Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Thoughts on "Force of Evil"


This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


In “Force of Evil,” (1948) the protagonist, Joe Morse (John Garfield), is an over- idealistic criminal. He really seems to believe that everything is going to be okay in the end. He even thinks that the illegal activities he gets sucked into will only be illegal temporarily. In fact, Joe is so confident, he tries to convince and eventually forces his brother Leo into the business. The strange part is that Leo runs an illegal gambling bank, but doesn’t seem to be involved in the underworld. Somehow, Leo has managed to stay immune to such things. If he was smart, Joe would take a lesson from Leo, but Joe believes he can get rich quick and does not have to work hard for his whole life like Leo. Throughout the movie, it seems as though Leo doesn’t really like his brother. When Joe bails Leo out of jail, Leo says to Joe, “All that Cain did to Abel is murder him.” In other words, Leo is saying that Joe is a worse brother than Cain. However, later in the movie when Mr. Bauer betrays everyone, because he is deeply afraid of the mob, Leo tells him, “I’ll kill you with my own hands rather than let you put the mark of Cain on my brother.” This means that Leo feels like Joe may be wrong, but he’s still his brother, and no one is going to do him wrong, no matter what.

There is a romantic subplot: Joe falls for Doris Lowry, Leo’s secretary, who is like a daughter to Leo. The interesting thing about the romance, is that Leo always warned Doris about his brother and told her that he was no good. However, instead of making Doris cautious of Joe, this seemed to backfire and actually endear him to her. Doris was unable to resist the “bad boy,” the idea of whom she had already fallen in love with even before they met. Somehow, she seemed to have gotten it into her mind that she could change Joe and make him a good person. She might have even thought that it was the perfect way to make up the great debt she felt she owed Leo. A line that Joe says in the middle of the film sums it up well: “I think she made up her mind to fall in love with me.”

This film had two scenes that were just classic noir. The first scene is when Joe goes into his office and sees that a light is on. The only light in the scene is from the office and the use of shadows is great. Joe quietly stands on a chair and looks into his office though a window on top of his doorway. (What ever happened to windows on top of doorways? They just aren’t popular anymore.) He sees a cop tapping the phone he keeps locked in a drawer. A detail, I thought was a little over the top. I understand that it is hidden because it’s a direct line to his mobster boss, but come on, who locks a phone in a drawer? The second scene is when Joe realizes that he has been defeated. He goes out of his office and thinks to himself that he’ll never see this place again. Then he walks in the middle of a downtown Manhattan street, except there are no cars or people anywhere. This clearly represents how alone Joe feels even in a city.

The gangster side of the movie was interesting. You can see that the makers of modern gangster movies were heavily influenced by this movie. For instance one of Ficco’s henchman delivers a line that could have been right out of any modern gangster movie: “What do you mean gangsters? It’s business.” Also, later on in the movie, Mr. Bauer lures Leo to an Italian restaurant where they are both murdered by gangsters. Sounds like the "The Godfather," doesn't it?

This movie definitely has some flaws. For instance, I don’t understand the mobster’s plan to make gambling legal or why that many people would bet on a horse with the number 776, even if it was the fourth of July. Also, there is no point to the character Edna Tucker. Were all of her scenes cut? She does wear a cool spider woman outfit that would be perfect for some sort of femme fatale. However, her character must have been seducing men in some other movie, because it wasn’t in this one.

I really enjoyed Joe’s cynicism when he realizes he’s done for. He says to Doris, “A holiday is when you celebrate something that ended long ago.” “When did your life end,” Doris asks him? “The day I was born,” Joe replies.

The final scene in the movie where Joe runs down hundreds and hundreds of steps so that he can see for himself whether his brother is really dead, was also very powerful. Especially with the narration, “It was like going down to the bottom of the world to find my brother. He was dead and I felt like I killed him.”

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Thoughts on "Out of the Past"


This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


Even though “Out of the Past” (1947) seemed to borrow heavily from earlier film noirs, it also managed to introduce a new idea or two.

In the previous noirs we’ve seen in class, for example, “The Killers,” the femme fatale was a mysterious temptress. The audience suspects she’s no good, but the protagonist is drawn into the underworld by her “siren’s call” and never returns. In these films, the protagonist’s mistake is thinking with his heart (or loins) rather than his brain. However, in “Out of the Past,” the protagonist, Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum), is all too aware that femme fatale, Katie Moffat (Jane Greer), is all bad. His undoing isn’t that he falls for her again, it is that he is too over confident in his ability to turn the tables on her. He thinks that simply because he is invulnerable to Moffat’s sexual advances that he will be able to foil the machinations of the evil-doers. Unfortunately, this is not the case because, like any good villain, Moffat and Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) have many other tricks up their sleeves.

Another thing that was different about this film was that it wasn’t always focused on the city. In fact, the camera often paused for a moment on a shot of lush mountains or forests. Rather than just presenting the city as a corrupter, this film also presents to us the idea that the country is a safe haven. When we first meet Markham’s character, he is enjoying the day at a lake. When Markham is hiding from the police, he hides near a river. Finally, when Markham sets up a meeting with his girlfriend, Ann Miller, it is in a forest.

This film was about half exposition since it told the whole story of Markham and Moffat’s first encounter and romance. Ultimately, the problem with this movie was that since this first story was so long, it competed for screen time with the second story, which was Markham’s return to the underworld. The second story was, at the same time, more complicated and less interesting than the first. Was this a film about how Markham was doomed by his past? If this is the case, then the exposition could have been much shorter.

I don’t really know what, but there was something about Sterling’s character that was really great. Maybe it was simply that Douglas had great timing. My favorite line in the movie is when Sterling insults his henchman’s intelligence by saying he, “ couldn’t find a prayer in the bible.” Also fun is how Markham constantly insults Moffat. My favorite was, “you’re like a leaf that gets blown from one gutter to the next.”

I found the plot of the film to be very confusing at times. For instance, a new character, Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming), was introduced in the middle of the movie and then never seen again. Also, when Markham hid the important papers in a mail storage of some sort, just like Bogart did in “The Maltese Falcon,” Sterling’s henchmen picked Markham up right outside the place. Am I supposed to believe that these guys can’t put two and two together and realize that he must have just dropped off the papers?

This film was successful because I cared about Markham’s character. In fact, I wanted to scream at the screen whenever he kissed Moffat because I knew she was no good for anybody. I thought that Markham would prevail in the end. However, upon deeper reflection, I realized that throughout the film, Markham is over-confident and in control. If he triumphed in the end, this movie’s tone wouldn’t have been film noir at all, because there must be an element of helplessness; fate must play a large role.

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Saturday, December 3, 2011

National Novel Writing Month Success


I just successfully completed National Novel Writing Month in November. I wrote a 51,798 word novel in one month.

This was no small feet considering I’d never before completed a novel in my nearly 30 years of living.

It took determination, I kept thinking towards the end that I wasn’t going to finished, but my wife said, “Yes you will, just keep going.” It took discipline, I had to write whether I felt like writing or not. Some nights I felt like I would have rather have done anything in the world other then write another word.

I had a very vague idea about the novel I wanted to write when I started. I based it on a news story that happened in at the end of October. I knew it was going to be about an exotic animal farm in Ohio where the animals are let out and their owner is found dead. Only in my version there is a question as to whether or not he committed suicide or was murdered!

I thought I had the ending in mind and knew who the two killers were, but after a few days I decided I liked one of the characters too much for her to be one of the killers and I decided I didn’t like another character at all so I killed him off. Then I came up with two different guilty parties, so my advice when writing a mystery is have lots of characters that could be guilty.

As you can see on the chart I posted, I had up days where I wrote a whole lot like on the 12th where I wrote 3,839 words. I admit that I was unhappy with part of that days work and it may end up being one of the only chapters on the chopping block.

Then there were days like the 13th where I was sick and couldn’t write anything or the 18th and 19th when I had houseguests and couldn’t write anything.

My most productive day was the 27th where I wrote a whooping 5,282 words.

But enough about all that; you all want to read an excerpt don’t you?

Well here is a random chapter of the soon to be released bestseller “The Tiger’s Claw” (A Peter Gillis Mystery) by John Grayshaw:

Chapter 13

Once again I wasn’t present for these events but I’ve talked to many of the people involved in our to piece together how the events unfolded.

Theodore Roosevelt Grade School was one of three Kindergarten through fifth grade schools in Sherfield. It was on the western end of town and less then 5 miles from the Lawton farm. Therefore it was the closet school to the farm, which is why it was one of the first stops Harper decided to make. She had done a couple of education stories and so was on pretty friendly terms with the school’s principal Miguel Hernandez.

She had in mind that a class of cute little kids learning as if nothing was going on outside their four walls might be the perfect shot to end a nice counterpoint to the article about the animals on the loose. Obviously her paper had already sent every available reporter to the Lawton Farm to “get the story” but she doubted her editor Phillip Cross, a man perpetually six months from retirement, had thought to send one reporter to put together a decent feature story. She had in mind to get quotes from some homeowners in a new development that was close by, the men at the Sherfield fire department, some local storeowners, and hopefully that local librarian Rita Tallmadge. She also planned on going to a local barbershop and seeing if she could get some quotes from the men there about how they just went about their business or maybe she’d find that the animal threat really did freak everyone out. That was the beauty of being a reporter you could plan out your stories in your head, but it was the quotes that really started to shape it.

Gabriel had miraculously been quiet for the entire car ride. Thank God she had learned the importance of swaddling her baby. For as long as Harper could remember she’d felt independent. Maybe it was the fact that she was a latchkey child, walking herself home from school since Junior High School, which was partially responsible for her self-reliant streak. But babies are just the opposite they want to be wrapped up and contained in order to feel safe. Harper wondered when it would change. Would the bars of his crib one day feel like the bars of a jail cell? Or would the change happen at a later age? Harper got the baby out of the car seat and wrapped him in a hands free sling.

In the hopes that Harper would get that perfect shot of the classroom, she had come armed with her trusty camera a high end Canon Rebel. The thing had cost her a small fortune, but it had never taken a bad picture. In her business you sometimes only had one shot to get the picture and if you missed your chance it was all over.

Miss Amelia Jacobs had just moved to Sherfield two months ago. She grew up in Cleveland and thought she’d probably live there her whole life, but the school system there was so clicky. Jacobs had been out of gradschool, where she had gotten straight A’s, for two years and was still subbing because she couldn’t find a permanent job anywhere in Cleveland. Finally she became convince that she was never going to find a job because she didn’t know the right people. The fact that she started getting interviews and ultimately got the job in Sherfield within two months of expanding her search outside of Cleveland seemed to be conclusive proof.

Even though it was only October, Jacobs already felt very close to everyone in her second grade class. She always heard when she was in school from her professors that a teacher’s first class is always very special to them, but she didn’t believe it until she started to experience it for herself. Everyday she felt like she was pouring out herself to these children and she felt like they knew it and appreciated it. But that was stupid they’re just kids her rational mind would tell her. They can’t tell the difference between a teacher who gives it their all and goes the extra mile and a teacher that doesn’t. And yet Jacobs knew in her gut that the kids could tell and that is why they loved her.

At around 9 am in the middle of an art project the classroom phone rang. “Hello,” said Jacobs. It was one of the administrative assistants in the schools main office. She began with “I don’t want to alarm you but…” and then she detailed how Mr. Lawton one of the owners of the paper mill had committed suicide and how he had let dozens of wild animals out of their cages just before that. And she ended her story with, “So we’re gonna keep the children inside today.” Jacobs hung up the phone and tired to put on a bright face. She tried to act as if nothing terrifying had just happened. People say that children can smell fear, but that’s completely inaccurate what is accurate is that children can sense changes in emotions, we are social animals and one of a child’s main jobs is to act like a sponge and soak up all the knowledge he/she can about how the world works, and how people act. After teaching children Jacobs never understood why the police would ever need to use a lie detector test. Even a child can usually tell when someone is being less then truthful. Jacob wondered when people lost that ability.

Jacob walked over to the windows. On the way she looked at Avery, Penelope and Justin’s artwork. Then she closed the windows and the curtains in the classroom. She hoped none of the children started to wonder why she was doing this on a sunny and warm day.

Larry Anderson had heard about the animals being on the loose, he had a radio that he listened to in the supply room in the basement of the school when he wasn’t cleaning up after those filthy kids. Somehow they got dirtier every year. Leaving the toilets without flushing, getting feces all over the toilet seat, playing with the paper towel dispenser and wasting almost a whole roll of towels. “Their parents don’t know the meaning of the word discipline,” he thought. “They just let them run wild at home, so they’re even worse when they get here.”

He learned a lot from the radio, especially the talk shows, they had really smartened him up a lot more then any schooling he got ever did. Now he under that it was the Democrats and their liberal socialism that was responsible for most of the problems in this country. Anderson didn’t usually vote, but he was waiting for a candidate that talked about bringing corporeal punishment into the public schools, that would be a candidate that got his full endorsement.

He thought about that kind of candidate as he smoked a cigarette outside of one of the side entrances to the school, the one that was adjacent to local park’s ball fields. He was only halfway done with his cigarette when he got a text. “What is it now?” he thought. A kid in one of the fourth grade classes had puked up his breakfast. “Every time I try and take a break for just one minute.” Anderson was so angry that he forgot to take the chair out of the entrance to the school, so the door was still propped open.

Helen didn’t know why she was so angry. She just knew that she had traveled away from her own territory and she was hungry. She’d been searching for prey all morning but hadn’t found anything. Suddenly the smells of fresh meat were coming from a building. (It happened to be sloppy Joe day in the school’s cafeteria). So, though she preferred to stay in tall grass she decided to follow her nose.

Helen slowly walked through the empty halls. The concrete floor felt strange on her paws. Her claws went click, click, click, with every step. She followed the smell of the meat. She did not like the strangeness of the place but that would not matter if she could fill her stomach.

Harper was taking pictures of a fifth grade class when she first heard screaming. Not the kind of noise girls make when they see their friend in the mall. Or the sound a grown woman makes when she sees a spider or a mouse. No, this was the sound of true terror.

Harper ran down the hall. Gabrie bounced up and down in the sling but did not start crying. The noise had come from somewhere downstairs so Harper began to take the stairs three at a time. Part of her worried Gabriel was going to fall out, but he didn’t. Harper wasn’t the only one that had come running when they heard the screaming. Anderson the janitor had run too. Harper arrived in the cafeteria in time to see Anderson armed with just a broom attacking a tiger.

The tiger had turned over the lunch table and had his face in the sloppy Joes. The lunch ladies were responsible for the screams. Anderson looked surprisingly valiant as he charged the Bengal tiger. “Shoo, Shoo,” he said as he poked the tiger’s head with the bristly end of the broom. The tiger looked up from his meal and seemed like she was going to back down, but then she lunged at Anderson and sliced open his stomach. Anderson sputtered incoherently as his intestines began to fall out and he backed up and fell against the wall. Meanwhile the tiger returned her attention to the pot of food, but began to push it across the room into a corner.

Harper was horrified, the mother in her wished she’d covered Gabriel’s eyes and hoped he hadn’t seen the man gutted. The reporter in her wanted to take some pictures. But the part of her that was a human being knew that the man needed her help so she ran over to him and did her best to slow down his bleeding by putting pressure on the wound. After a couple of minutes she heard the sound of sirens. “Everything is going to be okay,” she said. “The EMTs will be here soon and we’ll get you to a hospital.”

Anderson looked at his bleed that was getting all over the floor and the havoc the tiger was causing, “If I’m going to the hospital? Who is gonna clean up this mess?”

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Outline of my own "Well World" sequel

Here is an outline of a sequel to "Midnight at the Well of Souls." I wrote it in January of this year, right after reading the book. I still haven't read any of the book's actual sequels, but I still plan to. However, it's funny how sometimes the best sequels end up being the ones that are only in my head.




Thursday, September 1, 2011

Thoughts on "The Killers"


This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


In “The Killers,” (1946) director Robert Siodmak stylistically picks up where “Phantom Lady” left off two years before. This is another noir classic because it possesses all of the previously seen film noir elements and even creates a few new ones.

The film uses flashback, but in a way that we haven’t seen in class. The audience learns only what people recount to insurance man, Jim Reardon. Does the hero in noir have to be a detective or an insurance man? Anyway, this style of flashback gets kind of hokey when the storytellers aren’t quite up to par. For example, when Reardon goes to see “Blinky” Franklin on his deathbed and Franklin starts mumbling, the audience sees a complete flashback, but I doubt very much a dying man’s mumbles were coherent enough to paint such a vivid picture of the events.

There are many examples of shadows being used to convey meaning in this film. For example, when Nick, the guy from the lunch counter, runs over to Oly’s (Burt Lancaster) apartment, Oly’s face is in the shadow to represent his regret and his acceptance of his impending death. Later in the film, Lily is suddenly obscured by shadows after Oly sees Kitty (Ava Gardner) and quite clearly shifts his attention to her. In this case, Lily’s shadow represents her feeling of rejection and is also metaphoric because she has faded from Oly’s mind in addition to fading physically.

The beauty of this film is that Oly, the protagonist, starts off as a loser and really just gets even worse. In his first scene chronologically, he gets the crap beat out of him so bad in a boxing match, that an hour later in the locker room, he doesn’t even know that the fight’s over. During this match, Oly’s hand was hurt so bad, he couldn’t fight anymore. Oly thinks this is the worst his life can ever get, but for the rest of the movie Oly sinks further and further into an abyss caused by the femme fatale, Kitty. At one time, Oly was a good man, but his lust for Kitty becomes his undoing.

This film has some interesting characters, like the two killers at the beginning of the movie. Their disregard of social norms and rapid-fire insults was obviously shocking at the time, but by today’s standards they just seem kind of corny. To paraphrase Gene Hackman in “The Heist,” if you’re really gonna shoot someone, you just shoot them, you don’t talk about it. I loved Oly’s cellmate Charleston, who said he wouldn’t tell Reardon anything. He said, “I‘m the monkey with his hand over his mouth.” Of course he went on and on once he had a few drinks in him. I was impressed because all of the astronomy facts Charleston kept spouting were 100% accurate. I had to laugh at Oly’s trainers who completely abandoned him the second he couldn’t fight anymore, but still had the audacity to show up at his funeral like they were his buddies. However, my favorite character is Blinky’s doctor who confesses that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He says, “Beats me, I don’t know what keeps him going. He’s dead except he’s breathing.”

The one thing I didn’t like about this film is the ending, because it makes no sense. This is mostly because a scene seems to be missing. In this missing scene, Reardon would have enlisted the help of some mysterious underworld figure, Jake the Rake, to help him find Kitty. Because this scene is missing, Jake the Rake takes his place with such great, never seen on screen but constantly talked about, noir characters as Floyd Thursby, from “The Maltese Falcon” and Sean Regan from “The Big Sleep.”


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thoughts on "The Big Sleep"

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This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


The Big Sleep (1946), is another example of the cynical detective genre. Once again Humphrey Bogart plays the straight-as-an-arrow wise-cracking detective that seems to only exist for three things: his work, making witty banter with women, and drinking.

Marlowe (Bogart) is hired by an old man to do something or other, it really doesn’t matter, the plot makes no sense. The important part is that Marlowe meets the old man’s two daughters Vivian and Carmen (Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers). Carmen is young and oozes sex appeal in her short skirt. She falls into Marlowe’s arms and calls him cute, but also insults him saying, “you’re not very tall are you?” Vivian on the other hand is cold and aloof, she insults his manners, but Marlowe as always has a witty retort, “I don’t like my manners either, they’re pretty bad.”

In the next sequence Marlowe goes into a bookstore with big glasses on and speaks in a really phony sounding accent to a secretary. The secretary says he doesn’t look like a man interested in first editions, to which he replies, “I collect blonds in bottles too.” Since Marlowe’s less than brilliant disguise fails to fool even the secretary, he goes over to the book store across the street and meets a very sexy book store proprietress (Dorothy Malone). Marlowe understands that’s she’s the intellectual type so he appeals to her intelligence to get what he wants from her. Later, he uses a great pick-up line, when she asks if he wants to stay for a drink, “you know it just so happens I’ve got a pretty good bottle of rye in my pocket.”

After this it starts to rain and Bogart follows someone to a house that turns out to be the main location for most of the film’s action. Serious, dramatic sounding music starts to play and you know something is about to happen. Sure enough, Marlowe hears a woman screaming, gun shots and a car driving away. He runs into the house and finds a man dead and Carmen who he describes as, “high as a kite.” I guess that managed to slip by the Hollywood code somehow, though it is quite clear that she had been smoking some marijuana.

I found myself to be very distracted by the scenes that took place in this mysterious house because there were these very ugly Japanese porcelain lamps that were all over the house and seemed very out of place. I just kept wondering if the lamps were somehow significant to the story or were they just all the set designer had lying around that week.

The film kind of muddles around for a while after this. Vivian and Marlowe exchange more witty repartee and prank call someone. Later when they talk about sex, it’s thinly disguised as a discussion about horses.

Next, we meet the movie’s main villain Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) and his two inept and ambiguously gay henchman who are named Sidney and Pete, a tribute to Bogart’s frequent costars Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.

The next good scene involves Marlowe turning the tables on Joe Brody, a blackmailer, the secretary from the bookstore, and Carmen who comes into an apartment with a tiny little gun. Marlowe has a great line when Carmen is on the floor reaching for a gun, “Get up, you look like a Pekinese.”

After this, the film kind of muddles around again only this time for a lot longer. The next great scene is when Bogart has been tied up by the bad guys, but has been left alone with Vivian. Before she helps him escape he insists on smoking a cigarette.

The rest of the movie was kind of silly. Mars’ only scary henchman falls for the oldest trick in the book when Bacall distracts him by shouting, “Look over there!” Then back at the house with the ugly lamps, Mars is shot by his own henchman because they were told to shoot whoever came through the front door. Don’t ask me why they were told this.

The Big Sleep had some good moments, but I thought that this film badly needed another session in the editing room, it was too long and the plot was overly convoluted.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Thoughts on "Detour"

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This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


Detour has all of the elements that make up a great film noir movie: the action unfolds entirely through narration, the movie is dark in tone, and the movie skillfully uses shadows and darkness to create meaning (mostly because they couldn’t afford lights, but that’s another matter). The protagonist was a good man undone by forces he could not control. There is the good woman and the spidery femme fatale.

Like I hinted to, the film is not perfect. The acting is only passable, the editing is poor, and the lighting is at times, atrociously bad. I remember an early scene in the movie where Al Roberts (Tom Neal), the main character, is walking outside and narrating, and from what I could tell it was not lit at all. However, in a sense, its shortcomings are also what give this movie its strange kind of charm. Roberts finds himself trapped in a kind of seedy and gritty underworld and the film succeeds because this underworld seems genuine. A bigger budget would only have made this world seem more artificial and destroy the very things the film had going for itself.

A lot has been said about the fact that since the whole story is told through Robert’s narration you can’t know for sure how things really happened. However, I feel it is futile to think about that too much, because we can only make judgments about what information the movie chooses to tell us. Also, if the movie’s message was really about how Robert is exaggerating his story because he is bitter, then this point would have somehow been hinted to. This is clearly not the case, so I feel we should take the information as is and accept what he says as truth.

I am somewhat confused as to why the Hollywood code forced the additional scene where Robert gets into a cop car at the end of the film. Technically, Robert is not guilty of any crime so why did they feel that he had to be punished? I suppose they felt that dragging a body to the side of the road rather than facing the music was a wrong choice. Personally, I would probably make the same choice if I was sure I would be wrongly convicted unless I covered things up. And, I’ll take it one step further and say that this movie is so good because everyone can see how tempting it would be to make the same choice as Roberts.

Vera (Ann Savage) is one of the great femme fatale characters. The movie portrays her as a woman who is so ugly on the inside that it can’t help but be seen on the surface. Robert thinks to himself when he first meets her, “She looked as if she just fell off the worst freight train in the world.” Also, I think it is significant that when Vera falls asleep Robert starts to feel differently about her. He says she doesn’t look so bad when she’s asleep. Meaning, it is not her physical appearance that makes Vera so unattractive to Robert, but it is the spider woman within her. Also, I enjoyed the fact that Vera wasn’t portrayed as some evil entity with no depth. When Vera gets drunk and continually submits Robert to sexual advances, it is clear that the spider woman personality is a defense mechanism that she has created for herself, because she suffers from low self-worth. She has put herself in a continuous loop in which she is doomed to never break free of. Guys reject her because they see she is a spider woman, and she becomes more of a spider woman because guys keep rejecting her.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Thoughts on "Life of Pi"



I liked "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel (2001) a lot while I was reading it. I enjoyed reading about Pi’s childhood. I thought the insights into running a zoo were fascinating. My brother is a great advocate for environmentalism, vegetarianism, and animal rights. He has talked on many occasions about the cruelty of zoos and I was starting to agree with him. I went to the Philadelphia Zoo and thought the polar bear must be miserable in the summer and the lions were always asleep no matter what time of day I visited and the gorillas looked like they wanted everyone to stop staring at them. So these insights about how an animal wouldn’t think of an enclosure as small they’d think of it as convenient were interesting food for thought. I do disagree with some of the points made though. I don’t believe that animals like cheetah can be happy in an enclosure because there isn’t enough room for them to run and a cheetah was born to run. Also, I think some apes like gorillas are higher functioning than we give them credit, no matter what anyone says they seem to know that they are captives; uplifting may be happening naturally.

It was also interesting to see Pi learning about Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. I grew up in the diverse community of Queens, NY, but I was never exposed to any religions other than Christianity, so to this day I just don’t know all that much about them. Also, like others have mentioned it was a very funny scene when all three religious leaders met.

Parts of the religious sections spoke to me personally. “These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena, but the small clearing of each heart. Meanwhile, the lot of widows and homeless children is very hard, and it is to their defense, not God’s that the self-righteous should rush.” (p89-90) Wow, that’s what I’m talking about! This is Christianity in a nutshell. A religious journey is a personal journey of self-reflection and when you have your own self in order you’ll want to help other people.

I also enjoyed all the many, many details (200 pages worth) about being on the lifeboat and having to survive. I grew up on books like “Robinson Crusoe” and have always been fascinated with survival stories. One detail I remember smiling at is that Pi is so worried about running out of paper that he writes tiny, tiny on the pages and then, his pen runs out of ink way before he runs out of paper.

I felt like the religious aspects of the book dropped off in the middle part of the book. Pi clearly still felt religious and talked about it from time to time, but it didn’t seem to be the focus of the book and I wondered how this was going to be a story to “make you believe in God.”

As I was reading it, I saw the story as a fable. Fables always had animals, this book had a tiger in it. I figured there would be a moral at the end of the story and that would tie it together to religion somehow.

I read the last part of the novel and instead of a moral we had an alternate take on the story. Instead of a tiger, and hyena, a zebra and a boy in the lifeboat, we had a boy, mother, cook and sailor in the lifeboat. This story was only given a few pages so of course it does not seem as vivid or as real as the 200-page story.

I took the second story as a spur of the moment thing Pi came up with to appease the Japanese men. I had a grandfather that would do this.

There is a picture in my parent’s house of my great-grandfather and his children. It must have been taken in the 20s. In the picture you can see that my great-grandfather is missing the tip of the middle finger on his left hand.

When I was in kindergarten the same finger on my left hand got caught in a door at school and was cut off. It was re-attached with microsurgery. However, I could never get over the coincidence that something similar had happened to my great-grandfather in the exact same finger. But my dad didn’t know what had happened.

So one time when the family visited my grandfather (he lived many states over in Ohio) I asked him what had happened and he told me an amazing story that my great- grandfather was picking wild berries and a venomous snake bit him on the finger and he knew that he would die from the poison so he had to hack his own finger off with a knife. Of course my grandfather had made this story up for my entertainment. There are no venomous snakes in Pennsylvania.

So we asked my cousin Leonard what happened and he told us a daring story that my great-grandfather worked in the coal mines of Pennsylvania when he first came to America and that one day an accident happened in the mines and he lost the finger and he came home and said that he wasn’t going to die in a mine shaft and that’s why the family moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio.

This was also a good story and also not true. Finally we asked my Great-Aunt Mary. She was the oldest of my great-grandfather’s children, Leonard was her son, and my grandfather was the youngest of my great-grandfather’s children. So she was the one mostly likely to actually know the truth and she said that my great-grandfather worked for the railroads in Pennsylvania as a switch operator and lost the finger in a switch.

So anyway, after that long story, the point is that to me all Pi was doing with this second story was telling the Japanese guys what they wanted to hear. I did not believe that the second story was the true story and that the first story was just a flight of fancy.

Now, after I read the story I started to catch up on the discussion of the novel at the Classic Science Fiction Message Board (even though this book isn't a science fiction book at all really) and that it when it really started to get weird for me! Someone was saying that the point of the story is that Richard Parker the tiger was a metaphor for God and that by believing the first story over the second you are believing in God.



It doesn’t say that in the book itself ANYWHERE. You’d think if that was the point of the story it might be worth mentioning once of twice. I read the book and that didn’t cross by mind at all. If not for the Classic Science Fiction Message Board I would have read the book, put it down and never considered that. So in my mind if that was the point, the author did a piss poor job of it.

What the author does say is that in the second story Pi is the tiger. So in that interpretation in the first story it is just Pi on the ship, but the tiger represents a different part of himself, a part of himself that is stronger, and more confident. Pi says many times in the story that he could not have survived without Richard Parker. It does add another layer to the story to think that rather than a flesh and blood being Pi is referring to an actual aspect of himself in which he was able to find the strength to carry on.

Now I won’t deny that invoking the metaphor of Richard Parker as God is an interesting exercise, for example, you have Pi providing food for Richard Parker and in the metaphor it becomes equivalent to giving sacrifices to a God. But the metaphor fits a couple of times but mostly there are just too many details with that that don’t jive. Why the details of training Richard Parker with a whistle? In no religion do the humans train the God. Pi takes Richard Parker’s feces and openly smells it in order to dominate the tiger. Explain that one in terms of religion? Richard Parker marks his territory with urine. I missed the part of the bible where Jesus does that. I doubt that’s in other faiths either.

Pi just seemed to have the kind of personality that craved order that craved religion. He wanted to believe in some sort of order to the universe. “I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can we must give things meaningful shape.” p 360. However, Pi does not think believing in religion excludes him from believing in science. The Japanese men do not believe the story about the island that was a tremendously large carnivorous plant. They say they do not believe in plants that contradict the laws of nature. Then Pi says that Darwin and Copernicus were not accepted at first. Later he says, “If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?…Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter. Reason is the very best tool kit. Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers way. But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater.” p375. In other words, he is saying there is more to life then is found in your philosophy. In Pi’s mind it is science that is limited because it excludes that which is not yet understood. Of course a scientist would come back and say that science will catch up while religion explains away the unknown by saying it's supernatural.

To sum up I enjoyed the book and would have rated it as an entertaining read though I wasn’t sure what the point of the ending was. But I became more frustrated with the book after starting to read interpretations about the book because I felt like either people were looking too far into it and/or the author failed to actually say what his point was.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Thoughts on "Phantom Lady"

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This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


"Phantom Lady" (1944) was directed by my favorite noir director, Robert Siodmak. It further enforces the film noir theme of the country woman saving the urban man from the city which has corrupted or wronged him.

The movie opens with some light music and smoky credits. Scott Henderson, morose, and cynical, but still likeable, walks into a bar and asks for a “pack of cigarettes, any brand.” This is our first clue that he is deeply troubled. Come on, everyone has a favorite brand. Scott immediately starts hitting on the even more morose looking woman sitting next to him. The two of them go out to the theater even though she doesn’t seem too happy about anything. Plus, she doesn’t want to smoke. What’s she doing in a film noir movie?

Scott returns home to an apartment full of silent police officers. He runs around screaming his wife’s name and finally decides to look for her in the bedroom. It is an interesting shot because the camera jumps into the bedroom so we can see Scott’s face when he opens the door. Thankfully there is no gratuitous shot of a dead body; the audience gets the idea. The cops treat Scott pretty badly because they’re sure he did it. Scott doesn’t help things by not showing the slightest bit of emotion.

The cops drag Scott to the places where the audience just saw him, but the bartender, the cabbie, and the actress all lie and say they don’t remember seeing a woman with Scott. There’s a random scene with two cops fighting over which ice cream flavor is superior and then the action jumps straight to Scott’s trial. This sequence is noteworthy because the people conducting the trial are heard but not seen. The camera never leaves the gallery except to see the stenographer's note which is indistinguishable because it is in short hand. When Scott’s sentence is read, Carol, Scott’s personal secretary and the audience miss the verdict because of an old woman chewing on a crisp apple.

From this point on Carol is the protagonist of the movie. She tortures the bartender by just staring at him and willing him to repent like some unholy angel of truth. When he gets run over she turns her attention to Cliff the drummer. For this sequence Carol dresses quite provocatively and the jam session in a jazz club is the most cathartic and overtly sexual sequence I’ve seen in a 40’s film.

Jack Marrow, the villain in this film was excellently portrayed by Francot Tone. He managed to be utterly creepy and somehow vaguely sympathetic due to the fact that he was obviously quite mad. We know from the busts in his apartment that Jack was at one time a brilliant artist, but when Scott’s wife, who he was having an affair with, insulted him, it made something within him snap; his tremendous ego was never the same again. And yet at the same time, Jack thinks that he is somehow superior to all other humans. He says, "I’m fond of Scott, we’re friends, but what’s his life compared to mine, compared to anybody’s." When Carol tells Jack to cross his fingers, he looks at his hands and sees that they no longer seem the same to him because of the murders he has committed. Jack is aware that he has been changed, he feels this change has made him stronger, but in reality it has made him weaker because he has lost his basic humanity.

This film is unfortunately currently hard to find in the US where it is only available on VHS. A DVD is available on Region 2, so if you live Europe, Japan, or the Middle East it's not a problem. Or, if you own a region free DVD player.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Casablanca" Sketch


One of these days I’ll review the movie “Casablanca.” It will be a loving exploration of what I consider to be one of the greatest movies ever made. It never ceases to amaze me that it just got everything right. Not a wasted scene, character, line, or moment. All the more remarkable since the movie was being rewritten as they were shooting (and not just little polishes here and there. Ingrid Bergman wanted to know who she’d end up with so she’d know how to play her scenes and the writers told her they weren’t sure yet so she better play it ambiguous).

Anyway, this is not that day and this is not that post. Rather this is a sketch I wrote years ago that explores a more negative take on “Casablanca,” it gives credence to the tiny voice inside your head (or for some maybe not so tiny) that screams during the ending of the movie, “Don’t do it Rick. Don’t let her go!”

John- Did you know that Humphrey Bogart was shorter than Ingrid Bergman so they made him wear lifts or stand on boxes in Casablanca?

Stefan- Okay, am I a bad friend if I don’t pretend to care?

John- I’m not surprised, God forbid you like something mainstream.

Stefan- I don’t hate it because it’s popular, that would be pointless and stupid. I hate it because it’s dated and inaccurate.

John- It’s a classic story of love and sacrifice.

Stefan- It’s the sacrifice part that’s wrong. If he had the girl why would he give her up?

John- It was the right thing to do.

Stefan- No, no, no. It was the “right” thing to do. It was the thing society tells us to do. But it wasn’t the correct thing to do. Ingrid got on that plane and sure the other guy was happy, but what about Bogart. You can’t tell me that he didn’t give himself the short end of the stick and the saddest thing about it is that he’s actually proud of himself. He’s assured himself a lifetime of regret and jealousy as he pines for the love he’ll never find again and from his face you’d think he’d just struck the Daily Double.

John- Your world is a sad, lonely place to visit isn’t it?

Stefan- I don’t know why you find realism so depressing.

John- Real life isn’t as bad as you think.

Stefan- You think I don’t know that? Real life is even worse than I think it is. I’ll be the first to admit that.

"Particle Man" by They Might Be Giants and the Meaning of Life

I wrote this sketch at least 7 years ago, but something made me think of it today. To appreciate the sketch you have to know the song "Particle Man" by They Might Be Giants. Here's a video of the song from the cartoon "Tiny Toon Adventures"

Stanley- Well if that’s not it then what is it about?

Dave- I don’t know what it’s about, but it sure as hell isn’t the answer to the meaning of life.

Stanley- That’s where you’re wrong it’s all there I know it is. I just can’t quite put my finger on it, but I know it’s there.

Dave- It’s a nonsense little song about a Particle Man and a Triangle Man.

Stanley- Don’t speak of it so lightly, this may be my religion.

Dave- “Hit on the head with a frying pan. Lives his life in a garbage can, Person Man.”

Stanley- Don’t you see that means we all live our life in the proverbial garbage can. It’s a call to us to rise up and break the chains that bind us.

Dave- What have you got for, “When he’s under water does he get wet? Or does the water get him instead?”

Stanley- It’s a clear challenge against the scientific community. How can we believe any of the things they tell us when they are based on preconceived assumptions?

Dave- Don’t you think you’re looking too much into this?

Stanley- I think maybe I’m not looking deep enough.

Man cartoons can get inside your head. I hadn't seen this video for years, but it was still buried somewhere deep inside my brain as was another "Tiny Toon" video, "Istanbul (not Constantinople)" (also by They Might Be Giants).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Thoughts on "The Maltese Falcon"


This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


The Maltese Falcon (1941) directed by John Huston is a true film noir classic and my personal favorite. If you haven’t seen it in a while, you‘ll find yourself wondering for the first few minutes, “What’s so great about this movie again? This writing is kind of bad.” Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) says she was recommended to Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) by her hotel. What kind of a crummy hotel would recommend her to this guy? Plus, Spade delivers the corniest line in the movie during this first scene when he coaxes O‘Shaughnessy to talk, “Why don’t you tell me about it?” Thankfully things pick up quickly, Spade’s partner Archer comes inside and can’t hide how attracted he is to O’Shaughnessy. It is interesting to note that O’Shaughnessy never takes her eyes off of Spade and doesn’t even seem to see Archer. In the next scene Archer is shot and killed without warning and it is in that second that you remember what’s so great about this movie. Unlike typical Hollywood fluff, the tone of this film is as dark as real life is sometimes. Also, this isn’t one of those films where you can get popcorn and soda and not miss anything. This is one of those films that you can watch over and over again and still not understand.

The Maltese Falcon is a movie of lies. Sometimes I don’t think any of the main characters said one true thing throughout this whole movie. O’Shaughnessy sums it up nicely when Spade asks her, “Is there any truth in that?” She replies, “Some, not much.” If you listen and watch closely, Astor and Bogart seem to say their lines differently when they’re lying to each other. There is a hollow ring to them, like they‘re sure the other person doesn‘t believe a word of it. Spade even says as much when he tells Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), “I took it for granted that she was lying.” In fact the lies are so thick that we never really learn the truth about a great many things. For instance, who murdered the much mentioned, but never seen Floyd Thursby and Captain Jacobi, whose other scene seems to have been mysteriously cut from the movie? Gutman offers a very long explanation which slowly becomes less and less believable. He says, “Wilmer shot Jacobi as he was coming down the fire escape. Shot him more than once. Jacobi was too tough to fall or drop the falcon. He climbed down the rest of the way, knocked Wilmer over, and ran off."

It’s also a film about obsession. Gutman, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), and O’Shaugnessy are willing to go to any lengths for the falcon. Nowhere is this more evident than when Gutman betrays Wilmer, who he claimed was like a son to him. He offers Wilmer this chilling explanation, “Well, if you lose a son, it's possible to get another. There's only one Maltese Falcon.”

Sam Spade seems to be nearly infallible. Much like James Bond, Spade is never seen out of his element. This is most evident when during a scuffle with Cairo in his office, Spade manages to keep his cigarette in his mouth at all times. Spade always knows exactly what to do or say, and his orders are always followed without question. Even the cops are like putty in his hands. Who else could ask a cop, “what’s your boyfriend trying to say,” and not get run in? To Spade, being a private eye is like a stage performance. Spade plays a man who thinks only of money, but in his final exchanges with O’Shaugnessy he hints to his true nature, “Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be. That sort of reputation might be good business, bringing high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.” Spade, in essence is again just like Bond, a man who does not exist outside of his job, which is his one true passion. The only times Spade smiles is when he catches someone lying or knows he’s fooled someone.

It’s no secret that Spade didn’t like his partner Archer much. He doesn’t react at all when he finds out he’s been killed. He just goes through the motions, his greatest concern is keeping his distance from Archer’s widow Iva. The detail that Spade and Iva had an affair is an interesting one. We are left to wonder what happened. The one thing we can be sure of is that to Spade it is long forgotten. He says, “Don’t be silly, I wish I’d never laid eyes on her.” Everything continues to point to Spade not caring about his partner’s murder. He immediately changes “Spade and Archer,” the name of his business, to “Samuel Spade.” However, at the end of the movie Spade reveals that all along he was acting for his dead partner. He says, “When a man's partner's killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him, he was your partner, and you're supposed to do something about it. And it happens we're in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it's - it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. Bad all around. Bad for every detective everywhere.” Here, Spade has given two very different motivations. Did Spade act because of his sense of duty to his partner or did he act to preserve his business and the reputation of detectives at large? We can’t know for sure.

Did Spade have any real feelings for O’Shaugnessy? In the end it doesn’t matter because Spade knows that he could never really trust her. She tries to argue that if his love was true that he could forget everything else. Spade looks at the situation logically and sees that their are too many strikes against her and decides that no matter how he feels, he’d be an idiot to believe anything she says.


Thoughts on "Stranger on the Third Floor"


This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


"Stranger on the Third Floor" (1940) is not a true film noir movie. It has many of the elements associated with film noir (heavy use of shadow, narration) and yet the mood of the picture is all wrong. I feel that this is a proto noir film. In other words, if noir films were a long running TV series, this film should be thought of as the pilot of the series. It is a pilot that is so different from the series that it could never be aired. Film noir is bleak and gritty. This movie has a kind of light and peppy mood. It even has a “gosh isn’t everything swell” happy ending.

The most noir part of this movie was the dream sequence in the middle of the film. While not exactly on par with the famous Salvador Dali designed dream sequence from Hitchcock’s "Spellbound," this sequence did have some notable aspects: the jail cell which seemed to be a kind of stage which was surrounded by darkness. The courtroom scenes during this sequence were much darker, the courtroom was empty, and the jury made no attempt to mask their indifference. After his sentencing, the electric chair was seen only as a gigantic imposing shadow. When the judge becomes the statue of justice, it is clear that this movie is hitting the audience over the head with its imagery and moving at a pace that is slow enough that you can go get popcorn and a soda and not really miss anything. To make matters worse, the image of the statue and the cheesy dramatic music that accompanies it are repeated just a few minutes after their first appearance.

The main theme of the movie: bad things can happen to anyone, is very noir. Michael would be a quintessential example of a noir hero, except for the fact that it is his girlfriend Jane ends up being the main focus of the action by the end of the movie. A secondary theme, and the one that resonated most deeply with me was, what responsibility do people have to each other? At first Michael feels he has a responsibility to testify against Briggs, but after he realizes how easily events can be misconstrued, he understands how easily duty and ethics can be misused. In Michael’s dream sequence, Jane throws right back at Michael the ethical argument he hid behind after testifying against Briggs, when she testifies against him and then tells him, “I had to tell the truth.”

This film is actually very pro-woman. Jane and women at large are made fun of for the majority of the film. Even her own boyfriend thinks of Jane as little more than a child. When Michael thinks about Jane’s reaction to Briggs’ trial he says, “she’ll forget about it in a couple of days.” He also asks her “What do you know about law and trials and such things?” However, by the end of the movie Jane emerges as the hero of the film when she tracks down the killer and gets him to confess.

This movie also shares the film noir theme of the city as corrupt. Every character in the film has been changed by the city into an uncompassionate sort of existentialist. Even the police are seen as indifferent. This is clear when Michael speaks to Jane about the police saying, “They wouldn’t listen to me if that’s what you want me to do.” However, the best example of the city’s utter indifference is the truck driver who kills Peter Lorre’s character. His defense for running over a man is, “I honked.” Jane is the only exception to the city’s indifference. Because she has not yet lost her compassion, Jane is a tortured figure. This is evident when Michael calls her after Briggs’ trial and she is hidden in shadows that represent her inner-struggles.

The voice-over/narration device starts off well. Michael asks himself, “Why do people live in Brooklyn? Why couldn’t I?” However, the device is soon so over used that it becomes comical. In general, this device is severely misused when it reveals character’s emotions that can more easily be revealed by his or her actions. As a screenwriter, one of the first lessons they teach you is “Show don’t tell.” In other words, if your character is shot you don’t write a voice over that says “Ow, I’ve been shot,” because it would be superfluous and silly.

This is the first of only three films that Boris Ingster would direct. This isn’t surprising because the film invokes a feeling of a boy experimenting with a new camera. This was most evident in the first scene at the diner where Michael and Jane are seen from their reflections in a mirror.

Worth mentioning is the sexual "dance" that Jane and Michael perform when she comes up to his apartment and light, airy music begins playing in the background. She’s all wet from the rain and begins to explore his apartment and talk. No matter what she says to him, Michael keeps asking her to take off her clothes and even starts taking them off for her. Then she starts playing along and asks him if he talks in his sleep, implying that they’ll be sharing a bed sometime soon. However, their good time is thwarted by Michael’s landlady and his milk obsessed, and ill-fated neighbor.

I also found this to be a hilarious dark comedy with many great one liners and some classic characters. The defense lawyer who seems to be on autopilot, the neighbor who imposes the virtues of milk on his neighbor, and the ill fated diner owner Nick who hits on the women sitting at his counter by revealing his “big” secret, a raisin in every cup of coffee. My favorite scene was during Briggs’ trial where both a jury member and the judge are asleep. One of the lawyers hears a jury member snoring, and wakes the judge. The judge immediately reprimands the juror for doing the exact same thing he himself was doing.

Despite it’s shortcomings this film was enjoyable and it is a great example of an intermediate step between the glossy themed Hollywood pictures of the 30’s and the gritty noir films of the 40’s.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Thoughts on "Double Indemnity"


This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


The first reason why "Double Indemnity" (1944), directed by Billy Wilder, is a classic film noir is the soundtrack, the music is tense and dark, and there is a common thread of it throughout the film. Every time Walter (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis’ (Barbara Stanwyck) web of evil grows larger, the same theme starts playing in the background, almost like the ominous voice of some sort of inner conscience.

The second reason is the lighting in this movie is top notch noir lighting. Plot point number one, where Phyllis first comes over to Walter’s apartment and the seeds of their evil are sown by their first adulterous kiss, is the first scene that is only lit from outside of the room. The crisis/climax scene is another scene lit the same way. This time the only light is through a Venetian blind in Phyllis’ study.

The third reason why this is classic noir is the actor’s performances. Edward G. Robinson‘s Keyes, was the perfect foil for the intellectual machinations of Walter. Everything about Keyes’ physical presence was non-threatening; he can’t even seem to ever light his own cigar, and yet the wheels were always turning in his mind and it was clear from the first scene that he prized truth above emotions. You almost feel sorry for the man who got caught by Keyes for sabotaging his own truck, but Keyes shows him no mercy.

Walter has some great noir lines at the beginning of the movie. He says, “I killed him for money and a woman. I didn’t get the money or the woman.” Soon after that he says, “I never knew that honeysuckle could smell like murder.” He knows that Phyllis can only be bad for him, but he is drawn to her. He tries to keep his mind off her by bowling and drinking, but his thoughts never stray far from her ankles and her mysterious allure.

The writing of this screenplay was very tight. There isn’t a single wasted character or scene in the whole film. For a while I thought that the daughter Lola and her somewhat bizarre boyfriend Nino were nothing but filler, but by the end of the movie Lola manages to humanize Walter’s character and give him a little sympathy. While the revelation that Phyllis is having a relationship with Nino seems to make her that much more evil and inhuman. After Walter murders Phyllis, he stops Nino from going inside the house and possibly getting blamed for Phyllis‘ murder, which was Walter’s original plan. This is the resolution of the tension of the movie and the turning point of Walter’s character. We are left to wonder what changed in Walter’s character, did he give up? Did his love for Lola make him blindly act towards her happiness alone? We will never know.

The murder plan in this movie struck me as kind of dumb. I have no clue how someone who dies by falling off a train and someone who dies from being strangled can look at all similar. Another thing that bothered me was the fact that Walter and Phyllis always met in the same grocery store. If anyone with half a brain was watching either of them, I think they would have caught on really fast.

My final thought is of the slight homoerotic element that existed between Keyes and Walter. Whenever Walter says he loves Keyes, Keyes reacts by expressing his masculinity, almost as if he is afraid of such feelings. For instance he says, “Get out of here before I throw my desk at you.” Throughout the film Keyes dismisses Walter’s sexual conquests as robbing the cradle, he says, “I bet she drinks from the bottle.” Does Keyes unconsciously do this because he can’t accept the fact that Walter would have any real feeling for anyone but him? When at the end of the film Walter tells Keyes that he couldn’t find out the truth because, “the guy you were looking for was too close,” Keyes replies, “more close then you’ll ever know.” Then Keyes lights a match in the same way that Walter always did in the past as if to say that Keyes could have done it himself all along if he had wanted to, but it filled some kind of unconscious sexual desire.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Thoughts on "The Cosmic Puppets"


"The Cosmic Puppets," by Philip K. Dick


I liked the earliest parts of the story when Ted Barton comes into Millgate and he's been telling his wife all these stories on the way there and probably boring her half to death. Then he gets there and he knows something isn't right. My memory has never been as good as Barton's seems to be in this novel, but there are definitely certain towns that I knew as a child that I'd still know quite well today.

After he is confronted with this differentness, he leaves the town and drops his wife off somewhere. I thought this was really interesting because especially in such a short novel it kind of broke the building of tension. The story might have been more effective if he had tried to leave the town with his wife and found that he couldn't. However, I was just as happy to see the wife character go, because she would have been annoying, since she was written without any redeeming qualities. I also thought it was significant that he dropped her off, because he knew on some level that he was going on some kind of "spiritual" or "hero's" journey and that's a journey a man must go on alone. My wife and I often take separate weekend trips. It always feels like I'm reconnecting with myself, like I forget what it was like to be on my own.

I really enjoyed the first interaction between Peter and Barton. Barton plays it cool and Peter ends up giving away more of his secrets than he probably intended to.

The next scene that stuck with me was the moment the Wanderers first appear and Barton says, “Did you see them?" and Doctor Meade says, "It’s perfectly natural. What’s so strange about that?” That was the first place in the book where I really began to wonder what the heck was going on.

I really liked the scene where Barton tries to get past the barrier. Someone should make it into a short film, Barton jumping from log to log while time and space changes all around him.

The scene with Christopher and his spell remover was memorable. I liked the detail that the device itself did nothing, the real power was in Barton and Christopher's minds. However, it was at this point in the novel when I began to question how much one could rely on their memories from 18 years ago and/or childhood memories.

My memory for everyday things has always been pretty poor. I can sing every song I used to sing at summer camp when I was a kid, but my memories of my friends or camp counselors at that time is almost nonexistent. I could tell you about some of the cartoons I used to watch as a kid, but I doubt I could tell you much about my neighborhood or the park near my house.

So anyway, I was more than a little bit skeptical that Barton's memory could be as accurate as he thought he needed it to be. Though the scene when Mary comes upon Barton and Christopher in the park and they are "yelling and gesturing" like mad men is priceless.

When the novel reaches it's climax and the two Zoroastrianism Gods take their true form and start to duke it out in the spatial or spiritual realm is where I got kind of lost. First off, I don't know if my education is just lacking, but I'd never even heard of Ahriman or Ormazd let alone understand their significance in a cultural context. Maybe all we needed to understand was that Ormazd was good and Ahriman was bad?

One odd part of the novel was p. 86 when pre-pubescent Mary takes all her clothes off and rubs oil all over her body to appease a golem she had captured. Then when you get to the ending and Mary turns out to be a God, Barton suddenly has the hots for her. Before she even takes an adult human form he's asking her if she can stay on Earth. I'd understand these kinds of feeling after he'd seen her as a woman, but at that point she'd only been a pre-teen girl and a golem. Was Dick trying to put uncomfortable subject matter in the novel or did he do so unconsciously? I don’t know which answer is worse.

It wasn't fantastic, but it wasn't bad either, I'd have to give it some sort of neutral score like 6 or 7 out of 10.


On p 102. Meade mentions the bible verse from 1 Corinthians 13 "Through a glass darkly." That same verse would inspire the title of Dick's 1977 novel "A Scanner Darkly." I guess it was a concept that stuck with him for a while huh?

I read a copy from the library; it was the Vintage Books, November 2003 paperback. One of the earlier editions of Cosmic Puppets was a sewn edition. I know this because this edition used the original typeset which included gathering markers or signatures. They were labeled C.P.-B through C.P.-F and they appear approximately every 25 pages. When books were sewn together the pages were first formed into gatherings and those gatherings where sewn together to form the text block.

"The Cosmic Puppets" art work is by Chris Moore.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Thoughts on "Planetary"

 photo 4d51bdd0-3e84-44d2-a847-b525ff259759_zpsd4d5d5ce.jpg

Planetary is a near perfect synergy of art and story. That’s really the secret to a good comic, I think too many of the comics of today attempt to treat a comic as if it were a movie rather than treating a comic as a unique art form.

All 26 issues of Planetary were written by Warren Ellis and drawn by John Cassaday. Planetary is about a group of historian adventurers who attempt to uncover the secrets of the past. Think Indiana Jones, but with super powers. The universe of the story is a pastiche in which every pulp novel character and every superhero character appear to have inhabited this same universe in one form or another. For example in this universe there was a 30’s era superhero team made up of Doc Savage, the Shadow, Tarzan and other pulp-era heroes. At one point, the Planetary team scientifically examines a mysterious hammer that bears more than a passing resemblance to Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. Another issue focuses on versions of Superman, the Green Lantern and Wonder Woman.

Because of this aspect of examination, Planetary is a sort of thesis paper on the history of comics. In a way the heroes even acknowledge that they are in a comicbook. It is mentioned more than once that scientists in their universe have discovered that they are three-dimensional objects in a two dimensional world.

Many issues pay homage to a specific genre, there’s the fifties monster movie issue (one issue for American and one for Japanese) and, another issue is a tribute to “Rendevous with Rama” by Arthur C. Clarke.

If Planetary has perpetrated any crimes it’s that in some issues Ellis steps back and just lets Cassaday go for broke on the visuals. The first that comes to mind is the issue in which Elijah Snow (the main character of the series, an old man who has lost his memories) views the world on a molecular level. However, one can definitely argue that Cassaday’s art is worth showcasing.

Planetary is a great example of terse story telling. It’s 26 issues (plus 3 special crossovers that I unfortunately haven’t read yet). And that’s it. It reminds me of those handful of great TV series that were one and done like The Prisoner in the 60’s; Fawlty Towers in the 70’s (okay that had 2 British seasons but only 12 episodes total) and in recent times Firefly, or Strange Luck.

As far as ongoing storylines, the world of comicbooks is even worse than television. Superman and Batman have been fighting crime for 70 years. Spider-man and the rest of the Marvel universe have been at it for over 40 years. We love all of those characters because their adventures have thrilled us for many years, but how many of their adventures are fresh or completely original? Probably only a handful.

Unfortunately the price you pay for having a terse story is that there are unanswered questions or the story never goes the way you wanted it to. An example of this is, there was an important event in Snow’s life that took place on a submarine called the Nautilus. William Palmer, (a super villain and member of main baddies the Four, super villain versions of the Fantastic Four) destroyed the ship and a woman whom Snow loved was killed, but we never learn more than that. [My own theory is that it hints to Captain Nemo and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Snow had previously met Sherlock Holmes and Dracula].

One thing that’s great about Planetary is that its fight scenes are more realistic then in most comics. Ellis understands that most fights are more like a knife fight then a boxing match so his battles are quick and dirty. Also, the characters use their super powers very sparingly, but when they do use them they are accurately portrayed. One of the things that drives me nuts is that in comics when the Hulk hits a brick wall it crumbles, but when the Hulk hits a villain in the face it just knocks him out. The truth is the Hulk would probably literally punch his brains out. So it made me smile when at one point in Planetary the super-strong Jakita Wagner punches a villain and his head and spinal cord goes flying.

In the end, even though I appreciated the concise story telling, I wanted to read more Planetary adventures. The villains aren’t supposed to stay beaten the first time. They always come back for more, right?

Thoughts on "A Dance With Dragons" part 3

Part 3 of my Thoughts on “A Dance With Dragons” by George R. R. Martin.


House Greyjoy

The Greyjoys and all of the Ironborn get hit pretty hard in “Dance.” In “A Feast For Crows” you really started to get to know these people a little bit. You saw the Kingsmoot and got a feel for their culture (they are clearly based on the Vikings), they are a proud people who have always lived by the sword and they live on this one tiny archipelago. Since the rule of the Targaryens, the Ironborn have been handcuffed. Their islands can’t contain and sustain their numbers and yet when they raid in order to survive they face the wrath of a unified Westeros. Imagine what would have happened to the Vikings if there had been a European union in the Viking era.

Of course, I feel less sorry for the Ironborn when I realize that for the most part they’re a bunch of vain and arrogant pricks. Theon, Victorian and Euron all think they are God’s gift to women and believe it is their destiny to be great men, when in reality they are merely pawns in the game of thrones.

At the end of “Feast” I was convinced that the Ironborn were on an upswing, I didn’t imagine they’d conquer Westeros, but I thought they’d manage to eek out and hold onto some limited amount of territory. Instead, the Greyjoy’s conquests of Moat Catlin and Deepwood Motte were left without resupplies. Euron was more interested in fighting the Tyrells at the Shield Islands and sending 100 ships to impress Daenarys than protecting the toehold his brother Balon had envisioned.

My favorite chapter in the entire book was Asha Greyjoy’s first chapter. She holds Deepwood Motte, but she realizes that she can’t hold it forever without reinforcements. She knows her glory will be short lived, but she doesn’t care, she’s living the warrior life she was raised for. But, when the castle is attacked, she realizes it would be better to live than die fighting a losing battle. Her men feel the same way. They retreat into the forest hoping to get to their ships and just when they’re sure they’ve gotten away, they are ambushed in the darkness. But, her men seem determined to fight to their last breaths. Asha cuts down several men, but she is eventually overwhelmed. I read this and thought it was the perfect end for her character. The Ironborn or the Vikings both would have called her death glorious. I was kind of disappointed to see that she was still alive as Stannis’ prisoner.

Not Surprising Enough?!

I want to respond to the people that are criticizing Martin for not surprising us. Personally, I thought there were a lot of surprises in “A Dance with Dragons,” but these critic’s chief argument is “Well, people on the internet have been saying maybe Aegons alive for years.”

People on the internet have been saying it…So what! Does that mean Martin should
re-envision his story? “Oh, I’m not fooling them,” he thinks. “Instead of Aegon being alive, I’ll raise Baelor the Blessed from the dead. No one’s thought of that.”

People on the Internet have had years to think about this series. In that time they have come up with any number of theories. Ever hear the phase if you throw enough shit at the wall eventually something sticks? I’ve seen perfectly reasonable theories suggesting that Jon Snow, and/or Sam Tarly, and/or Tyrion Lannister are all Targaryens. [The last one is actually less far fetched after this novel because Barristan Selmy told Daenarys that Aerys II had the hots for Tyrion’s mom] But just because fans thought of it, it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be surprising. I mean, I could say I think Theon Greyjoy is secretly a Targaryen. If that turned out to be true, I’d still be quite surprised. Is Martin’s job to tell an exciting and consistent story or is his job to razzle-dazzle us?

If the answer is surprise, here are two Martin hasn’t thought of:

1) Bran’s next vision is of a burly bearded man sitting at a computer typing his family’s adventures.

2) Edric Storm is brought to King’s Landing and stands before Tommen’s small council in the throne room. They ask him where Stannis hid the Dragon Eggs that were rumored to have been on Dragonstone. Storm breaks down under the pressure and admits, “Stannis made me smuggle one of them up my butt.”

Oh, wait, Martin’s out of luck, he can’t use either of those ideas anymore, because I already thought of them; They’d not longer be a surprise.

Here is Part 2 of my review of "A Dance With Dragons"
Here is Part 1 of my review of "A Dance With Dragons"
Asha Greyjoy and Edric Storm artwork are from an Italian Game of Thrones site Terra-di-Mezzo

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Thoughts on "A Dance With Dragons" part 2


Part 2 of my Thoughts on “A Dance With Dragons” by George R. R. Martin.


This novel really began to illuminate the rest of the Ice and Fire world. Up until this novel I was convinced that the other places in the world were just kind of there, but not really important as far as the story Martin wanted to tell. They also never seemed real to me. Westeros, its people, and its culture has been examined at such length that it seems real to me. The rest of the world was just a couple of passages here and there and someplace for Daenarys to wreak some havoc. However, so much of “Dance” takes place outside of Westeros that you really start to get a feeling about the bigger picture. There is a whole world out there most of which could care less about Westeros

At the beginning of the novel, Tyrion meets Illyrio Mopatis, the Pentosi merchant who hid Daenarys and her brother. We’ve known since “Game of Thrones” that he’s been working with Varys, but we didn’t know why. Illyrio gives Tyrion several explanations such as gold and power, but I don’t buy those answers. I think Tyrion almost hits on the true answer when he looks at a map of the free cities and says something about how close they are to Westeros yet the Targaryens never moved across the Narrow Seas to conqueror them. Illyrio doesn’t want Daenarys to rule in Westeros for wealth or power, he wants her to rule in Westeros so she stays the hell out of Pentos.

Little People

In “Dance” Martin seems to write the “little people” better than his main characters. I don’t mean dwarfs. I mean the characters that only appear briefly. These throwaway characters had interesting stories that were often times only hinted at, but it was always enough that my imagination took over and filled in the gaps. The characters also had motivations that I readily understood like hatred, revenge, and lust. Characters like:

Lord Manderly- Since White Harbor is the only useful eastern port in the North, the Lannisters and the Freys are interested in currying his favor and yet Lord Manderly’s son Wendel was killed in the Red Wedding. Manderly hates the Freys and Lannisters but is unable to oppose them openly for political reasons. It is fun to see this bit of intrigue play out. And to see how when when he is trapped in Winterfell with the other nobles how hard it is for him to maintain his fa├žade as the days begin to pile on.

Lady Dustin- Who as I mentioned previously, blames Ned Stark for everything that has gone wrong in her life. Events that in her delusion are Ned’s fault include King Aerys II's burning Brandon Stark and others to death, The War of the Usurper and more specifically the death of her husband Lord William Dustin at the Tower of Joy.

House Blackwood and House Bracken- The two neighboring Houses have apparently had an ongoing feud reminiscent of the Hatfields and McCoys since before the recorded history of Westeros. In fact, both Houses believe that they were the “Kings” in the region during the time of the First Men and both House believe the other House betrayed them and usurped their rule. Everything possible has been done to end the feud including intermarriage, but somehow the feud continues. I also love the imagery that at the center of the Blackwood’s castle (Raventree Hill) is this tremendously large and completely dead weirwood tree. It’s been dead for a thousand years (The Blackwoods claim the Brackens poisoned the tree) and yet since weirwood doesn’t rot, the tree remains. Each night it is home to hundreds of ravens, that “cover the tree like black leaves.” Can you imagine what a depressing castle that must be? I think the Blackwoods would feel better about their lives if they moved out of that castle.

Main Characters

These kinds of “little characters” contrasted with some of Martin’s main characters whose motivations and reasonings were so murky that I often felt as if I didn’t understand the character at all despite the fact that the chapters were written from their perspective.

Daenarys Targaryen- I didn’t understand what was going through her head for the entire novel. The image I have of her from the previous novels is decisiveness. She struck me as the only character truly worthy to rule Westeros. In terms of arc, her story always goes from bad to worse and then she wows you at the end of the novel, but I felt like this was the first novel where she was just acting foolish the whole time. Couldn’t she see that she was fighting a losing battle in Meereen? She never had the hearts of the people. The Harpys would never stop and no ruler could ever change a culture in which slavery was so ingrained. She took away their livelihood their self-image and offered them nothing in return. Of course you could argue that Daenarys ends the story in a better position then before since she has mastered a dragon, but I would argue that I’m not sure if she ever learned a lesson about how to rule. I’ll be happy if she at least learned how not to rule.

John Snow- Martin got me again. I was positive that Jon was Martin’s fair-haired boy. Sure he had a bit of a rough time of it at the Wall, but he rose all the way up to Lord Commander in a few short years. I was also convinced like many fans that he was Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark’s child and that Eddard knew Jon would be killed by Robert if that was revealed…but none of that matters now does it?

Snow’s end shouldn’t have surprised me he spent the entire novel pissing off every living creature at the wall. Was he really oblivious to the fact that his men were just waiting for him to slip up so they could mutiny justifiably?

A lot of people are convinced that this is just a cliffhanger ending and that Jon Snow will end up being alive. I don’t know, I think it’s clear Jon is dead. Maybe Melisandre’s magic will revive him, but the Jon that returns will not be a brother of the Night’s Watch. Maybe he’ll become a nameless wildling, and he’ll romance Val… Or maybe he’s just dead!

Stannis Baratheon - continues to not impress me. He is a rigid man who does not believe in compromise. He lives in the shadow of a brother whom despite his faults was still a better man than Stannis will ever be. But, Stannis continues to barrel forward despite the fact that he is in over his head at every point. I do not believe he is dead as Ramsey’s letter stated. It was clear from the letter that Ramsey was looking for Theon and the false Arya. They were last seen with Stannis. Therefore it would seem that Ramsey hasn’t found him yet. Notice how there is no mention of Asha. Is it possible that Ramsey merely killed the Umbers that were standing outside Winterfell and banging their drums?

Theon Greyjoy- Reading his chapters was quite disturbing, in a series full of scum and villainy, Ramsey Snow/Bolton really takes the cake. He took Theon to a point through torture where Theon’s will snapped. Theon was no longer human instead he was a sort of sniveling animal thing. I mentioned this to a friend that hasn’t read “Dance” yet and he said that Theon sort of deserves what he got because of how he betrayed Winterfell. And he further commented that it is kind of ironic that I feel sorry for Theon despite his evil actions. And yet, I guess it’s just good writing because I can’t help but feel sorry for Theon. I wouldn’t wish what he went through on my worst enemy.

Tyrion Lannister- His chapters were always a highlight of the novel. They are full of humor and yet were by no means comic relief. Martin does not treat Tyrion with kid gloves, if anything Tyrion is put in extra-tough spots and yet always manages to somehow talk his way out of them. My favorite Tyrion moment is when he goes into a laughing fit because he realizes that Aegon took his bait and is going directly to Westeros and also realizes that despite the fact that he is technically Jorah Mormont’s prisoner, Mormont is taking him exactly where he wanted to go in the first place: to Daenarys. I fully expected Tyrion to meet Daenarys by the end of the novel and/or figured he might use his book-knowledge of Dragons to try and wrangle one of them. Instead his story kind of ends with a whimper and I just kind of went “is that it?”

Here is Part 1 of my review of "A Dance With Dragons"
Ramsey Bolton artwork is from an Italian Game of Thrones site Terra-di-Mezzo