they refuse to put their book--a book that birthed a wildly popular film, a book that would doubtlessly sell millions--back into print. It's admirable and dickish in equal measure.


1982
Director-Amy Heckerling
Writer-Cameron Crowe


"You dick!"

Fast Times At Ridgemont High hadn't even hit shelves when it was optioned for a film. Universal Studios didn't flex much promotional muscle, resulting in mediocre box office. The critical notices were mostly positive, however, and when Fast Times began airing on TV and appearing in video rental stores, the plotless, raucous comedy found the audience it deserved.

"We Got the Beat"! (Fuck Elvis Costello, y'know? Watch this, dick.) A montage is only as good as its music, and the opening montage of Fast Times At Ridgemont High is killer. New Wave crashin' against the classic rock. The pizza cheese bubbles, the arcade beeps and bops, and everyone wonders what's tightest--the jeans or the asses? Teeming with energy and feathered hair, this is our introduction to all the king shits and pot scrubbers who populate the classrooms and corridors of Ridgemont.

Ah man, the early Eighties. Innocent times. Quick sex, soft drugs and classic rock 'n' roll. The days before Silence of the Lambs took "American Girl" on the last ride of her life.

There's Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold, 25), a senior merrily serving up trans fats to help pay off his sweet ride. There's little sister Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh, 20) and her friend Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates, 19). How Stacy can be so eager to give up the goods to a dude when Linda's right there is beyond at least me. Girl's got a stomach to dye your pubic hair for.

Stacy's so goddamn hopped to have it popped that she lies about her age just to score with a stereo salesman who stops in at the mall pie parlor where she works. Meanwhile theater usher Mark Ratner (Brian Backer, 26) pines from afar, the blend of sweetness and sweatiness emanating from his pores, creating an odor of year-old dashboard. He seeks the counsel of Mike Damone (Robert Romanus, 26), a ticket scalper and scene-scanner who if he were to suddenly turn into a pizza, would be greasy and oversauced. Poor "Rat" opens his heart to that sleazeball and in return is blessed with the knowledge: the five secrets to picking up a girl. A fistful of tactics and techniques guaranteed to have any chick eating out of the palm of your hands, the tops of your feet, whatever your thing happens to be.

Last but not close to least is Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn, 22), the stoner-surfer nemesis of martinet history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) and the breakaway star of the show, thanks in no small part to Penn's surprising sustained tolerability.

Statutory rape, interrupted candle waxing, unplanned pregnancy, car crashes. Citizen Kane had only one of those things! The 1980s had a glut of vulgar, picayune teen comedies ("romps," for fuck's sake) whose heart existed solely to send blood to its crotch. Directors and writers like Crowe and John Hughes showed a rare understanding of, and empathy for, that time in a person's life. The flaws in their films were forgivable as emblematic of the era or as misdemeanors of passion. Their movies also tended to be uproariously funny, keeping them from being classified as true nostalgia.

I went to high school on the East Coast from 1991-1995. When I run my fingers over it, bend an ear to it, and give one final deep breath, Fast Times At Ridgemont High feels familiar. Sociological revelations are best left to sociologists. High school is a shape-shifting organism. The Perks of Being a Wallflower keyed in on the triangles and octagons. Fast Times At Ridgemont High is content to feature the circles and squares we can all draw whilst slumbering.

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Most faithful page-to-screen adaptation ever? Because pretty much every little thing so magic about the film…came from the book. Damone's "five-point plan" for scoring with chicks, "100% Guaranteed Breakfast," Debbie Harry cardboard cutout, Linda barging in on Brad, crashing the Camaro. Tell me your favorite line of dialogue from the movie and I promise you it is in the book. The only changes of real note are the banana being replaced by a carrot for BJs 101, and Mark taking Stacy out to German instead of seafood (since anyone DTF knows wurst is superior to any fish dish).

Cameron Crowe proved less a screenwriter, more a sous chef. The Big Six from the book all make the trip over, while the majority of the minor players were left on the curb. (The movie didn't need the casual misogyny of Steve Shasta atop the general casual homophobia.) The biggest difference is the focus on Jeff Spicoli, who's little more than a pitiable figure in the book--he's not even the student who ordered a pizza during class!-- but presented in the movie as a gnarly rebel who couldn't spell "cause" if you spotted him the c, a, u, s and e.

The events of Grad Nite comprise the longest chapter in the book--and also take place, mostly, on the grounds of Disneyland. So scratch all that. Doesn't make for a lesser film, but rather for a better book.

As cool as the Linda/Stacy relationship is onscreen, the text gives both girls additional depth. And still, I wanted to learn more. That's one reaction that I didn't get from the film, which is, lest you believe me contrarian, wonderful.

Brad's hilarious fall down the fast food hierarchy is somehow just funnier when read. I blame the face of Judge Reinhold.

Relegating Charles Jefferson to "angry black athlete" is almost a kindness when one considers his fate in the book.
Stacy's mom (she does not, incidentally) is a brief, unforgettable presence in the book. I cannot believe Crowe passed on the chance to graft "smelling like a marijuana factory" onto Mr. Hand's dialogue.

The filmmakers failed to secure the rights to any music from Led Zeppelin IV, but were able to use a song from another LZ LP (in this case, "Kashmir" from Physical Graffiti), thereby creating one of the movie's best jokes accidentally: Mark is so mush-brained and jittery over a date with Stacy that he sticks the wrong album in his car's tape deck.

Few issues are stickier or trickier to write about than abortion. Crowe manages to show the proper respect for the profound effect that even agreeing to undergo the procedure can have on a young girl. Only the book illuminates how the sights, the sounds, the pains and the shames touch Stacy (all of 15 years old, mind). She doesn't collapse into a heap of misery and self-recrimination, disavowing fleshly pleasures and decrying the carefree debauchery of her peers, but nor does she proceed in life exactly as before.
        (The book also gifts Stacy with some magnificent get-back, sniping and swiping at meatball Mike's character flaws in a Public Speaking class.)

Crowe clearly loved going back to school (for the first time). His words treat everyone--student or faculty--with fairness and even affection. That fondness is a gigantic part of what makes a coming-of-age story successful.

Wow, this is close.

Hmm. Lemme think.

The movie flows smoother. Hearing teenagers speak is still the less-hellish option. 

The book did not subject me to a crappy prom band.

10-9 to the source, good buddy.

MIND THE GAP
Back-to-back reviews of books featuring dudes with more eyes than legs.

"I like sex" is the stupidest three word sentence in the English language.

My parents were never collectively seized by the longing to make more than one annual car trip in excess of five hours, meaning that while I visited the city of Hodgenville, Kentucky five times between ages 7 and 12, I never stepped foot one in the Happiest Place on Earth. (Adventureland had nothing on my dad's dad spitting chaw juice in a semi-circle around his feet as wood slivers fell on the legs of his faded coveralls, I'm sure.)

What's worse? First sex or first job?

"Girls decide how far to let you go in the first five minutes." Two, actually.

How many men of a certain age still get dick twitches upon hearing the first notes of "Moving In Stereo"?

Oh, Phoebe Cates gave you the stiffest boner ever when you were only 11? Nice. She ruined Santa Claus for me when I was only 7.

Every high school, regardless of size, will have minimum six legendary figures every school year. You wanna know how old I am? I brought a weapon to class my freshman year, got busted, and was back at school five days later.

The girls at Ridgemont High aren't shrinking violets, though some of the guys are shirking skunk cabbages. Abortion is "no big deal," Damone insists--and, speaking for himself and his day-to-day, he's right on. Doesn't make him any less of a prick. Consider: he apologizes to his buddy Rat for rocking the boat when Damone himself is prone to seasickness, but doesn't apologize to Stacy for his failure to man up on multiple levels.

Mark Ratner was based largely on Andy Rathbone, future author of several volumes in the "For Dummies" series of books.

For all the whiz-bang about Cameron's Gordie Howe jersey in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, where's the ruckus concerning the (road!) Canadiens jersey won by nameless ticket seeker in Fast Times?

"I think I came" is up there for four word sentences. Let's don't talk about sex, baby.

Don't think Fast Times At Ridgemont High is the American Graffiti of the Eighties? Count the Best Actor Oscar winners: Penn, Whitaker, and Nicolas Coppola.

The phallocentric mindset pervades. That's the way things be. But Linda and Stacy don't have time for penis envy. They have so much to learn, but are still mature enough to recognize the folly in mooning over those poor "high school boys" who think they know it all (sure, if by "all" they mean "fuck-all"). They want to enjoy having sex, every bit as much as any guy does. That means, no misusing sex as a bargaining chip, a game piece or a weapon. Linda and Stacy are cool chicks, and if you doubt that? As late as the Fifties, they'd have been abducted, chloroformed, and thrown into a basement for "domestication" by a saucer-eyed, acetone-reeking cadre.



 *"If she can't smell your qualifications, forget her!" is attributed to Mike Damone in the book. That's actually a slight alteration of advice young Cameron Crowe received from Eagles guitarist Glenn Frey. Any writer knows: a great line is a great line and obeys no rules.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Better In Your Head?--FORREST GUMP

1986
Winston Groom


"Let me say this: bein an idiot is no box of chocolates."

SPOILER ALERT, it ain't a bouquet of roses either.

Likelier yay than nay, when I ask if you've heard of Forrest Gump. The mental deficient from way down yonder (Mobile, AL, more precisely) with a proper heart and a knack for succeeding and  failing on a grand scale. He's just trying to get along, maybe make his mama stop crying over him so much. Skies brighten when his 6'6" 242-lb. frame land him a spot on his high school football squad. Gump doesn't possess the brainpower to learn plays, but so long as he stops the other 'un's when Coach asks him, and run past the other 'un's when Coach asks him, it really ain't a big deal.

The Army won't take Forrest on account of his low IQ, but the University of Alabama have a spot on the gridiron waiting for the thickly-built simpleton. Gump takes the Crimson Tide to within one busted play of a national championship before being let go for poor grades. The Army comes calling once again, suddenly not so picky, and Forrest is flown out to Vietnam to follow orders. He does so to the tune of a Congressional Medal of Honor for exceptional battlefield bravery.

Back in America, the likable lunkhead hunts down Jenny Curran, the girl who he's crushed mega on since elementary school, in Boston. While he's been off fighting the war, Jenny's been protesting it, compiling a formidable rap sheet along the way. She and Forrest become an item and he joins her rock band, accompanying them on the distinctly un-rock harmonica. A studio in New York beckons…but then the drummer introduces Forrest to weed and the poor bastard gets caught in the middle of a spontaneous threesome.

In order to avoid a prison stint for braining the Clerk of the U.S. Senate with his Medal of Honor, Forrest is sent to NASA, who link him up with a female astronaut and a male orangutan named "Sue" and blast them into space. Their shuttle crashes in South America, where the crew co-exists uneasily alongside cannibals for four years.

While at the University of Alabama, Forrest made the acquaintance of a fella called Bubba, who turned him to not only the joys of harmonica, but also the dream of making it big in the "srimp" business. Bubba died in Vietnam, Forrest right next to him playing the blower, and for all his faults Gump never forgot his friend or his friends ambition. As the book comes near the close, Forrest--with the assistance of virtually every other character he met in the preceding pages--makes Gump Shrimp Company a multi-million dollar enterprise.

Winston Groom had published three unsung novels before Forrest Gump came out and…continued the trend. (Groom's non-fiction did a bit better, with 1982's Conversations With the Enemy garnering attention from the Pulitzer people.) Riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors to indicate the narrator's lack of education (ala Flowers For Algernon), the text moseys along, forcing the reader's inner voice to slow down--or else.

Forrest Gump is not a great novel, but it is a hilariously blunt tale that doubles as a tidy palate cleanser if the resultant film left you feeling as if a mouse took a crap in your mouth while you were napping on the couch.*



1994
Director-Robert Zemeckis
Writer-Eric Roth


"My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

The wacky adventures of the world's luckiest moron proved irresistible to moviegoers? The hell you tell!

As portrayed by Tom "Jimmy Stewart Lite" Hanks, Forrest Gump is a skinny, crew-cut rocking mama's boy, defender of women, friend to a black guy, business partner with a double amputee, shrimp baron and, above all, a sucka for love-ass honky. He can't do much special other than run like a dumb gazelle. Bullies keep trying, and never do catch up. When Forrest inadvertently streaks across a football field during scrimmage, he passes everyone wearing a uniform. Legendary college coach Bear Bryant is among the spectators, and procures a scholarship for Forrest to play at the University of Alabama.

The Army comes calling, and with the advice of his childhood crush Jenny (the great Robin Wright) stirring the oatmeal between his ears, Forrest runs his way into a butt-bullet and a Congressional Medal of Honor. Although he saves the life of his Lieutenant, and many others in his platoon, his good friend Bubba dies on the battlefield. "Lt. Dan" is far from gracious, having resigned himself to continuing the honorable family tradition of dying in an American war. Instead, he winds up with no legs and no future outside of collecting disability pension. Forrest moves in with Dan, telling him all about Bubba's dream of buying a boat and bodying the shrimp business.

Dan doesn't give a damn if the world blows up, so he's definitely not about to encourage the bird-brain. So Forrest goes back to Alabama and makes enough money playing ping pong to buy a shrimping boat. Dan has a change of heart, and the two makes millions operating as "Bubba Gump Shrimp Corp."

Forrest returns home. His mother's passed and he's inherited her old home. One day, Jenny returns. She's been off living in a way that Forrest certainly would never. He doesn't care where she's been or what she's done, hell, the fact that she's only with him because she can't think anywhere else to go doesn't even bother Forrest. His Jennaaayyy is back. She refuses his marriage proposal, but not his penis, and when she leaves again the next morning, Forrest takes off for a cross-country run that lasts three years.

He becomes an inspiration, simply for trying to forget his broken heart. And then, one day, he just stops.

A letter from Jenny brought him to where we saw him first, on the bench, drawling out his life story a succession of perfect strangers waiting for the bus to take him to her. In true Gump fashion, she lives only six blocks away from where he's been seated this whole time.

Jenny seems more settled. She has a five-year-old son named Forrest…and a terminal illness (probably AIDS, the go-to disease to give a character when you want to solidify them as "bad"). She marries her son's father, and the pair live happily up until her death. Then we see Forrest crying over graves and smiling at his son getting on a bus. Circle of life.

It's a hell of a story, well-assembled: mental no-wit witnesses and influences numerous defining events of the latter half of the 20th century, all with a child-like single-mindedness and absence of glibness that captured the hearts of millions of Americans.

And then it played out in real life.

Despite of and because of the whitewash job it does on American history, Forrest Gump became a cultural phenomenon with its unmistakable message of "dumb=good." Too harsh? Okay, "dumb=preferred." Better? That so many people who identify as politically conservative embraced the film as ideal entertainment speaks for itself, but the appeal of Forrest Gump extended beyond a single group, becoming a legitimate phenomenon whose choicest quotes persist like superstitions. Liberal Hollywood loved it, too, awarding it Oscars for Best Picture (over Pulp Fiction, famously), Actor, Director and Adapted Screenplay.


BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
In the name of John, Paul, Mike and Micky, I confidently undertake to repulse the attacks and deceits of Hollywood picture painters. Although I find that both book and film rely too heavily on the magic of coincidence to keep the action chugging, only one of them manages to keep it (mostly) real.

Despite the similarities, there really are two separate Forrest Gumps. One is a curious man. The other carries around a copy of Curious George. To comprehend the gap between the two Gumps, look no further than the two lines quoted at the beginning of each review.

Tom Hanks isn't really Forrest Gump; he's the actor Tom Hanks playing Forrest Gump. He's the actor Tom Hanks with an alleged Southern accent that never fails to start my brain to deliquescing. The film gives us Gump as a synthesis of unavoidable imbecility and accidental genius.

Groom's text is colder, crueler and more cynical. His Gump is an idiot savant with the body of an Adonis. He blows trees, spews obscenities and participates in the sexual Olympics with the love of his life. He saves Chairman Mao as unthinkingly as he saves a wounded platoon mate. He repeatedly states the emperor is not merely naked, but also smeared in shit. And yes, he uses the word "shit."

Hanks's Gump has no peculiar mental acuity and would lose to Spud from Trainspotting at any known test of physical strength. He is the all-American boy whose ability to obey orders more than makes up for his intellectual shortcomings. He doesn't know shit about shit, but he can play a sport, so here's your degree, son! The odds are staggering, yet the Gump prevails, armed with a "can-do" attitude and an actual inability to ever overthink a situation. U-S-A! U-S-A! Lighten up, black nurse, how can your feet hurt when a retard wishes he had your shoes? Perspective, lady!

What's the harm? Look no further than the film's depiction of Jennaaayyyy. She endures an abusive childhood to become a smart, aware young woman who gets mixed up in the era's burgeoning counterculture, embracing her sexuality and experimenting with drugs before dropping a kid, marrying a burdensome idiot and dying young. Her fault for all the mixed messages! What decent woman would turn down the opportunity to be married to such a great guy? The movie brings out the worst in many viewers, the ones quick to discredit and shame women. Is it possible that Jenny pushed Forrest away time after time due to feeling that she was unworthy of unconditional love? I mean, her dad gets drunk and fucks his daughters and Jenny's just supposed to trust a man off the rip? Critical thinking, it is real and it is recommended.

(The book treats Jenny more sympathetically. She doesn't have all the baggage, but she's still an aware young woman with a lust for life. She's also solicitous and supportive, and both times she ends her relationship with Forrest, her reasons are sensible and clear.)

So what to take away? That we should all try to be more like Forrest Gump? Again go you there, shit no. Hell, don't even try to be like the book version, that asshole makes drinks with socks. At least, it must be said then repeated then written in the sky, that he isn't sick with the naivete of the film. Charming hearts, churning stomachs, it's your body: the KKK is a "club," Elvis sang himself to death, Jenny's dad is extremely affectionate, and golly, why would anyone want to shoot that nice young President?

Nah.

I am grateful more days than not that I do not struggle to retain information and glean insights. I like knowing the myriad reasons why JFK was worth more to this country dead than alive. I enjoy being able to fathom that there was more than one shooter. It tickles me to recognize that the Warren Commission is the only group more full of shit than Air Supply.

So here's what to take away. Discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, nationality or any type of handicap is foul. Discrimination based on personality or moral code, though, is often an indication of a discerning mind.

Huh, what? Aw, just grab a donut and read the book. While listening to the soundtrack. Because holy rucksack of creme eggs is that one of the most amazing compilations of songs for any purpose. Curated by gilded gods and gracious goddesses.

MIND THE GAP
The novel moved 30,000 copies before the adaptation. Currently, sales are in excess of 1.5 million copies.

The film rights netted Winston Groom $350K, with an additional 3% of "net profits" to be forthcoming. When he called Paramount to inquire as to the ETA of his check, they explained that the fastest film to reach the $100 million mark in the history of the studio was in fact losing money thanks to Hollywood's unique accounting practices. Groom would later receive a further quarter-million dollars. For a film that brought in over half a billion worldwide.
        Further, since the movie industry is all about ignoring writers when not screwing them over, the name "Winston Groom" was not uttered during any of the six acceptance speeches given on Oscar night by people being honored for their work on the Forrest Gump film. Nope, not even super-duper guy Tom Hanks, who made 30 million dollars bringing Groom's creation to life.
        The film would not have done a third of its box office without Hanks, though. Amazing to think John Travolta and Chevy Chase were each approached before him. (Winston Groom envisioned John Goodman, a choice which, had the orangutan or wrestler subplots been saved, would have made for a much less financially successful but probably more artistically fulfilling film.)

Never forget: only pot-smoking, sign-toting, march-attending, commie-loving, cop-hating long-haired freakazoids hit women.

"I am 'Temporarily Deferred,' on accounts of I am a numbnuts." Not one mention in six speeches!

Losing the NASA plot to keep the hero's feet firmly planted is sad only if one considers how much funnier it would have made Apollo 13.

Losing the chess plot is the height of merciful action. Fuck me insensate, like chess ain't dull enough to sit down and play, much less sit down and read about.

Losing the wrestling plot makes me angry at Tom Hanks for weighing only 75 pounds. 

In reality, Forrest Gump would be using that bench as a bed and the chocolates box as a pillow.

When Forrest taught young Elvis the salacious moves that would soon set America on fire, I smirked. When he inadvertently exposes Watergate, I rolled one eye and sent the other to the side. When the hurricane wrecked every boat but his? My sigh registered 90db.

It offers up moments of outstanding visual power (including some fresh-for-then effects) which prettify the plot. Not all of it holds up well. Particularly, the overdubbed voices heard on the archival footage are hideous. The John Lennon one, especially, is something you'd expect to hear in a movie where the main character is an animal.

"Forrest, I want you to fuck me." 0 for 6? Ungrateful pricks!

When Groom's work lost its grip on reality, it lots its grip on my imagination. The dip is brief, but undeniable. Scriptwriter Eric Roth made that brief diversion into the film, without actually using any moments from it. Which is kind of brilliant.

I will answer to either "Jenn" or "Jennifer." I will question the desire to maintain a high quality of life in anyone who dares calls me "Jenny." The reason for my aversion? YUP. Thankfully, I still (somehow) love shrimp.





*Be in no rush to check out 1995's sequel, Gump & Co., in which the author commits the unforgivable sin of compromising his own character to reflect the version in the film. I'll never write a book that'll sell as much, but boy howdy I won't sell out that much, either.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Better In Your Head?--DEATH WISH


1972
Brian Garfield


"Justice--or revenge?"
"What difference does it make what you call it?"

Spoiler Alert, people tend to ruin everything.

An author's inspiration can come from anywhere. E.B. White wanted to write a novel about saving a pig's life, but didn't have a hero in mind. Then he remembered the intricate web spun in his house. A dinner debate birthed The Handmaid's Tale. Walking a wooden bridge in cowboy boots, Stephen King half-expected to hear a troll call out. Three years later, he began work on It.

Brian Garfield didn't respond well when seldom-do-well's slashed the top of his convertible. He stewed, and wondered what it would be like to find those pricks and  release some righteous rage. Then, his wife had her purse snatched. Again, Garfield entered a world of red-hot revenge. He would never act out; truthfully, his own bloodthirst repulsed him. Also he was able to separate his emotional response from his intellectual one, realizing that jeopardizing his freedom (at best) and his soul (at worst) would be foolish.

A year later, Garfield wrote a novel about a man with no such compunction. Middle-aged CPA Paul Benjamin is a liberal citizen with thinning red hair and thickening pale paunch. Problems that go from major to minuscule when his son-in-law Jack calls with damn near the worst imaginable news: his wife and daughter are in the hospital, having been assaulted during a break-in at the Benjamin apartment in Manhattan by a trio of drug-addled youths. The wait is interminable; at last, a doctor appears, with the actual worst imaginable news: Paul's wife has succumbed to her injuries.

Paul stays a spell with his daughter and her husband in their apartment, although more accurately it's time spent with the husband, since the poor young woman is still in the first phase of her descent into a trauma-induced depression that will end with her institutionalization. Paul and Jack talk about the dangers of city life and the promise of country life. Jack's all for relocation, but Paul thinks that's quitter talk. They talk about drugs and druggies, and Paul makes a lubeless point about military spending.

Other people pop up to make various points. Friends, co-workers and complete strangers bemoan the radical uprising in the country, the residue of the previous decade, the long-hairs and commies decrying the Establishment, the welfare state turning America into a shadow of its formerly great self. Decent people are under siege. The cops aren't doing enough. The politicians aren't doing enough. "Somebody's got to give a damn."

Paul starts paying attention to the people on the streets. He decides maybe 5% of them deserve life. (He then chastises himself.) So many of them are young. So many of them obviously under the influence of illicit drugs. Paul et uxorem would have looked at those kids and felt that all they needed to right their course was quality time in the community--volunteering for soup kitchens, signing up for sports leagues, joining library book clubs. Widower Paul notices his liberal ideals aren't holding up so well under harsh light.

He sees a convertible with the roof slashed and mentally upbraids the owner for parking his vehicle there and expecting no repercussions. Then, again, he calls himself to task--repercussions for what? Parking? What's a guy supposed to do, attach hot air balloons to his car? You know the most ardent thief would have a BB gun at the ready to bring that bitch down, anyway.

The streets are overrun with junkies and thieves blowing raspberries at the law-abiding. What can the decent folks do? Depend on the justice system? Submit to the fear? Must every worst-case what-if be given greater weight than the more likely scenarios?

Paul loads a sock with a roll of quarters and actually gets to use it walking home from a bar. The makeshift weapon fails to connect, but succeeds in scaring the kid off. The next day, Paul feels Tony. He can't wipe the silly smile off his freckled face. It's as if he got laid the night before, but rather than burying himself over and over in a breathtaking woman with firm breasts and firmer thighs, he swung a sock full of coins at a baby robber.

The bliss dissipates. Life in the city is gutting harder--nightmares, insomnia. Paul vacillates--move (run) or stay (fight)? The cops have no leads. His daughter's condition is steadily declining. So when the firm sends Paul out to Arizona for a huge job, he welcomes the temporary change of scenery. He drinks, he fucks, he buys a gun. He returns to the city determined to prevent a repeat. His worst fears and prejudices are no longer drowned out by a sensible voice reminding him that other prisoners will fight for the right to make him their bitch.

Paranoia becomes the new normal. Reveries of revenge poison his mind, sending him out into the streets at night, where he takes out a twitchy would-be mugger clearly more eager to contaminate his own blood than spill anyone else's. The Daily News reports on the death of a 24-year-old parolee fresh off a stint in prison for grand larceny. A bad egg, a crap apple.

The next night, Paul's in Times Square. Hookers, looky-loos, fruits, basket cases--death chasers one and all. Cops are present, yet absent. That's fine. Paul doesn't need them. Two aspiring car thieves find that out. Then, a home invader.

The police begin taking notice. The media dubs him "The Vigilante Killer." Paul is mildly perturbed at some things he reads. He's no psycho; he's got a good mind. A righteous man of action in a city of gum-bumpers and thumb-suckers. The public, hell even some cops, are saluting the guy for a job well done.

I worried about a twist where the cops arrest Paul while remaining utterly clueless as to the identities of the real bad guys who murdered his wife. Sure enough, Paul runs into a cop just after executing three destructive teenagers. He says nothing, just awaits arrest. But the cop merely turns around.

When I saw the first page contained both "bibulous" and "torpid," my nose hairs tingled. False alarm. Garfield's writing isn't lurid. Only the first kill is graphically depicted. No blood gushing, no guts protruding. The prose is rather detached--like Paul himself. While in the crapper at a party, Paul reads a magazine article about his killing spree. Quoted at length is a big-deal psychiatrist from Columbia Medical, who provides insights about the make-up and motivations of the shooter. Unsatisfied to summarize, Garfield gives us the whole thing, and while the piece is over-long, it avoids being over-written. No brainless straw men, no heartless witches, but plenty of impotent gestures.

Death Wish is a hell of a story, told damn well, that zips along dragonfly-style. The New York City it describes is a gross gumbo that will taste utterly foreign to anyone who hadn't visited prior to the year 2000, but the relevance of the questions it poses has not gone anywhere. What is the proper way for a victim of violence to process their experience? Is there such a thing as a wrong reaction? When justice fails, do citizens have a responsibility to dispense the punishment due?



1974
Director-Michael Winner
Writer-Wendell Mayes


Fresh off a vacay with the wife-piece in Honolulu, architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) returns to New York City. The same day he admits to his co-worker Sam that his "heart bleeds a little for the underprivileged," three no-goodniks (Jeff Goldblum in a Jughead hat, Billy Corgan entering menopause, and Horshack in a red bandana) barge into his apartment and violate his adult daughter after mortally beating his wife.

Paul's devastation is barely containable. Walking at night does no good. He's spooked by Craig Robinson's uncle lighting a match, fer Chrissake. A would-be mugger gets a loaded sock to the noggin. Then Paul goes home and gets all dramatic. At least he didn't yell, but still, must be nice to just treat socks so impudently.

His bosses send him out to work on a project in Arizona. While out West, Paul hooks up with good ol' boy and future Paul Hewson fashion influence Ames Jainchill. The men watch a re-enactment of frontier justice doled out by a brave lone gunman, we watch a survey montage (Ack-shawn! *Alicia Bridges voice*), then Ames takes the city boy to a shooting range, since Tucson is "gun country," where citizens don't hesitate to raise arms to protect their own. Paul tells Ames about growing up with firearms, right up until his father was accidentally killed by a fellow hunter. Charmed, the cowboy gifts the architect with a .32 Colt revolver.

Boom! Down goes one mugger. Paul needs more. Three men robbing an older gentleman? Shit yeah, that hits the spot. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Frank Zappa and a Jewish greaser on the subway? Catch these bullets!

Detective Ochoa is on the case. He orders the squad to check the past three months of murders, suspecting as he does a motive of revenge. Soon, he narrows in on Paul Kersey, but funny thing; the District Attorney doesn't want the vigilante arrested. Street crime has dropped dramatically since Paul's started baiting the blob fish, but the public can't know that. The shooter must be stopped, however, lest copycats proliferate and send the city spiraling into anarchy. Still, arresting him isn't the solution either, since the NYPD isn't in the martyr-making business.

Ochoa and the D.A. agree, encouraging the killer to relocate is the only truly beneficial course of action. When Paul winds up in the hospital after another confrontation with muggers, Ochoa visits him, bearing the wounded man's Colt--and a proposition. If Paul agrees to skip town, Ochoa will give the gun a river burial. Paul indeed hauls ass to Lollapalooza (2006), where he almost instantly spots hoodlums harassing a poor lady. The film ends with the image of Charles Bronson's squinty smile as he gives the hooligans a gun finger. The message is clear: there's a new chef in the kitchen, and he's serving up hot-buttered bullets. Bon appetit, bitches.

Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott were both considered for the Paul Kersey role. Each man would have been a closer fit to the Paul presented in the novel. Director Winner wound up casting his chum Charles Bronson. It's hilarious that the choice of Bronson meant Paul's occupation needed changed. "No one will buy bad-ass Bronson as an accountant!" Truth, but he doesn't make a credible architect either! So absurd. Still, he was the right choice for a classic tough guy devoid of nuance. To keep America from eating himself, he needs simply to shuffle from one spot to the next, firing a few bullets. Return home, rinse hands, repeat.

My favorite character in the film is NYC, portrayed as all skin, no pudding, a place where crime is taken for granted and life has been devalued. My least favorite character is director Michael Winner, whose work is sloppy and rushed, featuring a wealth of overacting and empty symbolism. Brian Garfield hated the film, calling it "incendiary," and even writing a sequel (Death Sentence) in response. He never intended for vigilantism to be celebrated, yet the film's message of righteous street justice doled out by a one-man army resonated with audiences nationwide. He might be wrong, but Paul Kersey is rising up against an insidious enemy, refusing to stay scared, daring to resist. It's easy to cheer a guy like that; just shut off your brain and embrace your inner fascist. 

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
First thing--"There's one answer I intend to demand" is not in the film? Whaaaaa?

Director Michael Winner did not take Brian Garfield's criticisms well, calling the author an "idiot," and reminding everyone that the novel Death Wish didn't precisely set the bestseller lists ablaze. I wonder if there's a higher percentage of assholes among people with the last name "Winner."

The book is a faltering man's failure to healthily handle his own feelings of impotency and rage. The movie is a faltering man's failure to healthily handle his own feelings of impotency and rage. Every major incident of the novel made the script. Despite these similarities, the overarching messages of each work could not be more different. Garfield's book says what could happen. Winner's film says what should happen.

For all the grit and suspense, Death Wish on the screen is, alas, an oversimplified answer to a disturbingly complex question. Wish fulfillment at its most harmless, violence porn at its bleakest. (Even though the ER is far too bright, spotless and lacking in wounded freaks for my personal taste.)

Since subtlety is for European films, Death Wish shows us the assault on the Kersey women, indulging in graphic violence to inflame audience passions--in particular, the rape of Paul's daughter is filmed with the delicacy of an anvil crashing onto a butterfly (and can I just say how wonderful it always makes me feel, seeing a woman's vulnerability exploited). "Unsettling" doesn't suffice. The sight of spray can-wielding Horshack lazily tagging the apartment (and its occupants) is simultaneously cheesy and disturbing, and the sound of Jughead Jeff wailing about "rich cunts" threatens even the stingiest risibility.

And then they start tearing the clothes off of the daughter. Cue my overwhelming discomfort. Tonal shifts rarely come more abruptly--or honestly. Although I credit the book with not providing a play-by-play of its instigating incident (since the point is not what happened to Paul, but rather his reaction), and although I resent the proclivity of films to prey on viewers' baser instincts, I can't deny that the scenario plays out believably on screen. Doesn't mean I like it all that tough, or want to ever see it again, or that I don't feel shame at my own simplistic reactions.

The most heartbreaking aspect of the entire story probably flew over most heads: both father and daughter wind up devoid of feeling. She retreats, he reloads. The heart-rending sequence in the hospital wasn't taken from the book, but it's an effective, atypically understated summation of the agonizing guilt Paul feels in having lost both the women in his life to senseless violence.

Paul Kersey is a man struggling with deeply repressed feelings. Paul Benjamin gives the distinct impression that he could neither correctly spell the word "repression" or tell you its definition. There is no time set aside for soul-searching. The magazine article from the book may have been a few paragraphs overweight, but it was also thoughtful. As in, full of thoughts. The movie has but one thought: EAT LEAD. (I would have kept the final kill of the book, which also centers on a subway car, but makes Paul seem like less of a bad ass.)

The impression I got while reading was the Benjamins were a couple that liked one another. Theirs was not a marriage of tolerance, nor was it one of romantic ardor. You could say Paul was avenging the loss of a reliable friend/sex partner rather than the loss of his great love. Winner, wanting audiences to care, pushed to have spousal interaction in the movie, which amounted to taking photos and an aborted quickie.

Finally, Death Wish comes down to the battle of the absurd endings. Book or movie, Paul gets off. But the book gives the vibe he might go entirely off the rails. In the movie, we're blatantly told that the vigilante killer will live on. And he did! Four goddamn sequels, each steadily shittier than the last. Violence has consequences and ramifications. The police should enforce the law, judges and juries should impose the sentences. If you think both of those preceding sentences are sheer bologna, you will love most if not all of the Death Wish series.

The subway shooting (added for the film) is impossible for me to watch without remembering the Bernhard Goetz shootings in 1984. Hell, the entire film is hard to finish without thinking of the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin. Mind you, the main character in both incarnations of Death Wish is closer to the meek, glass-spined Goetz than the reprehensible murderer George Zimmerman.
I actually made it through the book without once visualizing Bronson. I am wild proud of me.  

MIND THE GAP 
The American legal system is a running joke. Prisons are overcrowded and police are underqualified.

So what can be done? The film offers no other alternatives to address the escalating crime rate. Nothing about increased funding to schools, or improved mental health care, or the radical idea of society as a whole deciding to not place such a premium on the act of acquisition.

The idea of vigilantism is a relatable one to most people. The sting of revenge is an acute sensation. The demands of civilization keep the yearning at bay. Understanding someone's actions does not mean excusing them, or refusing to punish them as the law dictates. Killing the person who totaled your car is basically  cheating on your lovely and loving spouse of fifteen years with someone younger and shapelier. Of course it would be a fun thing to do. But the guilt would eat away at your soul. Not all people feel that way, though. People who misunderstand the First Amendment on a daily basis. People who have the Second Amendment tattooed on their body. People who consider meatless lasagna a deportable offense. They don't want to hear sob stories about systemic oppression. Or anything that challenges their assumptions.

"THE LIBERAL MEDIA HATES DEATH WISH, BUT THE COMMON EVERYDAY RED-BLOODED FREEDOM-LOVING AMERICAN LOVES IT! DEATH WISH IS A WAKE-UP CALL! STOP SHRUGGING AND START SHOOTING!"

Paul Benjamin/Kersey. Hero. American. Selfish killer misunderstood as the last bastion of the Old West gunslinger. Defender of his fellow man. His actions are drastic, but he's one of the good guys. Brutal means to reach a beautiful end. He talks softly and carries a big-enough stick. He's unmoored. He's pathetic.
    Yet even in this the 21st century, imbecilic politicians evoke the film to remind us of a time when the country was well and truly great. Ignore the fact that he shoots some of these criminals in the back, either as they're running away or writhing in pain.
    He's not a hero. He's a serial killer. He is America's dying soul.

In 1972, when Death Wish was published, New York City clocked 2,026 homicides. In 2015, the number had fallen to 355. The Brannan Center for Justice named the Big Apple the safest of America's thirty largest cities that same year. The reasons include exceptionally precise policing and neighborhood organizations working independently to "clean up" the city. The reasons do not include a lunatic going to the worst areas under cover of darkness, begging to be approached by desperate detritus so he has an excuse to fire his gun and feel like a macho man.

Pretty bold of those shitbags to break-in, really. How could they be certain that the women would be the only occupants? What if there'd been some big brother built like a barrel just hanging out watching TV? Greed truly narrows the focus and destroys the brain cells.

Christopher Guest looks as comfy in a cop uniform as I do in turtleneck sweaters.

Brian Garfield is the author of over sixty novels, nineteen of which have been made into films. Death Wish is the only one I ever even thought about reviewing.

Remember when "bleeding-heart liberal" was the preferred takedown? Instead of "libtard"? Relatively good times!

"What this city needs is more cops than people." Where do I even begin? Damnit, movie!

Imagine if Paul had gone straight to the bar after work. He'd have missed that bigoted crap-sack and, as a result, his own admission that the other man's rantings, while crude, had a few kernels of truth in them. Damnit, book!

Why the backstory in the movie? To explain his marksmanship?

I'd absolutely watch a movie about Alma Lee Brown.

No, that isn't  Denzel Washington getting gunned down by Charles Bronson. The man himself squashed that persistent rumor last year.

One of Mayes's original screenplays ended with Paul following the thugs who took out his wife and dying at their hands. Inspector Ochoa takes Paul's revolver and contemplates assuming the vigilante role in his honor. An ending downright Wiggumian in its stupidity. A good part of what I like about the Death Wish story is that the main character doesn't get justice. Of all the baddies he blasts, none actually sat foot in his apartment. None of them terrorized his loved ones while he was in his office trying to mollify a rich jerk. No matter how many people he gunned down, how bad they were or how good it felt, justice was not truly done.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Better In Your Head?--THE DAY OF THE LOCUST

1939
Nathanael West


"Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous."

SPOILER ALERT, everything in life is a metaphor. Unless it's a simile.

Behold, a Depression-era fiction that's lost none of its relevance in 68 years. Good for the author? Bad for the planet?

Tod Hackett would have probably shrugged at both questions, believing the concepts of "good" and "bad" doomed for the dustbin of history. A Yalie in Cali, designing sets for a studio not far from his crumbly stucco apartment in San Bernadino, Tod possesses a supreme radar for desolation and despair, and everyone in his range is scattering his signals. He senses a Civil War is brewing.* Hence, the young artist imagines his masterpiece, an apocalyptic canvas entitled "The Burning of Los Angeles" featuring the despondent imports who felt bamboozled by the image of California as the land of silk and money.

Tod's an odd duck; rather than send him sprinting for Canada, the thought of America's self-cannibalization cheers his spirit.

Even worse--he's infatuated with a neighbor, 17-year-old starlet-to-be Faye Greener. Problem is, everyone red of blood and male of gender, is infatuated by Faye. (Whether or not any of them share Tod's rape fantasies is besides the point.) Faye is consumed by her idea of success, which includes standing underneath bright lights and speaking the words of others. She is a selective young miss, to be fair; a conceited cunt, to be unfair. She longs for a man who can meaningfully assist her in the attainment of a chimerical goal. Tod is in the business, sure, but he's just a doodler. Thus his value as a boyfriend is nil, but as a hanger-on Faye figures she can get fifty cents a pound from the schmuck.

Another resident at the San Bernadino Arms who moved out west for the health benefits is a middle-aged bookkeeper named Homer Simpson. He works diligently and plays rarely.

But Homer isn't banging Faye either. That honor goes to Earle Shoop, a stud actor who can't bear not to bring work home. So he's the man in her life? No, that's daddy Harry, a con-man vaudevillian in declining health. After the sire Greener up and dies, Faye turns to prostitution for a spell, then moves in with Homer, who seems honored to help jump start a career, knowing he will be properly recompensed. Also, the companionship is kinda nice, even if Faye makes him feel like a one torn half of a paper dollar most days.

Their situation hits Tod like a spike to the center of his chest. That squirming, soft-mannered lunk with the beatific siren of San Bernadino Arms?

Both men are overeager to please, pathetic in their transparency. A woman of finer stock would take them aside, one at a time, and kindly inform them of their simp tendencies. Faye isn't even a woman yet.

Tod tries to forget her. Puts away all the drawings of her. Concentrates on the Battle of Waterloo movie being filmed at the studio. Visits local churches (for the rage rather than the rhetoric). For a few months, it works.

Faye is far from the only Arms resident waiting for a breakthrough role. There's Mrs. Loomis and her precocious son Adore. He's a star waiting to shine, to hear her tell it, and to prove it she encourages him to perform an uncomfortably erotic song and dance for Tod and Homer.

Poor Homie. Agreeing to be a slavish sugar daddy doesn't assure being treated with respect, he's discovering. Earle and his buddy Miguel have moved into the garage behind Homer's place (along with their roosters) and while he's none too happy with the arrangement, he decides to stay quiet.

Following a brutal cockfight, virtually every male character featured in the novel retires to Casa de Simpson, where the booze is plentiful and the lady of the house is ready to entertain by babbling words of pseudo-wisdom about "the business" that she herself scarcely believes before taking to the floor and shaking her heart-shaped booty. Homer leaves and Tod follows. After a protracted silence that remains unbroken despite Homer's clear intentions, Tod reminds the other man that he's being emasculated, which leads to Homer locking himself in his bedroom while the other men let their immature passions run away from them.

The next morning, Tod goes to visit the scene of the misdemeanor, finding Homer utterly alone, curled up all fetal-fi-fo-fum on the living room couch. He explains to Tod, with a lack of emotion that is as saddening as it is detestable, what happened overnight: Earle caught Faye in flagrante delicto with Miguel and more violence ensued. Both men left, cocks in tow, Faye following not long after.

Despite the other man's obvious distress, Tod leaves for dinner. After exiting the restaurant, he follows the arcing lights in the sky to Kahn's Persian Pleasure Palace, where a sizable crowd's on hand for a movie premiere. Also present is Homer, all packed and ready to go back to Iowa, since nothing dilutes the taste of failure like distance.

The crowd is waiting impatiently. Contemptuously. Shouting, pushing--the dam is 'bout to burst. The perpetual observer is about to get yanked from the sidelines.

The riot's inevitability does not rob it of its horror.

Mindful of the pack of people mushrooming around them, Tod leads Homer to a nearby bench. Lesson learned, he decides to keep an eye on the pensive man rather than try to talk. Peace is short-lived; Adore Loomis, his mother nowhere to be found of course, is hiding behind a tree, trying to get Homer's goat with a prank. When that doesn't work, he comes out into the open and begins antagonizing the large, mute man. When that silliness gets no response, Adore straight up throws a stone at Homer, hitting him square in the face.

That gets him the attention he craves. Homer, a pushover no longer, pursues the young boy, who probably could have outrun the big lug if he hadn't tripped. Tod's blows do nothing to deter Homer from kicking the child to death right there on the street.

In the midst of the flesh-crush, Tod revises his notional masterpiece. The city burns while the horde pursue Tod and his acquaintances. Once away from the swarm, Tod can no longer communicate with words, instead aping the loudest sound he hears.

Stunningly, The Day of the Locust did not fly off the bookshelves, although the praise from peers and critics was immediate and glowing. Nathanael West was a writer of many gifts, including masterful foreshadowing and exceptional skill at crafting brilliantly absurd characters and cast them in a relatable milieu. Although the people we don't become acquainted with are every bit as crucial to the story as the ones we do. The ones with death wishes, the disgruntled bit players. The American Dream teased them, left a trail, then left them with an ever-expanding emptiness. They're special, so special. They've gotta have some of your attention, give it to them.

That ending. Wow. Wow.


1975
Director-John Schlesinger
Writer-Waldo Scott


Unlike the novel, the movie starts with Tod's (William Atherton) arrival at his new apartment. From there, we see him meet his alluring neighbor Faye (Karen Black), a sexy little grasshopper of a woman, and land a set designing job at a nearby studio. Tod's work falls short of art, which suits the demands of his latest project (a movie about the Battle of Waterloo) just fine.

Tod wants Faye, quite badly, but cannot have her, quite clearly, so he simply stares at her unblemished joy of a face during many soliloquies on the ins and outs of the movie business that she yearns to one day dominate with her sass, class and cordiform ass. How can a dime-a-dozen chick inclined to let loose a "whoopsie-daisy" without a trace of shame effortlessly transform an adult man into a love-struck numbnuts? Coquettish machinations, baby, never fails.

After an hour, we meet Homer Simpson (the spellbinding Donald Sutherland), a gangly accountant with the charisma of a rotted log. That's no real bother, given that he only moved out to California from the Midwest to regain his overall health. As long as he feels better, what's a lack of social life matter?

Such a person as a Homer Simpson seems harmless enough. But it's that placidity that so irks a person such as Adore Loomis, a towheaded pest of a girlish boy who scampers 'round the Arms, a max pain to anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path. Adore's mother is gung-ho on living her squashed dreams of fame and fortune through her child, who'd really rather just scurry 'round the town causing trouble. Homer Simpson can depend on at least one intrusion a day.

After two hours of Tod wookin' pa nub in all the wrong places, Faye's inexplicable fits of jealousy, and Burgess Meredith trying his damnedest to ruin everything as Faye's pathetic failure of a father/performer, The Day of the Locust decides time's come to become a bleak satire!

Three cockfights in one night lead to Faye leaving behind a virtually catatonic Homer. I say "virtually" because he still manages to make it to Grauman's Chinese Theatre, where a rabid crowd is watching the well-paid and even better-dressed exit fancy cars. Tod's there, and so's Faye! Golly she didn't get very far!

Homer makes his way to a bench. He sits and waits, but what for? Pretty sure it wasn't the appearance of Adore Loomis. Where's Mama Loomis? Probably among the gawkers. She really should have taken some time out from being a stage mother to teach her child how to recognize the signs of a human being on the verge of going atomic. Christ, I get it must be hard to resist making fun of a guy who looks like a cross between Frankenstein's monster and the fourth son of Alois and Klara, but there's a difference between pulling a face and throwing a rock at a face.

It's worth noting that the throng is actually no worse than loudly enthralled by the parade of success until one among them catches sight of Homer going all "Why you little!" on Adore. At that moment, the fleas decide to light on the dog's eyes, fly up into its nostrils and ear canals, and let that SOB bark.

The riot goes on for an agonizing length. Men fight. Women are overpowered and abused. Fires rage and glass shatters. Tod begins to imagine his nightmarish canvas-to-be has come to life right there, in front of Grauman's. Meanwhile, the bodies of Adore Loomis and Homer Simpson lie on the street like so much ordinary litter.

In order to make The Day of the Locust anything close to a successful adaptation, it had to get the ending. The sights are easy--point the camera and turn that bastard on. To capture the smells and sounds of forfeited dreams, a far trickier accomplishment.

Well, Schlesinger and crew excelled at the ending, which is one of the most disturbing things you've probably never seen.

Shame 'bout every other section of the film.

The acting is frustratingly adequate. Again, Burgess Meredith is thunderingly vexatious. The daddy/daughter dynamic, wherein he laughs like a horny schizophrenic while she sings all throat-no chest, is a prime example of "better read than seen." See, warring grating sounds is how Harry and Faye Greener argued. And I can't explain precisely how I imagined Harry's laughter, but I promise you it didn't make me want to begin cutting my wrists with the corner of the page I was reading.

Meredith spent one-third of his screen time dancing and hawking polish, the remaining two-thirds on the brink of heart stoppage--and got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination!

William Atherton speaks the dialogue with all the vim of King Sun on codeine, while looking like Christian Laettner if he'd gone to college for art instead of athletics. Not exactly a hot Toddy, y'all. Karen Black is about two decades too late to properly play Fay, but if all you're judging her by is the ability to portray a blonde bombshell reeking of artificial flavors (and resentment over Peg Entwistle stealing her idea), age ain't squat but a number.

The one single superlative acting performance comes from Donald Sutherland. He deserved some Oscar respect. Homer Simpson is a basic block, a simpleton in suspenders, frightened of his own feelings which tend to bubble, gather, crest…then die out. His hands'll go haywire till he soaks them into submission, and then it's back to the books, or the patio chair, any space besides his head. Catastrophe averted! Until the night it isn't. Jesus, the virtually orgasmic noises Sutherland expels while kicking a young boy bloodless. (Also, Sutherland has the only memorable face in the movie, and Nathanael West was big on describing faces, usually with amusing inventiveness.)

The Day of the Locust has its defenders, hell it has champions, and that's fine.. The clock faces in Grand Central Terminal are made of opalescent glass, but lots of folks believe they're made of opal.

This is awful pretty framing for a pretty awful portrait. Nathanael West did not live to see his most famed work of fiction made into a Hollywood production, dying at the obscene age of 37 just one year after the book's publication. Perhaps West would have appreciated the irony in the film's bloat.

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Welp.

The movie gets a few things right. Battles that are lost before the first blow is struck? Check. Movie set negligence? Check. Bellicose dwarf? And mate.

Gordon Hall received Oscar recognition for his cinematography, which lovingly leads hideous people through a gorgeous filter. I never did. Seeing golden reds and burnt oranges where I expected dried blood and wet mud seemed…artificial. The movie wants me to believe that darkness and light co-exist in the milieu--but I read the book, though, and thus know better. Trying to inject humanity into these assholes is like punching the water to keep from drowning.
Tod isn't likable. He's a hack doodle-boy. He wants to rape a teenage girl because he resents her "egg-like self-sufficiency." He taunts a big dolt that wouldn't harm a ladybug. He keeps returning to his personal vomit-pile, over and over, sticking his nose down in it and wondering why it doesn't smell like honeysuckle chunks.

The book references various members of the animal kingdom, with the dog being the most popular. Fitting, since the canine so resembles the wolf. Forget the loyalty, fidelity and protection. These are the incessant barkers, the floor-stainers, the toilet paper destroyers. Each mention of the beast in man reminded me I was reading a fully-realized story.

The movie is a collection of scenes someone already wrote far better. Take the campfire sequence, which goes from a nerve-racking display of men wrestling with their vulnerabilities to a series of close-ups as subtle as an exploding neon sign.

While West's novel is a relatively brisk read--right alongside They Shoot Horses, Don't They? in the "Soul-Destroying Fiction For Your Lazy Weekend" category--Schlesinger's film feels every single one of its 144 minutes (the church sequence made me an atheist for about eighteen hours). Maybe if screenwriter Waldo Salt bothered to give the viewer some sense of Tod's longing to deface Faye's exquisite facade, but no, the temptation to be weird for the sake of weird proved too persuasive. As it is, Tod just stares. And no offense to William Atherton, but his expressive majesty has its limits, and they are reached very early on in the proceedings. 

I like the decision to increase Adore's presence in the film. He's the obnoxious octave pop in the bass line. Less a fan of putting Faye in the action after the fight at Homer's crib. The epilogue wants us to believe she gives a damn about Tod, which completely misses the point of the book.

Is it weird I miss the claustrophobia? Exhaustion or exhilaration, oh the line is mighty and fine. I hate emotional distances in my day-to-day life, but its depiction in fiction makes me feel grateful and excitable.

(It's definitely weird that I miss the claustrophobia. "Dying in a crowd" is in my "Top 5 Ways I Don't Want To Go Out," ahead of "shark attack" and behind "choking.")

I've already proclaimed my affection for the moment the onlookers simultaneously unlearn their bite inhibitions and plunge their teeth into Homer. Tod's hallucination really is better outside the head, since I was too caught up in the issue of his survival to imagine what he "saw."

Another big change: the presence of the celebrities at the premiere. This makes even more blatant the separation between the famous and the detritus. Do you get it now? Celebrity worship will destroy civilization!

The author can give just an inch, while the director at his or her clumsiest will dot every foot of a mile with path lights and pylons. The reader can hear the trill of a birdsong, or the tone and texture of a person's laughter, and the sound belongs to them alone, no matter how descriptive a writer gets. There's always room, even in the most suffocating of spaces.


MIND THE GAP
"What's a Homer Simpson?"

In one way, Homer Simpson represents the cheated people. In another way, he doesn't. They're ravenous, corrupted, unthinking. Homer is self-aware, insecure and fumbling in his quest to keep his baser instincts at bay. When he takes a life, it is a decision he reaches of his own volition, far from the madding crowd.

Per this interview from 2012, Matt Groening claims to have taken the name of the world's most famous nuclear power plant employee from The Day of the Locust-"Homer" also being his father's name just cinched it. Due to that very fact alone, the novel must be considered a classic of the English language, and one of the most important books ever written.

Life ain't figurable. One day you're complimenting some brat's toy sailboat, the next day you're crushing him fifty feet way from an unruly crowd of salivating rubes.

Hard lesson about hard work: it does not always pay off.

As far as irritating "Faye"'s in fiction go, Miss Greener doesn't approach Captain Furillo's ex-wife.

"Tod" is the German word for "death." Death is what the young set designer envisioned, death is what he helped facilitate. What happens to him after the riot, when the cop car whisks him away? Nothing good, I can assure you. He is cursed. He is the locust. Wherever Tod Hackett goes, he brings calamity. 

Oh, the days when abortions only cost forty bucks.

During the riot, Tod (temporarily) saves a young girl from sexual assault. There is your FDA-recommended dose of irony for the entire week.

"I'd like to direct your attention now to this imposing erection."

Advice time. You start having rape fantasies about a chick who knocks back tequila from a peanut butter jar, you walk up to that young lady and you apologize. You don't tell her why, 'cause your nuts ain't made of steel. Just make it very clear that you are very sorry. Do not break eye contact, but do remember to blink.

Are we supposed to hate Homer for making the world one shithead short? Just kidding, guys, clearly his crime was very great (in the pejorative sense).

(Hey, I wonder if this scene was inspired by…nah.)

Tod calls Homer "Homie" in both book and film. I giggled each time (and I'm not an especially giggly gal).




*He was only 80 years off.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Better In Your Head?--POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE

1987
Carrie Fisher


"You'd be happier if you ate, don't you think?"

SPOILER ALERT, love is not in and of itself "true" or "false." Only the people involved are.

The actress is thirty-one years old, which in Hollywood means forty-seven. Among her roles: a nymphet, a space princess, a "mystery woman," an adulterous flutist and a procurer of Munchkins.

The actress has spent over a decade doing what actors do. They live to play; they play to live. They fake it to hopefully make it, which in another line of work might get you disgraced but in their realm can grant immortality. Now add that pressure to some junk that was already set in place way before they hit mark one, spoke line two, or divorced spouse three, and the resulting sum shouldn't come as a shock.

"Drugs made me feel more normal," Carrie Fisher told Psychology Today in 2001, sixteen years after her gargantuan Percodan habit led to an overdose, which led to a month in detox, which led to the actress deciding to lift a pen to begin (and end) her very first novel.*

"Write what you know," goes the classic advice. That also includes what you did, said and heard.

The dissection begins with an actress named Suzanne Vale getting her stomach pumped after an accidental indulgence of Percs. After an absurd (but effective) stint in rehab, Suzanne is free to pretend for a living once more. A role in a buddy cop film puts her in a Catch-22 situation that she extricates herself from accidentally. The final sections of the novel concentrate on Suzanne Vale off of the set: meetings, parties, dates. True love? Shit, maybe.

Cautious optimism: how every celebrity's semi-autobiographical debut novel should conclude.

Wow, not lots of story. Numerous inciting incidents without any rising action. Climax? Hey, this isn't that kind of book! Nor is it a conventionally structured book. The decision to break up Suzanne's story with those of peripheral figures indicates either indecisiveness or stubbornness. The five sections go from epistolary, to first person journals, to third person narrative. These transitions are slightly jarring, but hey, any novel that can leave me feeling like putting it down for a few seconds while I press the "RECAL" button is a unique beast.

Why bother with Postcards From the Edge? Because, I'm not talking summer '86 on the UMD campus when I say there's killer lines everywhere. You saw the author credit, correct? Carrie Fi-goddamn-sher. She digs into the dirt and strikes amethyst. Exactly where else do you have to be, anyway? Unless you have an actual aversion to reading a bracing work of fiction full of candor and heart** written by a mere actress, especially one who made her name in a sci-fi movie.

Man, if that ain't some sour lemon-lime nincompoopery. Refusing to read anything written by someone who may or may not have been the sex slave of a corpulent crime lord is gonna limit your options, I hope you realize.

Okay, lemme tell ya why bother. Postcards From the Edge shouldn't work. What Suzanne calls "cancer of the perspective," others will call "first-world problems." Is emotional pain and suffering relative? Does it even qualify as actual agony when it's experienced by the affluent and celebrated? The complaints of the spoiled rotten tend to emit the most fetid stink, but Fisher realized the validity of her own conflicts, and refused to downplay them simply because she grew up as faux-royalty or because she represented the first crush of nerds and geeks by the millions.

Fisher's prose is unafraid to capture and recapture the flinches that half of all people don't even realize they're making. The story she tells is plotless but not at all pointless. Even when it appears she's gone tangential, she hasn't. It ends not happily, exactly, but hopefully. And if you ain't gonna be happy, you can at least be hopeful. It's that depth of understanding, that eccentric affection, that brazen refusal to preach, that makes Postcards From the Edge imminently readable nearly thirty years later.




1990
Director-Mike Nichols
Writer-Carrie Fisher


"I don't get your generation's humor."
"I don't have a generation."

No surprise that Hollywood scrambled to adapt Carrie Fisher's debut novel. A comedic maestro behind the camera and luminous names in front of it, similarly expected. But would the team of Nichols and Fisher reconfigure the parts to create a whole that was coherent, entertaining and true to the spirit of its source? Could the film avoid being suffocated by its own pedigree?

Well, sure. Suzanne Vale is still an actress, still an addict, still cracking jokes on the gurney while her stomach's being pumped. But forget the motley crew in rehab, they're basically shunted to the side. Forget her friend, Lucy. Forget the live-in boyfriend. Especially forget that, once you put the novel down, you could barely remember her mother. Because if the novel is a tale of one woman's journey to totally fucked up to somewhat fucked up, the movie is a mother-daughter "dramedy" (to borrow the hot portmanteau of the time).

With hair the color of Pimento cheese, and hands dirtied by whichever snack food is satisfying her craving of the moment, Suzanne (Meryl Streep) is a disheveled debacle. The crew on her latest movie cracks up when she Freudian slips on a line of dialogue (metaphors! High five!) but the carousel ride is about to screech to a stop. The director (Gene Hackman) berates Suzanne--and, bonus, her dealer--in the hopes it will straighten her path.

Stunningly, words are insufficient.

Fresh outta therapy, Suzanne soon lands a gig. A studio is willing to take a chance--so long as she stays with someone "responsible" for the duration of shooting. That someone is her mother Doris, a maven of melodrama whose prime as an actress/singer/dancer is long past. The older lady copes with her losses by speaking loudly, acting selfishly, drinking generously and manipulating situations with the elan of a perpetual performer. Her daughter both adores and abhors the woman who raised her, but Suzanne can't cast stones too forcefully, lest one bounce off her mater's titanium facade and leave a nasty knot on her own head.

The movie set is not quite the magical site of redemption; overhearing a catty convo concerning hr shrinking status and expanding body leaves Suzanne vulnerable when up pops Jack (Dennis Quaid), the film producer in whose bed she overdosed. He's a smooth-talking son of an overachieving woman. Before long, he's sold Suzanne on the idea that he's madly in love with her. Then she finds out he's actually been boinking one of her co-stars. A huge argument ensues at his crib (Suzanne having raced there from the set, not bothering to change out of her cop costume) and shots are fired, in a manner of shooting. As if being hornswaggled at the world's oldest game sets off wasn't enough, Suzanne finds out that her manager has scampered off with her money. At last, the overdue blow-up between parent and child! Things deteriorate rapidly, with each woman defending themselves against accusations of ingratitude.

Suzanne runs off to a "looping" session for the movie she was filming when she OD'ed. The director promises he will always have work for her...so long as she remains sober.

With good news comes less-good--Doris, under the inimical influence of wine and vodka, crashed her car into a tree. Nothing grievous, just a bump on the head and a bloodied wig. Mother and daughter are able to have their conciliatory moment with the help of Asshole Grandma, who showed up at the hospital apparently just to remind everyone--including the audience--that no matter the two main characters' flaws, at least they ain't as big a barrel o' bitch as her.

Any number of actresses could have portrayed the lead role; none of them could have done a better job than Meryl Streep. (This is pretty much par for the course re: her film career.) In a land where everyone hides their eyes, she embraced Suzanne's susceptibility and made what could have been a maddening exemplar of "affluenza" into a gutsy, soulful woman taking pains to reshape her life. Shirley MacLaine is pretty much a Debbie Reynolds hologram, complete with wig, mink coat, fake eyebrows and pearls by the pound.

There, then, is what makes Postcards From the Edge both satisfying and disappointing. It's a showcase for two legendary actresses and not much else. Given the men and women at work, a classic comedy was virtually guaranteed. Yet...something's missing.

The central conflict of the novel--Suzanne Vale vs. Self--was heightened by the presence of the peers, friends and relatives. Every interaction feeds into the struggle. The movie places Suzanne and her mother in their own sphere, untouched by outside influence until near the end. Wonderful craftsmanship that fails to resonate.

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Suzanne Vale is but one of several characters in Postcards From the Edge who operate under the assumption that figuring out people inside one's own headspace is more satisfying than engaging them directly. This review series relates.

The best part about Carrie Fisher adapting her own work is that for every brilliant line discarded, a new one takes its place. But just as the Queen giveth, the Queen taketh away. Putting the focus on the mother-daughter relationship means that Suzanne's time climbing the steps is drastically diminished, depriving us of Carl the garrulous black guy and Alex the TV writer determined to "master" his cocaine use.

Hers is a story mixes humorous observations with harrowing situations, unorthodox insights darting out from the pages like spooked cockroaches. The film could not have withstood the challenge of bringing Alex's frazzled brain to the screen. I found him ultimately detestable, but goddamned if he's not at the hyper center of my favorite part of anything titled Postcards From the Edge. Best, I was sitting on the toilet when I read it for the first time, bath water running. It absolutely should have been written into the movie, but I doubt it could have.

Pure imagination, the power of.

Still, I maintain the movie could have benefited from additional paranoia.

The appearance of Jack scared me at first; the proclamations of amore, the entreaty to "take a risk," all of it troubled by inner Scooby Doo. Luckily, Jack proved to be every inch the man-whore on the screen as he was on the page!

The book features Mama Vale sparingly, and she does not communicate with Suzanne in any meaningful way. Indeed, the only wisdom from an elder comes courtesy of her grandmother, whom the film reduced to a splenetic old broad who dispenses blame like a turkey-necked Pez. Given the opportunity, Carrie Fisher decided to write a love letter/ransom note to her own relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds. This is where book and film diverge most profoundly.

The dynamic is established at a welcome-home party invented entirely for the book (replacing a standard "let's There's old friends, new cake, and even a pianist to provide a soundtrack for this latest survival story. At some point, Doris beseeches Suzanne to take the microphone and bless everyones ears with a song. After some hemming and hawing, she belts out a sweetly competent version of Ray Charles's "You Don't Know Me" to raucous applause. Immediately afterward, her mother takes over to remind everyone "I'm Still Here." Suzanne can't help but smile; her mother can't let past glories remain in their rightful place, but when the present is so fraught with hysterics and discomposure, reprieve in any form is welcome.

Of course, resentments allowed to stew will have their day in the bowl.

The movie will definitely appeal to those with an intolerance for the penchant of addicts to tend to their every thought like a nursery plant. The book is for anyone who wants to experience the breathtaking power of words. Up to you.

MIND THE GAP
I decided to do the "Better In Your Head?" series during the summer of 2014. Within several days, I'd compiled a list of seventy-two books. A year later, I revisited the idea and trimmed the list by a dozen. At the end of 2015, I vowed to finally get started, after cutting away a final handful of novels. Postcards From the Edge just avoided the chopping block. The reason why it was even in such a precarious position is one I can't recall. I wish I could forget the last week of 2016 so easily.

Thank you, Carrie Fisher, for writing Postcards From the Edge and introducing me to the existence of "chunky" cocaine. And for being, in general, a litmus test for humanity.

"It erodes my real sense of who I am." Lucy, shut up.

Strengthening the argument for the Vales as the Fishers is this passage from the book:
        "I told her I was miserable here, and she said, 'Well, you were happy as a child. I can prove it. I have films.'"
        Then, thirty years later, this exchange at the beginning of the HBO documentary Bright Lights:
        "You have films that I'm happy."
        "Oh yes, well, because you doubted it for so long."

Band name alert: Bad Hetero.

Autobiography title alert: I'll Fix the Eating.

Mike Nichols picked up the film rights for $100K. Not quite the steal Psycho was, but still a bargain.

Suzanne describes Alex as "good-looking, in a Heathcliff sort of way," which put me off that character for good since I've been living the "Screw Wuthering Heights" life since my own hospitalization.

If drug use affected only the user, few people would care about punishment. Arrests would be deemed pointless, rehab a sham. That's the purpose of "getting clean"--other people are sick and tired of being harmed by someone else's coping mechanism. Less "save your life" and more "stop being burdensome."

How incredible was Carrie Fisher? Meryl Streep played her in a movie. The mic disintegrates from a drop of that magnitude.





*She would turn out three more, all worth your time and energy.
**If you ever saw one of her stage shows, you'll have zero difficulty hearing her voice as you read.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Better In Your Head?--ABOUT A BOY

1998
Nick Hornby


Spoiler Alert, "Dive" is the best Nirvana song.

London, 1993. Unemployed, melancholic dude in his mid-30s. Introverted misfit twelve year-old boy raised by a single mother. It's a coming of age story…with a twist!

Stories such as the one at the heart of About a Boy go a long way towards separating the worthwhile writers from the wasteful ones.

The adult is Will Freeman, a glib gent living well off the royalties from a holiday song his late father penned back when he still right on time. Will passes the time with pop culture, soft drugs and casual sex. Content to mind no beeswax besides his own, his relationships are ephemeral and shallow. Will scoffs at his breeder friends (and breeder strangers). If a person's life could be expressed in a single sound, his would be a non-committal one.

A case of mistaken identity leads to a date with a single mother leads to a short, mostly sweet affair that ends with Will determined to pick up as many "moms without men" as he can. After deciding to be the father of a two-year-old boy named Ned, he attends a single-parent support group. Will doesn't actually score with any of the women, but he does make the acquaintance of Fiona and her son Marcus.

Marcus is "the oldest twelve-year-old" in the world, possibly ever. His classmates find him odd, frequently throwing things in his general direction as a reminder lest he forget how weird he truly is. He hates his life and wants to make it better, but who can provide the guidance? His father's off smoking weed and falling off window ledges, and his mother's a nutter. Seriously, the toast and tomatoes are missing from her breakfast plate. She hates her life and wants to make it over.

Will is there when they find her, passed out near a puddle of her own sick, and Will is there when she's admitted to hospital. He has no interest in Marcus, or Marcus's troubled mother, but Marcus is outright obsessed with Will, or more accurately the idea that Will should date his mum and move in with his son. Of course that's a fantasy more ludicrous than most, seeing as Will has as many kids as Marcus does.  When the sneaky little shit susses out the truth, he tries to blackmail the older man.

Turns out Will has standards. He refuses to feign a romantic attraction, but will take Marcus out shopping for some sweet new trainers--which are promptly stolen the next day at school. Marcus doesn't get them back, but he has a jagged conversation with Ellie, an older punk rock girl who scares most of the other students pissless. She's been sent to the headmistress for the heinous crime of defying the dress code with a jumper bearing the face of Kurt Cobain. Marcus has no idea who that is, so naturally Ellie feeds him a pound of bologna. Luckily for Marcus, he only humiliates himself with Will, a big Nirvana fan who takes it upon himself to introduce the boy to their music (Nevermind on vinyl for Christmas, how tragically hip is that?).

Will has been unmasked as a fraud by this point, but avoids the persona non grata stamp by dint of his fraught connection to Will. It's more brotherly than father-son, but it's something and both of them clearly are need of something.

Then, as three becomes four, Will falls in love. Plunges head over heels for a folksy children's book illustrator named Rachel. Who just happens to be the unattached mother of a young boy. Will's bad off in short order; the silly tendencies of mankind (marriage, monogamy, parenthood), the daft practises he'd fancied himself above and beyond, have suddenly become quite appealing.

Marcus thinks he might be falling in love with Ellie, which means he isn't, but he doesn't realize it until she tags along on a train trip to visit his father. It's the same day that Kurt Cobain's body was found. Ellie has brought along a bottle of vodka to squash the hurt and start some shit. I don't know--being American--if Royston is a primo spot to set it off, but it's where Ellie sees a cardboard cutout of Cobain in the front window of a record shop. She smashes the glass with a boot and "rescues" her beloved Kurt from the avaricious assholes. Both she and Marcus are arrested, which provides the perfect excuse for virtually every significant character in the novel to converge in a police station.

Neither "boy"--and there's the twist--could have foreseen what would happen when Will decided to prey on an especially desperate subset of the female gender. By the end, Will begins acting like an adult, and Marcus starts acting like a kid.

The quality of the story, again, is heavily dependent on the quality of the teller. Nick Hornby is an exceptionally witty prose stylist, bridging the first and last words of his sentences with admirable confidence and skill. His dialogue is especially excellent, mixing insight with infelicity. Despite the tendency of nearly everyone involved to overthink every situation, About a Boy is all heart.



2002
Director-Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz
Writer-Peter Hedges, Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz


Yes, the American Pie guys.

Childish, yet true: at least once in life, you will look at someone and instantly think, "Piss off." Perhaps it's a person you will get to know better over time, and perhaps your impression of them changes. Increased exposure does not guarantee the development of a different opinion, though. Certain people will always, and only, inspire those two crudely dismissive words.

For me, Hugh Grant is one of those people. I do not love him, I do not hate him, I do not love to hate him, I do not hate to love him. Each and every time I see his name and/or his face, my response is automatic, profane and disdainful.

Watching About a Boy proved about impossible.

The skeleton of Hornby's story is intact. Flesh and blood gone, organs as well, probably earmarked for future pranks, but anyone who read the novel will recognize the first half of the movie. Grant plays Will, the wise-ass who's managed to avoid catching a legendary beatdown at some point in life through sheer charm and cowardice.

Sigh.

Hugh Grant by himself makes such luck seems all the more improbable. Reading the book, I pictured Will as a fit fella with handsome square face, dark hair brushed back with a side part, eyes forest green and boyishly wide. Hugh Grant has an oval face, blue eyes and for the role replaced his trademark floppy locks with spikes. Dude looks like the spawn of Roger Daltrey and a bowling shoe (not even a pair of them, just the one shoe).

The action, such as it is, no longer takes place in the 1990s. That would have been fine--if the filmmakers hadn't squared the circle.

Hugh Grant voice-over? Okay. One voice-over is fine. Or rather, it has the potential to be fine. It also has the potential to make me run around the house looking for some lime juice to mix in with the liquid detergent (because if death is going to be anything other than inevitable, it might as well be tasty). But I get it! Hornby's prose is so lively and comical the temptation to jack it for a script proved irresistible.

Two voice-overs, however, is unacceptable. Especially when it's a kid speaking. What in the hopping crap were the Weitz brothers thinking? The synthesis of tepid personalities and awkward situations that define the hum-drum rom-com had no place near this story. Yes the uncomfortable moments abound in the text, but the people weren't cardboard cutouts (well, bar the actual Cobain cardboard cutout), they were honestly delineated, not walking quirks serving merely to herald plot twists.

As crap as the dual VO's are (and they are oh-so crap), changing the last act is a sin punishable by forever being best known for co-directing American Pie despite later co-writing Rogue One. Will and Rachel break up after he confesses he doesn't have a kid? WHAT? Marcus decides to cheer up his mum by singing at his school's talent show. IN? Will implores Marcus's mum to stay alive for her boy. THE HELL? Together, they attend the talent show, where Marcus performs a shrill, tuneless cover of "Killing Me Softly With His Song." IS THIS? Will joins him onstage, guitar in hand, in an attempt to salvage the wacky situation! Well, gets him back together with Rachel at any rate! RESULT??

In an attempt to cute up the story, the Weitz bros stripped About a Boy of the brutal honesty that was its most endearing quality. Of course the money rolled right in at the box office. Reeking of feculence is no impediment to profit, after all.

No lie…this is the worst movie I've reviewed for this series thus far. The Choirboys is In the Heat of the Night compared to this blisteringly unfunny garbage. Well done!

(I used to enjoy my steaks well done, which was dandy within the home confines. Then I started eating out. Everyone everywhere--waiters, friends, dates, hibachi chefs--kept informing me I was wrong to want my steak prepared such a way, until I finally threw up my hands and said, "Fine! Medium rare, you whores!")

Three people to write this claptrap…this Oscar-nominated claptrap. A pitiable effort worth approximately 0.8 seconds of your time.

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Of course it's better in my head! I do not care about Will's happiness in the movie, since I don't care about the man-whore portraying him. Book Will was a funny prick. I rooted for him on his journey from neutral observer to invested participant, even as I suspected my fandom would prove foolhardy.

First impressions are huge. Readers are introduced to Will in the midst of taking a men's magazine questionnaire to determine his total number of "cool" points. Movie viewers' first glimpse is of some smug slug watching Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?

Marcus goes from being a fan of one specific band to a fan of an entire genre. Considering the novel's title is a play on one of Nirvana's best songs, I can only chuckle. Surely the producers feared dating their film? Or perhaps its easier for a written work to integrate a real-life celebrity figure without seeming cheap or exploitative.

The connection that two troubled youths made to an unconventional rock star imbues the narrative with soul, and provides a connection to the real world. Kirk O'Bane was never a footballer for Man U., but Kurt Cobain was a musician who defined an epoch for millions worldwide. Reading about his face on a sweater is different from seeing it. The reader can make their own internal adjustments and determine their own comfort level.

No surprise that the author of High Fidelity would treat the reaction of two fictional kids to the unexpected death of a "real" musician with such compassion. It's just additional evidence that life is unfair, and that the world does not spin for the benefit of middle-class misfits.

No surprise that the producers would jettison any mention of Nirvana altogether. They did not want to make a "Nirvana movie," or even more horrifying, "a rom-com from the grunge era." The entire project would have been granted a gravitas it didn't deserve. Op-ed madness would have ensued. Courtney Love interviews with every major news outlet. Accusations of using a dead man for profit would dog everyone involved, with Ellies worldwide ready to take boot to glass.

While I adore the book for going there, the movie had no choice.

That very same author loved the film's ending, you say? Allow me to evoke the "Vaseline on toast" argument.

In the book, confabulatory confusion leads to Rachel assuming that Marcus is Will's son. Rather than tell the truth straight away, Will milks the lie. So far, so good god man what are you thinking? In time, though, Will realizes he shouldn't pull the wool with the woman he's intent on making a life with, so he comes clean. Rachel waits until he finishes with the world's chewiest spring roll before reacting. She's understandably upset at the deception, admitting that the belief he was also a single parent spurred her interest in him, but she manages to crack a joke…and they move on, together. In the film, they break up at a restaurant. (So long, and thanks for all the cliche.)

Nicholas Hoult was cast in the key role of Marcus…dreadful decision. The boy's struggle to establish emotional equilibrium so's his teenage years can go smoother than his face will (probably; trust me, boss musical taste does not prevent breakouts) is the apparent bonfire around which the other characters perform their graceless dances, and it's vital that he ingratiate himself with the audience. It's crucial that I care what happens. I should feel strongly that this boy deserves love and affection, that he should be treated as more than just another body in a flat, another set of grades. And I just do not give even a sneeze-induced trickle about that kid on the screen.

The police station gathering would have been gold on that screen, baby.

Explaining what's unfolding onscreen is aluminum, buddy.

Nothing in the world beats a great book.

MIND THE GAP
I take issue with the idea that rebuking the music of Joni Mitchell is a surefire sign of an improving state of mind. At least, I think I take issue.
        From her 1968 debut to 1974's Court and Spark, R. J. Anderson put out six albums of high artistic value. The Hissing of Summer Lawns in 1975 petered out midway through, but Heijira and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter each represented if not a return to form, a return to consistently listenable music. Then, in 1979, Mingus happened. Nine more albums followed, none of them notable beyond the name on the cover. That's eight good albums out of nineteen, and none over the final twenty-eight years of her recording career. Makes for a pretty sloppy legend. (Even Bob and Lou tripped on half dollars in the Eighties.)

I laughed exactly one time. Thank you, "Shake Ya Ass."

How could a mother love her child behind? How could a father? Nothing bothered me more about the Cobain suicide, and twenty-three years later, my feelings haven't changed. That's the dreadful power of depression, isn't it? It enervates. It drains. It convinces otherwise. It hits the chest like a chop from Andre Roussimoff.

What does Will actually do for Marcus, other than encourage him to listen to the same music as everyone else, to wear the same clothes as everyone else? Teach him the definition of sarcasm? A trendy boy is a safe boy, and a safe boy means the story is over.

The intrigue resides in Will's development. At worst a predator, at best a pretender, he's not a murderer or a rapist, but he is an embezzler of emotions. No one on Earth is irredeemable, though; they just run out of time. If you believe that statement, Will's redemption via the friendship of an unwary boy and the love of a forthright woman is conceivable. "Existence precedes essence" is the claim around which the existentialist philosophy totters. At any time a person can consciously change their behavior, and thus their essence. Will thought he knew the secret to a happy life, and lived accordingly: blithe, smug and cynical. Then, significant changes occurred in his life that demanded action. A sweeter, more empathetic Will Freeman eventually emerged. One that doesn't wonder why a woman fresh off a suicide attempt doesn't make more of an effort to appear attractive. One that will persist as long as he allows.

94%. There's a reason I used to hurl rotten tomatoes from my parents garden across the street into a vacant lot.

Biscuits are cookies. The "s" at the end of "Arkansas" is silent, but not the one at the end of "Kansas." The United Kingdom and the United States each have the leader they deserve.

Finally, don't feed ducks biscuits, or cookies, or bread, or anything other than duck feed. And don't throw it at their heads.