All posts by Doctor K

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Every Which Way But Loose

Every Which Way But Loose

I have a nostalgic attachment to certain movies I saw in the theater when I was a kid, and for many of those movies, that nostalgia breeds a certain charm which allows me to enjoy the movie when I revisit them as an adult. This does not just include the usual pop culture touchstones that most who grew up in the late ’70s/early ’80s have, like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Superman.

For example, that I grew to film maturity during the heyday of Burt Reynolds–and Burt Reynolds tended to make a lot of PG-rated movies that my parents would let me see as a preteen–means I tend to elevate certain of his movies, like Gator and Stroker Ace, beyond their objective merits (though I will go to the mat for the Cannonball Run movies against any criticism, as I firmly believe those are objectively good movies). I think it also helps that, as a kid, I had a capacious memory for movies, so I could just see a movie once and be able to replay it in detail mentally or pull dialogue from it and work that into regular conversations.

So, it was with this sense of nostalgia that I returned to a movie that I genuinely loved as a nine-year-old: the 1978 “action comedy” Every Which Way But Loose. Unfortunately, my capacity for beer-swilling orangutans and foul-mouthed old women must have peaked with this movie and its sequel, Any Which Way You Can (1980), because I found little nostalgic pleasure in returning to Every Which Way But Loose after 32 years. I can even barely see what my nine-year-old self enjoyed about the movie now. I guess most of that enjoyment came through Clyde, the orangutan, and his tendency to kiss and/or flip off anyone who hassled him. Also, I remember thinking Ruth Gordon was funny as Ma, the foul-mouthed old lady who was constantly struggling to pass her driver’s test and keep Clyde from stealing her Oreos and shitting around her house. But then, it would be about eight years before I saw Harold & Maude, which would completely drive Ma from my memory.

Also, I’m grateful that my dad had a poster of The Man with No Name up when I was a kid; otherwise, Every Which Way But Loose would have been my first exposure to Clint Eastwood, and that may have tainted my first impression of him the way my first impression of Orson Welles was tainted by Paul Masson ads and The Muppet Movie.

Eastwood plays Philo Beddoe, a bare-knuckle fighter in Los Angeles who enjoys working on cars, drinking beer, and listening to country music. (I do find it funny now that, every time Philo orders “a beer” in a bar, he’s automatically given an Olympia, as if that were generic for “beer” in the ’70s.) With the help of his buddy, Orville (Geoffrey Lewis, who was basically the definitive “that guy” on network television throughout the late ’70s and ’80s), he sets up bare-knuckle matches at warehouses and industrial sites around LA. As Philo easily handles each opponent, onlookers continuously compare him to Tank Murdock, a legendary fighter that Philo hopes to meet up with one day.

In between fights, Philo and Orville hang out at a country music bar. One night, during a Mel Tillis show, Philo catches the eye of country singer Lynne Halsey-Taylor (Sondra Locke, Eastwood’s long-time girlfriend who appeared in, and dragged down, many of his movies from this era). She’s apparently got some talent, and she has dreams of opening her own country music club. For this, she enlists the help of smitten Philo, who gives her money and romances her even though she’s got a boyfriend living back at her trailer. One day, when Philo is bringing Clyde over to meet her, she’s gone, trailer and all. Philo then grabs Orville, and they hit the road in order to follow her to Denver.

Meanwhile, Philo has also pissed off a group of bikers known as “The Black Widows,” who seem to keep losing their bikes in altercations with Philo. Also, a couple of local cops are after him because he beat them up in a bar fight he initiated. So, at about the halfway point, this suddenly becomes a road movie. This leads to one of the film’s biggest problems: it has too many plots to resolve. Philo has to defeat the bikers and the crooked cops, find Lynne (who turns out to be a grifter), and face off against Tank Murdock (who turns out to be a washed-up has-been). And none of these climaxes fits together well, so the movie ends with a series of disconnected scenes that rely too much on coincidence and seem generally forced.

Also, the movie just isn’t funny, not even in a campy, nostalgic sort of way. Jokes about Clyde flipping people off, shitting all over the place, and breaking into a zoo to get laid are the movie’s high points. Otherwise, the jokes fall flat. A young Beverly D’Angelo shows up late in the movie as Echo, a disgruntled produce-stand worker that Orville picks up, and we get a running gag where people have to have her name repeated when they hear it. A scene where Philo chases two bikers ends up in a car wash for no real reason, except that it might be funny to see someone on a motorcycle go through a car wash. In the final showdown with the bikers, as Philo faces the entire gang in a deserted, muddy alley, the Morricone whistle music starts up, and that seems like the ultimate blasphemy in this movie.

Every Which Way But Loose was the fourth highest grossing movie of 1978, following Grease, Superman, and Animal House, which is a bit stunning. It comes in ahead of Hooper, a Burt Reynolds movie that still retains its nostalgic charms despite being very much a product of the times. Every Which Way But Loose, however, just feels like a mess, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t even find a spark of the enjoyment I got out of it at the age of nine. In fact, I’m a little disappointed in my nine-year-old self, who already had enough exposure to Mel Brooks and Woody Allen movies of the time that he should have been developing a more discerning sense of humor.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Zardoz

Zardoz Poster

The main thing you need to know about John Boorman’s 1974 sci-fi classic, Zardoz, is that, for most of the movie, Sean Connery wears this costume:

Fetching!

I’m glad not only that I live in a world in which Zardoz exists, but also that I live in the world in which the circumstances that allow Zardoz’s existence could happen. That is, the window for Zardoz’s possible existence is only that period in 1974 when it was released: two years after director John Boorman made Deliverance and three years before Star Wars changed science fiction, as well as the entire filmmaking landscape, to this day. Add to this also three years after Sean Connery had left the James Bond franchise for a second time, and he was hungry enough to take on this film (though Boorman’s original choice, Burt Reynolds, had to bow out of the film due to illness, and I wouldn’t mind living in the parallel universe that got to have Zardoz starring Burt Reynolds).

The very existence of Zardoz stems largely from the success of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972). As often happens with such success, Hollywood studios give the directors of such successful films carte blanche to make their next film, which often means the director tries to make a dream project. This can sometimes result in a creative and commercial success (Inception), a creative success but commercial failure (William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, an incredible, intense remake of The Wages of Fear that Friedkin got to make after The Exorcist, but which failed for a wide variety of reasons and damaged the director’s career), or both a creative and commercial failure (Martin Scorcese’s New York, New York). It can also result in incredibly personal projects that have no real reason for existing otherwise, have almost no commercial appeal, and defy evaluation. This is where Zardoz comes in.

Like our best dreams, Zardoz also defies summarization, as any attempt to impose narrative order on the film ultimately results in leaving out something crucial. At its most basic, Zardoz is about the conflict between two classes in the postapocalyptic world of 2293: the Brutals and the Eternals. Among the Brutals are the Exterminators, a group of men who worship a giant floating head named Zardoz who vomits up weapons, tells them how bad penises are, and commands them to kill the other Brutals:

“The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds and makes new life to poison the earth with a plague of men, as once it was. But the gun shoots death and purifies the earth of the filth of Brutals. Go forth and kill!”

Interestingly, Zardoz sounds a lot like my mom.

One of the Exterminators, Zed (Sean Connery), stows away aboard the giant floating head and shoots the man who controls it: Arthur Frayn.

The giant floating head makes its way back to the Vortex, home of the Eternals. This is a scientifically advanced collective that had conquered death and developed special mental powers. Because they cannot die, they’ve also done away with reproduction and sexual desire as well. Peace is maintained among the Eternals by controlling negative thoughts: such thoughts are punished by aging the Eternal a certain number of years. If one is aged too much, then he or she becomes a permanently senile member of the Renegades. The Apathetics make up another group of Eternals; they have some mental disorder that causes them to stand around with glazed looks and occasionally bump into each other.

The movie takes a while to set up the rules of this future society, and much of it doesn’t make sense, which is just fine in the context of this film. At some point, one just has to go with it and accept what happens without question. The Eternals have lived for hundreds of years in their idyllic communities, with no contact with the Brutals other than the excursions for resources that Arthur Frayn made with the giant floating head. Zed’s presence among the Eternals throws their ordered existence into chaos, with some wanting to kill him outright, while others want to examine him. After a vote, which involves some random hand-gestures that make no sense, these logic-dominated humans decide that he requires further study, especially since he is so physically and mentally different from them. For one, he still needs sleep, while they do not. Two, he can get an erection. In one of the movie’s great scenes, the Eternals, led by Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), try to study Zed’s erection. They show him various pornographic films–one of a woman bathing, the other of naked mud wrestling–but they have no effect. However, looking at Consuella gets him to pitch a tent, and everyone is impressed.

Zed’s sexual power becomes a big issue for the Eternals. At one point, a group of female Eternals offer a trade: “We will touch-teach you, and you will give us your seed.” In other words, they will give him the sum total of all human knowledge, and in exchange, he gets to screw them. That may be the definition of “win-win.” Later, an Apathetic licks Zed, which leads them to snap out of their catatonic states and have an orgy. This is exactly what I imagine happens whenever anyone licks Sean Connery.

Zed also manages to seduce Consuella, who leads the faction that wants to kill the outsider. His presence among the Eternals turns out to be no accident: back in the Outlands, Zed found a library, learned to read, and discovered by reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that his god is a sham. So, he seeks revenge on Zardoz for the manipulation of his people.

As the movie moves toward its conclusion, a lot of random shit happens. The film features a pretty basic dichotomy of logic vs. emotion, or reason vs. instinct, with a cautionary tale about a society that leaves emotion behind in favor of scientific achievement and longevity which I guess is a warning we need. It may also be saying something about the fictionality of religion. However, there is also another metafictional level functioning in this movie. The film opens with the floating head of Arthur Frayn explaining that he is the creator of the story we are about to see (this scene must have been even crazier on the big screen). Later, when Frayn is resurrected, he explains to Zed that he has manipulated events to put Zed in this position to destroy the Eternals: he selected Zed’s parents for optimum genetic characteristics, and later led him to the library and encouraged him to read. But Zed never really confronts the fated nature of his position–it just becomes another thing that this movie throws at us.

Zardoz is the apotheosis of a period when sci-fi movies like this, Silent Running, Soylent Green, The Planet of the Apes movie, Logan’s Run, A Clockwork Orange and others tried to be about something important. Zardoz tries a little too hard at that, but that’s part of its charm. It’s a crazy ride that has no reason for existing, but I’m glad it does.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: House of Bamboo

House of Bamboo

In Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report, Tom Cruise’s character goes to a shady, back alley doctor (Peter Stormare) to get his eyeballs replaced. While Cruise recovers, a wall-sized television projects an image or Robert Ryan shooting a man in a Japanese-style hot tub.

That short, violent, beautifully shot scene comes from Samuel Fuller’s brutal 1955 noir classic House of Bamboo, and it seems an odd reference for Spielberg to make. While Spielberg is a technically brilliant director on many levels, he lacks the sensibility to make a movie that is as bleak and morally challenging as Fuller’s. In fact, Minority Report is a good case in point: for most of its running time, the film presents a world that is completely dominated and controlled by an elaborate surveillance system that the hero cannot escape, until the very end, when we find out that there is a space free of surveillance where humans can live, happily ever after. It’s as if Spielberg got within inches of making a profound statement about surveillance and control but blinked at the last minute and went for the safe ending.

House of Bamboo has little to do with surveillance, though an underground network of criminal informants does factor in to the film. Instead, where it–and most other Fuller movies, for that matter–contrasts with Spielberg films is that Fuller doesn’t give his characters an easy out from the cruel and violent world in which they are immersed.

Fuller’s film takes place in post-war Japan, and it’s filmed in color and Cinemascope, making it a bit of an oddity for the classic film noir cycle of the ’40s and ’50s. An American hood named Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack) comes to Japan at the invitation of an old Army buddy, who has promised Spanier a gig with the local mob. Spanier’s buddy, however, is killed, gunned down by his own men during a botched robbery. Eddie then decides to get revenge with the help of his buddy’s secret Japanese bride, Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi).

Eddie’s method for gathering information is brilliant: he goes to various Tokyo pachinko parlors and shakes down the managers for protection money. He first enters the parlor and asks an employee for the manager. When the employee doesn’t understand English, Eddie continues, “You know, the boss!” That gets him nowhere, so he then tries “Number One Boy.” “Ah, ichiban!” the employee responds and directs him to the back of the parlor. Then, he shakes down the ichiban for $25, with a promise to return every week.

After two tries, this gets the attention of the local mob, run by Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan). Dawson’s mob consists of former U.S. soldiers expatriated to Japan, and they seem to run all the illegal rackets in Tokyo, with the pachinko parlors as a legit front. Though Dawson at first punishes Spanier for muscling in on his racket, the boss quickly sees that the thug could be of use, especially since the gang is one guy short.

Dawson runs a tight operation. In addition to the regular illegal businesses, he also plans regular heists. With each heist, the gang operates on one simple rule: if any man gets injured, he should be shot dead so that he can’t turn informant to the authorities. This had been the plan with Eddie’s buddy, but he didn’t quite die right away, and the police got some important information about Dawson’s operation out of him.

Spanier works his way up in the gang, eventually becoming second man, much to the chagrin of the previous second man, Griff (Cameron Mitchell). Eddie also works his way in with Mariko, who is willing to sacrifice her reputation in order to find her husband’s killer.

When the cops get tipped to the next heist, Dawson gets suspicious that he has a mole in the group, and he mistakenly targets Griff, who has been acting hinky since Eddie got his promotion. Dawson doesn’t mess around, and he plugs Griff in the famous hot tub scene. Turns out, though, that Dawson was wrong about the snitch: it’s Eddie, who is really a U.S. military investigator sent to infiltrate the gang.

Though Eddie turns out to be an ostensible good guy in the end, he’s still a rough and violent man. It’s fun to see Robert Stack play such a complex role–he’s a far cry from Eliot Ness here. Like Ness, he doesn’t mess around, but he’s also willing to go to extreme lengths to keep his cover. And Robert Ryan plays Dawson with a sense of stoic calm that makes him a formidable and intimidating villain. Eddie and Sandy are not that far apart in the way that they approach their jobs, and it’s easy to see how they connect so quickly when Eddie enters the organization. Both have also sacrificed their personal lives–and, in Dawson’s case, connection to his home country–for the jobs they do, and those jobs happen to be pretty brutal.

The film is also beautifully shot. Fuller uses the entirety of the wide-screen Cinemascope frame while also keeping the film’s noir sensibilities–which normally lend themselves to tighter, more intimate shots–intact. The final shootout serves as an excellent example. Fuller shoots this from far away, giving the scene an impersonal feel as two violent men do their violent jobs.

The movie often gets a bad rap for the cold and impersonal way it depicts violence, yet that seems to be the entire point that the movie is making. The men in this film are almost all U.S. soldiers who stayed behind in Japan after World War II because they simply couldn’t leave that world behind, and they found a new way to keep fighting under the same leader. Like many of the best violent movies–and many of Fuller’s best movies–it serves as a commentary on and indictment of violence, which makes its cold, distant conclusion all the more unsettling.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Riders to the Stars

Riders to the Stars

“Riders to the stars, that is what we are, every time we kiss in the night”: so begins the theme song to the 1954 sci-fi film, Riders to the Stars. I get the distinct feeling that the writers of this song weren’t given a lot of direction regarding the movie’s plot.

After the opening titles and theme song, a voice-over narrator explains that humans have conquered every challenge except one: space. Yeah, it sure was nice to have every conceivable human problem licked by 1954…

Riders to the Stars tries to imagine what the near-future of space travel will be like, as the USA rushes to get a manned rocket into space before the Soviets. After a test rocket drops some kind of box out of the sky that causes scientists to go apeshit, the United States government initiates a program to recruit astronauts for the space program. Computers the size of my house are used to pick 12 men out of all Americans based on specific qualifications: past accomplishments, intelligence, and an unencumbered personal life. These men would then go through some rigorous training and testing to determine which of them would finally qualify as astronauts.

In this sense, Riders to the Stars is a sort of precursor to The Right Stuff, the movie that makes me proud to be a white man. However, the qualifications and training for astronauts as imagined in 1954 are a bit different than those that would be used in the Mercury program. For one, as far as I can tell, no one has to give a sperm sample in Riders to the Stars. Also, the recruits in the earlier film tend to be scientists with a military background instead of pilots.

Much of the movie’s running time is taken up with the testing and training, and all but four wash out by the end of the centrifuge test. Meanwhile, we’ve also gotten a peek into the private lives of two candidates. Jerry Lockwood (Richard Carlson, who is also credited as director) is a pipe-smoking mathematician who looks a lot like Phil Hartman and dates a model. His desire to marry his model-girlfriend provides the movie with some dramatic tension. Dr. Richard Stanton (William Lundigan) gets a slightly more interesting story. His father directs the space program, which makes me think the computer selection process was kind of bullshit, and he starts a budding romance with the lone female scientist in the program: Dr. Jane Flynn (Martha Hyer).

Once the four finalists are selected, they are apprised of their mission: they must go into space and retrieve some meteors that can be used to create rockets that will survive the rigors of space. As the elder Dr. Stanton explains, any metal that they’ve tried shooting into space has been molecularly altered by cosmic radiation to become extremely brittle. Since meteors survive the bombardment of cosmic rays, it stands to reason that they are made out of some kind of metal that could make spaceships survive. Curiously, none of the astronauts ask about what their ships might be made of, though one of them does wisely chicken out when he hears of the mission. Also, no one points out that this science is bullshit.

The mission, along with the real action of the film, only takes place in the final 20 minutes or so. Each of the three astronauts gets his own rocket and heads out to intercept the meteor shower. One tries to take in a meteor that’s too big, causing his ship to explode and his spacesuit, containing only his skeleton for some reason, floats off into space. Seeing the skeleton, another astronaut freaks the hell out, screws the pooch, and heads for the stars. But, luckily for the USA and the space program, the third makes it back with a meteor, and the scientists go off to spin how a 67% mortality rate constitutes a successful program.

Riders to the Stars is more interesting as a historical artifact of retrofuturism than it is as an entertaining sci-fi film, much like the kind of comics stories pal Dave Lartigue writes about in his regular “This Used to be the Future” feature at his Dave Ex Machina blog. This is particularly disappointing considering the fact that the movie’s poster advertises “space vikings of the future,” which should be the greatest movie ever made. However, the movie suggests the entertaining possibility of a Mad Men-style series featuring a bunch of chain-smoking, hard-liquor-drinking, fedora-wearing, sexual-harrassing scientists trying to start the space program in the 1950s. I’d watch the hell out of that.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Nightmare Alley

Movies in the film noir genre are known for having a bleak view of human nature, but few are as overwhelmingly bleak as Edmund Goulding’s 1947 adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s classic noir novel Nightmare Alley. The movie traces the rise and fall of con man Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) as he goes from side show barker to nightclub mentalist to spiritual advisor for Chicago’s wealthiest citizens, all the while using and leaving behind the people that aid his success. Instead of a conventional morality that divides humans into good and evil, the film’s morality divides the world into grifters and marks (though neither group is mutually exclusive), and success only comes to those with the best cons.

Gresham’s novel opens with a fascinating explanation of how a traveling carnival manages to hire a geek, a performer who bites the heads off of live chickens. The explanation involves finding a man at his lowest point–alcoholic and broke–and exploiting him to the point where he will do anything for his bottle a day. The movie has a similar scene at the beginning without explaining most of the grisly details of the geek’s job. Though we only see the geek at a distance in the movie, screaming as the d.t.’s take over, he remains an important figure throughout, and this question about the nadir of human existence hangs over the rest of the movie, even as Stan makes his meteoric rise as a mentalist and spiritual leader.

Late in the movie, Stan’s wife and partner in his mentalist act, Molly (Coleen Gray), warns Stan that he’s gone too far by promising to resurrect the dead love of a wealthy older man. She warns specifically against the blasphemy that such a con entails: God will punish him for this sin. This is the one sign of conservative, conventional morality sneaking into the movie, and while it does seem to determine Stan’s fate as his life starts to fall apart, it’s not unproblematic. God, in Molly’s estimation, is not the ultimate force for good in the universe, but is, instead, the ultimate grifter who has a lock on the life and death game that Stan is trying to play. Stan would have been fine scamming rich people at the night club with his mentalist schtick. In fact, he would have also been fine with his next con, using a corrupt psychologist (Helen Walker) to gain access to the secrets of Chicago’s wealthy. These crimes would have gone unpunished, as we see from Walker’s ultimate success. It is only by stepping into God’s game that Stan reaches too far.

This is a level of nihilism reminiscent of Sartre or Camus. In that, the movie is surprisingly faithful to the mood of the novel, even if it doesn’t get into all the gruesome details of life in a carnival side show. In fact, one has to wonder how this movie got made at all in the Hollywood system. Sure, 1947 is the height of the postwar film noir cycle, but I can think of few movies that are this nihilistic. Detour comes to mind, but that was made outside of the system on a shoestring budget. Sweet Smell of Success is the movie that I thought of most often, though Burt Lancaster independently financed that film through his own production company. Both movies create a world that has little space for goodness, and where the quest for power and success leads characters to give up their humanity easily. (I could throw Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole in here, as well.)

With Sweet Smell of Success, there is also a relevant comparison between the performances of Tony Curtis and Tyrone Power. Both give performances that were the high points of their respective careers, and both roles capitalize on the dark side of their matinee-idol good looks. Power often regretted the light adventure roles that required little of him other than looking good on screen, and he was ready to hang up his screen acting career when Billy Wilder offered him the lead in Witness for the Prosecution. Tragically, Power died of a heart attack on the set of his next film, and he never got the chance to have a shot at another role that would allow him to show the depth he could achieve. But he’s perfect in Nightmare Alley, and he uses his charm and good looks to keep the audience engaged with a character who is completely unredemptive. It’s a delicate balancing act that few actors could pull off.

Nightmare Alley ends with a somewhat upbeat note, but, like the film’s nod to conventional morality, it falls apart once one considers what it means in the context of the movie. The film cycles back to the beginning in a sense, and we know Stan’s ultimate fate because we saw how that particular story worked out earlier. I love that this movie stays so uncompromising in its bleakness, and that it takes a Hollywood star and challenges everything that gave him that status.

Book Learnin’ with Doctor K: Nobody’s Angel by Jack Clark

Jack Clark’s Nobody’s Angel, the latest release from the Hard Case Crime imprint, is the definition of a cult novel.
Clark, a Chicago cab driver, wrote and self-published the novel. Until its publication by Hard Case Crime last month, the only way a reader could get one of the 500 copies available was to take a ride in Clark’s cab.

But beyond the novelty of its publication, Nobody’s Angel is an endlessly fascinating look inside the world of a cab driver. While technically a crime novel, with two crimes driving the plot forward, the bulk of the novel is taken up with an episodic series of cab rides, each a potential mini-adventure. Eddie Miles, an old school hack who serves as the novel’s narrator, knows Chicago’s history and geography intimately and has traced the trajectory of the city’s decline into violent crime.

Someone is killing cabbies, and as the crimes go unsolved, the city’s drivers become increasingly paranoid, making more and more narrowly selective decisions about the fares they pick up, mainly on a racial basis. That’s not to say the cabbies weren’t “selective” already: many don’t pick up African American fares at all, and most won’t drive to either the west or south sides of Chicago. Eddie describes Cabrini-Green as a kind of war zone that any smart hack avoids at all costs, with snipers ready to take shots at cabs just for the hell of it. In fact, Clark is unflinching when dealing with the racial politics of cab drivers, and that approach marks some of the novel’s most uncomfortable moments.

An air of nostalgia for a lost Chicago runs through the novel, and that can lead one to wonder what exactly Clark blames for that loss. City planning, housing projects, and gentrification definitely come under fire. In one extended scene, Eddie gives an old man a nostalgic ride back to his old neighborhood, one which was virtually destroyed and never rebuilt in the riots of the late 60s. Eddie is afraid and constantly stresses that no other cabbie would take such a fare, but his fears are never realized in this particular trip. At other points, Eddie tells stories of buildings, attractions, and routes that once existed but have now changed, all with the feeling that something essential in the city has been irrevocably lost.

A second crime plot involves a killer who is violently slashing prostitutes, and Eddie takes it on himself to do his own investigation. However, this and the cabbie killer plot get little attention until the final fourth of the novel or so, as the rest provides a vivid picture of the ups and downs of the cabbie’s daily life. For the most part, the crimes serve as MacGuffins that intensify the cabbies’ behavior and highlight relationships among the cabbies and between the drivers and the police.

Clark has a sharp, minimalist style that makes this a quick read. In addition, each chapter is headed with a different rule from the city’s public codes for cab drivers, most of which stand in ironic contrast to the cabbies’ actual behavior.

Personally, I have only a limited knowledge of Chicago, but I can imagine a reader with a real affection for or interest in the city loving this novel. I was fascinated enough with the detailed narratives of individual fares that permeate the novel, and I feel like I walk away from it with new information that helps explain why, sometimes, I have difficulty getting a cab.

At the very least, I learned that I might tip higher than most fares.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The Umbrellas

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) is on my short list of all-time favorite movies, where it stands out as odd against Planet of the Apes, Fargo, Blade Runner, Sunset Boulevard, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, The Bridge on the River Kwai, A Fistful of Dollars, Patton, Lawrence of Arabia, and the other denizens of the always-changing list. And while I have been known to squirt a few when Peter O’Toole emerges from the desert, or when Alec Guinness destroys the bridge, or when General Patton acknowledges the magnificent bastardry of Rommel, or when Taylor realizes he’s on Earth, but none of that turns me into Sylvia Plath on pepper spray (to borrow Dennis Miller’s best line from his short tenure on Monday Night Football) like Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical does.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg may also stand out as odd for this column, as it doesn’t fit with other movies I’ve covered, and some may even debate its status as a cult movie. However, I would argue that one definition of a cult movie is any film that inspires a passionate following among its viewers. For example, Danny Peary included The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca in his cult movie books, and neither of these would seem to fit the conventional mold. And since I will fucking shank anyone who criticizes The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, I think that qualifies as a passionate following.

Okay, “fucking shank” may be a little strong. “Be sadly, sadly disappointed” is more accurate. After all–and I apologize for getting a little personal here–my wife hates this movie.

If you’ve never seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it’s important to note that the film was, in 1964, a unique experiment in film history: all the dialogue is sung to Michel Legrand’s score. Whenever I hear the tune of “I Will Wait for You,” tears start to flow in a kind of Pavlovian response to the music; when my wife hears it, she sarcastically begins to sing, “When will this crap be over?”

But the film is a risky experiment on the part of Demy and Legrand, and its extraordinarily sentimental plot pushes that risk even further. In late 1957, Genevieve (the stunningly beautiful Catherine Deneuve in her debut role) is a sixteen-year-old girl who works in her mother’s umbrella shop and loves Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a twenty-year-old mechanic. The young couple shares their modest dreams: Genevieve wants a daughter named Francoise, and Guy hopes to own his own gas station. These plans are interrupted when the real world interferes: Genevieve’s mother has received an 80,000 franc tax bill and may lose the shop, while Guy receives his draft notice to fight in the Algerian war. On the eve of Guy’s deployment, the couple spend one last night together in the flat that Guy shares with his sickly aunt.

As Guy prepares to go, Genevieve vows to wait for him, as the song goes, but this promise proves difficult to keep. Two months later, she discovers that she is pregnant, and meanwhile she is also being courted by a kind jewel dealer, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel, reprising a role he played in Demy’s first film, Lola), who buys some jewelry from Genevieve’s mother to help with her financial difficulties. Genevieve has to make a tough choice, as Guy begins to fade from her memory and her circumstances become more pressing.

The wall-to-wall singing combine with a brightly colored set design to create an extraordinary sense of artifice that cannot exist outside of film. Demy also calls attention to this artifice early in the film: when Guy tells his fellow mechanics that he’s taking his girlfriend on a date to see the opera Carmen, the others make meta-commentary on their preferences for movies over opera. However, this positon is also challenged later when Genevieve’s depression spurs her mother to say that “People only die of love in movies.” That rejection of sentiment threatens to undermine a film that at the same time seems to be embracing sentiment at every other turn.

With the singing, the colors, and the meta-commentary, it’s as if Demy wants us to be aware that this film is both artificial and highly fragile. Some critics argue that the film’s off-screen treatment of the Algerian war is dismissive of the reality of that war, but I would argue that it only highlights the fragility of the film’s artifice. The real world is always threatening to break through the film, and much of its power comes from its ability to maintain itself in the face of that pressure. Guy returns home after two years in the war both physically and emotionally damaged, and that damage is only intensified when he finds out about the choice Genevieve had to make while he was gone. However much he longs for the fulfillment of the promise made years earlier, the war has made that fulfillment both impossible and ultimately undesirable.

In the end, Genevieve marries Roland, and Guy ends up with Madeleine, his aunt’s caretaker who has long but silently pined for Guy. Despite the movie’s extensive artifice, it takes an honest approach to love: Genevieve must realize that her promise to Guy was untenable, and Roland offers a mature, happy, but less passionate alternative. For Guy, Madeleine is loyal and devoted, and together they are able to achieve his dream of owning a gas station. Though each settles for their second choices, these are actually better choices, and both manage to fulfill the dreams they had at the beginning of the film.

The film concludes with a scene that is about as perfect an ending as any movie ever had. I don’t want to say much more about it than that. It proves that “sentimentality” is only a perjorative if the work doesn’t earn its emotional responses honestly, as this movie does. Though other filmmakers have tried similar experiments with music (Demy even tried it again, a few years later, with The Young Girls of Rochefort), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg remains a unique, deeply moving experience.

Book Learnin’ with Doctor K: The Millennium Trilogy

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I came late to the game for the first novel of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In fact, I had a copy of the mass market paperback edition of the novel for almost six months before I decided to read it. But then, I quickly devoured it and its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, over the course of a week, wanting to do little more than read during that time. When the final novel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, came out at the end of May, I tried to savor it a little more, but I still burned through the final 200 pages in an afternoon. I cannot remember a time that I was so obsessed with a series of novels–there were a few weeks back in 1992 where I was reading a Jim Thompson novel a day, but that’s the last I remember.

I also can’t remember a publishing phenomenon geared toward adult readers that so deserved its success based purely on the quality of the work. Certainly not The DaVinci Code, which, while a fast read, forgoes characters and replaces them with information dumping vehicles while also tranforming art appreciation into codebreaking. But the reasons for the success of Larsson’s books may be a bit difficult to pin down. Apparently, their popularity is due primarily to word of mouth. In the most basic explanation, The Millennium Trilogy succeeds because it ties gripping mystery plots with wholly formed, fascinating, yet damaged characters in its two main investigators, investigative reporter and publisher of Millennium magazine Mikael Blomqvist and punk researcher Lisbeth Salander. And while the steam does run out a bit in the middle of the third novel, the finale is an immensely satisfying conclusion that wraps the series up nicely.

On the surface, though, these novels seem like unlikely successes. The first 150 pages or so of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are filled with infomation on Sweden’s political, economic, and legal systems, and by the end of the third novel, the reader has learned quite a bit about twentieth-century Swedish political history. But in the midst of that is a series of mysteries that begins with the 40-year-old disappearance of a teenage girl on an isolated Swedish island and ends with a scandal that wracks the entire Swedish government.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo begins with a deliciously simple mystery: thirty-six years earlier, a teenage girl disappears from the island home of the wealthy Vanger family during a period that no one could get on or off the island due to a severe traffic accident that cut off the only bridge to the mainland. This large-scale locked room mystery haunts family patriarch Henrik Vanger for decades until, coming to the end of his life, he hires disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist, who has recently lost a libel suit against a powerful industrialist. The novel takes its time to tease out the mystery, and like a true reporter, Blomqvist chases down various dead-ends along the way, most of which flesh out the Vanger family’s sordid history. However, the plot is also punctuated by moments of extreme violence, especially the brutal rape that Lisbeth Salander experiences, which also sets up the plots for the next two novels.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest fit together as if they were one long novel, and it might have been better for the last novel if they were. Hints from the first novel about Lisbeth Salander’s traumatic past are fleshed out here, and we learn that her life has been dramatically affected by a government cover-up that goes to the highest levels of Swedish politics. So, while the first novel fits solidly within the mystery genre, the second and third are closer to espionage novels, especially those of the 1970s, where an intrepid reporter would expose government corruption (think of a less depressing version of The Parallax View).

The investigations in each novel are always very methodical, though important revelations often hinge on Lisbeth getting some crucial information off of someone’s poorly protected home computer. As the political impact of the plots in the later novels grows, more investigators become involved, and by the third novel, there are at least four investigative units tracking down the same information. Because of that, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest becomes a bit repetitive in the middle, and the bad guys tend to remain somewhat dormant while the various investigators are at work. In addition, Blomqvist stays so far ahead of the bad guys in his investigation that his plan moves forward with a sense of inevitability and a lack of dramatic tension. But despite the novel’s predictability, the courtroom finale and subsequent epilogue are still exciting and satisfying, especially considering how we’ve been waiting to see the bad guys get their due for two novels.

The third novel is also dragged down a bit by an extraneous subplot involving Erika Berger, Blomqvist’s publishing partner in Millennium magazine and occasional lover. Berger quits Millennium when she’s offered a job as editor-in-chief of a major Swedish newspaper, and her tenure there is immediately darkened by a stalker whose tactics become exponentially more dangerous. Not only would this plot lift right out of the novel without doing damage to the overall narrative, but it ends in such a predictable and pedestrian way that it becomes disappointing in light of what has come before. It almost seems as if the plot were added to give the novel some dramatic tension while the rest of the novel was moving toward its inevitable conclusion.

The two main characters are most frequently cited as the reasons for these novels’ success. Lisbeth Salander is certainly a unique contemporary detective: a brilliant punk hacker with serious personality issues that may be Asperger’s. Mikael Blomqvist, however, is a bit of a throwback to an old-school style of investigative journalist while also serving as a “Mary Sue”–a fantasy version of Larsson himself. Like Blomqvist, Larsson was an investigative reporter who started his own magazine. However, Blomqvist also gets laid all the time and is virtually irresistible to women, despite the fact that he is middle-aged and slightly out of shape. Women are attracted to him because he’s “uncomplicated,” as we repeatedly hear throughout the novels. While his failure to maintain a serious romantic relationship comes under criticism from his sister and other women in his life, he doesn’t see a real impetus to change. On top of that, he’s so much damn smarter than everyone else, and that, again, draws away from the dramatic tension in the final novel. To Larsson’s credit, though, Blomqvist remains a charming and engaging character who we root for in his efforts to bring down the most corrupt in business and government.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Entertainment Weekly ran a cover story this week on The Millennium Trilogy, explaining the fascinating story behind the novels. Stieg Larsson completed the three novels before the first was even published, and he died tragically before seeing the first’s success. According to Entertainment Weekly, Larsson’s partner of 30 years may have about 250 pages of a fourth novel stored on her laptop, but that may never see the light of day due to legal problems with Larsson’s family. Other reports state that Larsson had plans for a ten-book sequence. Such information made me a bit nervous about the final novel. The first two ended with loose plot threads–or in the case of The Girl Who Played with Fire, a huge cliffhanger–and I worried that the same would be true of the third. However, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest does come to a satisfying conclusion that makes future novels unnecessary (the Berger stalker plot in Hornet’s Nest could easily be setting up the fourth novel as well, which would give further justification to its inclusion here).

EW also reports that David Fincher is set to direct the English-language films of the trilogy (Swedish versions have already been made and released), though no casting decisions have been made. Fincher is a good choice, especially if he approaches the first film more like Zodiac than Se7en by focusing in on the methodical, multi-tiered investigation. He’s also going to keep the film set in Sweden, which is going to fit his visual style well. Despite the adage that film adaptations are usually disappointing, I have some high hopes for Fincher’s films.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: They Came From Beyond Space

Right off the bat, I want to point out that They Came from Beyond Space has a misleading title. The film’s alien race (the “They” of the title) actually come from the moon, which is definitely not “Beyond Space.” And if you want to get technical about it, before they arrived on the moon, they were on their home planet, which is also actually within space. I say this not to be pedantic, but as a warning in case the title got you all excited because it might explain what lies beyond space. It doesn’t.

Also, the movie is not nearly as sexy as the poster.

But that doesn’t otherwise detract from this fun but light, 1967 sci-fi flick, directed by Freddie Francis and released by Amicus Productions. They Came from Beyond Space fits a type of British sci-fi movie that I love, where science–and scientists–are made to look cool, as seen especially in the Quatermass films. In fact, this could have easily been Amicus’s answer to Quatermass, as rival studio Hammer had put out the best film of that series–Five Million Years to Earth–in the same year.

In these films, the scientists are the heroes, but they’re not the Denise Richards or Tara Reid type of scientist, or even the Peter Graves type, but frumpy, middle-aged, pipe-smoking scientists with suede patches on their sportcoats. And in They Came from Beyond Space, the main scientist, Dr. Temple (Robert Hutton), even scores with all the hot chicks. Go Science!

The movie opens in rural Cornwall, where some farmers notice some strange objects falling from the sky in a V-pattern. Quickly, the government calls in all of its scientific experts on the subject of astronomy and extra-terrestrial life to investigate. One specialist, Dr. Temple, is prevented from going by his doctor, who won’t permit the scientist to travel because of a recent car accident that resulted in Temple getting a silver plate implanted in his skull. This will be important later.

Though Temple feels left out, he turns out to be lucky, as the strange meteors emit light and sound that take over the other scientists’ bodies, including Lee Mason (Jennifer Jayne), Temple’s research partner and lover. Soon, the possessed scientists spread their influence to take over the nearby town, and they begin to fence off the farm for some mysterious project. Temple decides to investigate, and his alien-possessed colleagues become confused when they can’t take him over (hint: it’s because of the silver plate in his skull). Temple soon discovers that the aliens are spreading a mysterious disease through the local human population, one which causes victims to develop red spots and die instantly. The press labels the disease “The Crimson Plague,” which is not to be confused with the terrible but thankfully unfinished George Perez comic series of the same name.

AWESOME GOGGLESThe action scientist manages to infiltrate the alien farm, where he finds a rocket ship that makes quick trips to and from the moon, as well as an awesome underground lair. Temple is captured but quickly escapes, but before he goes, he smacks Miss Mason around and kidnaps her. He then takes the possessed Miss Mason to his science buddy and Jimmy Fallon lookalike, Farge. The two scientists work on developing some awesome silver helmets that look a lot like colandars, along with some sci-fi goggles for detecting the alien-possessed humans. The helmet/goggles ensemble is particularly sweet.

With their new equipment, they first free Miss Mason from alien control, and then the science trio return to the farm to defeat the alien menace. This doesn’t quite work out as they planned, and they end up on a rocket to the moon. Once on the lunar surface, they get to meet with the alien leader, known as The Master of the Moon (Batman‘s Michael Gough), who is kicking it in a bright, technicolor robe. As the Master explains, the aliens do not actually have physical bodies: they are bodiless intelligences at the highest state of evolution. However, as balls of pure mental energy, they can’t fuck, so the race is soon going to die out. But they need Dr. Temple’s smarts in order to return to their home planet, so they are going to have to operate on him to remove the silver plate in his head.

After a successful rescue effort from Farge, Dr. Temple explains to the Master that he didn’t need to go to all this trouble to conquer Earth in order to return home. If he just asked nicely, Earth would help him out. Temple agrees to let bygones be bygones, and the film ends with a handshake agreement between him and the Master.

Director Freddie Francis had one of the more interesting careers in film. He won Oscars as a cinematographer for Sons and Lovers and Glory, but he also directed some great genre films for both Hammer and Amicus. His style isn’t quite as refined here as it is on later films, like Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and Tales from the Crypt, but the film still has a nice look, especially in the trippy montage sequence where Temple and Farge test out their new equipment.

The set designs for the underground lair and the moon base are also pretty cool, with a ’60s Dr. Who feel about them. But the best part of this movie is action scientist Dr. Curtis Temple. He frequently kicks ass, and has some mad sharpshooting skills, but he also knows how the break out the science when he needs to, outsmarting aliens who are made out of PURE INTELLIGENCE. And in the end, he totally works shit out with the aliens so that they get to return home, and the humans get a superfast rocket and a moon base. This is a pretty good deal.

By the way, They Came from Beyond Space is available to watch for free from Hulu.com.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Twister’s Revenge

One can learn several important things from crap-auteur Bill “Monster-a-Go-Go” Rebane’s 1987 film Twister’s Revenge! First, no matter how awesome one might think it is, taking the concept of Knight Rider and applying it to a monster truck is absolutely not awesome. Second, there is a good reason why some of the world’s greatest detectives–Jim Rockford, Starsky and Hutch, Hardcastle and McCormick, Tenspeed and Brownshoe, the Scooby Doo Gang–were not known for conducting their investigations with a monster truck. And third, monster truck action does not translate well to film.

Twister’s Revenge! also has a misleading title. It is not, as one might imagine, a SyFy Channel original sequel to 1996′s disaster classic, Twister. It is, in fact, not a sequel at all. Instead, it is the story of a young man named Dave (Dean West) teaming up with his artificially intelligent enhanced monster truck, “Mister Twister,” to rescue Dave’s wife and Twister’s creator, Sherry (Meredith Orr), from the clutches of some incredibly inept kidnappers.

To Rebane and his screenwriters’ credit, this movie jumps right into the plot: on the way to the local rural Wisconsin fair, Dave stops by a junkyard and explains to the owner that he has several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of equipment invested in his monster truck, and three locals overhear. The three–Kelly, Dutch, and Bear–then hatch a plot to steal this valuable equipment and somehow make money off of it.

However, they didn’t count on the fact that the truck in question has been enhanced by Dave’s fiance, Sherry, so that it is independently intelligent, with its own personality. Sherry is a wealthy computer genius, and it makes total sense that the cutting edge of artificial intelligence technology would be integrated with a monster truck. Dave shows off Mr. Twister’s special skills by driving over cars at the local fair–something that all the other, apparently non-intelligent, monster trucks do on their own. Dave even brags about the great stunt that Twister just did, but unless we’re missing a scene, nothing that we see makes Twister appear to be any more special than any other monster truck.

Following the local fair, Dave and Sherry get married, and they drive off from the church in their awesome honeymoon van. Little do they know that the three idiots are on their trail (sort of). The honeymoon actually consists of parking the van in the beautiful Wisconsin countryside, followed by some sex in the back (was the Dells completely booked up?). Before the marriage can be consumated, however, the bad guys manage somehow to kidnap Sherry and hold her for ransom.

Dave decides to take revenge, and as he prepares to find his new bride, he also discovers that Twister has developed his own personality. Twister would like to participate in the investigation as well, using his combination of heightened computer intelligence and monster truck skills to rescue his creator.

Twister’s contributions to the investigation consist almost entirely of driving over cars or through buildings. This movie presents, through Twister, an interesting existential conundrum: can a monster truck, no matter how intelligent, ever transcend its monster-truckness? The answer, according to this film, is “no,” and therein lies the tragedy. This remains the case even when some dramatic tension arises later in the film, as Twister professes his love for Sherry and creates a bizarre love triangle between man, woman, and monster truck. Twister is always destined to be alone.

The genius (if such a word can be used here) of Rebane’s film is that the plot is merely an apparatus upon which the director can hang various scenes of the monster truck in action. However, aside from wrecking cars and buildings, a monster truck just isn’t all that useful in an investigation of this sort. Dave can’t really use it to tail his suspects, nor is it an effective method of intimidation. The bad guys pretty easily run away from it, or just duck under its giant chassis.

Even the climactic battle, in which the bad guys suddenly have their own tank equipped with artillery shells, should be awesome, but it isn’t. The sort-of chase that happens between the two vehicles wrecks a lot of Gleason, Wisconsin–the town in which the movie was made–yet the police never get involved. Perhaps the town just needed to get rid of a bunch of old buildings and cars. In the end, that may be the entire purpose of the movie: a kind of radical effort at civic improvement, with the movie itself only being a secondary benefit.

I can imagine few things that would look more awesome on paper than a movie about a super-intelligent monster truck. In fact, if you told me that the movie ended with a face-off between said monster truck and a tank, I would be completely ready to lay down my hard-earned cash to see such an extravaganza. However, not only does Twister’s Revenge! fail to live up to that potential, it also proves that such potential is illusory. One really can’t blame director Rebane for allowing his reach to exceed his grasp here.