As I was last night preparing to edit this I was flipping from TCM--THE LAST DETAIL with dimwit sailor Randy Quaid having premature issues with undead prostitute Carol Kane--to EPIX with a paunchy cowboy hatted Quaid in THE WRAITH (1986) noting "let's clean up this mess and get the hell out of here!" That kind of random coincidental irony is one of the reasons I flip indiscriminately in the first place so I had to share. But I always land eventually, here or there, and in the summer, my most reviled season, I stick to easy watching classics I've seen a zillion times, where the highest levels of government are represented not by big ominous war rooms glowing in the spacious Shepperton Studio darkness or unforgiving naval boards ready to throw away the key on first offense because it happened to be the admiral's wife's pet charity he robbed from--that's all too depressing, but two old character actors dressed like generals walking along a barren conference table in front of a big chart--or, if budget allows, a photo of the Washington Monument that's supposed to be a window, that is relaxation itself.
Nothing is more reassuring to my fevered brain than THE GIANT CLAW which has this pair, to fold themselves in with the stock footage of planes and radar stations, and exposition about all that's going going on outside the door on all levels of government and military procedure throughout the world. No matter what atomic spitball they care to throw, in the end it's Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, and the two old generals piloting the "B-22" which is so obviously a model you can see some kid's glue thumbprints, and the finished gloss gone slightly dull from over handling, the final decals peeling on the side or turning yellow, as if Katzman borrowed it from his son along with a turkey marionette given a comically menacing head with googly eyes that's the monster. You can't make this shit up.
Of course it helps to have grown up with it being constantly on the air, but glad am I to be able to return to it, when needed, like days you come back from the doctor after waiting for the results of your first chest X-ray after 33 years of smoking. You need to see a monster you can sneer at and safely destroy with some atomic spitballs, something maybe you loved to laugh at as a child, when it was always on local TV alongside gems like Plan Nine From Outer Space, the Creeping Terror, and Invasion of the Saucer Men. If you follow this blog you know summer is not the time my Swedish blood is alive with artsy insight (that's fall) but feebly clinging to icicle familiarity in cinema like a snowman pining puddleward, missing every departed drop. Not that I'd ever drink water.
To enjoy a film endlessly over and over, through the years it must have--as Hawks famously said--a few good ones and no bad ones. And every year I find new bad ones in some old favorites and new good ones in others. The Big Sleep for example never falters, but take To Have and Have Not (1944). For a guy supposedly as sharp as old Bogart's Harry, to let a shady American tourist run up 16 days of rent on his boat with no deposit, $825 all together, that seems pretty stupid. It's enough where I'm stressed out so that I need to lower my angsty blood pressure --how can such a cool customer be so dumb? He's probably not helping his finances by "carrying" Eddie (Walter Brennan) the requisite Faulkner manchild or alcoholic, whose dead bee rants and sickly sweat glaze bespeak a terrible smell of alcohol seeping through unwashed pores that must hang fetid over the boat, drawing massive flies, when the ocean wind isn't blowing. I can chalk the moronic behavior of the Free French up to sly Warner Bros. satire on the Maginot Line and the French army's infamously inept high command (as seen Paths of Glory), the way half a dozen of conspicuous freedom fighters inconspicuously trundle upstairs in a busy hotel to beseech Bogart to help them, crowding into his room like there's no one else but him with a boat in all of Martinique) - or that this idiot manchild version of Victor Lazlo is eager to surrender at the first sign of trouble (getting shot as a result) and this is the guy they want to use to "get a guy off of Devil's Island."
If not for the great dialogue and every second Bacall is onscreen in the most assured, startling debuts in all of cinema, and any other form, since the dawn of time, would it even be remembered today? What if Ann Sheridan or someone played her part, the way she almost did Ilsa Lund in Casablanca? Instead the first time I saw this film was back before the internet could chew it up for me, to me it was just another of my then hero Hawks' films, and so I got to soak up Bacall and her match 'fresh' and the result I was knocked out, kicking the air and howling like that wolf in "Bacall to Arms."
But there was never a time when I hadn't seen The Giant Claw. I was laughing at that bird since before I could crawl. I was born into it, materializing into being just as its imagery would materialize onto local TV or the bird would materialize out of space or an alternate dimension or some deranged puppeteer's back alley. To enjoy the film without that inherited lack of good judgment you would need to have a special yen to see Mara Corday in a redeye passenger (propellor-driven) plane delivering an uncalled-for and condescending rant against jet pilot Jeff Morrow, with whom she was just canoodling, for showing her his giant space bird orbiting patten spiral drawing. If you ask why Corday is shouting and picking a fight with him when her own non-intergalactic bird theories don't add up at all, then you're probably not ready for this level of high concept science. Sherlock Holmes said that when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however implausible, is the truth. Corday would below that Holmes is a fictional character and therefore his theories are worthless. But Women are idiots when they're supposed to be skeptics, especially women in these kinds of films.
I object to the use of the phrase "kinds of films" your honor, impugning the character of women in more impressive entries like Them! wherein the woman in the same role is an astute and open-minded biologist. One can no sooner lump the CLAW in with THEM as compare a frosty Bergman to a Long Beach train station. And in this case Corday is right, because the truth is ridiculous, for not only is the thing that's been attacking so many aircraft and buildings a space bird but it's invisibility to radar is to due its an anti-matter shield. This plus an early scene of Jeff buzzing the American Air Force Arctic Radar Station in one of his jets maybe explains her and the military's preliminary incredulity. Test pilot Morrow's an example of the wolf crier, endangering the whole tribe because his valuable wolf intel is in general never believed, thanks to his cred-destroying pranks. How many more lives!?
|Make him a sergeant and give him the booze (THEM)|
|Stock footage to cool the blood in sweltering summer (DEADLY MANTIS)|
The Deadly Mantis, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the six-armed giant octopus in It from Beneath the Sea, and our friend the Giant Space bird all start off way up there, and The Thing, the best and smallest, stayed up there, the rest marauded their way downwards, killing eskimos, pilots, trawler crews, and Canadian lumberjacks as they go. There's generally three things that mark this plot: the scientists always has a hot assistant, who--depending on the crap level of the writer--either sneers at the monster theory, promotes it, uses her hotness to suss truths out of harassed survivors or falls for the military guy assigned to the case. The best work on perfecting the formula, while the worse, like that hack like Nathan Juran, shoehorn in corny sentiment like the stuttering radar men asking the hot scientist/assistant to d-d-dance before the inevitable shot of the monster leering through the window trying to get at her. (Mara Corday is spared this indignity, having already endured it in 1955's TARANTULA).
Perhaps it's worth looking again at THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957) but-- unlike CLAW which is unforgettable even if the "wrong" kind-- is the most anonymous film in the world, siphoning the gas tanks of every film that came before, suturing together such a framework of stock footage and stock tropes it could be about any of the radioactively-awoken giant monsters and star anyone (its cast criminally void of any charisma or impression-making ability) making it ideal to fall asleep to or come down from a K-hole-- or interested in learning about the use of radar to detect Russian planes and ICBMs during the Cold War. You could watching 100 times in a row and remember nothing about it whatsoever. THE GIANT CLAW,, with its big googly eyes and dopey vulture hair tufts its the best menace since they just decided to use a nondescript giant block as the monster (KRONOS). While Mantis is also the most sexist film ("we're taking you home young lady," notes the military guy after she's singlehandedly coordinated the requisite 'map of weird 'accident' by which to chronicle the trajectory). In its disregarding of all that (Morrow would be the last person to stop Corday from doing anything), Claw earns its wings, no matter how goofy (or because of how goofy it is) the effects.
Naturally a few years back when Sarah Palin mentioned she could see Russia from her house I understood at once why all these films were set up there, and at the same time I had to add her to the list of Northern threats ever-ready over our heads raining down montages of panicked citizenry, radio speakers, mobilizing infantry, maps with dotted lines running across various parallels between the US and the North Pole, cornflake snow hurled in through open portals as people exit and enter the impoverished radar offices "Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) able to contact any part of the globe in three minutes! Three Minutes only! Eskimos pointing at the sky (Nanook strikes!) in Mantis, where its forelegs get caught up in the fisherman's kayak drying racks (we see a lot of the film from the prospective of the mantis himself,
And in the case of le Claw, there's a great catch-all representation of a French lumberjack loner named Pierre (Louis Merrill), and his dog who find Corday and Morrow in the wilderness after they alone survive another attack (six planes pecked out from under him and Corday's still sneering in between kisses or kisses between Sculdy-ish sneering). Naturalmente, he is named Pierre and gives Morrow and Corday his homemade applejack while recounting the tale of the a giant predatory bird many have seen in the parts and all died when they did. And before they were attacked the shadow of its giant turkey wings passed over the house. Fascinatingly, Morrow, who's encountered this giant bird about 20 times already, shouts "you only saw an eagle, Pierre!" Never could the space bird and the old flying witch of his superstition be the same thing. Never!
But again Morrow saves the reel, singlehandedly etching some warmth out of the proceedings by guzzling a second glass of the Pierre's homebrewed jack and ending or beginning every sentence with the name, Pierre. "This is great stuff, Pierre" or "that's a superstition, Pierre!" He becomes almost a kind of mascot, the constant use of his first name serving to keep him separate from the college educated Corday and Morrow. Eventually, though they all agree the thing only chases you if you run, Pierre runs, thinking he can perhaps, what, outrace a bird the size of a small apartment building? It's the kind of moronic lack of logic that a kid would not notice. It all fits, to make CLAW the classic -- you see... kids in the 70s don't need special effects - our fertile minds filled in all the blanks.
|"my gun is gone!"|
But TARANTULA stays off my summer list in general because it's set in the desert, too hot, and I like military stock footage, and hate to see any animal in a cage, even gerbils, man. When I'm in my isolation chambers, my feet in tissue boxes and my nails long and yellowed, gibbering to myself and pressing rewind over and over though tapes are long gone, anything that reminds me too much of my own wounded bull querencia, middlemen and union minutiae bickerers crawling all over the once great Last American Alcoholic Playboy Auteur. For the concretization of my frontier's sad closing, I need a hero bigger than any giant hair arachnid... I need Hank Quinlan.
My no summer-set sagas in summer isn't a hard fast rule of course, For example I've seen Touch of Evil a hundred times whatever the season. Another repeater, Psycho, which came out two years later and seems almost a remake, alike as two sister craft - on some level. What unites it is the damned cool of Janet Leigh.
"That Mirador is mighty hard to find, branching off the main highway like it does," notes a cop giving Leigh directions. Leigh driving off to a motel... off the main highway, all alone... did Hitchcock see this and feel cheated that the Grandy boys (and girls) didn't cut her up in the shower instead of lugging her back to the Mexican side of the border?
|Any similarity between Heston, a skull, or John Gavin (in PSYCHO)|
is strictly clairvoyant
But at its core, Welles shows his flaw, the same one that trips of his number one disciple, Peter Bogdanovich, insecurity masking itself as contempt for the he-man type, as in being forced to cast Charlton Heston as a Mexican cop with "practically cabinet status in the Mexican government" and making him a boob through and through, sexually panicked, trying desperately to avoid sleeping with new wife Janet Leigh while at the same time using her as an excuse for not focusing fully on his job, and/or trashing Rancho Grande like an amok bull instead of being alert to her yelling for him out the hotel window; of blaming everyone else for his sexual dysfunction and taking sincerity at face value. "Captain," he says of a shaking suspect about to get the third degree, "he swears on his mother's life," even though it turns out he did it. "I'm no cop now I'm a husband!" he shouts while trashing the bar. Yeah, Orson sly infers, but you're a terrible husband, and a lousy cop. You don't get to yell at Dennis Weaver for someone stealing your gun if you're dumb enough to leave it with your wife in a hotel room where she's too scared to frickin' use it and open fire on the Mexican gang bangers. "Who the hell does Quinlan think he is? Pinning a murder rap on my wife," he says but at least Quinlan keeps her entertained. Heston on the other hand constantly leaves her behind in the interest of protecting her (he can barely get her an ice cream) and if he's such a high-standing cabinet member why doesn't he find a nicer town for a honeymoon? Behavior this incompetent we wouldn't see again until Mel Gibson leaving his wife and kids to go protect them in the first MAD MAX.
It's junior varsity symbolism but it's fascinating the way Heston's Vargass appears, like a photo, in a corner of a mirror next to rows of faded toreador cigar cards, no doubt left like calling cards by Dietrich's old toreador 'visitors.' Quinlan lurching to his feet with one massive bull taxidermy above his head, ridiculously large, the barbs still hanging in him and ready for his final dangerous charge, like the ants crawling all over the scorpion at the start of THE WILD BUNCH. The spectacle of the bland literalization of 'the law' up against its unbearably odious other; bureaucracy vs. the monster."Vargas is one of those starry eyed idealists," notes Quinlan. "They're the one's making trouble in the world." Hank's famous intuition was right; the kid really did plant that bomb.
But Vargas, since he's so mercilessly rounded by Welles' black humor subtext, doesn't bother me. I can watch TOE any old time. Certain things on the other hand can keep a film out of my rotation of summer stock staples. My Hawks' repertoire doesn't include MONKEY BUSINESS, for example, purely because of Cary Grant's buzz-cut and Ginger Rogers' annoying overdoing it as a born-again teenage virgin. Mainly though it's the buzzcut. It hurts the back of my neck just to see it. What kind of guy associates a military grade crew cut with being young and feckless? So, I have to pass.
But hey - Tarantino films for the most part always hold up to repeat viewings, though DJANGO is so harsh it's hard to relax with. On the other hand, I've already seen HATEFUL EIGHT six times. It's perfect for hot summers since it occurs during a blizzard. There are things that don't work for me, like the high voiced fey narrator (Quentin himself, successfully masking a lot of his vocal tics) who ducks in the second part like Magnolia; and the anachronistic White Stripes song (though one anachronistic song is okay in the post-Butch Cassidy tradition, I'd say that job's filled well by the penultimate chapter's killer's hunting the last survivor of the massacre to David Hesse's "Now You're All Alone") it's usually during a flashback or happier time montage, not so early in a film --it feel unearned.
But shit like the Mexican's "Silent Night" on off-key but effective rendition (his soft "goddamn it" after flubbing a note, or again, gamely counterpointing Samuel Jackson and Bruce Dern's antithetical veering from 'shared a battlefield' post-war bonding ("most of my ponies"), to bitter ("I did better than my damn good brothers") to Jackson's harsh sadistic tale of killing his son meant for goading him into drawing first: "It was coooolllld the day I killed your boy"
Morricone's score is almost a Tarantino homage to himself - with a theme mixing the tick tock watch chime motif from For a few Dollars More with the relentless low registered horn cacophony crescendos of a giallo and the loping bassoon notes of one of his action films; or earlier the thud-thud bass players. Each actor's speaking style seems intimately cared for. There are deft Hawks references and Anthony Mann, and above all the kind of careful diagramming of hostages and killers that makes good movies, like Rio Bravo, as far as logical structure ("We can't shoot you down in the street because you're holding our friend hostage in the jail"). In Fistful of Dollars (1966) there's that bit wherein the mean bastard whose been in a family war with the other decides to blow up their house and kill everyone - it's like why the hell didn't the other do that; it's one of those dumb games that show the disinterest Leone has with the logistics underneath the west. Why it is the way it is and why duels were even invented, in the hands of someone with western savvy the motivation is clear: lots of witnesses so you can't shoot an unarmed man, or someone not trying to shoot you first (so it's self defense). For example Rio Bravo and Red River are endlessly rewatchable, in part because Hawks knows the kind of prodding by which two gunfighters "paw at each other and see what they're up against." And he knows the way you need the guy you want to kill to be reaching for his gun before you can legally shoot him, hence the gunfighter code, and he doesn't get all "killing is wrong" Kramer revisionist. Leone doesn't really seem to understand either philosophy: the law and self defense and witnesses never enter into it and killing is never condemned except by labels like "The Bad" flashing onscreen. They're all doing it that way because that's the way it's done in movies, and Morricone's electric guitar makes any other gesture seem half-assed. But with Hawks everything is based on hostages, lines of fire, and having guys who are "real good" shots, who don't get all mushy over killing sex or seven guys in a five second gun battle, and telling the Chinaman he's got more fifty-dollar gold pieces coming his way, and if you have the boss in your gunsights it doesn't matter how many of them there are because he'll be the first person shot. We always know the rules in Hawks, so things always make sense, its the kind of logic that's so enticing it makes us loyal, wins us with ballsy courage, like Arthur getting his enemy to knight him mid-battle in EXCALIBUR, knowing with so many witnesses no other possible recourse is open to his former foe than future loyalty.
But cop violence and stand your ground etc has been making it real clear why you always need to wait for the owlhoot to draw first, as its self defense that way, if he's black. That's what trips up John Ford, racism. He examines his trip cord in some films, not others. What makes HATEFUL EIGHT so much more a repeater film is it undoes mot just the injustices of MANDINGO, which DJANGO partly healed, but it's actually in the process the most hopeful film about the future of the country since TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL. And in the process it's also the most sharp-eyed about the reality of violence, and the thin blue line of law, as a shot about a Bas Reeves-style bounty hunter (a murdering cavalry officer who joined the war to "kill white folks") and a future sheriff ex-"Ni--er killer of Baton Rogue" - ex Confederate officer who end up allied against the Jody Domingray Gang.
This is the kind of salvo towards peace through an understanding of the importance of violent men that makes it so tragic the cops boycotted this film because of their uptight union where to question the behavior of even a few bad apples is to condemn all fruit, therefore to eat a single orange we must endure spoiled and corrupted, wormy apples --and it ain't Texan. Texan is to arrange picnics and volleyball games between cops and their neighborhoods, or to make and deliver cookies to precincts on holidays, or whatever.
Bottom line, DJANGO doesn't make the summer rotation, it is too harsh - all that whipping and mauling and howls of abuse. What makes EIGHT work for endless reviewings is that no one has dominion over nobody and shot on 70mm film it's probably the most gorgeous looking film in some time, the dark shadows glowing a whole spectrum of deep yellows and purples of the sort I hadn't seen since the Criterion clean-up of the RED DESERT smog. I could spend eternity looking at those fields of Wyoming snow, the carriage thundering along to Morricone's ominous twang and sing-song metronome, the bright yellow lining of Samuel Jackson's cavalry jacket. the way little details are visible clear across the room- the offhand way Kurt Russell assures Daisy he'll stop her cold with a bullet if she tries to escape and then casually wipes some stew from her chin with his napkin, or pours her a slug at the bar. The whole idea of being holed up in this cozy joint during a raging blizzard is a fine inverse mirror to the art of holing up in the AC with your stack of movies during a heat wave. And mostly, I love that Quentin sets up the victims of the Domingray gang massacre in such vivid detail, and makes most of them black without anyone calling attention to it, a kind of color-blind casting that works well because we've already heard much about them, and never pictured them black, only dead--and racist (Minnie hates Mexicans), or the cold dispassionate way the gang are all shown first sweet talking their victims, getting them up on ladders, buying candy, speaking French, etc, then shooting them point blank, and looking down at their still twitching bodies and scared eyes without a word, only clinical killer abstraction. So that in the next chapter, when most are dead or dying, we're totally happy - and the unseen massacring of Major Warren and Sheriff Chris Mannix is forgiven as stakes of war. After all that was then, and this is the Now, and none of that happened at Minnie's Haberdashery, nor that field of snow painted in Bruce Dern's fragile mind.
|Ya mind seein' pictures yet?|
Damn it, you know where, Pierre. That giant space bird egg ain't gonna lay itself! That would answer too many damn questions, Pierre. We still have... a long way... to go... but hand... in motherfuggin' hand... we'll get 1982 back from the Shadowlands...
your loving conqueror, Ro-Man