Friday, April 30, 2010


Herbert Selby, Jr., took a hard road to becoming a professional writer. The son of a Kentucky coal miner, “Cubby” grew up in Brooklyn and at the age of 15 decided to follow in his old man’s footsteps by joining the merchant marines. While aboard a cattle ship, bringing beef to soldiers in Korea, bovine tuberculosis broke out among the herd. Selby was among the group charged with shoving the diseased cows into the sea to drown. From the cows, he contracted the disease. Doctors were forced to remove several ribs to completely remove a one collapsed lung and partially remove the second. The operation left him weak and unable to find work, bedridden for long periods of time. To combat the constant pain, Selby became addicted to morphine and heroin. Doctors practically delighted in informing him that his days on Earth were numbered. Fearing only a wasted life, Selby (famously) said to himself, “I know the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer.” Which is how a career output of grim, grimy and despairingly realistic novels came about.

It’s a toss-up whether his most famous—or infamous—novel is Requiem for a Dream or Last Exit to Brooklyn. Modern audiences are, of course, more familiar with the former due to the Academy Award nominations heaped upon Darren Aronofsky’s intelligent film adaptation. Older readers would argue for Last Exit due to its controversial and unflinching look at working class characters living in a “Brooklyn of the soul”. But few would argue the novel’s fame based on its film version, however, if it weren’t for an infamous closing scene involving Jennifer Jason Leigh. When it was released in 1989, Uli Edel’s adaptation of Last Exit to Brooklyn was met with mixed reviews from critics and audiences. Selby fans weren’t entirely satisfied but couldn’t quite say why. Those unfamiliar with the novel were turned off by the unrelenting no-way-outness. But the years have been kind to the movie and it stands up well beside the novel, which continues to be read—and continues to outrage—to this day.

Set against a violent labor strike, the narrative about life and lowlife in 1950’s Brooklyn winds between union big-shot Harry (Stephen Lang) involved in a clandestine affair with a drag queen (Alexis Arquette), an average working man whose oldest daughter is pregnant, and a local prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose livelihood depends on rolling johns with her pimp boyfriend. All of these myriad characters are searching for a better life, preferably outside the Borough, but have no idea how to reach that goal, or, really, what it actually means. Harry enjoys being a big man, using union expense money to travel and dine in style, entertaining the neighborhood users around him he believes to be his friends. Tralala wants to be treated like a lady but has no understanding of what that entails. Other characters are just trying to get through from one day to the next while prioritizing their lives as family, Union and God, never repeating the order.

Never falling short of a fascinating drama, Last Exit to Brooklyn is almost unbearably bleak from start to finish. Desmond Nakano (American Me, Black Moon Rising) does a good job of weaving the five unconnected stories of the novel into one episodic narrative and doesn’t skimp on the emotion. While we come to understand the characters, there are few that are actually likable and even fewer that escape without tragedy. The famous “gang-rape” scene that occurs near the end, as Tralala surrenders to the brutality and futility of her life, is as heartbreaking as the novel’s passage, and gives the movie its infamy among the “hip” film scholars. Alexis Arquette’s portrayal of “Georgette” (the title character of the story “The Queen is Dead”) comes off primarily cartoony, but his character’s humanity and vulnerability peeks through at subtle moments. Lang’s Harry seems to fall the farthest, as he’s the only one who seems to have reached any height to begin with. Of the novel’s characters, Harry is the one changed most liberally—a heavyset loser on paper who is a big man only in his own mind is given moments of literal triumph here and there, as well as genuine respect from others in the Union. This gives his descent a tragic inevitability.

Filled with beautiful long takes and tracking shots, Udel keeps the story moving and manages to sneak in small triumphant moments—particularly Tralala accidentally leading a parade down the street. At times it feels overlong but the tension is always palpable. Credit should truly go to the script that stays close to Selby’s writing—they may not be nice people, but they feel like real people.

As much as it tries, however, the movie does not deliver the same emotional punch as Selby’s acclaimed novel, nor could it. If ever there was an argument pointing out the difference of the two mediums, it lies here. Selby’s prose had a raw power; he rarely paused in the midst of paragraphs for punctuation beyond a slash—never an apostrophe (on his typewriter, an apostrophe required two key strokes)—and idiomatic dialogue was presented along with action in near stream-of-consciousness rants. His energy could be felt on the page. The movie has a more languid pace. It captures much of the novel’s impotent rage and hopelessness, but it excels in presenting the few quiet moments, the anguish is well-represented. But whether it’s the visual distillation of the time-period that makes it all seem so quaint or some other malfunction, the movie almost makes you forget that it’s based on a novel that was once at the center of a celebrated obscenity trial in the U.K. and continues to wind up on “Banned Books” library lists. The movie presents itself as a period piece, and thereby gives the audience permission to distance itself. It’s a beautiful period piece but one nonetheless, and it drives home the limitation of adaptive medium.

As a side note, the film adaptation was actually a personal low point for none other than cartoonist Ralph Bakshi, who dreamed of bringing the stories to life at one time or another in either animated or live-action format. He notoriously called Udel’s film “like a hot dog without mustard”.

Unlike the novel, the movie is hard to come by. Official DVD releases go in and out of print fairly often. There is a two-disk PAL edition available off of Amazon that seems packed with extras. It is definitely worth hunting down, but I wouldn’t recommend making it the headliner of your next movie party. Unless suicide is also on the menu. Once you’re done, you might want to take a look at a Selby documentary called It/ll Be Better Tomorrow, in which he’s remembered by contemporaries like Richard Price and Lou Reed—but not, unsurprisingly, Bakshi.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

LOOKER (1981)


For members of my generation, Looker was a must-see on HBO due to the fact that Laurie Partridge (a.k.a. Susan Dey) had a full-frontal nude scene in a PG movie. The muddled plot and dull story went completely over our heads at the time in wake of the taboo. Granted, it’s all very clinical, just a scene of her standing nude, body scanned by lasers, but it was PG—we didn’t have to sneak out to watch it! And it would be several more years before Sheena brought a new level of PG nudity, to be banished forever by the PG-13. Still, for years, little else about the movie stuck in my pre-pubescent mind—just that scene and a teeth-grindingly infectious theme song.

There is a danger when revisiting older movies and finding surprising relevancy that you come away with the feeling that the movie is actually an unappreciated masterpiece. Michael Crichton’s Looker is a prime example of this danger. By the time the credits roll, you run the risk of being so impressed by its prescience that you’re convinced that it’s much better than it actually is. It’s not a misconception that can doom you, necessarily, or even make you appear particularly foolish at fancy parties. So perhaps it’s less “danger” and more “misfortune” because there is a good movie inside Looker begging to be let out.

Four television models have come to renowned plastic surgeon Dr. Larry Roberts (Albert Finney) in desperation for nearly undetectable cosmetic tweaking. One woman insists that her nose is .2 milimeters too narrow and her cheekbones .4 millimeters too high. The other women have similar complaints. Dr. Larry consents to these expensive adjustments only to discover much later that each woman has died, either via accidents or suicides. What’s worse, thanks to some conveniently-found evidence linking him to the victims, Dr. Larry is the chief suspect in what has rapidly become a murder investigation (for once, the police are not depicted as utter dolts).

Dr. Larry’s attempts to clear himself lead him to Digital Matrix, a computer-imaging company owned by the Reston Industries. Using groundbreaking technology, Digital Matrix takes full-body laser scans of models and creates a reusable, programmable virtual actor or actress. The human gets a paycheck-for-life in exchange for their image rights, thus effectively ending their professional career. This idea came about from intense marketing research and nearly-fanatical focus-testing. Previous live models used in commercials, four of them Dr. Larry’s clients, were found to be “nearly perfect” within a fraction of a percent among viewing audiences, but when the women moved, it distracted the viewer from the product being sold. With the computer-generated actors, the commercial programmer could more easily control the eye’s focus. Using a subliminal flash hidden in the CG-eyes, the viewer is also hypnotically compelled to not only want the product but need it. This tech also led to the development of a hypno gun utilizing a light flash, during which the “frozen” victim, completely hypnotized and unaware of the passage of time, can be manipulated, physically, to do anything.

That’s a lot of technobabble MacGuffin for one minor little science-fiction pot-boiler, which was the film’s primary detraction during its initial release, but it’s precisely what makes it seem so relevant today. Almost as if Crichton could see into the future, he took the notion of subliminal advertising (as explored in publications like Subliminal Seduction in the ‘70s) and combined it with the infancy of computer-aided entertainment and crafted a potentially-intriguing corporate mystery. Adding additional weight to it all is the casting of Albert Finney and James Coburn. The two actors are solid throughout, even when shooting at each other with the glorified flashlight guns (a pun on the title, which obviously refers to the perfect models but also L.O.O.K.E.R. (Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses)—i.e. the hypno-flashy-thingie and forebear of the Men in Black mind-erasing flashy-thingie).

While Crichton had played with the equation of technology+entertainment x greed=nogoodnicking a lot during his career (Westworld, Jurassic Park), his little Jules Verne moments in Looker are overshadowed by his optimism. A consumer-driven society manipulated by advertising corporations didn’t seem evil enough at the time, so he inserted a bit of political hoopla into the works, with the technology ultimately used for election fixing, completely undercutting the satire of the first two-thirds of the film. Which is, unfortunately, what keeps Looker from being anything more than a surprising little oddity given worthwhile relevance over time. Because the really intriguing notions are not the hypnotism and manipulation but the “moving props” created by computers.

To wit: a few years back, an actress friend of mine announced proudly that she was going to be in The Dark Knight. Further explanation revealed that she—just as Susan Dey’s character in Looker—was paid to visit a CGI house to receive a full-body scan. Her image was then saved in a hard drive to be inserted into crowd scenes whenever she was needed. Because she was paid a flat fee, her image could also be used for other movies that house worked on, present or future. In a sense, she had sold her rights to be a live extra, eliminating not only work for her but for Second Assistant Directors, Extras Casting, Background Actor Houses and large-scale Craft Services. 2010, meet 1981 (by way of 1984).

In Looker, these digital actors can be plunked into pre-shot scenes or even “keyed” into live commercials, as evidenced by the climactic shootout during a tech press conference. Most insidious, however, is the “need” for these CG actors arising from “real” women and men failing to meet the industry standard of “perfection”. No matter how beautiful or thin a woman is she is still a few millimeters off of 99.9%. Impossibly high standards for beauty are measured against cold scientific statistics, all in the name of selling perfume or cereal. The flashy-thingie time-stopping gun is fun for the visuals, the political scam gives a sense of urgency, but the artificial models borne out of dissatisfaction with genuine beauty is the genuine chiller of the story.

Encapsulating all of this thick theme and thin plot is a confusing story and lackluster direction. Prior to its release, Warner Brothers chopped Looker into bits in an attempt to hide the fact that the story isn’t very interesting. In fact, the entire motivation for Reston killing the models wound up on the cutting room floor, relegated to the television cut, taking the place of the required removal of copious amounts of clinical nudity to suit the FCC. As Coburn’s character explains in a lengthy deleted scene, the women themselves were the “templates” for the CG models—basically the blueprints. So to keep them out of the hands of the competition, “the forms were shredded”. This scene has been removed from all commercial VHS and DVD prints without even gracing a Special Features menu. Just this little addition could have kept Looker in satire and allowed a modern viewer to feel a little better about wasting his or her time watching it. Instead, substance was sliced away in favor of style—surgically, mirroring the theme that what’s inside isn’t important.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


At the “Kant Institute for the Gifted”, a mad professor attempted to increase and enhance his students’ psychic powers by injecting them with a little concoction during something he liked to call “The Nietsche Experiment”. Unfortunately for his proposed grant, the serum did nothing but turn his students into mindless, murderous zombies under his complete mental control. But, of course, the cops arrived to save the day by gunning down everyone in sight. Ten or twenty years later, depending on which timeline you choose to follow, Professor Jones has returned with a new improved serum he’s using on the homeless. This New Nietsche Formula transforms his minions into mindless, murderous mutated zombies with a penchant for self-mutilation. And there’s no one to stop him but a burned out journalist and a brand new cast of interchangeable “gifted” psychic students at the school.

Hey, don’t look at me like that—sometimes you’re just in the mood for junk. Besides, Hellmaster stars John Saxon as the evil professor and Dawn of the Dead’s David Emge as his nemesis Robert. For you fans of punk, legendary rock guitarist Ron Ashton from Iggy and the Stooges plays a psychotic nun. And there are characters named “Razorface” and “Drake Destry” and “Little Girl”. Besides that, you know what we say over here: “It’s not the worst movie you’ve ever seen.” In fact, Hellmaster wasn’t even the worst movie I’d watched that day!
Which is not to say that Hellmaster is good. God, no, don’t get that impression. What it lacks in interesting characters or cohesive story it makes up for in unmotivated colored lighting and a scenery-chewing performance from Saxon. Emge, as well, holds up his end of the bargain by injecting an everyman cool into his sad slightly-incidental hero. In fact, he comes off like a manic-depressive Carl Kolchak in a way, determined to fight the monsters but lacking the mad passion for the job.

The script lacks any sense of, well, storytelling. It fires one scene after another at you without giving you much context for what’s happening. Any actor who isn’t Saxon or Emge is positively Saved by the Bell wretched, to put it preciously. Characters drop in and out of the narrative, they possess information they couldn’t possibly know but lack the facts that they should. We get flashbacks within flashbacks minus a point of view. Explanations are pitched into the air but never caught. Common sense was pitched out the window before the movie started and there’s no hope of working out any of the plot for yourself so don’t even bother. It’s advised that the heartiest among you just sit back and let the movie pummel you because it is gory and very pretty to look at. You came for the novelty of seeing the two leads together, so don’t try to make more out of it in self-defense. Hellmaster is goofy junk and you knew what you were getting into.
But at the same time, Hellmaster is oddly entertaining and very rarely boring. Granted, much of the entertainment value is found in trying to make sense of what you’re watching, but it boasts a creepy atmosphere and some very effective gory moments—particularly chilling are moments at the beginning set in a church basement and, later, when the mutant-driven “church bus” confronts a family in an auto graveyard. The make-up ranges from effective to slap-dash but when it works, it works.

Because it’s so narratively insane, it might be tempting to think that Hellmaster is actually smarter than it is, but don’t fall into that cleverly-disguised tiger trap. It’s an alpha-wave movie all the way. Hellmaster constantly reminded me of another similarly-confused movie called Kolobos. Like Kolobos, Hellmaster is less the sum of its parts than a large pile of disturbing moments. They’re both visually striking and involve potentially fascinating elements that never quite gel at the end, but stick around in the back of your mind to pop up unbidden in dreams several days later.

Fortunately for us all, there’s an “unrated director’s cut” available on DVD, so you can see Hellmaster exactly as director Douglas Schultze intended. Allegedly, it’s a vast improvement over the VHS which haunted me so many years ago, but my memory will not jog enough to attest to that. But that doesn’t mean I don’t plan to whip this weird little bastard out at parties!