Archive for Thomas Pynchon

Grain

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2015 by dcairns

Inherent-Vice

Pting. Vessooey. Wooch.

I never saw THE MASTER on the big screen. I missed the 70mm screenings in Dublin by days, and the big print never made it to Edinburgh. Apparently the London cinema that had first dibs on it had booked their best projectionist to handle it, but decided to save a little money by letting a less experienced employee take care of the press screening. He wrecked the print.

Bliffle. Wazzmap. Trintrintrittock.

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And I wasn’t completely sure I was going to bother with seeing INHERENT VICE in 35mm — Fiona, influenced by bad reviews, wasn’t interested, and a few friends reported disappointment and bafflement. I let the Cameo screenings slide by. But, on a whim, I popped along to Filmhouse 3 after work yesterday — and I really, really liked it. But it’s put me in quite a strange frame of mind. Vuvuvungle. Ilm. Fffffiip.

Another thing that had put me off slightly is that I had read the book, and found it extremely slight by Pynchon standard. Not just thin physically — The Crying of Lot 49 is also slender — but conceptually. It seemed filmable, but a director of Paul Thomas Anderson’s stature, should have selected a LESS filmable book and then grappled with its challenges/impossibilities.

I mean, we’d already had Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE, which maybe didn’t overtly male Philip Marlowe a stoner, but by casting Elliott Gould at least implied as much. And then THE BIG LEBOWSKI made it literal. Pynchon’s “Doc” Sportello seemed doubly redundant, and more so as a movie character. Trahumph. Crrrrk.

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Since seeing the movie, I have a Tourettes-like urge to make silly noises, rather in the manner of Jerry Lewis in WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT? when he can’t handle rejection. Vooolf.

Burke Stodger, Japonica Fenway, Puck Beaverton, Sauncho Smilax… Wrrrab. Sporf. Maybe it’s the onslaught of Pynchonian names, even more overpowering on the screen, where an actor has to actually introduce himself as Dr. Threeply. Giddiness sets in. Watching lots of drugs being consumed doesn’t usually produce any vicarious effect in me except perhaps boredom, though the fast cutting in the brownies scene in I LOVE YOU, ALICE B TOKLAS did make me feel kind of sick. FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, watched on a single glass of wine, did produce some kind of elation, and I kind of caught Brad Pitt’s mania from TWELVE MONKEYS. Preet. Prott. Hespelafigo.

Luckily there was nobody at the bus-stop after the film so I could Vrrroop and Pleck and Spraddlekoffup to my heart’s content.

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I will discipline myself. No more eruptions. Anderson’s film is flawed — I don’t mean that it’s impossible to follow — I actually understood most of it better than I understand THE BIG SLEEP, and I suspect a repeat viewing would clear up the remaining mysteries (which are not insignificant: what the hell was Bigfoot Bjornsen trying to achieve with the stolen drugs?). But there are plainly too many two-hander scenes in which Joaquin Phoenix (very funny) sits down with an informant and gets told some more plot. In one lengthy exchange over a canister of nitrous oxide (which literally induces laughter here, something I understand to be pharmacologically inaccurate), Anderson serves up the exposition in a pair of closeups against featureless white walls in a tiny cubicle, until I felt suffocated of all visual stimulation (kind of like the incomprehensibly long two profile shots outside the church in KILL BILL: death by understimulation). But those white walls showed up the grain nicely.

I wasn’t sure how nostalgic I felt about celluloid. When the censor’s certificate came on at the start, scratched to buggery and out of focus, I thought, “Oh, I haven’t been missing THIS.” But that dancing pointillist patina… a film that so successfully evokes its period would be impossible on digital, even with all the colour manipulation available. This experience is akin to time-travel.

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Oh yes, the movie’s flaws. It’s overlong and overshoots its climax by what feels like twenty minutes. But it has Owen Wilson, the heart of the movie. (The melancholy of the first scene, with the protean Katherine Waterston — one of a regiment of scratchy-voiced chicks rocking the natural look — sets up the undercurrent of sadness that Pynchon gets at in his prose sometimes but never in the actual SCENES of the novel, so it’s a brilliant piece of adaptation to me). It has Martin Short, channelling Burgess Meredith at his most Creep Factor 11, filtered through a layer of Phil Spector. Genius. I mean, NOBODY does Burgess Meredith. Short has a history of crystallizing the madness of whatever film he’s in, presenting it in a purer, more intoxicating form (MARS ATTACKS!). Josh Brolin, presenting the Tragical Comedy or the Comical Tragedy of Whiteman (to quote the Robert Crumb cartoon: “I must retain this rigid position or all is lost!”) Benicio Del Toro, underselling his quirkiness, which makes it even more striking. Some guys I don’t know so well are astounding: Jeannie Berlin, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jefferson Mays. And, in the “Where you been?” category, Eric Roberts and Martin Donovan.

This spaced-out Rockford Files won’t appeal to everybody. As I watched, I was wondering if my mum would like it. She enjoyed THE BIG LEBOWSKI… But this is more intense, peculiar, and dysfunctional. But it also has more of a purpose. Anderson, unlike Altman or the Coens, finds Sportello’s moral code admirable, I think. And the film’s elegiac quality, creeping up on you unexpectedly, is something far out of the register of its predecessors. Pynchon’s best bit in the book is the foreshadowing of the internet — it’s when the whole enterprise belatedly acquires some gravitas and atmosphere. Anderson deletes it entirely — but he captures the gravitas, and enhances the atmosphere.

Zzzzzzeeb! Hataracack.

 

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Astral Projection Booth; or, Carter Beats the Devil

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2013 by dcairns

I’m in London today on a Mission of Great Importance. More later! But meanwhile ~

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Episode 15 of our serial photoplay and THE TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS finally slithers to its corruscating conclusion. Even more excitingly, part of the final episode is missing, thus retaining that all-important sense of mystery and frustration. The lost sequence means we can never know the identity and fate of masked malefactor Monsieur X… those responsible for restoring the serial insert a few shots culled from elsewhere and one bogus special effect, and while leaving X’s ID unsolved, suggest that after a hypnotic duel with oriental mastermind Wang Foo, X is dragged off into another dimension by spectral hands.

I call bullshit on that! You just didn’t get talk of other dimensions in 1919 serials. I have my own theories.

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First, the mystery man’s secret identity — for weeks I was convinced he must be Raoul Bornay, the shifty Tunisian gentleman. But Bornay perished several episodes ago, slain by an envenomed knife handle in Montmartre. Still, I don’t think I’m being unfair to serial photoplaywright J. Grubb Alexander when I suggest that he might stoop to resurrecting a slain character. In fact, he has already done so, three times in this serial.

But there’s another strong possibility, and it has the advantage of also clearing up the question of X’s fate. What if Monsieur X was Wang Foo all along? We know that Foo can bilocate using his “atomic form,” and this bilocation ability becomes central to the plot in this final installment. The only puzzle would be the incidents when Wang Foo and Monsieur X seems to be working to different agendas. But that could easily be explained away as bad writing, which already explains so much in this series.

Anyway, last we saw, Ruth Stanhope was being menaced by a dwarf behind a sofa. However, to all our surprise I’m sure, he fails to stab her to death, and another mystery is cleared up when the disembodied eyes which have been peeping in at us since episode one appear again and turn out to belong to Omar, Professor Stanhope’s manservant, unseen since the first episode.  Omar dispatches the stunted “ape-man” but is himself felled by a poisoned dart, thus closing that loophole neatly. It’s a thrilling action sequence and I suggest we watch it together ~

I like the dainty way Omar wipes his hands after they’ve encircled the ape-man’s unwashed throat.

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And featuring Woodrow Wilson as himself!

Seriously, ever-resourceful/opportunistic director Duke Worne splices in a bit of actuality film of the visiting prez.

What else? Professor Stanhope is rescued and his bearded kidnapper (the false Monsieur X, the guy who seemed to die in episode 1) is arrested. Ruth escapes too.

Meanwhile, Wang Foo succeeds in opening the stone safe with the last of the sacrificial daggers we’ve been chasing since episode one. Conveniently forgetting the crucial symbols (or “symbals”) tattooed on Professor Stanhope’s arm, he uses the ancient Egyptian figurine stashed there to jumpstart his astral projection booth, where he can mass-produce spectral clones of himself to go forth and do his evil eastern bidding. He also plans to cause a blackout, during which his maxi-me army will loot the city using a dirigible fleet.

Waitaminute, dirigible fleet? Did J Grubb Alexander just pull another deus ex machine from his capacious ass? It must be like a TARDIS in there. Like a vast library containing the plots of everything ever written. The Library of Alexander. Up his ass. I hope science found a way to extract it after his death.

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To my delight, the zeppelin raid is rendered using the medium of cut-out animation, a technique hitherto unseen in any serial photoplay I know of. It’s certainly a first for this one. OCTOPUS keeps on giving.

Anyhow, Carter traces Wang Foo to his lair, where the busy megalomaniac is still cranking out astral replicas of himself. The crafty stereotype promptly turns suicide bomber, tugging a lever which, he explains, will cause a cylinder to fill up with “radio gas” so that both men will be “blown to atoms” ~

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Wait a minute — that says “down to atoms.” I guess by Episode 15 J. Grubb Alexander’s faithful spellcheck (the 1919 version of spellcheck was known as “Mrs Alexander”) was worn out.

As Wang Foo, Al Ernest Garcia, persistently billed as “Earnest Garcia,” drops his inscrutable act and suddenly starts cackling like a stereotyped Mexican bandit. His oriental moustache morphs before our eyes into something Alfonso Bedoya would be proud to sport. And is that a gold tooth, or just a missing tooth?

The misspelled Mexican actually had a more distinguished career than anyone else associated with OCTO, appearing for Chaplin in THE IDLE CLASS, THE GOLD RUSH, THE CIRCUS, CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES (as president of the Electro Steel Corps).

Anyway, radio gas, yes. This was the age, you’ll remember, when the word “radio” was irresistibly futuristic and jargon-y, able to enhance any sentence or phrase with a mystical glamour, as in “Radio City Music Hall.” Modern equivalents might be words such as “sharknado,” “sideboob” and “Belieber.” I’m wondering how a gas-powered radio might function, and am forced to imagine the strange apparatus used in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, whereby messages are sent through the gas mains using pulsations in the pressure which can be detected by spies wearing gas masks connected to the supply. Interestingly, the novel ends around the time of TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS…

Carter Holmes escapes death! By jumping out the window. Big explosion, and the primal Wang staggers about in a classic barnstormer’s death scene, before expiring amid rubble. His clones fade from existence via a series of dissolves, and America is made safe.

Coda: Duke Worne enlists a lookalikey Woodrow Wilson to pop in at the end and congratulate the heroes for “defeating this gigantic octopus” which menaced San Francisco. I fear the faux-Woodrow is confusing this serial with the plot of IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA.

The End.