Tuesday, November 18, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #1 "Apocalypse Now" (Francis Ford Coppola)

This is a movie that absolutely should not have worked.

The stories behind the chaotic making of this film are now the stuff of Hollywood legend. Books have been written. Documentaries have been made. I don't need  to repeat it all here, but here's a bullet list of just a few of the catastrophes that beset the film's production:

• A massive typhoon wrecked the sets in the Philippines, causing a months-long delay.

• Star Harvey Keitel was fired after just a few days and replaced by Martin Sheen... who promptly had a heart attack.

• After pocketing a million dollars, co-star Marlon Brando showed up fat and out of shape, without having learned his lines. Production shut down for a week while Coppola worked with him.

• Dennis Hopper was... well, Dennis Hopper.

• The Philippine government allowed the use of their military and vehicles in the film, but constantly had to pull them away to fight an insurgency in another part of the islands.

Director/co-writer Francis Ford Coppola was spending his own money before the movie was finished. He had everything on the line. The film ultimately went months and millions of dollars over budget, and this was before Coppola had even managed to write the ending. The original script by John Milius (a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" set in the midst of the Vietnam war) was too "rah rah America!" for Coppola's taste. Kurtz and Willard go down in a blaze of glory at the end, falling under a barrage of American bullets. That was not the story Coppola wanted to tell.

The problem was, Coppola didn't know what story he wanted to tell.

"My movie is not about Vietnam... my movie IS Vietnam," Coppola said at the film's Cannes premiere, in his typically grandiose way. "There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money. And little by little we went insane."

I already mentioned in my "Taxi Driver" review the cataclysmic impact my high-school video productions teacher, Mrs. Duran, had on my movie-going tastes. It was in her class that I discovered all those great, gritty, and dark masterpieces of the 1970s New Hollywood. All those great directors plowed their way into my brain pain during a roughly six-month period when I was fifteen years old: Scorsese, Friedkin, Penn, Malick, Bogdanovich, Peckinpah... and, of course, Francis Ford Coppola.

I watched the "Hearts of Darkness" documentary before I actually saw "Apocalypse Now" (I'm trying to remember if Mrs. Duran showed it in her class). I remember thinking no way is that movie any good. 

When I actually sat down to watch the movie, I couldn't even begin to wrap my head around it. But I knew I loved it, with a passion that became almost all consuming for the next few years. The sky cracked open for me with "Taxi Driver," but the lightning didn't hit until "Apocalypse Now." And it basically exploded my eyeballs and cooked my brain.

I watched that movie maybe six or seven times that year. And maybe ten the next year. And ten the year after that. All in, I've probably watched "Apocalypse Now" more than 50 times. There was a code in there I felt like I had to crack.

It's 20 years later, and I still don't think I've cracked it.

"Apocalypse Now" is number one on this list for a lot of reasons. It's definitely my favorite film, but let's establish right now that it is a deeply flawed piece of work. Given the sheer madness of the production, there's no way it could be otherwise. It's often referred to as a "fever dream" view of the Vietnam War, and as clich├ęd as that is it's pretty apt. I had pneumonia in college and my temperature spiked to about a hundred and five degrees. The delerium I felt then was roughly equivalent to my first experience watching this movie.

If you get on its wavelength, it'll change you.

My first feature, "Dead Billy" was almost exactly .0001 percent the budget of "Apocalypse Now." Still, for us, it was a pretty massive undertaking. And I was keenly aware going in that we were trying to do something fairly narratively ambitious. It was going to be a weird, personal movie that likely would not work for a lot of people. There was a very real chance that I would fail.

A month or so before we began shooting — after we had raised our money on Kickstarter and had put together the majority of our cast and crew — I began seriously second-guessing myself. Maybe I should have just written a horror movie, I thought. Something I knew I could sell. Vampires were still super popular, and I even have an idea for a vampire movie. Zombies were still huge, and I have a zombie script a wrote a few years ago. Maybe I should have just done one of those. It would have been a whole lot safer.

As we were hurtling toward our start date, I decided to clear my head by spending an evening rewatching both "Hearts of Darkness" and "Apocalypse Now" for the first time in a few years. And I realized something... if Coppola managed to wrestle that movie to the mat, there was absolutely nothing for me to be afraid of. "Apocalypse Now" is one of those works of singular, bizarro vision that existed simply because the filmmaker had to make it exist. Damn the consequences. Coppola was driven by something irrational and, for him at least, deeply profound. Some of it was ego, sure. Maybe even most of it. But the movie infected him in a way, and he needed to purge it.

That's what "Dead Billy" was for me.

Before you roll your eyes: no, I'm not comparing my movie to "Apocalypse Now." But watching Coppola almost lose everything to bring his vision to the screen made me realize that for me to back out then would have been an act of extreme, unforgivable cowardice. Coppola committed to his vision at all costs. The least I could do was commit to mine.

After all, I wasn't mortgaging my house and my vineyard to make it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #2 "Night of the Living Dead"/"Dawn of the Dead" (George A. Romero)

As I said in my earlier review of "Shaun of the Dead," I'm kind of a hipster about zombie movies. I was into them way before they were cool.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if I never see another zombie movie in my life, I'll be okay. Zombies have seized the zeitgeist in a way that I find fairly unfathomable. And now we've been given every permutation on the concept we could possibly conceive of. We've got fast zombies, slow zombies, funny zombies, sad zombies, romcom zombies, Nazi zombies, even zombies as pets. We've got zombies as a political interest group. We've got zombie livestock. Now every city has its own zombie walk. Even Nerf is making zombie-themed toys.

Aside from their ubiquity, the most maddening thing for me as a classic Romero zombie fan is how much the new stuff tends to get wrong. Here are the two biggies:

1. Fast zombies suck. I'm sorry, but if you disagree with me you're clearly a dilettante and I encourage you to quit out of this blog post and go read "Twilight" or something.

I'll let zombie godfather George A. Romero explain it to you: "[I prefer] these plodding, lumbering guys from whom you can easily escape unless you fuck yourself up somehow and are too stupid to do the right thing. That’s just more fun for me.”

This is the point, and why Romero's original zombie films were so haunting. The zombies were the catalyst for the conflict, but they were not the source of the conflict themselves. In a fast-zombie universe, your characters spend so much time running away that they don't have time to think about anything else. In a slow-zombie universe, they have just enough time to get complacent and let all the petty ego-driven parts of their nature take over. They have time to argue and to second guess. And in the end, they become the agents of their own destruction.

Look at "Night of the Living Dead." The neat trick of that film is that Mr. Cooper, our antagonist, was right the whole time! If they had just gone into the basement, they would have survived! Our "hero" Ben fucked up and, essentially, got everyone killed. This isn't because Ben is a bad guy (neither is Mr. Cooper, really... he's just an asshole). It's because he's a human being and he made a mistake. In "Night," the real conflict is the dick-measuring contest between Ben and Mr. Cooper, not the struggle between the group and the zombies. This is what makes "Night" a fundamentally more human story than, say, something like "World War Z" (I speak of the movie, not the book, which is actually a pretty superlative piece of work).

There's also something more viscerally terrifying about the relentless implacability of the slow zombie. It's easy to fool yourself — one or two are easy to kill or escape. But the problem is they just keep coming...and coming...and coming. What Romero did was give us the time necessary to reflect on that.

2. Zombies are not caused by a virus. Even stories that mostly get the zombie thing right ("The Walking Dead" and Max Brooks's original "World War Z" novel) screw this one up. In our current epidemiology-obsessed culture — where we're all required to have our scheduled bird flu or Ebola freakout every year or so — we simply cannot seem to conceive of a scenario where zombies AREN'T the result of some sort of determinable, measurable contagion.

But this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of what Romero was trying to say with his original films.

Horror is fundamentally about the inexplicable. As soon as it becomes explicable, it becomes science fiction. Sure, Romero made a weak attempt in "Night" to justify his zombies as being the result some sort of "strange radiation" emanating from a returned space probe to Venus. It's such a lame explanation that I don't think Romero ever really meant for us to take it seriously. He was still trying to figure out the mythology behind his walking corpses, and the Venus-probe crap was a nod toward prevailing trends in sci-fi and horror at the time. By the time he got to "Dawn" ten years later, he pretty much did away with all of that.

In Romero's universe, the laws of physics as we understand them simply stopped working. It reminds me of something an old astronomy professor in college once said about the nature of science in general. I don't remember the exact quote so I'll have to paraphrase: Nothing is ever proved in science. We simply develop theories and evaluate the evidence and come up with the best understanding that we can, until something new comes along to show us that we were wrong. We believe in gravity because if you drop a rubber ball 10,000 times in a row, you can be reasonably certain that the ball will go down. But what if on the 10,001st time you drop the ball it goes up? Well, then you have to radically re-evaluate your entire understanding of how the universe works.

There's a reason why Ken Foree's famous "when there's no more room in Hell..." line from "Dawn" has become so  iconic. It's as good an explanation as any, and it perfectly sums up the inexplicable nature of Romero's zombies. Romero is much more interested in the questions than he is anything resembling an answer.

But look at how it's used in the (pretty good but flawed) 2004 remake:

Foree's cameo is meant as a little gift to the fans, but unfortunately what director Zak Snyder does here is invert the original meaning of the line. Now we see it coming from a rabid, homophobic Jerry Falwell-style preacher/pundit. Whereas in the original we think Peter may be right, here we're supposed to immediately roll our eyes and KNOW that the preacher is wrong. Peter's statement is one of possible profundity. The nameless preacher's is meant to be tossed aside and forgotten. The cosmic and spiritual mystery has been drained completely out of the idea. Because germs, I guess.

I discovered both "Night" and "Dawn" in the early-1990s, back when zombies weren't really a thing. I used to watch "Night" almost every night as I went to bed... it became my equivalent of chilling out to "Dark Side of the Moon" to relax (I did that too, by the way). Something about these movies spoke to me on a fundamental, visceral level.

I can't really separate the two (hence the dual entry). "Night" is the undisputed the classic, the Patient Zero for the whole genre. But "Dawn" is, overall, probably the better movie. Its world is more sharply defined, its characters richer, its thematic concerns much more sophisticated.

What floored me about "Night" the first time I saw it was how well written it is. For a drive-in movie, it almost comes off like a piece of theater. Just check out this scene at about 20 minutes and 40 seconds into the movie.

After a long sequence where Ben and Barbara board up the farm house, Ben launches into a long monologue about his first experience with the zombies and how he learned — after watching a truck explode in flames — that they are afraid of fire. We hear the tremor in his voice and can see the pain of what he saw written all over his face. Seconds after he is finished, Barbara — in her stilted, post-shock delivery — tells him the story of how she and her brother were attacked at the cemetery. As she slips deeper and deeper into the story, she begins reliving it as someone who has experienced PTSD might relieve a traumatic experience. She eventually works herself into hysterics, and the scene culminates in a vicious punch from Ben to knock her out (a moment which, to a 1960s audience, would have been utterly shocking in its racial implications).

The entire sequence goes on for about seven minutes — which, in a movie with a 95-minute running time — is a lot of narrative real estate to use up. You simply don't see stuff like this in most horror movies, particularly those created for the drive-in circuit.

Indeed, most of "Night" is comprised of conversations — often shouted — between the various characters. The zombies themselves become almost incidental as Ben's conflict with Mr. Cooper escalates. And it is that conflict that drives the ultimate tragedy of the conclusion.

"Dawn" does largely the same thing, but on a much bigger scale. Both films (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, their 1985 followup "Day of the Dead") are concerned with an almost neo-realist sense of verisimilitude (the goofy music notwithstanding). This isn't the gritty, almost doc-style realism of "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." Both "Night" and "Dawn" are elegaic, almost lyrical in style.

Critics who sing the praises of "Dawn" tend to focus on the 1970s consumerist satire. That element is there, of course, but it seems to me that it is brought up so often because it gives the snoots a way to justify their appreciation for the film. They can't just like a horror movie. It has to be a commentary about something.

"Dawn" is certainly that (the way "Night" is an almost accidental commentary on the Civil Rights movement), but at its heart I believe it's meant to be a character piece, concerned more with the connections people attempt to forge in an extreme crisis. The humor, as it is, is fairly sparse. The moments that resonate the most are these:

It's these genuine human interactions that, I'm afraid, most of the current crop of zombie stories miss altogether. This is what makes "The Walking Dead" and Brooks's "World War Z" (and even "Shaun of the Dead," in its way) stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. They get it in a way that "Fido" or "Zombieland" or "Warm Bodies" simply cannot.

I'm afraid the zombie is basically done as a legit source of existential dread. They've become neutered, made goofy by a pop culture obsessed with irony. Even Romero's recent crop of films have slipped into a nearly grotesque self parody of what he used to do.

But "Night" and "Dawn" remain classics. Untouched.

Cut through the noise and go back to the source.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #3 "Unforgiven" (Clint Eastwood)

"It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have."

Clint Eastwood's 1992 western "Unforgiven" is a very nearly perfect film.

I'm speaking largely from both a writer's and a teacher's perspective. I use this movie in my class all the time, and I find that it's consistently one of the best examples of story structure, dialogue, subtext, and characterization available. I try to mix things up occasionally and use other examples, but nothing works as well. I always circle back around to this one.

Eastwood bought David Webb Peoples' script (originally titled "The Cut-Whore Killings") in the mid-1970s, at the height of his status as a Western icon. But he held onto it for nearly 20 years until he was old enough to play William Munny, a reformed outlaw and gunslinger struggling to raise two kids as a subsistence farmer. When a brash young wannabe who calls himself The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) appears out of nowhere to enlist him in a murder-for-hire scheme to take out two cowboys who cut up a whore in a little town in Wyoming called Big Whiskey, Munny reluctantly signs on with one condition: he wants to include his former partner, Ned (Morgan Freeman). 

Meanwhile in Big Whiskey, Sheriff "Little" Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) has gotten wind of the scheme, and will stop at nothing to "protect" his town from "assassins."

The genius of "Unforgiven" is the way that Peoples' screenplay inverts the classic Western archetype — in another era, Little Bill would be our hero and he would have been played by John Wayne as a classic "white hat," and Munny would have been our classic black-hatted villain, probably played by someone like Yul Brenner — without ever falling down the post-modern rabbit hole. We don't think about this inversion until it's over, when (SPOILER) Little Bill protests his own upcoming death with "I don't deserve this! I was building a house!"

In his mind, Little Bill is the hero. It's simply inconceivable to him that it could have ever been otherwise.

The problem with most of these meta, post-modern inversions is that they become so concerned with what they're trying to say about the form and the genre that they forget to tell a genuine, heartfelt story with real living, breathing characters. "Unforgiven" doesn't make that mistake. Nobody in this film feels like a type or a commentary on a type. You believe every single one of them, from Munny and Ned to the Kid and Little Bill, all the way up to to rival assasin English Bob (the great Richard Harris in one of his greatest roles) and his biographer, Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). Each character serves a specific narrative purpose but still manages to maintain his or her own inner life that seems to exist beyond the confines of this particular story.

Stylistically, this is by far Eastwood's best film as a director. There's nothing showy about it, but practically every shot looks like a painting. The level of precision both in style and substance is incredible. Nothing is wasted. This is true of Peoples' script as well, which knows when to be spare and when to let some air out and be baroque. Everything — no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential — pays off. The movie ebbs and flows like a river, slowly picking up speed until it hurls itself headlong into a stunning whitewater rush of a climax.

This film was pretty acclaimed at the time, but I'm not sure if it's as appreciated now as it should be. Eastwood's admittedly spotty record as a director might have tarnished the movie's legacy a bit.

If it's been awhile since you've seen it, please rewatch it and remind yourself how amazing major Hollywood cinema can be when it's done right.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #4 "John Carpenter's The Thing" (John Carpenter)

Like most horror directors of his generation (George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, etc.), John Carpenter's track record is...well...pretty spotty. For every classic ("Halloween," "Escape From New York," "Starman") that he's made, there's a solid stinker ("Village of the Damned," "Escape From LA," "Vampire$") that serves as an unfortunate counterweight on his legacy. And, like most of his contemporaries, its his more recent work that tends to skew the batting average way down. David Cronenberg is the only one from that generation who seems to have made it out of the 80s pretty much intact.

So I don't know that I would call John Carpenter my favorite horror director, exactly. But I would say that his best movies come the closest to representing the type of horror movies I want to make.

This is likely because he draws largely from the same wellspring of inspiration as I do. His influences are my influences. He's as much a student of 30s-50s pulp fiction as he is of modern cinema. He's one of the first major directors to pull liberally from Lovecraft (obliquely in "Prince of Darkness" and  more overtly in "In The Mouth Of Madness") and Lovecraft-inspired work like "Quartermass and the Pit."

"The Thing" is Carpenter's undisputed horror masterpiece, and it's perhaps the best example of this somewhat literary bent. Ostensibly a remake of the 1951 Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks film "The Thing From Another World," it's actually a much more faithful adaptation of John W. Campbell's original 1938 novella "Who Goes There?."

What Carpenter understands — and what too many horror filmmakers simply don't get — is that what made the classic pulps so effective is what you don't see. Done right, suggestion and atmosphere can get under your skin way deeper than splatter. "The Thing" is often categorized as a gross-out film, and it's true that  effects artist Rob Botin's work is stunning, nauseating and visceral. But Carpenter knows when to hang back and show us just a piece of the shape-shifting creature — a distorted leg lost in shadow, a twisted mouth in the beam of a flashlight — and let our mind fill in the rest. What we create is way more terrifying than anything they could show us.

In Carpenter's and Botin's hands, the Thing itself is an almost perfect representation of Lovecraft's notion that "...all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large." Lovecraft was all about twisting reality into the impossible. He wrote often of "wrong geometry," impossible angles in alien cities that could drive a human being mad simply to look upon them.

Carpenter's Thing is an ickier version of that idea. It isn't a guy in a rubber suit. It's a Thing that simply should not exist.

Carpenter's best movies are known for their bleakness (see also "Prince of Darkness"). "The Thing" pushes that to an entirely new level. It was a box-office failure at the time, and many critics believe that was because it came out the same year as Spielberg's "E.T." and people simply weren't in the mood for Carpenter's nihilistic view of the universe and what might be out there waiting for us.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Book Review - "Revival" by Stephen King

I know that just yesterday I said I was going to power through the last five entries in my nearly forgotten "50 Days 50 Films" marathon (picking up with my review of Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver"), but I just finished Stephen King's latest novel "Revival" in a white heat at three a.m. this morning, and I simply had to write about it.

So if you're still interested in the marathon, I'll be picking it up again tomorrow with my thoughts on my Number 4: John Carpenter's "The Thing."

For anyone who reads this blog or even casually follows my Facebook feed, you know that Mr. King is basically my spirit animal. He's the writer who, when I was 11 or 12, served as my introduction to the horror genre, and he was my gateway drug to pretty much all my other favorite writers (Thomas M. Disch, Phil Rickman, Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, and — more recently — Justin Cronin and Nick Cutter). He's the first writer whose work crystalized for me my own desire to write scary stories for a living. He's my alpha and my omega.

That said, however, I've never been slavishly uncritical of his work. Even as a kid, I knew that I had an active dislike for certain books — "The Tommyknockers" in particular. It didn't take me long to realize that, as great as he can be, other writers (Disch in particular) were very often better. My devotion to King has always been levened with a healthy dose of skepticism.

This has become even more the case over the last 15 years or so. I think the last King novel I really embraced without any reservation was 1998's "Bag of Bones," although I'm way out by myself in the weeds in thinking that his oft-maligned "From a Buick 8" (2002) deserves a solid critical reappraisal. I've liked most of his post-2000 output — the only absolute stinkers in there are "Dreamcatcher" (2001) and "Cell" (2006)— but I haven't really loved most of it. His recent work has trended longer and with less focus, less precision of detail, and far broader characters. He's always had a bit of a sentimental streak, but that has become much more pronounced in recent years and it can balance quite awkwardly with the darker elements he's known for.

The one real beacon of light was "Full Dark No Stars," his 2010 collection of four novellas that featured his darkest and most incisive work in years (the opening story, "1922," is a particular standout). It felt like the lean, mean Stephen King responsible for such genuine horror classics as "The Shining," "The Dead Zone," and "Cujo" was back, and in force.

Happily, much of his work since then — like last year's "Dr. Sleep" and this year's "Mr. Mercedes" — has tended to be shorter and more focused. Still, as good as those books were, neither reached the heights that he used to seem to hit so easily when he was in his prime.

I will always buy each new King book on the day of its release, and I will most likely disappear for a day or two while I devour it. Chances are, I will enjoy the experience. But I've long ago given up on expecting to be blown away the way I used to be.

Which brings me to his latest novel, "Revival," which was released this week in hardcover.

I don't want to overstate my case here and suggest that "Revival" deserves to be mentioned as part of the King pantheon. It's too early to say this is a classic on the level of "The Shining" or "The Stand" or "It."

But this is by far his best book in two decades. It's certainly at least as good as "Bag of Bones." Probably better.

For one thing, this is only the second Stephen King book that I can say really scared the shit out of me. As much as I adore his best novels, I've never found them to be particularly frightening. "Pet Sematary" is the one (before this) that truly rattled me. Many — like "Cujo" and "It" and "The Dead Zone" and especially "Misery" have moments that are profoundly disturbing, but I can only think of those two novels ("Pet Sematary" and "Revival") and a handful of short stories and novellas ("Gramma," "Children of the Corn," "You Know They've Got a Hell of a Band," "1922") that actually kept me up at night.

At just 399 pages, the narrative of "Revival" spans a period of more than 50 years in the life of a second-rate rock guitarist and reformed drug addict named Jaimie Morton, and his twisted relationship with a charismatic "pastor" named Charlie Jacobs. We start with Jaimie and Charlie's first meeting, when Jaimie is a typical six-year-old kid in the small town of Harlow, Maine (a town that bears an obvious resemblance to King's own home town of Durham). Charlie is the charming and youthful new pastor of the town's single Methodist church. We pick up with Jaimie sitting in a dirt pile in front of his house, playing with his toy soldiers, when a shadow falls across him. The shadow, of course, is Charlie's. The image is striking and the metaphor is obvious — Charlie's shadow is going to stay with Jaimie for the rest of his life.

But before your ick-factor goes into overdrive, let me assure you that King has no interest in exploring the pedophile-priest phenomena. It's not a spoiler to say there's nothing sexual or abusive in Jaimie and Charlie's relationship. In fact, Charlie is presented as a genuinely good man, a well-meaning man of the cloth with a beautiful wife and son. King drops enough hints as to where things are going to create a palpable but very quiet sense of dread in these early chapters — we're waiting for the shoe to drop...and drop it does. We're introduced to Charlie's odd hobby of tinkering with gadgets and electricity, and we can see the seeds of a flowering obsession there. Yet Charlie and his family are universally loved amongst his parish, and Jaimie seems to see him as not so much a father figure but as a friend.

The other shoe falls with a resounding thud three years later, when both Charlie's family and faith are torn asunder by a shocking and meaningless tragedy. Charlie delivers a blasphemous sermon in the wake of the event, and promptly loses his job. He piles his gadgets into his car and disappears, seemingly forever.

We spend a few years tracking Jaimie's teen years, when he simultaneously discovers girls (in the form of his beautiful classmate Astrid Soderberg) and the guitar. The two are inextricably linked, and there's something genuinely exhilarating about experiencing Jaimie's awakening talent and the all-consuming passion of his first love.

Being a King novel, this doesn't end prettily. Jaimie spends the next decade throwing his life down the crapper as he descends into a spiral of addiction. It's when he's at his quite literal rock bottom as a 36-year-old washout abandoned by his bandmates in a seedy motel room in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that his path crosses with Charlie — now a carnival huckster going from state fair to state fair — once again. Charlie's obsession with electricity has turned into a mania, and his experiments have become much darker and more profound.

Things just get weirder and weirder from here on out. King's narrative takes us all the way up to the present day and beyond, as Jaimie and Charlie keep circling in and out of each others' life in more disturbing ways, and it all culminates in King's most existentially horrific conclusion since the devastating tragedy that made "Pet Sematary" so chilling.

This isn't a balls-to-the-wall horror novel like "It" or "The Shining." The more overtly supernatural elements are kept largely at bay throughout most of the narrative. We know there's something going on with this "secret electricity," but we don't know what it is. It's all doled out in hints and suggestions up until about the final third, and King wisely keeps his focus on the characters and their relationships through the brunt of the story. He tightens the screws subtly but implacably, and it's not until you're nearing the end that you realize your heart is skipping a beat with every new revelation.

And then...bam. He delivers his knockout punch. The less said, the better.

This isn't a perfect novel, and King's portrayal of Charlie Jacobs in the back half is unfortunately the book's biggest weakness. What makes Charlie's arc so compelling early on is how much we empathize with him. He's a good man twisted by tragedy and madness. But, unfortunately, as the story progresses King begins to slip into some of the same broad characterizations that have marred so many of his more recent novels. Charlie devolves into a sort of James Bond supervillain/cartoon mad scientist. It's the book's only real misstep, but it's a big one.

Luckily the rest of the book is so tight and the characters so richly defined that this misstep doesn't manage to derail the rest of the good work King has done here. Jaimie is one of King's best lead characters in years — good-hearted but fundamentally flawed — and we stick with him even as he starts making some understandible but truly dreadful choices in the last few chapters.

Likewise, the secondary characters — from Astrid to Jaimie's sprawling family and his first high-school bandmates — come flying off the page as living, breathing human beings. King's biggest strength in his prime years had always been his willingness to take time away from the plot to develop his characters and the specific textures of their lives, and he shows in "Revival" that he hasn't lost that ability. Like in "From a Buick 8," the horror — when it comes — is so devastating precisely because of our investment in these people and their fates.

King also throws in a few nice little bones for the horror geeks in his audience, with subtle but specific references to Lovecraft, Arthur Machen and Robert Bloch. Previous knowledge of these writers' work is by no means necessary here, but for those of us in the know, the easter eggs are a lot of fun. There's something charmingly old-fashioned about this novel; it's classic horror of the pulp/"Twilight Zone" school, and reads almost as the type of book you might have expected Bloch or Richard Matheson to turn out in the 60s or 70s.

I'm not going to make any grand pronouncements about a "comeback" or (ahem) a "revival" here. We'll have to see if King can sustain this newfound focus with whatever he comes up with next. But, in the meantime, I'm just so grateful to have once again had the exhilarating experience with a new King book that I used to expect as a matter of course.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #5 "Taxi Driver" (Martin Scorsese)

I just realized I never finished this list. Inexplicably, I quit right before I got to all the REALLY good stuff. So here goes. Gonna marathon this thing to the end over the next few days.

It was when I was fifteen years old that a lot of things started to change for me in terms of my creative sensibilities. I'd been a pretty hardcore horror fan already for a few years at this point, and through my love of horror novels I was slowly but surely becoming a serious fan of the movies. But I was far from what you would call a cineaste.

When I was fifteen and a sophomore in high school, I took a video productions class. The teacher was Mrs. Duran, and she LOVED movies and managed to impart at least some of that love to the rest of us. Sure, we learned about cameras and got a rudimentary sense of scriptwriting and editing, but the part of the class I remember most was sitting around and simply talking about movies — what made them good and what made them important.

One of the ways you could get extra credit in this class was to watch movies and essentially write the equivalent of a book report about them. So I started raiding the local video store. Mrs. Duran dropped the names of a bunch of films in class, mostly things I'd either never heard of or had never really been interested in before. Turns out, a large number of those films were classics from the 1970s "new Hollywood." So, in a pretty naked effort to suck up, I wrote most of my "book reports" about the ones she mentioned.

And it was like the sky opened up for me.

There was "Apocalypse Now" (never heard of it). There was "The Godfather" (heard of it, but was convinced it would be insufferably boring). There was "The Wild Bunch" (a western, so yuck). There was "Midnight Cowboy" (rated X! Score!).

And, of course, there was "Taxi Driver."

It's hard for me to articulate the impact these films had on me . I was gripped by an incredibly dark imagination and had been for most of my life, but at this stage I was still pretty wrapped up in fantastical stories about monsters and vampires and ghosts and your typical things-that-go-bump-in-the-night. Stephen King had marked my transition away from the D&D-inspired fantasy I had been reading for most of my life and into something more "adult" and grounded in a world that at least superficially resembled our own, but his stuff was still fundamentally operating in the relative safety of a speculative ghosts-and-goblins-based universe.

These films were something else. They were grubby. They were hard. They were stark and unflinching. And they felt real. "Taxi Driver" most of all. It wasn't my favorite discovery of this time period (that would be "Apocalypse Now," and there will be more on that one in a later entry), but it was the one that I identified with the most. It operated 100 percent on my wavelength and spoke quite directly to the horror fan in me — Travis Bickle is an utterly terrifying creation — but it came at it in a different way and gave me some new tools through which to approach my own imagination.

I was also just starting to discover punk rock around this time, and there was something about the nasty, don't-give-a-fuck energy to this film that excited me on a purely primal level. When Scorsese himself appears and delivers his infamous monologue, I was in. I found everything about the scene utterly reprehensible and profoundly upsetting, and yet it awoke something dark and carnivorous in me that had been nestled there for a long time and that I had no way to fully comprehend or express. Now I think I get it, at least a little bit. We all have "wrong thoughts," things that we know are wrong and that we understand society requires us to surpress. And yet, here's a guy just saying it, damn the consequences. The monologue is an anarchic expression of reptilian id, and Scorsese (and screenwriter Paul Schrader) simply don't give a fuck what you think about it. They're not only inviting your disapproval, they're reveling in it.

As an adult who has spent the greater portion of my life studying film, I can now discern intellectually what it is that I find so frightening about that scene (and, indeed, the entire movie), and it's not the monologue itself. Rather, it's the inscrutability of Robert DeNiro's silent reaction to it. He's not blank — we can see that he is reacting (he adjusts the mirror to get a better look at Scorsese, his mouth twitches, etc.) but we can't quite figure out what he's thinking. Is he disgusted? Is he aroused? We simply don't know. And Scorsese cuts viciously away before we come anywhere near an answer.

This isn't a movie about answers. Fuck answers, Scorsese and Schrader are saying, you don't deserve them and we're not giving them.

The realization that you could do that simply blew my mind.

There's a berzerker bravery to this film that is nearly unmatched in American cinema, and to fifteen-year-old me, that bravery — that willingness to simply not give a fuck — was like a clap of thunder in my head. I realized that it's easy to simply "scare" people. Creaky footsteps in a dark room will do it every time. A cat jumping out of a closet (accompanied by the appropriate "sting" on the soundtrack) will always work. One and done, moving on.

But to truly disturb someone — to crawl up into their skin uninvited and make them think and feel things they know they shouldn't be thinking or feeling — is a profound act. It's almost religious in its power.

I still love horror, and Stephen King will always be my literary security blanket.

But "Taxi Driver" opened me up to all sorts of possibilities I hadn't even glimpsed before.