The Satan Seller (1973)

Mike Warnke
Logos Associate

This book made Warnke a star on the Christian lecture circuit back in the 1970s, notoriety that he eventually converted into releasing a series of evangelical and, incredibly, evangelical "comedy" records on Waco's Word label in the 1980s.

It is the allegedly autobiographical story of Warnke's induction and rise through the ranks of American Satanism (culminating, of course, with his ultimate conversion to Christianity).  The horned-one gets Warnke through the usual bag of tricks, taking a scruffy freshman at San Bernardino State and drawing him in with easy drugs and easy hippie chicks.  At first Warnke is just in it for the kicks, but the Satanists see management material in the young man, and before you know it he's being groomed to take over as "master counselor" for his coven/region.

There is the usual profaning of the Eucharist (borrowed from J. K. Huysmans' foundational work in the genre, La Bas [1891] ) Some of Warnke's innovations include killing cats and squeezing their blood out over naked women on the alter and a finger guillotine that allows enthusiastic worshipers to offer their pinkies to Lucifer (after everyone in the coven has had a chance to nibble on it, of course).

But mostly, like everything else in American life, being a Satanist seems to involve attending endless meetings and annoying conferences.  Warnke has to fly to Salem for a recruitment strategy session--to New York for ritual indoctrination training--to San Francisco for a general conference in occultism.  Throughout the story, Warnke implies that a whole other layer of very important Satanists observe and supervise from above--giving their underlinings drugs, women, and rent money, and then moving them to take on greater responsibilities when they have proven themselves.  We know these people are higher up on the Satan-chain because they tend to be better dressed and arrive in Lincoln Towncars.

Things are pretty sweet for Warnke--the Satanists pay his rent, give him all the speed and heroin he could want, and supply him with two willing hippie girls to serve as concubines/Girl Fridays.  But then he goes too far. After introducing a new ceremony where a woman is grabbed at random off the street and forced to participate in a "fertility" ritual, the higher-ups determine he is a loose canon and a threat to their security.  One day, his hippie helpers give him a "hot shot," and before he knows it, he has been dumped nude in front a public hospital.  Thus ends Warnke's rise up the devil's corporate latter.

Luckily, Jesus and a navy drill sergeant straighten him out, and in the last third of the book we follow Warnke's attempts to rectify the evil he has brought into the world.

It's a great story.  But, like so many of these tales of a nation besieged by scheming, secretive Satanists, it turns out none of it is true.  As Warnke's fame grew, more and more people came forward to claim he made most if not all of it up.  Having already been burned by a number of other false-Satanism stories, Christian publication Cornerstone launched an investigation and determined that Warnke's account of speed-freakin' cat slaughterers unleashing demons in the high desert was a fabrication.

The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943)

Charlotte Armstrong
Berkley Medallion

Just how weird are these sisters?  In truth, they're not so much "weird" as variously challenged.  Gertrude is blind. Maud is deaf.  Isabel is missing her right hand and forearm.  These are important clues when MacDougal Duff (Armstrong's bid for a recurring sleuth) arrives at their spooky old mansion in central Michigan to solve an attempted murder.

The fun begins when 20-something Alice Brennan agrees to marry her 60-something millionaire boss, Innes Whitlock.  It's all about money, no one has any illusions about that, but Innes is okay with buying the martial attentions of his secretary for a few years.  After accepting the proposal, Alice rides with Innes and his chauffeur Frank up to a lodge in the upper peninsula. But the car breaks down on the way--ten miles or so away from the Whitlock family home.  Enter Gertrude, Maud, and Isabel--Innes' three "weird" spinster sisters who do not not exactly make their daughter-in-law-to-be feel welcome.  There's also Innes' biological mother who the sisters force to live in a little cabin next to the ancestral home.

Once Alice and Innes arrive, odd things start to happen.  Innes gets violently ill after dinner.  And then a clock almost falls on him.  And then someone turns up the gas in his room and almost suffocates him.  Alice is relieved when her old college professor, Duff, arrives on scene to lend a hand figuring out the ongoing murder attempts.

Duff's task is to figure out just which sister could plausibly be behind each murder attempt, given their respective blindness, deafness, and one-armed-ness.  There's probably a word for this kind of mystery, and I'm sure that word is used all the time in relation to Agatha Christie, of which this seems a poor imitation.

Diabolical Codyism

As I see it, Young Adult (2011) and Juno (2007) are the exact same film.  They may differ slightly in tone and emphasis, but do not be deceived, they are the exact same film.  To prove this, I will employ an old friend from the era of structural film analysis--the "semiotic square."  Briefly explained, the "semiotic square" allows us to examine how a fundamental opposition informs a given text.  When applied to Diablo Cody's Young Adult (2011) and Juno (2007), the semiotic square will reveal the underlying ideological foundations of what we will now call the "Codyverse."

Before proceeding, however, we must first delineate the three basic questions that inform the narrative progression of both films:  

1.  Why are there no "normal adults" anymore?
2.  What is the proper relationship for a "normal adult" to have with popular culture?
3.  Who shall and shall not be granted proximity to a precious, precious baby?

All of these questions stem from the great REGRESSION crisis currently bedeviling the western democracies, a mass and now multi-generational stagnation in adolescence largely engineered and sustained by a culture industry that needs all of us to remain fixated on the products and fantasies we consumed when we were fourteen.  The promo art for Young Adult announces this crisis as its central theme: "Everyone grows old. Not everyone grows up."

Before unpacking Young Adult, however, we must first revisit Juno.  Below, the semiotic square illustrates how the four main characters embody positions derived from the film's structuring opposition of ADULT - CHILD. 

JUNO (2007)

Before proceeding with the individual characters, it should be noted that the "semiotic square" typically does not have a baby at its center.  I have added one, however, because it is the precious, precious baby that provides the bedrock of the Codyverse.  Indeed, one could argue that both Juno and Young Adult are primarily concerned with arriving at the appropriate answer for Question 3 above: "Who shall and shall not be granted proximity to the precious baby?" 

Juno herself, of course, assumes the "contrary" position at the top of the square, a wise-cracking teen who, though she seems mature beyond her years, must learn important lessons on the path to true adulthood.  As the only fully functional "adult" in the story, Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) will assume the Adult/Non-child position.  I will assign Paulie (Micheal Cerra) the "neutral" term at the bottom of the square as he is caught in a limbo between adulthood and childhood and is thus neither (as opposed to Juno's more forceful transition from Child to Adult). But the crucial term here is on the right side of the square: Mark (Jason Bateman) in the position of Child--Not Adult.  While Juno is about "Juno," obviously, its main ideological task is to punish Mark for his transgressive regression so that he might be expelled from the text and kept as far away as possible from the precious baby. 

Mark's transgressions are these: 1). he still enjoys "punk rock" and "horror movies;" 2). he shares his expertise in these forms with a teenage girl; 3). he verbalizes his attraction to this same teenage girl, probably because she also likes punk rock and horror movies; 4). he bitches about how marriage forced him to renounce his ambitions to be a "rock star"; 5). he expresses a desire to live in a loft downtown; 6). he expresses some degree of hesitation over coming into proximity with the precious Juno-baby.   It's very straightforward, really.  Mark is the regressed male who, unlike Steve Carrell in The 40 Year Old Virgin, does not have a hip and patient Catherine Keener to save him from wallowing in perpetual adolescence.  Juno ends "happily" to the extent that Mark is exposed as a creep and must leave the world of wholesome suburban reproduction. 

Now, let us move on to the even more diabolical case of  Young Adult:


In this case, we will put Mark (Patton Oswald) at the top of the square.  Taking a page from Planet Apatow, Cody uses the narrative shorthand of a superhero figurine collection to signify Matt's regressed status.  And yet, Matt remains the only adult "conscience" in the film, consistently trying to talk Mavis (Charlize Theron) out of her ridiculous scheme to win back her old boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson).  Buddy is for the most part a cipher, but as a seemingly committed husband and enthusiastic father, he fills out the necessary position of Adult--Non-Child.   

Now, you might think Cody was somewhat harsh with Mark in Juno for punishing him so excessively just for enjoying the rock 'n' roll music and finding a witty teenager attractive.  Thus the genius of Nipple Confusion.   By placing Buddy's wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), in a cover band made up entirely of new moms, Cody finds a more nuanced strategy for engaging question #2: "What is the proper relationship for a "normal adult" to have with popular culture?"  While Juno addresses this question in its most general form, Young Adult provides a much more focused analysis of the spectrum of regression by asking, "What is the appropriate relationship for a 'normal adult' to have with Teenage Bandwagon?"

Recall that during the opening sequence, we witness Mavis obsessively rewinding and re-listening to the first verse of Teenage Bandwagon's song, "the Concept"--included on a now 17 year old mix-tape that Buddy made for Mavis when they were dating.  Mavis' fixation on repeating a moment of pop epiphany (crucially, she only wants to listen to the first verse/chorus over and over again) suggests that her relationship with Teenage Bandwagon is profoundly regressed and thus wholly dysfunctional.  Mavis' rewinding of the tape is offered, initially at least, as a playfully regressive memory for any audience member old enough to remember the courtship and technical protocols attending analog "mix-tapes"--but as the story proceeds, her fixation on "The Concept" retroactively becomes a sonic marker of Mavis having become "stuck" in the past.  She therefore has an "inappropriate" relationship with Teenage Fanclub.

As the drummer in Nipple Confusion, however, Buddy's wife Beth demonstrates a healthy and non-regressed relationship to Teenage Bandwagon.  This is because Beth, unlike Mavis, enjoys Teenage Bandwagon within the context of successful marriage and reproduction.  Indeed, Nipple Confusion is "cool" precisely because they have the "proper" perspective on life by virtue of their marriages and collective motherhood.  Single and without children, Mavis foolishly regards "The Concept" as a powerful anthem of romantic affect and possibility; Beth has the higher knowledge that the song is simply a quaint curio of their generation's heritage in '90s indie-rock culture.  Thus Mavis' profound horror when she discovers that Buddy has shared "their song" with obstacle-wife.

Which brings us to Mavis, who we see occupies the same position as Mark in Juno: CHILD--NOT ADULT.  And, also like Mark, the ideological work of Young Adult is to ensure that Mavis be kept as far away as possible from the precious, precious baby.  Taken together, the two films demonstrate just how profoundly invested the Codyverse is in maintaining rigorous moral parameters related to proper suburban breeding.

Young Adult, however, is a much more mean and nasty film.  Consider that in Juno Mark must leave in shame because he questions the centrality of breeding and parenthood in adult life.  This is a harsh judgment, perhaps, but at least Mark has some agency in his own fate.  He chooses to end his marriage and go live in a loft where he can spend more time listening to punk rock and watching horror movies.

Young Adult, on the other hand, makes the following division:

Successful Breeders                                                          "Crippled" Breeders

Buddy (functional penis and sperm)                             Matt (crooked penis)
Beth (functional uterus and ovum)                                Mavis (had a miscarriage)

Thus, Matt and Mavis' "regressions" are explained by a physical inability to assume the role of an adult breeder.  Unlike Mark, they are denied even the opportunity of questioning the breeder position--it is simply assumed that both desperately want a marriage and family (especially Mavis), but have "regressed" to a non-adult position as an effect of their reproductive failure.   Matt and Mavis are doomed because, in their cases at least, biology is destiny.  

I would submit this is a fairly loathsome position to take on these issues.

Okay, I'm done. 

Jakob Von Gunten (1908)

Robert Walser
NYRB Classics

Do you have or know a child who is still way over-pixilated by the Harry Potter phenomenon?  Does this child continue to blather about all things Hogsworth, even as both the book and movies series have come to an end?  If so, Robert Walser's Jakob Von Gunten might be a good antidote.  It is the perfect book to reacquaint an overly enchanted child with a core theme of classic modernity--life is a tedious mystery beyond your control or comprehension where nothing much happens anyway.  Imagine if Kafka had tried to emulate J.K. Rowling and you will have a fairly decent grasp of the book's tone.

You can fool your gullible little wizard into reading the book by telling him or her that it is also the story of a small child who goes off to a distant and mysterious school--only in this case it isn't a magical college for wizards, but is instead the dreary Benjamenta Institute for young boys.  The school allegedly trains its students to become servants, but mostly it is the backdrop for unending tedium and torpor.   

From three o'clock in the afternoon we pupils are left almost completely to our own devices.  Nobody bothers with us anymore.  The Benjamentas are secluded in the inner chambers and in the classroom there's an emptiness, an emptiness that almost sickens one.  All noise is forbidden.  One is only allowed to scurry and creep about and to talk in whispers.  Schilinski looks at himself in his mirror, Schacht looks out of the window or he gesticulates to the kitchen maids on the other side of the street, and Kraus is learning things by heart, murmuring lessons to himself.  It's as quiet as a grave.  The courtyard out there lies deserted, like a foursquare eternity, and I usually practice standing on one leg.  Often, for a change, I see how long I can hold my breath.

If you are looking to get the film rights...too late!  The novel was adapted in 1996 to be the first feature film by the Brothers Quay, which makes so much sense I think I may have dreamed it.  A clip is below.

Walser was institutionalized in the mid-1930s after "hearing voices," and though he quickly recovered and no doubt could have left, he nevertheless remained at the asylum until his death in 1956.  If you read Jakob Von Gunten, you will understand why.

Nobody's Angel (2010)

Jack Clark
Hard Case

Here's a real page-turner with an interesting back story.  Nobody's Angel is the story of a Chicago cabbie, Eddie Miles, who finds himself in the middle of two unfolding crime stories.  Of immediate concern--someone is robbing and killing cabbies--and then, after saving a nearly dead hooker in an alley, Eddie spends his time looking for a van he saw near the crime scene.

But mostly, Nobody's Angel is about driving a cab in Chicago. There are some other characters in Eddie's life--an ex-wife and long absent daughter--a friend with benefits in his apartment building--his fellow cabbies--but most of the time Eddie is in his cab ricocheting around the city.  This stop-to-stop structure gives the book its pacing and sensibility as Eddie wanders the city in search of the next fare. If you've ever wondered how cabbies look at the streets as they decide who to pick up when and where, this book provides some insight.  It's also an interesting take on gentrification and poverty written from the perspective of a native who knows the history of Chicago's streets and neighborhoods.

Hard Case publishes both reprints of classic pulp and new titles in the pulp tradition.  Nobody's Angel is somewhere in between.  Clark wrote this book after some 30 years of actually driving a cab in Chicago.  He self-published Nobody's Angel in 1995 and sold copies to his passengers at $5 a pop.  A second novel in 2002, Westerfield's Chain, was a nominee for the Shamus award.  This edition is thus the first "official" printing of Clark's book, but in truth is a reprint of the self-published book of 15 years ago.

Lilly's Story (1952)

Ethel Wilson
Avon 821

Lilly's story is this:

Abandoned by her irresponsible parents, a teenaged Lilly moves to Vancouver and takes work as a waitress in a Chinatown restaurant. There she finds herself pursued by "Yow," a Chinese servant to one of the city's prominent families.  Yow courts Lilly by giving her little trifles pilfered from his employer.  Lilly resists Yow's advances until at last he promises to give her a beautiful English bicycle (again, pilfered).  But when she finally agrees to return to Yow's apartment, the police are there waiting to arrest Yow for his petty thievery.  Terrified, Lilly runs back to her apartment, throws away all of Yow's gifts, and then catches the first train out of town.

This minor yet traumatic brush with illegality in effect sets the course for the remainder of Lilly's rather drab and undramatic life. From Vancouver she goes to a mining town, shacks up with a married Welsh miner, has a baby, and then moves on once again, this time to work in the employ of a rich English couple now living in British Columbia.  When her daughter Eleanor turns 8, she moves again, realizing that their circumstances--while idyllic--are not "their own."  For the next 25 years, she toils as the cleaning lady for a hospital, all of her attention turned toward making sure Eleanor has every opportunity in life to succeed.  A couple of men make plays for her, and she has a close though guarded friendship with the Hospital's Matron, but mostly Lilly does nothing but stay in her little cottage and fret over Eleanor.

Upon turning 17, Eleanor takes a position in Vancouver to train as a nurse.  But she hits the class mobility jackpot when she becomes engaged and married to a handsome young lawyer, Paul.  Lilly visits them a couple of times, but feels uncomfortable--especially when she accidentally sees the couple kissing and realizes how profoundly in love they are, and that she has never known such depth of feeling.  She quickly retreats to the sanctuary of her routine and anonymous life in her hospital sanctuary.

Then, one morning, who should she see strolling across the hospital grounds but Yow!  The disgraced servant has just taken a job as the hospital's new cook.  Sadly, still racked with guilt for a petty crime now some 30 years in the past (and for which she isn't even guilty), Lilly decides she has to pull up roots and move again, this time to become a chambermaid in a Toronto hotel.  But at least things end  somewhat "happily" for Lilly.  By her mere presence, she bewitches a recently widowed businessman from Winnipeg, and "Lilly's story" ends with her accepting his proposal of marriage.

The above may sound incredibly bleak and somewhat boring, but the book is actually rather poignant in its study of how a young girl, basically an orphan with no education or even friends, allows a relatively insignificant event to terrorize her psychic life for 40 years, forcing her into a secretive, guarded existence with no goals beyond maintaining her "secret" and raising her daughter. 

Like so much deceptive paperback art of the era, the cover to Lilly's Story suggests this will be a torrid account of unwed motherhood.  And as you get deeper into the story, you imagine it will take a turn toward becoming Stella Dallas or Mildred Pierce at any moment.  But it never does--Wilson remains committed throughout to a rather detached narrative of a strangely isolated life.

Ethel Wilson, as it turns out, is actually somewhat of a luminary in Canadian fiction (a fiction award in British Columbia bears her name).  She didn't begin her career as a novelist until she turned 60 when she published her best known work, Hetty Dorval, in 1947.  Those interested in learning more about her should visit this link to an article on her work by Paul Comeau. 

OCD bibliographic note: "Lilly's Story" is actually one half of Wilson's two-part novel: The Equations of Love (1952).

The Carpet King of Texas (2010)

Paul Kennedy
Empire Publishing

I don't read a lot of just-published fiction, but the cover of this book so desperately courted my patronage and approval, I couldn't resist (the book also comes in equally lurid purple and yellow).

For most of its 300 or so pages, Carpet King interweaves the stories of three different characters circulating in and around the drug and prostitution trade in contemporary Liverpool.  Jade is a 19 year-old looker who, as the novel progresses, goes from pot-smoker to shoplifter to topless dancer to high-end escort to cocaine fiend to "pretty woman" companion to heroin addict to skanky street whore to skanky street whore missing three toes to skanky street whore missing one leg.

Meanwhile, there is JJ and John, father and son smackheads who are the blight of their council estate.  With Mrs. Smackdead long dead, JJ now uses 14-year old John as his tool for scamming the daily funds necessary to support their habits, ventures that range from purse-snatching to pimping out John at a public restroom.  Having never been to school and shot-up with Heroin almost daily by his dad, John lives in a weirdly detached reality where his only friends are the cat next door and Superman.

Finally, there is the "carpet king" himself, Dirk McVee of Dallas, who uses his trips to the U.K. as an excuse to get away from the wife and kids so that he might go on week-long cocaine-fueled benders of dirty, filthy sex with dirty, filthy hookers. 

Kennedy apparently worked the Liverpool crime beat for many years as a reporter, and so he has a lot of no doubt true and truly sickening details to squeeze in here.  It's generally well-written, although maybe about 100 pages too long.   And, as with all novels that seek to "shock" the reader about street life, the endless parade of drug-taking and sleazy sex ends up being funny in places as the characters, much like the aristocratic swells of Dwain Esper's Narcotic (1934), endlessly verbalize what they plan to smoke and fuck.  "I'd like to do another couple of fat lines of coke, and then let's try some double-penetration!" 

As we know from the very opening of the novel, the three story-lines eventually converge for a particularly protracted study in sleaze, leading up to a climax that seems so over-the-top that one has to assume it actually really did appear on the Liverpool police blotter.

I think Kennedy meant this to be a stridently anti-drug morality tale--but there may be an even more sinister moral to his story, namely this:

If you are rich and have unlimited access to clean cocaine, matched with the temperament to use it in moderation, you and your sexually adventurous spouse have access to a world of unending hedonistic pleasure with fellow kinky-Coke users from around the globe (especially if you live in Amsterdam)--but if you are working-class and from Liverpool, you will inevitably end-up shooting smack into your gangrenous stump before dying a horrible death.

Ten Best List

I don't typically compile a "ten best" list each year as I find the entire ritual a narcissistic and even imperious performance of one's own taste.  This year, however, I decided to get off my high-horse and share the most outstanding films I saw this year.  After all, I am highly credentialed in film studies/analysis, so it would be criminal of me not to share that expertise with the lay public.  Be advised, however, many of these films will prove difficult to see, especially if you live in some God-forsaken, cultural backwater.

1. Seven Tangerines (Poston)

Reportedly shot for less than $50,000  without permits in an abandoned brownstone in Queens, Jack Poston’s Seven Tangerines succeeds less as a well-crafted work of cinema than as a raw document of extraordinary writing and acting.  As a play, Seven Tangerines never even made it to off-off-Broadway, Poston staging only six performances at a rented community center in Astoria before taking it before the camera.  For many productions, that would be a mistake.  But here there is a sense that Poston and co-star Jakov Lund, May-December junkies slowly freezing to death in a Bronx tenement, might have over-cooked their characters if they had waited any longer to capture them on film.  And the ending remains as haunting as it is enigmatic-- do the two men, at the brink of unconsciousness, see the face of God, or is it merely the lights of a police helicopter?  Thankfully, Poston allows the viewer to make his or her own decision. 

 2. The Winter of the Mouse Friend (Fu)

On the surface, Su Jing Fu’s study of a girl’s dormitory during the Cultural Revolution may seem like a straightforward celebration of female bonding and empowerment.  When a small and very bedraggled mouse wanders into the dormitory during the first winter snowfall, the girls nurse it back to health and make it their communal pet, going to great lengths to hide their furry friend from their harsh housemother.  The charm of the premise gradually mutates into something more sinister, however, as Xiaobai (“Whitey”) becomes hostage to the various interpersonal struggles between the roommates.  Cantopop singer Denise Ho Wan-See is surprisingly good as the dorm’s primary villain, Bao-yu, manipulating her peers for chocolates and other favors by constantly threatening to reveal the mouse’s hidden den in the wall. 

3. Jacques et Jacqueline (Courbet)

Hopes were not high after comedian Ricard Courbet’s first feature, Les Idiots sur un Bateau (2009), a broad physical comedy set at a failing yacht rental yard in Nice.  And Courbet probably did himself no favors in the follow-up by playing both “Jacques” and “Jacqueline,” combative fraternal twins brought together by the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.   But Courbet surprised everyone by crafting a rather poignant character study amid all the requisite yucks, making Jacqueline in particular a stealthily tragic composite of poor life decisions.  And while the ending set-piece with the frozen baguettes and broken teeth was a bit crass, overall it didn’t derail this surprisingly complex portrait of sibling rivalry turned bittersweet affection.

4. Zero-Muybridge-One (Muybridge/Locklear)

Experimental cinema can often be unbearable, and on paper, Zero-Muybridge-One looks like it would be no exception. Digital artist Camden Locklear has digitized every single frame of Edward Muybridge’s foundational “motion studies” and then re-sequenced them according to a cryptograph derived from the texts of Walter Benjamin.  The effect is a haunting flow of sepia-toned light and shadow punctuated by furtive images that struggle to cohere on screen.  Horse and cat strobe toward one another from opposite sides of the frame.  A tumbler appears to somersault in and out of oblivion.  A nude man strides into the very maelstrom of modernity itself, chin held high as he enters the new century with what we can now see was a sadly misplaced sense of confidence.  Credit too must be given to Philip Glass’ architectural scoring that gently accents the emerging images even as it stolidly anchors the overall flows of amorphous light.

5. Yellowknife (Slidell)

Two painfully shy teenagers, he from Vancouver and she from Montreal, find themselves “exiled” together for a summer in the remote wilderness of Yellowknife.  While their fathers work together on a geological survey, Marcus and Claudette negotiate a relationship they know is both inevitable and doomed, brought together by their mutual distaste for life in the wilderness and yet knowing their time together will be over come September.  First love is an old story, of course, but director Felicity Slidell does an excellent job here undercutting the genre’s more maudlin elements by refracting them through the precocious sophistication of her leads.  There are a few missteps (the scene where the young and still awkward couple happen upon moose copulating in the woods flirts a little too heavily with the American Pie series), but overall a touching meditation on the millennial generation’s turn at “summer love.” 

6. El vano heredarĂ¡n la tierra  (Urueta)

Transplanting William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair from Regency England to the slums of contemporary Mexico City is an audacious move, as is placing a 14 year-old male hustler in the role of Becky Sharp.  But Urueta’s satire of the links between social mobility and sociopathology shares Thackeray’s at times misanthropic eye for the often brutal violence underlying custom and convention.  And by removing the “Amelia” character entirely, some might even say Urueta has improved on Thackeray.

7. Tarantula (Emmerich)

Given his last three spectacularly interesting failures (10,000 B.C., (2008), 2012 (2009), and Anonymous (2011), many suspected that Roland Emmerich might just have one truly outstanding film in him struggling to get out.  Who could have known that Emmerich would finally strike gold in a remake, especially considering that his 1998 attempt to reboot Godzilla was such a giant reptilian turd?  And yet, in reimagining Jack Arnold’s 1955 classic of an irradiated spider on the rampage, Emmerich achieves an emotional depth wholly absent in his turn at the Godzilla franchise.  Wisely, Emmerich transforms Arnold’s creepy-crawly Other into a more sympathetic fellow citizen of earth, one that never asked to be trapped in a laboratory much less forced to ingest radioactive grain.  In a testament to the director’s subtly in making us identify with what is, after all, merely a CGI program, our attachment to the giant spider is really only apparent at the very end.  As “Tarantula” looks down with his 8 eyes, seemingly betrayed by his former scientist protector (played with surprising verve by Tara Reid), we hope for just a moment that the seemingly inevitable laser blast and explosion will not come.  But of course, as it must, it does.  So far Emmerich’s Tarantula has not found a U.S. distributor, but hopefully that will change in 2012. 

8. Reflections (Corday)

Very few people have had the opportunity to see the first feature film by avant-garde video artist Christian Corday, but fortunately I was invited to a screening last month for 25 or so people at the artist’s new loft/studio in DUMBO.  It is truly stunning, and I highly recommend you try to see it should it come to a theater near you (although that’s probably unlikely—given the film’s formal and thematic complexity, it is likely only to play in New York City and Los Angeles for the foreseeable future).  Corday begins with an odd but intriguing premise.  “A” and “B”, married artists in Chelsea, decide to cover every surface of their apartment/loft/studio with mirrors.  From there, they decide that all of their daily interactions—both in and out of the house—will be conducted through mirrors as well.  Gradually the inevitable happens.  Their identities become ungrounded and uncertain, eventually transferring between their two bodies.  From here the film engages a series of metaphysical dilemmas—what happens when “A’s” subjectivity is in “B’s” body, and vice versa?  Original, profound, and utterly unsettling—it’s a must see for anyone with an interest in film, philosophy, or both. 

9, The Royal Disease (Dankworth)

Excruciatingly detailed bio-pic of Prince Leopold, the Duke of Albany and fourth son of Queen Victoria.  Leopold lived a short and troubled life, his hemophilia keeping him under the watchful eye of his mother the Queen.  Dankworth’s film only has time to sample a few of Leopold’s many failures at love, focusing primarily on his combative relationship with his overprotective mother.  But the true star here (no offense to Jude Law’s turn as Leopold) is the set and costume design.  Shot entirely on location, The Royal Disease’s painstakingly accurate reconstruction of every costume, object, and room of its Victorian milieu unfolds almost as a type of time travel.  One forgets they are watching a movie so complete is the immersion in period detail. Elegantly stunning and highly educational.

10. Up My Own Asshole, with Vigor (Farren)

Playfully self-reflexive morality tale of Hollywood manners, focusing on a screenwriter who sets out to write the most damning critique ever of the Hollywood system, only to find himself co-opted at every turn by the very system he detests.  While this material can often lead to a type of insufferable navel-gazing, Farren very effectively foregrounds the film’s recognition that it is nothing more than navel-gazing, thus allowing it to gaze even deeper with absolute impunity.  Amanda Seyfried has a wonderful turn as the embattled screenwriter’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, a “granola” type constantly hectoring him to do something more “useful” with his life (until, of course, she lands a role herself in a network mini-series).  By now, one would think the public would be tired of “insider” tales of Hollywood’s glamour and duplicity, but Up My Own Asshole, with Vigor proves the genre still has yet to exhaust its creative possibilities. 

Hecate and Her Dogs (1954)

Paul Morand
Pushkin Press

Can a paraphilia be transferred from one person to another in a kind of contact perversion?   Are you the owner of your own desire?  Just how depraved would you become if you had the freedom to do whatever you wanted?  These extraordinarily French questions are at the heart of Morand's Hecate and Her Dogs, a novella set primarily in Tangiers during the 1920s.

When a sixty-something banker's flight is rerouted to the north African city, it opens the Proustian floodgates of a torrid affair he had there thirty years earlier.  Sent to supervise the investment wing of a French bank, our narrator quickly sets up house and office so that he can then take a mistress.  And he finds one, the plain but enigmatic Clothide, a woman whose husband is on extended deployment with the French Army in Siberia.

Things go swimmingly at first--work all day, stargazing and sex all night--until our narrator begins to sense that Clothide is often "elsewhere" during their love-making. Particularly alarming, Clothide has an apparently spontaneous orgasm one night at the cinema as they watch a film about an orphanage

Vexed and increasingly insecure about his standing with Clothide, he arranges for the two to spend an entire week in bed--but this only makes matters worse.  A week in the sack apparently unleashes her full lust and depravity, Clothide's seeming insatiability becoming both a lure and a point of revulsion for the narrator.  And then one night she cries out in bed, " are black, like a devil...and you melt in the mouth."

Though the narrator began his affair with calculated indifference, he now realizes he is obsessed with Clothide's "secret" and that she has the "upper hand" in their relationship.  He begins spying on her, driving around the city all day to see where she goes and what she does.  And then, one afternoon, he visits her apartment to find her combing out the hair of two small Berber children, a boy and a girl.  The boy is introduced as...Ibrahim! 

She likes them young, this Clothide.  In his obsession to regain control over her, our narrator gradually begins to realize that his desire is tied to understanding the perversions of his mistress.  Gradually he becomes caught up in her "tastes" as well, cruising the marketplaces of the city in search of children to defile.  Why?  Even he doesn't really understand.

In an afterword written by Umberto Pasti, he assures us the entire novel is a "masterpiece of camp" and all a joke at the expense of Morand's wife, a Parisian elite who, after the war, found herself stranded with Morand in Tangiers and extremely bored.  Camp or no, the book captures that particularly French model of desire that consistently locates it externally and elsewhere.  And sure enough, a quick Google search has found Hecate paired with Lacan on a syllabus for "Perversion: Theory and Literature."

Night-World (1972)

Robert Bloch
Fawcett Crest

Karen Raymond receives a call telling her that her husband, Bruce, is finally ready to leave a private asylum nestled in some obscure corner of the San Fernando Valley.  But when she gets there to pick him up, she finds that the nurse, orderly, and head psychiatrist are all dead (hooked up to and fried by his own ECT machine).  All the patients, including Bruce, are missing.  From here, Bloch uses some extremely unreliable narration to keep us in suspense as to who the killer might be.  All signs point to Karen's once-crazy husband, but then again...

Pretty average, really.  Interesting primarily for it's pulp-vernacular echoing of Joan Didion's The White Album, Bloch setting his tale of psychopaths on the loose against the general "bad vibe" of L.A. in the early, post-Manson 1970s.  The psychopath does get a nice bit of first-person narration about drum majorettes and parades and how much he hates them both.  Oh, and also, some dobermans attack and kill their owner after the psychopath hops them up on amphetamines.

Let Us Tax Gwyneth Paltrow's Infected Brain

First of all, kudos to the sadist at American Airlines who programmed Contagion (2011) as the only viable option on the eastbound transatlantic flights this month.  Just what a person wants to see after being shoehorned into coach for six hours of hermetic ripening--a film about a clumsy bat almost taking out half the world with a horrible mutant virus, all because said bat couldn't fly and eat a banana at the same time.  Way to go, stupid bat.  Watching Contagion amid all the coughing and hacking and sweating was like trying to make a birdhouse in shop class while the teacher screens the Saw films back to back.  But it was either that or Crazy Stupid Love  (2011), so there you go.

From what I understand, many have celebrated Contagion because Gwyneth Paltrow dies a ghoulish death in the first ten minutes.  This is probably very mean and unfair to Ms. Paltrow, who is quite possibly a nice person in daily life.  But it does raise an interesting question: why do so many people dislike Paltrow?

I think we can isolate four interrelated factors:

1.  She named a child "Apple" because
2.  She married a "rock star," which is exactly what you'd expect
3.  Of someone who has gestated in the designer womb of Hollywood her whole life and yet
4.  Still had the audacity to play a hard-scrabble C&W singer, even when country singifying is
        the last show-biz job available to Red State folk who have actually eaten gravel from
        fighting in a bar parking lot.

Still, credit where credit is due.  It is not every well-known actress who would be willing, not only to "pull a Leigh,"  but to also have her skull opened up with a bonesaw and her scalp and hair peeled off like a fuzzy grape.  This type of role is typically left to an aspiring starlet who calculates that the shock value of showing a little skull in her film debut will open more doors than it closes--and besides, it's either that or a day's work as one of Steve Carrell's failed dates in Crazy Stupid Love, so there you go again.

One can only imagine what Soderbergh was thinking as he framed this one up in the view finder (or perhaps it was the B-unit. Interesting DGA question: who is typically tasked with shooting scenes involving inert corpses? [Keanu Reeves joke goes here]).  "Boy, this is awesome, I got one of my famous actor friends to let me peel her scalp off in close up!"  And it is awesome, precisely because of Paltrow's "star power" (or for those who remain skeptical and/or irritable, "unavoidable familiarity as an icon in mass circulation despite any apparent market demand).

But the undeniable impact of the Paltrow autopsy scene also foregrounds what has become the most insufferable aspect of Soderbergh's "big film" Hollywood work: the suffocating over-abundance of A-list stars who are cast for no apparent reason other than Soderbergh knows them and can get them.  I'm not the first person to say this, clearly.  It's gotten to the point where the ongoing Oceans Infinity series has become like paying some form of symbolic tribute--regular Americans herded into theaters and netflix queues to bear compulsory witness to just how fabulous it is not to be a regular American.  I suppose the Oceans films could be defended as an effort to bring back the "glamor" of the old Hollywood star system, but that would assume "star" means the same thing now as it did in 1935.  Let's face it, now that everyone perceives themselves to be uniquely special and yet unfairly screwed in everyday life, no one has the time or inclination to watch a celebrity circle-jerk every 16 months.

Even if the celebrity jumbo-pack makes some sense in the Oceans films, however, it makes absolutely no sense in Contagion; in fact, it actively undercuts the film's potential impact.  Contagion is barely a story in the first place.   Scott Z. Burns' script opts for such a well-researched and reasonable account of a global epidemic that the viewer meets most of the plot developments with only a nod of familiarity: "People fighting over MREs thrown out the back of a truck? Yep, I could see that happening.  Officials exploiting inside information to protect their loved ones?  Sure, not surprising.  Vaccine shortages? Yep, most likely. "  For this sprawling ensemble piece to work, especially given its rather dispassionate and even wholly predictable docudrama treatment, it needs a cast of unknowns, fame-ciphers that can actually become the everyday, real-life victims caught up in this very plausible global disaster.  What it doesn't need is Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Elliot Gould, and Laurence Fishburne to remind us over and over again: it's only a movie. All that's missing is George Clooney as the moody epidemiologist who, estranged from his daughter and living in an emotional vacuum, volunteers to wander off into the Chinese jungle in search of even more feverish, sneezing bats. 

In fairness to Soderbergh, this is probably more a celebrity problem than a directorial one.  Celebrities like to be in front of cameras--it's just their nature.  And by all accounts, Soderbergh makes them feel good about themselves and their performances, so perhaps these celebrity-stuffed opuses stem less from the director flaunting his connections than from his inability to say no to people who live closer to the ocean than him.   

But I have a solution to all of this.

At this point in the cinema's history, I think we can agree that most films would benefit from a cast of unknowns, as least any film that is making a bid for dramatic realism/naturalism.  The star system had its place many decades ago, certainly, but today it is simply incompatible with whatever vestigial powers and patience audiences have left for "suspending disbelief."  Also, there are so many more people today struggling to be famous that I believe we have an obligation to move talent through the system a bit faster.  So here's how we do it:


Here's how it works:  An actor is allowed to earn 100 million dollars in fees from appearing in film and television (monitored by an objective accounting firm--perhaps a SAG division of Price Waterhouse).  After hitting the very generous mark of $100 million, said actor must from that point on PAY to appear in any subsequent film and television productions (and, just to be safe, this "pay to play" rate will be double if said actor gets an inkling to sing or rap).  There might be some room to negotiate this fee depending on the amount of screen time and the overall prominence of the project, but the basic principle must remain the same:  once society has given you $100 million for essentially playing pretend-time in front of a camera, the actor must in turn pay for the privilege of remaining in the public multiplex and limelight.  It's only fair. 

For purposes of illustration, imagine that Tom Cruise had hit the 100 million mark at Jerry Macguire (1996).  Would he have been so quick to make Vanilla Sky (2001) or Valkyrie (2008) if each role had cost him a cool million?  Meanwhile, maybe his more modest turns in Magnolia (1999) and Tropic Thunder (2008) would only set him back $250,000.  Not only would this celebrity luxury tax force big-name actors to be more discriminating and invested in their roles, it might encourage others to get out of the game entirely.  I'm pretty sure Adam Sandler gave up caring about his movies a decade ago.  Think how much better it would be for him and for us if he could simply take his $100 million and walk away for good. Is there no one else out there with sufficient talent to put on a fat suit and yell at himself as his twin sister? 

Money collected through this tax, meanwhile, could be put into some sort of competitive pot to fund young filmmakers.  I doubt Kevin James is up to the $100 million mark quite yet. But once Zookeeper 5: Tiger Trouble comes out in a few years, wouldn't you feel better knowing that James' had kicked in a couple million to help a struggling young visionary get her film on IFC?  I know I would.

As for Paltrow, maybe she gets a pass on Contagion, given her willingness to play a corpse.   But if she shows up in Oceans 15 as a spunky waitress who overhears the plans for the caper, or a down-home country girl safe-cracker, that's a cool million up front, please.

ADDENDUM: I have received a few complaints that this post contains "spoilers."  Contagion has now been in wide release, on cable, on DVD, and in airplanes for going on four months now.  At a certain point, having to edit around plot points so as to not reveal details to lazy Netflix customers becomes a "spoiler" to those of us who try to keep up with the contemporary state of cinema and culture. 

KKK (1969)

Bill Meilen
Paperback Library
(Originally published as The Bull-Pen)

Grease up the pigs and slather the grits, Mary Lou, we're going down to Dixie. Dirty, dirty Dixie.  Dirty, dirty racist Dixie, home of the Ku Klux Klan, in a story that could only be told by... a Welsh sailor.

Sources inform me that Bill Meilen was a Cardiff-born actor who worked on British television during the late 50s and through the 60s.  He later did a lot of TV work in Hollywood, including roles on Battlestar Galactica (the second one), Kingdom Hospital, and Lonesome Dove.  In between, he wrote a fair number of pulpish novels.  His first book, The Division (1967), is apparently the most celebrated, a semi-autobiographical account of Meilen's time in a Welsh borstal as a teenager.  The Bull-Pen appeared two years later, retitled and re-covered for the U.S. market as KKK.  

To tell the story of the Klan's insidious influence in the modern south, Meilen makes the somewhat counter-intuitive choice of placing a Welsh sailor at the center of the action (you have to admire the chutzpah. Imagine writing a novel where an American longshoreman goes to London and brings an end to the Brixton Riots).   Bill Hogan of Cardiff goes ashore in an unnamed port in an unnamed state on the Gulf Coast (but let's face it, it's either Alabama or Mississippi).  Coming back from a cathouse, Hogan happens upon four Klan members beating up an elderly black man for walking through the "white" part of town.  When Hogan intervenes, he ends up getting thrown through the window of a dry goods store and taking the rap for merchandise that goes missing within.  While in jail, he befriends a towering Native American who becomes his ally, a la Cuckoo's Nest, against the other racist Kluckers in the cell. Then it's just a matter of time waiting around until the Klan gets what's coming to them.

Meilen appears to have been conversant in the literature of racism that links it to psychosexual dysfunction.  Grand Dragon Ray Mattocks, after murdering a young black marine just back from Vietnam, goes home and makes his wife role-play that she's ready, willing, and able to take on several "black bucks" at once.  This gets him mad horny, as in horny and mad at the same time.  But Meilen meets his match in psychosexual weirdness with the artist who did the cover for KKK.  Though the novel is unmistakably ANTI-Klan and Grand Dragon Mattocks is a loathsome turd of a man, the artist goes instead for Klan Kleagle as magnetic sex totem.

As one might expect of a novel written in this era by someone from across the Atlantic, Meilen makes little distinction between the Klan and southerners generally.  At the very least, everyone here is an idiot.  After Logan is thrown in the tank, no one can understand his accent, nor do they know where Cardiff or Wales are, all assuming it's just another place up in that "librul nigra-lovin' Jew Yankeeland." Meilen also takes a stab at writing southern dialect, resulting in words like this:

"pratsill" - a salty, dough treat frequently eaten at bars and ballgames.

The copy I read is particularly remarkable, however, for the incredible violence visited upon the back cover (up top).  This detail of the Klansman has been repeatedly stabbed between the eyes with a pen, and then defaced a little with blue ink for good measure.  There is a similar stab and slash motif a couple times in the text, suggesting some previous reader reached the boiling point more than a few times and let fly with the Bic.  This is all made even more interesting by the back title's demand to "Kill, Kill, Kill," a seemingly obvious attempt to reframe the true meaning of KKK turned here into an exhortation to murder the Klansman himself.

Forty Power Tools You Can Make (1944)

Popular Mechanics Press

Tom Brokaw here: Want to know just how lazy this nation has become?  Here's a book instructing men from the greatest generation how to, not just make things, but how to make the things that make things.  In the time it takes a modern city-dweller to park and get lost in Home Depot, men of the 1940s could assemble their very own 3-Wheel Band Saw.  Or perhaps a 10" Roller-Bearing Disk Sander.  And the genius of it all--the more of these tools you make yourself, the more tools you can make in the future.  It's like re-enacting the history of the Industrial Revolution in your very own garage.

Even more humiliating, not only could these men build their own industrial-strength tools, they did so while still wearing a tie!  Just because you are all alone in the garage building a new Sliding Table Saw so that you can build a new dog house for Sparky is no reason to look like a Communist.

Sure, wearing a tie around spinning and slashing power tools might not be all that safe, but you never know when General Eisenhower might stop by to recognize your heroism for having stopped a German tank in the Ardenne with only a tin can and a couple rubber bands.  As they say, dress for the tools you want, not the tools you have!

Adolescent Sexual Behavior (1964)

Benjamin Morse
Monarch Books (#436)

One of Monarch's "Human Behavior" series, their entry in the intense post-Kinsey competition for sleaze disguised as "sexology."  This one is notable in that "Benjamin Morse" is apparently a pseudonym for Lawrence Block, now a renowned figure for his many years of writing pulp crime novels (like Diet of Treacle).

There is a real art to writing these, believe it or not, and you have to respect Block (who, as far as I know, has no training in "sexology" or adolescent psychology) for bluffing his way through something like this.  The strategy is to take fairly common memories of dating/sex from high school life and give them a semi-scientific sheen, complete with "authentic" testimony from alleged adolescents concerned over their sexual progress, competency, and/or "normality."  Block had clearly read Freud, noting that one can not properly discuss adolescent sexuality without first considering earlier stages of infantile and childhood sexuality.  Not only is this accurate and thorough, it helps the author eat up a few pages basically recapping Freud before having to generate new "factual" material.

And yet another stunning cover.  Johnny and Suzie after school and all mixed-up.  Who can tell what they are saying?  "Should we go all the way?"  "I'm pregnant." "I don't do that with boys after just one date."  One thing is for sure, memories of adolescent sexual behavior are bittersweet, especially so for the Mad Men era commuter reading this behind his newspaper on the L.I.R. 

Black Mafia (1975)

Francis Ianni
New English Library

This is actually a rather straight-forward study in the sociology of crime, Ianni documenting how African-American and Puerto Rican gangs began taking over the drug, prostitution, and gambling rackets in Harlem and the Bronx during the late 1960s and early 70s, displacing the Sicilian Mafia in the process.  The history is very detailed, almost block by block, with Ianni even providing charts in the back of the book illustrating just who controls what in the new criminal order, either on the street or from inside the Big House.  City wide "ethnic" taxi scams also get some attention.

But the real star here is the art department at New English Library for crafting this beautiful typographic rip-off of Mario Puzo's The Godfather. Readers were no doubt lured by the promise of a multi-generational saga of Harlem's competing crime families--only to encounter the hard-hitting prose of sociology and urban studies.

I Dreamt that Diane Kruger Wrecked Three Taxis in Berlin

One cold winter in Germany
Liam Neeson to a conference did go
But a suitcase was lost, he had to rush
Back through the ice and snow
He hailed a plucky Russian cabby
And together they flew like the wind
I dreamt that Diane Kruger wrecked three taxis in Berlin
Out of a coma and out of his mind
Liam sought the ugly truth
So to the plucky cabbie's home he went
To spy, inquire, and sleuth
But soon assassins were at the door
And they were behind the wheel once again
I dreamt that Diane Kruger wrecked three taxis in Berlin
Kidnapped by friends now turned foes
Liam faced a certain death
But the plucky Russian driver stole a cab
And we all held our breath
Metal justice was at hand as rubber tires did spin
I dreamt that Diane Kruger wrecked three taxis in Berlin

provoked by the film, Unknown (2011)

The British Museum is Falling Down (1965)

David Lodge
Penguin Books

Allegedly "comic" novella capturing the horrors of a). orthodox Catholicism, and b). graduate English studies.  If you fit into both categories, do not read this novel, not even on a dare.

Adam Appleby is a graduate student toiling every day at his thesis, "The Structure of Long Sentences in Three Modern English Novels." He is also a devout Catholic father, worried that his wife may be pregnant with the couple's fourth child (a product of the Pope's intransigence on birth control).  This is my first go at Lodge, and he certainly lives up to his reputation for capturing the neurotic vibe of academia.  Particularly hilarious, I thought, is Appleby's love-hate relationship with his physical manuscript, a tome that he dreads toting back and forth everyday to the library, and yet for which he feels profound separation anxiety when it is not in his satchel (as it is, after all, his "fifth" child).

Think things are tough now, egghead?  Read Lodge's account of a grad-faculty mixer circa 1965.  Chilling.