Turtles Vs. Maniacs And That Wonderful Feeling of Dredd

I watched an interesting double feature this weekend: Michael Bay’s version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles followed by William Lustig’s Maniac.  That’s an odd pairing, I know, but sometimes you just have to watch whatever Netflix sent you and not ask questions.

The movies are not in the same genre and, obviously, hail not just from different neighborhoods budget-wise, but from completely different cities.  Or maybe the difference would be better characterized by saying that Maniac is from downtown and TMNT comes from the suburbs.

Michael Bay has a way with action scenes and a striking visual style but I have yet to see one of his movies all the way through.  Except for Bad Boys, but there was enough humor in the back and forth between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence that the movie didn’t seem as depressingly rote as all other Michael Bay movies.

The sad truth is I had every reason to watch TMNT all the way through to the end.  I’m a big a fan of the Heroes on the Halfshell.  I liked what I saw in the trailer.  I know a lot of purists (yes, there are TMNT purists) had a problem with various aspects of the script — the enlarging and aging up of the turtles, April’s childhood connection to the turtles, the urbanization of the turtles — but I thought the series was ripe for a reboot and, while the second change with April was gratuitous but undamaging, I thought the other changes might bring a fresh perspective.

But I took a phone call at the start of the third act, which in and of itself is a bad sign, and when I had a chance to get back to the movie, I asked myself if I really needed to watch the rest of it.  The answer was no.  I had expected every beat in the story through the first two acts and knew exactly what was going to happen on the way to the finish.  So I maintained my record of having only ever finished one Michael Bay movie by popping Maniac into the machine and watching that instead.

I get the feeling that Michael Bay has an app on his phone that tells him exactly what’s supposed to happen at every point of a movie.  He just types in the page number and the app comes back with, “A reversal for the protagonist!” or something equally insipid.

And I think insipid is the correct word to use here.  You get the feeling that not only do his movies not challenge you, they somehow manage to drain your IQ a little while you watch them.

And let’s talk about casting creepy Bill Fichtner in the role of “trusted friend who turns out to be the bad guy.”  When you do that, when you cast a guy known for playing that exact role in every movie, you rob any surprise that the audience might have experienced.  They point at the screen when they see him, just as I did, and say, “He did it!”  They don’t even know what “it” is yet but they know Bill is responsible.

But now let’s talk about the whole “trusted friend who turns out to be the bad guy” trope.  It’s been done so much it’s just plain done.  I was disappointed that Iron Man 1, a movie I otherwise liked, fell back on this easy lay of an idea and that was six years ago.  It seems like every superhero movie since has played that same stupid card, culminating with the massive Hydra infiltration of SHIELD in Winter Soldier.

The one movie where it worked for me was the massively underrated Dredd from 2012.  When the other judges show up to hunt down Dredd, they just straight up do it for money.  Watching that deal go down, I had the same shitty feeling I had when watching Serpico for the first time.  That’s life, baby.  When the bad guys have all the money and all the guns, sometimes the good guys take early retirement in the form of huge bribes.

But in that case, we weren’t expected to believe during the first part of the movie that a certain character was a standup guy who later turned out to be pulling all the evil strings in the movie.  The bad guy, played with deliciously lazy malice by Lena Heady, made a call, threw down a wad of cash for some bad cops and shit got real, yo.

In that one case, the trusted friend proto-trope was an actual indictment of human corruptibility.  Unlike Robert Redford’s character in Winter Soldier or every character Bill Fichtner has ever played except for that one time on Grace Under Fire when he was kind of nice right up until he could, as an actor, see that that ship was going down like the Hindenburg and got the hell out as soon as his lawyer could arrange an exit.

Anyway, the reason I’m talking about these two movies together is that I believe in my heart of hearts that William Lustig and Michael Bay approached their products with the same open sense of avarice.  They were both trying to make a movie that people would go see and that would in turn make some money so they could go on getting paid to do the greatest job in the world.

While the intentions are the same, the end results couldn’t be more different.  TMNT is slick and predictable, a beautiful girl without a brain in her head, while Maniac is a hot mess, a girl who takes you to new places because she’s so fucking crazy and then hits you with a wrench and steals your TV.

I don’t know if Lustig just didn’t know what he was doing — he had only directed two movies before this and had been so proud of the results he used the name Billy Bragg as an alias on both — but the mishmash of Psycho and every other psycho-trope type movies where the killer is just pining away from an abusive childhood at the hands of a withholding mother works on a different level in this case.

Part of what makes it work is the creepy mannequin imagery and part of it is Joe Spinell’s ambivalent take on the part of Frank.  I get the impression he asked Lustig several times for his motivation and every time the director responded, “To get your fucking paycheck, Joe.  Now act, damn you!”  So in parts of the movie he’s your average 1970s goombah, picking up chicks and making time wrapped in polyester, while at other times he’s whacked out of his mind on the remorse of a childhood lost like a jibbering rage fever monkey in a cage with a loose door.  Those are the parts that I think really sell the movie on a level above something obvious like The Bloody Mutilators.

For whatever reason, it works and, for obvious reasons, TMNT does not.  If you’ve ever seen a Michael Bay movie, you’ve already seen the rest of them, including the ones he hasn’t made yet, but Maniac is a disturbingly uneven treat.

Let’s pause for a moment so I can recount my Michael Bay anecdote.  I watched the first three quarters of The Island on DVD back when it first came out.  When Scarlett Johannson is in a movie I don’t… well, there aren’t any other criteria.  I just watch the movie.  As it turns out in this case, not the whole movie, because it was a Michael Bay film.

The funny part is that I’m also a big MST3K fan and had seen their episode based on Parts: The Clonus Horror a dozen times.  If I remember correctly, I got a quasi-legal VHS version from the Best Brains website back when the web was young and it became a go to thing to watch when I was bored and there wasn’t anything good on TV.

I was watching The Island, as bored as I always am in Bay movies and thinking about turning it off, but this idea that I recognized the story from another movie kept kicking me in my mental balls.  Those movie fans out there — and by “movie fans” I mean those whose love of film borders on OCD — know what I mean.  It’s why IMDB was invented.  You know your mind is not going to move on from this problem until it has an answer to where you’ve seen this before.

Eventually, it occurred to me that the story, if not the visuals, was strikingly similar to Parts: The Clonus Horror.  A movie, I should add, that’s so bad it’s almost a Michael Bay movie.  Actually, now that I think of it, if Mr. Bay had been shitting out his particular brand of diarrhea back in the 70s before budgets got big and CGI got cheap, this is the exact movie he would have made.

So I went to look it up and, sure enough, Dreamworks (Bay’s employer of record for this particular monstrosity) was successfully sued by the people responsible for Parts.  To me, that’s like dung beetles fighting it out in court over a particularly smelly turd.  Even so, I’m glad the dung beetles who weren’t Michael Bay won.

I want to impart two bits of wisdom, one mine and one that belongs to someone else, about this topic before I beg off:

First off, every time someone from the arts community (and by “arts” I’m including the movie industry which means my definition is super broad) criticizes Bay for his mind numbing product, he responds by quoting his sales numbers and saying, “I give the people what they want.”

The response I’m quoting here, but whose source I can’t find, is stridently on point:  “Bullshit, as an artist your job is to give the people more than they want.”

That’s just fucking brilliant and I wish I had thought of it, but I didn’t.

Secondly, I want to mention that the obvious takeaway from this post is this: When it comes down to Maniac and TMNT, just skip them both and go watch Dredd.  I guarantee it will be worth your time.  And if it’s not, I will literally* give you your money back.

As a survivor of the 1995 cinematic stillbirth called Judge Dredd, I too was reticent to believe again, but I can honestly tell you that everything that sucked about the original is special in the reboot.

* By “literally” I mean “figuratively” as in, “I literally will NOT give you any money.”

 

 

Noir 2: This Time It’s Noirer

Watching I Wake Up Screaming got me in the mood to look for other noir films I missed during the time I was researching The Vengeance Season.  It didn’t take long to come up with two that I’d never seen: Kiss of Death and Nightmare Alley.

What is it with the titles of these movies?  No one woke up screaming in I Wake Up Screaming.  No one was kissed to death in Kiss of Death.  And nothing happened in an alley in Nightmare Alley.  It’s a carnie movie, for God’s sake.  There are no alleys, just sawdust and animal crap.

I’m beginning to think – and stay with me here as I go out on a limb — that they just picked titles at random to get people to come see the movie.  This was back before Hollywood turned super honest and straight up noble, so it’s entirely possible.

What can I say about Kiss of Death?  Well, the first thing I can say is that I didn’t finish watching it even though I was keen to compare it to the 1995 remake with Nicolas Cage and that ginger guy from that cop show who can’t speak until he dramatically removes his sunglasses. Oddly enough, that version was also unwatchable, but mostly because it sucked.

The reason I haven’t finished watching the 1947 version isn’t because it was bad but because Richard Widmark is in it and he portrays a character so vile it was simply too disturbing to listen to him talk.  And he talks all the time.  Remember Larry Drake playing the title character in Dr. Giggles?  Widmark’s character is equally creepy-cum-annoying.  I’ll get back to it eventually.  Not because I want to, but because I’m a completist.

And it’s really disconcerting to remember that Widmark went on to become a leading man later on in his career.  You’ll never watch Judgment at Nuremberg the same way again after seeing him in this movie.

On the other end of the spectrum, Nightmare Alley is excellent and bizarre.  This must be the only time other than Todd Browning’s Freaks that the sideshow geek was dealt with in any direct way.  The script even makes note of the fact that this bizarre act had been made illegal long before this movie was made.

But that’s not what is so mind-fucking weird about this movie.  It’s Tyrone Power’s character arc.  This matinee idol goes from carnie roustabout to high society headliner to geek over the course of 110 minutes.  It’s a truly distressing thing to behold — he even looks like a man strung out on “booze” (I’m pretty sure booze is standing in for heroine here.  No alcoholic talks about limiting themselves to a one shot a day.) — and even more so because, unlike the heels in most noirs, he’s not actively evil.

Like most of us, the Great Stan is just to easily able to convince himself that his selfish actions are for the benefit of others.  If it weren’t for Coleen Gray, he would have no conscience at all.

Oh, and Coleen Gray, one of the most beautiful — in the modern sense of that word, she doesn’t even look like an actress from that era — actresses from that day is in both of these movies.  Damn, I just looked her up on IMDB and discovered she’s in The Killing, Red River, and Kansas City Confidential as well.  She had quite the noir run going there for awhile.

I hear people — okay, older people — complain that they don’t make movies like this anymore but I think they really do.  Kiss of Death was remade, as I mentioned above.  Out of the Past, a classic, was remade as Against All Odds.  Not a bad movie but nowhere near as strong as the original.  The Killers was remade in 1964.  It was good but nowhere as good as the… oh, here I am talking about “the original” again like it’s something untouchable that belongs in a reliquary.

So if you want a movie that was made like they used to make them, I would say Body Heat is your winner.  It’s not a remake but it satisfies on every note of the Noir scale and it has a truly mind altering twist.

BUT THAT’S NOT THE POINT!

We aren’t supposed to make them like we used to. Movies aren’t cars.  Wait, that’s not even a good analogy.  Movies aren’t bridges.  Here’s a paraphrase from Patton Oswalt: For any creative endeavor to survive, it must change and grow.

That’s the answer, by the way, to the argument that Michael Bay is a great director because his movies make a lot of money.  Making money is only a valid argument if you’re debating a banker.  And fuck those guys.

We shouldn’t make movies like we used to because film is an artform and it must change in order to thrive.  White Heat becomes Bonnie & Clyde becomes The Godfather becomes Scarface becomes The Way of the Gun becomes Snatch and so on.

If you went back to 1949 and showed Snatch to Jimmy Cagney’s audience, well… no one would have stayed past the first act.  Movies reflect the times in which they are created.  That’s why there’s no point in remaking a movie like Nightmare Alley (which wasn’t even a box office success in its own time).  Our time is better spent looking for new reflections in our own golden eye rather trying to reach back to past successes.

Okay, I’ll be honest.  This whole post was about how pissed I am that Michael Bay tried to reboot the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise.  That property is very near and dear to me and I hope he gets an unusually aggressive form of testicular cancer.

Peace!

A Sky Black With Drone Swarms

I like Domino’s Pizza.  They’re now spending billions of dollars to rename themselves to just “Domino’s” because they sell other things besides pizza.  That sounds like an idea that came from one of those truly insipid “consultants,” probably one with a Harvard MBA.

Because when your company has been associated with the delivery of pizza to homes all across the nation for something like forty years, simply dropping the word “Pizza” from your name will surely change the way people think of your product.  Also, no one ever says “Domino’s Pizza,” anyway.  We already call them “Domino’s.”  So that’s got to be money well spent.

But, yeah, even though I like their pizza now, that wasn’t always the case.  Originally you ordered from Domino’s for one reason: they would bring it to your house.  If you lived downtown in some big city, you had all manner of foods that could be summoned to your home by a simple phone call.  Chinese.  Korean BBQ.  Pizza that was from an actual pizzeria.  But if you lived in the suburbs or anywhere out west where things were spread apart, you had one choice.  Domino’s.

We always ordered as many toppings as we could afford hoping the flavor of pepperoni, mushrooms, sausage, ground beef, peppers and bacon might just be able to overwhelm the truly terrible taste of the crust and a red sauce that was, I assume, based on government subsidy ketchup packets left over from the Cold War.

It’s gotten much better.  I think they probably had to up their game because it’s easier these days to get quality food brought to your door.

Yeah, to your door.  And that’s the problem because you still have to get out of bed and pause your show and put on pants or a robe and shuffle downstairs to the door, all of which is a huge inconvenience, because, while it’s easy to have food brought to your door, getting it to travel the next twenty-five feet is nearly impossible.

A pizza delivery person has no problem bringing a disk of hot comfort food to your door, that’s their job, but asking them to cross that threshold causes the vibe to go from routine to something a bit more murder den-ish and torture porny.

“Hi, I’d like to order a large with pepperoni and mushrooms for delivery.”

“Address?”

“Well, the numbers aren’t actually visible from the street but my house is easy to find.  You know Lightless Blvd?  Well, my house is on Darkness Cove just off of Lightless Blvd.”

“Uh huh…”

“Just make a right on Darkness Cove and look for the house with the red door.  There aren’t any street lights, obviously, but you can tell the door is red from the porch light.  Also, someone spraypainted ‘Burn in Hell You Murderous Fiend’ on my garage door.  I should really paint over that… heh… I mean, I was found not guilty, after all… by reason of… well, anyway, open the red door and step inside.”

“Inside?”

“Yeah, into the foyer.  Don’t worry, it’s really simple from here on out.  Just make a left into the hallway and then go all the way to the end where you’ll see a door with a bunch of locks and bolts on it.  Don’t worry about them, they’re just there to keep me in. Undo those locks and open the door.  Once you step inside it gets really easy.  I’ll be in my bed directly to your… Hello?  Hello?  You still there?”

Drones!  That’s the future.  Drones and whole house remote control.  You order your food, they send it via drone.  You let the thing into your house using your phone to open the doors so the it has free passage into your bedroom.

Then you murder the shit out of that thing and nail it to your wall as a trophy.  While eating pizza in bed.

The Man Comes Around

Okay, this asshole’s time has come.  I’ve put it off for too long, probably from some half remembered sense of decency, but in the end, you do the time for your crimes.  And no one has committed as many felonies against the institution of comedy as Dane Cook.

Why?  Why does everyone who matters hate the Cookster with such unquenchable rage?  Is it because he may or may not have stolen a single joke from Louis CK?

No!  Nobody cares about that shit but Louis and his friends.  It’s not even clear that he actually stole the joke or that Louis is or ever was pissed about it.  But what is clear is that all of the comedians I admire hate this guy.

But even that’s not the reason I hate him.  No, I have my own personal axe to grind with Dane Cook and now, at long last, we have come to that clearing in the woods where this type of thing gets sorted out.  So throw down if you’re heavy because this is about to get ugly.

Rewind to 2006 when one of my favorite comedians, Dave Attell, is heading out on the road to Vegas to film a ride-along called Dave Attell’s Insomniac Tour.  If you haven’t seen this inglorious act of desecration and discombobulation, then you should go and find it on the innertubes and drink it down like an ice cold shake of brain freezing shame.

Three of the four performers on this show are outrageously good.  And I’m specifically using the word “outrageously” because it implies “outrage” which is a response that is threaded gloriously throughout their work.

Oh, and Dane Cook is there, too.

That’s right, Dave Attell, the comedian with the most street cred since Zach Galifianakis vomited all over his keyboard mid-punchline, somehow ended up having to drag Dane Cook along on his otherwise perfectly profane trip to Vegas.

Here’s how I imagine that pitch meeting went:.

Dave Attell: Hey, I’ve got this fucking awesome idea for a comedy show.  I take three up and coming steel-skinned, ass-ripping comics from the underside of the comedy universe and bring them to where the drunks are and we film the whole thing.

Comedy Central VP: I like it.  Tell me more. Who’s on the bus?

DA: Greg Giraldo, Sean Rouse and…

CCVP: Dane Cook.

DA: Huh?  Fuck no.  Why would you even…

CCVP: Dane Cook.

DA: Wait, are you saying you won’t fund this fucker if I don’t take that hack with me?

CCVP: I’m saying that you need a name to bring in the audience.  Dane Cook has big numbers right now.

DA: Big numbers?  He’s a dick with lips.  He’s his own blowjob.

CCVP: You need him to bring the crowd.

DA: The hall will be filled, trust me.

CCVP: Not the hall.  I’m in TV.  I don’t care about the hall.  I care about the television audience.

DA: Ah, Jesus.  Hey, how about I get Patton Oswalt?

CCVP: Dane Cook.

DA: Maria Bamford?

CCVP: Dane Cook.

DA: Greg Proops?  Colin Mochrie?  Brian Posehn?  Bob Odenkirk?

CCVP: Dane Cook. Dane Cook. Dane Cook. Dane Cook.

DA: David Cross?  Sarah Silverman?  Bill Burr?  Colin Quinn?

CCVP: Dane Cook. Dane Cook. Dane Cook. Dane Cook.

DA: That homeless guy out front of the building whose zipper is always down?

CCVP: Dane Cook.

DA: How about that kid who screams all the time and then shits himself?

CCVP:  That’s… Dave, are you talking about your cousin’s kid?

DA: He could do it.  He’s funny as hell.

CCVP: He’s two.

DA: So?

CCVP: Dane Cook.

DA: So… Dane Cook then?

CCVP: I’m glad we could come to a meeting of the minds.

Now at this time, I came eagerly for the Insomniac Tour.  I was a huge fan of Dave Attell’s Insomniac series and here he was throwing off even the bare restraints that Comedy Central had put on him for that show, heading off to Vegas with some truly disturbing offspring for a foul, nigh-unforgivable night of entertainment in the offing.  It was going to be great.  It was going to be awesome.  How could it possibly be ruined?

Let’s rewind a little bit further before we plunge into the castration of the gods that’s about to happen and ponder a movie I wish I could call one of my favorites: Mr. Brooks.  I love this movie.  Kostner is straight up creepy, the plot is unpredictable, William Hurt is… himself, and then Dane fucking Cook shows up.

What is he doing in this movie?  Or Waiting?  Or Dan In Real Life?  Someone answer me!  How?

But even that isn’t why I hate him.  Let’s go back to the Insomniac Tour.  The lights go down, Dave Attell steps out to the lip of the stage, beaming that malicious, slightly predatory smile of his, the one that warns you it’s going to be a bumpy night, and he says, “Okay, guys, listen up.  You’re going to be drinking a lot tonight so remember one thing:  It’s pants down THEN shit.”

I’m at home watching this on TV, completely sober for a change, and I fall out of my chair laughing so hard that, as it turns out, I’m going to need emergency surgery on my spleen a little later in the evening.  And I’m thinking that this is going to be a hilarious show.

Then Dane Cook comes out and, to be honest, I don’t know how to describe his act.  It’s not like he does jokes.  There’s not really a setup or a drop.  It’s something like this:

“Walking!  Am I right?  Yeah!  Walking!  Have you heard about this?  Seen it on the street?”  He walks around like a toddler for a moment.  The drunks in the crowd laugh hard and then puke on their tassels.  “It’s crazy, right?  This kind of thing is going on everywhere!”

I guess you could call it the school of “Hope Your Audience Is Drunk Enough to Laugh At Random Noise” comedy.

Anyway, he proceeds to go on and on for seven minutes about someone having to take a dump.  He climbs on a chair.  He waves his arms.  And it basically takes him five times as long and five times as much energy to tell the same joke, or at least to get to the same punchline, as Dave did with one line.

In between sets, the camera cuts to the three comedians and Dane Cook at a table, which I guess is supposed to be analogous to the post show hang, and it’s the most awkward thing ever.  Remember that time your grandmother walked in while you were masturbating but then she  stayed long enough to remind you that God is always watching?  Yeah, it’s more awkward than that.

You can see it on their faces.  They want to stand up, throw a drink in his smirking face, and then choke the life out of him while screaming, “You haven’t earned it, you asshole!”

And that’s why I hate Dane Cook.  He hasn’t earned it.  He’s a Kardashian.  He’s an inheritor of borrowed fame.  He doesn’t belong in my comedy specials or my movies or my TV shows.  I’m fine with him going around the country “entertaining” drunken frat boys in the same way that I’m okay with Hootie and the Blowfish performing live as long as I don’t have to listen to them.  But this guy keeps infecting my otherwise perfectly enjoyable entertainment so he has to go.

He’s like someone’s little brother whose Mom says he has to come along on every adventure so he can ruin the shit out of it.

Here We Go Again…

One of the problems with reading about the addictions of your heroes is that you stand a very good chance of getting infected yourself.  For instance, you might read a memoir by a guy who got a little too obsessed with consuming movies and come away with a whole list of movies you feel compelled to see.

My psychic burden from reading Silver Screen Fiend doesn’t appear to be too bad, at least at the outset, I don’t think.  I’m reading Clark Ashton Smith, one of those authors I knew in my gut I should read but assumed would be dripping with that 19th century purple prose I find so taxing.  That’s not too far off the mark, his prose is far more dense than what we think of as the modern style, but it’s actually kind of beautiful.

The first story was so lyrical — I’m listening to the audio book — that I thought it was a poem placed in the forward for purely thematic purposes.

I have to be honest about something here before we go any further.  I’ve always been a big fan of H. P. Lovecraft — in theory.  I love his stories and his ideas, but his writing has always been a little too wooden for my taste.  That’s what I was expecting from Smith.

That’s not what I got.  Instead, I find myself jotting down phrases and similes that are startling in their clarity.

Note: I do this because I live in constant terror I’m going to subconsciously plagiarise something I’ve read.  So whenever I come up with a really good line, I check my notes to make sure I didn’t rip it off.

I also jot them down because I want to be able to enjoy them on their own merit.  Here’s one I took note of from Oswalt’s book: He was someone who left a noxious fragment behind that led others to evil.   That’s something that would fit perfectly into the novel I’m working on so having it on hand both urges me to do better, to reach a little further, and keeps me honest.

IP theft is not a joke.  It’s poison to your career and it kills your legacy.  Let’s face it, no one not currently trying to roofie a coed wants to be Dane Cook.  And speaking of Dane Cook it’s probably time I explained what all the hubbub is about with that guy.  Or maybe not.  This post is going to be long even without a proper excoriation of the alleged joke thief.  So let’s just push it to another day.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program…

The other tenebrous hook Oswalt’s book sunk into my pasty, willing flesh was a movie called I Wake Up Screaming.  The title hints at something Karloff might have done during his heyday, one of the overlooked gems like The Devil Commands — which I just obsessively added to my Netflix queue and pushed to the top because now that I’ve thought of it, I have to see it again — but it’s actually a film noir starring Victor Mature who turns out to be a much better actor than I remember.

The problem: I went through a film noir addiction ten years ago when I settled down to write The Vengeance Season.  The idea was that if I was going to get into that mindspace, I would need to truly submerge myself in the era and the zeitgeist and film noir seemed like the best sensory deprivation tank for the job.

I got around to seeing all the classics — The Killers, Criss Cross, Out of the Past (who knew that the 1984 movie I loved so much at the time, Against All Odds, was a remake of this classic noir that was even better?  Not me until I finally saw it), Touch of Evil (which I don’t think really counts as a Noir), Night and the City, The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity… okay, so the list is too long to enumerate here so let’s just take it as read that I watched all of them multiple times with and without the commentary track.

Except for I Wake Up Screaming which is one of the best. In and of itself, it’s a strange thing, but however off kilter it feels, it works just the same.  It’s like two movie productions got together to make two different movies, one a romantic comedy with Betty Grable and the other a gritty murder mystery with Victor Mature.  You wouldn’t think the result would be anything more than an odd mishmash but it actually comes out as a super hybrid that succeeds on both sides.

Plus, Laird Cregar.  If you don’t know that name, go watch this movie now and then listen to the commentary.  Nuff said.

But the existence of I Wake Up Screaming raises a terrible, almost unbearable question for an obsessive completist: If this one is out there and I didn’t know about it, what others have I missed?

So now I’m quietly filling up my Netflix queue with titles off of Best Noir lists even though I have given up crime writing and no longer have a reason to see these movies.  Except that they’re, you know, great.

Oh, look, here’s one with Bogart.  In A Lonely Place.  I’ll give that one a try.  It sounds fun.

See you guys in… a… while, I guess?  I’m going to be kind of busy for the foreseeable future.

Here’s another one with Bogart: They Drive By Night.  Into the queue it goes.

How long could it possibly take to see every movie in the film noir category and jot down every quotable line in the script?  Cool, here’s one from I Wake Up Screaming: I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.

Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

 

 

Silver Screen Fiend and the Night Cafe

I think Patton Oswalt is the funniest, most entertaining comic working today.  And not fart joke funny like Adam Sandler or frat joke funny like Dane Cook, or pratfall funny like — Okay, so I’m trying to think of someone from the “fatty falls down” school of comedy but all I can come up with is the guy who coined the term and he’s been dead for almost twenty years so just pretend I came up with something clever.

And now that I’m thinking about it, I’m struck by how the group of comics who replaced the airline food is bad and women are different from men hacks of the eighties and nineties — think Maria Bamford, Patton Oswalt, Louis CK, Brian Posehn, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Blaine Capatch, wow there are a bunch of people from that wave of alternate comedy that are super popular now — kind of changed the world.

If you concede the theory that Jack the Ripper opened the door to the 20th century, you could also say that the alternative comedy scene opened the door to the self aware, multi referential popgasm that is the 21st.

Damn, I lost the thread of what I was going to say so I’m going to tell my Maria Bamford story real quick while I get my train of thought back: I saw her at a Wednesday night show at some forgettable Comedy Store pretender in Dallas back in the mid-nineties and… wait for it… she wasn’t the headliner.  She was third out of six, if I remember correctly, and the closer was some local DJ who “did characters” and “told jokes.”  I mean, I never went to comedy clubs — I had only been dragged to this one because a friend had a coupon for free drinks — and even I knew the punchlines before he sprung them on us.

This just came back to me like a piece of tuna caught in the gag reflex of my sense of humor for twenty years, but I even remember the bit he closed out with.  It was the old, “I think my wife is a robot because every time I press a button on the remote she rolls her eyes.”  I may have even punched that up a bit for him because I’m pretty sure he didn’t even mention the part about being a robot.  He just came on stage with his Morning Zoo fart noise personality and said, “My wife rolls her eyes every time I use the remote.”  Then he looked impatient while waiting for us to laugh.

What was amazing about this was the response from the crowd.  Out there in the sticks of suburban Dallas on a Wednesday night in a half-assed comedy “club” a spontaneous groan went up from every last member of the audience.  He was so surprised, he looked like he had been slapped.  He was shocked, that’s right shocked, that we had heard it before.  Was he unfamiliar with television?  Did he think we were?  Who knows what poor logical skills convinced him he should be on a stage in front of somewhat live humanbeings.

And that brings me to Dane Cook.  No, you know what, I can already tell this post is going crazy long so I’ll push that thought to another day.  This is what happens when I stop writing.  All that creative energy has to go somewhere so my normally brief blog posts start gushing like a broken sewer main.

Uh… where was I?  Oh, yeah, Maria Bamford.

After a couple of brand newbies gasped and dry swallowed their way through seven minutes of material in three minutes, Maria Bamford came on and killed only to have the mood crushed by another wet fart of a hack who wanted to tell us about the differences between men and women (spoiler alert: it’s the genitals) and then the evening was closed out with the emotional force of a single, unheard snivel by a DJ whose sidekick probably thought he was hilarious.

But right in the middle of this miasma of nervous wannabes and hackneyed old timers made generally weary by the road, up to the mike strides the ditzy magician who tells a story about hitting a train with her car that was truly funny.  And you know how I knew it was funny?  I laughed.  The openers had put me in a surly mood by the time she came up but she made me laugh.

So just as I was giving up on the whole night, her act gave me hope that good things might be coming and I relaxed and enjoyed my free watered down drink and waited for the show to get even better — Remember, she wasn’t even closing it out that night — but as soon as she left the stage, my hopes were dashed by another clumsy oaf who had no business being up there.

Patton Oswalt.

That’s right, Patton Oswalt was that oaf.  No, I’m totally kidding. It was all clueless locals and eternal denizens of the angry road for the rest of the show.  I’ll get back to Patton in a minute but right now I’m busy running off at the mouth.

Oh, I remember where I was going when I lost my train of thought:  So, when I picked up the audio version of Patton Oswalt’s book Silver Screen Fiend, I was just looking for something to make me laugh on my way to an unforgivably stupid job at a company that I’m sure was founded just to suck the life and creativity out of people unlucky enough to drift into range its sick radiation field.

His book did do that, after a fashion.  It’s very funny, but it’s also illuminating and emblematic of the pure smarts of this generation of comics.  I certainly wasn’t expecting a book that would cause me to reconsider my approach to writing, one that would make me question whether the lack of pain I have been feeling about writing was maybe a sign that I was no longer getting better.

There is a theory that creativity should hurt.  I subscribed to it when I was young because writing was actually very hard at that time.  I dropped out of college and drove around in an old Toyota Corolla for a year just to get the first draft on paper and I still had two more years of rewriting before I had anything worth sending out.  But in the last ten years since I started writing again, I’ve found it quite easy to think of ideas and put them down on (digital) paper.

I thought that meant I had matured as a writer until I read about Oswalt’s series of Night Cafes — Night Cafes being the rooms you cannot leave without being changed — and then I started wondering if Harlan Ellison or Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut would be satisfied with how weakly I’ve pressed against the edge of the envelope of late.

Am I innovating or regurgitating?  That’s the question you have to ask yourself every time you commit something artistic to physical reality.  Be it story or statue or song or standup routine, you have to wonder if you brought it into this world for any reason other than remuneration.

Unfortunately, you can’t use rejection as a guide.  Rejection is a double edged sword.  It rushes to greet all innovators — PKD once received two dozen rejections in a single mail delivery — with the same enthusiasm it does hacks, wannabes and dullards.  The rejection letters read the same in most cases.

But rejection also pushes back on nascent genius, forcing the creator to rethink, rearm and attack from a new angle.  Well, “force” is a poorly chosen word.  Better to say that rejection offers the chance to reassess your work and to understand that everyone takes something different away from it and what they take away may not be the thing you intended.

As an example, I’ll just mention a review I read of Silver Screen Fiend online.  The reviewer wrote off the book I found so spiritually and creatively illuminating as little more than a “look at the dark side comedy.”  There is some of that in the book.  Oswalt did come up through the comedy scene and it is a memoir but — you can’t see me but I’m shaking my head like a wet dog — did the reviewer miss the other 70% of the book’s content?  Did he just skim it, vomit up a one line review and then go back to playing Advanced Warfare?

No one will ever know why (the reviewer was eaten by a dinosaur shortly after posting that reedy bowel movement of a review) but for some reason that’s what this guy took away from that book.  And just as my friends who are fans of the novel V are unable to “fix” my searing hatred for Thomas Pynchon novels, you just have to be okay with that.

Okay, so where was I?

Not to point out the obvious, but I have not come around here for a while, what with being taken by the fever dream of finishing the big fantasy novel.  I imagine this is a thing unique to writing a novel.  You get to the point where you can see the finish line and suddenly you just pick up the pace and start working on it to the exclusion of all else.

And then one day, covered in sweat and gore and your mind reeling with the terrible thing you’ve done, you stand back and realize it’s alive.  ALIVE!

I had ideas for other blog posts during the time I was lost in the darkness.  I would sometimes write them out completely in my head but I never actually typed them up.  All writing for the last 90 days has been jealously dedicated to finishing the novel.

And now I’m done!  God, it’s such an… awful, awkward feeling.  Is this what it’s like for marathon runners?  When they cross the finish line, heaving and vomiting, is their first thought, “But what am I going to do now?”  Somehow, I doubt it.

I had the idea for this book as a kind of side thought on a long road trip.  It wasn’t anything special, just the notion that I had always been a fan of Lovecraft but had never written anything in that universe.  I tossed the idea around in my head for a while but nothing really came of it until that tornado nearly destroyed Moore, Oklahoma in 2010.  And then an image for the opening scene of the novel popped into my forebrain and I’ve been obsessed with the idea ever since.

This book has been with me through seven drafts over the course of five years.  During that time, I wrote a complete other novel that I couldn’t get anyone at any agency to read much less consider (just because it could be misread to be rabidly anti-Christian even though it’s not), and wrote a dozen short stories, some of which I really like, and published my four crime novels.

Both of my daughters moved away from home in that time, one to LA and one to OKC, and my beloved shorthaired pointer Charlie passed away, something that made me realize Louis CK is absolutely correct when he says the countdown to tragedy begins the moment you bring a pet home.  And even though I resolved not bring home any more ticking timebombs of tragedy, three months later, Libby the Border Collie came to live with us.

This is why we need a border fence, sheeple.

I also got into an OCD loop with the audio books for 11-22-63 and Ready Player One, basically listening to them over and over until the arrival of the Southern Reach series helped me break out of the loop.  The news isn’t all good on the OCD front.  I’m now stuck in a loop listening to Patton Oswalt books and albums.  This tendency to get stuck used to worry me but I’ve come to understand my OCD well enough over the years that I know to simply look for that next thing that will break me out of it.

And after all of that, I’m not truly, not actually, not completely done.  Typing “The End” on that last page just started the four week countdown until I can start the polish draft.  What can you do in four weeks?  Write some short stories, I guess, but I’m so creatively drained it’s not like ideas are leaping out of my head.

The need to work on something every day remains with me and if I don’t obey that need, I feel the stinging, unhappy presence of incompleteness that all true obsessives know well.  But now that the novel is finished, that feeling of disappointment is laced with the thinnest threads of relief.  It’s not like the damned thing will un-write itself.  Even if I get hit by a bus tomorrow (yeah, like I would be anywhere near a bus) the book has been written.  I can check that one off the imaginary list.

Oh, speaking of damned things: If you’ve never read The Damned Thing by Ambrose Bierce, you should do that right now.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

And… while I’m at it.  If you haven’t binge watched Mick Garris’s Showtime series The Masters of Horror you should do that, as well.  Like any anthology series, the quality is hit and miss but when they strike gold — as in The Fair Haired Child, Cigarette Burns, Incident On and Off a Mountain Road and Jenifer (Also, Steven Weber’s commentary track for Jenifer is pure comedy gold) among others — they mine that sucker for all it’s worth.

I want to try to read Heart of Darkness again during the break even though I find Conrad’s ESL writing style to be truly repellent, but I’ll probably spend the time watching old noir films and hanging out at Trailers From Hell — mostly to get ideas for new films to watch — because, more than anything, the fallow time after completing a novel is meant to be a period of rest for your imagination.

Wish me bon appetit!