Tuesday, March 31, 2020

My Jandek Plague Journal: 3/24/20 "No Mind Was a Good Mind"

Part One: "I made a mistake/and came here today." "But I'm here anyway/pounding at your door/half-dead and forsaken/I did it to myself/I made a mistake/It's my problem now/I'll live through this/dragging my body along." Part Two: "I guess I'll go and hide inside/I don't know why I ever came out." Because it's Tuesday, I choose a Tuesday album and keep getting lyrics about shame resulting from a refusal to stay away. I'm thinking about my own self-isolation practice, how it's my daily routine anyway, but that I was still glib about it. I was going to go to the movies tonight, but received a text this morning encouraging citizens to power through these next two weeks; we've almost got it beat. Meanwhile, the US administration is considering calling off all the social distancing because it's hurting the economy. Apparatchiks are already doing the media rounds saying some deaths are acceptable.

-3/24/20. "No Mind Was a Good Mind" from London Tuesday (lyrics)
(one week later)

Monday, March 30, 2020

My Jandek Plague Journal: 3/23/20 Where Do You Go From Here

Largely instrumental, lyrics all repetitions of/variations on "Make up your mind/Decide." People on Twitter joke about the virus giving the US the choice between socialism and barbarism while the Republican congress tries to thread the needle of propping up the economy while not funding the de facto general strike that's not going on. The US is where it is now because it renewed its commitment to white supremacy 4 years ago. Preparations should have begun when the outbreak emerged in China, but it was just those yellow bastards being backwards, that can't happen to the likes of us. Same again with Korea who demonstrated how to address and conquer this. Even Italy who are white, but not quite, could prompt action. Now the US looks to be the least capable of responding, requiring international aid to survive as the administration focuses its efforts on blaming the barbarians. Meanwhile, the citizens are deciding upon mutual support and the shape of the world to come.

-3/23/20. Where Do You Go From Here
(one week later)

Sunday, March 29, 2020

My Jandek Plague Journal: 3/22/20 "This is a Death Dream"

Listened while waiting in Nampo for a friend who's leaving the country. They have no fear about being admitted to the US, but the flights out of Korea and Japan keep getting canceled. "This is a death dream in the daytime" indeed. Noon on a Sunday, the fashion street is largely unpopulated, depopulated even. Jandek's atonal chord progression sounds like music done wrong, filtered through some veil of the uncanny, and it's a fitting soundtrack for this space. As foreigners, as expats, we're already in a liminal space: here but not of this place, possessing claims to homelands we've disavowed. We're ghosts haunting this landscape, my friends trying to find the light as they move from this world to the next. We haunt not just the land here, but the imagination as well, visible representations of a foreign infection, the transformative germ. When we're in the classroom, is this exposure or inoculation? "I go to the cemetery buildings in search of books and never do I find the right one." Ghosts that we are, we have no way to record our tales.

-March 22, 2020. "This is a Death Dream" from Nine-Thirty (lyrics)
(one week later)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Review: The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot

After seeing The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot (trailer), I said to one of my fellow film-goers that, “I’m going to have to think about this movie a bit, which is not something I expected to say when going to see The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot.”

The synopsis of the movie is the title itself: Sam Elliott is the titular man who killed Hitler and, many years later, is tasked with killing Bigfoot. The movie explains/handwaves the story of Hitler committing suicide in his bunker and offers a feeble but serviceable explanation as to why Elliott has to be the one to hunt the Bigfoot, but those don’t really matter. The movie’s focus isn’t on, well, anything past the first two words of the title. Rather than be a historical fantasy/fantasy adventure hybrid, the movie’s a meditation upon aging, loss, and guilt. Instead of trying to invent a mythic figure, it looks at the weight and despair that comes from being that mythic figure.

In other words, the movie’s not in any way campy, which was a real surprise.

I went into the movie based on the title and that it starred Sam Elliott. I had the expectation that this would be a ridiculous, over-the-top, wild ride. Within the first minute it was clear that the movie would not be as silly as I expected. I still thought there would be grindhouse/exploitation nods, but I went from thinking I was going to see Hobo With a Shotgun to thinking I was going to see something between Black Dynamite and Bubba Ho-Tep.

Bubba Ho-Tep, for those unfamiliar, is a 2002 film where Elvis (who didn't die but instead had traded places with an impersonator years before) and JFK (whose brain had been transferred into the body of a black man) are living in a nursing home that’s being haunted by a redneck mummy (the titular Bubba Ho-Tep). The two have to team up and save their fellow residents from the monster. A ridiculous concept, campy from the start, and Bruce Campbell is playing Elvis which guarantees some Stooges-level slapstick. What makes the movie stand out is that on top of its absurd concept pushed to its limit is that it’s also a meditation on aging, legacies, and both what is owed to and owed by us at the end of our lives. What should just be a disposable monster movie ends up being a piece with a lot of depth.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot goes a step further by eschewing all the gags and silliness you’d expect from a film like this. Not only is everything played straight, it’s done with a calm, deliberate tone. Mandy, at least its first act, may be another comparison in terms of tone vs. expectation, but that movie does become the off-the-rails acid-drenched revenge epic promised in the trailers (and is, by the way, excellent. Easily one of the best films of last year). The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot, even though the events of the movie are literally what’s in the title, doesn’t ever become the movie suggested by the title.

I really liked it and would recommend it as long as you know you’re not in for a popcorn-fueled adventure. The movie does have its flaws. When the movie leans a bit too close to the genre film it could be, you get that fine whiff of cheese, and there’s a good portion that’s done in flashback. Fortunately they don’t try to digitally de-age Sam Elliott, but you’re faced with the difficulty of having someone play a young Sam Elliott. Those are big shoes to fill and the actor, Aidan Turner, while not bad, doesn’t quite clear the bar. Likewise, his love interest, Caitlin FitzGerald, feels a bit flat, the relationship stuff a little stagy. This suggests the problem lies with the writer/director and not the actors, though. On the other hand, you can tell Elliott is giving more than he’s being asked and he nudges the quality of the film up just that much more.

But again, it’s a good movie and I recommend seeing it if you get the chance. It’s already available for rental on various streaming platforms, but I’m someone who’d always recommend seeing a movie in a theater. This one has nice cinematography and set design that benefits from being on the big screen.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The End of the Misery Mill

The first Misery Mill review went up October 9, 2015: Carnival of Crime and Absolution, two movies of no particular note. The purpose of the project was to systematically go through 5 Mill Creek Entertainment box sets to find public domain movies and upload them to the Internet Archive as I’d already done with the Horror and Sci-Fi box sets in the PD Project.

The impetus for that project, and its continuation in the Misery Mill, was the hope, still unrealized, of making a movie riffing show in the tradition of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (which had not yet announced its return). I didn’t want to copy MST3k, but my contention is that post-MST3k horror host shows have to intervene in the text in some way. Just presenting the movie is not enough. Plus, at the time, no one was doing riffing on TV and I felt like it was something worth doing. For many reasons comfortably summed up as “life,” the show never happened. Instead, I wrote up summaries and reviews of 344 movies. So, was it worth it and did it work?

To answer the second question first, at the most basic level the project was a success. I had been wanting to watch all these movies since I made the first PD Project post in February 2008. These DVDs were sitting on my shelf and in the my mind for nearly 11 years and I’ve finally watched them all. I’m proud of that. I set myself a big goal and achieved it.

As to if it was worth it, not all the movies I watched were bad. I’ve liked movies that I never would have thought to look for, specifically the old black and white quickies that felt like adaptations of radio or stage plays. Likewise, among the bad movies were some that were “good-bad” as the Flop House would say. Some of these, like Top Cop and Day of the Panther, I hope to share with future groups of friends on bad movie nights. I also encountered my own personal bugbear, Marimark Productions. Having a hate-on for these pictures was a lot of fun—more fun than watching most of them. Marimark, though, gave me the opportunity to get performatively angry which most of the movies didn’t.

On a basic level, I mostly enjoyed myself and I finished the project so it was both worth it and a success. Also, all those public domain movies are on the Internet Archive. Even though I didn’t make the show I was initially thinking about, those resources are still there if and when I decide to come back to them. I haven’t given up on that completely.

However, speaking of the performative anger highlights how the project failed. I don’t think I ever developed a voice or style writing what I hesitate to call reviews. Dan Olson, I think, offered the criticism of a lot of YouTube reviews like RedLetterMedia and Nostalgia Critic that they don’t actually review the movies. Instead, they give a long-form summary of the movie. The same criticism applies to the vast majority of my posts. One reason is that I was modeling myself after RedLetterMedia and Nostalgia Critic (the former of which I still watch, although with more skepticism. The latter I’ve dropped). Since I thought of them as being “how you talk about bad movies online,” well, that’s how I talked about bad movies online.

Another reason I think the project failed is that I was going through two movies a week. Part of my ambition was to write longer essays about what the movies suggested about the culture, what they were doing that was interesting, and what about them opened up larger discussions. Work like that takes both time and context, though. I didn’t have the context of 500 movies that I have now to make those larger claims and cranking out two of these a week while also trying to keep up with the rest of my life prevented me not only from writing those longer pieces but even conceiving of them.

Even now it’s difficult to say anything definitive about all the movies I’ve watched because they were all so different—different genres, different periods, different styles. One thing I can talk about that came up in a lot of the movies is rape culture. Jesus, we wonder why people of a certain age were jumping to defend Brett Kavanaugh—they themselves saying that even if he did it (he did it), it’s not that bad and what do we expect from teenagers?—and then I see movies where women are dragged literally screaming off the street to be driven into a field and fondled. And those were the comedies! Golly, I wonder why people who grew up with that would consider literal rape not that big a deal?

I ranted constantly about Cavegirl in these posts and while it’s not as bad as many of the films I watched, it does highlight an element that popped up far too often: female consent is a problem. If she’s interested or willing to have sex, that’s the least sexy thing there could be. You have to find the girl who doesn’t want to have sex and then keep needling her, coerce her, trick her into giving it up.

The reason I’ve hammered on these ideas when they came up in the movies and once again here is because these movies weren’t made with those (or any!) messages in mind. The rapey elements aren’t there because the producers wanted to say something about sexual assault, they are there because the producers thought the audience would be okay with it. Even phrasing it that way gives the producers too much agency. That’s how they viewed sex. If there was going to be sex in their movie (and there was going to be sex in their movie) that was how sex would be portrayed because that was what sex was to them. If this is how your culture imagines sex and relationships, how can you imagine anything else? What other examples or sources of information do you have? If this is how you always see these situations portrayed in stories, how do you write a story that’s different? Why would you think you should?

You recognize a culture by the stories it tells itself: How does it portray authority? How does it portray love? Who are the heroes and who are the villains? Who suffers and who succeeds? Thinking about questions like these in response to Z-grade films seem counter-intuitive, but these are the movies that answer those questions most effectively. Oscar-bait flicks like Crash or Green Book tell us stories of how we want to imagine our culture: racism is an individual/regional/settled issue and we all agree it’s bad. Just don’t look too closely at the racist jokes in all the other movies that came out that year if the movies aren’t, in fact, all white in front of and behind the camera.

The movies I watched in these sets generally didn’t set out with a message, they just wanted to turn a quick buck. Because of that, they’re both cultural ink blot tests and Freudian slips: they’re not thinking about what they’re saying so they’re saying what they really think. How much have we moved past these ideas? How much are we able to imagine new stories and new ways of relating to each other? These movies were the background noise of a culture, so what kind of movies are the people of that culture creating today?

I don’t have answers to those questions. If I did, I’d be writing academic essays about these flicks citing all sorts of other material—another goal I had for this project that I didn’t achieve! And that seems like a fitting end to a reflection on the Misery Mill. When I started this project October 9, 2015, I basically said, “Oh God, what have I done?” 3+ years later I can say, “a little, but not as much as I’d hoped.” I think that’s the only honest response to any reflection, that and the hope that the next project, my own or someone else's, manages to do a little more.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

344. The Guy With the Secret Kung Fu

344. The Guy With the Secret Kung Fu aka Cai yang nu bang zhu (1980)
Director: Chi Lo
Writer: Ji-Shang Lu
From: Cult Cinema (the final film!)
Watch: archive.org

Two fighters take on the vicious Dragon Gang, but find they may be in over their heads as they face off against a sorcerer, a demon, and official betrayal.

Ladies, blokes, and non-binary folks, this is the final movie in the Misery Mill! And we’re ending on a public domain flick that I’ve added to the Internet Archive for others to download and reuse in their own way. It’s what I always wanted: to not be watching these movies anymore.

Terrible foley work, bad wigs, and a soundtrack alternately cribbed from other PD works or composed exclusively on a Casio keyboard—and not a good one. Dubbing is awful even down to dubbed laughing that’s exactly like a parody of a kung fu movie. So you don’t even need a summary: it’s an obvious recommend!

I mean, not quite. This is one of those flicks that I could go into minute detail about because there’s a lot of stuff that happens, but little of it makes sense. Instead, I’ll offer a quick gloss:

Two of the leading members of the revolution are caught by the corrupt ruling party, but released to take out the Dragon Gang. Various action set pieces occur—they infiltrate the gang by pretending to be the female leader’s betrothed, get a special powder to defeat the half-vampire/half-human demon the gang has summoned, and, of course, battle courtyards filled with armed guards—until we get to the final battles. Turns out the corrupt official who released them to fight the Dragon Gang is actually the Dragon Gang’s leader (and is curiously comfortable with so many of his underlings being killed. Bad manager or best manager?). The woman who’d been running the gang in his absence gets defeated by one of the guys and then the pair team up to defeat the big boss, ultimately by knocking him into a coffin and hurling it across the field of battle. THE END

Yeah, the movie gets pretty silly. I mean, a recurring character is the coffin-maker who thanks the pair for drumming up business by killing so many members of the gang. You also have a sorcerer, an imprisoned butcher who’s too fat to escape, and many moments of slapstick. This isn’t, by any means, a good movie. However, it feels like a perfect example of a bad kung fu movie. The character’s movements have sound effects. The fight scenes descend into cacophonies of canned grunts. The sorcerer’s laugh is literally someone reading “ha ha ha ha ha” regardless of what his laughing lines up with.

The movie isn’t good, but it’s great for those looking for something that’s enjoyably bad. This piece is absurd and seems designed for riffing. I’d suggest getting snacks and friends and settling in with this one. As I said above, it’s in the public domain and I’d added my copy to archive.org here. This feels like a fitting piece with which to end the Misery Mill.

Now that I’m done with the Misery Mill, I’m going to move on to watching what I want at the pace that I want and writing or not writing about them as I choose. What would that even be like? Do people even do that? Inconceivable.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

343. Yellow Hair and the Fortress of Gold

343. Yellow Hair and the Fortress of Gold aka Yellow Hair and the Pecos Kid (1984)
Director: Matt Climber
Writers: John Kershaw and Matt Climber from a story by Matt Climber
From: Cult Cinema (only 1 remains!)

A Western adventure of of Yellow Hair and the Pecos Kids searching for fabled gold mine of a lost tribe.

From the writer/director of Hundra and Single Room Furnished, I initially thought this would be a sequel to Hundra. The title, as a reviewer on IMDB notes, suggests a sword-and-sorcery story and the glace I had at the capsule description made me think it was following up that movie. Instead this is trying to style itself as an homage/pastiche of the old western serials. That seems like an odd choice for a film in 1984, but remember that Star Wars had mad all kinds of money by revamping the Flash Gordon serials as full features and Indiana Jones, based on post-WWII adventure serials, was about to come out with its second feature. Mining the nostalgia for serials looked like a money-making prospect. What the producers failed to recognize was those movies featured, in some combination, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fischer, Steven Spielberg, John Williams, and amazing special effects.

This movie does not, although the action set pieces do feature some nice stunt work. Too bad they weren’t filmed with any panache. Also too bad that the hero (who shouldn’t be the hero) is dressed to look like Han Solo minus the vest.

We see you movie. We know what you’re trying to do. It’s not working.

Since this movie is trying to ape Star Wars’ serial affectation, it has to invoke the same genre. Star Wars uses the crawl. This has the silhouettes and sounds of a rowdy crowd of kids in a movie theater sitting down to watch the Yellow Hair and the Pecos Kid serial. The main characters are introduced on-screen as we hear the crowd reacting (including uproarious laughter at one of the villains being coded as gay). After watching the movie, this opening added nothing. We don’t have any additional necessary context especially since the character notes in the opening are all personality traits. We can tell what the characters are like by the actors’ performances. Telling us someone’s “charming” doesn’t tell us they’re charming. Seeing them be charming does.

Anyway, I’m descending into a rant which would be at once easy in response to many aspects of this movie as well as unwarranted—the movie isn’t substantial enough to maintain a good rage. In other words, there’s plenty to get mad at, but what’s the point?

We open with some bandits trying to find the lost tribe. The tribe instead finds them, injures the bandit leader, and captures everyone else (doing real injury to horses in the process. Not stunts, actual horses actually getting hurt. Fuck you movie). Two of the men are tortured in pretty grisly ways and then have their heads dipped in molten gold while still alive.

The bandit leader returns to the Mexican base where the evil gay Colonel is holding the Pecos Kid, our hero (cause he’s the white guy). The three of them were in cahoots to steal all the gold, but had locked the Kid up in an act of betrayal.

Back at the Apache camp, Yellow Hair is talking to her mother. Yellow is so named because she’s blonde, born as a result of a white man raping her mother. Or so her mother told her. Later we learn that Yellow is actually the lost princess of the lost tribe, product of the union between the tribe’s princess and a Texan, kidnapped by her Apache mother. I don’t know how the rape figures into it—if it’s just part of her cover story or something that also happened. The movie invoking it and shrugging it off is kind of gross.

Yellow’s mother reveals that the Kid, who she also raised as a son, is in jail. She asks Yellow to save him and Yellow agrees when her mother realizes the Kid stole a deer horn with a map to the tribe and a gold nugget that she needs to pass into the other world upon her death.

To be clear, our hero stole not only a relic from an old woman who raised him as her own but also a religious item that she needs for her funeral ceremony. What a dick.

Yellow saves him while the bandit leader sneaks into the Apache camp and kills Yellow’s mother. The Kid gave the gold to a prostitute at some saloon so the pair head there to retrieve it. Stuff that’s supposed to be exciting but instead is aggravating goes down and Yellow learns that she’s actually the lost tribe’s lost princess and the pair set out to find them. Eventually Yellow gets captured, the Kid finds his way into the temple, and Yellow tells him she’s going to marry the leader. The Kid can take his gold and leave. He does, but then Yellow learns that she’s going to be sacrificed. Just before her heart is cut out, the Kid returns, shoots the gun out of the leader’s hand, and the underground temple starts to cave in.

By the way, all those action set pieces that got kind of aggravating were aggravating because of the Kid. He’s useless and Yellow is a badass. Constantly. So of course the end of the movie has to correct for that by having him save her because she wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise. She’s completely incapable of saving herself up to and including sitting up and getting off the altar before a rock falls and crushes it. This is an example of ideology. There’s nothing wrong with her getting into a situation she didn’t anticipate and him coming to save her. Earlier there’s a sequence where she falls off a stage coach and is balancing herself between some of the horses. The Kid helps her up (and then falls into the same space himself). That’s not ideology, that’s an action scene. Where ideology comes in is that final sequence where she can’t do anything herself. Cause she’s not the hero cause she’s not the guy. Her being threatened by the tribe and him coming back to initiate the escape scene is fine. Again, that’s just an action scene. That she can’t even sit up and then be a party in her own escape is where the ideology becomes plain: women need men to save them.

Remember when I said it’d be easy to rant? I’m leaving out the killing of snakes on screen and the problematic elements of the Western in general. If I were inclined to write a longer piece about this movie, which I’m not, I’d be focusing on how it’s sort of critical of colonialism, but paints white people—the colonizers—as the victims of colonialism, but not in a Kipling-esque White Man’s Burden way. The movie’s a mish-mash of odd concepts that they didn’t intend to have there. You can read this flick as being a series of Freudian slips.

But, yeah, they get away, get cornered by the Colonel and the bandit leader (who’s constantly getting injured and persisting in increased states of disrepair. It’s something that’s obviously supposed to be a joke but never comes off as a joke, which is strange in and of itself. It’s never an issue of the joke failing, it just never seems like it’s supposed to be a joke even though it’s obviously a joke a la the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). The movie ends on a serial-style cliffhanger showing scenes from the next episode and asking variations of “Will our heroes…?” THE END

Obviously this was not the worst movie I’ve seen. It moved along well enough and the action sequences, as I said, had some good stunt work. The movie just missed the mark in so many ways and in such strange ways. Like the running gag of the bandit leader never being played as a gag. I spent a lot of the movie watching with a tilted head and raised eyebrow—I was just confused.

This wasn’t helped by the Kid who’s supposed to be a roguish poker-playing, gun-slinging, swindler. I have no beef with that kind of character; I like a lovable rogue. However he’s responsible for the plot’s inciting incident: robbing his surrogate mother of part of her funeral rite for the sake of a deal that leads to her murder. And he’s never called out for this. Yellow never jumps down his throat to tell him he stole mom’s crucifix and got her killed! Characters can make morally reprehensible choices and even be heroes after making those choices, but they gotta show remorse and work to make things right. He’s never even told he’s a piece of shit—and then he rides his horse through her funeral!

I’m not recommending this movie because it’s just not that special, but I also need to emphasize that it’s not worth seeing even for shock value. Despite what I’ve written here and how I am gobsmacked by a lot of what I’m thinking about, the movie is not full of WTF moments. This isn’t a case of seeing-is-believing, it’s a competently-made Crown production designed to run as a B-feature in drive-ins and cheap theaters. It’s nothing special. Upon reflection, there’s plenty of “wait, what?” going on, but that doesn’t make for a fun viewing experience, just fun ranting with friends after you’ve finished watching. Don’t take the time, though. See something good instead.