Interview: the writers of Carmilla

  Carmilla, J. Sheridan LeFanu's 1871 novella that predates Bram Stoker's Dracula, is a seminal work of genre fiction.  It introduces the idea of the lesbian vampire, something that later writers would expand into its own genre (check out Hammer's The Vampire Lovers for a fairly faithful, if overtly sexed-up, version).  It's also surprisingly contemporary in its writing style.  So Read more

Movie Review: Mythica, A Quest for Heroes

Back in 2011, I stumbled on Arrowstorm Entertainment's Dawn of the Dragonslayer, a low-budget fantasy epic that had the look of a much more expensive film. But what really got my attention was the care given to the performances: leads Richard McWilliams and Nicola Posener really dug into their characters, and director Anne Black gave them the time to Read more

Dramatics Interreptus

My younger son turns seven in about a month, and the other day I realized that I was about that age when I realized just how important stories were to me. My parents left me to stay with friends of the family for an afternoon; I have no memory why. But while I was there, I started watching the TV Read more

Seeing It a New Way

In my teen writing class at the Mount Horeb Public Library last week, we segued into discussing Catcher in the Rye, and one of my students made the following observation (which I'm paraphrasing): Some of my friends have said that, since the characters in the book were rich, Holden's problems weren't that significant. But in so many other books I've read, Read more

A True Story of Frog-Gigging and Disappointment

I wrote the following piece for a memoir class taught by Michelle Wildgen, best-selling author of Bread and Butter and You're Not You (soon to be a movie starring Hilary Swank). When I was a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, my dad determined that I would follow in his footsteps and leave a trail of dead small animals behind Read more

For Halloween, Try EXORCISMUS

Posted on by Alex in movies, reviews | Leave a comment

Every year around Halloween I try to recommend a horror movie you might not have seen, something off the beaten path and all the better for it. You can read previous recommendations here and here. This year, I worried that I wouldn’t find anything.

Then I discovered the 2010 film, Exorcismus.

Exorcismus poster

No, I can’t explain the title, either. Yes, it’s an exorcism movie, but as far as I know, it’s gibberish. It was also released under the even worse generic title, The Possession of Emma Evans.

But don’t let that throw you. The film is wonderful. It’s about a possessed teenage girl, and her uncle the priest who tries to help her, and yes, that’s about as basic as it comes. But as with many horror movies working in well-established genres, the fun–and the originality–is in the details.

Exorcismus 1

The movie is set in England, and despite being a Spanish production, is performed in English. Teenage Emma (Sophie Vavasseur) is, along with her brother Mark, homeschooled by well-meaning but oblivious parents (Richard Felix and Jo Anne Stockham). Right off the bat this is interesting, because the kids are not homeschooled out of religious beliefs, but out of a sense that the public schools are inadequate. Emma wants to attend regular school with kids her own age, since her only friends are her cousins Alex and Rose. She’s an unhappy, isolated but basically good girl whose possession is unexpected and, as it turns out, surprising for a number of reasons.

What makes this film work, and puts it leagues above the many other films that feature a similar plot, are the acting and the demonic manifestations. Every performer is spot-on, creating low-key, complex characters. You believe them as individuals, and as a family. When things fall apart, they do so with believable emotions: there are only a few moments that don’t ring true.

Exorcismus 2

We’ve all seen The Exorcist, so we know how possession usually manifests. Most of those tropes are here, but instead of being cranked up, director Manuel Carbalo dials them way down: when Emma levitates, it’s only about a foot off the floor, and when the demon takes control and makes her do things, they’re small and insidious, not grand gestures of evil.

And the plot, by David Muñoz (who also co-wrote Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone) really doesn’t go where you expect. The first exorcism session occurs pretty early in the film, so you know immediately that the story is about something other than the standard good versus evil.  I won’t spoil it by giving away more, but trust me: although the initial build-up is slow, the payoff is worth it.

Currently, Exorcismus is streaming on Netflix. You can find the trailer on YouTube, but if you really want to be surprised, don’t watch it: since, as I said, the movie is so low-key, they’ve had to cobble together a lot of the high points.

And if you do see the movie, come back and tell me what you thought.

The Manic Pixie Pout-Pout

Posted on by Alex in children, children's books, pop culture, reviews, storytelling, writing, zooey deschanel | 1 Comment

Since I now have another two-year-old, I’m back to reading the simplest books to her at bedtime. Most of these books are innocuous, if occasionally incompetent (i.e., Big Snowman, Little Snowman, a Frozen tie-in book that probably takes longer to read than it did to write). A few are brilliant, such as Room on the Broom. But I’m here to talk about the New York Times bestseller (it says so right there on the cover) The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen, and especially what it’s like to read this book to a daughter.

 

Pout Pout 1

 

So, here’s our hero, featured on the cover: the Pout-Pout fish. The plot, such as it is, has various sea creatures essentially telling the pathologically depressed Pout-Pout Fish to cheer the hell up, to which he repeatedly replies:

Pout Pout 2

 

I admire a fish who sticks to his…fins, I guess.

Anyway, with no warning, a female fish shows up.  She says nothing, but simply swims up to our hero and plants a smooch on him.

 

Pout Pout 3

 

This kiss totally turns him around.  One kiss from a total stranger, without reason or explanation, causes him to exclaim:

Pout Pout 4

 

The last page shows him kissing the nameless girl-fish again, but it’s unclear if it’s real, a fantasy, or simply a memory of the first kiss. But that wasn’t what bugged me. It was the idea that somewhere I’d seen this plot before…

Oh, yeah!

Garden State…

Elizabethtown…

Sweet November…

And Autumn in New York, and (500) Days of Summer, and Almost Famous*, and The Girl Next Door, and…

This other fish–unnamed, unidentified, with no function other than to cheer up the protagonist–is…

A Manic Pixie Dream Fish!

(NOTE: if you’re unfamiliar with the term, “manic pixie dream girl,” check here.)

Okay, on the one hand, I’m sort of kidding. This is a kid’s board book after all, not the place to look for psychological depth or meaningful social interaction. It has funny animals and it rhymes, and I’m certain author Deborah Diesen had no ulterior motives.

Except on the other hand, I’m not kidding at all. The female fish exists for no other reason than to kiss the main character. She’s not identified as his mother, or his sister, or his girlfriend, or any other sort of character who might legitimately have a reason to kiss him. And while some of the other characters who complain to the Pout-Pout fish about his attitude are female, she’s the only one who takes any sort of action in the story, and the only one who gets to dominate a two-page spread. Is this, then, icthy-objectification?  And further, if the genders were reversed–if a strange male fish swam up and kissed the female main character–would we accept it as the wonderful thing this book presents? Isn’t it a kind of harassment?

I’ll keep reading the book to my daughter, because at her age, it’s a) essentially harmless, and b) counteracted by the things she sees around her, such as her dynamic and empowered mother. But when she’s older, I plan to show it to her again, and ask her what she thinks. If she’s the girl I think she is, she’ll be as amused/appalled then as I am right now.

Hans Up, Hans Down: the Villain of Frozen

Posted on by Alex in movies, reviews, writing | 6 Comments

Warning: SPOILERS pretty much throughout.

If you’re a parent, particularly of a daughter, then you–like me–have probably seen/heard/experienced Frozen more than you ever thought possible. But this is not a post about the ubiquitous “Let It Go” song, which now even Pearl Jam have referenced. No, this is about the one element of the movie that I just can’t make up my mind about.

Hans.

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Hans is the villain, but you don’t know it until just before the end. Up until the big reveal, he not only seems like a decent guy, he seems like a great guy. He steps up and holds down the fort in Arendelle while Anna goes off to find Elsa, and that includes keeping the population safe and calm. He even saves Elsa from assassins, which ultimately seems counter-productive. In fact, although the movie goes to great pains to remind Anna that it’s a bit insane to plan to marry someone you’ve just met, we’re led to think that Anna might be right after all. Hans is awesome.

Until, of course, the big reveal that he’s not. And his moment of Blofelding, where he explains his evil plan.

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“Oh Anna, if only there was someone out there who loved you.”

Now, I (and every writer I know, and a huge number of fellow bloggers) have wondered about this moment ever since. Was this on purpose, and part of the deliberate design, or did the decision to make Hans the villain come so late in the game that there wasn’t time to drop clues earlier in the film?

I’ve done extensive (i.e., half an hour while the kids were eating breakfast) online research into this, and it does seem that the change in Hans was intrinsic. From Wikipedia:

“…according to Hyrum Osmond, one of the supervising animators for Hans, Hans is this handsome, dashing character. The crew wanted the audience to fall in love with him and the relationship he could have with Anna. Then they’d get to turn him around towards the climax and make it a big shock. According to Lino Di Salvo, Hans is a chameleon who adapts to any environment to make the other characters comfortable.”

Okay, fair enough. So why didn’t the filmmakers tip their hand earlier? Why not give us hints that Hans is secretly the bad guy?

Perhaps Stanley Kubrick has the answer.

In this interview on his film Barry Lyndon, Kubrick says:

“You could have had Barry give signals to the audience, through his performance, indicating that he is really insincere and opportunistic, but this would be unreal. When we try to deceive we are as convincing as we can be, aren’t we?”

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Ryan O’Neal in Barry Lyndon. The template for Prince Hans?

 

This was actually the very first thing I thought of when reflecting on Hans’ betrayal. And the whole Hans plot is so refreshingly anti-Disney that I hope I’m right, that it was a deliberate choice from the git-go, and not a last-minute tweak to provide a villain.

And if so, perhaps that inspiration goes back to Shakespeare:

“One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

(Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5)

 

Book Review: Belushi a Biography

Posted on by Alex in music, reviews, writing | 1 Comment

A lot of people probably don’t remember John Belushi, but he accomplished the rare trifecta of simultaneously having the number one TV show (“Saturday Night Live”), number one movie (National Lampoon’s Animal House) and number one album (“Briefcase Full of Blues” by the Blues Brothers). He remains a unique figure in American popular culture, both for the way he lived and the way he died.

John_Belushi

I was a college freshman when he passed away from a drug overdose in 1982. My whole idea of college, in fact, was formed by Animal House, and I did the best I could to live up to that, to my detriment. I even dated a girl who named her dog Belushi, which she shortened to “Booshy” (one reason we quit dating).

So Belushi, beyond his skill as a performer, represented something to me and my generation. Each generation has a similar tragic icon, from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain, but those figures always seemed to end up on pedestals; Belushi, on the other hand, seemed to be someone you could approach if you happened to encounter him. Dan Aykroyd called him, “America’s guest.”

In 1984, two years after Belushi’s death, Bob Woodward–half of Woodward and Bernstein, of All the President’s Men fame–wrote Wired: the Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi. It painted a vivid picture of late 70s/early 80s drug use among celebrities, and pissed off pretty much everyone involved in Belushi’s life. That’s understandable: it focused on everything but the things that made Belushi memorable. Still, it’s a great book as a time capsule, and Woodward managed to get the cooperation of everyone involved in Belushi’s life. (If you can find it, there’s also a movie version, starring Michael Chiklis of “The Shield” as Belushi; it’s not good by any means, but it’s the kind of surreal disaster that has its own entertainment value.)

In 1990, Belushi’s wife Judy wrote the touching memoir Samurai Widow, about life after her husband’s death. And “The Best of John Belushi,” from his years on Saturday Night Live, is a great DVD primer on what made him a star in the first place.

belushibook

But if you want to know what Belushi was like, and why his loss was indeed a tragedy, you need to seek out the 2005 coffee table book Belushi. It consists entirely of comments and interviews with people who knew him, from his family to co-stars. In fact, the only notable absence is Robert De Niro, who saw Belushi on his last day. It’s also loaded with terrific photos. I’ve had it on my shelf for a couple of years, but I’ve tap-danced around it, because I was pretty sure of the effect it would have. But over these Christmas holidays, I finally read it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book. But it’s not an easy book, if you’re old enough to remember Belushi in life.

Doom hangs over it from the start, both because the reader knows what’s coming, and so do most of the commenters. It makes the memories of Belushi’s talent and performances that much more touching and vivid. And that’s where this book exceeds Wired: you do get a sense of the mess Belushi made of his life, and the cost to those around him, but you also understand why it mattered, both to them and to the world at large. It dwells far more on his talent and good qualities than it does his flaws. And it accomplishes the thing tragic biography always should: you miss him when he’s gone. You feel his loss the way you would someone you actually knew.

I was in tears by the time I finished. I cried for the loss of this unique talent, for the pain of those around him, and for the time in my own life that he symbolized and encapsulated.

And then I watched The Blues Brothers.

 

The First Drop of Blood: A Dream of Dracula

Posted on by Alex in criticism, Dracula, reviews, vampires, writers | Leave a comment

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It’s now possible to find gazillions of non-fiction books on Dracula, novel or historical character or cultural figure. I recommend anything by Elizabeth Miller. But in the early 70s, there was really only one:  A Dream of Dracula: In Search of the Living Dead, by Leonard Wolf.

It’s a long-form meditation on what vampires and Dracula mean to people in the (then) contemporary world. He talks to modern supposed vampires, visits Transylvania and sees an awful lot of movies. His insights are occasionally brilliant but often rather obvious; yet it has to be remembered, he was the first one writing this stuff for a popular audience. It’s like high school students who don’t like Hamlet because it’s full of cliche’s.

Wolf was actually born in Transylvania, and the book is a dive into both the legend of Dracula in popular culture, and into the psyche of Leonard Wolf. One is obviously more interesting now than the other, but even the personal asides and extended vignettes have their entertainment value. Wolf was writing at the end of the Sixties, so some of his interviewees actually use phrases like, “groovy” and “turned on.” He lets us into his sex life, which seems to involve younger women, including students (this was not considered so improper back in the full flush of the sexual revolution). He talks a lot about how his discoveries and insights make him feel. So it’s very much a book of its time.

Leonard Wolf with his writer daughter, Naomi.

Leonard Wolf with his writer daughter, Naomi.

Still, it’s got some value, and Wolf can turn a phrase and make a pithy observation. He calls Vlad the Impaler “a practical joker of agony” (p. 244). Of the heroes of Stoker’s novel, he says, “They were strange, one may suppose, even before Dracula came into the lives of the men” (p. 210). And on contemplating his own mortality in the mirror, he writes, “The man I see in the mirror gets a look of surprised misery in his eyes, as if he heard the flapping of leather wings bearing creatures through the darkness who will converge on the fluorescent-lighted silver rectangle of the mirror where his face is illuminated, trapped” (p. 92). Whew.

Reading it today, and as a fan of the topic, I’m especially swept along in the enthusiasm Wolf has for his subject. He knows, despite the critical consensus at the time, that there’s something valuable here in the conjunction of history and pop art, in the transformation of Vlad Drakul into Count Dracula. He may never quite articulate it, but he gets most of the way there, and he gives later scholars a good spot to start.

Book Review: Paperback Writer by Mark Shipper

Posted on by Alex in music, reviews, writing | 4 Comments

shipper-cover2

“Rock and roll is a joke
and the joke is on
anyone–performer or
audience–who ever takes it for any more than that…”
(p. 11)

Writing about music, as I’ve said before, is tricky. The ones who do it well–P.F. Kluge, Sheila Kay Adams, Lee Smith–take it very seriously. So it follows that writing a parody about music, one that’s simultaneously respectful and hilarious, is even trickier. Writing that parody about the greatest rock and roll band ever, the Beatles, is the greatest trick of all. Yet in 1978, a writer named Mark Shipper did it, in a novel called Paperback Writer, subtitled The Life and Times of the Beatles: The Spurious Chronicle of their Rise to Stardom, Their Triumphs and Disasters, Plus the Amazing Story of Their Ultimate Reunion.

The date of publication is significant. John Lennon was murdered in 1980; after that, any book like this would’ve seemed tacky, if not downright heartless. But in 1978, with Paul and John both still vital presences in the music world, it seemed reasonable to poke fun both at their excesses, and at the fans who would never let them forget their past.

And fun is most assuredly poked. I’m only going to mention a couple of the jokes, because I certainly don’t want to spoil it, but here are some examples:

Lennon proceeded to explain to the roomful of reporters that his statement about the Beatles being “bigger than Jesus” was misinterpreted.
“What I meant,” he said, “was that we are all taller than Jesus.”
“Oh, Jesus,” [Beatles manager Brian] Epstein said from the front row.
(p. 82)

Or this bit, post-Beatles breakup, when Paul argues with his wife Linda about their group, Wings:

“What’s it gonna take for you to stay in the group, Linda?”
“Top billing.”
“What?”
“You heard me. Top billing.”
“You mean Linda McCartney and Wings?”
(p. 185)

And the book is filled with alternate lyrics to the best-known Beatles songs:

Instant karma
Mix it with milk
Goes down your throat
Smooth as silk

And this, the bridge for “A Day in the Life”:

Woke up
Fell out of bed
Tried to get off the floor
Couldn’t
So stayed on the floor
All day long

Finally, there are the extended scenes of alternate history, such as Lennon and McCartney getting stoned while writing a song with Bob Dylan, or meeting the Beach Boys and Donovan (“Don’t call me ‘Don!’”) during their meditation phase. And the novel climaxes with what must have seemed inevitable at the time: a Beatles reunion tour that doesn’t go quite as anyone expects:

shipper04

 

 

This is a relatively easy to find book since it’s got a cult following, although as far as I know it’s been out of print since the early 80s. Author Mark Shipper, it appears, withdrew into willful obscurity and has never resurfaced. Still, if you’re a Beatles fan, or just a fan of music in general, you’ll probably enjoy this a lot. There’s real affection in the humor, and McCartney’s final line is something that we all know is true, but don’t like to admit:

“I guess,” McCartney said as he took his wife’s hand, “it’s because you can’t live in someone’s past and live in their future, too.”
(p. 252)

Here are a couple of other bloggers talking about this book:

Pismotality

Rockcritics.com

Review: My Old True Love by Sheila Kay Adams

Posted on by Alex in family, folk music, folklore, reviews, writers, writing | Leave a comment

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Writing prose about music is, to borrow an analogy, dangerously close to trying to teach a fish to ride a bicycle. If you could say it in regular words, there’d be no need to sing it. And music can do some things far more efficiently than any other art form. For example, it takes over seven hours to tell the three-generation story of the Corleones in the three Godfather films; Steve Earle covers the same amount of territory in less than five minutes in his song “Copperhead Road.” So really, the best a prose writer can do is try to describe the effect music has on the people who create it, and hear it.

The list of novels that do that well is fairly short. One of them, P.F. Kluge’s Eddie and the Cruisers, I reviewed here. Another, Lee Smith’s The Devil’s Dream, is on deck for a re-read and review in the near future. And Sheila Kay Adams’ My Old True Love is a third, one set in the Appalachian Mountains and about, among other things, the way songs can often speak for us when regular words fail.

Set in the years before, during and after the Civil War, it tells of two men, Larkin and Hackley, and the woman they both love, Mary. But it’s told by Arty, Hackley’s sister and Larkin’s foster mother, who’s barely older than they are. And it encompasses many aspects of the South that don’t get much attention, such as the idea that not every Southerner was gung-ho for secession or Civil War. And woven throughout all this is the music they sing, listen to, and share.

Sheila Kay is uniquely qualified to write this novel.  She’s a professional storyteller and noted ballad singer; you can find my review of a documentary that features her here. Further, she’s so embedded (by history, biology and choice) in the region she describes that the book reads more like a memoir than fiction. She brings Arty to life in a way that’s astounding in its simplicity and vividness.

And the story does not evolve in the way you expect. In fact, there’s a glorious moment near the end where one character says something very simple, but it has the effect of turning the reader’s expectations entirely around. It works the same way the climax of the Scorsese film The Color of Money works: by making you suddenly realize this isn’t the story you thought it was going to be, and yet now that you know, you can see that it could be no other story.

I write about Appalachia in my Tufa novels, and my father’s family comes from the region. But Sheila Kay lives and breathes what she writes, and because of that, there’s an amazing depth and verisimilitude to her words. In My Old True Love, she brings it to life and shares it with us, just as the folks in her stories share the songs they learn. And believe me, the book sings.

 

Film Review: Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County

Posted on by Alex in filmmaking, folk music, Hum and the Shiver, isolation, music, reviews, storytelling, Tufa | 5 Comments

Way back in the early years of this century (being able to say that makes me smile), the spark of the idea that would become the Tufa struck me at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Also at that festival, I first heard Sheila Kay Adams at one of the midnight sessions, in a huge tent on a warm summer night. So her stories and music, and my fictional Tufa, have always been spiritually, if not literally, entwined.

Sheila Kay Adams

Sheila Kay is a traditional ballad singer, a woman who has dedicated her life to making sure that these old songs survive into the next generation. Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County is a documentary that takes us into her life, and shows how she’s passing on her traditions to the YouTube and iTunes generation. I first mentioned it here, when I interviewed director Kim Dryden during the film’s post-production.

The poster for “Over Home,” designed by Saro, who appears in the film.

You can watch the trailer:

 

and additional clips can be found here.

Sheila Kay learned these songs the old way, “knee to knee” on front porches from relatives who still gathered to share songs and stories when other more urban families were beginning to turn away from each other, to television, radio and other forms of passive mass communication. “They did not call them ballads,” she says in the film. “They called them love songs. And the gorier they were, the more I liked them. And if they mentioned cutting off heads and kicking them against the wall, I was all over it.” These were songs that came originally from Ireland, Scotland and other Celtic countries, brought with the first settlers and maintained intact among the isolated hills and hollows of Appalachia.

This is old stuff, literally and figuratively, if you’re a fan of my novel The Hum and the Shiver. But unlike my fictional Cloud County, the Madison County of this film is a real place, and the people you see in the film are genuine. Most compelling of the newcomers is sixteen-year-old Sarah Tucker, who bridges the traditional and the modern in a way that gives you real hope for the future of this music (and music in general). The scenery is expansive and beautiful, as are the Smoky Mountains themselves, but the most fascinating landscape of all is Sheila Kay Adams’s face as she talks about how music helped her persevere through personal tragedy.

Over Home is currently making the rounds of film festivals, and hopefully will soon be available on DVD and streaming. If it comes to a festival near you, definitely check it out (and if you have any pull in festival scheduling, I heartily recommend scheduling it).

The Indy Challenge: Melissa Olson on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Posted on by Alex in guest blog, movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, reviews, Uncategorized, writers | 2 Comments

Today the four Indiana Jones films are released on blu-ray, along with a host of special features (including the awesome TV special, The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I’ve had on VHS for decades).  To commemorate this, author Melissa Olson (Dead Spots) and I have agreed to swap blog posts defending the most maligned entries in the series. At her blog I’ll be making the case for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and here she sings the praises of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. 

 

Greetings, my fellow Alex Bledsoe fans. I’m glad you could join me for this half of the Indiana Jones challenge. Some would say that I’m getting the short end of the stick by having to defend the series’ fourth movie, but I beg to differ. Now, I have no intention of using this blog to argue that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a Great Film. It isn’t, certainly not the way Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade are undeniably Great Films, which I believe Alex and I would agree on. But the thing about Crystal Skull is, it also shouldn’t be what it has become: an easily dismissed joke of a movie. Because when Spielberg and Lucas set out to make Crystal Skull, they tried something fascinating. And while it didn’t really work, not the way they wanted it to, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not just another tacky piece-of-crap sequel that came out way too late and was thrown together way too shoddily (I’m looking at you, Wall Street 2 and Basic Instinct 2). There’s a line of reasoning here, a story behind Crystal Skull that you might not know about. It’s interesting. Here’s why.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to bear with me for a bit of history first, because in order to really understand Crystal Skull, you have to go back to what influenced the entire series in the first place. In the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, the US was experiencing a sudden pull towards nostalgia: the 70’s had been such a complex period, politically and socially, that there was a certain anxiety and fear in the air, a general longing for simpler, more fun times. Filmmaker George Lucas managed to have absolutely flawless timing with the release of Star Wars, which gave the people exactly what they wanted. Star Wars combined elements of beloved 1930’s serials with bits and pieces of other traditional genres: samurai stories, war epics, westerns. Star Wars is a really good movie, but it’s stupendous success owes a lot to the perfect timing of supply and demand, a match of cutting-edge technology and nostalgia for simpler stories from simpler times.

A few years later, Lucas and his pal Spielberg were kicking around some ideas for how to do it again: make a nostalgic adventure film that was deeply influenced by the style of the 1930’s serials, but still had the best technology and grandeur that 1981 had to offer. They set it in 1936 to embody the spirit of those serials, and decided to involve the world’s biggest villain at that time: Hitler. They stumbled on the historical fact that Hitler was interested in the occult, pulled in Lucas’ interest in archeology, and ran with it. Raiders of the Lost Ark twists in themes of spiritual exploration, the potential danger in a search for knowledge, the power of faith and trust, and so on. And it featured the same sort of cartoonish stunts and exaggerated facial expressions that made those serials so popular in the 30’s: an enormous pit of deadly snakes, spirits that whip around and melt the faces off the Nazis, a gigantic boulder that almost rolls over Indy, and so on.

Fast forward twenty-some years. Let’s take a moment, people, to pause and pretend that we are the mighty triumvirate of Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford. Collectively and individually, we have more money than Marie Antoinette could spend in twelve lifetimes. In addition to our individual successes, we’ve already made a beloved, timeless trilogy together that (with the possible exception of Temple of Doom, which, in addition to pretty much lacking a plot, is so saturated with obscene female and Asian stereotypes that you can breathe them in and die of bigotry) actually holds up thirty years later. The three of us miss working together, and we miss the characters and themes we built for Indiana Jones. But…we are also older, and to do a fourth film now, when Indy himself would be so obviously changed, doesn’t make any sense. There’s just no way to follow the formula of the first three films with Dr. Jones as an older guy.

But wait. Suddenly, there’s a spark. An idea, if you will. Because after 9/11, and all the political and social turmoil that followed it, wouldn’t audiences enjoy getting back to nostalgia again?  What if we could have it both ways? What if we could return to the spirit of Indiana Jones, but update it for a different age?

There was no way to get around the age problem, of course. Dr. Jones had to be aged about 20 years after Raiders, which put the story in 1957. So Spielberg and Lucas did the exact same thing they did with Raiders: they cast the real-life villain from that time period, which in this case was the Soviet Union – Communists. With that basic premise, Spielberg and Lucas put their thinking caps on. How to update Indy while keeping the same themes of spiritual exploration, the potential danger in a search for knowledge, the power of faith and trust, and so on? How could they revive the series but still bring in something new?

So they did what they did with Raiders: they focused on the pop culture of the period. Only instead of the serials from the 1930’s, they were looking at adding elements from the 1950’s favorite theme: Communists as aliens, aliens as Communists. The public’s biggest fear in the fifties was that the Commies would invade the US and turn good, hardworking American citizens into pod people, drones that were incapable of independent thought or action. And it was reflected in the American fiction of that time: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Thing From Another World (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), and so on.

You see where I’m going with this, right? Lucas and Spielberg didn’t “jump the shark” by making Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. What they tried to do was the exact same thing they did with Raiders: they wanted to bring in the global villain and the global fear of that time, but still stir in Indiana Jones’s traditional search for truth, faith, knowledge, and especially, spirituality. In each of the first three films, Indiana Jones explores a spiritual outlook: Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity. And in the end, Indy always becomes a reluctant religious savior, a convert, however briefly. His fourth onscreen adventure does its best to continue that tradition, but this time, the religion being explored is knowledge. Stylistically, Crystal Skull does keep the original trilogy’s deference to the serials of the 30’s – the death-defying stunts, the exaggerated expressions, the derring-do – but adds in the themes from films of the 1950’s.  And that, folks, is a pretty damned interesting prospect.

But it backfired, and frankly, that had a lot more to do with us than with them. Go back, for a second, to the outlandish success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, back in 1981. I doubt very much that movie theater audiences in ‘81 shouted and griped at the screen because the boulder trap or the convoy chase sequences were unrealistic and hokey. Or the river raft drop, or the monkey brain dinner, both in Temple of Doom. They didn’t complain because in 1981, the audiences wanted to believe in Indy. They wanted that nostalgia; they’d sought it out. And Spielberg and Lucas delivered. Wild success. Champagne and increased budgets all around.

In 2008 – and today – however, audiences don’t actually want to believe in Indy anymore. We might think that we do, but really, what we want to believe is that we are smart. We are not whores for the man, in this case represented by three rich middle-aged men trying to sell us an Indiana Jones movie about aliens, for crying out loud. We will not be taken in by that bullshit, thank you very much.

But think about it. Setting your personal beliefs in God or aliens aside for a moment, is the fridge-nuclear bomb scene really any less believable than spirits flying out of the Ark and melting Nazi faces? Is a crystal skull (and there is a fascinating, real-life history of those, by the way, go Wikipedia it) any less likely to have supernatural powers than an old chest, some magical rocks, or an ancient drinking glass? Nope. The difference isn’t in the material, it’s in us.

And that is where Spielberg and Lucas made their greatest mistake; it’s how Crystal Skull got put on the geek shit list for all eternity. They misjudged what we wanted. They thought these tumultuous times meant we’d be ready for another return to nostalgia, but what we really wanted was confirmation that even though 9/11, an economic crisis, and the destruction of the planet happened on our watch, we are redeemable because those things have made us smart, shrewd, and skeptical. (Oh, and we’ve also seen an additional twenty-odd-years worth of the best movie effects money can buy, so good luck impressing us, Indy team.)

So. Back to my mission statement: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not a great movie. But it isn’t a mess, or an epic disaster, or an unholy blight on the face of a much-beloved piece of American popular culture. It’s not even the result of three rich guys getting lazy and trying to squeeze some more money out of something cool they did a long time ago. It’s just a bad call. It’s three smart guys trying to revive something they knew we loved in a way they thought was fresh. That they happened to be wrong doesn’t make it any less interesting. Maybe it even makes it more so. Because if the purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to society, then you can’t call Crystal Skull a failure. It did show us who we are. It just maybe wasn’t who we wanted to be.

 

Henry Jaglom and His Theatrical Families

Posted on by Alex in Henry Jaglom, movies, reviews, Tanna Frederick | 1 Comment

Henry Jaglom’s newest film, Just 45 Minutes from Broadway,is an adaptation of his play about two generations of a Jewish theatrical family, and the secrets that come to light when one daughter brings home her “civilian” boyfriend.

For those unfamiliar with Jaglom’s work, he uses an improvisational style that blurs the edge between actor and character so that, to a degree no other filmmaker manages, it often feels as if you’re eavesdropping on real people. His films tend to involve ad hoc groups in restrictive settings (usually comfortable upper-scale homes), and his concerns around feminist issues (his series of “woman’s issue” films, for example, from Eating, to Going Shopping, to Babyfever). His work isn’t for everyone, and he has some vocal critics, but I treasure the sense of reality he presents.

Just 45 Minutes from Broadway is also an interesting bookend with another Jaglom film, 1995′s Last Summer in the Hamptons. That was the first Jaglom film I saw, and since then I’ve seen almost all his others. Interestingly, both these “theatrical” stories are fairly atypical of Jaglom’s usual concerns, but they share a family resemblance to each other. I have no real experience with the theatrical life, but both films show how seductive, and destructive, it can be.

In both films, an “outsider” figure comes into the well-established family, acting as the viewer surrogate. In Hamptons it’s Oona Hart (Victoria Foyt), a movie actress who’s recently starred in a smash superhero movie and now wants to get some real acting cred. In Broadway it’s James (Judd Nelson*), a real estate lawyer and fiance of one of the sisters. But while they’re similar figures, they’re actually opposites: Oona wants something from the Axelrods, and ultimately refuses to change, while James is there to meet his future in-laws, and ends up changing fundamentally.

The families, too, are similar. The Axelrods are preparing for the final performance of their annual theatrical review, while the Isaacs are facing the very real effects of the current economic downturn. In both films, the potential loss of a house represents the loss of the family unity. The Axelrods don’t really have a patriarch, but when your matriarch is the formidable Viveca Lindfors, you may not need one. The Isaacs are presided over by George and Vivian, theatrical veterans with family ties to the Yiddish theater. Sibling rivalry is also part of both, although Jack and Trish Axelrod are a bit more disturbed than the fairly upfront rivalry between Pandora and Betsy Isaacs.

Jaglom’s improvisational approach is a much bigger presence in Hamptons. Broadway feels more scripted (and that’s not a criticism), although the Seder dinner has the freewheeling, on-edge feel of a real social event. But it also means that Broadway stays more traditionally focused, and doesn’t meander (again, not a criticism) to the degree Hamptons does.

Both films are also showcases for Jaglom’s then-current muses. Foyt is terrific as a movie actress tempted by the “reality” of the theatrical life, but who ultimately can’t commit (her “baby seal” scene is great). And Frederick (as always showing everything her character feels at every moment) is luminous as the actress daughter worried that she can no longer exist either onstage or in the real world.

Jaglom (l) and Foyt

But the films have crucially different climaxes. Hamptons ends with the end: the final Axelrod showcase, after which the family home will be sold and the clan will likely no longer gather. Broadway ends with new beginnings, a more “traditional” romantic comedy ending but one that feels earned because of the affection generated for the characters.

Frederick (l) and Jaglom

As I said, I don’t have any real experience with theater, or theatrical families. But both the Axelrods and the Isaacs are people I’d love to visit for a weekend. I recommend both films for fans of ensemble acting, independent film and unique points of view.

*Never been a fan of Judd Nelson, but he’s absolutely great here. So I guess now I am a fan.