Archive for September 2011
Last night my family and I took a stroll to the newly proclaimed non-profit Silent Movie Theatre where we saw a screening of Steven Spielberg’s 1941. In some ways this is my favorite Spielberg film, despite the fact that I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as Close Encounters of the Third Kind or any number of other Spielberg movies. It’s similar to films such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Mars Attacks, neither or which are among my favorites. So why do I like 1941? I think it has something to do with the general attitude, that is, everyone’s crazy, an attitude it shares with those other two films, but especially the energy, which some may call simply busy-ness. But the jitterbug scene is a classic and worth the price of admission. As far as I know, it’s Spielberg’s only comedy, although Spielberg says that Kubrick (whose Dr. Strangelove was probably on the mind of 1941‘s makers: at least two scenes appear to be directly derived from Kubrick’s film) thought it should have been marketed as a drama. If you don’t say it’s a comedy, you don’t have to worry when people don’t laugh, a point one of my teachers at USC liked to make. However, based on the laughter that shook the theater last night, the film is definitely a comedy.
The screening was followed by a discussion of its making by co-writer Bob Gale, actor Eddie Deezen (who played Herbie Kazlminsky, the nerd on the Ferris Wheel), and second assistant director, Chris Soldo. For nearly an hour, the three 1941 alumni entertained us with stories related to the making of 1941. Here’s an example: Gale said that John Milius, credited as executive producer and a co-writer on the film, insisted that Gale and co-writer Robert Zemeckis each receive a gun as part of the deal for the screenplay. So the two went to Monrovia to buy a pair of guns. After they returned from the gun shop, Milius took them around with their guns on display to visit some of his friends. First up was a flummoxed George Peppard where, when offered Colt 45 beers, the two raised their guns saying that they already had Colt 45’s. Then it was off to Francis Ford Coppola’s place where Coppola was busy making pizza, something Gale said Coppola was usually doing. Upon seeing the guns, Coppola compared them unfavorably to the pizza which he said represented life whereas the guns represented death.
But why not listen to Gale himself tell this story (and screw up a punchline) and others in the video below.
Here’s a video of the discussion (recorded with an Android phone). Although several other phones were in action, there does not appear to have been an official recording of the event. (As the flyer excerpt above states, the screening was co-presented by La-La Land Records to help promote their new 1941 soundtrack CD.)
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Here’s a video (recorded with an Android phone) of John Carpenter giving a short intro to a screening of his Apocalypse Trilogy (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness) at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica on September 24, 2011.
The recording begins a few seconds after he started talking. Here’s what’s missing: Carpenter began by saying that anyone who lasted through all three movies would get $500 from a man he pointed to standing to the side, thus laying the groundwork for several bad jokes several hours later. He then spoke of the Fifties as not being the quiet decade of conformism that it’s usually thought as being. As soon as he finished the intro, he left the theater with a bodyguard, passing through the closest exit. No questions from the audience were entertained.
Here are some observations about the films:
For me this film is all about Blair’s line, “I don’t know who to trust.” How do you know whether to trust other people when some people can be very good at hiding their true natures and intentions for a long time after you first meet them. Your best friend may turn out to be your worst enemy. So how can you tell? Unfortunately, there is no blood test as there is in the film to determine if a friend is truly a friend, so in real life we are often in even dire straits than the characters in the film.
Recently there has been renewed interest in a question that probably began the day the film was released in 1982: in the last scene, is Childs an alien? There are a couple of videos which purport to prove that there are clues in the film that point to not only that Childs is an alien, but that MacReady kills him shortly after the film ends. It’s interesting that The Thing was originally released the same day as Blade Runner, a film which spawned a similar flurry of arguments around a similar question: Is Deckard a replicant? However, unlike Ridley Scott who apparently finally settled the question in the affirmative, Carpenter has not made any attempt to answer the question about whether Childs is or is not The Thing. Instead, he has said that the ending is supposed to be ambiguous. But there’s a good reason for that: the film’s true horror is precisely what happens in that scene: you can never know with certainty who to trust. There appears to be an aversion to ambiguity, so we have endless arguments that attempt to bring certainty to a film that does not have certainty. I suspect that the clues that suggest to some that Childs is an alien are the result of the last scene in the movie not being a part of the original story, hence not fully thought out to make it completely consistent with the rest of the movie. But thematically, it’s 100% consistent. Childs may or may not be The Thing. The point is that we do not know. And you don’t have to be living in the world of The Thing to face that quandary. That’s the true horror.
It was both amusing and sad as hell to hear two guys who were sitting behind us in the theater arguing over the name of the author of “Who Goes There?,” which they had read in the film’s credits. Neither of them knew who John W. Campbell, Jr. was.
Prince of Darkness
This is another film in which the setup has a group of people isolated from the outside world under siege from forces both outside and inside their sanctuary. Carpenter’s first feature, Assault on Precinct 13, was obviously derived from Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo, but films such as The Thing, with its obvious Howard Hawks connection, and Prince of Darkness, have similar setups. However, each one of the films in the trilogy can be traced to a variety of sources. Lovecraft appears to have a hand in each of them. Although this is most obviously the case for In the Mouth of Madness, whenever monsters from another world, especially monsters with tentacles, show up the credit is often Lovecraft’s. I also detect the influence of Dario Argento and giallo in general whenever there’s a group of people who meet grisly deaths one after the other, which is certainly the case for Prince of Darkness. Then there’s the Quatermass films, perhaps Quatermass and the Pit (this is the BBC version) most of all. The recurring dreams in Prince of Darkness “borrow” imagery from that film, but the general plot probably derives from it as well.
In the Mouth of Madness
I like to think that there are really just two things you need for a film. First, you need a series of images or scenes. At first, they do not necessarily have anything in common. Perhaps we have an old lady axe murderer or a group of demonic-looking kids running after a dog. Then you need a plot to tie these images together. In Carpenter’s film, it appears that the images mostly derive from Lovecraft or Stephen King. The plot, however, is a ripoff of The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll. Carroll said this on his blog several years ago:
What was the story behind IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, which bears a remarkable – but uncredited – resemblance to Land of Laughs?
When I was in LA, Michael DeLuca had just become head of New Line, and he was about to become a very important guy because his first job was getting Jim Carrey to do THE MASK.
DeLuca requested a meeting when he knew I was there. After we shook hands, he started laughing, which I thought was sort of odd.
Then he said New Line had a new John Carpenter film called IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, which DeLuca had written. He said it was a complete steal of the idea of Land of Laughs. I asked if it was any good, and he said, “No, it’s terrible!” And laughed again. And it is.
Read more about The Land of Laughs here.
All of this borrowing and ripping off is of course typical of Hollywood. With all the ripping off going on in Hollywood, and its traces be covered up as skillfully as possible, one cannot help but think of The Thing as being a film about Hollywood where it’s truly impossible to know who to trust. Perhaps each of these movies is actually more about Carpenter, who grew up in the Mid-West, and his reaction to the world of Hollywood more than anything else. Apocalypse indeed.
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According to The Golden Labyrinth: The Unique Films of Guillermo Del Toro by Steve Earles:
[Del Toro’s] fascination with horror films began when he stayed up late without his parent’s permission to watch The Outer Limits episode “The Mutant.” He got terrified by the make-up that was created for Warren Oates in that episode, and he went to bed really scared. His older brother put two plastic fried eggs over his face and his mother’s stocking over his head and crept into Guillermo’s room, further scaring him.
Did this episode merely scare Del Toro or scar him for life?
Are revenge narratives merely the means to provide the hero with a circumstance in which he or she can kill with impunity and justification? The above scene is from The Devil’s Backbone, a film which evinces sympathy for leftist causes, but it could just as easily be from a film such as Lord of the Flies, which draws upon a conservative view of human nature. No matter what the story, no matter the ideology of the producers, the end product is the same: murder!
My father mentioned that he’d seen Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo. This film is a good example of a revenge fantasy, and what I ask above applies to it as much as any film. Some may think that this kind of thing is limited to low budget horror films, but this is far from the case.