Thursday, July 16, 2009

Paint It Black

Continuing my sporadic series reviewing old laserdiscs found in my garage ...

The Black Room, staring Boris Karloff and Boris Karloff, is a marvelous film adaptation of one of the best Edgar Allen Poe tales that Poe never wrote.

It was an original screenplay by Henry Myers and Arthur Strawn, but (to me, at least,) it feels very much like an adaptation of a short story by Poe. It starts with twins being born to the de Berghmann family—heirs to the baronetcy of a nameless central European principality (Bavaria by way of Chatsworth) set in the early 1800’s. The younger (by a few minutes) is Anton, who, in addition to having lost the title of Baron, is also saddled with a paralyzed arm. Despite this, he’s not bitter, but rather as kind-hearted as his brother, Gregor, is coldly evil. Anton is called back from his travels abroad by Gregor, who wants his aid in restoring his popularity with the townsfolk (it seems that they don’t take kindly to his rapacious and homicidal nature). There is, of course, a complicating factor that drove Anton away initially: A family curse which says that the younger brother will kill the older in the Black Room, which is evidently some sort of hidden safe room lined with obsidian walls and containing a dry cistern.

Gregor steps down, abdicating in favor of Anton—then kills his brother and dumps his body down the well in the Black Room. He usurps Anton’s identity, but Lt. Hassel (Thurston Hall) has suspicions, which lead to Gregor’s eventual unmasking and a twist ending that fulfills the curse.

Although it isn’t horror per se, Karloff’s tour-de-force as the reptilian Gregor and his brotherly antithesis Anton elevates the story, making it much more than just a period melodrama. Backed up by Roy William Neil’s understated direction, which uses split-screen, rear-projection and various in-camera tricks to show the twins interacting, Karloff delivers three excellent performances. As Gregor, he’s utterly psychopathic, eating a pear and musing about its taste while his Gypsy mistress pleads for her life (“And when you’re through, you throw it away.”) As Anton, he’s gentle and trusting, though not blind to Gregor’s faults. And after Gregor kills his brother, Karloff creates a third persona: Gregor masquerading as Anton. He lets us see the cruelty behind the mask, but not so overtly as to arouse the other players’ suspicions.

The story isn’t perfect; it disintegrates into a free-wheeling chase at the end, featuring a dog that can keep pace with a carriage at full gallop. But the biggest contrivance is Anton’s arm; paralyzed since birth, it would be a withered and dessicated stick instead of being indistinguishable from his other appendage. Nevertheless, the film is well worth watching for Karloff’s performance.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ode To My Kindle

I’m a book snob.

Most writers I know are. As far as I’m concerned, a book is pretty much a perfect form of data dissemination—it’s compact, holographic, easily accessed, and it can be extremely striking from a design POV. I love books. It’s true that they can fill up a bookcase (or a house) pretty quick; still, for the enjoyment and information you get from them, the footprint isn’t that big.

(I used to have a lot more books than I do now; had a house with a garage converted into an office/library, and the walls lined with bookshelves. Probably over a thousand books, all told. Visitors would always exclaim over them: “You have more books than anyone I know!” Well, maybe, but I sure as hell don’t have more than anyone I know. I haven’t been to Harlan’s house in years, but the last time I saw it he had managed to pack a fair-sized Barnes & Noble into the place.)

So when I heard about electronic book readers my first reaction was to turn up my nose. Yet another piece of soulless technology attempting to replace art. How dehumanizing. I simply couldn’t see how something made of plastic and circuitry could ever trump paper and ink.

Then a friend showed me her Kindle. Demonstrated the way the screen looked, the options (variable print size, built-in dictionary, the virtual marketplace), the compact size of it ...

And I bought one the next day.

The great thing about it is it’s not an electronic book—it’s an electronic library. I’ve been reading a lot more lately, mostly non-fiction, and sometimes it’s positively dizzying to think about the thousands of books quite literally at my fingertips—most of them at less than half price. I have access to over a quarter of a million titles through

Granted, it’s not perfect. Like I said, a book is holographic—you can go back or skip ahead easily, whereas with the Kindle you have to go to the table of contents and from there proceed linearly, page by page. But that’s a fairly minor annoyance. And I’m very much hoping that the next upgrade has a built-in booklight for reading in bed.

I still buy books—only now I can limit them to books I want to keep and reread. But with the Kindle I finally have the answer to that old question: What book would I pick to take along were I stranded on a desert island?

Any of an entire virtual library ...

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Rocky Start ...

... to my occasional reviews of the box-o-laserdiscs recently dug out of the garage. This time it’s The Rock, (1996), directed by Michael Bay.

One thing I can say in its favor—it’s the only movie I can remember off the top of my head that spends quite a lengthy opening titles sequence setting up the bad guy. Actually, Ed Harris’ general is the classic definition of an antagonist—someone who’s not necessarily ee-vul, just in opposition to the protagonist. Granted that he has the exquisite lack of judgment to choose for his team some of the most obviously psychotic soldiers since Jim Brown and Telly Savalas were press-ganged into The Dirty Dozen, but hey, he has a lot on his mind. He’s masterminding a plot to hold the Bay Area hostage by taking over Alcatraz and aiming a whole buncha missiles containing a nasty nerve agent at San Francisco. (This concoction seems to combine the worst aspects of VX and mustard gas; i.e., it paralyzes and suffocates you by blocking synaptic action, then rots your skin just to show it means business). It’s stored in the form of large green beads, which definitely should have won some kind of design award for prettiest WMD.

(The missiles don’t have far to go—just from Alcatraz to the mainland—but they apparently do it by sheer force of will, since the missile’s entire midsection is taken up by the weapon payload, leaving no room for fuel. Pretty impressive.)

The movie’s big gag is simple and very pitchworthy: instead of escaping from Alcatraz, our team must break into it. To do this, they assemble a team of Navy SEALs, an expert in various nerve agents (Nicholas Cage) and James Bond (Sean Connery). Oh, sure, they call him “John Mason”, but he’s an ultra-suave British agent who could strangle you with the garrote woven into his Saville Row tie in less time than it takes you to say “Licence To Kill”. Trust me; he’s Bond.

So they enter Alcatraz via a storm drain (which, in movies, are always big enough to walk upright in), and Mason gets them past the first obstacle, which is some weird kind of furnace still running after 30 years (Alcatraz closed in the early Sixties). From there it gets ever more bizarre, culminating in a shootout taking place in a kind of underground steampunk dystopia that’s part Temple Of Doom, part Big Thunder Mountain and part Mordor.

Okay, enough. The movie rolls out pretty much as expected; all the SEALs are slaughtered, only Goodspeed (Cage) and Mason remain to discover mutual respect and bond (sorry). Near the movie’s end Cage has to self-inject a dose of atrophine into his heart to counteract the agent’s effects. Which can work as a last resort, although it’s a whole lot harder to push a needle (particularly a big-bore) through a chest wall than it looks. I wouldn’t leave the needle just hanging there, either—infection, tamponade, and other nastiness could ensue.

It’s certainly not as brutally stupid as Armageddon. And you have to give points to a movie that makes a throwaway reference to Roswell. But I’m not gonna be replacing this one on DVD anytime soon.

I'm rating these movies on a three-tier scale: (1) How Could I Live Without It; (2) Worth Keeping, But Not Replacing, and (3) What Was I Thinking?! The Rock gets a solid 2.

Friday, July 3, 2009

"Klaatu barada ... uh ..."

So I just got around to watching the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still on pay-per-view, and much to my surprise, it didn't suck. Too badly ...

Granted, it ain't a patch on the original with Michael Rennie. But I didn't expect it to be. I expected an FX bonanza (check); Keanu Reeves in a perfect role, that of an alien as wooden-faced as a cigar-store Indian (check); and a story that, if the gods were kind, wouldn't be too terribly preachy or condemning of the human race for making such a mess of things (check).

And I expected to be mindlessly entertained for 2 hours (check, more or less).

It didn't suck. Not exactly the most fulsome of praise, but then, we're all learning to live with lowered expectations these days.

And let's face it—it was worth the $4 for the scene with Keanu and John Cleese (in Sam Jaffe's role), playing dueling calculus on the blackboard. I mean, Keanu doing Minkowski equations? That was harder to swallow than the nanobots eating New York. (Oops; spoiler.)

The Good Old Days

I just wrote a short story.

Them as know me know that I do this about as often as the Earth flip-flops magnetic poles; not a whole lot, in other words. I have ideas for short stories all the time, but they rarely progress further. Every once in awhile, though ...

And, of course, there’s the age-old question of where ideas come from. Usually they come from some sort of experience that I’ve either had, or know of someone else having had. In this case, it was mine.

I’m not going to tell you the whole story here; I’d rather you wait until it’s published. But here are a few paragraphs from it that set it up:

It was spring, I remember, around the end of April or the beginning of May -- you’d think that, considering what happened, the date would be burned into my memory. It had to have been a Saturday, because school wasn’t out yet. I was playing with a couple of friends -- Tom Harper and Malcolm James. We’d gone up into the hills a few blocks from my house to play cowboys and Indians. We were armed and ready for trouble.

When I say “armed”, I mean something different than what the word might connote today. I was carrying my trusty McRepeater Rifle, which made a very satisfactory bang when the wheel atop the stock was turned. Tom had a deadly Daisy 1101 Thunderbird, and in addition was packing twin cap pistols. And Malcolm ... well, Malcolm was carrying his Johnny Eagle Magumba Big Game Rifle, which he’d insisted on bringing even though he had a perfectly good Fanner 50 cap gun back in his bedroom. Some people just won’t get with the program.

We were hunting Indians (the concept of political correctness -- even the term -- hadn’t been invented yet). It was the middle of the afternoon and, though it was early in the year, it was already hot enough to raise shimmers of heat waves from the dirt road.

(Suddenly) a voice shouted, “Hands up!”

Now, this is the point. It was fantasy. Make-believe. And we knew that. But unless you can remember, really remember, those Bradbury days of childhood, the unspoken social norms that we all lived by then, the secret lives and inviolate rules that bound us as fully and completely as office politics and the laws of church and state circumscribed our parents’ lives -- well, then I have no real hope of making you understand why we did what we did. It wasn’t even something we thought about -- we just did it. They had the drop on us, after all. They’d caught us, fair and square.

So, all three of us dropped our toy guns and reached for the sky.
The story after this point is considerably grimmer than what actually happened. In reality, it got to be dinnertime and we all went home. But that moment of complete and utter surrender to fantasy is something that’s always stayed with me. We didn’t know the boys who captured us. They were from another school across town, which meant they might as well have been from Outer Mongolia. (Is there an Inner Mongolia? If so, how come no one ever mentions it?) But we let them march us, before the muzzle of their toy guns, up into a ravine, where they held us prisoner. (There was talk of ransom.) On of us (not me) tried to escape, and was summarily shot—this led to considerable discussion as to whether he was actually dead, and if so, what to do with him. I made a contribution at this point which, if I do say so, was nothing short of genius. Plucking a flower, I announced that it was the fabled Mariphasa lupina lumina (I’d just seen Werewolf Of London on Channel 5 the previous night), which could heal whatever wounds had been sustained. This was immediately accepted to great acclaim. (One of our captors argued that the mariphasa was solely a cure for lycanthropy, and anyway grew only in Tibet, but he was outvoted. The Philistine.)

The whole point of it, however, was the unspoken agreement by which we all accepted -- to pretend that we were POWs. (They were acting out a WWII scenario.) I’ve mentioned in previous posts various experiences that helped point me towards a career in writing, and this was definitely one of them. (I once snagged a TV writing assignment just on the strength of telling the producer this story.) The sense of living on the cusp, between reality and fantasy, is something that I fear kids today only experience in the virtual world. Although it sounds very contradictory, I think that a child’s fantasy life should be much more real than World Of Warcraft.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Blasts (and Fizzles) From the Past

Sorry again. I can only provide so many entries to this ... as I've stated (and stated and stated ...) my typing ability has been reduced to the Columbus method (though if he'd been no better at finding a key and landing on it than I am, America would still belong to the Indians), and my voice is pretty much gone. I make entries when I can, but I've also got two books and a comic under contract, and paying work must take precedence.

So, for those days when I'm not terribly inspired with deathless prose and trenchant observations, here's something I can do that'll be (with luck) amusing:

My ex had a garage sale last week. It made the excavation of Troy look like a posthole. Among the many, many items uncovered were two large boxes of laserdiscs.

(I'm going to assume that you all know what these are. Or were ... if not, I'll just say that they are to DVDs what vinyl albums were to CDs. Ask your parents.)

I have a few laserdiscs in my collection already -- mostly stuff I can't find on DVD. Many of these "new" ones I'd forgotten I had -- which could say something about the perils of pack-ratting. So far, they all seem to be in reasonable shape, which is pretty impressive considering they've been sitting in an un-air-conditioned garage for at least ten years.

So I was thinking that, as I pull them out and watch them as whim dictates -- that I review them. I'm not going to apologize for any lapse of taste or judgment; but the last LD I bought (Cameron's Titanic -- like I said, no accounting for taste) was about 15 years ago, and it'll be interesting to see what surfaces in this cinematic Sargasso ...

Monday, June 15, 2009


So, I took Debbie to the airport today, so she can go to Boston for orientation on her new job. (I didn't mention her new job? She's director of a mental health unit called ACT. Fortunately the job isn't in Boston -- just the orientation.)

Actually, since her plane left LAX at 8 am, we decided to go yesterday and check into a hotel so we wouldn't have to get up at 5. Which brings me to the hugs part:

The hotel (the airport Radison) was literally swarming with people wearing white damask robes. The lobby was so packed with them it looked like a Pier One had exploded. So when we were checking in, I asked the clerk what was going on.

He told me they were all here to see an Indian guru woman named "Amma". He described her as "Mother Teresa, but with hugs."


The woman evidently gives great hugs. The clerk told me every hotel in a ten-block radius was booked. People come from all over the world. To get hugged.

I'm in the wrong line of work ...