Tag Archives: childhood

Here Comes the Bride

I wrote about the Kill Bill movies for Press Play. I also noticed a couple of Easter eggs in them. First is the reference to Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (left) at the end of Volume 2 (right) as the Bride and B.B. curl up in bed, bathed in red light… not unlike Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot, the latter of whom is another B.B.

The second is the repeated references to cereal across both Kill Bills: Vernita’s box of Kaboom, the Lucky Charms in the motel room at the end, and of course the “Silly rabbit… Trix are for… kids” line during O-Ren’s battle with the Bride. This motif calls childhood to my mind. It’s that act of sitting in front of the TV on a Saturday morning, bowl of sugary cereal in your lap, having your mind shaped by whatever trashy movie happens to be on.

Distant memories, immaturity, channel surfing. Yeah, that sounds like the whole Kill Bill saga in a nutshell.

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A Real Good Thing

Wanna know what scares the shit out of me? “It’s a Good Life,” that Twilight Zone episode where Billy Mumy plays a 6-year-old with godlike powers. And it’s not just because of Mumy’s wild eyes when he howls “You’re a bad man!” nor the half-flaccid shadow of a jack-in-the-box that follows his cry, although the episode has many such bone-chilling images. It’s… well, the concept, the execution, the performances, the layers of built-in political/moral resonances packed into its lean 20 minutes. So much about this episode terrifies me on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin.

The realism. Like so much of The Twilight Zone, “It’s a Good Life” doesn’t look like sci-fi or horror at all. It looks like conventional 1960s television. Everything about Peakesville and the Fremont household is emphatically normal; the only aberration is The Monster, Anthony. This is a common Cold War anxiety—of something wrong sprouting out of healthy American soil—manifested in the bluntest, most horrific way possible. It’s the flip side of Leave It to Beaver, with the Beave as a Lovecraftian abomination. The uncontrollable Anthony calls to mind the words Bob Dylan would sing just a few years later: “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your old road is rapidly agin’…” or perhaps the lyrics to David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things”:

Look at your children

See their faces in golden rays

Don’t kid yourself they belong to you

They’re the start of a coming race

The mind games. Rod Serling’s writing here is razor-sharp, and every conversation with Anthony is like a game of Operation. The adults have to steer him, ever so gently, away from violence (at least, violence against them) and toward—well, not “goodness” exactly but toward some heavily compromised approximation of it. These exchanges are like supplicant prayers to an unbalanced and amoral god, a god who must always be appeased with the refrain of “real good thing,” a god ruled only by his own ego. “I hate anybody that doesn’t like me!” whines Anthony, and that’s his first and only commandment. His power so outstrips the scope of his comprehension or empathy. This is Old Testament theology filtered through the mind of a child.

The representation of trauma. As the episode begins, Peakesville is populated by survivors: the tight-knit community of sweaty, miserable adults who’ve curried Anthony’s favor thus far. (The timeline of Anthony’s reign is hazy; it feels like he’s been in control forever.) Through these adults, “It’s a Good Life” delineates the behavior patterns adopted by trauma victims in impossible situations. They try to decipher the ambiguous looks on Anthony’s face; they prioritize self-preservation above all else; they bargain with one another to stay on his good side. “You’ll tell him, won’t you, Ms. Fremont?” begs Bill, the pathetic delivery boy. “Tell him I brought the tomato soup ’cause I heard he liked it? Tell him I brought it, won’t you?” But as Ms. Fremont knows, these tactics are meaningless to the unpredictable Anthony. Either he likes you, or he doesn’t.

The climax. And in the case of Dan Hollis (Don Keefer), he doesn’t. Dan is irascible, increasingly hard-drinking, and on the outskirts of middle age. He’s in no mood to tolerate Anthony’s bullshit, especially on his birthday. Your birthday is supposed to be about you, a day to flaunt your ego, but in Peakesville every day is about indulging Anthony. So Dan snaps. Earlier in the episode, when Bill says “We love that boy,” a look of soul-shaking nausea flashes across his face. But Dan is the only one to take this revulsion at being reduced to a child’s plaything and whip it up into blind outrage. Everyone else grovels before Anthony with fear-induced sincerity; only Dan has the temerity to give him a sarcastic salute. It all comes down to one line, after Anthony puts the kibosh on playing Dan’s new record: “Nuts. Can’t even play my own record; I can’t even play Perry Como!”

If he can’t play Perry Como, life is not worth living. If he can’t play Perry Como, no risk is too great. (The great irony is that Como was a quintessentially Establishment performer, as safe as Kennedy-era pop culture got, yet in Peakesville he’s a Molotov cocktail.) Dan lashes out at Anthony, begging the others to follow his lead and “take a lamp or a bottle or something and end this!” And of course none of them do, because Anthony’s control is their “normal” now. Misery is the new default. They even have a tacit protocol in place so that when Dan gets transformed into that jack-in-the-box, Mr. Fremont reflexively asks that Anthony send it away to the cornfield. This 6-year-old tyrant is now their status quo: they know how to survive under him, but not how to rebel.

In “It’s a Good Life,” free will can be conditioned away. Children are not innately innocent. And the hell you live in must be described as a heaven, cognitive dissonance be damned. These are but a few of the macabre implications that leave me shuddering long after Rod Serling has signed off. (“No comment” being the only postscript he can muster.) Somewhere in my mind, the threat of Anthony is always lurking, and that’s a real good thing.

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Link Dump: #74

This week’s hairless kitty and its prominent testicles come from the Lohan-starring bizarro flop I Know Who Killed Me. So, there’s that. Now here are many, many links:

We have a handful of weird/creepy search terms this week, like “free mivies of girls in poverty countries showing pussey” (a lot wrong with that one), “‘baby bottle ‘ masturbation” (ewww), “mississippian pussies” (huh), and the pièce de résistance, “frog -islam coming out of vagina dream meaning.” Because wow.

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The Sorrows of Young Oskar

[This is my first, much-belated entry in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan of The Matinee.]

There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eaten too much fish. There once was a gullible people who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really the gas man!

Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979) plays like a lost fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. It has the same Teutonic roughness, the same cavalcade of sneering villains and magic tokens. In the spirit of “Hansel and Gretel” or “Little Red Riding Hood,” it’s about a beleaguered child in a merciless world. But instead of stumbling along, sprinkling bread crumbs in the forest, Oskar Matzerath bends the world to his will. Uncannily aware of adult hypocrisy, he throws himself down a flight of stairs on his third birthday, vowing never to grow again. From then on, he brandishes his childhood as a weapon.

This is Schlöndorff’s poison pen letter to the previous generation, a “fuck you” to the parents who carried out the Holocaust and destroyed Germany. As the Nazis rise and consume Danzig, Oskar stridently beats his drum. As his mother runs secretly between the two men who may be his biological father, Oskar gazes on in silent judgment. To him, adulthood is a grotesque farce where Nazi rallies degenerate into rain-soaked waltzing, where marital strife leads his mother to gorge on eels. Yeah, Oskar’s a “bad seed”—calculating from the second he leaves the womb, indirectly killing both of his potential fathers—but the film never blames him. He’s been born into a bad nation.

The key here is David Bennent, the Swiss 12-year-old who plays Oskar across two decades of German/Polish history. Not for a second does he hold back to garner audience sympathies. Instead, he’s always pushing forward, growing louder and more abrasive, shrieking and drumming to express his contempt. The same goes for Bennent’s voiceover narration: shrill, conspiratorial, suffused with a childish solipsism but not a shred of innocence. He gives one of the most haunting child performances I’ve ever seen, and it sets the tone for the film’s vision of Nazi-era Danzig as a demented storybook.

Here, corruption and ethical compromise are visually mapped across staid furnishings, like a piano adorned with a radio and a picture of Hitler. The grays and browns of bourgeois life dominate the film’s palette, but reds puncture through that veneer in the form of dresses, fish blood, playing cards, swastika bands, and of course the pattern on that drum. Like Oskar’s glass-shattering screams, these reds are pain and rebellion made physical, breaching the Matzerath family’s complacent surface—a surface that’s reduced to nothing but screams, blood, and rubble by the end of the film.

So this is Schlöndorff’s revenge on those who preceded him: an angry movie, weird to the bone and pulsing with dark magic, so sexually frank that it was briefly banned in Oklahoma. And furthermore, a lush, imposing period epic that navigates political upheaval and warfare with the eyes of a mad child. But what better way to document such an impossibly horrible part of history? Theodor Adorno said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” The Tin Drum is a barbaric movie.

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Fashion Criminal

Your day as a supervillain has arrived. You’ve bewitched a suburban mother, seated 500 children around a giant piano, and are about to put your master plan into action. So how do you celebrate such a feat of large-scale iniquity? Well, if you’re Dr. T, the piano teacher played by Hans Conried in the Seuss-penned fantasy The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), you get dressed by way of an elaborate musical number.

It’s “The Dressing Song,” colloquially known as “Do-Mi-Do Duds,” Dr. T’s ode to his collection of absurdly haute couture outfits. Its lyrics, in the best Seussian tradition, are a euphonic inventory of esoteric fabrics and food products—from a “purple nylon girdle with the orange blossom buds” to the downright counterintuitive “liverwurst, and Camembert cheese!” Pair them with meticulous choreography, as performed by Dr. T’s five expressionless assistants, and you’ve got one of the campiest, queerest, most joyous things ever to come out of Hollywood.

Part of its splendor comes from the number’s productivity. It doesn’t just have momentum; it has a work ethic. Dr. T’s assistants are clearly on the clock, bustling around his bedroom, even if their jobs do involve geometrically precise dance routines. Their boss starts the number out in mauve t-shirt and green shorts but, by the end, he’s decked out in a dazzlingly complex uniform. This musical number gets something done! What say you to that, “Singin’ in the Rain”?

Beyond the drive that makes “Do-Mi-Do Duds” tick like manic clockwork, its greatness is all in the details. Like how Dr. T seems oblivious to the men around him because he’s so caught up in how goddamn decadent and amazing his clothes are. Or how magisterially, with renewed exuberance on every verse, he calls for every last piece of his wardrobe: “I want my organdy snood! And in addition to that…!” Or, perhaps best of all, how he doesn’t quite affix his colossal hat’s chinstrap correctly, but keeps marching anyway. Because he’s Dr. T.

Or, say, the way his assistants sprinkle him with flower petals as if he’s the world’s gaudiest, most demented bride. All I really know is that “Do-Mi-Do Duds” is pure, bottled pleasure. It’s all the joie de vivre and outrageous fashion sense in the world concentrated into two and a half minutes of song and dance. And really, who doesn’t want their cutie chamois booties with the leopard skin toes?

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Clowning Around

Back when I was in elementary school, Stephen King’s It (1990) was considered the ne plus ultra of scary movies. I’m not sure where this impression came from, but to us kids, it was The Scary Movie We Were Not Allowed To Watch. I suspect that this bit of received wisdom has something to do with It’s title: any movie named for a pronoun so short and ubiquitous had to be the scariest thing ever, right? Over a decade later, I’ve finally caught up with It, and been retroactively disappointed: it’s not especially scary, but it is also a drab, never-ending slog of a movie.

Both layers of my disappointment stem primarily from It’s made-for-TV nature. Being an ABC miniseries meant that 1) it couldn’t indulge in the gore afforded to theatrically released horror movies and 2) the lack of limitations on its running time allowed the screenwriters to faithfully adapt King’s mammoth novel. Consequently, It has more generation-spanning subplots and character arcs than any viewer could ever desire. The end product is a toothless, miserably paced PSA about the power of friendship, made watchable only by Tim Curry’s child- and scenery-chewing performance as the killer clown Pennywise.

And ohhh, what a performance it is! Curry dances, prances, guffaws, and hams it up for three solid hours, telling corny jokes when he’s not somberly intoning, “Oh yes… they float!” But, to my eternal consternation, It’s marathon duration works against Curry’s makeup-slathered menace as well. Contrary to the “hide the monster” wisdom* of classics like Jaws and Alien, It overexposes Pennywise; he’s onscreen nonstop, and eventually I became inured to him—hell, even annoyed by him. Curry makes a terrifying clown, it’s true, but 3 hours of the same schtick gets tiresome.

Unfortunately, that schtick is the glue that holds It together. When Curry’s not around, the film cycles through its seven misfit protagonists—The One Who Was Fat as a Child, The Mama’s Boy with Asthma, The Jokey One, The One Who’s Obviously Stephen King, The Jewish One, and The Girl—as they flash back to the unforgettable summer of 1960, deal with Pennywise’s return in 1990, hallucinate, go through sketchily defined crises, etc., etc. These parts are fatally repetitive, ridiculously melodramatic, and contain risible overacting like, uh, this:

That’s Ryan Michael as The Girl’s abusive, possessive boyfriend, who can only communicate in shouted dialogue taken from a Lifetime original movie. Granted, most of the acting is at least mildly subtler than this; as a matter of fact, the child actors playing the protagonists’ young selves acquit themselves quite well and demonstrate an endearing Stand by Me-style camaraderie. Alas, their collective rapport is pretty much the only sign of a light, careful touch in a movie full of absurdly broad strokes.

I especially have to single out the direction by Tommy Lee Wallace, famed for playing Michael Myers in the original Halloween. At best, it’s lackluster; at worst, antagonistic toward the audience. It is peppered with gratuitous camera movement, from slight angle changes to pointlessly mobile crane shots. The gang’s dinner at a Chinese restaurant is in theory a great horror set-piece, but the camera inexplicably circles the table, as if Wallace was trying to make us dizzy. It’s frustrating, and diminishes the impact of the grotesque imagery that follows. It is also a bland, ugly movie. Consider, for example, my favorite image from It’s three hours:

Pretty slow week at Time, eh? Nothing to report on but architects and, um, architects. So slow, in fact, that they let their graphic designers take the week off, which would explain this hideous cover and its photo of Ben (The One Who Was Fat as a Child) scowling. The cover’s complemented by the awfulness of the shot containing it; together, they form an aesthetic monstrosity worse than anything Pennywise could hope to unleash. That’s the real horor of It.

Also the way it forces me to use “It’s” as a possessive instead of a contraction. It’s the kind of grammatical disorientation that could drive someone mad. Compared to that, what’s one demonic clown here or there? (Even if he does transform the neighborhood bully into Jim Jarmusch.)

*Of course, other horror classics (like The Exorcist and The Thing) have opted for a “show the monster” approach and been equally successful. I’m just saying that It would’ve been better off with any choice but “have the monster giggling in plain sight for most of the movie.”

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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Texan

A couple of weeks ago, in a haze of post-Cannes enthusiasm, I said of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life: “I’m a sucker for cosmic spectacle, so Malick’s long-awaited Palme d’Or-winner might just do the trick for me.” I guessed right, because as soon as the screen filled with fireballs, asteroids, and planetary ballets, I was sucked in. The half-hour experimental film lodged in the middle of The Tree of Life held me rapt, glued to my seat, with my eyes wide open. (Mind you, this was at 10 AM on a Friday morning.) It’s like an expansion of the Rite of Spring sequence from Fantasia (or Boléro from Allegro Non Troppo), with a dose of Stan Brakhage and Godfrey Reggio.

Furthermore, I loved the dinosaurs. A lot of critics have derided the entire creation-of-earth sequence as misjudged, and they may be half-right, but let me posit this: in just a few prehistoric minutes, Malick outdid just about every other appearance of CGI dinosaurs ever. CGI dinosaurs are traditionally used, after all, as big, scary plot devices. Even Jurassic Park, the Citizen Kane of dinosaur movies, only gave its dinosaurs as much personality as was necessary for them to terrorize Laura Dern. Malick, however, treats his dinosaurs with as much tenderness and attention to detail as his human characters. It shows just how powerful special effects can be when used by a thoughtful filmmaker, self-indulgent as he may be.

My only problem with this abbreviated glimpse at the birth of the universe is that it makes The Tree of Life feel so piecemeal. Most of the film is devoted to Jack O’Brien—Sean Penn as an adult; the precocious Hunter McCracken as a boy—and his memories of childhood in 1950s Texas. The only real connective thread we get is the sense that the intimate is epic, that Jack’s personal development is analogous to the development of life on earth. Like much of the film itself, this logic is abstract, airy, and audacious, but slightly dissatisfying.

But that’s OK. The Tree of Life doesn’t have to be perfect, because it’s enthralling, poignant, and truly original, with enough quietly powerful imagery for several whole movies (possibly the ones Malick could’ve made in the past forty years). Edited in a swift-footed, anecdotal style that reminds me of Alain Resnais, with a camera that floats like a ghost and runs like a puppy, The Tree of Life darts with curious energy through Jack’s memories. We see his parents through his eyes: an angelic Jessica Chastain and a clean-cut, ex-Navy Brad Pitt who could be carved from the side of a mountain.

Sometimes these recollections will start to blend together; they’re so fragmentary and their borders are so ill-defined. But the film is unconcerned with narrative except in the broadest sense: Malick’s trying to capture the textures of childhood, its ebbs and flows, its guilty secrets and countless traumas. Sometimes he gets at this through fleeting father-and-son conversations, but more often it’s through glances and movements. Pitt and Chastain are only seen through Jack’s eyes, but their performances still speak about the joys of child-rearing and the tragedies of lost dreams.

Most of The Tree of Life unfolds with lyrical potency, tonally akin to a paean or a prayer. By this token, the film’s greatest failings are its occasional dips into bright, soppy sentiment. During a few fantastic interludes rife with whispered voiceover and, especially, during parts of the quasi-apocalyptic finale, The Tree of Life felt like the Lubezki-lensed equivalent to those tacky porcelain cherubs you see in thrift stores, or like the world’s greatest Hallmark Channel movie. But even then, and even when Sean Penn wanders superfluously around the fuzzy edges of the film, the evocation of family life is strong enough to carry the film along.

The Tree of Life was the first 2011 film I’ve seen. If the year yields anything else this good, I’ll be very, very happy.

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