Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Apropos of nothing, with Tottenham Hotspur adrift in the middle of the English Premier League and the Bills languishing at the bottom of the AFC East, there hasn't been much futbol joy or football joy recently. (Though that's changing, with the nattily initalled man-beast QB J.P. Losman muscling the Buffalo Buffaloes to victory with game-ending drives in two consecutive weeks.) Recent developments aside, most sports happiness comes via youtube, where the boffins have plucked the best little nuggets from world sporting events, thus eliminating the need to watch entire games. Folks will decry European-cum-Canadian snobbery and tell me to just go home, but if you're into sports at all, this has to make you smile:

Frank Lampard for Chelsea vs. Barcelona, October 31st, 2006

And this. . .this shouldn't be allowed:

At least not in the physical universe we inhabit.

Ronaldinho for Barcelona vs. Villareal, November 25, 2006

Octopussy (1983)

When people claim Casino Royale is a "realistic" Bond movie, they don't mean it's realistic in any sense that relates to the real world, because it's not and it doesn't. They mean it's more realistic than 1983's Octopussy, which makes Casino Royale look like it was directed by D.A. Pennebaker. All Bond movies are, to varying degrees male fantasies. Octopussy is, by far, the most fantastic.

The movie, directed by John Glen (who also directed my beloved The Living Daylights), plays like the dream of a boy on the cusp of puberty. James Bond is not a spy, he's a globe-trotting super-hero. He's got his own mini super-plane, a robot alligator disguise, a hot air balloon, he saves the world, and winds up on an island populated solely by foxy jewel thieves. I'd say you can't make this stuff up but, apparently someone did.

Look, I'm a careful observer of movies. I watch a lot of them. Generally, it takes a hell of a lot for a movie to confuse me -- it better be Memento-complex to get me scratching my head. And, for the life of me, I haven't the foggiest idea what James Bond's doing in Octopussy. He starts off on the trail of a priceless Fabrege egg, which he's got a perfect copy of (don't know why) and which he swaps with the original at an auction (don't know why) where he forces the movie's villain to reveal himself by bidding up the price of the egg to a point that no one would reasonably play. The villain, Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) simply must have the egg (don't know why) to placate a rogue Russian general (don't know why) who dreams of conquering Europe (don't know why) and to appease the Bond girl Octopussy (who's a jewel thief, I know that much). The island of sexy thieves belongs to Octopussy, who also runs a circus (don't know why), which winds up as the hiding place for the nuclear bomb the Russian general wants to detonate (as established earlier, don't know why). If you can succinctly and clearly explain Octopussy you deserve a medal, or at least a degree in advanced literature studies.

I've left out one crucial part of Octopussy's general lack of lucidity, and that's Roger Moore's performance as James Bond. Every Bond has things they do particularly well, aspects of the character they like to emphasize. Typically, people believe Moore's was comedy, but there was something that his Bond enjoyed even more than a double entendre: playing dress-up.

James Bond was and always will be a clothes horse: the tuxedos and custom suits he wears are part of the character's enduring image. Moore took the clothes fetish to a whole new place. He wears way more outfits, changes many more times, than his five other counter-parts, and Octopussy is probably the most outrageous. In his very first scene, Bond changes suits via the old inside-out-coat-and-hat gag, even though he has no reason to. That's just silly, but some of his later quick changes are downright reckless. At the film's climax, Bond sneaks aboard Octopussy's circus train as it makes its way from Russian to the west with the big nuclear MacGuffin. He quickly gets into a fight with one half of a knife-throwing circus act, after he knocks him unconscious he decides to steal his clothes, I guess in the interest of disguise. Of course, even in the knife-thrower's Russian cossack outfit, Bond looks nothing like the shorter, darker man (who also has a twin who Bond looks nothing like). When Bond again springs into action his cunning ruse lasts exactly two seconds before the villains go "Uh, you're Bond."

Now think about this. Bond is aboard a train filled with evil terrorists and a deadly bomb. He could go and try to stop the train or derail it. He could try to kill all the people on board. He could even try to disarm the bomb before it reaches its destination. Instead he gets naked and puts on a stranger's clothes. WHY?!? With the fate of the free world hanging in the balance should he really be taking the time to try things on? Aren't there more pressing matters? And think about how much time he must be wasting taking off and putting on all those clothes. That Russian cossack outfit isn't simple either, he's got to tie the sash just so and try on those pointy boots and make sure they fit just right.

In part because of Bond's complete fashion obsession, the bomb makes its way to an American air force base in Europe, where it is set to blow in the middle of the circus. Moore, still dressed as a Slavic peasant, steals a car and breaks into the air force base, so he's got half of Germany on his tail looking for a man matching his description. Okay so now he has to change. What does he do?

Oy. A nuclear bomb that has the potential to start a catastrophic, civilization-ending war is set to go off in mere minutes. Bond chooses to put on a clown outfit, along with that intricate makeup that can take professionals hours to properly apply. How can Bond do it? I will accept that Bond is a master fighter, marksman, pilot, driver, fencer, and lover. But make-up artist?

AND YET! I kinda liked it in a so-bad-it's-good sort of way. It totally commits to its stupidity — its sincerity in the face outright implausibility is charming, if not inspiring. And Glen could really direct fun action sequences, and I love the scene where Bond chases the train via car, blows his tires out and jumps his car onto the train tracks and keeps right on chugging along. This is pure popcorn fantasy, generations removed from Daniel Craig and the "serious" Casino Royale. But fantasy is fun too sometimes.


Monday, November 27, 2006

All I Want for Christmas!

My family has already begun asking me over the phone, via email, and even through text messaging what I want for Christmas. To me, all this question says is "I know nothing about your interests" (movies anyone?). Then I get that line stuck in my head, "all I want for Christmas," and to this, dear holiday shoppers, I give you a family comedy conveniently titled All I Want For Christmas (1991), the crown jewel of one pal's "ashamed" section of her video collection, and one that I would be proud to add to mine (Speed [1994] is lonely over there on that dusty corner shelf).

It's about two rich kids on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who live in a mansion with a gigantic Christmas tree that, I think, is adorned with diamonds. But their life is not perfect--you don't think money buys happiness? No, it buys precision taylored Burberry coats for your kids!

Ethan Embry and Thora Birch play the two kids devastated by their parents' divorce and intent on getting them back together for the holidays--it's "all they want for Christmas!"

You can expect appearances from a grandmotherly Lauren Bacall

Leslie Nielson as Santa Claus

Children acting like adults

And a very hunky dad!
(really it's James Sheridan)

Even Ebert loved it!

Happy Holidays, Everybody!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Dave Cockrum (1943-2006)

I was saddened to hear of the passing of a very important but widely unknown comics artist this weekend, Dave Cockrum.

I know, you've never heard of him. And, quite possibly, you've never read his work. But you know his creations. As the artist on the relaunch of the X-Men in the 1970s (after a time where the book was basically dead, publishing monthly reprints of old comics instead of new material), he co-created many of the series' most enduringly popular characters, and revitalized the concept in a way that is still being built upon today.

While writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne refined and defined what the X-Men were (and, in most ways, continue to be today), the "new" team of the 1970s was created by two men whose contributions are largely overlooked: Cockrum and writer Len Wein. The pair co-created most of the "new" X-Men including three characters that have appeared in myriad cartoon, videogame, and movie variations on the X-Men: Nightcrawler, Colossus, and perhaps most importantly (for a few reasons) Storm. This comic is one of the single most important of the last century, and this cover by Cockrum one of the most beautifully iconic.

Cockrum died after a long battle with diabetes. He will be missed and remembered.

Happy Feet (2006)

Am I crazy, or is it wrong for a movie whose central theme is celebrating diversity to cast Robin Williams in the two roles in the animated cast that sound Latino and African? Last time I checked, Williams is still white. Were there were no Latino or African-American comedians available to provide the voices of Lovelace (pictured above) and Ramon? Come to think of it everyone in the main cast — Williams, plus Elijah Wood, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Brittany Murphy, and Hugo Weaving — is quite white. I guess it's okay to hypocritical when you're doing it to little kids; they won't know the difference.

Happy Feet, ladies and gentlemen.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Claire de Lune

I've been gorging myself at the Jacques Rivette retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image, (Paris Belongs to Us, Celine and Julie Go Boating, The Nun, and Duelle so far...) and in lieu of the big rundown that I'll provide later, how about an update on my beloved, Claire Denis, who directed Jacques Rivette, The Watchman, a superb documentary on the secretive director that I caught on Saturday (Jacques likes observing people on the subway and claims that stories that could be told in 90 minutes 40 years ago now must take 3-4 hours...and why hasn't Denis' sublime doc. Towards Mathilde been released stateside? - it's the apotheosis of her filming of the body in motion)?

Fine then. From a link at GreenCine I've discovered her follow up to the dreamy opacity of The Intruder is called White Material and will star Isabelle Huppert! These are, without a doubt, my two favorite ladies in existence, and I tremble (OK, maybe more like a quiver) at the thought of what Agnes Godard's camera will capture of Huppert's enigmatic stare... It's shooting in Cameroon and has something to do with coffee plantations. So Denis returns to the country of her childhood and of her debut film, 1998's Chocolat. This can only mean good things for me and for film culture at large. But mostly for me.

TerMET Art: Hot Stove Edition...and do we mean HOT

Something cheery to take the sting out of yesterday's terrible news, taken from the greatest sports blog in the world, Deadspin (even if the author is an unrepentant Cardinals fan), this picture of the finest atheletes in professional sports today, David Wright and Jose Reyes, taken from their photospread in the new issue of GQ proves that the hot stove is awfully hot this winter.

I'd post more, but I'm still reeling from the whole Kramer is a racist thing. Have you seen my childhood? Oh there it is in the Laugh Factory, being irreparably damaged.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

An old post on Altman

I reviewed Robert Altman's last (and now final) film, A Prairie Home Companion on Termite Art when it came out, and as soon as I heard he died, the first thing I thought of was how rich Prairie is with material about coming to terms with the idea of death. I loved the film on first viewing, but I think people are going to have much stronger reactions to it in retrospect now that they consider it in this context. You can link over to the old post. Here's an excerpt:

Though Madsen's angel of death remarks at one point that, "the death of an old man is not a tragedy," it's very clear that Altman's, be it tomorrow or a year or a decade from now, will certainly be one, for this fan at the very least.

Tragedy indeed. We've also previously written about Altman's California Split and one of the master's rare failures, Quintet.

A Moment of Silence for Robert Altman

Robert Altman died today at 81, a director who will be truly missed.

He is the author of some of my favorite films in history, Nashville (1975), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and no matter what any critic says, Cookie's Fortune (1999).

A moment of silence, please.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Night They Invented Champagne

Lest this space become a venue overrun by Bond (and kudos, btw, to Singer), let’s turn to something that’s polar opposite of Casino Royale’s brooding machismo. I’m speaking of Vincente Minelli’s musical Gigi (1958), which I turned to for a bit of happiness after being emotionally obliterated (for the second time) by Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero at MoMA.

An endearing confectionary vision of Belle Époque France, Gigi is a Seurat painting come to life: mantelets and tailcoats, carriage rides and strolling through the Bois de Boulogne, all decked out in Technicolor cinemascope. Slight and frothy, though not nearly as fluid as its Lerner & Lowe forebear, My Fair Lady, Gigi is consumed with the atmosphere of watching beautiful people in sumptuous places, the best of these being a turn-of-the-century ice rink decked out with chandeliers and liveried attendants, where gentlemen in top-hats escort ladies in full-length dresses—on skates. Which is fine, especially because here is Leslie Caron looking not nearly as wide-eyed (as in, her ocular receptacles are pushed too far out to the periphery of her face) and freakishly alien as she did seven years earlier in An American in Paris. There are a couple of overtures made towards critiquing the idle rich and proclaiming the pleasures of the simple life, but like Caron’s mildly parodic affectation of a society girl, they’re only half-hearted. Gigi is just a pretty pick-me-up, and as such it's impossible to understand why it took home even one Oscar in 1959, let alone nine.

One exchange, however, did provide the perfect salve for sadness: sugar baron Gaston Lachaille, played by a helmet-haired Louis Jourdan, is one of Paris’ most inveterate bachelors, attendant to all the soigné pleasures of society life. He’s raging and storming after paying a call on Gigi, the unpolished, waif with whom, improbably, he has fallen in love—and who, equally improbably, has rebuffed his advances, which include promises of money, jewels, champagne, and an apartment to call her own. Gaston storms into the beautifully appointed garden of a café where his silver-haired-and-tongued uncle, Honoré (a puckish and debonair Maurice Chevalier, who also manages the amazing feat of making a song called “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” sound not nearly as creepy as you’d expect), is taking breakfast. A distraught Gaston says:

“Uncle, I tell you Europe is breeding a generation of vandals and ingrates! Children are coming into the world with ice-covered souls and hatchets in their hands! And before they have finished they’ll smash everything that’s beautiful and decent.”

To which Honoré responds, smooth and rich as melted butter:

“Have a piece of cheese.”

So yeah, there’s a time to reflect and hold forth on the ills of the universe, and a time to find solace in a little bit of Camembert.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Art. Termite Art: The Best Bond Movies of All Time

Entertainment Weekly loves its lists — and, frankly, so do I. This week's cover story ranks the 20 Bond films in order of quality (link). And would you believe I wasn't satisfied with their choices? I know, shocking, right?

Here's their list:

1)Goldfinger (1964)
2)You Only Live Twice (1967)
3)Live and Let Die (1973)
4)Thunderball (1965)
5)On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
6)Dr. No (1963)
7)GoldenEye (1995)
8)From Russia With Love (1963)
9)The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
10)For Your Eyes Only (1981)
11)Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
12)Die Another Day (2002)
13)Moonraker (1979)
14)Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
15)A View to a Kill (1985)
16)The Living Daylights (1987)
17)The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
18)Octopussy (1983)
19)Licence to Kill (1989)
20)The World is Not Enough (1999)

Goldfinger is an easy number one. Licence to Kill and The World is Not Enough likewise easy basement dwellers, though I'd put A View to a Kill as slightly more dreadful than either of those two (The only two Bonds I have not seen are #s 17 & 18 on this list, both Moore entries, though I have it from sources I trust better than EW that TMWTGG is actually not entirely terrible). And as my post last week indicated, I'm a big Timothy Dalton and Living Daylights fan, even though this list gives TD no respect and tosses plenty of cheap jokes in at his expense (Dude, isn't that what George Lazenby is for?)

What has me all in a tizzy are those #2 and #3 choices. Besides the fact that I don't think either is particularly good (though Live and Let Die may be Moore's best), they are both, unquestionably, the most embarassingly racist of any of Bond's adventures. Author Benjamin Svetkey acknowledges LaLD shortcomings, but just barely, remarking "Ignore the uncomfortable racial undertones...and savor some of the niftiest gadgets and cleverest action beats of the entire series." Yes, viewers, by all means. Ignore the movie's implication that every African-American in the city of New York is part of a giant criminal syndicate, and the concurrent suggestion that every black person in the world is a voodoo-practicing, murderering, paranoid psychotic. If you can get past that, hey, what a romp!

(Side note: I'm not entirely convinced Svetkey watched all of LaLD. He suggests it has some of the niftiest gadgets of all the Bonds, yet Bond really has only one tame gadget in the entire film [a magnetic watch] and never even gets a visit from Q where we get to see all his fun crackpot ideas blow up as lab assistants run scurrying for their lives.)

You Only Live Twice isn't quite as unsavory as LaLD, but it's not far off. In that one Bond travels to Japan and, in a good example of what passes as "spying" in most Bond pictures, has cosmetic surgery to make himself look Japanese, which means, as depicted here, to look like Mr. Spock without the pointy ears. But Blofeld lives in a great Ken Adam set so, I guess, it's all good.

Look, picking the best Bond movies (after basically Goldfinger) is totally a matter of preference: with very few exceptions they are all exactly the same. Someone, can't remember who, recently said to me that the Bond you discover right at the cusp of puberty is the one you'll probably like most the rest of your life, as good as theory as any to explain why GoldenEye, the first Bond I ever saw in a movie theater, remains one of my absolute favorites. Mostly, I'm just annoyed that this list seems largely haphazard and its scale of quality constantly changes. The World is Not Enough is #20 on the list because of its convoluted plot — and rightfully so. But On Her Majesty's Secret Service is ranked #5 and Svetkey gives no mention of its totally preposterous storyline: where Bond goes "undercover" in Blofeld's Swiss Alps lair where Blofeld, who just fought Bond face to face in You Only Live Twice doesn't recognize Bond because he's wearing glasses ("The name's Kent. Clark Kent."). Blofeld's master plan: to hypontize a bunch of Playboy bunnies who will, in turn, destroy the world's food supply. Uh huh.

He also applauds OHMSS's love plot as the only real one in the series, then makes fun of The Living Daylights later because it portrays Bond as monogamous, without mentioning that he's monogamous because the movie is a real love story!!! He also helpfully leaves out that the truly romantic OHMSS begins with a scene where the Bond girl's father demand Bond marry his daughter and dominate her and make love to her until she falls in love with him. Swoon!

Just a reminder that, fun as these lists are, they're pretty much full of crap.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Duck Soup (1933), Briefly

(I'm just full of very small, very short thoughts today. Maybe I should only post like this from now on...)

It is often said of The Marx Brothers that they were great filmmakers who didn't make particularly great films. All their funniest movies — I like A Night at the Opera, Horse Feathers and, yes, Duck Soup best — have long boring stretches, with ooey gooey love subplots, or ponderous musical interludes. I've always wondered why Los Bros Marx, who were, in my opinion, some of the few absolute geniuses of early sound cinema, chose to stuff their films with so many tedious, unnecessary distractions. Okay, sure, maybe the first time you chalk it up to inexperience, but they did it again and again. And we can't chalk it up to "changing tastes" — there are plenty of comedies from the period that are plenty funny (not Marx Bros. funny, but plenty funny) that don't toss in all the extraneous stuff.

Watching Duck Soup today on my DVR I had a revelation: maybe the Marx Brothers knew that stuff was boring and threw it in, not because it was boring, but because it made them seem funnier simply because everyone and everything around them was so stiflingly unfunny and tiresome. The people around them are so stiff, it not only makes the Marxes funnier in comparison, it makes us actively root for and anticipate every delicious Groucho put down. So much of the Marx humor simply comes from deflating the rich and powerful — if we were ever to sympathize with those people we probably wouldn't enjoy watching them take their medicine.

So that's my theory. An interesting one...someone let me know if someone has broached it before, I am a casual Marx scholar at best. I'm still looking for that last unreleased Marx Brothers movie where the fifth brother, Karl, made a brief and surprisingly humorless appearance.

Oh and one more thing: did the Marx Brothers invent quotable humor? Nowadays, all the enduring comedies are the ones you can use to cut up your friends and associates, the Spinal Taps and Office Spaces of the world and such. Duck Soup, and most Marx Brothers movies, are pretty much all quotable lines. A brief, appreciative sampling (and, of course, Rufus is Groucho):

Rufus T. Firefly: I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows till you come home.

Mrs. Teasdale: Notables from every country are gathered here in your honor. This is a gala day for you.
Rufus T. Firefly: Well, a gal a day is enough for me. I don't think I could handle any more.

Rufus T. Firefly: Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour, which is probably more than she ever did.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Art. Termite Art.: Casino Royale (2006)

For anyone interested in reading, my full review is up at The Reeler. Here's a tease:

What mythmaking goes on belongs entirely to Craig, who broods where other Bonds would quip, scowls where they might wink, prowls where they strut. His abs may be sculpted but his 007's personality is not, and though you could argue that is as much the result of a deficient screenplay (by frequent Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade with, of all people, Million Dollar Baby and Crash author Paul Haggis) rather than an intended air of mystery, Craig's inscrutable poker face proves the filmmakers knew what they were doing when they cast him.

A quick thought on Borat

I've been stewing over Borat. If you've spoken with me, or read my review, you know that though I liked Borat, laughed at it, I walked out of the theater feeling underwhelmed. As is sometimes the case, I wanted to like the movie so much I ended up not liking it a whole lot. But I've had trouble putting my finger on exactly why. After all, I laughed and, as I've discussed on Termite Art before, to me a comedy need only make me laugh to be successful (it can be more, but that's the proverbial icing on the cake).

In my review, I discussed the role expectations played in Borat's impact (and, indeed, expectations play an underdiscussed role in the viewing of all movies) but it goes beyond that. I was admittedly irked that so much of the trailer reappeared in the film — and in a movie like Borat, where the plot is totally rearrangeable when it isn't completely non-existant, it ain't difficult to use stuff just for the trailer — but reevaluating my feelings I realize it was more: it was that the audience I was seeing the film with, a preview screening that included a sprinkling of lucky members of the moviegoing public, were laughing at the jokes from the trailer. It wasn't the sort of laugh that comes from surprise, as other laughs in the film would be, it was the sort of laugh of recognition. They were so willing to laugh at everything Borat did, they didn't care if the jokes were recycled from the trailer. I think that was more off-putting than I initially realized.

But here's the thought that moved me to post (I realize this isn't going as quickly as promised). When I watched Da Ali G Show on HBO, nobody I knew knew what it was. I remember family members peeking their heads in to see what I was watching, asking "What the hell is this?!?" shrugging and walking out. I, of course, loved Ali G, Borat, and Bruno instantly. And, being a bit of a cultist, the fact that no one I knew got it, if they knew about it at all, made it more appealling. This tends to happen with all cult objects; those that love it love it more specifically because they see themselves as sort of heroic for having found something that the rest of the public has rejected or ignored.

Now with all of Da Ali G Show characters, being in on the joke is part of it. The audience knows the gag, the rubes on screen do not. So the viewer can think "Well I wouldn't get fooled by Borat, I know he's not real" and it gives the viewer just that extra bit of pride, that extra bit of self-appreciation for his or fine cultitude.

And though cultists love to preach about their favorite obscurity, they are also deeply skeptical of mainstream acceptance of whatever they love — after all, something cannot be worthy of cult status if everyone agrees on it. So a cult object like Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy might already seem less special when it makes millions of dollars over night. But again, the very nature of Borat gives this effect a double impact: now everyone is in on the joke. The secret club we 45 people who watched Ali G had is now kaput. No one would be fooled by Borat ever again.

Though this only just dawned on me now, I think that's a big reason why I didn't like Borat. The cult is out of the bag. Am I crazy?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Termite Lit: Ball Four by Jim Bouton

When I bought Ball Four to read on a flurry of business trips, I didn't really know what I was buying. Basically, I knew I wanted to read a baseball book, and Game of Shadows isn't in paperback yet and the hardcover is almost thirty dollars. I knew I didn't want that. So I spent fifteen minutes browsing the sports section of the bookstore looking for anything that sounded promising. I wound up with Ball Four.

The book itself didn't catch my eye, but the number of various copies and editions on the shelf (an oversized hardcover, a smaller older copy, the "20th Anniversary Edition" which was the one I selected) did. If a bookstore has this many copies, it's either sold a lot, or sold none at all and no one bothered to stop reordering. I hoped it was the former and bought it. Thank the lords of Cooperstown I did.

Though Ball Four has faded into obscurity a bit, when it was published in 1969 it was, unquestionably, the most controversial book written about sports pretty much ever. In crafting this unforgettable yarn, its author, Jim Bouton, made a fatal mistake: he spoke the truth and named names. Bouton was a major leaguer at the time — a relief pitcher for the short-lived Seattle Pilots, to be specific — and he got it into his head to write a book chronicling a season in the life of a big league ballplayer. So he started keeping notes about everything he saw and heard on the field, in the bullpen and, most important, in the locker room. Ball Four is great because he simply reported, honestly, what he saw. And everyone hated him for it.

Then and now, the major league baseball locker room is like Vegas: what happens there stays there. Or at least it's supposed to; even though every team has tons of beat writers, sports reporters, ESPN correspondents following it around, the real nitty gritty, the dark stuff, that's supposed to get swept under the carpet. Bouton exposed it all, from the "beaver hunting" (a.k.a. spying on women, particularly in various states of undress) to the "greenies" (a.k.a. the amphetamines players casually and obsessively took to keep themselves pumped up throughout the grueling 162 game regular season), which are still a problem in baseball to this day (only recently, 35 years after the book was published, did the sport start testing for them).

Ball Four wouldn't be worth reading today if it was simply a breathless expose of a sport and how it was played over three decades ago. Rather, it's simply the most fun I've had reading something, anything, in ages. Every page is filled with wild outlandish stories, and conversations so funny they had to be real, because no humorist on their best day could make them up. You could literally turn to any page and find something fun or fascinating. And to prove the point, I will do that right now.

I've just flipped open to page 143:

The man I love [Bouton's incompetent pitching coach, Sal Maglie] had quite an adventure tonight. Darrell Brandon pitching, and with Rod Carew on third base he's using a full wind-up. At the last moment he decides to take a look over at Carew, who's taking a pretty good lead. So he backs off the rubber and Sal yells at him, "For crissakes, get the hitter. The runner isn't going anyplace."

So Darrell winds up and lets fly. And Carew steals home.

When Darrell comes into the dougout at the end of the inning, Maglie lets him have it. "Dammnit," he says. "You know you've got to pitch from the stretch in that situation."

In a roundabout way, Ball Four is also a predecessor to guys like Bill James and books like Moneyball by Michael Lewis. The baseball establishment was such an old boys club that people did things not because they were the best way to do them, but because that was the way they were always done, and to challenge the prevailing wisdom was to brand yourself an outsider or a weirdo, a deadly dangerous act for a player who wants to be "just one of the boys." Bouton repeatedly points out the backwards logic that drives not just the day-to-day decision making by managers and coaches, but in the long-term planning by upper management. And pretty much everything he says about the reserve clause and the need for free agency (or at least fairer wages for players) is right on the money and eventually came true.

It's a great book, but Jim Bouton has always been my hero even though I didn't know who he was until a few weeks ago. Turns out after his baseball career (which was sort of over as soon as he published Ball Four and outed his buddies bad behavior), Bouton went on to create one of my favorite childhood treats: Big League Chew. Attaway boy, way to go.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Art. Termite Art: The Living Daylights (1987)

I would suggest warming up for this weekend's excursion to Casino Royale by taking the time to scare The Living Daylights out of yourself.

Up until last week, Timothy Dalton's first (of only two) James Bond adventures, The Living Daylights was one of the last couple Bond films I had never seen. I'd avoided it mostly because I've always hated Dalton's final Bond appearance, Licence to Kill, so I assumed it was more of the same. Quite the contrary; after Goldfinger it may be the very best movie in the entire 42 year series.

It comes after the single most pathetic Bond, 1985's A View to a Kill by which point Roger Moore's Bond looked more like a kindly grandfather than a gentleman spy (not Moore's fault — age 58 at the time, Moore probably was a kindly grandfather). By the end of Moore's run, Bond had become a joke, intentionally and unintentionally. Since, by his own admission, Moore wasn't a fan of (or couldn't convincingly pull off) the character's darker elements, the series became the ultimate male pop fantasy: guns, gadgets, and girls, plus plenty of terribly cheesy one-liners. The problem is light comedy and adventure didn't mesh well with many of the Bonds Moore made: massive beasts of movies like Moonraker are too clumsy and too concerned with punctuality (pre-credits ski chase here, title song here, M scene here, Moneypenny flirts here, car chase here, etc.) to be fun and funny.

Timothy Dalton's Bond was a different animal. Instead of shagging anything in a bikini (ignore the picture above for a moment, please), Dalton's Bond pines and obsesses over a woman he can't have. Instead of using women to serve his purposes (sexual or otherwise), Dalton's Bond is used by women, or his preoccupation with the fairer sex is exploited by enemies who know 007 could never use that licence to kill of his on someone if the face was pretty enough.

As a result, The Living Daylights is a less a male power fantasy than a genuinely romantic adventure. Dalton's Bond travels to Russia to work as a sniper during the defection of a Russian general. When Bond finds his target he's shocked to discover she's a beautiful woman (actress Maryam D'Abo) and instead of killing her, he simply disarms her. Eventually, Bond discovers he and the British government have been double-crossed, and the girl is the key to catching the general and his arms dealer buddy.

I write a bit more at length about The Living Daylights over on this week's IFC News. I don't often pimp my work over there (new stuff weekly, by the way), but I will in this case because it's relevant, I'm really proud with the end result, and it took me forever to research and write it. In a very long feature, I examine at length the debut films by each actor to play James Bond (officially, so far): Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan. I discovered plenty more about The Living Daylights and all the others (ever wanted to know the words to the James Bond theme?!? You know you do! Click over!) — though there might have been nothing more insane than discovering who Dalton's Bond helps, how he helps them, and what they say as a big joke to end the movie.


Monday, November 13, 2006

The Lord's Lantern in Budapest (1999)

One thing I learned from Miklós Jancsó's The Lord's Lantern in Budapest: Hungarians do not clink glasses before drinking. The execution of 13 Arad martyrs, generals from the 1848 rebellion against the Hapsburgs, was toasted with the clinking of beer glasses by the occupiers, for which reason Hungarians never make contact with their pints when raising them for a toast [paraphrased from Andrew James Horton's essay on the film].

Another thing I learned: Jancsó's pretty funny. Yes, the distanced analyst of state violence and political communion and upheaval has made a comedy. It's astonishing what isn't known about him over here. Apart from The Round-Up (1965), The Red and the White (1967), and Red Psalm (1972), his films are virtually unknown, IMDB lists over 70 films to his credit, and 5 features since Lord's Lantern was made (which Horton notes was
"the fourth most popular Hungarian film of 1999" - I don't know how to take that).

I have seen 3 out of this output. So I'm a little behind. Lord's Lantern is the most recent of these, and the style is strikingly different (as one could imagine considering the 20 odd year gap). Instead of vast landscapes on which large groups march in choreographed diagonals, we get cramped frames. Here Jancso prefers to pack the foreground with characters, three or more, often in extreme close-up. The camera is mostly stationary, aside from a few striking examples. He eschews shot-countershot, maintaining these strange close-up two shots as faces loom in and out of the frame, quickly becoming grotesque caricatures - especially when the two leads, Péter Scherer and Zoltán Musci, play off each other. Popular comedians in their home country, the former is Pepe, a withdrawn doofus, while the latter is Kapa, an aggressive gasbag prone to violent outbursts. They have great chemistry together, thank goodness, because the film derives all its energy from their interaction.

There is no story, just the two characters transposed into a variety of different vignettes, with no connective tissue between them - they're grave diggers one scene, while the next Kapa is businessman, and next a mob boss. It's a freewheeling affair, almost like sketch comedy, it's self-consciousness peaking when Jancso and his screenwriter, Gyula Hernadi (who's worked with him since Round-Up) appear in the Grave-Digger section, philosophizing, getting assassinated, and then appearing in the next scene as if nothing happened. They even get the comic duo to re-do a joke they failed to execute the first time. Something about a bike.

There are endless references to Hungarian history and culture - all of which I'm ignorant of - but I got the feeling there were some scathing denigrations of the country's direction. The shot where Jancso and various countrymen are wearing angel wings while being blasted by firehoses might have something to do with it.

Best scene: a long take of Pepe and Kapa arguing on a bridge. Pepe wants to commit suicide and Kapa tries to dissuade him, eventually their discussion so enrages Kapa that he decides to jump and Pepe has to talk him down. The shift in the relationship is marked by a switch in direction of the camera, as it starts to pan left. I laughed. More at the incessant vulgarity than the camera movement, but that was nice too.

Getting Off the Schneid

Cormac McCarthy once wrote a book that was adapted into a movie. A Termite Art-er once wrote a review of his latest novel. He also dabbles in theatre; that’s the segue into “The Sunset Limited,” McCarthy’s off-Broadway play (by way of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre) that R. Emmet and I caught this past Friday. Similarities to another Steppenwolf landmark, Sam Shepard’s “True West” begin and end with its premise: two men, diametrically opposed, confined to a single domestic space, furiously jawing over the ideological schism between them. Though it’s less about America and its dream factories than Shepard’s piece, “The Sunset Limited,” is no less obsessed with capital-C culture, and with two characters known only by their races, equally primal. It’s about faith, death, intellect, and the difficulty in trying to understand other human beings and their messy motivations—and the restricting or liberating role that language plays in such an attempt.

Lights up on a spare, grotty Harlem tenement, and McCarthy quickly dispenses with backstory. "White" has recently, as in minutes ago, tried to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of the Sunset Limited, a daily commuter train. By some poorly explained and understood alchemy, "Black" intervened and hurried White back to his home—to offer succour, initially, and subsequently to essay an understanding why anyone would want to kill themselves. Even beyond white and black skin colour, their dispositions could hardly be more different. Austin Pendleton (seen in Oz, A Beautiful Mind, and Dirty Work; no, not that Dirty Work) is a university professor, tremulous, skittish, and inverted, with the entire western canon ingrained into the recesses of his memory. Freeman Coffey is an ex-convict, assured, expansive and garrulous, whose knowledge of the world begins and ends, at least so he says, with the Bible. Black sees potential in life, the world; White sees futility in both. White wants to leave; Black implores him no to. Black wants to talk; White does not. But White stays. Over the course of the course of the next hour and a half, their conversation runs ragged and free, but the subject they keep returning to is faith: White’s an atheist; Black is profoundly religious. It sets up an insurmountable divide. Which is somewhat bridged with coffee. And stew. Black reheats some and White doesn’t want to eat it. Then he does, with gusto. It is delicious.

Though fleet, “The Sunset Limited” is a play so dense and crammed with stuff—ideas, beautiful and devastating turns of phrase, etc.—that I wish a copy of the script were laying open on my desk. Forgive me then (or correct me, Sweeney) if my recollections stray too far from the truth. Because the crux of the play is language, which both characters use to their advantage, I apologize doubly for my memory. With baggy eyes and a spine like a question mark, Pendleton has a weary gravitas about him, and his character uses a prodigious vocabulary to argue in sprints, making incisive, pithy forays, and then retreating. (“Life is despair,” says White. “One describes the other.”) Coffey is more of a long-distance campaigner, an amalgam of aphorisms, bible quotes, and jailhouse stories stuffed into an avuncular, pot-bellied body. And despite his self-avowed lack of intelligence (more than once does he make remark of White’s love for epigrams rife five-dollar words) he has his own straightforward, dogged line of reasoning that backs White into logical dead ends from which he has to hastily retreat. The cultural divide also allows for some stunning revelations. For White, rhetorical ability is an encumbrance, because it allows him to articulate, down to the letter, the particulars of his sorrows. Culture is a yoke because it lays bare the manifold calamities of the world. Knowledge is posited as a burden, in direct trajectory from original sin and the garden of Eden—and out of synch with academia’s traditional evolution from the Enlightenment. It’s a start, but those are not the reasons White craves oblivion: “If the pain of this world was cumulative rather than reiterative,” White says, “the world would catch on fire and burn through whatever kind of night it was still capable of engendering until it was nothing more than ash.” His voice sinks into breathy nothing. Black visibly deflates too, disbelieving that such an ethos is possible.

So yes, I was taken by “The Sunset Limited,” but also because it inverts a common trope of theatre of this (gabby) type: by the end of their discussion, neither man undergoes life-altering metamorphosis. After a final monologue, that left me breathless and agape, White walks out of the apartment, still bent on his quest for Chaos. Black is left shaken, but still desperately clinging to his faith. There’s nothing transformative, nothing truly won, gained or lost. Just, I suppose, like life.

I haven't posted to Termite Art, well, ever, really. So now I'm off the schneid. Something more fun (and brief--I do get effusive when moved) next time.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


A heads up and a link, dear readers, to a fine article by Dave Kehr on director Steven Soderbergh and his Curtizian technique on the upcoming The Good German. I was curious to see the film before, I'm downright giddy now, after learning that this film will be Soderbergh's ode to studio system filmmaking, right down to the camera lenses. It could wind up being a masturbatory exercise in futile nostalgia, but it should make for a very interesting one.

I can't speak for my partner, The Sween, but I can promise I'll be writing at least a few times about a certain gentleman spy in next week's all-thrilling, all-chilling edition of TERMITE ART.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Pretty Little Heads

Events pile up. Look at the Miklós Jancsó sidebar program at the Walter Reade Theater. Part of their Hungarian Cinema survey, I've seen Electra, My Love (1974) and The Round-Up (1965) (with The Red and The White (1967) DVD aching to be viewed). The Round-Up is a stunner. Hungarian rebels agitating against the Austrian Hapsburg Empire are arrested and placed in a makeshift prison. The authorities don't know which are rebels and which peasants, so they set up ruthless traps for them to reveal themselves, and to encourage betrayals. Jancso's compositions are made up of shifting diagonals, line-ups of suspects and robotically trained troops. The authorities are mechanical in their methods, separating a few from the group, threatening the death penalty for all if none talk, and then depart, waiting for one or both to crack. Jancso's camera circles these doomed individuals with exacting grace, exposing the impossibility of escape and the practical genius of their brutal keepers.

Electra is less brilliant. Jancso shifts Euripides' tragedy to the Hungarian countryside, adding a folk singer as the
chorus. Here his constantly moving camera swoops around huge masses of people acting out bizarre rituals. One group rhythmically whips the ground, another links arms for a traditional dance involving lots of hopping. The hills are covered in candles. The specatcle can be overwhelming one moment and gratingly pretentious another.

The Museum of the Moving Images's complete Jacques Rivette retrospective begins on Friday, and I'm steeling myself for a crash course in this conspiratorial minded director. The big story here, of course, is the screening of
Out 1 (1971) on December 9 and 10. It's his 12 and a half hour opus of a theater group's improvisations with some sort of Balzacian mystery thrown in. Rarely shown - I'm pumped. Read Dennis Lim's brief history of the film to further whet your appetite.

The only Straub-Huillet film I've seen is The Chronicle of Anna Magdelena Bach (1968) a biography through music of Bach (it consists of long takes of performances). Best bio-pic ever? Probably. Rigorously beautiful tracking shots of Bach performing - it says everything without saying anything, that sort of thing. Well, Daniele Huillet died last month - and FIPRESCI's online magazine, Undercurrents, offers a great tribute in its latest issue, including appreciations by Jonathan Rosenbuam, Chris Fujiwara, and the editors of Cahiers du Cinema.

The Country Music Awards were fun. Especially Faith Hill's reaction after losing the best female vocalist award to American Idol winner Carrie Underwood. When C-Und's win was announced, Faith visibly yelled "What!" and stalked off camera. She claims it was a joke, and that everybody should calm down. Whatever her intentions it was beautiful television, plus her "Like We Never Loved At All" is hands down a better tune than "Jesus, Take the Wheel." Of the 17 performances I counted during the show (how an awards show should be run), the standouts were Alan Jackson's "Red Like A Rose" (also one of the best albums of the year), Brad Paisley doing a love song, Miranda Lambert with "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend", and Vince Gill with some uplifting thing at the end.

The new Nellie McKay album is superb. The adorable photos in the CD case are better.

Oh, and Rossellini at MoMA!

Directed by John Ford (1971/2006)

In his documentary about the films of director John Ford, Peter Bogdanovich gets many people, from collaborators to admirers, to speak about the impact and greatness of John Ford. Everyone, it seems, wants to celebrate this gargantuan talent of the movies except one man: John Ford. In Ford's interview (filmed, naturally, with Ford seated in his beloved Monument Valley), he dodges, ignores, or scoffs at every serious or provocative question Bogdanovich asks (Example: Bogdanovich: "Would you say that the view of the West in your work has grown progressively more melancholy? If, for example, we compare the West's presentation in Wagon Master and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?" Ford: "No.")

Those who knew Ford admit he was a tough interview: if he felt like it, he would often give a reporter the opposite answer to the one he would want to hear. This was almost certainly the case with Bogdanovich, but I think it also speaks to the sort of artist Ford was. Directed by John Ford features marvelous period interviews with three of Ford's best leading men: James Stewart, Henry Fonda, and, of course, John Wayne. All three discuss Ford's techniques for directing of actors, which involved very little concrete discussion and more subtle provocation; Stewart relates a marvelous story of how he motivated Stewart and co-star Richard Widmark to each bring their best to a crucial scene in Two Rode Together by taking them each aside and suggesting the other was their better as a "country actor." When actors would ask specific, pointed questions about their characters, Ford would refuse to answer: he would rather talk fishing or politics or anything else, Fonda suggests, implying that even if Ford was messing with interviewers like Bogdanovich, it may have been more involuntary than it might have first appeared.

This jives with my opinion that while some artists are quite deliberate and methodical, there are others, just as gifted, who rely instead on instinct and feel. These men and women won't discuss their technique, or their worldview or whatever with an interviewer because they can't: creation for them is some sort of alchemical process that exists at least in part outside their full control. They are naturals. Ford was a natural. It was simply in his nature to do what he did, and to do it as well as he did. One of his admirers, Scorsese I think, mentions that wherever he put the camera in a scene was always the correct place to put it.

For an artist like Ford, to examine their gift too closely is to become too self-conscious of it — something that's happened to many directors of early success who've taken their talents too seriously. Soon an inflated sense of self-importance creeps into their work. Mr. Bogdanovich himself might know a thing or two about that.

Ford was able to remain a filmmaker and not a self-analyzer and his remarkable career stands as a testament to that. Bogdanovich's documentary is a little too long and a little too reverent, and I have a hunch Ford would have never put his name above the title of a picture with such a loose structure, but it does feature more beautiful images than you can count, references to movies you haven't seen and should (TCM, thank you for showing Fort Apache!), and those terrific interviews with Stewart, Fonda, and Wayne (who understands Ford better than anyone else Bogdanovich speaks to), along with some of his filmmaking fans, Steven Spielberg, Walter Hill, Martin Scorsese, and Clint Eastwood. Watching Clint paired with those clips of Liberty Valance made me think of Flags of our Fathers more than once. We've discussed it quite a bit over on Michael Anderson's Tativille, but is it too late to get into it in Fordian terms?

The one really truly great nugget Bogdanovich manages to pry from Ford: his opinion of dialogue. As a truly visual filmmaker, Ford tried to limit the dialogue as much as he could but, as he acknowledges, a certain amount of it is expected by the audience and therefore a requirement. "Do you like dialogue?" Bogdanovich asks. "Yeah," Ford replies, "if it's cryptic enough."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Happy Election Day!

This film critic is almost as equally devoted to politics and the joy of Election Day as she is the movies. Thus, a preliminary report of today's Election Day returns, MSNBC graphics, and other televised sightings, both sweet and grotesque alike. So here we go, some of my favorite moments up until now, 10:25pm CST--because this midterm election is turning out to be as nearly important as our national general election.

Hope everyone (eligible) made it to the polls.

Most Tragic Moment
Former Senator Rick Santorum's (R-PA) children bawling on stage during his concession speech.
(Did you see his little girl grasping her dolly in tearful hysterics?)

Most Compelling Chris Matthews Argument
Tie--between his terse exchange with Howard Dean (Chairman, DNC) in which he demands an answer to the Dems' plan in Iraq; and with his continuing showdown with panelist Joe Scarborough (the competition is to see who will first tilt their head and/or neck while speaking).

Most Anticlimactic MSNBC Graphic
Keith Olbermann's rip-off of Tim Russert's whiteboard scribbles of the 2000 Election.
(He used a computer marker to circle the northeastern region of states that went Dem, with text that read "ALL DEMS." C'mon, Keith. Computer markers just don't have the same punch as Russert's dried-out dry erase markers did.)

Biggest Shock
That incumbent Virginia Senator George Allen (R-VA) was able to run this race in a dead heat with James Webb (D) after his disgustingly racist "macaca" remark. Which he made on video tape. That was widely circulated. And shown on Meet The Press. Tsk...

Best Fox News Report
I don't know. I couldn't bring myself to watch for longer than 3 minutes.

Biggest, Grandest News Desk
Easy one. This title goes to the throne over on NBC that's shared by Brian Williams, Tim Russert and (he's baa-ack) Tom Brokaw. (It must be 12 feet wide!)

Best Female Senate Race Winner Being Applauded By Her Husband and Former U.S. President
Hillary Clinton (D-NY). Looking sharp in a yellow suit, a nice middle-ground color indeed.
(Billy stood behind her on stage for her speech, mouth agape, apparently hanging on her every word. He also clapped very slowly and theatrically. The crowd roared.)

One final regional note from Chicago: They don't hand out "I Voted" stickers here. Someone better have a good reason for this.

Good-night, America!

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Termite Art Halloween: (1978)

There are two sorts of movies that demand constant use of the fast-forward button. One is a mystery that is so terrible that you don't care to watch, but you've invested so much time in already that you at least want to know the resolution, thus you fast-forward to the end. The second is a movie that is so unbearably suspenseful and scary that you have to fast-forward ahead for fear your blood pressure will rise to the point of restricting the flow of oxygen to your brain. John Carpenter's Halloween is one of those movies. By the final half hour, I was heading for the fast forward button every five minutes. I just couldn't take it. I'm a wussy, ok? A big fat wussy. I admit it.

It's amazing to me that Halloween is this good, because I've seen several of the sequels, the recent Halloween: Resurrection as well as either Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers or Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers — to be honest, I can't tell which one based on the various plot descriptions I could find and, I suspect, if we'd asked Donald Pleasence before he died, he probably couldn't have told the difference either — and they were uniformly terrible. By late in the series, Michael Myers' supernatural powers of murder and mutilation were informed by — I shit you not — druid curses. There is nothing scary, nor cool, nor fun, nor interesting about druid curses. This once again confirms my theory that druids ruin everything. (Druids, please address all rebuttals and curses, to the Termite Art Complaint Department, c/o Drew Tillman, East Gebip, Kansas, 20394).

Back in 1978 before all that nonsense, Carpenter crafted a stripped down piece of true horror. I mean, this movie is totally terrifying. There are only two ways someone could not be scared by Halloween: either a)they are, in fact, a mass-murderer cursed by druids, in which case the film would play sort of like a well crafted episode of This Is Your Life or b)they've seen so many of the crummy Halloween knock-offs that they mistake Carpenter's inventiveness for the cliches which suceeded it.

Otherwise it's impossible to resist the persistent mood of encroaching, unavoidable horror. The Halloween sequels and the Friday the Imitators ratchet up the gore and the complexity, so much so that it's fun, in a morbid way, to guess how one of these slashers will kill next ("Ooooh a caulking gun! That's gonna hurt!"). Halloween proves you needn't be bloody to be scary — few of the murders have more than a light trickle of blood, but all will have you covering your eyes and, yes, reaching for the fast forward button. The end, where "The Shape" seems to materialize out of nowhere from the shadows behind Jamie Lee Curtis and later sits straight up after getting stabbed in the gutular region more times than any human should be able to withstand, you can't wait for the movie to end, not because it's bad, but because you just can tolerate much more suspense.

Thank goodness the malpractice suit waiting to happen named Dr. Loomis (Pleasence) arrives to shoot Michael six times, to knock him off a balcony to the lawn below. By the time Loomis looks out the window to make sure Myers is dead he's already scraped himself up and wandered away, leaving Loomis to cackle the classic line: "I shot him 6 times! I shot him in the heart — but... HE'S NOT HUMAN!" Actually he doesn't say that in Halloween (which ends right after Myers' body disappears), but in Halloween II (which picks up right after Myers' body disappears). Which means that I've also seen Halloween II. It stunk too. But the original, the only one Carpenter directed, is still great. See that one.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Kazakhstan Reigns Supreme at American Box Office

According to the always dependable, Box Office Mojo, based on Friday's early reports the champion of the Box Office this week will be Borat, even though he's on less than a third of the screens of bigger, appeal-to-the-widest-possible-audience fare like The Santa Clause 3 and Flushed Away.

Kudos to the American public for finding such hilarious (if somewhat overhyped) fare. If you just can't get enough of Borat, well here's me and him chilling, discussing hairstyles, gypsy boys, and the Kazakh independent film movement. Good times.

I've got 1 more Termite Art Halloween post coming, even though Halloween is over and everyone but me has moved on. Listen, it takes a while to catch up to my DVR ok?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Termite Art Halloween: Frankenstein (1931)

I'd never seen Frankenstein before this week, but I had read it. Not the original Mary Shelley novel, mind you; I'd read the actual movie. As a youth in Marlboro, New Jersey's Frank Defino Central School, I was totally enthralled by the school library's series of heavily illustrated books about Hollywood's great movie monsters. Each book in the series (forgive me for not remembering the title — I wish I knew it so I could hunt them down on eBay) featured a different famous monster of filmland. The best part was that each book synopsized each character's numerous sequels, not just their debut feature. Before I'd seen a frame of Tod Browning's Dracula, I was well-versed in the intricate and often confusing continuties of Dracula's Daughter and Son of Dracula, and I would have been happy to tell you that House of Frankenstein preceded House of Dracula which preceded Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein when things really got out of hand.

Look, I was a weird kid.

Though all of these books, including volumes on The Wolf Man, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, and The Blob, made quite an impression on me in elementary school, I somehow avoided seeing any of them throughout my teenage and college years. While I caught up on myriad Friday the 13ths and Halloweens, I never actually saw the originals, the classics. Maybe because having read these books, laden with spoilers and juicy film stills, I felt like I'd already seen them, even though I hadn't.

And so it could happen that on Halloween 2006, at nearly 26 years old, I finally saw James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein fors the very first time. Even though I'd never seen the picture, and it has been decades since I'd even laid eyes on those old dusty library books, the film felt quite familiar: even before Young Frankenstein grave robbed all its tricks, this story of a mad scientist and his misunderstood creation had been remade or cannibalized a thousand times over, enough that I'd seen one or two of its imitators, if not the real thing.

There are two surprising aspects to Whale's Frankenstein. The first is that, made in 1931, the film is very much an early sound film. Undoubtedly the film helped establish an entire moviemaking genre, and Boris Karloff characterization of Frankenstein's monster has, with good reason, resonated with generations of moviegoers. But this is, in many ways, a rather crudely and often strangely made picture. Though it remains famous for Karloff's famous performance, I'd estimate that the movie has more jolly Bavarian dancing than scenes of monster rampage. And, frightening as a bunch of Oktoberfesting Germans can be, there's no question what I'd rather see more of.

I was also rather shocked to see that Frankenstein is, for all intents and purposes, not a horror film, despite the fact that I'd always been taught — partly by old library books — that it, along with Browning's Dracula, were the two pillars upon which an entire decade of Universal horror pictures were built. And of course, you have the requisite lab-coated madman, the crackling electrodes, the snarling assistant with the hump (named Fritz here, not Igor, that would come later) but really the only true terror is that inflicted on, rather than by, the poor monster.

Whale's most effective scene is built not out of horror, but sadness. The Monster escapes captivity and wanders the countryside. He stumbles on a little girl whose been left alone to play by the side of a pond. The innocent girl is the first human being to show the monster kindness after months of torture at the hands of Fritz and Frankenstein. She takes him by the hand and shows him how to play, tossing flower pedals into the lake. The Monster has so much fun he gets carried away, and when he runs out of flowers to throw, he tosses the little girl instead. Most of the film is shot on soundstages or backlot sets; Whale sets this scene in a seemingly real location of quiet, natural beauty. There is a genuine tenderness to the performance of the little girl (by a young Marilyn Harris, if IMDb is to be believed) and that makes her fate, and the ultimate fate of the monster's, that much more tragic.

Despite my background in movie monsters from all those books, I wasn't prepared for that. With their breathless pose and cool pictures of the monster busting loose, they didn't even hint at the true beauty the movie had in store.