Thursday, January 29, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Wonderful ...

So, finally something upbeat to talk about:

Yesterday evening Debbie and I attended a screener of Coraline.

As you probably know, if you’re a fan of Neil Gaiman’s, Coraline is a movie based on his book. But to leave it at that is to do it a huge injustice. Because Coraline is much more than that.

Coraline is a work of wonder.

First off -- well, first off, there’s Neil’s book. Which I’m not going to comment on, for two reasons -- one, because you know it’s good, and two, because (I blush to admit) it’s one of the few ones of his I haven’t read. Which was good, in a way, because it allowed me to see the film without any preconceptions. And so should you. So -- onward.

Pardon me whilst I meander a bit -- after all, it's my blog ...

One of my earlier memories is seeing an Anaglyph showing of The Creature From the Black Lagoon. I remember putting on the glasses with the red and blue lenses, and I remember that petrified claw jutting out of the screen and seemingly right into my lap, accompanied by that DUH-DUH-DAHHH!! liet-motif. Scared the crap out of me.

Despite my initial reaction, however, I wasn’t all that impressed with the 3D process. I was around five or six, so my criticisms of it had little to do with the technology; I just remember that it gave me a bitch of a headache, and the glasses didn’t fit well over my own horn-rims and kept falling off. My feelings weren’t shared by the majority of the movie-going public, because 3D was initially a big hit. Even so, despite a few major releases such as The Robe and Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder, the 3D of the Fifties was largely a gimmick, used to shore up shaky stories and, as such, relegated mostly to cinematic fringes such as cheap westerns, Three Stooges shorts and sci-fi and horror debacles like Robot Monster and Cat Women Of the Moon. All in all, the Anaglyph process turned out to be the fad that most studios had predicted “Talkies” would be back in the Twenties.

There was a big revival of the format once IMAX hit it big (and I mean big) in the Eighties. Despite an improved digital process, the main thing lacking was (surprise!) a distinct lack of story and attempts to over-compensate by jabbing things wildly at the camera. Anyone who went to see Jaws 3D for the story over the sharks coming out of the screen was possessed of an optimism that made Pollyanna look jaded.

But now, finally, I’m a believer, because here is a film in which the 3D is both damn near flawless and, mirable dictu, is used in service of the story. Henry Selick (who, despite the producer’s possessory credit on Tim Burton’s the Nightmare Before Christmas, really directed that movie) has done a marvelous job of crafting a sense of steadily rising menace into the film (which isn’t as easy as it might seem, in a work which smacks so heavily of magical realism). But he also fills it, ultimately, with hope and redemption. And one of the things that impressed me the most is that he continually surprised me.

I’m not that easy to surprise. I have a good sense of story, and I can usually call a plot twist or a logic flaw a mile away. I’m not bragging here; it sorta came with the package. When you’ve written as much film as I have, it becomes instinct. I called the ending of The Sixth Sense about ten minutes in, for example. And my daughter still hasn’t forgiven me (it’s going on ten years, now) for pointing out that The Wizard Of Oz has an unhappy ending. (Go ahead. Guess.)

So when I say he surprised me, not once but several times, in the plot’s twists and turns, that’s not a trivial compliment.

If there’s one thing that makes me hesitant about over-praising the film’s extraordinary 3D effects, it’s that I fear it’ll take away from the even more extraordinary animation effects. The sad, sad thing is that some viewers will dismiss the look of the movie as CGI. While some computer work was used, mostly for clean-up, the film was created using a technique almost as old as film itself: model animation. That’s the art (and never was a mot more bon) of moving articulated miniatures on tabletop sets, frame by frame.

(NOTE: not to get overly-picayune here, but, although I’ve heard the technique used in Coraline referred to as stop-motion animation -- the method Willis O’Brien used to bring King Kong to life, and which Ray Harryhausen used to bring practically everything else to life -- I have my doubts. It looked much more to me like replacement animation -- a similar technique in which different parts and poses of the puppet are cycled through a scene. The same technique, essentially, but it results in quite a different and more life-like overall look. It was made famous by the producer George Pal with his Puppetoons series back in the Thirties. And before you ask -- no it’s not the same as claymation, which is the stuff Aardvark does so brilliantly in the Wallace and Gromit films. End of incredibly fanboy-esque divertissement.)

So: Coraline. See it. With the polarized glasses. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll at least have a cool pair of shades. I mean it. Go, sit in a theater in the dark, and marvel at a world in which, among many other wonders, vampire Scottie dogs kamikaze your head. This movie does what so many others try to do and fall short in the attempts -- it transports you.

A fine business, in my opinion.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Remember Those Fabulous Sixties?

First off, I’ve been accused of being a bit overly curmudgeonly lately. Let me say right now that I consider myself as passionate an Obama supporter as anyone out there. If I’ve come across as too cynical, that wasn’t my intent. So far, he’s done a terrific job, and I see no indication of it stopping anytime soon.

The only thing I worry about is complacency. We liberals are, on the whole, a lazy bunch. That’s because we tend to be a reasonable, rational, live-and-let-live bunch. We’re tolerant. That’s our biggest problem. We win a victory -- Roe v. Wade, for example -- and the tendency is to say, “Okay, that’s done.”

Except that it isn’t, of course. Because liberals have no lunatic fringe.

‘Twern’t always that way. Remember the Weather Underground? The Symbionese Liberation Army? The Chicago Seven?

I am by no means waxing nostalgic for those thrilling days of yesteryear, fashionable though it may be to do so. But let’s face it, folks -- civil disobedience does get noticed. The Far Right won’t stop demanding that abortion rights be denied women, won’t stop lobbying for creation mythology to be taught in schools, won’t stop verbally attacking the new President any way they can. We can’t afford complacency. We can’t sit back and say “Everything’s hunky-dory now.” Because it isn’t.

We have a minimum of four years.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The 1st Hundred hours

Okay, have we got the economy taken care of yet? How about those pesky wars? What’s that? We’re still doing confirmation hearings? C’mon, let’s get moving!

And so it goes ...

It’s truly a double-edged sword Obama has inherited -- on the one hand, it’s hard to see how anyone could be a worse president than Bush. He started two wars, helped trash the economy, let a city drown while partying, implemented torture ... it was like Ernest Goes To the White House. So he won’t be a hard act to follow. More like the guy just before you on Open Mike Night who wears a tutu and sets fire to a rubber chicken with an acetylene torch.

On the other hand, the American People aren’t known for their patience. Obama definitely killed (to continue the stand-up metaphor) yesterday. But a couple months down the line, when we’re facing energy cutbacks and conservation, when the housing market is still dropping faster than a dead bird, when we’re still putting out fires in the Middle East (because we will be) -- in short, when it’s obvious that hard work and a more Spartan way of life, and not easy fixes, are necessary, that’ll be the crucible.

Prove me wrong, people. Please.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Still Clueless After All These Years

So I watched W’s farewell address last night.

You’ve got to give him props for consistency, if nothing else. He went out, not so much defiant as utterly uncaring about the truth. It struck me that the only way it made any sense whatsoever was if my TV was somehow receiving a broadcast from that parallel universe in which Spock has a beard and the Enterprise is crewed by space pirates ...

I hope they nail his ass for war crimes. I really do.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Second Coming

I know I’m not the most optimistic guy on the planet. I tend to take a darker, more cynical view of things. It’s not a conscious decision -- it’s just the way I’m hardwired. Which is why, as we count the days to that magical moment on the 20th, I can’t help but wonder:

Can Obama fulfill our expectations?

Can anybody?

I’ve lived through ten presidential terms (starting with Truman, if you must know), and I, like most people, have watched the country sink ever deeper into an apparently bottomless Slough of Despond, once the Sixties were over. (Kennedy’s death seemed to galvanize us for a while, but unfortunately, we “grew up” and eagerly let ourselves be co-opted. A pity we all couldn’t have stayed eighteen for as long as it took.)

Carter, a Democrat, was ineffectual as a president. So the country scurried back to the right and elected a senile cowboy -- who did accomplish some things, such as helping end the Cold War. After Reagan we had H.W., and after him Clinton, who was, at least as far as I was concerned, a pretty decent president, with just one problem -- which got him impeached by a hostile Congress. And so we were back to the Republicans, specifically the Bush family, more specifically W.

I’m not all that astute a student of either politics or history, but I have no problem assigning Bush the Lesser the title of Worst. President. Ever. Which is pretty bad, considering it puts him up against the likes of James Buchanan, John Tyler and Richard Nixon. History, as they say, will judge.

But now -- Huzzah! We’ve been slouching toward Bethlehem for so long, it’s hard to believe that in a mere week the Second Coming will arrive. Never has the country been in such desperate straits, both financially and in terms of foreign policy. And not for a long time have we had the combination of a Democratic president and legislature. The Republicans weren’t just defeated -- they were tarred, feathered and given the next rail out of town.

Now it’s up to Obama. I’m as anxious to see him succeed as everyone else -- more than most, since I’m hoping stem cell research will be high on his list of restorations of sanity. But what worries me is that, no matter how much he accomplishes in his first day -- even his first week -- it won’t be enough. It can’t be.

We want miracles. We expect miracles. And we’re not going to get them. Because there are no quick and easy fixes to the monstrous legacy that Bush II has left us.

Of course, if Obama walks across the Reflecting Pool to get to the Lincoln Memorial next Tuesday, all bets are off.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Forced Death March Down Memory Lane

So I’ve joined Facebook.

And now everybody wants to be my friend.

Or so it seems, anyway. I’m sure I qualify as the rankest parvenu when it come to such things. There are people I know who have links to enough people to qualify for virtual statehood. I, on the other hand, am barely into the double digits.

But, the way the requests are coming in...

I see the virtue, of course, in building a cyberspatial clan of like-minded people, especially if I don’t have to have them all over to the house at once. Obviously this is great for networking. On the other hand, it provides yet another reason for not going outside -- ever again. And it means I have to make some hard choices, because, being a PWP (Person With Parkinson’s, not Pathetic Writer Personified), there’s only so much typing I can do during the day until my fingers tie up into square knots. I would, of course, much rather spend my time swapping letters and IM-ing all day.

Unfortunately, that way lies life in a shopping cart.

It won’t take long for the attraction of the new to fade, if past obsessions are any criteria. And I am enjoying running into people I haven’t heard from in ages. (And will probably never hear from again; still, ships passing in the night are better than hitting an iceberg. Or something ...)

Saturday, January 3, 2009

R.I.P. Dortmunder

And another one of the good guys is gone ...

Donald Westlake and I only crossed paths a few times. The first time I met him was on the set of a TV series I was writing for in the early ’90s called Father Dowling Mysteries. (“He’s a priest; she’s a nun. Together they fight crime.” Hey, it was a paycheck.) The episode I'd written was called “The Hardboiled Mystery”, and it lurched back and forth between the contemporary plotline and one set in the ’30s, which gave us an excuse to shoot B&W period. (The idea was that the B&W segments were part of a roman à clef about Our Guys, written by a mystery writer who then winds up dead and ... you get the picture.) Since Don had written the series pilot, we thought it’d be a hoot to have him play the writer, so we flew him out for the part.

I was thrilled, as I’d been a Westlake fan since discovering the Dortmunder novels, a series of comic caper books featuring the quasi-ept titular character and his gang. Details about Westlake's productivity and writing habits I’ll leave to the many obits that can be found online (here’s the NYT one). Suffice to say that the man was simply incapable of writing a bad book (or movie). I notice that the Times obit mentions his predilection for using a manual typewriter, and I remember chatting with him about his fear of being caught without a working one. It had led him to buy up junked ones just so he’d be able to cannibalize parts if need be.

He needn’t have worried. Donald Westlake was a writer’s writer -- if there were no other way, he’d claw words on the walls with his fingernails. And you wouldn't be able to stop reading until you'd finished the room.

Rest In Peace, Don.