Showing posts with label movies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label movies. Show all posts

18 October 2020

Ginger Snaps and Wolfbane


Ginger Snaps poster
The Premise

Teen girl angst, goth and drama… Sisters’ suicide pact, everything is soooo dramatic… Death scenes staged for a school play project… That day when first period doesn’t refer to school…

For Halloween, a teen girl horror flick, a bildungsromans, a coming-of-age tale.

The cleverly titled Ginger Snaps is a 2001 horror movie for those who don’t like horror movies. It released much too soon after Columbine, which caused distribution problems at home and abroad amid fears of teen violence. A number of theatres banned it outright. The scheduled five and ten year anniversary re-releases failed to materialize, but nevertheless it developed a fan base and ‘cult’ status. I’m convinced anything labeled ‘cult’ refers to creative works with more depth that hurts critics’ limited brain cells.

The Promise


Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald are sisters, 16 and 15, in the same grade at school. Unpopular and bullied, they develop a fascination with death, morbidly filming gruesome death scenes for their school project. If they can’t manage to flee their small town when Brigitte reaches 16, they promise to die together.

Their father, Henry Fitzgerald, dotes upon his daughters, but he’s utterly clueless in the estrogen cauldron of his household. Mother Pamela is marginally better, wavering between complicit and the sole disciplinarian. At one point, she tells her husband, “Go back into your own world; this one only confuses you.”

The Plot

Halloween and the night of a full moon approaches.

Local dogs are found torn to pieces, presumably victims of the fanged Beast of Bailey Downs. The girls factor the legend into a plot against the school bully, but before they can act, Ginger is attacked by a creature and dragged into the woods…

Thus opens the story. A prim editor left the best potential tag line on the cutting room floor, but it made it into the movie’s mythos. In an unused clip, Brigitte tells her sister, “PMS is the least of your problems.”

Brigitte and Ginger Fitzgerald
Brigitte and Ginger Fitzgerald
The Practice

Conventional horror movies confuse time in the makeup chair with characterization. What makes Ginger Snaps special is the bond between the sisters. After months of fruitless auditions, the prospective leads happened to try out on the same day. When screenwriter Karen Walton saw the results, she said the young actresses were exactly who she was looking for. Coincidentally, the girls were born in the same hospital, attended the same schools, worked out of the same talent agency, and had appeared in separate episodes of Supernatural and The X-Files. Their chemistry was perfect.

Their parents are well-drawn and probably frighteningly close to how real teens view their folks. The school jock, Jason, makes another interesting character. He shows more moral fibre than we might expect. Rather than slut-shame the girl he just slept with, he merely tells his friends, “She rocked my world.”

When’s the last time you encountered an edgy teen drama that classy?

A mediocre sequel and a slightly more interesting direct-to-DVD prequel followed in 2004.

Thanks to Haboob for a list of where-to-view sources in time for Halloween. Enjoy the show.

Ginger Snaps (2001)
  • Crackle
  • Favesome
  • Filmrise
  • Plex
  • Roku
  • Tubi
  • Vudu
  • Wow Now
  • paywall…
  • Amazon
  • iTunes
  • Microsoft
  • Roku
  • YouTube
  Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed
  • Movie Sphere
  • Plex
  • Roku



Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning
  • Movie Sphere
  • Plex
  • Roku
  • Tubi

17 October 2020

And Now for Something Different …


I don't like all movies, any more than I like all novels or short stories–but I like all kinds and genres of movies. Adventure, mystery, romance, horror, western, war, sports, science fiction, fantasy, humor, drama, animated, musical, documentary, silent, foreign, pretty much anything. If it looks interesting to me, I'll watch it–or at least start it. I admit I've grown a little tired of superheroes and zombies, but I'll usually give anything a try.

I will also, occasionally, watch a movie just because I've heard it's off the beaten track. That of course doesn't always turn out well–sometimes you run screaming back to what's safe and familiar. But sometimes it does work.

Innovative, when used to describe movies, can mean a lot of things: a different subject, a different technology, a different approach–anything that might break new ground. Examples: Jurassic Park was the first movie to fully create life-like dinosaurs; Toy Story was the first feature-length computer-animated film; Superman was the first movie to use a computer-generated title sequence. In the not-entertaining-but-interesting department, Star Wars was the first movie to list the entire crew in the closing credits.


If you're into this kind of thing, here are some more "firsts":

The first movie to feature …

  • a GPS device – Goldfinger (1964)
  • a cell phone – Lethal Weapon (1987)
  • a car phone – Sabrina (1954)
  • a toilet being flushed – Psycho (1960)
  • a karate fight – The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
  • a rocket launch – A Trip to the Moon (1902)
  • on-screen texting – Sex Drive (2008)
  • an interracial kiss – Island in the Sun (1957)
  • a gay kiss – Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)
  • sound – The Jazz Singer (1927)
  • a dog in a starring role – Rescued by Rover (1905)
  • a TV set – Elstree Calling (1930)
  • a PG-13 rating – Red Dawn (1984)
  • an NC-17 rating – Henry and June (1990)
  • the Wilhelm Scream – Distant Drums (1951)
  • scenes shot entirely by natural candlelight – Barry Lyndon (1975)
  • a commercially-released soundtrack – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
  • a rock song° in the soundtrack – Blackboard Jungle (1955)
    • "Rock Around the Clock," Bill Haley and His Comets

While not necessarily "firsts," the following are a few movies I've either watched or re-watched over the past months that I can truly say are innovative:

1917 (2019) – The entire movie was filmed in one continuous, unbroken shot. This was done also in Russian Ark and, with a few subtle edits, Hitchcock's Rope. But 1917 takes the viewer on a long journey with many different locations, in one person's POV, from start to finish. I loved it.

All Is Lost (2013) – Filmed with no dialogue. Well, that's not quite right: There's one word, a familiar expletive spoken by the main character (Robert Redford) at a point when things get extra frustrating. To shoot a movie this way, involving only one man and his boat and the ocean, and still make it entertaining, is impressive.

Memento (2000) – This one doesn't just have a nonlinear timeline; it's filmed backwards. Specifically, it's in two sections, the first part chronological and the second part backward. I never saw anything like it.

Vantage Point (2008) – The same story is told multiple times, one after the other, each time using a different character's POV. (Rashomon, if I remember correctly, did almost the same kind of thing.)

The Blair Witch Project (1999) – A "found footage" movie. It wasn't the first to be filmed this way, but it was the one that made the process famous. Troll Hunters, years later, was my favorite of these, and I liked Cloverfield also. (My college roommate and I saw Cloverfield together in the theater in 2008, and we had to leave early because the realistic, jerky camera movement made him sick.)

Psycho (1998) – A remake that was faithfully re-created shot-for-shot from Hitchcock's 1960 classic, just with a different cast, director, etc. It's worth watching if only to see the way it was done.

Boyhood (2014) – Shows actors as they grow in real life. It was filmed from 2001 to 2013 and follows the life of a boy in Texas from the age of six to eighteen. To my knowledge it's the first movie ever to try this.

Executive Action (1996)/Deep Blue Sea (1999)/Psycho (1960) – Each of these is unique in that one of its biggest and most recognizable stars is unexpectedly killed off very early in the story (Steven Seagal/Samuel L. Jackson/Janet Leigh). That's risky, but in these cases it seemed to work.

Adaptation (2002) – A multiple-award-winning film about–believe it or not–the writing of the movie you're watching. Robert Ebert said, "To watch the film is to be actively involved in the challenge of its creation." Weird but fascinating.

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)/Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) – Two separate Clint Eastwood-directed movies about the same event (the Battle of Iwo Jima), told from two different POVs–the first from the U.S., the second from Japan.

NOTE: One that I've not yet seen is Timecode (2000). It supposedly features four continuous storylines in real-time split screens. It is at this moment in my Netflix queue.


Other movies that are innovative in various ways: The Wild Bunch, Dick Tracy, The Artist, Sin City, Pleasantville, Buried, Idiocracy, Big Fish, Alien, Pulp Fiction, 2001, Open Water, Airplane!, Westworld, M*A*S*H, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Rustler's Rhapsody, The Matrix, Birdman, The Lobster, Being John Malkovich, Cloud Atlas, Flack Bay, Blazing Saddles, Run Lola Run, Dogville, A Fistful of Dollars, The Exorcist, Brazil, Amelie, Melancholia, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Avatar, Titanic, Thelma and Louise, Life of Pi, Dr. Strangelove, Galaxy Quest, Across the Universe, The Sixth Sense.

There are many, many more movies that try something new, with varying results. What are some that come to mind, for you?–and what innovative things about them made them appealing to you (or not)? Any that I should be on the lookout for? Any I should avoid?


Again, different isn't always good. But it's almost always interesting.


Next time, back to the subject of writing.

24 June 2020

Invisibles


Claude McKay apparently wrote his fifth novel,  Amiable with Big Teeth, in 1941, and nothing came of it until a Columbia grad student stumbled across the manuscript seventy years later, and got it published. McKay was a figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930's, if not so influential or well-known as Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston. I'm no expert on the period or the people, or America's complicated relationship with race and history (much of which is clearly a history of willed ignorance), but McKay's book fascinates me because it's a social satire about black political engagement - and denial.

There were a lot of competing ideas in the 1930's, and two of the big ones at odds with each other in the Harlem of the time were Marcus Garvey's black nationalism and the siren song of Russian Communism. The actual issue in the novel is how the black community should respond to Italian aggression in Ethiopia: Mussolini's imperial ambition to dominate the Horn of Africa, and a stark demonstration of white European power deployed against a supposedly backward tribal culture, with attendant white barbarism, because their targets were African. This sideshow (not to the Ethiopians, whose estimated losses were three-quarters of a million people) took place on the periphery of a convulsive struggle in Europe between Left and Right, Stalin and his surrogates pitted against Hitler and his - although this vastly over-simplifies the internal divisions and quarrels over ideological purity the various factions tried to contain. The point here is that the same conversations are animating Harlem that fracture the body politic elsewhere.  

American politics have often been about grievance.  We want a place at the table, but when we get there, we put both feet in the trough. The immigrant experience follows a criminal model, the Irish and Tammany, the Italians using the Mafia to get political power, although this is generic. The first Vikings and English and Spaniards who landed in the New World were bent on piracy. The slave narrative, on the other hand, reverses the conventions.



History turns out to be malleable. We used to think it was hieroglyphic, etched in the stone, but like our personal history, you can walk into the house of memory by a different door, and suddenly see it turned around, from the back stairs, or the servants' quarters, so to speak.

It's not my purpose here to revisit or discredit the American origin myth, or redress old injuries. There are people far better equipped, for openers. I want to look at two things, though, one external, the other internal.

From the outside looking in, how do we understand the black presence in American popular culture? How in fact it's been appropriated, or sanitized, but certainly distorted. It's not simply that your experience isn't reflected, it's that your experience isn't represented at all. Okay, we can say the average American white experience of the 1930's isn't accurately represented by William Powell and Myrna Loy, but we wouldn't mind. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine Marcus Garvey seeing himself in Stepin Fetchit.

We might pause for a moment and examine the Stepin Fetchit oeuvre, which is more ambiguous than received wisdom suggests. He made a couple of pictures with Will Rogers, for instance, and in Steamboat Round the Bend particularly, they demonstrate a very sly and subversive relationship. Step was a millionaire, by the way, and got featured billing in his pictures. The problem for black audiences, then and now, is that Step's characterizations get taken as an actual representation of black character. For a white audience, Step is a reassuring stereotype, an unthreatening lazybones. It's not far from here to Amos'n'Andy.



The second thing that bothers me is how this distorted mirror image might be internalized, by a black audience. It can't be an exaggeration to say black people are a hell of a lot more aware of their circumstance than white people are. Black people don't need white people to recognize this, as if white recognition would verify the black experience, that the black experience only matters when white people take notice. If you've been left out of the national conversation, or nobody hears the bear shit in the woods, is there silence?

I know I'm well out of my depth, but I can't help but think about what happened after the war. The fury of the years between, the 1920's and 1930's, the economic collapse, the street marches, the rise of Fascism, the cleansing of the politically impure, the scapegoating of the Jews - and then the savagery of the war itself.

I grew up in the immediate postwar era, and it was about hope. Our parents were lucky enough to get home. It was the era of noir, as well, and nuclear anxiety. We were the war children, Van Morrison's wonderful line, "born 1945." How come that generation of black kids, born 1945, got excluded? Their dads fought in the war with our dads, they beat Hitler and the Japanese with all the rest of us.

This is sad. This is stupid. This is shameful. It's just too God damn dumb. We owe an enormous cultural debt to guys like Duke Ellington, or Ray Charles. We'd be diminished without Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman. It's embarrassing that I even have to make a list, or worse, search for their names. Seriously. We're still talking about who we'll choose to include as Americans, and the invisible Americans have already chosen.  

17 February 2020

When They Say It's Not About Politics...


My daughter gave me The Last Widow, Karin Slaughter's newest novel, for Christmas and I tore through it in about three days. Slaughter is one of my favorite writers, and the first half of the book felt like a freight train with no brakes careening down a steep hill. I turned pages quickly enough to leave a trail of smoke and risk uncountable paper cuts.

I seldom pay attention to online reviews, but when I finished this one, I looked on Amazon out of curiosity. Slaughter is one of several authors I read who gathers mixed reviews because she takes chances and doesn't adhere to the standard template. Sure enough, The Last Widow had 795 reviews, 63% five-star, and 9% one-star.

The one-star reviews often complained that Slaughter let her politics get in the way of the story. Well, a group of white nationalist kidnaps Sarah Linton, the female protagonist, as part of their deadly plot, and, given that premise, it's hard to be apolitical.

That's why I usually ignore online reviews.

In one way or another, MOST art is political because artists deal with important issues in life.

Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King as a reaction to the contemporary debate about predestination. His play takes the issue head-on, and his opinion is clear. Euripides leaves no doubt what he thinks of war in The Trojan Women. Nice people don't throw the child of a vanquished rival off the battlements and turn the surviving women into sex slaves.



Shakespeare's 37 (or 40, or 50, depending on whose count you believe) plays constantly involve politics.
Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear discuss, among other issues, who succeeds to the throne. Measure For Measure asks tough questions about women, love, sex, and relationships, and offers no easy answers (The main "good guy" has a creepy voyeuristic streak, too).
All the histories involve kings and, usually, war. Even comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night discuss the roles of women in society, and the misuse of power, still timely as the Me Too Movement and Roe vs Wade are still crucial issues.

Jane Austen and Emily Bronte present the situation of women in the 1800s, unable to vote, own property, or inherit. Pride and Prejudice features Mr. Bennet with five daughters who will starve if he can't marry them off to husbands who will support them. Wuthering Heights is built around the British Law of Entails, a devious way to control who inherits property if no sons succeed.

In America, Twain looks at slavery through bitter eyes in Huckleberry Finn, one of the most banned books in our country's schools, along with To Kill A Mockingbird, which looks at the same issue from 80 years later...although we haven't advanced much. Uncle Tom's Cabin, far more racist than either of the others, was a blockbuster best-seller before the word existed.

Robert Penn Warren gives us All The King's Men, a fictionalized vision of Huey Long, the Louisiana Governor who used graft and kickbacks left and right...and used the money to build highways and hospitals. Alan Drury won the Pulitzer in 1960 with Advise And Consent (102 weeks on the NYT Bestseller list and later a film with Henry Fonda), and that's all about politics.

Other novels, off the top of my head: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (if you haven't read these, do so before the second of the three books appears next fall on HBO.)

I know almost nothing about painting, but even I can point to Picasso's Guernica.

Plays: Lee Blessing's A Walk In The Woods is about two arms negotiators meeting to talk during the Cold War. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible (maybe my least favorite play of all time), All My Sons, A View From the Bridge, and Death of a Salesman. Miller always looked at the shafting of the little guy by big business or bigger government. Lawrence and Lee's Inherit the Wind, which the Religious Reich should go see sometime.

Films: Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.

The classic western High Noon asks if we deserve freedom and law if we won't fight to defend them.Many in that production were blacklisted because of their involvement, and I still don't understand why. What about The Grapes of Wrath? Steinbeck dodged a death threat after writing the novel, and the film, made on an 800K budget, still gives me chills when I listen to Henry Fonda deliver
Tom Joad's farewell speech in that flat monotone.

Beethoven first called Symphony #3 the "Bounaparte," but changed it to "Eroica" after Napoleon became Emperor.
Where would American folk music be without Woody Guthrie,Pete Seeger, and the Weavers?  Or their descendants, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, The Doors ("The Unknown Soldier") and Country Joe & The Fish (I Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag--remember "Gimme an 'F'?).

Politics should be separate from art. Yeah, right.

Maybe flavor should be separate from food, too.

This list barely unscrews the lid from the jar. What other works can you name?

20 November 2019

Bon appetit!


by Robert Lopresti

This is my last column before Thanksgiving so I thought I would offer something food-related.  It's simple enough.  Below you will find ten foods (or something foodish).  Your task is to recall the crime movies in which they play important roles.   Actually two of them are from crime TV shows, but they may be the easiest on the list.

To make your life easier, they are arranged alphabetically by the title of the movie/show.  Answers are below. See you in December.  Don't overeat!

Elderberry wine.

Goldfish.

Cannoli.

A towel full of oranges.

Coffee brewed from yesterday's grounds and filter.

Leg of lamb.

Half a grapefruit.

Big Kahuna Burger.

Liver, fava beans, and a nice chianti.

Cherry pie and a damn fine cup of coffee.

SPOILERS BELOW!

Elderberry wine. Arsenic and Old Lace. 
Aunt Martha (Jean Adair): For a gallon of elderberry wine, I take one teaspoon full of arsenic, then add half a teaspoon full of strychnine, and then just a pinch of cyanide.
Mortimer (Cary Grant): Hmm. Should have quite a kick.

Goldfish. A Fish Called Wanda.
In order to get animal-lover Ken (Michael Palin) to talk, the maniacal Otto (Kevin Kline) eats his goldfish.  By the way, the goldfish in the scene were made of Jello.

Cannoli. The Godfather.
After a brutal murder in a car Clemenza (Richard Castellano) shows his priorities.  "Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli."  Fun fact: whenever oranges or even the color orange show up in a Godfather movie, it spells danger, and probably betrayal.  And speaking of that fruit...

A towel full of oranges. The Grifters.
Mobster Bobo Justus (great name), played by Pat Hingle,  is dissatisfied with the work of his  employee, Lilly (Anjelica Huston). He threatens to beat her with a towel full of oranges, even making her prepare the weapon.   The idea is that the beating leaves no telltale bruises.  (Oh, and speaking of the color orange... not related to food, but to filmmaking; the color red shows up only once in the movie, and it's there for a very specific purpose.)

 Coffee brewed from yesterday's grounds and filter.  Harper.
After William Goldman finished the screenplay, based on Ross Macdonald's novel The Moving Target, he was told to wrote a scene for the opening credits.  Resisting the usual private eye-meets-client opening, he started with a close-up of Paul Newman's famous blue eyes.  Then the P.I. tries to make coffee and finds he has nothing left but yesterday's stuff in the trash.  One writer notes: "This coffee moment follows the character through the entire the film, haunting him. Harper wears a suit and tie, but there are old coffee grounds in his shoes, his socks, his soul..."

Leg of lamb.  "Lamb to the Slaughter."
The wife of a police chief kills hubby with a frozen leg of lamb, then roasts it and serves dinner to the investigating officers.  A classic Road Dahl short story turned into a classic episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It reminds me of Susan Glaspell's classic early feminist short story "A Jury of her Peers," since both turn on the inability of men to think from a woman's point of view.    Hitch was a well-known gourmet, of course, so I was amazed that I had to go to his TV show to find a memorable food scene.  There is even a website that points out food scenes from his movies, but I repeat my claim: no specific food gets a memorable scene.

Half a grapefruit.  Public Enemy.
Gangster Tom Powers gets irritated by his girlfriend during breakfast and smacks her in the face with half a grapefruit.  There is a ton of violence in the flick but this is the scene that became famous.  Supposedly Mae Clarke asked Jimmy Cagney to go easy on her.  He promised to do so, but once the camera was rolling...

Big Kahuna Burger.  Pulp Fiction.
Packaging for the (fictional) Big Kahuna Burger brand appears in several movies by Quentin Tarentino and his friend Robert Rodriguez, but it was in Pulp Fiction.that Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) endorsed the dish: "This is a tasty burger!"  The movie is actually obsessed with food, with characters discussing what the French call a Quarter Pounder (Royale with Cheese), visiting a 1950s-themed restaurant, robbing a diner, and getting shot over a pop tart...

Liver, fava beans, and a nice chianti. Silence of the Lambs.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter: "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti."  I've always wondered how fava bean farmers felt about this odd advertisement.  Several webpages  suggest that novelist Thomas Harris gave Dr. Lecter a characteristically subtle and erudite joke.  It seems liver, beans, and wine are forbidden with certain kinds of anti-psychotic drugs. So the doc was explaining that he had been off his meds.

Cherry pie and a damn fine cup of coffee.  Twin Peaks.
During the summer of 1990 the TV-watching public went nuts for David Lynch's bizarre and highly stylized mystery series.  One memorable set was the Double R Diner where FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper would go for pie and, yes, a damn fine cup of coffee.  This could have been a throwaway line but Kyle Maclachlan really sold it, making it seem as if "damn" was the most extreme cuss word his character could imagine.

Did I miss any of your favorites?  Put them in the comments.

 

05 November 2019

Once Upon a Time in…Los Angeles


Me with gangster car at Melody Ranch backlot
Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood is getting a lot of notice for a lot of reasons, one of which is his recreation of a certain era of L.A. (1969) and various L.A. landmarks. And that’s our topic for today boys and girls. So if I might indulge in some personal memories of some of the locations in his movie. Unfortunately, in the really good old days, emphasis on old, we didn’t carry cameras with us all the time, so I don’t have a lot of pictures of those locations from then and what I do have are mostly in boxes and mostly not scanned.


Cinerama Dome

Entering the Cinerama Dome theatre when it was a new and exciting thing was like entering a giant geodesic egg (okay dome). It was a big deal when it first opened in the early 60s on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, a little east of the Strip. It was built specifically to play movies that were shot in the three camera Cinerama process. A process that didn’t last very long for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here.

I remember going there to see these exciting movies, only two of which were filmed in the real three camera Cinerama. After that movies called Cinerama were filmed in SuperPanavision 70 and released in some kind of Cinerama format, but they weren’t the real thing.

I think the first movie in full three camera Cinerama that played at the Dome, and one of the two in three camera Cinerama, was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, an expansive movie about both the brothers Grimm (Laurence Harvey and Karl Boehm) and their fairytales. I remember being awed by the huge, curved screen. It was like you were enveloped in the fairytales.

The next was How The West Was Won, a thrilling epic western. I saw that when it opened there, too, and still have the book I got then. That was a time when big movies and things like companion books that went with the movie could be bought in the theatre. My book is just like the one in the picture here, though since mine is hiding away in a box this is a reasonable facsimile. I still watch the movie every once in a while, but listen to the music soundtrack often. The movie is definitely another Hollywood era and likely one we won’t see again. It was thrilling to see on the huge screen, especially that POV shot from inside the barrel rolling down the hill. If I recall, some people could have used airsickness bags.

In Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood Tarantino has Krakatoa: East of Java playing at the Dome in the background, and it did, and I saw it there. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, Krakatoa is west of Java. But no one figured that out till after the movie was done.

I saw a lot of movies at the Dome and it was always a thrill, but nothing like those first two in real Cinerama that made you believe you were in the middle of it, especially the action shots in How the West Was Won.


Casa Vega

Casa Vega is where Brad Pitt’s and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters, Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton, tie one on in Once Upon a Time. And, if you love Mexican food, as I do, you end up trying a lot of Mexican restaurants. And one of them was Casa Vega. I used to go there a lot when I lived in the (San Fernando) Valley. The food was good, though I haven’t been there in a long time. It was a nice place to take a date or just hook up with friends for some margaritas, hot sauce and food.

And at least I never got asked to leave as I did in another Mexican restaurant where we were drinking margaritas by the pitcher and being obnoxious as young people, men and women, tend to be. And I started breaking the margarita glasses in my hand, on purpose. Just snapping them into pieces. After breaking a few of those the management politely asked if we could get the hell out. But Casa Vega was a little higher class place and nothing like that ever happened there.

Since I live so far away now I haven’t been there in a while, but writing this is making me hungry for Mexican food and it might just be worth the drive. Who knows, maybe I’ll run into Rick and Cliff.


Playboy Mansion

A party scene was filmed at the mansion…which was/is famous for its parties. Unfortunately, I never made it there, but I went to plenty of fun Hollywoodsy parties, with a lot of the same people who partied with Hef and his bunnies. The less said about most of those the better. Still, it would have been nice to go to the Playboy Mansion once or twice.


El Coyote


El Coyote, one of my favorite places
I’ve been to all the places on this list (except one) many times and have enjoyed them all over the years, well, maybe enjoy isn’t the right word for the last one on the list. But the one place (besides
Corriganville) that is very special to me is El Coyote. Now, this is a place I’ve been to at least a million times. You probably think I’m exaggerating, but hardly. I lived pretty near as a kid and we’d go often, probably since I was about 3. In fact, my mom went when she was a kid and it was at a different location. And when I lived in West L.A. as an adult, it was my home away from home. I’d often meet my friend Buddy (name changed) since his photography studio and my apartment were equidistant from EC from different directions. But I’d go there with everyone and often. When I met Amy, the future and now current wife, she had to pass 3 tests:

1. Like the Beatles – she passed with flying colors.

2. Not smoke – again, she passed with flying colors.

3. Like El Coyote – now this one was more iffy as she’d never been there. Would she like it or would she not? Will she or won’t she? This was a make or break issue. I could never marry someone who didn’t like El Coyote. I could be friends with them, lots of people I know don’t like it. It’s the kind of place you either love or hate. So I’m tolerant, I can be friends with EC Haters, but I couldn’t marry one. My heart raced as we made our way into the tackiest restaurant on the planet. We ordered our food. I awaited the verdict – she liked it. We got married that day. Well, not really, but we did get married. And it seems to have taken. And we both still like it but we live pretty far now so we don’t get there as often as we used to. But every now and then we need a fix.

I even had my bachelor party at El Coyote in a back room. It was a co-ed bachelor party, but Amy didn’t come, though in retrospect I don’t see why she couldn’t have. Well, maybe there was just that one… And I set a lot of scenes there in things that I write. Well, they say write what you know and I know El Coyote pretty well.


When Buddy and I used to go there, about once a week, I’d get in fights with people for smoking before the anti-smoking in restaurant laws were passed. One of them was a doozy, but I’d probably get in trouble all over again if I went into the details.

And I’m not the only person who loved El Coyote. It was Sharon Tate’s favorite restaurant. And on August 8, 1969 she and Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger had dinner there – what turned out to be their ‘last supper’. Roman Polanski was out of town. And Tarantino recreates that last supper in Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood. Supposedly, he shot at the same booth they actually ate at. It’s a poignant moment when you know what is to follow in real life.


Musso & Frank

Musso & Frank is a Hollywood Time Machine back to the past. To the glory days of Hollywood. What can you say, an L.A. institution. Been around since 1919 and recently celebrated its 100th birthday. On Hollywood Boulevard, though Hollywood Boulevard ain’t what it used to be…if it ever was.
Amy and me at Musso a couple of months ago with
one of the famous red-coated waiters in the b.g.

It hasn’t changed much since it was founded, and I’d bet real money that some of the waiters are the original ones from 1919. Musso’s is the kind of place that the phrase “if these walls could talk” was invented for. And if they could you might hear Chaplin or Bogart or Marilyn Monroe saying things they’d never say in public. And speaking of Bogart, it’s like that line in Casablanca, “everyone comes to Rick’s,” well, in real life sooner or later everyone comes to Musso’s.

When there, in the wood and red leather booths, eating your Welsh rarebit, if you squint just a little you can still see the ghosts of Fitzgerald and John Fante (one of my favorite LA writers), Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. If you cup your ear just right you might hear Dorothy Park quip off an ironic bon mot. If you close your eyes for a few seconds you can see a whole array of Hollywood royalty, actors and screenwriters and if you open them you might see them in the flesh, even today.
There was even a semi-secret back room, where writers of all kinds would hang. Well hang out.
The food is mostly trad, things like Welsh rarebit, steaks, chicken pot pie, Lobster Thermidor and the like. And there’s a full bar, which reminds me: I’m pissed off about the last time I went there a couple months ago. I’ve been wanting a Harvey Wallbanger in the worst way, which you used to be able to get just about anywhere but is almost impossible these days. But for some reason I forgot to see if they still made them there and ordered something else. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to go back. Research, you know.

Musso is where DiCaprio and Brad Pitt meet Al Pacino in the movie.


The Bruin Theatre

The Bruin Theater is in Westwood. UCLA is in Westwood, just a couple blocks north. Westwood used to be one of the places to go on dates and for fun. Westwood used to have about a dozen bookstores and it was great fun walking from one to another, each a little different, and coming home with an armload of books. All fun and terrific. Then there was a gang shooting and people largely stopped going. I went on the second half of my first date with Amy there. First we went to a screening, then we went to a restaurant called Yesterdays that I liked to go to in those days. There was a live band playing a lot of Beatles music, so it was a perfect first date 😊.

I used to see a lot of movies at the Bruin and the Village theater across the street. There’d even be premiers and sneak previews. They were big, old-fashioned theatres, with big screens, not divided into tiny little theatres that make you wish you would have just watched something on your big screen TV.

And I guess, according to Tarantino’s fable Sharon Tate went there and watched a Matt Helm movie that she was in. But if I were to have put my feet on the seat in front me like she does in the movie I probably would have been kicked out.


Corriganville

As I mentioned in my SleuthSayers post of September 24, 2019, Corriganville is one of my favorite places on Earth. Of course, it’s not the same today as it was then. Then it was a working movie ranch and tourist attraction, today it’s a park. But I have my memories.

Recently, Tarantino recreated the Spahn Ranch of Manson Family infamy at Corriganville Park for Once Upon a Time. I’m not sure why he didn’t do it at Spahn, which is just down the road. And down a piece from that is the former Iverson Ranch, the greatest movie ranch of all, imo. If you’ve seen The Lone Ranger TV series you’ve seen the Iverson Ranch. The famous Lone Ranger Rock, where he rears Silver in the opening, was on the Iverson. The rock is still there and parts of the former ranch are park today, but most of it is developed.

If you missed my Corriganville piece, check out it out at https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2019/09/once-upon-time-in-corriganville.html.


Melody Ranch

“Do not forsake me, oh, my darlin’…” is how the theme song to High Noon opens. I love cowboy music, as distinct from country-western, and that is one of my favorite songs, from a truly classic western movie. And some of that movie was shot at Melody Ranch.

I’ve done some “time” there, and Melody Ranch is another fun and fave place. And it’s still going strong as a movie location ranch. I doubt if you could count high enough to reach the number of things filmed there which, besides High Noon, include Combat (TV series), Deadwood (TV series), Django Unchained, The Gene Autry Show, The (of course) Gunsmoke (TV series), Westworld (TV series) and tons of others. Tons.

On the western street at Melody Ranch
It got the name “Melody Ranch” from Gene Autry when he owned it, naming it after his radio show. But in terms of the movie biz, it started out as Monogram Ranch. Monogram was one of the low-low-low budget film companies that were around in the 1930s. They merged with Republic Pictures, the King of B film studios, and the ranch became theirs. Autry bought it in 1953 and stabled his horse Champion there until he died in 1990. Today it’s about 22 acres and owned independently. At its height, I believe it used to be about 110 acres.

Tarantino used the ranch as the location for the Lancer set in Once Upon a Time.

I love backlots, soundstages, exterior sets, whether I’m there for business or pleasure. And Melody Ranch, with all its history, is a fun place to be.








Aquarius Theatre

The more things change, well, you know the rest.

The Aquarius theatre in Once Upon a Time is a Hollywood landmark on Sunset Boulevard. It went through many incarnations since its opening as the Earl Carrol Theatre (Earl Carrol was known for the Vanities, and the theatre was a supper club with stage shows). If you remember the old TV show Queen for Day, it broadcast from there for a time. In the 60s, it became a rock venue called the Hullabaloo, which eventually morphed into the Kaleidoscope club. Between the two, lots of big acts played there. Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane, Love, the Grateful Dead, the Byrds, the Yardbirds, the Doors, many more, and, of course, the Seeds. I saw many of these bands, though not all at the Hullabaloo/Aquarius, whatever it was called at the time. I have a friend who saw the Seeds there (remember them, “Pushin’ Too Hard) about 600 times. I exaggerate, but not by much and maybe he didn’t see all their shows there. And then it became the home of Hair for what seemed like forever.
In 1968, the exterior was repainted and it became the Aquarius and home of the play Hair for I think about 130 years, give or take a decade or two. And, of course, it changed a lot over the decades, but not too long ago it was repainted back to its psychedelic glory to look as it did in 1968/69. I don’t recall in the movie that anything was set there, just that Pitt and DiCaprio drive by and it lends background atmosphere to the time frame. Definitely a blast from the past.

And, while I have some memories there, I thought I’d turn the rest of this section over to my friend Terry Tally, who practically lived there:

“Walking into the Hullabaloo Theater in 1967 was like stepping back in time. Originally a posh supper club called the Earl Carroll Theater, it was built in 1938, and renamed the Moulin Rouge by Ciro's owner Frank Sennes before becoming the Hullabaloo in 1966. Its interior was a throwback to a bygone era with its classic bar, sweeping staircase to the lounges, the larger than life art deco statue of Beryl Wallace, and elegant tuck and roll seating. I saw The Seeds many times in those days whose signature song Pushing Too Hard opened the door for me to other garage bands of the time. Music was really happening in L.A. and many bands like Love, The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, and The Byrds played there on the unique revolving stage where one band would exit while still playing and another would come on playing their first song in a cool rotation.

You didn't need to be 21 to get in, and it was the hangout place for young Hollywood hipsters and babes in mini-skirts. Kids would be jammed under the porte cochere waiting to get in, and there were always familiar faces in the crowd. My wife and I share memories of seeing the same shows, though we didn’t know each other at the time, where many of the 60s greatest musicians launched their careers alongside house band The Yellow Payges, The Strawberry Alarm Clock, Sopwith Camel, The Troggs, Hamilton Streetcar, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, The Standells, and The Music Machine whose members all wore black leather gloves.”


Vogue Theatre

My friends Andy, Richard and I used to go up to Hollywood Boulevard to see movies, sometimes all three, sometimes just two of us. We saw tons of movies there. I know we went to the Vogue, but to be honest I don’t remember what we saw there. There were a bunch of theatres on the Boulevard and we’d hit them all. At that time, Hollywood Boulevard was no place to write home about. Maybe not as bad as Times Square was before it got Disneyfied, but bad enough in most parts of it. But at least there were no dorks dressed up in costumes charging you to take a picture with them like there is today with Spiderman, Batman and the others haunting Hollywood Boulevard from one end to the other. And God forbid if you try to take one of their pictures without paying. Hopefully your insurance is paid up.

One of our favorite genres, and believe me, it was a genre, were (outlaw) biker movies and there were a ton of them in the late 60s.

The Wild Angels, Hells Angels on Wheels, Glory Stompers, Born Losers (which introduced the character of Billy Jack. And while a lot of these movies don’t hold up for me today, I still love Born Losers.). And, of course, Hells Angels ’69 (in which many Hells Angels played, uh, Hells Angels – how cool was that), which is appropriate because that’s the year Tarantino’s movie takes place. And many, many more. In fact, Jack Nicholson became famous in Easy Rider. But I knew him well already from these low budget biker movies and Roger Corman movies. He was no overnight sensation to me 😉.

So, one time Andy and I are heading to one of the theatres on the Boulevard. We walk up outside and there’s a ton of choppers backed into the curb. I don’t remember how many, but I’m thinking realistically maybe thirty. That’s a lot. And the theatre they’re parked out front is playing one of the biker movies we’re heading to see. We were young, and maybe stupid, but we bought our tickets and went inside. And about ten rows back from the screen is a row of Hells Angels and their girls. Now, they’re not sitting staggered throughout the near-empty theatre, they’re sitting from one side of the theatre in one very long row.

We sat a few rows behind them. And we knew if they talked or howled or did whatever they might do we weren’t going to ask them to shut up. So the movie started. And they sat in rapt attention. They might have talked a little or laughed, but mostly they were just glued to the screen. And for all we knew they were on the screen.

We didn’t bother them. And they didn’t bother us. But it gave a little more verisimilitude to the movie to have them there.

I don’t remember which movie it was or really which theatre, but it could very well have been the Vogue. And, as I recall, from Once Upon a Time, there isn’t really a scene set there, but Tarantino dressed up the marquee the way it would have been in 1969 for the background, since it looks a bit different today.


Cielo Drive

Back in the day, the good old days in some ways, the bad old days in others, and for years after the Sharon Tate murders in a house on Cielo Drive, almost everyone who came from outside of L.A. wanted me to take them up there for a drive-by (so to speak). So I would dutifully do so. We’d drive by the house. They’d gawk at whatever they could see of it. Say how horrible it was, all the usual stuff. I was never really sure what the fascination was. Some kind of morbid fascination with Manson, with L.A., whatever.

The people who eventually bought the house had it torn down, I think partially because they were tired of the gawkers and partly because when Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered it was such a shocking crime. Today, the property is still there, with a new house on it. But nobody’s asked me to take them there in a long, long time. I assume that’s because it’s not the house and also because these days we have shocking crimes every other day and the property on Cielo is old hat. Plenty of new murder scenes to check out. If you’re lucky maybe even a fresh one, with the cops still there.

***

There’s more places in Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood that I could talk about, but this is a partial trip into my town. I loved growing up in L.A., there were so many pop cultural touchstones and I got to see or participate in many of them. I still love L.A., though today I’d say it’s more of a love-hate relationship. But regardless of anything else, my heart will always be here in one way or another.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:


Don't forget to check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus award-winning novel, White Heat. Betty Webb at Mystery Scene magazine says: "Broken Windows is extraordinary."



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

24 September 2019

Once Upon a Time In… Corriganville


Famous Corriganville rock in upper left of picture,
Silvertown Street, Corriganville
One of my favorite places to go as a kid was Corriganville. And knowing that Quentin Tarantino recreated the Spahn Ranch of Manson fame (or infamy) for Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood on what’s left of Corriganville brought back lots of memories. So I thought I’d talk a little about it today. (Next time I’ll talk about other locations he used in that flick.)

But Corriganville really does have a special place in my heart. It was a movie ranch out Simi Valley way, north of Los Angeles. Tons of B westerns and other movies were filmed there and at the nearby Iverson Ranch (more on that in another piece, too). But on the weekends it was opened up as an amusement park of sorts, sort of a pre-Universal Studios Tour studio tour—or movie ranch tour. My grandparents took me there several times and in those days it was quite an excursion to get out there, if not quite a covered wagon journey over Donner Pass. And the reason it’s special to me is that it’s the only place my grandparents took me that no one else ever took me. So that gives it a special significance.

Quentin Tarantino's Spahn Ranch set at Corriganville - photo by Cliff Ro berts
The ranch was owned by actor and stuntman Crash Corrigan, who could be found there on the weekends—he lived there. Some of the things filmed there included Sky King, Lassie, the Roy Rogers show, the Lone Ranger (for a time it was even known as Lone Ranger Ranch) and tons of mostly B, but some A movies. One of those A flicks was the John Ford/John Wayne/Henry Fonda Fort Apache movie. The fort at Corriganville was built for that movie and was used in many other things, including the Adventures of Rin Tin Tin TV series. I was a huge Rinty fan. So going there as a kid, getting to go to the fort and play around was a big thrill.

John Wayne (back row, third from left) and John Ford (se ated front row) on Fort Apache set
There’s a famous rock in the background—Corriganville Rock—that you can see in many of the TV shows and movies (see postcard pic at top). The western town street was called Silvertown, but the ranch also included a Mexican village, outlaw cabins, caves, Robin Hood Lake, a Corsican village and plenty of rugged scenery.

And what a kick it was to go there as a kid when it was still in use as a movie ranch. As one knows, one should always dress for the occasion and Corriganville was no exception. I would don my cowboy hat and bright red cowboy boots, my six shooters, maybe a vest or even chaps. And off we'd go—because in those days a kid could wear a fairly realistic-looking gun and holster to an amusement park and nobody would look or think twice about getting shot for real.

Girl and boy playing at Fort Apache, Corriganville
I remember the excitement of being on a “real” western street with real cowboys and Indians and staged shootouts. But one of my strongest memories is of going into the western street saloon, through those swinging saloon doors and finding that instead of a false front there was an actual restaurant or cafeteria. It was more of the modern variety but still fun. And in my mind I was a real cowboy in a real cowboy saloon and pity the poor fool who drew against me.


Being a fan of Rinty, Rusty and Lt. Rip Masters my favorite site on the ranch was Fort Apache. It was like being there in the old west. And it was a kick to see it in person to go along with my Marx Toys Rin Tin Tin Fort Apache playset and autographed photo of Jim Brown (Lt. Rip Masters) in cavalry uniform, posing with Rin Tin Tin himself.

Several fires at various times burned down most of the sets. Eventually, Bob Hope bought the property from Crash Corrigan. He changed the name to Hopetown and also built a housing development by that name on some of the property. Eventually, most of the ranch was sold off for development. But about 200 acres of the property, where most of the sets were, has been turned into a park.
Corriganville western town set remnants 
Some time during the late 1970s or early eighties, I saw a newspaper—you remember newspapers, don’t you?—announcement saying there was to be a chili cook-off at Corriganville, the old movie ranch. I was more than a little excited to relive some of those fond memories of yesteryear. So my cousin and I took our nephew and headed to the land of Crash Corrigan. And, like the smell of a Madeleine pastry in Proust's novel Remembrance of Things of Past (yeah, I know they changed the name), which brings on a lifetime of memories for the protagonist, just being at what used to be Corriganville, still called Hopetown at the time of the cook-off, brought on a flood of memories, even if most of the sets were gone with the wind. See the pix here of set remnants—and now even the remnants of the sets that were there then are gone.

Corriganville Fort Apache set location pad

 And then Amy and I went there after it had become a park and even more was gone, but some things remained, mostly the lake/river bed channel and some foundations of the old sets. Still, it was fun to be there and share the experience and reminiscences with her as she’d never been.

Me with Pepper and Audie at Corriganville Park
Since Tarantino is such a fan of Hollywood, I’m sure it was a kick for him to film there. And, corny as it may sound, although Corriganville is gone it will always be there in my mind, a place of fun, wonderful grandparents, and good memories. Who could ask for more? And what are some of your special childhood memories?

You can find out more about it here: www.corriganville.net .

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Don't forget to check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus award-winning novel, White Heat. Betty Webb at Mystery Scene magazine says: "Broken Windows is extraordinary."


Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

07 July 2019

Murder Mystery – Spare Me


Thanks to a couple of friends, I’ve been indulging in one of John Floyd’s favorite passions– NetFlix. How could I resist a movie called Murder Mystery? How could I not document it for SleuthSayers?
Murder Mystery: Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler
Murder Mystery: Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler
The Premise

A marriage-worn New York couple finds their relationship  declining and disintegrating if not quite out. Thus starts the film on a squirmingly uncomfortable note. He’s an NYPD street cop who keeps failing the detective exam and lies about it to his wife. She’s a beautician who casually derides her husband. Then in a whiplash moment, he abruptly takes her on a long-promised trip to Europe.

Part of the ersatz humor comes from the stereotypical bumbling of uncouth Americans staggering around foreign countries. He’s the Cleveland jacket type, the working man who only dresses up for temple or church or mosque with his favorite colorful plaid or checked sports coat. Naturally they wear their Sunday best to Europe. Except those moments when Sandler chooses to wear sloppy clothes to dinner.

They bump into the fabulously wealthy set, whereupon death, destruction, and tired hilarity ensue. Solving the crime and saving their own asses bring them closer together, whereupon kissy-face romance re-ignites. More scripted hilarity ensues.

Emergency! Emergency! Kissing Coach to the set!

For a film rife with yachts, planes, trains, and automobiles, it’s awfully pedestrian. The real mystery is why a catatonic Adam Sandler murdered the movie. My least favorite SNL comic, he seemed to come into his own in movies, often silly, but he proved he could seriously act in Spanglish.

Unfortunately, he brought none of the warmth he’s capable of to Murder Mystery. His chemistry with his costar registered at the low end of the Kelvin scale. Dude, if you’re going to be kissing Jennifer Aniston, put some damn effort in it. Sheesh. Act like you might possibly maybe under the right circumstances kinda sorta enjoy it.

Wait. Back up a moment.

This movie is so sloppy, anyone with a passing familiarity of Europe’s cities and airports will quickly realize the movie is riddled with impossible geographic errors. Málaga is not in Italy; Milano is not in Monaco, and… How did they get to Montreal? In all these places, people drive on the right in left-hand-drive cars, same as North America. The embarrassing question enquiring minds want to know:
  • Were the filmmakers too stupid to notice?
  • Did they think Americans too stupid to notice?
The Abbott and Costello School of Motoring

Speaking of cars, we’re asked to leap a huge chasm of disbelief– that New Yorkers who’ve spent a lifetime not driving and have never seen a clutch or stick shift can suddenly pilot a Ferrari Testarossa left manual 7-speed gear shift at high speeds. R-i-i-i-i-ght, as Bill Cosby might intone.

Author’s Saturday shopping car, disbelief suspension

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…

That said, two jots of humor bear mention. Sandler’s character is a terrible pistol marksman but, channeling Goldfinger’s Oddjob, he unleashes his deadly accurate frisbee arm. Viewers brace for timid, tentative tee-hee.

The Tourist: Angelina Jolie
The Tourist: Angelina Jolie
The single funny moment in this one-hundred crawlingly long minute ‘comedy’ brings the chase scene to a close, a visual joke. Actual chuckles ensue.

The final scene brings us back to the nearly forgotten title in a faint nod to Agatha Christie. Promoters are talking about a sequel, Murder Mystery II. Is this final scene where it starts?

Start to finish, the movie plays like a Pink Panther episode on valium. If you want to see how an American on the run in Europe film should be made, visit The Tourist (2010). It combines a Hitchcock flair with a stunning Angelina Jolie who seems to grow more beautiful with the years.

Murder Mystery 👎👎
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ ‘meh’

29 May 2019

The Good, the Bad, and the Positive



When I was in college I took a course in film studies and one day the professor talked to us about bad movies and good movies.  Specifically he said that a good bad movie was better than a bad good movie.

If he defined his terms I don't recall but I think we can get the gist of it.  A bad movie is mere entertainment.  A good movie is about something besides the plot.  It has a message, a theme, a view of the world.  And my professor was saying that a good bad movie - one that "merely" tries to entertain and succeeds - is a better flick than one that tries to change your life and fails.

I realize that some of you are even now composing messages that argue with pretty much every word in the paragraph above.  That's fine.  But let's kick the idea around a bit.

One of the problems, of course, is that a well-done piece of "mere entertainment" is probably as carefully thought through and layered as the allegedly deeper "good" movie.  The first Star Wars movie, for example, is a great popcorn flick but George Lucas certainly knows his Joseph Campbell and the archetypal Hero's Journey is baked solidly into the film's DNA.  

Or take Psycho, which I imagine we would agree with the professor is a good or even great, bad movie.  Hitchcock himself described it as a fun movie, like a trip "through the haunted house at a fairground." But perhaps unlike  many of the thousands of slasher films that it inspired, there is a lot of meaning bubbling under the surface.

For example: next time you watch it, starting from the very first scene watch for references to parents, living or dead, who impose on and  distort the lives of their children.  You will find that this is mentioned several times before the Bates Motel looms up on the dark road.  Someone - Robert Bloch who wrote the novel, or Joseph Stefano who wrote the screenplay, or director Hitchcock - went to a lot of trouble to put these nuggets in.  Is it establishing a theme, as the creators of "good movies" might call it, or merely increasing suspense through foreshadowing?  Or is that a distinction without a difference?

Of course, you can argue that every movie has a message.  Jim Britell noted that "the message of most American movies is that only Batman or Clint Eastwood can go up against Mr. Big."  Not very empowering.  


In the world of fiction as opposed to film, the distinction is likely to be called genre fiction versus mainstream fiction (or even just "literature.")  Crime fiction, the reviewers will tell us, is just entertainment, with no deeper message.

Or is it?

Let's take Rex Stout's Gambit, which is a standard whodunit (with one exception that we will get to).  In the first scene private detective Nero Wolfe is burning a copy of Webster's Third International Dictionary in his fireplace.  His main objection is that the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive.  That is, it tells you how words are being used, not how they should be used.  Then a client arrives and we move into a murder investigation and the dictionary is not mentioned again.

However...

All the characters we meet in the book have a strange relationship with the idea of knowledge.  Some insist vehemently on something they know, which turns out to be wrong. ("I know you!" snaps Inspector Cramer, completely misinterpreting Wolfe's motives.) The enchanting beauty of one character,  who is by no means stupid, is twice described as being related to her giving the impression of knowing nothing.  Others have important information but don't know how to use it.  The murderer misuses specialized knowledge to commit the crime.  

The unusual thing about the book is  that Nero Wolfe knows the identity of the murderer with almost a quarter of the novel left.  What he does in the last chapters, and what makes him the hero, is figure out how to use the knowledge he has acquired in order to defeat the bad guy.

In short, the entire novel is a polemic against that dictionary, pointing out that knowing something (like the meaning of a word) is not enough.  You have to know how to use what you know.

One more example.  Good Behavior is one of Donald E. Westlake's best comic crime novels.  In it, his hapless burglar, John Dortmunder, organizes a major robbery in a skyscraper  but his real purpose is to rescue a nun who is being held prisoner in the penthouse.

Or putting it another way: like any fairy tale knight, his quest is to rescue a maiden from a tower. "She'd have to let her hair down a hell of a distance, wouldn't she?" Dortmunder muses.

And once you notice that fact, images of chivalry pop up in the book with great regularity.  (The villain is a wealthy industrialist named Ritter... as in Knight-Ritter?)

Would we say Westlake is trying to do more than entertain, or that his thematic elements are simply one of the things that makes the book such fun?  And again, does it matter?

I'm going off on a tangent now.  On rare and wonderful occasions something I have written has received a review.  People will ask me whether it got a good review.  I usually respond (if it is true) that it received a positive review.  Which is not the same thing.

A good review is one which  allows the reader to accurately  decide whether the book/story/movie is one they would enjoy.  That is not quite the same as a positive review.

Several decades ago I read a newspaper review of Douglas Adam's first novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  It was a negative review.  The critic basically said that this was a patheitic example of what passed for humor in science fiction.  To prove his point he included several examples of the alleged humor.

I read them and when I managed to stop laughing I said: "I need this book immediately!"  The review was not positive, but it was good - because it told me that 1) the critic had no sense of humor, and 2) Adams was brilliant.  

And that's all I have to say, which is good.  I'm positive.