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Month: October 2001

So busy lately…I’m very much behind on these dispatches. A little restitution tonight I suppose.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition

A superb documentary about the 1914-1916 journey to Antarctica by Sir Ernest Shackleton and a crew of two dozen. Their ship, the Endurance, became trapped in ice floes and they spent more than a year surviving in the arctic before escaping–and every man returned alive. It’s a harrowing ordeal. This documentary benefits from the trip being so well-documented: several crew members kept journals, which are quoted extensively, and actual motion-picture footage shot by a crew member–as well as numerous photographs–adds greatly to the project. Solid work, with an exceptional subject. (Also look for The Forbidden Quest, a superbly creepy fictional documentary about a Lovecraftian expedition to the south pole that enters a mystical realm–it uses footage from the Shackleton expedition as part of the film.)


We convened the Bad Movie Club to go check out this gold-plated turkey, and sure enough it was terrible. Not delightfully terrible, though. It’s no Battlefield Earth or Mission to Mars. Still, it had its moments of sublime stupidity. The devil dog that projectile-vomited maggots in a fire-hose volume was a real standout, as were the wisecracking severed heads. Crud-dee.

From Hell

Bleh. Uninspired Ripper flick that methodically sands off all the sharp edges from the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. At every turn, the film embraces convention and mediocrity where the source material demands anything but. I recall enjoying the Hughes brothers’ last film, Dead Presidents, and this was a disappointment.

Last Friday Karen and I went to a pretty interesting art exhibit. It was called Seclusion. We arrived at the gallery at about 7pm with a tent, sleeping bags, etc., and were loaded onto vans with the windows blacked out. They then drove us for about an hour to the proverbial undisclosed location, which proved to be a little house in the woods. We pitched tents and then were ready for the exhibit proper.

The organizers marked trails through the woods with long strings of Christmas lights. Along the trails were various art installations. The night was pitch black, and as a special bonus it rained the entire time. It was also rather cold.

But the effect was terrific: stumbling through the wet and the dark, in the muck and the tree roots and the vines, following a pulsing, dotted line of light into the gloom, and occasionally some bizarre display emerging from the shadows.

In a normal gallery, little of the art would have really impressed me. But the environment made it all worthwhile.

The next morning, we emerged to still more rain. The organizers made us all breakfast, and then we packed our sodden selves back into the vans and returned to civilization. All told, it was a pretty fantastic event and a real pleasure.

Lots of stuff going on, and the result is that I’m just stupid busy. The X-Box videogame I’m working on has gotten back on track, after several months where the development team was sidetracked on another game in the same studio. These guys are Bungie Studios, now owned by Microsoft. The game I’m writing for hasn’t been announced yet, so I can’t say anything about it. But work on it has resumed now that their game Halo has wrapped up, and I’m back writing stuff for them.

At the same time, I’m trying to finish laying out the Godlike roleplaying game. It’s not quite as big as Delta Green: Countdown, but it’s big–360 pages.

My movie-review work for Tablet continues, though somewhat slowly given that it’s a bi-weekly paper. I wrote the first installment of my new monthly column recently, and it’ll be out sometime soon. I’ll link to the online version when the paper is published. Today I went to a press screening of Endurance, and tomorrow I’m picking up a video screener of a new film called The American Astronaut. I know nothing about this latter film except for what I just saw on IMDB, which is that it’s apparently a sci-fi musical comedy. Hot dang! That should be curious. Anyway, I’ll be writing reviews of both films for Tablet later this week.

Finally, I’m talking with a small computer-game studio in town about a project and spent some time this week working on the proposal. It’s something I’m pretty enthused about…we’ll see what happens.

Karen and I went to a pumpkin-carving party recently. I carved my pumpkin with a large heart and the word “LOVE”. Why? I dunno. It just seemed like the thing to do. I’ve always had a streak of perverse defiance in me, and I guess this is how it manifested for the season. Peculiar.

Tomorrow night is Halloween, a holiday I usually enjoy and look forward to. Last year was fantastic–the Pagan Publishing 10th Anniversary Party was a smashing success. But this year, the HPL Film Festival was so close to Halloween, and I’ve been so damn busy this month, that I just don’t have any enthusiasm. Karen is in the same boat, very busy with a book illustration project. I think we’re just going to curl up and watch a scary movie–I’m thinking of showing her the original version of The Haunting.

I’m pretty consistently broke these days, which is difficult. This year I’ve taken on auto insurance, a work studio rental, and a laptop lease, with the result being that my monthly expenses have tripled. But given that they were almost non-existent before, that’s not saying much. It’s a good lesson for me–I need to get used to finding ways to earn more money. Living at the poverty level for years on end can be comfortable, in a weird sort of way, but at some point you realize that you aren’t getting any younger and you need to change your life around.

I’ve been thinking lately about horror, and about how best to create it in the course of telling a story in some medium. I’ve been aware of this for a while but it’s only recently that I’ve been articulating it to myself. So I thought I’d write it down now while I’m thinking about it again.

The most potent forms of fear are internal. It’s not the adrenaline panic of being ambushed or pursued. It’s the fear your own mind creates out of an ambiguous situation. When you’re alone in a dark house and you think you hear a noise, the fear you feel is what your mind comes up with out of that ambiguity. There’s nothing objectively wrong or threatening. It’s your own mind that threatens you by attempting to map a coherent pattern onto incoherent data.

In roleplaying games, I’ve seen this work and experienced it myself. Let’s say that you have assembled a set of clues to a mystery. You’re sitting there at the table and nothing in particular is happening, so you’re sifting through these pieces of paper and trying to put it together. And suddenly you make a connection between the clues and you have a realization. It isn’t spelled out anywhere. There isn’t a sentence you overlooked that explains the mystery. It’s just that you’ve made the connections and suddenly an explanation appears in your mind that’s frightening. And you start to panic a little, and you wave your arms or say something to get the attention of the other players, and you start babbling, trying to explain what you’ve just realized. That terror, that sudden vertiginous feeling of plunging into the dark heart of a mystery, is a tremendous sensation. It works because you scare yourself, not because the game master scares you outright.

I got an inkling of this idea a long time ago, when I was in high school. There was news of a tropical storm, and the newscaster explained how storms are named alphabetically starting at the first of the year, so the first storm is named something that begins with A and then the second begins with B and so on–Andrea, Betty, Camille. And I thought: what if you were watching the news and you heard about a tropical storm named Wanda. And it’s just another storm, no big deal, but then you realize that means it’s the 23rd storm of the year, and that’s a weird and terrible thing that there have been so many.

If you want to scare someone in a story, it’s best if the audience makes a realization that the characters don’t. This may be because you’ve been privy to information they haven’t witnessed, or simply because you’re thinking about things in a way they aren’t. So the story gives you A and B, and you put them together and get C and that’s what scares you.

This happens in a relationship when your partner is having an affair. The most tortuous event in that situation isn’t when your partner says, “I’m in love with someone else.” It’s before, when you come across A and B and those incidents mean nothing in themselves, and they don’t even prove anything, but they suggest something. And that something is C: your partner is having an affair. But it’s internal. It’s a thought, not an objective reality. So it tortures you. You obsess on A and B, turning them over in your mind, trying to see if they really do add up to C. When your partner tells you the truth, that’s D: definite. And that’s horrible. But C…C is what really tears you to pieces.

Good horror storytelling is all about C.

Mulholland Drive

I’ve been a David Lynch cultist for years. I’ve enjoyed all of his films, including Dune and Fire Walk With Me. When I saw FWWM, I left the theater and told my companion: “I feel like there are insects crawling under my skin.” After watching Mulholland Drive, my only reaction was that it sucked.

That’s a real bummer. I’ve been looking forward to this film for months. And it sucked.

I feel that if Lynch had just released the TV pilot that the movie is built on as it was, it would have been fine. We would have a story that was still full of possibility and ambiguity. We could have wondered for years: where was that storyline going? What was that character up to? It would have been a wonderful, unsolvable mystery.

Instead, Lynch went back to it and built it into something else. Something that, while still unsolvable and ambiguous, is nonetheless a closed system to which nothing more needs to be added. And that closed system is itself not very intriguing or satisfying.

I can and do respect Lynch’s dedication to following his own visions and ideas, even to the extent that he destroys narrative and betrays audience satisfaction. But that doesn’t mean I have to respect the resulting work, and I don’t. I think he started off telling one kind of story and then tried to turn it into a very, very different kind of story, and that he failed to do so in a successful way.

It’s a real letdown. There are certainly elements in the film that I really liked. But overall, it just sucked.

A brief note: despite my recent notes on journalistic film criticism, I’m not employing that format in my own film reviews here on Revland–this isn’t a suitable forum for that approach. I’ll continue writing my personal reviews however I feel like it from film to film.

A brief note to myself: I still need to review…

The Bride With White Hair

the one I’ve forgotten that I rented because Avalon was checked out . . .

Tremors 3: Back to Perfection

Quatermass and the Pit

Blood: The Last Vampire

Conspirators of Pleasure

Czech animator/filmmaker Jan Svankmajer is a master of eccentricities. This film, almost entirely without dialogue, charts the paths of six characters with strange personal fetishes. Most of the film consists of these people traveling around, gathering the materials they need for their fetish, and laying the groundwork for their personal epiphanies. One guy is buying scrub brushes, the fingertips of latex gloves, and nails. A woman tears off small hunks of bread and rolls them into little balls. A man builds a papier-mâché mask of a rooster from torn-up strips of porn magazines. And on and on. You spend the first two-thirds of the film baffled as to what they’re up to, and then everything comes together in humorous ways.

Despite the subject matter, this is a pretty humorous film. It’s a lot like that child’s boardgame Mousetrap, where you build the enormously complicated and ridiculous machine, then turn it loose. The movie is a long set up for several jokes that pay off in unexpected ways.

Although the film is live-action, it incorporates some elements of the stop-motion animation Svankmajer was originally known for in his short films. His features have been predominantly live-action, beginning with Alice and then Faust, this film, and his most recent, Little Otik. Like the Brothers Quay in Institute Benjamenta, he chose to work with real people when he made the jump to features. Unlike them, he rejected the self-consciously arty and went for more accessible, but even more bizarre, forms of entertainment.

Iron Monkey

A far better HK kung fu flick than I expected. Stunning action throughout, with a solid if uninspired story. Amazing, amazing stunt work and plenty of it. It’s also interesting to see because it’s sort of the Chinese version of Young Indiana Jones. The story features a young character named Wong Fei Hong, who is a wildly popular and long-lived character over there. The HK film industry has produced dozens of Wong Fei Hong films over the course of decades. We don’t really have a similar phenomenon here, unless you think of “Wong Fei Hong films” the way you think of “cowboy films.” Not that he’s a cowboy, but the character himself is sort of a genre that is up for grabs by anyone.

Wong Fei Hong is a fictional character, a shaolin monk, herbalist, and do-gooder who roams late 19th-century China with a western-style umbrella as his weapon. Jet Li played him in the Once Upon A Time In China movies, and Jackie Chan played him in Drunken Master 2.

In this film, Wong is a young boy traveling with his father–who is a shaolin monk, herbalist, and do-gooder in mid 19th-century China with a western-style umbrella as his weapon. The pair hook up with a masked hero, a Robin Hood sort who is fighting an oppressive governor. Mayhem ensues.

The film must be slightly odd for those who aren’t familiar with Wong Fei Hong. The story would be a perfectly serviceable one without the odd doctor and his butt-kicking young son, so the fact that these characters join the main story and pretty much take it over is a little weird. So is the close-up at the end of the film, where young Wong beams at the audience in one of those “We all know who I grow up to be!” moments that will be lost on much of the U.S. theater-going public. Once you understand who Wong is and that this is in large part a tale of his youth–his origin story, if you will–the film probably seems a lot more sensible. In any event, it’s a rollicking good time.

The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

German filmmaker Wim Wenders kicked ass and took names in the 1970s and 80s with films like Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road, and his last great film, Wings of Desire. He spent the 1990s turning out directionless, self-indulgent crap, creatively bloating into Elvis-like proportions. One hopes he may yet return to a state of grace.

My understanding is that Goalie was his first feature film. Released in 1971, it’s what people call an existential film. That’s another way of saying that the main character takes actions that are devoid of motivation or even context, and in some vague way we are meant to be left pondering. Wenders even suggests a meaning of sorts in the closing dialogue, but it’s the cinematic equivalent of watching clouds: stare at it long enough and you’ll see most anything.

This is not to say the film is bad. In brief, a soccer goalie gets suspended after zoning out during a penalty kick. He wanders around Vienna doing nothing in particular. Along the way he strangles a woman, but this action is presented with no more emphasis or purpose than anything else in the film; if I were a more dogmatic critic I might even leave out the reference to murder out of respect for the way in which it is presented within the film, being of no more importance than anything else in the story. But the fact of its nonchalance is nonetheless significant.

The result is something that is very much like a film, the way that the recent South Korean movie Nowhere to Hide was. This is to say that it is an idea of a film, a dream, the sort of film that students talk about perhaps making some day. “He’d just wander around, adrift, and he’d watch a movie and he’d kill someone and it would all be in equilibrium, you know.” Yes, we know, and this film is the result.

There was a time when Wim Wenders meant something in the world. Watching Goalie now, I feel that this film is a film about him, about Wenders, a young man walking off the field into the wild night of cinema, poised to do anything. Watching the film made me feel sad for this filmmaker, and for the decaying half-life of his talent.

I intended to do a long update tonight, mostly to catch up on new movie reviews. But it’s too late at night so I’ll keep this short.

My first two articles for the local paper Tablet appeared this week. You’ll find them both here on the paper’s somewhat wonky website.

As a reminder to myself, here are the films I need to write reviews for:

Conspirators of Pleasure

The Bride With White Hair

the one I’ve forgotten that I rented because Avalon was checked out . . .

Tremors 3: Back to Perfection

Quatermass and the Pit

Blood: The Last Vampire