Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Better In Your Head?--THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER


1999
Stephen Chbosky


"Mary Elizabeth is a vegetarian, and she hates her parents. She is also fluent in Spanish."

SPOILER ALERT, "against the finite" is the finest fight a person can ever engage in.

A coming-of-age debut novel, set in the early Nineties, in a Pittsburgh suburb, written in the epistolary style, loosely based on the author's life? Hoo boy.

Charlie is beginning his freshman year at high school. He prefers to observe, rather than participate, as fascinated with the possibilities of people than their actualities. His popularity suffers accordingly. The only real friend Charlie committed suicide, which was probably still only the second-most devastating loss he'd endured in fourteen years. His beloved aunt Helen, his mother's sister, who always let him stay up and watch Saturday Night Live, perished in a car crash on Charlie's seventh birthday.

Hit the poor kid hard.

Charlie is content to play the wall, speak low and carry a few twigs in his jeans pockets, until his English teacher (a man known simply as "Bill") urges him to socialize. Which he does, in the bleachers at a high school football game. Taking a chance on Patrick (also known around school as "Nothing") proves a smart move, as not only he but also his step-sister Sam immediately take a liking to Charlie. The trio hit up a diner, then a party, where Charlie sheds his shell with the help of a pot brownie.

The "Musketeer" thing is just what Charlie needs. Attending parties, meeting people, inhaling and swallowing--and crushing on Sam. Early on, Charlie made his feelings known, but Sam let him down gently. (She did, however, deign to bestow upon Charlie his first-ever kiss.) And since Sam gets a boyfriend (that she's really into), and Charlie gets a girlfriend (that he's not really into), no harm done.

Except this is a book about teenagers, so that ain't possible.

Patrick has a tormented romance of his own, inasmuch as clandestinely banging another the school's star quarterback can be called a "romance." Charlie tries to be there for his new pals, but he can barely endure his own relationship. His girlfriend, the parent-hating hispanohablante, has a tendency to dominate conversations and dis Charlie's gifts. The cord must be cut, but of course Charlie needs the scissors handed to him.

One mess follows one mess, and soon his life is a barely-navigable path from one day to the next. Family issues take center stage, and school provides scant respite. He's back to seeing a damn-persistent psychiatrist. Brad and Patrick are no longer seeing one another, and Charlie decides to put his own needs aside and help his buddy through a tough time. (Charlie does that quite a bit.) He reconnects with Sam, and just in time; she'll be off to Penn State soon. She asks Charlie why he never acted on his feelings after she and her boyfriend broke up. Turns out, Sam's indignation is less about her and more about him.

Everyone wants Charlie to put himself first for once. To address his feelings, regardless of how frightening they may be. But when things get too intimate between he and Sam, he puts on the quick kibosh. He's "not ready."

The rope Charlie's been grasping since the beginning of the school year has finally snapped in half. He lands in the hospital, where a sensitive doc helps him untangle his subconscious, allowing him to come to terms with the real reason he's so haunted by memories of Aunt Helen.

Some stories get told over and over, and "high school struggles" will forever be one of those stories. Despite initial reservations, I can't deny The Perks of Being a Wallflower its contextually massive accomplishment; an utterly real, absorbing account of a mentally ill teenage boy.

Mental wellness, adulthood, and internal plumbing won't hinder the reading experience. Not everyone leaves their poisonous delusions in adolescence. Not everyone recognizes the true value of friendship. Friends share--ideas, stories, dreams, fears. Friends keep each other from being swallowed whole by the world.

Further, Charlie is one of the most likable teens in all of fiction. Stephen Chbosky is no J.D. Salinger, but wow goddamn I would knock Holden Caufield over just to hang out with Charlie. (Am I the only one finished reading Catcher in the Rye and thought the wrong kid died?) At book's end, he's well on his way to fixing what is broken inside of him, which is incredibly satisfying. It doesn't ensure a smooth remaining three years in high school, doesn't mean tragedy can't revisit his sphere, but it's honest and profound development of character.




2012
Director-Stephen Chbosky
Writer-Stephen Chbosky


"We accept the love we think we deserve."

If you want it done right….

Whenever a film is released dealing with the ineluctable trials and tribulations of teenagers, reviewers of all stripes liken it to those John Hughes classic teen movies of the Eighties. And so it was with Perks of Being a Wallflower. But how many of those reviewers realized how close it came to being a John Hughes classic teen movie of the 21st century? When Mr. Mudd Productions (Juno, Ghost World) approached Chbosky about adapting his novel, the author bought the film rights back from the late director's family to create what is essentially a "greatest hits" edit. Certainly, as I lament (likely forever) the absence of "Burning Up" from The Immaculate Collection, I wish certain lines of dialogue or isolated incidents from the book could have been included.  But Chbosky knew his stuff--I mean, it's his stuff. Everything on screen is to the service of Charlie's story, with none of the digression that can make long fiction so damn engrossing.

Hughes-ian elements exist: a killer soundtrack, young love gone awry, messy-haired wise-asses. Perks never hits the comedic heights of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but it plumbs the depths of its protagonist more than Hughes did in any of his movies.

Hard to imagine the great master would have done the tunnel sequences the same way, though.

Ah yes, the tunnel sequences. The most visual (and metaphorical) part of the book. Charlie and his new best friends, packed into their pick-up truck, when the tunnel into downtown beckons. The radio is cranked. Sam climbs out onto the bed of the truck and stands, giving herself over to the macrorush while Charlie experiences the absence of borders. Then, almost a year later, the pick up is once more speeding through the tunnel, only this time, Charlie is the one on his feet, feeling the wind, feeling so alive that death is an impossibility, heading towards the light but not even caring to open his eyes.

So many people--be they paid for their opinion or not--cite this as the highlight of the film. And I won't disagree; I just think the "my girlfriend's kind of a pushy twat" montage set to "Pretend We're Dead" by L7 needs more love.

The success of Chbosky's debut film sent his debut novel--by then entering it's teens--onto the New York Times Bestseller List. Almost as impressively, his script armed a Writers Guild of America nod for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Buoyed by an abundance of heart and smarts, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a cool little teen movie.

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
And maybe that's all it should have been.

A character-driven narrative will always be tricky to translate. Revelations can be doled out in increments. "We accept the love we think we deserve" hurts much more than the movie lets on. I miss the domestic dynamics that drive the novel. There's an argument between Charlie's older siblings that Richard Meltzer gave four stars. But like Steve told Adam, "No way you can fit all that."

The Aunt Helen revelation is foreshadowed more heavily in the book. Again, we miss out on exactly how much his memories of her impact Charlie, but it's worth the loss.

If confusion is sex, and adolescence is confusion, then adolescence is sex, then why is The Perks of Being a Wallflower a PG-13 flick? Meaning rather than "What the fuck is wrong with you?" during a critical moment, we get "What the hell's wrong with you?" Which strips the scene of some potency, and denies me the sound of Emma Watson uttering the f-word.

Ah, the cast. None of them teen-aged, yet each up to their task. Logan Lerman comes equipped with pale skin and wary glances--nailed it, nerd. His Charlie is a tad funnier and bolder than the book Charlie, and much less prone to crying whenever anyone looks at him funny.

Emma Watson's pixie cut doesn't jibe with book Sam, but her kittenish charm does. After a shaky start, her American accent proves durable and non-distracting. (Extra credit for being such an outspoken fan of the novel.)

I didn't recognize much of Patrick in Ezra Miller's relentlessly smart-alecky portrayal. Or was Charlie just that unreliable a narrator?

Even better questions…can art teach empathy? Can apathy be learned, or unlearned? Dunno, dunno, just don't. I do know that hurt people hurt people, and I know that most people don't wear green well. The perks of being a wallflower vs. the hazards of being a one-way mirror: heightened sensitivity to what you feel and what you don't feel. The movie isn't as moody, but that doesn't indicate dishonesty--it just doesn't want to pummel the audience. Attractive actors, appealing locations, awesome tunes, movie time and the lifting is (relatively) easy.

Charlie's relationship with his English teacher is so much more satisfying in the novel, and Paul Rudd ain't a factor in why. There's a nice tidy vision of the kindly, wise authority figure that Chbosky leans on. Does the overall story suffer? No. But the teacher in the book--simply, "Bill"--is more than words, be they his or those of the great English-language authors. He brings Charlie into his world, however briefly, and thus plays an enormous role in his breakthrough.

The huge change is the "the tunnel song." In the book, it's Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." The movie changes that to David Bowie's "Heroes." I'm a fan of the switch. Not just because "Heroes" is a superior song, it's a more directly visual one as well. "Landslide" is staring at a page until the words blur. Movies want to do the blurring for us.

The book is a heart-squeezing ride alongside a mental tornado. The movie is the video of that ride someone shot from the passenger seat.






MIND THE GAP
Charlie's sister receives a mixtape and promptly hands it off to him. This happens in both book and film, but only in the former do we get, "He included many songs by the Smiths," a sentence which made me snort so hard I coughed.

Charlie, Sam and Patrick attend a party where the host hands out Milwaukee's Best. It doesn't seem to be an ironic gesture.

Initially, gay outcast Patrick being such a passionate fan of high school football might seem odd, even given the sport's popularity in Pennsylvania. Then we learn he's porking the QB.

Bill gives Charlie The Great Gatsby, followed by On the Road. Christ if that ain't the literary equivalent of one week in Paris followed by one week in Flint.

Bless everyone who hasn't had A Separate Peace ruined for them by The Simpsons.

How does Sam in the movie know the Smiths--love the Smiths--yet not know Bowie? Morrissey is basically Bowie for asexuals. Mr. Mudd Productions is 2-for-3 in female characters with inexplicable holes in their musical knowledge. (3-for-3 in Sonic Youth mentions, though!)

How different would high school have been for me had I been blessed with Charlie's gumption? I never attended any events at school, no dances, no games, never approached anyone and was approached only once, by a heavyset black girl.
    No idea of any part of her name. We shared no classes. One morning, at some time in the half hour between when the school doors opened and when the school day started, this girl walks in to my "homeroom" class. She may or may not have introduced herself; I remember telling her my name. She then asked me to follow her out into the hall. Bemused at the attention, wary of defiance, I did as told.
    Dozens of students were milling in the hall, talking, slamming locker doors. She guided me to a couple of her friends, including a stringbean with a high-top fade who regarded me as though I had stinkbugs crawling all over my face.
    "See?" she said, huge smile on her round face. "It doesn't hurt to get to know people."
    I never saw that girl before that day. I never saw her any day after.

To improve your writing, write. To improve your life, live. When Charlie gets overwhelmed, he tries his hand at a story. An attempt stymied after one sentence. Thankfully he doesn't give up so easily on himself.

Screw Uncle Billy. I wish someone would unearth a deleted scene of George and Harry beating him half-sensible as the population of Bedford Falls continues singing in the Bailey living room.

This is the Slits reggae reference!

Throw in a Peanuts ref, too, why not.

Maybe that was my problem in high school--no one ever got me stoned. "Hey fat girl, have a brownie." Way to drop the ball.

"To Charlie," indeed.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Better In Your Head?--PLAY IT AS IT LAYS

1976
Joan Didion


"I don't understand girls like you."

SPOILER ALERT, if it's not one thing, it's your mother.

Maria (as in "pariah") Wyeth exists in the state of California. She's a failed actress in her mid-thirties, losing her mind along with her looks. She is prone to crying jags and casual sex. A woman in free fall, except the costs are exorbitant.

Did she jump, or was she pushed?

Per ex-husband/shit-hot film director Carter, Maria doesn't grasp "friendship, conversation, the normal amenities of social exchange." He intends this as an insult. No doubt, Maria knows how to party-poop in cities all over California and beyond, driven further and further into herself by the insouciant depravity of her comrades.

The freeway is just that and then some. She drives further and further away from everyone else, until the desire to reconnect sends her to a diner, a motel, anywhere with a phone.

The prospect of new life fails to remedy matters; after all, Maria already has one very young daughter in the hospital (a victim of brain damage). Best to abort and bleed copiously on a movie set.

Hooray for that place!

Directors will stop calling, but every party needs its has-beens to show up, get high, fuck the will-be's and steal their Ferraris.

Was he a good lay? is all her friends want to know.

Friends. Before we go any further, Maria's friends are not really. They are, really, artless manipulators who treat her as though she were some obscene child, refusing to help extricate her from the boiling pot until she stops being so unpleasant in public and proves herself worthy of basic compassion. Carter, Helene, Susannah, Carlotta--human smegma. The clamor of depression, addiction, abuse and infidelity is integral to maintaining the illusion of a glamorous life, and they've no qualms with any of it.

Oh, a couple good eggs exist. Les Goodwin--cool symbolism, bro--and BZ, a gay, married film producer whose empathy for Maria makes him seem practically Christ-like. Like her, he recognizes the game and continues to play. Keeping up appearances, impressing the proper people at precise times, these are the techniques of the smart player. With dedication and persistence, and a willingness to compromise, they will come out on top.

Maria is carrying around an exhausted and exhausting cynicism over the whole nonsense, but BZ doesn't even blink. He's been there, and where he went afterward is a place Maria will soon visit.

And it's such a goddamn shame.

Maria Wyeth, a safe person to be suicidal around--indeed, she's an an ideal person to actually kill yourself in front of, since her self-absorption precludes acute recognition of another's turmoil. Maria is her father's daughter; a gambler, not a guidance counselor.

"I know what 'nothing' means, and keep on playing."

She needed an ace, and drew a three. So long as a chip stack sits by her elbow, Maria will keep playing.

With Slouching Towards Bethlehem, an essay collection published just two years before Play It As It Lays,  Joan Didion proved that mere magazine articles could qualify as serious literature. Her second work of fiction (coming seven years after her first) is a strong contender for the never-to-be-awarded title of "The Great American Novel."

As the protagonist hazes along, the hours of the days of the weeks of the months in fragments, so too does the structure. There are over 84 chapters (one only twenty-eight words in length) of destitution and deterioration, and if you want linear storytelling, grab a pen, flip to the cover page, draw a straight line, and then write "It was a dark and stormy night" on top of that bitch.

Is it odd that I somehow envy Maria? She untangled the great existential knot. She stared into the abyss with sunglasses on. She proved it possible to embrace purposelessness and still cry all over its shoulder. Once you reach that level of perception, life and death are indistinguishable, enabling you to finally enjoying one of them.
1972
Director-Frank Perry
Writers-Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne


Second straight review where a novelist adapted their own work.

Second straight review where the movie uses voice-over. Necessary in both cases. Thankfully, Play It As It Lays uses the technique sparingly.

Play It As It Lays does almost everything sparingly.

Maria Wyeth is the type of woman who will smash a mirror, then immediately call her agent to send a new one. Her circle is imperfect and small. Every relationship she has can't help but be a tumultuous one.

If you've read the story, you've seen the story: hospitalized daughter, abortion, grand theft auto, the sadly inevitable fate of the nice guy. Oh, and driving. Losing her possession of self, one mile per hour at a time.

Th film isn't boring, but it's not unforgettable. It doesn't transcend borders.

Yeah, that's a sin now.

I admit to chuckling in commiseration at the sight of Maria seated at a dinner table with a handful of other jagoffs, looking seconds away from breaking a wine glass and masturbating with the stem.

The acting is fine. Tuesday Weld plays Maria as a dazed doll with long blonde hair, a woman eager to be heard but frightened of being listened to. I got none of her nervous titters and incomplete facial expressions from my reading of the book, but even hearing the dialogue spoken with inflection was just weird.

Anthony Perkins steals the show (petty theft) as BZ, despite looking like Warren Beatty as a Mod.

If any of the larger points whizz by--existentialist dread, fertility--the camera will help by pulling back, for in vastness is wisdom.

No notes, no chords; only uproar.

Alas, not enough.

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Play It As It Lays made Time magazine's list of the "100 Best English Language Novels, 1923-2005." If the movie made any laudatory Top 100 list, I would scrapped this entire review and replaced it with a blog post entitled "Opinions Are Weapons and Some People Are Playing With Cap Guns."

Didion and her husband do an admirable job transferring the terse, highly visual prose onto the script format. Frank Perry's direction is unremarkable, meaning cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth bore the burden of holding audience attention. Following the book's advice to "take the long view," the film chooses to minimize the actors. Setting matters. Setting surrounds, setting encloses. Those palm trees, those beach front homes, those long and winding roads, are all advertisements for life on planet Earth.

Yeah, well, who pays attention to the commercials anyway?

The visual metaphors ain't close to subtle. The scene with the patrolman--"'You just like the freeway, huh?"--is just saved by the camera work and I swear, Jake Roberts didn't bring out the snake as much as this movie does. Crumbling underneath the weight of its own subtext, all it offers us in the end is pretty lights. I felt empty by the end (contrasted with the book leaving me emptied--massive emotional discrepancy).

How I saw the characters in my head versus how they appeared on screen is of no consequence. They are no less reprehensible for being subjectively physically attractive. Their ethical passivity makes me want to put on these boxing gloves I got from Panama Lewis and start punching faces. People who swear their worst personal failing is "caring too much" but who in fact care about practically nothing? Play It As It Lays is sick with them.

Joan Didion wrote or co-wrote a total of six films; don't let your introduction to her be one of them. That's like never calling from the blinds. Pick up one of her books and go all in. Don't concern yourself with acclimation. Didion's fond of changing the water at will. Not just heat and chill, but texture and smell.

MIND THE GAP
Play It As It Lays breaks a big rule of fiction writing. The book begins with three short first person monologues before switching to "close" third person, before returning again to first person for the ending. Didion wanted the entire novel to be in the first person, but couldn't make it work. Realizing her choices were either keep the odd POV shifts or just shuck the whole damned thing, Joan played the hand she was dealt. Recommended for the shrewdest gamblers only.

Iago isn't evil. No one ever has been evil, just irreparably damaged. The first book I reviewed in this series laid it out simplain.

"(T)he house crackled with malign electricity."
I so love writing that makes me want to break a pen off in my forearm.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Presence makes the mind reel with sarcastic replies.

Play your hand. It's your hand. Does no good to reach across the table and snatch another player's cards in the hopes they're not as crap.

If it weren't for luck, I'd never die.

There are certainly worse "ism"'s than "alcoholism."

When food starts turning on a person, that's one thing. When it starts turning into

Wildfires and tranquil waters! Dry drinks and wet sheets! California is for drivers. I'm a proud non-member of that club, but between the writings of Didion and Kim Gordon, I'm sure I'll wind up spending up at least one year of my life there one day, bumming rides when I can't ride buses, eating an average of 3.6 burritos a week and drinking Coke out of glass bottles.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Better In Your Head?--JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN

1939
Dalton Trumbo


This is a war and war is hell and what the hell and to hell with it.

SPOILER ALERT, absolutely nothin'. Absolutely nothin'.

Joe Bonham did not spend his days and nights in small-town Colorado wishing to be a quadruple amputee when he grew up. He didn't want to go off to fight in a war, either, much less the one to end them all, but he had very little choice in the matter. To die for one's country is presumably a great thing, but what of Joe's fate? Is it almost-great?

See, Joe didn't just lose his arms and legs. His eyes, ears, nose, mouth--also gone. His mind is seemingly the only thing Joe hasn't lost. Not yet.

Joe is no longer a man; he once was, and what he now is, is too much to bear. Joe is a prisoner of (what remains of) his body. With the gradual realization of his unfathomable condition, Joe seeks salvation. Thoughts race around inside his head, each one an attempt to recapture the past and mollify the present. Joe has lost so much, but he has more time than he knows what to do with. What drives a man more than time? What time is it, how much time do I have, how much time is left?

The storm of activity in his brain ranges in intensity, from Rockwellesque to Cronbergian, peaking with an appearance from Jesus Christ, who turns out to be a sort of pied piper for the U.S. government.

After several years of isolation, Joe attempts communication via Morse code. He uses his head to tap out dots and dashes against the pillow, stopping only when exhausted. He didn't come across the potential solution overnight, and doesn't  expect instant results. Finally, finally, a nurse able to feel something other than facile sympathy realizes Joe's intentions and rushes to alert some Very Important Men, who have just one question for the living dead man.

What  does he want?

He wants to serve the good ol' US of A in a way no man ever has before: as a traveling freak show. A patriot in a glass display case, a new way to see warfare. Forget the highfalutin' anthems, the creaseless uniforms, the shiny medals…let every man woman and child come and face the truth, with the help of a poor kid who has no face but plenty of truth.

Joe's breakthrough was in vain. The military can't afford public exposure to this young man-turned-medical curiosity. Joe Bonham will continue floating in limbo, until someone somewhere decides to show him mercy.

From 1935-1939, the National Book Awards honored the "Most Original Book" (fiction or non-fiction). Johnny Got His Gun was the last winner, and as the only one I've read it was clearly the cream of a scant crop. The story of a twenty-year-old who is as close to dead as the living are allowed is pretty damn novel…then consider the absence of quotation marks and commas, and no italics to indicate transitions between flashbacks/present, waking/sleeping.

But forget the textual oddities; Johnny Got His Gun is an emotionally devastating read. My first attempt (nearly three decades ago!) went unwell. My second shot, I finished it in less than forty-eight hours.

Set during World War I, released in time for the sequel, this is the sort of "required read" that changes lives. Just be prepared. This is a novel so stark that the "s" lacks sibilance and the crack of the "k" echoes. It's short of a masterpiece; parts are overwritten, and not in the sense of florid prose run amok, oh Lord no. Simply, Trumbo wrote too many words. It's one thing to ensnare readers in the hell-pit with the alleged hero, but editing is a thing, an important thing. I had the same goddamn complaint about Catch-22. Make the point. Make the point over. Do not make the point over and over.

1971
Director-Dalton Trumbo
Writer-Dalton Trumbo


What if, what if. What if financing hadn't fallen through, and surrealist genius Luis Buñuel directed the film version of Dalton Trumbo's brutal antiwar classic. Hell, what if Dalton Trumbo had sought out another director, one with actual experience, instead of choosing to make to make his directorial debut at the age of 66?

The "what if" game…I ain't seen a person win it yet.

Set during World War I, released during the Vietnam War, Johnny Got His Gun kicks off with footage of the "masters of men," those leaders who declare war, who determine when and where it shall be fought, and who will be doing the fighting (spoiler: not them). Perfect. Don't let those grim reapers off the hook.

But maybe hire someone with film experience for the lead role? Oh, Timothy Bottoms ain't bad; he's got one of those faces, like a Ryan O'Neal you don't want to punch, and his very next role was in the vastly superior The Last Picture Show. The fault lies mainly with Dalton Trumbo's trepidation to take his source material to a level beyond, to test the limits of the visual medium. The addition of voice-over is a no-brainer; would that Bottoms's line readings were uniformly naturalistic. Likewise the other nurses and high-ranking Army officers who stop by to gawk and press. Some are stoic, some are shaken, but none of them inspire any significant reaction. Even the nurse who fancies herself Joe's angel of mercy is bland as a baby's diet. Likewise the scenes between Joe and Kareen--ideally, touching and tender. Realistically, one slice of white bread professing its love for another slice of white bread. (Not to mention, Kareen's bedroom has obviously been decorated with the express purpose of pulverizing sexual urges.)

Dalton Trumbo as a director was well-meaning and ill-equipped. Could Luis Buñuel have crafted a masterpiece worthy of keeping company with the other timeless films of the decade? Maybe. Hell, forget a legendary director, one with some actual experience would have done a tighter turn.

All that said, how in the hopping hell did Johnny Got His Gun receive the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury at Cannes? French mania at the sight and sound of America owning up to faulty machinery? Residual sympathy for one of the "Hollywood Ten"?

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
No suspense here. The book is a minor classic. The movie? Minor miracle I made it to the end. I bitched about the novel's occasional bloat and well, the big-screen adaptation is similarly, and more frequently, afflicted.

The film tries to condense Joe Bonham's mental frenzy into a "greatest hits" package; single disc, at that. The breaks between present and past are blatant, which is great for a movie, generally. Not so here; the book set my imagination whizzing and popping with the introduction of each new memory, each new image, and I thought to myself, what else can this unfortunate bastard to besides submit to the rush? Good experiences, bad experiences, neutral experiences, inside/outside, friends and family, birthdays and holidays, sex and love, seeking and growing, yes, gimme the mash-up of sentiments and sentences, I can still feel I want to keep feeling. I would spend several minutes lingering on a single page, paralyzed momentarily by reveries of my own childhood spent alongside a mother who rarely left the kitchen. Jars of fruit, tins of cookies, pans of breaded chicken, pots of boiling pasta, suffocating my senses…suddenly, a syllogism took my seat at the table:

ONLY BAD PEOPLE WANT TO LIVE IN HELL
ALL WAR IS HELL
ONLY BAD PEOPLE WANT WAR

And if that sounds simplistic or heavy-handed, I guess the dream sequences in the film version of Johnny Got His Gun corrupted me. The sole success stories are Joe's fantastical discussions with Jesus Christ (played by the awesome Donald Sutherland). Trumbo smartly uses their conversations to cover a few of the dilemmas Joe struggled with in the beginning, such as distinguishing reality from dreams. These sequences are touching, even eloquent. The agonized scream of Jesus as the train of young men accelerates towards the terminus ("the high thin music of death," per the novel) is the Christian counterpart of "diabolus in musica."

The rest are clumsy attempts at surrealist cinema which don't begin to compensate for the film's greatest failing: treating Joe Bonham as nothing more than a metaphor, a stand-in for the working class puppets of America. We don't get to know him as intimately in the movie, and therefore it's difficult to take much more away at the end of two hours other than: wow, that was creepy. The book does not allow the reader to forget his humanity. Indeed, it is the linchpin of the whole tragic story. He is defenseless. He is bereft of hope. Forget walking or talking…Joe Bonham will never sit or stand again, and he's only breathing thanks to a machine, but he is not a robot, not a piece of meat. He is a human being.

The book features Jose, the world's most honorable bakery employee. The movie doesn't. The book concludes in a storm of anger and defiance. The movie fades out along with Joe, pleading.

MIND THE GAP
Like millions born after 1975, my first exposure to the film version of Johnny Got His Gun came via the video for Metallica's late Eighties classic, "One." Given that singer/guitarist James Hetfield took his inspiration from the novel, it only made sense to edit in clips and audio from the movie around footage of the band performing in a suitably drab room. Of course that piqued my interest in the movie, but finding the book proved easier. I didn't finish it though, as I was barely twelve years old and really put off by the lack of quotes.






No hyperbole zone, just watch the Metallica vid. You get the best parts of a mediocre movie and a crusher tune.

The story of Joe Bonham is just so damn unfair. All Joe wanted was to be alive, free, independent, not buggin' nobody nor a body buggin' him, maybe settle down and raise a family, be an admirable man just like the one what raised him, and instead? Another casualty of war.

War--an excuse for safe men to speak dangerous words and have thousands of other men back them up on his behalf. Should the fight be taken up only by those who want to fight, who believe that dying for democracy is the noblest sacrifice? Is Joe--and by extension, people who share Joe's beliefs--the epitome of selfishness, unable to care about a future they will have no active part in?

Trumbo wrote the novel after reading a newspaper article on a Canadian soldier in the First World War who returned home a quad amputee. That soldier, most likely, was Ethelbert Christie

Although he didn't get to direct, Luis Buñuel apparently wrote the scenes with Jesus Christ. Explains the high quality.

Would you rather be a human vegetable or a slab of meat with a brain?

Hearkening back to simpler times is common; no matter the depth of our longing, we still have new memories to anticipate. A thirty-year-old wistfully remembering themselves at the age of ten will one day be a sixty-year-old recalling their thirties. Joe was twenty, remembering his childhood as the time when he could breathe in the world, feel the sun and enjoy companionship. When Joe is thirty, what will he remember? Ten years ago, when his naive ass boarded a train to board a plane to fight for men and women who really didn't care what happened to him personally so long as America could cry "Victory!" at the end?

The night before Joe shuffles off to war, he spends some quality time with his girlfriend Kareen at her place. Her dad walks in and berates them--for wasting time with foreplay on the couch. He encourages them to take the action to the bedroom. The next morning, he even brings them breakfast in bed! "Y'all must be plum wore out after a night of plowin'. Here, I brung ya some biscuits."*


While reading the novel, I couldn't keep from wondering--does his mother know? His younger sisters? But how could they, the hospital staff, the military men who visit to observe, they don't even know who he is! Besides a gross clump of flesh. Christ, his family will think he died, and they'll only be three-fourths right!

Thanks to the novel, Joe's dream of being an "educational exhibit" came true, after all. Ooh what a lucky man.




*not actual dialogue from the book, more's the pity.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Better In Your Head?--PSYCHO

1959
Robert Bloch


SPOILER ALERT, wow, I haven't done that in awhile.

Mary Crane is surrounded by avaricious men. Real estate wheelers and dealers stacking dollars in innumerable piles. A hardware store owner in perpetual debt who keeps promising to make a dishonest woman of her some day soon. When Mary's employer entrusts her with $40,000 of a client's money, she acts on impulse and drives off not to the bank, but towards the new and improved life such an influx of cash will eventually bring.

Once the storm clouds pass.

The drive to see her man Sam is fraught with second-guessing and scenarios of varying likelihood. Not soon enough, Mary realizes she's turned off the main highway. In need of some 3Z TLC, she stops at the hardly-bustling Bates Motel.

Norman Bates is surrounded by nettlesome women. His mother, holder of the world's shortest leash and sharpest tongue. And now this alluring, friendly woman willing to share nothing more than dinner with him.

A woman who has sent Norman's mother into a frothing rage.

Norman waddles through the middle of life, jumping at escape routes whenever he spots them--books on unsavory subjects, alcohol, taxidermy. He lives with his mother in a bleak, imposing house next to the motel, which is where he and Mary sup on cold cuts and coffee. She rather pities the jittery surplus of flesh sitting across from her stirring femininity, listening politely as he explains that his mother is far from well yet near-total in her power over him. When Mary suggests that relocation might be for the best of both mother and son, Norman loses his cool. Society is so quick to judge and punish the people it deems as "crazy," yet so slow to actually help them. Who, he wants to know, hasn't gone a little bit out of their mind every now and again?

In the safety of her room, Mary sees the sense in the sad man's outburst. Didn't she have her own temporary loss of sanity just that afternoon, when she let pent-up frustrations cloud her better judgment? She decides to spend the night at the motel, then drive back home to throw herself on the mercy of her boss (and the dude she jacked the fat envelope of cash from).

A peephole does not allow one to read the thoughts of another, but it does allow one to watch another's thoughts. The very sight of a disrobing Mary, combined with generous shots of liquor, is enough to overwhelm the balding fat-ass into unconsciousness. When Norman awakens, he hears the shower water running in Mary's room. He enters, to discover that mother made good on her threat.

Living near a swamp has more benefits than drawbacks.

After a week, people begin missing Mary Crane. Younger sister Lila visits Sam at his hardware store and insists that he help locate his girlfriend. The pair are joined by Milton Arbogast, a private investigator hired by the man whose forty grand Mary skipped state with. He followed Lila suspecting she of all people would know Mary's whereabouts, but soon he's satisfied that neither she nor Sam are in the loop.

The search leads Arbogast to the Bates Motel. He's able to match Mary's handwriting in the guest registry with an envelope he brought along, and begins pestering an unhelpful Norman for more information. Arbogast mentions the house, the woman he saw looking through a window, would she be of any help? Much wrangling ensues, until at last the not-cop convinces Norman that he can return with a warrant to search any damn where he pleases.

While Norman goes to "prepare" his mother, Arbogast calls Lila and reports the latest, promising to keep in touch. His failure to do so spurs Lila and Sam into action. They speak with the sheriff, who suspects that the PI is snowing them. How could he speak to Norman's mother when the lady's been dead for the past twenty years?

Lila can no longer sit idly by, and Sam now actually seems bothered. Together they book a room at the Bates Motel, making sure it's the same one Mary occupied during her aborted stay. One very intriguing piece of evidence later, Lila asks Sam to keep Norman occupied while she drives back into town to alert the sheriff.

Norman is not so naive as he may seem, though; after several drinks, he informs Sam that Lila did not go out for cigarettes, as she claimed. No, he saw her stop and take a detour at the house. What, who, would Lila be looking for? Norman cracks Sam upside the head with his liquor bottle and decides to find out.

Perhaps insufficiently creeped out by what she found in the upstairs rooms, Lila descends into the cellar and happens upon the mummified corpse of Mrs. Bates. Lila promptly loses her mind; Norman, sensing a kindred spirit, barges into the room, knife in hand. And wig on head. And granny dress around body.

Only to wind up subdued by Sam. Proof that women take forever to get dressed, even if they're men.

Norman escapes prison time by virtue of dissociative identity disorder, which Sam explains to Lila. 'Cause they're a couple now, and that's not even a little icky!

Robert Bloch's Psycho: no frills, yes chills. Blunt as an axe to the throat, pushing along with an unshowy agility.

In other words, an easy book to muck up.


1960
Director-Alfred Hitchcock
Writer-Joseph Stefano


So good for, well, everybody that a glowing review in the New York Times convinced one of the greatest film directors ever to pick up a copy of Psycho and examine the fuss for himself. Duly intrigued, the man some called "Hitch" forked over $9,500 for the film rights and proceeded to shoot the prototypical slasher flick.

Bloch once estimated that the film script borrowed "ninety percent" of his work, and I can vouch. No need to repeat the plot, so I'll not. The devil haunts the details, but the angels bless the structure. A sublime understanding of distillation and dissemination separate the great adaptations from the rest of the pack. With Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock and Joseph Stefano put on a clinic.

Take the opening scene, putting us bedside with Marion Crane and her boyfriend Sam Loomis in a hotel room enjoying some pillow talk. Enjoying it until they're upright once more, anyway, ardor tamped out by the uncertainties of present and future--namely, Sam's struggles repaying his non-metaphorical debts. Bloch reveals Mary's anxieties about her relationship without much dialogue. Just good old-fashioned backstory narrative, a "getting to know this poor lass who's about to lose her head a couple of times." A movie can't do that, not unless it really wants to, and even then the earnestness virtually guarantees failure.

Despite changes in age and physique, Norman Bates remains a twisted, jittery mama's boy with an unnerving eagerness to please. I'll talk more about this in the next section.

The other major alteration is one of the more drastic of any book-to-movie: the shower scene. Infamous like Mobb Deep, legendary like D.I.T.C. and not easy like pimpin' per the Big Daddy Kane (a whole week of shooting!), everyone knows the shower scene in Psycho. Well, it's there in the book too, except rather than multiple stab wounds to the abdomen, Mary Crane is decapitated. Hitchcock loved him some decapitation (witness the use of strangulation across his films, a "metaphorical" head removal) but when presented with the perfect opportunity to show a "real" one…next section!

Paramount Studios wanted nothing to do with Hitchcock's follow-up to North By Northwest. A cheap psychological thriller from the man who made Rear Window? Hitchcock so believed in Psycho he told the bigwigs that he'd keep the budget under a million dollars by shooting in black-and-white with the crew of his hit Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, on Universal Studio sound stages since Paramount was so goddamn offended by the possibility of such trash in their vicinity.

Resist the urge to romanticize the past, especially that of an industry with a nasty tendency to romanticize the past. Major motion picture studios have never known their asshole from their uvula. When a master of cinema, the motherfucking God of framing shots, went to the heads of Paramount and announced the plans for his next film, those burlap-brained office-occupiers should have handed over blank checks with the least artificial smiles they could muster up.

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Bloch's novel took superficial inspiration from the notorious case of Ed Gein. Hitchcock's film took the novel and squeezed, a python coiled around bound paper.

The differences are thus minimal, and vital. Firstly, obviously, is the portrayal of Norman Bates. Hitchcock found the ultimate mama's boy too unlikable on the page, too lacking in vulnerability. Audiences needed to feel something for Bates besides revulsion, and this would mean making him a less-obvious moonbug of a man. Thus, the casting of young, thin, downright handsome Anthony Perkins.

Reading Psycho allowed me to try a fun little challenge--give the story shades of color beyond the black, white and gray that Hitchcock provided. Seeing the silver gleam of a knife blade, the dark, clotted blood on the all-white shower, no problem. The floral wallpaper turned out especially bothersome in my imagination, and thank you Psycho for introducing me to the color "turkey-red."

Re-envisioning Norman Bates as a pudgy virgin actually presented little problem. I can especially see those pink, wet, bulging cheeks, those close-set eyes. I kinda dig Book Norman, sicko supreme. He coats his throat with firewater and wets his beak with fringe non-fiction.

Hitchcock would love my failure to see anyone but Janet Leigh as Marion. He realized instinctively that his tasteless little horror film would work smarter with an added emphasis on the doomed pretty blonde. So he switched the narrative focus in the beginning from Norman to Marion (we don't even get our first glimpse of him until close to a half-hour in), subtly switching it back to Norman as his descent into homicidal mania accelerates. But the man-boy is no untouchable victim. Sure, Norman provokes a measure of sympathy. Yes, Marion's sins--theft, impatience--deserve judgment. But not so harsh, and not meted out by him.

Sam explaining Norman's illness came across more natural. But Hitch wanted us to hear it from an expert directly. The psychiatrist speaks at length and in depth. The unsophisticated audiences common of the era needed to be explicitly told, and that's fine. But oh God it drags the movie down so much. Yet, the Mama Bates monologue immediately following works better on screen! Try and watch that without chills blasting your back like shotgun pellets!

From page one, Bloch puts us in the morass of the murderous mind, and the dread sensation never relents until the conclusion. Fear is something the film builds up to, in titillating increments, until the dull thud of Lila's heart as she searches the unnaturally immaculate Bates residence is virtually audible.

Writer Joseph Stefano avers that Alfred Hitchcock chose Psycho for adaptation thanks to "the murder in the shower." How differently would history judge Psycho had Hitchcock not changed that scene? Could he have artfully depicted the separation of head from body? Should the contents of Norman's books been made more obvious in the film? Should Lila's reaction have been as strong as it was in the novel?

No. To possibly all of that. Hitchcock intended to engage the audience without alienating them. He wanted moviegoers to exit the theater feeling a bit dirtier than when they entered, to feel like rushing home and drawing a restorative bath--not a shower.

So who does it better?

Both book and movie forced a low, slow breath from me at their respective conclusions. Both author and director enchanted me with their appreciation for the mischief of light and shadow, the elasticity of the human mind and the tricks it plays on the body below.

(What lurks underneath? Memories. The best and the worst of us stems from what we remember, how much we remember, and when we remember.)

Hitchcock went further by a few steps, sexualizing the act of murder, the reality of death itself--arms extended, hands grasping, legs weakening, eyelids drooping, release and collapse. He was possibly the only director of his time who could have taken Robert Bloch's novel and made it better. And that is exactly what he did.

MIND THE GAP
Mary, Marion, meh.

The novel starts with a character reading a book, which is such a writer thing to do.

The reveal of Mrs. Bates' existence status, somehow, hits harder in the book. I could not explain why, precisely. Just does.

Jaws is basically Spielberg's Psycho. Based on an undemanding novel (although be clear, Robert Bloch is a far more skilled author than Peter Benchley), changed an entire population's opinion of something rather innocent, did beaucoup box office, and is studied by cinephiles to this day.

$40,000 in 1959--$320,000 in 2017.

Speaking of money…Bloch's publishing contract neglected to include a bonus or percentage of profits in the event that the movie rights were sold. Of the $9,500 Hitchcock spent to acquire those rights, Bloch only saw $5K.

Casaba melons bleed Bosco!

Coffee and cold cuts? Christ a'mighty.

 Do yourself a favor, and don't read up on Anthony Perkins's own mother issues.

Anybody with a copy--physical, digital--of the 2/11/1963 episode of I've Got a Secret needs to get at me.

Perhaps Hitchcock felt there wasn't room enough for two fat weirdoes on the set.

Because it's the most pointless film ever made. That's why I didn't review it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Better In Your Head?--THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN

1965
Ian Fleming


A year has passed since the presumed death of James Bond while on assignment in Japan. When a man calls MI6 claiming to be the man once classified as "007," skepticism is only natural. The more he speaks, however, the more convincing he sounds. Brought before M, Bond explains how the police in Vladivostok helped him remember his true identity--not a mute Japanese miner, but a debonair British secret agent. The KGB took custody of Bond then, and helped him realize that his old boss had to be eliminated for the good of the world.

M thwarts the attempt on his life, but refuses to press charges against his former superstar agent, believing that one who has been brainwashed can be "unbrainwashed." Hence, Bond's license to kill is restored. His assignment? Track down (and take out) a man who is suspected of murdering at least four other spies.

Six weeks into the mission, "Mark Hazard" from Transworld Consortium is hanging out at a cafe/brothel in Jamaica, looking for some leads on Francisco Scaramanga, AKA "Paco," AKA "Pistols," a Cuban assassin for the KGB and DSS when who should walk in but the lean mean man with the gold-plated Colt .45. Bond refuses to be intimidated, by either Scaramanga's aptitude or attitude, and that has a lot to do with Scaramanga offering "Mark Hazard" a quick payday as his "personal assistant."

Scaramanga is building a hotel nearby, and some investors will be visiting to check out progress. As these men are also members of the KGB and American Mafia, ol' Paco wants to take precautions against perfidious actions.

Bond can scarcely grasp his luck, which only improves on site. The CIA is also after Scaramanga, and have dispatched none other than Felix Leiter to play-act as a hotel employee. He's bugged the meeting room where Scaramanga will address the men on the status of their investment. Bond is not permitted inside, but he still manages to eavesdrop via a champagne glass against the door.

Scaramanga's plans involve much more than just a struggling hotel. Destabilizing Western investments in the Caribbean sugar industry, drug-running, whore-smuggling and of course, casinos to entice tourists and make the hotel profitable. Also, one of the KGB guys is pretty sure that none other than MI6's own James Bond is hot on Scaramanga's tail.

Later that evening, Bond is awoken by some frantic window tapping. The fingers responsible are those of his personal secretary, Mary Goodnight, who has come to warn James that the KGB has marked him for death. Scaramanga catches them, but some quick thinking allows Goodnight to godspeed.

The next day is the big one. For the shareholders, since Scaramanga will be treating them to a day of fishing and food on an island accessible by a sight-seeing train ride. For Bond, since Scaramanga plans on offing him mid-journey. Eager to seize any advantage against a marksman so notorious, 007 slips into the other man's room and removes the next round from the cylinder of the golden Colt.

Waiting to board the train, Bond's coils are tighter than they've ever been. To make matters even worse, Scaramanga fires into the air (once, twice) in anticipation of the day ahead.

After ordering Bond to sit up front with the driver (a Rastafarian adverse to honkies), Scaramanga takes a spot in the brake van. In the car between them sit the remaining four guests. Bond's desperate thoughts are interrupted when Scaramanga announces there's a special attraction lying just ahead: a blonde woman, stripped nude, tied to the tracks. The victim-to-be, per the giddy gunman, is none other than Mary Goodnight, personal secretary to legendary British spy James Bond.

007 leaps up, yanks a lever to (eventually) stop the train, and puts a bullet between the eyes of the KGB goon assigned to end his days. He cannot get a bead on Scaramanga, nor does the train stop in time enough to spare the body on the tracks. But then…the man with the golden gun is down! Felix Leiter appears in the brake van and begins barking out orders, among them that Bond jump over the side and vamoose. Before he can get too far, though, Bond looks back and sees the prisoner make an unlikely escape.

With Felix unable to give chase, Bond scurries after Scaramanga, finding him near-death, half-covered in blood--and apparently unarmed. 007 struggles with making a cold-blooded kill, and granting the dying man a final mercy nearly costs Bond his life.

One thing that fans of both the novels and the films prized was predictability. An author, gnawed at by their own urges, is likely to lose interest to create long before the public loses its interest to consume. Ian Fleming had already made it clear that the twelfth Bond novel would be the last when he handed over the first draft in March 1964. Four months later, with the work still incomplete, Fleming died of a heart attack. Eight months later, The Man With the Golden Gun arrived in bookstores. Sales were brisk as usual, and even the negative reviews couldn't muster up much venom.

The general consensus tells us that Fleming's last Bond adventure is a disappointment from any angle of consideration. A slim volume with a slight story, an unworthy final gesture from a master of his craft. So imagine my surprise when I finished the book.

While it lacks certain hallmarks of the series, TMWTGG still entertained me greatly. A guilty pleasure, to be sure; unpolished, dialogue-heavy, and the cavalcade of coincidence is a bit much. Meeting at the cafe, Leiter already undercover in the hotel, Mary Goodnight showing up, it's all admittedly half-baked. A longer, meatier work might have solidified Francisco Scaramanga as one of the Bond's most formidable opponents, and allowed Fleming to enjoy a proper farewell tour. As a stand-alone work, however, I recommend it thusly: lamenting what was not is always preferable to lamenting what was.


1974
Director-Guy Hamilton
Writers-Richard Maibaum & Tom Mankiewicz


MI6 receives a most unusual delivery: a golden bullet etched with the numbers 007. Recognizing this as the calling card of notorious assassin Francisco Scaramanga, M orders James Bond to track down "The Man With the Golden Gun" and flash that fancy license of his.

Not quite a one-man hunt; traveling throughout Thailand and Hong Kong, Bond depends on the eventual assistance of an unwitting belly dancer, an ammunition manufacturer and finally, Scaramanga's mistress, Andrea Anders. 007 arrives on the scene just as the man with the coolest last name in Bond villain history makes his next hit, on some poor chap named Gibson who'd been carrying a "solex agitator." A cop puts Bond under arrest, and forces him aboard the wreckage of the RMS Queen Elizabeth. Turns out the cop is actually MI6 agent Lt. Hip, and if Bond is sure to mind his M and Q, he'll be of invaluable assistance in bringing down Scaramanga. Who, as it turns out, is working on something far more diabolical than just snuffing out a spy.

Bond and Hip head off for Bangkok, where the entrepreneur suspected of putting out the hit on Gibson keeps a magnificent estate, complete with mausoleum. His name is Hai Fat, and Bond is pretty sure he has no clue what Francisco Scaramanga looks like. If he's done his homework, though, Fat will be aware of Scaramanga's single distinguishing physical trait: a superfluous third nipple.

The ruse works, except it doesn't, since the real Scaramanga is already on the estate. Bond is subdued and sent to a dojo, since delayed death is preferable to immediate death for reasons only a scriptwriter can justify.

Of course he escapes. And of course Scaramanga blasts Hai Fat in his fat heart, taking ownership of the solex agitator and scurrying off to enable some more evil.

Andrea Anders contacts Bond, in more than one sense of the word. When he meets up with her the next day at a boxing match, 007 is mildly irritated to note that she has died. Scaramanga shows up and starts telling Bond how the series of events that made him so awesome. While this self-aggrandizing is going on, Bond sees the solex agitator that Anders promised to bring lying at her feet. He passes it along to Hip, who passes it along to Mary Goodnight, an abysmally dense MI6 staffer who could fuck up a one-car funeral. As it is, she fucks up a one-car bugging, winding up in the trunk of Scaramanga's vehicle just as she attaches a homing device.

Bond runs into a car dealership and hijacks an AMC Hornet--with J. W. Pepper in the passenger seat! Yes, the potbellied sheriff is on vacation in Thailand checkin' out rides, meaning for the second straight film he's unwittingly involved in a stunt of unprecedented bat-shitness. Scaramanga files to safety (in his car) but the homing device allows Bond to track him down on an island in Red Chinese waters.

Scaramanga shows 007 around his solar power station, which he hopes to soon sell. After a pretty underwhelming lunch prepared by Scaramanga's dwarf manservant Nick Nack, the man with the golden gun proposes a duel: his homemade invention vs. Bond's standard issue. Bond agrees, but Scaramanga flakes out.

In the pre-credits sequence, we saw a guy who looked an awful lot like Rodney the quipping gangster from Diamonds Are Forever show up on the island to challenge Scaramanga to a duel. To reach him, Rodney had to maneuver through a fun house maze of fake-out threats. He's utterly discombobulated by the time he reaches the end, allowing Scaramanga to take him out with a single shot (even though by all rights there is no way a middle-aged man in a track suit sliding down a ramp should not get hit by at least one bullet, I don't care how wonky the lighting in the room is). Scaramanga then turns and fires at…a James Bond mannequin. Yes, the man with the golden gun has a James Bond/Roger Moore mannequin complete with Walther PPK.

Now it's Bond's turn. As Nick Nack keeps watch (and gives occasional "encouragement") over CCTV surveillance, 007 makes his way past cowboys, gangsters, and mirrors. Soon, Bond goes off screen. Nick Nack is going nuts. Where the hell did the bastard go? He made his way out onto some scaffolding, away from the prying eye in the sky. Smart! Then he drops his gun. Shit!

Scaramanga, who has no idea that Nick Nack has no idea where Bond is, wanders into the room of reckoning. He turns toward the Bond mannequin just in time to see a blast of fire from the Walther PPK.

Woo! Time to retrieve Goodnight and get the hell on! Ah yes, the matter of Mary Goodnight. She's been in the solar power plant this whole time, bikini-clad and barely fighting off a rape-y employee. She finally knocks the creep over into a pool of liquid helium, which is such classic Mary Goodnight--good for the short-term, disastrous for the long-term. Bond is able to retrieve the solex agitator before the whole place goes 70s one hit wonder, and he along with Goodnight sail off into the proverbial sunset. Also I think the midget suffocated to death in a suitcase eventually.

The Man With the Golden Gun is a pretty low-brow affair, a far cry from the what the series started as, and the furthest wail from what the series is now. It remains one of the franchise's least-successful offerings, both commercially and critically, and was the last Bond feature for producer Harry Saltzman. The film is goofy and improbable--utterly in keeping with Roger Moore's 007. Silliness abounds, but never once while watching TMWTGG do I have to feign interest, unlike the much higher regarded Thunderball.

What can I say? There's a definite appeal in asininity. Not an infinite one, though.

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
A loose adaptation in the style of Diamonds Are Forever and You Only Live Twice, The Man With the Golden Gun substitutes a brainwashed 007 for a brain-dead Mary Goodnight. How I loathe Mary Goodnight. Her picayune presence, her diffusive stupidity, ruins every damn scene she's in. And the actress who portrays her, Britt Ekland, is as sexy as particle board to boot. In the book, she's a harmless character. Genuinely cares for Bond's well-being, competent at her job, and when Scaramanga catches her in the hotel room, she's bright enough to improvise her way out of the minefield. I understand why Bond had an erotic fantasy about her. In the movie? Bond throws her into a closet and makes her listen to him bang some other broad. 

A closer adaptation of Fleming's novel would not have been possible. Even if for whatever reason the producers decided to pursue the plot of "brainwashed Bond," Roger Moore would  not have been the right actor. A 007 that drinks "Phu Yuck" and flirts with women named "Chu Mi," that was his lane. Moore's Bond is not sitting in a hotel room, considering his own mortality.

Both visions of the man have him tall and thin, but book Francisco comes off as a two-bit scuzz-piece with a lethal gift, an uncouth killer who exudes invincibility. Christopher Lee retains that air of fearlessness while adding a layer of slithery charm.

I also have to give movie Scaramanga props for having the superior golden gun. Going from a gold-plated, long-barreled Colt .45 to a firearm made out of a lighter, a pen, a cigarette case and a cuff link?

Interesting to note: in the novel, Scaramanga's fatal flaw is refusing to estimate the threat of James Bond. In the film, Scaramanga's fatal flaw is holding 007 in too high of a regard.

It's a miracle Bond didn't die in the novel, a wondrous event too reminiscent of how he survived Rosa Klebb's poison shoes. Of all the massive coincidences to jettison in a final edit, I wouldn't have been surprised if Fleming had sent that one flying into the swamp.

New plot means no Leiter, and that's actually a factor in my choosing the novel over the film. Bond was SO thrilled to see his buddy Felix. Does that ever happen in any of the films where Leiter appears? Like, Bond in the book doesn't have friends, he lives for his work, but if he did have a friend--he'd have Felix.

Another tipper: the book makes me crave breakfast food. The film--Thai food. I can eat breakfast at any time of any day. Thai, though? Never before 5 PM.

MIND THE GAP
From the dossier on Francisco Scaramanga:
    "Time notes…the fact that this man cannot whistle….There is a popular theory that a man who cannot whistle has homosexual tendencies."
    Aw yis, Eye-Eff! Knew you wouldn't let me down!

"Solex Agitator," such a great name. Like it pisses off the sun.

I really want to believe Ian Fleming would be embarrassed that the scene with the naked lady and the six-foot leather hand made it in print.

The barrel-roll car stunt is an all-timer. One. Take. Never has the AMC Hornet looked so cool. Composer John Barry was so awestruck he momentarily lost every ounce of sense he'd been born with.

Roger Moore's first four Bond movie have a total of five stunts that make me want to dropkick a grizzly bear.

I feel bad for wishing it hadn't been a showroom dummy on the train tracks. Blame it on residual Britt Ekland resentment.

So, when Bond loses his gun…clearly he did not climb down all that way to retrieve it. Meaning…Scaramanga fitted his 007 dummy with a real, loaded Walther PPK? Or a real one without ammo, but Bond had extra rounds on his person to load it with? I appreciate not being shown either way, but it's the kind of thing that gives witless people fits.

Did Scaramanga hope the Bond mannequin would one day come to life and challenge him to a duel? That wasn't even Scaramanga's end game here; it was his mistress that sent the golden bullet to MI6. Was he hoping someone would hire him to take out Bond eventually?

What the hell nincompoop approved "Mark Hazard" as a suitable alias for a secret agent?

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Better In Your Head?--YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE

1964
Ian Fleming


"You only live twice:
Once when you are born
And once when you look death in the face"


The end of the "Blofeld Trilogy," You Only Live Twice was also the last James Bond novel published before Ian Fleming's death on August 12, 1964.

Morbidity and mortality are draped over the book like a wet towel on a shower rod. The action picks up eight months after the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, with the widower Bond sinking deeper into his own private morass, blowing assignments and resisting medical treatments. A doctor suggests to M that rather than shitcan the poor guy, MI6 should promote him. This is how 007 becomes 7777 in the "Diplomatic Section."

His new assignment: go to Japan and convince Tiger Tanaka, the head of the Japanese Secret Service, to share radio transmissions that his spies have captured from the Soviets. Tanaka agrees--with a catch.

Dr. Guntram Shatterhand and his wife are horticulturists who arrived in Japan with an interest in opening an exotic garden. Given a ten year residence permit by the Japanese government, the Shatterhands selected the island of Kyushu, where they live in a castle and cultivate what has come to be known informally as the "Garden of Death." Full of lethal plants, fish and landscape, it has become a mecca for the sick of mind, body and soul, claiming in excess of 500 lives in merely six months of existence. It is, politically speaking, a bad look. If Bond could help take the Shatterhands down, the Japanese secret service would gladly hand over the transmissions.

Prep work includes a new identity (mute coal miner Taro Todoroki), skin dye and a hair cut. Tanaka takes Bond to his ninja training school, Bond writes a haiku and both men board a boat for the island where Bond will enter the next phase of his mission. En route, Bond pores over relevant documents, which include photos of the Doctor and his wife.

Or, more accurately, photos of Ernst Blofeld and Irma Bunt.

An invigorated Bond settles in with the Suzuki family. Daughter Kissy briefly left for Hollywood as a teenager, but returned home not for need, but for want. Now 23, she takes Taro out on fishing expeditions. Before long, he convinces her to take him to Kyushu. Once there, Bond scales a 200-foot wall, drops down into the Garden of Death and then…waits.

Moving cautiously, Bond makes his way inside the castle, but guards exist for a reason. Bond is taken to Dr. and Frau Shatterhand. The transformation is apparently quite convincing; Blofeld has no clue whom he's just captured. Irma Bunt, however, voices doubts. Off to "The Question Room," where the prisoner is forced onto a seat located above a volcanic geyser that blows every fifteen minutes. With one minute remaining, Bond confesses his true identity. Blofeld, rather than have such a nemesis offed, switches on "bloviate" mode, reminding 007 of his psychotic super-brilliance before justifying his garden as a public service.

Finally it happens, what thousands had been waiting for: a duel between Bond and Blofeld, best against worst, wooden staff versus samurai sword. Bond wins and has to make a video game style escape because the castle has begun to explode.

Bond breaks a window, grabs hold of a nearby helium balloon--I know, I know--and gradually begins floating away from the site of his greatest personal triumph. Then some flying debris knocks Bond in the noggin, sending him down into the sea, where Kissy finds him.

The blow to the brain has done a number on 007; he can't remember a damn thing. Kissy tells him he is her lover Taro, and they return to the village.

Away from the spy world, and its concomitant hazards, Bond-as-Taro begins to piece himself back together emotionally (while still experiencing some physical difficulties). Intelligence officials visit the village but Kissy has sworn its inhabitants to secrecy. Thus, the Ministry of Defence must craft an obituary for one Cmmdr. James Bond, a written farewell that proves touching and idiotic all at once.

A newspaper clipping sends Bond into a tizzy. The article mentions the Russian city Vladivostok. Bond fixates on Vladivokstok. He must travel to Vladivastok. There, only there, can he recover his memories and restore his true self. He asks Kissy--who had just been considering when, precisely, to tell him she was pregnant--for help.

Ian Fleming was clearly in the throes of ambivalence with the series that made him--a mere writer!--a household name. The exclamation points persist; Fleming feared the reader might doze off without them, I suppose. His gifts are still present, if not in abundance; his description of the Death Garden is worth the price of admission, even if he is just a little too besotted with flora.

As a spy thriller, You Only Live Twice has very little to recommend it. As a story of rebirth, of sending James Bond along the path of being Bond again, it has undeniable appeal. But prepare to be let down. As I will discuss later, Fleming fails to stick the one landing he could not afford to flub.

1967
Director-Lewis Gilbert
Writer-Roald Dahl



"They told me you were assassinated in Hong Kong."
    "Yes, this is my second life."
    "You only live twice, Mister Bond."

U.S. and Soviet spacecrafts are disappearing whilst in orbit. Blofeld is to blame, wouldn't ya know. Don't drink, don't smoke, what does he do? He plots. Ceaselessly. Maniacally. SPECTRE, in aid of an unnamed Asian country, has a big ol' cannibalistic spaceship making the Americans and the Soviets play the blame game until inevitably Dub-Dub-Tre breaks out.

The Brits suspect the Japanese are actually the culprits, since one of the crafts landed in the Sea of Japan. James Bond's new assignment: fake his death and travel to Japan. Tidy! I feel like doing the same at least once a week! He meets up with Aki, assistant to Tiger Tanaka, the biggest cheese in the Japanese Secret Service wheel, who directs him to local MI6 operative Dikko Henderson. Poor guy takes a blade to the back before uttering anything too helpful, though. Bond proceeds to kill the assailant and take his place in a getaway car headed for Osato Chemicals.

Driver dispatched of, Bond sneaks into the office of Mr. Osato to filch some documents. His escape is other than smooth, and only the presence of Aki saves him. She leads him to a secluded subway station, where Bond falls down an trap door into Tiger Tanaka's office. He's very interested in what Bond pilfered from Osato, especially a picture of the cargo ship Ning-Po.

Posing as a prospective buyer named Mr. Fisher, 007 pays Mr. Osato a visit. The old guy has an X-ray screen built into this desk, which enables him to see the Walther PPK underneath Bond's suit jacket. The men part pleasantly. Osata then orders his henchwoman, Helga Brandt (the poor woman's Fiona Volpe), to take Mr. Fisher out and show him a bad time.

The assassins wait till Bond's outside before opening fire, since they'll receive more XP for kills outside the building. Unsurprisingly, Bond and Aki evade the bullets. Together, they go dock-sniffin' and discover that the Ning-Po has been delivering the elements required to make rocket fuel. Again, at least for 007, departure proves rugged. He's taken to Helga Brandt's cabin on the Ning-Po, where he bribes her for a flight to Tokyo--successfully, he thinks--but she bails on his ass, trusting that the flare she sets off on board the plane will be sufficient to bring about Bond's demise. Naturally, he lands and emerges unscathed.

Suspecting that the enemy base is near the unloading dock, Bond returns there via the "Little Nellie," a sweet gyroplane born from leather cases and loaded with all the ways to shoot all the projectiles.

Meanwhile another Soviet spacecraft has been snatched while in orbit. The mystery cannibal craft lands in a base hidden inside an inactive volcano that doubles as Blofeld's lair. Cat in the cradle, he feeds Brandt to the piranhas and orders Osato to finish what she could not.

Tanaka's spacious seaside villa features a ninja compound where Bond trains after undergoing a makeover intended to help him pass as a Japanese fisherman. He will also have to marry a student of Tanaka's named Kissy, rather than the much lovelier and formidable Aki.

A SPECTRE assassin somehow infiltrates a ninja compound and Aki winds up ingesting poison intended for Bond. Bye-bye to a good Bond Girl who coulda-shoulda been a great one.

Bond and Kissy get fake-married and for a honeymoon notice a humble funeral nearby. A young girl had died mysteriously while sailing along a cave near the shoreline. Bond and Aki decide to check out the cave, jumping ship once Bond smells poison gas.

The two decide to snoop around the volcano above the cave. They notice the mouth of the volcano is also the hatch to a rocket base. Bond attempts to board SPECTRE'S spacecraft ("Bird One") before takeoff, but a small mistake alerts Blofeld, who demands that the astronaut inside be brought to him for questioning.  

Bond at last gets a glimpse of the bastard SPECTRE boss himself, a man with a bald head, a nasty scar, and Dr. No's wardrobe.

With the USA prepared to make good on their threat to go nuclear on the Soviets, Blofeld's dream of world domination is closer than ever. He orders his guards to shoot Bond, which is super-smart, but he accedes to Bond's request for  Ninjas descend upon the base! Bond scurries into the control room and activates Bird One's self-destruct mechanism. Blofeld goes one better and activates the self-destruct mechanism of the entire base.

Spoiler alert, no one important perishes.

Sean Connery so clearly did not want to star in Bond #5. He underperforms nearly every second he's on screen. Where's the smart-assery? Where's the carnality? Where's the paycheck, more like. But I suppose even insouciance has its charms, and I'm not claiming Connery's bad here. He's just not really Bond.

As a Bond Girl, Kissy is friggin' hideous. Devoid of sensuality, lacking ingenuity, indeed, bereft of any outstanding qualities. Aki was in every way her superior, so of course Aki had to die.

If Dr. No was a pair of unblinking eyes, then From Russia With Love was a pair of clenched fists. If Goldfinger was a puffed-out chest, then Thunderball was a rigid back. You Only Live Twice? Slouching shoulders. The fight sequences provide sorely-needed absorbing action, the lair is one of the best in the whole series, and the soundtrack is criminally overlooked, but on the buffet of life, YOLT is a sad slice of pizza, rubbery and bland.

I mean...I'll still eat it, of course. It's pizza. But there's so many tastier slices out there.


BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
You Only Live Twice was the first Bond film to disregard most of the source novel's plot. Scriptwriter Roald Dahl (a friend of Fleming's, mind, not just a colleague) considered YOLT to be the worst Bond book, a plotless travelogue with little entertainment value. Dahl used his ample gifts to produce a Dr. No rehash: Cold War backdrop, Bond on an island, chicanery with spacecraft. Just the sort of flash-bash craved by the popcorn-chompers. And honestly, "Head of terrorist organization SPECTRE  aims to start the next great war, leaving the fate of humanity hanging in the balance!" is a hell of a lot more thrilling than, "Former head of terrorist organization SPECTRE is ensconced in a castle, content to reign as the world's laziest genocidal overlord!"

Both book and film are preposterous, but I don't think that word should be an instantly damning one. The "Little Nellie" is goofy as a mouse and a dog being best friends, but it's so cool! Ninjas! Volcano lair! Yeah, the movie has some moments of silliness unimaginable in the nascent days, but the stakes are the highest yet.

The book is really a revenge story, with some existential digression. One could argue that the victims of Dr. Shatterhand's botanical death-trap are not worthy of sympathy. Indeed, a solid case could be made that choosing to discontinue one's life is the most intensely personal decision a human being can make, and thus should not be interfered with, by friend foe or foreigner. (The Japanese government seems less bothered over the 500 lives lost than the subsequent bad publicity.)

There's very little debate concerning nuclear annihilation. Only the insane are in favor of it.

But, Bond isn't too interested in bringing down the garden itself; after all, those who sincerely desire to die have a wealth of options. Blofeld killed his wife. Bond must kill Blofeld. Moral dilemmas are for the reader, should they choose to indulge.

Bond vs. Blofeld is a classic allegorical fight between sworn adversaries--good vs. bad, past vs. future, life vs. death, order vs. chaos. But it left me unsatisfied. Firstly, it's a fluke; Bond had already agreed to infiltrate the castle before he knew Shatterhand's true identity. It's not as though he hunted Ernie and Irmie down and meticulously assembled the recipe for just desserts. That would have made for a maddeningly engrossing story.

The death of Blofeld should have left me cheering. I should have begun hallucinating fireworks. An Irene Cara song should have been blaring in my head, something super-inspirational with lots of synthesized strings and a rib-sticker of a chorus. Instead, a sensation of "there's that, then" settled over me like a ratty, cedar pine-stinking quilt.

The movie, for its myriad of faults, undoubtedly nails the climax. (Would have been nice to see 007 show off some of those ninja moves he apparently learned, though. In the book he scaled a 200-foot wall!) All praise to Fleming's legendary descriptive powers, seriously the guy's one of the better I've ever read in that regard, but production designer Ken Adam outdid himself.

 The decision to keep Bond's "makeover" in the film beggars belief. I understand the point of it, but the execution was never, ever going to be acceptable. The book is tolerable, since we never have to actually see Bond with skin dye and a haircut, but the movie gives us no choice. Eye makeup and an even shittier hairpiece for Connery to wear...not awkward in the slightest!

Blofeld in the book is different enough physically that a reader can envision a whole different person than appeared in any of the films, and salvage some of the character's magnificent malevolence. This is fortunate. Donald Pleasance's chrome-domed, scar-faced icon of cartoonish evil has provided material for countless gleeful parodies (Austin Powers being just the most exuberant example), retroactively robbing the entire film of a huge component--danger.

Tiger Tanaka and Dikko Henderson are both drastically different in FlemingVision: large and loquacious men, politically incorrect in the extreme, stupendous imbibers of whatever's handy. 007 has a rollicking time with each man. The movie simply cannot compare. Tiger and James engage in a sake-soaked game of "Stone, Scissors, Paper" (that the author felt required an entire explanatory paragraph) in between dick-swinging and insult-slinging. Film Tanaka spouts some stupid sexist crap but since he's rail-thin and smiling, I'm supposed to be amused?

Book Dikko? Funniest thing from Australia since the first INXS album.

Yeah, I don't think much of Kissy in the book either. She's supposed to represent Bond's salvation, but
proves no more than the docile means to an end. I've heard knock-knock jokes more substantial than Kissy Suzuki.

For raising serious moral questions and giving Bond closure, I'll rate the book higher.

MIND THE GAP
Ian Fleming was so "child, please" at this point he wrote a scene where a cow is fed beer straight from the bottle.

Over fifty years since the publication of the novel, and no Bond film has utilized the name "Guntram Shatterhand"? For shame.

I'm hard on movie Kissy, but I have to credit her for not losing 85% of her cognitive abilities once she slipped on a bikini.

Telling a woman she tastes "different" will get you killed in real life.

Returning to the haiku…when, exactly, does Bond's second life begin? When he cradled his dead wife's body? When he watched Blofeld breathe his last? When he consents to a superfluous makeover? When he loses his memory, or when he leaves Japan?

The obituary mentions that the career of James Bond inspired "a series of popular books" penned by a colleague. "It is a measure of the disdain in which these fictions are held at the Ministry that action has not yet been taken against the author and publisher." So, Bond is a celebrity of sorts. I guess this revelation might not have annoyed me so much if it hadn't been made so late in the game. A grumbling aside from M, a wry crack from Moneypenny? Not even a begrudging acknowledgment from the man himself?

"Code word is imminent." Wait--does that mean the code word is coming soon, or that "imminent" is the code word?

Anyone interested in the spawn of Bond is encouraged to seek out Raymond Benson's extended universe short story, "Blast From the Past."

March 1966. Director Lewis Gilbert, producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli, cinematographer Freddie Young and production designer Ken Adam were in Tokyo scouting locations for YOLT. Two hours before their departing flight, the men received an invitation to attend a ninja demonstration. Of course they accepted.

The missed flight was worth it, in more than one way. Twenty-five minutes after lifting off the runway, the Boeing 707 disintegrated--yes, disintegrated--near Mt. Fuji. All 124 people on board were killed.

Never refuse ninjas. Be in the presence of ninjas whenever possible.


TRAPPER JENN MD WILL RETURN IN...'THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN'

Monday, February 20, 2017

Better In Your Head?--ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE

1963
Ian Fleming


"You love them dearly, dearly, dearly. You love all chickens."

The second of the so-called "Blofeld Trilogy," On Her Majesty's Secret Service was also the first Bond novel published after Dr. No hit screens (not to mention the follow-up to that ill-advised experiment The Spy Who Loved Me).

A year into "Operation Bedlam," still no sign of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The futility leads to frustration, which leads to James Bond penning a resignation letter. Delivery must wait, since he's in northern France, headed back to the Casino Royale. En route to a hotel, a Lancia driven by a woman wrapped in a pink scarf blows by his trusty Bentley. When he sees the same car--and woman-entering the hotel, Bond finagles her name from the manager: Countess Teresa di Vincenzo.

Her recklessness on the road is matched by her recklessness at the Banco table, as she loses money she doesn't have. Bond chivalrously covers the debt. Blandly, the woman who much prefers to be called "Tracy" orders 007 to her room to collect his due reward. The morning after goes less well, with Bond "feeling, for the first time in his life, inadequate."

Feeling the need to keep an eye on Tracy, and upset that his penis doesn't hold a Bachelor's in Psychology, Bond rents a car and follows her to the beach, unaware that he himself is being followed by men who work for Tracy's father. After Bond stops her from walking into the grave, said goonies force them onto a boat headed for the temporary HQ of Marc-Ange Draco, head of the Unione Corse, Europe's premier crime syndicate. Bond gets some one-on-one time with the big cheese. He has watched his daughter go from a well-loved child to a self-immolating socialite. But, perhaps she is not so broken that the love of a good man could not fix her?

Despite a fondness for the girl (and Draco's promise of a million dollar dowry), Bond refuses to court the Countess. Still grateful for Bond's palliative presence, Draco offers his services. Find Blofeld? No problem. He's in Switzerland. Somewhere. (Hey, the guy didn't claim to be a genie.)

Station Z of MI6 works the case for two months, little headway made, until Bond receives orders to visit London's College of Arms. Recently, the COA received a letter from Zurich-based solicitors on behalf of a client seeking recognition of the "rightful" title of Comte Balthazard de Bleuville. With no birth certificate or baptism record, the going has proved rough. The man's claim that he shares a genetic trait of the de Bleuville line--no earlobes--will need to be verified in person by a COA representative.

Acting as Sir Hilary Bray (and carrying no weaponry or gadgetry), Bond is taken to Blofeld's lair in the Swiss Alps, the Piz Gloria. Before meeting the would-be Count, he meets his secretary, a German woman of Klebbian comportment named Irma Bunt. She introduces him to ten other women, far younger and more beguiling, special guests of the Count, hailing from all over the United Kingdom. One named Ruby is especially grateful to have such a smart, sexy man in the proximity.

To 007's chagrin, Blofeld's look has changed much from the widely-circulated physical description: long white hair rather than a dark crew-cut, at least 100 pounds lighter, and ah oh--the man's got himself no earlobes. Still, Bray/Bond secures a week-long stay.

The booty-call with Ruby is followed by an immensely odd post-coital soundtrack, including Blofeld speaking airily about the importance of defending the common chicken.

The next meeting between the two B's goes swimmingly. Blofeld speaks pridefully of his work at the on-site clinic, where he treats allergies. The girls are especially indebted to his efforts, seeing as they suffer "agricultural allergies" that have made their lives in the British countryside problematic. Wanting to speed up the process, Blofeld offers a bribe. A fine time for a Station Z agent to break up the conversation with his battered body. Bond maintains his cover…but just barely.

Wary of the swinging anvil, 007 decides to do the best he can with the information he has. Packing some makeshift weapons, he decides to carpe noctem and hits the slopes. His escape is narrow and harrowing, from the mountains to a skating rink packed with party people. Among them--Tracy di Vincenzo.

She is a sight for sore everything; her kindness vivifies the wearied secret agent man. Her resourcefulness saves both of their lives.

At the table of an airport restaurant. That is where James Bond proposes. Hey, when you find that one-of-one who also yearns to be your one, any place is the ideal place. Tracy is beauty and bravery, a damaged soul healing dramatically by the day, a woman who wants to give all the love she takes.

A pace-choking meeting in M's office lays out Blofeld's master plan (cripple the world's economy via biological warfare carried out by the women "treated" at his clinic). Bond looks to his future dad-in-law for help in bringing Blofeld down. The Piz Gloria is destroyed, but Blofeld escapes.

Ah well, Bond has a wedding to attend! He and Tracy join their frayed ropes at the British Consul General's drawing room, then take off in her Lancia. Before long, Bond asks her to pull over so he can de-ribbon the vehicle. Once finished, it's back on the road. No hurry at all. "We have all the time in the world," Bond reminds his wife.

The occupants of the red Maserati behind them are not so carefree; the flashy vehicle zooms towards the Lancia, then past, with Bond catching a glimpse of the two people inside before losing consciousness. He awakens, mostly unharmed, save for what will surely be a nasty bump on the head. Mrs. Bond...not so lucky.

Having to compete with picture shows, Ian Fleming gave the prose extra zip and zing, from one exclamation point to the next. (He didn't include sketches of explosions, but I wouldn't have been shocked.) The main plot is admirably unique (read: improbable), but it's Fleming's deft touch with the subplot that leaves the deepest impression.

After the Vesper Lynd affair, Bond once more handing his heart over to a woman seemed unlikely. But he did! Mein Gott! Fleming's decision to return to that well, and fill the bucket to the brim, is as commendable as his execution. He softened Bond without weakening Bond. Still, could the outcome have ever been in doubt? A married James Bond would have been a better fictional person, but a much worse fictional character. Near the end of Diamonds Are Forever, he told Tiffany Case, "Most marriages don't add two people together. They subtract one from the other." Easy to be cynical when you're surfeited with expendable pleasures. Which is, honestly, as James Bond was intended.

Knowing he would crush his readers hearts, Fleming allowed himself some cutesy moments: Bond reveals his father was a Scot; Ursula Andress is name-dropped. Nothing egregious, though, and On Her Majesty's Secret Service plays now as it did then--a welcome return to form.


1969
Director-Peter Hunt
Writer-Richard Maibaum


"I have taught you to love chickens."

When "Screw You, Pay Me" goes wrong.

Fine, there were other compelling reasons for Sean Connery to stomp away from the role that made him an international superstar: pigeonholing, boredom, being Scottish. End of it all, he left The Salty Broccoli team in need of a new James Bond. Many names were considered (including a baby-faced Timothy Dalton), but ultimately the role went to 30-year-old Aussie George Lazenby, a man with no prior acting experience outside of adverts. He looked the part, however, which is much more than half the battle. Eon offered the lucky schlub a seven-film contract, but Lazenby's agent convinced his client that the character of James Bond would soon be a relic. Lazenby then announced to the media that he was one-and-done, making his time on the movie set rather uncomfortable.

Somehow, a top five all-time Bond flick was born.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is the closest adaptation of a Fleming work, by design; director Peter Hunt even carried around a copy of the novel on set. Nearly all of the incidents in the book appear in the film, and the most indelible scene is lifted wholesale. Quite the opposite approach from You Only Live Twice.

There are differences, of course, the most significant being:

--The legendary montage, set to Louis Armstrong's "We Have All the Time In the World," of the elegant Countess and the charismatic spy falling in love.

--The College of Arms' involvement is condensed so's to permit scenes of Bond doing actual espionage work.

--Blofeld's broads number a dozen, and have been christened "The Angels of Death." I mean, I get that they're manipulated instruments of worldwide catastrophe but you can't beat that for a crew name. Unless it's "Super Bitch Ninjas In Defense of Kim Gordon." Further, they boast international flavor: English, Irish, Australian, Scandinavian, Hungarian, Joanna Lumley.

--Blofeld's look is quite different, as is the ancestral name he claims ("Beauchamp," which translates as "fair and lovely field"). The baldy makes him seem like a reasonably-altered version of Donald Pleasance's Blofeld from You Only Live Twice, at least. Book Blofeld sounds vaguely Veela.

--Bond doesn't so much escape in the book as he attempts to sneak away. The movie puts him in a much more precarious position, necessitating a much more suspenseful escape.

--The attack on Piz Gloria is expanded, letting Tracy show her mettle. Also, she's not abducted in the book.

--Bond in a barn, with the hay below him and the "heeey" above him, pops the question. Looks better than an airport restaurant, but probably smelled worse.

--Lazenby's so good at fake fistfights, the script added two of them!

--The ending is trimmed for effect: Bond's still snatching all the showy crap from his beloved Aston Martin as Blofeld and Bunt speed by and shatter his world to sad little bits.

After such a stellar job editing the first five Bond films, Peter Hunt was promoted to the big boy chair. The romantic montage is but one example of how he shook up convention. Shot for shot, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is to this day the most visually stirring installment in the series.

But then, Hunt's direction was never what non-fans found so displeasing. George Lazenby received massive vitriol over the years from viewers turned off by his "wooden" performance, a criticism I never quite comprehended. He's…good. Above average with his mouth closed, average when he opens his mouth, below average when he opens his mouth and someone else's voice is heard. His flippancy might not be everyone's cup of tea, but it fits right in with a film defined by its "otherness." (Given reports of the contentious relationship between lead actor and director, Lazenby's performance being anything but nightmarish is a minor miracle.)

Long considered a commercial and artistic disappointment, OHMSS has nevertheless accrued a great deal of acclaim over the last two decades. Engrossing story, mesmerizing soundtrack, masterful cinematography, and the best ending in any Bond film.* Bonus, we get the best possible Bond girl in the bewitching form of Tracy.

Wait, what? Vesper Lynd? You mean the traitor? I don't wanna hear about "Oh b-but, she fell in love, such an untenable position, the guilt!" Bond could never have trusted Vesper Lynd. Tracy, on the other hand, was down to ride, quite literally. Throw a guy into ornamental wall spikes first, ask questions later.

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
I prefer Fleming's version of how Bond meets his future wife, which is actually at the Casino Royale soon after she's busted out at cards. The beach rescue occurs the very next day. However, Fleming uses flashbacks, so the novel actually begins with Bond watching Tracy on the beach. Such a technique isn't limited to the literary medium, of course, but not even Peter Hunt dared enough to eschew linear storytelling.

Further, the meeting occurs in Portugal instead of France. Doesn't affect my enjoyment of the film, but having 007 find the second great love of his life in the very same place he found the first is pretty fantastic.

Book Bond tended to avoid sartorial trend-chasing. Because Fleming might have allowed his creation to fall in love, but he would never have let him suffer the indignity of a ruffled dress shirt.

Does Bond have doubts about his decision to share his life? Sure does. Would it have been possible to show that in the movie? Imagine so, but it would have seemed an awful odd digression. Just another way books rule.

The fate of the Station Z agent is much better via Fleming. He damn near blows the whole gig, and sends Bond into a paranoia that hastens his grand exit from the Piz Gloria. The movie drags it out unnecessarily.

Well, the movie does also spare us those two dreadfully dull guys in M's office. Oh, but there's that  cutesy walk down memory lane after Bond thinks he's turned in his resignation. Raspberry, no sherbet.

While Fleming blessed readers with a chapter titled "Bloody Snow," the line from the film you're almost certainly thinking of is absent. The chase sequences on the Alps did nothing for my feelings on skiing, but I'm pretty sure my relationship with snow went from friendly to smitten the first time I saw them. To this day I will punch the air, yank my collar and exclaim in tongues, at length. Imagine a grenade detonating in the rain…'bout as thrilling as sand between yer toes.

George Lazenby's turn as James Bond, which I keep is insisting is good, suffers nonetheless from several factors which were beyond his control.

For starters, he's outshone (unsurprisingly!) by two far more experienced actors. Telly Savalas would go on to great fame in the TV cop drama Kojak, but damned if he didn't make for a verminous Ernst, so much so that I unabashedly claim him as my favorite in the role (followed by Donald Pleasance, Christoph Waltz, burning orphanage, and Charles Gray). He uses his hands for much more than just making pussy happy, you know.

Book Tracy is an enigma wrapped in a pink scarf. On the surface, she's a fundamentally decent sort at the mercy of a stubborn indecency. Truthfully, Fleming's Tracy is actually not one of his more well-developed female characters; Tiffany Case, Viv Michel, even Honeychile Rider are all more fleshed-out than Bond's one and only bride. We see her through the eyes of the men in her life, and that's sufficient, since ultimately OHMSS is a spy thriller and not a grand romance, but Diana Rigg takes her to a new level.

Her legendary turn as Emma Peel on The Avengers made Rigg the only real "name" of the cast, and also served her well as a believably kick-ass Bond Girl. Throw in gorgeous looks and a daunting dignity that's practically visible even on a broken iPad screen, and it's safe to say this movie belongs to Tracy/Diana. She is utterly irreducible, utterly irreplaceable.

This is not to downplay Bond. His trajectory over two-plus hours feels very real. Throw in the events of the books, and it becomes more so. In his life, James has become enraptured by two women whose souls he desperately wanted to save. One, he did not; one, he did. Both, he lost regardless.

The ultimate tragedy is not that a lifelong bachelor spy is spectacularly unlucky in love, but that both of those women were taken from him so cruelly. Vesper Lynd crashed under the weight of her own treachery, unwilling to face the consequences of her actions. Tracy Bond was killed--murdered, by a stomach with arms--just after finding a future she'd long given up on. The fraudulent Count triumphed over the genuine Countess. Grim.

Finally, the decision to overdub Lazenby's voice with that of another actor for the scenes where he's pretending to be Hilary Bray isn't as unfortunate as slide whistles or triple-take birds, but it's one of the few things keeping the movie from making my top 3. Georgie Boy had no time to work on a passable brogue? The actor who played the real Hilary Bray absolutely had to be the voice?

Ultimately I'm partial to the book, despite my high regard for the film. The real tipper for me just happens to be the biggest continuity issue in the entire film series. Having come face-to-face in You Only Live Twice (you know, the one just before OHMSS), why don't Bond and Blofeld recognize one another? Blofeld is easily explained--reconstructive surgery. But Bond didn't alter himself beyond affecting a Scottish accent. The original script did have Bond undergoing plastic surgery, but clearly that idea was dumb. So, again, Blofeld had to know Sir Hilary Bray was in fact James Bond, and he just strung him along.

See the perils of such faithfulness to source material?

MIND THE GAP
Blofeld taught the poor afflicted angels to love chickens, but not in the way my uncle did as a horny teen on the family farm. Or tried to, rather. Moving on! An allergy is not a feeling. An allergy is a reaction of the immune system. Hypnosis will not help treat an allergy.

Ruby was easily the least attractive of the AOD. Bitch shampooed with mud, conditioned with clay and dried with bird nest.

Bond has a new secretary! Mary Goodnight, who is not a blonde imbecile but still apparently quite the blazing booty.

I don't think it's possible to smile like a box, but Ian Fleming sure did.

The movie Marc-Ange Draco is a real cool customer. Gregarious, generous. As with Kerim Bey in From Russia With Love, the scriptwriter smoothed out the rough edges to endear the character to movie-goers.

Here's Draco, in the novel, telling Bond about meeting Tracy's mother: "She had come to Corsica to look for bandits….She explained to me later that she must have been possessed by a subconscious desire to be raped. Well…she found me in the mountains and she was raped--by me."

I am pretty sure there were/are actual rapists who never obsessed over the subject of rape as much as the creator of James Bond, a man who, by all accounts, never actually raped anyone. So glad Richard Maibaum replaced such eye-glazing dialogue with, well, what's a good example…

"What she needs is a man to dominate her!"

Yeeeep, Draco in the movie is still pretty dickish. Fleming must have felt a twinge or twenty of writerly envy watching him punch out his own daughter.

Wait, there's a character in the book whose last name is "Draco" and another one whose last name is "Basilisk"? And they're both supposed to be good guys?

Chapter 27: "All the Time In the World." Haha, piss off.

Q Branch can't hook a groom up with a bulletproof windshield?

I wonder if James ever tried to make it 3-for-3 at Casino Royale.


TRAPPER JENN MD WILL RETURN IN...'YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE'





*Despite a befuddling soundtrack choice that I can only imagine was an attempt to jolt Tracy back to life.