Tuesday, December 21, 2010

DEAR MR. GACY (2010)

Just a few months into his freshman year at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Jason Moss became obsessed with serial killers. With a career in the FBI or forensics as his end goal, he sat down with an endless amount of texts on famous murderers and forensic psychology, took up a large sack of immortal teenage hubris and began to write to some of the most infamous monsters in modern history, from the point of view of someone who would most fit the profile of each one’s individual favorite victim. In the case of Charles Manson, Moss adopted the tone of a budding militant dissatisfied with “the establishment”. With Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez, Jason posed as the head of a Nevada Satanic Cult, seeking guidance from one who truly knew “the Dark Lord”. And with John Wayne Gacy, the notorious “Clown Killer” who raped and murdered more than thirty young men and boys, burying their bodies beneath his own house, Jason’s tactic was that of someone sexually-confused, emotionally and physically abused by family, and desperately lonely.

In the end, all of Jason’s intended targets wrote him back. In most cases, he maintained an ongoing penpal relationship with his pals in the pen. With Gacy, his relationship got much deeper, much more twisted, and much more difficult to sever as the letters continued. Recounting his experiences in his book, The Last Victim, Jason took on the persona not only of “Jason Moss, the timid victim” but also of his younger brother, “Jarrod Moss, the new disciple of John Wayne Gacy”. In attempting to manipulate Gacy into revealing personal secrets, as he had with the other killers, Jason forced himself to live out some of Gacy’s most twisted fantasies—at least in the narrative he had created in the letters—including becoming a subservient sexual slave to his brother. While brother Jarrod was real, the paper-trail Jarrod and his relationship with fictional Jason was not—as he emphatically points out multiple times throughout the book. It was all Jason Moss and his perceived control over Gacy.

The letter exchanges turned into weekend phone conversations. And as Moss juggled multiple “friendships” with the killers—forcing him to keep an elaborate time-line of record keeping so he knew who he was for each man—his schoolwork suffered, his real friendships and relationships deteriorated, his home life with his parents increased its normal tug-of-war, and he found himself living more and more internally, almost trapped in the roles he’d created. Yet he never once felt as if the control had slipped. It was always Jason Moss, the genius student, and not Jason Moss the fictional victim, who had control over the Clown Killer. There was no struggle; to Moss’s mind, Gacy bought his rap hook, line and sinker.

Until the day Gacy finally backed him into a corner, sending him money and a plane ticket to visit him in the Menard Correctional Institution, where he was awaiting execution following the rejection of his final appeal. Gacy even went so far as to bribe a guard into posing as the warden for Moss’s mother, to assure her that her son would be in perfectly safe hands. In reality, the hands Jason had played into were the most dangerous ones imaginable.

There has been a lot of debate as to the amount of veracity present in Moss’s book, The Last Victim. Having written it with his college professor and mentor, Jeffrey Kottler, PhD (who seems, if possible, even more narcissistic in his brief forward and afterward than Moss does throughout the entirety of the admittedly patience-wearing narrative), Jason is arrogant, self-absorbed and manipulative from the start, but all by his own admission, which makes his flat intentions easier to swallow. Again and again, Moss states that failure is never an option for him, whether be it a school assignment or an argument with his “controlling” mother. An important character in the book, Mrs. Moss is painted as set in eternal struggle with her headstrong son, forbidding him from going forward with his project despite her own fascination with true crime planting its initial seeds in him. For much of the book, it’s his mother who is the genuine antagonist in his life. The serial killers become little more than screwed up mail buddies.

But every now and then, Jason stops and seemingly thinks about what he’s doing, how these dark and twisted individuals are affecting him personally. But he doesn’t let that stop him, not even after his terrifying face-to-face with Gacy.

Which is where most people’s suspension of disbelief seems to come crashing down. Kottler, in his intro, says the question they got most was “why”—why would a straight-A, all-American kid (a weightlifter, a kickboxer, on his way to sainthood) involve himself with the damaged lives of these horrible people? Why would his parents ‘allow’ him to do so? Why would the killers bother to write him back? Why would the Menard prison, even if Gacy was days away from state mandated death, allow the historically unhinged killer to spend any time alone in a room with this na├»ve kid? For the latter, bribery is offered as an excuse for the climax. For the former questions, it’s always Jason’s will that surmounted the “why?”, barreling forward with the distinctly alpha male definition: “no one tells me what to do”.

After The Last Victim hit the bestseller lists in 1999, Moss hit the talk show circuit and Hollywood batted a big-screen adaptation back and forth. As it passed hands and was ultimately abandoned, Moss became a criminal defense attorney and weathered the predictable waves that he’d lied about it all, about some, about details. Further speculation was derived from the book’s odd shifts in tone and narration (possibly attributable to Kottler’s attempt to “humanize” Moss when he descends his deepest into me-first prickdom) that Moss was affected more than he ever let on, that he was living vicariously through his correspondents, relishing the crimes that he could never bring himself to do, but had always haunted and fascinated him.

It’s this speculation that forms the rubbery spine of Dear Mr. Gacy. Using genuine passages from letters to and from Moss and Gacy, Kellie Madison’s script tries to make sense out of Moss the man. Forced to shuffle around some details, Dear Mr. Gacy’s storyline focuses on Moss and his relationship with Gacy, jettisoning Manson, Dahmer, et al, for the sake of dramatic momentum. She proposes that his project was for a term paper on criminal psychology before setting down to the meat. Writing and rewriting his first letter to perfect the tone of a lonely, timid teenager, Moss manages to catch the Clown Killer’s attention, his letter standing out from the piles of daily mail Gacy received at his comfortable cell. Between painting and long phone calls with his lawyer, Gacy becomes intrigued by this on-paper Jason Moss and attempts to reel him in further, playing on this perceived need for friendship and guidance. He tests the waters with references to masturbation and homosexuality before opening up the possibility of an encounter between Jason and his brother (renamed “Alex” in the film). Clearly, Gacy has found something with which to entertain himself during those long days of confinement.

Right around Act 2, however, Madison’s script starts to veer into a speculative direction that does not exist in The Last Victim. While Jason intones over and again that his constant research of murder and mayhem to stay “in character” for his various pen pals took its toll on him emotionally and psychically, Madison takes that opportunity to turn the movie into Apt Pupil. Over the phone, Gacy instructs Jason on how to observe people in order to learn and manipulate them, which leads to Jason stalking a pretty co-ed and, later, a potentially violent encounter with a motel prostitute.

Whereas in the book, Moss doth protest almost too much about any trace of homosexuality, the movies goes out of its way to ensure that the audience knows that gay = fucked up and/or evil. When his research leads him to paying a male prostitute for instruction on lingo and jargon, the situation, of course, ends in a roofied Jason staggering out of the bar from Cruisin’, dodging sodomy left and right. While Gacy declares that he’s bisexual, the movie quickly mentions that he’s a “homo” who hadn’t had sex with his own wife for years before his conviction. And, of course, Gacy only wants Jason’s sweet ass for himself and that’s his sole motivation for his evil.

Whether this homophobia is inferred from elements in Jason’s story or from producer invective is not clear, but these moments stand out as false for minutes after they occur—particularly when the script bends some of the real instances to suit the narrative needs. In the book, Jason does contact a male prostitute through classified ads and does pay him for a brief interview, but it takes place in the middle of the day, in a Vegas strip diner, with both of them dressed for work. This transmogrification into something seedy and dangerous is unnecessary. As is a moment where Jason loses his cool with “Alex’s” schoolyard bully. In the book, Jason forces Jarrod to fight his tormentor on his own and put it behind him, which illustrates the sort of control Jason exerts over everyone. You stand on your own feet. In the movie, the sequence is not only out-of-place but only serves the film’s narrative that Jason is inherently weak-willed and under Gacy’s control the entire time. The cat-and-mouse aspect of the story—who is in control, the student or the killer?—is lost in the After School Special of “Never Write to a Gay Multiple Murderer”.

However, the homophobic overtones aside, these small detail-shifts will annoy only those familiar with The Last Victim. Viewers going into Dear Mr. Gacy blind will discover a competently-directed movie (by Svetozar Ristovski, produced by Clark Peterson of another serial killer movie, Monster) filled to the brim with terrific performances, particularly on the parts of Jesse Moss (no relation) and the great William Forsythe, as Jason and Gacy respectively. Forsythe exudes both menace and charisma in every scene and his presence dominates the film from the moment he’s introduced, even during long passage of his physical absence. Jesse Moss takes the occasionally unpleasant and even creepy Jason Moss and turns him into a sweet, even sympathetic kid who doesn’t want to admit he’s in over his head. But it’s the sweetness that stands out, not the arrogance, and that’s what Madison wants to focus on, as it underscores the “why?” Making Jason sweet and upstanding undercuts his ego-driven passion for “getting one over” on both Gacy and the FBI. And it opens the doorway to the almost-exhausted “You’re just like me!” confrontations. While this route is perfectly satisfying for a movie-of-the-week, it boils a complicated emotional and intellectual story down to very trite elements.

Which in no way harms the tension or the impact of the inevitable climax—indeed, the movie takes the final face-to-face with Gacy a little further and a little faster than the book and makes you wonder—likely not for the first time—if Jason was holding back his version of what actually happened when he finally met his correspondent and realized that he was trapped in his victim persona.

Ultimately, neither the book nor the movie is 100% satisfying on its own. Taken together, they seem to be two parts of a still-unfinished whole. Jesse Moss allows us a glimpse behind the dead eyed arrogance of the real Jason Moss (who is shown on Sally Jesse Raphael during the end credits) and find the human that resides there. The book gives us a peek behind the curtain of the facts and the research at the monsters that lurk in every town.

What the movie cannot do, of course, is reconcile who the “real” Jason Moss was. Of course, no one can. On June 6, 2006, Moss killed himself in his Nevada home, which reopened the speculative floodgates. Had he allowed Gacy too far in to his psyche? Had he come too close to the darkness within himself? Or was he afraid the bullshit he’d concocted, as many felt the book had been, would be revealed for what it truly was: the product of a disturbed and immature student from Las Vegas?

We’re left with questions from an engrossing best-selling book about serial killers, and a very tense and well-made movie based on what they had to work with (out on DVD from Anchor Bay as we speak).

Friday, December 3, 2010


Three things I know about the Human Race as a species:

1.)            The sky is always falling;
2.)            We can survive anything;
3.)            We rarely, if ever, learn from our mistakes.

Those three elements are in constant play. We will always succumb to mass hysteria, a planet-wide Simpsons mob, over the smallest problem, whether caused by man or nature. After all the arm-waving and screaming we’ll overcome said problem. Then we will gleefully repeat the process, for we thrive on strife, drama and argument.

While Hollywood loves to exploit #1 for box office gains, setting drama right in the center of a catastrophic plummeting sky with disaster movies and hybrids of disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, The Towering Inferno, Volcano—ad infinitum, the “little guy” working outside the studio system rarely has the budget for the disaster and has to focus on the fallout. While the big boys have gotten in on this act as well—The Road, The Book of Eli—their scripts are generally placed years after the disaster, portraying the human race as hard-scrabbling mutants fighting each other for scraps of food. The “little guy” knows that #2 is a much more believable scenario: after the screaming stops, life goes on. As long as the Wal-Marts continue to operate, everything will be fine. The ground-eye view of a world-changing event, through the eyes of its survivors, is not only easier to depict on a limited budget but is usually more interesting to view human drama after all the explode-y parts are done.

Which was the thought of British writer/director Gareth Edwards and his new movie, the festival-darling Monsters. Six years after an exploratory probe crash landed in Mexico, new “life forms” have begun to sprout up South of the Border—and by “life forms” we mean “the creatures”: hundred-foot-tall squid/jellyfish hybrids that float above the trees and toss vehicles far into the air. Enormous and frightening as these rarely-glimpsed creatures are, they’re also deceptively beautiful and graceful swimming over the “Infected Zone”, as the middle part of Mexico has come to be known, but the devastation they leave behind is obvious: burned out homes, wrecked and rusting overturned vehicles, the debris of vicious battles between the towering creatures and our military’s finest weapons of mass protection. Television news, omnipresent even in the most impoverished areas, blare constant warnings of new threats, of the dangers of the upcoming creature migration, while in more populated areas, signs and graffiti demand that the military stop bombing innocent people and their villages whenever a creature is sighted. In fact, little is said about “random” attacks by the creatures. The “infected zone” seems scarcely infected, save for odd fungus growing the creatures’ eggs, pulsing with color in response to light and outside stimuli. But how this “infects” or even affects civilization is never spelled out. It’s the military that seems to be doing the bulk of the damage. And, of course, exploiting the situation.

Following one siege between monster and military, we are introduced to photo-journalist Andrew Kaulder, who shoots the rotting carcass of a dead creature before inquiring the whereabouts of the closest hospital. His boss’s daughter, Samantha, heir to a publishing empire, has been injured and he’s been conscripted to help her reach the coast, to board a ferry to uninfected America. Irritated at this interruption to his goal of shooting a live creature and selling it to the magazine’s front page, Kaulder grudgingly accompanies Sam to the port. But the ferries from Mexico to the U.S. are few and far between, and passage is expensive. The monopolistic tour guide demands $5,000 for a single ticket, but that does come with a free gas mask to protect travelers from… well, it varies, some say the animals’ toxic breath and/or blood, others blame military chemical weapons. Either way, it’s a good idea to have one on hand.

Kaulder and Sam spend the evening in the village celebrating her departure with booze and dancing before observing a haunting firelight vigil for the seemingly thousands of people killed since the creatures’ arrival. After a series of almost-predictable events, including Kaulder seeking out a new bedmate after Sam spurns his drunken advances, they are robbed of their passports and miss the final ferry—the port is now closed due to migration and mating season. Forced to make their way over ground through the Infected Zone, Sam and Kaulder are placed in the hands of increasingly dangerous and seedy guides, including an armed gang of soldiers of fortune, all too aware that the danger could come from above them in the trees, beneath the water below the boats or at the hands of their all-too human opportunists.

Critically lauded for its invention in the face of a miniscule budget, Monsters is a simple little story as frustrating as it is suspenseful. Director Edwards’ motives are pure, wanting only to depict the resilience of the human spirit, while painting unsubtle metaphors—intentional or not—for everything from illegal immigration—the aliens have settled in Central Mexico but are making their way north towards “the Wall”—to our occupation of Afganistan. With a budget of less than $500,000, Edwards and his tiny crew shot the film over the course of a few weeks, often shooting in locations without permission. After principal photography wrapped, Edwards set out to generate the CGI creatures and wreckage with store-bought software, so the fact that the aliens are relegated to extended cameos can be not only understood but forgiven, particularly given how gorgeously-conceived and rendered the animals are: all floating, seeking tentacles and their internal bodies communicating with each other in flashes of brilliant colored light. The film’s climax—where virtually nothing happens but our observing the creatures up close for the first time right alongside the leads—is nothing short of breathtaking.

But the frustrating part lies squarely on the shoulders of the two leads. Due to the constraints of the budget and schedule, Edwards left story and dialogue largely up to his actors, in particular Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, which results in very little. Literally given nothing to do but travel, McNairy bitches and whines while the injured Able broods about a dissolving engagement and a damaged relationship with her father. The pair never really converse but make uncomfortable small talk throughout their journey—which is not only fine and acceptable and natural at the beginning, but becomes agonizing to sit through after the forty-five minute mark. Our leads have nothing to say and their model-frozen features convey even less. Their inevitable romance seems born out of boredom than shared adventure. While their journey would be fraught with danger even without the presence of the creatures, the fact that these enormous but nearly-silent attackers could be lurking camouflaged anywhere around them just adds to the tension parfait. And it’s been made apparent that even after six years, little attempt to understand the creatures has been made. They’re things for soldiers to fight or civilians to work around. “This happens every year,” a driver says, indicating the impending migration. “You just get used to it.”

Meanwhile, fully aware of their situation, the best improv our actors can conjure are meaningless and often head-slapping queries. A distant trumpeting sound, simultaneously ominous and beautiful, sending a tremor through the trees. Kaulder: “What is that? Seriously, what’s that sound?” When leaving one boat journey for the next leg of their trip, meeting their armed escorts who appear to have just dropped Indiana Jones off with the Hovitos, Kaulder: “Why do they have guns? Seriously, what do they need guns for?” Because, apparently, it’s easy to forget that 100-foot squids are lurking all around you. Meanwhile, Sam offers little input, preferring to smile enigmatically, sometimes grimly, always stoically, at the doom-filled situation. Upon seeing “The Wall” for the first time, constructed along the boarder—an awesomely-visualized shot from the steps of an Aztec temple—towering above both countries like a Republican’s greatest dream, Sam: “It’s like the eighth wonder of the world. Or something.”

Walking through an enormous burned-out hole in the side of the wall and encountering hastily-constructed signs pointing towards Quarantine, devastation around them with nary a soul to encounter, Kaulder: “What happened? Where is everybody?”

The banal discussion adds nothing to the already-long journey, every bit as exhausting for the viewer as the travelers, with the giant squids omnipresent Col. Kurtzes, and the actors do little to make their characters interesting enough to care about. Plucked from a mumblecore film, McNairy and Able are bland everymen, doing the fascinating premise a severe disservice. Edwards could have taken a page from Jacques Tati and kept the film dialogue-free and our sympathies would have undoubtedly increased. With Kaulder and Sam as our focal points, Monsters is like listening to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as read by Fran Drescher, wonderful and grating at the same time.

Unfortunately, its U.S. distributor Magnet Releasing seems to have found the attitude of our laconic leads to be the most enticing part of the film, since they dumped it onto a handful of screens with only a minimum of boring promotion—the poster’s tagline is “Beware” as if the studio itself wants the audience to stay away. If it weren’t for the strong word-of-mouth from those who caught it at South By Southwest, I don’t think I personally would be aware of it. 

If your mind’s eye is strong enough to paint the two out and focus merely on the passage from point to point, you’ll find Monsters to be quite the enjoyable experience. Far from the “worst, most boring movie ever”, as decreed by the mouthbreathers on the IMDb, Monsters is a contemplative, smart little science fiction movie because of what it shows and never tells. Since little is known or learned about the creatures, we’re not let in on anything either, so our wonder remains from beginning to (obvious) end. But we get majestic scenery along the way and are left wondering, “then what?” by the end—and in this case, it’s not such a bad thing.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


One of the first pre-Python British comedians to achieve commercial and critical success in America, Peter Sellers was considered to be both a genius and a madman, as most geniuses/madmen are wont to be. Notoriously difficult to work with, Sellers was prone to fits of rage, sulking and simply incomprehensible behavior that often culminated in self-banishment from sets for varying periods of time. He private life was just as tumultuous and it often spilled onto his professional one. An often-related story was his insistence that his then-wife, Swedish bombshell Britt Ekland, be cast as his character’s Italian lover in Vittorio De Sica’s After the Fox. Though Ekland was completely wrong for the part, De Sica acquiesced. Sellers then spent the majority of the filming either ignoring Ekland in favor of flirting with other actresses or banishing her to her trailer to care for their children, practically forbidding her from interacting with the rest of the cast and crew.

As acclaim for him grew, thanks to magical performances in popular films like Dr. Strangelove and The Pink Panther, Sellers seemed even more intent on self-destruction, choosing either out-and-out terrible projects (The Prisoner of Zenda (1979), Where Does it Hurt? (1972)) or getting involved in projects that deteriorated around him, often due to his own petty jealousies and neuroses (Casino Royale (1967), Soft Beds, Hard Battles (1974)). One of his lesser-known but largest disasters was a pirate adventure shot in 1973 but unreleased until the home video boom of the mid-80s. A little thing that no one likes to call
Ghost in the Noonday Sun.

In Ghost, Sellers plays a reprehensible crewman named “Dick Scratcher”. Now that we’re off with that awful introduction, the movie begins as an homage to silent movies, including interstitials, depicting ship captain Ras Mohammed (a heavily-made up Peter Boyle, top billed but appearing only in this sequence) and his crew burying a great treasure. Scratcher seizes the opportunity to murder the captain and the crew, claiming the treasure for himself. Back on the ship, he vows to return for the treasure at some later date. As some vague “later date” arrives, Scratcher’s memory is failing and he can’t recall the exact location of the treasure or the island. His only chance is that in the hopes that the ghost of Ras Mohammed still haunts the buried chest. So he first sets out to find someone who can see ghosts, even during the day (there; that’s the title for you). He settles on the young cabin boy Jeremiah (Richard Willis) for this task, for no real apparent reason. Meanwhile, the dashing and heroic first mate Pierre Rodriguez (Anthony Franciosa) wants to see the villainous Scratcher hanged for his crimes. And so begins the battle of wit (singular)!

Midway through, a rival buccaneer named Bill Bombay arrives. He’s played by the film’s co-screenwriter and eventual co-director, Spike Milligan, but things do not noticeably improve. He’s has his own stash of treasure melted down and disguised as cannon balls. Guess what gets used for ammunition during a broadsides battle?

If there’s a good movie to be found in Ghost in the Noonday Sun you’ll need a kid of your own who can see the ghosts that might lead you to it. Very canny and talented director Peter Medak undertook the task of filming Evan (Funeral in Berlin) Jones’ uninspired script. Sellers, at a very low point in his career at the time, having difficulty finding work due to his contentious nature and alcohol abuse, took the role of Scratcher eagerly but quickly lost interest in the project. His ego suffered a blow with the casting of pretty boy Franciosa and Sellers reportedly threw a number of overblown temper tantrums at his co-star’s expense. He also had a habit of calling off “ill”, but was later discovered water-skiing or doing something else recreational. At the end of his rope, Medak and the producers called in Seller’s old friend and collaborator Milligan to exert some control over the persnickety star. And, oh, while he was there, would he mind funnying up the script a bit more? By the end of the film, Milligan was in the director’s chair and Sellers was just as bizarre as ever.

The resulting movie is an overlong and incoherent mess. Lots of slapstick and running around, which is to be expected, peppered with bizarrely funny one-liners and non-sequiturs courtesy of Sellers and Milligan, the bulk of these latter bits, however, are delivered in a non-stop mumbling fashion ala Popeye, making them hard to discern without cranking up the volume.

Scratcher: “We’ll all be murdered in our graves.”

Pierre: “Scratcher, you’ll pay for this!”
Scratcher: “No I won’t. I’m doin’ it for free!”

Scratcher: “Don’t kill me! I’m too young to die!”
Bombay: “Ah, you’re just the right age!”

Scratcher: “By this time tomorrow, we’ll all be rich as… somebody.”

When Sellers and Milligan are together, the movie’s energy picks up. When it’s just Franciosa and Willis, you’ll pray for death… okay, it’s not that bad, but it’s not all that good, either. Shelved for over a decade after completion, it did nothing for the film’s star. Medak emerged unscathed and returned to his brilliant career. Milligan returned to British television and comedian saint-hood but never did break through in the U.S. And Sellers floundered for a few years more before reaching the pinnacle of his career with Being There, shortly before his death in 1980.

Between Sellers’ muttering, the desperately-jumpy edits clawing for cohesion and the overall weak story, Ghost in the Noonday Sun more than justifies its obscure-to-unknown status. If it weren’t for the ravenous VHS market of the mid-80s prompting a limited-release from Virgin Video, Ghost may have never seen the light of Noonday (great… now they have me doing it). This Virgin VHS is, to date, the only release Ghost has ever seen. So if you’re still intrigued, or perhaps, recovering from some sort of taste-removal surgery, or a die-hard Sellers/Milligan fan, don't say you weren't warned.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Over the past thirty years, by my account, America has become one very large nanny state. At the risk of turning this into a “when I was a kid” rant, I have vivid memories of riding in the front seat of a car with my grandfather, child seat nowhere to be found. Also absent were helmets of any type. Our neighborhood playground was lined with gravel and broken concrete. Iron rebar poked out through the sides of some of the constructions, and yet I don’t remember anyone losing an eye, no matter how much fun was had. And while the Atlanta Child Murderer and Green River Killer had made all of our parents stress “don’t talk to strangers” a little more often, I don’t recall any of our parents panicking, restricting, sealing us in Gloopstick or waling to the government that we must “be protected”. Protection was what the local police were for. And if we were injured on someone’s property, it was because we were trespassing, not because the property was unsafe. Lawsuits, back then, were for rich people. (And if you spilled a cup of coffee in your lap, you were an idiot, not the victim of corporate negligence.) The Helen Lovejoys of our mixed German-Irish-Italian-Polish communities often had their shrieks of “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” shouted down and were told to mind their own business. Especially when those Helen Lovejoys were childless to begin with.

Yet I’m ashamed to see that even the underprotected of my generation have grown up into helicopter parents, demanding that their children be placed under institutional law, to be protected from harm of any kind but especially the evils of cinematic nudity and video game violence. The arguments can be and are made that the world is much more dangerous now, what with all those pedophiles lurking on the internet and those pesky illegal aliens sneaking across our boarders to exchange their children for ours like little brown changelings. The call for governmental interference into the child-rearing world seems to signal an extreme lack of confidence in personal parenting skills. Even worse is that once one becomes a parent, they seem to forget that, despite lacking all of these safety measures, we somehow managed to survive our own childhoods fairly well, if not completely intact.

Maybe we didn’t have easy access to pornography of any type, that just meant we had to work harder to find it. Our slasher movies were omnipresent and extremely violent. In the ‘70s, bared bodies could be found as often on PBS as they could on HBO or “Skinemax”, and yet none of our heads exploded, Scanners-style by exposure to any of these elements. Profanity assaulted our ears constantly—at first, something to be giggled at during Sam Kinnison routines, later to be boldly exclaimed on our own, on the playground, as a rite of passage. If our parents didn’t want us to watch a certain movie, we either didn’t see it, or we watched it at a more permissive parents’ house. And we survived because children are resilient. We survived divorce, we survived older sibling overdose, we survived gang war, we survived whole milk, fried foods and Red Dye #5. And as children, we tended to react overly emotionally at the moment. We were quick to anger and quick to tears. But we were also quick to adapting. This is what kids did. This is, believe it or not, what they still do. Human children are made of vulcanized rubber. They’re sticky, smart-assed little punks with the survival rate of Matchbox cars. It takes a lot to destroy them.

In Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, nine-year-old Jeliza-Rose is the daughter of a pair of heroin addicts, and cooking their fixes is part of her everyday routine, just one of her household chores. Her father Noah, an aging rock musician, doesn’t make responsibility a high priority and he sees Jeliza as more a buddy than a daughter. When her delirious mother ODs, she and Noah pack up and move back to his ramshackle childhood home in Texas. The rotting farmhouse, nicknamed “What Rocks”, literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by high seas of brown grass, becomes Jeliza-Rose’s new world. Her only companions are disembodied dolls heads she wears on her fingers. They’re her lookouts, her safekeepers and sentries, and each of the four—Mustique, Sateen Lips, Baby Blonde and Glitter Gal—are each aspects of her still-developing psyche. After exploring her new home and gets accustomed to the strange newness, she cooks up a fix for Noah and goes to sleep in his arms. During the night, he dies.

At first, she barely notices. A hardcore junkie, Noah spends a lot of his time in unconscious or near-conscious states. But as the body bloats, tongue turning purple and beard attracting flies, Jeliza—who already has a morbid fascination with death—transforms her father into a new imaginary friend, dressing him in wigs and make-up. Without a parent to take care of, Jeliza-Rose is free to do whatever she wants. But there in the middle of the Texas prairie, there’s really nothing to do. Her daydreams increase their output. The rolling sea of wheat grass becomes the entry to an underwater world, where What Rocks and its contents float lazily. She thrills to the twice-daily passenger train rocketing past the house, sitting in relative safety in the remains of a destroyed school bus, shrieking in delight as the creature rocks and shakes the world around her.

During one of her reveries, she meets her neighbors: the half-blind “witch” Dell, and her twenty-something brother Dickens, the mentally handicapped and partially lobotomized in an attempt to cure his epilepsy. They live in their own deteriorating house, a few miles from What Rocks. These two gradually become Jeliza-Rose’s new family, but the roles start shifting almost immediately. When she learns that Dell had a teenage romance with Noah, she first looks at the woman as a surrogate mother, and then a strict rival for Dickens’ affections. Teetering on the precipice of pubescence, Jeliza-Rose’s innocent curiosity makes her a young predator, disturbing Dickens’ imbalance even further. Even when the skilled taxidermist Dell tans and stuffs Noah’s body, laying him lovingly in Jeliza’s bed, Jeliza can’t help but resent Dell, especially her dominance over Dickens. But these flashes of anger and jealousy rarely last long before she and Dickens are off on some new adventure in the high grass, completely unaware of the startling right turn her young life is speeding towards.

Adapted from the novel by Mitch Cullin with the lowest budget he’s had in decades, Gilliam directs Tideland with a sure hand and his camera delights in creating Jeliza-Rose’s imaginary worlds of talking doll heads. He walks along the edge of exploitation, keeping viewers on edge, realizing that Jeliza-Rose could be in real danger—of starvation, certainly, but also of loss of innocence, should Dickens’ body overtake his childish mind and yield to Jeliza’s immature affections. Gilliam keeps the tension mounted, even when squirrels talk, even when Jeliza’s “Glitter Gal” voice comes from Glitter Gal’s head and not Jeliza’s.

But what we never see is a child in distress. The fleeting moments of anger or grief flash quickly and depart once she’s distracted by something else. Real emotions flare as often as her frequent soap opera melodrama, wrist to forehead as she swoons at some newly imagined catastrophe (as when she bites her lip, drawing blood—at the sight of the crimson, she flings herself backwards in despair that she’s “dying! Oh no!”). Running out of peanut butter is more of a calamity to her (though more than she’s aware) than the idea of placing her remaining “friends” inside daddy’s taxidermied chest cavity. And the more we learn about Dickens’ unpredictable notions—it was he who created Jeliza’s schoolbus fort by driving it in front of the train—the “Monster Shark”—years before, injuring himself and many others. But because Jeliza never believes herself in danger, our tension increases. Even worse are the images of Jeliza dressing in wigs and make-up, appearing to be very much older than she is—well, even, of age—that further adds to our discomfort. But these are all our hang-ups. This is the baggage we brought to the movie. And, by presenting us with horror tropes outside of the horror genre (the disfigured sister, the gothic house, the dead, stuffed father), the movie has every intention of rummaging through our baggage until it finds what it’s looking for.

And it’s this baggage that’s led to the critical disdain of this movie since its release. Despite winning awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival following a lukewarm response at the Toronto International, Tideland has seen its share of walk-outs from critics as well as accusations of exploitation and “ugliness”. By his own admission, Tideland was one of the easiest productions he’d ever undertaken, only to see all his hardwork shattered by poor distribution (whereas, in the past, his movies suffer severe producer interference prior to apathetic distribution). What many viewers seem to focus on is the danger that surrounds Jeliza-Rose. So wonderful is Jodelle Ferland as Jeliza that one can’t help but want to protect her and play with her, to give her the love she’s so desperate for, and we ignore the more negative aspects of her juvenilia: her pettiness towards not only her neighbors, but to her doll-head companions; her manipulation of Dickens prior to her flickering moments of sexual awakening; her aggravating penchant towards distraction—everything that makes her a child. But Tideland brings the Helen Lovejoy out of the best of us. When Jeliza and Dickens share innocent kisses, our psyches scream out “Protect her!” For surely she’ll shatter. Tideland does not make light of pedophilia or, really, even flirt with it. It’s what our baggage turns those innocent playdates into. Dickens is, obviously, much older than she, but in terms of intellectual and emotional maturity, she’s the elder. As Gilliam says on his commentary with screenwriter Tony Grisoni, “Jeliza is the predator here.” But by focusing on the danger, the viewer misses out on all the magic and wonder that is central to all Terry Gilliam films and Tideland in particular. The man who brought us the grim whimsy of Brazil and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus takes our hands and places us fully into the dizzying daffy world of an imaginative and lonely nine-year-old little girl. Jeliza never pities herself so neither should we. She doesn’t need protecting. She needs love. And food. Then all will be okay again.

Fortunately for those who can leave baggage in the lobby, Tideland is still available as a 2-disc DVD set from ThinkFilm, complete with Gilliam’s giggling commentary and a whole disc of documentary footage and deleted scenes. Give it a shot and let the movie come to you. If you come off too old or too worried, you’re only going to scare it off.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

GAMBIT (1966)

 Many moons ago, a local Pittsburgh newspaper journalist whose name has been lost in the mists of my memory, wrote an Andy Rooney-esque rant about all the things that were wrong with movies “these days”. Nearish to the middle of his lament was that there were “many heist movies being made, but not a lot of caper movies”. For years, I wasn’t sure what that meant. Heists and capers both involved plots devised by groups to steal things of varying unimaginable richness. Wherein lied the distinction? Gradually, I began to discern the difference. Both The Score and Heist are “heist” films (obviously), while both versions of The Italian Job and Topkapi are caper films, as is Big Deal on Madonna Street, even though the biggest crime committed in this latter film is burglary of soup. Oddly, the movie cited as the masterpiece of caper films, Rififi, is actually a heist film, and not a caper film. The main defining characteristic of the two similar genres are in tone. In heist movies, the stakes are larger, often in terms of life and death, where the financier of the crime can have the perpetrators murdered or otherwise fatally double-crossed. Heist movies are often described as “taut”. In caper films, the crime is committed either out of boredom or adventure, with the thieves a merry band of pranksters, as opposed to hardened career criminals. In reviewing caper movies, the adjective “breezy” is often employed. Both subsets can be equally enjoyable, but the heist movie often ends with a gut-punch, the caper movie with a jaunty musical sting.

To that end, Gambit is a dyed-in-the-wool caper movie. Fun and fun-loving, it involves an intricate plot to steal a priceless marble bust. The charming Harry Tristan Dean is the mastermind, Emile Fournier the bankroll, Ahmad Shahbandar the mark and Nicole Chang both the shill and the key. As Harry outlines the entire plan to Emile in the film’s opening twenty minutes, once executed to the last detail this plan is, he intones, “foolproof”. As the key, Nicole is intrinsic to the plan, due to her uncanny resemblance to Shabandar’s late wife, who was also a dead-ringer for the subject of the priceless marble bust. All Harry has to do is put Nicole in Shabandar’s path and await for the rich man’s inevitable heart-struck distraction to allow the necessary time in which to perpetrate the heist. Again: “foolproof”.

Were this a heist film, Harry’s scheme would be borne of desperation; Shabandar a ruthless criminal; Nicole’s subterfuge would be perilous. Gambit being a caper film, the stakes are high, but not quite that high. And the caper itself all hinges on Harry’s “foolproof” plan executing without a hitch. Twenty-one minutes in, the viewer is made acutely aware that Harry’s plan is, in fact, doomed from the start. Not just because Shabandar’s hotel has changed staff, replacing a gullible concierge with a suspicious one, and not just because a crucial marketplace payphone is consistently occupied. Mainly this plan is doomed because Harry isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, Shabandar isn’t as stupid as Harry hopes he’ll be and Nicole is nowhere near the pliable, obeying stooge he needs her to be. “Breezy” Gambit is, indeed.

The early ‘60s were great times for both Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine. With the former coming off an international hit, The Ipcress File (and the soon-to-be smash hit Alfie) and MacLaine one of the most sought-after female stars thanks to “little” movies like Can-Can with Sinatra, Irma La Douce with Jack Lemmon and What a Way to Go! with everybody, putting them together in an obvious audience-pleaser seemed like a no-brainer. In fact, MacLaine was given her pick of leading men for Gambit and chose Caine herself. For Caine, the buffoonishly charming thief character was the perfect choice for his first American studio film, so that decision didn’t take long for him to reach. Solid character actors Herbert Lom and John Abbott were tapped for the supporting roles of Shabandar and Fournier and the formula for success was placed in the capable hands of Robert Neame (whose own masterpiece, Hopscotch with Walter Matthau, was still fourteen years in the making, though the cinematographer-turned-director had no grass growing under his feet in ’66).

While Gambit was following an already well-worn formula, setting up the twist and the fall in the first act was a genius move, attributable to screenwriters Jack Davies and Alvin Sargent (adapting Sidney (screenplay The Hustler) Carroll's story). The romantic leads’ on-screen chemistry is undeniable, though this is really a romantic triangle, adding Lom’s bemused “fifth or fourteenth richest man in the world” (“What the hell does it matter?” demands an exasperated Harry) to the mix. Lom’s Shabandar is the movie’s greatest twist. Neither a ruthless kingpin nor a political dupe, Lom knows upon meeting the pair that they’re up to something, but he isn’t sure what. Curious and entertained, he strings them along, allowing Harry to feel in complete control, even when yanking the rug out from under the self-styled mastermind’s feet by revealing himself to be in touch with the world and possessing a “great love of gadgets”, such as the statue’s pedestal surrounded by laser-eyes, sonic detectors and a decorative brass cage.

By Gambit’s third act, we as the audience are aware of what is supposed to happen, and by now we’ve doped out how it’s not going to happen, the fun is watching what will happen and how it still won’t work out the way we expect. Even with almost fifty years worth of movie history coming after its release, creating  generations of savvy cinema scholars, Gambit doesn’t fail to delight and keep its audiences getting until the final, pre-credits tag. Even if you do manage to forsee all the twists, the fun you’ll have with the film shouldn’t diminish. Despite the swinging ‘60s couture and saturated Technicolor photography, Gambit always feels fresh and new as it unspools.

Maybe too fresh, it might seem, as this movie is one of those often bandied about as being the next big things in remakes. Colin Firth was attached to it for the longest time, at one point paired with Sandra Bullock, often under the reported producing hands of the Coen Brothers, but so far, our culture has been mercilessly Gambit-remake-free. (Despite how undoubtedly wonderful the Coen Brothers version would be.)

The usual bad news: Gambit is consistently out-of-print, though the Universal DVD isn’t too hard to find online and offers a gorgeous transfer. This isn’t a movie for the cynical, though. If, within moments after watching, you feel the need to rush to the Netflix’s message boards and register your complaint of “worst movie ever”, not only is your heart two sizes too small, but your soul is also full of gunk. In short: you’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch, and I want nothing to do with you.