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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Exiting Eden

 

Once upon a time is how the scene begins (don’t they all?) and this is how it unfolds: first we see a sprawling lake, a supine giant, the water of which falls from emerald green to thick, murky browns. This lake has existed here, presumably for a thousand years or more. An old tire, fading, threadbare—a slight impression left in its center where countless children have hunched―hangs from the branch of one the hearty pine trees which populate the acreage that surrounds the lake―a vast, unbroken woodland stretching for miles, the majority of which will be burnt to the ground by arson in the near future.

Feces covers the floor of these woods, the copious dejecta part of an intricate topography of what animals have left behind―the shedding of skin and fur the least objectionable of the lot. The excrement is the by-product of various denizens of the lake region: black bears, chipmunks, skunks, snakes (do snakes actually shit? it occurs to me that I’ve never witnessed a snake having a bowel movement) ferrets, wolves, feral cats, and, of course, birds, the deposits of which are perhaps the vilest; smart bombs dropped from the sky. 

Hideous, filthy birds! cry the other animals.

If it were not for the ability to fly, the birds would be up shit-creek-without-a-paddle―this is, of course, in regards to Bird Vs. Bear, another such scene I have concocted previously: the bird’s wings broken, held together with the aid of tiny splints, must use only their wits, and possibly a well-timed stab of the beak, in a final showdown against the boiling rage of the bear, having been shit upon―literally and figuratively―by just such a bird one too many times. The ending of this scene is too horrible to recount here, although, it should be said, if black bears had a human counterpart it would be that of Charles Manson.

Meanwhile, back at the previous scene: The stench that surrounds this lake is so foul that not a soul dare breach its soiled shores. The lake, once picturesque in its beauty, now wallows in its own filth.  But what could possibly illicit such a deluge of droppings? Too much bran in the diet of the animals? A predilection for jokes scatological in nature? Or had they simply scared themselves shitless?

I have left the evacuation of animal bowels in this scene because it seems as much a part of the lore of these woods as the two people I have previously placed within it: a man and a woman, their lusts and desires anything but errant, their wills obscenely willful and free, roaming the land around the lake as if they owned the joint, naked as they day they were born, (“this isn’t a nudist colony”, I informed them again and again) frequently, unabashedly partaking in the rib. They were over-sexed, as horny as wayward adolescents, their constant copulations embarrassing, so I have since removed them from the scene. They will have to fend for themselves without aid of my pleasant and evocative descriptions forging the world around them.

But I digress.

Of particular note to this scene: the lake is similar in some respects to a lake I once frequented with my girlfriend of several years. We would smile brightly, sunning ourselves on the shore, making plans for the future as I inscribed arcane drawings into her newly sun-screened back; an index finger indexing our entire history together. We stayed in a cabin near the shore, one that was built by some pioneering spirit of the recent past. We had gone on like this for months, the insular beauty of the lake keeping us from the troubles of the outside world.

That was until three days ago when I found myself crouching in the dense underbrush beside the lake, covered in mud and leaves―partly for camouflage, partly for the obscene drama that it evoked―watching my girlfriend: she in the lake swimming nude with another man, the pruned-pair eventually conjoined; their bodies at work below the placid surface. Nude I tell you! Just like those two heathens in the previous scene.

Nonetheless, I am making plans for her in my head.

A few moments later we are talking:

She: Stop following me.

Me: I wasn’t following you. I just happen to be at the lake this weekend.

She: Covered in mud? Spying on us?

Me: I was bird watching.

She: You threw our clothes in the water!

Me: You looked cold, like you could use a pair of pants.

She: I have a restraining order!

Me: You don’t mean that.

She: I don’t love you!

Me: You don’t mean that.

She: Brian, get your pants on!

Me: You don’t mean that―

And then the fist of Brian―pants now on―hits me squarely on the nose, the crunching of bone loud inside my skull.

My girlfriend’s face is pinched, unforgiving.

The latter section is meaningless digression. I am creating a new scene concerning the lake in a darkened motel room off of I-7, scribbling on a notepad I found in the top drawer of the nightstand. I watch a compact TV bolted unceremoniously to the wall, the breaking newscast composed of quickly scrolling fonts and graphics and music built of menacing chords―

FIRE AT LAKE PONCHOTOCK

―the well-groomed anchor needlessly buoyant given the subject matter. A carefully edited montage of video footage follows—firefighters in action poses, blasts of water striking the towering flames with little to no impression. A wider shot, from a higher vantage point, reveals fires on all sides of the lake, the mad reflection of the flames gyrating obscenely upon the surface of the otherwise undisturbed water…

(I have been careful to leave all of this out of my previous scene—it has no substantive relevance, particularly the part where I initiate several small brush fires in the vicinity of the lake with the aid of an engraved lighter that my girlfriend gave me two birthdays past)

…wait, wait. Again I am drifting―at hand, the new scene: I am a bird―that is, I am myself dressed in a giant bird costume, taking wing across the lake, my girlfriend and Brian sunning themselves on shore as she and I had done so many times previously. I swoop down from the pale, dreadful sky and snatch her up with my yawing plastic claws, voiding my bowels upon Brian as I ascend. She lays limp in my grip, a fainted heroine in a b-movie, Brian on the ground below marshalling a look of hurt and surprise. Poor put-upon, shat-upon, Brian, shackled by gravity, effluvium rising in contrast.

The lake hums with vivid colors.

We soar above everything, altitudinous in our coupling.

I with my love―our convergence complete.

Happily ever after.

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After their successful pairing in the hilarious and light-hearted Lucio Fulci film, Zombi 2: Electric Boogaloo, Zombie and Shark decided to have a go with their own television variety show. This was not the first time a famous duo attempted to solidify themselves among the pantheon of memorable variety shows; Frank Sinatra and Fidel Castro, Albert Einstein and Phyllis Diller, The Wolfman and Frankenstein are just a few of the pairings that failed stupendously. But Zombie and Shark were confidant. America was ready for a primetime variety show hosted by the undead and a deadly shark. 

They pitched the show to CBS and the next fall, The Zombie and Shark Musical Variety Hour Which Sometimes, Very Rarely Mind You, Has a Cooking Segment at the End of the Program, Show premiered to the highest ratings in the history of CBS,  a record which was previously held by the televised launch of the first monkey in space. The nation was collectively smitten with the charismatic duo. Frequent guests included Harvey Korman, Carol Bernett and the man who invented processed cheese spread, Charles Gouda.

Zombie and Shark were the toast of Hollywood until The Smothers Brothers burst upon the scene with a retooled version of their old variety show. Initially called Mr. Bagorium’s Fantastique Ice Cream-A-Torium before it was changed the title everyone remembers, Now We’re Gonna Sing At You, the show was an instant hit for the Smoothers Brothers. Zombie and Shark were hastily removed from the spotlight.

Today, Zombie and Shark spend their sunset years in a retirement village in Florida, recreating their memorable match-up from Zombi 2 in the community pool every day at 3:00 with an evening show at 5:30. The audience, consisting entirely of retirees from surrounding communities, couldn’t be more pleased with the two minor celebrities.

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Lady Frankenstein (1971)

Director: Mel Welles

I don’t know anything about this Lady Gaga all the kids are talking about, but I can tell you that the Italian entry into the Eurotrash/horror category, Lady Frankenstein (La Figlia di Frankenstein), is worth some attention in the canon of Frankenstein-themed movies. Not the typical B-movie version of the original Universal run, Lady Frankenstein indulges in scenes and characters that manage to subvert past attempts at pure repetition. Case in point: the choice of a woman as the stand-in for the mad scientist role of Dr. Frankenstein. Some writing on this movie has pointed toward the emergence of feminism in the late sixties, early seventies as the catalyst for this decision. True, the Dr. Frankenstein of this film is posited as a strong, ambitious woman, but more anything the notion of Dr. Frankenstein as a woman seems to be a rather transparent excuse for nude scenes rather than a caculated illumination of a political movement such as feminism.

Directed by Mel Welles with a script by cult writer Edward di Lorenzo, this film stars the sultry Rosalba Neri (listed as Sara Bey in America), an Edwige Fenech look-alike who made the rounds of European horror films, spaghetti westerns and euro sleaze in the 60s and 70s and esteemed character actor, Joseph Cotton, who, by this time, was at the end of an eventful career (he is quoted as saying, “Orson Welles lists Citizen Kane as his best film, Alfred Hitchcock opts for Shadow of a Doubt and Sir Carol Reed chose The Third Man – and I’m in all of them”). The production is surprisingly high-end, Welles seemingly making a stab at the quality and look of Hammer Films, with specific Italian touches.  The results are notable indeed; Lady Frankenstein feels and looks different than what was current at the time in most Italian horror/Giallo films (in fact it looks like an early Mario Bava production). Imagine a gothic Jane Austen film but with body snatching, and a Frankenstein monster that looks like the Elephant Man on a good day, and Joseph Cotton. 

As Lady Frankenstein opens, Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten) and his assistant Dr. Marshall (Paul Muller) are in the process of receiving a corpse for their re-animation experiments from the local grave-digger. The next morning the Baron’s daughter, Tania (Rosalba Neri) arrives at the Baron’s castle having completed her University course in medicine. She wants to join the family business, but the Baron is resistant to this notion.

The Baron and Dr. Marshall eventually complete their crazy experiments, the culmination of which is implanting the brain of a criminal into a giant Neanderthal. Of course, re-animation is never as easy as it looks, and the newly-minted creature kills his creator, the Baron, by hugging him to death. Perhaps the monster just wanted someone to love. 

With her father dead, Tiana decides to take the mantel of local nut job and create her own monster, one that can kill the first which is now ambling across the countryside in search of locals to squeeze. Her ultimate motivation for this decision is convoluted at best: to save the good name of Frankenstein by creating a monster that will stop the other monster who is killing villagers, which was created by the Baron in the first place. (Well, no one ever said the storyline had to make sense. Throw in a good bit of nudity and plot holes are forgotten.)

Soon a plan is hatched to place the brain of Dr. Marshall into the body of the Baron’s slightly retarded man-servant, Thomas. In one of the weirder scenes in the film, Tiana seduces Thomas with her wares, and, during love-making, Marshall smothers the man-child with a pillow. Tiana soon completes her insane plan to recover the good name of Frankenstein, but everything backfires when an angry mob with torches and pitchforks show up at the castle (it wouldn’t be a Frankenstein movie without an angry mob). The film quickly comes to an abrupt and bizarre end when, amid the fire set by the mob, the new Thomas-Marshall hybrid monster kills Tiana in the throes of passion. It’s an awkward ending, but seems to fit with the somewhat clumsy pacing of the rest of the movie.

As with any B-movie/exploitation outing, the dialogue and acting can be questionable at best, but Lady Frankenstein emerges above other standard Frankenstein-themed schlock like Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966) mostly due to its production value and the casting of Rosalba NeriIn addition to the more obvious merits, there are some truly strange moments in Lady Frankenstein that save it from being condemned as typical B-Movie faire (the EuroTrash angle at least helps it from being too run of the mill). Most of these moments have to do with Tiana plotting some fiendishly pseudo-sexual manipulation of the weaker sex, which, it would seem, leads to her ultimate downfall.

Now that Lady Frankenstein has been relinquished into the arms of “public domain”, there are several places online to see the film in its entirety for free, which, really, is not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

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Paris, Texas (1984)

Director: Wim Wenders

It was Harry Dean Stanton’s face. That’s what struck you immediately. It was rugged and blank as the landscape that surrounded it. He was a nowhere man who comes out of nowhere, the American desert, desolate and isolated, wearing a worn baseball cap and a pin stripped suit that is dusty and ravaged by the sun. Who is he? Where did he come from?

This is the iconic image that opens Wim Wender’s devastatingly gorgeous film, Paris, Texas. The mystery slowly unravels from these opening frames centers around that nowhere man. It is a movie about a deep sadness that reveals its tragedy a bit at a time; just as Travis, the main character played by Harry Dean Stanton, learns of his past life, so do we. We begin at nothing, like Travis, and in this way the film feels more intimate; we sense an emotional wreckage somewhere behind him, but we are not yet privy to it. Wenders is careful not to trump up the ensuing scenes with needless drama.  Nothing feels manufactured. Paris, Texas is a quiet, slow-moving film that focuses on the characters, the landscape, a certain corner of America.

Paris, Texas opens just south of the Mexican border, then moves to Los Angeles, then back to Texas, to Huston specifically. The result is a trajectory that details places that have emerged from deserts, some like the border-land that the film opens in, to the built-up, urbanized deserts of Los Angeles and Huston. Wim Wenders has made “road movies” before; Alice in the Cities (1974), The Wrong Move (1976) Kings of the Road (1976) (known collectively as “The Road Movie Trilogy”),  but Paris, Texas is really only a partial road movie, the journey of the main characters is not really the driving force, so to speak, behind the story (there is some similarity here to Alice in the Cities, a film in which a man helps a little girl find her grandmother as they travel Germany together). Wenders is more concerned with the aftermath of a tragedy; the journey is important in that it provides momentum, it provides movement. Indeed, most of the action does take place going from on city to another, on the highway. But these places are merely signposts, reminders of Travis’ downfall and rebirth. Even the Paris, Texas of the title is not actually referring to the city; Paris is actually a vacant lot, only seen in a photograph, its existence almost ghost-like.

The screenplay, by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and actor Sam Shepard (Buried Child, True West), focuses on themes he has been illuminating his entire writing career: alienation, anger, the ties of family; his are characters that are marginalized by society or circumstance. 

At the start of the film Travis wanders out of the desert and collapses at a gas station. His brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell) is summoned to a hospital where he finds Travis a shell of his former self, essentially a mute. After some difficulty, Walt eventually takes Travis back to LA where Walt lives with his wife Anne (Aurore Clement) and Travis’ son, Hunter (Kit Carson). Hunter and Travis are essentially strangers to one another. We learn about them and their past as they do; Travis and his wife Jane (Natassja Kinski) were once happily married, but their marriage was destroyed by Travis’ drinking. Travis essentially disappears from their lives, and when Jane can no longer take care of Hunter, she leaves him with Walt and Anne. Wenders reveals quiet moments between Hunter and Travis; sitting at the dinner table with his brother and his wife; watching an old Super-8 home movie of better times when Travis and Jane Hunter were happy and a family. It is in in these small, tender vignettes that we see the memories of his former life begin to flood back to Travis.

Eventually Travis makes the decision to reunite Hunter with his mother, and they begin the journey to Huston, wherein the “road movie” aspect of the film emerges. During the trip, Travis and Hunter learn more about one another as they pass through wide-open desert landscapes. There are many long takes of conversations, simple master shots and two shots that showcase Wenders love of composition, of the frame. Like American director Jim Jarmusch, and their idol, Japanese filmmaker, Yasujirō Ozu, theirs is a cinema of quiet observation, of the “common man” and how they interact with the environment around them.

Soon, the pair arrives in Huston to find Jane employed as a sex worker. Jane is not a prostitute per se; she only talks to men through a phone in an adjoining booth which is separated by a large piece of glass. So begins the final act of the film; these last scenes are some of the most engrossing of them film, and also somewhat of a turning point in the structure of Paris, Texas. Upon first viewing, there seemed to be a decided distinction between where Wenders ends and Shepard begins. By that I mean that for most of movie, like many Wenders films, the dialogue is minimal or non-existent, any exposition is done through a purely visual/musical aesthetic. But in the last 45 minutes, half-hour of the film, especially in the scene with Travis and Jane talking to one another through the phone in Jane’s booth, it becomes more like a Shepard play; staccato-like dialogue, simple staging between few characters. The change seems jarring, but upon repeated viewings it makes sense. It feels like the entire movie is leading up to this conversation; Travis has remained quiet, sometimes completely mute, and then, finally, they both to get to tell their own stories. In Travis’ monologue he reveals his side of the story in third-person, seemingly detached from the events that transpired previously, but it all makes sense, given the painful memories, when we finally discover how Travis ended up alone, wandering the desert. It is heartbreaking and intimate, as he clutches the phone, bathed in the green light of the booth, he reveals to his estranged wife the depths of his sorrow, of his regret. Jane’s monologue is just as revealing, and finally the film comes into full view, the circumstance of the dissolution of their relationship fully realized in their own words.

These scenes are as minimal and bare as the rest of the movie; in the end Travis and Jane find their voice, a voice which had previously been swallowed up by the vastness of their surroundings, the vastness of their grief. Of course, much of this is owed to the performances of Harry Dean Stanton and Natassja Kinski, indeed the entire cast. Harry Dean Stanton is the type of character actor that is hard to forget. Even when his roles are small, like the down-on-luck-father in Pretty in Pink, or the hapless boyfriend in Wild at Heart, the mark he makes is undeniable. In Paris, Texas he commands the film; he gives a pure performance. Shepard’s broken character of Travis is made even more real because Stanton already looks like an everyman, there is nothing to say that he is a movie star, and consequently we, as an audience, fall into this movie due in a large part to Harry Dean Stanton’s stalwart performance.

Longtime collaborator, cinematographer Robby Müller (the cinematographer on many of Jarmusch’s most notable films) pulls Wenders’ vision into clear, stark view; there are long takes of vast, open landscapes, and more intimate moments, which again rely more on careful compositions and master shots.

Ry Cooder’s score is just as iconic as the images that Wenders and Müller forge; the strains of a slide guitar emerging from the background in the opening shots of the film are as stark and minimal as the rest of the film and provides the perfect backdrop to a movie about the American southwest; it is as mythical as the landscape.

And it is that mythos of the American southwest, of the American west in gerneal, that Paris, Texas evokes so well.  It is an America not only of myth, of the cinema—shot through Wenders outsider perspective—but also an America of bracing reality, the reality that is ingrained in most of Sam Shepard’s written work. And because of this, it is a credit to both Wenders and Shepard that they have made a film that is so unified, that evokes so many similar feelings, so many shared experiences, and yet is so intimate and specific. There are no gimmicks here, no high-end visual effects; it is the kind of story—like the gas stations and motels in the film—that seems to be slowly vanishing, falling indelibly into the past.

Last month Criterion released Paris, Texas with a newly restored, high-definition digital transfer which was supervised and approved by director Wim Wenders, along with audio commentary and a 1990 documentry on Wenders and his films.

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