Thursday, December 31, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM: MS. 45 (1981)



The characters in Abel Ferrara’s early movies kill with the frequency of furtive teens who have just discovered a new high. They don’t stand over their victims and offer snappy one liners. They simply do what they do, enjoy whatever quick rush it entails, and then scurry off into the night, usually to a small New York apartment where their mouthy neighbors remain clueless.

Ferrara is also a director who aims not just at the jugular, but at art. From his demonic first feature, The Driller Killer, shot during the short-lived “No-Wave” era when poor young New York filmmakers were shooting films in alleys and punk clubs, he was showing the eye of a mature filmmaker with more on his mind than standard grindhouse fare. His movies were unpredictable and violent, but delivered with a kind of twitchy beauty.

Ms. 45 was the follow-up to The Driller Killer, and it serves as a companion piece. Some may quibble that it’s not quite as feverish as the earlier movie, but it’s the work of a director growing in confidence. It stars Zoe Tamerlis (aka Zoe Lund) as Thana, a mute young seamstress in the garment district. Her life is knocked askew one day when, on her way home from work, she’s attacked by a stranger in a Halloween mask and raped. She returns home, only to find a burglar ransacking her living room. When he tries to rape her, too, she decides enough is enough and beats his head in with an iron. Dazed, Thano dismembers the man’s body and hides parts of it in random locations around the city. She also feeds pieces of the guy to her neighbor’s little dog. Aside from the guts that keep shooting up of out her bathtub drain, all that remains of him is a cheap pistol. She starts carrying it in her purse, like a phallic symbol, or a trophy.

Tamerlis is very good as a young woman who endures a terrible experience and undergoes a mental breakdown. During the film she will kill several men, some more deserving than others. What makes her fascinating is that she never speaks. Now and then she opens her mouth wide, as if there’s something terrible in her soul that wants to come out, but no sound emerges. This makes her stand out at work, where she’s surrounded by several loudmouthed female co-workers. There’s an intriguing aside in the film where a homeless woman wanders down the street, talking to herself.  She says, “Why should I speak to other women? All they do is laugh and dance and use the word ‘pussy’!” Is this woman speaking for Thana?

Thana seems to go where the chaos takes her. When the world turns violent, so does she. When a seedy fashion photographer tells her she could be a model, she starts wearing gobs of makeup and skimpy outfits. When men are too aggressive, she shoots. Even when they aren’t aggressive, she shoots. When an especially dull man corners her in a bar and shares too many details of his personal life, she decides to kill him, too. She doesn’t choose her targets; they just appear before her. 

The city of Ms. .45 is a bubbling cauldron of pent up sexual anger. Nearly every male character we meet is a jittery, crotch-tugging ape, and we’re just about rooting for Thana to put bullets in them. A scene where her gun jams and her intended victim takes it from her is telling. The look on her face is like a child’s when a favorite toy has been yanked away. When he accidently shoots himself, she reclaims the gun and slinks away. She’s so childlike we’re practically glad she’ll get to kill again. 

The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies (edited by Phil Hardy) describes Ms. 45 as “a stunning urban nightmare,” and correctly points out that the film “avoids the sadistic, voyeuristic sexism of so many recent American horror films.” This was, after all, right on the heels of I Spit on Your Grave, another film about a rape victim who takes bloody vengeance. Somehow, Ferrara’s film is never as off-putting as Spit, perhaps because, as Hardy’s book notes, “the various assaults on Tamerlis are not filmed in such a way as to invite the audience to participate wallowingly in them, while the film’s parade of unsympathetic male characters is relentless…Furthermore, her transformation is not achieved by her assuming the usual ‘masculine’ qualities, or even losing her positive ‘feminine’ ones.” 

Hardy’s book, published just a few years after the release of Ms..45, didn’t exactly match the tone of the original U.S. reviews. Dann Gire of the Chicago Daily Herald couldn’t say enough bad things about it. “Ms. 45 takes no stand on sexual assault or male chauvinism in America, except to use them as a pretense for a violent film about how a mentally-ill woman makes her own twisted psychological adjustment to physical violation.” He added that he hoped the movie “slithers back to the nether regions from whence it came.” Fair enough. We all have bad days at the office.

The film was given a nice restoration in 2013 by Alamo Drafthouse, all the better to appreciate James Lemmo’s creamy cinematography. One of the more memorable scenes is when Thana and an intended victim end their evening beneath the Brooklyn Bridge in an almost identical recreation of Woody Allen’s famous scene in Manhattan. As I’ve written elsewhere, Ferrara’s New York has always felt more realistic than the New York presented by other filmmakers. Ferrara’s New York is a tired city of old skyscrapers with garbage on the streets, a city of cut-rate glamor, where the locals turn a costume party into their fantasies of a night at Studio 54, mirror ball and all. Thana’s co-workers are tough, modern women, but they’re nothing special. They’re smart enough to maneuver around their sleazy supervisor, but not smart enough to imagine another life for themselves. The supervisor (played by Albert Sinkys) is what they’d call “a real piece of work,” sashaying about like a flamboyant designer, but making passes at his employees. He’s a dervish of sexual misalignment. Thana’s neighbor, a big haired older lady who might have escaped from a John Waters’ movie, feels like the old New York of Joe Mitchell stories, the sort of eccentric loner who might have a flea circus in her apartment and charge a reasonable admission. 

Ms. 45 could be considered part of a Ferrara trilogy about New York madness. The first being The Driller Killer, and the third is The Addiction, which starred Lilly Taylor as a meek college student who goes on her own kill spree after being bitten by a vampire. Ms. 45 may be the best of the three. It’s more accomplished than the first, and less self-conscious than the third. There’s just something so gorgeously primal about Thana’s silence. Taylor’s character, on the other hand, never shuts up, and all of her spewing about sin and rotting from the inside doesn’t add up to one slug from Thana’s .45. 

All three films were written by Nicholas St. John, who also wrote several other features for Ferrara, including King of New York and The Funeral. Ferrara himself has said that he doesn’t like to compare his early films to his later ones, because he was a different person at the time. This is understandable. The Addiction, for instance, despite its shimmering black and white photography by Ken Kelsch, feels mannered, lacking the quiet weirdness of Ms. 45. It’s too tidy, as if made by an artist who still frets over the messy spots in his early work. Worse, there’s not a decent oddball in sight, just a lot of bored black teenagers loafing on street corners. The Addiction was made during Ferrara’s commercial heyday, a time in the 1990s when his films were being financed by rap moguls, and attracting stars like Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken and Madonna. He’d become a sort of fetish for moviegoers looking for “edgy” material. He was to Quentin Tarantino what The Rolling Stones, or The Animals, were to The Beatles -- darker, meaner, dirtier. 

Still, for all of the controversy around some of Ferrara's later work, I’ll always prefer his first few films, like Ms. 45. Those early ones scream with delight at their own existence.

 

 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: SAM PHILLIPS...


The Sun King
Excellent New Bio Gives a Legend His Due
By Don Stradley
 

 

About the subject of his splendid new book, Peter Guralnick writes, “Nobody ever took more pleasure in his own story than Sam Phillips. It was, in his telling, a poetic as much as realistic vision,  a mythic journey combining narrative action, revolutionary rhetoric, Delphic pronouncements, and the satisfaction, like that of any Old Testament god, of being able to look back on the result and pronounce it ‘good’.” That’s a mighty big clutch of words, but the book is loaded with grand declarations. The book’s title alone couldn’t be killed with a harpoon. Check it out: SAM PHILLIPS, The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll: How One Man Discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley, and How His Tiny Label, Sun Records of Memphis, Revolutionized the World!

Well, he caused a pretty strong ripple, anyway. Phillips’ desire was to record musicians who might otherwise never get near a studio, to provide an outlet for the black bluesmen and the white hillbilly cats to unleash the sound that rattled around in their souls, until he finally cracked the code with Presley, who didn’t sound exactly right until he started screwing around in the studio with a country-blues number called ‘That’s All Right’, and then Phillips suddenly had a weapon for the charge into a musical upheaval: a charismatic white boy who could deliver the black sound to a white, music buying audience. Phillips would later compare Presley to Jesus in his ability “to communicate and touch…” For years after Presley’s death, Phillips insisted that he could have saved the poor lad. The producer and singer had certainly been friendly back in the 1950s, even after Presley bolted Sun for RCA, Phillips grabbing a cool $35,000 for the Presley contract, money needed to get himself and his little studio out of debt, and the stories of Presley dropping by Phillips' home at midnight just to play pool or hang out are priceless, but by the 1970s there wasn’t much Phillips could’ve done for pill-popping Presley. By then, the King was gone, man, gone. Still, saving Jesus would’ve been a big feather in Phillips’ cap.

Of which there were many. Most music producers would’ve built a career out of discovering Carl Perkins, but ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ was just one colorful item on Phillips’ ledger. “Nothing passed my ears,” Phillips said. Undeniably, there was an eight or 10 year period where Phillips seemed unbeatable at finding and recording star-blazing talent. His indestructible run was surprising, considering the hardships of his early life. Nearly dying at birth, there followed a frail childhood, and then a young adulthood filled with nervous disorders and breakdowns, resulting in extensive shock therapy treatments. Whole Lotta Shakin’, indeed. It was cruelly ironic that Phillips was later saddled with being the man who not only found Presley, but lost him to Col. Tom Parker, the Southern blowhard who didn’t recognize Presley as an artist, but simply displayed him like a hunk of meat.  Phillips would get his accolades only when music historians and archivists began to appreciate his part in the shaping of rock ‘n’ roll. In his later years, sporting a wild beard and a manic look in his eye, Phillips became the godfather of rock, a nutty one who couldn’t stop talking, as if he and only he could tell you exactly what went on in that tiny studio, the place dubbed affectionately as a “chicken coop surrounded by Cadillacs.” 

Guralnick writes a beautiful story, largely because he gives the side characters in Phillips’ life plenty of coverage. There’s Elvis, the moody country boy who never quite understood what he had or what he should do with it. There’s Jerry Lee Lewis, who had the “self-belief of a speeded up cartoon character,” and may have been Phillips’ favorite. There’s Charlie Rich, who would’ve been happy playing jazz standards in a pub, and Perkins, who should’ve been a bigger star, and Roy Orbison, trying to figure out where he fit in,  and Howlin’ Wolf, who struck Phillips as one of the few true geniuses to stroll through Sun, and Billy Lee Riley, who sang ‘Flying Saucer Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘Red Hot’ and should’ve been as huge as Bill Haley, but there was only room for so many stars at the table. And there was Phillips’ all-female radio station, WHER, the “miniature pink and purple fantasy.” And there were the various farmers and hicks, coming out of the fields, all seeking their shot in the wake of Presley’s crazy success, all wanting to see the man named Phillips who had helped make it all happen, hoping to impress him with their yodels and strangely perfected animal sounds. Phillips, if he had time, listened to every one of those “desperate-looking hillbillies,” giving them each a moment to unleash what was in them, knowing that somewhere in the cacophony of railroad songs, religious hymns, and goat noises lurked the sound of America.

 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM: I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE




One of the creepiest premises for a movie is the one where your loved ones turn out to be aliens.  Gene Fowler Jr.’s  I Married a Monster From Outer Space probably takes the idea as far as it can go, jamming it all into the title. Unlike Invaders from Mars, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, two superior but similar features, it has no time for subtlety or finesse. It was simply a cheaply made but entertaining follow-up to Fowler’s previous hit,  I Was A Teenage Werewolf, a smash for American-International, shot in eight days and returning a few million dollars on a budget of approximately $80,000.  It was a time where even the big studios were cashing in on the monster craze, and Fowler, who’d started out as a cutter for the likes of Sam Fuller and Fritz Lang, made monster movies that were a notch above the usual. 

I Married a Monster from Outer Space doesn’t go for the paranoia of Don Siegel’s Body Snatchers.  It creates suspense in a more comic book and ray gun fashion, its aliens looking a bit like Man-Thing from Marvel comics. These creatures have come to Earth because the women on their planet have died out;  the plan is to take over the bodies of male earthlings and mate with the women here. The aliens move quickly, inhabiting several men in a small town, including members of the local police force.  But the men in town aren’t a particularly strong lot. A pair of female barflies complain about the men at the next table, “Those guys aint even giving us a hard look.” 

That line cuts in more ways than one. What’s a poor barfly to do?  Strapping young Bill (Tom Tryon) is deeply in love with his fiancé Marge (Gloria Talbott), a feisty young woman with Bettie Page bangs. But once the alien takes over, Bills walks around with dark circles under his eyes, stalling until his planet’s scientists have figured out how the whole reproductive thing works. The honeymoon, not surprisingly, is a botch.


The screenplay by Louis Vittes, a 48-year-old writer who had done most of his work for television, is filled with quirky dialog that zings by so quickly it's almost unnoticed. When all of Bill’s friends have been turned into aliens and are still sitting around at the bar, one of them announces that he sort of likes the Earth women. “Believe it or not,” he says, “it can be fun.”  He practically winks. Even if the scientists back home are still baffled, he’s found something he likes.

The marriage of Marge and alien Bill gets worse. She wants children. After a year, he’s still  unable to reproduce. When she  suggests Bill see a doctor, he refuses.  Naturally, this creates more tension in the half-alien household. 

Alien Bill has other problems.  On his own planet, the women were strictly for breeding purposes. On Earth, though, he’s starting to have feelings for Marge. This isn’t something he was prepared for.

The charade goes on until Marge follows alien Bill on a late night jaunt to a space ship hidden in some nearby woods. There, she witnesses him transform into his alien self. When the horrified Marge runs through town looking for help, movie and television buffs will recognize the streets from other Paramount movies and TV shows, specifically the old Andy Griffith show. In a sense, Marge is running through Mayberry. When she stops at a bar for help, she gets none.  “Funny,” says a fellow at the bar. “She doesn’t look like a lush.” The bartender (Maxie Rosenbloom) answers, “They don’t wear badges, you know.”

Curiously, Marge remains with the alien version of Bill, gradually grasping the situation. But she’s not happy when he explains that the hybrid babies are going to look like the beings from his planet.

When one of Marge’s friends announces that her previously uninterested boyfriend has proposed to her, Marge guesses that another Earthman has been overtaken by an alien. She tries to talk her friend out of the marriage, but this woman has waited a long time to be married.  (Adding to the Andy Griffith link, the woman is played by raspy-voiced Jean Carson, known to Griffith fans as one of the “fun girls.”) There’s a through-line in the film about women and their yearning for husbands, even if their only choice is a loser. There’s an especially poignant scene where a good-hearted barfly tries to seduce a man on the street. Her target happens to be an alien who hasn’t found a human host. When she sees his real face, she shrieks and runs away. With his cover blown, the alien zaps her. Is there a message here about men and women? Perhaps in the sense that if women really knew the truth about men they’d run screaming? 

It’s also interesting that the posse formed to combat the aliens are found at the local maternity ward;  the ability to procreate is a sign that you’re an Earthmen and not an alien. The message - breeding is good; not breeding is bad - was weird then, and it’s weird now. Fortunately, the aliens are easy to kill. A German Shepard bites one on the tentacle and it bleeds to death. So much for the alien menace. Thanks to a few good dogs and some seed-carrying American males, the aliens abort their mission. Real Bill reclaims his body and all ends well. But didn’t it seem, just for a moment, that Marge and alien Bill were coming to an understanding? She had seemed genuinely moved when he admitted that he was starting to love her. This sort of unexpected moment is what makes Fowler’s movie better than most of its ilk.

The one-two punch of I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Married a Monster from Outer Space guarantees a special place for Gene Fowler Jr in the 1950s schlock hall of fame, if only because the two titles were so reviled in their time. An editorial in an Oswego newspaper railed that I Married a Monster…and films like it were, “geared to appeal to incipient psychotics in the ten-year mental age bracket.” Yet, the films aren’t bad at all. Werewolf hurtles like a rocket towards it climax, and I Married a Monster is probably the last good entry in the 1950s body snatching genre, creating a nice bookend for Siegal’s film of a few years earlier.  “The premise,” Fowler told FilmFax in 1990, “was kind of sad. The aliens, after all of their women had died off, were searching the galaxy for women to propagate their race. They were desperate. As far as they were concerned, what they were doing was very honest and very necessary. The fact that they were kicking the shit out of the Earth men was beside the point!”

I Married a Monster…began as a title without a story, as many low budget features did at the time. Fowler did a lot with a little. The alien ship, for instance, was just a door covered by some foliage, yet it looked immense and ominous.  And though Fowler bragged to UPI that Monster was “the cheapest picture in Paramount history,” he always “tried to put characterization into the monsters.”

Do Fowler’s two horror movies stand the test of time?  I think they do.  I prefer his Werewolf to the ones that came before it because of its energy and intensity. As for I Married a Monster From Outer Space, Tom Tryon allegedly hated his role, which Fowler later said accounted for his wooden performance. Yet, it’s Tryon’s very woodenness that makes him so eerie. I like the way his small, dark eyes glaze over when people talk to him. It’s how, say, an alien might look when he couldn’t understand his surroundings. In another movie, Tryon’s stiffness wouldn’t work. In this one, he’s perfect. Good enough, in fact, to impress the psychotic 10-year-old in me.

 

 

 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM: COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK (1958)


 

At its core, The Colossus of New York is another brain movie, one of dozens that came out in the 1950s. There was Donovan’s Brain, and brains from other planets. There were brains in jars and tanks, and of course, brains that wouldn’t die, with the unforgettable Virginia Leith’s head on a tray, hissing at her scientist boyfriend. The message seemed to be that brains turn bad, and that’s certainly true of Colossus.

On the other hand, Eugene Lourie’s 1958 movie has a different feel to it, and not solely because it was backed by a major studio like Paramount, rather than a low budget, independent crew. It has its roots in the Frankenstein movies of the 1930s, with its lumbering, misunderstood creature brought to life in a laboratory. It’s almost touching in spots, more so than you’d expect from a movie that was probably pitched as something goofy for the kiddies at the drive-in. It’s story was by Willis Goldbeck, a writer whose career started in the silent film era and included everything from cop thrillers to medical dramas. Perhaps Goldbeck had seen the Frankenstein films in his youth and wanted to take a crack at the style. 

Certainly the robotic creature, voiced by Ross Martin and played by Ed Wolff, would’ve been familiar to kid moviegoers of the day, already monster crazy from the old Universal movies that had been packaged for television as a program called Shock Theater, not to mention the stuff coming out of Japan and American International. They might have been thrown for a loop by the robot’s first decipherable words, though. “You want to help me?” it asks. “Then destroy me!” 

One of the strengths of The Colossus of New York is its simplicity, which I think is partly due to Goldbeck’s coming from the silent era, when stories were more primal. There’s a basic premise: can a brain function without human contact? It asks basic questions: what would the world be like if we could’ve kept alive the brains of Einstein, Da Vinci, or Galileo? And it features one of the grand staples of all horror movies: the bringing to life of an automaton. The waking of the robot is truly chilling, and the one reason that this movie is still notable. As it begins to stir, we hear crackling and fizzing from inside its head, like a static-filled radio signal, followed by the eeriest sounds. The robot voice emerges from the atmospheric murk,  unclear at first, but expressing everything from fear to confusion to anger to disbelief, until releasing a wail of unbridled anguish. How this must have spooked movie-goers in 1958! 

The same sort of movie made today would be filled with slippery tech talk and faceless lab assistants pecking at their lap tops. The robot would be sexy, no doubt voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The scientists would be stylish nerds. Mark Ruffalo would come along to teach the robot how to dance and make espresso.

In the tradition of the films that influenced it, Colossus is tragic. The brain is from an award winning scientist (Martin) who was killed by a moving truck. The scientist’s father (Otto Kruger), a famous brain surgeon, saves his son’s brain and asks his other son, an electronics wizard, to create the robot where the brain can live and carry on its work. The robot exists in seclusion for a while, but eventually goes for a walk to visit the grave where his original body is buried. To his surprise, his 9-year-old son is also visiting the grave. The boy believes the robot is just a friendly giant who happened to be wandering around in the cemetery. Again, like Frankenstein, there’s a scene where the behemoth takes the child in his arms. But rather than throwing the boy in a pond, the pair disappear into the woods, mysteriously. A friendship develops. The robot says, “Call me daddy.” 

The robot also happens to see that his widowed wife and his brother have started a relationship of some kind. This gives the robot a chance to destroy some lab equipment and make some more noise. The automaton develops some other traits, including the ability to hypnotize people, and a sort of extra sensory perception. Not surprisingly, he can shoot death rays from his eyes. Do you think his conniving brother is going to last long?

Visually, the robot is stunning. Press releases for the movie harped on the mechanical giant’s costume, describing it as “electronically operated (with) its own motors and batteries. All told, with flesh and machinery, the character weighs 490 pounds and stands 9 feet, with 4-foot shoulders.”  The costume was actually sent out on a promotional tour, exhibited in theater lobbies around the country. Though obviously created with a nod to the old Jack Pierce monster makeup, the robot is unique. He has braces on his legs, as if he’s a gigantic but fragile child, and enormous gloved hands. The cloak he wears draped over his shoulders gives him the appearance of someone out of a Greek chorus. His movements are odd. At times he lumbers like a sleepwalker, but at others he trots jerkily forward. My bet is that Lourie’s original plan was to have the robot move slowly, but changed his mind and had certain scenes speeded up. The result, perhaps accidently, is that the robot’s movements are unpredictable, which makes him scarier and slightly surreal.

Ed Wolff, who wore the mechanical man’s costume, was listed at 7’ 4”, and weighed around 300 pounds. He earned money by putting himself on display in amusement parks and carnivals, though he also worked as a house painter. He occasionally took roles in movies, usually playing a costumed monster. One of his first roles was in a crowd scene for the silent The Phantom of the Opera. For Colossus, he struggled with the cumbersome head piece which was wired with batteries and compressed air so it lighted up. He had to get a haircut to eliminate the friction that kept giving him shocks to the head. It’s intriguing to know that while the head was glowing, Wolff may have been suffering inside. (Several extras were also burned during the film’s climactic fire scene, when the automaton is torching the United Nations building.)

Producer William Alland, who already had a string of science fiction classics to his credit (It Came From Outer Space, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, This Island Earth, Tarantula, The Deadly Mantis)  insisted that Colossus was rooted in fact, telling the press that the film “bears out the theory that the human mind, divorced from the sense of pain and mortality, would lose all decency and compassion.” Alland had other, more altruistic plans for his sci-fi features, namely, to glamorize the American scientist.  “I believe films can help show how important and exciting science can be,” he said. Despite Alland’s ambition, the movie did middling business. The Schenectady Gazette, in line with most reviewers of the day, called it “a rather standard science fiction offering.” Critic Bob Smith dismissed it as “just another Frankenstein yarn which turns out to be more of an anti-science picture.” Colossus ended up as the bottom side of double bills, usually paired with Jerry Lewis’ Rock-a-bye Baby, and King Creole, starring that other Paramount colossus, Elvis Presley.

Ultimately, despite its mechanical man, the film lacks doesn’t have the enchanting backdrops to capture the imagination. The laboratory feels more like the office of a HAM radio enthusiast, and New York is a strange place to set a movie of this type. The East River and the Brooklyn Bridge look magnificent but odd, as opposed to the swamps and alien terrain of Alland’s other great pictures. Manhattan is a breeding ground for many things, but not robots. And audiences may not have wanted to get behind this particular robot, who wasn’t exactly a misunderstood monster wishing for a friend or a bride. In fact, he’s a bit of a fascist, wishing to “eliminate the idealists,” and “do away with human trash.” Rather than use his mind to help the poor, he decides it's "simpler and wiser to get rid of them."

The robot’s assault on the United Nations building is, again, reminiscent of Frankenstein, and even King Kong, but the emotion isn’t there, not even when the robot tumbles to his doom. Kruger only shrugs and says, “Without a soul, we’re nothing but monsters.” But even this disappointing climax offers something to intrigue, namely, a small dark puddle forming under the fallen robot’s head. Is it blood? Robot fluid? Something leaking from his brain? 

Alland took the brunt of blame for the film’s lack of success, though the main thing that hurt it was timing. There was a glut of horror and sci-fi titles that year, and ticket buyers may have felt saturated. Sensing the monster craze was ebbing, Alland moved on to other genres,  including teen flicks and westerns. Lourie would direct two more creature features (The Giant Behemoth, and  Gorgo) and eventually return to his first love, art direction, working for directors ranging from Sam Fuller to Clint Eastwood. 

The Colossus of New York remains an interesting enigma, a strange hitching of genres that doesn’t quite work, yet fascinates. I haven’t even mentioned the haunting piano score by Van Cleave, or the beautiful opening credits that appear to shimmer out of New York harbor, or the fact that it was all filmed not in New York but on the Paramount lot. Many things stand out, but what I tend to remember is that gripping scene where the mechanical man comes alive, howling at the unbearable pain of being reborn.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

TFD PRESENTS: SCHLOCK TILL YOU DROP!


We know you enjoy your classy movies and your Oscar winners, but deep down, there's a part of you that is never happier than when the crud seems to be oozing out from your TV screen. That's what we're here for!  Here are five titles from the schlock wing of our extensive film library...
 
PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES (1956) Hideous atomic mutant strikes from the depths! Sheer horror as a living nightmare stalks the ocean floor! You know the story: A radioactive rock at the bottom of the ocean causes a sea creature to mutate into a horrible, amphibious monster. This seemed to happen a lot in the 1950s. Director Dan Milner (who also gave us From Hell It Came, a film about an evil tree stump) hits all the right notes here, helped by a cast that includes Kent Taylor, Cathy Downs, and Michael Whalen. Also, pay special attention to the score by Ronald Stein, who graduated from the Yale School of Music to become the Tchaikovsky of B-Movies, scoring such “classics” as Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, and Invasion of the Saucer Men!

In a close-up view of the creature, strings can be seen on top of its head holding up the fin!

THE WILD WOMEN OF WONGO (1958) Untamed maidens capture their mates! Savage in battle... primitive in love... prehistoric beauties live by the code of the jungle! This schlock epic from Jaywall Productions (Naked Africa) is about a tribe of beautiful women on the tropical island of Wongo. They discover that the other side of the island is inhabited by a tribe of handsome men. But a tribe of evil ape men live on the island, too, and that’s never any fun. Joyce Nizzari, Playboy magazine’s Playmate of the month in Dec. 1958, stars as one of the Wongo babes. Plus, Ed Fury, who would go on to appear in several Italian made ‘sword and sandal’ epics, is here as ‘Gahbo’, and Welsh rugby star Rex Richards appears as the king of Wongo. Filmed in Florida!

 Some of the stock music in the film was also used in Plan 9 From Outer Space...





THE KILLER SHREWS (1959) Your skin will crawl with fear at their nearness...They had to eat 3 times their body weight each day... OR STARVE! Maybe they’re just dogs wearing fake snouts and tails, in a low budget movie filmed in Texas by the same group that gave us The Giant Gila Monster. But suspend your disbelief, and they’ll become mutant, killer shrews, created by a mad scientist. Starring James Best (TV’s 'The Dukes of Hazzard'), this howler has some good things going for it, namely a creepy musical score by Harry Bluestone and Emil Cadkin, and some solid direction by Ray Kellogg. If nothing else, this slice of schlock heaven may help answer the question, “What the heck is a shrew?”

This miniscule budget feature became one of the most successful “regional films” of its era. Unlike other regional films, it received national and even foreign distribution. It was released in West Germany as ‘Die Nacht der unheimlichen Bestie’ (translation: The Night of the Creepy Beast.)


THE GIANT GILA MONSTER (1959) Only Hell could breed such an enormous beast. Only God could destroy it! Well, if not God, how about a heroic hot-rodding teenager? That’s the idea behind this independent slime fest from the same Texas film company that produced another low budget “classic”, The Killer Shrews. Both were directed by Ray Kellog, a special effects specialist and second unit director who would eventually work on some of Hollywood’s biggest pictures, including Cleopatra and The Green Berets. In 1959, though, it was all about Gila monsters and revved up teens. This low-budget mess starred Don Sullivan, a veteran of several low budget monster films, and Lisa Simone, the French contender for Miss Universe of 1957. If there’s a schlock Hall of Fame, this one belongs!

Filmed near Dallas, the film was budgeted at $175,000 and was produced by Dallas drive-in theater chain owner Gordon McLendon, who wanted co-features for his main attractions. In exchange for doing the special effects, Kellogg was allowed to direct the film. Ken Knox, who played Horatio Alger "Steamroller" Smit in the movie, was an actual disc jockey working at radio stations in Texas owned by McLendon...


CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA (1961)

What was the unspeakable secret of the sea? Here’s a Roger Corman quickie from the golden age of Drive-In junk! In this spoof of horror and spy thrillers, American gangster Renzo Capetto (Anthony Carbone) decides to kill members of his bungling crew and blame their deaths on a legendary sea creature. What he doesn't know is that the creature is really out there! Shot in five days with a creature made from tennis balls and Brill-O pads,  the film was marketed as a straight thriller, and not a spoof. What was Corman thinking? 


Oscar winning screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo) did some acting  in his younger days and has a small role in Creature from the Haunted Sea. He plays Sparks Moran / Agent XK150 / and serves as the narrator…




All of these schlockbusters are available from @FilmDetective, a group dedicated to restoring vintage films. Even the schlocky ones...













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Monday, December 14, 2015

ROOM



Lenny Abrahamson deserves whatever accolades come his way for Room, though he’s been making very good movies for a long time. Last year’s Frank was a challenging piece about a mentally frazzled rock musician who hid behind a cumbersome paper-mâché mask. A few years earlier was Garage, about a mentally challenged mechanic and his clumsy foray into the world of women and partying. Room continues Abrahamson’s recurring theme of isolated people coming to grips with the “real world,” and judging by the awards and fine reviews heaped upon it, all he needed to do was switch his attention to a trapped woman instead of an emotionally stunted man. These days, it seems, moviegoers don’t particularly care for the problems of men, unless the men are hunky types, or wear suits of iron. 

Room, based on Emma Donaghue’s novel,  has what Abrahamson’s other movies had, but in sweeter, less challenging, and perhaps less brilliant terms. Without the slightly deranged, occasionally off-putting characters of his other films, he focuses on normal people in deranged circumstances. Previously, his characters suffered in seclusion because of their own psychological problems. Here, they’re forced into isolation.  This, I imagine, has also helped the movie’s reception; audiences may still view psychologically hampered characters as less compelling than, say, a woman trapped in a shed by a psychopath, which is ostensibly the story of Room. At age 17, Joy Newcomb was abducted by a man and kept locked in a shed. Her captor, known only as Old Nick, keeps her there as a sexual prisoner, raping her every night for years. She’s eventually pregnant and gives birth to Jack, an adorable boy who lives in the shed with her. Old Nick gives them just enough to survive on – food, heat, running water, a television, the occasional toy for Jack  - but Joy’s real achievement is in the way she raises Jack in their tiny enclosure. She plays games with him, tells him stories, and keeps his mind sharp, as sharp as a kid can possibly be in an environment known simply as “room.” 

The film’s apparent plot involves Joy’s plan to escape. She’s tried a few times before, but Old Nick is a wily, sometimes brutal imprisoner. As Jack turns five, he seems smart enough to assist his ma in an incredible gamble. There’s great drama in watching Joy instruct Jack in her plan, made doubly dramatic because of Jack’s reluctance. The room is all he’s ever known, and leaving it is a frightening proposition.  But the real story is about what happens to Jack and Joy once they’ve escaped, and the serpentine road back to normalcy. Jack is the one people worry about, but Joy is the one who has the meltdown. She’d held it together for so many years in the shed that freedom unravels her.

The world Joy reenters is full of anxiety, red-tape, and suppressed anger. She learns her parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) are divorced, and her mother now lives with an old family friend named Leo. Television reporters want to get in on the abduction story, as do several doctors, lawyers,  and psychiatrists. Young Jack is bewildered by the immensity of the world. “Everything moves so fast that I don’t know where to look,” he says.  There’s real pain in the world, insidious and subtle though it may be, and edging back into normal life isn’t easy. Joy wonders why she isn’t happier. I think it’s because the every day grind of life is a kind of poison, and if you haven’t taken it in a while, it’s hard to get used to the bitter taste. 

An example of what Joy comes back to is the way her father reacts.  He can’t bring himself to look at Jack. It’s as if he’s less bothered by his daughter’s abduction than the fact that she’s had a child out of wedlock. It was an uptight Waspish family from which Joy was taken, and it doesn’t take long for the old tensions to arise. This part of the movie feels a bit forced, as if Abrahamson was more comfortable with the weird part of the story, which he handles in a beautiful way; the family saga feels lifted from a Lifetime network drama. Fortunately, even these scenes are balanced out by Jack’s otherworldly presence.

There may not be a better performance given this year, from a male or a female of any age, than Jacob Tremblay’s turn as young Jack. Feral, almost androgynous in the early scenes, he’s gradually transformed into a regular boy. Tremblay’s ease and naturalness in the role is remarkable. The scenes where he meets his first dog, tastes his first ice cream, or looks out a hospital window  and sees the vastness of the world, are all perfect, as is the way he interacts with his mother. It’s a performance that won’t be matched by any child soon, maybe not even by Tremblay.

The other performances are nearly as flawless, the very faces of the actors revealing more than pages of dialogue. As Joy, Brie Larson shows the absolute weariness of someone in her situation, a weariness that threatens to outpace the great love she has for her son, and suggests that even if Jack can make the adjustment to real life, maybe she won’t. Tom McCamus is perfect as Leo. He's the sort of good-natured oaf who can easily become part of Jack's life. Joan Allen finds the right way to play an ordinary woman trying to be a normal grandma to her odd grandson. Even Sean Bridgers is spot-on as Old Nick, reminding me of Bruce Dern in some of his creepier roles.  

When the movie ended I found myself wondering about Joy and Jack. Did they survive in the real world? Not surprisingly, the movie left me depressed and irritable for several hours. That’s ok, though. Some movies are good that way. Abrahamson may have invented a new genre: the enchanting bummer.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS...

                              America’s Bogeyman Returns
Guess what? He’s afraid of growing old…
By Don Stradley



Stephen King is still here – an unabashed bestselling author of the seventies and eighties who still sells pretty well, even if he’s not the 500-pound gorilla that he used to be, back when people joked he could make a laundry list and sell it to Hollywood, when even his weak stuff was being gobbled up for movie projects, and he had enough clout to step behind the camera and direct his own feature about the trucks that came to life – and that’s cool. To make the kind of dough King made, with his telekinetic misfits, his revamped vampires, his apocalyptic smackdowns, his haunted hotels, his haunted cars, his haunted pets, and his Shawshank redemptions, was a unique, and uniquely American, phenomenon. It doesn’t matter that nothing in his past 10 books, including the latest, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, has really stuck to the ribs, or that I couldn’t name one of his characters since Gerald’s Game if you pressed a sharp blade to my throat. Like Colonel Sanders, he’s ours. We can’t get rid of him. By now he probably glows in the dark, like one of those old Aurora model kits of Frankenstein’s monster.

Early in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, a collection of 18 stories and two “poems,” we’re told about a car that eats people. Dumb, right? But King was in a playful mood, and it felt good. Unfortunately, it takes only a few stories for you to realize he’s no longer that sort of writer, not really, which is probably why he put ‘Mile 81’ at the top, the way Lou Reed used to start concerts with ‘Sweet Jane,’ just to get it  out of the way. Nowadays King sees himself as more of a Ray Bradbury style fantasist. Not the rocket loving Bradbury, but the Bradbury who wrote about Picasso and time travel and Coke bottles that predicted the weather. King wallows in that style, but his slovenly characters are too busy sucking down soft drinks and fruit pies to be worthy of wonder. King writes in a variety of voices, from the all-knowing narrator to the trailer park knucklehead, but the stories collected here are overly long and flabby. While reading them, I felt King was fiddling and farting. He's like a guy who has the job and knows he’ll never be fired, so he’s not really compelled to impress anybody. I wanted to poke him so he’d just get on with it.

Most frustrating is the sense that he’s recycling old material. ‘Bad Little Kid,’ for instance, is a tired reworking of one of his best early stories, ‘The Bogeyman.’ You can tell how much King has changed as a writer by comparing the two. The earlier piece, published in Cavalier back in 1973, was succinct, suspenseful, and had a colorful jolt in nearly every paragraph. The new one is about three times longer, with several pages between each pop. And I’m sure someone will one day write a nice essay about how ‘Ur,’ which concerns a Kindle that predicts the future, is linked to ‘Word Processor of the Gods,’ in that both are about the frightening consequences that come with new technology. To me, it was just a rehash. Of course, King can still crank it up when the desire hits him. In ‘The Little Green God of Agony,’ King delights in describing the nasty thing that shoots out of a sick old man’s mouth during an exorcism, and how a nurse steps on it: “She felt it splatter beneath her sturdy New Balance walking shoe. Green stuff shot out in both directions, as if she had stepped on a balloon filled with snot.” Product placement and the gross-out, King’s peanut butter and jelly.

John D. MacDonald wrote in the introduction to King’s first collection of short stories, “Stephen King is not going to restrict himself to his present field of intense interest.” He added, “He does not write to please you. He writes to please himself.” MacDonald was correct on both counts. King has proven to be more than just a horror writer, and he doesn't follow trends. But I don’t think King is a better writer now than he was in 1978, when MacDonald was praising the great stories collected in Night Shift. King can still create strange and unsettling scenes, like in ‘That Bus is Another World,’ where a passenger in a New York cab witnesses a murder that no one else sees. But so many of the stories here take place in nursing homes and hospitals, coupled with a constant yammering about the difficulties of old age, that the reader is overwhelmed by what seems to be King’s own fear of aging and senility. He writes in one story,“…an old man’s body is nothing but a sack in which he carries aches and indignities.” There was a time when King’s characters used to wet their pants out of fear. It happens in just about all of his novels, and in several of the stories here. In the future, I suppose they’ll be pissing themselves not from fear, but because they’re incontinent. What next? A scary bedpan, perhaps. A haunted wheelchair?


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

SPOTLIGHT...


Spotlight Movie Review

Though it’s a good movie anyway, Spotlight has an almost bullet proof subject matter.  It’s about the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigative report on sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the city and, as we learn later, all around the planet. In the film, an expert on the subject estimates that six percent of Catholic priests were predatory pedophiles, which meant there were about 90 loose in Boston. Even when the movie goes flat in a few scenes, or feels deadened by Howard Shore's maudlin score, you’ll root for these dogged reporters to shine some light on the horrible actions of a centuries old institution.

In Spotlight, the name of a Globe department that investigated shoddy construction sites, the mistreatment of mentally ill state hospital patients and the like, Michael Keaton plays Walter “Robby” Robinson, a veteran editor who refers to himself as a “player coach.” He’s handed, quite out of the blue, a story that will upset the city, one involving the allegation that several pedophile priests had been protected by the Boston Archdiocese. Keaton’s team of investigative reporters includes Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes, who seems like a doufus at first but turns out to be the hardworking ace of the staff. The team digs up some grisly information, with the reluctant help of local prosecutor Mitchell Garabedian (played to twitchy perfection by Stanley Tucci) who has been working with victims of abuse for years. As the Globe investigation goes deeper, the whole story gives one a sick feeling. It’s like learning the city had secretly been controlled by a giant black tarantula living in the sewers. 

The investigation doesn’t go smoothly. Victims are hesitant to come forward, and the church’s stronghold on the city seems unbreakable. The events of 9/11 throw the Globe team into turmoil, putting the investigation on hold. This creates anxiety on the part of Ruffalo, who fears a lull in the investigation will give the Globe’s rival, the Herald, a chance to scoop them. Ironically, pedophile priests would’ve been right up the Herald’s alley.

I won’t reveal much more of the story – it’s all public record, anyway – but I must add that this taut, intelligent, well-acted movie is occasionally marred by, of all things, its own good taste.  Director Tom McCarthy, who also co-wrote the screenplay, keeps the vileness of the subject in the back corners of the film. Can one make a movie about the holocaust without showing a few Nazis? That’s what McCarthy attempts with Spotlight, and though I understand why – he wants to show the diligence of the Globe reporters and not distract from their story with what could be perceived as cheap melodrama – I think this makes the film, in the parlance of reporters, a bit “thin.” I only say this because the movie is most alive when a few victims come forth. The journalists are so buttoned up and stiff that the victims, with their bitterness and neurosis, give the movie it’s only color and energy. Otherwise, Spotlight would be two hours of Keaton scratching his head, and Ruffalo squinting, Renée Zellweger style.

Still, aside from the occasional dryness of the storytelling (as dry as a Globe editorial, mind you), the movie has many virtues. The Catholic church, for instance, gets its well-deserved lumps. McCarthy was also smart to avoid creating any side fluff to help make the story more palatable, like an interoffice romance. Instead, the Globe writers are shown as meticulous professionals, moving cautiously. Keaton trenchantly portrays a newsroom old-timer who has to keep his staff grounded, even as the story threatens to boil over. It’s inspiring that the shuck and jive of Keaton’s early career has been replaced with the reserve and stoicism of a top character actor. 

The only trouble is that, as good as Keaton is, the rest of the Globe characters aren’t given much to do. They scribble in their notebooks, they furrow their brows, they eat pizza. Sometimes they yell, “Damn right we’ll publish this story!” One reminisces about to going to church with her nana, not knowing that anyone over the age of five who uses the word “nana” should be kicked. Ruffalo verges on a good performance, until you realize that most of the drama around him involves cheesy devices, like Ruffalo running through the streets for a cab, or having courthouse doors slamming on him. This, I suppose, is better than Liv Schreiber as Keaton’s boss Marty Baron, who is borderline comatose. But there are great performances in the smaller roles, such as Neal Huff as the nervous head of a victim’s advocacy group, as well as nice turns from John Slattery, Billy Crudup, Brian d’Arcy James, and Jamey Sheridan. The real scene stealer, though, is Richard O’Rourke as an ex-priest who is briefly interviewed at his home. He seems so creepily out of touch that he happily admits to “messing around” with the kids. But the scene ends quickly, as if McCarthy feared showing or saying too much. 

I also wonder about a confession made by Robinson late in the film, that he had published a pedophile priest story years earlier. When asked why there’d been no follow-up, he sheepishly says, “I don’t know.”  He’s given a pass because of the stellar job he did in 2002, which eventually earned the Globe a Pulitzer Prize, but I wonder if he knew more than he was letting on. I’d say we still don’t know the whole story. Maybe we know, say, six percent.


Monday, December 7, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: FAT CITY



THE GREAT AMERICAN BOXING NOVEL IS BACK
Bing, bing, whop! Understand what I mean?

by Don Stradley







Boxing lost its glamour for me 10 years ago when I covered a welterweight championship bout for The Ring magazine. The turning point came at the weigh-in. The combatants, who'd starved themselves to make the weight limit, stepped onto the scales looking like a pair of emaciated teenagers. They were not folk heroes or gods, just a pair of scrawny kids. Later, I observed the "champion" at a buffet table. He was an open mouth chewer, none too bright. What I remember most was the way he spoke, like a politician: I promise to retain the title and bring it back home, and I vow entertain my supporters, and to fight this guy, and that guy...It was all as empty and rehearsed as a campaign speech. He was no more a "champion of the world" than Theda Bara was really a vamp. The other fellow, not as used to the spotlight, looked as uncomfortable as a young groom meeting his future in-laws. Why doesn't anyone write about this end of it, I wondered, how fighters are just painfully ordinary? When I heard recently that Leonard Gardner's Fat City was being republished by NYRB books, I was reminded of that dreadful meet and greet where the fighters revealed themselves to be so much smaller than life.

I'd read Gardner's book many years ago and I’m aware of its loyal cult following. I vaguely remembered it as a story of a drunk fighter trying to make a comeback, or something like that. I had a stronger memory of the movie, the one where Jeff Bridges and Stacy Keach are nearly upstaged by Curtis Cokes, a real life boxer who quietly steals the show in a small role. But generally, I don't care for boxing novels (or movies). They tend to be sappy, with soap opera angles thrown in, as if hatched in the mediocre minds of HBO's production team. The only boxing story I ever liked was the one by Hemingway where the fighter lives in a cave with his manager. The manager has to hit the fighter in the head with club now and then to calm him down. But even that one seemed fanciful. Maybe Gardner got it right. Maybe Gardner deserved another look.

Billy Tully, the bitter anti-hero of Fat City, first appears to us in a dank YMCA in Stockton. He's sparring with a young kid named Ernie Munger, and can't lay a glove on him. From there, the story of each character is shown in alternating chapters, with Ernie trying to break into boxing, and Tully wiling away his time in barrooms and as a farm laborer. Divorced with no work and no prospects, Tully links up with a babbling barfly named Oma, who just about drives him berserk. Tully eventually lands a comeback bout, but this isn’t the sort of story where a man finds redemption through boxing. Tully’s doomed, and we know it, not only because he’s a drinker, but because this novel was written in the sixties, when misfits like Tully usually came to bad ends. Think of Cool Hand Luke, or Randle McMurphy, or the drug dealers in Easy Rider. Granted, Tully isn't fighting the establishment like those other characters (Fat City is actually set during the 1950s; characters wear crew-cuts and sing ‘Earth Angel’ in the shower) but he's being crushed by his own anger.

If the desolation of his characters is part of what makes the novel so unique, Gardner's prose does the rest. It’s both fluid and pointed, a nice trick that few authors can pull off. I particularly liked this bit where Tully, at a worksite, unknowingly sits down next a pile of cow shit.

"Jesus Christ, you don't care where you eat, do you?" asked one of the two white men passing him where he lay under a pepper tree among a humming profusion of green-glinting flies whose source of delight, he noticed now, lay directly beside him. He had thought the odor was coming from his lunch."
And I liked the part when Tully wanders past a theater and examines the advertisements.

“…he stopped to look at the photos of several strippers framed behind glass in silver cardboard stars flecked with dusty glitter, and in a small pad of fat on a slender, pouting girl named Estelle was an exact replica of his wife’s horizontal navel.”

These gems show up throughout the story, appearing with the suddenness of trap doors.

Gardner is fascinated by boxing’s dirty end – the broken noses, the spit buckets, the way a fighter’s body inevitably betrays him. But he’s too smart to glorify boxing. Boxing’s a job, no more glamorous than factory work. In Gardner’s world, fights aren’t won or lost by strategy or bravery; they’re won because one guy gets tired and the other one doesn’t. When Tully looks at a Ring magazine and notices the number of Mexicans knocked out in a recent fight report (the sort that used to be printed in the small agate print for the hardcore fight junkies who needed to know what was happening south of the border), Gardner writes, “these unknown defeated Mexicans so depressed Tully that he knew, with terrible lucidity, that the sport was for madmen.” Later, “the idea of fighting was disorienting in its repugnance. He felt that everyone at the Lido Gym was insane.”

Perhaps the best chapter of all is the one that focuses on Arcadio Lucero, the fighter chosen as Tully's opponent. Lucero, an over the hill journeyman of 200 fights, is on a torturous Greyhound bus ride to Stockton, eating a cow head he's purchased from a street vendor, holding it "by the horn with a newspaper on his lap." Not surprisingly, Lucero ends up with diarrhea. He's not worried, though. He's suffered from this before other fights, and knows how to protect himself. He shadowboxes in the Greyhound bathroom, and gets out between stops to run up and down the bus station steps. This is his training. "Of Billy Tully he knew nothing, and he cared to know nothing. He went where there was work, and who his opponents were no longer made any difference."

I know these sorts of fighters. I once attended a fight card at a Boston dog track to see a local kid who was being hyped as the next hot heavyweight prospect, an “Irish Jimmy something or other.” I was suspicious because his opponents had a peculiar way of falling down when they weren't hit. It was announced that his scheduled challenger couldn't make it, so a new guy was coming in at the last minute. The replacement looked to be about 40, with a paunch and a Fred Mertz hairline. In the second round he fell out of the ring and made a big production out of trying to get back in. The ref counted him out, and Irish Jimmy jumped in the air as if he'd beaten Tyson. But here's the punch line: an hour later, the beaten guy was in his street clothes, assisting the ring crew in taking down the ring. He was asked if there'd really been a punch that sent him through the ropes.

"Nah," he said. "It was a push. But the kid is strong."

"Are you really a fighter," he was asked. "Or just a member of the ring crew who stepped in?"

He assured the skeptic that he was a fighter, flown in from New Jersey by the promoter. He pointed to an elderly couple standing near the exit.

"My parents come with me," he said. "They'd never been to Boston and wanted to see it."

Gardner would’ve loved it. I met Gardner once at a dinner for boxing writers. He was quiet, but he seemed to be a kind man. The word "unassuming" comes to mind. He told a story, and I'm paraphrasing, about going to see some fights in California, maybe at the old Olympic, and then, the next day, seeing most of the fighters from the night before working a day job at a carwash. One day they're fighting for our entertainment, the next, they're wiping our windshields. I swear he told this story. Maybe I misheard it. Naturally, I asked him what he thought of the Fat City movie, for which he’d written the screenplay for director John Huston. He seemed pleased with it. He laughed about Nicholas Colasanto, the actor who played Ernie's trainer, and the trouble he'd had remembering his lines. I wanted to ask about Susan Tyrrell, the offbeat actress who played Oma, but I couldn't remember her name. Still, it was a nice chat we had outside a Chinese restaurant, and I was intrigued that such a nice man could have created such a bleak tale as Fat City. Yet, upon reading it again, I was struck by two things. For one, there's more boxing stuff in it than I'd remembered. And two, it's not boxing that brings these guys to ruination; it's women!

The women of Fat City don’t actively set out to destroy Tully and Ernie. They just seem to sit by while the guys act as if they’d been struck by a kind of psychic meloik. All we know about Tully’s past is that he had a sexy wife and now they’re divorced. Now, he drinks himself into a “morose stupor” almost every night. He sits in one shabby hotel after another, perusing True Confessions and Modern Screen, where he finds “the sad sentiment of his love.” He moves in with Oma, but she’s crazy as a shithouse mouse. He moves out; he misses her; he roams the streets of Stockton, drinking, yearning.

“When he remembered how she had irritated him beyond endurance, he detested himself for his weaknesses; if he had loved her before as he did now, he could have tolerated her. But his love had come too late.”

His love had come too late.

Ernie’s romantic life is less tragic, but no less frustrating. He’s saddled with Faye, a young lady with a “short, fleshy body that seemed to Ernie impervious to stimulation.” He struggles through their first sexual encounter, only to find that his car has sunken into a river bank. Then, in a crushing metaphor for his future with Faye, he’s soon knee deep in mud, trying to push his auto out of the muck. Ernie’s smart enough to sense his future with Faye is doomed, but not smart enough to consider an alternative. Even sex disappoints him. “Perhaps it had been celebrated out of proportion because there was nothing else to live for.” In fact, the only time Ernie seems happy in the entire novel is after his first sparring session when he “felt he had joined the company of men.”

Strange is the scene near the story’s end, where Ernie is hitchhiking home and is picked up by a pair of women, who may be lesbians. As an irrational argument breaks out between the women, Ernie is kicked out of the car and left stranded in the desert. He finds his way back to Stockton, where more misery awaits. As for Tully, he vanishes into the edges of the story, the suggestion being that he drank himself into oblivion.

The movie ends differently, with Ernie and Tully drinking coffee at an all-night diner, saying little, while a Kris Kristofferson song plays in the background. I suppose this new ending was an attempt to bring the story full circle, but neither the book nor the movie knows how to end itself. Then again, how do you end a story when there's no hope for the characters?

A flaw in Huston’s film is that it aims for ennui, rather than despair, emptiness rather than anxiety. Huston’s movie is good, but there’s something about the poor souls of Fat City that can’t quite be captured on film. Because Gardner writes so unapologetically about such unpleasant people, there’s a tendency among his admirers to overpraise him, yet, I can’t deny that he caught something with his novel, not about boxing, but about those dreadful hours when peace of mind seems elusive, and the ghost of every old flame seems to be stabbing you in the chest, and you’re surprised to find yourself wishing that, once and for all, they’ll finally finish you off.