The Titular Devil, With Hand

The Titular Devil, With Hand

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Godawful Prose in The Great Gatsby, or: Meyer Wolfsheim's Eyelike Nasal Hair

Just saw the Baz Luhrmann Great Gatsby, and enjoyed it quite a bit.That was rather a surprise, since I had a distinct antipathy to the source material, like so many others who’d had Scott Fitzgerald’s little book thrust upon them in their younger and more vulnerable years. The novel had bored me silly, and I found the writing a horrible combination of precious and strangely pulpy. Even though the film used some of Fitzgerald’s better prose in voiceovers, it was sufficiently devoid of his style to ennable me to concentrate on the basic strengths of the story; in fact, I was inspired to give the novel another chance. But even though I did indeed encounter some good prose in the book, and thought Fitzgerald handled dialogue fairly well, I was constantly breaking my teeth on big silly nuggets of terrible stuff.

The novel gets ridiculous instantly. We’re asked to swallow a bunch of self-congratulation by Nick Carraway, the narrator, who informs us that “he’s inclined to reserve all judgements, a habit that has opened up to me many curious natures, and made me to he victim of not a few veteran bores.”

Good thing he doesn’t judge them.

He goes on to tell us that “the abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person.” Because of his willingness to listen to twaddle, the poor lad was, in college, “accused of being a politician,” because he was “privy to the secrets of wild, unknown men.” He hangs about with men both “wild” and “unknown”—one thinks immediately of Tarzan—and people decide he’s a smoothie, although they wouldn’t. Nonetheless, even though he’s oh so tolerant of these loons, he’s “feigned sleep, preoccupation, or hostile levity”---whatever “hostile levity” is---whenever it looks they’re going to say something indiscreet. There’s just so much that even broad-minded him can endure. Fact is, all this is just incoherent. I think we’re supposed to take Carraway’s self-representation at face value...except that you can tell that his essential stance is one of absolute, deep, dripping disdain for just about everything. Eventually he decides he likes Gatsby, but that’s about it. Everybody else in the book is shallow at best or monstrous at worst.

But that isn’t what bothered me the most. It was hunkering down waiting for the next megaton of literary ineptness to go off. Fitzgerald has this reputation for being this fabulous prose stylist; he shouldn’t.  Consider this horrible piece of geographical exposition:

 “It was a matter of chance that I should have rented a house in one of the strangest communities in North America. It was on that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of new York—and where there are, among other natural curiosities, two unusual formations of land. Twenty miles from the city, a pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound. They are not perfect ovals—like the egg in the Columbus story, they are both crushed flat at the contact end—but their physical resemblence must be a source of perpetual confusion to the gulls that fly overhead. To the wingless a more arresting phenomenon is their dissimilarity in every particular except shape and size.”

Okay then.

One of the strangest communities in North America. That truly would be something, but Fitzgerald doesn’t deliver, after making the as-yet unidentified West Egg sound like something from H. P. Lovecraft. So, it’s full of nouveaux riche folks.They’re not like crackers from Deliverance or Fish People from Innsmouth. Fitzgerald indulges constantly in gross overstatement.

It was on that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of New York--- Riotous? The whole island? Gatsby throws parties there, although everything else on Long Island seems kind of stuffy and old money.

There are, among other natural curiosities, two unusual formations of land...When Fitzgerald describes these formations, it turns out they’re pretty tepid, as natural curiosities go. You wouldn’t even be aware of their ostensible curiousness unless you were in an airplane looking down...and even then, they wouldn’t rate. They’re  egg-shaped. If that’s what passes for a natural curiosity on Long Island, I’ll go somewhere else.

A pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western Hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound. The basic concept here is rather difficult, and Fitzgerald isn’t up to dealing with it. He should’ve said something like, “two nearly identical formations, egglike in outline, jut out into Long Island Sound.” Outline is better than contour, because it’s flat; simply calling these things eggs instead of formations with egglike outlines evokes Alice Rock or those Easter cakes made in molds. Contour is one of the chief culprits sounds three dimensional when you apply it to an egglike thing. As for courtesy, it’s oh-so-precious. As for most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere, it can’t possibly be true---it’s another dose of overstatement, and I really don’t know what he means by it either. If indeed he means it’s like a barnyard, what are we to make of that? Is it full of pigs and cows and chickens, wet ones? Yeesh.

They are not perfect ovals---Neither are eggs.

Like the egg in the Columbus story—they are both crushed flat at the contact end--- This is just tortured. Difficult in a worthless way. They’re not crushed—they’re connected to the rest of the island at their big ends. But putting it that way wouldn’t be fussy and pedantic enough for Mr. F.

Their physical resemblence must be the source of perpetual confusion to the gulls that fly overhead. Their physical resemblance? To each other? To eggs? I suppose it must be eggs (even though the sentence is very badly structured) because the gulls are perpetually confused by them. What is meant by perpetual? Do the gulls circle perpetually, or are they confused even after they leave?  In what does their confuse consist? Do they want to come down and incubate the peninsulas with their maternal butts? This is all a joke, apparently, but it’s witless.

To the wingless a more arresting phenomenon is their dissimilarity in every particular except size and shape. What? Every particular? Absurd.For one thing, we’ve already been told that the whole island is “riotous.” Perhaps we should suppose that one egg is inhabited by people, and the other by penguins. And the people drive cars, while the penguins drive bicycles, and the former drink Coca-cola while the latter drink Pepsi...

Although that would just be silly.

But so far, we haven’t gotten to the really weird stuff. Sometimes F’s howlers are simply unfathomable. Take the scene where we encounter Daisy and Jordan Baker for the first time:

“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were bouyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”

Man is this a wacky piece of business.

It sounds like something from a Miyazaki cartoon. The women are on a balloonlike couch that—in addition to the wind in their clothing---makes it look as though their clothes have just been off on a balloon flight around the house—inside or outside, I dunno. Some might object that taking F. to task about their clothes   flying by themselves is a cheap shot, but hell, even  literary titans should watch their pronouns. The breeze—which actually sounds like more of a tornado—makes the curtains whip and snap and the pictures groan; are we in the Haunted Mansion here? When the “caught” wind dies down—caught adds nothing—the curtains and the rugs and the two young women balloon to the floor. Have the curtains become detached in that “breeze?” Were the rugs picked up off the floor and whirled about like pizzas in a pizzeria, only to balloon down like the ladies, who go right to the floor, having fallen off the couch, I guess? Is the damn thing still hanging in midair?

Or, consider this description of Daisy: “For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward as I listened—then the glow faded, each light deserting her with a lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.” Astounding. Each light deserts with a lingering regret? How many suns do we have here? Is he talking about the highlights, as in, the one on the point of her nose went, then the one on her cheek, then the one on her chin? And how about these children? God help me, I envisioned a bunch of them on her face, about the size of ladybugs, creeping back out of sight behind her jaw.

Daisy’s face has other peculiarities too, besides swarms of tiny kiddies. Her eyes can do things that ours can't: “Daisy took her face in her hands as if feeling its lovely shape, and her eyes moved out gradually into the velvet dusk.” This is the kind of writing you’d have gotten from Robert E. Howard when he was twenty-two years old. When I said that Fitzgerald gets pulpy, I meant it. Where the hell was Fitzgerald’s editor?

But eyes are consistently problematical in Gatsby. Take the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg on the big billboard in the Valley of Ashes. We’re told the retinas are three feet high. Fitzgerald seems to mean their pupils are three feet high, but whatever. Then we have this, when “three modish negroes” pass by in a limousine: “I laughed aloud when the yolks of their eyeballs rolled towards us in haughty rivalry.” Yikes. Profoundly messed up on every conceivable level. Eyes aren’t like yolks, unless Fitzgerald thinks they’re yellow and gooey. I guess he actually meant whites, as in egg-whites, but...those are transparent and not like the whites of eyes, and not very much like negro eye-whites neither. And no matter what, nobody’s eyes roll out into the gap between two cars in “haughty rivalry”. And even if they did, it would not evoke a laugh from me....

Then again, maybe it might, after I finished screaming.

And speaking of extraordinary ocular matters, we have the bit where Meyer Wolfsheim is introduced: “A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril.” You say to yourself, surely F. doesn’t mean that Wolfsheim observes you with his nasal tufts, but...on the next page, we get, “His nostrils turned to me in an interested way.” I know what you’re thinking...he views you with his nostrils, not the hair therein...but even then, F. would be contradicting himself..

It just goes on and on. Every time you start to warm up to the story, one of these things comes down like a mortar-shell. Carraway’s underwear coils “like a damp snake” around his legs—perhaps he should pull his underwear up, so it’d ride up his buttcrack like it does on the rest of us. Beads of sweat race cool across his back—peculiar gravity we’re having. Here’s one of my very favorites:  “Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.” Pap of life? A giant boob in the sky loaded with incomparable wonder that Jay Gatsby can only suck if he climbs alone—alone, mind you----up the “blocks of the sidewalks” to the top?

All this out of the corner of his eye, by the way.

Ah well, maybe I’m mistaken, and it’s all really fabulous. But in my humble opinion, some of this prose is right up there with the worst of J. Fenimore Cooper, and it’s a pity Mark Twain didn’t live long enough to dig his claws into Mr. F.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Single Most Rightwing Movie of Recent Years

Coen Brothers don’t seem to have a rep for conservatism among conservatives, but there’s a lot for a reactionary like myself to like about some of their films. While Judaism seems to make them extremely uncomfortable—don’t know what the story is there--- they portray Christianity, generally, in a positive light, and they seem to be deeply suspicious of progressives. Barton Fink features a solipsistic Clifford Odets-like social-realist playwright who imagines he’s a great friend of the common man, even though he has no knowledge of common men at all, and couldn’t care less what they actually think. Fink is a giant bash on liberal intellectuals, and it’s kinda amazing that it garnered such great reviews...if the movie is any indication, the brothers simply loathe everything that your typical critic reveres.

Now, the critical reception for The Lady Killers was a lot less positive...maybe it had to do with the ideology, but if so, the reviewers weren’t telling us what was actually bothering them, bitching instead about the broad humor and asserting the film’s inferiority to the Alec Guinness original. Now, you can certainly argue that the 1955 version is better, for a number of reasons. But I don’t recall reading a single review which reacted to the remake’s screamingly conservative agenda. I dunno..maybe the fact that the old church lady is black blinded the critics to the propagandistic thrust. But the fact remains that the Coens were discharging one starboard broadside after another, and it’s incredible that nobody noticed.

Now, in the Guinness movie, there’s very little in the way of ideology, at least in my have this little old lady who rents a room to a gang of criminals, recruited by Guinness, who are preparing for a robbery. It’s vintage Ealing Studios stuff, with very sharp writing and wonderful performances, Guinness being very near the top of his form as a demented criminal genius. But aside from a certain amount of nostalgia about Victorian values (which Mrs. Wilberforce embodies), it’s primarily concerned with plot, character and laughs, not that they’re anything to sneeze at. Even though it retains the bare bones of the story, the remake is a very different the original, Mrs. Wilberforce, unable to give the money back, donates some of it to a starving artist. In the remake, the old lady gives the whole caboodle to Bob Jones University.

The Coens blare their anti-secular theme right at the gitgo. The opening song is “Let’s Return to God,” and that turns out to be the message, unambiguously and without irony. The location is moved from London to Mississippi, and the little old lady this time is an elderly black widow, Mrs. Munson (Irma P. Hall), a devout Christian whose religion is front and center. Whereas the lady in the older film is rather sweet, Mrs. Munson is pretty stern and has no use whatsoever for hiphop culture. Into her house comes G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks), a professor of classics; he rents a room and talks her into letting him use her basement, ostensibly so that  his rococo quartet can practice. In actuality, they’re planning to tunnel into the office of a nearby casino strongroom, and they are, with the exception of a likable muscular lunkhead named Lump (Ryan Hudson), a venemous clutch of guys that any conservative would hate, hate hate.

First off, there’s Hank’s character, a Marx-quoting secularist who believes the formless masses need to be endowed with purpose by higher intellects like himself. There’s a telling scene in which he and Mrs. Munson are reading in the living room, and she asks him about his attitude towards the Bible. He replies condescendingly that he’s “Found sustenance there,” then goes on to assert that there are “Many Good Books.” Confronted later with the prospect of “indulging in divine worship,” he practically has an attack of asthma.

A different strain of leftwing horrible is represented by Mr. Pancake (J.K. Simmons); a blowhard ex-Freedom Rider who fought against Bull Connor, he’s matured into an awful old hippy who vents self-righteous liberal bromides, reads Mother Jones, and is always trying to weasel favorable treatment for himself. That doesn’t sit well with Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans) a shiftless foul-mouthed black dude who works at the office they intend to rob, cries prejudice when he’s fired for sexual harrassment, and couldn’t care less about the efforts of the Freedom Riders, because he’s a terminal idiot who doesn’t vote.

Finally, most startling of all, there’s the General, a menacing Asian who’s evidently an ex-North Vietnamese tunneling honcho!

Masking the sounds of their labors with recordings of rococo quintets, the gang sets the Professor’s plan into motion, with Dorr allaying Mrs. Munson’s suspicions whenever they’re aroused; various obstacles are overcome, and the vault’s robbed, but things go terribly awry after that. Mrs. Munson discovers what  the Professor et. al have been up to, demands that they give the money back, and go to church. Dorr decides that the old lady must be dealt with somehow, although he’s a bit queasy at the prospect of killing her; when he asks the General, who’s a Buddhist, to suggest some “middle way”, the General responds, “Must float like a leaf in the river of life...and kill old lady.”

They draw straws, and one by one, end up dead themselves, apparently because God has got Mrs. Munson’s back. Gawain shoots himself accidentally after a spasm of guilt. Pancake is killed by the General while attempting to abscond with the cash, having left a cello-case full of Mother Jones magazines in place of the money. When the General climbs the stairs to garrotte Mrs. Munson in her bed, a Jesus cuckoo-clock goes off, startling him and causing him to swallow his cigarette; he tries to wash it down with Mrs. Munson’s denture water, then falls backwards down the steps and breaks his neck. Dorr then tries to convince Lump to do the dirty work; Lump, who can’t stand the thought of killing the “nice old lady,” gets the drop on Dorr with a  revolver, which misfires. Lump takes a look down the barrel, pulls the trigger...bang. Hanks is ultimately killed by a gothic statue which cracks loose from an obelisk and hits him on the head, whereupon he falls onto a garbage barge that has taken all the other malefactors to an offshore landfill. Mrs. Munson tries to give the money back, but everybody thinks she’s senile, and she donates it instead to the aforementioned  university. As the end credits roll, spiritual singers belt out a rousing rendition of “Let the Light From The Lighthouse Shine on Me.”

The movie’s quite funny, but Mrs. Munson isn’t subjected to the slightest scorn. It’s possible to fool her, and you can see why everyone would react to her bizarre stories by thinking she’s lost her marbles. But her Christianity is taken at completely face value, and depicted as being vastly superior to any of the alternatives the film presents—the counterculture, Marxism, secular humanism, etc. The movie is, purely and simply, a total conservative fix, and if you haven’t seen it, you should go and bask in the rightwing waves emanating from your TV...that’s if you’re not the sort of person it’s making fun of. I don’t think it’s first-rate Coen Brothers, but it sure seems to show that they’re anything but PC.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Belated Elysium Review

Didn't go see Elysium when it first came out for a couple of reasons. First off, it sounded like a huge load of left-wing propaganda. Now, there are a lot of SF ,movies that are left-wing propaganda...Bladerunner comes immediately to mind. But when I heard that the climax of the Elysium was all shaky-cam and lousy and not very exciting, I decided to skip it, at least for the time being. Being leftwing is one thing. But having a dull climax is vastly worse.

Okay, me and the wife just wanted to go out to a movie tonight, so I noticed Elysium was still playing, and we went. I thought, well, it's going to be  great effects flick, and I'll just enjoy all that stuff. Director Neil Blomquist sure served up a load of excellent EFX in District 9, and I had a pretty good time with that movie, even though it was pretty dumb, almost too dumb for me to have a pretty good time with...boy was that flick stupid. I continue to be amazed by filmmakers---who must be rather tech-savvy---being so alarmingly ignorant of science; but they never seem to improve on that score.

Take that last Star Trek flick. The Enterprise guys want to make a volcano stop erupting (in order to save the lives of Spock and some aliens), so they send down a cold fusion device to freeze the insides of the volcano---as if cold fusion has anything to do with freezing things. In that last Batman movie, you've got a cold fusion reactor whose fissionable material is decaying into something that will produce a nuclear explosion. The whole point of cold fusion is that you don't use fissionable material...and fissionable material gets less explosive as it decays, etc. Well, in District 9, you've got this alien goo which is necessary to run the alien technnology. It just happens to have the property of turning human beings into aliens if it gets squirted on them. Huh? Why? WTF? Moreover, when someone gets squirted on and starts turning into an alien, they keep on working physiologically anyway, even though their bodily systems are being supplanted by alien crustacean physiology, and one presumes, DNA. Moreover, the big alien ship operates on the goo. It seems to be parked over the shantytown in South Africa because it's out of goo and can't go home. The aliens have gone down to live in the shantytown, even though they've apparently brought enough goo with them to run the spaceship. All it takes to to run the spaceship is sufficient goo to fill a milkshake container, although a big mess of that goo gets squirted on Sharlto Copley, and starts to transform him...sheerly idiotic.

However, there were enough blowings-up and blood and gore and cool technology and creature designs to distract me.

Well, Elysium is maybe even dumber and rather boring to boot. Also most leftwing, in a really stupid way that distorts the storytelling. Given what the people up in Elysium can do, you just can't figure out why they wouldn't make things a bit better on earth....but I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Now get this. The evil Republicans on the orbitting space-station have a process called re-atomization(!) which will fix everything that's wrong with you in a matter of seconds. Yep, re-atomization. They flip a switch, run some electricity through their machine, and redo every cell in your body. They're hellbent on denying this to the rest of us, even though it's just that easy. The evil security chief (played with a bizarre accent by Jodie Foster, who looks like she's been repeatedly microwaved) has an evil assassin (played by Sharlto Copley, who seems to have wandered in from the Road Warrior)...the whole front of his head gets blown off at one point. They put him on the re-atomizer table, hit the switch, and, bing! the whole front of his head regrows in a matter of seconds. He looks all young and much better across the board. Seeing as how he does all this dirty work for the security chief, you'd think he would've been rewarded with a facelift a long time a matter of fact, you'd think that Jodie Foster would never have let herself grow old, and need to have her face microwaved, but nothing about this movie makes any sense.

The various premises are that earth is polluted and overpopulated, and all the evil rich people live in the space-station, which looks like circular California. All the assholes that made this flick probably live in the present day equivalent, and can afford much better healthcare than you and I, including the cosmetic surgery that created Matt Damon's ridiculous Peter Pan nose. Never mind that after completing their preachy shoots every day, Matt and Jodie and whoever undoubtedly retreated to someplace like Elysium...left the shitty Mexican favelas they were filming in, to go to some swank hotel in Mexico City or whatever.

Anyway, they've got re-atomizers up in space assholeland. As we learn at the end of the movie, they've got enough re-atomizers stored away somewhere to fix everything on everybody on earth...never mind that Elysium just doesn't seem to have many people on it, and you can't figure out where they're keeping all these extra re-atomizers, or why they need them. Now...seeing as how the space assholes seem to be ruling earth, you would think that their henchmen below would live in enclaves that would have re-atomizers...certainly, the space assholes would want to have some in case there was an accident when they visited, whatever. Undoubtedly, there would be all sorts of great places down here still, seeing as how they can make a big space station, right? Nah. If you want to get re-atomized, you gotta go up to Elysium. I bet they keep all the toilets up there too.

So you have Matt Damon, an ex car-thief who was raised by an inspiring nun (at least the movie isn't an exercise in Catholic-bashing!). Evil Republican robots roust him and break his limbs for no reason, and he works making something for an evil capitalist. The factory's got a chamber where you'll get irradiated if you're stuck inside. His evil boss makes him go inside to clear a jammed...thing. The chamber closes. Matt Damon gets irradiated. The chamber has a sensor that can tell if there's someone trapped inside, but it doesn't have an automatic cutoff. Guys have to come to pry the door open or whatever. Why don't they have a cutoff? Because Neil Blomkamp doesn't know anything about anything except doing good special effects. And oh, yes, because the company is evil.

They give Matt pills and send him on his way. He's been irradiated so badly that he might irradiate someone else, like you'd x-ray someone else if you'd been given a big dose of x-rays (Mr. Blomkamp seems to have been learning about radiation from the guys who made the Batman flick). Matt's going to die in five days, although the pills will keep him going, in some sense. He's been irradiated so badly that he's going to have complete organ shutdown, but he can take pills, which are apparently made by elves. Now, the reason you die and get complete organ failure when you've been irradiated is because you've had something like a zillion little bullets which have just gone through every cell in your body.

But Matt can take a pill!

He doesn't want to die, though, and thinks he can get re-atomized if only he can get up into Elysium. There's a criminal mastermind/revolutionary guy who can make this happen, if only Matt will do him a favor, namely, get some information out of  some capitalist's head and onto a chip or whatever. Of course, Matt wouldn't have to go to Elysium if he wasn't fucked up...but he's pretty helpless as is. He'd need what would have to be a pretty expensive high-tech exo-skeleton to fulfill his mission. But why would anyone give him one of those, when they could just slap it on someone who wasn't dying of "total organ failure"? It's like that stuff in Robocop, where they want to use the brain of a guy who's just taken one through the head in order to make their cybernetic organism. Why not get someone whose brains haven't been reamed out?

But I digress.

Matt and some other guys go after the guy who owns the factory where Matt was irradiated. Just so happens this guy is involved in a plan to overthrow the government...evidently this involves "rebooting" Elysium...why Jodie Foster just doesn't send guys with guns to take down her superiors, I don't know, but this is The Future here. After downloading the contents of  the capitalist noggin, Matt runs afoul of  the aforementioned Sharlto Copley. The film degenerates into a lot of stupid chases and explosions...among other things, barbaric Sharlto dispatches victims with a samurai sword, and while I'm all for that, just about everything about The Future  just seems like shittified stuff right here on earth now, including the cars and the clothes and the teapots and the guns and whatever, even though we're supposedly a hundred and fifty years hence.

Although they do have re-atomizers, naturally.

Okay, the plan for rebooting Elysium (or the coup or whatever that the capitalist has devised) winds up in Matt's head...Sharlto (who's generally unintelligible) gets hold of him and decides he wants the info, and takes him and Sonia Braga's dishy neice Ana and her daughter (who has leukemia) up to Elysium. It's taken us forever to get to the titular place...mostly we've been slithering around in sweaty stinky third-world stuff. But even though Elysium is an awesome special effect, well...we don't see much of it. We really don't. You'd think the people who made this thing would've said...let's contrive a big climax utilizing this fantastic backdrop like a big circular California.

But no, we don't get that. We have to settle for a lot of stupid chase and gunfight stuff in not particularly interesting interiors,  involving Sharlto deciding to take the info from Matt Damon and become the ruler of Elysium, which he intends to reboot and rule with his two or three lackeys, after icing Jodie Foster. As for security guys on Elysium, there are four or five of them, and the President of the Republic or whatever accompanies them to gunbattles. The big finish is a really boring shaky-cam fistfight between Matt Damon and Sharlto on a catwalk.I guess that this hohummery is supposed to be interesting because they've both got exo-suits on...but it just seems exactly like a fistfight on a catwalk. Sharlto gets blown up, but Matt downloads reboot orders that turn everyone on earth into a citizen of Elysium and make it possible for everyone to be re-atomized all the time, all fifty billion of us, or however many of us there are in the terrible overpopulated future...the end.

Oh yeah, and the little girl gets her leukemia cured, not that we care.

This thing didn't do too alienated me before it even opened, and I gather it did the same to a lot of other folks who'd have been its natural audience. Deciding to rise above my prejudices, I went and got spanked. Please, please you cinematic artistes, I beg you. If you're going to serve up your lefty agitprop SF, try to learn something about science, or just plain life, for that matter. And don't give us a largely Elysium-free climactic fistfight on a catwalk in a movie called Elysium.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Hoo Boy Is Desolation of Smaug Gonna Bite

If you follow this blog, you know that I had grave reservations about the first Hobbit installment, and I feel I was completely vindicated by the film that we got. An Unexpected Journey turned into something very, very awful long about the forty-minute mark, and the only really good sequence, the Riddles in the Dark bit, came way too late and didn't last long. The following February, John Corradin, who runs Days of Knights, the local gaming emporium here in Newark, DE., held a Hobbit post mortem and gabfest, and I was happy to attend with my friend Sam Tomaino (who would've played Bilbo in my never-to-be realized teenage movie of The Hobbit, scuttled by Tolkien himself). I'd actually ducked out at the end of a Days of Knights screening of  Journey, because I couldn't bear to speak to anyone who actually liked the thing. But I shouldn't have worried; I should've had vastly more faith in John and Co; at the gabfest John made it pretty clear early on that he didn't like Journey one bit, and when he asked all the assembled Tolkien fans if any of them were looking forward to Desolation of Smaug, nobody raised their hand.

Yep, that's right. You heard me. Not a single person was looking forward to it.


Frankly, even though I'd hated Journey, I was totally knocked out by this. Mr. Jackson had built up quite a reservoir of goodwill with the LOTR movies; even though they weren't perfect, they delivered some genuine satisfaction to some genuine Tolkien fans, such as myself. But none of the people I talked to at the post mortem had anything nice to say about Journey, aside from the Gollum stuff; all of us were pretty much in agreement, except that a few folks had perfectly valid criticisms I hadn't thought of. We all thought it was horribly padded, and tried to get by mostly on huge gobs of blitheringly idiotic action, all the while doing astonishing violence to the story. The birdshit drooling down the side of Radagast's face would've said it all...if the trollsnot glistening all over Bilbo's face hadn't already said it.

Okay, so, time's been flying, and we're coming up on Part 2, and man, everything I've seen makes it look like it's going to be an even bigger shit sandwich, although maybe I shouldn't use that term...perhaps Mr. Jackson in his wisdom (which is so superior to Tolkien's) will actually depict one for us, in 3D and 48fps!

First off, you can tell from the trailers that everything is horribly wrong.The movie's going to be lousy the same way the first one was, except...I suspect it's going to bear even less relation to the source material, if that's possible. You get scene after scene in which you can't recognize what scene it corresponds to in the book...there are all sorts of wacky settings  (which I guess represent Thranduil's kingdom and the inside of Erebor), and big goofy-looking action set-pieces and really fake-looking special effects. The effects in the first film were crummy, and the ones in this film look terrible too. Everything is overlit, garish, badly designed, hopelessly unreal. We get a bit of a glimpse of Smaug---he's not a good idea. The trailers alone are going to make it very hard for me to drag myself to this thing.

But there's more. There's a website called where the purveyors apparently have an in with Peter Jackson....maybe they're simply shills, I don' t know. They refer to Gandalf and Radagast and Thranduil as "Gandy, Raddy and Thrandy", and for that reason alone they should be gassed. But these folks are also revealing tidbits about the new movie, and they're truly cringerworthy, all the more so because they seem to be grounded in reality. And if this information is reliable, even more of the story is being trampled on than you'd gather from the trailers, and that's saying something.

First off, the dwarves break into Beorn's house, and he attacks them---chuck that whole business about Gandalf fooling him. Then there's apparently a scene where Beorn captures an orc and tortures him. The orcs follow the dwarves into Mirkwood. The thing with Bilbo and the butterflies (one of my favorite bits from the book) might wind up on the cutting-room floor, but we are going to have Bombur falling into the sleepyhead stream and then being carried around, which will certainly be sidesplitting, given what Jackson dwarf-humor is like. There's going to be loads and loads of spider-action, which is then going to end with a bunch of elf-vs-spider action. There's going to be a PC elf-warrior chick (how groundbreaking) who figures in the whole rest of this ridiculous mess, and either Fili or Kili is going to be romantically involved with her, although she might be in love with Thranduil...when we get to Rivendell, Bard is going to introduced at the gitgo and might be something of a it goes.

Then there's the whole Gandalf-Radagast-Necromancer thread. Gandalf's perambulations in southern Mirkwood  in and around Dol Guldur will be right onstage in this thing (yep, more luscious Radagast, with the birdshit still on), complete with investigations into the "King's tomb," the king here apparently being the Witch King, a conception which diverges pretty radically from Tolkien, seeing as how the Lord of Nazgul just became a wraith and never died...some of this might be cool, except that we've seen what's happened with Mr. Jackson since LOTR, and it hasn't been pretty, and probably all this cobbled together and improvised stuff won't be too pretty neither...

I wonder how many Rhosgobel Rabbits will be on view.

I really should stop now. I'm just making myself madder, and...well hey, maybe I'm going to be completely mistaken, and this thing will be swell. But even though I'm going to go see it, I don't know if anyone in my family will be willing to join me...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Night At Gatsby's

I’ve been a big Marx Brothers fan since I was in my early teens; I used to watch all their movies on New York TV, and I thought (still think) the best ones, like Duck Soup, are just about the funniest movies ever.You might well have noticed a lot of Marx Brotherish stuff in Samurai Cat, for example. Anyway, I was  very sorry that they didn’t make more films, and was rather surprised to learn that they really weren’t that popular during the thirties...their movies got great reviews, and everybody agreed they were sensational, but audiences just didn’t flock to their stuff—I believe that the Ritz Brothers, who nobody watches today, were much better box office. The aforementioned Duck Soup was the fifth Marx Brothers film for Paramount, and it didn’t do well...their contract ran out, and the studio dumped them. They got picked up by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, who insisted on a rather different approach, involving more plot, romantic stuff, and big musical numbers (in addition to harp and piano solos by Harpo and Chico). The first two MGM movies, Night at the Opera and Day At the Races, set the mold, and they were still pretty good, but things declined after that.

Now, what I didn’t know is that Opera actually got its start as their last Paramount project, namely, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Originally it was going to be called Scrambled Eggs, after East and West Egg in Long Island, where the novel is set; but then the title was changed to A Night at Gatsby’s. The script was by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, and S.J. Perelman, although by the time it hit the theatres, it would undoubtedly have been pretty well transformed by adlibs, as always happened with Marx Brothers movies. Certainly, the source material got a pretty drastic working over...Dr. T.J. Eckleburg was substituted for the Nick Carraway character, because Groucho felt that TJ Eckleburg was a great Groucho name. Chico was given Meyer Wolfsheim’s part, because it was felt that Italians and Jews were a similar species, as evidenced by the fact that Chico always played an Italian. Wolfsheim served as Gatsby’s interpreter, Gatsby being played by Harpo, who communicated entirely in horn this time, Zeppo was out of the picture.

The story had Eckleburg moving in next to Gatsby and observing some wild parties. Receiving an invitation to one of these shindigs, Eckleburg runs into Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s business partner. A filmed version of this scene, and several others, actually survives...the Brothers were in the habit of testing material on audiences to see what worked and what didn’t, and it’s possible to hunt this stuff down on the web. Filled with adlibs, these little slices of comedic gold diverge a damn sight from the script:

Wolfsheim: Heckleburg, Heckleburg...

Eckleburg: Yes, Dr. TJ Eckleburg.

Wolfsheim: Where do I knowa that name from...

Eckleburg: There’s a billboard...

Wolfsheim: Yeah right. With you eyes all big...looking out in the ash...Hey, you make an ash of yourself!

Eckleburg: I get that all the time.

Wolfsheim: Well, it’s a good one, hey boss?

Eckleburg: You don’t seem very much like a Wolfsheim.

Wolfsheim: I don’t think so too, but you gotta be what you are.

Eckleburg; Well, speaking of that, who is this Gatsby fellow anyway? I live right next to him, but---

Wolfsheim: We make alotta dough together, but there’s some things I don’t know.

Eckleburg: Like what?

Wolfsheim: I can’t say.

Eckleburg: He spends all day looking at a dock.

Wolfsheim: Why a dock? He wanna make soup?

Eckleburg: No, not a duck. A dock.

Wolfsheim: He look at you?

Eckleburg: Why would he?

Wolfsheim: You’re a Doc. Doc Heckleburg.

Eckleburg; No, no, not doc, dock. D-O-C-K. You know, where the boats come up.

Wolfsheim: Come up? Lika the U-boat?

Eckleburg: No, not like that. A regular boat.

Wolfsheim: But itsa  you boat, right? I’d like to take a ride in you boat.

Eckleburg: I don’t have a boat.

Wolfsheim: Atsa shame.

In another test, we have all three brothers plus Paramount starlet Grace Bradley as Daisy, and Margaret Dumont, who plays Daisy’s mother, Mrs. Madeleine Effingwell. Gatsby has learned that Eckleburg is Daisy’s optometrist, and has asked him to invite her over to his house, so he can rekindle their old romance. But  he doesn’t reckon on Mrs.Effingwell tagging along as a chaperone. The scene begins with Gatsby and Wolfsheim showing up at Eckleburg’s:

Gatsby: Honk.

Eckleburg: What did he say?

Wolfsheim: He say he very nervous, wonder if this was good idea.

Eckleburg: All that with one honk?

Wolfsheim: Great, huh?

Eckleburg: How did you learn to understand him?

Gatsby: Honk.

Wolfsheim: He don’t want you to know.

Eckleburg: Why not?

Wolfsheim: He’s a mystery man.

We hear car doors thumping. There’s a knock at the door, and Eckleburg jumps to answer it. In come Mrs. Madeline Effingwell, and her daughter, Daisy. Gatsby begins to honk furiously.

Wolfsheim: He say itsa no good, he no wanna the mother, just be alone with his girl.

Mrs. Effingwell: I have come to make absolutely certain that nothing untoward occurs...

Gatsby honks and goes to stand in the corner.

Mrs. Effingwell to Eckleburg: What is the meaning of this?

Eckleburg: It’s sort of like that, but---

Mrs. Effingwell:You misunderstand me...

Eckleburg: No, I misunderstand you.

Mrs. Effingwell: What are you doing, arranging assignations between that man...(She points at Gatsby, who honks) and my Daisy?

Eckleburg: Do I look like someone who would assignate? You cut me to the quick.

Mrs. Effingwell: I thought you were an optometrist....

Wolfsheim: No, he don’t think things ever work out...

Eckleburg (vehemently): I refuse to be characterized as a pessimist.

Wolfsheim (pouncing): Too late.

Mrs. Effingwell: My daughter is a married woman!

Gatsby: Honk.

Wolfsheim: He say, it’s okay, he no mind.

Mrs. Effingwell: Who is this, this foreigner?

Wolfsheim: I’m the guy who fixed the 1919 World Series.

Mrs. Effingwell, in high dudgeon: A mobster?

Wolfsheim: I no think so...I no hava the big red claws.

Mrs. Effingwell: A racketeer then?

Wolfsheim: I no play tennis.

Mrs. Effingwell: But...

Wolfsheim: And I no zoom up and go boom.

Mrs. Effingwell: Yes, yes...

Wolfsheim: And I no swordfight in France...

Eckleburg: This is getting us no place.

Wolfsheim: I think we been there a while.

Gatsby: Honk.

Daisy (desperately): I love you too!

Eckleburg: You understand him?

Daisy: I went with him for two years, before he joined the army...

Mrs. Effingwell: I never knew...

Eckleburg: And here you were, accusing me of assignating..(He sidles up to her) On the other hand, I can imagine an assignation with you. An assignation so big I don’t think I could see round it...Is that all you, or do you have a Siamese twin? Don’t answer that.

Mrs. Effingwell: I don’t know what to say.

Eckleburg: Then count to ten and take me to your bosom. That’s if your arms are long enough.

Ultimately, Gatsby and Daisy do get together, but her horrible busband Tom  manages to break it all up, in an ugly scene that erupts during the film’s climactic party. Having guessed that Gatsby is probably a phony and a bootlegger, Tom decides to peel away his disguise in front of everyone:

Tom: An Oxford man, eh?

Gatsby: Honk.

Wolfsheim: He say he hate to brag, but...

Tom: What did he study?

Gatsby: Honk.

Wolfsheim: He study all about Cambridge.

Tom: He studied Cambridge at Oxford? How pointless!

Gatsby: Honk.

Wolfsheim: He say it make him very mad. So he went to Cambridge to study Oxford.

Tom: I think he never went to Oxford.

Gatsby: Honk.

Wolfsheim: How you explain-a the accent?

Tom: He doesn’t have an English accent.

Wolfsheim: Yeah, but he meet a lotta nice geese.

Daisy (running in): Jay! There you are!

Gatsby simpers with his finger in his mouth. Then she notices her husband.

Daisy: Oh! Tom! .

Gatsby: Honk.

Daisy: I do love you, but I can’t say I never loved Tom!

Gatsby (heartbroken): Honk.

Daisy: I’m so confused.

Tom (sneering at Gatsby): Hah!

Despairing, Gatsby produces one of those bug-sprayers that has a handle-pump and a cylindrical can, and proceeds to spray Tom and Daisy. They drop dead. He gets Mrs. Effingwell too, and moves on to the other guests.

Eckleburg (turning to the camera): The very rich are not like you and me.

Gatsby sprays him, then Wolfsheim, then himself, and they all crumple, twitching.

Now, the brothers, who’d been known to hobnob with Scott Fitzgerald at parties on Long Island, had expected to procure the rights, but they presumed a bit too much on their friendship, it seems; Fitzgerald came away with the distinct impression that his work was being mocked, and the negotiations collapsed...since a certain amount of money had already been spent, this proved the last straw for Paramount, and the brothers were left with no contract, the unfinished script, and the test footage. Ultimately, when they wound up at MGM, the script was completely revamped, and turned into Night at the Opera....some of the test footage that didn’t survive involved an early version of Opera’s celebrated stateroom scene, in which Gatsby and Daisy, hiding from Tom, wind up at Eckleburg’s tiny bungalow, and everybody from the party next door comes over and squeezes in too. But, unfortunately, that piece of film was on nitrate stock, and went up in a fire along with the last known copy of Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight...