Sunday, May 28, 2017

Apocalypse Slowly

Just a quick note to say- guys, I watch a lot of garbage. A lot of shlok. A lot of 'so bad it's good but really it's bad.' I don't know. Why I gravitate to shlok is a complicated question... I used to be such a discriminating film nerd.

And yet...Somehow THE QUIET EARTH (1985) made its way to the top of my Netflix queue. I don't know what prompted me to add it to the list, but I'm glad I did. THE QUIET EARTH is pretty much my ideal science fiction flick. For a low budget-ish film the acting, effects and music are all absolute perfection.

The story: a man who wakes up to find he's the last person on earth. Hardly a unique conceit. But this man (played to perfection by Bruno Lawrence, who also co-wrote) is uniquely qualified for life on his own. He's a scientist with lots of practical engineering skills. The film takes its time following Lawrence and his exquisitely expressive sad sack face as he goes through the stages of devastating loneliness. And then... let's just say the movie is sort of about a love triangle, but it's so much more than that. The dialogue is minimal, the story is sort of... hinged on a flimsy scientific premise. No matter. It's rare to see a movie so tightly scripted and beautiful to watch and confident enough to leave some of its big questions hanging. And of course, anything shot in New Zealand is a treat for me.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Monster Club That Would Have Me as a Member

Pre-internet, pre-having every possible query a mere Google away, many of us had the experience of watching some (in hindsight) unremarkable Saturday afternoon movie and being haunted by said movie for years and perhaps decades, and having practically no way to prove we didn't just hallucinate whatever images burned themselves into the soft clay of the nine year old brain.

One of the movies that haunted me in that 'did I actually watch that or was it a dream' way was the 1981 Vincent Price anthology shlockfest THE MONSTER CLUB. According to IMDB:
A writer of horror stories is invited to a "monster club" by a mysterious old gentleman. There, three gruesome stories are told to him; between each story some musicians play their songs.
The mysterious old gentleman (Price) is almost immediately revealed to be a vampire. A polite and thoughtful, but hungry, vampire. In return for letting him feed, Price introduces the writer to a very curious kind of social club, one for actual 'monsters.' 

Two images from the movie haunted my own brain for decades. I'll start at the end and then work my way back to the beginning...

First: the final tale in the anthology is of a London movie director who goes on a disastrous location scouting trip. With the kind of arrogance that generally gets one eaten/maimed/ravaged in these kinds of movies, the director declares that he himself will find an appropriately scary village for his film in progress. 

He hops in his Jag (men in these movies are always jauntily hopping in their Jags) and eventually turns down a country road and right into an ominous fog. As it happens, he has come upon a village where the inhabitants get everything from boxes in the ground-- a village of ghouls. 

There was something so claustrophobic, so gray and uncanny about this particular story. You don't see many horror movies about ghouls, do you? 

And come on, any horror movie about a haunted English village is going to be good. It just is. It's the eighth rule of horror.

I guess in a weird way catching THE MONSTER CLUB some random weekend on Channel 9 only accelerated my incipient Anglophilia. And my love of anything coming from Hammer or, in this case, Amicus. Among the churned out genre drek there one finds these darkly sparkling gems of original weirdness, perfect for a Saturday afternoon's entertainment.

The low-key umheimlich vibe of  THE MONSTER CLUB managed to burn its way into my brain, most admirably on what appears to be a minuscule budget. (Make sure you check out the 'masks' on the extras dancing in the Monster Club.) The other part of the movie that haunted me was cleverly executed interstitial scenes with Price and Carradine, each of which set the stage for the next tale.

Erasmus (Vincent Price) and his new friend the horror writer (played by the iconic John Carradine) are seated at a table in the club with a curious genealogical chart behind them. As they sit at the table chatting (and taking in the bonkers musical numbers which are totally worth watching the movie just for that), Price's explanation of the monster hierarchy serves as a disturbing bit of world building. The monster 'club' decor (the non-stage part) looks a lot like the kind of mid-priced Long Island Chinese restaurant my parents preferred, but dressed with a couple skulls and other macabre knickknacks  Maybe that's why I found these scenes so unsettling; the juxtaposition of the strangely familiar with the terrifyingly unreal.

Notice that poster in the background? It's the kind of thing that I would've found unsettling as a kid, but I didn't know why. Watching the movie now I found a different part of my brain unsettled, the part keyed into our shameful history of racial science.

Erasmus (Vincent Price) takes the opportunity to give a little explication of the monster world using this chart:
"That's a monster's genealogical chart. You see, first we have the primate monsters. vampires, werewolves and ghouls. Now, a vampire and a werewolf would produce a werevamp but a werewolf and a ghoul would produce a wereghou but a vampire and a ghoul would produce a vamghou. A wereghou and a werevamp would produce a shaddy. Now a wereghou and a vamghou would produce a maddy. But a werevamp and a vamghou would produce a raddy. Now, if a shaddy were to mate with a raddy or a maddy the result would be a mock... Frankly that's just a polite name for a mongrel... 

If a mock were to mate with any of the other hybrids their offspring would be called shadmocks... Shadmocks are the lowest in the monster hierarchy
-What happens when a shadmock whistles? ...
The Shadmock may be lowly, but his power is not to be trifled with... And thus is introduced our first story, the tragic tale of a Shadmock and the love that is not meant to be.

Now, on the one hand, each time I listen to Vincent Price deliver this dialogue, the more deliciously absurd and unscary I find it. More than wondering who the fuck thought up unterrifying names like shaddy and maddy, I wonder how many takes Vincent Price needed to do it without laughing.

And yet... as unscary as shaddys and maddys are, it's the 'monster hierarchy' and its concern with blood purity and distaste for 'mongrels' that is very, very scary. Watching as an adult I immediately thought of this:


The "1935 chart shows racial classifications under the Nuremberg Laws: German, Mischlinge, and Jew." [I tried to find an English language version of the chart and finally found one but it turned out to be on an American neo-Nazi website and after I got over my nausea from looking at the website, I decided this blog post would have to do without a translation of the chart. Sorry]

From Wikipedia:
While both the Interior Ministry and the NSDAP agreed that persons with three or more Jewish grandparents would be classed as being Jewish and those with only one (Mischlinge of the second degree) would not, a debate arose as to the status of persons with two Jewish grandparents (Mischlinge of the first degree). The NSDAP, especially its more radical elements, wanted the laws to apply to Mischlinge of both the first and second degree. For this reason Hitler continued to stall, and did not make a decision until early November 1935. His final ruling was that persons with three Jewish grandparents were classed as Jewish; those with two Jewish grandparents would be considered Jewish only if they practised the faith or had a Jewish spouse. The supplementary decree outlining the definition of who was Jewish was passed on 14 November, and the Reich Citizenship Law came into force on that date. Jews were no longer German citizens and did not have the right to vote.

The movie ends on a not terribly original horror movie theme-- the old 'who's the real monster here?' trope. The Vincent Price character proposes that the writer be accepted as a member of the Monster Club. The other members protest. He's just a 'Hume.' What can he do? What can he do? Vincent Price gets to launch into a very satisfying catalog of the monstrous the nature of the 'Hume' race, exterminating hundreds of millions of their own kind without even a fang or claw or whistle worth mentioning. Upon which the other members joyously welcome the 'Hume' as one of their own.

There's a lot more to say about this little horror gem, especially the soundtrack, but I'll simply close saying that the whole thing is available on youtube and you should watch it immediately. THE MONSTER CLUB offers exactly what good horror movies are supposed to do- an opportunity to both revel in, and feel ashamed of, one's own hidden monstrousness. Something I find imperative in these disturbing days, tho I don't know about you...

Thursday, July 14, 2016


I haven't yet seen the new all-lady reboot of Ghostbusters (have you?) but in the meantime, while I wait for it to come to a screen near me, I've been consuming plenty of Ghost-takes and long-Busts. I found two I want to share with you. I chose these because they focus on some of my favorite things- gender analysis and Harold Ramis.

First, this fantastic love note to the most criminally under appreciated character in the 'Busters universe, Janine Melnitz. I was an avid watcher of the Ghostbusters cartoon (not gonna lie) and one of the things I loved most in the cartoon was the sexual tension between Janine and Egon. I might've identified a little bit with Janine's long smoldering, unrequited crush on the dreamy Dr. Spengler.

Anyway... author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas makes some really interesting points in her comparison of the two major female roles in Ghostbusters, Dana and Janine. For one, she notes how class is used to draw the differences between the two:
Dana’s Central Park West and Janine’s Brooklyn render them a world apart. Dana’s status as a career woman renders her strong, impressive, desirable – and the film takes her more seriously as a result. Her transition to supernatural ‘gatekeeper’ becomes a symbol of the privilege her wealth and class affords her. But for Janine, work is something you do to survive: in her case, ‘women’s work’ becomes something foolish, goofy, banal.
And yet... Well, you should read the whole thing. It's a delightful and insightful piece that made me, a die hard fan, see the film with a fresh perspective.

The second piece you should read is a beautiful tribute to Harold Ramis by his daughter, Violet. Violet reveals that when she was a kid, at the height of Ghostbusters mania, her father offered to go trick or treating with her AS REAL GHOSTBUSTERS. And she said NO!!

Read the piece and you'll understand why she said no, and even cheer for her.

I've also been reading an actual book (remember those?) about the making of the first two Ghostbusters movies and I have some thoughts on that for when I see the new movie, soon. ...

Saturday, June 20, 2015

I Have Complicated Feelings About This

Last month we lost a giant of rhythm and blues music, Riley B (B.B.) [Blues Boy] King. So, it seemed bashert when I popped in a DVD this weekend to watch the (unfortunately terrible) John Landis movie, Into the Night. The DVD's sole extra is a long featurette interview with B.B. King. Landis, director of the Blues Brothers, is, no surprise, a huge R&B fan, and the Blues Brothers is no doubt responsible for turning generations of clueless white kids onto the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and John Lee Hooker. The problematic racial dynamics of The Blues Brothers is something that's been on my mind for a while and I want to write something longer about whether it's possible to still enjoy the movie if you're, well, if you're me.

Anyhooooooo.... Into the Night. Man, what a bad movie. I don't really understand what the point was. The movie barely has a story, though it does have a very sexy, young Jeff Goldblum and momentarily naked Michelle Pfeiffer (my god, what a gorgeous woman!). But other than that? John Landis plays one of a gang of 'Iranian' thugs and, I'm sorry, I laughed. With a beard he reminds me of my brother, not quite white, not quite something else. I think that Ashkenazi American Jews get a thrill out of pushing the boundaries of their 'whiteness' by imagining scenarios where they pass as Other. I will give Landis credit, this isn't just a case of gratuitous (Iranian-face????). The movie is from the early '80s and explicitly references the then recent events of the expulsion of the Shah and brings us back to a time of the Iranian hostage crisis, and the shift of Iran from a more open, cosmopolitan (in some ways) place to a site of extreme fundamentalism. OK, actually, I don't think it's excusable, and wouldn't fly in 2015, but it is what it is.

What bothered me the most was the promotional video that accompanied the interview with King. It's King, 'backed up' by Dan Ackroyd, Michelle Pfeiffer, Steve Martin, Jeff Goldblum and Eddie Murphy. Murphy seems to be the only one who actually knows how to play the instrument he's miming (drums) while the rest are just... UGH. As I'm sure you know, Ackroyd was one half of the Blue Brothers and this is hardly his first time inserting himself into a genuine performance of African-American musical genius while doing... well, nothing of note. You see what I'm talking about? White people with no (musical) talent somehow packaging black talent and putting their no-talent asses front and center? Like, uhh, why did you think that was ok? Anyway, here's the video.

(My god, Jeff Goldblum is so freaking hot, I can't deal.)

Unfortunately, the black musician backed up by white stars miming was an 80s trope. See Billy Ocean's theme song for Jewel of the Nile.

I guess my question is, can there be a place for white artists with genuine love for, say, black music, to incorporate that music into their work, in a collaborative, non-exploitive way? For example, as I said above, The Blues Brothers, despite its uncomfortable dynamic, is still an incredible showcase for the artists who appear in it. And Landis is a true fan. His interview with King is terrific, and valuable. It's also quite interesting to hear Landis talk about how it was important to him to have King have a substantial role not just in the title and end songs, but in creating a unique score for the film, one that reflected King's unique talents.

I think, for me,  the way I can still enjoy stuff like this is to articulate the uncomfortable racial dynamic and understand what is, or isn't, ok, without giving everything a pass just because I enjoyed it when I was 15.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Felix and Meira

(cross-posted from my main blog, Rootless Cosmopolitan)

With its sly nods to Harold and Maude and The Graduate,  the new Canadian indie Felix and Meira beats, if weakly, with the heart of a black comedy. Like those two films, Felix and Meira tells the story of mismatched lovers, with a slightly absurd fairytale air. That one half of the couple is Hasidic turns out to be not terribly relevant to the story, even as Felix and Meira is being hailed in some corners as a great movie about the Hasidic experience.

Meira (Hadas Yaron) is a beautiful young wife and mother living within the Hasidic community of Montreal's Mile End. (If, like me, you have a soft spot for the slushy beauty of Montreal in winter, Felix and Meira is worth the price of admission just for that.) Meira's husband Shulem (Luzer Twersky) can't understand why she is so distant: locking herself in the bathroom, listening to forbidden records, falling into sudden dead faints. 

By chance, Meira meets Felix (Martin Dubreuil), a slightly older, slightly rakish Francophone hispter. If Meira is trapped by a lack of resources and opportunities, Felix struggles with too much. He must make peace with his dying father, and the wealth his father represents. What can Meira do with so little? Why has Felix done so little with so much?

We learn why Felix is the way he is, but no explanation is ever really given for Meira's unrest. Yes, Meira is an artist. We know because we see her sketching when she catches the eye of Felix. But the contemporary OTD (Off the Derekh, meaning those who leave the Hasidic/Haredi community) memoirs (like Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox and Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return) hinge on the cracks that form between individual and community, whether listening to a forbidden radio, reading blogs or simply enduring an intolerable dynamic of communal abuse.  

On screen, however, Meira's angst is taken as self-evident. Her husband is confused, but loving. She has only one child, not five. What has brought Meira to such a desperate point where she is willing to jeopardize her entire life, perhaps even sacrifice her child? We never really discover what makes Meira tick, we never see her struggle against the totalizing worldview that comes with growing up in a fundamentalist community. 

And yet, I cried through much of Felix and Meira. Not because I was touched by Meira's characterization (thin as it was), but because having read about, met, and befriended a number of people who have left the Hasidic world, I could fill in the details myself. Seeing Meira and her sketchbook, I thought of Frieda Vizel, a dryly brilliant cartoonist who left Kiryas Joel, went to Sarah Lawrence and now runs tours of Hasidic Williamsburg. Seeing two young people trapped in a marriage not of their making, I thought of any number of people I know who found themselves married off at eighteen to total strangers. 

In that sense, Felix and Meira didn't have to do much to move me as an audience member. These are not stories lacking in drama.  For me, the humorless Yiddishist, all Felix and Meira had to do was get the Yiddish right. And that it did. With one jarring exception, the language and setting were beautifully rendered, a major achievement in itself, reflecting the input of ex-Hasid turned actor Twersky.

Yaron and Twersky give beautiful, understated performances, gracefully moving between Yiddish, French and English. It would have been easy to drift toward melodrama given the storyline, yet the writers stay away from big gestures or lurking trauma. Most importantly Twersky's Shulem, Meira's husband, with his soulful eyes, is no monster, but, like Meira, a young person coping the best he can with limited education in matters of the heart. I found Shulem so sympathetic that when he finally confronts Felix canoodling with Meira, I found myself wishing he had really clocked him, instead of taking Felix down in a comical hail of slaps. The dramatic tension simmers at low, even at the moments when most is at stake.

And that's the quirky, fairytale quality of Felix and Meira. In real life, brutal custody battles are the norm for those leaving the community. Wayward souls like Meira are rarely dealt with in such a gentle manner. Most of those who leave have paid dearly, some have paid the highest cost, either with their children, or their lives. There are few fairytale endings in the real world.

Like Harold and Maude and The GraduateFelix and Meira relies heavily on a pop music soundtrack to amplify the story. I teared up as forlorn Meira peered through strange windows, watching a couple make love, all while Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat came on, handed me a tissue, and told me it was ok to let it all out. A good cry is one of the fundamental pleasures of cinema, isn't it? 

Unlike Harold and Maude and The Graduate, however, Felix and Meira lacks the nerve for black comedy. Some critics have dinged it for being excessively gloomy. A great black comedy embraces the gloom with glee, wringing comedy out of angst. When Felix dresses in full Hasidic garb in a desperate effort to see Meira, it just comes off as cringeworthy, a throwback to the silliness of a movie like The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, a French comedy in which a bigot is forced to hide out in Hasidic garb, passing as a ‘Rabbi’ with much hijinks ensuing. But Felix and Meira is too hesitant to really exploit the absurdity inherent in cross-cultural romance.

Indeed, Felix and Meira positions itself as a straight OTD narrative, but with little exploration of what it means to be a woman trapped in that community or what Meira really longs for, besides forbidden music. (How Meira would come to have a record player and rather esoteric taste in records is another matter.)

Had the filmmakers committed to either comedy or topical drama, Felix and Meira might have ended up a minor classic. For my money, the best portrayal of the OTD narrative is still the much less slick, but more psychologically insightful, Mendy: A Question of Faith. (2003). As it is, Felix and Meira is an entertaining but slight Yiddish flavored fairytale.

Why Jews Love American Werewolf in London

I'm working on a blogpost about The Blues Brothers*, another great John Landis film. But in the meantime, I thought I'd share this lovely appreciation of the Jewishness of American Werewolf in London. Author Jon Spira recounts being an awkward 9 year old with little idea of Jewish culture when his dad happens to tape AWiL off the telly.
The story of a man equipped only by his wit (if not his wits) in a country that neither understands nor particularly wants him. A man who is dazed by his recent bloody and brutal ordeal who does his very best to get along, despite being racked by the guilt and self-hatred of knowing what he is inside. I’m not arguing that director John Landis set out to make a hairy Jewish allegory, I’m just saying that there was an incidental subtext that continues to speak to and comfort me almost 30 years later. 
And that’s why I love it. An American Werewolf in London is the film that connected me to my Jewish culture. It taught me that one doesn’t need to be religious or dogmatic (it’s a pun, but it’s a good pun) to be Jewish. It gave cathartic release to certain primal fears. It gave me my first proper taste of that delicious New York Jewish humour… And it had WEREWOLVES in it!

One note: A couple years back I was lucky to attend a screening of American Werewolf in London here at Lincoln Center, with John Landis in attendance and taking questions after!!!!!

Yes, it was amazing fun. And, yes, you better fucking believe I asked a question. Specifically, what was with the Jewishness of this werewolf movie?

Landis made it pretty clear that the protagonists, Jack and David, were based on him and his best friend. Of course Jack and David were Jewish. It wasn't a big deal, it just was what it was.

And this is why I adore John Landis. Today I was reading this article from early '50s Commentary magazine. Even then, Jewish self-erasure was a decades old phenomenon in Hollywood. Rare were the times when authors and directors were able to include identifiable Jews just being Jews, without censure, from within or without. I've got a lot more thoughts on this particular topic, and the immense psychic harm it does to all of us, but I will just say it makes me love filmmakers like Landis even more, just for being authentic.

I also have a lot of thoughts on how to make a proper Jewish themed horror/supernatural movie. This is a start...

*The piece is going to be about how deeply problematic the film is and yet how I can still love it. Maybe. Maybe I won't after I finish writing it. I'm not sure.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Milk Duds and Smoked Fish

Sometimes life does imitate 'art.'

This week I went to see the lovely new romantic fairy tale 'Felix and Meira' at the Lincoln Plaza cinema. (Review coming soon, I"yh). In the lobby of Lincoln Plaza you can get the usual popcorn, soda and milk duds. And in an only in New York moment, next to the candy case is a whole smoked lox, available by the slice, for your movie noshing pleasure.

Unfortunately, I was too shocked by the sight to get a picture, but I thought of it again as I watched the mostly stupid gangster spoof Johnny Dangerously. Johnny's mom, Ma Kelly, goes to the concession stand for some candy:

I guess she skipped dinner before the movies, because she also goes for the whitefish. It's no longer satire (or funny) when it's true: