New at Pychotronic Review: A*P*E: Meta-Film of a Fine Vintage.
Category Archive: Film, TV & Theater
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In 1992, I went to Hong Kong for the first time. I was sitting in the back of a little Irish pub. And I was pretty drunk. And in walks a Chinese Elvis impersonator in a white jumpsuit studded to the ridiculous extreme that we are all accustom to. Holding an acoustic guitar, he performs “Hound Dog,” collects tips and leaves. You got all that, right? Hong Kong, Irish pub, Elvis. The next day I wasn’t sure myself. I had to ask my colleagues, and they confirmed it: I did in fact see a Chinese Elvis do “Hound Dog” in an Irish pub in Hong Kong. Many people go their entire lives without ever experiencing something as magical.
I love Elvis and even more, I love Elvis Culture. In a sense, Elvis is America: a drug addict who wanted Nixon to make him an undercover DEA agent; a white guy who made millions off the work of poor blacks; and a country rube who somehow connects to a universal audience. In addition to all of this, the music is just fantastic. But it’s the Vegas act silliness that drives the culture. Although I do not particularly like watching Elvis at that stage of his career, I do like what it has spawned. I never would have gone to see one of those shows, but I’d thrill to see Elvis impersonators.
So when I noticed that the film Almost Elvis was available on Netflix, I had to watch it. It isn’t a great film, but it is fascinating. It follows a group of Elvis Impersonators as they compete for the “Images of Elvis” prize for the best Elvis impersonator in the world. It focuses on Irv Cass, a professional from Michigan. Little did I know it, but there is a network of Elvis impersonators throughout the world. If you want one, you call up EEN (Elvis Entertainment Network) and they will send one out. Cass is one them, and seems to make a decent living doing it:
Cass is very free with his opinions of the competition. Since he was one of the most established people in the field at that time, he knows them all. He’s rather good at talking about their strengths and weaknesses. In this way, he nicely systematizes what it is to be an Elvis impersonator. And this brings up probably the most interesting part of the film: race. One of the top people in the field is Robert Washington, who is a black man. Mostly everyone is very respectful of him. But they also admit that he doesn’t look like Elvis because of his race.
But here’s the thing. I don’t think that any of the impersonators looks like Elvis the man. If you take away the hair and the sideburns and the outfits, they just look like random white guys. So really, when we are talking about Elvis, we aren’t really talking about his face. Elvis isn’t a person anymore; he’s an archetype. So to me, it is all about getting up on stage with “the look” (hair, burns, suit) and moving and sounding like Elvis. What’s more, in Washington’s case, he isn’t all that black. Until people started talking about it, I just thought he was really tanned.
All the people said the same thing: I question whether Washington will ever win the title, not because I don’t like him, but because of the judges being, well, racist. This is typical: people generally think their neighbors are more racist than they actually are. At the end of the film, Washington came in second. The good news is he later won the event. Check him out; he’s great:
An academic interviewed for the film referred to the “transubstantiation of Elvis” to explain why people want more than just the music. The music is enough for me. But he’s right: these guys do become The King. And that’s pretty great.
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In the margins of a couple of articles recently, I’ve mentioned that was planning to start a new website, Psychotronic Review. But you never know about these things. If I started every website I said I was going to, I would be running about 50 websites right now. But I have indeed started Psychotronic Review, and I think I will continue on with it. Let me explain why.
When I first started Frankly Curious, the idea was explicitly to be a mess: whatever came into my mind. But that idea became worse and worse the better that the site did. Starting at the beginning of 2012, I wrote more and more about politics. And in a way, it became kind of a typical political blog, because most political blogs tend to mix it up. Look at Vox, which is a professional political website (not a blog): it publishes quite a lot about pop culture and science.
Film Needs Its Own Site
But if you look at who reads Frankly Curious, it is a political website. Most of the people who read the site regularly do so because of the politics. And most of the comments are on the political posts. That’s all great. Just the same, for every seven articles I write about politics, I write an article on film, television, and theater. I’ve written a total of 487 articles in that category. And that amounts to almost 6 articles per month. And my single most popular post — Bugs Bunny: Rabbit or Hare? — belongs to that category. So if you removed everything else, Frankly Curious would be a fairly successful film blog.
Now that I know how to transfer all my Google “juice” to a different website, it just makes sense to separate my film writing off to its own website. In addition, I find that I’m more interested in writing about film than I have been. And given that my interest in film is not typical, mainstream film, such a site is likely to attract readers who are interested in it specifically.
What Is Unique About My Film Writing
I do come at the subject differently from most other people. There certainly are a lot of people who are interested in old low budget films. But most of them are following in the tradition of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. These are people who like to make fun of these film — who think they are bad. It probably is not a coincidence that I’ve started Psychotronic Review only shortly after getting The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. Unlike the Medveds, Michael Weldon actually likes the films he discusses.
I’ve always felt rather lonely in terms of my interest in the typical psychotronic film. Most people treat them as things that are just good to laugh at. And those who genuinely enjoy the films usually feel as though they must apologize for it. I like the idea of presenting a fulsome appreciation of them. After all, these films are generally thought of as bad not because the people involved were incompetent but rather because the producers didn’t have enough time and money to do things in a more competent manner.
(Imagine if the airplane crash from North by Northwest were in the middle of a Bert I Gordon picture. Oh, how people would mock it! Yet Gordon would have an excuse that Hitchcock did not. There is something chauvinistic about forgiving the errors of the rich and powerful while holding the poor and weak to ridiculously high standards. That is doubtless one of the reasons that I admire even the shoddy efforts by those who really “should know” their places and not be making such films.)
The Psychotronic Review Vision
My intent is to make Psychotronic Review more than just a blog. I want it to be a full-featured website. In the long run, I hope it becomes popular enough to support a forum. The truth is that I’m always looking backwards. But psychotronic films are made all the time. (Don Coscarelli is probably the greatest psychotronic filmmakers working today.) And it would be great if people were talking about that while novels were being optioned and money raised.
But I know that I will get to the point of creating biographies for great psychotronic filmmakers: writers, directors, producers, actors, and whatnot. And I’d like to create a database of psychotronic films with links to where they are available on YouTube or Dailymotion or elsewhere (also Hulu and Netflix and other paid services). In fact, I was thinking of creating something like “On YouTube Now” to go on the sidebar of the blog. It would be a list of 10 films that were currently available to watch for free on YouTube. There are lots of other things I could do too.
This is, after all, the greatest time for people interested in psychotronic films. If it weren’t for YouTube, I never would have been able to see Alabama’s Ghost. Currently, it is only available for sale in VHS format for $18. After that, there’s a copy for $2,459.95. But because of YouTube, I was able to watch it as soon as I learned about it (and write about it almost as quickly). And I hope that Psychotronic Review will make this an even better time for people of this inclination.
Changes to Frankly Curious
As a result of all this, you are going to see some articles disappearing from Frankly Curious. For example, I took the articles Death Bed: the Bed that Eats and Review of Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, and combined them into a single article on Psychotronic Review, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats Review and Analysis. But it doesn’t matter, because if you click on either of those Frankly Curious links, you will be taken to the Psychotronic Review article. Oh, the power of 301 redirects!
In addition to doing this, I will put most of my new film writing over on Psychotronic Review. I’m not sure if that will include things like my articles about Bugs Bunny, but it will include my writing about art films. (You’ll have to wait for my article defining “psychotronic” to get a better idea of why that is.)
But other than that, I don’t see Frankly Curious changing all that much. I might, however, add a list of the newest articles at Psychotronic Review, so you can see if anything is happening there that you want to check out. Of course, that will just list the blog. And like I said, my plan is for the site to be a lot more than just a blog. But it ought to give you some idea.
Finally, if any of you are interested in writing something for Psychotronic Review, let me know. I hope that readers will write articles highlighting some of their favorite films. I doubt anyone will be interested at first. But I hope that the site gets good enough that people will want to be part of it. That includes having Andrea fix the design of the site. I am aware that it looks like I designed it. But I figured it was best to put something up rather than wait.
Regardless, I hope it all works out and that it is as fun to work on as I expect. If it is, I’m sure people will enjoy using the site.
 I used the modifier “typical” because the definition of psychotronic is unclear. But I think we all know what a “typical psychotronic film” is: a relatively low budget science fiction film from the 1950s. Good examples are Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Plan 9 From Outer Space.
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I was talking to Will over the weekend and he mentioned that when he was a teenager, he had a standee of Vampira. I corrected him. It was a standee of Elvira. Now, remembering things is not something I’m particularly good at. But I know about this. Seeing that standee was my first introduction to Elvira. And I did not learn who Vampira was for some time after that. Also, it was in color.
Just try to find a color picture of Vampira! The Vampira Show ran for just under a year, starting in 1954. The first coast-to-coast color television broadcast was done on 1 January 1954. And color only became widespread in the 1960s. In 1965, CBS was making a big deal out of the fact that Hogan’s Heroes was presented in color. But I digress.
This conversation got me thinking of a fun little film, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, released in 1988. And since I’m thinking a lot about psychotronic films these days, it seemed reasonable that I watch it. It’s available on YouTube, with a pretty good print (although it does repeat about two seconds of material every 15 or 20 minutes). I’ve embedded it below.
The Plot of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark
The film starts with Elvira quitting her job as the host of something like her own Fright Night show where she presented low-budget horror films. She’s on her way to do a live show in Las Vegas but learns from her manager that the producers want $50,000 to produce the show. Luckily, this information comes with the news that her great-aunt has died and left her something. So she’s off to Massachusetts.
Once there, she faces a very conservative town that doesn’t much like big-busted goth chicks. But more important, she faces her great-uncle. It turns out that Elvira is from a family of witches. The great-uncle killed her mother and now wants the great-aunt’s “cookbook” so that he can rule the universe or something.
All of this is accompanied by the support of the young people of the town and the dimwitted hunk who owns the local movie theater, the townspeople trying to burn her to death, and a charming terrier who is a familiar. You should not be surprised to learn that the town eventually accepts Elvira, she and the hunk make it, and she manages to get the fifty grand to do her Vegas show, after getting the inheritance of her great-uncle when his evil plan ends in his death.
It’s Silly, but Is It Fun?
It is a silly film — filled with bad jokes very much intended to be bad jokes. As such, it’s easy to go either way with it. Cassandra Peterson is charming as the most unthreatening sexpot to hit the screen since Pepé Le Pew. On the other hand, the film’s unrelenting inoffensiveness can be hard to take. And given that the film wouldn’t dare to offend, even the excessive breast jokes come off as tired despite their nominally being funny because they are tired.
Elvira, Mistress of the Dark expects a great deal of goodwill on the part of the viewer. In this way, it is very similar to a good many Bruce Campbell films. And I think that’s how the film needs to be judged. Do you find Elvira’s act compelling? If you do, you’ll have fun watching her pretend to offend the squares who seem straight out of the 1950s. If not, you’ll probably find it tiresome.
It’s All About Elvira
The film manages to do something that is remarkable: not have a single memorable character other than the lead herself. Even the evil great-uncle disappears beneath the thinness of the plot. And he’s played by an excellent character actor, W Morgan Sheppard. In fact, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is filled with fine and fun performances, most notably by Edie McClurg as the busybody town council chairperson, William Duell as the henpecked motel owner, and Jack Fletcher as the nervous lawyer.
There is more than enough to thoroughly enjoy this film. But it isn’t going to win you over if you’re skeptical. And it might well be a slog even for Elvira fans if they just aren’t in the right mood. But it succeeds in doing what it intends. And all things considered, that’s not bad.
Server: No hard liquor’s served past eight o’clock. Do you want a virgin?
Elvira: Maybe… But I’ll have a couple of drinks first.
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I’m going to discuss the whole plot of El Topo in this article. I assure you, it does not matter. The plot of the film is not the point. But if you want to watch the film before knowing what happens, don’t read on.
I finally got around to watching Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film El Topo. For those of you who are not Spanish speaking zoologists or gardeners, the title translates “the mole.” This is referenced at the beginning of the film, “The mole digs tunnels under the earth, looking for the sun. Sometimes, he gets to the surface. When he sees the sun, he is blinded.” What does that mean? In the context of the film, I would have to say that it means nothing. I think I know what Jodorowsky is getting at. We all search for answers. It is our nature. But we are not equipped to get those answers. But beyond that?
The Plot of El Topo
The title character is a badass cowboy who rides the desert with his naked 7-year-old son. He abandons the boy with monks to go off with Mara, a woman he saves from sexual slavery. She is a Lady Macbeth kind of character who tells him that she can only love him if he kills the four great gun masters. It is clear, that just like Macbeth himself, he isn’t too keen on the whole project. But he reluctantly agrees. It’s all kind of strange from there. He meets them, they discuss philosophy, and then he kills them, mostly through trickery. A strangely androgynous guide shows up in the middle of all this. When El Topo kills the last gun master, Mara shoots El Topo and runs off with the guide.
That’s the first two-thirds of the film. Visually, it is very interesting. It has a style of cutting that is very much like Sergio Leone. Continuity is not of great concern. In fact, much of the discontinuity is delightful. So the film goes from philosophy to action and back, over and over again. It is very much like what The Wachowskis would make if they made a western. But even though the philosophizing is pseudo-eastern, the iconography is very much Christian with a distinct Old Testament emphasis.
At the very end of the first part of the film, a group of dwarfs and deformed people show up and carry El Topo’s body away. The second part starts perhaps 20 years later. El Topo is in a cave where he has apparently been in a coma with the deformed people who live there treating him as a god. He wakes up and tells them he is not a god. They are all trapped underground because of the limits of their deformities. So he decides to dig a tunnel for them.
He takes a dwarf woman with him and goes to the local town to get money to get tunneling supplies. El Topo and the woman fall in love as they work together. Soon a monk comes to town who turns out to be El Topo’s abandoned son. The son wants to kill his father but allows his father to first finish the tunnel. When it is done, the son finds he cannot kill his father. The people trapped underground escape and go into the town where they are shot down by all the townspeople. El Topo turns back into a badass he was at the beginning of the film, and kills everyone in town. He then self-immolates himself, much like Thích Quảng Đức. The woman gives birth to his child and then she and the baby ride off with El Topo’s elder son who has now effectively become El Topo.
This part of the film is far more interesting. For one thing, El Topo acts as a kind of anti-Jesus. He builds a tunnel for those trapped underground. But their freedom leads directly to their deaths. And it isn’t because they are deformed. The film makes clear that they are deformed because they have been ostracized. The woman tells El Topo that they are all deformed because of all the incest that has gone on in the cave.
Much of the film is about rebirth. The outcasts are killed so El Topo, acting as God, slaughters everyone to give his son, girlfriend, and child a chance going forward. Of course, it could be that seven years later they will be at exactly the place where the film started. But none of this really matters because I don’t think that Jodorowsky is really working in any concrete way. You can think of it as a road picture. It works like that. Or you can think of it as a fetish film. There is lots to that. But mostly, it is internally consistent journey: a man searches for meaning and then dies without answers. As we all do.
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Last night, I put on the third season of Veep. It’s the show where Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Vice-President Selina Meyer, and she and her staff behave with about as much competence and integrity that I fear is typical of Washington. Whereas I hate watching mathematicians in movies, because no screenwriter understands what they do, we do understand what politicians do: they get elected — and that’s all that matters in the job.
The best part of season three of Veep is where Meyer is trying to figure out where she stands on abortion rights. Of course, she knows where she stands personally. But every public opinion has to be thought over excessively. Much of the comedy comes from the fact that this is all fruitless. The moral of the series is that it’s better just to do what you believe in. But in the show and reality, politicians are too wedded to the importance of their job titles to do that.
The Self-Importance of Little People
If this sounds familiar to regular readers, it should. It is the Paradox of Power, which I have written about before. Politicians normally only have power so long as they don’t use it. But the question on my mind is why that is. Who wants to have this kind of pretend power? As Jack Stanton says in Primary Colors, “Plenty of people playing this game [are] willing to sell their souls, crawl through sewers, lie to people, divide them, play on their worst fears for nothing! Just for the prize.”
What comes across to me in Veep is the self-importance of all the people involved. And that isn’t just politics. This is even more true of people in Hollywood. But at least they are truthful enough to admit just how vile they are. (Note: this is not all the brown-nosing that goes on during media tours; you need to watch documentaries or listen to director’s commentaries.) But the truth is that politics and Hollywood are just really public expressions of this. This kind of self-importance is actually everywhere in the business world.
Money as Game Counter
This is why people work so much in the United States. It’s amazing to see managers at Big Lots who act like they are doing heart surgery on children. They’re just selling stuff! I’m not saying that this is worthless. I have an unreasonable love of Bumble Bee Snack on the Run Chicken Salad with Crackers Kits. But perspective is in order!
Our biggest problem is our obsession with money. The truth is that many people really don’t care about what money can do; they care about money itself; they see money the same way they do chips in a friendly poker game: a way of keeping score. This is a conservative/libertarian way of looking at value: something is worth exactly what someone will pay for it. It should be obvious that this is specious. Here’s just one example: personally caring for a dying loved one has great value that is in no way equivalent to hiring a nurse to do it for you. This is not an issue that we should even have to debate.
This is all related to issues of meaning, of course. As a culture, we get too much of our meaning from our work. That was fine when work came with dignity. But thanks to people like Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman, we live in a society that is in no way subtle about telling people that their work is unimportant if they don’t make a lot of money.
So we have this Veep notion of what work ought to be. We have people who are doing jobs that are no more important than the work done on an assembly line. But they think it is more important. What will they think as they prepare to die? It can’t be much more than, “I helped a politician stay in power, even though she never used that power to do anything of value.” For any thoughtful person, that would be devastating. But just like the manager at Big Lots, these characters are not thoughtful. They will have wasted their lives, but they will never be aware of it.
Veep and Meaning
Chattel slavery came into existence in the United States as a way of controlling poor whites. As long as you can keep people looking down and feeling good that at least they aren’t as bad off as those people, they will never look up and question those at the top. Selina Meyer’s success is a matter of luck. And the show (to its credit) understands this, with its overuse of deus ex machina. Meyer’s political career is over? How about if the president steps down to care for his wife and Meyer is just named president?
It’s interesting that the only man on the show who seems to have any notion of real value, the president, is not in the show. Of course, that’s a good thing. I can’t imagine a real-life president stepping down to take care of his suicidal wife. As Donald Trump would tell you, he’d won the ultimate prize. What does a wife’s health matter in that case? You can always get another wife. The president is the most powerful man in the world — even if he doesn’t use that power as he would like.
Money and power. That’s all we value. And it will be the death of us.
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I recently bought Michael Weldon’s book, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. To be honest, until recently, I had no idea where the word came from. I just knew that Movie Madness in Portland specialized in “psychotronic film,” and I loved the films that they labeled in that way. According to Google, the word denotes “a genre of movies, typically with a science fiction, horror, or fantasy theme, that were made on a low budget or poorly received by critics.” It’s actually a poorly defined word, but you get the idea. Regardless, reading through the book, I came upon a gem called, Alabama’s Ghost.
One thing that’s interesting about the book is that it lists films that Weldon hadn’t seen. That was the case with Alabama’s Ghost. But you can tell just how excited he is to see it, “‘If you dug Blackula, you gonna love Alabama’s Ghost.’ See a vampire rock group on motorcycls battle a ghost. As the ads said, ‘A super hip horror movie.’ With the Turk Murphy jazz band. Watch for it.” That was written back in 1987 when you were lucky to happen upon a film on late night television or find a tape of it. When I read “Watch for it,” I could feel the excitement.
Alabama’s Ghost on YouTube
Luckily, it’s 30 years later, and I have YouTube. So I went over and checked and sure enough, all hour and a half of this 1973 gem was available. Sadly, whoever did it was not very good: the sound is out of sync with the action and the video quality is terrible. It’s what you would expect of something badly recorded on a VHS tape in 1987 that had been stored in a metal shed for the last three decades. Still, it was good enough to get the experience.
If we have a problem defining what “psychotronic film” is, I think we have a way to avoid the question. If someone wants to know what it is, you can just show them Alabama’s Ghost. The film has it all. The other day, I posted the text of the opening narration of the film, The Interminable Opening of Alabama’s Ghost. I didn’t mean that in a bad way. But it is typical of one of the defining characteristics of psychotronic films: the need to over-explain absurd plots to give them a patina of believability that they really don’t need.
The Plot: As Best I Can Make Out
The plot off Alabama’s Ghost is actually quite a bit more bizarre than Weldon made out. Alabama (played with admirable gusto by Christopher Brooks) comes upon a bunch of lost stuff left behind by the stage magician Carter the Great. In exchange for delivering a message from Carter to his sister, Alabama is taught Carter’s act from Carter’s one time assistant. But the woman he thinks is Carter’s sister is really Gault, the leader of a tribe of vampires.
Their plan is to use Alabama, who becomes very famous doing Carter’s act, as a way of turning all of humanity into its slaves. (If you want to know how that would work, see the opening narration that I quoted before.) But for some reason, Dr Caligula (who is also a vampire) creates a robot that looks just like Alabama, thus providing an ending to the film. (See the quote.) it’s not clear why else she created the robot. But what’s most impressive about all of this lunacy is that it’s all kind of secondary to the main thrust of the plot.
The Vanishing Elephant
The film is mostly about Alabama’s big performance: he’s going to make an elephant disappear. He will do this on live television and it will be watched all over the world. Now why the world would care so much, I can’t say. It’s an old trick. As I told a friend of mine many years ago when he saw David Copperfield make a Learjet vanish, “There’s really no difference between making a Learjet vanish and making a quarter vanish.” But elephants are nice animals. And this is a psychotronic film and if the world wants to see an elephant vanish, the world gets to see an elephant vanish!
But after doing the trick, Alabama is going to show the world how the trick is done. That’s the really big deal. That’s more understandable: people always think they want to know how magic tricks are done, but they don’t really. What limited enjoyment one might get from seeing an elephant vanish is destroyed by finding out that the “trick” is not very impressive. By the way, here’s Doug Henning making an elephant
move beneath the stage disappear:
Carter Is Alabama’s Ghost
This is the key to the whole plot, because the ghost of Carter the Great is really angry that Alabama is going to break the “magician’s code” that you never tell the prols how tricks are done. In fact, this was something that Carter’s assistant explicitly discussed when he first met Alabama — not that Carter would haunt him, but that you never explain tricks.
Alabama himself isn’t happy about this either. But his manager, Otto Max (played with wonderful 1970s British hipster flair by Steven Kent Browne) thinks this is the way that they will get a performance contract with Gault, who is actually, as I noted, the head of the vampires. Regardless, the ghost of Carter keeps showing up and hectoring Alabama about this. And with the ghost and the vampires and generally feeling like revealing the elephant trick would be wrong, Alabama runs home to Louisiana where his mother takes him to a witch doctor.
The whole thing ends on the beach in Alabama, with an elephana, Alabama’s doppelganger, flower children, vampires on motorcycles, and the real Alabama and his mother happy as they stare into the sunset.
Alabama’s Ghost as Pure Cinema
Despite all of this silliness, Alabama’s Ghost is really an art film. As just something to look at, it works. The camera work is really quite good. The cinematography is by William Heick, who has done almost no work in feature films. I don’t think they had much more than a three light Lowel kit for most of the scenes, so Heick was probably mostly the cameraman. And he kept the whole thing thing lively.
Of course, the writer and director was Fredric Hobbs. Now Hobbs is an interesting guy. He’s actually a successful sculptor — and one who has changed a lot over the years. In 1969, he made the film Troika, followed by Roseland, Alabama’s Ghost, and Godmonster of Indian Flats from 1970 through 1974. And then nothing more. I suspect that he saw it all part of the same project: a serious artist interested in bring his vision to the masses.
Fredric Hobbs: Idiosyncratic Artist
What results is what I most like to find in any art, an idiosyncratic view of the world. The film is good, yet it won’t appeal to most people because what most people want is what they’ve seen before. And this is something that you’ve never seen before. Our brilliant young Nazi scientist has become a vampire. Where does that lead your mind? It leads Hobbs’ mind to the idea of a vampire feeding assembly line. Of course! The Nazi vampires might of been bad, but at least they made the blood get delivered on time!
What Alabama’s Ghost reminded me of more than anything was an Alejandro Jodorowsky film. But one with a pop art sensibility. They compliment each other. Jodorowsky’s work is more refined and thematically richer than Alabama’s Ghost. But it is also more careful — in a bad way. Fredric Hobbs, based on this one film (and I will see the rest of his fims) doesn’t seem at all worried that his audience won’t join him for the ride. Watching the two men back-to-back would be much like watching “Rabbit’s Kin” (Hobbs) followed by “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from Fantasia (Jodorowsky).
And that, my friends, is pretty awesome. Alabama’s Ghost really does provide you with a unique viewing experience. But you might want to follow it with Santa Sangre
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This image is from the television movie Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, which really is a fine rendering of Pratchett’s work. In fact, I might even say better than his books, but I haven’t read this particular book. Anyway, an element of the film is that people collect pins, much as actual people in our world collect stamps. This makes sense, given that a big part of the movie is the invention of stamps and then perforation.
One of the characters, Stanley, is a pin collector, and so our hero Moist von Lipwig is looking for a way to get him on his side. But how? All the kid cares about is pin collecting. But Moist happens upon a “pin exchange.” The first thing we see inside the exchange is this flier. You probably can’t make out the text at the top. It read, “Pins of every… shape & size.” Then there are two hands holding a bunch of pins, and then, of course, “HOME of ACUPHILIA.”
Now you don’t have to be a bibliophile or a logophile to understand the meaning of “acuphilia.” But if you are a pedant, regardless of the fact that you are a bibliophile and a logophile, you are going to look the word up. The funny thing is, and this gets to the brilliance that is Terry Pratchett, there is no such word. He coined it. Although I have little doubt that through the centuries since the pin was invented, there must have been some people who became obsessed with them for more than their practical value. But no one bothered to make note of it. Those kind of people probably didn’t get out much.
There is very little information about the history of pins, but even the safety pin is 200 years old. Taking a clue from Andrea, pins probably followed closely behind the invention of sewing needles. On that issue, we get a whole lot more information. Sewing Mantra has a great timeline on the History of Sewing Needles. Apparently, needles were first made out of bone and date back 30,000 years! But the first metal needles—made of copper—were produced about 9,000 years ago. So we can assume that pins have been around a very long time indeed.
The problem with seeing pins as something to collect, however, is that there isn’t a great deal of variability with pins—at least not straight pins. This idea is lampooned in the film where Moist wins over Stanley by presenting him with a rare pin, “Number Three Broad-Headed Extra Long.” There is doubtless far more diversity with needles. In fact, I know there is. I remember my mother having needles of all different lengths, thicknesses, and eye sizes. But all the pins were the same. So it is not surprising that there is no word for “pin love” outside the delightfully twisted mind of Pratchett.
Pins in All Their Variety
Contrary to what you might think, the “acu” prefix, as in “acupuncture,” does not stand for needle or the like. If it did, the word “acupressure” would be pretty stupid. Instead, it means “sharp,” as in “acute.” So “acuphilia” would mean literally “lover of sharpness.” But I think that’s close enough for our purposes. At least for the kind of pins that people collect on Discworld. These seem to be limited to straight pins. As a general category, pins are almost anything that hold two things together. “Pin” isn’t so much the name of a thing as it is a description of the job it does.
So we have bobby pins, which are neither straight nor sharp. (Though I’m sure some people do collect these because there is an endless variety of them—many quite beautiful.) Similarly, you have clothes pins that aren’t anything at all like straight pins. And paper clips are a kind of pin. Copper brads are pins that these days seem only to be used to pin screenplays together. There are split-pins and Cotter keys for use in machining. And then you have the pins on computer cables and the pins used to plug in a device to an electrical outlet. The whole thing can get quite out of control, which is exactly what pins were design to stop from happening.
I don’t know what exactly Pratchett thinks of the idea of being an acuphile. When I started thinking about it, I figured it was rather silly. But like most things, the more you look into it, the more fascinating it is. Even in its most traditional sense, it is interesting. The original pins were invented to hold two pieces of cloth together for sewing. That’s a brilliant solution. I don’t think I ever would have come up with it. There is nothing obvious about it. (Except that we’ve all seen the technique used since our youngest days.)
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I just saw Under the Skin, the 2013 science fiction film based on Michel Faber’s novel, which I understand is rather different from the film. I’ve made it a point to find out as little about the novel as possible, because I’m interested in seeing the film as it stands alone. And Under the Skin is one of those films that makes you think. I’ve discussed it with many people, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is like a Rorschach test. Everyone has theories about what it all means — none of which agree.
Now that’s all great! It speaks well of a work of art that makes everyone think different things about it. At the same time, it makes me ultimately less interested in determining what it means. In that way, it’s kind of like one of my favorite films, Barton Fink. I don’t focus on what it means; I focus on the plot and the characters, which are more than enough.
Of course, in terms of feeling, Under the Skin reminded me of nothing so much as the German masterpiece, Die Wand (see my discussion of it: Die Wand or The Wall). There are a few technical reasons for that (beautiful cinematography and deliberate editing), but it’s more that both films are saturated with loneliness. It’s also the case that in neither film was I that interested in what was going to happen, but rather was just content to follow these women on their journeys.
In a sense, the plot of Under the Skin could not be more tired: space alien visits Earth with evil or ambivalent intentions only to learn to appreciate humanity. But it isn’t that simple. The Female (Scarlett Johansson) shows so much reticence and fear in much of the film that it goes beyond cliche.
Under the Skin Plot
The first half of the film is made up almost entirely of the Female (the character’s name) driving around and picking up guys who she is careful to determine will not be missed. She then takes them to a house under the pretext of seduction. They are led into a room where she slowly undresses as she walks backwards. They walk toward her, but slowly sink into the floor where they eventually caught in a kind of gel. This is all done without emotion, as though the Female were collecting butterflies.
But almost exactly halfway through the film, she picks up a man with a badly deformed face (played with startling fragility by Adam Pearson, who suffers from neurofibromatosis in real life). The Female seduces him as with the others. There are a few differences, however. First, he is the only of the men that she talks to during the process. “Dreaming?” he asks. “Yes we are,” she responds. Second, they are much closer physically. And third, it is the only such scene where she is completely naked. It is also the first time we are given an image of who is “under the skin.”
The seduction done, the man captured, the Female is about to leave the house, but catches her image in a mirror. She stares into it for a long time. And then the scene cuts to the door of the house from the outside. She opens it and Pearson is allowed to leave — naked but free (at least from her). It is a 12 minute long sequence, and the turning point of the film. The woman now goes off the reservation. It would seem that she’s been doing a job, but now she wants to escape.
A New Life
She tries to become part of the society she’s been studying or preying upon. She tries to eat and that doesn’t go well. Ultimately, she tries to have sex, and that doesn’t go well either. But between those two events, she visits a castle with a man who has been taking care of her. And as they leave the castle, they have to descend a steep spiral staircase. She is terrified, and he is helping her along. But their physical positions are a complete reversal of the previous scenes where she trapped the men. He is in front of her, facing her, encouraging her to follow him. It’s hard to mistake that she fears it is a trap.
Meanwhile, her earlier companion — a man on a motorcycle — has brought in three others and they are racing around the countryside looking for her. They don’t really matter. Under the Skin isn’t a boilerplate narrative. There is no confrontation. They are just there to stress that the Female has done something unusual and they are concerned about it. (One obvious, but interesting, way to analyze the film would be to put it in a Marxist framework.)
Looking for Answers
Ultimately, we do find out what is “under the skin.” But that is hardly the point. Either with her skin or without it, she is unable to connect with anyone else. She’s apparently not happy with her own kind yet can’t relate to humanity either. In this way, the Female in Under the Skin is even more lonely than The Woman in Die Wand. And the “sad” ending doesn’t seem sad. It comes as something of a relief. Because the whole film, we’ve watched the Female suffer.
Along with the suffering of the Female is a profound sense of confusion. While she’s doing what seems like a very boring job, she has a purpose — what I call Sudoku Meaning. But without that simulacrum of meaning, she has no meaning. This is something I understand very well. I go through periods where I feel it profoundly. But I am lucky in that I am the skin, so I am capable of connecting with people, even if it is just on a physical level. I’d probably go crazy if I didn’t have that, at least, to fall back on.
Given the life of the Female, death is a gift. Ultimately, it is to all of us. I feel that I will die much the same way: wondering what it all means one moment and then smoldering into the cosmos the next.
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I was extremely sad to learn that legendary actor John Hurt died last week. The announcement came on Friday, but he actually died Wednesday, 25 January 2017. I assume it was due to pancreatic cancer, which he was diagnosed with a year and a half ago. But none of the reporting I’ve read has indicated a cause of death. I’m not linking to anything because even the best coverage gives what I think of as a skewed view of his career.
For most Americans, John Hurt is known for one part: Kane in Alien. Admittedly, he is central to the most memorable scene: Kane is with a crew eating a meal when he goes into convulsions, ending in the immature alien bursting out of his stomach. Incredibly cool, but hardly a star part. To me, the only important thing about the part was that Hurt played a huge diversity of roles in a great many different different kinds of films. The Internet Movie Database lists 204 films that he was in. And he wasn’t a character actor. He was the star of many of those films.
Discovering John Hurt
I first noticed him in 1979, while I was in high school. He played Raskolnikov in a PBS miniseries of Crime and Punishment. Shortly after that, I saw him play Caligula in I, Claudius. I was blown away, “This is the same actor?!” At that point, I would watch anything that he was in. And it wasn’t always pleasant. Neither Night Crossing nor Partners (both in 1982) were compelling films. But he was great in both.
But he was in a lot of film that were deserving of his talent. An obvious one that comes to mind in The Elephant Man, where he played John Merrick (Joseph was the real Merrick’s first name). At the time and to this day, I think he was robbed of the Academy Award. It was given to Robert De Niro for Raging Bull, proving yet again that Hollywood can’t appreciate subtlety in acting (not that I thought De Niro was bad).
The other parts that come easily to mind are Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (1975), Max in Midnight Express (1978), Braddock in The Hit (1984), Stephen Ward in Scandal (1989), and, of course, his outstanding performance in Krapp’s Last Tape (2001). There are many more — roles both small and large. I don’t believe a movie ever failed to be better because of his participation.
But to me, John Hurt will always be Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. (1984). I had just read the book for the first time when I first saw it. It’s incredibly rare that a film so perfectly captures the feel of a book. But even more, John Hurt wasn’t so much playing Smith as being him. I wanted to find a nice scene with Hurt and Suzanna Hamilton, but the earlier ones that I could find were too short. This one from the very end is brilliant with both of them completely defeated:
I didn’t know John Hurt. But I’m still sad that he’s gone, even with all the fine work that he left us. I didn’t particularly care when Michael Jackson died or Prince. Carrie Fisher or Mary Tyler Moore, who died on the same day. But John Hurt was something special — at least to me.
I just noticed that Krapp’s Last Tape is online. It is an hour well worth spending. I’ve seen a half dozen productions of it. This is the best one — and not just because John Hurt is fantastic in it.
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The Cat From Outer Space is a 1978 Disney film, very much like many other Disney features from that period spanning The Shaggy Dog in 1959 through to The Love Bug in 1968 to three direct sequels culminating in a short-live 1982 television series. (Ultimately, there was the made-for-television The Love Bug in 1997, starring Bruce Campbell, and then the theatrically released Herbie: Fully Loaded in 2005 starring Lindsay Lohan.) These are formulaic films, produced on the cheap (except for the Lohan film) for an audience that was easily pleased. So it may come as something of a surprise that The Cat From Outer Space was really quite a good film.
Of course, in their way, they all were. They all starred excellent actors. Their scripts were written by very competent comedy writers. There’s nothing to impress a cinephile. But they were professional productions that created exactly what they set out to. Even the special effects were, for their time, quite good. On that front, I’d certainly rather watch The Absent-Minded Professor than North by Northwest.
Such “Nice” Films
The only problem with these kinds of films is that they are so very determined not to offend. The whole group of films (and there were a great many more than I’ve mentioned), was parodied brilliantly in Matinee as “The Shook Up Shopping Cart.” In it, Uncle Cedric is a shopping cart. In one minute of screen time, we see all the cliches: the inexplicable but undeniable character, the 1950s social mores, the clueless bad guys, the tired slapstick, and absolutely no moment when any of the protagonists feel like they are in any danger.
Just the same, the other parody in Matinee — “Mantz” — isn’t really any more threatening. It’s all good old fashioned American morality. Consider Plan 9 From Outer Space, where Ed Wood sets up an interesting premise: aliens have come to destroy humanity because we are on the verge of creating a bomb that will destroy the universe. The happy ending of this would be that the humans are destroyed. But let’s give Wood credit: he understood what he was saying, but he also understood that audiences wouldn’t stand for the proper ending.
I Never Did Like ET
While watching The Cat From Outer Space, I couldn’t help but compare it to ET the Extra-Terrestrial — made just four years later. Now I know, everyone is supposed to love the film. “ET phone home” and all. But as I sat in the theater at 18 years old, my main reaction was boredom. It had one of those plots that make you feel dragged through the mud. I’m not complaining that it was predictable — that’s given. But it took itself so seriously. It’s a silly film, but it was directed like it was Schindler’s List (which actually had more genuine laughs in it).
So what?! They create a different looking space alien and we’re supposed to think it is any more real? ET is every bit as silly as The Cat From Outer Space. The problem is that the people who made ET didn’t realize that. So it was really nice to sit down and watch Cat, which is totally without pretense. It’s just a silly comedy with a cat: That Darn Cat! with the wonderful addition of a some gentle ribbing of the Cold War mentality of the 1950s.
(One repeated joke is that the general gives a command to the captain. The captain gives the command to the lieutenant. And the lieutenant gives the command to the sergeant — played by Ronnie Schell, who also provides the voice of Jake the cat. Presumably, the sergeant is the only one who does anything. Everyone else just “delegates.”)
The Cat From Outer Space Is a Fine Film
The cast is really good: Ken Berry, Sandy Duncan, McLean Stevenson, Roddy McDowall, and Harry Morgan. It’s also filled with a bunch of great character actors — notably Hans Conried, Jesse White, and William Prince. There was also a brief appearance by Alan “Willlburrr” Young. Really, you could just set them all in a room and have them talk and it would be entertaining — even without a cat with a cool collar.
In it’s way, it’s a perfect film. Anyone who decides to rent or buy The Cat From Outer Space will be getting exactly what they expect. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have changed a few of things. Although the film tries hard, and most succeeds, at given human women their due, it rather fails in the world of cats. The ending goes on for far too long. And the epilogue is totally without merit (even if it does feature Sorrell “Boss Hogg” Booke). But none of that is surprising given that it is a Disney film about a cat from outer space.
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