Monday, January 31, 2011

Finally Discussing The Expendables and Machete

I took the day off today. I've had a head cold all weekend, and rather than go into work and be a miserable, sniffling, hacking wretch all day, I decided to stay home and write. I used to be one of those tough guys who would go to work rain or shine, thinking that if I wasn't there, something would come up and without me, it'd all fall to shit. As time went on, however, I realize that a) I wasn't that important, b) I loathe being around people when I'm sick, and c) I get over two sick days a MONTH, meaning right now I could probably hack off my leg and still be enjoying paid sick leave by the time Medical Science finds a way to re-attach it and have me dancing a jig.

In order to justify staying home for a day, I do hope to get some serious writing accomplished. I'm going to warm up the keyboard by writing a column this morning on a much neglected subject; my comparison of the two funnest, pulpiest movies to come out in a long time; The Expendables and Machete. I saw The Expendables three times in the theater, each time with a different batch of friends, and I saw Machete twice for the same reason. It certainly wasn't a chore, and that is always a good sign; if I can watch a movie two or even three times in the theater within a month or so and not be bored those repeat visits (Inception, I'm looking at you right now), that is a movie I'll have to add to my collection some day.

I'm not even going to bother talking about the plot of either film. I can't imagine anyone reading this hasn't seen these two movies, and if you're one of those unlucky few...I dunno what to do with you. Go read the wikis on the two movies, or their IMDb entries (I put those hyperlinks in for a reason). I can hear the peanut gallery already piping off, "Those are action movies, there is no plot! Hur hur hur!". Now, that's just being dumb. Of course there is a plot - it's just not the focus of either film. A plot is the road by which your story moves from A to B to C, and the engine is the motivations of the characters involved. I actually think in most action movies, the engine, the character motivations, are more important.

In The Expendables, the initial drive is simple - money. The guys are mercs, here's some cash to go in and bring down a tinpot dictator, have at it. Of course, it's never that easy. A simple recon turns into a bloodbath, there's a beautiful woman involved, and our leading man decides he can't leave the leading lady to her ignoble fate. Despite his protestations to the contrary, the rest of the team mounts up and goes in with him to bring the girl home and give the bad buys the finger; the trigger-finger, that is. I guess this is the sort of dramatic conflict you get when the "Bros Before Hos" rule gets turned on its ear; is it still applicable when you back a Bro because of his love for a Ho? Does the "All's Fair in Love and War" rule kick into effect somewhere in this mess? Am I even making sense?

In the end, it's not about the money, it's about love, pride, and brotherhood. Stallone's character won't leave a courageous young woman to her terrible fate, the team wants to prove that, "Suicide Mission" or no, they can do a job the Agency figured would see them dead, and they go in together as brothers in arms, each fighting for each other more than anything else. At the end of the day, through thick and thin, these are guys who love each other and are willing to die to defend each other, even if sometimes they want to (and try to) kill each other. And, although by the third viewing, Mickey Rourke's speech about the girl on the bridge had me giggling like a little girl, he had a point; if you keep fighting for nothing but money, some day you're going to wake up and discover that you've sold your soul to Ares, so to speak, and there's nothing left inside. Sometimes, you need to feel good about the things you do - you need to feel like you fought for a cause.

This is where we shift gears and look now at Machete. I actually liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would. I had seen Rodriguez' Planet Terror and thought it sucked ass. Coupled with a string of "I'm making movies for my kids now! Wheee!", and I'd pretty much written him off. But oh man...Machete. This movie is The Shit, and I mean that in the best way possible. When you've got a scene involving rappelling out a window using another man's small intestine, when you're three minutes into the movie and already you've got a triple beheading accomplished with one swing of a machete, and do I even have to mention the Secret Cell Phone Hiding Place? I didn't think so, but I mentioned it anyways, because it's just that awesome.

Machete is a movie driven by two motivations; the main character's thirst for revenge against those who set him up, and the secondary character's drive to escape persecution at the hands of the Haters. I'm not going to get into the whole Illegal Immigration tar-pit here, but knowing that there really are legions of heavily armed, paramilitary rednecks driving around the border "defending our country from the invaders from the south" makes me queasy on multiple levels. I don't think there's an easy solution to the problem, but I am fairly sure none of those possible solutions involve a drunken hillbilly with a Remington 700 chambered in .300 WinMag sniping at women and children from the back of a Chevy pickup truck at 2 AM. But I digress.

The Expendables and Machete draw from similar, but separate, wells of homage / retro goodness. The Expendables pulls from the action movies of the 80's; Commando, Red Scorpion, Rambo: First Blood Part II, fun shit like that. Stallone has done, in my opinion, an excellent job of going through his film career and putting a quality polish on every franchise he's helped build; I really thought both Rocky Balboa and Rambo were very, very good films. Both took a hard, uncompromising look at these aging characters and how their lives have turned out decades after their filmic journeys began. In a way, The Expendables does the same thing for an entire genre of movies, the Military Action Thriller. None of the guys in this movie are young; the youngest is Jason Statham, and he was born in '72. And I find that critically important.

I always find it interesting that the best action movies are made with actors who are at least in their 30's, which I think stems back, originally, to the Vietnam plot device, which fueled Stallone's Rambo movies and was also the driving motivator behind Lethal Weapon and many other films; by the 1980's, you had a whole crop of actors in their 30's who could play Vietnam vets who were blooded in the 70's. Hell, it's what drove most of the characters in most of the Post Modern Pulps for a good twenty years. At the very least, Stallone and Rourke are both old enough to have fought in Vietnam, and at least Statham was born when the war was winding down. That all of these actors are old enough to have some kind of connection to Vietnam is, I think, important; that war, and the aftermath that followed both historically and culturally, is what drove the PMP genre in film and written fiction for a solid 20+ years. The idea that Barney Ross and Tool could very well be Vietnam vets who've followed the Path of the Mercenary ever since is pretty sobering, and if you read the film from that angle, I think it adds a lot more gravitas to their character's motivations.

Ultimately, I think this movie is, like his other two "end-cap" films, not so much an homage or remake of his earlier works but a way to provide closure. I saw many people pooh-pooh The Expendables for not being "80's enough"; there weren't enough great one-liners that you'll be quipping for months afterward, there was no pointless nudity (hey, is nudity ever pointless?), blah blah blah. Well, I think the point is, you can't go back. The movie was made in 2010, not 1985, and those of us in our 30's who saw those classic action movies in our junior high years (usually taken with a dad or older brother, or edited on TV, or as a rental years after the fact) are viewing the older genre through a lot of lenses. The fact that the paramilitary action movie largely died out by the mid-90's, and hasn't really resurfaced until now, says a lot about the genre and the sentiments of the movie-going audience. That might be a whole other column, since this one is getting a little long in the tooth anyhow.

So let's circle back around to Machete. This movie finds its roots in older films and books, the trashier, pulpier madness of the late 60's and early to mid 70's. I feel that in every measure, this should have been the movie Rodriguez made for Grindhouse, because it is pure, raw, exploitation and Id. The movie is filled with gory violence, it's got full frontal nudity about five minutes in, there's a minigun bolted to a motorcycle, and a machete the size of a 13th century bastard sword. As much as I was cheering and enjoying the great moments in The Expendables, there were moments in Machete; many, many moments, where I found myself clapping and braying like a jackass because it was so wrong, it couldn't have been more right.

If the acting is awkward and wooden in some parts and utterly hyperbolic in others, if there are gaping holes in the plot here and there and in other places, stuff just simply doesn't make any sense, that's okay; a lot of the material this film is based on was written in days, hours even, and shot / edited / produced / delivered like fast food; sloppy but quick. And sometimes, just like you might have a sudden terrible, regrettable, awful craving for a Big Mac and extra large fries, washed down with a large, 1,000 calorie chocolate milkshake, you need the pure insanity that is this film. The reasons people watch a movie like this are the same reasons you might be watching gladiators duke it out circa 100 AD, or why you're up at 3 AM watching gratuitous porn on the internet for no good reason (wait, see pointless nudity comment above...), or why you just ate a whole bag of Doritos in one sitting. You do it because some times you just need to dunk your head in the gutter for a few moments to appreciate the sunny side of the world.

And now, I'm spent. And seriously considering a matinee of The Mechanic today.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Female Duo Revenge Movies

Last night I watched The Assassin Next Door, a rather good, powerful and emotional movie about Galia, a young mother who's trapped in Tel Aviv working (as far as I can tell) as an indentured escort for an organized crime syndicate. She's got a daughter back in Kiev and she's trying to get home, but since her passport is being held hostage, she has no way to escape.

Oh, here's a link to the IMDb page on The Assassin Next Door. Incidentally for Neil Marshall fans, the actress who plays Galia is the "huntress" Etain in Centurion. If you haven't seen that film, just stop reading now, go see it, and then come back here.

Eventually bad stuff happens, and then there's more bad stuff, and Galia is given the offer that, if she'll act as a trigger-(wo)man on a couple of hits, she'll be given her passport and tickets and money to go home. Galia moves into a shitty apartment building during this time, and finds herself next door to Elanor, a young wife of an abusive husband who fights with her and beats her every night.

Eventually Galia and Elanor enter into a friendship and partnership as each helps the other get out of their awful situation. Fear not, folks - I have not suddenly started watching the Oxygen channel. While there is a lot of emotion and talk about friendship and loss and childbirth yadda yadda yadda (which I will say, is done with craft and subtlety and a fair degree of good acting), there are a number of gunfights and some pretty shocking displays of violence. This movie falls squarely into that category of "Violent Drama"; it's not an action movie, but the action that does take place is brutal, graphic, and very meaningful and real.

I find it interesting that some of the best female revenge stories I can think of (Kill Bill excepted, of course), such as this movie, Thelma & Louise, and as one person pointed out to me, Bound, feature a pair of women who form a relationship and partnership to work through their conflict. On the other hand, when guys get vengeance in movies or books, it's almost a "Lone Wolf Crusade", where there is no partner in crime.

I am not sure if I think of this as a bad stereotype, or rather, a negative stereotype. Certainly as Kill Bill shows you can have strong solo female revenge stories, and in terms of male revenge stories where there is a partnership, you most often have the "buddy cop" archetype where one guy is out to avenge a partner or some similar injustice, and his new partner finally agrees to help him on his crusade.

I feel the question is, when you tend to have women seeking revenge in a partnership while men seek it on their own, are you saying women need to work together to take on their male nemesis, while men don't need help? Or is it that a female revenge story seems to work best with two characters in a team playing off against each other in the same way that "buddy cop" movies work so well with partners playing off against each other?

If anyone can point me towards other female revenge films where there is actually a pair of female protagonists, I would appreciate it. I'd like to explore this idea and see if there are any conclusions that can be drawn.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My Thoughts on The Big Sleep

So I feel just awful about this - I've never read Raymond Chandler before this week. I'm sure in the past I might have read excerpts or snippets, but never one of his novels. Last week I picked up his first novel, the 1939 classic The Big Sleep, and gave it a (very quick) read. I finished the book in a couple of evenings. It's not especially large, nor is it terribly complex, but damn, is it ever good.

First, I feel Chandler is a great writer. His style is quick, it's clean, and it's very visual; he uses a lot of analogies and a lot of relational imagery. The downside of this is, of course, that his style has been parodied unto death by decades of "crime novel" writers who have turned Chandler's style into caricature. In many ways, it's the same problem Robert E. Howard has had in terms of his reputation being built not on his original works, but on the 70+ years of pastiches, copycats, and imitators who all tried to follow on his stylistic coat-tails.

Beyond the writing, there is the story itself - the sleaze, the corruption, the greed and the hatred. For a book written in 1939, it is almost shocking in it's plunge into the gutter. The Big Sleep is a plot filled with sex, pornography, illicit homosexuality (so not the shiny happy 2011 state of homosexuality, but the dominating, woman-hating, unable to just be myself kind you see in such period exploitation fiction, like Eddie the Dane in Miller's Crossing), drugs, gambling, drinking, mental dysfunction, abuse both verbal and's quite the catalog of vice and depravity, and Phillip Marlowe swims through it all like a battle-scarred sea lion.

If the Private Eye story set the tone for much of the 20th century's crime fiction (setting aside the Sherlock Holmes-style detective story archetype which is much older), Raymond Chandler's fiction set the standard for the Private Eye story, and I believe The Big Sleep is the book that set him on his path to immortality as a literary figure. So many works of fiction - either written or filmed or made for television (or my 5th grade musical play, Lucky Dollar, Private Eye), owe their creative genesis to Chandler's works.

All in all, if you're a fan of crime thrillers, or even just 20th Century American fiction, it is worth it to at least read one Chandler. At the very least, you'll know what I mean when I refer to Chandler's Law.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Micro Review: Coen Brothers' True Grit

I caught this film as a matinee today. Prepared for the event with a lunch of beer, steak, and potatoes after a brisk mile-long walk through some parkland, enjoying the bright sun and sub-freezing temperatures. There's something extremely invigorating about a quick jaunt outdoors when it's real "winter" weather out - not a 36 degrees and brown grass lawns winter, but thermometer in the mid-teens, feels like single digits with a foot of snow on the ground winter.

The walk and my lunch couldn't have prepared me better for the film. Don't get me wrong, I like John Wayne and I like his Rooster Cogburn just fine, and I think the original film has great merit. However, the Coen Brothers are expert film makers, and they approach the subject with due gravitas, as do all the actors involved.

Everyone gives an excellent performance, especially Hailee Steinfeld; I am almost embarrassed that her name is listed after the title during the end credit sequence, especially since Josh Brolin is in the movie, all told, for probably no more than 15 minutes.

It was good, however, to see Barry Pepper (the sniper in Saving Private Ryan) show up - I had no idea who the actor was until the end credits, he was so transformed in appearance from his younger, more clean-cut roles. I'd like to think his performance as Ned Pepper would have earned him a tip of the hat from Robert Duval, the original Ned Pepper.

One thing I especially like about this film is that it portrays "Indian Territory" as a truly untamed land, filled with bizarre characters, remote and mysterious locales, and danger or death at a moment's notice - if any notice is to be had at all. It reminds me of the Yukon wilderness and the characters who thrive there portrayed in the Lee Marvin / Charles Bronson film Death Hunt, one of my favorite "Manhunt" movies.

Whether or not you feel a remake or re-envisioning of True Grit was unnecessary or unwanted, I feel there is no denying this is an excellent film. The story may be told from a somewhat different angle and with a slightly varied tempo, but just as one song can still sound great played by two different performers, so it is that this story can be told well by two different generations of actors and film-makers.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Observations on The Shootist

A couple of weeks ago, I finally sat down and watched The Shootist from start to finish. I hadn't seen it in its entirety before, and I feel bad about this fact. Although I'm not one of those people who stroke themselves furiously at the mere mention of John Wayne, I do think that he is an incredibly important figure in American film history, having been a part of so much American cultural iconography over many years.

The Shootist was Wayne's last film, and although he wouldn't die for a couple more years, the similarities between Wayne the actor and J.B. Books the character are more then a little obvious. By the end of his career, Wayne was a living caricature, with so much legend and apocrypha woven around his life and his career that he has become almost infamous. Like his character J.B., every person who came into contact with him at the end of his life no doubt wanted something from him or had some kind of angle, or at the very least, approached him with some kind of seriously skewed misconceptions.

While watching this film, I began to draw some interesting parallels. The most blatant of these was that Book's return to Carson City, and the sort of awkward, impolite reception he received, reminded me of a lot of Vietnam veterans who would have come home over the years preceding the making of the film. In some ways, the movie even reminded me of First Blood; the confrontation between the tired, misunderstood warrior and a cold, unfriendly, "civilized" or modern world that sees the warrior as an unpleasant, misplaced problem to be dealt with as quickly as possible so the Pleasant People can move along with their lives. This comparison was driven home when Books talks to the Carson City marshal, who becomes almost ecstatic when he learns that Books will die soon, and "can't wait for it" so his town will return to normal.

I also found a lot of Books' platitudes on violence really resonating with many of the post-modern pulp protagonists; men who are violent not in nature but by necessity, who live by a code, and kill by a code, but do not kill indiscriminately or without thinking. It was also interesting to hear Books take on gunfighting; that it is not the man who shoots the fastest or the most accurately who wins, but the man who doesn't hesitate or pause in "taking the shot" and killing another man. The man who can kill without hesitating will win out over the man who can shoot straighter or draw a little faster because the killer shoots to do just that - kill his opponent. Being willing to hit a man with a bullet in actuality is ultimately of more value than just being able to hit a man in theory and practice.

I also find it interesting that both The Shootist and Shane are western novels that became very successful films, and both deal with similar themes; the role of The Killer in Polite Society, and the awkward duality of how this person is both necessary and reviled. I'm sure there's a film/psychology Ph.D. thesis out there written on this topic, and I'd love to read it some time; the closest I've come to it is On Killing, which deals in part with the killer's interactions and attitudes with society.

I think that's it for now. I may have further thoughts on the matter, especially as I work more on my current novel; one of the main characters is an aging retired mercenary, and I was able to see some similarities between his sentiments towards a life of violence, and those of J.B. Books. The similarities were very encouraging.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Embracing Indie eBook Publishing

As of this week, I've made the decision that when (not if) I finish the book I'm currently writing, I will publish it as an eBook through Amazon and B/N's self publishing portals.

I've come to this decision for four reasons.

1. I'm tiring out. Writing part-time while there are a million other things vying for my attention drags this process out to an intolerable degree, and once it's done, I simply don't have the stamina to then spend months - hell, years - finding an agent and a publisher who'll take my novel. I just can't wait that long. The way I see it, writing for publication is like gambling; you can play the short odds and be careful and amass a small but tidy sum cautiously, or you can keep throwing money on the long odds and hope that someday - someday! You will win it big. I see Indie ePublishing as the short odds, and traditional publishing as trying to win the lottery. And for the record, I don't play the lottery.

2. Electronic Self-Publishing is here to stay, and I want to ride the wave while it's still growing. What was considered a "vanity press" idea ten or fifteen years ago is now becoming a viable alternative to finding a publisher. This is something indie game publishers have know for a while now, but non-game book publishing is taking a while to catch onto the idea that someone being able to publish their own work != the downfall of the literary world. This was the case of all the Web 2.0 technologies as they came along, taking the ability to "publish to the world" out of the hands of certain gatekeeping individuals and giving that power to the masses. Yes, it's given us some stupid crap on the internet (okay, a LOT of stupid crap), but it's also created some truly amazing things as well. If you're one of those "All People Are Idiots!" folks, the ability for just anyone to write a novel and potentially have someone pay to read it is anathema to you. But on the other hand, five years ago, I thought "blogging" was stupid, and here I am. A year ago I thought Twitter was stupid, and yet, I'm on it, Tweeting away. People make money blogging and Tweeting, too. People even make a living teaching others how to blog and Tweet, shockingly enough. Journalism, Film (see: Youtube et al), and now Fiction publishing is all shifting to a Web 2.0 paradigm; it's Publishing 2.0, and it is only going to get bigger.

3. Indie ePublishing suits what I want to write. Quality aside, I honestly do not think there is a viable market for what I want to write in today's dead-tree publishing paradigm; the short serial action thriller as was popular back in the 60's - 80's in titles like The Executioner, The Death Merchant, Able Team, Longarm, The Ninja Master, The Survivalist, the Richard Blade series, Casca the Eternal Warrior, and so on. There have been dozens of these titles over the years, cheap "post-modern pulp" paperback novels out of those few decades selling for $2-3, averaging less than two hundred pages and 50-80K word lengths. These books were enormously popular at the time, and I think the sort of serial fiction they provided is still viable, but no one is going to see the profit in that kind of publishing in today's print fiction market, at least not outside of Young Adult fiction (which I don't write...yeah no). On the other hand, a short novel format would be perfectly acceptable - even preferable, on an eReader, and the price point hasn't changed much, either.

And finally, one last big reason. I want to be paid to write. I've been writing fiction since grade school. I might not be a great writer - I might not even be a "pretty good" writer, but I am a passable writer, and the more I write, the better I get. I've got ideas, I have some modicum of talent, and if properly motivated, I can produce copy quickly. But the motivation is the key, and my motivation right now, as I close in on my mid-30's, is income. I'm not satisfied with my current job, but it pays better than some, and that keeps me locked in. If I could supplement my income with a small but steady stream of royalty payments, it would be both encouraging and pleasing to the pocketbook, and I could consider a less stressful job even if it meant a pay cut, in order to put myself into a better frame of mind for writing. And Indie ePub money - that's money now, as in within a year, not fantasy dream lottery money that I might get if I'm one that one single writer out of every ten thousand potential new fiction writers that gets picked up for distribution by one of the Big Six, and then waits another year to eighteen months before my book hits the shelves. There are fiction writers out there in the hot genres - not a lot of writers, but a fair few - who have seen real, I-can-do-something-with-this amounts of money within just a few months of putting their eBooks up for sale, and we are talking rookie authors who are doing it all by the skin of their teeth and the sweat of their brows.

I'll conclude this little soapboxing session with the link to the blog that's turned me around on this idea: J.A. Konrath's "A Newbie's Guide to Publishing". I read an anthology of hitman stories edited by Konrath a few months ago, "These Guns For Hire", and having looked him up, I now see that he is a very big proponent of "Indie Publishing" as he likes to put it (sound familiar, gamers?), and his blog has become a rallying point for Indie authors who have started to make a living publishing their own eBooks. Anyone who's interested in self-publishing fiction - or anything, really - should read through his blog.

And with that, back to the typewriter...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ten Random Non-Guilty Pleasure Movies

Knocking out a brief list and explanation of ten random movies that might fall into the category of "guilty pleasures", but I feel no guilt at all in my enjoyment of these films. This isn't to say people can't have guilty pleasures in movies, but after four years of film school and countless hours of debate before, during, and after college about the films I watch, I have developed a "put up or shut up" attitude about my tastes in movies.

So, in no particular order, but off my "Top Shelf", we have:

01: Conan the Barbarian (1982): This is the film that put Arnold firmly in the spotlight, although it was the next film on my list that made him a true Hollywood Juggernaut. This is John Milius at the top of his game, great production values (especially compared to other 80's Sword & Sorcery movies) and a truly, utterly epic score by Basil Poledouris. I saw this movie in the theater (twice) a few years ago, and on the big screen, it is friggin' incredible.

02: Commando (1985): Arnold's superstar action vehicle, and the movie that set the tone for action movies over the next decade. Utterly gratuitous (including completely pointless nudity), great one-liners, extras dead by the dozens, some totally, wonderfully slimy bad guys, and who can forget the steel drum soundtrack? This movie knows what it is and what it tries to do, and embraces it like a long-lost lover.

03: The Running Man (1987)
: Are we noticing a trend here? This sci-fi manhunt movie (and I will have to one day do a whole post on the manhunt movie sub-genre) pretty much explains the appeal of "reality television" a decade before such trash became popular. Some great gruesome deaths, cool character actors, and just about the ONLY time you see Arnold with a beard on film.

04: The Terminator (1984): Although I do love T2, the original is dark, it is gritty, it is brutal and uncaring, and it absolutely will not stop...oh, wait, never mind. Michael Biehn begins his long career as "Guy wearing a comms headset" in this film (seriously, start looking at his other movies...). This might also be the earliest that Bill Paxton works with either Arnold or James Cameron.

05: Red Heat (1988): My last Arnold movie, I promise! This is one of Walter Hill's great "buddy cop movies", with a fish out of water twist; Russian (excuse me, Soviet) cop hunting down Russian (excuse me, Soviet) drug dealers in Chicago. Also contains one of my favorite Arnold lines of all time, "You think parakeet is feminine?" Priceless.

Okay, to keep this from just being a list of Arnold movies:

06: Revenge of the Ninja (1983): One of the great Sho Kosugi's martial arts / ninja movies, this movie is more than just karate in a black bodysuit; Kosugi and his ninja bad guys employ a whole host of historical and semi-historical ninja weapons and equipment. Way better than any of the American Ninja movies, and very close to being better than The Hunted.

07: Prime Cut (1972)
: You gotta love a movie that starts of with a dead man being made into sausage. Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman go head to head in a crime thriller that pits big-city enforcers against a midwest criminal enterprise. Filled with cornfield gun battles, sex slavery, and Marvin packing the Cadillac of 70's era submachine guns, the Swedish K 9mm SMG. You'll never look at a plate of scrapple the same way ever again.

08: Starship Troopers (1997): Yes, I read the book. No, I don't really like it. I think the movie tells pretty much the same story, but points out how fucking twisted the whole concept truly is. Verhoeven is one of my favorite directors, and I think this movie is a big "piss off" to the ivory tower of 1950's/60's science fiction (i.e., psychotic Cold War politics with a palatable candy coating).

09: The 13th Warrior (1999): Yes, I read the book. No, I don't really like it. Yes, I know the armor is inaccurate, and the horses are too big, and...well just piss off, it's a Viking version of The Dirty Dozen And Guest, and it kicks some serious ass. Beheadings, badasses, guys who dress up in bear outfits and bear-claw clubs and bear-man cavalry and battles in caves filled with piles of freakin' skulls and bones and all sorts of other goddamn insanity.

10: Spice World (1997)
: Yeah, go fuck yourself. It's on the movie shelf. I didn't buy it, but I haven't thrown it out. Honestly, it's pretty entertaining. Meatloaf, Roger Moore, and Alan Cumming are all awesome, and the Spice Girls, for all their ridiculousness, knew what they were about and sold it for all it was worth. I put this one in here to make a stand and say YEAH I WATCHED SPICE GIRLS AND I FOUND IT AWESOME IN ITS OWN SPECIAL WAY. So there.

Annnnnd, I'm spent. Although this list is written with a light heart, I am serious when I say I find all of these movies utterly watchable. I do have movies I can't stand, and movies I think are really only watchable under certain circumstances, but I also feel that movies are all about watching with the right kind of eye, and with the right sort of attitude.

Monday, January 3, 2011

My Reactions to the Death Wish Novel

Over the holidays, I found, bought, and read a copy of Brian Garfield's 1972 novel "Death Wish". This is the novel that was adapted into the 1974 film of the same name starring Charles Bronson, which then went on to have four sequels, most of which depart from the somewhat believable reality of "a gentle man pushed to the edge decides to seek revenge on a cruel world" and by the last couple of movies, Bronson's character Paul Kersey rivals any other 80's - 90's over-the-top action hero for his gratuitous violence.

Truth be told, I've only seen Death Wish I and II, and only small snippets of the other movies, but I know Death Wish 4: Crackdown ends with a climax involving Kersey killing a bad guy in an apartment building by blowing him to bits, literally, with a LAWS anti-tank rocket. This has definitely moved well beyond the realm of a roll of quarters in a sock and a small caliber revolver. Regardless, this post isn't about the films, but the book that inspired them - Brian Garfield's dark and twisted little 1972 crime thriller.

The plot of the book is pretty close to the plot of the film. Paul Benjamin (the name is different) is a middle-aged accountant (not architect) who's always lived in NYC. An avowed liberal, Benjamin contributes to a number of charities and social welfare / benefit organizations. He's the sort of mild-mannered "bleeding heart" who feels that it's the fault of "the system" that so many people fall on hard times and find themselves in positions where they commit crimes for a variety of "sob story" reasons. He knows there's crime in the streets, but he also feels that a lot of it is hyped up by a sensationalist media, and that a variety of social programs, re-education, and "understanding" could make it better.

Needless to say, when his wife and daughter are victims of a brutal home invasion, his wife having her neck "wrung like a chicken" and his daughter suffering such psychological trauma that she enters a catatonic state and needs to be committed, that liberal bleeding heart attitude begins to lose the majority vote, so to speak. Growing more and more frustrated with a justice system that can't find the guilty parties, health care system that can't do anything to help his doctor, and friends and family who are confused, angered, and ultimately moved on past his tragedy.

Finally, feeling like he has come to the breaking point, Paul decides to pick up a roll of quarters at the bank and drops it into a sock, making himself an ad hoc blackjack or kosh of sorts. He goes out and gets himself mildly drunk, and walking home late that night a young scared kid tries to pull a knife on him and rob him. Paul whirls around and swings his kosh at the kid while bellowing an inarticulate cry of anger and frustration. The young punk runs away terrified, and although the incident causes him a great deal of stress at first, the next day Paul realizes that he feels better than he has in weeks, "...that he was experiencing all the symptoms of a sexual release".

While on a trip to the southwest, Paul finds a sporting goods shop and purchases a snub-nosed .32 caliber Smith and Wesson 5-shot revolver, along with several boxes of ammunition. He spends the afternoon that the shop's shooting range and gets comfortable with the pistol, and then takes his chances and smuggles the pistol home on the plane. Back in NYC, Paul eventually works up the courage/gumption to go looking for trouble, and eventually winds up killing a junkie who tries to rob him at knife-point.

After the initial "what have I just done" wears off, long story short, Paul Benjamin begins to hunt down criminals on the streets of New York City. He realizes he made some elementary mistakes his first time around, and learns from them (such as buying a reversible coat, hat and gloves that can be taken off and put in pockets, etc.). He makes sure to vary his hunting patterns some, and when the newspapers begin to catch on that there's a vigilante killer on the loose, he starts to be wary and avoid anything that might resemble a police trap set up to catch him on the prowl.

One thing that Garfield spends an almost inordinate amount of time focusing on is the public reaction to the killings, to the idea of a vigilante killer on the streets. Almost the entirety of the books third-to-last chapter is a multi-page article in a local newspaper covering a psychological profile of the killer. The psychologist interviewed gives an almost spot-on description of Paul; a middle aged, white collar, semi-affluent social liberal who has suffered a terrible personal tragedy at the hands of a random criminal element, and not having seen justice done, decides to strike out at that random criminal element in his own way. The psychologist qualifies that while the killer's behavior is utterly reprehensible, he doesn't consider the man deranged or insane, but simply pushed past the breaking point, where all bonds of societal inhibition have come undone.

Before this article, of course, there is much discussion in the papers, on the radio, on the television, about whether the killings are a good idea or a bad idea, whether it's one lone man or a group, if it's some Vietnam vet coming home broken in the head (it is 1972 after all). Paul's biggest concern is the police; there is constant debate in the public forum about whether or not the police tacitly approve of what the vigilante is doing, and how they are going to approach it. The police's public statement is of course that "every effort is being made" to catch the vigilante, but off the record, some police think it's "the only way to clean up the streets".

I will leave the end of the book a mystery to anyone who hasn't read it so as to avoid any gratuitous spoilers. I was a little surprised at the ending, and at first, disappointed. After a while, though, I've warmed up to it and think it ends on the right note, or at least, A right note. Definitely a more thought-provoking ending than I was expecting, and quite different from the ending of the film.

In conclusion, I think that this book is one of the best treatments of the vigilante I've seen or read in a long time. There is nothing at all macho or heroic about the character. In fact, while reading the book, I wasn't even picturing Charles Bronson in my mind's eye, but someone far weaker, gawkier, potbellied; an out of shape middle-aged desk drone who's never had to do any more exercise than lift his briefcase or a bag of groceries. Because, these are the sort of people who fantasize about striking back at the world; not the ex-special forces commandos, not the retired CIA agents, not the peace-loving black belts. Rather, it's the accountants, the computer programmers, the mild-mannered English teachers. This, more than any other aspect of the book, is what makes Death Wish so good; seeing a mild-mannered white collar liberal (and please note, I don't have any particular loathing for this demographic) tumble down the rabbit hole of fear and anger and emerge from the other side a very cold-blooded vigilante killer.