Friday, December 31, 2004


I didn't have access to a lot of cinema where I grew up, in Lakeview, Oregon in the '60s and '70s. We had one indoor theater, the Alger, run by the late Donald R. "Bob" Alger, which operated from early September through May, and one drive-in theater, the Circle JM, also operated by Mr. Alger, in the summer months of May through early September. Show days for the indoor theater were Wednesday through Sunday, and the drive-in added Tuesday to that schedule, so in the summer the only day there wasn't a movie available was Monday.

In those days, before the home video revolution, it wasn't unusual for Mr. Alger to be as much as a year behind the release patterns of major movies. If one waited to see, say, Jaws at one of Lakeview's two venues, one would have seen it in the summer of 1976, a full year after it first appeared in theaters and set box-office records. So there was always an element of frustration for anyone who lived in my hometown, paid any attention at all to what was in theaters and had any desire to see the latest movies when they were in first-run release (My buddies and I were definitely part of this group, if not its sole members).

However, where Mr. Alger excelled as a timely film programmer was in his willingness to book one-night-only horror shows composed of fairly recent releases (within, say, six months or so)-- his (and, of course, our) special nights were Halloween, any and all Friday the 13ths, and New Year's Eve. It was because of his enthusiasm for these (undoubtedly less expensive) specialty engagements that my buddies and I stayed very much up-to-date on just about every significant horror film of the period, and were very lucky indeed to be exposed to a large portion of the offerings from American International Pictures, Amicus Productions and, of course, the Hammer Studios. Under Mr. Alger's popcorn tutelage we saw everything he brought in-house-- to have missed an Alger Theater horror night was inexcusable. Some of the titles we gorged on included The Dunwich Horror, The Crimson Cult, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Asylum, The House That Dripped Blood, The Green Slime, The Fearless Vampire Killers (or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck), Count Yorga, Vampire, Cry of the Banshee, The Return of Count Yorga, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, Whatever Happened to Jack and Jill?, The House That Screamed, Trog, Willard, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, Tales from the Crypt, The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant, Rasputin the Mad Monk, The Evil of Frankenstein, Scream and Scream Again and probably 40 or 50 others that I can't remember off the top of my head. (I have a feeling that I'll be returning to this general subject in a bit more detail sometime in the near future on this very site).

I'm mindful of the wonderful times I had screaming and being genuinely scared by most, if not all of the movies cited above, because it's now about 15 minutes before midnight, New Year's Eve, 2004, and 25-30 years ago on this night I might well have been feasting on one of the above titles while silently fretting about the terrifying mile-long walk home once the featured horror was finished. Also, it turns out the last film I will have seen in this calendar year is one from that select group that Mr. Alger failed to bring to town, one that I caught up with thanks to my best friend Bruce, who gave it to me for Christmas, one that was far more enjoyable than I would have ever guessed: Ray Milland and Rosey Grier in The Thing With Two Heads (1972), on DVD as part of MGM Home Video's indescribably wonderful "Midnite Movies" series.

This wacky sci-fi comedy is essentially a bigger (but not much bigger) budgeted version of AIP's earlier, and far tackier, The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant. In fact, the two movies comprise the double feature MGM has made available on its disc (At a Best Buy price of $9.99, just about any MGM Midnite Movies double feature is well worth the meager price, but this one is one of the best). Ray Milland is a bigoted transplant surgeon who is nearing death and wishes to find a suitable body onto which to graft his own head, expecting after a month or so to decapitate the original head and take over the new frame as his own. Through a complicated series of events that are thankfully taken less than seriously, the donor ends up being Mr. Grier, and when he overrides Milland's wishes and stages an escape from the transplant hospital the whole middle of the movie is given over to a wacky (and overlong) chase-- it's AIP's goofball answer to the question probably nobody ever asked: What would the The Defiant Ones be like if the white guy's head was stitched onto the black guy's body, so instead of being chained together, they had to inhabit the same body? Lots of police cars are wrecked, and lots of time is given over to the pained look on Milland's face as Grier forces him to escape on a speeding motocross bike through a race in progress. And I take that pained look to be acting, by the way. Milland seems to know exactly what he's into here and he's an awfully good sport about it (one would have to be, if one were a veteran of Hollywood films who found himself, in the waning days of his career, going through the length of half a film strapped to the back of an ex-football player). But then, so is Grier, who gets off some pretty funny lines at the expense of Milland and his frequently racist exasperation-- his "Now you got to go," directed to Milland's head after being rebuffed in the bedroom by a girlfriend who understandably hesitates at the thought of having sex with her suddenly two-headed boyfriend, is priceless.

In fact, the whole enterprise is jauntier and more freewheeling than I would have guessed, thanks in part to its appearance during the first beats of the blaxploitation movement-- and on that note, there's plenty of funky music to be enjoyed during the lengthy chase sequence too. And you've got to see the little impromptu musical number that plays under the closing credits-- it's not exactly Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi taking unexpected musical flight, but it's guaranteed to make you laugh out loud and wonder what the hell the filmmakers thought they were doing.

I'm sure there's far better films with which to spend the waning hours of 2004, but considering the year that just passed, with its bizarre politics, horrible worldwide disasters and moments of personal unease and uncertainty, something as unpretentious, silly, yet essentially sincere as The Thing With Two Heads seems strangely to be the right choice after all. I promise to start 2005 off on the right foot with House of Flying Daggers... but then again, there is The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant still be to seen...


My sincere thanks to "Anonymous" for leaving the comment regarding my recent article about Flight of the Phoenix. As I said in the piece, my only real frustration with the movie came in its soundtrack music choices. After a very clever use of Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere" over the opening credits, which cleverly foreshadows the trouble Dennis Quaid and his passengers are about to encounter, every other soundtrack music choice the movie makes is either lazy, obvious, detrimental to the intended effect of the film or downright worn-out. My main complaint centered around the appearance of the Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin'," which the filmmakers (or the studio?) decided not only had to be slapped over the sequence where the plane takes off on its ill-fated journey, but then again over the end credits!

Anonymous (aaargh!--- please e-mail me or leave another post and let me know who you are... unless, of course, it was your intent all along to be anonymous, in which case, please feel free to remain so) added his/her discontent over the use of The Doors' "The End," which she/he feels is an easy go-to signifier for any filmmaker who wishes to convey druggie disorientation or some other aspect of the "hippie" experience. But other than Apocalypse Now or, I suppose, Oliver Stone's bombastic love letter to Jim Morrison and his group, I couldn't really think of another movie that used "The End." However, Anonymous' comment did make me think that this was a good question to initiate what I hope will be a recurring feature on this blog: Frustrated Filmgoers 101. And the question that this session will revolve around is this:

What one song do you think should be banned from further use in movies?

Please explain why: Is it just a lazy choice by a director who wants to convey information cheaply and with little effort? Is it a song that is just too obviously a comment on the scene it's being used with? Does it, when it's used, typically hobble a scene rather than enhance it? Or is it just that it's been heard a thousand times since Martin Scorsese first laid down "Jumping Jack Flash" over that introductory barroom scene in Mean Streets, thus virtually pioneering the use of rock and/or pop music as soundtrack ambience or commentary in the movies? (Yes, the Beatles could probably be said to have done it first, but I think the intent and effect of A Hard Day's Night was somewhat different than Scorsese's...)

I'll start things out myself and say that, in addition to my utter disregard for "Gimme Some Lovin'," I almost always immediately tune out of any movie that slaps together a montage sequence and decides the best musical accompaniment for it is the Rascals' "Good Lovin'." These songs should be banned from use in any more films, unless the context is something really perverse, like, say, putting them to use over one of Catherine Breillat's typically morose and grotesque meditations on sex, like the recent Anatomy of Hell. Now, that might not make me tune out... immediately, anyway...

Let our first class commence!


Okay, so my quick fix doesn't seem to have worked. I have contacted the good folks at, who have been very helpful to me so far in my little on-line adventure, so I hope that they continue to shine light on curiously dark corners of this experience for me. I will let everyone know when things are up and in order so that you can leave your name, if you so choose, when writing on this site. Thanks!


Hi, folks! I've gotten a few more comments lately, but as I'm still pretty new to the blogging universe I think I may have had things set up incorrectly. What I would like is for you to leave your name, or whatever username you choose to use, so I can get to know some of the people who take the time to comment on what I've written. So far, though, I've only gotten comments from "Anonymous," even though I know that several different individuals have left messages. I think this may be due to the fact that up to now you've been given no other option, when you attempt to comment, than to post as "Anonymous," unless you have a blog account. This is not how I wanted the system to be, and I certainly didn't think things were set up this way. Hopefully I've fixed the problem, and I should be able to tell after posting this quick note. If the matter is not fixed with this post, I will send an inquiry and try to get information on how to make comments accessible to anyone using whatever name you choose, whether you're a blogger account holder or not. And anyone who happens to read this who may know what I'm doing wrong and can suggest a quick fix, I'd love to hear from you. Thanks to those who have left comments so far, and particularly to the "mystery reader" who recently left a note on The Doors after the article on Flight of the Phoenix. Sounds like a good topic, actually...

Thursday, December 30, 2004


Sometimes lowered (or nonexistent) expectations end up being rewarded. Case in point: there’s a movie in theaters now that many may never even consider seeing amidst all the Oscar bait choices floating around. But those seeking respite from grim, eat-it-it’s-good-for-you options are likely to find the pop pleasures of the new remake of Flight of the Phoenix amply satisfying.

Dennis Quaid takes on the Jimmy Stewart role as the pilot of an ill-fated plane that crashes in the middle of the Gobi desert while carrying a group of oil riggers, and one insinuatingly creepy last-minute additional passenger, and he fuses his particular brand of charm and rugged intensity to the pilot’s arrogance and reticence over taking on the role of leader of these desperate survivors. He, and the entire cast, is aided enormously by director John Moore’s resistance to the kind of Bruckheimerian traps into which he could have easily fallen; there are no Con Air-esque histrionics on display here, from the performers or the director. Moore’s visual style is pleasingly fluid, energetic without being overbearing, and charged with exactly the right kind of gravity to effectively propel this kind of suspense film, and he largely resists the temptation to overedit his action set pieces into geographical incoherence. He also knows the value of the eerie quiet of the vast, engulfing environment into which the characters are dropped, set against the way the danger can suddenly and perilously loom, like the twisting, swirling bloom of a freak sandstorm, or the fear in a man’s soul as he tries to decide whether taking action will serve to save himself and the others or only deplete energy and supplies enough to bring them all one day closer to death.

The movie plays nimbly with this kind of popcorn existential drama, and the cast of typically underused actors—including Miranda Otto, Hugh Laurie, Tony Curran, Tyrese Gibson and Scott Michael Campbell—all get opportunities to stand out in ways that aren’t often afforded members of other supporting casts that are more generically conceived. All these folks are terrific, but the stand-out, and I can hardly believe I’m saying this, is Giovanni Ribisi, in the Hardy Kruger role, the reptilian, unaccountably hostile tag-along passenger who may, or may not, hold the key to the group’s survival (my wife has even requested immediate execution for the suggestion that Ribisi’s performance is, in her estimation, one of the year’s best).

This prickly oddball, an aircraft designer who suggests the possibility of constructing a new plane out of the wreckage of the old one, holds back revealing his knowledge partly out of fear and antisocial paralysis, but also, as we become increasingly aware, because he digs the power it gives him over his fellow survivors. Yet he also wants, on some infantile level, just to fit in, and the actor’s instincts to highlight the character’s off-putting eccentricities work, for once, to emphasize the warring impulses raging within that bleached-blonde egghead. In movie after movie Ribisi has indulged in his strange attraction to these kinds of tic-ridden, vaguely repellent social misfits, and his ghastly and grotesquely miscalculated work as a mentally retarded man who falls in love with the similarly impaired Juliette Lewis in Garry Marshall’s brain-dead dramedy The Other Sister made me hope never to see him on screen again. But here he’s discovered the joys of modulation, and his big moments aren’t so flailing and lopsided as to make you wish he’d just spin off inside his own skull and stay there.

By the time Ribisi is offered a handshake of reconciliation from Quaid’s captain, with whom he’s had, shall we say, a testy relationship, and returns the gesture with the unexpected intimacy of two hands enveloping Quaid’s one, you feel the intelligence of the director’s concept of the movie as a whole, where a solitary shot of a corpse half-buried in a dune has as much power as a thundering electrical storm, jelling and finding safe harbor in this heretofore none-too-subtle actor’s quiet actions. The whole movie locates and executes its primal pop power in the same effortlessly muscular way: it delivers on its promise and barely breaks a sweat.

My only complaint: the hackneyed use of incidental pop tunes on the movie’s soundtrack. Things begin promisingly enough. An opening credit sequence that follows the doomed plane as it soars over the seductive dunes of the Gobi is matched to Johnny Cash’s hit “I’ve Been Everywhere.” As Cash runs down the roster of all the places he’s visited, the specter of the movie’s disaster is cleverly suggested in the song’s lyrics when the singer casually drops a hint that the reason for his extensive worldwide mobility may be that he’s a serial killer on the run from the law. But no sooner than the oil crew gets on board for their aborted trip home, the soundtrack kicks in with songs made exhausted from overuse, such as James Brown’s “Night Train” and, most egregiously, “Gimme Some Lovin’” by the Spencer Davis Group, featuring Steve Winwood’s agonizingly strained vocals. These tunes don’t comment on the action meaningfully, the way “I’ve Been Everywhere” does; they’re just demographic sops intended to goose the movie in an incongruously feel-good direction. In much the same way, a misconceived sequence of the crew merrily (!!) working on the new plane in the sweltering sun while dancing to Outkast’s “Hey Ya” should have been cut altogether. And the use of a Massive Attack song, to the exclusion of the movie’s very effective score, during an excruciatingly intense encounter with possibly murderous desert smugglers nearly cripples the scene. But it’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” that stands as the biggest offender. I’d love to track how often this song has been used by filmmakers to paper over emotional and narrative holes they’re too lazy to fix themselves, and I’d also like to seriously suggest a moratorium on its further use (and while we’re at it, how about ignoring the back catalog of Diana Ross and the Supremes for a few decades as well?) Giovanni Ribisi is one thing, but I never want to hear “Gimme Some Lovin’” ever again.

Friday, December 24, 2004


Well, my wife Patty has baked and distributed a whole bunch of seriously good chocolate chip cookies throughout our neighborhood and circle of friends, I made a shepherd's pie for our neighbor across the street, a recent widower, the holiday shopping and driving is, thankfully, now all finished, the girls are snug in their beds, full of excitement and anticipation (they spent a good five minutes kneeled in front of our fireplace tonight, calling out to make sure Santa hadn't already arrived and gotten stuck in the chimney). I'm writing this in bed while Patty lays listening to the Average White Band, This Mortal Coil and Paul Westerberg on her iPod. We're both settling in for not a long winter's nap, but hopefully at least a decent night's sleep before being invaded by the mad little chickens in their trendy sleepwear (Nonie sports the latest from Dora the Explorer while Emma rides the cutting edge in Incredibles PJs featuring Violet, the Invisible Girl) for the beginning of Christmas Morning 2004. This year there's plenty to be grateful for, plenty of love to share, plenty to look forward to in the coming year, and plenty to be nervous about as well. Getting the Christmas spirit this year has been a tough order for me to fill, but it's been made a lot easier thanks to my girls, and keeping in mind that making sure they have a straight and pure access to everything wonderful about the season is about the highest calling a father could have this time of year. I'm so grateful every day, but on Christmas day especially, to have them and to have Patty by my side on this adventure. Together I feel sure we can make the happiness of this most excellent day extend into the darkest recesses of the rest of the year, even if doing so might challenge every fiber of our fragile neural networking. If it does, and I'm sure it will, then all the better, for upon attaining even a measure of that happiness will come an appreciation for it that might not come if it were merely a simple gift. Here's to 2005, then, and all it might bring. May it be the fulfilling adventure we expect, bumps and all...

And what would Christmas be without a couple of holiday-themed movies to while away the afternoon while the kids gambol at your feet, buried in a mountain of new toys? Here's a couple of suggestions that stand to be at the ready near my DVD player tomorrow:

1941 All the joys of the Christmas season come crashing down on Hollywood Boulevard in high style in this underappreciated epic comedy. I cherish the moment when Ned Beatty brings down half his house in a mortar fire mishap intended for a Japanese sub lying quietly off the Santa Monica coast; as he flails about, rotating the turret straight through walls, windows and holiday decorations, one of his kids (Christian Zika), bedecked in full Indian chief headdress, runs up beside him and, with a mixture of awe at the old man's macho audacity and genuine annoyance, yells, "Dad! You're ruining Christmas!" It's a line I reconfigure and use throughout the year, and it's only one of the small treasures this overscaled elephant yields upon close, appreciative inspection.

Die Hard What says the holiday spirit better than Bruce Willis firing an automatic weapon at terrorists while treading barefoot over broken glass? Those terrorists, who've gone and spoiled his wife's office Christmas party by assassinating her boss and taking over the high-rise where she works, aren't even political-- they're in it for the money! And that's just another way this wildly amusing thriller, which provided the template for seemingly hundreds of knock-offs, none of which were a fifth as amusing as this one, connects with the materialism of an good old-fashioned American Christmas.

And when things get a little too tense and egg nog just isn't the answer anymore, let The Ref warm your cockles like no other holiday classic could. This caustic comedy puts burglar Denis Leary in the middle of a familial maelstrom of vindictive behavior between a man and a woman (Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis) he's holding hostage. This movie will put any holiday annoyances or troubles with relatives in proper perspective, unless your family is just too busy throwing punches by the light of the tree to pay attention to the movie. In which case I recommend an emergency screening of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Jingle All The Way, which oughta serve to sober just about anybody up.

I've been extremely busy with life this past week, but I'm hard at work on a couple of pieces that should be ready for posting by Tuesday or so. For any of you who might be champing at the bit (ha!), know that something new is on the way. Thanks so much for reading, for checking the site out, and for (hopefully) coming back for more.

Wait... What's that sound on the roof? I thought we got rid of all the rats in the attic. If not, those are some pretty big rats thumping around up there. And that strange, faint jingling... I'd better go check it out. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


Amidst all the pre-Christmas madness, I think I'm actually going to try to get out to a movie sometime before Saturday. Since my choices are pretty much limited to what's in the Glendale-Burbank area (largely by my unwillingness to brave holiday traffic to get to The Life Aquatic or Million Dollar Baby, which are still in exclusive west-side runs, where all the real people live, don't you know), it's starting to look a lot like House of Flying Daggers or Ocean's Twelve might be among the last movies I see theatrically in 2004. Of course, I'll use the excuse of trying to come up with a timely top ten list to see as much of what's left on my wish list as I can, including the Wes Anderson and Clint Eastwood movies, as well as A Very Long Engagement and Bad Education, before I actually undertake that task. I also have some new DVD releases at the ready, including Jonathan Demme's The Manchurian Candidate and the highly regarded action thriller Infernal Affairs (which, unless it happened while I blinked in mid September, was scheduled for a theatrical run from Miramax that it never received... Hmm, where have we heard this one before?) So I'm projecting a top ten list to be posted here sometime the first week of January, and while I can in no way pretend that I've seen everything there is out there to see (and what year has that ever been true anyway?), at least I'll have enough under my belt to make a reasonable stab at a list that might actually be worth looking at. And now it's off to the movies... I hope!

Monday, December 20, 2004


I was never particularly tempted to see Barbet Schroeder's The Valley (Obscured By Clouds), a French head trip picture that was popular during my early college years, even though it sported a fairly popular art film actress (Bulle Ogier) who, it was said, wasn't averse to casual nudity, and also featured music by pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd. The prospect of staying awake until 2:30am (I don't think this movie ever played anywhere before 12:00 midnight during its entire American run) to witness a psychedelic take on Lost Horizon never held any appeal for me, and, in the interest of full disclosure, I have never had much desire to discover for myself whether my predispositions and prejudices about the film were in any way warranted. And though his Maitresse (1976), which features Ogier and Gerard Depardieu, is on more solid ground creatively, I've always felt Schroeder's tendency toward oddities of film language and sensibility worked better in his early documentaries, like Koko the Talking Gorilla (1978) and his devastatingly fascinating, horrifying, and funny General Idi Amin Dada (1974), where his subjects needed only to express themselves, to be, in order to lend themselves toward the faintly surrealist shadings favored by the documentarian.

But this week I "experienced" Schroeder's first movie, More (1969), a shambling, druggy "story" spottily narrated by a math student who wants "to live, to burn all the bridges, all the formulas, and if I got burned, that was okay too." It's a good thing this guy's okay with getting burned, because it takes very little running time to suss out that More is going to shape up (if it can even be said to have a shape) into a post-summer of love cautionary tale of a clean-cut young fella who gets in over his head with drugs, all for the (zombified) love of a Warholesque heroin addict played by Mimsy Farmer (who is also not averse to nudity; alas, she's no Bulle Ogier-- the movie's funniest scene comes when, after an argument, she lays down on a bed and invites him to do whatever he likes: "But I'm warning you, I'm not going to move!").

More is jampacked (using such an action-oriented descriptive when talking about a sluggish drag like this just seems weird, man) with aimless wandering through scenic European locales (where the movie was a hit when first released), "wild," dimly lit parties designed to scare your grandmother, lots of hash smoking, a hint of lesbian sex, more than a hint of full male frontal nudity, and long, dull patches of dialogue that might seem improvised if only the actors didn't come off so authentically impaired, in a pharmacological sense, that a suspicion they weren't capable of much creative spontaneity seems more than reasonable.

The three-and-four-word sentences that make up much of the dialogue are actually credited to Schroeder "in collaboration with" Farmer and the other addicts-- er, actors. And really, if you were a first-time director, wouldn't you want to defer credit for the creation of your screenplay to your coconspirators if this kind of exchange was the result? (The setting is one of those "wild" parties):

PCWOH (after some consideration): May I kiss you?
USBGAW (incredibly): No. Beard's too long.
PCWOH (somewhat more incredibly): I dig it that way.
USBGAW (shrugs, officially now the recipient of the favor of a film director's fantasy): It's up to you. I stink, and I prickle!
(PCWOH hops on USBGAW's lap and proceeds to grind on him in a most unpleasant manner. Mercifully, Schroeder cuts away to a long, anthropologically oriented hash pipe-loading sequence...)

Our student hero eventually hits the dregs of full-on heroin addiction, a scenario which I'd be willing to bet felt almost as tired at the time this movie was released (around the time of Easy Rider, when happy endings were not the cloth of which most youth-oriented films were sewn) as it does today, in the wake of The Panic In Needle Park and the even trendier, zippier Trainspotting. One ends up wishing for the movie to suddenly take an unexpected turn, featuring, say, climactic wholesale machine-gun slaughter of the entire fuzzy-headed cast a la If..., another surrealist fantasy, of a sadistic bent, that was popular around the same time More was sweeping the continent. But cooler (and I mean really cool, man) heads apparently prevailed.

One aspect of More that does not disappoint is the music, which is, like that of Schroeder's The Valley..., provided by Pink Floyd (or, as they are credited during the film's opening title sequence, "The Pink Floyd"), and which is even more rife with dated, daisy-eyed psychedelic imagery and monotonous chord progressions than their work on the later film. A friend of mine recently observed that he knew he'd grown up when he realized that Pink Floyd was nowhere near as profound as they had once seemed in the altered states of his youth, and that that was not a bad thing. While I still hold their 1977 album Animals in high regard and continue to be thankful that neither excessive classic rock airplay nor Alan Parker have totally ruined The Wall for me, I still wonder how many fans of More-era Floyd, or Barbet Schroeder's movie, will still hold it in high regard once this musty artifact of Continental drift and Purple Haze is loosed into the harsh light of the digital age next year (a DVD release is apparently being readied).

And anyone who might discover that More fails to hold up to their youthful experience of it isn't likely to be consoled by the director's late drift into the arena of generic psychological potboilers like Single White Female, Before and After, Desperate Measures and Murder by Numbers-- though his Our Lady of the Assassins (2000) was thought by some to be if not a return to form, then at least to a form of serious intent. For those seeking such intent that does hold true by the test of time, the documentaries on Idi Amin Dada and Koko are by far the most solid ground in Schroeder's oeuvre. Alas, despite its hip time capsule credentials, More is in most ways simply a fairly typical first film, featuring all the excesses, indulgences, diversions and distractions, as well as the expected trendy patronization of the youth culture craze of the time, that one might expect; no more, no less.

Thursday, December 16, 2004


Just a few random particles that have been bumping around in my head on this bizarre day in Dodger History...

In the aftermath of Steve Finley's monumental grand slam that clinched the National League West division title for the Dodgers on October 2, 2004, Dodger fans saw Jose Lima pitch metaphorically blistering shutout ball in game 3 of the NLDS on October 16,2004, the same game that saw Shawn Green jack two out of the yard. Final score, Dodgers 4, Cardinals 0.

Both Finley and Lima are now gone, and since then we have had nothing to do but watch and see what general manager Paul DePodesta would do in the off-season to keep the momentum going, to build on the growing strengths of this (relatively young) ball club, to position the Dodgers for another strong first-place showing in the NL West.

In the past seven days, I've had to digest the signing of an ex-Giant for whom I've never held much good feeling-- more grudging respect for his talent as a offensive presence than his fielding ability at second base-- and almost no respect at all based on his personality off the field (except, of course, for that rancorous relationship with Barry Bonds-- anyone who tells it like he sees it to that mutant, damn the public strangleholds and other discomforts, gets at least one check in the plus column from me). After a few hours and a good night's sleep, I came away pretty excited, truth be told, about how Kent might fit in with the club, and that DePodesta, in pulling off a big signing that no one saw coming, might likely have something else up his well-pressed sleeves that could be an even bigger surprise.

Sunday came, and A's pitcher Tim Hudson was, according to his own agent in a story published in the Orange County Register, as much as in the bag. Hudson would be a rental arm, but one that, if he panned out, could be resigned for 2006 partly on the money saved by not resigning Finley. Right?

The first three days of the week, and no word about Hudson. The thing with the guy from the place all the sudden didn't look like such a sure thing, and it seemed to the average fan that the twiddling of thumbs heard from DePodesta's suite at that Anaheim hotel where all the lords of baseball had gathered this week was louder than a John Bonham drum solo.

Thursday, December 16, 2004.

The rumors about Adrian Beltre being courted by the Seattle Mariners became fact around the same time that the e-mail featuring season's greetings from Frank and Jamie McCourt arrived at my desk. Okay, so Beltre's gone-- five years, $64 million from the Mariners, who just two days ago spent $50 million on Richie Sexson (a rumored Dodger acquisition from last season). DePodesta's rumored offer (I've not seen any numbers in print as yet) was for six years, and a option for a seventh, but for less (not substantially less, at least as you and I would see it) money. So as I see it, it's not so much that the Dodgers let Beltre slip away as it is that Beltre decided he no longer wanted to play for the only organization he's ever known, the one that cut him enormous lengths of slack as he matured in the major leagues from a 19-year-old with loads of potential to a 25-year-old stud who (in his contract year) led the majors in home runs and came in second in NL MVP votes. Beltre and Boras may have been asking DePodesta where the love was, but right now Dodger fans are asking Beltre the same question.

The Beltre thing had just stopped ringing in my ears when my friend and fellow Dodger fan Steve, who had also called and broke the Beltre news, rang up to inform me that the Atlanta Braves had a new pitcher as of about 3:00 pm-- one Tim Hudson.

Beltre-- dangle, dangle, slam! Hudson-- dangle, dangle, dangle, slam! I eagerly turned on the TV in hopes of catching something from the DePodesta news conference that was sure to come, but it never appeared on ESPN or FSW (1 or 2). Perhaps I just wasn't paying close enough attention-- too busy trying to earn a living at the same time, I guess-- damned distractions!

So here it is, 9:15 pm. The dealing was not done, and it may not be done yet.

As of about 8:00pm, several papers and radio stations were breaking that there was a blockbuster trade in the works. "Yes? Yes? Tell me more!" I said, leaning eagerly toward my radio speaker. The three-way deal would have Randy Johnson sent to his holy grail, his field of dreams, Yankee Stadium, and in return the Diamondbacks would get Javier Vasquez and a couple of prospects (including a highly touted catcher, Dioner Navarro), who they would then deal to LA for... Shawn Green, Brad Penny and Yhenzy Brazoban???!!!! What the--???!!!

There was Jim Tracy on sports talk radio, sounding extremely disappointed as he tried to put the best face on what sounded, on the surface, like a drunken proposition that wouldn't make it past an even more drunk fantasy baseball league commissioner. Lasorda, on another station, was trying to do the same thing, but in that specifically Tommy way that seems to prevent him from putting two coherent sentences together as he stumbles to assemble a rough cut of the company line in his head and then articulate it. The most heartening thing I got out of the Tracy comments was his admission that this trade would not immediately result in a team that he'd want to field in 2005, given expectations set by the 2004 division champs and their owners, and that something else was still and definitely yet brewing in the Dodger root cellar, away from prying eyes and drooling loudmouths like 1540 The Ticket's Dave Smith and AM 710's Joe McDonnell. If this deal goes down, and it looks right now like it will, Jamie McCourt's really gonna have something to scratch her head about concerning fan attendance in the coming season.

And this is all the gristle I had to chew on as I sat down to try to order my thoughts for this piece...

But lo and behold, it seems the story one thinks is written is never quite finished. A quick check on to suss out the name of that Yankee catching prospect. Can the Dodgers survive a potential battery of Dioner behind the plate and Duaner firing from the mound? I thought, once I arrived there. But when I took a closer look at the web site's top story, thoughts like those, designed to distract myself from the prospect of a very depressing summer at Chavez Ravine, were quickly tossed aside. According to the ESPN report, "sources say" the Johnson for Vasquez for Green, et al, deal may not go down:

"A proposed three-team mega-trade that reportedly was on the road to getting done Thursday night hit the skids.

A baseball source told ESPN that several obstacles stand in the way of a trade involving the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Dodgers, and that the deal rapidly exceeding the complexity of last year's failed Alex Rodriguez-to-Boston trade might never happen at all.

Earlier reports indicated that the teams were closing in on a trade that would send Johnson to the Yankees, Javier Vazquez and prospects Eric Duncan and Dioner Navarro to Los Angeles, and Shawn Green and pitchers Brad Penny and Yhency Brazoban to Arizona.

The trade was proposed before
Adrian Beltre agreed to a $64 million, five-year deal with the Mariners on Thursday. By failing to re-sign Beltre, the Dodgers may rethink their role in the trade,'s Jayson Stark reported.

Other issues that threatened to derail the trade include the waiving of Green's no-trade clause. A source close to Green told that the Dodgers outfielder is happy living in Southern California, where he grew up, and has expressed no desire to leave Los Angeles.

How much money the Diamondbacks would receive from the Yankees is also a point of contention. Sources told Stark that moving Duncan and Navarro would preclude the Yankees from sending money to Arizona.

Another obstacle that reportedly would derail the trade is Vazquez's salary; he is due $34.5 million over the next three seasons and Los Angeles apparently wants help from the Yankees footing the bill.

There was no confirmation from any of the teams that a deal has been proposed. Johnson's agent, Barry Meister, declined comment when reached by

'We're still in conversations with a lot of different clubs about a lot of different possibilities,' Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta said earlier Thursday. 'We have talked about some three-way deals and some four-way deals. I don't know if it's going to happen or not,' he said."

Oh, so the trade was proposed BEFORE the Beltre signing. And now that the purse strings seem to be unraveling, none of the three teams would comment on a story that, just hours before, they were commenting on like crazy, as if Green and Penny and Brazoban had already picked out the cactus pattern wallpaper lining for their lockers.

I hope this trade folds, and folds quick. A couple of hours ago, when it looked like an inevitability, I was busy trying to reassure myself that DePodesta couldn't possibly propose and/or accept such a lopsided gobsmack like this one unless he had, as Tracy intimated, something REALLY big in the wings just waiting to be unveiled and act as salve for the wounded hearts of Dodger fans the world over.

But after the blink-blink-he's gone theatrics of the Beltre and Boras show, and the Hudson Deal That Was But Never Really Was, I found myself beginning to lose faith in DePodesta's ability to pull the trigger on the really big deals that might bolster unqualified confidence in fans (forget trying to please professional cynics like Bill Plaschke and T.J. Simers at the Los Angeles Times, whose appetite for salt to rub in the wounds of Dodger fans makes them seem even more like blind cattle gathering at the lick than they already would).

Now there seems to be a glimmer of hope that the total dismantling of 2004's Little Blue Engine That Could might not be as complete as we all thought a mere two hours ago, or at the very least that DePodesta does have a head on his shoulders and wouldn't accept these kinds of terms even if there was a Beltran or a Delgado coiled and waiting to spring out of the box.

I mean, I had come to terms with the loss of Penny-- a very good pitcher who, thanks to that little nerve problem, never got a chance to settle into my baseball solar system-- and even Green, another highly paid star entering a contract year whose performance over the past two years made him seem far more replaceable than Beltre.

But the thought of having to gut out being pitched to by the startlingly good, potentially great Yhency Brazoban in several series over the course of the season was just too much to bear. The cries of agony over the loss of Guillermo Mota had barely begun to still, for God's sake, and now they're gonna ship Brazoban to a division rival? Say it ain't so, DePo, say it ain't so. I'm going to bed now, and I sincerely hope that when the sun rises the darkening gray of this Thursday will have been replaced by a good Friday draped in a much more pleasant shade of blue.


Back to film school this weekend on Turner Classic Movies. There are quite a few treats, some rare, some not-so-rare, but all worth catching and all much more fun than last-minute Christmas shopping (all times listed are Pacific Standard Time):

Friday, Dec. 17

Bringing Up Baby (1938) Go "all gay" with Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and a leopard named Baby in Howard Hawks' manic (and romantic) comedy of sexual sublimation. Not the first screwball comedy made during Hollywood's heyday, but perhaps the juiciest and most revelatory. (6:00pm)

Saturday, Dec. 18

Ice Station Zebra (1968) Positioned right alongside TCM's Scorsese documentary and the documentary Howard Hughes: His Women and His Movies, though admittedly as a sidebar oddity, this popular Cold War submarine thriller from director John Sturges is part of the channel's prep work for Scorsese's upcoming Hughes biopic The Aviator-- it was purportedly Hughes' favorite movie, one he saw perhaps hundreds of times. (Letterboxed; 12:45 am)

The Big Country (1958) Feuding families vie for water rights in the old West in William Wyler's panoramic Western epic. Never one to hold a critical candle to the likes of The Searchers or Rio Bravo, this is a grand entertainment nonetheless. (Letterboxed; 7:00am)

Monkey Business (1952) More Cary Grant screwball antics courtesy of director Howard Hawks. Here, Grant and wife Ginger Rogers regress to childhood as the result of a botched search for the fountain of youth. Marilyn Monroe has a supporting role. (7:15pm)

Clash by Night (1952) An embittered woman seeks escape in marriage, only to fall for her husband's best friend (happened to my wife just last weekend-- kidding!) in Fritz Lang's delirious drama. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan and, again, Marilyn Monroe. (9:00pm)

(TCM also screens Some Like It Hot, preceding Monkey Business, at 5:00pm, and ends their mini-Monroe fest with her last film, The Misfits, following Clash by Night at 11:00pm.)

Sunday, Dec 19

A terrific Buster Keaton triple feature headlines TCM's Sunday Night Silent Movie program, beginning with The Cameraman (1928) at 9:00pm, followed by a short documentary Buster Keaton: So Funny It Hurt! at 10:15pm, then College (1927) at 11:00pm and ending with the brilliant Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) at 12:15am. These all recently appeared in a Buster Keaton DVD set, but this is a good opportunity to catch them without laying down the $70 it costs to put them on your shelf.

This has been a very hectic and harried week for me-- very typical pre-Christmas stuff in many ways, but also full of new and constant challenges that pop up in my path on a seemingly hour-by-hour basis. I am preparing some new writing, but with things the way they have been it may be Saturday before any of it actually appears on the blog. I have not given up-- this thing is barely three weeks old, for Hecuba's sake-- and I'm enjoying the challenges and rewards writing in this new format. Thank you to everyone who has stopped by to visit and to read. I hope you will also get used to dropping a line or two in the comments section for the articles, should you be moved to do so.

Whoops-- something else just came across the board: Adrian Beltre just signed with the Seattle Mariners. Looks like I'll have to keep writing about the Dodgers after all, Jennifer (and take off that Padres gear when you log on here, sister...)

More to come!

Saturday, December 11, 2004


The guy on the left doesn't like Barry Bonds either...

I've just finished watching the full-length, uninterrupted Jeff Kent press conference (you can watch it too at, and I think I'm ready to say something that, as a Dodger fan and a Giants nonappreciator, I never thought I'd ever say to our new (Second baseman? Third baseman? First baseman?): "Welcome to Chavez Ravine. I never liked you-- Is it the mustache? The smug attitude? The fact that you were a Giant?-- but now that the deal is done, I'm glad you're here." I might also add something along the lines of, "Now, please just hand over the keys to the motorcycle to Mr. DePodesta, keep your eyes on the scoreboard when you're at your position so you never forget how many outs are left, and let's have about 110 RBI per year during your two-year contract, okay?" Kent may well be the jerk that I, and many others who don't know him, have always supposed him to be, but as long as he keeps his mouth shut and his bat hot, and as long as he manages to coexist with Milton Bradley as a teammate in a common cause and not as one half of an ongoing Dodger Dugout Deathmatch, I look forward to seeing what he can bring to the field in 2005.

That press conference was, in my humble opinion, the real thing. It's rare to see a multimilionaire athlete approaching the end of his career react with such naked emotion-- aren't these guys supposed to be hopelessly jaded and untouchable? As a kid, he followed the Dodgers with his dad enthusiastically. And during what might be the peak years of his career, he shared a league with them and played them with genuine fire. When he spoke of both of these facts, Kent was barely able to maintain his composure. And unless you're a professional smart-ass like T.J. Simers, you may share my suspicion that this display of emotion might be evidence that the man is where he wants to be, which might translate well on Opening Day, April 5, 2005, at (whaddaya know?) SBC Park. (One fantasy scenario I can't wait to see play out is Bonds trying to beat out a throw to second, flashing kleats on his old dugout nemesis who's now wearing the hated Blue).

Of course, Kent's presence raises questions about the fate of Alex Cora, as well as DePodesta's commitment to landing Adrian Beltre. It's obvious that while Cora might be an even more natural and effective defender at second base, his numbers on offense cannot compare, and if Beltre stays it's likely that Cora will be relegated to spot starts as a replacement or to fit in with specific matchups of the kind that Jim Tracy loves to (micro)manage. But if Beltre somehow slips out of DePodesta's net, Kent provides options at third (with, presumably, Cora at second and Choi at first, or perhaps Cora, or another piece of the puzzle to be revealed later, working third), and could even stand at first with confidence, should Choi not pan out offensively. Obviously, if Beltre re-signs, the prospect of Kent playing first and Cora retaining second base, all the better to preserve those spectacular DPs in concert with Izturis, is tantalizing too, especially to a Dodger pitching staff who already knows how golden Cora's glove is. And if Beltre doesn't, Kent becomes only an adequate replacement for his pop in the lineup, unless DePodesta then turns around and uses the money he saves on Beltre to acquire another bat that would turn a lineup as good as 2004's into one that is markedly better.

The Kent deal is notable also in that it was, in this age of relentless speculation and punditry, a complete surprise to everyone feverishly following the hot stove league. I like what that says about DePodesta's ability to fashion acquistions and packages without drawing unnecessary attention (did anyone see Brad Penny coming?) and his willingness to pull the trigger on potentially alienating deals (do I really need to mention Paul LoDuca?). And that he got Kent for two years and $8.5 million is fairly remarkable. As one post on Jon Weisman's Dodger Thoughts blog noted, this is the only major free-agent acquistion of this year's offseason that hasn't been instantly and universally decried as ridiculously inflated.

If DePodesta does decide that Beltre is too expensive, it may have as much to do with an educated suspicion (one that I don't necesarily share) that his 2004 performance was a contract-year fluke as it does with payroll, and that Beltre, once signed and fat (it's a metaphor, dammit) and happy, might lose his focus or somehow otherwise fail to build upon the success he enjoyed last year. I only hope that DePodesta can find a way to sign him for a less outrageous sum than the ceiling might allow. Imagine, Dodger fan, getting to see how a lineup featuring Izturis, Werth, Beltre, Kent, Green and Bradley might fare in a National League West that will feature Colorado in flatline mode; San Diego with bolstered pitching (Woody Williams, along with Jake Peavy and Dodger killer Adam Eaton); Arizona hoping that Troy Glaus isn't 2005's answer to Richie Sexson and that Russ Ortiz will more resemble his Giant version than the mediocrity he was as a Brave; and San Francisco counting on their increasingly geriatric lineup to be snappy enough to get them all the way to Armando Benitez.

Yes, it gave me shivers when I first heard the news, but if the Kent acquisition is the first piece in a puzzle DePodesta will be craftily assembling this winter, then I'm going to be genuinely excited to see him slowly reveal those pieces. You don't have to like Jeff Kent to know that he could be very good for this team. Besides, anybody who has that much animosity for Barry Bonds can't be all bad, now, can he?

P.S. I'd also like to express a word of thanks to the Anaheim Angels for acquiring Steve Finley. After that grand slam at Chavez Ravine that sealed the division title on October 2, 2004, my heart might have always had a place for Finley as a Dodger. But he was asking too much for too long, and DePodesta was right to pass Finley along. He's a terrific player, and he'll be great for the Angels. And he's still in Southern California, so seeing him play won't be a difficult proposition. But I think more than anything I'm just grateful that he's the hell out of the National League West. Finley was always one of those players that I dreaded seeing come to the plate, especially in clutch situations (just ask your average Giant fan why), and he was dangling in front of Arizona, San Diego and San Francisco for a while there. So now Dodger fans can appreciate the old guy's talents from a safe distance and wish him well... that is, until the Dodgers-Angels 2005 World Series...

Wednesday, December 08, 2004


One of the negatives in being a latecomer to films that end up getting talked about or written about in any meaningful way is, the weeks or months of reviews and critical analysis and general consensus have a way, no matter how rigorously their influence is avoided, of seeping into and affecting a viewer’s preconceptions. I came to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind quite late, long after all the rapturous reviews had piled up, and found it far less emotionally effective than expected, and perhaps just a shade too clever as well. And seen a slight distance from the pre-election hubbub over its “politics,” Team America: World Police looked to these eyes like a gigantic missed opportunity, an ostensible satire that too eagerly replaced a coherent point of view with frustrating juvenilia at almost every turn, potential pitfalls the South Park movie craftily avoided (more, but not much more, on Team America in my next post).

I’m not sure what the general level of expectation was in the critical community, or in the Empire magazine British fan-boy base, when Mike Hodges’ latest crime noir I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead was released (in America this past summer, and in England months earlier). But after the unexpected American art-house success of Hodges’ Croupier (which flopped in Britain initially, until it was re-released there in the wake of its stateside reception), Paramount Classics was certainly less than shy in reminding potential ticket-buyers of the connection between the earlier film and Hodges’ most recent work, and even more aptly the fact that he directed Michael Caine in the seminally nasty Get Carter way back in 1970. They also found plenty of enthusiastic blurbs with which to adorn the DVD box—Ebert and Roeper seem duly impressed.

Personally, however, the expectation level was quite high—I had quite liked Croupier, but was more interested to see what Hodges would do in 2003 with a film that was more directly related thematically to the 1970 film. Unfortunately, the film played in Los Angeles only briefly, and as I have alluded in previous posts, it is much more difficult for me to get out to the theater to see everything I’m interested in these days-- if a film doesn’t get much more than a couple of weeks in movie houses, or if it ends up limited to a brief west-side run, the likelihood I’ll get a chance to see it, however high my level of anticipation, is quite slim. So, like many others will who may or may not know of the new film’s lineage, I finally caught up with the picture on DVD, the format that has proven to be a boon for filmgoers like me who find themselves perpetually behind the cinematic curve, release schedule-wise.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead turns out to feel less “thematically related” to Get Carter than simply a somewhat narcotized remake of it. The new film ups the ante on a particular aspect of personalized violence, but, no matter how much Hodges and his company of actors (including Owen, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Charlotte Rampling and Malcolm McDowell) take advantage of the even more permissive standards of film content that have resulted from the passage of 34 years, Get Carter remains the nastier film (by far) and the more interesting one (by far) as well. Rhys-Davies, a small-time drug dealer, is raped at the hands of McDowell on behalf of a shadowy crime boss as payback for some unknown transgression, and the humiliation of the assault proves too much for the young thug, who promptly stumbles home, soaks in a bathtub for 12 hours, then slashes his own throat and bleeds to death. News of his brother’s death brings Owen, a ex-thug of some reputation who has spent the past year as a logger living out of a beat-up van, out of his woodsy exile. Owen returns, with considerable hesitance, to the mean streets of London to investigate his brother’s death and, of course, avenge him. Upon arrival, he connects up with entrepreneurial ex-girlfriend Rampling, who may or may not know something about what’s happened, and discovers both the fact of the suicide (as opposed to a more direct murder) and evidence of the rape, which, somewhat incredibly, went unnoticed during the initial coroner’s inquest.

The rape is the catalyst of the movie’s important events, of course, and when Owen expresses disbelief to a second coroner that his brother would have engaged in homosexual activity, the coroner informs him that there was ejaculate found in his underwear and that in cases of rape even a heterosexual man may involuntarily become erect and have an orgasm mid-assault. The clinical delivery of the information, and Owen’s rather passive resistance to, and then acceptance of it, hints that the movie might eventually, in its own unhurried time, attempt an investigation of the kind of masculine ideology that posits male-on-male rape as the most devastating violation imaginable. But despite its clunky writing (the coroner’s information is delivered to the audience in the most obviously expository way and left cold on the slab) the scene ends up the high-water mark of a movie that, faced with the difficult task of challenging the assumptions of a class of underworld gangster (and, by extension, all men who hold similar fears of violation), takes the road of least returns; Hodges remains frustratingly on the surface, accepting those fears at face value, staying comfortable with the notion that homosexual rape might even be worse than murder and would certainly rate a similar sense of outrage and need for vengeance.

The movie’s disinterest in anything but dressing up and muddying the chronology of the most perfunctory elements of its Carter-ish revenge plot ultimately reinforces this perception; it’s almost as if the pall of depression experienced by Rhys-Meyers, and then Owen, settles over the entire film, reflected (barely) in the dazzlingly dark streets and funereal pace at which the film’s simultaneously elemental and obliquely dramatized plot strands unfold. Hodges misses a chance to dig deep into a risky and challenging subject. I was left feeling as somnolent as Owen's lead character, fuzzy and disoriented as the movie sputtered to a halt at the very point it started. The writer-director would have been well advised to transplant some of the caustic zest of the Warren Zevon song from which he filches his film's title, but alas, the movie is only sleepy.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004


Here it is, raining beautiful rain in Los Angeles on November 27, 2004, two days after Thanksgiving (I can’t wait for the 11:00 news and all the breathless and panicked “STORMWATCH 2004” reports). The unseasonably hot fall that we’ve come to expect in this city never really materialized this year—it has actually felt like autumn and, dare I say, winter around here lately. And as I sit this afternoon enjoying the sound of the rainfall and feeling the chill in the air with my family about me, I’m reminded of one of my favorite essays about the rain. It was written by Lauren Kessler, director of the literary nonfiction program at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication and appeared in the Winter 2001 issue of Oregon Quarterly, the university alumni magazine. Since it so beautifully encapsulates my experience with the weather in Eugene, and my fondness for the wet stuff—I long for it these days--I felt like sharing it whole cloth rather than taking the time to fumble about with my own less eloquent thoughts. So if you've an appreciation for the glories of skies that seem low enough to touch and "the peaceful tedium of long, wet days that (drive) you not just inside the house but inside yourself," please hop right on over to her site and experience for yourself Lauren Kessler’s pretty much perfect “I Love the Rain.”

(Thanks to Ms. Kessler for being very generous about my belated attempt to secure permission for use of this essay. She suggested that she would be more comfortable with a link to the site, but since it had already been published here that she was fine with it remaining on the blog. However, I believe in respecting the initial wishes of the author, and I apologize for my zeal in getting her words out there in my own way. By directing you, dear Reader, to her site I hope, and I'm sure she does too, you may find other things to read and think about that are as compelling to you as "I Love the Rain" is to me.)

Saturday, November 27, 2004


We’ve heard for a couple months now from Dodger fans who didn’t understand why Paul DePodesta hadn’t already signed Jim Tracy. Why would Depo let Tracy dangle, after assuring him that he would return as the Dodgers manager? Was Tracy asking too much money? Too much time? Did DePodesta have another prospect in mind?

So now that Tracy’s return has been made official by the Dodgers’ announcement Wednesday of a two-year deal (terms not disclosed), it’s time for the Tracy haters to start hatin’ again. My friend Steve called me, distraught, as soon as he heard about the deal, and he threatened to either boycott the Dodgers in 2005 (it’ll never happen) or mutilate himself in a very personal way (might happen) because of this disastrous news.

But just how is this bad news for the Dodgers or Dodger fans? Admittedly, Tracy’s managerial style is not exactly aggressive and in-your-face, and he’s occasionally too reticent when it comes time to insert or remove pitchers, reticence that plays like indecisiveness and that sometimes come back to haunt him. But he’s well-liked by the players and coaches, over four seasons he’s had four winning seasons, and he’s the first manager to win a Dodger postseason game since the heyday of Tommy Lasorda in 1988. Depo’s not exactly betting the house by bringing Tracy back. The best-case scenario sees Tracy leading the team, hopefully after a couple of tasty free-agent acquisitions to fill holes on the mound and behind the plate, to another division championship—the Giants look poised to help make that happen again in 2005—creating bounty for the team and the fans and writing an insurance policy for his job when 2006 winds to a close. At worst, Tracy completely flops in 2005 and by the All-Star break takes a Jimy Williams-type dive, the Dodgers bring in another manager and eat a contract that turns out to be judiciously short and relatively calorie-free.

The odds are strong that the reality of 2005 will resemble the former rather than the latter. But hey, if Tracy does fold up like a rickety upper-deck chair, at least Tracy haters will be able to say “I told you so,” right? Congratulations. Unfortunately, if that happens it’ll probably mean the team won’t exactly be in the catbird seat, league standings-wise. And I would hope that even if you’re a Dodger fan who doesn’t like Tracy, you’d be able to find it in your heart to at least wish him well in between flaming curses as the season gets underway. Take one for the team, Steve—Tracy’s the boss for the next two years. Everything that goes wrong will not be his fault; nor will he reasonably be able to take credit for everything that very well could go right. Tracy wouldn’t expect that credit, though I suspect he’d pony up for the blame like any honorable chief would. So how is Tracy returning to a job at which he’s had more success than anyone in 16 years anything, at this point, but good news?

Wednesday, November 24, 2004


Forgive me, but I really don't care what Oliver Stone has to say on the subject of Alexander the Great, and I'm not interested in watching Nicolas Cage unearth any kind of National Treasure. Yet I'm inordinately excited to see The Spongebob Squarepants Movie. Such is my reality. With few dollars to spend on theatrical films these days, and even fewer opportunities to make it out of the house even if I was stinking rich, I've got to be choosy. And it says a lot about the state of American film (at least to me) that I'm willing to pass over work by an Oscar-winning director (who, I admit, has never made films, other than Salvador and Nixon, that I admired) or starring an Oscar-winning actor who at one time, before he got the Bruckheimer Jones, was considered one of the best and most original of his generation... in favor of a big screen adaptation of a TV cartoon about a chatty, fast-food addicted loofa.

There are plenty of titles in 2004 that I missed on the big screen that I'm hoping to catch up to on DVD, such as I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (still on schedule for tonight, after my oldest finishes her screening of The Secret of NIMH and heads to bed), Control Room, Gozu, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Hunting of the President, Ju-On, The Story of the Weeping Camel, The Ramones: End of the Century and, it seems, Team America: World Police, Tarnation, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession and Beat Takeshi's Dolls.

As for what lies ahead, there seems to be less of interest coming to a theater near me than usual this holiday season, which is a development that, come to think of it, meshes rather well with my newly restricted multiplex diet. But the next month or so is not entirely without its promises...

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU I have (unreasonably?) high hopes for the new Wes Anderson film based on its refreshingly dry trailer and because I'd see just about anything that features Bill Murray front and center (well, not Garfield: The Movie).

BRIGHT FUTURE New ways to get thoroughly unnerved, courtesy of Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure). It's something to do with a two guys and a jellyfish, and the less I know about it going in the better.

SIDEWAYS Election is one of the best films of the '90s. Can Alexander Payne's new film come close to it? Paul Giamatti and Sandra Oh are two good reasons to seek out stadium seating anyway, but Virginia Madsen's getting the kind of attention that might signal a full-on career revival.

THE AVIATOR Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow? I'm there!

BAD EDUCATION This is the kind of complex filmmaking for adults that seems increasingly rare, but seems second nature for Pedro Almodovar. If he continues the streak started by Live Flesh and extended by All About My Mother and Talk to Her, Almodovar may be ready to move into the master class.

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS Superstar-in-waiting Ziyi Zhang headlines the second martial arts epic of the year from Zhang Yimou (she had a much smaller role in the director's Hero, made in 2002 but only released here this past August). She could be the Ginger Rogers of a new wave of fight-choreography-as-dance masterpieces.

OCEAN'S TWELVE Redundant? Perhaps. Unnecessary? Almost guaranteed. Steven Soderbergh could get the worst reviews of his career for this sequel to his own spiky remake of the Rat Pack original, and I'd still go see it before I went anywhere near Christmas with the Kranks.

MILLION DOLLAR BABY David Poland at has got me really excited about this one. So soon after Mystic River, to hear such effusive advance praise for another Clint Eastwood movie is cause for elevated expectations, indeed.

NOTRE MUSIQUE New Godard. If it plays in Los Angeles longer than a week, I've got a shot.

I'm also intrigued by Closer, Ray, Kinsey, Enduring Love, A Very Long Engagement, I Am David, The Assassination of Richard Nixon and In Good Company, but if I have to choose (and I will have to choose), these titles definitely comprise the second tier.

So, here we go, enthusiasm in check, into the first Christmas season in three years with no astonishments from Peter Jackson to look forward to-- Hey, wait! The extended version (50 added minutes) of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King comes to DVD on December 14. By God, all of the sudden I am pretty excited for the holiday movie season!


It's late on a school night, the work week is about to come to a pleasant and early finish, and I've just wrapped up a session with a counterful of filthy pots, pans, plates and sippy cups. Edgar G. Ulmer's Bluebeard, starring John Carradine as a homicidal Parisian puppeteer, kept me entertained amongst the soap suds courtesy of my portable DVD player-- I had rented Mike Hodges' I'll Sleep When I'm Dead as my feature of choice for tonight's edition of Dirty Dishes Cinema, but a quick glance at the damage told me it wasn't quite a 108-minute job (the running time of this potentially nasty British noir, which I will save for Thanksgiving Eve), and that Ulmer's economical 70-minute thriller was more suited to the scale of tonight's undertaking. I dried the last spoon just as "Fin" came up over a shot of mockup of a bridge over the Seine, on which floated (SPOILER ALERT!!!) Carradine's lifeless body, chuckled at my ability these days to so accurately size up just how many crusty cereal bowls and murky drink glasses it takes to get through a feature film, and unconsciously started mulling over all the things I should be thankful for in the days approaching the holiday and, of course, beyond. It's not, as it turns out, a short list, but I'll give it a shot before the swirling sands of sleep form a towering dune from under which I won't escape until my daughter comes calling at the crack of dawn...

When I raise a glass on Thanksgiving, these are some of the things I'll be thankful for:

My wife Patty, who has gone through so much for our little family in the last seven years, and who continues to inspire me with her generosity, her beauty, her humor, her perceptiveness, her intelligence and her capacity for love. The only thing she truly lacks is the confidence and the ability to understand even a fraction of how wonderful she really is. She'll think this is weird, but everything she's given me, and the richness with which she's infused my life, always makes me think of a certain line from an old ZZTop song...

My gorgeous daughter Emma, who I love beyond my capacity to understand, who sings Christmas hymns and country tunes with abandon and enthusiasm, and who surprises me every day as she insists on leaving toddlerdom a little further behind on her journey to become, as Collodi (or Walt Disney) might have put it, a real little girl...

My gorgeous daughter Nonie, who I love beyond my capacity to understand, who never lets Emma's shadow get too dark and wide, who is a more relentless little diaper-laden jukebox than even her big sister, who never denies me when I need to hear her laugh, and who recently sat with me through The Incredibles and made yet another dream come true for her old dad...

My son Charlie, who never knew us beyond the voices he could hear from within the womb, and who I believe lives on in the souls of his sisters...

My parents, who were much smarter and full of love than I ever gave them credit for when I was a kid...

Patty's parents, who put the lie to every in-law joke ever told...

My best friend Bruce, who knows me better than anyone save my wife; the endurance of our friendship is something I'm frankly in awe of, and something which I strive never to take for granted...

Marlen, Letty, Nan, Trini, Miriam, Nancy and Juana, the women who take such good care of our daughters every day while Patty and I type and edit and type and edit and type...

People I've worked with over the past 17 years who started out as colleagues and became good friends-- Andy, Brian, Liz, Jennifer, Stephanie, Leslie, Blayne, Rob, Steve, James and Beverly...

This blog, which affords me the chance to, as my friend Katie so aptly put it recently, face up to the terror of writing, get the writing into some shape and form, allow it to be read and hopefully enjoyed, and spark my creativity and stamina as well...

Turner Classic Movies, a new semester of film school every month...

The privilege of hearing Vin Scully at work...

The appearance of both California Split and Charley Varrick on DVD before the end of this year...

Frank Zappa's "Montana" and the You Are What You Is album...

The increasingly rare opportunity to go fishing...

The double cheeseburger at Pie 'n' Burger on California Street in Pasadena...

The fact that Peter Jackson, Joe Johnston, Robert Altman, Guillermo Del Toro, Pedro Almodovar and Walter Hill make movies...

Seeing Cesar Izturis and Alex Cora make a "routine" double play look like it was choreographed by Fred Astaire...

My memories of the Alger Theater and the Circle JM Drive-In Theater in the Lakeview, Oregon of my youth...

Cary Grant in anything, but particularly Notorious...

Sophia Loren, Michelle Yeoh, Carole Lombard, Claudia Cardinale, Maggie Cheung and Shelley Duvall in anything, but particularly More Than a Miracle, Supercop, Nothing Sacred, Once Upon a Time in the West, Irma Vep and Popeye...

Jon Weisman's Dodger Thoughts blog...

Steely Dan's "Don't Take Me Alive" and the Everything Must Go album...

Rain (particularly Oregon rain... more on that in an upcoming post)...

The sublime final shot of Monsters, Inc., and also the whole ending of The Station Agent, perhaps the most mysteriously "right" closing of a movie I've seen in years...

That drive-in movie theaters are not dead yet...

Randy Johnson and Eric Gagne on the mound, as well as my sense of empathy for the poor bastards who have to try to hit what they so masterfully send to the plate...

Pauline Kael, who, more than any film professor, lit the light for me...

David Edelstein, Manohla Dargis, A.O. Scott, Chuck Stephens, Stephanie Zacharek, Charles Taylor and Matt Zoller Seitz, film critics who keeping the flame burning against increasingly steep cultural odds...

Steve Finley's walk-off grand slam, October 2, 2004...

Darin Morgan, Clyde Bruckman, Jose Chung, The Lone Gunmen, Bill Macy and the "Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me" episode from the second season of Millennium (go ahead, connect the dots-- it's fun!)...

Multnomah Falls, just outside Portland, Oregon...

...and the fact that I can so easily smuggle 94% fat-free Orville Redenbacher Smart Pop and diet soda into just about any local movie theater and thus successfully avoid laying down twice the price of a (discount ticket) on relatively crappy movie snacks.

I often feel I don't deserve a life this good, but I'm grateful for the bounty anyway, as well as the desire to continue to make it as good as I can for my beautiful family and faithful friends.

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all...

Friday, November 19, 2004


Turner Classic Movies has, as usual, plenty of good stuff to offer this weekend. A few of the titles I'll be looking for are:

Strange Illusion (1945) A visit to an insane asylum courtesy of Poverty Row director Edgar G. Ulmer. Saturday, 11/20, 5:00am PST

Northwest Passage (1940) The true story of Roger's Rangers and their fight to open up new frontiers for Colonial America. Features Spencer Tracy, Walter Brennan and Robert Young. Directed by King Vidor. 11/20 8:30am PST

Lawman (1970) By-the-book sheriff Burt Lancaster takes on corrupt town boss Lee J. Cobb in this western, one of the only movies directed by Michael Winner (Death Wish) I can think of that could be classified as good. Robert Ryan is terrific here too. 11/21 1:30am PST

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) Unusual entry for Alfred Hitchcock into the realm of screwball comedy is a fantastic showcase for the luminous Carole Lombard. Robert Montgomery co-stars as the other half of a bickering couple who discover they were never legally married. Don't miss this. 11/21 3:15am PST

Thursday, November 18, 2004


The dank and derivative horror thriller Saw opens on the photographing of a grotesque murder scene, each shutter click tricked out with discordant screeches lifted directly from the soundtrack of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which also began with extreme close-ups of rotted, mangled flesh illuminated by a sudden flash and those same agonized shutter screeches. Any modern horror film that jumps out of the gate with this kind of borderline plagiarism had better have something else up its sleeve, and that something turns out to be its titillating high concept: two men (Cary Elwes and screenwriter Leigh Whannell) wake up chained at the ankles to the walls of a shit-smeared bathroom located they know not where; one is told he must murder the other in six hours time, or else the deranged serial killer responsible for their imprisonment will execute his wife and daughter. As an ostensible means to escape, both are supplied with flimsy handsaws inadequate to cut through their shackles, but more than sufficient to cut through flesh and bone…

Whannell and director James Wan structure the movie as an over-elaborate A.D.D.-addled series of flashbacks, interwoven with that nasty men’s room scenario, which detail the killer’s previous Se7en-esque attempts to teach his victims lessons in appreciating life through wildly improbable Rube Goldberg murder methodology. I say over-elaborate because Wan and Whannell’s imaginations as storytellers and technique as filmmakers never seem quite nimble enough to imbue the film with a sufficient subcurrent of dread and perversely moralistic fury to carry it beyond the insider references and tonal plagiarism that prove to be its meat and gristle. Inevitably, Saw ends up collapsing under the weight of its own narrative contraptions.

There is, however, another link to the Tobe Hooper film, a more indirect and most likely unintentional one, and it ends up being the unexpected source of the only real power the movie possesses.

In the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (or as I used to refer to it, oddly enough, Saw), poor Marilyn Burns spent the last 30 minutes or so of the movie in a state of unrelieved terror at the hands of Leatherface and his family that seemed uncomfortably real, horrifically pure. Few, then, were surprised when stories about the making of the film, detailed in the commentary tracks and bonus material on the movie’s DVD release, revealed that much of Burns’ hysteria was indeed the real thing. Hooper’s methods in staging much of the action surrounding Burns’ torment at the hands of Leatherface and family were said to be less than sensitive. Those methods, along with the Texas heat, no budget to allow for actor comfort, the grisly subject matter, and several actual injuries to the actress, are said to be reasons why Burns holds few fond memories of the making of the movie, and also perhaps partially why hers is one of the most vivid portrayals of pure fear in all of horror cinema.

As a junkie who ends up at the center of one of the killer’s puzzle traps, Shawnee Smith’s face spends nearly a third of her time on screen masked by a heavy metal framework that has been designed to rip her jaw off. She must retrieve the key to unlock the mechanism without setting its nasty purpose in motion, a key that has been embedded in the abdominal cavity of a man lying motionless next to her, who turns out to be not quite dead. Now, as frightful and potentially fatal situations go, this one is a lot more convoluted and cumbersome than the relatively elemental threat of dismemberment by chain saw, and Wan’s hyperactive camerawork during the sequence in which Smith tries to free herself does a lot to undermine the possibility of protracted audience agony inherent in the setup. But if you’ve seen the one-sheet for Saw, you’ve seen a distillation of the core of what’s effective about the scene, a core that Wan’s jittery camera often won’t let us settle on but can’t ultimately dilute. That deadly headgear allows us to see Smith’s eyes, and she uses them to project the most palpable straight-to-the-spinal-column sense of naked fear since those infamous close-ups of Marilyn Burns’ bloodshot, tear-soaked peepers darting about, looking to find escape where there is none, from 30 years ago. Smith’s eyes visible amongst the gears and rods surrounding her skull and face, alive with electric jolts of terror, is the image used in the movie’s advertising, an image promising a level of intensity that her performance delivers but, alas, the movie in toto does not.

What really raises Smith’s brief appearance (she’s in the film for not much more than five minutes, which prompted David Edelstein, film critic for the online magazine Slate, to describe her as “criminally underused”) to another level, though, is what she does as she recalls her night of terror later in a police station. She is the only one who has managed to survive a torturous scenario laid out by the Jigsaw Killer, and the film cuts back and forth between her telling of the horrific event and the event itself. Many an actor, eager to grab attention at any opportunity, especially given such short screen time, might extend the character’s hysteria from the depths of the dungeon straight into the interrogation room. But Shawnee Smith risks accusations of underplaying (a rare-enough phenomenon in any film, but especially so in a hyperactive horror thriller) to suggest post-traumatic shock through trembling quiet, denying us the chance, with a down-turned face, to look into those eyes again and see what ripples of the horror that we saw earlier might remain. This simple, inconspicuous choice, the contrast between the wide eyes that witness madness and the closed ones that retreat away from it, and consequently from all comfort, provides an added pulse of identification that Marilyn Burns was never allowed to explore, and it single-handedly makes Saw worth seeing. When Smith delivers the kicker to the scene, a line which somewhat subversively suggests that the killer, by forcing her to commit murder in order to save herself from a gruesome death, has functioned for her as a sort of homicidal psychotherapist, she doesn’t punch it home for showy effect. She infuses the words “He helped me” with equal parts regret, disgust, amazement and confusion, and with enough subtlety that the resonating, dissonant tones from the utterance could easily be lost among the cacophony and moral chaos of the movie that surrounds it. It’s a terrific performance.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004


Film critic Manohla Dargis, late of the LA Weekly and The Los Angeles Times, has written a terrific article about the resurgence of cinephilia in the digital age, and given the eulogies written over the last 10 years on the death of film culture Dargis's conclusions are remarkably optimistic. Check out the article here:

You may have to register (it's free) to access this article and other online content with The New York Times. Although it may not always be the case, this time it's worth the extra 15 seconds.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004


Well, at least the American League got it right. Guerrero spurred the Angels on to a division title and inspired the whole team to step it up a notch to get there. Even though Arte's Angels (hey, there's a catchy new name!) went down to defeat at the hands of America's Team of Destiny (or as I like to think of them, the Cursed Little Bandwagon That Could), Guerrero deserved the honor.

Too bad the writers are too blinded by the spotlight shining on Barry Bonds to come to the same conclusion for the National League.

Yes, Bonds' personal stats were amazing and, in most cases, league-leading. But to this observer, the phrase "Most Valuable Player" implies a value as applied not to one player's ever-increasing glory, but to that player's ability to elevate his team, to demonstrate that that team's fate would have been considerably different had he not been on the roster. If a player is most valuable primarily to himself, then how can he really be the Most Valuable? Certainly you can say that the 2004 Giants, with their mediocre batting order, would have been a lot further away from the postseason than they ended up without Bonds. But the fact is, the Giants still watched the postseason on TV like the rest of us schmoes.

Adrian Beltre, on the other hand, much like Guerrero, spurred his team on with a breakout performance in 2004, contributed mightily to 52 come-from-behind Dodger wins, and was instrumental in keeping them in the National League West lead for all but a couple of weeks or so over the course of the season. (Oh, yeah, and the Dodgers won their division too.)

So the writers award Barry the MVP honor because swings the bat like no one else in the history of the sport and he forces the managers to change their pitching strategy like no single other player ever has. Good! He should be keeping them on their toes, making them squirm. Adjusting to the talents of every batter in the opposing lineup is integral to how managers do their job, and if managers choose to pitch him out it's because they're trying to win a game, not contribute to Barry's highlight reel.

But Beltre's league-leading home runs, his all-around power at the plate and ability to use the entire field, and his prowess as a third baseman (that's offense AND defense-- how many of these writers gush on about how Barry can't or won't run down a ball in left field?) aren't good enough for more than six first-place votes?

Well, Adrian, Randy Johnson pitched a perfect game on the worst team in baseball this year, and he came in second in the Cy Young voting too. That oughta cheer you up a little before you put on the big suit and head up to Mr. McCourt's office with Mr. Boras for your big meeting. Here's hoping you're at third base in Chavez Ravine next year and for a good long while after that. The MVP award can wait.


I realize it's not exactly an obscure object of desire or a movie that's gone wanting for a promotional budget, but don't discount The Incredibles based on its omnipresence in the marketplace or its positioning as a "kids" film. Yes, my two-year-old was thrilled, but so was I. Pixar started strong out of the gate with Toy Story, picked up speed with A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2, and continued their streak with two amazing films-- Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo-- that many reasonably might have assumed would be their peak. But somehow, through not just the groundbreaking technology used to tell the story, but more importantly through the old-fashioned alchemy of surefooted, intelligent cinematic storytelling itself, The Incredibles pushes Pixar to new and unexpected glory. Simply put, it is as good as you've heard-- written and directed by Brad Bird (The Iron Giant), it's Pixar's finest hour. One day (and judging from the clever but uninspired trailer for their upcoming feature Cars, that day could arrive sometime next summer) Pixar is going to deliver a movie that's not an instant classic, a movie that deserves, say, only three stars out of four. By any other measurement of artistic achievement, that's a success. But the way these geniuses craft their particular gems, when that happens it's going to feel to moviegoers a lot like what Dodger fans felt when Eric Gagne finally blew a save. But let's not think about that-- for now savor the opportunity to see one of the best movies of the year on a big screen. The Incredibles-- no hype-- truly is.


Just a little clarification about my first post...

When I reread my description of myself as an "ex and frustrated film critic," I think I made myself sound like I'm a disillusioned career professional in between gigs or something, and I think I came off not just a little presumptuous as well.

I wrote film reviews for the Ashland Daily Tidings from 1983-1986, and though I do have a bachelor of arts degree in Film Studies from the University of Oregon, this three-year freelance newspaper gig is, to date, my only professional experience writing about film.

However, the "frustrated" part is accurate, though I'm hoping my experience with this blog will be a positive creative outlet for the kind of writing I like to do.

Also, I'm a little concerned, because I will probably be focusing mostly on film writing, that the title of the blog may be somewhat deceptive. I hoped the title would invoke the world of film, through the allusion to Leone's wonderful spaghetti western masterpiece, as well as my love for the Dodgers. However, I don't expect that my writing about baseball will be that prolific or particularly insightful, because even though my enthusiasm for the sport is very intense and I like to think of myself as a thinking fan, I'm not entirely confident about my ability to navigate intellectually in that world. And I may never be, if some of the quality and insightfulness of some of the blogging and commentary on the sport I've seen in the past two years are to be my standard.

These may just be rookie blogger jitters, and they may not. So, depending on which way the wind blows, a new title may be coming down the road.

Finally, for anyone who may have been put off by the length of "Pleasures Worthy Of Guilt," don't worry-- I don't have the time to ramble on at that length every time out. That article was written several months ago under different circumstances, but I thought it'd be fun to see it in print somewhere, since those to whom I submitted it seemed to disagree! Most will be far shorter, maybe even just two or three sentences, but hopefully worth both writing and reading, no matter what length.

Monday, November 15, 2004


I was first introduced to the concept of a "guilty pleasure" (one not related to the tribulations of adolescence and/or ruler-happy nuns thwacking out at the slightest transgression, at least) through the auspices of Film Comment magazine back in the late '70s. At that time the magazine ran, as a recurring feature, articles written by various luminaries of film-- directors and actors, usually, with the occasional high-profile writer or cinematographer thrown in for good measure-- who would recount the sodden treasures of their film-going pasts, ones that helped make them the artists they were or in some way retained particular personal meaning for them. Of course the whole point of the series was the revealing by these figures of cinema of their dirty little secrets, their love for films disregarded, ill-regarded, derided or otherwise forgotten by critics, audiences and film historians.

It was here that faithful readers first learned of director John Carpenter's illicit appreciation not of the Howard Hawks of Rio Bravo (keen-eyed viewers of his Assault on Precinct 13 would have already connected those dots), but also the Howard Hawks responsible for films deemed too silly even for all but the most rabid auteurists, films like Land of the Pharoahs and Red Line 7000.

Paul Schrader elaborated on his guilty pleasures-- the films of Bresson, Ozu and Ford. Certainly not the typical Hollywood B-movie or grind house fare usually cited, but instead films that spurred his loosening of the theological constraints of Calvinism and caused him to plumb the depths of guilt and despair left over from his religious upbringing and rechannel it into a highly personal and controversial career as a screenwriter and director.

But in perhaps the single most well-known "Guilty Pleasures" article Film Comment would ever publish, notorious Baltimore resident John Waters, himself responsible for more intermingling of the concepts of "pleasure" and "guilt" than any other director up to that time (August 1983), would throw into stark relief the whole idea of what exactly might constitute the "guilt" in a guilty pleasure. Imagine, if you can, the filmmaker who unleashed Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble feeling guilty about anything. You can't? Okay, for the sake of argument, say that you could. What would you imagine inspiring an old-fashioned bout of metaphysical hand-wringing within the not-so-tortured soul of the man who could gleefully stage a mind-twisting rape scene in which the victim (female) and the perpetrator (male) were played by the same actor (Divine)?

Certainly not the odd horror film or neglected film noir that might routinely pop up on most anyone else's list. No, Waters shocked cinephiles worldwide with his admission that he was secretly a fan of, as he put it, "what is unfortunately known as the 'art film.' " Waters summed up his career as making low-brow films for high-brow theaters but admitted that up till then he had only acknowledged the influence of the trashiest of films on his oeuvre. By the end of the article (subsequently reprinted in his book Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters), the director had braved the ire of those who might accuse his selections of being "purposely perverse" and revealed himself to be an art snob in love with Woody Allen's Interiors, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema and Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom, Ingmar Bergman's Brink of Life, and anything by either Marguerite Duras or Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

But the shock waves of Waters' celluloid confessional would not stop within the pages of Film Comment. A scant four years later would see the release of a PG-rated film by the director, itself recently transformed into an equally family-friendly (not to mention Tony Award-winning) Broadway smash. Perhaps Waters' "guiltiest" admission might have been the desire to, if not become a "mainstream" filmmaker (on his own terms, of course), then at least have access to more of a mainstream audience than would have even glanced at an ad for Desperate Measures, much less paid money to see it.

The 1980s welcomed John Waters' Hairspray, but by the time of that film's unleashing upon an appreciative public, forces like Saturday Night Live and, more importantly, David Letterman had already helped pave the way for a world in which the most shocking act a provocateur like Waters might perpetrate would be sneaking in the back door on something like a PG rating and subverting audience assumptions from within. The idiom of irony as epitomized by Letterman had become, for better or worse, more even pervasive and predominant in American pop culture as the 1990s dawned, and it was beginning to become difficult to find any rogue element of the cinema that hadn't been embraced, accepted or written about in some current of the mainstream (Even the dabbling by mainstream audiences in '70s porn like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, certainly a genuine, if momentary phenomenon, pales in comparison to the generally widespread acceptance of porn star celebrity and sensibility found today on sports talk radio, The Howard Stern Show, Maxim magazine and its multitude of imitators, the E! channel, and just about anywhere else except the Pax Network.)

Now when you see an actor like Jeff Bridges write about his guilty pleasures (as he did in a recent issue of Film Comment), the very title of the series seems a misnomer. Bridges starts off his brief article promisingly with a terrific story related to his inability to shake certain images from John Boorman's notoriously incoherent sci-fi epic Zardoz. But unfortunately the rest of the list ends up being not so much a tool to illuminate a particular sensibility as an opportunity to rattle off anecdotes about movies made by friends (director Matthew Bright's Freeway) or featuring father Lloyd (Rocket Ship X-M), brother Beau (Village of the Giants), or himself (The Yin and Yang of Mr. Go, American Heart).

So what now, now that almost every new season sees the unveiling of a $100 million comic book adaptation and horror films that were once perceived as among the cinema's most vile transgressions (Tobe Hooper's 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) are remade by A-list Hollywood hotshots and gross ten times the original film's budget in the first weekend? What now, when box-office grosses and Ashton Kutcher's love life get more press ink than the movies themselves (unless, of course, that coverage consists mainly of sound bite-riddled junket sessions conducted by star-struck "entertainment reporters")? Are there any films left to feel guilty about?

Well, certainly the answer has to be "yes." But if the denizens of pop culture have become excessively forgiving when it comes to what can be embraced, then it's time to shed the self-aggrandizing aspects of putting together such a list and get back to exposing the hard-scrabble nuggets at the bottom of the cereal box. Any attempt to justify one's personal junkyard dogs of cinema can be agonizing and embarrassing, particularly if you're keen on cultivating some measure of intellectual respectability or credibility among those involved in the conversation. So just forget the attempts to impress your film savvy friends, because they're not likely to be impressed by much at this point anyway.

At this point on the chronometer of pop culture, better to just come clean. Regardless of genre, style or subject matter, the films that make up my "guilty pleasures" list are those that, like Waters', might cause some genuine embarrassment on my part at their revelation during casual conversation; films that would expose me as an irredeemably pretentious fake if I tried to justify them on any level other than their basest appeal (no deconstructionist arguments in defense of The Love Bug, please...); films that I like or enjoy despite the fact that they are, on one level or another, indefensible and/or plainly bad when held to any rational standard of taste or judgment.

Compiling my list, then, signifies a threefold purpose: 1) To identify those films that insist on a certain degree of genuine shame folded in with their appreciation, not just movies of ill repute that are actually wonderful but that everyone else is just too stupid to value; 2) To once again examine the guilt in the guilty pleasure; 3) To engage in a simple act of soul-cleansing admission. But let’s not get too heady here. The bottom line is, like most list-making processes, the very act of attempting to justify personal, irrational responses to largely impersonal cinematic artifacts tends to rather easily devolve into a somewhat indulgent and onanistic enterprise. So what better exercise, then, than this for the harvesting (and perhaps exorcising) of reel after reel of movie guilt?


Robert Altman is, I would say, a director with scant familiarity with guilt. He would score points for flying in the face of logic, demographic evidence and studio interference at just about any point in his long career. But when he cashed in the critical cachet he’d earned with 1990’s The Player, he earned a place on the list of the most purposely perverse directors of all time. While not exactly replicating the artistically dubious incoherence of Quintet, a film which finds little favor even with the most ardent Altman cultist, the director returned to the large scale free-form canvas of Nashvillle, Brewster McCloud and O.C. & Stiggs and used it to create what plays like the most slapdash seat-of-the-pants train wreck of his career—the fashionista wet-dream comedy Pret-a-Porter (Ready to Wear) (1994).

Filmgoers who seemed ready to participate in another big Altman party laced with the same kind of acid insider bite that suffused The Player seemed confused and put off, that is if they decided to attend a screening during the film’s short theatrical run at all (few did). As a card-carrying member of the Altman cult myself, I found myself enchanted by what most found undisciplined and unfocused in Altman’s approach, that is, his enjoyment of the people he shovels in and out of the frame and his tendency to let them play out their improvisatory strings until they teeter just on the brink of making fools of themselves (some, like Danny Aiello in an agonizing and apparently heavily truncated plot line that finds him in drag for no discernible reason, topple right off that brink while the director looks the other way).

To some this streak of indulgence comes off as a sly form of misanthropy. But I think Altman loves his actors, and indeed showcasing the unpredictable impulses of their behavior, too much for this charge to be much more than an convenient albatross hung around the director’s neck by lazy entertainment reporters who like to parrot familiar refrains rather than observe what’s right in front of them. And what’s in front of them in Pret-a-Porter is without doubt a claustrophobic Parisian pile-up, a “satire” of the colossal vanity and gossamer relevance of the fashion world that at times barely seems to have a point of view itself. It’s easily the messiest film of Altman’s shaggy career, dogged perhaps by its director’s indifference to the shadow of folly and the whims of expectations.

But, like Brewster McCloud with its occasional visitations of raven doo-doo upon unsuspecting heads, Pret-a-Porter is carefree enough to risk self-satirization (not to mention a giggle over the sanitary standards of the City of Lights) by introducing the motif of its sophisticated actors continually trodding through dog shit. It’s also a lot more fun than its reputation suggests, although I’ll be damned if I’ve ever been able to convince anyone of it. The bottom line is, any film that finds an opportunity for Sophia Loren to recreate (with a twist) her lingerie-clad seduction of hammy-to-the-end Marcello Mastroianni from Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow could otherwise have completely collapsed on itself and would still get a round of applause for me.

On the subject of the cured meat, the history of theatrical ham has many legendary performances that live on in the memories of those lucky enough to have actually seen them-- Zero Mostel’s Tevye, Ron Leibman’s Roy Cohn, Quentin Tarantino’s Harry Roat-- but largely their grandeur is preserved through first-and-second-and-third-hand accounts by writers striving mightily to perpetuate even a degree of the actor’s overscaled achievements. Ham on film, however, comes packed with preservatives, and for every actor who has appeared on film, there is an actor who has, at one time or another, scaled that Olympian pork roast and lived to regret the nondisintegrating properties of digital film preservation and, of course, the DVD.

I first saw Rod Steiger in No Way to Treat a Lady (1968) on the ABC Sunday Night Movie when I was perhaps only 10 or 11 years old, and I thought it could possibly have been one of the most terrifying movies ever made or that could possibly ever be made. Just the idea of a serial strangler who uses his craft as a stage actor to worm his way into the good graces of his potential victims was enough to stoke my movie-fed nightmares, and I was in awe of Steiger’s ability to warp his image into so many different configurations-- a kindly neighborhood priest, a jolly German electrician, a dowdy transvestite barfly-- all of which go from relatively benign to insinuatingly evil in a corrupt twinkle of the actor’s eye. Then, some 20 years later, I saw the movie again and was somewhat disturbed to find out it was, in fact, a slightly creaky, more-than-slightly black Oedipal comedy, and while Steiger was obviously in on the joke it clearly never occurred to him that modulation in the pursuit of actorly effects was any kind of virtue at all. For this is the Oscar-winning actor, never known for his subtle approach, pounding the pipe organ of his craft with all stops pulled and rattling the rafters at top volume. It wouldn’t be until his cameo role in The January Man, some 21 years later, that he would again come as close to blasting a capillary on-screen as he does in his wild death scene in this picture. Credit director Jack Smight for turning Rod loose on the scenery and letting him graze like the Tasmanian Devil, and credit Rod for gulping down as much at one time as he does, for his Thespic gluttony here is truly remarkable to behold.

But what about a movie so populated with memorably bad acting that, no matter how hard I try, whenever it shows up on cable I simply have to stop what I’m doing and see it through to the besotted, bloody end? And given my inability to resist the rancid pull of The Boys from Brazil (1978), what am I to do now that I own a copy on DVD? Am I cursed to watch this bloated Sir Lew Grade international prestige production again and again until the very indestructible nature of the DVD begins making mockery of my increasing enfeebled body and mind? And what responsibility should Sir Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, James Mason, director Franklin Schaffner shoulder in furthering that enfeeblement? (Actually, this is probably not a question that would have bothered them much even when they were all alive…)

Mason provides the most grounded of the thrills here, mincing about the Amazonian hideaway of Dr. Josef Mengele (Peck!) in a very large scarf and fedora, insinuating many potentially negative things about the doctor’s prospects for continuing his loopy attempts to clone Adolf Hitler. “Your operation has been cancelleddddddd…” he hisses to Mengele at one point. “No!” comes the rather emphatic, curiously stilted reply. “Your…operation… has… been… cancelled!” Peck’s decision to have Mengele sound as if he’s speaking phonetic English instead of simply German-accented English, or of course just plain old German (this is, after all, a Sir Lew Grade international prestige production, where all English seems phonetic and overdubbed) lends a stodginess to his entire presence, a sense of his being uncomfortable in his own skin that adds layer upon layer of weirdness to the performance, but precious little credibility (I blame his shellacked hair and makeup too).

Peck was never what I’d call an actor of tremendous spontaneity, but the way he barks at an old biddy who screams for a doctor after he hurls her apparently traitorous husband to the floor during a ballroom celebration (“I… am… a doctor… you…idiot!”), or the way he woodenly attempts to cajole one of the little Hitler boys of the title into accepting his true ancestry, all while an angry Doberman waits impatiently poised to clamp down on his crotch, makes him seem the most ossified representation of Third Reich evil ever presented on screen.

As for Sir Laurence Olivier, suffice it to say that this is the pinnacle of his many late-career paycheck performances in which he basically let loose his inner imp and let it run wild with an accent (this time, a slightly sibilant Austrian one). His Nazi-hunting Ezra Lieberman will live in glorious testimony to a great actor’s desire to push the inherent silliness of his calling right up to the edge of the abyss and blow raspberries to those already plummeting into the void who had not the discipline to know how far to go or even how to get there (paging Danny Aiello!).

And while I’m at it, one final shout-out to Jeremy Black, the neophyte actor given the task of embodying at least four of the boys from Brazil, the little Hitler clones who would, if Mengele’s darkest machinations were to see light, each repeat the circumstances of the dictator’s youth and similarly flower into the charismatic power of his tyrannical adulthood. The Internet Movie Database assures me that this is the only time young master Black’s talents were ever put to use on film, and connoisseurs of Wretched Performances, Youth Division ought to mourn this particularly cruel turn of cinematic fate and regularly revisit his one lasting piece of acting fury. His may be the most astonishingly witless and thoughtlessly unshepherded performance by a child actor before or since, although Spencer Breslin (of Disney’s The Kid and Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat) seems to be gearing up for a career-long challenge to Black’s status as king of the heap. His nasally congested rejoinder to Mengele’s climactic delineation of the nefarious genetic goings-on into which he is inexorably entwined—“Oh, man you’re weird”—is a hallmark of the involuntarily deadpan, and the only sane response to someone who loves this movie as much as I do.

There are pleasures worthy of guilt in just about any genre you can name, and some, like The Boys from Brazil, are prime examples of strange genre subsets all their own—what other movie so clumsily and without conscience warps historical and political tragedy into the rich narrative manure of pulp science fiction and cheap suspense? (And I’m not merely posing a rhetorical question here—if anyone knows of another steaming pile of this ilk that satisfies and expands the boundaries of the big-budget/international cast/historically derived schlock thriller so thoroughly, please contact me.)

But the actor that can represent his own subgenre of crap classic is a find indeed. I’m not talking about your John Waynes or your Schwarzeneggers (or Seagals or Van Dammes or Dudikoffs) or any of the countless other actors who virtually defined the particular genres in which they succeeded at the box office. In addition to being identified almost solely within one genre or type of film, each one of these stars has at least one credit that could in most circles be recognized as a good movie—Wayne’s The Searchers, Schwarzenegger’s The Terminator, ahem, Seagal’s Above the Law, Van Damme’s (damn, I sense my thesis starting to fall apart here—gotta get out, quick), uh… Double Impact, and Dudikoff’s… okay, there is no good Michael Dudikoff movie.

However, few actors have challenged the time-honored requirements of comedy, domestic drama, romance and action with such woodenly consistent results as the inimitable Patrick Swayze, the man who would be, and I would suggest eventually became, the ‘80s answer to Jan-Michael Vincent. Swayze’s career often paralleled the blush of romantic folly embodied by Vincent films like Sandcastles, Buster and Billie and Baby Blue Marine with the likes of Ghost, Dirty Dancing, Three Wishes and Father Hood .Some were hits, some were flushed from popular consciousness in a little less time than it took to read their universally negative reviews. But all were attempts to cash in on the romantic soulfulness the actor’s handlers persuaded several tabloid TV shows and magazines that he had in spades back in the Reagan/Bush era.

Patrick was more per-Swayz-ive in action clunkers like Youngblood and Next of Kin-- the latent hostility behind the actor’s vacant, vaguely bovine stare, a definite liability amidst the shameless suds of Ghost, worked better when he was allowed to wield a shotgun and swear occasionally. But two Swayze efforts from the late ‘80s-early ‘90s, both of which tread a path also taken by earlier Jan-Michael Vincent works, would set the bar inordinately high for what I’ve come to fondly think of as the Idiot Epic (known on cable as “Movies For Guys Who Like Movies”).

Swayze’s sleepy turn as the NYU philosophy major who works as a bouncer in a rough-and-tumble bar (you’ll have to insert your own joke here, because the movie refuses to) in director Rowdy Herrington’s relentlessly asinine Road House (1989) was the actor’s correlative to Vincent’s B-movie classic White Line Fever (1975). That movie, designed to quickly cash in on the trucking/CB radio craze that was sweeping the country at the time, had a down-and-dirty exploitation picture pedigree courtesy of director Jonathan Kaplan, a veteran of the Roger Corman school of creative low-budgets, and an unbridled energy that didn’t allow the viewer the time or the desire to contemplate the sillier elements of the story.

Herrington is a far less talented director than Kaplan—Road House is lumpy and lurchingly paced, whereas the more stripped-down Fever hurtles along with the unstoppable force of an 18-wheeler with no brakes on a steep downgrade. But it turns out the director wasn’t named Rowdy for nothing. He plops Swayze down in the midst of one spectacular fistfight after another, risking severe and mind-numbing repetition and virtually jolting his nearly somnolent lead actor into a constant state of agitation. And damned if Swayze doesn’t come alive (well, almost) as he pounds and punches and kicks and snaps bones in scene after scene. The movie, and the actor, finally take on a kind of shit-kicking glow, the radiance of which can reduce a viewer like me, who in the real world wouldn’t be caught dead (or more likely would be found dead) in the kind of barroom brawls staged here, to a state of gleeful yahoo-itis, where a kick in the groin is as good as a kiss on the cheek. Road House could be the best Idiot Epic ever made, and it must have made Hal Needham green with envy.

Swayze would seal his unspoken bond with Vincent just three years later in near classic form. JMV searched for the perfect wave (along with best buddies Gary Busey and William Katt) in Big Wednesday (1978), director John Milius’ ode to end-of-an-era male bonding among the surfer subculture. But Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991), cresting just ahead of the burgeoning popularity of the “extreme sports” movement, would take Swayze well past the rose-colored nostalgia and relatively sensitive bravado of Milius’ vision and straight through to the uncut adrenaline rush that would come to define an entire generation’s approach to fun in the sun.

Bigelow’s sensibility is serious, and the lean, spectacular set pieces she stages are among the best that can be found in modern action cinema. But her propulsive attitude toward the story, the narrative structure of which could be most generously described as ridiculous, is typically shaken up by her cast’s various ineptitudes, deficiencies and excesses. As Bodhi, leader of a band of bank-robbing thrill-seekers, Swayze, alternately stoic and loony, embodies the movie’s corruption of Milius’ macho-philosophic worldview. Cast mates Keanu Reeves (whoa-ful undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah, who infiltrates Bodhi’s commune of crime), Lori Petty (Bodhi’s hard-as-nails girlfriend who, naturally, falls for Johnny), John McGinley (chewing scenery as few others could, or would, as Johnny’s apoplectic boss) and Gary Busey (again, chewing scenery as few others could, or would, as Johnny’s meatball sandwich-scarfing partner—“Gimme two!”) ultimately merely frolic in the shadow cast by Swayze’s somewhat ripe, sun-damaged baddie—Bodhi is a deceptively whirligig psycho best friend and mentor who justifies his violent crimes through his pursuit of the ultimate wave and, cursed practicality, the need to fund it. The actor revels in the extremes of the character and his director’s willingness to indulge them in his performance, and he has hardly a moment in the movie, right up through the deafening conclusion where Bodhi is not saved from drowning under the wave he’s been after all along, that he doesn’t look foolish. But it’s a foolishness armored by conviction. That may not be enough to keep me from cringing whenever I revisit Swayze at work here, but at least makes me believe it’s probably his finest hour on screen.

Speaking of foolish conviction, it’s difficult to imagine a rival in all of cinema to approach the overripe, headlong, giddy and gasping pretense of the oeuvre of director Ken Russell. This British director, who never encountered a subject he deemed inappropriate for the excessive whirling-dervish fantasias that comprise his personal style, has made peculiarly entertaining mincemeat of a multitude of historical and biographical subjects—the ghastly horrors of religious and political hysteria in 17th-century France (The Devils); the flamboyance and emptiness at the heart of the life of a legendary screen idol (Valentino); the bombast and grotesqueries revealed in heavily fictionalized accounts of the lives of the composers Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers) and the titular Mahler. But these triumphs of questionable taste, impure testimony and narrative lunacy pale compared to the kaleidoscopic incoherence of Lisztomania (1975).

I can’t imagine another filmmaker who would even momentarily think that an outlandish “biography” of Franz Liszt (Roger Daltrey!) which posits the reluctant celebrity of the Viennese composer as a kind of pioneering instance of rock stardom was a good idea. But the brio with which Russell invests this bizarre enterprise made those few who took him up on his challenge and actually paid to see this madness genuinely question his sanity. If singular achievement is any director’s goal, then Russell, in a career filled with films that could not be mistaken as the work of any other artist or hack, truly came into his glory with Lisztomania.

Patchy details of Liszt’s life are intermingled with phantasmagorical musings on the roots of nationalistic evil-- Wagner, Liszt’s chief rival, is depicted as a literally vampiric predator who claims Liszt’s daughter and whose Aryan musical ideals come lumbering to life in the form of a Hitlerian Norse god of a Frankenstein’s monster. When Russell tires of this theme, he flits off and indulges his predilection for treacly or otherwise clumsy sketches-- Liszt’s romantic longings are cast anachronistically in the iconography of a silent Chaplin comedy, and the movie opens with an tryst interrupted by a jealous husband that devolves into pixilated parody of silent-era swashbuckling action. And then there’s the real showstopper, a one-of-a-kind sequence of grandiose sexual panic that encapsulates the movie’s recurrent phallic iconography-- Liszt’s insatiable appetites and incumbent paranoia inspire a Busby Berkeley-inspired musical number beginning with our hero being engulfed in a massive vagina and culminating in his sprouting a nine-foot erection, which is promptly straddled and danced upon by a bevy of wild-eyed, high-stepping dance hall girls… just before it’s inserted into a guillotine.

I’m sorry-- did I forget to mention that I love this movie? I’d be hard-pressed to think of another movie whose “ideas” are so supremely silly, so obviously the product of a sophomoric lack of discipline, whose “vision” is so robustly, ingloriously tawdry and downright ridiculous, yet which I find so unaccountably engaging. I also know of absolutely no one who will back me up in my fondness for this one-of-a-kind folly, and I think I prefer it that way. It’s a gigantic load, to be sure, but it’s my gigantic load. And of course Russell’s, who probably jettisoned for good what little of the cultural cachet he’d secured for himself with well-regarded films like Women in Love and The Boy Friend by unleashing this wonderful monstrosity on the world. And as willfully strange as this director seems through his films, he probably prefers it that way.

Finally, it’s time to admit my weakness for stereotypical representations of a particular social group with which I have a more-than-passing familiarity: white trash. I’ve always had a kind of nostalgic attraction to the (for me) primal pull of the rural fantasy of the Ma and Pa Kettle series. Though she resembled her not a whit, Marjorie Main’s Ma seemed to embody so many of the rough-and-tumble characteristics of my own grandmother that it was (and still is) easy for me to transpose the fictional woman with my memories of the real one and allow Ma Kettle to take on a kind of vitality that she might not necessarily have for anyone else. And Pa Kettle is only Pa Kettle if he’s played by Percy Kilbride, who turned the depiction of sloth into a down-home art form. Parker Fennelly, replete with anachronistic Pepperidge Farm-type accent, replaced Kilbride as Pa in the last film of the series, The Kettles on Old MacDonald’s Farm, but he never approached the kind of easy charm with which Kilbride so effortlessly imbued the character.

Regional filmmakers Ferd and Beverly Sebastian created product for the drive-ins of the deep South throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, their most widely hailed work being the sweaty vigilante programmer Gator Bait (1976). Swamp sexpot Claudia Jennings (and all of her pulchritudinous charms) made this ketchup-and-cleavage drama a huge hit nationwide, but the Sebastians’ little-seen sequel, Gator Bait 2: Cajun Justice (1988) is the one that, for my money, seals their status as nonpareil purveyors of bad behavior (and questionable breeding strategies), Southern division. Your bodacious heroine is killed in the first movie? No problem. See, she has a big, burly brother with a redheaded Daisy Mae for a wife, who can get sexually assaulted and otherwise tormented by every known variety of swamp rat and toothless gas station attendant until big brother has just… had… enough! GB2 is distinctive largely in its mise-en-scene, which makes the undeniably tacky Billy Jack look expansive and visually choreographed, and in its cast of apparently authentic local “talent,” which probably looked an awful lot like the folks who saw out the twilight days of outdoor picture shows in their pickup trucks watching incredible heaps like this one. If you’ve got a taste for it, it’s a little bit of redneck heaven.

When I’m feeling more introspective and I want to indulge in white-trash stereotypes couched in a base of reality, garnished with genuine talent and/or relatively serious intentions, two films immediately leap to mind. Few documentaries feel more whimsical, so honestly inquisitive, yet at the same time so back-door condescending as Errol Morris’s Vernon, Florida (1981). The non-fiction specialist’s curious visit with the citizens of a small backwoods town, highlighting their various eccentricities and downright oddities, is undeniably hilarious, moody and charming. But Morris also coasts on loads of smirking subtext, and his use of the camera and techniques of editing maximize the sense of an outsider (Morris, us) standing back far enough from these local yokels so that we can’t miss how not just eccentric, but downright weird they are compared to everyone else. Morris’s sense of empathy would expand profoundly by the time of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997), but this is his most complete journey so far into an actual community and if it yields fascinating, troubling results, the later work would prove out the lessons learned by the director during his time in this little town.

Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky followed up their devastating journalistic documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), chronicling the hysteria of an Arkansas town desperate to pin guilt for a triple murder on three local teenagers, with the even more disturbing Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000). The film depicts the teenagers bereft of the flippancy they displayed in the face of murder charges in the first film. Here they are behind bars, convicted of the crime and serving time, despite increasing evidence that points to the stepfather of one of the victims. In tracking events in the wake of their conviction, though, the film ends up raising serious questions about the imposition of the filmmakers into the very case they’re observing. Like Morris, they get seduced by the elements of life in this environment that play up to a sense of superiority on the part of the viewer. But unlike Morris, they have a truly charismatic, and possibly psychotic, person at the center of their inquiry in that stepfather, who often addresses the camera directly with his tortured observations, justifications and various attempts to discount the mounting suspicion swirling about him. This is one of several recent documentaries (including Capturing the Friedmans, any film by Nick Broomfield, and Berlinger and Sinofsky’s own Brother’s Keeper) that implicate the audience, and their own filmmakers, to an uncomfortable degree and make us believe we’re being given access to aspects of lives to which we have no right. Couple that with the skill and urgency of this film’s approach, its inexorable narrative pull and its (perhaps inevitable) emphasis on elements of a social group many non-Southern urbanites might find disturbing, and you have the very essence of a guilty "pleasure."

The journey toward the restoration of the guilt in my guilty pleasures, though amply primed by the previous entries, can be ultimately only be fulfilled by consideration of the two great experiences in the dissection of white-trash culture of my formative movie-going years. When I was 13 years old, I conned my dad into accompanying me to a screening of Deliverance at our hometown theater. By the time it arrived there, the movie had already been in release for about a year, and through the grapevine of locker room whispers and classroom chatter I knew full well what horrors it held when I began suggesting to my dad that we catch that new outdoors movie (the local movie calendar highlighted only the image of four men in silhouette carrying a canoe, so my attempt at reductive capsulization of the film’s plot seemed to have some basis in reality). But I didn’t count on my mom coming along, and consequently having to sit between them for the duration of the feature. By the time Ned Beatty was forced to begin his pathetic porcine impersonation, I truly knew what it was to squirm with the helpless desire to be anywhere else, and I could feel the laser intensity of my mom’s gaze burning a tiny, white-hot hole through my temple. But even after all that, Deliverance was still a great movie, and I think so to this day—I just never mention it to my mom.

Greatness is not an accolade likely ever to be bestowed upon the film version of Kyle Onstott’s epically lurid sex-and-slavery page-turner Mandingo (1975). But my (non-Kettle) grandmother was a big fan of the book, and when I became interested in it because of what I’d heard about the movie, she inexplicably conspired to lend it to me so I could read it unbeknownst to my parents (who were probably still stinging from being taken on that whole Deliverance deal). I could lie and say I had some overriding sociological interest in the subject matter, given that the mid-‘70s of my youth were a time when the fruits of the civil rights movement of the ‘60s were being given a chance to either ripen or rot. But truth be told, being a fan of the idea of the blaxploitation explosion in American movies (I had yet only seen Super Fly and Shaft, but kept up with the latest developments in this particular phenomenon through the movie pages of the Portland Oregonian), and being a typical 14-year-old boy, it was, yes, the lurid aspects of the story that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

So imagine my surprise when the movie showed up at the local theater and my grandmother asked me if I wanted to go see it. With her. That surprise was topped only by my mom’s indifferent shrug when I floated the idea to her. “What the hell,” she seemed to be saying, “If you’re not already corrupt or otherwise warped by what I’ve allowed you to see myself, then I guess you’ll be okay--either that, or watching this stuff in the presence of your grandmother will be the back-breaking straw that sends you merrily on your way to a fulfilling career as a racially motivated sex criminal.” (Thanks, Mom!)

So we went off to the movies, Grandma and I. Those milling about the tiny lobby of my hometown movie theater, the Alger, who had an inkling of what the evening’s entertainment held in store offered us an assortment of odd, uncomfortable glances. Nonetheless, we marched right on up to our seats in the front row of the balcony and settled in for whatever the Motion Picture Association of America deemed inappropriate for children under 17 unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian. And Mandingo did not disappoint.

Turns out, the first time I ever saw a man simulate an orgasm on screen was right there with Grandma sitting next to me. It was Ken Norton, the impossibly muscled titular figure, lured upstairs for a vengeful tryst by and hovering over the lady of the plantation, played with prodigious teeth and gums perpetually and frightfully bared by Susan George. Norton groaned and shuddered like he’d just taken one in the kidneys from Muhammad Ali, and Ms. George seemed suitably impressed as well. Strangely, I never flinched with embarrassment (except perhaps a little bit for the actors), and neither did my grandma.

We giggled into our popcorn at some of the lines given to James Mason as the old massa, whose physical deterioration—he seeks respite from the tortures of rheumatoid arthritis by setting his bare feet on the belly of a slave boy laying at the foot of his rocker—is echoed by the rotting, unkempt condition of his plantation house. We reacted with appropriate revulsion at the fight staged at the auction site between Norton and another slave who ends up with a large chunk of flesh missing from his shoulder. And we had the same reaction upon Norton’s flogging at the hands of his master, Perry King, whilst hanging upside-down in a barn, the twist of the scene coming from the knowledge that King has been somewhat respectful of and relatively friendly with Norton’s character up to this point, his savagery tempered somewhat by his ambivalence. No such respect remains, however, when King realizes the color of his newborn son, connects the dots between Norton and George, and promptly forces the slave into a boiling pot of laundry water before he fatally perforates him with a pitchfork.

When the lights came up, Grandma and I were, for the moment at least, ashamed to be white, ashamed to be implicated in the perpetuation of attitudes that once enabled and endorsed such atrocious crimes against human beings, and we discussed with some seriousness the ghastly tragedy of slavery as we drove home. In the almost exclusively Caucasian confines of my little hometown, this constituted some sort of revelation, a vivid experiencing of some degree of truth that had only been abstract or textbook in nature before. I expected to groove on some sex and violence during Mandingo, and I’d be lying if I said those expectations went totally unfulfilled (I can’t speak for Grandma on this point, God rest her soul). But what I didn’t expect was to be moved by it in any way, serious or not.

I saw Mandingo again in my early 30s, and I was able to appreciate the attempts by the screenwriter Norman Wexler to inject some allegorical wit into Onstott’s narrative, some threads that might lead the viewer to connect a time when American society openly dealt in the enslavement of a race of people to a period some 110 years later when much lip service was being paid to the easement of race relations with little actual progress on display. And though the actors and Richard Fleischer’s direction are little better than pedestrian (that may be a generous assessment of Norton’s acting talent), and though the movie may at heart be simply a piece of exploitation (it was certainly marketed as such), I was struck by the fact that it comes off as pointedly, and powerfully, anti-racist as it is lurid. The more permissive context of a theatrical film allows the cauldron of Mandingo’s concerns, both violent and sexual, to boil at a more confrontational temperature than decorum might otherwise allow. As a result the movie, despite the participation of Anglos Wexler and Fleischer (not to mention Onstott, whom I've always rather presumptively imagined, with no prior knowledge or available research to confirm it, was also white), is much closer to the unchecked anger of blaxploitation, particularly Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, than to the sober mainstream TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots.

As an white adult reflecting on Mandingo in 2004, the question lies in not being entirely sure if, in addition to displaying some of the anger of blaxploitation, it doesn’t also sometimes tip the scales toward a sort of reverse-racism laced with extra added heaping teaspoonfuls of white liberal guilt, much different from the kind born of firsthand oppression in which van Peebles’ film trafficked. By fueling the fires of such potentially contradictory emotions with campy performances by the likes of Mason and George, while simultaneously existing as a politically correct and morally confused satire of the ongoing tragedy of race relations, Mandingo defines itself, for me, as the guiltiest pleasure of them all.

No, wait, let me tell you about the time my Ma Kettle grandma and I watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part Two together and laughed like it was a Mack Sennett comedy…