Welcome back, Alejandro Jodorowsky!


Roger Ebert and “Democracy in the Dark”

My first impression of Roger Ebert, many years ago when he was doing the Siskel/Ebert weekly dustup, was that he was a smart guy whose intelligence was undermined by platform – the half hour run-through of the week’s films was always rushed, his written work was better. Little did I know how amazing and strong he would prove to be as an e-patient, after losing his mouth, jaw, and ability to speak and eat to surgical complications connected with thyroid cancer. You have to respect a guy who’ll keep trucking after that kind of trauma, and with those constraints. He didn’t surrender, and continued to be one of the most knowledgeable and forceful film critics.

For some years Ebert was part of the University of Colorado’s Conference on World Affairs in Boulder. I saw him do his Cinema Interruptus thing there in 2001, when he made an in depth review of “Fight Club.” It blew me away, seeing how much I’d missed about that film, and how deep he’d gone into it, finding quirky subliminal cues planted by Fincher.

Cinema Interruptus involved going through a film one shot at a time, described by Ebert in this blog entry:

This all began for me in about 1969, when I started teaching a film class in the University of Chicago’s Fine Arts program. I knew a Chicago film critic, teacher and booker named John West, who lived in a wondrous apartment filled with film prints, projectors, books, posters and stills. “You know how football coaches use a stop-action 16mm projector to study game films?” he asked me. “You can use that approach to study films. Just pause the film and think about what you see. You ought to try it with your film class.”
I did. The results were beyond my imagination. I wasn’t the teacher and my students weren’t the audience, we were all in this together. The ground rules: Anybody could call out “stop!” and discuss what we were looking at, or whatever had just occurred to them. A couple of years later, when I started doing shot-by-shots at the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the conference founder, Howard Higman, described this process as “democracy in the dark.” Later he gave it a name: Cinema Interruptus. Perhaps it sounds grueling, but in fact it can be exciting and almost hypnotic. At Boulder for more than 30 years, I made my way through a film for two hours every afternoon for a week, and the sessions had to be moved to an auditorium to accommodate attendance that approached a thousand.


Thirteen homicidal, macabre ghostly tinglers and William Castle

William Castle

William Castle Fan Club membership cardWe just watched the excellent documentary “Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story” on TCM, and it inspired a cascade of memories of my preteen fascination with horror and sci-fi films and fiction. I was an avid reader of Famous Monsters of Filmland and member of the National William Castle Fan Club, where I was invited to recite the mantra, “William Castle is the master of movie horror.”

Castle was like Roger Corman, but with a big personality and personal brand. He produced and directed tight low-budget horror films, always with a gimmick. For “Macabre,” a film he mortgaged his house to make, he offered a $1,000 life insurance policy for any audience member who died of fright during the film – he had actual nurses on hand at some screenings. “House on Haunted Hill” had “Emergo,” a plastic skeleton that “emerged” seemingly from nowhere to the right of the screen and flew (actually rode a wire) across the audience. For “The Tingler,” Castle installed vibrators on some seats throughout a threatre so that random audience members felt the creepy tingle as the tingler in the film, a parasite that looked like a prehistoric centipede, was activated. These films were pretty good – Castle had worked with Orson Welles, was involved in shooting the great “Lady from Shanghai,” and knew his craft pretty well. He made most of his films in a matter of days with very low budgets.

But what was great about Castle’s films was that they were weird fun; I think this was an effect of his disposition and charisma. He became a brand, appearing in previews and introductions to his film, often selling the gimmick to his growing audience. He was a great salesman.

There’s a darker story that comes later, involving his involvement as producer of “Rosemary’s Baby.” I won’t get into that here, but follow the link if you’re interested.


Wells and Welles

Ran across this interesting conversation, Orson Welles jamming with H.G. Wells in San Antonio, Texas, of all places. Welles attributed his success to Wells’ “War of the Worlds,” his Halloween 1938 radio version having brought him fame/notoriety. He says in the conversation that “Citizen Kane” was possible only because of the radio broadcast, which was supposedly so real as to inspire widespread panic – likely overstated by the press. (My father once told me that the reaction was far more subdued, from what he could see.) Whatever the case, Welles got some ink, and it built his reputation as a dramatic force.

Here’s the complete 1938 radio version of WotW:

15 years later, in 1953, a very good film version was released, produced by George Pal, and featuring Gene Barry as a square-dancing, high flying scientist-hero.


“Shame” and transformation

Michael Fassbender

Just saw the grim but enlightening film “Shame,” wherein Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a bland, disarmingly handsome thirtysomething obsessed with pornography and vicarious sex. The film lit up a few insights inspired by Buddhist and 4th Way practices; I saw Brandon’s sex addiction as an extreme form of attachment in the Buddhist sense, or what 4th Way practitioners might call identification…sex addiction in the 21st century, well fed by prolific sources of pornographic media, being an extreme form. Brandon’s stuck inside his obsession, attached to completely subjective and interior experience. The sex act, for him, is always a form of masturbation, even when he’s with someone else. He’s managed to hide it and remain “shameless”; the film shows a transformation as his obsession is revealed to and challenged by external forces. Most powerful of these is the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who invades the privacy that is fundamental to the persistence of his cycle of craving and release. She challenges him to connect with a reality outside his own. She’s damaged, and she desparately needs him as a constant in her life. She needs his compassion to feel complete, but compassion is foreign to him. He explicitly denies any responsibility for her.

He has no sense of humor.

Drawn to a relationship with coworker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) that could be more intimate, not just masturbatory, he can’t take this potentially more authentic connection to any meaningful level – he snorts a line of coke and attempts sex, but for once, he can’t get it up. He rejects her and she leaves, but he quickly finds another girl and finds that he can “perform” in a context where there is no emotional connection or demand.

He makes this connection with Marianne after Sissy walks in while he’s masturbating, and triggering what might be his first instance of shame and a dawning sense of awareness. He plows through his flat digging out all his pornography and sex paraphernalia, and trashing it. Interesting that this is followed by a failed attempt to be real. This is followed by more rejection, self-destructive behavior, a desperate cry for help from Sissy, more wanton sex, and Sissy’s attempted suicide. As I said earlier, this is grim stuff.

Sissy’s suicide attempt shocks him in to reality – as John Shirley writes, in a piece about the Gurdjieff work, “it is only shocks that can lead a man out of the state in which he lives, that is, waken him.”

At the beginning of the film, there was a scene where he sees a beautiful girl on the subway, flirts with her, attempting seduction. We see that she’s wearing an wedding ring and an engagement ring. She flirts back, but quickly disappears, he’s unable to find her. At the end of the film, the last scene, he sees the same girl. Her makeup is less soft, and she’s not wearing her wedding ring. She flirts with him more overtly, but he doesn’t respond. The film ends here, and it seemed clear to me that we were seeing a person transformed, that he was choosing not to pursue his former obsession. Maybe we’ve seen at least a partial awakening?


Iron Sky

Looking forward to this zany bit of participatory cinema, with lunar ufo Nazis attacking earth:


Roger Ebert: “a first-rate second-rate memoirist”

Maureen Dowd writes about Roger Ebert’s memoir, and about the disfiguring surgical failures that have rendered him unable to speak, eat, or drink – the lower half of his face is pretty much gone. Despite this, Ebert is “effervescent” but overly detailed in accounts of his early life. However he has great stories to tell, and he nails the movie industry:

“Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic, musical,” he says. “Today it is flat.” He mourns that “it sometimes seems as if the movies are more mediocre than ever, more craven and cowardly, more skillfully manufactured to pander to the lowest tastes instead of educating them.”



The Tree of Life

Brain Shaped Tree, image by Bill Booth

The Tree of Life may be the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (or not); in his film called “The Tree of Life,” Terence Malick plays with the universals – grace and nature parallel good and evil. Nature is will, ego; grace is nurturing. The film’s narrative plays out in Waco, Texas and in the vast cosmos, infinite space and time, surrounding it; it places one very human story in a vast transhuman context.  In one primeval scene, one dinosaur, a predator, chooses not to kill and consume another… this establishes grace as something that precedes the human; I think the point is that nature and grace always coexisted, and always will, and grace seeps into nature. “Good” and “evil” are complex and intertwingled.

I thought the film was magnificent; in it I saw scenes familiar from my own life growing up in a Texas town in the 50s and 60s, though I wasn’t in that family, and I was far more innocent. And Malick’s family has no television set in the living room… imagine what a difference that would make.

The vision of the “tree of life” represents a sense that all life on earth is related… and there’s a tree of life web project that shows that connectedness. The planet is teeming with life, but all species are endangered by the actions and operations of one – is this nature acting without grace? Last night Oliver Markley spoke to the Central Texas World Future Society on the subject of risk and resilience – is civilization at a tipping point toward collapse?

Some issues seem to exceed even the management skills of the more advanced countries, however. When countries first detected falling underground water tables, it was logical to expect that governments in affected countries would quickly raise water use efficiency and stabilize population in order to stabilize aquifers. Unfortunately, not one country—industrial or developing—has done so. Two failing states where overpumping water and security-threatening water shortages loom large are Pakistan and Yemen.

Although the need to cut carbon emissions has been evident for some time, not one country has succeeded in becoming carbon-neutral. Thus far this has proved too difficult politically for even the most technologically advanced societies. Could rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere prove to be as unmanageable for our early twenty-first century civilization as rising salt levels in the soil were for the Sumerians in 4000 BC?

Another potentially severe stress on governments is the coming decline in oil production. Although world oil production has exceeded new oil discoveries by a wide margin for more than 20 years, only Sweden and Iceland actually have anything that remotely resembles a plan to effectively cope with a shrinking supply of oil.

This is not an exhaustive inventory of unresolved problems, but it does give a sense of how their number is growing as we fail to solve existing problems even as new ones are being added to the list. Analytically, the challenge is to assess the effects of mounting stresses on the global system. These stresses are perhaps most evident in their effect on food security, which was the weak point of many earlier civilizations that collapsed.

I think it’s time to pay attention.

Photo by Bill Booth, licensed via Creative Commons


The Social Network

The David Fincher/Aaron Sorkin film collaboration called “The Social Network” is not about technology, though there are scenes that suggest how code is produced through focused work (which actually looks boring when you’re watching it “IRL” (in real life), without Fincher’s hyperactive perspective – but is so engaging you can lose yourself totally in the process when you’re the one actually producing the code).  The film is more about the entrepreneurial spirit, what it takes to have a vision and see it through. The real visionary in the film, Mark Zuckerberg, appears far less intense IRL than Jesse Eisenberg’s interpretation would suggest, but his drive and work ethic are undeniable. It’s not an accident that a guy in his twenties produced a billion-dollar platform; he could have been derailed if he’d lacked the persistence of vision and intent that the film shows so clearly. And, of course, he was kind of a jerk, probably without meaning to be. That kind of focus and drive tends to override comfortable social graces, kind of ironic when you’re building a social platform.

Larry Lessig complains that Sorkin’s ignorance of Internet technology caused him to miss the real story here, that Facebook exists because the Internet is free and open and presents few barriers to innovation. But I don’t think Sorkin wanted to write that story – he found drama in the Zuckerberg vs world conflict and wrote the story he had to write, acknowledging that he made no attempt to be true-to-fact.  He does pick up on the IP issue, and the fact that Zuckerberg shouldn’t have been forced to pay the Winkelvoss twins (there’s a line in the film where Zuckerberg says a guy who builds a better chair shouldn’t have to share his profits with anybody else who’s thought about building a chair before he got to it). In the film, he’s clearly having to pay because his grating personality and arrogance make him unattractive, not on the merit of the facts of the case. Eduardo Saverin seems in the film to have been screwed over, though one could argue that dilution of his shares was justifiable owing to a lack of commitment to the enterprise. More here.

After seeing the film, and reading and thinking some more about the creation and evolution of Facebook, I find that I have more respect for Zuckerberg’s genius and his drive… but like many I’m concerned about his apparent lack of social and ethical depth, especially since Facebook is how so many people today experience the Internet. Working on a talk about the future of the Internet, I’m finding that one plausible scenario is that Facebook replaces the web as a kind of operating system/interface. What are the implications?


Happy Birthday, Ray Harryhausen

Heroic special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, whose influence nearly led me to a craft for which I probably would have had no patience, is 90 years old. Harryhausen’s films opened my head and rocked my world. Thanks to Harry Knowles for the birthday candle and pointer to the video below, a compendium of Harryhausen’s stop-motion animations.

Harry’s tribute:

Ray is easily one of the single most beloved figures in the behind the scenes arts. While primarily an effects master, Ray’s sense of wonder, personality, design and imagination was so clearly outputted to the screen that his films and him in particular… are cherished as though they were the beating heart of Jimmy Stewart himself. I’ve had the honor of getting to spend some really great quality time with Ray over my lifetime, and he’s like an additional grandfather to me. Not to mention one of the chief founders of my imagination. His creatures live in my brain – and I love them there.

My curiosity about how he did what he did, gave me the passion to pursue finding out more about film in general. How do you make a toy live? That’s what I always gathered, and nobody, but nobody’s toys moved like Harryhausen’s.


The Hurt Locker

When “The Hurt Locker” screened at SXSW, I thought it was one of the better films I’d seen in years, and Jeremy Renner established himself as a world-class – not just actior but presence. While Katherine Bigelow has always been a sklled action director, she’s never quite had story and actors equal to her ability. In “The Hurt Locker” she shows the other side of post-traumatic stress. Renner plays a detonation pro who embraces, is almost addicted to, the stresses of modern war experienced through his job, one of the most dangerous in today’s field of battle, defusing bombs planted in and around the streets of the city. Even inside the citizens, as we see in one literally gut-wrenching scene. Put this film at the top of your list – one of the year’s best.