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  The Hotsy Totsy Club 2000-05-01. . . Cholly Kokonino reporting

Movie Comment: Something Wild, 1961, with Carroll Baker and Ralph Meeker

Mr. Maltin calls this film "bizarre," but that's just plain wrong. It's actually pretty fucking bizarre, starting like a film noir Ms. 45 ("She couldn't say 'NO' ... She couldn't say anything!" reads the tagline) and ending like a Roman Polanski Moonstruck.

The cast and the Sanitation-Department-less New York location shooting prepared me for a Kazan-Lumet snorefest. What I got instead was the sole American representative of Rossellini-and-early-Fellini-style Neorealism, complete with ritual degradation of the director's wife. Not that the direction's as good as Rossellini or Fellini; in fact, it's kind of rotten. But it's American! (You know it must be 'cause Aaron Copland did the score.) It's New York! It's Carroll Baker! Ralph Meeker (whose character must've picked up a copy of "How to Brainwash Girls" during his stint in Korea)! And Jean Stapleton! And that's gotta beat good direction.

Almost just as well, since "good direction" might have ruined the Euro-trashier delights of the movie. Like the Bergman-does-Tobacco-Road scene where Ralph Meeker crawls slowly moaning, more slug than dog, towards stock-still Carroll Baker, grabs her ankles, gets pushed away, does it again, gets pushed away, does it again, and gets kicked in the eye! Boy, then do we hear some moaning. Blood comes pouring out.... And the tiny horrible apartments and feverishly icky sadistic voyeurism put those Italian comparisons of mine into a sweatbox till they shrivel to more like Polanski. Which makes a feverish icky kind of sense, since the director is an Auschwitz survivor....

Plot: Take a downtrodden girl and just keep treading harder.

Moral: If you love something, lock it in a cage in the basement for six months and then let it go.

Cinematography: What C.H.U.D. should've looked like. (In that same year of 1961, the same cinematographer shot The Hustler. 1961, Eugen Schüfftan, grotesquely sharp black-and-white, and tortured neurotic ladies will forever slumber limbs-a-tangle in my mind.) (And two years earlier, as if stocking up against Ralph Meeker's later shortage, Schüfftan had shot Eyes Without a Face.) (And thirty-one years earlier, he'd shot People on Sunday, and here I boggle past speech.)

. . . 2000-05-02

Modern Art

I like television because the scanlines remind me of Doré etchings.

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Bridge Over Troubled Water

Glory oskie, could I really have found this item before Obscure Store?

"Pietro Forquet, 75, was tested for drugs under new rules making bridge an Olympic sport.... prohibited substances included stimulants, narcotics, anabolic steroids and drugs used by the elderly to 'aid bodily functions'."

. . . 2000-05-03

More thoughts on nepotism

Back when it seemed essential that a movie director know how to make movies, directors came from the ranks of those skilled in some aspect of movie-making: storyboarders, cartoonists, set designers, screenwriters, cinematographers, cowboys, actor-centered theater directors, even costumers....

Nowadays the major challenges of Hollywood filmmaking don't have anything to do with the end product as a self-contained artifact. Instead they're:

  1. Holding the deal together while the movie gets made, and

  2. Generating lots of publicity afterward
As a result, existing connections and existing publicity value are much more important to a prospective director than any existing filmmaking skills.

Thus the unprecedented number of famous actors who are working successfully as movie directors. And since they're not out to prove anything cinematically, virtually all of their films have an easy-going middle-of-the-road Hollywood "quality" quality. Big stars push the contemporary movie-making process around so much anyway that officially recognizing their cat-in-charge position might even calm them down a bit.

The movies made by famous directors' children, on the other hand.... The kids can hold the deal together with their relatives' weight behind them, but most of 'em are spoiled art school brats rather than day laborers. They truly believe that they have something unique to say, just like all the other spoiled art school brats, and by taking too much control (with too little talent), they screech right across that middle-of-the-road into oncoming traffic.

That's where Sofia Coppola didn't make a mistake. True, she's a spoiled art school brat, but she's also a thoroughgoing sleepyhead, and, after flirtations with somnolent acting and somnolent fashion, she's found the perfect place for a somnolent rich kid: in charge of a Hollywood production. She may well turn into the next Robert Redford.

Silent director Maurice Tourneur may look more important in the history books than his son, Jacques Tourneur. But it's Tourneur fils who makes it into the Raytheon with super movies au maximum like Cat People and Out of the Past.

He never made it into art school, though. After working for years for his father as script clerk, actor, assistant director, and editor, he struggled on through years of shorts and series episodes, and doesn't seem to have been put in charge of a full-out (if low-budget) feature until he was 38.

. . . 2000-05-04

Amazon travel mug The death wish of Amazon Books & Garden Tools has swollen past themselves and their investors to the point of sending subliminal suicidal messages to their own customers! Witness the back of this ungainly plastic travel mug mailed to the Kokonino household as a "gift":
absurd, then there is NO hope
die tomorrow.

. . . 2000-05-07

The unexamined life is one still living

How many voyages of self-discovery can you make before you kill the natives or the natives kill you? The best outcome you can hope for is to go native, and the whole point of being native is that you're not travelling....

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Oh boy, what a prize

In A Vision, Yeats obsessed over Classical sculpture's transitions between incised pupils and Orphan Annie eyeballs, but what's really enthralling is the shift in Renaissance painting from carefully black-rimmed fingernails to the immaculate manicures of the latter day saints. (Note the lack of relevant art history links. Art history has now disappointed me and Yeats both, and, I gotta say, art history better start shaping up 'cause it's cruisin' for a bruisin'.)

. . . 2000-05-09

100 Super Movies au maximum: Swordsman II

I never understood the Star Wars thing until I saw Swordsman II. I still don't understand how it applied to Star Wars, but at least now I understand the thing.

The Lady of the Lake as Lancelot:
You'll believe a transsexual can fly...
Like the need to testify: Oh, man, how many times did you see Swordsman II? Oh, dude, I've seen it like at least fifteen times! Pretty much every other weekend when it was playing in Chinatown, then at the film festivals, and then the videotape and the laserdisk (the DVD sounds like a rip-off)....

And the Peter Travers Big Blurb effect: I laughed! I cried! I jumped! I fell! I felt that extremely pleasant sense of complete exhaustion that one usually feels after swimming or dancing all night or doing you-know!

How's the magic worked, besides by swinging great movie stars around on wires?

Pacing, for one thing. We plunge in medias Cuisinart and never pause for exposition, which means the movie not only rewards re-viewing but insists on it. Not to say that we're always moving fast -- a 10-yard-dash isn't the same as pacing -- but there's always something going on. No, multiple things. Big ones, too. Like we're seeing life as we'd see it if we weren't blinkered, which is the sense of revelation that movies were born to deliver.

Like there's the traditional sequence of getting locked in a dungeon and rescuing the poor old tortured guy and escaping, but rather than waiting another couple of scenes before showing the ambiguous ethics of this particular poor old tortured guy we get a nightmarish demonstration during the escape itself: Yoda turns into Darth Vader before our very eyes. And we're still stuck with rescuing the poor old tortured SOB even though now we know those battleship-anchoring chains weren't overkill.

Swordsman II ratchets along a matrix of interlocking conflicting motives: love vs. loyalty vs. ambition vs. revenge; snakes vs. scorpions; Highlands vs. Holland....
  • A Fraternal motivation clump consists of Ling, Kiddo, Smartass, Scumbag, and the other Wah Mountain scholars
  • A Paternal centers on Master Wu, with his daughter, Chief Ying, plu-paternally centering a subgroup
  • The sole Connubial connection is found between Invincible Asia and the starts-as-Imelda-Marcos-ends-as-Cleopatra concubine Cici
Each principal has a gang of intimates that in turn find themselves split between sentiment and professional loyalty, although (professions being what they are) each sentimental attachment is also occasionally of professional use. And all lines eventually lead to the hero, geometrically demonstrating that he deserves to be the hero.
Network diagram: Ling-Kiddo,Kiddo-Scumbag,Kiddo-Smartass,Smartass-Scumbag,Ling-Chief Ying,Chief Ying-BluePhoenix,Chief Ying-Master Wu,Master Wu-Zen,Chief Ying-Zen,Ling-Asia,Asia-Cici,Asia-Japanese

Whatever forces created Swordsman II realized that you build a movie's intensity not just by arranging scenes in order of their budget, but by raising the emotional stakes. As one of Swordsman Ling's idiotic poems might phrase it, "Life is entanglement. Entanglement creates suffering. Where then is peace to be found?" Invincible Asia's weapons of choice are needle and thread, and entanglements build up steadily scene by scene into a narrative woven so tightly that it seems unbreakable.

Throwing superpowers behind these at-odds good intentions only accelerates the dismal outcomes. That's a moral that Watchmen muddied due to the irreconcibility of moral conflict with the American superhero tradition, but pessimism is a firmly established mood in Chinese escapism -- imaginary gardens with real politik. It's not power that corrupts: it's purpose. There's no dependable dichotomy of "dark" and "light" force, just cross purposes.

So, following the same firmly established mood, the most purposeless of all the characters, the lazy alcoholic womanizer Ling, who lacks even spiritual ambition, inevitably becomes the object of all desire. We can only hope he finds a less masochistic form of Zen in Japan.... As for the rest of us, we're doomed to another cycle of strife and attachment and suffering. Which is to say, let's watch Swordsman II again!

* * *
Postscript, 2011-02-05 - We just watched the most recently available DVD, idiotically credited as "Jet Li's Swordsman 2" but otherwise acceptable. Sadly for us old-timers, the original HK subtitles were replaced. Notable changes include:

. . . 2000-05-10

Critical prose considered as an encounter with a stranger on the street:

So quick with matches, so unlikely with change.

. . . 2000-05-11

"Encapsulation, Inheritance and the Platypus effect" is a not-bad little keep-it-honest rant for programmers, but the author mistakingly blames object-oriented languages for some foundational trip-me-ups of software engineering. He almost says it himself: Object-oriented techniques aren't so much useful because they map the real world, as because they map how software engineers think. I've always done my top-level design in what was later called a "object-oriented" way. Using an object-oriented language just shortens the trip from design to implementation. The better the language, the shorter the trip, which is why I still miss ScriptX.

Having said that, it's always good to be reminded of our besetting sins as software engineers and humans. Premature overgeneralization, for example, which is just Our Gang's variation of humanity-at-large's besetting sin, rushing into categorization. We receive so many internal and external rewards for generalizing and categorizing that we tend to anticipate categories long before we've had enough experience to justify them, and then feel forced to defend our itty-bitty-witties against all enemies (i.e., facts). Thus, our anticipations lead us to ignore the evidence of the real world (and, admittedly, reap the often sizable rewards of ignorance) rather than preparing us for it.

Less philosophically and more engineeringly, the advice to "trust no one" is well-founded. I mean, don't waste time trusting no one, but try not to tie your fate too closely to code you can't examine. On the grossest scale, all inter-group (much less inter-company; viz. ScriptX) projects are doomed; on a smaller one, I'd refuse to use any framework I couldn't modify, particularly after my Microsoft AFC nightmare.

(Removing and adding display elements wasn't thread-safe. OK, that's the horrible unworkable one. But the so-horrible-it-was-funny one was when I did a performance analysis and found a bottleneck at the Microsoft-supplied sorting routine. How hard is it to do a sort in an object-oriented language? There's gotta be pointers, right? I guess it depends on which sub-sub of a sub-sub gets the job, but Microsoft handed it to someone who must not've heard of pointers, and Microsoft never had the code reviewed. Christ. One routine rewritten; three-hundred-to-one speed-up.

Not nearly so bad is the temporary-object-and-synch-locking overhead of Sun's StringTokenizer. But BAD ENOUGH!)

Man. And Christ. Sometimes that English-Philosophy double major looks good.

Until I see what English and Philosophy professors are doing.

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In production: Gladiola, starring Russell Crowe, with Julianne Moore as The Empress and Philip Seymour Hoffman as The Loneliest Eunuch

Twenty-four hours (condensed through movie magic to only a little more than four!) among the fashionable yet tormented lays of Ancient Rome, building to a big F/X finale face-off between silver-screen legends Charlton Heston and Kermit with the soul of an Empire hanging in the balance.

. . . 2000-05-12

"It's the TRUTH, Badenov...."

William K. Everson meets Bullwinkle J. Moose? (via signal2noise)

Well, I guess they were both in Berkeley often enough....

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Jolly Jokester Jolly Jokester's Injenious Japes
Q: Got a match?

A: My waist and your fast!

... an' anotha thing ...... then again ...

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2000 Ray Davis.