Thursday, November 26, 2015


Thanksgiving. The real inauguration of the holiday season in the United States, and in homes, countries, points and vast places all around the globe, seems to begin here. If all goes according to plan, each year we enter into it primed to consider and acknowledge the aspects of our lives that make it worth living, our blessings, if you will. And so it is this year, even when things are not necessarily following the path to peace and happiness, in cities like Paris or Beirut or Chicago, or in many homes where sickness or poverty or other circumstances beyond individual control color our day-to-day experience outside the lines of a Rockwell-esque representation of holiday bliss.

And so it also has been for my family, a stressful month-long prelude to Thanksgiving Day precipitated by the simple act of changing bedsheets. One wrong move ended up meaning excruciating back pain, eventual back surgery and nearly the entire month of November recuperating in a hospital near downtown Los Angeles for our mother, all of which rippled out into an avalanche of worry for everyone else, especially my wife, who accepted her responsibility both as the primary facilitator for managing Mommy’s care within the system, and also for her father, who found himself suddenly unmoored from routine and the comfort of his wife’s company and set loose on a sea of anxiety over her well-being.

It has been a difficult, stressful time for all of us, and both my wife and I count ourselves lucky to be surrounded by those who seem to know how to care for us too in their own way, and that at-home care usually involves kitty cuddling and the liberal application of laughter inspired by our uniquely nutty daughters. Over this past month my wife’s tensions have often been effectively eased by the sound of their chatter and the invitation to join in a conversation which usually centers around Game of Thrones, Star Wars or some K-Pop phenomenon she only knows or cares about because it sends one or both of the girls into a hot-cheeked fangirl flame-out. (If there’s a copious supply of jelly beans nearby, so much the better.)

One evening last week I was slumped in a chair, bedraggled by a day of less-than-satisfying news about our mother’s level of pain in recovery and a long day of driving back and forth around Los Angeles through harrowing traffic on one errand of mercy or another, when suddenly my phone jingled, indicating the receipt of a text message. It was from my eldest daughter, and when I opened it I was greeted by a .GIF of a large man hitching up a longhorn steer in front of a saloon on the street of a pokey Western town. One of the town’s citizenry berates the large man: “You can’t park that animal here!” To which the large man responds by sauntering over and punching the citizen’s horse square in the jaw, knocking man and beast into the dust.

It was a clip, of course, from Blazing Saddles, a perhaps unlikely candidate for status as a Life-Changing or Otherwise Important Movie which has nonetheless been exactly that for me ever since I saw it when it played my hometown in 1974. I have somehow been able to transfer my love for Mel Brooks’ loony classic to my oldest youngster, and she knew that seeing the clip was just what I needed in my worn-out moment, just the thing to momentarily lift me out of the murkiness of worry and into a perhaps lighter place. After she got the big laugh she was fishing for, the clips began flying from her phone and pinging mine with speed and fury—“Hey, where the white women at?!” “To tell a family secret, my grandmother was Dutch.” “I didn’t get a harrumph outta that guy!” “Have you ever seen such cruelty?” Of course, it wasn’t long before the stress was effectively chucked and I whipped out (cue horrified gasp from the citizens of Rock Ridge) the Blu-ray, allowing Frankie Laine to commence serenading us toward a familiar destination of comedy heaven which could never fully be contained by the boundaries of the Warner Brothers backlot.

I’ve always enjoyed telling my daughter stories of seeing the movie for the first time at age 14, in a packed house at my hometown movie palace, the Alger, accompanied by my mother, my younger sister (13) and for some reason my youngest sister (3) as well. We were seated together near the back of the auditorium, but it wasn’t long—sometime in the middle of Cleavon Little’s suave rail-side rendering of “I Get a Kick Out of You,” perhaps at the replacement of the word “kick” with the hilariously emphatic “belt”—before I was banished, because of my helpless and none-too-quiet laughter, to the back of the house, far enough away from the women to theoretically ease their embarrassment. Without missing a beat, I filled an empty seat just off the entrance to the snack bar and proceeded to howl away. 

Around the three-quarter mark, ate a movie's worth of relentless shrieking, I blasted a loud barking laugh in response to the gruff concession of frontier largesse directed by Olsen Johnson (David Huddelston) toward the multi-ethnic railroad workers whom Sheriff Bart has employed to help the citizens foil Hedley Lamarr's land-snatching ambitions-- "We'll take the niggers and the chinks, but we don't want the Irish!" My hometown, you see, was laregly settled by Irish immigrants, and the idea of the sort of self-made, white, Irish folks I knew being denied any such thing as land or even common courtesy was to my mind so randomly hilarious (I didn't know history at that point) that I couldn't help my convulsive response. It was then that I noticed the wife of the owner of the theater, Norene Alger, né Norene O'Keefe, standing in the doorway to the lobby just over my left shoulder. Oops! But before my humiliation could profoundly settle in, she put her hand  on that shoulder, leaned down, smiled and said, "I could hear you from the box office. I just wanted to come in and see if you were all right." She just thought she'd check in before calling an ambulance. How's that for customer service? 

Blazing Saddles may have seemed like a throwaway at the time, and in some ways I suppose it still is; therein lies a considerable part of its charm. But its staying power, particularly for a comedy that doesn’t seem so much rooted in style as in the rage and uncertainty of the moment in which it first became a sensation, is worth examining, and the behind-the-scenes glimpses inside the gorgeous Mel Brooks Collection Blu-ray box set from which we pulled Blazing Saddles the other night (which I wrote about for Ray Young’s late, lamented Flickhead blog six years ago) offer some interesting observations. For Brooks’ career, Blazing Saddles marked a seismic shift after the Oscar-winning triumph of The Producers and the relatively tepid reception of The Twelve Chairs; it changed Brooks’ entire approach to filmmaking (for better and worse), and it ended up being a landmark in movie comedy as well.

The 55-minute interview attached to the commentary track for that Blazing Saddles Blu-ray is an invaluable peek into the process of creating this foul-mouthed, subversive satire. In it Brooks details with fond remembrance, and not just a smidgen of frustration, the difficulties and joys of bringing the movie together. And in the set’s accompanying 120-page book, It’s Good to Be a King, Brooks recalls the process of fleshing out Andrew Bergman’s script, initially entitled Black Bart: “I wrote berserk, heartfelt stuff about white corruption and racism and Bible-thumping bigotry,” said the director, beginning the movie’s transformation from a wacky lark into, as producer Michael Hertzberg says on one of the Blu-ray’s documentaries, a movie that felt as though it had to be made. “Writing the movie got everything out of me,” remembers Brooks, “all of my furor, my frenzy, my insanity, my love of life and hatred of death.”

Seen in 2015, Blazing Saddles is, against all odds, as funny as ever-- and this from someone who laughed so hard upon seeing it in 1974, you remember, that several of my classmates at school told me the next day, “I heard you at the movies last night!” To my mind that frenzy Brooks speaks of is channeled here into something truly representative not only of its creators’ states of mind, but the state of mind of the country at the time the movie was being made. It may be in many ways a pastiche, lacking the cohesive sense of style and tribute that marks Young Frankenstein, but no other Mel Brooks movie hits the kind of gasp-inducing highs that Blazing Saddles does, or sustains that delirium as well.

Maybe part of why the movie plays so brilliantly in 2015 is that it taps into our memories of a time that was perhaps less enlightened but also far less suppressed in terms of a culture’s permission to air its filthy laundry in the form of a vicious romp like this. (Even if someone had the nerve to try out a gag like Slim Pickens’ “#6 Dance” solution, in these lunatic days of trigger warnings and otherwise overly coddled sensibilities they’d likely get hauled up before a committee.) Going into the second American decade of the millennium, we have a Black president and nobody says the “N” word anymore. But anybody with sense and/or access to the daily reports filed from the streets of Ferguson and Chicago and Los Angeles and New York and all points around and between ought to be able to see that the old devils ain’t gone, they’re just hidden more deceptively. And as the 2016 presidential campaign begins ramping up it is clear enough that those devils are feeling distressingly empowered to start emerging from the shadows from where several decades of progressive social thinking had hoped to banish them. In Blazing Saddles Brooks fiddles with the enemy, recognizes him in us, and has a hell of a laugh in the attempted exorcism. In the long run that exorcism may not have worked, but it’s good to know that this movie, far exceeding is value as well-preserved time capsule, is still in there throwing punches around.

And thinking about this crazy picture certainly has seemed to have distracted me from other worries of the day too, hasn’t it? Mission accomplished, my sweet, thoughtful, .GIF-sending girl. I guess it wouldn’t be inappropriate at all to express thanksgiving to Mel Brooks, Cleavon Little, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, Richard Pryor and everyone who had a hand in making Blazing Saddles what it is. But I’m also grateful to my daughter for bringing it back to my attention, encouraging me with its humor and her appreciation of that humor, and for getting the movie back inside my head long enough to take me, for a few hours anyway, away from the worries swirling around in there with it. And oh, yeah, when I’m finished writing this we’re off to my wife’s parents’ house, where she will cook the day’s turkey and we’ll all raise a toast to happiness and health and all the rest of the things we seem to so easily take for granted. Our Mommy came back from the hospital yesterday, and we can’t wait to see her once again in the home where she belongs. She’s not a Mel Brooks fan, but that’s okay. Before and after dinner, while being waited on hand and foot, she can eat potato chips and watch anything she wants.


Thursday, November 12, 2015


Gunnar Hansen was born in Reykjavik, Iceland on March 4, 1947, and he died this past weekend, on November 7, in his home in Northeast Harbor, Maine, from pancreatic cancer. In between those two dates he spent some of his formative years in Texas, where he worked as a bartender and a carpenter while attending the University of Texas at Austin. It was here where he tried out for an independent horror film being shot locally and, upon winning the role of Leatherface, the central figure within a demented family of cannibalistic killers, would begin the process of worming his way into not only a place at the table among the most recognizable and iconographic monsters in the annals of horror and pop culture in general, but also into 41 years’ worth of collective nightmares.

I speak, as I’m sure many who were in their early teens when The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was released in 1974 do, from experience. Or, perhaps more accurately, from a strange sort of secondhand experience. At age 14 I was too young to see the movie, at least by MPAA standards, and even though nationally it was a big hit right out of the gate Tobe Hooper’s story of Husqvarna-fueled mayhem was a still too forbidding and grindhouse savage to warrant a booking at my Southern Oregon hometown movie house. No matter. I saw pictures and reviews in movie magazines, and the art from that terrifying one-sheet replicated in newspaper ads, which featured an unfortunate victim squirming on a meat hook while Hansen’s masked creation warmed up his favorite gas-powered implement of chaos in the foreground, and I heard the testimony of a couple of friends who had actually seen it when it played in a nearby town. It wasn’t long before I had a pretty solid notion of what the movie might be like, and I was tantalized by it. Sight unseen, I was scared by it too.

So much so that, not long after the movie’s status as something of a scandalous box-office hit had been cemented, I had a series of nightmares inspired not by the movie itself, of course, but by my mere imaginings of the unspeakable horrors it offered. I remember several night flights down wooded corridors, or even down the darkened streets of some of the rougher outlying neighborhoods in my town. Those dreamscape neighborhoods, full of run-down houses and darkened by overgrown trees and the shadows they cast, absent of any of the friendly faces I hoped would run out to my rescue, were familiar but also, of course, alien and threatening. Who knew what might be inside those houses? I couldn’t tell that this was a dream while I was in it. I could only register running in sweaty panic from a hulking figure who looked a lot like Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface as he separated from those shadows and headed toward me. Though I tried, I couldn’t run fast enough from this human monster who didn’t seem to be much slowed by his oversized frame or the weight of the power saw he was wielding. He just… kept… on… chasing… me… and… would… not… stop...

When I finally saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time, in 1977 on a drive-in double feature re-release with the American cut of a 1973 giallo called Torso, I couldn’t help but notice how my nightmares seemed to so accurately anticipate the movie itself. But of course the reverse was more clearly true. I would only read later the observation written about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre by critic Michael Goodman which has resonated with me probably more than anything ever written about the movie: “(The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) captures the syntax and structure of a nightmare with astonishing fidelity. The quality of the images, the texture of the sound, the illogic by which one incident follow another, all conform to the way we dream. What makes Chain Saw interesting is that since we are watching with our eyes open, it’s a nightmare from which we can’t wake up.” This I know is true, and if you’ve seen the movie you probably do too. And Gunnar Hansen has always been the one I’ve primarily thanked for that.

To offer gratitude and appreciation to a man for a lifetime of nightmares may seem perverse, but it’s what we horror fans do, both the discerning as well as the gluttonous, and for his one contribution to our unsettled consciousness (and unconsciousness) Hansen deserves our accolades. He was many things other than Leatherface in his 68 years, and in the time since he made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the blistering heat of a 1973 Austin summer and completed his UT graduate studies, he became a published poet, historian and, with the 2013 release of Chain Saw Confidential, a first-person account of the making of “the world’s most notorious horror movie,” a published author. (I reviewed the book in one of my first pieces for Fear of the Velvet Curtain.) The book is full of casual humor, off-handed observations and delicious detail regarding the filming of the movie which by all accounts, including Hansen’s, was a grueling and psychologically trying experience for all involved. Anyone interested in the movie and what it was like to not only play but to then live with the legacy of one of cinema’s most terrifying villains should read it.

But Chain Saw Confidential surprised me, much in the way that I suspect Hansen himself often surprised people. How could someone who could so convincingly embody such mindless evil be such a charming raconteur, such a genial presence, on the page and, according to those who knew him and had occasion to meet him, in real life? Well, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the creators of some of the most indelible horror imagery in the genre don’t match or otherwise resemble their vile, inexplicably monstrous creations, and in this Hansen was apparently no exception. Where my surprise registered—and had I known more about his literary background I might not have been so startled—was his facility, in Chain Saw Confidential, for plumbing some of the darker, more existential waters in search of meaning and understanding of the genre itself.

Whereas some who might have written about their experiences on films of this sort might have confined themselves to funny on-set anecdotes or dry rundowns of the production’s financial entanglements, Hansen went further. He examined not only the genre’s connection to precedents such as Gilgamesh, Homer, stories of werewolves and vampires of the Middle Ages, Freud, Jung, and the Gothic tradition of storytelling, but also some of the elements that truly fascinate all horror fans about a genre that, to those with no appreciation for it anyway, often seems so indefensible.

Near the end of Chain Saw Confidential Hansen registers disagreement with TCSM director Tobe Hooper’s assertion that the real monster, in his movie, in all movies, and in life itself, is death. And given the sad event of Hansen’s own passing this week, the response he offers to Hooper’s comment in his own book seems rich and reflective, but now also somehow poignant as well:

“The basic fear—the monster—within horror may be of death. But the horror goes beyond that. It can be existence itself. Or it can be more than death in some way—even the lack of death or maybe the idea of death, the infinitude after it. As told 4,000 years ago, it was the realization of the existence of death that horrified Gilgamesh… Whatever its elements, though, the horror movie is not, I think defined by its overt content—the supernatural, monsters, darkness, whatever—but by the viewer’s emotional reaction to what the movie creates… When horror works, you walk out of the theater feeling oppressed and empty, feeling as if you had glimpsed something you did not want to see… Terror is a kind of suspense or extreme fear. Horror, on the other hand, is about the larger meanings of what we are fearing.”

Those larger meanings may be argued and never settled, but in his own way, through his portrayal as Leatherface and as the author of Chain Saw Confidential, this actor and writer did his part to help illuminate them and spur the discussion forward, while giving us occasion to vicariously experience the horror and hysterical pleasure of a profound scare. Rest in peace, Gunnar Hansen.


Friday, November 06, 2015


The new movie Spotlight begins inside a South Boston police station in 1976, where a Catholic bishop is counseling a distraught mother who may or may not bring charges against the priest accused of molesting her son. According to the desk sergeant outside the witness room, the bishop is in the station to “help out,” which in practical terms means not-so-subtly reminding the mother of all the good the church has done and continues to do that could presumably be undone if she pursues legal and very public recourse, as well as offering his hushed assurances that the offending priest will be dealt with and the crime her child has endured will never, ever happen again. Outside the witness room, a police officer speculates to the sergeant about the developing situation that “It’s gonna be hard to keep the papers away from the arraignment.” The sergeant shrugs and shakes his head. “What arraignment?” Soon the bishop has been spirited away by a limousine into the winter night, his bit of foul diplomacy finished—the mother has been placated, the problem at hand brushed aside.

With a few quick strokes, director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) and his co-scenarist Josh Singer (The West Wing, Fringe) establish not only the conspiratorial indifference and perhaps irrational instinct to protect the established bureaucracy of faith pervasive in largely Irish Catholic Boston neighborhoods of the day. They also establish the fleet, sturdy storytelling standards that will define their movie and give it weight as its narrative shifts closer to the present day and focuses on the Boston Globe’s investigative efforts, which began in July 2001, to expose a truly horrific network of abuse and cover-ups within the church, and to document and serve a community torn between personal morality and a fealty to religious faith.

Spotlight operates under the looming shadow of a scenario familiar to anyone used to holding a newspaper in their hands over the past 30 years or so. The arrival of Marty Baron, a new editor imported from the Miami Herald (Liev Schrieber, in a precisely understated performance), has the Globe staff wondering if more budget and personnel cuts, to appease the downtrend in revenue from classified ads as well as waning interest in print journalism in the Internet age, are on the way. The new boss won’t deny the possibility, but he’d rather attempt to make the paper essential to its readers again, and to that end presses two of his editors, Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), son of the famed Washington Post editor, on how the Globe could fail to adequately follow-up on a recent story of a local priest caught up in accusations of molestation and abuse from 80 separate victims. The downcast glances and defensive discomfort of Bradlee and Robinson during this exchange eloquently suggest their worry that Baron, the first Jew to ever head up the Globe’s editorial staff, might be perceived as out to do damage to a religious institution he doesn’t empathize with, much less understand. But their defensiveness is just as closely related to their own history within the largely Catholic Boston community, as Catholics themselves (lapsed or otherwise) or as journalists aware of the church’s pervasive influence.

The movie’s empathetic awareness of this socio-religious grounding, which colors both the victims’ reticence to come forward and the journalists’ urgency to shed light on the crimes perpetrated upon them, proves to be a strong foundation for the movie’s own pursuits, among which include a compelling case, in this age of Internet downgrades and rehashed click-bait, for the urgency of investigative reporting. The obvious touchstone for Spotlight is Alan Pakula’s film of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, and both as a compelling distillation of factual material (here based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning reportage of the Globe as well as the contributions of Robinson and the principal members of the Spotlight team) and as a film, the comparison is apt. McCarthy shares with Pakula a cool confidence in the material—there is no aggressive stylistic showboating going on here, only a quiet assurance and observational quality well suited to a movie about reporting a case which relies heavily on the discretion and intuitiveness of the reporters at its center.

That confidence extends to the portrayal of the Globe journalists—Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), who heads up the paper’s long-term investigative team, dubbed Spotlight; Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), a writer whose life has been subsumed by his desire to chase down leads; Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James), who discovers a halfway house for accused priests in his own neighborhood and has to keep quiet until the Globe’s story breaks; and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), who dutifully attends mass with her grandmother and is haunted by what the revelations the Spotlight team is pursuing might do to the older woman’s faith.

Each of these actors deliver seemingly ego-free portrayals that are grounded in a degree of realism not found in newspaper dramas like Absence of Malice or The Paper. These aren’t crusaders looking for the nearest soapbox—they’re people who I’m guessing might rather not be defined by their jobs yet find it difficult to fight their instincts to get neck-deep in the story. And every one of these actors look at home in the newsroom, especially Ruffalo, whose testy, defiant, yet ingratiating Rezendes looks like he was born cajoling witnesses on the phone while shoveling forkfuls of Chinese food into his maw. Film critic Stephanie Zacharek, in her assessment of the movie for the Village Voice, describes the actor thusly: “Ruffalo plays Rezendes as a man who's given over his body, and not just his mind, to his work: He's all sloping shoulders from too much typing, too much note-taking, too much hands-free phone-cradling.” (I can’t do better than that. Zacharek’s entire review, which really is a must-read, can be found here.)

McAdams stands out as much for what she doesn’t do. Her Pfeiffer, at home and on the job, is a natural listener, but instead of an empty vessel the character registers as analytically alive to the people she engages. She has particular empathy for a young man (Michael Cyril Creighton) struggling with the notion of coming forward, who confides in her the spiritual devastation he experienced from the betrayal of a priest who assured him it was okay to be gay and then proceeded to undermine his entire sense of self by associating his primary homosexual encounter with confusion and shame. Creighton is tremulously magnificent in his brief appearance, abetted by the generosity of McAdams, who reflects Pfeiffer’s journalistic curiosity and capacity for understanding without a hint of actorly affectation.

But Keaton is Spotlight’s richest treasure. The actor trades on his likability, without necessarily playing sympathetic characters, like just about no one in the business right now, and his appearance here builds brilliantly on the combination of arrogance, affability and anguish he worked up to a lather in Birdman. As Robinson, he enriches the role by never quite buying into the easy mark of the editor as the movie’s primary moral force. (The fact that he’s part of a true ensemble, rather than king of the hill, also helps to undercut the notion.) There’s always a hint of a shadow at play over Keaton’s expressive, this-side-of-sardonic mug, and it’s a measure of the movie’s contemplative authority that Robinson, the one orchestrating the spotlight, would be the one whose own past mistakes might be most painfully exposed. Among the many outstanding performances here, Keaton’s shines brightest, shadows and all.

Among this excellent movie’s smartest moves was to not to inflate these working-class journalists into pompous, phony heroes, and outside of some of the outrage expressed by Rezendes as the archdiocese starts quietly wielding their influence against the tide of charges, McCarthy avoids the sort of excessive histrionics that might have undercut and distracted from its power. Instead, the director offers a relative stillness and sturdiness to his movie, and he resists the temptation to bog down in clichés of glowering priests in shadowy confessionals—why bother when you’ve got such an insinuating, deceptively cordial presence as Len Cariou’s Cardinal Law, apparent conductor of the archdiocese’s policy of shuffling offending clerics off to their next post to continue their criminal predilections, operating right there in broad daylight? And unlike a movie like Barry Levinson’s Sleepers, a movie all about righteous and violent revenge against the perpetrators of sexual abuse, Spotlight refuses to indulge in ghastly flashbacks whose purpose could only be to inflame the audience’s outrage and exploit the anguish and pain of abuse.

Instead, that outrage is channeled toward figures such as a smarmy victims’ lawyer (Billy Crudup), or the church’s own counsel (Jamey Sheridan), whose moral compass has been compromised by the dissonance between what he believes and what he knows. By comparison, Stanley Tucci’s turn as Mitch Garabedian, the lawyer who holds the key to documents delineating what the cardinal knew about the extent of the abuse, may at first seem like a lark. But the actor has rarely seemed this focused, this engaged. Garabedian is impatient, brusque and calculating, but his cynicism is transparent, his interest in the victims he represents genuine, and Tucci invests a welcome measure of gamesmanship in him to match the desperate doggedness of Ruffalo’s Rezendes during their frequent encounters—he wants the reporter to earn his keep. They balance each other beautifully, while spurring each other on, and their scenes together, particularly when Rezendes interviews one of Garabedian’s understandably reluctant clients to an unexpected conclusion, sound off a deep and resonant chord.

McCarthy’s directorial instincts of modulation serve well to bear the movie up under the awful weight of its amassing of detail, relating both to the crime and to the specific social milieu of Boston Catholic pride and shame in which it unfolds, and Spotlight becomes all the more powerful in its refusal to grandstand. It demonstrates with purpose the power of restraint and understatement, and in so doing comes to deserve comparison with All the President’s Men as a great American movie about journalism, infused with a certain melancholy derived from the subject of its investigation, but also from an awareness of the inexorable and unpredictable transition of the profession itself. Early on, when Baron expresses a desire to make the Globe indispensable to its core readership again, Robinson responds, “I’d like to think it already is.” Spotlight shares that belief toward the function of investigative journalism and eloquently illustrates why it’s an important one in which to invest, even as the tactile sensation of newsprint on fingers threatens to become a thing of the past.