Sunday, October 26, 2014

Halloween Wins!

How the most rag-tag of holidays became the most important of them all.

By Lars Trodson

As Orson Welles so famously said, “That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian, it's Halloween!

By which Orson and I mean to say that it is now Halloween all year long. As children, we were admonished to keep the spirit of Christmas in our hearts everyday of the year. But no one is that cheerful. We barely celebrate the spirit of Christmas for an entire day anymore.

As it turns out, it’s much easier, perhaps because it more closely matches the dark heart of the world, to celebrate the dead and the undead. You would not be paranoid to believe that there is death all around us. The name is also great. Look at it. Look at the letters strung together. Halloween. We say it and see it so often that we forget what the word actually looks like. But if you take a second to actually read it, it seems even stranger still.


No holiday has so thoroughly taken over our sensibilities. We have zombies and vampires walking all around us and, finally, murderous clowns taking center stage. Everything has gotten dark. The bizarro world that Tim Burton created for Batman 25 years ago was not dark enough — he had to become even darker. The bad heroes win over our sensibilities — think Tony Stark — while those superheroes that are too lily-white — think Captain America, think Superman — struggle to gain our attention in the 21st century. They're boring. Superman stands for "truth, justice and the American way." I defy anyone to tell me what each of those three sentiments means today.

We can't. And because they are not definable, because we've been let down for generations by those who have promised us a better life, we've finally said "Fuck it. The world is dark. I'll embrace it."

We’re overwhelmed with TV shows that celebrate the grue and the gruesome: “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story” and countless others. "American Horror Story" is masterful at depicting the fractured take we have on our own reality, with the real and the unreal, the dreamt, the surreal, and the madness that we all sometimes feel cascading all around us. Today's audience is the result of two generations of self-help and clinical analysis that has told us to face our fears. And so we are.

Welcome, Twisty the Clown! The clown business is deader than Jacob Marley, as it should be. Anyone with a half a brain new that clowns were never funny. They were always, always creepy.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Sphinx Unearthed!

By Lars Trodson

It's true.

A team of esteemed archeaologists have spent years unearthing one of man's greatest and most mysterious treasures, the ancient Sphinx. The find has been soberly reported in major newspapers and and science journals this past week.

Only this Sphinx is the one that was built for Cecil B. DeMille's first version of "The Ten Commandments," which was made some 90 years ago in the ancient, mysterious town of Los Angeles. It's made of plaster and is in rough shape, being buried in sand and all (see: Original Sphinx.) But these scientists have brought it above ground, and the old artifact can now be seen by grateful future generations. It was, just as an aside, one of 23 Sphinxes built for the movie.

This is like the ne plus ultra of meta stories, if that is even possible. The fake world is now referencing the real world, which is referencing the fake world, or...

This much-newer Sphinx is also yielding treasures from its insides, just like the ancient pyramids. The archaeologists have found old tobacco tins and cough syrup bottles, which probably held something a little livelier in those dark days of Prohibition.

The whole episode is perfect fodder for an epic Hollywood satire. Can you imagine the egomaniacal lead archaeologist (I'm not saying there is one in real life) acting as though he had found something just as important as the real Sphinx? And can you imagine him clashing with the egomaniacal documentary film-maker recording the historic event?

An epic clash of egos over a plaster cat with a pharoah's face! It's great!

Read the story of the unearthing of the treasure here:

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Running the Empire

By Lars Trodson

I spent this past season as the manager of The Empire Theater, on Block Island, Rhode Island. The theater has a beautiful dark wood interior. There are two huge posters, one on each side of the screen, advertising live theatrical productions that were performed at the theater in the early 1900s, before the place started to show movies. There is a ticket booth that will conjure images of Fortune Tellers on Coney Island, and a concession stand that consists of one popcorn machine, a soda dispenser with no ice, and a glass candy display case that was built in Philadelphia in 1882 — the year the theater was first built as a roller skating rink. If you want espresso, green tea, or cheese nachos with your movie, then you’ll have to head to the mainland. 

The Empire only shows one film at a time, something that’s always clearly stated on the big marquee outside the theater, but no one reads any more. People ask if they should go left or right to see the movie they just paid for (there are two entrances to the one screen). And, yes, you have to pay in cash. More than one customer has left a down payment (completely unnecessary) as they run off to the nearest ATM machine in order to get enough cash to pay for their bloc of tickets.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Richard Schickel's "The Stars"

By Lars Trodson

Writer's note: I didn't notice this at the time of publication of this article, but the late Lauren Bacall was not included in the list of stars that Schickel wrote about in the book review that follows. It does not seem to me that this is an egregious omission, because her fame, as considerable as it may be, is based primarily on her associations rather than her accomplishments (at least in film). She first appeared in the glorious Hollywood of the 1940s, and she was married to a man, Humphrey Bogart, some consider the greatest of all movie stars. But when "The Stars" was published in 1962, Bacall had already receded from the limelight. She was, even in her heyday, very rarely the focus of the films she appeared in. She was third-billed in 1953's "How To Marry A Millionaire," and by the time she was 50 she was appearing in matronly roles (the widow in John Wayne's final film "The Shootist.") 

The fact is she could pack a wallop when she needed to. She was beautiful, sexy, smart, and she certainly made the 1940s glitter. We're so bereft of women that hold more than one of those qualities in films today that, even though she made her first cultural impact 70 years ago, her legacy is a hard one to meet. Who today could hold her own with someone like Bogart?  — Lars Trodson

The curious thing about Richard Schickel’s coffeetable book, “The Stars,” is how rueful its tone is; the prose is thick with a kind of melancholy nostalgia for a glittering past that was, at the time the book was published in 1962, not quite yet past at all.

"In a sense, Elizabeth Taylor is a reversion to the super-romantic stars of the silent screen, deliberately out of touch with common mortality," Schickel writes in his portrait of Taylor (who was, incredibly, just 30 years old when the book came out). "If that is true, then there will never be another movie star like her, for the system that produced them and, in its dying hours, produced Elizabeth Taylor, is now gone forever."

I'm not sure this is completely true: We have had a continuing if steadily diminishing stream of movie stars from subsequent generations: Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence and, if they get the scripts, Shailene Woodley and Lupita Nyong'o.

By using the word "system," Schickel was specifically referencing the studio system, but what we can see more clearly today is that it isn't only the system that vanished, but rather the America that either produced ( and welcomed) these extraordinary individuals.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Hitchcock’s 'Notorious:' This Is No American Love Story

By Lars Trodson

Two details tell you that this is going to be a most dangerous game: She’s wearing zebra stripes — a jungle animal, not to be tamed, a bundle of native intelligence and cunning. She’s both sexual predator and prey. Carnal and without a moral or political compass.

As for him, he has no face when he’s introduced. A beauracrat. He also doesn’t have a first name — why would he need one? He’s a blunt-edged tool. His last name, though, is very close, too close, to something that sounds like the devil. He’s Devlin. Or Dev. And he represents the United States. They both represent the United States.

What, exactly, is going on with Hitchcock’s “Notorious?”

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Richard Griffin And The Art Of Staying True To Yourself

Actors Michael Reed, left, and Elyssa Baldassarri with Richard Griffin on the set of "Normal."

By Lars Trodson

Back in 2005, Quentin Tarantino decided he'd make a B-movie with a big budget. He called it "Grindhouse," and it was supposedly an homage to all those drive-in flicks of the 60s and 70s that were made by slightly unhinged characters who had a camera, a little cash and a lot of chutzpah. "Grindhouse" didn't do so well, in part, I suspect, because it didn't feel authentic. It had movie stars (Bruce Willis and Kurt Russell, among others) and, despite the fact that there was considerable effort to make the celluloid look distressed, it never even remotely felt as though the film had been made by outsiders. It was Hollywood all the way.

Even the films that seemingly fit the bill of an old grindhouse picture — such as the first "Hostel" movie by Eli Roth, or some of the other torture porn pictures — all had the patina of having been made by college- or film-school educated pranksters who were looking to get their break into the big show. This was a departure from real grindhouse roots. The old school pioneers of the grindhouse — whether it was Russ Meyer or Herschel Gordon Lewis — never had any real desire to move into the mainstream. They wanted to make movies their own way, which, in the end, is the purest form of integrity there is.

Welcome, then, to the world of Richard Griffin, co-founder of Scorpio Films Releasing, and a man who is proudly on the outside, doing it his way, and with no real desire to get asked to the Hollywood dance.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Where Does It Hurt?

How "Mad Men" avoids the dark side

By Lars Trodson

As I finished watching the most recent full season of Mad Men, something was nagging at me (outside the feeling of déjà vu I was beginning to have about some of the plotlines).

I was beginning to realize just how little most of the wreckage caused by the characters’ deliberate actions actually seems to hurt. I remembered, late in the fifth season, Don goes to a seedy bar and has a brief conversation with a burnt-out preacher who reminds him of his own terrible past. The next thing we know, Don is in jail, and then right after that we see him pouring his booze out in the kitchen sink.