Saturday, July 31, 2010

True Romance (1993)

Continuing with the coda to my Tarantino project, I come to, oh, hey, True Romance. Written by Tarantino, directed by Tony Scott.

I liked this a great deal at the time; now, not so much. It has a lot of strengths, and a few debilitating flaws. It seems to me, and I could be wrong, that the flaws are mostly a matter of Tony Scott's style. Tony Scott has never done much for me, I'll admit, and this movie crystallizes why.

The strength of the film, and why I rate it as a key entry into QT's oeuvre, is that the characters and the plot set forth the Tarantino aesthetic, at least that aspect of it that ruled the decade of the '90s, in perhaps its clearest form. Small-time crooks with a fantastic sense of retro style, quirky meta villains, snappy profane dialogue, violence. The romance between Clarence and Alabama is the romance between Clarence and everything he loves, between Tarantino and everything he loves. Clarence's opening monologue (which marks the film indelibly as a Tarantino thing): if I was going to sleep with a man, it would be Elvis. There it all is.

I suppose it's to Tony Scott's credit that this comes through in the film loud and clear. The central love triangle of Clarence, Alabama, and the rockabilly aesthetic is right there to see. But where the film falls down for me is in Scott's refusal to allow that aesthetic to dictate the film.

Take the music, for example: if Clarence worships (almost literally) Elvis, then why isn't there any Elvis on the soundtrack? Why instead do we get Charlie Sexton and Chris Isaak? Because Elvis is old-fashioned, while in 1993 Sexton and Isaak sounded up-to-date, pop, and Tony Scott is all about the pop.

I don't think that's entirely a bad thing, in general - Scott's cutting-edge MTV sheen is undeniably pretty, and it's appropriate for some things - but it's at odds with Tarantino's retro aesthetic. What it means here is that as well-rendered (and acted) as the story is, we're mostly outside the characters observing their aesthetic, not inside participating in it with them.

There's one exception, and it proves the rule. When Clarence and Alabama call his friend in Hollywood from the phone booth in the desert, then make love in the phone booth, "Chantilly Lace" is playing on the soundtrack. This is appropriate: this is, I imagine, just about like QT would have done it. For the first time we can really feel the way these characters see themselves. But it's isolated. Most other times, the soundtrack is conventional and up-to-the-minute fashionable for 1993 - moody synths and strings, modern beats.

It's not just the music, of course. It's the camera angles and lighting and editing; it's just that the music's what I feel most comfortable talking about. When it comes to the rest all I can say is that, vaguely, the film looks like a lot of other things that were happening in the early '90s, and it looks like it's trying to look that way, while QT's movies famously look like they're trying to look like things that were happening twenty or thirty years before.

I don't know if this is a choice or not. As I say, the central relationships are so well-realized that I suspect Scott's decision not to invest completely in their aesthetic is a choice - it's still his movie, after all. But in other cases, I wonder. Gary Oldman's pimp character, the white guy who thinks (?) he's black, is classic QT, but Scott rushes his scene so much that we're not even sure if he's supposed to be a white guy who thinks he's black, or if we're supposed to think that he is black. Scott handles him like any other villain. I can only imagine how Tarantino would have handled this scene, drawing it out for all the uncomfortable irony and surreal humor it implies.

Which is pretty much how I feel about the movie as a whole.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Four Rooms (1995)

I rewatched this because of my recent Quentin Tarantino project, but of course it wasn't his deal alone. It's an omnibus, somewhat reminiscent of the much-ballyhooed (if you were around to remember it) New York Stories of a few years prior. Like that, it seemed to want to function as a sort of thumbnail guide to the sensibilities of the leading film lights of a certain generation, or at least a certain scene, although of course it came much earlier in the careers of its principals than did New York Stories. Partly for that reason, it's more effective. It was the first I knew of Allison Anders and Richard Rodriguez, and it's still the only thing I know of Alexandre Rockwell. ...Anders I still need to seek out more of, since Grace of My Heart is the only other thing I've seen; Rodriguez I may like even better than Tarantino. Certainly I concur with the consensus that his segment here is the best of the four. "Did they misbehave?"

Tarantino's segment, "The Man From Hollywood," isn't the best of the four. I think I've said that. But it is a fitting conclusion to the movie. I like how it brings back Jennifer Beals: it helps emphasize the subtle (and nonsensical) connections between the four episodes in a way that really does help them add up to a whole film, at least for me. More than that, though, she's a very intriguing presence in this segment, evoking classic femmes fatales even better than she does in her own segment.

"The Man From Hollywood" is all about intriguing presences, textures, rhythms, details. The plot is completely simple - as the characters acknowledge, it's based on an old TV show, but without even the twist that the TV show had. The twist is that there is no twist, and it's a very effective payoff. You know, it's all about will they cut the guy's finger off, and, surprise: they do. The End. Really funny, actually. But it's funny because all the odd details - Beals, Bruce Willis, the business about the champagne, the patter about the Alfred Hitchcock show, the setup with the cash - have you on the lookout for something weird, something hidden, something besides just the obvious ending. (It's also funny because of the timing: you know, you just know, that they're going to keep building the suspense through nine shots with the lighter.) In its own way, the ending is just as good a punchline as "Did they misbehave?"

(Which tells you what kind of filmmakers Tarantino and Rodriguez were, and are, that for all their experiments with tone and subject matter, they never neglect to give you a good punchline.)

Of course there's something else to watch here, too, which is Tarantino's character, which is - has to be - some kind of parody of himself in the first rush of Hollywood stardom following Pulp Fiction. Chester Rush clearly has something, but he's also clearly losing himself in excess and ego. He's already so jaded that he's resorting to bloodshed for thrills, he's so lost in his own obsessions that he's recreating obscure old TV shows in his own life, he's utterly blind to the power differential that his new wealth creates between him and his friend: I don't know and don't particularly care if any of this was true about QT himself, but it certainly captures a certain kind of mythical Hollywood decadence that one could believe QT was now in a position to experience, and that from his movies one could imagine him enjoying very much.

So, Four Rooms is minor Tarantino, but well done.

It's major Robert Rodriguez, though.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Rush: Caress Of Steel (1975)

So I was telling you about doors. Mine, my half (if you imagined our door cut in half, mine was the bottom: only the penitent man can enter), was the Yes birdplane. Vito and Art (they were roommates, in a different dorm than mine) kept theirs blank all year long, mostly because they couldn’t agree on what to put on it. And, like I say, the one at the end of my hall had the dreamy screamer from the first King Crimson album on it.

It was the work of a guy named Nick but called the Necromancer. That is, he wanted to be called that, and insisted on it so darkly that we humored him to his face. But behind his back we called him Neck for short, because he was so beefy that he had none.

Neck was into D&D. Now, so was I, or so I thought: I’d spent nearly every weekend in high school immersed in its arcana, and it was what had gotten me through that three-year purgatory. I felt, and still feel, that I owed my sanity at eighteen to Gary Gygax. I had already learned that Vito and Art concurred, both about me (thanks, dudes) and themselves. They, it turned out, had grown up together in Malvinaton, a town in a neighboring state that had been one of the first planned communities, a full suburb, ready to assemble out of the box, prototype for the one I’d grown up in for sure, and for most others in the country, according to the historians. Vito and Art had felt the same quiet desperation in their subdivision that I had in mine, and D&D (Advanced) was their way out, too.

By now it was December of our freshman year. Vito and Art and I had become fast friends, taking most meals together and hanging out at night and on whatever weekends one or the other of us wasn’t back home getting laundry done and lording it over those who hadn’t yet escaped the burbs. I’d been back to my homesubdivision a couple of times already, and each time I’d gotten together with my high school buddies for a night of dungeon-scouring and orc-torturing. Word was Vito and Art had done the same.

So it was only natural that eventually we try to do it at school. What was unnatural – or maybe not – was that it took four months for us to get around to it. Were we too busy studying? I want to insert a loud scoff here – but honesty compels me to admit that we were pretty diligent about our studies – we were nerds: we wanted to learn, and we wanted to get good grades. Were we too busy broadening our horizons? There was some of that going on, too. Were we reluctant to embrace our previous geekiness? There was some of that, too. We never discussed it, but I think there was a tacit agreement that, as much as we’d loved role-playing geekoiserie in high school, maybe it was a childish thing that it was time to leave behind.

But at the same time, of course, we were reluctant to do that: reluctant both to deny something that had been a part of ourselves for so long, and reluctant to let go of the chance to recreate those good times. So when Neck announced at dinner one Thursday night in early December that he was a Dungeon Master looking to organize a campaign, and did we know anybody, we jumped. Sure, said we: us.

Well, said he: I knew that just by looking at you. But we need more. This adventure calls for at least seven companions.

None of us knew anybody else on campus who played. The Necromancer also pleaded innocent of that sort of social tie: he was, he revealed, a fifth-year senior whose entire marauding party had managed to graduate on time, leaving only him behind. Well, everybody but one. He did know one other guy who played: Cutty Sark…

That made four. Vito and Art lived out of state, so their friends back home were out of the question. It was up to me: I called around among my old high school friends and managed to find three who were up for the drive (in the green and black Pinto, natch) down from ESU to Li’l Ol’ State College.

So it was that at about ten o’clock on Friday night a fellowship of hardy adventurers gathered behind the Sign of the Dreamy Screamer to once again make the world safe for imagination.

By ten fifteen, it was clear that things were going to hell.

The party ended up consisting of eight. There were me, Vito, and Art; my buddies Ozzy, Tony, and Geezer from home; Cutty Sark; and the Necromancer’s Girlfriend.

Neck had decorated his end-of-the-hall room for the occasion: black scarves over the bedside lamps, skull-and-crossbones flag over the doorway, red silk over the overhead light, stubby candles on plastic skulls for ambience, supermarket incense sticks for more palpable ambience, a stack of Led Zeppelin tapes for the most palpable ambience. He had a carved wooden screen, about a foot and a half high, set up on the floor, behind which he’d set up his dice, his notes, his graph-paper maps, and everything else he needed to cast his spell.

The rest of us were scattered around the room, on the floor, on chairs, on beds, with our character sheets, our dice, and our cups. Yes, everybody brought something to snack on (there were Doritos, Twinkies, powdered doughnuts, pretzels, and beef jerky), and a plastic cup to drink out of; we’d pooled our cash and let Neck, who was over twenty-one, make a run to the liquor store where’d he’d procured two cases of Milwaukee’s Beast and three two-liters of Coke. Classic.

And Cutty Sark had brought a bottle of rum, just to screw with our heads.

And he shared it. With a smile on his face.

So why did things go to hell?

Not for the reasons I’d expected. I had, truth be told, been apprehensive about introducing Ozzy, Tony, and Geezer to Art and Vito; my old friends and my new, would they mix? Would I be crushed in some sort of temporal paradox, ripped apart by the torque of worlds colliding?

But they hit it off great. In fact, as the weekend progressed, they ended up spending as much time with each other as with me or anybody else, and ever after Vito and Art kept talking about inviting the Power Trio, as they called them, up for another weekend. It never happened, for various reasons, but it could easily have: that part of the dungeon-spelunking went fine.

They got along well, then, but it was immediately apparent that every single person there had a different philosophy of the game, as it were. It went down something a little bit like this:

Neck: So you’ve all arrived at the Sanctuary Bar in Venissimo –

Art: Is that like Venice?

Neck: It’s not Venice.

Tony: But you already said it has, like, canals and a doge and shit.

Neck: It’s not Venice.

Art: But come on, dude, Venissimo? Score, dude! [Exchanges high five with Tony.]

Neck: Your character stumbles over a barstool and loses three hit points.

Art: What the –

Ozzy: Come on, guys, let him talk. I want to find out what the quest is.

Neck: I never said it was a quest.

Ozzy: Whatever, man. So anyway, we’re in this bar in Not-Venice?

Vito [thoughtfully]: Why are we all there? What’s our background? What are we looking for?

Neck: You’ve all answered a classified ad calling for adventurers without scruples.

Neck’s Girl: My character has scruples. She’s lawful neutral.

Cutty: Scruples, Sandy? You?

NG: Shut up, perv. You don’t even know what scruples are.

Tony: A classified ad? Dude, there weren’t any newspapers in medieval Venice.

Neck: Your character drops his beer mug and it shatters and cuts his hand and he loses three hit points.

Art: Didn’t you hear him, dude? It’s Not-Venice. Hey, pass me another Beast.

Cutty: Come on, Sandy? Have you forgotten Ocean City last spring break?

NG: Shut up, I said. I’m warning you. I’m lawful, but I’m not good. I can kill you as long as I do it by the rules, you know. I can kill you five different ways before you even notice.

Me: What does the bar look like? I mean, paint us the word picture. I want to feel like I’m there, man.

Neck: The land the bar is on suddenly settles three feet into the sea, and you’re all so startled that you hit your heads and lose three hit points. Shut the fuck up or you’ll drown. I mean it.

This went on all weekend. We finally made it out of Not-Venice sometime around four-thirty in the morning, and while our characters were sailing across the Not-Mediterranean for Not-the-Nile-Delta, we all slept for a few hours, to pick it all up again over breakfast the next morning (mostly doughnuts and Dr. Pepper). Most of Saturday we were still on board ship, fighting krakens and cyclones and sirens and multidimensional portals leading to the Ninth Demon Realm of Karn Evil. A very fun place.

Neck had promised that the dungeon proper – the voyage was just a prologue – would involve a pyramid with genies and giant snakes and lots of undead. But we never got there. By the time things disintegrated late Saturday afternoon, we’d just made port and were trying to scrounge up some native guides to take us to the pyramid. It was clear this was going to be Neck’s favorite part – his eyes were glowing as he started introducing the various eccentric ‘n’ ornery non-player characters he was going to voice. That, Cutty moved, meant it was time for a break. We broke, and never managed to put it together again.

As I say, as soon as the arguing broke out I had the feeling it was all going to hell, there in the court of the crimson necromancer. Mind you, the arguing was not at all out of the ordinary for a D&D session. Bullshitting and calling bullshit was what occupied seventy-five percent of every game night, in my experience, so I wasn’t at all surprised when this ESU/LOSC AD&D summit started heading in that direction. If anything I was relieved to see that Neck was having the same problem I’d had as DM.

But here’s the thing: somehow, suddenly it all seemed to have gone south for me. I wasn’t enjoying the arguing as much as I’d used to. I wasn’t thriving on it. In fact, it was annoying me. I realized that what I wanted out of the game (an immersive experience in a romantic and maybe heroic fantasy world) wasn’t what everybody else wanted out of it. I didn’t know what they wanted out of it; different things for each, probably. Thrills? Puzzles? An excuse to party? Vicarious combat? A power trip? The joy of each other’s company?

I dunno.

So, when Cutty moved it was time for a break: He and Neck headed back to the liquor store in Cutty’s old Volvo. Vito, Ozzy, and Geezer, before I even realized it, had drifted into the dorm room next door where a couple of lacrosse players were watching a porno video. Art was asleep on the beanbag chair in the corner by a skull candle. Tony was listening to Houses Of The Holy and didn’t want to be bothered. And Sandy was nowhere to be seen; she must be with Cutty and Neck, although I hadn’t seen her leave with them.

I decided to go for a walk to sort out my head. LOSC is on the banks of a wide, lazy river, and that’s where I headed. It was a bright sunny day, warm for December, and it seemed like the place to be: alone by the deserted docks where all the locals parked their sailboats.

That’s where I found Sandy.

I’d never met her before this weekend, I should note. I knew the Necromancer had a girlfriend, because he made sure we knew, but she went to ESU, so none of us had met her; I’d assumed she was a myth, frankly, and so I’d been real surprised to see her in the flesh that Friday night. She was tall and intelligent-looking, but it didn’t hit you at first because she dressed like a burnout. Long unkempt blonde hair, worn-out Aerosmith t-shirt, faded blue jeans. Not quite the body to pull off the rocker-chick look, and her subdued manner showed she knew it. Didn’t care. Drank a little too much, at least it seemed to me, but what did I know? Two Beasts and I was flying.

She intimidated me, I’ll admit it. But she intrigued me, too. A girl into D&D?

So I asked her how she’d gotten into it.

“I do SCA. You know it?”

“Yeah. I’ve always been curious about it. It seems like the next logical step after D&D and RenFests.”

“Yeah, I’ve done the Renaissance Festival every year since I was eight. I’m a Medieval Studies major. Chaucer and all. I imagine you started with Tolkien, moved into D&D, and then discovered RenFests?”

“Pretty much. I went to my first one last year.”

“What did you think?”

“It was heaven.”

“Is that” – she gestured back toward the dorm – “heaven, too?”

“I don’t know about that,” I allowed. “I don’t know.” I changed the subject. “So you went the other direction – got into D&D through Creative Anachronism?”

“Sort of. I met Nick at SCA, and he’s into RPGs big time. That’s how I started. I’ve only played for about a year. That’s how long Nick and I’ve been going out.”

“I see. And before that was Cutty Sark?”

She shot me a warning look. I bowed under her gaze, slightly. After a moment, she decided it was safe to answer.

“I went to high school with Cutty; he’s a year ahead of me. We were together for four years, plus the first four years of college. Kept it up long distance, you know, with him here and me in Collegeville. I met Nick right after I broke up with Cutty.”

“I don’t know Cutty real well, but he doesn’t seem like your type. I don’t know whose type he seems like – I mean, I never would have pegged him for a gamer in the first place.”

“He just does it as an excuse to party. He only took it up this year, too. He’s a sixth-year senior, you know? All his other friends graduated, and Cutty took it up to have something to do with Nick, you know, while they’re drinking. I don’t think he cares about the game much one way or another; I mean, he was never interested in fantasy or the middle ages or anything like that when we were together. I know for a fact he’s never read Tolkien, much less Chaucer.”

“Is that why you broke up with him – Nick was more your type?”

“It wasn’t that simple, kid. Not that simple at all. And I’m not sure Nick’s my type, either. I may break up with him."

I didn’t know what to say to that. We stared in silence at the late-afternoon sun making diamonds on the ripples in the river.

“You know he’s the second Cutty Sark? Like, he didn’t paint that door. Nobody knows who did, but when Cutty first got here as a freshman, there was a guy living in that room named Brian something-or-other. Everyone called him Cutty Sark because he lived there, and because he lived up to it. Always had a bottle of something in his hand.”

“Sounds like Cutty.”

“It does, too, but Brian was worse. I mean, he was always drinking. He’d walk into a room and you could smell, not the alcohol on his breath, but the alcohol seeping from his pores. It’s a totally different smell, you know. Like pickles. But he was a fun guy – the life of the party, just like Cutty. That’s why Cutty looked up to him so much, as a freshman. Everybody liked to have Brian at their party, because Brian could outdrink everybody, and would do all kinds of crazy shit when he was drunk.

“I’ll tell you about one. This isn’t even one of the wild ones, just a minor incident. He was doing stuff like this all the time. So listen: security at your cafeteria’s pretty lax, right? People sneak stuff out of there all the time? Brian used to keep a salt and pepper shaker from the cafeteria in his dorm room, to use in mixing drinks or on popcorn or whatever. These were the sealed disposable plastic shakers, you know? Like when it’s empty they just throw it away and put out a new one? So one night at a party in Brian’s room somebody sees these shakers and they get them out and start playing with them. And somehow Brian gets the idea of testing how strong the plastic is. So he puts the tip of his index finger on the top of the salt shaker and presses. Well, it turns out it’s not so strong, or maybe he is, but the top breaks, and his finger goes right down through the top of the salt shaker into the salt. But the top doesn’t break off, it kind of shatters in the middle and the plastic shards bend down into the salt with his finger. And they trap his finger in there, like with their pressure. He tries to pull his finger out. The shards cut into his finger, like deep. So he’s sitting there with his finger immersed in salt, trapped in the salt shaker, and the plastic shards cutting into his finger. He’s bleeding all over the salt, and the salt is getting all into his cuts, and he can’t get his finger out. Can you imagine how much that must have hurt?”

“Holy shit,” I remarked, laughing.

“He didn’t feel a thing.”

I kept laughing, but she didn’t crack a smile. “How did he get it out?”

“I don’t know. That’s not part of the story.”

I thought about that for a while. “So what happened to Brian?”

“I don’t know. He didn’t graduate. Academic suspension a couple of years ago. Nobody’s heard from him since. His parents are rich, so no biggie.”

“So he passed the torch to Cutty? He’s Keeper of the Flame, and all that?”


“And that’s why you broke up with Cutty?”

She fixed me with a forbidding gaze. “Not exactly,” she said. And that was all she’d say.

We never went back to the Necromancer’s room that weekend. I took her to my room, and she…well, let’s say she taught me a little about Creative Anachronism. We’ll have to draw a discreet veil over the rest of the evening – this isn’t that kind of blog – but I’ll say that we didn’t get into the real Wife of Bath stuff. But I did learn the difference between Venice and Not-Venice that night. And wherever Sandy is, I wish her well: I never heard from her after that weekend.

The whole time, in the back of my mind, I was feeling a little guilty over abandoning my friends, but when we all straggled into the cafeteria for breakfast (me and Sandy separately, so as not to give it away), it turned out that nobody else had gone back to Neck’s room either. First of all, Neck and Cutty had never returned from their beer run – nobody saw them until Sunday evening, after my homesubdivisionies had left. They’d stopped off at an off-campus house party, where they both got laid, which was, there and then, It as far as Nick and Sandy were concerned: she dumped him on the spot. Vito, Ozzy, and Geezer, meanwhile, crawled between different dorm-room parties all night. Tony listened to Led Zeppelin until he fell asleep, and Art woke up at about three in the morning to find the place all but deserted. Puzzled, he went back to his room.

Next time I saw the Necromancer, this is what he said: “Awesome way to start the Quest for the Mummy’s Jewels. Can’t wait until the next session.” But there never was another session. In fact, I never played D&D again.