Archive for October 2011
Bo Ledman and I talk about all kinds of crazy stuff when we ride bikes, which we do every week during the summer. While most of our talk revolves around books and films and insights we have into both, there are times when we get so far out in the nether regions of our minds that we’re left thinking how the hell did we get on that topic? The Halloween Meta-Costume consideration is one such topic.
One day in the middle of a ride we got to talking about the Halloween party Bo hosts each year and the costumes people have worn (it’s worth mentioning that a lot of people only know Bo’s brothers by the costumes they have worn, so we refer to them as Duff Man or Hulk Hogan or Snakes on a Dude). Somehow, this got all post-modern. Allow me to tell you for a moment, though, that Post-Modernism is a frequent topic of discussion on our rides. In addition to spending an untold amount of time planning his spooktacular celebration, Bo is also studying for a master’s degree in English Literature, which explains his interest in and knowledge of Post-Modernism. As for me, I’ve picked up enough about the movement here and there over the course of my teaching career to keep up with the conversation.
Anyhow, subjective reality is one of the tenets of Post-Modernism. Dig a bit deeper into that and post-modern films, and you come across the notion of layers of subjective reality, like when an actor plays a character who is playing a character (so the actor isn’t playing the reality of the character, he is playing the reality of the character his character is playing). An excellent example of this is Tropic Thunder, in which the actors are playing actors who are all playing characters in a fake film. So Ben Stiller is playing the actor Tug Speedman, who is playing the character Four Leaf Tayback. Robert Downey Jr. is playing Kirk Lazarus, who is playing Lincoln Osiris. Anyhow, we started to think about the idea of wearing a costume of someone wearing a costume. You would be wearing two costumes, and that second costume has to be “organic” to the character embodied in the first costume. So you couldn’t simply dress up as a nurse who dresses up as a nun. Both costumes have to be recognizable in their own right and make sense in the world of the first character–so the examples above from Tropic Thunder wouldn’t qualify (nor would Tony Clifton) since you would only be getting the second character in the series. It’s perplexing. The most immediate example we came up with was dressing up as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You are dressed up as a wolf, but that wolf has dressed up as a sheep. It’s based on an idiom, but it works according to the rules of the game.
When I say “the most immediate example we came up with,” I also mean that it was the only example we came up with for well over two years. Then, last summer, I was looking up something online about hermit crabs, and Bingo! Those dudes will take on all kinds of things for a shell. They mostly use shells from sea snails, but they will also use stones or driftwood or conchs, or presumably anything they can find that will give them some protection and room to grow. They’ll even “change costumes” when they outgrow one. So they are putting on a costume. You’d have to dress as a hermit crab who then has dressed himself like a sea snail or a piece of wood or whatever he’s using. It’s complex stuff.
And then just the other day I thought of another one: The Big Bad Wolf dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. You have your first costume (a wolf, again), and that character has dressed up in a costume (grandmother).
I don’t know what it is about Canis lupus that makes him such a good example of this, so if someone can explain that, I’m all ears.
Also, if anybody can come up with more examples that would fit into the guidelines of The Halloween Meta-Costume Consideration, Bo and I would love to hear them. Bonus points and prizes for you if you dress up in both costumes this Halloween and send pictures.
The bad news about this new The Thing is that certain things had to happen because the reality established in the 1982 film mandated that they happen. It all had to lead up to the Norwegians chasing a sled dog into the American camp since that was how the 1982 film began. Along the way, we needed to know that they had grenades. We had to see that the UFO had been uncovered from 100,000 years of ice. We had to see that the monster was killed mid-permutation as it melded with a victim, because the Americans find such an abomination in the 1982 film. There were even tiny details, like at some point a fire ax had to be buried in a wall inside a building. Given all this, the producers of this new The Thing didn’t do too bad, but the task ultimately resulted in a decent, but not great, horror film.
But they also had to go beyond, and I can’t imagine how hard it was to do that (or try to do that) given the benchmarks they had to reach along the way. The only analogy I could come up with is that the producers of the new film had to put together a puzzle with certain required pieces, and the puzzle had to look similar to a pre-existing puzzle but still be its own puzzle. Got all this?
The good news is that certain things had to happen in this new The Thing because they happened in the 1982 film, and it was interesting to see how it would all come together. We knew that the lead, Kate, somehow dies because she’s not in the 1982 film. She’s the least of our concerns, though, because they all die except for the two chasing the dog at the end. How they die, and the inventiveness of the writers and producers, helped make the film worth watching and didn’t impair the suspense (which was a point I made last time, that people still flock to films regardless of knowing beyond a doubt what is going to happen by the end). They also manage to break some new ground, best represented by a way in which the researchers discover the alien without resorting to the blood test–since the creature can only imitate organic materials, things like metal cavity fillings are a give-away that someone is not a Thing.
Much like the head-separation scene in Carpenter’s film, there is a scene in this new one that comes across as being almost self-aware; in the least it is tongue-in-cheek homoerotic. As I was brushing up on my knowledge of the source material and the 1951 film, I came across a reference somebody made in which he noted that there was no mistaking The Thing From Another World as a Howard Hawks film because it was so male-positive and male-centric, like a lot of other Hawks films (which tended to be Westerns or at least featured testosterone-fueled leads… John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Humphrey Bogart, Montgomery Clift…). Riffing on that idea, the scene in which The Thing is killed while absorbing another person screams homoeroticism (I almost laughed out loud in the theatre). The beast crab-walks around on a set of arms and legs, pounces on a hapless scientist, straddles him, bonds and restrains him with tentacles, and even rubs faces (and other parts, no doubt) with him as they become one. While it is a relatively cool scene effects-wise (and it ends up being the pinnacle of gore and terror in the film), the subtext indicates that the producers were having some naughty, insinuative fun and maybe winking at the audience.
Like any horror film (and the reason why so many horror films suck), the whole schtick is hard to maintain. Whereas Carpenter does this masterfully throughout his film, this new one falls down late. The humans actually chase the alien to its craft; the alien has already boarded and fired up the engines to take off… the heat from the engines, then, is enough to melt 100,000 years of ice on top of the craft in a matter of minutes? I wasn’t buying it, even while I watched a film in a genre which only exists because of the voluntary suspension of disbelief. The interiors of the alien ship only muddy the understandings of the film, too, and that especially includes a vague, digitized image that may have been the ship’s power source.
My final complaint, and I am aware that this is almost splitting hairs, is something I picked up on from the opening minutes of the film. I wished there had been a way for the new film to be shot on the same equipment and using the same grade of film that Carpenter used in 1982. That would have minimized the “digital fakeness” of some of the special effects, making the whole thing come a lot closer visually to the original (Carpenter used the whole bag of tricks; I read a list that included hand puppets, marionettes, radio controls, wires and pulleys… pretty much everything but Computer Generated Images).
Finally, a special shout-out to Robert Meakin. I found his book All About The Thing online (you can read it in PDF format by clicking here). Dude laid out so much about the 1982 film and had so many insights into it that I was left stunned. I am a huge devotee to Saving Private Ryan, but All About The Thing made my love of and addiction to that film look like a schoolgirl crush. I admire anybody who can take a film and analyze it almost shot-by-shot from a fan’s point of view and still craft an interesting read.
Most baseball fans who tuned into the game last night heard the insights of the announcers, the roar of the crowd, the snap of the hardwood on the horsehide, and even an ocassional beer vender hawking his cold suds. Not me. All I heard was a toilet flushing. It started early in the first inning, and continued to ring and echo and gurgle until I finally turned the TV off after the fifth inning. That’s what you can expect when you can’t sit down the leadoff batters when you face the Cardinals, and then find yourself somehow trying to get Albert Pujols out. And it wasn’t even Pujols who was killing the Brewers so much as it was David Freese batting behind him. Freese hit an ungodly .545 with 12 hits, 9 RBIs, and 3 homeruns in the NLCS. To quote my students: WTF?!?!
It doesn’t matter who did what at this point, because it’s all over. I am smug in the fact that my prediction way back on March 28 was spot on (that the Brewers could make a run deep into the playoffs), but even that doesn’t matter so much; what matters is they could have gone further. They could have gone to the World Series. They could have been somebody. They could have been contenders. Now they are merely also-rans.
Next year will be different. The Crew will almost certainly be without Prince Fielder, and that is going to change their game. I foresee a predominant on-base game that will put guys on base, and then stealing or otherwise moving them over. Of course, there will be pitching. Will it be enough? Maybe to contend for a wild-card spot. You just have to have a big bopper like Prince if you want to be an elite team. The Brewers most likely won’t have that, though I fantasize about the Yankees taking Prince or Pujols and somehow leaving Mark Texiera up for grabs. He’d do well as a cleanup hitter. But that’s all crackpipe talk… who knows what will happen? The Brewers might be able to dangle a pitcher and get somebody, but you seldom want to bankrupt your arms for your bats because the arms are always a rare commodity and will take you further than the bats. Maybe someone will want Nyjer Morgan (because speed never slumps), and will be willing to trade somebody good. Whatever is going to happen, I think Ron Roenicke is the right man for the job. Most people would probably never have thought that his second year on the bench would be more difficult than his first, but I’m willing to bet that it’s going to be.
So baseball is over for me now. I doubt I’ll watch much of the World Series. If I’m out at a bar and it’s on, sure I’ll watch. If it comes down to a Game 7, you bet I’ll watch. Otherwise, forget it. I’ve lost too much sleep these past few weeks, and invested too much emotion. I don’t regret any of it; heck, I’d invest twice the time and emotion if it meant the Brewers were still alive.
Lisa works out at the gym next door. She’s one of the early-morning lunatics, which is the only word you can use to describe people who are hitting the machines before 6am. I’ve seen her over there the last year or so. Somehow we struck up a conversation last spring (because lunatics love company, and there’s something about the bond you form with people when you work out that early). Turns out she’s not only a huge baseball fan, but a lifelong Brewers fan. She’s been to the HOF several times, even. As such, we’ve had about 30 short conversations about the Brewers this season. She’s been to 2 of the playoff games already, and will most likely go to more.
So Tuesday morning I resignedly say to her, “Rough night for The Crew last night, huh?” They’d had their asses whipped 12-3, and were never even in the game.
She tells me she turned the game off after the third inning, and that she has kinda given up hope. Black clouds gathered in my mind. For the first time since March, I started to think that the Brewers were without a doubt finished. The Cardinals were playing just too good, and they happen to have God himself batting in the 3rd spot (Albert Pujols has hit .533 this series alone, with 6 RBIs). They had just stolen homefield advantage and were heading back to St. Louis to seemingly finish off the Brewers. Wednesday night added credence to my dark thoughts, with the Brewers spotting the Cardinals an 0-4 lead before the second inning and eventually falling 4-3.
I cursed Lisa in my mind for not holding out hope, for not believing, for planting the seeds of despair in my heart. After her proclamation, I was tempted to blurt out a huge disbelieving “WHAT?!” The girl has cheese in her veins she’s so Wisconsin. How do you give up on your team like that? And how did I so easily accept the Brewers soon-to-be fate as an also-ran? Maybe I feared the smite of God’s bat and didn’t see the Brewers as able to keep guys off base ahead of him, which would pretty much be the story of the series. Maybe I thought the Cardinals are playing just too well right now and can’t be sidetracked. Maybe I thought it was true what everybody has been saying about this year’s Brewers: A very good team, but not a great team. Maybe Tony LaRussa is too dang crafty and has found a way to finish the Brewers.
Maybe I need to stop thinking.
Randy Wolf showed up on the mound last night and mowed down pretty much everybody, including God himself. He kept guys off base in front of God, and then chucked some pitches that were mighty unhittable at the white-and-red clad deity. He lasted 7 innings, struck out 6, and allowed 2 runs. This was the same guy who was chased after 3 innings and 7 runs just last Wednesday in Arizona. He kept the roar of the Cardinal bats down to a whisper and didn’t flinch in the face of The Almighty, essentially resurrecting the Brewers. Heresy, thy name is Wolf.
The series is still far from over, but with Zack Greinke taking the mound in about one minute and the Cards not having scored any runs after the first inning of the last 2 games, I like the Brewers chances. I’m sure Lisa has seen the light by now, too.
…continued from yesterday
Carpenter’s 1982 attempt is actually a remake of the 1954 Howard Hawks film The Thing From Another World, itself a monster movie of some repute. Hawks’ film is drier and far more scientific, actually almost intellectual given the philosophical differences between the scientists and military commanders at the research station. Hawks’ monster, though, is definitely humanoid and non-shapeshifting. Instead, it is a blood-thirsty shamble of conscious, regenerative vegetation impervious to all but extreme electrical shock (which should tell you how it is ultimately dispatched). Both Carpenter’s and Hawks’ films are based on John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? The premise is the same, of course, but Campbell is far more subtle with his message and makes excellent use of symbolism. The aptly named MacReady (Carpenter’s mainstay leading man Kurt Russell in the 1982 film) is among the first to uncover the alien; another researcher inadvertently buries an ice-axe in the creature’s frozen head, and it’s an image that is revisited frequently throughout the story. Once the researchers wise up and discover that somebody is not who he appears to be, they get the idea to test everybody’s blood to discover the creature (Carpenter recreates this scene in one of his film’s most suspenseful moments that ends, predictably, in another gorefest). The blood test serves Campbell’s message, which is really about the Red Scare—the spread of Communism. It’s no coincidence that Who Goes There? made print in the midst of the Great Depression, when there was substantial fear about the spread of Communism. To go further, Campbell crafts some of the dialogue in WGT? to function as double-entendre applying equally to dealing with the alien and dealing with Communism. What’s more, the symbolism of the blood test is very prescient in that it came a mere decade before the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings. Unfortunately, both Carpenter and Hawks ignore this most critical part of the source material. But I can’t complain—both films still work pretty well.
Besides the barf-bag special effects, Carpenter employs effective screenwriting techniques to further scare the pants off the audience. Due to the nature of the beast, we never know its true form. It takes human form, but when it’s revealed, it takes on all kinds of crazy, horrific shapes and sizes, thereby leaving the true shape of the monster to the viewer’s imagination. Though Campbell describes the creature in WTG? as having three red eyes, and “blue hair like crawling worms,” and Hawks’ creature is no doubt humanoid (played by James Arness, actually), Carpenter never tips off the viewer. I’ve always been psychologically terrified in such situations because my imagination gets the best of me. The same approach works beyond explanation for most of Ridley Scott’s Alien and throughout The Blair Witch Project, both of which scared the crap out of me.
So where to go with all of this? Who Goes There? ends with MacReady killing the alien moments before it takes off in a makeshift aircraft to reach civilization. Carpenter’s The Thing ends with MacReady at least temporarily stopping, if not killing, the titular creature. I guess that’s why I’m grateful for inventive screenwriting. Thanks to Carpenter’s interpretation of the story, there is an untold thread about what actually happened between the Norwegians finding the alien spaceship and then chasing the creature out of their camp. The screenwriter and director of the new film have said they consider their The Thing to be a “found film” based on the short scenes from the 1982 film in which MacReady and others visit the Norwegian camp only to find it completely waylaid. The only catch, then, is that we already know what’s going to happen in this new film. But so what? That didn’t keep people from seeing Titanic, Apollo 13, or countless other history-based films, and even the slight X-Men: First Class last summer. Going back to the pre-history of certain film universes might be a flimsy excuse to make a movie and turn a profit, but in this case I’ll take it.
I don’t often get as excited as I am right now about movies that are about to hit the theatres, though I was all atwitter about True Grit around last Christmas. Now is another one of those times. This Friday, there will be a continuation of sorts of The Thing, one of the greatest horror films ever made. Not to confuse you, but the new film is also titled The Thing.
The premise is standard fare for about 90% of horror films, in that it depends on an isolated setting. This time, it’s Antarctica. A group of Norwegian researchers discovers a spaceship buried in the ice. It appears to have been there for a hundred thousand years. They recover a “body” near the wreckage and thaw it out only to discover that it is a super-intelligent being capable of consuming and then imitating any form of life. But it’s “game on” before anybody fully understands what is happening, thus enabling The Thing to get a head-start on essentially wiping out humanity once it reaches civilization. The Thing escapes the Norwegian camp and makes it to an American camp, and before long the Americans have to break out the Windex and scrub the fan blades.
John Carpenter brought the whole situation to life in his 1982 film The Thing, which opens with the creature-in-disguise entering the American camp as a sled dog. His interpretation can really only be described as an over-the-top gorefest, which is exactly what he intended. The film’s signature scene involves Copper, the station doctor, defibrillating researcher Norris after he goes into cardiac arrest following a tense episode in which the team tries to flush out The Thing. On Copper’s second attempt, Norris’ chest collapses, instantaneously transforming into a set of jaws that bite off Copper’s arms, thus revealing that Norris was infected with The Thing. When the creature is torched with a flamethrower, Norris’ head pulls itself away and morphs into a creeped-out spider that is killed as it tries to escape the room. An on-looking character exclaims, “You gotta be fucking kidding me…” It’s a clever meta-moment in the film as the audience, already shocked by Carpenter’s cringe-fest, thinks about what the hell else can happen to outdo what’s already happened on-screen. I like to think that the film crew was brainstorming on the set, and any totally outrageous idea that would ratchet up the gutsplat automatically got a green light. In fact, the idea of a free-for-all reminds me of George Romero’s recollections on the Dawn of the Dead DVD commentary track. He spoke of special effects crew members coming up with off-the-cuff ways to kill zombies; hence the scene in which a screwdriver is rammed into a zombie’s ear. The result is definitely cringe-worthy. I guess there’s a lot to be said for being in the moment when you are creating in your medium.
Despite all the bombast, Carpenter plays The Thing seriously. It is cold-cold-cold, dark, and nihilistic. He continues a leitmotif from Assault on Precinct 13, in which he borrowed from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (which hearkens back to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo), and mostly limits the action to the claustrophobic confines of the research station. Thusly, the emotional pressure on the characters is elevated, causing them to explode—somewhat literally. Carpenter visual work is bolstered by maestro Ennio Morricone’s film score. The stripped down, pulsating synths are as creepy and terrifying as the Jaws score. Plus, the simplicity of some of Morricone’s arrangements alludes to Carpenter’s work scoring his own early films—especially Halloween.
Way back on July 10, I mentioned how much I love team speed and how assured I felt that the Brewers have no less than 4 guys who can kick up dust on the base paths, Nyjer Morgan and Carlos Gomez amongst them. Despite Earl Weaver’s preference to score runs by getting those “big (expletive)(expletive) that can hit the (expletive) ball out of the ballpark,” team speed wins critical grind-it-out games. The actual quote from part 5 on July 10 was, “There’s a saying in baseball that speed never slumps, and there will be times late in the season and during the playoffs when a manufactured run will be crucial… .” If my insight was a authentic rather than a baseball truism, I would brag right now about how precient it was.
The Brewers won the division series last night in large part because of team speed. They tied the game on an exceptionally shallow sacrifice fly that was barely deep enough to allow Nyjer Morgan to zip across home plate from third base. Morgan wasn’t done, though. He erased his 1 for 11 batting slump throughout the night by going 2 for 5, including a base poke up the middle in the bottom of the tenth that allowed Carlos Gomez to score from second base–something a lot of other players don’t have had the speed to do.
What’s really happening here is that manager Ron Roenicke is both Nostradamus and Einstein. He knows what playoff baseball looks like, and has had the foresight to gear his team to be ready for it. It’s not been just personnel, either–most teams have a lot of what the Brewers have. It’s also been the style of play. They’ve played the grind-it-out games throughout the year, so it’s no surprise they are able to adapt to it when the bats aren’t crushing the ball and they have little more to cling to than pitching.
The action starts anew tomorrow afternoon. I’m not sure who I would rather have The Crew playing, Philadelphia or St. Louis, but it doesn’t matter now that St. Louis settled that score. Regardless, Milwaukee has to find a way to get through them. It worries me that St. Louis is so familiar with Milwaukee, and that Tony LaRussa is such a damn good manager. The teams split their 18 games this year, so even that is no indication.