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Month: September 2001

Scratchpad…

I’m going to use this forum to work out some ideas I’m having about film criticism. One of the advantages of using this page is that I can look at this material wherever I am and edit it online. So this is also an experiment in using the Blogger system as a creative tool of sorts.

Towards a Methodology of Journalistic Film Criticism

In thinking about reviewing films for the newspaper Tablet, I realized early on that there was no point in writing film reviews in the standard style. Specifically, I’m referring to the style seen in Tablet‘s primary competitors, The Stranger and Seattle Weekly, and to a lesser extent that seen in the two daily newspapers. This style is the predominant one of film criticism, and descends directly from academics: it is the style of film-studies critical analysis. As new generations of film journalists have graduated college and entered the profession, they have taken their stylistic cues from their classes. In turn, film-studies education is thoroughly the child of the French new wave, and is best exemplified in the work of Pauline Kael.

It isn’t necessary to identify particular elements of this style, because looking for specifics misses the point entirely–this is genuinely a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Modern film journalism is built on a flawed foundation, and its entire approach is askew as a result.

When students study films and write papers on them for class, they are doing so for a particular audience: the professor. His or her status as a professor isn’t the issue; the issue is so simple it’s easy to overlook. The professor has already seen the film.

In short, academic film criticism is meant to be an analysis between people who are all familiar with the subject. It is not intended for people who have not seen the film, because in the classroom environment the audience and the critics are one and the same.

That is fine in an educational context. It’s even fine in film-criticism magazines like Cahiers du Cinema–that kicked off the new wave by introducing the auteur theory and so forth.

The problem is this: academic film criticism has become the standard approach for journalistic film criticism. That is, the film criticism that appears in traditional periodic media for a broad audience–an audience who has not seen the film.

Film journalists write their reviews using the same approach they learned when writing academic film criticism, or they are aping the style of those who learned it that way. But because they know they are writing for an audience unfamiliar with the film at hand, and because they recognize that they are serving something of a consumer-guide role–is the film worth your money?–they are forced to hobble their review by keeping important elements of the film a secret. Readers rarely appreciate it when a film critic reveals plot twists, for example, or which characters live and die, and so forth.

As a result, journalistic film criticism limps. The demands of the academic style create tension with the restrictions of the journalistic mission. Academia demands that the review must be long enough to have substance–which probably means a couple thousand words or more–while journalism demands that it not give away too much of the plot. And where the academic style often leads to an idiosyncratic viewpoint, a preoccupation with some particular agenda or vision, the journalistic style demands a broad-based, somewhat populist viewpoint that is accessible to the publication’s target demographic. A film critic who wants to write about the roles of women in action films cannot write a review of a new Steven Seagal flick that focuses almost exclusively on the obligatory girlfriend character; he or she needs to write about the entire film or the audience is likely to complain.

The academic style is perfectly fine for forums where the audience can be assumed to have seen the film. But daily and weekly newspapers, where these reviews appear, are not such forums.

This suggests that there could be another way. That there could be such a thing as a journalistic film criticism style. This would be an approach that does acknowledge the consumer-guide nature of the material, while still providing insightful analysis and cinematic context.

I’ve come up with a draft version of such a style, and it goes like this.

Journalistic film criticism should, first and foremost, be brief. As a rule of thumb, 500-700 words seems sufficient. This is in part to exert discipline on the craft, and to ensure that the most important points are made clearly and swiftly. It is also to decrease the likelihood of giving away too much of the film.

A brief digression: when I criticize the practice of revealing too much, I’m not just talking about plot twists and big surprises. Even discussing a scene late in the film for purely aesthetic reasons–“the lighting during the scene where Sam finally tells off his boss…”–can spoil that scene. I’ve read reviews that have analyzed a particular scene, even briefly, and without it being a critical plot scene; but even so, when I watched the film and we got to that scene, I was thrown out of the experience. My first reaction was, “Oh, it’s that scene I read about.” The fact that the review intruded so far into the meat of the film meant that it likewise intruded on my thoughts as I watched the film. This should be avoided in the journalistic context.

So, we have brevity. Within our brief space, what are the key elements of a successful journalistic film review? In no particular order, I think they may be:

1) The nature of the film. Most simply, this is the genre. But beyond genre, it is possible to describe the emotional or tonal nature of a film. An action film could be oppressive, or light-hearted, or even moving. A romance could be tragic, uplifting, or merely predictable. What, in broad strokes, is the overall experience provided by the film? This is its nature.

2) The investment characters. The audience is expected to invest emotional value in some of the characters–usually the protagonists. Describe the characters and the actors’ portrayal, so that the reader has a sense of the people he or she is going to spend an evening with.

3) The context of the film. Compare and contrast the film to other films, perhaps of the same genre, by the same filmmakers, or whatever category is appropriate. This could be as simple as, “If you liked X then you’ll enjoy Y,” or it could be a brief description of how a romantic comedy defies the conventions of its form without actually mentioning any other films by name. The point is to place the film in its cinematic context, enabling the reader to better understand the likely nature of the experience.

4) Your opinion of the film. Most obviously, this is your summary of the film’s merits and flaws.

There are two key points I want to emphasize about this methodology.

First, its focus is holistic. Rather than waste space describing the plot, step back and look at the film as a whole–and more specifically, look at the film as an experience, the way you might describe a roller coaster or giving birth. Stop being obsessed with narrative, getting bogged down in who does what. Treat the film the way it deserves to be treated: as an art form that is not merely a story. Write about the holistic experience of watching the film.

Second, the goal is to let readers discover the film for themselves. You describe the experience, and from that the readers get a decent idea as to whether or not they will enjoy the film. Thus enabled, they may decide to see it. And because you have not rambled on about the rising action, the complications, the dynamics, they are free to discover the film, mindful of your overall impressions but fresh to the particulars of the experience.

The best experiences I have had watching a film have been when I didn’t even know what film I was about to see. By that I mean complete ignorance. I didn’t know the title, I hadn’t seen a poster, I knew nothing when the curtains parted and the projector started. I think this is the ideal way to see a film.

But such circumstances are rare. The closest we can come, perhaps, is to review films on the basis of the overall experience and context, leaving the film’s flickering moments untouched for the audience to discover and savor for themselves.

So, with the above in mind, here’s a review of a film I saw tonight.




The New Women

Armed with a digital video camera, a sharp script, and an energetic cast, writer-director Todd Hughes has crafted a lusty, funny tale of gender apocalypse. A freak storm puts the world’s men into comas, and the women of a small Arizona town are left to put things back together. Short on food, long on spite, and gleeful over the occasional comatose erection, they do their best in this proud-to-be-a-B movie.

Mary Woronov is Lisa, a middle-aged alcoholic with a cheating husband and a mountain of self-loathing. She is a grimy, trash-talking dame ready to crawl into a bottle when the world goes weird. That she remains eminently watchable is a tribute to Woronov, who keeps Lisa grounded in accessible reality even as she rises in true heroine fashion to the challenges of the surreal disaster.

Sandra Kinder is Tabby, a lecherous old broad with bottle-blond hair. She’s so lusty and vital that she emerges as a real favorite, ready to dish out insults and pseudo-wisdom at the drop of a dime. “Maybe it ain’t too late to get me a man–even if his name is Marge!” she cackles as she surveys the new social landscape. Tabby is written as something of a minor sidekick character, but the force of Kinder’s personality and raw-boned charm elevate her. You always want to know what she’s going to say next.

The other actors are all game to have fun. The film is full of saucy put-downs, shrieking harridans, and satires of feminist ideologies. The combination is a ribald stew of post-apocalypse movie cliches and powerful women, transforming the world of films such as The Road Warrior, Dawn of the Dead, and A Boy and His Dog with the sweeping force of its female perspective.

The whole film is clearly tongue-in-cheek, but the dynamics of the main characters are credible and the whole thing is grounded by Woronov’s un-Hollywood performance and perpetually hungover looks. She’s just superb.

I found the first few minutes to be a bit rocky. The DV look was initially something of a turnoff, and it took some time to get in tune with the script’s trashy-fun style. But soon I was hooked, and the movie just flew by. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny, and the more I studied the image quality the more impressed I was with the technical achievements of this digital feature film. The audio is also excellent, especially given this film’s utterly independent, self-produced nature.

I don’t know how you’ll ever see this film. It’s playing at various festivals, but it doesn’t have any other theatrical release and isn’t going to show up at Blockbuster. But should it cross your path, don’t be concerned that it might be some humorless diatribe about male fascism–it’s just a B-movie cocktail of tough chicks and trash talk that’s pure entertainment.


Well, there’s a first time for everything. That review is just under 500 words. I think it covers the four points sufficiently, and hopefully it’s clear that you don’t have to cover them as mechanically as I did here.

So the test of this review is simple: if this film were playing at your local theater, do you feel you have enough information to decide whether or not you’d like to see it? Even if you didn’t go see it, was the review itself interesting enough to be worth reading? And is there anything else you really want to know?

Some other thoughts:

I didn’t mention that the film is in black and white. It just didn’t occur to me that this would be important. Is it?

There was a bit of dialogue that was really great, and I very much wanted to talk about it in the review. But unlike the bit of dialogue I did quote, explaining the context of that line would have revealed some plot chunks. They aren’t necessarily critical or even important chunks, but I think describing the scene here would have lessened your hypothetical enjoyment when you actually saw it on screen. That was hard to leave alone, because I so wanted to share it–and in an academic film review, I could have. But it’s for the best.

Although I only cited two main characters, there’s a third–Lisa’s sister, who is really the co-star of the film. But I never got very invested in her. Her role in the film is mostly to annoy Lisa, and their eventual reconciliation isn’t very affecting. In a traditional review I would have talked about this, and analyzed why that’s the case. I didn’t here. Because really–what does it matter? Yes, it’s something of a flaw in the film. But it’s not an important flaw, and having me tell you that the sister isn’t very affecting doesn’t really have much impact on your decision to see it. At most, it interferes as you watch because you’d keep thinking, “Damn that guy was right. The sister is kind of blah.” It’s not informative, it’s just analytical. And while analysis clearly plays a role in this methodology, it’s within something of a narrow field.

I also wanted to praise the main title graphics, but that’s just being pedantic.

Well, that’s enough of this for now. If you’ve read this far, please email me and tell me what you think of that review and this whole internal dialogue I’m spitting out here about journalistic film criticism.

And if you’d like to know more about The New Women, check out the official website.

Interesting day today. For starters, I attended my first press screening as a bona fide film critic. I’m covering the Seattle Underground Film Festival for a local alternative paper called Tablet, a bi-weekly tabloid about a year old.

SUFF is a three-year-old film festival devoted to genuinely independent films, especially short experimental works. It runs about nine days and has a pretty sweet line-up this year. Take a look at their online program for a peek at the cool stuff they’re screening:

http://www.seattleundergroundfilm.com/

Today at the advance press screening the SUFF staff showed us several short films and one feature. The shorts included two standouts: Family Values, a short documentary profiling a lesbian couple in Philadelphia, one of whom is a cop and the other of whom runs a business cleaning up bloody crime scenes. It’s a very funny and charming little film. The other winner was The $250 Nieman-Marcus Cookie Recipe, based on an enduring urban legend. The story goes that a Nieman-Marcus shopper asks for the recipe to the store’s café cookies, and the waitress tells her the recipe would cost “two fifty”. This proves to be $250, and the star of the urban legend gets revenge by distributing the recipe via the internet, faxes, etc., asking recipients to pass it on. It’s all nonsense, of course. In the short film version, we see these events unfold and then spiral into surreal black humor, with a Nieman-Marcus crisis team ordering executions of people with the recipe and so on. It was damned funny and quite clever, even with fuzzy audio.

The feature was a real winner. Here’s the short review I wrote up for Tablet, which should appear in their next issue:




The Wedding Cow

Flora is a daffy but intrepid librarian. Tim is a plumber with little courage but a kind heart. And Hannah–well, Hannah is a cow. The three of them lope through the German film The Wedding Cow with an endearing awkwardness, and they make this movie’s one-night-only engagement at the Seattle Underground Film Festival worth seeking out.

The Wedding Cow is a road movie. Flora and Tim are lonely, somewhat hapless people traveling through the back roads of rural Germany far from the autobahn. It’s also a screwball romantic comedy that never goes to the heights of lunacy seen in American films such as Bringing Up Baby, but it has a modest charm all its own.

The plot isn’t really important, nor is the by-the-numbers happy ending–which is precisely the obligatory ending the universe of such films both demands and deserves. Love triumphs, no matter how improbably. And that’s just fine.

The characters are lovable. Flora is earnest, naive, and adorable in her babbling, clumsy way, but with a core of grit and resolve that prevents her from just being a silly-movie-girl character; it is always her decisions that move events forward. And Tim is Elmer Fudd, in those cartoons where he swoons dreamy-eyed over Bugs Bunny but is always on the brink of erupting in sputtering comic fury.

This is a feel-good movie. It’s probably the only feel-good movie playing in Seattle that’s actually worth watching. And it’s only playing for one night. Go see this film. You’ll feel good. And that’s just fine.

The Wedding Cow plays at 7:30 p.m., Friday, October 5, at the Little Theatre on Capitol Hill.


I got some work done at the studio for a while and then joined Karen for dinner at her friend Nic’s apartment. Nic hosted a little gathering for about ten friends at which we met Curt Firestone, a city council candidate in this fall’s election. I voted for Firestone in the primary last week so I was already sold, but it was interesting to meet the guy in person, hear his statements, and grill him about the issues that concern me. It was actually a little weird to sit there in this little bohemian living room with an actual city council candidate, talking about market-rate housing and the monorail project. Firestone is running against the incumbent, Jan Drago. Drago would be a model council member in most cities, but in Seattle we have enough model council members that we can afford to be pickier than usual. Of course, I think “Jan Drago” sounds like a James Bond villain and that’s reason enough to boot her off the council.

After Firestone went off to another event someplace else, we sat around and talked politics for a while. It was a potluck dinner and Karen brought ears of corn, incredibly fresh and sweet from a little vegetable market. I just rode on her potluck coattails, carrying the pot. I’m learning this is one of the handy things about being a couple–your partner does the work and you get to share credit. Sweet!

And in other news, it looks like my friend Ray Winninger is leaving Chicago and moving to Seattle with his girlfriend Christine. I’m very pleased–Ray is a good friend and it’ll be terrific to have them here. I went to Las Vegas for a week this past spring with Ray and Christine, and we had a blast.

Eh, time for bed.

A couple movie reviews this time, as I catch up on recent viewings…

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

I rented this the evening of the 11th, as a way to decompress from the events of the day. Watching it again confirmed my original impression: it’s occasionally charming and often humorous, but it’s also the worst film the Coens have made. It doesn’t engage you very much, and some of the big set pieces just don’t play that well. Big Lebowski struck me the same way originally, but it swiftly grew on me and it’s now one of my favorite Coen films. This one is mildly fun, but just didn’t work for me that well.

Hard Eight

Caught this one on cable. I guess I qualify as a P.T. Anderson fan, although I found Boogie Nights to be somewhat hollow–the main character was such a cipher that he merely served as the vehicle by which we got to meet the actual interesting people in the story, yet that does not seem to have been the intention. Magnolia I loved, though, so I was glad to finally get around to checking out PTA’s first film. It proved to be better than I expected. Even until the final fifteen minutes, I thought it was going to be something of a shaggy-dog story without any real point. But I was wrong, and it proved to be a solid piece of work with a strong cast. Worth watching.

Time and Tide

Tsui Hark made some terrific Hong Kong action flicks, including the Jet Li wuxia classics Once Upon A Time In China (I-III) and the Chow Yun-Fat gangster movie Full Contact. In the latter film, Hark took a swing at visual stylization using a shot I called “bulletvision,” where in the climactic gunshots the camera follows the bullet through the room to its target. Fun stuff. Well, Hark followed John Woo to America but couldn’t shake the Jean-Claude Van Damme curse, making two films with the lumbering Belgian and failing to break out into better projects. So Hark went back to Hong Kong and made this film and I’ll be damned if it’s not the best HK action flick I’ve seen since Hard Boiled. Hark has drop-kicked the stylistic elements of gun-fu action movies way further than anyone else, putting not just the current crop of American copycats but even Woo himself to shame–Woo’s U.S. movies have been entertaining, but his once-per-act, go-for-broke stylism doesn’t match up to Hark’s constant onslaught of flashy camera work. While Hark doesn’t go for the emotional heights that Woo hits routinely, Hark does end up with better action sequences than we’ve seen in years. I think he’s also lifted his jittery narrative, voiceovers, and opening/closing moods from Wong Kar Wai’s work, particularly the mildly action-oriented Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. But where Kar Wai, like Woo, puts his visual technique in the service of emotional arcs, Hark is a purist: an aesthetician of movie violence, and nothing but. All told, Hark has spent his years in American exile building up to something really tremendous, and Time and Tide is it. A must-see for HK action fans.

I’d like to recommend a book that I began reading before the WTC attack, one that I’ve returned to since and have found to be helpful and moving. Haruki Murakami is a Japanese novelist, and one of my favorite authors. In 1997 he wrote a non-fiction book–his first–called Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche.

Rather than write a true-crime sort of book that examines the Aum Shinrikyo cult and their sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, Murakami takes a different approach. The book is a collection of first-person testaments by people who were on the subway that day. Survivors, in other words.

Their accounts are not merely blow-by-blow stories of that morning on the trains. Murakami introduces us to each person, describing his or her life, family, job, and so on. Their statements talk about the mundanities of their daily life, the attack itself, and what their lives have been like since that time.

The stories are moving, harrowing, and often beautiful. The diversity of experiences and lives lived is striking, as is their differing viewpoints on what the experience has meant to them. Some still suffer serious medical problems as a result of the nerve gas, while others bear mental scars from that day.

Throughout, Murakami’s grace and compassion are on quiet display. Very little of the writing is his per se, though in editing the dozens of interviews he conducted down to first-person narratives, his fluid style and heartfelt emotion over this tragedy is evident.

Two consecutive pieces are especially powerful, those of a man and his younger sister. She was on the train that day, and he was not. At the time of the interview, she was still hospitalized, almost completely paralyzed, and with no memory of her life before the attack. Yet she has gone from a vegetative state to a point where she is making new memories, and can carry out simple conversations. Her brother’s account comes first, in which he speaks of his great love and respect for his little sister and how kind a person she always was. He recounts dropping her off at the station that morning, and then the ensuing confusion and sorrow as she entered the hospital. His punishing schedule of commuting to work and to the hospital to visit her is heart-rending–the man is slowly being beaten down by his responsibilities. In the second account, Murakami takes a rare position as narrator to describe his visit to the woman in the hospital. Before the attack, her favorite place to go was Tokyo Disneyland. Now she seems to have no memories of those trips, but her family has spoken of them to her so often that she has become determined to go there again. Disneyland exists only to her as a distant concept, almost a religious one, not anything she really has any practical understanding of. It is her equivalent of paradise, an elysium she aspires to as best as her now-reduced faculties allow.

I am not done reading this book. Reading it before the WTC attack, I found it moving but also sort of curious, like an odd trinket. The cultural differences between America and Japan are vivid in these stories, tales of people desperate to go back to work lest they somehow fail in their responsibilities to society. It was in some respects a travelogue of a mental space rather than a physical one.

Picking it up again now, the people seem much more real and present. Where before I saw differences, and felt a sort of alienation from their way of life, now I only see commonality. A family, a young worker, a retired bank manager–their lives are so ordinary, so familiar. Their attempts to find the goodness in their experience, to cherish the moments that have meant to much in the midst of such destruction, are inspiring and saddening at the same time.

When I think of the recent attack, I have a recurring image in my mind. I see a vast grassland, a wave of green that meets crisply against the blue sky. In the grass are five thousand empty chairs. They are not identical. Every chair is different. New and old, office chairs, moth-eaten armchairs from a thrift store, aging chairs covered in fresh fabrics, chairs worn smooth from familiarity like a river stone, chairs from kindergarten cafeterias and corporate board rooms. All sit in silence, as the wind gently blows the grass like the waves of an ocean. Slowly night falls.

I encourage you to get a copy of Murakami’s book. So many of us are so far removed from what we are seeing on the television, nowhere near the devastation and perhaps not knowing someone who was there that day. Murakami has written a book that introduces you to one life after another, a panoply of humans who have lived through the maelstrom but live with it still every day of their lives.

You can order the book from Amazon.com. Get a copy and read it, and while you’re there send some money to the Red Cross. Then let Murakami take you by the hand and show you humanity, in all its varied forms, persevering through crisis.

Apropos of nothing department:

Boong Ga Boong Ga is a Japanese arcade game where you physically jam a big cartoon finger into the plastic replica of a woman’s butt, and watch the screen as her animated face contorts with surprise and, uh, whatever.

http://www.geocities.co.jp/Hollywood/8943/boong/

You’ll also see what are allegedly the game’s mascots in costume form: a big foam hand with extended finger and a walking turd.

(And in passing, I should note that below that is a mascot from a Japanese Playstation 2 video game, where you control a vacuum cleaner and try to pull the shorts off of monkeys. The game is available in the Seattle area, though only for Japanese-made PS2s.)

There’s a tamer variation intended for the U.S. called “Spank ‘Em!” where you spank the plastic butt instead. The images below are flyers from the manufacturer; the second is in English and well worth looking at. In “Spank ‘Em!” you get to spank all sorts of villainous types, including ex-boy/girlfriends, con artists, and of course child molesters. Ah, the relaxing joys of videogaming!

http://www.retrogames.com/images/boonga.jpg

http://www.retrogames.com/images/boonga-e.jpg

Well, all kinds of shit blew up today.

I was awakened around 7am Pacific time by a phone call from my mom in Memphis. I asked her what was wrong, because she’d called several times to wake me up, and she said, “Well, it might be the start of World War III.” As she told me what had happened, I responded with various vague, shocked comments: “Oh God . . . oh, no . . .”

My girlfriend, Karen, heard my end of the conversation. Thinking it was some family tragedy, she wrapped her arms around me as I listened to the phone. But it wasn’t my family tragedy. It was that of thousands of people in New York, Washington, and all who love them.

I spent most of the day watching the news. Early on I got a phone call from Thomas Ryng, the playwright who wrote THE KING IN YELLOW, which we published last year. Thom commutes to Seattle each day from Tacoma by train, and having just arrived in downtown Seattle he discovered that the office building he worked in was closed, and authorities were shutting down the rest of the downtown core as well. He called to ask if he could stay with us for a few hours, so he hopped a bus and came on over.

Karen decided to head off to her studio for a bit, but first she got coffee and pastries for us. We watched, horrified, as the towers collapsed live on television.

My friend Mike Daisey is living in Brooklyn these days, far from downtown Manhattan, but he’s often in the city to visit his publisher and so forth. Rather than call him directly, I called his wife, Jean-Michele, who is still here in Seattle for a couple weeks. My call woke her up. I told her first that I was sure Mike was fine, being in Brooklyn, but that these attacks had happened. She said she’d try to reach him. She soon did, and Mike was fine. He was in the heart of Manhattan at a coffeeshop when the planes hit, and soon took refuge in a Wendy’s restaurant with other people, choking on the ash in the air before he eventually walked his way across the Brooklyn Bridge. Amazingly, during periods when he couldn’t get his phone to work, he still had a wireless internet connection and, using the Blogger service, posted a couple of reports on his website about the day’s horrors.

As the day wore on, a few people called. Dennis Detwiller, who went to college in New York and grew up on Long Island, rang up to talk. He was on the Jersey train heading for the World Trade Center back during the last terrorist bombing there. Dennis wondered if this was the prelude to a biochemical attack. Chris Klepac called as well, to see what we’d heard. And Blair Reynolds arrived from Wenatchee, entering the house with a backpack of survival supplies and a rifle because, well, I guess you never know.

Scott made red beans and rice and we ate and watched television. Scott and Thom had a beer.

Watching, I wondered about the hijackers. How had they taken four planes?

But I already had ideas. I’ve done a lot of flying this year, and early in the year I got my first cell phone. Not a single security checkpoint staffer has ever x-rayed or chemical-sniffed my cell phone. I take it out of my pocket and drop it in the plastic bucket with my keys and change, then walk through the metal detector. The guard asks me to pick up my phone and press a button so they can see the display change.

That’s it. That’s all they do.

It’d be child’s play to modify a cell phone to have a partially functional display, then put a knife, a small quantity of explosives, or a modified small-caliber firearm. Perhaps there are security elements in place I’m not aware of. But I feel confident that I could get almost any small item on board a plane just by spending a few minutes removing some of the guts from my cell phone. Authorities in eastern Europe have captured customized cell-phone handguns in the last few months, but this discovery apparently didn’t prompt any changes in U.S. domestic airport security.

Even if all they did was bring a couple of knives on board, they can take a hostage, stab someone, and hold up a random attache case and claim there’s a bomb inside. And it’s easy to bring a knife on board inside a cell phone, or even buried in checked baggage; hell, I’ve brought box cutter knives on board a plane before in my carry-on bags when shuttling to trade shows, along with other booth supplies.

I could hijack a plane this way. As long as you have the right–well, wrong–people, including a pilot, you’re set.

Clearly, our security procedures are insufficient. As little as I like flying now, I bet I’m going to like it even less in the future.

After taking Thom to the train station in the late afternoon to catch his return ride, I went to my studio for a couple of hours to work on the press kit for the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. Once I had a draft together, I emailed it to Andrew Migliore in Portland and then gave him a call. Andrew sounded shellshocked. He said he’d been at work that morning, but after an hour or so the owners told everyone to go home “and love your families.” So he’d been home with his wife and baby son ever since. He was amazed I’d actually gotten the press kit together, but after a day of soaking in misery I had to do something.

Having now come home, had some dinner, and watched yet more misery, I’m ready to give up for the day. I rented a DVD copy of O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? because I’m in the mood for something silly.

Now I’m going to turn off this computer and watch hillbillies go hee-yukking across the countryside. I want to erase this taste from my mouth.

I’ve been slow with the dispatches of late, and I must apologize. The power cable for my laptop died, and since I ususally write these things in the evenings on ye laptop, well there you have it.

Tonight is Scott Glancy’s 35th birthday party. His girlfriend Jane has arranged a shindig here at our house. (Mitch Gitelman on our house: “I’ve been to the Pagan house. It’s all cat piss and speed loaders.” Ken Hite on our house: “It’s like a frat house for serial killers.”) I’m looking forward to it. Thanks to Jane moving in we now have a five foot tall Poppinfresh made of styrofoam. Poppinfresh–I’m not actually sure how you spell this–is the corporate mascot for one of those frozen-pastry companies. He’s the little plump white guy in a chef’s hat who giggles when you poke his belly, like some fallen buddha.

My girlfriend Karen has returned from three months abroad: Crete, Mongolia, and eastern Russia. She won’t be at Scott’s party tonight because, of course, she’s off climbing Mt. Rainier this weekend. Did I tell you that I’m dating Lara Croft these days? She’s a real action figure. Though she hastened to add that she wasn’t climbing to the top of Mt. Rainier. She’s part of a volunteer group who is spending the weekend replanting along the trails where the summer hikers have worn down the vegetation. So no sheer ascent using crampons, or other feminine hygiene products for that matter.

I’ve seen four movies lately, so it’s time to catch up on these things. I’ve applied to write a movie-review column for a local alt-paper; we’ll see what happens.

Ghosts of Mars

Inexplicably, John Carpenter stopped making good movies about a decade ago. I think Prince of Darkness was his last good film, though I may be forgetting one. His last film, Vampires, was dreadful and I went to Ghosts of Mars with low expectations. Indeed, I was planning to skip it altogether–as I skipped Planet of the Apes–but my friend Ray Winninger saw it and said it wasn’t half-bad. He’s right. Ghosts of Mars is a big improvement over Vampires, though it’s still a pretty mediocore movie overall. I suspect the reason why it’s not terrible is because it’s a pretty direct remake of Carpenter’s early film Assault on Precinct 13, a solid action thriller. This time Precinct 13 is on Mars, and it’s possessed miners instead of gang members, but otherwise it’s very similar. Carpenter does a good job building mystery and tension here, but his action scenes are lackluster. The fight choreography is vintage Mannix, and there’s very little actual menace created once the fight breaks out. Ho-hum overall, but if you’re getting dragged off to watch it you don’t have to struggle too much.

Jeepers Creepers

Damn, but this one caught me by surprise. Scott and I snuck into this after leaving Ghosts of Mars, and we didn’t really know what to expect. What we found was a very well-plotted horror flick with credible characters and an ending that holds onto its balls in a way few Hollywood horror flicks do these days. A brother and sister driving home for spring break encounter a weirdo dumping what appear to be bodies into a big old pipe that leads beneath the ground, next to a creepy abandoned church. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that for an opening. The early scenes with the two kids are really good, and they actually come off as credible siblings. There’s some real scares and tension here, and also some very deft composition and cinematic storytelling. The characters also do something rare in horror films: they actually break out of their hermetic cinematic horror-world and go straight to the cops, complete with evidence. The police get involved in sensible ways, but of course are ill-prepared to deal with the situation. Still, it’s an improvement over the usual horror flick where the characters never make contact with the police or the cops ignore them. This film actually lets the authorities get involved, and then finds creative ways of keeping the story going even so. Bravo. Towards the end, the movie lets us see the monster too much; but keeping it shadowy would have meant a very different third act, so at least they stuck with it and found interesting ways to unveil their rubbersuitasaurus. And again, the very ending is a gut-punch that I had to admire for staying true to itself. Good work all around. Not a great film, but a surprisingly well-crafted one that left me pleased.

Ghost World

I saw this film at the festival back in the spring and wrote about it then. But when Karen came home and asked what was the best movie she’d missed this summer, I said “Ghost World” without hesitating. It’s true–this is a really remarkable film, with genuine honesty and integrity as well as a great sense of humor and verisimilitude. My only complaint is that the final scenes feel jumbled. I think they should have dropped the last scene with Buscemi and found a more poetic way to stitch together the stuff with Enid and the bus bench. But that’s a minor complaint in the face of a really magnificent film that’s got more brains, heart, and humor than anything else out so far this year.

The Others

I think I reviewed this guy’s previous film, Open Your Eyes, which I quite liked. This one is even better. Nicole Kidman is really amazing as a woman living in a Victorian mansion with her two children on an English Channel island. A trio of servants comes to work for them, and strange hauntings ensue. The film is creepy and beautifully shot, and while I singled out Kidman for praise, the truth is the whole cast is just superb. Really, it’s a marvelous piece of work and I enjoyed it a great deal.

Well, that’s this dispatch from Revland. Hopefully I’ll get a new power cable next week and return to these in earnest.