Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Break In the Writer's Strike

He sucks!! I am never reading his stupid blog again.

-- Jackie Stout Barrera

Oh like he updates his blog.

-- Holly Hanchey

There's nothing worse than facing the reality that people have your number.

My last post went up when? August? And the last four topics are two entries on a space shuttle flight (there has been another since), an installment in the ever-floundering Hitchcock Project, and a one-dimensional account of a trip in JUNE. Boy, a person who lets that much time go by must have a really good excuse. Whatcha been up to, Wilson?

The Professional World
I tend to be kind of tight-lipped about my work life (mainly because I always hear stories about people who discuss their jobs in their blogs, and it never turns out well). I think the last time I really discussed what I was up to concerned my departure from Jellyvision almost a year ago. After that, I worked for a little while for a publishing company based in Lincolnwood. That was fun, and I met some really lovely people there, but the job had the great misfortune to be located in Lincolnwood, a town which is not conveniently located (Hello, suburban bus line!) and which was not built for pedestrians (Goodbye, sidewalks!). I was there for the first half of 2007, leaving right before they moved from Lincolnwood to Morton Grove, which is somehow even more remote and walking-unfriendly.

So now? I'm back at Jellyvision! I know! What goes around literally comes around. It's a flattering thing to be asked back. When I stop and think about it, I'm still surprised.

The House
Quite a few changes, foremost among them being a new paint job in the living room. For anyone who had the chance to visit Wilmont Manor, you may recall that our walls were once a distinctive Kermit green. Clair felt like it was toying with our mental well-being. Not anymore. My Dad popped in to help us transform the walls into a beautiful buttery yellow (actual paint name: Warm Cocoon), and the difference is extraordinary. I have never painted my home before -- actually, I haven't painted anything since elementary school. But I can definitely see the appeal.

Also, in an attempt to reduce the staggering amount of clutter in our house, we have divested ourselves of a great many worldly possessions, foremost among them a dining room table. To our overwhelming glee, we managed to persuade our friends Matt & Brandi to accept our furnishing albatross, which they have evidently found to their liking. Two more tables, a host of boxes, guitars, coat racks, Christmas paraphenalia -- I'd guess we've shipped out nearly a third of our possessions. And I don't feel like we've made so much as a dent. Very frustrating.

A Side Note
When my Dad was here, I had the chance to take him to see the resident company of Jersey Boys, the smash hit Four Seasons Broadway musical that, ironically, you can now only see here, since the Broadway company is shuttered owing to a stagehands strike. Dad is a big fan of the band, but I had an additional reason for wanting to see the show: we know someone in the cast. That would be stage star Steven Goldsmith, who regularly plays the role of "Joey", but also understudies for the vocally-challenging role of Frankie Valli, the Seasons' falsetto-crooning lead singer. Now, we only saw him in his usual role, but I can honestly tell you, he and the show are awesome. Thinking of seeing it? You should.

Further anecdote: Steven was at our friend Jessica's wedding in Miami in June, as were we. At one point during the reception, the DJ spun Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off You", and Steven rolled his eyes, having found himself in a weird sort of busman's holiday. I love show business.

The Hitchcock Project
Yeah, yeah. I've actually watched the next film on the list, The Farmer's Wife, and the one after that, The Manxman, has been in my house for weeks. But I've definitely hit a rut, and what worries me is that I've slowed to a halt at about the same point I stopped the first time I tried to read this biography. I'm sure that means something, either about me or Hitchock. I don't know what that is yet.

What's worse is that fate is clearly trying to help me along with the project. AMC has been on a Hitchcock trip as of late, and the art museum up at Northwestern University is featuring an exhibit of storyboards from Hitchcock films. I should have seen that by now. As the old joke goes, they've sent me two boats and a plane. What more could I ask for?

So that's a little of what's been going on. But does that explain the failure to write? Does that justify my complete absence from these pages? What the hell is up?

Jackie and Holly got this entry started, and I think they can reveal my secret far better than I. Here's the extended cut of their conversation:

HOLLY: Oh wait, did Shane not tell you guys that they're expecting? I'm assuming that he didn't because he never tells anyone anything.

JACKIE: What?!! Shane Wilson is having a baby? I can’t believe that loser didn’t tell us. He sucks!! I am never reading his stupid blog again.

Jackie, I totally hear you. That Shane is a jerk.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I Touch the Future: Follow-Up

Just for the sake of closure...

Endeavour is on the ground. Barbara Morgan is back on Earth. Mission complete.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007


I made a surprising discovery after finishing this film, when I went back to my Hitchcock biography to read up on it: this was pretty much the same point where I stopped reading the first time around. Clearly, there's something about this period in Hitchcock's career that is deeply uninteresting to me.

I'd like very much to blame that on the stories he's telling. They're not especially, well, Hitchcockian. All the suspense, the intrigue, the dark humor that we expect from one of his films has been missing. And that's certainly true of the latest entry in the oeuvre, The Ring. After all, it's a movie about boxing.

The problem with that theory is this: uniquely among his films, Hitchcock takes a writing credit on The Ring. Unofficially, Hitchcock had a great impact on the story of most of his films, usually through his direct influence on the writers. But to actually slap his name on the title card as writer and director is pretty unusual.

And it's regrettable, because the story of The Ring is pretty simple-minded. Our hero is a carnival attraction by the name of "One Round" Jack Sander (played by the surprisingly stringy Carl Brisson), who earns his nickname by challenging all comers to last more than one round against him in the ring. Of course, since he's a skilled fighter and most of his would-be opponents are either weaker, drunk, or both, "One Round Jack" has things pretty well in hand. He's friends with everyone at the carnival, and he's in love with the ticket girl, whose name is Mabel, or might be Nellie (the character played by Lillian Hall-Davis in the credits as "The Girl", so I was really surprised to find out she might have a name; the IMDb kind of threw things into chaos). For a guy who travels around with circus freaks and makes his living punching people, life is pretty good.

The fly in Jack's ointment is a fellow by the name of Bob Corby (played by Ian Hunter; NOT the MTV VJ). Corby defeats Jack, and then reveals that the whole thing was kind of a cheat; Corby is the world boxing champion, so Jack never had a chance. But Corby is impressed enough to hire Jack as a sparring partner, and to give him a chance to work his way up through the ranks. So things are ever brighter for Jack, except that Corby has an ulterior motive. He's infatuated with Mabel/Nellie/Whatsername, and he's already plying her with trinkets like an arm bracelet. Soon enough, Jack realizes that he's going to have to fight for his girl, both literally and metaphorically.

I have two major gripes with The Ring. The first is the boxing. It looks terrible. The film culminates -- very much like Rocky -- with a lengthy, dramatic battle inside the ropes, and the whole thing falls apart because the boxing is so wussy. Honestly, it looks like a Girl Scout fight. I was inclined to chalk it up to lousy casting, until I read that Carl Brisson got the part because a middleweight boxing champ. Which led to my new theory: that boxing in the 1920s was awful.

But the much bigger grievance, and the one that actually made me angry, involves the central conflict of the film. Jack is losing his girl to Corby, and he feels powerless to stop it. There's a good reason for him to feel this way: his girl is a cheap slut. Seriously. The moment -- I'm telling you, the very moment -- that Corby starts coming on to her, she completely loses interest in Jack. She even marries Jack, and yet hardly gives him the time of day. Most telling is a wild 1920s hullaballoo in their apartment, where Corby fawns all over Mabel/Nellie, and all she does is look contemptuously at Jack. Sweet girl. So knowing that the outcome of the fight depends on her choice of man is infuriating. She's done nothing to deserve it.

And all the while, Jack seems to do nothing but quietly bemoan his fate. When he invites all his old pals from the carnival over to the new home, and The Girl is nowhere to be seen, all they can do is look at each other sadly while he pathetically stews about his delinquent wife. In other words, the man has a backbone made of Jell-O. Oh, he seethes at Corby, destroying a punching bag while watching his wife flirt with the champ. But he doesn't say one word to the woman he presumably loves.

This comes to forefront in a pivotal scene at a nightclub, where Jack has gone looking for his wife. He finds Corby, who cheerfully offers him a glass of champagne. (In a nicely acted moment, Brisson coldly pours it on the floor.) But more importantly, he has a cheerless dance with a pretty reveler (much prettier than Mabel/Nellie, if you ask me) who clearly is smitten with him, but whom he blows off. Now good for him for the sanctity or marriage and all that, but what was clear to me was that Jack's really alright. He's not a total pushover; he's a fighter, and the chicks dig him. But when it comes to The Girl, he's a total pussy. And that's what I was yelling at the screen: "Jack, you idiot! She totally doesn't deserve you! Either confront the ungrateful little tramp or dump her!"

I tried to stop caring about the story, because I felt fairly certain that Hitchcock didn't. The very opening of the film shows the carnival in all its glory. With quick cuts, dissolves, multiple exposures, all the tricks at his disposal, he captures every element of the fairground, all the fun and all the nastiness. Hitchcock the Visualist is in full bloom in The Ring, especially in that big boxing scene I was talking about. The fighting may be lousy, but it's filmed awfully well. He uses shots from the very top of the arena, and he uses shots that get right into the ring with the combatants, which must have been a novel idea in 1927. He even uses a series of point-of-view shots, giving us a look through each boxer's eyes as our opponent comes at us. (Unfortunately, this also serves the highlight the terrible boxing.) In many ways, The Ring feels like an experimental film, as though Hitchcock had all these great ideas for what to do with a camera, and he just made up some silly story as a way to showcase them.

Unfortunately, my other great surprise from Patrick McGilligan's biography was the discovery that The Ring is one of the most acclaimed of Hitchcock's silent movies. I just don't see it. Maybe technically, I suppose. But I can't get past the notion that the whole film falls apart if the hero -- just once -- stops acting like a wet dishrag and stands up for himself. I'm not against passive heroes, and judging from his future output, neither is Hitchcock. But they usually end up earning their triumph, because they overcome their passivity. And "One-Round" Jack really doesn't do enough to earn his way into Round Two.

We're almost done with the silents. And thank goodness, because the randomly inappropriate music these public domain DVD producers are using is driving me batty.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

I Touch the Future

Barbara Morgan is in space.

I've all but given up on the hope that anybody I know -- absolutely anybody -- shares my enthusiasm for the exploration of space (if not the ineptly-run "space program"). But the fact remains that tonight, Barbara Morgan is in space. And I couldn't be happier.

It takes something really unusual to get most people's attention focused on a shuttle launch these days. Either there's someone notable on the flight, or people think it might explode. Otherwise, no one gives it the time of day. Barbara Morgan is, it turns out, one of the more noteworthy shuttle passengers in recent years, and still very few people are paying notice. I admit that even I'm a little attentive to this flight, and Barbara Morgan is the reason.

That's her with Christa McAuliffe. They were the two people selected by NASA's Teacher in Space program over two decades ago. McAuliffe was to fly; Morgan was the backup.

And of course, Christa McAuliffe died when a booster rocket malfunctioned, and burned a hole in an enormous tank of fuel, and her spacecraft was destroyed and she plummeted for two minutes until she smashed into the unforgiving surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

(Thinking back over the list of gross errors NASA made in allowing McAuliffe and her colleagues to perish in that accident still infuriates me. That may have been noticeable just now.)

I was in high school when Challenger was launched for the final time. We weren't avidly following the flight that day, but the Teacher in Space program had not escaped out notice. I learned precious little chemistry in my chemistry class, but I have never forgotten the day our teacher, a small but imposing man named Karl Jones, was asked why he didn't apply. His response seemed, at the time, cynical and cruel: "I'm not really interested in sitting atop a guided missile built by the lowest bidder."

I don't remember where I was headed when Sunny Hsieh stopped me in the hallway and said, "The shuttle blew up." I didn't believe him. It seemed like a bad joke. (Although not nearly as bad as the ones I would hear over the next few weeks. Every dead astronaut joke was like salt in a wound.) But the ugly truth was confirmed when I reached my locker, which was next to a bank of windows looking into the metal shop. There was a television, and in the way that network news does, it played the tragedy on a continuous loop. All through lunch, I stayed in that hallway, staring through the window, watching the television, hoping I wouldn't get in trouble.

Now, for me, the presence of a teacher wasn't necessary to make it more tragic. (The loss of Columbia four years ago was just as much of a sucker punch, although years of NASA aimlessness deadened the pain somewhat.) But for good or ill, Christa McAuliffe is the face of that ill-fated flight. For defenders of the space program, she's a martyr. For opponents, she's a symbol of incompetence turned deadly. For the indifferent, she's just a sad story, someone to put on the cover of People.

For Barbara Morgan, she was something else entirely, and that's why I really like her. For her, Christa McAuliffe was a friend and a co-worker. But even more, she was the embodiment of an idea. She represented the notion that there was a lot to learn from space. And as far as Barbara Morgan was concerned, until someone got up into space and taught the lessons that Christa McAuliffe was supposed to teach, then something very important, very meaningful, remained unfinished. So she lobbied NASA to keep the Teacher in Space program alive. She taught the lessons of her friend, and campaigned to finish her mission. Eventually, she left her teaching job and became a full-fledged astronaut. (She'll operate the robot arm that will install new solar panels on the space station.) She fought and fought to make sure that Christa McAuliffe's sacrifice did not go for naught. And almost 22 years later, she's about to realize that dream.

I get overly emotional about these things, which is why I blogging is a perilous venture for me. But that emotion is why I watched the launch of Endeavour on my computer at work this evening, even though I had work to do. I want to see Barbara Morgan complete this mission, and I'll be watching anxiously until she touches down in two weeks. And right now, she's in orbit. So far, so good.


Monday, August 06, 2007


In an feeble effort to atone for my complete and utter absence for weeks at a time, I'm going to try and catch up on some of what's been going on during all that time. Once I've done that, I'll probably disappear again. I'm awful, you see.

One of the columns that I wrote over and over in my head was the open letter I was composing to the CEOs of United Airlines and US Airways, as a great big thank you for the awesomely incompetent job their companies were foind in the field of getting people from one place to another. Of course, as you know if you've boarded a plane at any time in the past seven months, the entire fracking industry has given the American public the middle finger.

Our June travel extravaganza was particularly ripe for trouble, because we were zig-zagging across the entire continent within a 10-day span, and we had no room for flexibility. Naturally, we were so screwed. And yet I've never felt as screwed in the realm of air travel as I did this time around. Let me take you on a little trip.

Leg 1: ORD->MIA. We flew to Miami for the wedding of our friends Jessica and Jason. This trip would be the last one that wasn't fraught with trouble. We took off on time, we landed on time, and other than a run-in with the world's stupidest Avis counter representative, we had no difficulty at all. Which is astounding, when you consider that we left O'Hare, which has a just reputation as the most irritating airport on earth. But no, we had no problems with O'Hare. No, that was someone else's evil domain. We drove from Miami to North Carolina, having no idea what fresh hell lay in store.

Leg 2: CHA->ORD->YVR. For reasons to complicated to go into, Clair had to attend a conference in Vancouver right in the middle of our trip. But we were rolling with it. I drove Clair to Charlotte with plenty of time to spare. Clair checked her bag, despite her absolute certainty that they were going to lose it. (To be safe, she kept a particular dress in her purse, just in case.) And about two hours later, as I was making my way back across North Carolina, I got the text message: "Computer failure. All flights grounded."

Yes, evidently United Airlines has a single computer that does all of the fuel and weight calculations for every single flight they run. And when some yokel decides to play Minesweeper at the same time, that computer goes down, and the entire system goes into a giant kerfluffle. And from what I understand, THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME THAT THIS HAS HAPPENED. United, let's face it: you're idiots. Buy another damn computer, you morons. It's truly a miracle that Clair made it to Vancouver at all, let alone hours late.

Oh, and they lost her luggage.

Leg 3: YVR->LAS->PHI->Whatever the hell the code is for Newburgh, New York
Her return trip was even more brutal. She had to change planes twice, and evidently, they did not go out of their way to make it comfortable. Of course, I wasn't helping matters because of

Leg 4: CHA->EWR. Which is where I was within inches of ripping the larynx out of a USAir lackey's throat just for the pure satisfaction of hearing it crackle. USAir, bless their little incompetent hearts, found that they had scheduled way too many flights into the New York area. Turns out this isn't a surprise, since everyone schedules too many flights into the New York area. But I didn't know that at the time. So I wasn't too worried when I reached the gate and saw that my flight was delayed by two hours. Hey, I was still going to make it in time for the Broadway show I had tickets for.

Still, just out of curiosity, I checked the weather in New York. Crystal clear. Hmm. So I approached the counter, just to clarify the announcement. What's the matter again?

"Air traffic!" the prissy man barked.

Um, okay. So, like, weather patterns between--

"Air traffic!"

Ah, you're so helpful. So is there any chance the plane will be delayed again?

"No!" And he said it with this fey indignance. But, to be fair, he was telling the truth. It wasn't delayed again. Ten minutes later, it was canceled.

Evidently, you can do this. You can promise people something, take their money, and then renege on the promise, and they're not obligated to give a crap. It was breathtaking.

I'm sure I was supposed to be grateful for the fact that the USAir computers or whoever had automatically booked me for another flight -- four hours later. And an hour after my play started. After all, there were people who got bumped even later than that, and probably still more who ended up going nowhere at all. But it's hard no to be bitter. Even more so when I ended up two short on the standby list for another plane. I blame the Lu's for that. Some couple named Lu got paged 38 times, and right as they're about to call my name, this idiot who has been sitting in front of the counter the entire time says, real casual-like, "Oh, we're the Lu's." I didn't want that plane to crash. Just the two seats where the Lu's were sitting.

So what did I do to cope? Two things:
1) Sent pathetic text messages to my wife. The one who was getting on three different planes in a desperate attempt to make it all the way across the country for the second wedding on our itinerary. Classy move, Shane.
2) Read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which proved to be most enlightening, as Harry no longer seemed like the whiny, self-absorbed teenager that he had during my first reading, but rather an earnest soul who was unfairly treated by the world, and deserving of some overdue respect. Yes, Harry's anger and mine were flying in close formation.

I couldn't even get much angrier when my new flight, the four-hour later one, and which took off almost a full hour later than that, was forced to fly around for a while because New York was still too crowded and wasn't ready for us. It metasticized into pure surliness by the time I reached the hotel, around the same time my play was ending. Suffice it to say, I had never ordered Johnnie Walker Black before.

Last Leg: LGA->ORD. The fact that it was delayed would be anticlimactic, except for the fact that we were grateful for this delay. Why? Because our TRAIN didn't run on time. In fact, we found out when we got to the station that sometimes, the train we booked to get us back to New York City "doesn't run at all". Isn't that marvelous? Sometimes, there's just no train. That's just how things are. No one's in charge of this, evidently. We had seats on board the Existential Express.

Is there a reason for this? Well, yes, the Transportation Security Administration is borderline retarded, and summer is always busy, and demand is higher than ever, but in the end, don't blame terrorists. No, this is entirely the airlines' doing. As Patrick Smith, an airline pilot himself and one of my favorite writers on the web today, points out, airlines are switching to smaller planes that require the exact same amount of time as a 747 to be cleared by air traffic control. So Mr. Air Traffic! has no one to blame but his own bosses.

We saw clear evidence of this trying to get out of LaGuardia. Once our plane finally pushed away from the gate, disappointing the 97 people onthe standby list who had probably gotten screwed out of their own flights, we taxied beside a very long line of planes. The woman in front of me was counting them out loud. I believe her final tally was 26. And that line was the one we had to join at the end. And after finally reaching the front, we then crossed over three other lines just to get to our takeoff runway. Unbelievable.

And why would the airlines do this? Because they're making tons of money, that's why. I'll mention this again: if a restaurant brings you bad food, they replace it. Frequently, they don't charge you for it. A car dealer might take money off the price if you find a ding on the fender. In most industries, when you get a substandard product, you get compensated for it somehow. But in the wild world of air travel, where every seat costs a different price and where your only demand is that you get pretzels and you gladly punt your civil liberties because someone heard you can blow up a plane with AquaFresh, in this crazy mixed-up world, when the company doesn't give you the service you purchased, or they give you a substandard product, in this world YOU DON'T GET JACK.

This is why Americans love their cars.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


In the time since I last posted, I suspect that young Alfred Hitchcock could have made three movies. I however, have watched none.

Not for lack of trying. I've had a disc from Netflix sitting in my house for about two months. I have a videocasette that I've checked out from the library five times in a row; still unwatched. The Project is somewhat stagnant.

It's not as though I've been doing nothing. There was this 10-day trip all across the eastern seaboard. There've been rather significant changes in the employment situation. Even seen a couple movies, read a couple books. Including that one book that everyone on earth is reading. Life has been quite busy.

I'm just not that good at the blogging thing. And I know it. I just thought I should mention that.

If you still check in every now and then, thank you. I appreciate that. I'll try and make it worth your while.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


(Holy crap. I didn't post this, already? Damn. Okay then, I'll just fall further behind. So be it.)

Yes, I can count. The Project has sailed into some choppy seas.

The next film on the list is supposed to be a little thing called Downhill, which reunited Hitchcock with the star of his huge success, The Lodger. That reunion did not turn out great. As much as critics loved The Lodger, that's how much they hated Downhill.

Still, the purpose of this project is not to watch only the good Hitchcock movies. It's to see all of them. So I hunted high and low for a copy of no avail.


Ideally, I intended to watch these movies in chronological order, beginning to end. To skip Downhill would destroy that order. It would also mean that, four films into the Project, I'd be batting .500. Embarrassing. On the other hand, to wait for a copy of Downhill to fall into my hands would mean more delays, and we've reached the point where even I have had it with the big, empty, blog-free gaps.

So I made a choice. Get on with it. Go to the next one on the list. Grab Downhill somewhere down the road. It's not ideal, but there's a project to get through.

Fortunately, I still got to see a bad movie.

Easy Virtue is the tale of Larita (played by another fantastically-named actress, Isabel Jeans), who finds herself in a bit of a pickle. You see, her husband is kind of a drunken jerk who bruises her wrist, and meanwhile there's this painter who is supposed to be painting her portrait but actually tries to seduce her. Well, before you know it, the drunk husband has a gun, the painter ends up dead, and our Larita ends up divorced, with the whole world thinking she's a dirty little slut.

This sounds promising, but you have to look at this through the prism of 1927, when the mere act of being divorced was an unforgivable sin. I suppose at the time, the story's central conceit of making the evil harlot into a sympathetic heroine was quite daring. But today, the whole thing just falls flat. The deck is ridiculously stacked, so instead of Larita's ultimate end being tragic, it just seems silly. Even Hitchcock found the last line of dialogue (in which Larita tells a group of hungry paparazzi, "Shoot! There's nothing left to kill!) to be overly melodramatic.

Speaking of dialogue, want to know what else is wrong with Easy Virtue? How about this credit, which appears on the title screen:
Adapted from the play by Noel Coward

Now, if you're at all familiar with Noel Coward, you know him as a paragon of wicked wit and sophisticated wordplay. So what's the ideal format for his brand of panache? Of course: silent film.

I'm pretty sure we saw more title cards in the first 15 minutes than we saw in The Pleasure Garden and The Lodger combined. The film opens with that perfect action sequence, the courtroom scene. I have to believe Hitchcock was shaking his head in disbelief at his situation.

I'm ripping into this movie, and I have to rise to its defense, mainly because my wife actually kind of liked it, and she has some good points. For one thing, Hitchcock is starting to work symbolism into his story. As Clair noted, Larita spends much of the movie trailing behind some long piece of fabric: a scarf, or a flourish on a hat, or a long train on a dress. This is appropriate, as she is continuing to drag behind her sordid past. This sounds heavy-handed, but it plays in the film as a nicely subconscious effect. Hitchcock will be using more of this kind of character detail as he goes along, so it's nice to see him putting it to use this early in his career.

An even more characteristic shot is the one that opens the film. A bored judge lifts his monocle to his eye, and we see his courtroom become clear. For 1927, the shot is incredibly complex; evidently, Hitchcock had to shoot through a giant magnifying glass to get the effect. What I find remarkable about this is that it's totally a throwaway shot. It's just something he felt like doing, and it leads off the movie. I like to think that Hitchcock knew he didn't have much of a film to work with, so he decided to have a little fun.

In the end, though, Easy Virtue doesn't amount to very much. A woman is unfairly maligned, everybody treats her badly, and she has no hope for the future. The end. It's not much of a movie, and Hitchcock seems to know it. He's probably already looking ahead to the next movie.

I'm just hoping I can find the next movie.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Weissman: It's a detective story... everyone's a suspect. You know, that sort of thing.
Constance: How horrid. And who turns out to have done it?
Weissman: Oh, I couldn't tell you that. It would spoil it for you.
Constance: Oh, but none of us will see it.
- Gosford Park
screenplay by Julian Fellowes

You are wondering, perhaps, what the heck happened to Alfred.

The answer, of course, is that I happened, and the result was none too good for either of us. You see, I'm just coming off an exciting month-long project to convert a steamer trunk full of videocassettes into DVDs. For those who are interested, the project was mostly successful; I'm down to a banker's box of videocassettes, and very soon, we should have regained several cubic feet of closet space. On the minus side, however, is that this took up a significant portion of my free time, and made me extremely uninterested in watching more movies with what little time I had. My Netflix friends will have noted that I've had Hard Boiled an awfully long time.

But now that this particular endeavor has shuttered for the summer, I find that there's a portly Englishman who has been waiting upon me patiently. Best not to keep him waiting, then. Especially when he's turned out the first film that critics are willing to label "a masterpiece": The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog.

I suppose another thing that might have kept me from jumping right into this film was the lousy quality of the print Netflix had available. The Lodger is actually an extra feature on the DVD of a later Hitchcock film, Sabotage (which we'll get to in it's time). As the disc's ugly stepchild, The Lodger clearly didn't get a lot of love from Laserlight or Vintage Films. The print skips, brightness changes wildly from shot to shot, titles vary so much that it's impossible to tell which ones comes from the original and which ones are more recent substitutes, and most criminally, the opening credits are so butchered that Hitchcock's own credit is cut off before it ever gets the chance to appear. I know it's an 80-year old movie, but this is the best we could do? I've got a project in mind for the film archivists out there.

Get past that, and we're in pretty familiar territory. A serial killer called "The Avenger" is murdering the curly-haired blonde women of London, and a creepy houseguest may be the culprit – or he might just be wrongfully accused. It even has the first Hitchcock MacGuffin, in the form of the hunt for The Avenger. It's almost like a parody of a typical Hitchcock plot. Although if you think about it, for Hitchcock to have found so many variations on this basic story over his career, it makes sense that he would start right at the source.

Hitchcock gets a lot of mileage out of his star. The mysterious tenant is played by Ivor Novello, who was a popular songwriter (Jeremy Northam plays him as the only real-life character in the abovementioned Gosford Park) and actually something of a heartthrob of the era (despite being homosexual; marketing gay men as sex symbols has always been the way of the entertainment industry). According to our old friend Patrick McGilligan, Hitchcock was a little concerned about the casting
of Novello, as the star was renowned for striking over-the-top romantic poses in his stage performances. Whatever his method, Hitchcock clearly found a solution. From the moment he first walks through the door, the mood is not romantic enchantment but extreme unease. Deathly pale, nervous, barely able to carry on a conversation, Novello's Lodger is a remarkable creation, especially knowing that an audience would completely assume he was the hero.

Whether it's Novello's performance or Hitchcock's directing, the character of the Lodger certainly comes out better than his prospective love interest, Daisy, who -- in another ahead-of-its-time gesture -- is played by a woman calling herself June. June doesn't do much in the way of acting. She laughs a lot. I mean a lot. Like a strangely uncomfortable scene wherein her father has fallen off a chair and she continues to laugh and laugh. Mmm, awkward. Every now and then, she's called upon to look vaguely uncertain. That's usually just a segue to a laugh, though. I wasn't a big fan of June's.

I wonder if audiences of the day identified more with Joe, the useless cop portrayed by Malcolm Keen. Quite frankly, Clair and I found him at least as creepy as Novello. With irises so pale as to make his eyes look hollow, a hilariously inept sense of romance (he slaps a pair of handcuffs on Daisy as an expression of interest), and a terrible crime-solving technique, he's just as unsettling as the guy being set up as the potential villain. In a way, the movie puts us in an unusual position from the get-go, with two possible bad guys and a heroine with no range. With no one to necessarily like, this is not a recipe for a great thriller.

This is where Hitchcock really asserts himself. With no vested interest in any of our leads, he still builds the suspense. It's never daytime in The Lodger's London. The populace is following news of the murders with rabid interest. Someone we suspect is actually innocent. Hitch knows how to play to the crowd. Sometimes I got bored during the movie, but I never lost interest in the outcome.

Did I say bored? Yeah, that's the real problem. Perhaps one of the greatest tricks as a viewer today is to get into the mindset of a viewer back then. Because even to an open-minded fellow like myself, The Lodger moves at a positively glacial pace.
There's very little dialogue (and for a silent film, that's saying something) and almost no action, so we're left with a great many static shots of people looking, waiting, building up a sense of importance that doesn't always pay off.

This is what kind of makes me think I enjoyed The Pleasure Garden a little bit more. This story is less melodramatic. The acting -- June aside -- is better. But The Lodger doesn't move. When the climactic chase scene finally comes, it ought to be the culmination. Instead, it's a relief.

Still, he's learning. Hitchcock told the famed director and journalist François Truffaut that he considered The Lodger to be his first movie. If so, it's a very assured debut. And it bodes well for things to come.

Of course, I don't want to give anything away.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Just a Quick Note From the Old Stomping Grounds...

Every now and then, one of my old You Don't Know Jack questions pops up. I can't help but get a sweet, wistful feeling whenever that happens. Most recently, one of my Jack Attacks was dusted off, updated to include the surviving spawn of Anna Nicole Smith, and slotted to close out the weekly game.

What makes me mention this is that the game has a comment section. And here's some of the warm reception that greeted my work:

"Ok.. the Jack Attack was just frigging cruel."

"I was doing pretty good until the Attack. *sigh*"

"Damn that Jack Attack."

"Wow, I can't believe how badly I sucked on that. It was truly impressive. I've never done that badly on a Jack Attack EVER, home or web versions."

"ZERO on the Jack Attack. ZERO!"

"This is the first time I haven't aced the Jack Attack... seriously... and I've never felt so happy."

"I voluntarily ignored the Jack Attack... I don't give a damn about celebrity gossip."

"I didn't even bother to touch the keyboard during the Jack Attack."

"That Jack Attack was pretty lame"

"I didn't even touch the keyboard during the Jack Attack. Just sat back and watched."

"Worst Jack Attack ever . . ."

For some reason, I'm simply overwhelmed with pride.

Friday, May 04, 2007

THE DAMNED HUMAN RACE: When She Says "Fight", She Really Means It

So I was strolling through the Sports Illustrated website, looking for more overwrought commentary about the Mavericks' miserable collapse at the hands of the Warriors, when I stumbled across this unusual link title:

Army's Meredith is cheerleader of week

Okay, you have my attention. I don't think I've ever seen the words "Army" and "cheerleader" in the same sentence, or at least not in the traditional cheerleading sense. But sure enough, the SI folks took time out to showcase Meredith Walton, cheerleader for the United States Military Academy.

Now we'll set aside the primary issue of whether or not I should be looking at pictures of cheerleaders 14 years younger than I am (or what the heck Sports Illustrated is doing plastering pictures of college cheerleaders all over its website). What really threw me for a loop is the fact that, on game days, she looks like this:

I mean, it makes sense. She's not just a senior. She's a senior at West Point. She's a cadet. So when the game's over, she hangs up the sweater and the tiny skirt and dons her country's uniform. Naturally.

This bugged me a lot, and I spent some time trying to figure out why. And I eventually came down to three faults of my own: arrogance, a lack of imagination, and fear.

I've always been of two minds about cheerleaders: sure, they're pretty. But they're also kind of dumb and pointless. Consider: they dress in uniform, they're relentlessly cheery no matter the situation, and they encourage everyone to think alike and act as a mob. (Actually, this explains a lot about the cheerleader we sent to Washington.) In short, I don't trust them, because I don't think they're capable of thinking for themselves, and they don't want anyone else to, either.

Arrogant, yes? Meredith seems to think so. Apparently, my attitude that bugs her, given her answer to the question, "What's a popular misconception about cheerleaders?"

That we are all dumb and peppy all of the time. I think I am pretty smart, and I have my frustrated, angry moments, too.

I hope she's pretty smart. She's studying to be an intelligence officer, which I realize doesn't merit the kind of respect it used to. But, I mean, the girl got into West Point. Sure, you can have connections, but you don't make it very long in a military academy without being a pretty smart cookie. So she's messing with my stereotypical disdain for cheerleaders. Except for being cute.

There's also the fear that I'm just a sexist pig. Do I have a problem with a pretty girl being in the military? I wouldn't have thought so. I think I'm a fairly pro-equality guy. Heck, I have a standing election policy of "When In Doubt, Vote for Women and Minorities." (Hillary is sorely testing this method.) So why should it bother me that an attractive woman would also want to serve in the military? I think it might be a kind of reverse sexism. Women have only been allowed in to West Point since 1976. It feels like a step backward to spend that opportunity leading cheers. Does MIT have cheerleaders? Why does the Army?

Therein lies my lack of imagination. Nowhere is it written that increased opportunities for women have to have some corresponding decrease in girliness. So Meredith wants to be in the Army. She also likes to wear a short skirt and cheer on the football team. She's an American; she wants it all. Who am I to say she shouldn't have it? She can cheer for her country, and she can die for it.

Ah, I think we've found it. Our armed forces are stretched as thin as can be. We've lost more American soldiers in Iraq than we lost civilians on September 11. The country is exhausted from four years of war, yet fiercely determined to support its troops and avoid the shameful treatment afforded veterans of Vietnam. And here, symbolizing our weakened-yet-resolute Army, is Meredith Walton. A future second lieutenant with pom-poms.

My third flaw: fear. Meredith Walton now stands as the face of the war for me. A sweet young all-American girl who might get shipped off to face death in a couple years, because we'll probably still be stuck in this mess by then. And I don't want her to die. She's a cheerleader, for pete's sake. Cheerleaders don't die in the desert. And frankly, neither should anyone else.

I definitely won't look at Sports Illustrated's Cheerleader of the Week again.

Monday, April 23, 2007

THE HITCHCOCK PROJECT: #2 - The Mountain Eagle... Sort Of

Two movies in, and the project is already in trouble.

1926 was a big year for Alfred Hitchcock. The Pleasure Garden had been a bit of an ordeal. On the advice of his cinematographer, in order to save money, he hadn't declared the motion picture film upon entering Italy. The customs agents weren't fooled; they confiscated the film, and it cost more money to have new film sent from Germany. He had the aforementioned incident with the actress who refused to go into the water while having her period; Hitchcock was so naive, he didn't know what a period was. He didn't care for the actor playing the villain.

Still, he had already proven to be a resourceful director. He convinced a waitress at a hotel to step in for the reluctant swimmer. He saved time and money by shooting extra material on the boat trip to the location. He finished the movie on time, and got pretty strong reviews. All in all, it was a superb first outing. So the studio was more than happy to hand him the reins for another film. The Mountain Eagle.

I haven't watched The Mountain Eagle. Why not? Well... why don't I let my friends at Wikipedia explain.

This is the only Hitchcock directed feature that is considered lost. No prints have been known to survive.

And boy, is it lost. How lost is it? Okay, you see that dog up there, in the movie poster? To this day, nobody knows what role (if any) the dog plays in the film. (He is clearly neither mountain nor eagle.) As far as I know, no one alive today has seen it. Certainly not our biographer, Patrick McGilligan. Nobody at all. And definitely not me.

So, that's just swell. My quest is stopped in its tracks before it has barely begun.


Look, it's not as though I was going to abandon the project. I mean, you can't really hold it against me that a movie doesn't exist anymore. And there's 51 movies to go. Besides, Hitchcock himself hated the movie. But it just killed me that I wouldn't be able to truly complete the entire Hitchcock oeuvre.

Cue Dan Aulier.

Stuck in my progress in the biography, I was doing some outside research, thumbing through a copy of Aulier's Hitchcock's Notebooks, when I made the surprising discovery of his surprising discovery. It seems that, although the film is lost, Hitchcock himself had a complete set of production stills. And Aulier was kind enough to reprint them in his book, along with a brief synopsis. So I couldn't watch The Mountain Eagle. But I could do the next best thing.

The story alone would classify this as a weird film. In the snowy mountains of Kentucky (?), we meet our main character: a nasty fellow named Pettigrew, who evidently hates everyone. Pettigrew's wife dies giving birth to a crippled boy. Pettigrew directs most of his anger at this mountain-dwelling hermit named John, who most people call "Fear o' God".

Cut to twenty-some-odd years later, when the son is now putting the moves on the local schoolmarm named Beatrice (played by movie beauty Nita Naldi, who Hitchcock had to browbeat into dressing down). Pettigrew goes to confront her about this, and ends up making advances on her himself. She turns him down, and the son disappears, probably out of embarrassment.

So now, Pettigrew is really angry. He tries to get Beatrice arrested as, and I turn to Wikipedia again for this description, "a wanton harlot." That's Fear o' God's cue to show up, marry Beatrice, take her back to his cabin in the woods, and get her pregnant. Facing these new developments, Pettigrew takes a new tack: he has Fear o' God arrested for murdering his missing son. Yes, this is a guy who loves to hate.

Fear o' God escapes the law, but not for long. He becomes ill, and Beatrice has to drag him into town for treatment. There Pettigrew is about to claim his victory... until his long-lost son suddenly shows up! Yes, the whole murder thing is out the window, and to top it off, somehow (the how is not made at all clear), Pettigrew is accidentally shot. So, truly a happy ending for everyone.

It would be strange enough that Hitchcock & company shot a film set in Kentucky in the mountains of Germany. (The snow was so heavy at one location that Hitch paid the local fire department to hose it away.) But this plot... it's just beyond bizarre. Why does Pettigrew hate so much? Why does Fear o' God rescue Beatrice? Why is everyone in the movie trying to get up her skirts? What is the heck is going on?

Want to see how weird this movie is? Here's your chance to see more of The Mountain Eagle than almost anyone alive. This was the only still I could find in Google Images, but I think it tells the tale.

Who is that handsome fellow? Who knows? Seems like he must be Fear o' God, but who can be sure? The important thing is, whoever that's supposed to be, it's a character in this film. Someone decided that the Cryptkeeper look was ideal for this movie. To which I can merely say, Wow.

I can't assess Hitchcock on this one, not without seeing the movie. But he didn't like the movie, and you kind of have to defer to his judgment on this. But I do know that, no matter how bad the movie may have been, things weren't all bad. It was around this time that he proposed marriage to Alma. And she said yes. (They were on a ship, and she was sick. Hitchcock said it was the only way he could trick her into it.) So he had a steady career, and now he was a newlywed. Good times.

Oh, and he was about to make his first great movie. That one, Netflix has.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

RED ENVELOPES: The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades

To explain my relative absence over the past two weeks, I will say something that is technically truthful, although is not strictly speaking accurate, and is therefore an outright lie. That's right. I'm through apologizing to you people.

Anyway, my wife was out of town for a week on business. And with her gone, I had the chance to do what so many men have done, throughout the ages, when their spouses go away for a week: watch as many of the movies on the Netflix queue that she doesn't want to see as is humanly possible.

Yes, it was a manic week of DVD screening, as I raced through the decent (Li'l Abner, the Blue Collar Comedy of its day), the bad (Shadowlands, utterly boring), the curious (a Carmelite nun named Sister Wendy touring the Art Institute), and the unsurpassingly weird (Head, starring the Monkees, about which I really should talk in some future posting because it's just so bizarre). But all of that was just prelude for the crown jewel in my week's viewing: They Live, by far one of the greatest terrible movies I have ever seen.

The premise of They Live is simple: Roddy Piper (in his finest acting performance to date) plays a hard-working guy, a real salt-of-the-earth dude, a decent fellow just trying to get by in life, who stumbles across a pair of sunglasses that reveal America's elite to be pillaging aliens who control the government and the media and conspire to keep humans poor and subservient.

Director/pseudonymous screenwriter John Carpenter is in top form here. This is an 80s movie, and Carpenter's fury at Reagan-era politics is palpable. The scene in which Piper first dons the magical sunglasses is really entertaining, as he discovers that yuppies actually have hideous faces, billboards broadcast the messages "OBEY" and "SUBMIT", and -- most amusingly -- money bears the phrase "THIS IS YOUR GOD." Piper has no real ability to convey shock, but Carpenter's vision is so gloriously over-the-top that he doesn't have to.

Of course, it takes an awfully long time to get there, and while we wait, Carpenter works overtime to convince us of how a swell modern-day Jimmy Stewart Piper really is. I think he even pats an adorable moppet on the head. The deck is seriously stacked.

This wouldn't be such a bad thing, except that -- shock of shocks -- Piper turns to violence to help eradicate the alien hordes. You kind of expect that: he's Roddy Piper, they're aliens, the director also made Halloween. Let the carnage begin. Except... well, they still look like humans. When you see Rowdy Roddy mowing down his enemies, they don't look like mortifying creatures from another galaxy. They look like people. And no matter how much you know that your hero is in the right, the outward appearance is that of so much brutality and senseless killing. I had the same problem with The Matrix. It's human nature to be more comfortable with an enemy you can't identify with. Aliens. Nazis. Frat boys. These look like decent human beings, and it leaves a bad taste.

I know Carpenter's trying to have fun with this. He shows us that Piper isn't killing indiscriminately. He frequently spares his fellow human beings the brunt of his wrath. Consider the films signature quote. It is only after killing two aliens dressed as cops (although it sure looks like he's gunning down two cops in the street) and taking their guns that Piper steps into a building to rest and plan his next move. Alas, that building happens to be a bank. So Piper summons all his confidence and says, hilariously, "I have come here to kick ass and chew bubblegum... and I'm all out of bubblegum." Clearly, Roddy Piper is being groomed to be a sort of liberal Schwarzenegger, firing off bullets and one-liners simultaneously. Okay, I can go with that.

Except I can't, because he's clearly more at home in the film's most memorable scene, and the main reason I wanted to see this movie. It comes 55 minutes in, and it involves Piper's elements to expose his only friend, construction worker Keith David, to the scope of the alien plot by having him put on the sunglasses. And the method of persuasion he chooses? He beats him up.

To be fair, they beat each other up. It's the most ludicrous fight scene ever put on celluoid. They trade punches, attempt to maim each other, and all the whole exchange dialogue like this:
PIPER: Put on the glasses.
DAVID: Never.

This goes on -- I kid you not -- for over six whole minutes. Almost as long as "Hey Jude". And it's a 90 minute movie. It's a jaw-dropping movie experience.

Quite frankly, after that, the movie doesn't have much more to offer. There's more carnage, and more rich people acting insufferable and stereotypically evil. Oh, and there's a subplot involving a woman who works for a UHF station that's as riveting as it sounds, and ends up relating to the movie in the most illogical manner possible. And that's kind of the problem with the movie. Carpenter has an interesting idea, but his film's best moments don't really have anything to do with the main story.

And despite all that, I enjoyed the movie immensely. If I admire John Carpenter for anything, it's his willingness to take his political rage and turn it into an action-horror film. Joe Dante got a lot of praise for turning his anger about the Iraq War into a zombie film in Homecoming. Carpenter did at least as much here. They Live is a Grade Z epic. Roddy Piper is the poor man's Dolph Lundgren. And the six-minute fight scene is a trailer trash Rocky. It's a fantastic, remarkable mess. And it doesn't look like any other movie you'll ever see.

Don't believe me? Here. Put on these sunglasses.

Friday, April 13, 2007

THE HITCHCOCK PROJECT: #1 - The Pleasure Garden

ME: Hey, Lauren, could I ask you for a favor?
MY NEIGHBOR ACROSS THE HALL: Sure. What do you need?
ME: Could I borrow your home?

The Wilsons haven't had a videocassette player for almost four years. Frankly, we haven't needed one. Once we went DVD, we never looked back. And other than needing to find a way to transfer some of these old VHS tapes I've got in a steamer trunk, it's worked out just fine. Of course, it figures that when I finally got my hands on a copy of Alfred Hitchcock's directorial debut, it would arrive in tape form. Thanks, Chicago Public Library.

Still, if you can't use your neighbors for things you need, what the heck are they good for? Fortunately, Lauren was game, and I've cat-sat for her enough times that I still have a slight advantage in the getcha-back department. So it was Movie Night at the neighbor's.

The Pleasure Garden is the story of a country girl named Patsy (the lovely Virginia Valli) who comes to the big city to join a chorus line. Of course, she's never set foot on a stage before, but her ability to Charleston on command wows the theater impresario, and a fellow chorus girl named Jill (played by the wonderfully-named Carmelita Geraghty) takes her in as a roommate. So life is pretty good for Patsy.

Naturally, men come along and ruin everything. It seems Jill has a fiancé named Hugh (John Stuart, who looks like Joseph Goebbels). Sadly, Hugh is going off to work on a plantation for the next two years (!?), but Jill has promised to wait for him. Yeah, right. Jill is barely waiting for Hugh to leave, since she's now taking gifts from the producer of the show and soliciting the affections of a German prince and generally acting like a brazen hussy. Poor Patsy can hardly understand what's going on, especially since she's conveniently falling for the affections of Hugh's nasty co-worker, Levett (an appropriately slimy Miles Mander). Is it possible that Levett is also carrying on with some native plantation girl? Oh, this can't go well.

Does this plot sound like a soap opera? It sure is. The Pleasure Garden is pure melodrama. Lauren kept commenting that Patsy was aptly named. True enough: she believes everyone, falls in love out of pure plot contrivance, is just plain nice at every turn, and makes atrocious decisions every step of the way. She's the original insufferable heroine. Most of the characters are straight types, right down to the homosexual costume designer. (I'm not trying to cast aspersions, but it's a silent film, and you could still hear him swish. Gay stereotypes are clearly not a new thing.) In fact, the most likeable character in the movie is Patsy's dog, Cuddles. Believe me, if you ever see this movie -- and I'm reasonably confident that you never will -- remember to trust the dog. He knows all.

Still, I'm not watching this to get a realistic depiction of the lives of chorus girls in the 1920s. No, I'm here for Hitchcock, and I'm happy to report that, despite the thin plot, despite the lack of sound, despite everything, there are touches of the master in place, even at this early stage. The very first scene of the movie, establishing the theater where the chorus girls dance (or, more accurately, do this strange sort of dance-strut-bouncing thing), is an unexpectedly complex shot for 1926. After an amusing setup of a torrent of chorus girls hurrying down a spiral staircase, we get the full stage, shot from way up high, at an angle to capture the adoring audience. I have to think that few directors of the period were attempting anything so advanced. That Hitchcock chose to lead off his first picture with it definitely singles him out as someone looking to get noticed.

I suspect that Hitch had a particular affection for the character of Levett. After all, Levett is completely and utterly amoral. He marries Patsy even though he clearly has no interest in her beyond getting into her bloomers. He goes off to the plantation and immediately becomes a womanizer, a drunk, and unpredictably violent. Also, he has a sinister mustache. Hitchcock also has a special place in his heart for villains, and even though this one has no redeeming quality at all, he gets enough screen time being evil to make you think that Levett is just as beloved.

Levett features in the most Hitchcockian scene of all: our first Hitchcock murder. It's not especially well-filmed. It's an underwater murder, and was evidently very difficult to film. (The actress originally hired refused to go into the water because she was menstruating; medical science has advanced somewhat in 80 years.) But the aftermath, in which the victim's ghost haunts Levett, feels like classic Hitch.

So, Alfred Hitchcock's career is off and rolling. His first's not great. It's hackneyed. It's clichéd. But despite all that, it's not boring. The director has a smart eye, and we're going to see it put to good use.

And if not, I foresee a big future for Cuddles.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

RED ENVELOPES: Oh, Ho, Ho, It's Magic

Every once in a while, the movie business has itself a great idea. Even more infrequently, they have the same idea twice. As a result, we get Capote AND Infamous. We get Mission to Mars AND Red Planet. We get Lambada AND The Forbidden Dance.

As you can see, it doesn't usually work out.

It happened again last fall, when we were treated to a double dose of stories about magicians set over a hundred years ago. The Illusionist and The Prestige battled it out for box office dollars, and what usually happens in these cases is that moviegoers decide to make a choice. They're not going to see the same movie twice. So they pick. That's what happened here. The Illusionist had the advantage of hitting theaters first, but The Prestige responded with the marquee matchup of Batman vs. Wolverine.

Here in the Wilson household, we naturally opted for neither. That's what Netflix is for. All hail the homemade double feature.

Truth be told, take away the magic element and the similar settings and these two movies aren't similar at all. The Prestige, for example, is purely a battle of wills. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are magicians who become deadly rivals because they are willing to throw love and decency aside in pursuit of the ultimate illusion. Not only that, but they go after each other with increasing venom, and as the film opens, one of them is in prison, accused of murdering the other.

You can tell how much the stars are enjoying themselves. Jackman gets to play nasty without just snarling for the whole movie. Bale gets to be a star without a mask or an accent. Michael Caine continues to reap the benefits of not taking every part he gets offered. And Scarlett Johanssen didn't even bore me.

I liked this movie, and I think the reason for that was that it didn't really feel like any movie I'd ever seen. The combination of setting and subject evoked a rich novel. It's based on a novel, so that may not seem surprising. But how often do movies get that right? It's hardly a perfect movie (my Whirled News colleague Matt points out that the numerous double-crosses are overly predictable, and the two magicians' disguises are laughable in a bad way), but it just felt kind of refreshing.

The Illusionist felt a little more traditional. Edward Norton is our title character, an unusually gifted magician who uses his skills first to win the love of his childhood sweetheart, and then to seek revenge against the crown prince who stands in the way of that romance. Shot in and around Prague, it's a prettier film. And because it's one man against powerful antagonists, the effect is sort of like a caper. A caper with magic.

Like The Prestige, this film benefits from a good cast that's playing way above its usual skill level. Edward Norton is... well, he's Edward Norton. But just watch the 10-second snippet of him in the behind-the-scenes featurette and you'll see what a complete transformation (from total dweeb to imposing man of mystery) he undertook. Paul Giamatti, for the first time that I can recall, took away the nervous tics and the nasal whine and was absolutely mesmerizing. I would like to formally request that he speak with a deep voice for the rest of his career. And round out the cast was, of all people, Jessica Biel. Turns out the girl can act, and good for her. That's always a pleasant surprise, and maybe means she won't have to make movies like Stealth anymore.

I should also take a moment to comment on the score, which is interesting but strangely overpowering at times, and I made several jokes to my wife about how the composer was ripping off Philip Glass. Of course, I went back and looked at the credits and saw that the composer was Philip Glass. Two lessons I take from this: (1) Evidently, I like Philip Glass more than I thought, although a little goes a long way, and (2) no one sounds like Philip Glass quite like Philip Glass.

Ultimately, there is one very important reason these movies are different from each other, and it has to do with what they have in common. These are each movies about magicians, and they each ask a very crucial question: "How does he do that?" But where The Illusionist wants you to believe that the answer is mystical, The Prestige is firmly rooted in the notion that everything you see can be adequately explained. Even if the solutions to Bale & Jackman's tricks is more outlandish, more outrageous, they remain rooted in the film's inner logic, unlike the tricks of Norton, which are never fully explained. The Illusionist ends in a montage that shamelessly rips off The Usual Suspects, and suggests that there are logical explanations for everything you've seen (although director Neil Burger's boneheaded commentary nearly torpedoes that, as well), but there's too much that is never accounted for. In the end, that's why I think The Prestige is a better film. It's premise is almost ludicrous, and certainly science fiction. But it plays fair. The Illusionist wants to have it both ways. It cheats.

Still, I'm glad I saw them both, and I'd say they were each among the better films of 2006 that I saw. And if all the magician movies were good, I wouldn't mind the glut. Heck, if it were good, I'd even sit through a lambada movie. Moviegoes: we're just that easy.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Sorry. We've kind of left Alfred hanging, haven't we? But don't feel too bad for him. He's doing very well for himself. He's gonna be a director, you know. Very soon.

Perhaps the most interesting observation our biographer has made so far is that most directors come up through the ranks of editors or cinematographers. There are a fair number of actors and writers who also take up the megaphone. And these days, special effects wizards also take a turn fairly often. But directors are almost never former art directors. And yet, that is the path that one of the most acclaimed directors in film history took.

Hitchcock's first jobs are supposed to be strictly art direction and titles, but he knows enough to make himself indispensable. The studio that hired him, Famous Players-Lasky, quickly loses money and starts laying people off. But Hitchcock willingly takes on any task that comes his way. Who will write the script? I will, says Hitch. Can anyone direct these extra scenes? I'm your man, says Hitch. When the film company finaally did fold, new producers swept in to pick up the pieces, and this eager young man was ready and willing to work.

(I had a lot of empathy for Hitch at this point. I did sort of the same thing at Jellyvision. "What do you need me to do? I'm your guy." Being indispensable is the best thing to be.)

Hitchcock starts to make a lot of key contacts at this point. He meets producers who will make some of his first movies. He meets the man who will become his agent. Most importantly, he meets the most important collaborator in his life.

Technically, he met Alma Reville in the last chapter. She was a writer with Famous Players-Lasky, and he was evidently smitten with her at first sight. Of course, being a proper turn-of-the-century English gentleman, he would never make a move above his station. So he doesn't even speak to her. While he's hanging on at the studio, she's let go, and still not a word. In fact, she doesn't even know who he is, until years later, when he's at a new studio and he's permitted to hire a staff, and suddenly she gets a call.

He doesn't just do this for girls he likes, mind you. Hitchock proves to be quite loyal, an unusual trait in the film industry. An actress named Betty Compson was working on a film on which Hitchcock was assistant directing. The film had a cash shortfall, and Compson invested money to keep it going. Years later, when she needed to qualify for benefits, he arranged to get her a small part in one of his movies. One director who Hitchcock worked with extensively even badmouthed him. But when he fell on hard times, Hitch secretly arranged for him to get work.

This kind of hard work and good behavior pays off in spades when Hitchcock goes to work for a new studio called Gainsborough. This studio had just made a deal with a film company in Germany, so Alfred heads to Berlin, where he learns the basics of expressionistic cinema. And then the studio's lead director gets himself in a bit of immigration trouble, and who's standing by to take the reins? That's right. In less than five years, Alfred Hitchcock has risen to the role of director.

And here's where we have to stop. Because you see, one of my rules is that I can't read about the making of one of Hitchcock's movies until I've seen it. So many secrets to give away, you know. So my next posting will be about the movie itself. Just a brief pause in the action.

It's 1925. For the first time, the director's chair will read "Alfred Hitchcock". The movie is called The Pleasure Garden. And the Chicago Public Library is sending it over. 53 movies, and this is Number 1.

Now the project really gets going.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

RED ENVELOPES: Popcorn, Coke, and a Deep Sense of Dread

Not content with the unhappy feelings associated with two funerals and property fallout of a third, I finally sat down to watch The Most Depressing Film Ever Made.

The previous titleholder, 21 Grams, also came very close to holding the record for Longest Time a Netflix Movie Sat In Our House Without Being Watched. (I'm pretty sure Mystic River remains the champion in that particular category.) That film, which has a plotline wherein Sean Penn can receive the gift of life through a heart transplant and still be utterly miserable, is one of those films that just urges you not to watch it, because it relies upon the notion that life is bleak and hopeless, and no matter how good the acting is supposed to be, nobody really wants to see that. And I can promise you, finally subjecting myself to 21 Grams is the reason I may never see Babel.

Yet, none of the movies I've mentioned so far can even hold a candle to the fondue pot of joy that was The Most Depressing Film Ever Made. Oh, I knew it would be bad. I avoided it for a long time. But then it started to get award buzz, and I can never resist the clarion call of award buzz, no matter how soul-destroying the film. (Hello, 21 Grams.) And my colleague John told me about it, and strongly implied that it was a must-see. Most of all, my shameful need to know got the better of me. I went against my instinct. After two months on top of the DVD player, I caved.

I hit play, and began to watch United 93.

I guess the first question is obvious: why would anyone want to watch this? I guess it's human nature to wonder about the darker aspects of existence, particularly the sudden end of that existence. We watch TV shows about forensic investigators, read books about serial killers, drive slowly by car accidents. So there's that, for starters. But there's also an essential mystery of what we now casually refer to as "9/11". Five years on, we know quite a bit about that hideous day. We know the events. We know how those events made us feel. We know who we believe was responsible for those events. (Those of us who happen to be President of the United States seem to have that last part wrong, but there's no changing that.) But no matter how much information we've culled together, we still don't really know what went on in those planes, and we're never going to. People came out of the Towers; no one came out of those planes. We can't know the awful truth.

So we make a guess.

Which I suppose answers the next question: why on earth would you make this movie? I guess you could say that it's an effort to recognize the heroism on that awful day. Indeed, in addition to the passengers of the ill-fated flight, United 93 shows us baffled air traffic controllers, frustrated bureaucrats, and desperate military commanders all struggling to cope with an impossible situation. A lot of people did their best under terrible circumstances, and that is captured in the film.

But the thing is, those intense scenes in the national air traffic control center? We can trust in those scenes, because we can back them up. Several of the people in those scenes are playing themselves. They were actually there. They can testify to what we're seeing. Onboard that plane, all we can do is guess. It's a very educated guess, and it looks real, but it's still a guess, which means it's not real at all. Did a hijacker hesitate to act? Did a passenger try to warn the hijackers about the revolt? Did the passengers break through the cockpit? We don't know, we don't know, and we don't think so but we don't know. So despite everything -- the research, the authenticity, the good intentions -- what we have is a work of fiction. Which begs my final question: what is it exactly we want to see?

Director Paul Greengrass has accomplished a remarkable piece of filmmaking. Possibly more than any movie I've ever scene, I had the sensation of watching something real. The combination of documentary-style cinematography, improvisational acting, and well-known subject matter makes for a very realistic presentation. In particular, the use of real-time is expert. More than ever before, I gained a sense of the speed with which the passengers aboard Flight 93 had to make their ultimate decision. It's a mortifying realization.

It's a measure of the commitment of everyone on this project that I can single out the only actor I recognized, Christian Clemenson, and tell you that I have never seen him do work anything like this. I remember him as a nebbish in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., an officious nerd in Apollo 13, and a jittery freakshow in Boston Legal. His performance here as Tom Burnett is a marvel of composure. Everyone associated with this film buried themselves in the task at hand -- honoring this moment in history. And they've succeeded.

But what I keep coming back to is this: I respect this movie. I even have admiration for what it accomplishes. But I really, really hate it. Because it isn't really a movie. There's no suspense; we know every beat of the story. There's no arc. United 93 is essentially a stunt. It's a meticulous re-creation of a mass murder, and it doesn't get me anywhere. Can a movie capture the particulars of a real-life event in such a way that it feels real? So much so that even the moments which are categorically unreal also feel real? Can the finest artists and craftsmen re-create the dread and disgust and horror of one of the defining historical moments of my time for my viewing pleasure?

Yes. Yes, they can. And I feel no better for knowing the answer, and a little worse for having decided to find out.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

You Are Unique

We were visited by sadness again last week, as Clair's grandmother Hazel passed away last Friday. This came only two weeks after the death of her husband. She was 95.

It's not my intention for this to be the most depressing blog on the internet. Sometimes, that's just how it works out. The saying goes that God does not give us more than we handle, but one has to wonder what gave God the idea that the Clairmont family should have to handle so much.

As was true of Clair's grandfather, I did not get to see Hazel Clairmont at the peak of her powers. Evidently, she was very much the driving force in the family. If she said the grandkids were going to put on a Christmas pageant, then by gum, they were. (It seems there were minor skirmishes over who would get to be Mary and who would have to be a shepherd.) I got a small taste of this a few years ago, when we visited Alexandria at Christmastime, and Hazel instructed us to lead off the caroling. Well, we certainly weren't going to say no.

She lost her eyesight about six years ago, which was surely a major blow to someone who prided herself on being in charge. But to the extent that it bothered her, she was determined not to let it show. Clair tells me that she could still remember exactly where everything in her house was, far better than people whose eyesight was as strong as ever. Indeed, next to her chair in her apartment, she had a tray that was divided into many compartments, and each compartment had a very specific purpose. (Several of them had candy. A little bit of a sweet tooth.) In a way, her meticulous mind was well-suited to her failing vision. Being very organized came naturally to her.

My favorite moment with Hazel goes back to that blessing ceremony. Actually, the lunch afterwords. We went to this fancy country club outside Alexandria called Arrowwood, and the restaurant looked out over a lake. The colors were remarkable that day; a mix of yellow and red and gray, and the reflection of the clouds off the lake was very striking. Several people commented on it, but I could tell that Hazel wasn't getting enough information to understand it. She knew Arrowwood. She'd been there plenty of times. But she had no perspective. So, when a break came in the conversation, I spoke up and began to describe her surroundings to her. I explained how the fireplace was behind her, and the kitchen was ahead. I told her how the windows were off to her left, and I did my best to describe the unusual sky. If my journalism degree was going to be worth a penny, I was going to capture this moment in great detail.

Hazel perked up, and she seemed to be able to picture the scene. Except for having our marriage blessed, it was my proudest moment of the day.

Hazel was a schoolteacher, and in his outstanding eulogy, Clair's father read aloud a sort of poem-credo that she wrote for her grandchildren. It was very inspiring, precisely the kind of thing that a good teacher would prepare for her students. It was titled, "You Are Unique". And any woman who would strive to convey that message to her family is a remarkable woman indeed.

Hazel Clairmont

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Chapter 2 takes us up to Alfred Hitchcock's 21st year, the point at whichwe traditionally think that a person's life really gets going. Our boy Alfred, however, has no intention of sitting around waiting for that to happen.

Aftera several months of higher education, 14-year old Hitch decides he's had just about enough of school life, and lands a job with the W. T. Henley Telegraph Works, where his job is to measure the size and voltage of cables. For those of you considering going to USC Film School to break into the movie business, you may want to consider an alternate route.

Of course, he doesn't stay with this drudgery. He soon moves up through the ranks, and he does three crucial things that will pave the way for his future.

1. He moves into the design department. He ends up working on industrial publications and advertising material, and learns a great deal about how to use layout and imagery to capture people's attention. One of his noteworthy products was an elaborate brochure advertising lighting for churches, which he illustrated with -- in a nice bit of career foreshadowing -- a coffin.
2. He gets along great with everybody. Hitch was very popular at Henley, and people would go to great lengths for him (which will become relevant in a moment). He led many of the company's intramural activities, including sports teams. Most crucially, however, was his role as founder and editor of the Henley Telegraph, the in-house magazine. It was a very popular publication, and for it...
3. He wrote several short stories. This is perhaps the most noteworthy part of this chapter, because McGilligan reprints several of Hitchcock's first published writings. It's our first look at Hitchcock the Storyteller, and as our biographer goes to great pains to point out, these early tales give us a sneal peek at popular Hitchcockian themes. Confinement, voyeurism, twist endings, they're all in here.

This is fascinating, because unlike, say, an M. Night Shyamalan, Hitchcock never wrote his own movies. So it's tempting to say that he was skilled at setting a mood more than telling a story. However, these short stories prove that Hitchcock was quite capable of acting as writer. He clearly just didn't feel the need to spend time writing specific plots and dialogue. Someone else could do that; Hitch would then do the real writing on film.

Speaking of film, the movie business also makes its first appearance here. The Famous Players-Lasky Company announces plans to open up a studio in London, and begins hiring for all positions. Meanwhile, young Alfred Hitchcock, after seven years in the electrical business, has been reading screen trade magazines and writing stories. The next step is obvious.

Hitchcock's actions show a great deal of confidence and chutzpah. Applying for a job as a title card designer (the movies were still silent, you see), Hitch gets word that Famous-Lasky is going to make a certain book into a film. So he buys a copy, reads it cover-to-cover, and proceeds to turn the whole book into a title card script. The movie people admire his spunk, but do not hire him. Undeterred, he does it again for another book. This time, he even convinces several of his co-workers to help him assemble his portfolio. So respected is Alfred Hitchcock among his co-workers that not only do they help him, but management blithely looks the other way. I can hardly imagine a similar scenario today. It definitely pays to be nice.

This second effort persuades Famous-Lasky that they've got a real dedicated fellow on their hands, and this takes us to 1921. Alfred Hitchcock has a new job in the movies. He's going to write title cards. He's only 21. I predict big things for this guy. We may very well be watching a film soon.

Oh, and he might even have his eye on a girl. Stick around.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Fair Warning

Some people prefer high-stakes poker. Others would rather parachute off the New River Gorge Bridge. Still more like to tempt fate by snorting Diazinon crystals. But for my money, it would be hard to top the adrenaline rush that accompanied the Wilsons’ introduction into the cutthroat, fast-paced world of decorative art auctioneering.

To understand how we found ourselves in a room in Oak Park looking at Shaker duck decoys, it’s necessary to take a quick trip into some ugly family history. Let’s step back a little over a year ago, when Clair’s grandmother passed away. (Yes, my blog is death 24-7 these days.) You see, the Davises, Mary Ellen & Jerry, were very gifted collectors. They ran a department store, (which got a mention in Time when the U. S. Government attempted to destroy it with a nuclear bomb), so they become connoisseurs of modern furniture. In addition, Jerry’s upbringing out west brought him into direct contact with several Native American tribes, so he became an astute collector of baskets and rugs. A visit to the Davis home in Kanab, Utah, was evidently like entering a mashup of the MoMA and the Museum of the American Indian.

When Mary Ellen died, she left all of this stuff that was collected over the years to her son. This became an immediate source of friction, since (a) she left none of it to her daughter, and (b) her kids hate each other. The reasons for this are complicated, and I think there's plenty of blame to go around. Nevertheless, you might imagine that, even in the worst of circumstances, had this happened to you, you would still have to admit that family is family, and you would set aside your petty differences for this one moment, and you might be magnanimous and permit your siblings to choose one or two items to keep, as a remembrance of your parents and to carry on the family's history.

If this sounds like you, then you would have been woefully out-of-place at this funeral. I've never encountered an environment as toxic as this one. Put it this way: there was a security guard at the house after the funeral, presumably to make sure we didn't abscond with anything. This, needless to say, did not clear the air. My advice to you: stay on good terms with your brothers and sisters.

The upshot of all this, after all the finger-pointing and threats of legal action and whatnot subsided, was that Clair's uncle decided to sell everything. Every basket, every chair, even a sculpture signed by Mary Ellen that she might have made herself. No nostalgia. No legacy. All gone. The whole shebang.

The furniture, which featured Herman Miller cabinetry and a Noguchi coffee table, was sold in December. At a really basic level, this is just sad. What kicks it up a notch to annoying is that Clair and I didn't hear about it until January. It's hard to know if that was designed to prevent us from getting anything or just a maneuver to stop any attempt to halt the sale. Doesn't matter now, I guess. But amidst the nastiness, I saw a glimmer of hope.

A second auction. In March.

The baskets.

For the past two weeks, Clair and I have been assembling a package of information and money to try and keep at least a few of these baskets in one branch of the family or another. Between ourselves, Clair's mom, and her brother, we put together a decent little bankroll for heritage reclamation. Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles. We're stealing it back.

We had actually looked at the whole collection the week before, but Clair was getting a case of the nerves, so on Saturday -- the day before the auction -- we went back to see everything again. There were only a few of us the first time, but the gallery was packed on this day. People pawing over everything, like some upscale garage sale. It was a little unsettling.

Of particular concern was a mousy-looking man who looked like a dorkier version of the father from Cakey! The Cake From Outer Space. He wore a polo shirt that said "National Counterterrorism Center," wielded a digital camera, and hovered over a few of Mary Ellen's baskets with unsettling intensity. I'll just come out and say it: he gave off a strong pedophile vibe.

At one point, Mr. Counterterrorism Pedophile -- who was staring at a particular basket with a diamond pattern like he was taking a color-blindness test -- snapped his fingers melodramatically and announced, "Of course! He'll know!" A security guard and I exchanged glances, as we silently agreed that it was time for the ham to come out of the oven. But there was still overcooking to be done. Later, when the lech answered his cell phone, did a bad-spy glance-around, and stage-whispered into the phone, "Oh, yes, this looks very good," like he was in The Second Thomas Crown Affair. Trust me, if you see this guy around your kid's school, shoot first.

Sunday morning was nervous indeed, as we gathered our wits and our study aids one last time. The large crowd, plus the antics of Agent 00Dork, had made us nervous. Clair warned her family to prepare for the worst. And then, like Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy off to foil the Duke Brothers, we marched into the gallery, ready for battle.

Our first item of interest didn't show up until the late 300s, We arrived a little before #100. So I took this as an opportunity to study. And man, did I get an education. You've heard about auctions. You've seen movies. You've visited eBay. They're fast. But until you're actually in one, you can't possibly know what that means. Let me put it this way: this gallery sold nearly 1200 lots yesterday. They averaged about 100 lots per hour. Sweet jeepers.

Try and imagine something between a genteel auction of some Picasso and a livestock sale. Take the calmness of the former and the speed of the latter and you will sort of get a sense of how this went down. A nice woman would rapidly plow through a series of numbers which turned out to be bids, while people on telephones took orders, and the occasional spectator threw out a bid on a hideous green vase. At the end of each lot, the auctioneer would announce "fair warning" to signal that this was the last chance. But she did it in this high-pitched, sing-song way that, written down, might look like this:


That still rings in my ears.

Finally, the first item on our list appeared. I consulted our chart. We weren't too interested in it, but I wanted to gauge the market.

It went for $2,300.

That's a lot of money.

Several more lots would go by before I mustered all my courage and raised my paddle for the first time. And then there was a lot of blurry stuff I don't really remember, and there was a "FAIR war-NEENGGG" in there somewhere, and then we had won ourselves a basket. For $1,900.

That's a lot of money.

After that, the adrenalin never really stopped. Items came, items went, won a few, lost a few. Purely from a spectator's point of view, the highlight of the day was this item:

It's a Mission basket with a snake coiling around the bowl and an insect near the top. My mother-in-law didn't think she wanted it, because it creeped her out as a child. Still, it was in very good condition, and looked unusual. It was valued around $3,000, but we kept it in the back of our minds.

In no time, the bids were approaching $4,000, and with several important items still to come, I quickly gave up. But as the price continued to rise, I switched to fascination. And you could tell everyone in the room felt the same way. Two telephone bidders were going at it against each other. After $10,000, a man in front of us turned around with a look a "what-the-hell" expression. And still, the price climbed. And climbed. And climbed.

Final sale price: $25,000. Plus another $5,000 for the house.

We informed Clair's mom by text message, and her response was immediate: "Casino money." It seems that all those Native Americans who deal poker on tribal lands are using their profits to buy back all their treasures. And even though this treasure probably didn't date back more than 50 or 60 years, they wanted it just the same. And I just know that's who the Pedophile Spy was working for.

Fortunately, they didn't want everything. As the day wore on, I clutched our paddle nervously, managed to eke out several victories, including:

A Pima basket with a horse:

A Tlingit basket with lid (at Clair's urging; good call):

An adorable little Shoshoni basket (2 inches high) with a teeny-tiny handle; this picture is pretty close to actual size:

And the only non-basket item on our list, a Navajo rug covered with what the catalog called "a whirling log pattern", and what Clair's mom says the Navajos referred to as "thunderbirds", but which most people will identify as "inappropriate":

Look, they were around long before the Nazis, and meant something totally different to the Navajo people. We're not evil. You really have to trust me on this one.

When the smoke cleared, we had managed to acquire about a third of Mary Ellen's collection, and didn't bankrupt ourselves to do it. We didn't get everything; in particular, an item my mother-in-law wanted dearly went to the casino people for $15,000. But we got a lot, and we got most of the things that we wanted the most.

While checking out, we managed to bethe official auction buzzkill as people learned the reason for our buying spree. (It seems "eager collectors" is a much happier story that "heritage salvagers".) We retrieved our half of our basket bounty (the other half being shipped to Clair's mom), and retreated to a restaurant around the corner for food and drink and decompression.

"We did alright, Clair," I said over a rare glass of wine.

"We did good," she said.

And it felt good. I had successfully bid on valuable items at a live auction. I had confronted an extremely tense situation and emerged victorious. I had helped to restore some of the legacy of my wife's family. It felt real good.

And let's just not have to do that ever again. Okay?