Saturday, March 31, 2012
The offending flick was George A. Romero’s classic, Dawn of the Dead. It’s hapless victim was one Mark J. Fortner.
When I first saw a commercial advertising Dawn of the Dead, man, did I want to see it! As a 15-year-old horror fan, nothing gets you more pumped-up than a movie ad that ominously announces the film is so violent that it has no MPAA rating. On the same token, nothing shoots the wind out of your 15-year-old sails faster than the addendum in the same ad which states ‘no one under 17 will be admitted.’ Period.
Worse yet, since most places wouldn’t book any unrated movie (which is still true today), Dawn of the Dead would likely not be shambling into any mall theater in the ‘burbs (kind of ironic, once you're aware of the plot).
Sure enough, it only played in one college theater downtown for a few weeks, and even though I often snuck into R rated movies at the Southgate Theater near my house, I was 100% sure I couldn’t talk my parents into driving me downtown and tag along while I enjoyed some zombie gut-munching (although imagining the horrified face of my mother gasping at the carnage does bring a smile to my face). Alas, I had to settle for reading about Dawn's gory glory in the pages of Fangoria.
Then, a few months later, a miracle happened. Dawn of the Dead popped up as the bottom half of a double bill (with Phantasm) at the trusty old Cinema V, an ugly, ancient, puke-colored, second-run theater in downtown Milwaukie, the suburb where I lived and only a ten minute drive from my house. I’d gone there many times, mostly when my allowance money was running low but still needed my movie fix. The admission price was always only 69 cents for as long as I could remember, and that was for two movies! 69 CENTS was perpetually plastered on its cracked and weathered marquee at least five times bigger than the movie titles themselves. In fact, most of us had been calling the place Cinema 69 for years.
At any rate, even though the place was old, dank and had a big slit in the screen no one bothered to repair, it was pretty awesome to be able to catch a movie just by rummaging through the sofa cushions for loose change. Even better was the fact that Cinema V never checked IDs. I couldn’t believe it: the mother of all zombie flicks, 69 cents, no ID check. The stars must have aligned that weekend in 1979.
God bless the second-run theater, an endangered species nowadays. There’s hardly any of them around anymore. As it becomes cheaper and more convenient to simply watch movies at home, one by one, these theaters are dropping like zombies being shot in the head. That’s too bad, because there’s still nothing like catching a flick on the big screen.
Oh sure, some still exist in major cities, but usually only after rechristening themselves as theater-pubs, where hipsters congregate to pretend they enjoy beers that tastes like socks, or cinema-arcades to train young kids the fine art of gambling (offering them tickets for successful game play, which can later be exchanged for trinkets worth far less than the number of coins they spent to get those tickets). Even the old Cinema V is now one of these, it's once-spacious auditorium now chopped in half to make room for Skee-Ball and Whack-A-Mole. Movies alone are seldom enough to keep these places in business, even with an admission price less than a glorified milkshake from Starbucks. There are still a few second-run cinemas left (not art houses...those are for people who pretend they like foreign films) offering just movies, but I think it is just a matter of time before they are all gone. That’ll be a sad day.
Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic (euphemism for old fart). I truly believe all movies are best on the big screen, yet I am also someone who is increasingly unwilling to roll the dice and shell out 80 bucks (admission for my family, plus popcorn and a few sodas) unless I am almost guaranteed to enjoy the film I’m mortgaging my house for. But as a true fan of the moviegoing experience, second-run theaters always gave me the same opportunity at a fraction of the price.
But that's now. Back in '79, all I cared about was hopping on my bike and pedaling into Milwaukie that summer afternoon with my best friend Clay (more on him later) and our sort-of friend Mark Fortner.
I say 'sort-of' because Mark was more of a friend out of proximity; he and his family moved into our neighborhood the previous year. He was a nice enough guy, but a clean-cut, goody-two-shoes who went to a private school. He had a stupid sense of humor and often said the dorkiest thing at the most inappropriate moments. The guy wore thick glasses, always tucked in his shirt and acted like he just committed the perfect crime whenever an expletive escaped his lips. In other words, not cool, as defined by me and Clay. His dad, a pediatrician, was also a piece of work. He looked and talked like Ward Cleaver and had the dumbest laugh I'd ever heard in my life. One time, while we were all playing in the driveway, Dr. Fortner popped his head out the door and, with a congenial grin and stupid laugh, said, "Hey gang, be careful not to hit the garage door with that basketball."
Me and Clay stared at each other, barely suppressing laughter.
Gang? Gang? What were we, the Little Rascals? Who the hell called kids gang back then? Me and Clay were merciless, mocking his dumbass dad, yet Mark took it like a good sport, because it was obvious he wanted to fit in with his new friends, but had little idea how. He'd buy Led Zeppelin records just because we did, even though his personal preference in music was never that heavy. When he tore the brown paper wrapping off of his new copy of Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door, we gave him a lot of shit because the brown paper bag wasn’t wrapping; it the album cover.
Looking back, we weren't too nice to Mark himself most of the time. The neighborhood we lived in was still in development, so there were always several houses at various stages of construction. We played in those structures a lot, often engaging in our favorite activity, dirt clod fights. The rules were simple...divide into teams and try to nail each other. We introduced Mark to this sport on the first weekend in his new house. In his effort to make new friends, he was up for it, but once I had him cornered in a ditch surrounding a house-in-development, he let his true colors fly. He was a sitting duck and he knew it. I stood over him above the ditch, arm cocked and ready to let the rock-filled dirt clod fly. Clay was nearby, giggling uncontrollably as he urged me to make the kill-shot (and he was on Mark's team). At this point, Mark started to cry. That made Clay laugh even harder, which was all the encouragement I needed to open fire. I missed, by the way, which was probably a good thing. Although we loved dirt clod fights, none of us really wanted to hurt each other. Mark was already bawling when my projectile exploded next to his head. I’d hate to think what would have happened if I’d nailed him.
Clay would later swear up and down Mark wet his pants while cowered in that ditch. Whether or not that was actually true didn't dissuade me from relaying that detail as the climax to the story when I told others.
Yeah, we were often pretty shitty to Mark, but that’s not to say we didn’t like him. Despite his social awkwardness (at least defined by us), Mark was a pretty nice guy. And, God bless him, he put up with a lot of shit just so he could be included with the neighborhood cool kids (also defined by us). We never objected to having the guy around, especially in the summer, since he was the only kid in the neighborhood with a pool.
So when me and Clay decided to pedal down to the Cinema V to check out Dawn of the Dead, Mark wanted to go, too. That was fine with us.
Mark’s dad, however, had some initial reservations when he asked for permission. Permission? Really? Couldn’t he just lie and go anyway?
Mark’s dad warily shook his head. “I don’t know. I heard Cinema V is a shady place.”
Shady place? It was an old theater, not a freaking strip club. And who the hell described any place as shady anymore? We never let Mark live that one down either.
Still, Mark was able to convince his dad to let him go, conveniently leaving out the fact we were going to see an unrated zombie movie. I didn’t actually tell my parents, either. Mom had already once forbidden me from seeing the main feature, Phantasm, during its initial run because of the tag line, ‘If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead.’ Maybe Mark himself didn’t know or care what we were seeing; he was just happy to be included.
So we got there, bought popcorn and settled into the front row of the balcony (remember those?). The place was pretty full, mostly with a bunch of other kids whose IDs were obviously not checked at the door.
Dawn of the Dead is director George A. Romero’s sequel to his 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead. Although released a decade later, Dawn picks up shortly after the events of the first film, only now the living dead have overrun the world. Two SWAT guys, a chopper pilot and his girlfriend escape in a helicopter and eventually find refuge in a shopping mall. After ridding the place of zombies, they barricade themselves in and proceed to live out the fantasy most of us have entertained at some point...having a whole mall to yourself. This idyllic existence is later disrupted when a gang of bikers lay siege upon the mall, allowing the zombies back in. Our heroes, now down to two, manage to escape, but the film ends with their ultimate fates unknown.
That’s the quick & dirty summary. Much has been written over the years about the film’s obvious satiric commentary on consumerism, that the zombies themselves are not the true monsters...we are, devolving into animals once society has broken down and can no longer keep us in check. All that and a thousand more metaphors are exploited in the movie’s 127 minutes (epic length for a horror movie, but the Dawn never feels that long).
But none of the movie’s social commentary matters when you’re 15 years old and exposed to some of the most graphic violence you’ve ever seen. People are eaten alive, whole chunks of flesh bitten out of bodies; skulls are severed by helicopter blades, screwdrivers are thrust into temples, head literally explode from gunshots, zombie-rendered children are gunned down, etc. This wasn’t just violence...this was gore.
While we were taking all of this in, it quickly became obvious Dawn of the Dead was not the kind of movie Mark was used to watching. Me either, actually, but at least I’d been working up to it, having survived Jaws, The Exorcist, The Omen and Alien. But the violence in Dawn was way, way beyond any of that. And here was Mark, whose maximum exposure to movie mayhem was probably seeing Krypton exploding in the original Superman.
During much of Dawn, Mark was green in the gills, but managed to man-up and tough it out, at least until the climax, when the aforementioned biker gang starts getting ripped apart and dismembered by the zombie hordes. Torsos are torn open, intestines are spilled and devoured, arms and pulled from their sockets, all while the victims are still alive. I have to admit, even I was getting a little queasy. But Mark couldn’t handle it. At the height of the biker slaughter, he leaned forward, eyes squeezed shut. He lurched a few times, clutching his stomach, then loudly spewed massive amounts of projectile vomit into the air. Since we were seated in the front row of the balcony, his stomach chowder rained down in chunks and splattered people twenty feet below us.
I heard screams. Mark, grabbing his midsection, stumbled toward the exit.
Clay was laughing his ass off.
While the movie kept playing, I leaned over to see puke-drenched people standing up in revulsion, hands outstretched in disbelief. Several of them also bolted from the theater, others stared up accusingly at me and Clay. We did our best to look like we had no idea what was going on.
By this time, the stench of Mark’s puke wafted to my nose. That, along with the disembowelment going on onscreen, made my own gut to a few summersaults. Thank God I managed to swallow it back down, because I knew this was yet-another socially awkward event Mark would ever live down. I sure as hell didn’t want to join him as an object of ridicule. The only other time in my life I ever came that close to puking because of a movie was when I first saw Jackass.
As the end credits of Dawn of the Dead rolled, a few Cinema V cronies came into the theater to clean up the mess below. The manager stormed up to the balcony and demanded to know who was responsible, which is kind of stupid when you think about it. Who the hell goes out of their way to puke on paying customers? Me and Clay had since moved to another section of the balcony, acting like persona non grata, so he paid us no attention.
After a lengthy delay, the main feature, Phantasm, finally began. Having cleaned himself up and looking a bit less green, Mark eventually came back up and sat with us, and we all watched the movie in relative silence. Phantasm wasn’t a bad movie, but not very scary and, aside from a great scene involving a flying silver ball drilling into someone’s head, kind of anticlimactic after the zombie carnage of Dawn of the Dead.
Today, Dawn of the Dead is a classic and widely considered the greatest zombie film of all time. For years it was the most gloriously violent thing I’d ever seen, and when it later came out on video I used to love watching it with newbies who had no idea what was coming. The film immediately spawned countless imitations, many spewing out of Italy, that often upped the ante in the gore department. Some were okay, most were shit, but Dawn just got better with each viewing, mainly because it was never just a gore film (even though that’s what I first loved about it as a kid). It’s a smartly-written, well-acted and sometimes vicious attack on materialism that’s as morbidly funny as it is scary. Even the ample amount of over-the-top zombie violence is actually easier to stomach than the realistic torture scenes in Hostel or the Saw series.
As for Mark, he managed to survive, though we gave him a lot of shit for puking up his popcorn and, as usual, he took our chiding with a good-natured grin. For all of his social inadequacies, the guy was a damn good sport, and because of that, maybe he was a better friend than we ever gave him credit for.
Mark and I kind of drifted apart shortly after I discovered girls, cars, booze and weed, while he continued taking school seriously and was a valedictorian his senior year. Shortly after I (barely) graduated high school, I think it was his younger brother who told me Mark got a full scholarship to USC or something. I, on the other hand, dropped out of community college to marry my girlfriend (but that’s another sad tale). Obviously, his encounter with the living dead at the Cinema V didn’t do any permanent damage, but I’ll bet he’s still not a zombie fan.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Scott was also a closet scientist, a trait which only came to the surface when he was high. He wouldn’t do jack-shit in biology class, but was more-than-willing to conduct experiments with the able assistance of Panama Red. Baking in his garage one night while his parents were out of town (which was often), me and a few buddies heard Scott’s theory about digestion. He put-forth that corn kernels showed up in shit because they weren’t chewed up enough, so it stood to reason that if you swallowed a sardine whole, you’d have a turd sprouting fins in the toilet bowl a few hours later. We never discovered if his hypothesis was true - though we did manage to get him to swallow a whole fish without killing himself - because, like most people in our condition, the overwhelming urge to crash in front of the TV with a box of Apple Jacks outweighed the need to carry on in the name of science.
Nobody had cable back then, although HBO was becoming available to the few willing to stick a dildo-shaped antenna on their roof. Scott’s parents weren’t among that group, so the only thing this night on TV was The Swarm, Irwin Allen’s 1978 killer bee epic. I saw the movie when it first came out, and even then I knew this was one of the movies which essentially killed the disaster movie craze in the 70s. But it plays a lot better when you’re high. When you’re high, the lousy special effects take on a surreal look, and there’s plenty of dull stretches in between the attack scenes to run back out into the garage and fire up another bowl. There’s also the tendency to seriously ponder whether or not a swarm of bees could actually cause a train to derail or a nuclear power plant to explode. Sober folks wouldn’t engage in such a debate. They know better.
Though we had abandoned the sardine-in-your-shit experiment, we did manage to come up with a few other conclusions, even if the Scientific Method was no longer foremost on our minds. One fact we discovered was that Michael Caine (and his goofy hair, one of God’s crueller jokes) isn’t someone you should watch when you’re doing drugs. His performance in The Swarm, with his deadly-serious delivery of dialogue that makes the average Godzilla movie sound like the prose of Tennessee Williams, had me convinced he was trying to mess with my head. Not to mention his eyes, which were kinda freaking me out that night. And when he pulled out his trusty pouch of sunflower seeds, it had Rick (one of the other guys hanging out that night) wanting to head to 7-Eleven to buy a bag of his own. Fortunately, he couldn’t find his car keys.
We also discovered Scott was willing to have sex with anything...even Olivia De Havilland, who in The Swarm plays an elderly school principal in being courted by geezers Ben Johnson and Fred MacMurray. Yeech.
“Man, I’d do her,” Scott stated matter-of-factly.
“What?” replied Greg, the other guy in our cannibus crew in between handfuls of dry Apple Jacks. “She’s a thousand years old and 300 pounds! I suppose you’d do that military dude, too.”
“Richard Widmark,” I interjected, being the only movie geek in the bunch.
Scott ignored my clarification of the film’s cast and said to Greg, “Yeah, but dude, if she was the only chick around and the lights were off and you were baked enough...” (It was at this point I realized career stoners probably would have sex with anything). Then he looked at me. “Dave, you’d do her if there was no one else around, wouldn’t ya?”
“Maybe if she was the Gone with the Wind Olivia De Havilland,” I replied.
“Gone with the Wind? That’s my grandma’s favorite movie!” Scott started laughing uncontrollably, apparently enjoying the punchline to a joke only he understood. At this point in the film, the killer bees caused a train carrying much of the cast - including Olivia - to tumble down a mountain in a fiery blaze, thus ending the debate whether or not she was do-able. Besides...it was time to go back out to Scott’s garage to refuel during the commercial break.
Speaking of Olivia De Havilland, her role in the The Swarm has absolutely no impact on the plot at all. She’s introduced in a few pointless scenes before plummeting to her death into a canyon. You could take out every frame she appears in and she wouldn’t be missed at all. You could say that about half of this ‘all-star’ cast...Slim Pickens, Lee Grant, Richard Chamberlain, Patti Duke (in a hilariously random scene of blooming love for her physician, even though her husbad just died!), Jose Ferrer, Ben Johnson, Fred MacMurray...all included for no other reason than to boost The Swarm’s marquee value. Hell, it worked for Allen’s The Towering Inferno. Surely it’d work again, right?
But the difference is that, despite its cornball melodrama, The Towering Inferno is actually a good movie, mainly because Irwin Allen only directed the action scenes. He left the ones involving real actors to John Guillermin. In addition, even though a large portion of the cast pop-up in for little-more than glorified cameos, we care about their characters enough so that when one dies horribly, at least the audience feels something. Not so with The Swarm, the first of Irwin Allen’s disaster films in which he handled all directorial chores. This is where we realize that this ‘Master of Disaster’, as he was so fondly called when the genre was at its peak, really had no inherent filmmaking talent of his own. The gratuitous cameos are often so random and out-of-place that (along with some of the worst dialogue ever uttered in a big-budget film) you can’t help but laugh. And seeing it today, once you throw it the shoddy special effects, you have one of the most unintentionally funny films of all time. Imagine if Ed Wood (Plan 9 from Outer Space) was given an unlimited budget, access to major (if long-in-the-tooth) Hollywood stars, and a script written by a bunch of hacks from a community college creative writing class, all working on individual scenes without knowing what the other writers are doing. Put all that together and you end up with a film almost shocking in its technical and narrative ineptitude.
And it’s for all those reasons that The Swarm is so damned fun. It’s one of those rare birds...a film with a gigantic budget and a huge cast, squandered by a hack once revered for creating a genre, only to destroy that genre (and his reputation) by believing all the media hype the bestowed him. And The Swarm was definitely the biggest nail in the disaster movie coffin. But for one film to single-handedly destroy a genre, it must be worth seeing. As such, The Swarm does not disappoint.
A few years later, Airplane! was released, effectively exploiting every disaster movie cliche for laughs and killing the genre for the next two decades. But now that both Airplane! and The Swarm are thirty-year-old relics, try watching the two of them back-to-back today. Both are still hilarious, but for different reasons. Airplane! is still funny, but because it knowingly parodies a genre popular of the time, many of its most hilarious moments may be lost on modern audiences. But The Swarm, by virtue of its sheer seriousness and ineptitude, is even funnier and far more entertaining. One only has to view Richard Widmark’s performance to appreciate that. Here’s a guy whose been a reliable co-star or villain his entire career, applying the same earnestness to this role that he always had, only saddled with some of the dumbest lines in the film. As General Slater, he’s asked to repeatedly suspect the motives of Bradford Crane (Michael Caine), who has done nothing but help resolve the killer bee situation, yet Slater still orders his second-in-command (Bradford Dillman) to ‘build up a dossier’ on the scientist. To what end? Does Slater really think Crane is in league with the bees? It’s to Widmark’s credit that he approaches the role with the same seriousness he once did in Kiss of Death.
It’s also to Caine’s credit that, even though he sometimes looks like he knows this was the worst film he’d ever signed on for at the time, he never offers a knowing wink over the ridiculousness of the story, nor does he look like he’s about to lose his lunch with the next stupid line he’s forced to utter. If that’s true, I can’t begin to imagine the raging gorge he made himself swallow when doing Jaws: The Revenge.
On an awesome footnote, though, The Swarm offers something no other disaster film did at the time. You know the perky/smart-aleck/adorable kid who pops up in every one of these movies, the ones you wished would die but never do? Well, in The Swarm, that kid dies. It's supposed to be a tragic moment in the film (swelling music, crying doctor at his death bed), until you remember that this little bastard was also responsible for several hundred deaths because he just had to taunt the bees.
Simply put, The Swarm may be the greatest bad movie of all time...more fun than a barrel of Twilight movies.
I bought The Swarm when it came out on DVD, and have watched and enjoyed it more than any of Irwin Allen’s other films. Allen himself died in 1991, and no, I wasn’t invited to the funeral, so I imagine the eulogy covered his greatest successes (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Allen’s various TV shows in the 60s). Too bad, because, as much as I love Poseidon and Inferno, they aren’t as much dumbass fun as The Swarm.
Regarding the night me and my buddies baked ourselves in front of the TV back then, I eventually lost touch with Scott. Like a lot of stoner buddies from many of us may recall fondly, he’s got no Facebook page, nor have I seen him at any reunions. I dunno, maybe he’s still in front of his TV, lusting after Olivia De Havilland. I only hope he’s a little more sober, and being so, perhaps checked out some of De Havilland’s older movies, when she was certainly younger and hotter than she was in The Swarm.
Monday, March 26, 2012
Just about everyone I knew went to the Southgate every weekend to bump into people of the opposite sex (okay, it wasn’t exactly Studio 54, but we were 13, and it was within biking distance). Back then, long before home video or digital downloading, movies played in theaters a lot longer than they generally do now. One of those movies was Damnation Alley.
Don’t remember this one? Allow me to enlighten you. Damnation Alley, based on a novel by Roger Zalanzy, is a post-apocalyptic ‘epic’ that was supposed to be the bigger blockbuster of the two sci-fi movies 20th Century Fox released that year (the other one was Star Wars, which the bigwigs at Fox apparently had no faith in). And even though Damnation Alley had a much bigger budget than Star Wars, it turned out to be a truly cheesy end-of-the-world movie in which a few survivors of a nuclear war trek across the country in a weird looking, armed-to-the-teeth, multi-wheeled tank called the Landmaster. As dumb as the movie is, I gotta admit the Landmaster is a pretty badass vehicle, making the Humvee look like a SmartCar. It would sure come in handy today during my frequent bouts of road rage (get off your goddamn phone or I'll shove a rocket up your ass!). By the way, the original Landmaster built for the film still exists in storage somewhere.
Also of note is Sound 360, an audio gimmick ballyhooed in Damnation Alley trailers the same way Sensurround was for movies like Earthquake. Sound 360 was a multi-channel system which supposedly created an audio experience allowing the viewer to feel like they were in the middle of the action. Which is all fine and good, provided one wants to be in the middle of the action. Today, such gimmicks as Sensurround and Sound 360 can easily be replicated by any home theater system, but back then, I suspect they were used to convince moviegoers they were paying to watch a better movie than they really were. Kind of like the use of 3-D today. Sorry folks, if you need any technical assistance to enjoy a movie, than said-movie wasn't any good to begin with.
Anyway, Damnation Alley played at the Southgate for about two months, and since our other choices at the time consisted of stuff like The Goodbye Girl and Annie Hall (a fine film, but Woody Allen’s brand of humor is sort of lost on 14 year olds), me and my friends ended up watching Damnation Alley a lot. It was part of a double-bill (back then your ticket allowed you to watch two movies) with Wizards, a sleazy and stupid animated fantasy flick that once duped people into thinking director Ralph Bakshi had talent. On the plus side, that was the first cartoon I ever saw where the female characters had nipples.
Speaking of nipples, on about my fifth or sixth viewing on Damnation Alley, I bumped into a girl from my school named Shelly Joslin, who was there with one of her friends. Shelly had the honored distinction of having the biggest boobs in the 8th grade, which I actually got to touch in the back row of Southgate’s auditorium #2. While George Peppard and Jan Michael Vincent battled legions of killer cockroaches on the screen, I had my trembling hand up a girl’s blouse for the first time.
What does copping my first feel have to do with the movie? Not a damn thing, but whenever I fondly recall Damnation Alley, I don’t think of the ludicrous story, dumb pseudo-science or shoddy special effects that might have been impressive in 1960. I don’t think about the film’s characters being able travel across a radioactive wasteland without being covered in pus-oozing lesions, or, other than some stock footage of nuclear explosions, we actually see nothing destroyed. I don’t think about the ridiculous notion that the city of Albany survives unscathed, with white picket fences and green trees intact. I don’t think about Jackie Earl Haley, who played the young punk from The Bad News Bears, and stretches himself here by playing another young punk. No, when I think of Damnation Alley, I still think of only one thing...Shelly Joslin’s boobs. Actually, that’s two things, isn’t it?
Friday, March 23, 2012
Noble? I don’t know. After all, despite Hollywood’s historically romantic image of the teaching profession, it is still just a job. Most teachers I know look more forward to summer breaks than molding fresh young minds. Rewarding? Sometimes. There are occasional moments when you know you've done something to steer a kid's life in the right direction.
The job is sometimes pretty interesting, too. I teach seventh graders, who are an odd lot; half of them still play with Legos, the other half are already getting their freak on at school dances, dry-humping each other on the dance floor before one of us has to turn the hose on them. In fact, whenever I tell someone what grade I teach, I often get looks of sympathy.
But like any job, there are downsides. There’s the usual stuff you hear in the news like budget problems, class sizes, violence, teachers as scapegoats for all the problems in schools. There are also a hell of a lot of people in the community who haven’t set foot in a classroom since they graduated, but think they know a lot more about your job than you do.
I’m also amazed every year at the number of parents who, even though their kids have been disrespectful bastards and failed every class for years, are convinced their child’s teachers are collectively conspiring against him. Then there are the parents who haven’t given a damn about their kid’s behavior or academic performance all year, but are the first to scream bloody murder when a teacher says or does something they don’t like. A few years ago I caught a boy hugging a female student in the hall (which is not allowed where I teach), and he got pissed off at me for catching him breaking the rules. He’d already been written up several times previously, but according to him, being caught was my fault. He accused me to singling him out and got pretty damn disrespectful. This pissed me off because I’d always gotten along with the kid until then, and even let some of his behavior slide on occasion. When I took him aside, I berated him for his disrespect, saying I had cut him a “shitload of slack” in the past. Yes, the word shit slipped out. Hey, teachers aren’t perfect, but they are expected to be. Anyway, I wrote him up for his infraction, but not even two hours later I got a call from his mother, who was angry as hell that I said shit. Never mind that the kid had been failing every class, all year, and had been written at least a dozen referrals for his behavior by then. The only time she called to express any concern was when her boy heard the word shit coming from a teacher’s mouth.
Then there was the time another male student wanted to use the restroom on a day a substitute teacher was filling in for me, but the kid had already used all of his passes. The sub followed procedure and refused…no pass, no exit from the class. The kid got defiant, then walked over to the trash can and pretended to piss in it, which apparently got a lot of laughs from the rest of the class. This kid also had a history of behavior problems, and was not what you’d call an academic all-star. Still, he sometimes tried hard enough that I bumped his D to a C so he could stay on the football team. When I returned to class the day after the incident, I wrote him up for his inappropriate behavior and had him call home. He got a hold of his mother and proceeded to blame me for not letting him use the bathroom (even though I wasn’t there and only reacting to the sub’s report). He conveniently left out the trashcan portion, and when she demanded to speak to me, she began with, “Listen, motherfucker…” before accusing me of picking on her son (even though I was the one responsible for keeping him on the football team) and not being sympathetic to his 'bladder condition'. By the way, there was nothing on-record with the school nurse about any bladder condition for this kid.
When I explained he was being written up for pretending to piss in a trashcan, she replied, “Well, did he actually do it?” When I replied no, she went off on me again. I guess it’s okay to pretend to piss in a trashcan as long as you don’t actually whip it out. Yeah, try that at your job and see how long you stay employed.
It’s stuff like that they do not prepare you for when training to become a teacher. Nor is this kind of stuff depicted in movies about teachers. Most movies featuring teachers fall under the following categories:
- Teachers who are so righteous that their sainthood is all but guaranteed (Goodbye Mr. Chips).
- Teachers who are villainous, indifferent and authoritative boobs worthy of audience ridicule (nearly every teen movie and rock video from the 80s).
- New teachers so dedicated to their jobs that they buck the system and single-handedly change the lives of students who’d be in prison if it weren’t for their efforts (Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Lean on Me, Take the Lead, Coach Carter, ad nauseam). And of course, most movies which fall under that last category are “based on a true story”.
- Teachers who have had enough, and are driven to use violent force in order to make things right (The Substitute, The Principal, One Eight Seven, Class of 1984). Actually, in the case of The Substitute, the main character, played with gusto by Tom Berenger, isn’t a real teacher; he’s mercenary who goes undercover at a Florida high school to find out who assaulted his girlfriend. But he does utter a line which damn near ever teacher I’ve ever met would love to lay on their students: “Fuck with me and you will face my wrath!”
- Finally, there are those teachers who didn’t initially set-out to be teachers. Usually, they have loftier goals but must settle on something less. Only during the course of the movie do they truly discover the impact they have had on their kids, and now teaching is all they want to do. It’s also amazing how quickly most of these characters are able to attain a teaching license. I had to attended six years of college to attain the same credentials these characters apparently were able to bang-out in a weekend.
As a real teacher, I can safely say this film has almost no baring on real life. After 15 years as an educator, I’ve known dozens of teachers who have taught as long as Holland, and none of them were ever forced into retirement. They may have enjoyed their jobs, but most have gladly stepped down in order to enjoy their sunset years, free from the endless burden and responsibility of being an educator. In reality, teachers are just like everyone else in the workplace, doing their jobs as best they can before finally reaching that point in life when they happily leave it to someone else (perhaps some young rube romantically inspired by movies like Mr. Holland’s Opus)
But even after developing such a cynical view of the profession, I still love Mr. Holland’s Opus, a wonderfully sentimental film, impeccably acted (Dreyfuss earned a deserved Oscar nomination) and consistently entertaining despite its epic length. Who cares if it doesn't accurately reflect the profession? Such a film would be as intriguing as watching an accountant work his calculator. As a teacher, I'm sure as hell not gonna shell out any portion of my meager salary to watch some character spend his weekend correcting papers, or deal with indifferent students and parents, the latter of whom are looking for someone to blametheir kid's academic failure on anyone except the kid. I want to watch a teacher in a fantasy world, who manages to change the lives of every single student he ever had. In reality, that seldom happens, just like those who love porn will seldom, if ever, encounter a sexually-cavalier, hard-bodied nymph willing to submit to his every whim.
I guess that makes Mr. Holland's Opus kind of like teacher-porn.
Movies are not supposed to be real; they are supposed to be entertainment. Does anyone really watch Lethal Weapon in anticipation of seeing a realistic depiction of police work? Hell, no, because if Lethal Weapon truly reflected reality, we'd be sitting through Internal Affairs hearings and psychological examinations of Martin Riggs, both conducted to get this psycho-with-a-badge off the streets.
Speaking of Lethal Weapon, when I was in college (the first time), me and a few buddies picked up a copy of the movie one weekend shortly after it came out on video. One of these guys was a pudgy, red-headed dork, nicknamed Blinky.
Blinky was going for some sort of engineering degree, and I’m sure he now makes more in a year than I will in two lifetimes. He wasn’t exactly one of my buddies - I thought he was smarmy little jerk - but he was good friends with one of the other guys, so Blinky always seemed to be around. Anyway, halfway through the movie (and our first case of beer), when Mel Gibson informs Danny Glover that a recently-exploded hooker’s house was detonated by some “heavy shit” known as a mercury switch, Blinky recalled his own technical knowledge and piped in, “Mercury switches are nothing. We use those in my electronics class. They aren’t heavy shit. How stupid.”
I shot back with, “Well, Blinky, the average person ain’t gonna know that, so shut the fuck up.” He simply beamed back with a superior-than-thou expression, like we were all stupid for enjoying the movie because he knew something about mercury switches we didn't. Besides, maybe to a cop and not some eggheaded engineer, mercury switches are heavy shit.
We all know someone like that, who enjoys pointing out every inaccuracy as though every movie should be the cinematic equivalent of 60 Minutes. I hate those people. That’s like watching a cartoon in a theater filled with kids and shouting, “Yeah, right...like mice can talk. They don‘t have vocal chords.” I don’t watch Lethal Weapon hoping for a chemistry lesson. I wanna see gunplay, car crashes, explosions, wisecracks and maybe a boob or two. Lethal Weapon had all that and not once did I give a damn whether or not a fucking electric switch was heavy shit. Nobody condemns Star Wars just because the Tie-Fighters scream through space, even though space is a vacuum and devoid of atmosphere, rendering sound impossible.
Still, I'll bet a lot of cops still liked Lethal Weapon, maybe enjoying the fantasy depiction of their mundane jobs. For me, it is the same with Mr. Holland's Opus. I'm no Mr. Holland, but wouldn't it be cool if I was?
In fact, my only beef with the film is the influence it has had over the years…not on movies, but on real-life educators. Sure, this one has undoubtedly inspired people to become teachers the same way Top Gun encouraged guys to join the Navy, but I think it’s also mostly responsible for turning a lot of teachers into pompous, narcissistic, self-righteous bores. Sit in any room filled with teachers - staff meeting, workshop, college class - and one will inevitably raise their hand to proudly share a Mr. Holland moment, when they enlighten you with some saintly thing they’ve done to change students’ lives. His or her face is beaming proudly while the rest of the teachers in the room bob their heads in approval, looking like a bunch of well-dressed pigeons but not really listening. Most are just waiting for this idiot to stop so they can use up more oxygen with their own Mr. Holland moment.
Trust me, as much as I love teaching, there is nothing worse than being in a room full of teachers. Teachers love to hear themselves talk, love to convince everyone else how dedicated they are to their profession, love to ‘piggyback’ on someone else’s comment in order to spout more pretentious crap. And a lot of it is crap. Some people discuss their educational ideals in such detail that is soon becomes obvious there are not enough hours in the day for them to accomplish the things they claim. Of course, no teacher has ever had a student who could be most-accurately described as little bastard or dumbass. No, those kids are simply misunderstood, troubled or challenged. And of course, none of these teachers have ever failed to turn a
Sit in a room with these people and you’ll walk away with the impression that all of them are 100% successful, culturally sensitive, empathetic and incapable of anger towards students. No, not all teachers are like this. In fact, individually, most aren't. But when some of them get together to try and one-up each other’s Mr. Holland moment, the needle on the bullshit meter climbs into the red pretty quickly.
One might argue that any inspirational movie about an educator could cause this, not just Mr. Holland’s Opus. But the difference is Holland isn’t some uber-teacher who saves a school, challenges authority for the sake of the kids or turns a class full of homies into valedictorians in a single semester. Holland is just an ordinary teacher who learns to love his job over the course of 30 years, and touches some lives along the way. Even the self-serving teachers I’m forced to endure in meetings realize they are not Erin Gruwell or Jaime Escalante, but they can easily envision themselves as Mr. Holland. A lot of them probably think they already are.
Thursday, March 22, 2012
Aside from my wife, to whom I subjected this movie when I found it on the shelf of a now-extinct mom-and-pop video store, I’ve still never met anyone who had even heard of The Plague Dogs, even though it is based on a novel by Richard Adams, most-renowned for penning the bestselling classic, Watership Down. That book was later adapted for the screen by director Martin Rosen.
I tried reading Watership Down as a kid, but couldn’t get through it, mainly because of author Richard Adams, who expected the reader to keep referring to a glossary at the end of the book to understand the terms used by his rabbit characters (I’m sorry, but any book which requires you to educate yourself before enjoying the story isn’t worth reading). But the tale itself was intriguing enough to spawn a pretty great - though simplified - animated movie in 1978. And this wasn’t your normal Disney cartoon fare. Watership Down is very British and very violent, the first cartoon I ever saw where blood is visually split and characters die onscreen, sometimes horribly.
As a kid whose cinematic tastes had developed well-beyond G-rated Disney fare, but still loved cartoons, the idea of an ‘adult’ cartoon had a lot of appeal. Hence, I loved Watership Down, which is still considered by many to be one of the greatest non-Disney, traditionally-animated movies of all time. Today, as a teacher instructing seventh grade students in persuasive writing - when I require them to view and write a review of a film - I occasionally truck out my copy of Watership Down just to mess with their heads. Even in this age of gory Japanese manga and anime (or in the case of Sailor Moon, pedophile training ground), I still hear kids, some jaded by far-more graphic violence in movies like Saw (it staggers me any rational parent would let them watch those), blurt out, “Holy crap, that bunny rabbit just got killed!”
Many of my students react to the violence. Some dig it, others are shocked. But one problem many students often have with Watership Down is, in the filmmakers’ strive from realism, it is difficult telling the rabbits characters apart, because they all look the same (a totally legitimate argument against this film). And absolutely none of them knew why a film with such a title had no actual ships in it. Neither did I for the longest time. I had to look it up (incidently, it is the name of the grassy hill the rabbits discover in their quest for a new home, a place which actually exists in England). But even though Watership Down is a dark film, it is ultimately a life-affirming tale of selflessness, bravery and faith.
Not so with The Plague Dogs, which is easily the most nihilistic, brutal and bleak movie I have ever seen. Like Watership Down, it is animated, and the fact it was made by the same director was the main reason I picked it up at the video store. But aside from the style of animation and British voices, the similarities end there. Unlike the somewhat-anonymous rabbits in Watership Down, we immediately form an attachment to the animal characters in The Plague Dogs, making subsequent events in the film so much more obscene.
The plot centers around two hapless pooches, Rowf and Snitter, trapped in a research facility which conducts cruel experiments on animals. Snitter is sort-of nuts, suffering the effects of experimental brain surgery. Rowf is repeatedly subjected to tests where researchers document how long he’ll struggle to survive by treading water before giving up and drowning, then they fish him out so they can repeat the experiment again the next day. This is all in the first five minutes of the film. It only gets worse from there. Rowf and Snitter manage to escape the facility, only to be relentlessly hunted down by the local community and the military, due to a falsified press release that the two dogs are carrying a lethal plague.
Through heart-breaking flashbacks, the viewer learns Snitter was once a loyal pooch loved by his master. Later in the film, while the two dogs are on-the-run, Snitter comes across the lone sympathetic human character in the movie, who is hunting in the woods. With the hope of finding a new master, Snitter is excited and hopeful, only to have this initially-promising meeting end tragically, when the dog’s paw hooks the trigger of the man‘s rifle, resulting in the man getting his face blown off. Rowf, on the other hand, has no illusions and has never trusted humans, having never experienced bonding with a master. Along the way, the two dogs befriend Tod, a sly fox who ends up being killed while trying to help. During all this time, both dogs are becoming visibly thinner and bonier from lack of food, and are later forced to eat one of the very people hunting them in order to survive.
At the end, surrounded by military guns and helicopters, Snitter and Rowf reach the coast. With no choice, they try to escape to the ocean and swim to what Snitter mistakenly thinks is an island paradise, when in reality, it is just the setting sun. The film ends with the exhausted dogs, long past the point of no return, about to drown, yet still believing they’re going to find safety.
That’s it. And remember, this movie is a cartoon, and even though it is rated PG-13, I found it in the kids’ section of the aforementioned video store. What makes the movie even more of an ordeal is that the two main characters aren’t singing Disney dogs with sparky personalities reflective of the celebrities who voice them. They behave, think and speak the way we imagine real dogs would, unable to comprehend why all this is happening, yet remaining hopelessly optimistic that there is a human out there somewhere who will love them. This makes their ultimate fate as hard to watch as movies get.
The Plague Dogs is extremely well made; the animation and voice characterizations are as good as, if not better than, Watership Down. But it is also so dark, disturbing, relentlessly oppressive and so contemptuous of humankind that it makes Watership Down look like The Emperor’s New Groove (if you consider yourself a ‘dog person’ it will fuck you up for life). And this tone is set so early that the viewer is pretty damn certain within a few minutes that this is one movie where things are going to end badly. I have never seen a movie where more craft and care was taken in making sure its audience feels like total shit afterwards.
Yet, whenever you come across various critic or fan lists of the most disturbing movies of all time, The Plague Dogs is almost never included. Is it because the film is animated, the atrocities presented are inflicted on dogs, or that the movie simply hasn’t been widely seen? Whatever the case, the film is as painful to sit through as Schindler’s List, and although I admire it, I don’t think I could ever sit through it again, especially now that I own a dog.
I spent my teenage years growing up in a neighborhood development called Alderhill (don’t ask me what the hell that means). My parents had a house built for them there, a really hoity-toity block where the builders constructed homes based on the buyer’s specifications. We moved into our house when I was 13, and only about half of the neighborhood homes had been completed, and there were numerous others in various phases of construction. A kid I vaguely knew from school, Clay Walker, was already living there with his parents, and because of our proximity to each other, he soon became my best friend.
Clay was (and still is) a great guy, with an off-kilter sense of humor and sharp wit which often came to the forefront when he’d drop obscure pop-culture references into conversations (mostly music or movie-based). He also did some crazy stuff (which I often encouraged), such as the day he decided he’d it would be cool to be a pyromaniac. So off he went to achieve this new goal, filling balloons with propane from his dad’s garage before lighting them up. The instant result was a brief-but-huge ball of flame. Then one day he had the brilliant idea of tying together a dozen propane-filled balloons and igniting them in his back yard. He ended up blowing his eyebrows off, and soon after that he smartly decided being a pyromaniac wasn’t such a great idea.
Clay wasn’t really crazy or anything. A lot of what he did was deliberate, for the purpose of amusing his friends (much like the guys on Jackass years later, only they actually got paid to put themselves in harm’s way). He wasn’t stupid, either, even though he kind-of had that reputation because he had to repeat the eighth grade. Quite the contrary; the guy was smart as hell and got consistently better grades than I did in high school. With hindsight, I think a lot of the crazy stuff he did came from a desire to fit-in with the crowd we considered cool at the time.
And Clay never had to beat his parents to the mailbox to intercept report cards, like I did. This was back when grades were sent home on mimeographed sheets, and I discovered it was possible to deftly incorporate the clever use of an eraser and blue pencil to change a D into a B. I even purchased the supplies required to alter my grades into something my parents would deem acceptable. The ruse worked a few times, but I got cocky once, erasing an F so hard that I tore through the paper. Considering this was during a time I got grounded for Cs, I thought my life was over. When I told Clay of my dilemma, he just laughed, and taunted me with what seemed like dozens of phone calls where he cackled, “You screwed it! You screwed it!” This didn’t help; my world was coming to an end, and my best friend thought the whole thing was funny. Of course, 30 years later, I think it’s hilarious now. What’s doubly hilarious is, after several weeks of no report cards showing up in the mail, my parents finally decided to search my room. They found the incriminating evidence under my mattress. They were so upset about my grades (and my efforts to conceal them) that they weren't even the smallest-bit fazed at the tattered Penthouse magazine I also had stashed there.
Me and Clay did a lot of pretty dumb stuff together, and some of it was probably bad enough to land us in juvie if we were caught.
Actually, we were caught one time. Me, Clay and another kid named Brian all told our parents we were spending the night at each other’s house, just so we could drive around all night and raise some hell. The first activity of the evening had us going to the 82nd Street Drive-In and getting loaded on vodka Brian stole from his parents. To save some cash, I stashed away in the trunk of the car before going in. By the way, if you’ve never ridden in the trunk of a car, trust me, it’s not fun.
The theater was showing a double-bill, American Pop and Tommy, the latter being a musical relic from 1975 based on an album by The Who. Tommy played first; I remember wanting to see it when I was younger, mainly because I was an Elton John fan and loved his version of “Pinball Wizard.” It turned out I didn’t miss much. I was never a huge fan of The Who’s music to begin with, and even though the movie was loaded with stars, including Jack Nicholson, Oliver Reed, Elton John (who can’t act) and Tina Turner (who can), the only part I liked was seeing Ann-Margaret writhing around in baked beans. I was always somewhat infatuated with Ann-Margaret, and probably would have enjoyed baked beans more at the time if I knew she was waiting for me underneath them. Another strike against the movie is that there is no dialogue. The story is all told in song, which I’m not necessarily against, but I personally blame Tommy for probably inspiring director Alan Parker and Roger Waters for trying the same thing years later with Pink Floyd The Wall (my vote for the most boring musical of all time, even with the aid of narcotics).
Still, Tommy was better than American Pop, an animated movie directed by Ralph Bakshi, who's been mistaken for a genius on more than one occasion. This was the guy who made the first X-rated cartoon (Fritz the Cat) and was the first to try adapting The Lord of the Rings for the big screen. He also decided to use his dubious animation skills (much of which consisted of Rotoscoping, a crappy-and-cheap technique which involves tracing over live-action footage) to chronicle the history of popular music in American Pop. According to the genius of Bakshi, the evolution of modern pop culminates in a drug-dealing James Dean look-a-like lipsyncing a Bob Segar song (Bob Segar is the culmination of popular American music???). Anyway, even though well-snockered by this time, the three of us pretty-much agreed the movie was phenomenally slow, crudely animated and boring, even back in 1982. Today, it looks downright archiac.
Being a big music fan, I was willing to actually give the movie another chance when it played on cable years later. After all, lots of movies are better the second time. But I wasn’t able to sit through it again. Too many painful memories. Not of the movie itself (it’s been deservedly forgotten by most people), but how I associate seeing it with what me, Clay and Brian did later that night.
Have you ever done something really stupid when you were younger and, upon thinking about it years later, you shutter at how dangerous your actions really were, and how much worse things could have turned out if luck wasn’t on your side? I have a lot of memories like that, such as when me and Clay once snuck out of our houses in the middle of the night and got the bright idea to try and climb a 300-foot radio tower. Even though this genius idea was initially mine, I got increasingly cold feet as we approached the tower, and it was only with Clay’s encouragement that we kept going. He even volunteered to climb first, which turned out to be a good thing for me, because Clay only got about ten feet up before he was electrocuted and fell back to the ground. He was scared, dazed and sported a nasty burn on his arm, but other than that, he was okay. Thank God because, besides losing my best friend, I wouldn’t have been able to effectively explain his char-broiled demise to his grieving parents. I have to admit, though, his continued terrified ranting on the long walk home afterwards, when he briefly entertained the notion that he really did die and was now in Hell (yes, we were both drunk), is pretty chuckle-worthy.
But not even a year later, on that fateful night when we saw American Pop, I discovered that there was one thing scarier than a near-death experience…getting busted.
It was around three-in-the-morning, long after leaving the drive-in, and the three of us soon realized the idea of staying out all night wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. We were tired and bored, but couldn’t go home; the lies we told our parents excluded that option. We tried to get some shut-eye in the car, but have you ever really tried getting a good night’s sleep in in one? Not gonna happen.
That’s when I had the bright idea to go egg a house. But not just any house; the house of a kid we all hated. The kid in-question, Dan Sweet, had never done anything to us personally, but he was ‘different’ from us, and somewhat lacking in social skills, so of course we thought he was an utter dork deserving of punishment.
No, I’m not proud of that, and Dan, if you’re reading this, sorry man. I hope life has treated you better than we ever did.
So after stopping by a nearby 7-Eleven to grab some ammo (this was back in the day when apparently there was nothing suspicious about three bloodshot-eyed teenagers buying a carton of eggs in the middle of the night), we headed to the Sweet residence. I knew where he lived because I walked past his house every morning on the way to school.
Upon spotting the house, which was totally dark save for a porch light, we gathered our eggs and climbed out of the car. After we scanned the surrounding homes to make sure no one happened to be peering out their windows, we let the eggs fly, splattering the roof, the front door and one of the bedroom windows. Laughing hysterically, we jumped back into the car and high-tailed it out of there.
It was maybe twenty minutes later, Brian once again driving around with nowhere to go, that Clay spotted flashing red and blue in the distance behind us.
“Shit!” he cried. “Is that a cop?”
I turned around. The lights must have been a quarter-mile back, but they were coming fast. “He ain’t after us,” I said confidently, probably because I was still drunk.
“Oh, man,” Brian said, unsure of what to do. “Should we pull over?”
“No!” I snapped back. “He’s probably going on another call.”
“What if I was speeding?” Panic spread across Brian’s face. “Oh, shit, we got booze and eggs in the car!”
I whipped around to Clay, who was sitting in wide-eyed panic in the back seat. “Stash the bottle and the eggs!” Then I turned to Brian. “Turn off on the next street. Maybe they’ll just keep going.”
He never got that chance, because the cops were indeed after us. Still, I refused to believe it was because of the assault on Dan’s house. After all, we’d never been caught before. We were too smart, right?
Brian pulled over. The flashing police lights were blinding in the rearview mirrors. Two cops ordered us from the car. We complied, and it wasn’t until we were being frisked that reality instantly sobered me up.
The cops tossed the car, and almost immediately found the almost-empty vodka bottle and egg carton.
“I swear to God, I had no idea those were in there!” I remember claiming, even though both Brian and Clay had already manned-up and admitted what we did. Not much of a friend, was I? Turning chickenshit to try and save my own ass.
One of the cops, sporting a bushy porn-star mustache and coffee breath, got in my face and sneered, “I don’t think I like this kid. He’s a fuckin’ liar.”
I nearly pissed myself.
“Tell you what…either we call your parents or haul your sorry ass to jail.” He leered at me with a shit-eating grin I’ll never forget.
Jail or parents. What, no third option, like death? I would have preferred that one over calling my parents. After all, in my mother’s eyes, I was still some sort of golden boy, incapable of such behavior.
One of the most vivid memories from my childhood is seeing my parents driving up in their Volkswagen to pick me up by the roadside where cops stopped us. Dad always had a short fuse. No, he never beat me or anything, and was an awesome father, but he was also easily angered back then (which suddenly went away forever after he later retired from his career in public education…fancy that). But on this night, he had no expression at all as he climbed from the car to collect his delinquent son. His face was the scariest thing of all. No emotion, no rage, nothing. That’s when I knew I really screwed up. I triggered something in him beyond anger. I didn’t simply piss him off. I truly disappointed him, which was worse.
Mom was in tears, of course, as I knew she would me. She was also still living in total denial, because she couldn’t bring herself to believe her son could be involved in such an activity without being coerced by his friends. I must have given in to peer pressure. For a short time afterwards, she forbade to hang around Clay, even though egging the house was actually my idea. In fact, a lot of the deviant behavior we engaged in was my idea.
I got grounded for about 800 years, which I deserved. I also remember being pissed that Clay got off scot-free; his parents just chalked it up to boys being boys. Where could I buy parents like that? It could have been worse, though. I could have gone to jail, and thank God the Sweets chose not to press charges. Still, this incident is the only time in my life where I was nailed by police and treated like a criminal.
I don’t know whatever became of Brian - he was more Clay’s friend than mine - but Clay turned out okay, having developed some common sense long before I chose to. I still talk to him on the phone from time to time, and he’s married with a good job.
To this day, even if American Pop was the greatest animated achievements of all time (which it isn't), there’s no way I could watch it today without reliving that night in excruciating detail. Getting busted for egging a house may not rank anyone in the company of Dillinger, but when you are 17, it’s like your world is coming to an end.
Monday, March 19, 2012
My mom, however, shot down my plans pretty swiftly. “You are not going to see that. My friend at work told me a dog gets eaten, and a dead man is floating in the water with no eyes.”
This was still a few years before questioning her authority was an option. So, as an already obsessive movie geek, I was heartbroken. There it was, the mother of all movies, the cinematic Holy Grail, playing at the Southgate theater only five miles away, rendered forbidden fruit by my mother. Sure, I knew the whole story of the movie already, enthusiastically told to me by friends whose parents had no objections to letting them see it. But I wanted to see it myself. With Jaws rendered off limits, it became the only movie I wanted to see. And in ensuing months, I would occasionally ask Mom again, hoping she’d change her mind, but was always met with a stern no. She’d offer pretty-much the same reason every time: “That’s not the kind of movie a kid should see.”
On rare occasions when I felt brave, I’d counter with, “But it’s rated PG. You’ve let me see PG movies before, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
“Butch Cassidy never devoured the Sundance Kid,” she said, probably proud of her response. On a side note, having read numerous biographies over the years, many of which claimed Newman was secretly bisexual, there is the speculation that maybe Butch once did devour the Sundance Kid, so to speak. Anyway, Mom would always add, “Jaws is a horror movie, and you’re not going to see a horror movie about a fish that eats people. It‘ll give you nightmares.”
It was at this time I’d usually sulk back to my room, not understanding her reasoning. Even though I’d watched lots of horror movies before, for some reason she had a problem with Jaws. And with my limited debating skills, I was unable to convey how much it meant to me to actually see a fish eat people.
It helps at this point to know a little about my mom. She’s a wonderful person, and I know she has always looked out for me, feeling the need that most good parents do of keeping their kids protected from things in the world which could harm them. Yeah, as I got older, I sometimes felt like she was a bit overprotective, and I was often bewildered at the pieces of pop culture she decided I wasn’t ready for. I bought an Alice Cooper record once, and was listening to it one evening when she suddenly popped into my room, right when Alice was singing about keeping a dead woman in a refrigerator. Grabbing the lyrics sheet, Mom was aghast, and instantly forbade me from buying any more Alice Cooper records. Funny thing is, I was just a kid and didn't care about the words, and had no idea what the offending song (“Cold Ethyl,” by the way) was actually about. I just thought it sounded cool. The only reason I discovered the subject of the song was because she pointed it out. This new knowledge actually made the song even cooler.
Okay, as a parent myself, I cannow understand her concern about what her son was listening to. And even though I thought Mom was being a bit overzealous, it was her right as a parent to express her concerns.
However, when I later got into a band called Emerson, Lake & Palmer, she and my dad eventually forbade me from buying their records simply because they personally hated the music. It had nothing to do with what they sang about. But again, since they were paying the bills and I was living under their roof, doing so was still their right (although, somewhat amusingly, as my musical tastes eventually turned to heavy metal, I distinctly remember, during a shopping trip when I planned on snapping up the latest Judas Priest album, Mom suggested, “Why don’t you buy an Emerson, Lake & Palmer record? You used to love them.”)
What Mom declared forbidden became increasingly random. She decided I couldn’t go see Phantasm because of the tagline, “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead,” yet she had no problem dropping me and two friends off to catch Dawn of the Dead, a movie so gory that it was released unrated, at a seedy little theater whose employees never checked IDs. If you’ve ever seen both of these films, you’d know that you must be already dead, because Phantasm isn’t all that scary, but Dawn of the Dead is one of the most brutal and vicious movies ever made. Even more perplexing was her decision to forbid me from seeing The Gauntlet, a fairly minor (and stupid) movie in the Clint Eastwood canon, but simply something I had expressed an interest in watching. Yeah, that movie was rated R, but I’d seen rated R movies before, including Blazing Saddles, which they took me to see (if you’ve never seen Blazing Saddles, let me just tell you that the liberal use of the ‘N-word’ would probably shock modern audiences). Mom even had no problem with dropping me off at the Southgate to allow me to engage in the illegal act of sneaking from theater to theater to watch all the movies playing at this four auditorium theater for the price of one ticket. During this time I remember seeing such gory movies as Death Race 2000, where drivers compete in a cross-country race and earn bonus points for running over pedestrians. Still, for some unfathomable reason, while sneaking into movies without paying was okay, The Gauntlet was forbidden. And of course, being more rebellious at the age of 14, I went and saw it anyway, telling Mom I was gonna see something else. But, because I still respected Mom’s law, I later informed her of my crime, and was promptly grounded.
Anyway, back to Jaws. In November, on my 12th birthday, for reasons I still cannot fathom, Mom suddenly decided it was okay for me to invite a couple of friends to go see Jaws. By this time, the film had been out for six months. Everyone else had already seen it, including the friends I invited, but it didn’t matter. After months of hype, months of hearing from friends how awesome and scary it was, I finally got to see this pop culture phenomenon for myself.
Jaws takes place in the fictional coastal town of Amity (in real life, Martha’s Vineyard), where a 25-foot great white shark starts attacking swimmers. In order to save this vacation town from financial ruin, sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and loony charter boat captain Quint (Robert Shaw) set out on a rickety fishing boat to kill the shark. That’s the movie in a nutshell, and while it doesn’t sound like much on paper, how the story is so masterfully told that it rightfully made a superstar out of young director Steven Spielberg. We don’t even see the shark until about halfway through, which made it even scarier (it has been well-documented that the decision not to show the animal too much stemmed from the fact the mechanical shark built for the film broke down pretty often).
The final act (onboard the fishing boat) is still one of the most relentless and entertaining third acts ever made. And who really cares if you can’t actually blow up a three ton shark by shooting the scuba tank lodged in its mouth? It’s no more ridiculous than Jeff Goldblum destroying an entire alien civilization in Independence Day by firing up his laptop, and is sure as hell a better ending than the one offered by original Jaws author Peter Benchley, where the shark simply rolls over and dies. By the way, if you never read the original novel, don’t bother. It sucks.
For me, Jaws is one of the few movies that lived up to all the hype…and then some. We’ve all gotten amped-up to see uber-promoted blockbusters only to walk out of the theater thinking, “So what?” But Jaws was everything I hoped it would be: scary, funny, surprising. It was not the shocking gore-fest Mom feared - only five people are actually killed - and the poor little pooch she was so worried about doesn‘t die onscreen…in fact, it’s only implied that he dies. There is that jolting scene of one victim’s head popping at the screen with an eye missing, which scared me so bad my popcorn went flying, but Jaws was always more than just a “gotcha” horror movie. Leaving the theater, I felt like I saw just something special, more than just another flick my parents dropped me off to see while they went shopping. In ensuing years, not too many movies gave me that same rush. Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Escape from New York (I’ll explain that last one later) immediately come-to-mind, and the last movie to hit me with the impact of Jaws was Pulp Fiction.
But, just like my mom feared, the movie did give me nightmares. After coming home from the movie on my 12th birthday, some time during the night I crept into my parents’ room and crawled into bed with them. Man, that guy with his eyeball missing really did freak me out.
By the way...it is still my favorite movie.
Sunday, March 18, 2012
You don't have a predetermined picture if you read the book first, so you are now counting on filmmakers to fulfill your expectations, even though they have no idea how you personally pictured events in the book. This is, of course, fuel for the time-honored the cliche we've all quipped at one time or another: "the book was so much better than the movie". Cliche as it is, however, such an axiom is usually true, mainly because a filmmaker is asked to distil a book, which takes the average person two-to-three days to read, into a two-hour film. They're bound to leave out things fans of the book will be up-in-arms about. Or worse yet...make wholesale changes to the story itself.
And the first time I experienced this feeling was with The Shining.
Ever since ninth grade, I’ve been a huge Stephen King fan. His first book I read was The Stand, an apocalyptic, 800-page epic that I managed to finish in a single day, partially because I was grounded over the weekend, but also because I simply couldn’t put it down. Of all of King’s eight billion novels, it remains my favorite, and I’m still waiting for a truly great movie adaptation. The 1994 miniseries was pretty faithful to the book, but in my humble opinion, it was kind of cheap and watered down. And I still can’t take Molly Ringwald seriously. I really wish someone in Hollywood would have the balls to do for The Stand what Peter Jackson did with The Lord of the Rings...a big-ass story which can only be told over the course of three movies.
But by the time I read King's The Shining, I still wasn’t really selecting books based on who wrote them, even though The Stand was uber-awesome. The only reason I chose to read The Shining was because, during my parents’ annual ritual of sending me and my sister off to my grandma’s house for a week every summer, that book happened to be on her shelf. Grandma was a voracious reader, and belonged to God-knows how many book clubs, which sent her God-knows how many hardcover books every month. She read so many books that I remember a few occasions when she bought a book, only to discover a few pages in that she’d read it before. Hence, her house was literally crammed with so many freaking books that she couldn’t possibly have gotten to them all before she passed away years later. I only wish she could have stuck around long enough to see my own first book published. Even though it wasn’t in a genre that interested her, I think she would have been proud.
Anyway, Grandma lived in Prosser, Washington, a tiny town where the cows outnumber the human population. This meant I spent a lot of those summer weeks bored out of my freaking mind. But one day, when it was way too hot to go outside and Grandma had her nose buried in another novel, I checked out her shelves. The only book that looked even a little bit interesting was The Shining, which I’d at least heard of. My grandma read lots of genres, though, but never horror. The only reason she had a copy of The Shining was the book club sent it automatically, a reward for the countless Arthur Hailey and Harold Robbins stuff she had already devoured.
And the damn thing scared the shit out of me. The Stand may be King's best book, but to me, The Shining was his most scariest. To this day, it is the only novel which made me afraid to turn out the lights at night. It also confirmed in my mind that Stephen King was the greatest writer ever.
So imagine the thrill I felt when I later learned it was going to be a movie. I just knew it was destined to be the scariest thing ever made, even scarier than The Exorcist. I couldn’t wait. The movie was especially a big deal in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, because the exterior scenes of the Overlook Hotel were shot at Timberline Lodge, a ski resort only an hour’s drive away.
At that time, even though my obsession with movies was approaching geek level, I didn’t know Stanley Kubrick from the Stanley Cup. The only movie of his I’d seen at the time was 2001: A Space Odyssey when it played on TV, and all I could think about before changing the channel after 20 minutes was, “What the hell do these angry monkeys have to do with space?” Of course, when I got older, I learned to appreciate him as a genius, but as a 15-year-old who’d seen Star Wars but hadn’t yet discovered weed (which, by the way, is still the best way to enjoy 2001), I was monumentally disappointed that I wasted so much time watching primates beat each other to death with bones.
Stanley Kubrick was an American director who lived in England, and made a movie once every 600 years or so. He chose his projects very carefully and, like Alfred Hitchcock, he was the true star of his movies. They were celebrated events whenever he eventually chose to make one, which wasn’t often; following Dr. Strangelove (my personal favorite) in 1964, Kubrick only made six more movies before he died in 1999. The guy was notorious for taking forever to set up individual shots, and requiring tons of takes for every one of them. It has been well-documented that, during the making of The Shining, he rendered Shelley Duvall to tears because of the sheer number of takes he made her endure for a single scene. Then again, Shelly Duvall looks like someone you could render to tears just by looking at her cross-eyed.
Still, his films have a look and tone like no one else’s. They are epic and claustrophobic at the same time, slow-moving yet fascinating, beautiful to look at but sometimes (in the case of A Clockwork Orange) really, really disturbing. Kubrick tackled a lot of different genres, but his movies all somehow felt the same (which I’m certain was intentional). When you’re watching a Stanley Kubrick movie, you know you’re watching a Stanley Kubrick movie.
Which is why he was totally the wrong guy to direct The Shining. Stephen King thought so, too, who famously equated The Shining with a beautiful car that had no engine.
But I didn’t know all that at the time. All I knew was the scariest book I ever read was gonna be a movie, and I was gonna be first in line to get the bejeezus scared out me yet again. I only hoped I wouldn’t feel the need to crawl into my parents’ bed later, as I did after I first saw Jaws. At 16, that would be pretty weird.
That didn't happen, because the movie was a total letdown. Not scary at all. It was slow, long and stripped of nearly all the supernatural elements of the story that made it so scary in the first place. I couldn’t believe how much the movie strayed from the book. Where were the hedge animals? Where was the backstory that explained the Overlook Hotel’s dark past? Where were the phantasms who contributed to Jack Torrance’s descent into madness, or maybe even took possession of him? Kubrick took out all that stuff and more, leaving just the title, the initial premise and the characters.
All of the scariest parts of the novel were taken out! What we got was Jack Nicholson slowly going apeshit (which, admittedly, is pretty cool), with a few supernatural elements almost randomly crammed in towards the end. In the book, there is a recurring image of a guy in a dog costume is performing oral sex on another man, and King slowly reveals the importance of the scene, with relation to the hotel’s history, as the story progresses. In the movie, there’s only a single random shot of this, which makes absolutely no sense because the viewer is not given any previous explanation for its importance. It just becomes a WTF moment. As a movie fan, I’ve got no problem with filmmakers making changes or taking liberties with the source novel to create a better movie experience (thank God Spielberg did so when making Jaws). But come on, why would you suddenly include a single random shot of a dog blowing someone if you aren’t going to explain why it is there?
Additionally, it’s one thing to make sweeping changes to an obscure novel, or one that wasn’t very good to begin with (like Jaws). But The Shining was already a huge, critically-praised, bestseller by the time Kubrick got his hooks into it. One would think anybody involved in adapting a story like this would want to remain as faithful to the source material as possible (like the Harry Potter movies) just to please fans. And I think if the movie was directed by someone with less clout than Kubrick, he or she would have done that very thing. Instead, Kubrick took an author’s story and used it as a springboard to make another Stanley Kubrick film, which is really its own little genre.
He’s done this before. Dr. Strangelove was based on the dead-serious novel of nuclear brinkmanship, Red Alert, by Peter George. By the time Kubrick was done, Dr. Strangelove had become a vicious satire and is still generally regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all time. But almost nobody remembers George’s novel.
Maybe that was Kubrick’s intention with The Shining, too. And maybe he succeeded, because his version is considered by countless viewers, critics and historians to be one of the greatest horror films ever made, most of whom probably never read the book. And even though I cried foul at the liberties Kubrick took with The Shining, I never actually read Red Alert, but think Dr. Strangelove is a great film. Maybe I'd think the same about The Shining if I hadn't read the book first, because Kubrick’s version of The Shining is indeed loaded with hypnotically astounding scenes which often have little or nothing to do with the original novel, especially the endless use of Steadicam tracking shots. Steadicam was a fairly new technology at the time, which allowed a cameraman to smoothly follow the action, no matter what the terrain. Kubrick utilizes the Steadicam like it's a new Christmas toy, so much so that these scenes dominate the viewer's attention. Yeah, it all looks really cool, but it is obvious Kubrick was far more in love with the setting in which he could play with his toys than the story, its characters or his actors.
Regarding the latter, the acting is awful, with two exceptions. One is Jack Nicholson’s totally unhinged performance as Jack Torrence (pretty much the same thing he did when single-handedly saving Tim Burton’s version of Batman a few years later). But even then, that was Jack being Jack Nicholson, not Jack Torrence. Even the movie's most infamous line ("Heere's Johnny!") was improvised by Nicholson, and not part of the original script. It’s pretty safe to say one-liners like this are the other main reason The Shining is held in such high regard, though I personally think Jack's lengthy conversion in the bathroom with the ghost of Delbert Grady is by-far the best scene in the movie.
I’m also still pretty amazed at little Danny Lloyd’s performance as Jack's son; for a kid that age to hold his own against Nicholson…remarkable for a six-year-old kid. He still gets my vote for the greatest-ever performance by a child actor, mainly because he never seems like he is acting. In fact, once you get over Jack being Jack, Lloyd's might actually be the greatest performance in the whole film. The same can't be said for Shelley Duvall, as Jack's mousy wife, who truly sucks. Her performance in the early scenes border on amateurish, and as for her overwrought hysteria in later scenes, I still myself wishing Nicholson really would bash her brains “right the fuck in.”
It wasn’t until years later, watching the film again, after developing an appreciation for Kubrick's craft, that I was able to detach myself of the source novel and at-least appreciate the movie for what it is…a great-looking piece of cinema that manages to feel epic and claustrophobic at the same time. Kubrick probably never meant for us to draw comparisons between the book and the film. I still don’t think it’s very scary, but it sure is fun watching Kubrick’s Steadicam chase little Danny around the hotel halls.
I dunno, maybe the original story is one of those which is simply impossible to effectively adapt (there is a ton of internal dialogue in the book). King himself even attempted to adapt his own story years later as a TV miniseries and couldn’t pull it off (in fact, that one is downright boring). Maybe it’s true that a reader’s imagination creates scarier images than any filmmaker can possibly achieve. Maybe because of that, it is simply not possible to recreate the same terror onscreen that I felt when first reading the book.
As a film, I still think The Shining is pretty overrated. It is far-more in love with style over substance, and I am still stunned by the number of highly-regarded critics who continue to rank it among the scariest movies ever. To those critics, who obviously have never read the original novel, I have to ask whether or not their assessment is swayed by their love of Kubrick as a director, Nicholson's scenery-chewing or its technical virtuosity.
Is it creepy? Yes. Does it create a sense of dread in the viewer? Yes. Is it at least interesting enough to justify its 144 minute running time? Yes, but that's faint praise for a movie based on a book that once scared the living hell out of millions of readers. Although I must admit I like the movie for what it is (a deliberately-paced, hypnotic descent into madness), I can't help but think how truly scary this film would have been if it had simply stuck with the original story...you know, the one those who love the movie have obviously never read.
Friday, March 16, 2012
When I was a kid, I had this buddy named Matt Schuler, whose dad was the first in the neighborhood to buy a VCR (or VTR, as they were called back in the day), a mammoth box roughly the size of a Chevy Nova, which played Betamax tapes. I think his dad bought it primarily to record football and watch porn, but I was in awe because this giant machine was every movie lover’s dream...the ability to watch a real movie in the privacy of your own home, without waiting for it to come on HBO or for NBC to edit the shit out it two years after it showed in theaters.
Back then, there wasn’t a Red Box on every corner. There weren't even any Blockbuster stores, so to rent movies, one had to drive halfway across town to small video store called Video East, the only place in the area that supported this new technology. It was a wonderful place, with a huge selection of over 100 movies (not counting the pornos hidden behind some curtains in the back room).
One of those early videos was 1980's The Blues Brothers. I had seen it before. The Blues Brothers was a already a milestone in my young life because it was the first movie I invited a girl to on an actual date, where I picked her up and paid for everything. Her name was Molly, a cute girl I was friends with in high school. We went to the Foster Road Drive-In to catch the flick. Of course, the Foster is not there today, long-ago replaced by an industrial park.
Back then, taking a date to a drive-in mostly meant one thing, and it wasn’t to watch the movie. But because my movie-geekness still outweighed my teenage urges, we actually sat in my car together and watched the movie, an act probably not expected from a teenaged kid with a girl seated next to him.
Hey, what can I say? Yeah, girls are awesome, but so are movies, especially when you have to pay for them with your meager allowance.
Anyway, after the show was over, I drove her home, we kissed goodnight and that was it. We never went out again afterwards, even though the date was great (at least I thought so) and we remained friends. I'm not sure why I never asked her out again. Maybe it was because the next girl I asked out definitely knew the purpose of drive-in dating, and didn't give a damn what was on-screen. After about five minutes with her, I didn't give a damn, either.
Anyway, a year or so after that first date with Molly, The Blue Brothers was one of the first-ever movies available to rent and take home. In case you haven't seen it, the film is a musical comedy based on a recurring sketch from Saturday Night Live, back when that show was still funny. John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd play Jake and Elwood Blues, two seedy musicians trying to save an orphanage from foreclosure by getting their band back together and doing a show. The thin plot is mostly an excuse to feature a lot of deadpan comedy, several musical numbers and, best of all, a shitload of car chases and vehicular mayhem.
Not to let my inner sexist show, I'm a guy, and even though I now have an appreciation for many classic musicals, that's not the same as actually enjoying them. As much as I can honestly acknowledge the artistry and elegance of a film like The King and I, I really don't feel the urge to sit through it a second time. Yeah, I know it made Yul Brynner a star, but I grew up watching him blow away tourists in Westworld, blasting banditos in The Magnificent Seven and being all-around badass in The Ten Commandments. I've seen each of those movies at least ten times each. I've watched The King and I once.
Hey, I'm a guy. That's how I'm wired. Hell, that's how most guys are wired. And as guys, we can't help-but-think how much more awesome The Sound of Music would have been if the Von Trapp family strapped on some Uzis and commenced cutting Nazis in half between musical numbers.
But The Blues Brothers? That is, without a doubt, the first-ever musical truly made for guys. for those of you planning a retort, do not bring-up the 1969 musical-western, Paint Your Wagon, where we are subjected to the horror of Clint Eastwood's vocal abilities, as a rebuttal. That overblown cinema suppository was simply another corny old musical which happened to feature two woefully-miscast Hollywood tough guys (the other being Lee Marvin, who turned down the fucking Wild Bunch to do this).
And don't bring up Pink Floyd the Wall, either. Yeah, guys of that era loved Pink Floyd, but The Wall isn't even a movie. It's a 95 minute music video, and only interesting after you've addled yourself with enough LSD to think that Bob Geldolf is a good actor. Besides, narcotic hallucination knows no gender.
No, what makes The Blues Brothers the first (and perhaps only) truly guys' musical lies in the fact that it is mostly rambling, shapeless and often-nonsensical, a hodge-podge of everything endeared by guys with the exception of gratuitous nudity. It only has more actual plot than The Road Warrior (surely the simplest story of all time). Sure, there are several musical set-pieces, just as expertly choreographed as anything in Singin' in the Rain, but for the most part, they do not serve the story in any way whatsoever (despite how awesome the songs are, especially when Arethra Franklin shows up to belt out the best number in the film). They pop-up almost randomly, as do the car crashes, guns, flamethrower attacks, building bombings, shopping mall destructions, Nazis, Orange Whips and gratuitous cameos by various actors, musicians, models & film directors.
Anyway, back to Video East, which had a promotion going at the time Matt plucked it off the shelf for us...if you could accurately count the number of cars destroyed in the movie, you’d win 10 free rentals! That didn't seem like a big deal, so once we got back to his house and shotgunned a few brews, we watched it closely, trying to keep track of all the vehicular carnage. It was easy at first, but became increasingly difficult as the movie progressed, especially during the last thirty minutes, during which time we just gave up (if you've ever seen the film, you know why). The vehicular attrition in The Blues Brothers must be seen to be believed. To this day, I am convinced tallying the automobile carnage in The Blues Brothers is an impossible task to all but the most dedicated movie geek, even with the ability to freeze a frame. I'm sure by now the total number of wrecked cars is available on some fanboy website somewhere, but I have a sneaking suspicion that, back then, not even the proprietors of Video East knew the exact count.
On a side note, am I the only one who thought Dan Ackroyd was the funniest character in the movie, not John Belushi?