Tuesday, December 27, 2016


Eyes of My Mother

Sometimes a screenplay is written from a standpoint of Wouldn't it be weird if we did this? , which is a kick for the screenwriter, even if what they're doing doesn't make sense. When Nicolas Pesce was writing The Eyes of my Mother, he had five or six moments where weirdness trumped common sense. It starts when Little Francisca stands by in shock while her mother is murdered by a stranger who has talked his way into their house. Francisca's father comes home and catches the man in the act, beats him nearly to death, and then locks him in a barn. Francisca, steered by Pesce's whimsy rather than anything realistic, removes the killer's eyes and cuts his vocal cords; Francisca's mother had been a surgeon, so apparently Francisca inherited some keenness with a scalpel. She makes a pet out of her mother's murderer, feeding him dead mice and stroking his back like a prize pig. 

Loneliness is the underlying theme here, and the film uses all sorts of lonely images; we see lonesome highways, lonesome farm houses, and lonely woods, plus many scenes of characters alone and shot from a distance,  all to amplify this sense of isolation and despair. When Francisca grows up, she ventures out to a lesbian bar and brings a woman home. Francisca's loneliness is palpable here. When your only friend is the guy who murdered your mother, and his tongue has been cut out, you'll probably have trouble playing with others. 

Pesce is the film's director, and he shoots this weird tale in a cold black and white. He has a great eye and an instinct for imagery. When Francisca's victim escapes and wanders blindly along the countryside, the shot recalls some hybrid of Night of the Living Dead and Eraserhead. And because Francisca's mother was Portuguese, we hear a lot of Portuguese music on the soundtrack, which is certainly unique for a horror movie. Then again, The Eyes of my Mother is another in the current wave of artsy horror movies. It's a bit like a strange post card you'd find in a roadside antique store, the sort where creepy children wear their Sunday best.

The Eyes of my Mother is being marketed as a sort of mini-masterpiece, with the ad quoting one wag hailing Francisca as a "movie monster for the ages." It's been praised for its lyric quality, and Variety went all gushy about how Pesce provides "complex psychological grounding even to the pic's grisliest setpieces to fend off accusations of exploitation or torture porn." It's been a favorite at film festivals too, which is feint praise; people sit through a lot of dreck at festivals, so anything that is half-way accomplished will stand out. But there's no drama in the movie. Francisca kills her victims, and then stares forlornly into the abyss. Granted, Kiki Magalhaes gives a very fine performance as Francisca; she's especially convincing in a scene where she talks to the corpse of her father, describing her loneliness. Yet, she too crazy to be entirely sympathetic.  Pesce, a very young director, may think he's on to something profound by showing a very disturbed and dangerous girl in a sympathetic light. But once a character cuts out someone's eyes, it's hard to turn her into Cinderella.

The movie has something of the sensibility of a Patrick McGrath novel, the sort where an isolated character ponders life on the outside. That is, before making an awkward attempt to join society. This isn't a bad place for a story to begin, and it gets reviewers all the time.

Pesce, by switching from Grand Guignol horror to melancholy, creates a kind of dirty gauze that viewers can stare into. It's not a dull movie, but it's a sleepy one, a mixture of "artistic" and vague. He creates one nicely executed moment after another, but the characters never seem like human beings; they may as well be mannequins arranged in a museum. 

The Eyes of My Mother makes it possible for reviewers to like a horror film, and for horror fans to say, indeed, there can be an artfulness to this stuff. Magalhaus is so good as Francisca that she's probably responsible for most of the film's success. And it's all so gorgeous that I'm convinced all movies should be shot in black and white by cinematographer Zach Kuperstein. But like too many recent horror movies, it's content to be weird, and wears it's artiness on its sleeve. For some, that will be enough.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


But Bram Stoker Remains a Mystery
by Don Stradley

By creating Dracula, Bram Stoker gave us one of the most enduring characters in all of literature - the bloody Count stands alongside Ebenezer Scrooge, Sherlock Holmes, Huck Finn, Dr. Henry Jekyll and, for that matter, any Shakespearean character you'd care to mention, as an immortal icon, a figure who may be killed by a stake through the heart, but lives on and on in the pop culture - yet, Stoker is never mentioned alongside Charles Dickens or Robert Louis Stevenson. There are seasons for this, the most obvious being that he simply wasn't in their league as far as putting the words down - he was a ham-handed author, his writing more in line with the cheap melodramas of the day. Also, Stoker never came up with a worthy followup to his most famous creation. Finally, Stoker was a secretive, shadowy figure. If Stoker  was anything like the lonely, sexually conflicted ex-jock depicted in David J. Skal's Something In The Blood, a heroic and thoughtful attempt to uncover the man behind Dracula, it's no wonder we know so little about him. Even Dracula, a big seller in its day, was treated by Stoker as just another side project, a potboiler written to help pay some bills. As Skal suggests, Dracula probably meant less to Stoker than it has come to mean to us.

The young Stoker was a sickly boy who loved fairy tales and the macabre, but grew into a hulking athlete who played rugby at Trinity College. He would go on to became one of Dublin's most popular theater critics, no mean feat at a time when venturing out to a live performance was risky; in those days, customers were usually loaded to the gills and not above brawling in the cheap seats. Stoker once reported on a drunken reveler who got up to dance and immediately puked; the fellow used his own vomit as a kind of lubricant to slide across the floor.

But just as Stoker was establishing himself as a journalist, he chucked aside his blossoming career to become the business manager of actor Henry Irving. It was a peculiar arrangement - Stoker worked like a dog for this egocentric, domineering actor, sometimes writing short stories on the side - though it's believed that Irving's magnetic personality, plus his performances of Faust and Macbeth, provided Stoker with a model for Dracula. At the least, Irving provided Stoker with a charismatic daddy figure, which the aspiring author seemed to crave. Indeed, a fan letter written by Stoker to Walt Whitman bordered on a declaration of love:

"How sweet a thing it is for a strong, healthy man with a woman's eyes and a child's wishes to feel that he can speak to a man who can be if he wishes father, brother, and wife to his soul."

Strangely, Stoker is hardly the star of his own biography. He seems third billed behind Irving and Oscar Wilde. They may be essential to the story of Stoker - had Wilde not been scandalized and imprisoned for his gay lifestyle, Skal surmises, Stoker may have incorporated more homosexual themes into Dracula - but the result is that in comparison to Irving and Wilde, Stoker comes off as a dullard. Even Stoker's mother is of more interest - no wilting lily, she once took an ax to a cholera victim trying to break into her home. What Skal counts on is that we'll endure his narrative detours in hopes of learning more about the man who gave us "the greatest sex monster of all time." He teases us with Stoker's alleged secret life, but produces nothing.

Stoker, despite his sexual ambiguities, was a loyal husband and father. Though there's no concrete evidence that he ever acted on his apparent yearning for men, one almost wishes he did. Such a dalliance might have given Skal something to write about besides Wilde's bloated corpse, or Irving's bullish personality. Then again, even if Stoker had fully acknowledged his desires, he'd probably still have that vacant place in his soul that could only be filled by working, working, working.

Skal is a very fine writer and historian - an earlier book, The Monster Show, is a knockout - and he strikes some interesting notes when he speculates that Stoker, as many children do, may have absorbed his mother's anxieties about sex. But Stoker is too elusive, always wriggling out from Skal's grasp. Reading Something In The Blood  is akin to entering a large and ornate crypt, opening a coffin, and finding it empty. Of course, Skal is a good enough storyteller that readers may be satisfied just by his attempt to trace the origin of the vampire in fiction. You may not notice that the man you're supposed to be reading about, the one who never smiled in photographs, the one who may have died from a type of syphilis that brings on paralysis and madness, the one who wrote Dracula, remains unknowable. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016


My first encounter with Salesman (1968) was in the late 1980s when it was briefly revived for its 20th anniversary.  After more than 25 years, it's still astonishing. Despite the fact that its male characters wear hats and smoke cigarettes, its not a time capsule; its message is still strong today. It is perhaps the best documentary about working stiffs you'll ever see.

In 1968, Albert and David Maysles were at the beginning of their prime years, but already deep into the style they'd show in their more famous documentaries. For Salesman they focused on a quartet of bible salesmen trudging through a bleak New England winter, what one of the men calls "ball-busting territory." When they're lucky enough to have a customer open a door, it's usually a bored housewife who listens a bit before saying she can't do anything until her husband gets home.

It's obvious from the opening scene that this will be a different interpretation of the salesman's lot. It's not as tragic as Death of a Salesman, nor as full of itself as Glengarry Glen Ross. Paul Brennan, the film's lead character and the sort of Godsend prayed for by documentary makers, is stumbling through a sale. We can practically see the beads of sweat on his shiny little forehead. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz called Salesman "one of the great statements on America's can-do culture of capitalism, and how it tends to become a psychological cage that makes people feel like failures." Within 30 seconds we can tell Brennan stuck in that very cage.

Brennan is a feisty, pint-sized Irishman by way of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. He's in his mid-50s; he resembles old-time actors like Red Buttons or Burgess Meredith, and he plays on his elfin appearance. He's a charmer, but he's in a slump. He's mystified that his usual routine - which he refers to as "the Mickey stuff" - isn't working. He tries to discuss his problem with his fellow salesman, but they only offer company bromides. Don't ever blame the territory, they tell him.

The other members of the sales team are known as The Gipper, The Bull, and The Rabbit (Brennan is the Badger), and they wear the same basic uniform: black raincoat, fedora, a slight look of fatigue. But as the movie unfurls we notice their differences. The Rabbit (James Baker), tall and thin, is the youngest, but has already started to copy Brennan's banter (with more success on this trip). The Bull (Raymond Martos) is a friendly guy who appears to never get rattled. The Gipper  (Charles McDevitt) says the least, probably saving his energy for selling. There's a fifth man, but he's a boss of some kind; he smiles the phony, sadistic grin of mid-management types everywhere. He has no nickname.

When the group is sent to Miami, it's telling that The Bull and The Rabbit want to go for a late night splash in the hotel swimming pool, while Brennan and the Gipper stand around,  still wearing their shirts and ties, nervously smoking. They're the oldest, and they probably haven't been swimming in a long time.

Glad to be out of the cold Massachusetts winter, Brennan finds himself enjoying a win streak in Miami. When he returns to the hotel at night, he's a new man; we see a glimpse of the cocksure talker he must've been before. The next day, however, he's unable to move a single bible. It's all as simple as a De Sica plot: he fails, he succeeds, he fails.

Though the Maysles inspired a legion of admirers with their excellent work, few contemporary documentarians have the nerve to let their cameras remain as still as Albert Maysles' camera. He lingers on Brennan until he captures something resembling the soul's stillness. At other times Brennan stares into space, looking like a weathered figure in an Andrew Wyeth painting. At a dinner for the bible company in Chicago, where other sellers make grandiose plans for next year, he only stares at the speakers and says nothing. What's he thinking? Go fuck yourself? How did I end up here listening to this crap?  We don't know. And the Maysles don't intrude, as many new filmmakers would, by asking him how he feels. They let his tired face speak.

Prior to this the Maysles had spent years making celebrity documentaries, profiling the likes of Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, and The Beatles. It makes sense that they would dispense with the pop culture and focus on the tough existence of bible salesmen, and they seem liberated by these earthier subjects. You can almost feel the Maysles' giddiness when Brennan flirts with a cleaning lady at the hotel, or when he breaks into a song from Fiddler on the Roof. And the realness of the customers provides an unexpected poignancy; how broke and bored these people are, so fatigued by their lives that they are almost too weak to fend off the salesmen.

That stillness I'm trying to describe can be found in many Maysles' films. Think of Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones' drummer, looking at the footage of a fan being killed in Gimme Shelter (1970). Think of the long, elegant pauses throughout Grey Gardens (1975), particularly when Little Edie walks tiredly up the stairs near the end of the film, sadly returning to her own sheltered life, or the pause given by Muhammad Ali before admitting that he likes Larry Holmes in Muhammad and Larry 1980).

There's a scene where a young woman tells the salesmen that she admires men who are out on their own, rather than tied to a dull corporate job. The Gipper pauses; he'll play along if it means selling a bible. The scene resonates because it plays into the myth that traveling salesmen are something close to cowboys or conmen, though the men in Salesman are as beaten down as any office clerk.

The style used in Salesman is so singular, so persuasive, that a clip from it is as easy to identify as a clip from The Godfather. A recent episode of IFC's Documentary Now presented a spoof of Salesman that was spot on in tone and detail, as if it were a daffy stepson of the original. That's a testament to the strength of the Maysles' style.

The movie is so expertly cut (by David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, who is given a director's credit) that it has the rhythm and pace of a long  ride down an empty highway in the dead of winter. The Maysles and Zwerin were also smart to give coverage to the customers. As the sellers grind away, the camera cuts to the targets, mostly housewives, who seem to be going through some sort of secret agony. They don't want the bible, but they don't want to be rude. When a sale agreement is signed, it's done solemnly, as if government secrets are being shared. (My favorite customer is the guy who puts on an album of orchestrated Beatles music, the only nod to the pop culture found in the entire movie.)

In a late scene, Brennan is relegated to sitting by while Gipper makes a sale. Then, the Gipper tells the customers that Brennan is hoping for some inspiration. Brennan shrugs, now so low on the totem poll that he willingly shleps along behind Gipper. Again, we don't know exactly what he's thinking. My guess is that he'd had enough and wants out.

There's a clip on YouTube of Albert Maysles talking about Brennan. He expresses a fondness for him, and said they remained friends after the project was completed. Maysles also described Brennan sitting at an early screening of Salesman, weeping and laughing. According to Maysles, Brennan soon quit selling bibles and moved on to selling aluminum siding. Brennan died in 1990, at age 77. The cause of death is listed as "severe rheumatoid arthritis." There are scenes in Salesman where Brennan flexes his fingers, which look slightly gnarled. It's strange; it's as if we're watching the grim reaper sidling next to Brennan, taking him by the hand.

Monday, November 14, 2016


Victorian England's most famous murder case gets a good workout
by Don Stradley

Despite Bruce Robinson's boast that he's busted Jack the Ripper, a few other authors have crowed about having done exactly that. Stephen Knight's The Final Solution pinned the Ripper crimes on a trio of men, including the artist Walter Sickert.  In 2002, Patricia Cornwell's Portrait of a Killer - Jack The Ripper: Case Closed, swung for the fences and put the whole thing on Sickert. Then there was the alleged "Ripper diary" that came along in the 1990s, which pointed to James Maybrick as the Ripper, the very Maybrick who was murdered by his wife in a rather sensational London case of 1889. Robinson leapfrogs over the others, and makes a strong case that England's Ripper was none other than Maybrick's brother Michael, a famous singer and song writer of the period. Like most Ripper suspects, there's a big pile of arrows pointing at this fellow; he deserves a look.

According to Robinson's They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper,  Michael Maybrick was as diabolical as a Batman villain, and filled with such red raging hatred for his sister-in-law that he murdered a bunch of prostitutes - more than the five usually attributed to Jack - plus some children; then he poisoned his own brother, framed his sister-in-law for the death of James, and then forged the diary that would come to light more than a century later. It's a bit much to swallow, but it's compelling. I can't say if Robinson is any closer to solving the Ripper case than anyone else, and I'm not even certain that anyone really wants to know the Ripper's true identity. The Ripper is better off as a shadow man, a black hole of evil and cruelty. We can project whatever we want onto him.

In an early chapter of They All Love Jack, we're told that the Ripper was "a totally sane, highly intelligent psychopath whose sense of fun animated in some esoteric area of his thinking where humor and homicide collide." It's a mouthful, but in this whopping, 800-page monster of a book, Robinson will often interrupt his own narrative, as if he'd handed his keyboard over to Lester Bangs for a moment while he went to the toilet, with something sort of clever and angry. At times it appears Robinson takes the whole Ripper deal as a personal insult. (For instance: he bristles at the "perverse, almost heroic status that has evolved around this prick, as though he were someone special.") Robinson not only hates the Ripper, but despises the silly police force that mucked things up, and the hundreds of "Ripperologists" who have, through the decades since 1888, turned the case into a sort of cozy mystery. These Ripper fanboys, with their "constipated thinking," set Robinson off on regular tangents. (My favorite is when he depicts them as "a gang of shagged-out seagulls in the wake of a phantom steamer.") Of course, like anyone writing about the Ripper, Robinson doesn't shy from the grislier aspects of the case - he undoubtedly had fun writing that the remains of Mary Kelly were "carried out in a bucket" - but if you're as bloody serious as Robinson, you're allowed to rub a reader's nose into the gore.

When not bashing Ripperologists, Robinson puts the boot to Victorian England. It was a toweringly hypocritical and complex place; the age of consent was 12, the Royals kept up a pompous, untouchable front, and "the sub-British ate, slept, and wiped their arses in cellars full of vermin and promiscuous death." Wartime violence was in the air, with stories of British atrocities making their way home. Particularly riveting is Robinson's depiction of General Herbert Kitchener, who raided a temple near Khartoum, dug up the corpse of the Madhi, and bashed it to bits with a hammer. "With that hammer in his hand," writes Robinson, "Kitchener belonged to Satan." For sure, the first fifth of the book seems written so we understand that bloodletting and brutality was ingrained in England's character, equaled only by the Victorian love of money. "Wealth was a deity in Victorian England," says Robinson, "and everything was subservient to the maintenance of it."

Where Robinson's research differs from most Ripper investigations is in his treatment of the "Ripper letters," those sinister notes written in jagged scrawls and sent to Scotland Yard from various far-flung locations. Rather than dismiss them as hoaxes, as has usually been the rule, he makes a beautiful case for their authenticity and links them to his suspect. Michael Maybrick's ability to change his handwriting, plus his fiendish sense of humor and wordplay, fit into Robinson's theory, as does Maybrick's traveling schedule. And even if Maybrick wasn't the author, the letters contain facts that only the Ripper would've known. Maybrick or not, these letters, long thought fraudulent, indeed appear to have been written by the killer. If Robinson has done nothing else, he's convinced me that the Ripper was writing to the police, taunting them all the way.

The Ripper's connection to the Freemasons has been explored in the past, but with nothing like Robinson's pit bull ferocity. Through painstaking research, he's believable when he portrays the Ripper as a man very familiar with Freemason rituals, and that the Freemasons not only did their share to cover up anything having to do with the crimes, but divorced themselves from both Michael and James Maybrick (both, incidentally, involved with the Freemasons). That Robinson goes on rather obsessively (and for far too many pages) about the Freemasons nearly spoils what is otherwise a thought-provoking, occasionally brilliant book. And I was also put off by Robinson's one-note argument that Michael Maybrick was simply a psychopath, and that psychos do crazy things. That's it?

Ultimately, Robinson succeeds in what he sets out to do, which is to blow the dust from the old theories and expose them as claptrap. The rogues gallery of suspects that have taken root over the years don't stand a chance with Robinson, from the "insane surgeon", to the "vengeful homosexual", to the "womb collector". The same goes for the Duke of Clarence, described by Robinson as an ineffectual wimp who could barely cut his own meat, never mind obliterate a live woman, and the jittery foreigner Kosminski, "a 98-pound weakling, living off crusts in the gutter." They're all waylaid by Robinson, gutted like fish, the remains of their mythology ready to be taken out in buckets.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016


Gimme Danger Movie Review

It was back in the 1980s when I attended an Iggy Pop concert at the Orpheum theater in Boston. The sound mix was terrible - he sounded like he was singing from under a blanket - but I still have vivid memories of the night. Most have to do with him jumping around like an orangutan; at one point he used his microphone stand as a battering ram on some kids who were too close to the stage.

Iggy was still a young man at the time, but he didn't resemble any rock stars I'd seen. He looked like a fisherman who'd spent a long day hurling nets into the sea, perspiring and broken and gnarled. His band was unmemorable, faceless journeymen hired to provide background noise. It was hard to figure out what songs they were playing; I remember 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' was a highlight, and 'Lust For Life'. Near the end of the show Iggy unbuttoned his pants and threatened to expose his fabled hog. That brought the house down.

I'd brought a friend of mine who knew nothing of Iggy Pop. I'd said, "You'll love him. He's just like Ted Nugent." I don't know if my friend had a good time or not. But by the end of the show I'd made up my mind about Iggy. He was not a towering talent. He had a unique presence, but he was less a great artist than a sideshow attraction. He's always reminded me of some second-rate contortionist who had pushed aside the rat-eating geeks and fire eaters to become the main star on the midway.

Iggy rarely entered my mind after that, though his popularity climbed. (The IMDB lists more than 200 soundtracks that feature Iggy's music, which is rather astounding.)

When I listened to him at all, it was usually the first Stooges album, which to me was a beautiful mix of early Rolling Stones, late 1960s guitar fuzz, and something like Neanderthals pining from inside the cave. It saddened me to hear that Ron Asheton, and then his brother Scott - the Stooges' guitarist and drummer - had died. They'd been the pillars of an interesting sound. They didn't get enough credit.

And that's how I felt this weekend when I traveled several miles out of my way to see Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch's respectful, if strangely reserved, tribute to The Stooges.

There was the Iggy Pop of today, looking leathery but healthy, telling the story of his early years; his eyes are still frighteningly blue and mesmerizing, his teeth look suspiciously large and too white. He's no longer the Alfred E. Neuman of rock 'n roll; he's stately now, like an old gigolo who fell into some money. But it's still a shock
when he talks and that farmer's voice comes out.

The story of the Stooges is not a particularly fascinating one, and only proves that all bands have more or less the same origin: A few guys meet; they share an interest in music; they let it rip. Then they're taken down by drugs, or clashing egos. For The Stooges, it was the former. "We all started to look dirtier and thinner," says Iggy about the heroin days. He ended up living with his parents, while they supplied him with methadone.

Jarmusch is an avowed fan of Iggy's, and put him in one of his previous movies, Coffee and Cigarettes. Nobly, he felt The Stooges deserved some attention and spent years putting this documentary together. Fortunately, there was enough footage of Ron and Scott Asheton that their deaths didn't hamper production. James Williamson, who joined a later incarnation of the band, is still alive, having traded the rock lifestyle for a CEO gig in Silicon Valley.

Jarmusch also interviews Mike Watt, the great Minutemen bassist who once used Stooge music as a way to regain his bass chops after a serious illness had nearly destroyed his ability to play. He'd later be part of a Stooge reunion in the 2000s. And Danny Fields, the Stooges' manager, is interviewed here like an old sugar daddy.

The movie is watchable, and at times entertaining, but Jarmusch reveals little that is new or thought-provoking. Mostly, it's just the usual Stooges' story, which we've seen elsewhere, including a surprisingly good episode of VH1 Behind The Music. He doesn't dig up much dirt, and keeps the more sordid stuff vague. There are references to the fellows behaving badly, and Iggy admits to being a heroin user, but it's as if Jarmusch is too polite, or too reverent, to go all the way down the rabbit hole. Perhaps Jarmusch felt too much detail would distract from the mission at hand, namely, to pay respect to the Stooges.

There is a lot of music here, but it doesn't pound our heads in as I'd hoped it might. Much of it sounds tired, and watching old footage of Iggy prowling around a stage like a spider-monkey loses its charm after a while. Much better is the bit where Iggy talks about growing up in a trailer, and being picked on by local hoods. Iggy is near 70, and to call him a survivor is an understatement. But I think he's survived more than drugs and a heartless music industry. He's endured some sort of sadness and anger, feelings that show up in that scene where he talks about the hoods; Jarmusch only turns away from it, too polite to linger on the more painful memories of this aging rocker.

Monday, October 31, 2016


Talese is up to his old tricks again
by Don Stradley

Gay Talese has always been a voyeur of sorts. Granted, he bills himself as an "observer", or a "participatory journalist", but I've never known what to make of a guy who gets a job managing a massage parlor and then spends a year diddling his neighbor's wife, all so he can write a book about America's sexual mores. His dried out, buttoned up writing style, a leftover from his days at The New York Times, made his books seem less prurient, I guess, but I've never been persuaded that he's not an outright pervert. Just because your subject knows you're watching him doesn't make you any less of a peep artist. Talese's latest, The Voyeur's Motel, is a lightweight effort, something like a long suppressed, bad-tasting burp, but it's subject is voyeurism, which makes it intriguing when you consider Talese's history as a sort of gentleman perv.

The book's star is Gerald Foos, a Colorado man who bought a highway motel to satisfy his lifelong fascination with watching what people do in private. Foos outfits the place with special vents that allow him to see inside various rooms; he takes notes on what he sees, stopping now and then to pleasure himself as he watches. Over the years he witnesses rapes and incest, as well as a rise in lesbianism, wife swapping, and interracial coupling. He even witnesses a murder, which he doesn't report because he doesn't want the police to know he's been watching couples from his attic perch. Yes, he's a real creep. Still, he craves respect and validation, which is why he started sending his notes to Talese in 1980.

Talese represents Foos as a kind of well-meaning lummox - he's as human as any of us, with his various family problems, money struggles, and his collection of baseball cards - but it's difficult to get behind a guy with such an unsavory interest. Foos likes to pass judgment on his customers, and if they aren't sexy enough he gets angry. He offers weak excuses for his hobby, saying that all people are voyeurs, and that peeking at his customers is no worse than how the government keeps track of us with technology and surveillance cameras. Mostly, Foos doesn't want us to judge him, though he loves to judge others, and even sets traps to test their honesty.

The relationship between Foos and Talese is tricky. Foos obviously wants Talese as a friend, while Talese sees Foos as a possible subject to write about. Foos won't allow Talese to use his real name, so that ruins Talese's plan. It was only recently that Foos, now in his 80s, agreed to let Talese tell his tale. "I think of myself as a pioneering sex researcher," says Foos, though he worries that some people may just see him as a weird old pervert. Too bad so much of his note-taking sounds less like the Kinsey report and more like an old issue of Penthouse Letters, complete with references to "dense forests of pubic hair," and his own "constant yearning and unquenchable desires." He also likes to watch women shit.

Talese finds some humor in the story. Foos is nearly caught a few times, and there's a funny moment when Foos invites Talese up to see how the vents work.  And some of the events Foos reports on are poignant, such as when he watches a legless Vietnam vet try to have sex, or when an aging couple realizes their relationship has lost its spark. These scenes play out like episodes from a Raymond Carver story; they're touching even within Foos' clumsy notes. 

I've heard that Hollywood has grabbed this book up for a potential movie, and I think a good director can do something with it, something along the lines of Robert Altman's Shortcuts. But as a book, it feels as slight as a dirty napkin. Foos' conclusion that people are filthy and dishonest is probably true, but I could've told him that without spending decades in a hotel attic, watching a bunch of sweaty travelers cheat on their spouses, dress up as sheep, and gobble each other's naughty bits. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016


Ann Rule gets my vote. A chronicler of America’s most despicable people, a lovable grandma figure who wrote about sickos and psychopaths, all for the enjoyment of readers who crave tales of murder and greed, she was the queen of the true crime genre. This is an interesting distinction since there’s no king. Jack Olsen was pound for pound a better writer than Ann Rule, and Harold Schechter a better historian, but good ol’ Ann, who died last year at 83, seems to rank above her male counterparts by simply reigning longer, and creating more widespread appeal. One of her earliest books, The Want-Ad Killer, is now available as an audio book from Tantor Audio; it still kicks up a storm of ill feelings. Ann Rule could look evil in the face, smell its breath, count the zits on its forehead, and come back home to write about it. 

Early in The Want-Ad Killer we meet Harvey Louis Carignan, a hulking psycho who has spent most of his life in Alcatraz and other comfy spots. Known as “Harvey The Hammer” for reasons I can’t share on such a genteel blog as this one, Carignan killed and raped several women. His stomping grounds spread from Alaska to Washington and Minnesota. Rule writes about him from a distance, like a big game expert studying a jungle  beast from afar, learning his habits, describing him as a “carefully programmed killing machine, but one who could mimic human responses cleverly.” Rule’s style was straightforward, bordering on the simplistic; perhaps her background as a police officer kept her from trying anything too ornate, as if fancy prose might give her subjects an unintended glamor. But now and then a mischievous humor comes out: when an intended victim avoids death because Carignan was momentarily confused at having yanked off her wig, Rule writes that she “escaped by a hair.” That’s funny to me, in an Alfred Hitchcock sort of way.

Along with The Lust Killer and The I-5 Killer, The Want-Ad Killer completes a sort of trilogy that Rule wrote in her early days as “Andy Stack,” a name she used while writing for True Detective. It’s a handle fairly dripping with ambulance chasing, missed deadlines, and sensationalism. I’ve always imagined Andy Stack as a short guy in a baggy suit, unmarried, a cheap tipper. Granted, “Stack” was merely a shortening of Rule’s maiden name – Stackhouse – but it’s still a name that conjures up lowlifes and their horrific crimes. Rule eventually became a different sort of writer, one who covered crimes committed by handsome, wealthy people, rather than lower-class brutes. Hence, aside from a few instances like her 2005 book about the Green River killer, she’d rarely write about obvious monsters like Carignan. Instead, Rule focused on prosperous people who were evil on the inside, the soccer moms and well-heeled lawyers who killed their secret lovers and smothered their kids with pillows. Though the quality of her later books was wildly uneven - I often thought her pace of two books per year was killing her as a writer – she’d staked out her territory and claimed it like a tyrant. Not surprisingly, the “Andy Stack” name was retired.

Still, I’ll always have a soft spot for the Andy Stack books. They were tighter, more visceral, meaner. I like how the detectives in The Want-Ad Killer are depicted merely as working men; they aren’t especially heroic, but they’re diligent. The court scenes don’t drag on, either, which should be noted by other true crime authors. The sympathy for the victims, a Rule trademark,  was already there in the Stack books, but wasn’t as all-consuming as it would be in her later books, which I believe she wrote with a female audience in mind. As Andy Stack, I think she wrote with a male audience in mind, serving up sex and violence, and base characters like the “oddly brilliant” Carignan, the “roving, prowling killer intent on gratifying his own murderous fantasies.” But Rule knew that “Andy Stack” was limited to an audience of people like me, and my stoop-shouldered, hairy-knuckled brethren, whereas “Ann Rule” and her tales of gated communities could appeal to a much larger readership. Ann Rule books could be found in supermarket racks next to the Danielle Steel novels. Andy Stack’s? Never. So be it. (The Stack name isn’t even mentioned in the marketing of the new audio version; I weep for an old friend’s demise.) 

In the 1990s, when the true crime genre boomed, and bookstores piled crime titles from the floor to the ceiling, Rule enjoyed an unprecedented heyday. She wrote bestsellers. Some were turned into movies. The Andy Stack books were eventually republished under Rule’s real name to cash in on her popularity, but her target readership preferred crimes committed by attractive, affluent people, not goons like Harvey Carignan. I guess this is a fairly human trait; there’s something tasty about learning that our good-looking, educated neighbors are, deep down, no better than Harvey the Hammer. We like to read about rich hypocrites and their punishments. But I think Rule needed characters like Harvey to get her engine running. The Beatles had the Star Club in Germany; Ann Rule had highway killers, women strangled in garages, fiends placing ads in newspapers looking for prey, men who mutilated corpses like they were killing time on a summer retreat,  men who, in short, took rejection as an excuse to bash a woman’s face in with a gardening tool. Rule may have gone the Aaron Spelling course of billionaires behaving badly, but her roots were in more feral places.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


The uncrowned king of Weekend Update gives us an update on his life. Sort of.
By Don Stradley

Based on a True Story might’ve been called And Now, A Fake Memoir. Norm Macdonald is a funny man, but as a memoirist he’s a dirty bum and can’t be trusted. He’s what my grandfather would’ve called “a leg puller.” He writes in the introduction that the book will be “the truth, every word of it, to the best of my memory.” This titillated me because anyone who can quote both Billy Joe Shaver and Leo Tolstoy, as Macdonald does at the book’s beginning, might write something of interest. I’ve often suspected Macdonald of being smarter than he acts, with a dark, wintry side, as if the pauses in his comedy are run through by a cold Canadian wind. But by page 24, when a very young Norm is locked in the toolshed with a perverted creep, I realized I was reading a variation on the usual Macdonald fantasia, where Jeffrey Dahmer might appear alongside Rodney Dangerfield, and pervs run amok, and Macdonald’s folksy delivery gives way to weirdness. So be it. Norm is Norm. If my leg must be pulled, he’s the guy to do it. 

“Surrealism is destructive,” Salvador Dali once said, “but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.” And Macdonald offers a kind of donut shop surrealism, his vision decidedly unshackled. Sure, there are some anecdotes about Adam Sandler and Chris Farley and SNL, but these “true” morsels are merely links to connect the greater part of the book, the bizarre, cartoonish set pieces that Macdonald hopes will distract the reader from the fact that he hasn’t really written a memoir. Imagine Garrison Keillor shooting his tongue full of morphine and winging it.

You’ll read along as Macdonald meets God, the Devil, various loan sharks and fixers, and a sickly child whose dying wish is to meet Macdonald. “As dying wishes go,” Macdonald writes, “it seemed like a damn poor one.” You’ll read about Macdonald’s unrequited love for Sarah Silverman, and how it landed him a four month term at Rikers Island. (This allows him to riff on a longtime Macdonald fixation: prison rape.) There’s also a menacing transvestite,  the killing of baby seals, and a gig at an asylum for the criminally insane; in the meantime, fortunes are won and lost, and Macdonald ruminates on a career loaded with peaks and valleys. The story’s frame is clever enough – Macdonald is simply telling these tales to his longtime sidekick Adam Eget as they travel to Las Vegas where Macdonald plans to win some money. If Macdonald portrays himself as a dolt on par with Navin Johnson of The Jerk, he depicts Eget as an even dimmer bulb; their exchange about Nelson Mandela is one of the book’s funniest bits. (In a way, Eget is the book’s unsung hero.)

Macdonald occasionally interrupts the proceedings to share some insights into the life of a stand-up comedian. It’s a “shabby business,” he writes, “made up of shabby fellows like me who cross the country, stay at shabby hotels, and tell jokes they no longer find funny.” He compares himself to a “criminal drifter…never in one place long enough to experience anything but the shabbiest of love.” As for his status as a cult figure, it “just means that most folks hate your guts.” 

Surely, to describe Macdonald as a mere stand-up comic who spent a few years on SNL is to sell him short. It’s not just that his eyes twinkle when reciting the grimmest details of cannibalism. It’s that he’s so utterly different than any other comic out there. Most comedians who write a book will try to show their intelligence, while Macdonald tries to keep his intelligence hidden. But he can’t keep it entirely covered up, any more than a fat guy can successfully hide his gut. The penultimate chapter, with its mix of wistfulness, self-deprecation, and gratitude,  is perhaps the best “look back” you’ll ever read in a show business memoir. His passages about his gambling addiction are stirring and poignant, as is his account of being an ex-SNLer. “It can be difficult,” he writes, “to define yourself by something that happened so long ago and is gone forever.”

“It’s like a fellow at the end of the bar telling no one in particular about the silver medal he won in high school track, the one he still wears around his neck.”

As a storyteller, Macdonald is somewhere between vintage Steve Martin and the surreal novels of Nathanael West. In fact, he takes enough beatings in this book to rival Lem Pitkin in West’s A Cool Million.  There’s a bit of W.C. Fields here, too, especially the later Fields of The Bank Dick and Never Give A Sucker An Even Break.  Like Fields, Macdonald meanders from one unlikely scenario to the next, escaping danger by the skin of his teeth, usually by a fluke. And like Fields, Macdonald enjoys the way words sound. “I’ve been on the road a pickler’s fortnight,” Macdonald writes, which is pure Fields, as is his habit of calling his assistant “Adam Eget” rather than just “Adam”. Fields would do the same. To my knowledge, Macdonald has never cited Fields as an influence, but if Fields wrote a book, it would’ve been something like Based on a True Story.

Granted, not everything works. There are too many subplots, and the switching from serious to surreal is sometimes ragged. But the parts that succeed are as brilliant as gold dust. I especially liked a chapter where Macdonald speaks at a funeral. In a moment that borders on Pythonesque, he can’t think of anything to say so he goes on about the greatness of Gordie Howe. Then, showing he’s more of a swashbuckler in print than he is onstage, he ends the scene with the rhythms of Ernest Hemingway: “Afterward, I walked back alone down a long blacktop road, and it was cold, and in the sky there were white clouds, and they all looked like white clouds and nothing else.” From Python to Papa? In one scene? Even if you don’t find it funny, you must admire the daring. 

Macdonald has tipped his hand. He probably wouldn’t want me to mention people like Hemingway or Nat West, because he wouldn’t want to discourage customers from attending his next gig at Yuk Yuks. Spare me the highfalutin mumbo-jumbo, he’d say, and tell the people it’s a funny book. But I can no longer look at Macdonald as merely a comic. He’s a writer, a very fine one, and if I may use a worn and battered clichĂ© to describe him, he’s unique. And if being on the road for so many years has left him feeling shabby, it’s also afforded him a type of freedom that few of us will ever know.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016


The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years Movie Review

John Lennon once described The Beatles on tour as something akin to Satyricon, the Fellini movie about Roman decadence during the reign of Nero. I remember reading Lennon’s description of those days in his famous Rolling Stone interview; I imagined dozens of expensive call girls lying naked on hotel room carpets, ushered in by tour manager Mal Evans for The Fab Four to chew up and spit out like grape seeds. Of course, we hear of nothing so squalid in Ron Howard’s likable new documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week-The Touring Years. That’s just as well. Howard’s well-scrubbed retelling of The Beatle phenomenon is so entertaining that anything smutty might’ve hurt its momentum. It may not be the best Beatles doc ever made- hell, they’re all about the same – but Howard sets out to recapture the pandemonium of The Beatles, circa 1963-1966, and he succeeds grandly. 

If you’re like me, having been thoroughly drenched in Beatle lore from a young age, when Beatle movies played regularly on television, and aunts and uncles handed down their vinyl copies of Beatles For Sale and Rubber Soul, and Lennon’s murder caused a tidal wave of new interest in the music, you’ll enjoy the movie as a sort of reset button; it’ll remind you of why you liked The Beatles in the first place. In fact, I found myself teary-eyed at a couple of points, because I’d forgotten how close The Beatles came to sheer perfection; the sight and sound of them in their prime can still send shivers through me. How was it for people who experienced it as it happened?

The recurring theme in the movie is emotion. The band seemed to tap into a collective joy that most people didn’t know existed. Whoopi Goldberg recalls her own joy at seeing the band on The Ed Sullivan Show, and then, when she recalls how her mother conjured up two tickets for their Shea Stadium concert, she nearly cries. Even Paul McCartney gets emotional when he recalls the first day Ringo Starr sat in with the band, and how the sound, the miraculous sound, finally crystallized.  And as has happened so often over the years, it’s Ringo who steals the show, especially in the old concert footage. A vintage clip of the band playing ‘I Saw her Standing There’ is a revelation, as Ringo hunches over his famous Ludwig kit like a bicycle racer, hammering away, the most underrated drummer in rock history. Again, Howard reminds us that these weren’t just four guys singing love ballads; they also rocked with awesome power.

It’s an unusual Beatle documentary in that there’s no Yoko, no LSD, no Maharishi, no death of Brian Epstein, no summit meeting with Bob Dylan. There’s a sense, though, that the game was nearly over before any of that stuff entered the narrative. We also get the feeling that something disastrous was about to happen; the crowds were growing larger and more out of control; the press was growing hostile; and American rednecks were bent out of shape over Lennon’s comment that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus. By retiring as a live act, The Beatles not only allowed themselves more time in the studio to create their late period masterpieces, but likely prevented some kind of catastrophe.  

And why, exactly, were those kids going so crazy back in ’64? The theories about "Beatlemania" have never satisfied me - I think they would've hit regardless of the Kennedy assassination, or civil unrest - but watching this movie gave me a kernel of an idea. The Beatles were having fun onstage in a way that differed from most entertainers. They were unbridled. The kids in the audience wanted in. But since the fans were mostly 14-year-old girls, and since they couldn’t speak in The Beatles’ own language, their only response was to scream, swoon, or wet themselves. The girls in the movie are like anxious puppies scratching at their cages; they’re trying to communicate something that isn’t in their vocabulary. We see boys at the concerts, too, and they’re no less fascinating than the females. They’re not as frantic, but their smiles almost burst from their faces; they’re happy to be on the fringe of such an emotional earthquake. The boys were also seeing firsthand that their female neighbors had something untamed going on inside, which must’ve been a tasty concept in those pre-Summer of Love years.

Howard’s version of The Beatles is a good one for the time capsule. The fellas are portrayed as fun, cheeky lads, good friends having a good laugh, riding along on a typhoon of unprecedented success; they even stand up against segregated concert halls in the South (Howard includes a touching scene of a large black cop carrying a little white girl who has fainted at a concert). True, we get a few blah-blah comments from people like Elvis Costello and Malcolm Gladwell, and we get the usual music aficionado comparing The Beatles to Schubert and Mozart. The movie would’ve been fine without them. Journalist Larry Kane is onboard– he joined The Beatles for some of their touring, and his remarks are amusing, if not especially insightful. I preferred Sigourney Weaver’s sweet recollection of the hours she spent trying to choose the right dress to wear at a Beatles’ show, as if anyone might see her. And Howard sort of betrays his mission by not ending at Candlestick Park in ’66, where the band packed it in. Instead, he teases bits of Sergeant Pepper and the Let It Be movie. But such complaints feel unfair when discussing so electric and uplifting a movie as Eight Days A Week.

Theatrical showings of the movie are followed by the 30-minute Shea Stadium concert from ‘65 Not only is it restored and pristine, but to see it in its entirety is stunning. Before a crowd of approximately 55,000, the band rushes through a dozen or so songs, killing the old myth that their playing suffered in these stadium settings. Aside from McCartney flubbing a line in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ – which drew a long chuckle from Lennon – the performances are strong, if a bit breathless. Yet, the band seems glad to leave the stage when it’s all over. Also intriguing is the number of covers they play – I counted three or four - as if The Beatles were still a bar band at heart, keeping their chops up, even as the joy they’d inspired turned grotesque.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Image result for shield for murder

Sometimes a movie needs only one great scene for me to fall absolutely in love with it. In Shield for Murder (1954), it’s when Edmond O’Brien stops into an Italian restaurant  and finds himself at the bar sitting next to Carolyn Jones. She’s one of those types you see in the older movies, petite and blonde, but with fingers like claws. She’s a barfly; she tries to get him to buy her a drink, or at least talk to her. He has other things on his mind.

Most guys would love to rub up against Jones in a bar. But O’Brien is involved in some bad stuff. He’s Barney Nolan, a police detective; he’s killed a bookmaker’s stooge who happened to be carrying $25,000. Thinking no one was watching, Nolan took the money. He’s a mix of hardboiled cop who cares for nothing, and a normal, working-class guy who just wants to settle down in a house he can call his own.  But his reputation for violence has raised suspicion about him. He’s starting to sweat.

Jones, meanwhile, keeps working on him. “You aren’t so tough,” she says. She teases him, saying he doesn’t know how to look the part. She tells him to hold his cigarette a certain way, and to squint his eyes. In short, she’s telling him to look more like Humphrey Bogart, the blueprint for toughness in those days. Nolan plays along; he chuckles. A while later he notices a couple of gunmen who have been trailing him. They’re working for the bookie, and they’ve got balls enough to walk right into the restaurant. He walks over to them and, with the butt of his revolver, smashes them both into bloody heaps. Confronted by real toughness, Jones can only scream in horror.

O’Brien, who’d spent time on the New York stage in productions of Shakespeare, was one of the few actors who could pull off such a scene. He didn’t look particularly dangerous – he could’ve been a high school football coach, a bus driver, the owner of a butcher shop – but he was burly and looked like he could do some damage if riled. 

Shield for Murder was based on a novel by William P. McGivern, a pulp writer whose stories provided the basis for some excellent crime movies of the period (The Big Heat,  Odds Against Tomorrow). O’Brien shared the director’s credit alongside Howard Koch. According to press releases, O’Brien rehearsed the actors, while Koch took over once filming began. O’Brien said at the time that he hoped to become a full-time director, and that he’d prefer to be known as “a new director, rather than an old leading man.” 

The screenplay, credited to Richard Alan Simmons and John C. Higgins, is slick enough that an entire story could’ve been made of the deaf man who witnesses Nolan kill the bookie’s runner. Another movie could’ve been made of the character played by John Agar, a younger detective who idolizes Nolan but suspects he’s done something foul. That none of the film’s moving parts get in the way of each other is a testament to old-school moviemaking. And the dialogue? Superb. “You’ve had enough for one day,” Nolan tells one particularly abrasive cop. “Now go home and beat your wife.” Then there’s the older cop who grouses, “I’ve gotten old in this office, with a snail’s eye view of man’s inhumanity.” Good stuff.

And what of Carolyn Jones as the blond tootsie?  She’d been in features for about a year – she’d had roles in The Big Heat and House of Wax -  and in the next few years she’d work for such directors as Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock. She’s near brilliant here. Some actresses would play the barfly role for laughs, others would aim for pathos, others would go for sleaze. She hits all three. 

In the original trailer for the film, which is included in the excellent new DVD available from Kino Lorber, the ad campaign made it look as if Nolan left his fiancĂ©e for a fling with Jones. That’s not what the movie is about at all, but publicists probably wanted a clip of Jones in the trailer, just for some enticement. Why not? All is fair in marketing, especially when a cutie like Jones is concerned. 

Consider, too, the explosive shootout between Nolan and the gunman played by Claude Akins. Akins is one of the fellows Nolan clobbered in the restaurant; with his head bandaged, he tracks Nolan down at a YMCA swimming pool where they open fire on each other. It’s madness, as swimmers run for cover, hide under bleachers, or dive into the pool to avoid the rain of gunfire. This shows how far Nolan has fallen; he doesn’t even care if innocent people get hit. 

Contrast this to the way Nolan slouches around the police station, leaning on filing cabinets and listening to others talk with a look of thinly disguised disdain. He’s a veteran cop, he’s seen it all, and he doesn’t break a sweat for anything. 

Then there’s a surprisingly light scene where Nolan brings his bride to be (Marla English) to the new tract home he plans to buy. He’s like a big kid as he proudly shows her all of the fixtures. The life he plans for them, complete with modern kitchen appliances and a two-car garage, sounds delightful; he’s invented it in his mind, perhaps to occlude the grotesque reality of his life as a crooked cop. 

Is this the real Nolan? A gentle, friendly guy who happily tells his girlfriend to kick her shoes off and take a nap on the new couch? Granted, he uses this moment to sneak out and bury his stolen money in the backyard, but his glee at showing off his new home is infectious. For a moment, you almost wish the guy’s dream of a normal home life could come true.

Everyone respects Edmund O’Brien as an actor, but is he truly appreciated for all of his great work? Shield For Murder takes place during his peak years, shortly after his turns in movies like White Heat,  D.O.A., and The Hitch-Hiker, but before his great comic performance as Marty ‘Fats’ Murdock in The Girl Can’t Help It. The same year he played Barney Nolan, he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in The Barefoot Contessa. By the 1960s he was still working regularly, but was slipping down to sixth or seventh billing. He’d become one of those reliable types, the kind of actor who could deliver a solid performance, but wouldn’t steal the spotlight from the bigger stars. Director Don Siegal claimed  O’Brien’s eyesight and memory were troubling him as early as China Venture (1953), when he was not yet 40. This was perhaps a harbinger of the Alzheimer’s disease that would ultimately kill him at 69, and might explain why O’Brien contented himself with smaller parts. His plan to become a director wasn’t to be, either. At his best, though, O’Brien was a sort of genius.  

In Shield For Murder, he’s surrounded by capable performers, including Jones, Akins, Agar, Richard Deacon, Vito Scotti, William Schallert, and in the role of the mute, a very touching Ernst Sternmuller. Yet, it’s O’Brien who owns this one. When he meets his grisly end outside of his beloved dream home, collapsing from a bullet wound onto the unplanted lawn, you’d be forgiven if you felt some sympathy for him.

“No actor who plays himself is a happy person,” O’Brien once said. If so, the man who could sing ‘Rock Around The Rockpile’ in The Girl Can’t Help It, as well as play the tortured, murderous cop in Shield For Murder, must have been happy for a while, indeed. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


The Lovers and the Despot Movie Review

The Lovers and the Despot is one of those documentaries where the subject is far more interesting than the resulting movie. One would think that the tale of a major political figure who kidnaps an actress and her director husband to help his country’s flagging film industry would be riveting and filled with intrigue and drama. And it is, sort of. But it’s told in such a dreamy manner that one starts to doze off. It's a gentle, sleeping pill of a documentary. Then again, some stories are so bizarre that they can overcome almost any flaw in execution.
The movie, written and directed by Ross Adam and Robert Cannan, sifts through a mountain of material to tell the story of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, who happened to be a movie lover, and his abduction of Choi Eun-hee, a woman who, for lack of a better comparison, was the South Korean Meryl Streep. She’d starred in several films for her husband, Shin Sang-ok, a major figure in the South Korean film business. We see the two at various red carpet events, and in clips of the movies they made. They were a cool couple, hobnobbing with Marilyn Monroe and looking incredibly stylish in their dark glasses; they were the epitome of 1950s South Korean swank. When Choi vanished, Shin followed. He, too, was taken into captivity. The dictator gave Shin an incredible opportunity: massive resources were his to make any sort of movie, provided it showed North Korea in a positive light. Not surprisingly, Shin grew to like the idea. After a couple of escape attempts, he understood that working for Kim Jong-Il wasn’t such a bad gig. Shin and Choi remained in North Korea for eight years, and made eight features.
There are some artful flourishes in the movie, and we get a fairly complete impression of the couple in captivity. She’s elegant, an actress who seems to come alive while working, but otherwise is rather meek and unassuming; he’s got enough swagger for two, squinting his eyes like Bob Mitchum after taking a drag off a Marlboro. We learn that Shin was a bit of a bum when it came to finances, which could explain why he enjoyed working for Kim Jong-Il, and we hear the dictator’s voice on tape, complaining about the sorry state of his country’s films. “Why so much crying?” he asks. I especially liked the South Korean intelligence agent involved in the case. He was tough but light, like an old weed that had survived several hard winters. He deserved his own television series.
Shin and Choi were already done as a married couple by the time they were relocated to North Korea – he’d had an affair with a lesser known actress that resulted in two children, which was, apparently, enough for Choi to get the message. “He never said he loved me,” Choi says at one point. Later, she adds, “He loved me more than people knew.” The pair was reunited while in captivity. This turned out to be what they’d needed to rekindle the old flame; they would stay together until Shin’s death in 2006, 20 years after making their daring escape from the clutches of Kim Jong-Il.
All of this should’ve been twice as romantic, and  twice as dramatic. I should’ve been weeping when they were reunited, I should’ve applauded wildly when they made their getaway, and I should’ve been hating Kim Jong-Il. Instead, Choi plays everything too quietly, as if she's still worn out by the eight years she spent in North Korea. And Kim Jong-Il, strangely enough, comes off as the star of the piece. He’s oddly charismatic. Trying to break the ice when he first meets Choi, he says “Don’t I look like a midget’s turd?”
As for Shin, aside from his dashing demeanor, we don’t get to know him very well. We certainly don’t learn much about his films. Clips are used throughout the documentary, but we can’t gather what sort of filmmaker he’d been in his South Korean heyday. He seemed to bounce from period pieces where Choi did evocative fan dances, to movies that looked like Korean versions of  spaghetti westerns. His black and white footage looks lovely, like clips from a Fellini movie, and I also liked the color footage from a later film – it reminded me of Bunny Yeager’s “stereo photography” of the ‘50s. Still, I couldn’t tell you shit about Shin as a director. Not from this documentary, anyway.
What comes across in the movie is that North Korea is a strange place, emotionally stunted until it’s time for a military parade or a dictator's funeral. Then, the tone becomes something akin to the Nuremburg rallies, with enough pomp and glitter to frighten anyone looking in for the first time. Was this, I wonder, the goal of the filmmakers? When we see footage of Kim Jong-Il’s 2011 funeral procession, with the loyal citizens practically apoplectic with emotion - obviously forced - it feels like we’re looking at another sort of propaganda film, one to make us think North Koreans are simply crazy. What does the average person know of North Korea? Not much. But, thanks to our media coverage, and constant mention of nuclear missiles, we’re supposed to be scared of the place. And this documentary, with its use of certain images, appears to be saying it’s OK to be scared.
A final shot of Kim Jong-un, the tubby son of Kim Jong-Il and the current leader of North Korea,  is meant to be ominous, like the pics of Adolph Hitler that pop up at the end of World War One documentaries, a note that something grim is yet to come. Hmm? I’ve heard that North Korea wants to enter the space race. Maybe they’ll kidnap Buzz Aldrin for some inspiration.