In the absence of light, the forest grew.
Trees that had taken root and risen over a hundred years now towered above the earth, gnarled limbs coiling out from within one another to scuttle the errant light that tried to pass beyond their reach. Men had often sought passage through the dense hollow, couched in the belief that some measure of civilization must stand boundary around such unrelenting darkness, but the woods offered no hint of what nameless mysteries lie in wait. Nearby farmers spoke of spirits so horrific that even the most debased mind would struggle to conjure their distorted features, and warned that no one dare violate the trees themselves, even when wood was scarce, for fear of having one’s cabin consumed with flame.
It was the eve of Oíche Shamhna, on a night when the elements roiled with such ferocity that the world itself seemed to tremble, that a young man and woman appeared on a path cut through the forest long ago by the overburdened horses of migrant farmers. The man and woman had been moving through the southern end of the woods, struggling to find shelter before the clouds broke and the wind swept them up in a cold, unceasing torrent of water and earth. A sudden clap of thunder sent the woman, her mud-soaked gown covering a belly swollen with child, down to her knees. The sky opened up and the rain began to fall as the man hastened to ease her to the ground. Desperate for what strength he could summon, the man crouched over and attempted to bring the woman to her feet, but his legs finally gave out from beneath him, and the pair collapsed in unison. A bolt of lightning split the night sky, illuminating the forest floor. The man sat up, straining to see through the rain as a dark shape materialized from within the verdant blackness. The sound of water pelting the ground bled into the rumble of hoofs approaching as the man scrambled to move the woman off the path. Within seconds, a carriage was upon them, skidding to a halt as the man fell back into a thicket of leaves and branches. The driver of the carriage, an formidably built older man bound up in a bear skin coat, climbed down from the buckboard. He knelt down, turning the woman over and wiping the mud away from her face. Her eyes opened suddenly, flooding with terror before drawing shut again. The driver hesitated a moment before lifting her off the ground and up onto the carriage. He pulled a makeshift covering out of a bag fastened to the side of the wagon and wrapped her in it. Once she was secure, he hoisted the younger man up onto the buckboard and assumed a seat next to him. With a whip of the horses, the carriage thundered back out into the darkness, absorbed into the shadows of the forest.
The first surge of rain spread quickly across the countryside, the kind of deluge that drenched even a sheep to its skin. Arthur Grimbridge had just finished securing the cattle in his family’s barn when the sound of a dog barking in the distance brought him to a halt. At first, he thought it must be the Bracketts’ dog Jack jumping at shadows the way it often did in a storm. The howling seemed too aggressive and troubled, though, at a higher pitch than normal. A moment later, the sound of another dog sounded, a little closer than the first. Finally, a third dog roared, this time just beyond the Grimbridge property. Ben shuddered as the rain intensified. A violent gust of wind burrowed into him like an invisible hand, scooping him up and sending him toward the small two story farmhouse on the other side of the barn. As he crossed the yard, he heard the hasty rumble of horses bearing down, growing louder with each step. He closed in on the front porch, turning suddenly to see his father’s carriage slide into a turn and come to an abrupt halt directly in front of the house. It had barely stopped before the driver, his father Jim, and a younger man with hollow, exhausted eyes were out and on their feet, lifting a pregnant young woman off the back of the carriage.
They had scarcely gotten her through the front door when Jim’s wife Annie came bounding down the stairs at the sound of the commotion. The men brought the young woman to a bed in one of the rooms off the kitchen, easing her onto the sheets. Annie set about tending to her, and Jim pulled a nearby window open for air. The young man kneeled at the side of the bed, his hands caressing the woman’s face in hopes of calming her. She stirred at his touch, moaning incoherently as Annie cooled her forehead with a cloth. Suddenly, her body spasmed, contorting wildly as if woken from an awful nightmare. Jim jumped forward to restrain her, but she slipped past his hands, writhing severely. He finally locked onto her arms, subduing them even as she still tore at the air in front of her. Then, almost as quickly as she had seized, she began to deflate, the look in her eyes dulling as she expelled whatever terror had wracked her frail body. The young man drew close as she settled back into the bed. She exhaled, opening her eyes and looking directly into his. Her lips parted slowly and she whispered, almost imperceptibly,
“They will come for the children soon.”
With that, her eyes dimmed, and she drew her final breath. The young man slumped in silence, his head sinking into his chest. After a moment, he looked back up at Jim and Annie, his eyes welling up with tears. Annie knelt down and pulled him towards her in consolation as Jim pulled a sheet over the woman’s face. They shared a look, Jim nodding in silent agreement as he pulled his coat back on and headed out to the front door. The sound of it closing behind him was met with the faint crackle of the wood shifting in the fireplace as Annie left the young man alone with the young woman’s body.
Once a pair of men had taken the young woman’s body for interment, Jim returned from outside, the wind swirled into the room off his back, making the fire dance around on the hearth. He walked over to a desk and pulled a pistol from his belt strap, placing it in a drawer. As he pushed the drawer closed, he looked over to the fireplace, where the young man was seated watching him. He got a sudden chill, hastily moving to the kitchen, where Annie was cleaning by the dim, flickering light of an oil lamp.
“Everything okay?,” he asked.
“I can’t rightly say,” Annie replied.
“You get anything else out of him?”
“Only they came from the east.”
“How’d they end up here?”
“Digger Indian in Binger let on that a mountain out near Blackwood Springs was full of silver. They wanted to have a go at it. Must’ve fallen on an ambush of sorts.”
“No. Something else. I couldn’t get too much more than that. He’s too shook up. I’d wager they were roughed up pretty bad by whoever it was.”
“Should I get word to Behan?”
“I thought on it, but the boy said it wouldn’t do any good to sound an alarm. Said it was for everyone’s own good whoever they were not be run down.”
Suddenly, there was a creak. Annie reached for the lamp, swinging it up and around behind Jim to reveal the young man, standing in the half-light of the doorway to the front room.
“You need anything, son?” asked Jim.
“Just a bed,” the young man said.
“I made one up for you upstairs. It’ll be quieter there ‘til late in the morning. Come on, I’ll light the way,” said Annie.
She hooked the young man by the arm and pulled him off into the house. Jim watched after them, worried. He secured the house and fell into an uneasy sleep.
The sound of a woman screaming awoke the caretaker with a start. He was beet red and drenched in bed-sweat. He wiped his eyes and looked around. Bushes rattled against a nearby window. He breathed a sigh of relief. Just a bad dream. Then…another scream, shrill and desperate enough to curdle blood. The caretaker leapt out of bed towards the door, scrambling to dress himself. His arms were barely through a coat as he pulled his front door open. The cemetery stretched out before him, sprawling up the side of a hill and couched in a dense fog that puddled around the headstones. As suddenly as it began, the screaming stopped. A stillness followed, so quiet the caretaker could almost hear the blades of grass settling under the weight of the mist. He stepped outside, grabbing a lantern from off a hook nearby and lighting it. The glow illuminated the headstones in a way that made them seem otherworldly, as if floating.
Another scream echoed through the night. Hopeless. Chilling. An infant’s cry. The caretaker stumbled through the field of stones, trying to hold his lantern steady. He stopped after a few minutes flight, panting at the side of the freshly covered grave of a young woman who had been brought to him earlier in the night. The caretaker waited for another sound, but none came. He backed away, retreating toward the cabin as the wind swarmed around him and surged to an almost frightening strength. The rain returned, moving sideways across the cemetery.
The caretaker returned with three men, each armed with a shovel. They began to claw into the fresh earth with the shovels, churning up the soil and casting it aside once more. Finally, they hit up against the pine box. Two of the men dropped into the hole and began to hoist the box out of the ground, hauling it over to the grass nearby. Suddenly, they heard something inside scream. The caretaker dropped to his knees, wiping away at the blinding rain. He retrieved a bar and stabbed it into the side of the box. He cracked open the lid and pulled it away. One of the diggers took it, noticing several long scars on the inside of the lid, as if someone had been clawing from within. The caretaker peered inside. The young woman who had died earlier lay still, her body contorted into a horrific shape by the struggle to get out. Between her feet was a newborn infant, bloody and shivering from the wind that moved with a shrill whine through cracks in the box. The caretaker reached in and pulled the infant out. He held it awkwardly in his arms, wiping away the mixture of blood and muddy earth built up on its face. He paused, looking at the two diggers, then back at the infant, who was crying at the top of its lungs.
Jim Grimbridge was jolted out of a nightmare by the sound of a loud crack. Jim sat up and looked to the window, where the weather was heaving against the glass. He got up, lighting a lamp and pulling a robe on before opening the bedroom door and slipping out into the dark of the house. Jim planted the lantern down on the desk and yanked open the drawer where it had left his gun earlier. Empty. He bolted up the stairs and down the hall to the last door, and pulled the door open. Beyond the doorway was the lifeless body of the young man, Jim’s pistol by his side, a bullet in his head. Annie ran up to the doorway and saw the body, backing away in horror as Jim noticed a note on the bed stand just above the young man’s body. He stepped over and reached for it, lifting it into the light.
No one can stop it. so old. eyes like empty mirrors. don’t want to go on. the dead are blessed. God help anyone who has to look into that face.
There was a knock at the door downstairs. Jim descended the stairs and opened the front door to see the caretaker and the diggers from the cemetery standing in the rain. The caretaker was holding a muddy, screaming infant. Annie stepped out and took the child into her arms, hustling it inside. As the caretaker and his men withdrew into the forest surrounding the property, Jim looked out into the darkness, waiting for what he knew would be coming.
For as long as I can remember, the night felt like it was a material thing, hinting at some nameless, foreboding threat lying in wait just beyond the rim of light that spilled onto a street or into the remote corners of my own backyard. You might just as well have been a woman walking to her car after a late night of work, a camper sitting by a fire on the edge of some dark forest, or a young boy (as I was) peering through the curtains of his bedroom to see something shift unexpectedly in the shroud of light and shadow that fell once the sun went down. The sense of dread that came with the premonition of something (or someone) waiting out there in all that inky blackness was one that both frightened and fascinated me throughout my childhood and well into my adult years, and is one that I often return to when looking for creative inspiration.
When I was 7 years old, though, it wasn’t creative inspiration that conjured that anxious feeling of terror, but the very real possibility of something horrific wrapping its hand around my world and choking the life from it. At the time, there was a panic in the air about Satanic cults rising up in the county (a common fear at the time), and my father was working with the local Sheriff’s Department to find out what such a cult might be up to and if someone might be drawing people in as either converts or victims. Witnesses had come forward and evidence of rituals had been found in the woods outside San Luis Obispo. One such witness, in fact, had come to my dad out of fear for her life, going under hypnosis to draw out details that might lead to some answers. Just before Halloween, deputies arrested a man who was said to have led these witching hour ceremonies, based off of the evidence gleaned from my Dad’s patient as well as reports from other players who wished to remain anonymous. The man was taken to jail to await further developments, while the rest of the town made preparations for the coming of All Hallow’s Eve.
In the days and nights immediately following this man’s arrest, we began to receive strange calls at all times of the day and night, These were mostly just wordless breathing initially, until one night when the threats began. They were going to kill us all, one said, while another elaborately described how my sisters and I were going to have our throats slit in sacrifice to the devil. Each night before I went to bed, I’d look out to see a patrol car roll by, the deputies inside locking eyes with anything that might be out of place. We lived just far enough from town to feel a sense of isolation bear down as the threats continued. Going anywhere, whether it was to school or into the city to get a costume for Halloween, made that feeling of unease grow tenfold, my fear being that one or more of these cultists could materialize out of nowhere to snatch either one of my sisters or I up, never to be seen again. Contact with anyone who wasn’t familiar could turn a random place (the library, the grocery store, even the local toy store) into a locus of fear. For a time there was even suspicion that someone at the elementary school we attended could well be a member of this demonic cabal. The most frightening moment of this time, however, was being home at night while my dad was out on a call. There was some suspicious activity in the southern part of town, a distraction that pulled the sheriff’s deputies away from patrolling our area. We lived on a hill, and my bedroom was in the back, with a window facing nothing but a sweep of brush receding up to the crest. My sisters’ room, which was right next to mine, had a sliding glass door that opened onto that same vista. The feeling of vulnerability couldn’t have been more palpable.
Sometime that night, while we were watching TV, a shape passed by on the road below, dressed in dark clothes and walking with a gait that was almost too deliberate and menacing. Not long after he disappeared from sight, a car drove past, slowing at the foot of our driveway, pausing for just a moment before rolling on into the dark at the end of the road. In a moment of bone chilling panic, we ran about the house, locking up every possible point of entry and peering out into the brush beyond the windows, straining for evidence of movement or a stalking eye. The slightest stray sound could turn your blood to ice, locking you into any corner where you might avoid the notice of a possible intruder. I’ve never forgotten the purity of the terror I felt in that moment, where any sense of logic or reason would capitulate to the cold sweat acknowledgement of some evil thing born into my world, a force that could get at you anywhere at any time, possibly even in my own home. After that, real safety became an abstract concept, and to this day there are really very few places I feel genuinely at ease, even in what might appear to be the most secure conditions.
Ironically, it was not long after that (the night before Halloween, in fact) that I first saw John Carpenter’s brilliant 1978 thriller “Halloween.” I say brilliant now because I’m older, but upon my first viewing (and many subsequent seasonal ones after that), it scared the living shit out of me. Not just because it is so lean, tense and beautifully crafted (which it most certainly is), but because nearly all of its frames are rich with that same aura of dread that I had become all too familiar with. Those kids, initially so blithely unaware of the bloodletting let loose just across the street, are finally confronted with the Boogeyman right before their eyes, right outside their bedroom door, and their lives are forever changed. There is one moment, probably the most chilling and evocative in the film for me, just after Michael Myers has claimed the life of Annie Brackett (the great Carpenter stock actress Nancy Loomis). The young boy in the care of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode, Tommy, is watching Dr. Dementia’s presentation of “Forbidden Planet” on television with his neighbor Lindsey. During a lull in the film, he quietly creeps over the back of the couch and positions himself behind a curtain. He then begins to whisper Lindsey’s name in a low, spooky register, which sends shivers down her spine and her eyes darting in all directions to see if something might reach out to grab her. Justifiably proud of himself, Tommy turns his head around to look out the window. Across the street, at the house where Lindsey had been delivered from by Annie not more than a half hour ago, he sees a man appear, carrying the lifeless body of a young woman out from the shadows that gather and build around the home. Over the unsettling sounds of the movie playing on TV, Tommy’s eyes widen as he watches the man calmly mount the stairs of the front porch and carry the woman’s body into the darkened house (see at about 2:16 in the video below). At that moment, Tommy gets the first sense of the nightmare that is about to unfold, and that will change his view of the world outside forever. At that moment, he knows the Boogeyman is real, that it cannot be stopped, and that it is coming right for him.
That image, as inconsequential as it may be in the face of some of the film’s more obviously scary moments (Michael Myers in the ghost sheet, Annie’s body lying beneath the tombstone of Michael’s sister Judith while a Jack O’Lantern glows impassively nearby, the silent gliding POV murder that opens the film), is as frightening to me as the worst possible kill because, like the little boy in Carpenter’s film, I know that the possibility of a dark force just beyond your doorstep is very real, waiting for an unconscious signal to trigger it off. Of course, I’ve never been about to live my life shackled to the fear of what havoc such a force might cause, but I won’t ever forget that it is there. “In the night. In the dark.”
Post with 1 note
Summer, 1960. Elvis had come home from the Army. Harper Lee published “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Kennedy began his march against Nixon. The Beatles played Hamburg. Cassius Clay won a gold medal in Olympic boxing. The Soviets shot down an American U2 spy plane. The first 3500 troops shipped off to Vietnam. And a portly television personality, best known for big budget cinematic nail biters and his own shameless self promotion, took advantage of the eroding Production Code to dash off a small picture, shot in black and white on the cheap, that would go on to assume its place in history as one of the greatest and most unsettling ever made. The film, of course, was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” which, as inspired by the sinister, elegant twists of Henri Georges Clouzot’s “Diabolique” and the feverishly depraved crimes of Wisconsin serial murderer Ed Gein, led audiences down a dark path into the unknown, then smashed the flashlight over a rock and disappeared into the blackness, leaving them to face the very real, very human monsters all alone. At the time it was released, 50 years ago this week, few men were as keen to plunder the darker recesses of the human mind and train their eye on the profound contradiction between morality and desire as Hitchcock. Driven by a need to see and to know that part of the soul where a life of quiet, repressed desperation can create a brutal, even homicidal imbalance between sanity and madness, Hitchcock unleashed a monochrome purgatory of cruelty, death and fracturing personalities, a pitch black transmission from the deranged heart of a country perched on the edge of an abyss, which only a few years later would nearly consume it whole.
I first discovered Hitchcock’s films on television as a kid, after school and on weekends, scouring the TV Guide for a mention of the next one to be broadcast. Whether it was “The 39 Steps,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Notorious,” “Rear Window” or “North by Northwest,” I got lost in their ingenious structures, captivated with their brilliant visual sophistication, and utterly obsessed with the purity and skill of their emotional reach. I began to haunt the library, prodding the shelves for books that would provide word of something that might’ve been looked over in the haste that so often accompanies a fixation. As any fan of cinema eventually does, I found myself with a copy of French director Francois Truffaut’s definitive study of Hitchcock. Within its pages, I found a breakdown of two odd sequences, each an elaborately staged murder, broken into a kaleidoscope of shots whose cumulative effect was one of stark, brutal terror. I found that both of these sequences belonged to a picture called “Psycho,” which I could never recall having seen broadcast as abundantly as some of the others I knew. One night, though, I finally saw a listing for it, playing well after I should be going to bed, and resolved to stay up and have a look for myself at what I’d read was the first modem horror film. What I found was something that, while not as sickeningly visceral as Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or as ridden with dread and spookiness as John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (both of which I was already becoming familiar with, thanks to parents in the midst of a divorce and two sisters with a peculiar fondness for scaring the bejesus out of their little brother), Hitchcock’s film carried the scent of something darker, something less exploitative and more disturbing.
It wasn’t even the more obviously “shocking” sequences, such as Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)’s iconic shower scene or Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam)’s odd ballet down the stairs after the sudden, shrieking slash of a knife across his face, that spilled into the corners of my mind as I closed my eyes and tried to sleep off the shudders I felt through my body. Instead, it might have been in the simple, subtle way Bernard Herrmann’s collision of strings coiled around Anthony Perkins as he spoke about the horrors of an insane asylum, or the way I found myself gasping for breath as Perkins’ Norman Bates hastily cleans up after his mother’s gory spasm of violence, wondering if he’d be able to remove any trace of her crime before someone else might come along and discover him. To say nothing of that incredible final scene, where Norman sits in a holding cell, eyes whirling about with something like wonder before settling on us as he smiles like a Death’s Head moth and his mother’s voice explains away his crimes, locking in the nightmare rather than dispelling it. These were moments more bone chilling than gut churning, and as such held tight to my nightmares long after anything more physically horrific had become academic.
The impact of that last moment in fact, when Hitchcock almost imperceptibly superimposes Mother’s grinning skull over Norman’s face as Marion’s car is pulled from the swamp, didn’t hit me until some time later. I was visiting my father, who was running a unit at the time with the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department that dealt with those who were violently suicidal and/or criminally insane. As my sisters and I were too young to be left at home when he might get paged late at night, we sometimes had to be woken up and taken along on these calls. This particular time, I was trying to sleep in his office at the County Mental Health Intake Building. They were bringing in a woman who had apparently gone mad, and had tried to end her life as well as take the lives of those around her. At one point, I could hear the sound of her screams, hitching, guttural shrieks that echoed down the long hallway that kept us at arm’s length from any trouble. I put the pillow over my head and tried to readjust myself on the cramped green couch by my dad’s desk. After a few moments, the inchoate sound began to grow, becoming louder until I realized they were wheeling her down the hall in our direction. I threw off the pillow and got up to stand by the door. I peered out as they pushed her past us, listening to her wail about “death and darkness” when suddenly she stopped, looking at me and smiling serenely for a moment. Whenever I revisit Hitchcock’s film and see Norman smiling at me, I am reminded of that woman’s insane grimace. After all is said and done, mania like that can’t be explained away or so easily hidden. You can rid the world of one monster, but there will always be others, sometimes within us. To me, that is the most frightening thought of all.
If there’s one constant about life in Los Angeles, it’s that virtually nothing is consistent. Traffic changes from one minute to the next, air quality goes from good to bad so often it’s impossible to keep score, and for a city perceived as a hub of the far left, there’s a hell of a lot of people bent on kicking the less fortunate while they’re down and then blaming them for being there in the first place. For the majority of people spilling over into its maze of streets and soundstages, though, nothing seems more precarious than trying to hold down a job in the industry this whole town is built around. The months before I finally relocated here were like an asteroid field of endless commuting and some pretty gratuitous ass kissing. I was turned down left and right, despite whatever qualities I put forth, and was left spinning my wheels without any guarantee I’d be able to make a go at living here.
A little while ago I worked on a video shoot chronicling the funeral of a former screenwriter and noted philanthropist who happened to be the stepfather of a multi billionaire. The son, affectionately (read: notoriously) known as Dr. Nick, was the sort of guy fond of throwing money around like confetti, using it not to further any noble cause but to let people KNOW he was furthering something noble. The vibe of shiftiness he gave off was so persuasive that it might as well have been cologne. It didn’t help either that Dr. Nick looked like a cross between Bill Gates and Tex Watson (ringleader of the Tate/La Bianca murders). Upon some hasty sleuthing, I found out that he was being sued by a company for failing to make payments on the construction of an underground lair beneath his Orange County home. The hideaway, it seems, was going to be used as a de-facto lounge/sex dungeon, where Dr. Nick could indulge his fondness for prostitutes, booze and ecstasy. The funeral itself was a bizarre affair, not because of any outward eccentricity but because of the underlying seediness of it all. The crowd was a grab bag of moneymen, musicians, and mysteriously busty socialites with as much silicone on display as an NAB convention. The tone was weirdly atypical, more akin to a showy birthday party than a memorial service. Dr. Nick even planned to arrive in grand style via helicopter until the plan was quashed when a suitable roof couldn’t be found nearby. It was the sort of “anything worth doing is worth overdoing” aesthetic that is as common here as botox and breathing chambers. It was also the sort of thing that, when combined with the memories of the months spent scurrying around for work, informs the most vivid of my dreams, especially one that I had recently.
It began in the sweltering heat of a late afternoon traffic jam. I was stuck in the thick of it, absent-mindedly tapping my foot to the beat of Pat Benatar’s “Hell is for Children” crackling from the speakers of a real beater nearby. The freeway had become a parking lot because of a bad mash up a couple of miles up ahead. A woman in a green poncho and Dodger cap was zigzagging between cars, her hands over her ears to block out the collision of sounds. On a nearby shoulder two men stood over a golf club, one showing the other the best stance for getting a more accurate swing. Three boys on a bridge above heaved a chocolate shake on a biker passing beneath, then took off into an adjacent neighborhood when the man dismounted his bike and gave chase. Every few minutes a breeze would swoop in to bottle the waves of heat breaking over the asphalt. It was on one of these breezes that a small piece of paper came to rest on the windshield directly in front of me. It pin-wheeled around the surface of the glass for a second, then turned over and came to rest just below my eye level. Straining against the glare shining off the car hood in front of me, I could just barely make out a phone number written on it: 624-7468. I grabbed a pen from the glove box and scribbled the number down on my hand just as an errant wind tore the paper from the windshield and carried it off.
By the time the rush hour assembly line had spit me out, there was nothing even close to a parking spot near the place I wanted to go. I walked a dozen or so blocks through what might’ve passed for a third world garbage dump if it hadn’t been for the faded, 50’s era signs welcoming visitors into the heart of downtown L.A. I was heading for a nondescript warehouse where the company I worked for was having a huge party to celebrate the landing of a big new client. When I got there, I had to wade through a crowd of people moving like sluggish beetles, mounting a rickety wooden platform overlooking a banked roller derby track. I scooped up a drink from a side bar tended by two women and looked out on the game was in progress, where a handful of sporty dames were bashing and smashing in a blur of pale skin and short skirts. As the din of the crowd grew louder, I dove into a round of conversations with co-workers. It was like being at a family dinner and trying to negotiate all the various personalities. You had the “problem child” who always seemed to be in some kind of trouble with the cops, the government or the phone company; the “proudly nerdy” one fulminating about seeing a really good print of “Planet of the Vampires” at a local revival house; the “sharp one,” whose every answer about any subject seemed to be the very one you yourself were thinking but couldn’t articulate; the “sweet one” always being taken advantage of by the swarm of pseudo-hipsters that infest L.A. like a undiagnosed plague; and the “tattooed one” swathed in a collection of body art that served as a minor rebellion against the fact that she happened to work in advertising.
As the game wound down, I made my way back to the bar and struck up a conversation with one of the bartenders, a witheringly attractive Windy City gal with a baritone sax of a voice that she played like a virtuoso. Another friend, himself a former bartender, sidled up and started ordering us shots. Before long I was royally pissed (in the English sense), getting into an argument with a petulant jerk who claimed to be of the Russian family Vyazemsky-Counts Levashov. He was so hammered it barely fazed him when he stepped back to cock his fist at me and set his hair on fire on some nearby candelabra. I grabbed on to what little sense I still had and made my way outside. Unsteady and defying the urge to revisit the hors d’oeuvres I had eaten earlier, I took in a deep breath and stuffed my hands into the pockets of my coat. After a moment, I pulled my left hand out to check the time, and when I twisted my arm around to get some circulation going I noticed the phone number I had scribbled on it earlier. I looked down the street to spy a phone booth hunched at the corner. I made my way over to it and hastily dialed the number, then waited as the phone went through an odd series of clicks and beeps before finally connecting me with a ringing sound. There was a moment of silence, then a disembodied voice:
“Hello,” I said, “what number is this?”
“What number are you trying to reach?”
“I’m not sure. I found this number on a piece of paper and I…”
“Your life story is really of no interest to me, sir.”
“Can you just tell me what number I’ve called?”
“Because I can’t tell you things that you don’t know without first knowing what you do know.”
“Just a moment, sir.”
All of the sudden, a black, tank-like 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III roared up in front of me. Out of nowhere I was grabbed by two men, wrapped in a hood and lifted off the ground. They threw me in the back seat and the car sped off, the rhythmic blast of its horn ricocheting across the sidewalks and storefronts. We rounded a corner, then straightened out and accelerated. Within seconds, I was grabbed and hurled out the side door, landing with an unceremonious thud on the asphalt in front of a large building. After a moment, I sat up, the nerves in my back screaming as I pulled off the hood and took a look around. The building was a gargantuan piece of Albert Speer-ish architecture, its front arches held up by a series of well-muscled statues that might’ve been meant to convey strength but seemed more like an inadvertent symbol of oppression. I heard a noise, looking down the street to see the torso of a man chasing after his head, which was floating off like a balloon into the mist gathering beneath the sodium vapor street lights. I walked up to the building and in through the front doors. The floor of the lobby was dotted with recessed barrels, each one filled with glowing water. I peered down into one of the barrels nearest my feet, seeing that the bottom was in fact a shimmering blue television, upon which there was a close up image of a woman in deep sleep. I leaned over towards another barrel to see a similar image, this time of an older man.
I swiveled around to see a woman standing before me. She was built like a bullet, almost obscenely thin with eyes as sharp and threatening as the curve of her thighs.
“The people in the monitors,” she said, “they all work for us. He likes to keep an eye on everyone as much as possible.”
“He?” I asked.
“The man you’re here to see. He feels it keeps visitors off balance at the same time that it pleases them aesthetically.”
“Aren’t esthetics subjective?”
“From your mouth to Kant’s ears.”
“I didn’t come here to see anyone. I was brought here.”
“Well, you’re here nonetheless. You might as well not create a problem.”
I noticed that she had a gash on one leg that looked strange.
“What happened to your leg?”
“Carpet knife. I’m renovating my apartment.”
“It looks a little…odd.”
“No more so than your eye.”
“Your eyeball. It too is a little…abnormal.”
“It got hit by a tennis ball when I was a kid. What’s your excuse?”
“I didn’t have a band-aid when I got cut, so I sealed it with super glue.”
“Super glue. In Vietnam the grunts would use it when they were under fire and didn’t have time to bandage wounds. Using it to fix broken glasses and model kits came later.”
“This way, please…”
We wound our way down a vertiginous collection of stairs, opening out into a vast antechamber. There was a large table in the center of the room, surrounded by pillars reaching into the ceiling, which itself had an undersea variation of Picasso’s Guernica stretched across it. The woman sat me down at the table and left the room, the sound of her heels on the floor like brittle pops in my ears. I sat in silence for a few minutes, then stood up and looked at the ceiling. A man’s voice nearly startled me out of my sneakers.
I turned, once again trailing the voice to a person before me, this time a midsized man, his narrow, mopey face subjugated to a patch of thinning hair and a blond/gray goatee. He was older and his features a bit less intimidating, but it was unmistakably Jim Cameron.
“When the room was built, I had them put a series of empty clay pots in the center of the ceiling,” he said.
“Hm,” was all I could manage.
“The pots trap sound and circulate it, creating a reverberating amplification. It can’t be detected by electronic surveillance.”
“Wow.” Another winner.
“It ‘s like having the voice of God.”
Appropriate, I thought, keeping that one to myself.
“My own voice used to be stronger, but all the decompression chambers and F-16 barrel rolls over the years haven’t been too kind. I need all the extra power the acoustics can give.”
“Did you have me brought here?”
“I wanted to talk to you.”
“Working for me.”
“Leveling the uncanny valley.”
“A dip in the graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a synthetic creation’s lifelikeness.”
“If you’ve got something that’s non-human, then the human-like parts of it will be noticed easily and make people feel empathy. But if you’ve got something that’s almost human, the non-human characteristics will stand out, and that makes the common person feel weird.”
“Is this for “Avatar”?”
“No. That’s just a cover story.”
Project 880, it turns out, was really the genesis for an elaborate plan to set the Scientologists and Kabbalists (the two most powerful cultural forces in Hollywood) against one another by infiltrating both organizations with “artificial” beings. These robots would then kidnap and replace the leaders of both sects, undermining them from within and sparking a religious war that would ultimately destroy both religions. This would leave the decks clear (always using nautical metaphors, that Jim) for a new order established by the “Liberation Majority of Los Angeles.” Jim had apparently had me “acquired” because he had read a dissertation that I had written under a pseudonym (as I often do) regarding Masahiro Mori’s theories of actualizing artificial life. I had begun to have an interest in the subject one Halloween, when my girlfriend at the time, Autumn, bought a monkey costume with a tight fitting mask. It was so tight and hairless, in fact, that it seemed to fuse with the rest of her head. She wore it in otherwise regular clothes, and only “spoke” to people using her hands. The almost human quality of the costume and the way she acted scared the bejesus out of people. This led me to research this phenomenon, which in turn directed me to Mori’s theories. Cameron apparently felt that I could team with Stan Winston (himself a high officer in Jim’s secret cabal) to develop a legion of “syntho-citizens” that would carry out his grand vision of socio-political restructuralization in Southern California.
As Jim elaborated on his plot further, there was an abrupt rumble, then an earsplitting groan that made the walls buckle. All of the sudden, several portals opened at the base of each wall, spewing forth a stream of water. I felt the ground beneath my feet grow damp, watching in disbelief as the water started puddling around my shoes, then finally swell up over my legs.
“Don’t worry…we do this every day,” Jim replied.
“You flood the office?”
“No, the entire building. I had it designed to pressurize and purge every evening.”
“All that ‘Titanic’ money had to go somewhere.”
“Anyone who’s been on a lot of deep level dives knows that if you don’t train yourself to be strong mentally, it’s real easy to get distracted. Maybe your mask fogs up. Maybe you get disoriented on the rise because of the waves and the current fighting each other. Maybe you forgot to shave, so your mask is leaking. Whatever.”
He reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a breathing mask. As he nonchalantly slipped it over his head, he continued, “Doing this every evening helps the workers get more self-confidence. It helps them concentrate and relax.”
The water was flowing faster now, rushing up over my waste. I bolted up out of my seat and headed for the door, but it was locked.
“Because of the pressurization, it’s necessary to seal the doors,” Cameron said.
Suddenly I heard my friend Alex’s voice in my head. “Merde…”
The water was up to my shoulders now. I took a deep breath and dove under. I sunk to the floor and snaked my way towards the wall, where I noticed some sort of control panel halfway up. I reached it and punched it with all of the strength I could muster. In a sudden flurry of bubbles, a hole appeared in the floor, vacuuming everything (including me) towards it in a startling gasp. I was sucked into the hole, tumbling down a drain sluice tunnel unable to grope at anything. I was spit out onto a heap of discarded sediment. I caught my breath and stood up, stumbling my way off the pile and towards the street nearby. At that very moment, a legion of people on mountain bikes roared past. I stepped out and stopped one of them near the back, commandeering his bike and stranding him on the corner. I raced through the downtown street, an arid blast of wind drying me off in no time. I came upon a pedi-cab that was ferrying a young couple along, so I veered to the left. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, there was a man walking a cow. I hit the break and skidded. I went sailing off the bike and was flying head first toward the cow. I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of my last moments coming in the face of a cow’s rear end.
Right then I woke up. I’ve read that to dream of dying is a positive thing, that you’re actually in a process of renewal and letting go of the past when that happens. Maybe that’s the key to why people feel a pull towards premonitions and things that deal with death (whether it’s scary stories or whatever). It’s a way not only of escaping your own daily existence, but also transitioning into a mindset that is more progressive or soulful. Damned if I know. I only work here.
To be honest, there’s a lot of things you miss in life that probably aren’t worth seeing. For every raucous, rainy DNC election night rally in Boston or joyfully impromptu party/screening on a rooftop in NYC (two personal favorites), there’s a good slice of early 80’s Dylan and a couple of my past relationships. And then you have My Bloody Valentine, unexpectedly (I’d say miraculously) reunited for a handful of shows sprinkled across the UK and both coasts of the United States. They played two nights here in L.A. (fitting since their last U.S. show was at the Palace in Hollywood 16 years ago), the second of which found me bivouacked deep in the what the band called its “Holocaust section,” 6 to 7 feet away from the edge of the stage and that looming wall of amps that baited virgin eardrums before eviscerating them beyond recognition.
I first heard MBV when I was probably 17, not long after “Loveless” (their 2nd full length, after “Isn’t Anything”) was dropped like a furious, ethereal noise-pop carpet bomb on unsuspecting masses both here and abroad. Even now, listening to it at full volume (any other way really isn’t an option) flings your body into the ether, tremors lit through your head, heart, and damn near every nerve like an undulating earthquake. From the rolling snare fill that opens “Only Shallow” to the heaving, inchoate siren that draws “Soon” to a close, you’re bent back inside yourself by the album’s overflowing surge of energy, chased by a lucid sense of warmth and connectedness that courses through you with an expansive intensity. My own favorite track, “Loomer,” is a sprawling carpet of guitars, one stacked on top of the other, a continuous chain of sonic explosions held aloft like a wide-eyed teenager surfing over a thousand hands open towards the sky. No less groundbreaking than Nirvana’s “Nevermind” (released just a couple of weeks before in 1991), “Loveless” set the standard that came to define “shoegazers,” wedding the gauzy, dreamlike sound of bands like Cocteau Twins and The Jesus and Mary Chain with the unfiltered ferocity of “No Wave” and post-punk bands like Sonic Youth and Husker Du.
The opportunity to see My Bloody Valentine on stage in my lifetime is one I never thought I’d have. After “Loveless” came out, the band started working on a follow up, only to be undone by both the bruised, embittered attitude of its record label and the burgeoning perfectionist tendencies of bandleader Kevin Shields. In spite of a few false starts on a third record, Shields and company (singer/guitarist Bilinda Butcher, drummer Colm O Ciosoig and bassist Debbie Googe) ultimately splintered, and for many years it seemed as though My Bloody Valentine was truly gone. Every so often there might be a random note about something Shields was up to, but in general terms…nothing. He seemed content to let the legacy of MBV rest with the various shoegazer bands that came in its wake (among them Lush, Slowdive and, to a lesser degree, Smashing Pumpkins) rather than push himself to pull together something equal to “Loveless.”
Resurfacing in 2003, Shields offered some music for the soundtrack of Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” a film itself marinated in the shoegazer aesthetic. Though the songs didn’t quite match up to the MBV magic, it was enough to prod Shields back into something near productivity, collaborating with Patti Smith and dusting off songs MBV had completed in the mid 90’s for the aborted 3rd album. Then, in a move as out of the blue as Radiohead announcing the sudden release of “In Rainbows” last year, MBV announced it had reformed, and would be playing shows at London’s Roundhouse. When interest shot a spike through the roof, the number of shows quickly grew, eventually spilling over into the States, not quite a full-blown tour but bigger than a one off novelty date like the Zeppelin “reunion.”
All of which draws us back into the eye of the storm, i.e. the ground floor of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, a glorified high school gymnasium recast, at least for two nights, as a warren of sound and fury twisting in the wake of a stereophonic jet turbine. The lights began to fall, almost imperceptibly, and smoke billowed onto the stage, the dual effect of its density and the building darkness creating a hushed, emotionally mysterious tone before a single note had even been played. The buildup seemed interminable, drawn out to a point just shy of snapping, until the band finally snaked their way through the labyrinth of amps and onto the stage. There was barely any sound in the way of introduction, save for the low, insistent basso profondo rising from the amps as everyone assumed their places, the noise like electrified monks murmuring the om mani padme hum. The only acknowledgement of the audience came with a shy wave from Butcher as she pulled on her guitar and planted herself in front of a mic. With a quick, sharp count-in from O Ciosoig, the band burst into a blinding, propulsive rendition of “I Only Said,” the lights erupting in strobe-flashes like shrapnel in a windstorm.
The impossibly high volume of an MBV show is the stuff of legend, but until you’ve actually survived it, you really have NO idea. Imagine standing beneath a three-stage rocket as it’s launching, with all three stages happening simultaneously, and you’d still have miles to go in approximating the sensation. It is so violently loud that your mind and body abandon themselves to a fugue state, and you, quite literally, feel like you are drowning in sound. But like someone once said about drowning, it feels wonderful once you stop struggling. In this case, I never even put up a fight. I had taken the bouncer up on the earplugs he was hawking as I came in (just as a precaution), but only sporadically ever put them to use. For nearly two hours, the songs cascaded out, one after another, the band barely breaking for the slightest breath as they somersaulted from “Cigarette In Your Bed” and “Come In Alone” to “When You Wake (You’re Still in a Dream)” and “Feed Me Your Kiss.” Shields stayed locked away with his effects pedals, while Googe and O Ciosoig brutalized the bass and drums, respectively, with greater fervor as the show went on. Butcher was somehow both shy and regal, the ferocity of her guitar work a contrast to the wraithlike languor of her vocals.
When the end came, via “You Made Me Realise,” it felt as savage and apocalyptic as a bat to the back of the knees. The instrumental bridge of the song, which spread out to nearly 20 minutes, was a dizzying cyclone of pure noise. Critics often talk about music being transformative, but in the midst of this rush of tightly coiled feedback, it truly was. The crowd became an ocean of hands leaping to protect eardrums, faces alternating between timid, disdainful grimacing and the beaming shudders of rapture. I had heard it said that to truly enjoy this sort of maelstrom, you’d have to risk damaging yourself by experiencing it completely. For all but two of those last twenty-five minutes, I tempted tinnitus by leaving the earplugs out and taking in the resonant furnace at full volume. With the benefit of hindsight, that might not’ve been the smartest thing to do, but in the moment it seemed awfully prudish to deny myself the sensation. There were no encores and eventually all that was left of the band was a wavering rumble within the auditorium that felt like the dying embers of a campfire. After 16 years of speculation and anticipation, along with 135 decibels of harmonious battering (130 dB being the point at which “significant pain and ear damage” begins to occur), it couldn’t have been more appropriate.
San Francisco. A raw Wednesday night. Sunset fading toward a shade of blonde that makes the skyscrapers look like the edges of burnt paper. A fog creeps in from tule marshes off the Bay, shrouding the city in a patchwork of whites, grays and bruised yellows. To the west of downtown, I drive through a hodgepodge of restaurants, bars and businesses, lit up and lined along diagonal streets that section off the city from the hills. It’s cold enough out that I hear someone say even the witch’s tits have taken the night off.
Despite the dropping temperature, it’s easy to go about without being overwhelmed by the immensity of the city, or by the clutter of people that spill over its narrow streets and out of its tall buildings (unlike a certain place in southern California, it isn’t some handful of disparate towns jammed together and flattened out across a glorified patch of desert). I pass City Hall, narrowly avoiding the swelling crowd of urban haute bourgeois clutching their coats outside Symphony Hall. Rocketing up Turk, through a mess of cars bound up in a fair imitation of a clogged drainpipe, I level out to navigate a hairpin turn onto Fillmore. A riot of lurid neon beckons from either sidewalk as a hasty left on O’Farrell and a near collision with two men and a wardrobe puts me a block away from where I want to be.
On the street, footfalls bleed into the roar of passing buses and the rhythmic swish of wheels on wet pavement. Then, that joyfully peculiar smell of asphalt after a good rain, tempered by the muggy collision of exhaust fumes, cast away garbage and that indefinably urban “odor” that characterizes most inner cities. Finally, I’m there. We go up the stairs and inside, gliding through an alcove choked by concert posters and coquettish hipsters queuing up to get their hands stamped. We move past red curtains into a swaying darkness. I see faces…limbs…incandescent shapes passing drinks over a floor pockmarked by years of shitfaced revelry. A waitress with a thick shock of red hair and the skin of a china doll weaves in and out of the crowd, almost a wayward Tinkerbell with the flickering green light atop the tray she’s carrying. Grabbing drinks from the bar, we head out onto a floor awash in red and lavender, flickering off the crowd and congealing in the far corners of the room. There is the sound of Machinedrum’s beats, insistent, loud and repetitious, as if the stuttering fingers of an epileptic are glued to the skip function on a laptop. I look onstage to see Addiquit, caught in the beam of a spot piercing the darkness, swaggering about as if Bradbury’s Illustrated Man and the preternatural child of Kathleen Hanna and Ad-rock have become one.
Beneath the rhythmic soundtrack of her voice, a barrage of half heard conversations: a miniature Venus texting someone about a guy she had choked on asking out earlier in the night; a pair of stilts in disheveled corduroys telling a girl with the expression of a rutted bag how he’d rather not have to work somewhere where he’d actually use the things he was learning in college; a meticulously coiffed kid poured into a pair of black chinos wondering whether tonight’s main act would play any of the more intensely personal that first got her noticed, or stick to the more polished and universal (if still honest and beautiful) music that had made up the bulk of her most recent record. As Addiquit and Machinedrum finish up their performance, the crowd begins to mushroom, filling up the main floor and flooding the balconies that loom up over the room.
A break. The echo of piped in music from the auditorium PA dies off and the lights dim once again. A man appears on stage, hair reaching in every direction, eyes hidden behind a pair of fuck you sunglasses. He steps in and sets himself up behind the keyboard as two more men enter the stage and pick up their guitars. Finally, one last man dissolves out of the shadows and approaches the drum set. He picks up a pair of sticks and almost immediately launches into a cadence that is low and insinuating. After a moment, the piano chimes in, followed closely by the rippling hum of the guitars. The first bars of “New York, New York,” but dirtier…ballsier than Sinatra. A lull. The tall, thin figure of a woman emerges from the wings, approaching the mic to the sound of applause and catcalls from the audience. From behind, a white light cuts starkly across the pea colored Army shirt Chan’s wearing, coaxing her to the lip of the stage. There’s a moment as her large, round eyes take in the crowd. Then…a smile. Serene. Disarming. The Southern girl can’t hide.
The bulk of the show is devoted to covers, arranged in a blues-by-way-of-the-back-door style that reminds me of seeing Dylan live just a month or so earlier (the way he’d transform songs of his that I’d heard for years into something old fashioned and fresh at the same time was nothing short of magical). Standards and obscurities are given equal weight, the aural pendulum swinging from graceful, propulsive melodies to moody, dirge-like rhythms that are almost motionless. A dreamy, emotional version of Chan’s own “Metal Heart” (by way, stylistically, of the Velvet Underground) is probably the most moving thing I’ll hear this entire year. The way she and the band play off of one another feels right, more natural and intuitive than the way she worked with the Memphis Rhythm Band the last time up at the Fillmore. Gregg, one hand on the piano keys and the other nursing a perpetually lit cigarette, abandons any hipster facade in favor of an unabashedly romantic enthusiasm that infects the band, and by extension, everyone else in the room. Judah, on guitar, stands nonchalant and inscrutable (though no less dynamic) as his fingers skim across the strings beneath the staccato bursts of light that seem to seize in time with each guitar break. Erik, the bassist, plays with a focus and determination that makes him as invisible as he is vital to the undulating spirit of each song. Holding court over it all is Jim, who someone might think to call an elder statesman if he didn’t so effortlessly rule the stage with drumming that at times defies the belief it’s coming from a mortal man (one of the night’s highlights is seeing Chan’s stunned reaction to a particularly intricate drum solo by Jim, as if she’s just discovered a new kind of porn).
It’s the kind of alchemy that doesn’t come often, and barely at all in a lot of shows I’ve been to. But like a good book, it has to end, and after an encore buoyed by the pinpoints of light coming from various lighters held aloft, it does. As we all empty out into the bitter chill of the San Francisco night, I think on a dream I had where I asked her why she sang so quietly. In the dream, she looked up at me from behind those brown bangs that rose like a curtain and said that if you grew up in a house where there was a lot of screaming and yelling, the “last fucking thing” you’d want to do is make music that was a bunch of screaming and yelling. With that she would smile, and continue humming some amazing new song.
Like a lot of kids in the early 1980’s, I grew up reveling in the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones wrought large across the big screen. The far-flung tales of derring-do that sprang from the minds of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (whether separately or together) were like a magic carpet that never seemed to stop unfolding, extraordinary pieces of raw cinema that soared past escapism to share space with the greatest popular art of our time. With few exceptions, I’d be one of the first in line for the first show, joyfully hunkering down in a plush theater seat, holding my breath as the lights went down and the projector roared to life. For two hours (this being back when directors and editors actually HAD narrative discipline) I’d barrel through the latest chapter, eyes and ears turning the celluloid pages with the devotion of a true believer. From pretty early on (discounting the standard young boy phase of wanting to be an astronaut) I always knew that I would make films. More to the point, I always knew that I would tell stories, no matter what, with any and all means I had at my disposal. At the time, I didn’t have the best understanding of how a camera captured the images that ran amuck through my subconscious or how a person could put one shot after another to get from point A to B in a story (both disciplines that are now part of my very DNA). All I knew is that I had the fervent need to put on a show, to draw as many people as possible into my imagination and share with them how I saw the world.
Before I had a creative vocabulary for expressing myself that was really my own, though, I had to learn how to put the pieces together in other ways. I started making up my own stories in 1st grade when I would get bored with books they had available to read on the shelf, but my first real attempt at actually mounting a production was at the age of 9. Lucas’ “Star Wars” trilogy had just been wrapped up with the stirring bow of “Return of the Jedi” less than a year before, and Indy himself hadn’t yet fallen from a plane into the hands of brutish thugs with a penchant for performing heart surgery sans anesthesia. One day, in the midst of coordinating the latest playground adventure (I tended to play the Harrison Ford part), I hit on the idea of staging “Jedi” in the auditorium at my elementary school, using friends and classmates to bring the Rebellion’s struggle against the Galactic Empire to life for a (presumably) slack jawed crowd. I roped in my best friend Jack (our de-facto Mark Hamill) to help, and we quickly set about preparing what was, for 9 year olds, a pretty ballsy undertaking. We commandeered our closet of a library to hold casting sessions, corralling what seemed like every kid in town to fill in the overstuffed selection of roles. Jack’s mom was a painter, so we had her begin creating backdrops for us, huge murals depicting everything from the death white environs of Tatooine to the cold neighborhood of catwalks and corridors that made up the newly rebuilt Death Star. We got our parents help in making costumes and typing up a script, working from a dog-eared novelization bought at the grocery store down the street from my house.
Thinking back on it now, this was a lot for a group of kids to take on, but in the midst of it we never once gave it a second thought. That’s how it always is with creating a film, or any other creative endeavor. You dive into the most inventive, problem solving part of yourself until any sense of it being “work” disappears. The drive to coax something out of your own head and give it physical form is the most incredible feeling you can imagine, a euphoria that in my experience has gone unmatched (though I have a feeling that’ll change the first time I have a child). When you finally reach the finish line, that insanely giddy charge that you’ve been levitating on for weeks on end is finally tempered by the sheer sense of exhaustion that breaks when your body catches up to your brain. It feels as though you’ve conquered a triathlon, survived Marine training and traveled to Venus all at the same time. For anyone whose mind isn’t wired the way mine is, it might seem like slouching toward insanity. But to those whose minds are, you need only smile knowingly when I paraphrase Frank Capra, who said, “Filmmaking is like heroin. The only cure is more filmmaking.”
The reason for ambling through my mental yearbook is because I saw a film at the Chinese Theater the other night that brought all of those memories back to me. Around the same time that I was engineering the stage-bound Jedi takeover of Cayucos Elementary School, three boys in Mississippi were plowing roughly the same field, making a shot for shot remake of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with friends and family on the largest budget a weekly allowance would bear. The boys, Eric Zala, Jayson Lamb and Chris Strompolos, were so taken with the original film made by Lucas, Spielberg and writer Lawrence Kasdan that they spent the next 7 summers lovingly building up their ode to Indiana Jones, an unerringly faithful and energetic re-creation of the greatest action adventure film of all time. Using friends and neighborhood kids to fill in the cast, the trio set about re-creating even the most elaborate of Spielberg’s set pieces (save one). Thus, the hallway of a suburban home became the temple where Indy finds the mischievous idol and sets off a giant boulder (in this case, made of fiberglass and duct tape); a basement doubled as the Ravenwood Bar (promptly set on fire by the boys and their crew) and the Well of Souls (complete with snakes borrowed from the local pet store); and a massive nearby quarry became the site of the Tanis digs and the final canyon where the Ark is opened to catastrophic results. In between they dug out an old truck from the swamp, threw tires on it and restaged the famous truck chase (with all the requisite life threatening stunts included) and spent a day at a nearby harbor to capture the scenes aboard the freighter Bantu Wind (where Strompolos-as-Indy got his first kiss from co-star Angela Rodriguez as Marion) and the USS Alabama (doubling as a Nazi sub).
Over the years it took them to complete their Lucasberger homage, the boys grew into teenagers, their voices changing and the patience of their supporters growing ever thinner. But their passion for the project never wavered, and ultimately they wrapped in late 1988, several months before the release of the third Indy film “The Last Crusade.” The finished remake premiered at a Coke bottling plant near their hometown, after which it sat on a shelf for several years. Eventually, a bootleg VHS tape of the film made its way into the hands of the Beard himself, Steven Spielberg. Cut to now, with the trio having a film made about their adventures by the writer of “Ghost World,” a tour around the country showcasing their efforts, and the possibility of making their own adventure film now looming. Despite “Hostel” director Eli Roth’s self-aggrandizing attempt to hijack the screening I saw (what else is new?), Zala and Strompolos held court over a capacity crowd, prodding us with the possibilities of splashing bold fun on the screen for no other purpose than to tell a great story. The best thing was seeing the kids there not only energized by what they’d seen, but given the key in their minds to build their own world for the rest of us to marvel at. In the end, that’s what the future of movies will come down to, not some over-hyped technical process that will make your retinas bleed. A good story well told is all that matters. In the midst of all the money-grubbing and psycho-political bullshit that tends to muck up the works in making a Hollywood film, that is the best thing anyone here can have.
I woke up this morning and felt a cold coming on. As an adult, you have to power through such miseries and get on with your day’s work. But when you’re an 8-year-old kid, the responsibilities of your world aren’t so great that you can’t afford a day or two away from them. It was on one of those typically foggy days in Morro Bay, kept home sick by my mom, that I first found and fell in love with a film that, at the time, had fallen into disrepute and neglect but has since emerged as one of the greatest films ever made and probably the most personal expression of love, fear and obsession by its maker, a British grocer’s kid named Alfred Hitchcock. The film I’m referring to, of course, is “Vertigo,” his beautifully disturbing ode to necrophilia that was first released to an unsuspecting public 50 years ago this week.
At the time, Hitch was known as a showman, a celluloid trickster who used a battery of cinematic techniques to plumb the sinister underbelly of a world that seemed outwardly normal. As much as he delighted in tearing the veil off of things that most people would rather keep hidden, up to this point he had done so in such a way that kept audiences at arm’s length emotionally. You were taken a dizzying ride but rarely made to feel much more than a haughty sense of complicity with the rogue’s gallery of characters Hitch guided through his meticulously crafted visuals. Every so often you might get a sliver of something deeper but it might just as quickly be undercut by the sort of gallows humor that a repressed Englishman might giggle about in the darker reaches of his own mind. With “Vertigo,” however, the soulfully morbid romantic who had always kept so many secrets locked away from a conservatively positioned Post-War world couldn’t hide any longer.
Drawn from the novel “D’Entre Les Mortes” (translated as “From Among the Dead,” which was the film’s original title) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (who also wrote “Diabolique”), Hitchcock’s film unfolds in the otherworldly landscape of 1950’s San Francisco, descending into the dreams and obsessions of Scottie Ferguson (a never better James Stewart), a former cop who turned private investigator following the tragic death of a fellow officer. Tapped by old college chum Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak, at her most iconic), who he fears is delusional and possibly suicidal, Scottie wanders through the labyrinth of the Bay Area trailing her, eventually coming to her rescue when she suddenly plunges into San Francisco Bay at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. He takes her home and revives her, thus touching off the doomed romance that will see someone dead and another nearly driven mad. It would be a disservice to anyone who hasn’t experienced the film to elaborate on the plot further, and those who have seen it have likely committed it to heart by now anyway. What I will say is that as an 8 year old, bundled up in a blanket and choking down the worst kind of cough medicine, to experience Hitchcock’s film for the first time was to have first contact with a deeper, more wraithlike side of human nature. Driven by Bernard Herrmann’s achingly beautiful score, the pull was, for me, right there from the start. The way that Hitchcock felt his way through such an emotionally unsettling story called to something inside, speaking to an innate mystery and longing that has since informed a lot of what I’ve pursued creatively.
Over the years, Hitchcock’s film in turn brought me to the work of other filmmakers with an eye toward cinema as an externalization of dreams and nightmares, directors like David Lynch, Roman Polanski, Jean-Luc Godard, David Cronenberg and, of course, the great Stanley Kubrick. My mother always gives me a hard time for being so drawn to things of a more dark and mysterious nature, but in some sense it’s her fault. Had I not been left to my own devices that one day so long ago and had I not fallen into Hitchcock’s amazing world (the same way Stewart spirals into madness during a memorable dream sequence), I might have become a very different person creatively. But whatever. At least I won’t be another Michael Bay.
I first knew M. Ward not as the famed, smoky voiced Portland troubadour but as Matt, the guy who sold me Clash records and John Carpenter soundtracks whenever I would stop by Boo Boo Records in San Luis Obispo. He played in a local band for a number of years before getting a break with Howe Gelb and shuffling off towards fortune and glory. By that same token, my first encounter with Zooey Deschanel was not with the beatific woman belting out her best Screamin Jay Hawkins but with her appearance in the underrated “Mumford” as one of those awkward, eccentric dreamers swathed in black that I’ve had a jones for since Winona Ryder cut the prototype in Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice.” However they might have first appeared on the path of my comings and goings, though, it was a very different pair that I saw performing as She And Him at the Vista this past Tuesday night. Though Ward still held to the shadows, rarely surrendering his look of determined concentration, and Deschanel flittered around the stage nervously drawing light from the crowd, there was a great feeling of energy and purpose to the handful of songs they ambled their way through over the course of a 90 minute set.
The tone was set by opener Lavender Diamond, an earthy band born from a play in Rhode Island put on by front woman Becky Stark, whose goofily ethereal (if inadvertent) allusions to Miranda July joined forces with a voice that was captivating, graceful and witty. During the last number, a blissed out take on ABBA’s “Chiquitita,” the band was joined by my cat’s namesake, Miss Deschanel herself, holding up a pocket-sized notebook so that she wouldn’t lose track of any unfamiliar lyrics. When she returned to the stage following a brief break, she sat a bit taller in the saddle, with more confidence in connecting with all of us out there in the audience. Of course it didn’t hurt that she had a great group of musicians backing her every note, including the aforementioned Mr. Ward. The collection of songs they took us through, most written by Deschanel and Ward (both individually and together), ran the gamut from country inflected love songs to torchy laments for the loss of love. What bound them all together was the vigorously unaffected quality of Zooey’s voice and the relentless rhythmic thrust of Matt’s guitar (come a long way from warbling on a stool at SLO Brew).
Late in the game they were joined by Deschanel’s former paramour, Max Fischer himself, Jason Schwartzman. More diminutive and wiry than last seen onboard the Darjeeling Limited, Schwartzman cut in to play guitar and pound away at the piano as the last couple of songs brought the show to a rousing close. Before the lights began to shoo us out onto Sunset, though, Matt and Zooey returned for one last song, a gut-wrenching rendition of “I’ve Put A Spell On You” that simply blew the doors off what might’ve been an otherwise completely jovial performance. Wailing away beneath the thundering chords of Ward’s guitar, Deschanel called to something deep inside to provoke a voice that brought the hairs on the back of everyone’s necks to attention. Just when we might’ve thought we’d heard the range of their collaboration, they put a period at the end of this sentence that not only confounded expectations but pointed to a future direction for their musical give and take.
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