Many and many a year ago I read Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images. At least, I think I did. I remember owning a copy of the paperback published in 1990, the one with the little window cut into the cover through which you can see the main character’s (unconvincingly) frightened visage. For some reason those covers with windows were popular in the 90s. Anyway, I had it for awhile—bought it new, in fact. So I must’ve read it, right? The thing is, I can’t remember a damn thing about it other than that it had something to do with a secret horror film from the Golden Age of cinema. To be honest, I may or may not have finished it. My defense is that, as a teen I really wasn’t ready for the kind of veddy veddy British horror that Ramsey Campbell specializes in. I’ve since become a massive Campbell fan, incidentally.
That brings us to Experimental Film by Canadian author Gemma Files, which tackles something quite similar. I am a regular listener of the This Is Horror podcast hosted by Michael David Wilson and Bob Pastorella, and on the strength of Files’ interview I purchased this book. I do not regret it. Not one single little bit.
The story follows Lois Cairns, a semi-famous Toronto-based film critic specializing in indie and experimental films (hence the title) who discovers via local filmmaker Wrob Barney’s pretentious surrealist project Untitled 13—a sort of film collage—snippets from an unknown director’s silent-era short which appears to depict a cruel and little-known Wendish demigod called Lady Midday. Seeing the incredible potential in bringing to light a lost female filmmaker, the otherwise frazzled and burned out Lois suddenly finds new purpose and begins to dig into the history of what turns out to be an entire cache of films featuring the same frightening character. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that said director, one Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb, disappeared from a moving train before making a name for herself, and her cache of films was discovered half-buried in the woods somewhere north of Toronto. Clearly someone wanted them forgotten.
Lois recruits Safie Hewson, a promising student from her days as a teacher at a now-defunct film school, to help her produce a documentary about Whitcomb and her films, and that’s when things really start to go sideways. As it so happens, Lois and Whitcomb have much in common, right down to both of them having special-needs sons who are socially dysfunctional but nonetheless remarkably individualistic and creative. Lois’s child, Clark, is autistic, communicating with the world around him through TV commercial catchphrases and other bits and bobs of language picked up from his exposure to media. Lois too, as with Whitcomb herself, is someone who doesn’t quite jibe with society. These connections prove to be more than just coincidental as Lois’s growing obsession with Iris Whitcomb and, by extension, Whitcomb’s own obsession, Lady Midday, pull her and her family into darker and darker psychological and spiritual territory.
Lois Cairns is a barely disguised analog of the book’s author, and that is, in fact, it’s greatest strength. There’s a reason why ‘write what you know’ has become a well-worn standard of authorial advice—it lends the story verisimilitude, and a writer often feels more confident when she knows what she’s talking about, and that often translates to a bolder voice and more interesting story choices. Files utilizes her immense knowledge of film and art history and the local film scene in and around Toronto to great effect. But lest you think the story gets carried away with the almost clinical observations of Lois’s chosen field, Files emotionally anchors the story with Lois’s chronic struggle with self-doubt and her painfully acute observations on the joys, fears and frustrations of being a parent to an autistic child. These aspects alone are a sturdy framework for drama and mystery of literary caliber; that they are in fact the backdrop to a horror novel with a fascinating and frighteningly original villain that’s somewhere between cosmic Lovecraftian monster and exotic folkloric deity is damn near miraculous.
Gemma Files is a true spiritual successor to Peter Straub and Ramsey Campbell, masters at creating brilliant protagonists who attempt to hide from the horror of reality by cloaking it in rationality and intellectualism, only to have their conceits ripped apart in the end. For my money, this is horror at its best. Certain popular horror authors choose to gear their fiction more to the Everyman, and there’s certainly no shame in that, but I tend to get more scares from the work of writers like Gemma Files, who understands what it’s like to be a hyper-aware creative type in a world full of people who don’t get you. That’s dreadful enough on its own, but when you throw in something otherworldly on top of that, well, that’s what I call a horror novel.
So, the film version of one of Stephen King’s best novels (in my humble opinion), It, just became the highest grossing horror film ever, surpassing The Exorcist. Why is that? It might be easy to chalk it up to King’s popularity, but given how badly The Dark Tower, another film based on a successful King book (actually a series of books), fared over the summer, it’s clearly more than that. Of course, there’s unarguably a phenomenal difference in quality between those two films, and that certainly made a difference. But I think it’s more than that. I think the concept of coming-of-age stories combined with horror often work so well because there is just something innately horrific about blossoming adolescence, this strange transformation from child to adult, all the weird new feelings and awkwardness, and the sense of horrible unfairness that comes from a growing awareness of oneself and one’s place in the world while you are still legally powerless to do much of anything about it. It capitalized on that perfectly by pitting 12-year-old kids who don’t fit in at school and who are dealing with their own problems at home against a shape-shifting monster that only they can see.
If you think about the film that It replaced in the top spot, The Exorcist, you should quickly realize that it actually dealt with the same theme of budding pubescence being that time of life when we are most susceptible to evil. But there was only one child in that story. Here you have seven, each of them a sort of archetype of uncouth adolescence. Bill Denbrough is the quiet kid still processing the tragic loss of his beloved younger sibling; Ben Hanscomb is the sensitive fat kid; Richie Tozier is the smart-ass who covers his insecurity with constant jokes; Mike Hanlon is the rare black kid in a predominantly white town; Eddie Kaspbrak is the kid whose Smother has made him neurotic; Stanley Uris is the brilliant Jewish nerd; and Bevery Marsh, the sole female in the group, is the abused kid. Most of us can find ourselves in there somewhere, if not in just one character then in a combination of them. (I think I’m equal parts Stan, Ben and Mike, with a wee smidge of Bev.)
Anyway, the formula of tweens and young teen(s) confronting the supernatural clearly speaks to all of us on some level. When done well, these tend to be among the strongest horror cinema: The Sixth Sense, Let the Right One In (and its American remake Let Me In), The Lost Boys. When done superbly, they are unforgettable. It has now attained that status. Will the sequel live up to the first film? With the same director and production team behind it, I suspect it’ll be pretty good but will ultimately not achieve the same degree of critical acclaim. Not unless it uses plenty of flashbacks. While the scariness of Pennywise was certainly important, what ultimately made It so successful was the kids. They were well-written characters, and the young actors playing them had real chemistry.
And that’s why Hollywood needs to strike while the iron is hot and put these other properties that use basically the same formula into production. And which properties are those, you’re wondering? I mean the ones I wrote about in this article from 2013, which has never been more timely. To varying degrees, they all pretty well fit this theme:
The kids here are a bit younger than It‘s protagonists, but they still are left largely to themselves to deal with the growing evil on the island where their extended family vacations every summer. This is my all-time favorite of Clegg’s novels. The Southern Gothic elements combined with kids confronting a Lovecraftian horror is a match made in heaven. Or hell. Either one. The monster, largely unseen in the book, allows more for the imagination than Pennywise (and therefore will save on special effects budget), meaning there’s a lot more focus on the kids and the growing unease we experience as we watch them become slowly corrupted by whatever cosmic entity resides on Gull Island. Oh, and there are ghosts too.
With its beautiful coastal island setting and quirky Southern characters, this is a horror novel begging to be put onto film. Besides, it’s high time Hollywood showed some love for one of the best American horror writers around, a man just as hardworking and prolific as King, and for my money anyway, often a stronger writer. Even with his less successful works, Clegg knows how to sell his characters. But this is definitely one of Clegg’s best books, and it really ought to be a movie.
So, come on, Hollywood. Get on these pronto, but only if you want to make money. 😉
Recently I created a music-themed survey for my friends and family on Facebook, and I began it by answering all of the questions myself. The last question on the survey was, which song would you say best sums up who you are? For my part, after a bit of mental seesawing, I finally arrived at Tool’s Forty-Six & 2. If you don’t know the song, it deals with Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow. Very simply, in Jungian psychology, our shadow is our (mostly) hidden dark side, those aspects of ourselves that are negative and that we don’t like to face, as well as a personal repository for all the social stigmas and taboos we must process in order to be a functional member of society. In the song, Maynard expresses his desire to boldly face down his shadow, to move through it and past it in order to fully become who he is.
This is a concept I am fully invested in, and for me at least, the horror genre has long been my preferred route through my own shadow. Which is why I am not only a fan of the genre, but also fascinated by the psychology of horror fans generally. What exactly is it about horror that attracts its true fans? Are such people well-adjusted or not? How do horror fans stack up against non-fans when it comes to life coping skills? In the documentary film Why Horror? (directed by Nicolas Kleiman and Rob Lindsay), the film’s subject, Tal Zimerman, sets out to answer some of those questions, and for the most part, he does so quite spectacularly.
Zimerman begins his examination of horror by peering into its history, beginning with religious iconography. Having grown up in a small Southern town, I am certainly aware of the human monstrosity and violence that permeates Christianity. This is the religion whose central symbol is a guy nailed to a tree after all, and whose holy book describes, among other atrocities, a dude getting a tent stake nailed through his head, a young woman being gang raped and then ripped to pieces (with her father’s approval no less), God causing disobedient followers to devour their own children, God causing bears to maul forty-two boys because they teased a bald guy, God giving his blessing to Moses and his followers to murder all the Midianites they’d conquered, including the little boys, and to save all the virginal young girls for themselves . . .
Are you detecting a trend here? Not to make this political, but I know Westerners tend to believe that Christianity is less gruesome than Islam; however, anyone who’s read the Bible beyond just the popular passages knows that’s absolute hokum. It’s fitting, then, that Zimmerman starts with Christianity, because so much of its history is absolutely glutted with blood and brutality. Not just what’s chronicled in their sacred text, but all the historical violence wreaked upon others in the name of furthering the faith: the Crusades, the witch burnings, the religious conversion at sword-point, and of course the many and varied tortures and murders committed by the Holy Inquisition during its roughly three hundred year reign of terror. Modern Christianity may be a kinder, gentler incarnation, but I think there is something about all of that murder and mayhem ingrained in our collective psyches, and that has surely had an effect on our appreciation for horror. Of course, the irony is that Christians these days will more often than not condemn the appreciation of fictional horror even as they downplay or whitewash their own religion’s abominable history of actual bloodshed and persecution. You gotta love the irony.
The cultural transition from religious to secular horror is embodied for Zimerman in William Hogarth’s famous print series The Four Stages of Cruelty. These pieces depict the evolution of viciousness in human beings, starting with school children tormenting animals and ending with a hanged man’s corpse being dissected by medical students. He notes here that, contrary to the popular opinion that constant exposure to fictional violence desensitizes people and makes them bloodthirsty and heartless, he himself is rather humbled by horror. It constantly reminds him of his own mortality, and is therefore an incitement to always be a good person. In that sense, the entire horror genre serves as a kind of memento mori for Zimerman, and by extrapolation, for many others as well. I think he’s definitely onto something there, as most of the real horror fans that I’ve met have been gentle and benevolent souls who wouldn’t hurt a fly . . . because, well, the fly might be one of us after all.
By contrast, Zimerman posits that most Americans actually go out of their way to avoid death, that they have an unhealthy relationship with it, making them ill-equipped to deal with their own mortality. I’m not so sure about this. Americans love their cinematic violence. They may not go whole hog with it like some of us, but bloody action films and thrillers remain quite popular, and anyway the horror genre itself has now moved into the mainstream. I do think that by and large other cultures may have a more sophisticated relationship with death than we do. Zimmerman does too, and his touchstone for this is Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, an annual celebration of the dead that, unlike its American analog of Halloween, is not about fear but rather respect for the dead. In Mexico, death is viewed not as something to be afraid of; it is instead a divine mystery that should inspire awe and reverence. I have to say, given the rising levels of violence taking place in our southern neighbor these days, this doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. Nevertheless, it is something to be admired, I agree.
There are some fantastic highlights in Why Horror?—the interviews with directors George Romero and John Carpenter, the segment on J-Horror (which is actually rooted in Japanese kabuki and noh theater), an animated mini-history of the genre in cinema—but no part of the film lagged or failed to capture my full attention. In fact, my only real complaint is that, other than the J-Horror bit, it really didn’t spend much time on monsters or the supernatural side of the genre, both of which I prefer to Zimerman’s obvious slasher obsession. It does get into monsters a wee bit, including one of my all-time faves, Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, and how that particular monster’s story came into being. An entirely plausible theory about monsters is put forth here—they are said to be a projection of our dark side (our shadow, if you will) in symbolic form, which is then usually destroyed, much to the relief and satisfaction of filmgoers. Well, some filmgoers anyway. Me? I like when the monster triumphs. 🙂
Alright, so I just recently reread one of my favorite sci-fi novels, Dan Simmons’s Hyperion. There have been rumors of a film or TV series based on this book floating around for years, with SyFy supposedly planning to film it at one point, but that never materialized. It’s too bad, because this whole book series is just aching for a cinematic adaptation of some sort, especially the first book. As with the Dune film, if I were making this, I have some pretty specific people in mind for the key roles. Although most of these actors where not who I initially pictured, I have come to see them as the best choices if the film were to start shooting today. So let’s begin with . . .
The Consul (Hugh Laurie)
He’s the informal leader of the Shrike pilgrims and the last character to tell his tale, which involves a huge secret with respect to the Ousters which is vastly important in the scheme of the entire series. He’s a man with a lot of weight on his shoulders and as such he is bound to look haunted and haggard. Who better to portray him than Hugh Laurie, who may be the most haunted-looking man in Hollywood? Laurie, who is best known for playing Dr. House in the eponymous series, can grow his hair out a bit and put on about fifteen or twenty pounds and I doubt anyone would be more suitable to play this key role. And with Laurie set to appear in the upcoming Tomorrowland, I’m guessing he will have a built-in science fiction fan base very soon.
Colonel Fedmahn Kassad is a member of FORCE and is definitely a badass. Middle Easterners don’t often get a positive portrayal in American media, let alone in science fiction, so Kassad is an interesting anomaly. One of the few actors I could think of who could fill those shoes is Naveen Andrews, who is actually of Indian descent rather than Palestinian like Kassad, but he’s probably the closest we are going to get out of Hollywood, because there are just not a lot of choices here. Nevertheless, I am confident that Naveen Andrews would do an amazing job as the clever and tough-as-nails soldier who vows to take on the Shrike single-handedly.
This was actually one of the toughest choices for me. Who is fit to play a man who starts out as a humble, long-suffering servant of God and ultimately becomes one of the major villains of the later books in the series? There were several worthy candidates, but ultimately I had to go with Tennant, who sci-fi geeks will immediately recognize as the Tenth Doctor from long-running British science fiction series Doctor Who. I don’t know why but I just have a feeling that Tennant would knock this one out of the park. And let’s face it: you know you want to see Tennant play a pope, which, if the whole book series was filmed, you would eventually get to see.
Martin Silenus (Harvey Fierstein)
I have read Hyperion twice now, and each time I had either a vague picture in my head of most characters or had different people in mind each time. But one character has always been clear in my head as to who should portray him and always will be, no matter how many times I read it. That character is the poet Martin Silenus, and in my mind only one person can ever play him: Harvey Fierstein. Silenus is a rotund little satyr of a man (no, really–at one point he literally has himself surgically remade into a satyr), a snide, vulgar-tongued hedonist through-and-through, but also, as befitting a poet, a man capable of great insight and beauty. Simmons also describes him as having a deep and distinctive voice, which is what initially made me picture Fierstein, and the more I thought about it, the more perfect this particular actor felt to me, to the point where now it would seem a great travesty if he wasn’t cast as Martin Silenus!
Brawne Lamia (Gina Carano)
Brawne originates from the high-gravity world of Lusus, and Lusians tend to be muscular and powerful thanks to the additional g-forces they are subjected to. Meanwhile, Carano originates from the high-badassity world of mixed martial arts, but she has also done some acting, most notably in Fast & Furious 6. I have no doubt that she has what it takes to play Brawne, a private detective who gets in over her head when she takes on a case that turns out to have strong connections to the TechnoCore, a bunch of super-advanced AIs, some of whom would like to help humanity become extinct.
Sol Weintraub (John Landis)
Okay, Landis is primarily a director, but he has done some acting as well, including in such genre classics as Death Race 2000, Darkman, Spider-Man 2 and (a cameo appearance in) Stephen King’s The Stand television miniseries. He’s smart, he’s Jewish, he’s the right age and most importantly, he looks exactly the way I picture the scholar from Barnard’s World in my head. Can’t you just see him cradling baby Rachel in his arms like in the illustration above? I know I can!
Simmons describes the Templars of God’s Grove as being extremely tall and thin and having Asian features. At six feet tall, I’d say Dale is immanently qualified. If they need additional height for him, there are plenty of camera and CG tricks for that. Het Masteen is captain of the Yggdrasil, one of only four treeships (which are made from actual gigantic trees!) in the Hyperion universe. He is quiet, stoical and mysterious, and he’s the only one of the seven pilgrims who doesn’t get to tell his story in the novel; for spoilery reasons I will not go into the reason why here. Anyway, Dale has done a few films, but he is mostly a well-established presence on television.
Paul Duré (Jeff Bridges)
Father Paul Duré is not a Shrike pilgrim, but he is the subject of Lenar Hoyt’s tale and a fascinating character. At the time Paul Duré is on Hyperion, he is a representative of a Catholic Church which is almost extinct, but he will play an important part in its eventual resurrection (almost literally) thanks to his discovery of the cruciform, a cross-shaped parasite that integrates with its host’s body and brings them back to life whenever they are killed, though every time they come back they are a little less human than before. And that’s not the cruciform’s only downside. Duré, who is essentially an exile on Hyperion, is a fairly tormented fellow to start with, but things only get worse for him. Much worse, in fact. In the second book, Simmons describes Duré as an older man who is tall and thin but who conveys power. I’ll be damned if that doesn’t describe Bridges. Well okay, maybe he’s not so thin anymore, but if he was offered the right role . . .
Meina Gladstone (Sigourney Weaver)
Meina Gladstone is CEO of the Hegemony, making her the most politically powerful person in the Hyperion universe. Although she doesn’t play as large a part in the first book as she does in later ones, it would be essential to cast the right actress early on. Gladstone is described as an attractive older woman with short-cropped gray hair. Because of the hair, one may be tempted to go with, say, Jamie Lee Curtis or Judi Dench for this role, but I had someone else in mind while reading the book. Gladstone is a shrewd, tough-as-nails politician. Weaver has practically built her career on playing shrewd and tough-as-nails women like Dian Fossey from Gorillas in the Mist, Dr. Augustine from Avatar and, of course, Ellen Ripley from the Aliens franchise. Maybe it’s a bit of typecasting on my part, but I can’t help it: in my imagination Meina Gladstone has the face and voice of Sigourney Weaver.
Moneta is the mysterious woman who appears to Kassad while he is engaged in virtual combat practice and becomes his lover within that virtual domain. She is a woman of aggressive passion and sensuality. Okay, there’s no one in that picture, I know. Originally I did have someone here–Emilia Clarke–but there’s a very important reason why it can’t be her (or really anyone) that isn’t revealed until the second novel, The Fall of Hyperion. So basically, my idea is that, if the film is to stay true to the books, they pretty much have to avoid showing Moneta’s face at all.
Johnny Keats (Daniel Radcliffe)
Daniel Radcliffe may seem like an odd choice to play Romantic poet John Keats (or rather an AI-created facsimile of him called a cybrid), but hear me out. First off, Keats was English, and so is Radcliffe. That’s a small thing, I know, but consider that the real Keats was a really short man: exactly five feet in height. Now, Radcliffe isn’t that short, but at only 5’6″ he is one of the shorter actors working right now. And have you seen him in Horns? If you haven’t, you should watch it immediately. Seriously, go watch it right now, it’s a great film. The rest of this article isn’t going anywhere.
The daughter of Sol Weintraub is an important character in Hyperion, even though she appears mostly as an infant. It is because of her that Sol ultimately becomes one of the Shrike pilgrims. She is a young archeologist studying the Time Tombs when she is struck by the bizarre illness that causes her to begin aging backwards, and Sol and his wife are stuck with the heartbreaking task of watching their only child regress through her youth and childhood years, unable to remember what happened the day before every time she wakes from sleep. Although Rachel’s face was initially pretty vague in my mind, I later came to see her as a bright and attractive young lady of Jewish heritage with dark hair and dark eyes: in other words, someone exactly like Natalie Portman.
Rachel Weintraub [teen] (Mackenzie Foy)
When casting a younger version of a character, I would try my best to get someone who is not only talented but also looks like the older version of the same character. I know people can change a lot once they go through puberty, but few things irk me more than seeing a film or TV show where a child or teen version of an adult character clearly looks nothing like their older self. It takes me right out of the story. Which reminds me: hey casting directors, you really need to do a better job of casting older and younger versions of characters, and even characters who are blood-related. Anyway, Mackenzie Foy. Most people probably know her best as little Renesmee from Twilight: Breaking Dawn Pt. 2, but we won’t talk about that. Besides, nothing that was bad about that film was Foy’s fault. And, with the help of some colored contact lenses, she could certainly pass for a younger version of Natalie Portman.
Melio Arundez (Diego Boneta)
Melio Arundez is Rachel Weintraub’s co-worker and eventual lover. I have never had a particularly clear image of him in my head save that he is handsome and has a short, well-trimmed beard. I chose Diego Boneta mainly for his outstanding performance in the musical Rock of Ages. It’s not a particularly good film, but it has a certain over-the-top spirit and joyfulness which makes it fun to watch anyway, and it has an incredible cast, including this young man who plays one of the leads.
Merin Aspic (Jack Quaid)
One thing I considered when thinking about who could play Merin Aspic, the Consul’s grandfather (whose story is told to the other Shrike pilgrims by the Consul) is, what kind of guy would a wide-eyed native girl from an out-of-the-way, sparsely populated tropical world fall for? The answer: probably a guy like Jack Quaid. He has that broad, open face that seems to project qualities like honesty, sincerity and trustworthiness. Plus, being the offspring of Dennis Quaid, he has more than a touch of that same goofy charm that his dad made famous in films like Great Balls of Fire!, Postcards from the Edge and Everybody’s All-American.
Siri [young] (Saoirse Ronan)
For Siri, the native girl from the planet Maui-Covenant who falls for FORCE:space recruit Merin Aspic, I can think of few actresses who could sell that part like Saoirse Ronan. She is absolutely one of my favorite young actresses working right now, and I can only foresee great things ahead for her. Hanna is now one of my favorite films, and that is based in part on the strength of her performance. Before that she was utterly fantastic as 13-year-old Briony in the film Atonement, and as Lina Mayfleet in City of Ember.
Siri [middle age] (Helen Hunt)
An interesting aspect of the Consul’s grandparents’ story is watching them become estranged due to the effects of time dilation. When Merin and Siri meet, he is 19 and she is 16–he is a full three years older than her and a little wiser. But while Merin is off in space for mere months, every time he returns to Maui-Covenant Siri has aged years, and her frustration with his naivety becomes more and more palpable. Again, I tried to come up with someone who could believably pass for an older version of Saoirse Ronan as well as someone who could convey the complex emotions the older Siri experiences in the conflict between her love for Merin and her hatred of what he stands for. For my money, Helen Hunt is pretty much the perfect choice.
Siri [old] (Vanessa Redgrave)
Two words: Vanessa. Redgrave. That is all.
Sad King Billy (John C. Reilly)
Sad King Billy is a strange character. He is part of Martin Silenus’s story, and as a man who holds himself partly responsible for the slaughter of an entire city at the hands of the Shrike, he is a haunted and pathetic figure. Reilly is a versatile actor who has played a variety of different roles, many of which he has been nominated for, but to my knowledge he has never won any of these awards. That’s a damned shame. But Sad King Billy is exactly the kind of supporting role that, in the right hands, could be transcendent, even Oscar-worthy.
Recently I’ve found myself searching through Netflix for the unusual, the oddball, the just plain bizarre. When I happened upon a documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the title hooked me immediately and I knew I had to watch it. I have since watched it twice, finding some of the ideas presented in it useful to varying degrees.
Apparently a sequel to another doc, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which I haven’t seen, the film is basically a Marxist and Freudian examination of the concept of ideology as presented in and through an assortment of films both well-known and obscure. Truthfully, I don’t really get the “pervert’s” part of the title–it seems to be little more than a red herring to draw attention to the film, and I can imagine it works like a charm. Directed by Brit Sophie Fiennes and narrated by the thoroughly engaging (if sometimes difficult to follow) Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, the film is a fascinating documentary that, if nothing else, offers us a unique perspective on a motley collection of films we know and love such as They Live, Jaws and Titanic.
But I have to admire Žižek–a knotty foreigner with a thick beard, a pronounced Slovene accent and a stilted manner of speaking, he boldly challenges us thoroughly capitalist Americans to step outside our comfort zones and look at movies through utterly oblique eyes, and he somehow pulls it off spectacularly.
He begins by claiming that when we feel we have escaped the influence of ideology, it is then that we are most susceptible to it. Indeed, we actively resist being removed from it because it is extremely uncomfortable to disengage from our ingrained social identities. Or, as he succinctly puts it, “freedom hurts.” It’s hard to argue with that, especially in a nation where the political divide continues to widen every year and where outlandish conspiracies once relegated to the political fringe have moved nearly into the mainstream. Žižek aims his criticisms squarely at consumerist culture, of which we Americans are by far the biggest offenders. Not that he has nothing positive to say about us. For example, he makes no bones about the fact that he admires Starbucks’ model of compassionate capitalism, identifying it as the perfect form of capitalism in the age of cynicism.
With nary a misstep, Žižek tackles the symbolism of the shark in Jaws, the true message of the Catholic church in The Sound of Music, Travis Bickle’s sexual repression in Taxi Driver, and the concept of the Big Other as represented in propaganda films like post-WWII Russian narrative film The Fall of Berlin and the Nazi documentary The Eternal Jew, among other things, all from the Marxist point-of-view. Whether you identify in any sense with Marxism or not, Žižek presents Marxist philosophy in terms that are easy to grasp, or at least much easier to grasp than the works of Karl Marx himself. I can vouch for that–I have tried to delve into Marx’s writing several times, with various degrees of success. I can understand the basic premise of Marxism, but it’s all pretty confusing beyond that. In fact, the Marxist idea I find most engaging (but no less complex) has nothing much to do with economics per se: dialectical materialism. But more about that later.
Anyway, if you’re at all interested in Freudianism, Marxism, semiotics, film history, film criticism, and so on, this shouldn’t be missed. And now, to find a copy of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema in my little Southern town. Yeah, good luck to me, huh?
Hello! Well, it’s been a long week and I have a lot on my plate today, so I’m going to keep this short.
Video Clip of the Week
This week’s video clip is a fan-made trailer for a live action film version of the sci-fi manga Akira, which is something of a touchstone for Western translations of manga works and is considered by many critics to be a masterpiece. I don’t generally get into fan-made works, but the production values and attention to detail in this case are astounding, and I felt it was worth sharing. Somebody please make this movie happen!
This is the cover design for the Dutch prog metal band Within Temptation’s album Hydra. In addition to the fact that I love well-executed bisymmetrical designs, what really struck me about this design was the wonderful contrast between the more organic art style used to create the dragons and the rigidly geometrical if somewhat ornate ‘H’ (which is also somehow a ‘W’)–it’s a simple design and it all works quite well, in my estimation.
Meme of the Week
Indeed . . .
Song of the Week
I love this song. It’s quite haunting and reminds me of a girl I once knew named Heather, who I think of now and again. Ah, youth.
A few months ago I finally got around to reading Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece Dune, a book I had shamefully neglected for too many years. At some point I intend to do a proper review of the novel, but it is so complex and layered that I expect I will have to read it again before I attempt such a review. Meanwhile, I am using this book to inaugurate a series devoted to my dream cast (and I don’t mean a video game system) for various books I would love to see filmed, or in some cases, filmed right.
Actually, I have watched and enjoyed both David Lynch’s 1984 film and the Sci-Fi Channel–pardon me, I meant the SyFy–miniseries of 2000, but let’s face it: both of these treatments were riddled with problems, especially the Lynch film. Despite its ponderous and messy nature, I am still quite fond of David Lynch’s take on Herbert’s book, if for no other reason than that, despite the odds being stacked against it, it actually got made. I no doubt would’ve adored Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version had it ever seen the light of day (alas, one can now watch a documentary about this most notorious of unmade adaptations and muse about what might’ve been), but in truth it probably had about as much chance of being produced as Frosty the Snowman has of actually coming to life; it was just too amazing to be true.
But since we’re imagining here, let’s pretend that Yours Truly is in charge of casting all the most awesome movies based on books. Here are my picks for all the important roles for Dune if it were being made in 2014.
Paul Atreides/Muad’Dib (Leo Howard)
Arguably the most important role in the story is that of Paul Atreides, the teenaged son of Duke Leto Atreides and a young man bound for legend. At 17, Howard is the prime age for the character who starts out at 14 and winds up in his late teens or early twenties by book’s end. He has the dark-haired, slightly exotic good looks described by Herbert in the novel, and moreover, he brings a set of physical skills to the role that are rare for an actor of his age. Howard’s martial arts training lends him an edge for scenes of hand-to-hand combat, which occur frequently in the book. But the real question is, can he act? Well, for some critics the 13-year-old Howard upstaged his adult counterpart in playing a young Conan in the 2011 Conan the Barbarian reboot, and director Marcus Nispel said of him, “Leo absolutely blew me away. Almost the entire first act of Conan is the kid, which is unheard of. At the start, reading the script, everyone was like ‘We have to cut that down to ten minutes.’ And now everyone’s like ‘Can we make that longer?’ He worked out like a charm. There aren’t many young actors who could carry that sort of weight.” If you haven’t seen the film, here’s a scene of the youngster in action, and here’s an interview in which Howard (along with costar Ron Perlman) explains the nature of his role. I mean, Kyle McLachlan was awesome and all, but as far as I’m concerned, this kid is Paul Atreides.
Jürgen Prochnow played Duke Leto–head of House Atreides and father of Paul–in David Lynch’s film, and I must confess, he was just about perfect for the role. Handsome but stern, Leto must convey the kind of effortless gravitas that comes with being born into a noble family while simultaneously demonstrating the prudence, curiosity and fairness for which he is known. It may be hard to shake our image of Downey as the wisecracking genius Tony Stark, or as the wisecracking genius Sherlock Holmes for that matter, but I would love to see him take on a role with more reserve and stateliness, and I am quite confident he can pull it off.
Fresh off her Best Lead Actress nomination for her role in American Hustle, Amy Adams is a hot property in Hollywood these days. With her auburn locks, her beautiful countenance and her impressive talent, she is ideal for the part of Lady Jessica, Duke Leto’s beloved concubine, a powerful Bene Gesserit witch and the mother of Paul and Alia.
Although appearing relatively late in the book, advanced beyond her years and powerful in the weirding way, Alia Atreides is unquestionably an important character. Casting the perfect child actor for an essential role is always difficult, but that’s especially true when you’re talking about a part that demands the kind of maturity to properly convey Alia’s spooky brilliance and complex moral ambiguity. Isabelle Nélisse is still pretty much an unknown, but she impressed me well enough as the younger of the two haunted sisters in the chilling Guillermo del Toro-produced Mama.
Thufir Hawat is a fascinating character. As the Mentat for House Atreides, he is one of Leto’s closest advisers and is key to the Harkonnen plot to destroy the Atreides. Tricked by the sinister baron into believing the Lady Jessica is a traitor to his master Duke Leto, he is the brooding, serious counterpoint to the more jovial and open-natured Gurney Halleck. Herbert describes him as thin and sharp-faced. Sorry, but Freddie Jones was entirely wrong for the part.
Gurney Halleck (Hugh Jackman)
If Thufir Hawat is the coolly reasoning mind of House Atreides, then Gurney Halleck is surely its heart. Brave, passionate and unwaveringly loyal to Duke Leto, he is a large and imposing figure in the book. In another odd bit of casting in the Lynch film, Halleck was played by a young Patrick Stewart. P. H. Moriarty made slightly more sense in the role in the 2000 miniseries, but I have never really been happy with either one. Gurney needs to be intimidating and physically powerful, but also capable of sensitivity and likability. Who better than the man who has played both Wolverine and Jean Valjean with equal gusto?
Duncan Idaho (Denzel Washington)
Many stripes of warrior exist in the Dune series, each harkening to a sort of Campbellian warrior type. Duncan Idaho, a Swordmaster of Ginaz, is the futuristic analog of the chivalrous knights of old. True to his type, upon his arrival at Arrakis Idaho embarks upon a quest to befriend and learn the ways of the native Fremen population. Although never specifically identified as black, Duncan is described as being dark and possessing curly black hair. He is also handsome, charming and something of a ladies’ man. In short, this part has Denzel Washington written all over it.
A Suk doctor and the real traitor to House Atreides, Dr. Wellington Yueh is, perhaps more than any other in Dune, a character of Shakespearean tragedy and psychological torment. Undergoing rigorous conditioning, the fidelity of Suk doctors to their employers is legendary, which is why his treachery is never suspected until it’s too late. Gary Oldman is one of my three favorite actors for villainous roles (the other two are John Malkovich and Christopher Walken), and although Yueh is not a villain in the strictest sense, his betrayal of the Atreides qualifies him as a scoundrel.
Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV (Kevin Spacey)
I must say that the choice of José Ferrer to play Shaddam Corrino IV was pretty spot on. I can think of few actors as perfect as Ferrer, but Spacey is one of them. I can’t say exactly why, but something about Kevin Spacey has always suggested nobility to me. With his soft eyes and disarming smile, Spacey looks harmless enough, but that is what makes him such a great choice for Shaddam IV, who is anything but harmless, of course. And when Spacey does play dark, his performance can be all the more chilling for his benevolent appearance.
Herbert describes Count Hasimir Fenring, Shaddam IV’s only friend and closest adviser, as being a small weaselish fellow who also happens to be one of the most dangerous men in the Imperium. It’s a part Steve Buscemi was born to play.
Princess Irulan (Emma Watson)
Although never a central player in the novel, Princess Irulan is nevertheless an important character because she is the narrator of the book. In the Dune miniseries her part was even expanded so that she played a bigger role in the story. I am content with her being the narrator, and even if her visage doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, her voice should. At any rate, she figures much more in the sequels to Dune, and we do want sequels, don’t we?
I reckon the most difficult casting choice would be the part of Baron Harkonnen, the highly obese central villain of the story. Although he has since lost a good deal of the weight he used to carry, Goodman has the right look to be able to carry off a fat suit. Of course, these days it’s possible to add body weight via CG, as was done with Kevin Durand’s character the Blob in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but I kind of have my heart set on John Goodman at this point. He doesn’t play villains often, but when he does he brings a certain psychopathic zeal to the character (e.g. his character in Barton Fink). In short, Goodman isn’t just an overweight actor; he’s a good overweight actor, and I really think he would be amazing as the head of House Harkonnen.
Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (Nick Robinson)
Nick Robinson was a pip in the lead role of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ The Kings of Summer, but I can certainly see him taking a darker turn as someone like Feyd-Rautha, the favorite nephew of Baron Harkonnen. Feyd is known for his sly underhandedness and trickery in the fighting arena, although he is not exactly a slouch in close combat. He is, in a sense, the dark counterpart to Paul Atreides and is destined to meet Paul in a fateful knife duel near the book’s finale. In the book he also happens to be the Baron’s lover (well, one of them), but in the mid 1960s when the novel was written the Baron’s homosexuality represented just another facet of his depravity. Needless to say, that aspect is a little quaint and should be left out of the film adaptation altogether.
Beast Rabban (Jonah Hill)
Where Feyd-Rautha represents some of the more striking qualities of the Harkonnen clan, “Beast” Glossu Rabban embodies all of its worst traits. A brutally direct dictator when left in positions of leadership, he is deployed by the Baron to subjugate Arrakis. Jonah Hill may seem like an odd choice for such a part, but I find that comedians can often be surprisingly effective in serious roles.
You kind of saw that one coming, didn’t you? As the Harkonnens’ “twisted” Mentat, his deviousness and amorality may exceed that of even the Baron himself. I can’t think of a better actor when it comes to projecting sociopathic tendencies with a mere glance than John Malkovich.
Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam is the most prominent representative of the Bene Gesserit, a faction of powerful psychic witches who manipulate the Imperium and the Greater Houses from behind the scenes. Mohiam is a menacing old hag who actually looks like the witch she is. We’ve seen Alice Krige play such parts before, most notably as the head of the religious cult in the film version of Silent Hill, and was she creepy in it? Boy howdy!
Whilst reading the Dune novel I had a much different person pictured in my head as Liet-Kynes: John Lithgow. But Lithgow may be a bit too old for the part by now. Besides, anyone who plays a member of the Fremen tribes needs to be thin and sinewy to show that they live on a desert world with very little water to go around, and I think Day-Lewis is a good choice. Liet-Kynes is the brilliant royal planetologist who effectively goes native on Arrakis and becomes a powerful ally of the Fremen population and the Atreides family.
Stilgar is an eminent Fremen leader who takes Paul under his wing and grooms him to be Stilgar’s eventual replacement. The Fremen, being a tribe of ascetic desert nomads, are definitely tough customers (they make mincemeat out of Shaddam IV’s Sardaukar soldiers), and Shannon, who killed it as General Zod, the main antagonist of the latest Superman outing Man of Steel, and who looks like he could be a younger sibling of the metal-mouthed evil henchman Jaws from the James Bond films, definitely has what it takes to portray Stilgar.
Chani (Ryan Newman)
Chani, Fremen daughter of Liet-Kynes and eventual lover of Paul Atreides, should not only be beautiful but also have a kind fierceness about her. I think this lovely young lady, who is currently carving out a nice little place for herself as Emily in the Nick at Night series See Dad Run, is all of that and a bag of chips. And hey, she practically already has those famous spooky blue-within-blue eyes of the long-term Spice addiction that all residents of Dune eventually acquire.
Tuek, a Spice smuggler, isn’t a major player in Dune, but he does show up at a dinner party hosted by House Atreides. Tuek is a colorful character whose scarcity in the novel is one of my few complaints about it. It’s a minor thing, I suppose, but the smugglers are the final piece of the delicate power balance involving the Major Houses, the Emperor, the Benne Gesserit and the Spacing Guild, and as such they should be prominently represented in the film. I elect the rough-looking Trejo to fill in that gap.
It’s hard to be an uncloseted fan of Shirley Temple these days if you’re a middle aged man. Yet, I have long proclaimed my fandom before all and sundry to the four corners of the Earth, and I am too old and stubborn to stop now. My mother, another longtime fan, is really the one who instilled in me a love for the young actress, singer and dancer, and I have seen almost all of her films, including the notorious “Baby Burlesque” shorts that launched her career. And so her death was a truly sad mile marker for me. But I don’t want to talk about my own connections to the 1930s-era child star. What I wish to do instead is outline what I think made Temple so special, and to do so we will need a bit of a history lesson.
To be sure, one can see even in Temple’s earliest work that she had that je ne sais quoi as the French say, that glimmer of something that one cannot quite put his finger on but nevertheless recognizes as a facet of greatness. It was with this quality that the little girl managed a nearly impossible feat: taming the monster that was the Great Depression for many of her contemporary fans. Now that we are in the 1930s, let us slip back even further in time: a few decades before Shirley Temple arrived on the scene, a peculiar but brilliant Victorian polymath–a mathematician, author, college professor and accomplished photographer, among other things–by the name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll), a self-confessed admirer of young girls, penned a poem for a beloved 5-year-old of his acquaintance named Beatrice, in which he wrote:
For I think, if a grim wild beast Were to come from his charnel-cave, From his jungle-home in the East– Stealthily creeping with bated breath, Stealthily creeping with eyes of death– He would all forget his dream of the feast, And crouch at her feet a slave.
These lines perfectly sum up how a great many Victorians looked upon children. It is difficult for modern folks, with all of their cynicism and paranoia about child sexual abuse, to understand the Victorian Cult of the Child and what it was about. What it was really was an idea whose time had come, an essential stage of the Great Movement towards a more humane understanding and treatment of children. This admiration ultimately stemmed from the fact that children were idealized in the Victorian mindset, seen as possessors of a quality of spiritual innocence that, once lost, could never be regained in this life (and only if one lived a morally upright life, meaning a life that adhered to Christian values, could one be assured of regaining this magical property in the next world). As such, childhood and children themselves were almost worshiped, but this often had detrimental effects on real children, who were more often than not unable to live up to the moral standard imposed on them. More on this another time.
Anyway, there can be no doubt that one of the manifestations of this Victorian idealization of children was the inevitable fetishization of children’s–especially girls’–perceived sexual innocence, and indeed whenever we encounter descriptions or discussions of the rampant problem of child prostitution in Victorian England, France and America during the time, we almost always see it framed not as a matter of physical or psychological harm but as a matter of spiritual harm, a corruption of children’s innate connection to Divine Perfection. Unfortunately, this is where the origins of our modern understanding of the moral lives of children still lies to an embarrassingly large degree. Despite our improved understanding of children’s brains, kids themselves have had a hard time shaking off this quaint moral yoke, and even now almost every morality movement of any persuasion has as at the bottom of its manifesto a famously effective thought-terminating cliché, that chronically reconstituted but undying refrain “Think of the children!“
Here we are whisked back to the Great Depression, the dawn of the Child Star and the revitalization of a concept that had largely fallen out of favor with the arrival of Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalysis, which revealed children–albeit via notoriously fuzzy thinking–to be a seething cauldron of sexual weirdness that could be carried on into their adult lives. Why, then, did Americans embrace the Victorian concept of the Sainted Child during the 1930s? To me it is no mystery: both individuals and societies tend to swing conservative during bad times, likely owing to a chain of cognitive biases like the ambiguity effect (when facing the unknown, people tend to opt for the known), anchorism (overemphasizing an initial understanding of an issue and under-assessing new information) and of course risk compensation. And there was comfort and hope in the old idea of children holding the keys to the kingdom inside them, a generation that could possibly bring about the rebirth of Paradise under the right conditions, if only they could be shielded from those worldly evils which had surely instigated this new economic Fall of Man.
To put this in perspective, we should note that the economy had had recessions and depressions before, but nothing like the Great Depression. Although we have experienced a lesser depression (and seen a predictable rise in conservatism as a result), we have been largely isolated from the effects of our own depression in ways those who lived through the big one were not.
But throughout the majority of this horrific event, beginning in 1932, Shirley Temple was our nation’s fearless cheerleader, a pint-sized purveyor of America’s promise and a visible icon of the state of spiritual innocence we longed to return to. Now, this calls for a bit of clarification, as there may be a tendency here to conclude that Temple was only a symbol and nothing more, but anyone with even a passing knowledge of her story knows otherwise. For one thing, even as a child she was a certified genius, and we have the tests to prove it. She was tested during the filming of Stowaway (she would’ve been around age eight at the time) and was found to possess an IQ of 155. In comparison, physicist Richard Feynman, who was unquestionably a scientific genius, tested at 125! So Temple wasn’t just a cute, curly-haired moppet; she was also brilliant. And of course multitalented, which geniuses tend to be.
Despite the image of wholesome sweetness and innocence she projected, Temple was noted for her extreme professionalism, her polished performances and her maturity on set; and moreover, she seemed to be aware of the great weight she held as America’s darling, a true superstar who, whatever your opinion of her, did carry the financially strapped 20th Century Fox on her tiny back through the bulk of the Depression years and kept it from bankruptcy while other studios were falling down around them.
We cannot neglect to point out either that, even though she was young enough to deflect any serious accusations of promoting racial miscegenation, Temple shared the first on-screen dance with a black male partner (in The Little Colonel)–popular tap dancer extraordinaire Bill “Bojangles” Robinson–and therefore can be credited with breaking an important racial barrier on top of everything else. As a matter of fact, the chemistry between Temple and Robinson was so natural that the two played opposite each other in no less than four films, and the little girl is reputed to have been in tune with Robinson to a degree that she could mimic his tap moves just by hearing them!
In this light we cannot doubt that Temple was an important figure of the time, and at that point everyone–well, everyone with a heart–was a fan, including grown men. President Franklin Roosevelt spoke for an entire generation when he said, “As long as we have Shirley Temple, we’ll be alright.” Perhaps there was a subtle sexual element to many men’s fascination with her, but again, I think it is foolish and simplistic to suggest such things amounted to outright conscious lust.
Of course, there were bound to be some men who did feel that way, but that would’ve been true regardless of the prevailing zeitgeist. At any rate, anyone who suggested such a thing overtly was quickly derided, like critic Graham Greene when he wrote “Her admirers—middle-aged men and clergymen—respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.” Greene’s attempt to demystify the relationship between adult male fans and the little girl star, although noble, aside from coming off as snarky and demeaning to Temple, fails to grasp the complexity of what was actually occurring. After all, the majority of Temple’s roles depicted her as a little ball of sunshine who cracked the stone-like hearts of stodgy, stoic men and let the light of love inside, forever changing them. In effect, the films of Shirley Temple were a new manifestation of the Victorian Cult of the Child; what was different was that the concept was now writ larger than life on the silver screen and so came packaged with all of the additional magic of cinema.
Meanwhile, Temple herself seemed impenetrable to darkness, including the sexual variety. When she was twelve, for example, and was visiting MGM studios (probably there to discuss the role of Dorothy for the upcoming The Wizard of Oz film, a role she obviously didn’t get), producer Arthur Freed exposed himself to her, and Temple, with her famous poise and cheeriness, reacted probably the best way anyone could react to a person who clearly meant to feed on her shock: she laughed at him and joked, “Mr. Freed, I thought you were a producer, not an exhibitor.” I can see in my mind’s eye Freed deflating–in more ways than one–in embarrassment at such a quip before tossing the girl out of his office, which is precisely what happened. Could it be that Temple lost what would arguably have been the biggest role of her life because she giggled at Arthur Freed’s goober? Perhaps, but even if that is true, it is still Shirley Temple who comes across as the winner here, because that story alone is worth ten Wizard of Oz‘s.
In this light we can better understand why so many people, including adult males, fell in love with her at the time. She was a distraction from the horrors of the Depression certainly, but more than that, her mere existence was an active force against them, and like Beatrice’s “grim wild beast”, the hell-hounds of Poverty and Want, of Cynicism and Despair, seemed to kneel before her while she pranced, curtsied and smiled in movie theaters across the nation.
Even after Hollywood no longer had any use for the child star and all but abandoned her, she rebranded herself before rebranding was a thing, making a new life for herself in the world of politics. I cannot say I agreed much with her political views, although she is of that generation of politicians who, whatever their political stripe, still possessed enough character and respectability to be likable and persuasive. There aren’t many conservatives I respect these days, but Shirley Temple Black was one of them. Needless to say, they are becoming fewer by the day as most of them belong to my grandparents’ generation (Temple was born the same year as my maternal grandfather, actually: 1928). And after all is said and done, neither Shirley Temple the child superstar nor Shirley Temple Black the wife, mother, author and politician ever fell below the horizon the way many child stars of later years did. It seems she was the closest thing we Americans have ever had to royalty, and right to the end our favorite Little Princess lived a pretty charmed life.