Friday, August 22, 2008

I punched a bloke in face once

...for saying Hawk the Slayer was rubbish."

-- Bilbo Bagshot, comic book store proprietor, Spaced

In my off-and-on quest to find the worst sword and sorcery film of all time, I'd somehow completely missed 1980's Hawk the Slayer until this random mention of "defending the fantasy genre with terminal intensity." Headliner Jack Palance struts through the usual faux-medieval settings as the villain Voltan, who wears a Darth Vader-like helmet (I'm sure that's coincidental), kills his father in a scene that perversely reminded me of Gladiator, and howls his lines to the point that they're hard to understand.

As Hawk, neophyte actor John Terry (his only previous credit was a minor character on the sitcom Soap) plays a mostly expressionless and oddly passive hero. After all, his evil brother killed both Hawk's wife and their father, but Hawk doesn't take any action until a one-handed stranger enlists his help to rescue an abbess Voltan's holding captive in a big bird cage. Maybe having a magical "mind-sword" that flies into his hand just by thinking about it makes him less prone to exertion.

Today, Terry is probably best-known for playing Matthew Fox's shifty surgeon Dad in the flashbacks on Lost, so he's obviously improved with experience.

The cast's real draw, though, is William Morgan Sheppard in the role of Ranulf, the plot-driving one-handed man who seeks vengeance against Voltan for pillaging his village. We all know Sheppard for playing Blank Reg in the Max Headroom television series; the IMDB startled me by declaring that Reg and his partner, Dominique (who've been listed as two of my "heroes" almost as long as I've had a MySpace page), only appeared in five episodes. I'd have sworn it was more, since the characters and the Big Time TV station they operate out of a van on the fringes is such an integral part of the show.

Despite his inexplicable rapid-fire crossbow, Ranulf manages to be Hawk's most dignifed character. Oh, yeah, and they're not rescuing that abbess, exactly, but stealing some gold to pay her ransom, even though they think Voltan doesn't really intend to release her. This circuitous plot might seem a little illogical, but not to somebody who's watched Jack Hill's Sorceress in its entirety.

With the help of a whispery-voiced witch (played by Rocky Horror's Magenta) and a set of magic, glowing hula hoops, Hawk tracks down some old comrades-in-arms. There's a giant named Gort ("Klaatu -- barata -- nikto"); an elf named Crow (and nope, neither bird name seems to have any particular significance); and a dwarf named Baldin, who does have hair, and gets one of my favorite speeches, maybe of all time. Hawk finds him about to be executed by a group of priests, and Baldin explains his predicament thusly: "Too much wine, a friendly fight or two. You know how it goes. A crack on the skull from a salty wench, and I wake to find myself at the mercy of these chanting fools."

The actor says these lines with such flair -- especially the part about the salty wench -- he's got to be enjoying the absurdity. He also refers to a place called "the Pit of Gimli," in case anyone's wondering if this was all intended to evoke some sort of, oh, maybe Lord of the Rings ambience.

Since the movie was almost completely forgotten by the time the CD era dawned, the soundtrack is sadly out of print. Its style is sub-Mannheim Steamroller fake medieval disco , with some twittery "futuristic" sound effects. That, combined with the numerous glowing effects in the film, gives it a peculiarly roller-disco feel for a sword and sorcery film.

Besides the glowing mind-sword (which has a fist on the hilt, something I've actually never seen before) and the hula hoops, there's a climactic battle involving magical green glowing ping pong balls and a whole blizzard of fake snow. Plus a dark forest swathed in those green phosphorescent cobwebs that I never buy at Halloween, because they look so much more unrealistic than the white.

Without a doubt, this movie is rubbish. But I might buy the DVD anyway.


I had an eye exam yesterday; something I'm always very trepidatious about. You'd think wearing glasses for over thirty years would have hardened me to the reality, but no. Fortunately, the new eye office at the local medical megaplex made it pretty painless. (Except for that lingering vampiric sensitivity to light). I have a quarter degree worse astigmatism in one eye, and a quarter degree worse near-sightedness in the other. So the doctor doesn't think the new prescription will be the big shock it sometimes is when I've waited too long.
Also, I found some fun new frames.

For the interested, one of the saints associated with eye afflictions is St. Odile (or Odilia), who was born blind, and whose "attribute is a pair of eyes on a book," as the Wikipedia puts it. ( It doesn't say whether those eyes are two-dimensional or three, which makes a difference in the connotation. Either way, her feast day is the day after my birthday, so I've gotta think she's looking out for me.
Then there's St. Lucy, patron saint of the blind, whose eyes were gouged out as part of her martyrdom. Her feast day is the same as St. Odilia's, as if the medieval church declared some kind of official day for the visually handicapped. The painting is from 1521, by Domenico Beccatumi, and would be right at home in my Bohemian Gothic Tarot deck.
She's the same saint they celebrate with the sweet "Santa Lucia" song we sang as little girls, while wearing crowns of fake candles. Funny, nobody ever mentioned the eyes on the plate, which is obviously the most interesting part of the story...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

For the romantically impaired

One day SpyGirl and I were talking about Bollywood movies, as we tend to do, and we got to talking about my scorn for most Hollywood movies. Partly because I've embraced the big swoony Hindi romance with so much zeal, and partly, I suspect, because she knows I'm a big ball o' schmaltz in my real life, she asked for some insight into my traditional disdain of the romantic.

First I started thinking about the handful of romances I like: Down With Love (a romantic comedy for people who hate romantic comedies; unfortunately, many people like them, so it was kind of a flop); Earth Girls Are Easy; Strange Days. (That latter I find super-romantic, and I get teary-eyed at the end, which might require some explanation at some other point). Then yesterday I thought, well, I can't be against romance as such, having just purchased a VHS copy of the old Masterpiece Theatre show A Town Like Alice.

That's when it hit me. Problem number one with the average Hollywood romance: the guys. When I was watching unlimited free movies at the nearby cinema where my honey used to work, I saw more current romances than I had in, well, ever. Who were the guys in these movies? Tom Hanks. Harry Connick, Jr. Ben Affleck. Nicolas Cage. Richard Gere. (You can imagine my voice crescendo'ing in disbelief).

And in the movies I like? Hmm. Ewan MacGregor, Jeff Goldblum, Ralph Fiennes, Bryan Brown. (A crescendo of "that's more like it.") Fiennes' movie is more anomalous...sort of like Groundhog Day, also romantic and also one I like, in that the stories are about men finding love, not women. Both characters are also anti-heroes more than they are any kind of traditional romantic leads; Fiennes is too vulnerable, even pathetic, in the role to seem "hot," and Bill Murray plays an abrasive egotist. When "the real thing" comes along for them, that makes it all the more romantic.

Now, the other guys on my list are undeniably hot in their romantic roles, but are actors with real range (all having played their share of anti-heroes themselves). They're not just stuck in there because "hey, you're cute, the chicks will dig you." So they can convince me of the plausibility of their feelings, and I also care more, because they're interesting, and not just "shirt models."

Back to A Town Like Alice. Like Bollywood, it has another advantage over most Hollywood romances in its length (it was a five-hour miniseries, taking up three tapes on videocassette). If you've never seen this (and it's never been released on DVD in the US, grrrr, so if you did, it was probably long ago), the WWII romance between POWs Helen Morse and Bryan Brown is impossibly romantic. Epic, star-crossed, probably completely unbelievable, except as explained by the intensity of wartime. But it never annoys me in the ways romances so often do, and the length definitely helps.

Most films would have to severely truncate the book, and would have to shove the romantic element to the forefront much more quickly. I watched the first tape last night, so that was over two hours, and the romance took up about forty minutes. I know it's going to come back and become the main focus, but the larger canvas embeds the relationship in a larger context.

One of the side effects is that the characters (especially the woman) don't exist for the sake of the romance. By that I mean: she had a whole life before she met the one true love, and a whole life after that. Usually, the larki (the girl) appears, some exposition is set, the formula runs in its various ways, and concludes when she and the larka (the boy) run into each other's arms.

Often, we don't even really see them fall in love, but instead, the storyline just tells us so. (That's where the musical numbers in the Bollywood movies are so helpful, in expressing the characters' emotions). Also, too often the settings around the romances are two-dimensional, full of unrealistic jobs and sitcom supporting characters, all of which adds to that creepy feeling of "she didn't exist before she fell in love."

In five hours, though, that's not a problem. We have the time to get ourselves a fully fleshed-out heroine and well-developed situations. Then, when she finally meets the hero, we get to see them flirt and develop their rapport.

Even better, the available time allows the story to go past the "happily ever after." After they find each other again, and finally declare their love, and all's well, there's like, another hour and a half to go. We follow them as they try to reconcile those dramatic, star-crossed beginnings with their contemporary everyday lives, and the fact that they didn't know each other all that well. When the inevitable happy ending finally comes, it doesn't feel contrived or unearned.

As I've always said: nothing's more romantic than real life.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Luddites with blogs

I've been in quasi-futuristic mood (self-described as Videodomey), which I think was kicked off by the joint perusal of The Best of 2600, and my muttering to myself at my place of work, "Nothing's worked since we got rid of the dot matrix printer." The latter is a pretty sad commentary, but I feel it's accurate. Printing out sheets of things (in runs of 100-200+ pages every day) has been an ongoing hassle ever since switching to the purty laser printer.

The worst thing that used to happen was that the feeding sheets would get out of whack, and I'd have to climb under the desk to re-align them. That was annoying, but it was infrequent, and I could fix it myself. Now, we email the "tech guy" who comes in, looks at the error messages, and shrugs. And the same problems go on for days.

The Wikipedia entry ( at says one of the dot matrix advantages is that "they are good, reliable workhorses ideal for use in situations where printed content is more important than quality." I too am a good, reliable workhorse! And I'm generally more interested in content than in "quality," here definable as appearance and presentation.

I'd say something about my own obsolescence (and that's a weird-looking word), but on the other hand: I was BORN obsolete! Which implies that it's not change as such or the passing of time, as if there was a period when I was in vogue, and now I'm not. My values are just slightly askew of the culture, and always have been.

Anyway, the problem with the new printers is that they don't work as well as the old one. By work, I mean the basic job of transmitting a page of printed text. If it looks nicer in the end, but it takes a lot of anguish to make it to spit out at all, that's a bad trade-off. I'm not the one, after all, saying that time is money. We'd probably need to spend more than we can afford to get both pretty, shiny pages and still handle the amount of printing we have to do without inexplicable breakdowns in the system. Given that limitation, we're more or less stuck with what we have.

The interesting part of it all to me is that the idea of going back is completely unthinkable. You know, they still sell fairly inexpensive dot matrix printers just like we had, and all the accoutrements. Even the toner for non-color printing is noticeably cheaper. If I sat in a meeting and said with a straight face that we should go back to dot matrix, people would think me totally insane (in a whole new way).

Once upon a time, the sheets we printed basically existed to convey information. Once we decided it was important to convey information and look good doing it, well, we complicated the process. And when problems arise, we can't go back.

Multiply my brief, trivial musing at the printer yesterday by a million, and we have modern American life. No wonder so many people are so freaking crabby.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

This blog post has not yet been rated

There was some brouhaha about the rating for The Dark Knight when it came out (PG-13) ... at least on Yahoo, if they're a reliable source. (I'm already calling today's story about an 8-year-old blues guitar prodigy as tomorrow's "oops, that was a hoax." I could be wrong, but I guessed that "shark spotted at Jaws beach" story was untrue, and by now, I'm pretty skeptical).

Then in yesterday's Entertainment Weekly, a letter to the editor described the rating as "shockingly benign."

Now, there's no question the movie isn't for little kids, but nobody is pretending it is. The trailers all made it pretty clear what people were in for, and here's the official MPAA rating: "Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace." That seems fairly accurate, and it's gotta be right on the poster.

Now, if it's so intense, why isn't it rated R? Because this is exactly the sort of grey area that the PG-13 rating was specifically created for! (Just as a side note, the movie has no sex, nudity, or profanity: things that the ratings system has always judged more harshly than it does violence). While I would agree the violence is "intense," it's not graphic, not in a way that I would say is R-rated. We're not talking about Dawn of the Dead or Reservoir Dogs here. Especially considering CSI and Bones and other cop shows with some fairly intense and disturbing stuff which they shown on prime-time TV, what's actually seen is not that bad. It's more a question of tone and context that make it intense, and that's a more in-your-mind than on-the-screen thing.

Another side note: I'd say the violence is comparable to that in Iron Man, and the whole more realistic world-at-war aspect of that movie was potentially disturbing in its own right, but nobody made any outcry about that. Also PG-13.

It seems to me, in this case, that the rating is doing what it's supposed to do. It informs parents that this movie is probably not appropriate for children under 13. It's in the name: PG-13. That means you probably shouldn't bring your 7-year-old, and if you do, whose fault is that? Short of requiring state ID cards for children at birth (which I'm sure someone is working on right now), I don't know how else theaters are supposed to protect kids via an arbitrary age limit, especially if their parents can't be bothered.

I saw The Dark Knight in a packed theater, and I didn't see any kids I'd judge under 13 who were unattended by adults. I saw a lot of little kids with parents who should have known better...just like I do when I see really violent R-rated films, especially the ones that are tagged "action" instead of, say, "horror."

The ratings must be like speed limits. People get used to them, so they ignore them. Apparently, we need a new rating, the "We Really Mean It PG-13."

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Gothic Reading List

Looking through some old notes of mine, I found the following suggestions for a Gothic book club. Of course, this is just the beginning...

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey (1817). The Scream of Gothic novels, in which the characters are aware of all the Gothic conventions even as the heroine lives out, well, something of a Gothic scenario. Light and fluffy, excellent to read after a few heavier works.

Lamb, Caroline. Glenarvon (1816). Often described as "unreadable," but I sped through it in a few days. Apparently, even the trashy novels of previous centuries were on the average better-written than the trashy novels of today.

Le Fanu, J. Sheridan. Uncle Silas (1865). I just can't recommend this book, which I've often described as "the Gone With the Wind of Gothic literature," highly enough. Go read it right now! Also, the Dover collection Green Tea and Other Stories contains most of his classic short stories, with the sad exception of "Schalken the Painter."

Poe, Edgar Allan. Not my fave: I tend to think that Poe's excesses are exactly what people mistakenly think Romanticism's all about. But I do have a soft spot for his "demon woman" stories, especially the one-of-a-kind "Berenice" (1835), which is available in most collections.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Italian. (1797) Even though The Mysteries of Udolpho is the most famous of her works, and the one you need to read to get the jokes in Northanger Abbey, I more highly recommend this novel as a starting point. If you enjoy it, then by all means, read Udolpho as well.

Richardson, Samuel. Clarissa (1748). Not, strictly speaking, a Gothic, but with its innocent heroine, seductive, Satanic anti-hero and intense claustrophobia, definitely a forerunner. If the Austen canon makes you flinch, you're unlikely to get through this books' 1000-some pages. If not, and you're willing to be swept away, it's one of the greats. However, don't try to read a condensed version. The much shorter version is also much more boring, one of literature's strange paradoxes.

Rymer, James Malcom. Varney the Vampire (1845). No one will ever mistake this for great literature, but heck, I've read Dean Koontz's best-selling Shadows, and if that book's clunky dialogue, unrealistic situations and inane digressions don't trouble modern readers, neither should Varney's. It's also interesting in that its core of character relationships--innocent young woman attacked in her bedroom, with a diverse group of men who vow to protect her and track down the monster--is a precursor to the similar dynamic in Dracula. Even more interesting, the familiar relationship of suave, well-dressed, aristocratic vampire in love with his prospective victim--later seen in Dark Shadows and the non-faithful adaptations of Dracula in the 1970s and the 1990s--seems to have started with this book.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula (1897). Of all the vampire books ever written, there's a reason why this is the big daddy. Its prosaic obsession with the latest technology grounds it in modern literary realism, and that contrast makes the breath-taking eroticism of the vampire attacks stand out all the more.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Be beautiful! and be sad!

Diva Dolorosa (directed by Peter Delpeut, 1999)

A Dutch documentary about Italian silent film stars doesn't necessarily sound terribly promising. But throw in the influence of fin de siecle "Black Romanticism" and suddenly it's a glittering doorway to another world.

Instead of any recitation of facts, this movie unreels as a feature-length montage of archival footage, featuring gorgeously-dressed women with haughty expressions and dark circles under their eyes, caught in "the double insanity of love and death." In various segments, the heroines taunt their lovers, act out the ways love can go tragically wrong (into various permutations of murder and suicide), and sometimes go fantastically mad. The scenes of hysteria add new meaning to "letting one's hair down," as a few of the actresses suddenly undo their 'dos, letting their incredible amounts of pre-Raphaelite Rapunzel hair free before really launching into the crazy.

Occasional intertitles (in Italian, with subtitles) are interspersed throughout, including such melodramatic gems as "Let me deliver you from evil. In the graveyard of the soul, love will blossom," and "the venom of love once more poured into her heart."

Sadly, the films these scenes were clipped from (with evocative names like La Donna Nuda and Tigre Reale) are otherwise unobtainable to the general audience, although at least they've been restored and still existence in film museums, so it could be a lot worse. That does make me wish there was a companion movie of a more traditionally "documentary" nature, or an optional info text, identifying all the clips as they appear.

I got a copy of this from Netflix, but the DVD is included as a set with Angela Dalle Vacche's recently published book Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema, which I'm now really, really tempted to buy. Funny how yesterday I didn't know anything about early Italian cinema, and didn't even know there was a gap in my life.

Highly recommended, especially for a certain kind of dramatically-inclined young woman in search of style inspiration. Just please, focus on the poetry, not the daggers and the morphine. You'll be happier in the long run.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Cry, Little Sister

"A lot of valuable information can be gained by reading comic books." -- Edgar Frog, played by Corey Feldman in Lost Boys: The Tribe

I'll admit, I didn't have high hopes for the long-brewing sequel to 1987's The Lost Boys (and wow! 1987?), but I was pleasantly surprised to find it a decent little B movie. Less ambitious, sure, but fairly true to the spirit of the original, and while nobody in the cast has the acting ability that the smoldering young Jason Patric did, nobody's as annoying as Jami Gertz, either, so it all evens out.

The new movie focuses on orphaned siblings Chris and Nicole (they have the same last name as the original's Michael and Sam, but their relationship is never explained outright). Fallen on hard times, they move to a small California town which seems to be overrun with well-known former professional surfers, like Chris is. Before long, jailbait Nicole has hooked up with her brother's former idol, and eventually, the same theme develops as in the original: it's all fun and games until you have to eat somebody.

In this case, the gang practices a brand of vampirism for the Jackass generation: they can indulge in extreme sports and interpersonal violence without inflicting permanent damage.

Kiefer's little brother Angus Sutherland plays the main vampire in a seductive, Byronic mode: he's soft-spoken and romantic, and honestly seems to believe he's doing people a favor by giving them eternal life. Until, of course, the chips are really down. Then, just as Luke Perry said in the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, he proves that "This is not a caring nurturer here, this guy is a blood-sucking fiend from beyond the grave."

Speaking of casting: it might sound kind of sad to say that Edgar Frog, "surfboard shaper and vampire hunter," is the perfect role for Corey Feldman, like this is the best he can hope for? Nonetheless, it's a part that makes the most of his abilities, even if they're mainly expressed in gruff one-liners (along with the chance to reprise his famous "It's never pretty" speech). At this point, I'd totally watch further Edgar Frog, Vampire Hunter sequels if they came along.

You'll want to watch into the credits for a coda, and also the two alternate endings, which steer the film in a specific sequel direction it might not want to go in, which I assume is the reason they remain "alternate." Admitedly, I'll be bummed if that's the end of the crazy-looking heavy-metal cowboy (maybe a little Near Dark inspired?) in the vampire cameo by Jamison Newlander, the real lost boy of the Lost Boys. His Alan Frog, as important a character as Edgar, tended to be completely overlooked in the bygone days of Corey-mania. You've gotta wonder, though, if maybe life's been a little easier for him because of it.

This'll never replace the original movie in anybody's hearts, or be remembered so fondly in twenty years (okay, I don't know that for a fact, but I'd bet money). Still, for a sequel to a popular horror film, especially a direct-to-DVD one, it's pretty good. Pretty much every classic horror film ever made has suffered much worse indignities.