Reading the movies

I am a certified movie freak. A cineaste. Huge film buff. Master of movie minutiae. A cinephile.

It’s difficult to attempt to pinpoint just when this happened. But cinematic art has dominated my life since I was a young boy. Some of the best experiences of my life involve seeing a film opening weekend in the theaters with people I love. I’ll go see a movie alone just as often as I will with friends. I’m the guy who can name a movie if you give me a starring actor, or tell you the director and year of release of a film being discussed. I’m overflowing with useless trivia about films that really affected me. I read the trivia section of imdb.com for fun. I quote films all the time in regular conversation. I’m honestly not as clever or quirky as my friends think I am, I’m just quoting obscure movies all the time. I can list off every Sam Peckinpah film in chronological order including the year of release. I wish I could somehow monetize this collection of cinematic data that lives in my brain. I could retire tomorrow if that were possible. My fiancée says that in a certain scenario where aliens land and can only communicate through movie references and trivia, I could legitimately save the world. Or, in a more real-life example, I can win some pitchers of beer at movie trivia nights.

I am also an avid reader. A book nerd. Word geek. A collector of paperbacks and first edition hardbacks. I attend author readings at bookstores.

I read everything, all the time. I always have. My parents said I learned to read very young, and I haven’t stopped. I read comic books as a kid. I read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment at age 14 for fun, not for a school assignment. As an adult I collect graphic novels of all genres. In college I devoured textbooks by day, and then read pulp horror novels at night. I also played drums in a band in college, and would garner inspiration by reading music biographies of all kinds. I read books about Jim Morrison, and I read poetry books written by Jim Morrison. I read Henry Rollins poetry books and other titles from his publishing company, 2.13.61. Jimi Hendrix biographies. Newspapers, blogs, obscure authors, feminist authors, mainstream authors, unknown new authors, and all the science fiction I can find. Gimmie that book, I’ll read it. Sylvia Plath, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack London, Bret Easton Ellis, Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, Mario Puzo, Charles Bukowski, Dan Simmons, Tolkien. Going to Powell’s Books here in Portland, as I have been since I was a teenager, is a religious experience for me. Before I lived in Portland, I would drive up from Eugene to visit Powell’s and return with bags full of used paperbacks. My home always is dominated by bookshelves, and moving into a new house is mainly boxing up my books and carrying those heavy loads into my new library.

So naturally, combining my two great loves of movies and books is perfection. Books about movies. Movies based on books. Memoirs from the set of a film. Screenplays. Books about the behind the scenes making of the film. Art books examining the matte paintings, costume design, and model-making involved. If I’ve read the source material for a film, I have all that extra information with me as I watch the movie. This definitely increases my enjoyment of the film. And when I’m reading the printed version of the movie, I obviously have all the visual imagery in my mind as I read. Both experiences are greatly improved.

As a pre-teen I would watch a movie and then track down the novelization of it to read. Anything to further immerse myself in the world of the movie. Often the film novelization would be written by a known author looking to make an easy buck. Other times it was written by a nobody, and occasionally it was written by the screenwriter or even the director. I was always looking for explanations of confusing or abstract concepts in the film. Or just trying to find out exactly what happened to certain characters whose demise in the movie was off-screen, implied, or edited out so they could show it on television. I read Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of ALIEN for this very reason. There were sometimes scenes that were not in the movie, characters who weren’t in the movie, and even added prologues and epilogues. Often it was like reading the extended director’s cut with an added hour of reintegrated footage. If the book was written first and the film was just ‘based on’ the book, it might be nothing like the movie at all. Philip K. Dick’s book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” is so dissimilar to BLADE RUNNER that the only commonality between the two is that there are artificial humans called replicants.

I also tracked down the novelization of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. It was written by Curtis Richards, which is a pseudonym for author Dennis Etchison. There’s probably not a very large audience for a novelization of a slasher movie. But I was happily surprised to read several chapters that actually explained the concept of evil that travels from person to person and is literally unstoppable. There were flashbacks to ancient Samhain rituals that (incorrectly) involved human sacrifices. This was fascinating to me as a teenager. For those people who didn’t buy how Michael Myers could suffer those injuries and just keep on attacking Laurie Strode, the book gave the back story in a very satisfying way, making me enjoy the movie even more. It was pure evil that traveled over centuries through different hosts.

Acclaimed author Orson Scott Card, famous for the countless Ender’s Game books, wrote a novelization of the James Cameron underwater adventure THE ABYSS. Piers Anthony wrote a great novelization of TOTAL RECALL, even though that film was based on a short story by Philip K. Dick. Vonda N. McIntyre wrote several of the Star Trek movie novelizations, after creator Gene Roddenberry himself wrote the novelization of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. David Morrell wrote the amazing book First Blood in the 70’s. After the Stallone film was made of that book, he himself wrote the novelizations for both Rambo: First Blood part 2, and Rambo 3. Another horror movie novelization that I read repeatedly was THE OMEN by David Seltzer. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK even got a novelization by Campbell Black. Alan Dean Foster seemed to do exceptionally well with film novelizations. I had several written by him including ALIEN, ALIENS, PALE RIDER, OUTLAND, STAR WARS, and THE BLACK HOLE.

Here’s a quote from Alan Dean Foster about taking film novelization jobs:
“I took it for two reasons. First, because I was a young writer and I needed to make a living. And because, as [a fan], I got to make my own director’s cut. I got to fix the science mistakes, I got to enlarge on the characters, if there was a scene I particularly liked, I got to do more of it, and I had an unlimited budget. So it was fun.”

There were also movie tie-in books called FOTONOVELS. I got into them as a young kid collecting a series of these based on the original Star Trek series. These ‘books’ were literally just a collection of hundreds of color stills from the film in chronological order. The dialogue was written on each photo like comic book styled balloons. They are essentially storyboards of the entire movie, but with actual frames from the movie instead of charcoal or pencil sketches. The one I remember reading a lot was the FOTONOVEL of STAR TREK 2: THE WRATH OF KHAN. My copy actually had a significant mistake in it. A portion of the book was out-of-order. 20-30 pages of the story happened way before it occurs in the film. There were no page numbers in this book, but since I had seen the film in theaters twice when it came out in 1982, I knew the story well. The pages were put in the wrong order. I wonder if that book with that printing error would be worth money now. I probably should have hung onto that.

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There were Fotonovels of the first 12 episodes of Star Trek, then the first two Star Trek films. I also had the Fotonovel of the INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS remake and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. These were all paperback-sized books. Then there were some larger format ones called Movie Novels of the films ALIEN and OUTLAND. I pored over these photos, especially focusing on the special effects and gore shots. These two books were from violent rated R films, so I was riveted by the detailed photos. Sometimes a shot will only show for a second in the film, so it’s almost subliminal. But these books had bright color pics of the chestburster scene in ALIEN and the depressurized heads exploding in OUTLAND. The amazing set design and alien design by H.R. Giger in ALIEN was also on gorgeous display in the Movie Novel. Prior to the arrival of VHS players, this was really the only way we had of reliving and analyzing the films.

After watching the great Roman Polanski film CHINATOWN, I was moved to read all I could about it. It’s a confusing movie with shielded character motivations, and the political machinations of the water bureau and Noah Cross passed over my head as a pre-teen. This was a pretty adult movie for my little kid brain to absorb. This movie wasn’t based on a book. Robert Towne wrote the screenplay. It is commonly regarded as the greatest screenplay ever written, and is studied in film schools as such. This was long before you could just look up any screenplay on the internet. I tracked down a company that printed up screenplays and sent them a check for $30 for the script to Chinatown. It came in the mail and I stayed up all that night reading it. Hearing the actors speak the lines in my head. Singing the Jerry Goldsmith musical themes (that trumpet!). Visualizing the amazing actors bringing these words to life. The screenplay really was just a bound paper script like actors would use on set. I learned the art of the screenplay format from reading this repeatedly. The way you indent, center, and list character lines so the actors can easily find their parts. The way you set the scene with location, time of day/weather (INTERIOR. OFFICE – NIGHT.). The short descriptive sentences written to get the point across without the flowery over-descriptive paragraphs like in a book. The brief stage directions for dialogue like ‘mocking’, ‘sing-song voice’, ‘wounded and sad’. The screenplay reads as a simple detective story that gets more intricate and complicated as you go. The movie improved and expanded it to film noir. After devouring the screenplay I watched Chinatown again, armed with all the knowledge gleaned from reading it. I loved it even more, and I still regard it as one of the best films ever made.

I would also buy all of the Art of Star Wars books as a kid. The original three Star Wars films changed my life, cinema itself, and marketing/merchandising forever. I found everything I could related to these films from action figures to models to comics and books. Each film put out books about the special effects and set design. Then there were Star Wars sketchbooks. These had what appeared to be legitimate blueprints and sketches of all the ships and vehicles to scale. Even if a ship was only glimpsed for 5 seconds in the movie, it had a toy made of it and pages dedicated to showing its design and function. Later, when I went to college, I was an architecture major for a year. I wonder if my obsessions with the Star Wars schematics had anything to do with that choice. I also collected the screenplays. These were often accompanied by color photographs from the films, and black and white storyboards of the onscreen action. Again, this was really the only way for fans to relive the experience of the films since this was before the emergence of the VHS home video market. You couldn’t just go watch your favorite movie whenever you wanted to. You just had to wait for a rare theatrical re-release, or watch an edited TV version if and when it aired on a network.

There were some storyboards in the Empire Strikes Back illustrated screenplay that actually changed my memory of the movie. In the battle on Hoth with the Imperial Walkers there was, at one point, a scene where a snowspeeder pilot becomes wounded and intentionally flies his ship into the window of one of the AT-AT walkers. This kills the pilots, causes the entire head of the walker to explode, and takes down one more walker during that famous battle. I don’t think this scene was ever filmed, but there are storyboards of it in this book. That would’ve had the rebels taking out 3 of the 5 walkers, and been a great addition to that battle. The first walker is destroyed by using tow cables to trip it, and the second walker is destroyed by Luke throwing explosives inside. Because, “That armor’s too strong for blasters.” In any case, since I had read this screenplay and soaked in the storyboards of this snowspeeder suicide attack, I burned it into my memory a little too well. I convinced myself that this scene actually was in the movie. Or honestly, it could have been storyboards in that art book just as well as it could have been on a BBC radio production. I listened to those on the radio as well, and later bought the cassette tapes. Maybe it was in the novelization, or the comic books, or the Story of Empire, or some Starlog Magazine article. But this kamikaze snow speeder takedown of an Imperial Walker was definitely absorbed by me as a kid. It wasn’t until years later when I saw Empire again on VHS that I realized that scene wasn’t actually in the movie. (Or, George Lucas had tinkered with his movies even more and removed the scene.) Imagination paired with obsession can do strange things to a person’s memory.

I could keep writing about this topic, but I may need to take a break and actually watch a movie. Or read a book about a movie. We shall see.

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SHOOT (1976)

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“One shot and the world gets smaller.”
   –Marilyn Manson, ‘The Reflecting God”

I was going down the rabbit-hole of 70’s films on YouTube and obscure film lists on Letterboxd when I discovered Shoot. This 1976 gem of paranoia and violence fits right in with so many other beloved classics of that decade. I have no idea how it is that I’ve never seen this movie before. As a kid, I would have read the movie listings in the paper guide and been attracted to it simply by its title. That’s sort of how I would choose films back in those days. Alas, I’d never even heard of this Canadian film until now. It is obscure enough that you can’t find it for purchase anywhere. It’s not available on DVD at all, and VHS tapes of it are probably scarce as well. The only place it can currently be seen is a questionable-quality upload on YouTube. It was based on a book by Douglas Fairbairn.

The tagline sets up the simple story pretty well.
“A thriller that begins where Deliverance left off.”

The cast is led by Cliff Robertson. He won the Academy Award for best actor in 1968’s Charly. He also starred in Three Days of the Condor, Obsession, and Midway. But for me, I will always think of his as Hugh Hefner in the 1980 Bob Fosse film Star 80. Ernest Borgnine is also on the team as the voice of reason and restraint. Casting Borgnine was perfect, as people would remember his as ‘Dutch’ in Sam Peckinpah’s classic The Wild Bunch. He also won the Academy Award for best actor in 1955’s film Marty. And Henry Silva is the hot head of the group. He starred as various bad guys for decades, but I remember him best as the coke-fueled assassin in Sharky’s Machine. These three actors were cast perfectly, a believable collection of men’s men.

A group of 5 men go on a hunting trip and encounter another hunting party. Mistakes are made, and one man is killed in a brief shootout. But then it gets very interesting as the men go about trying to determine what to do next. They debate the implications of killing a man out in the forest and reporting it or waiting to see if the other group does. The paranoia grows. Secrets are kept, investigations mounted, alliances formed, motivations questioned, moral issues debated, and violence planned. There is a post-Vietnam malaise of veterans returned from the war with no outlet for their training or fighting instincts. I was often reminded of First Blood, especially the novel by David Morrell.

I wonder if Michael Cimino saw this film, as it came out two years before his classic, The Deer Hunter. The scenes of 5 friends going on a hunting trip, each of varied levels of skill and dedication, are strikingly similar. I almost expected Cliff Robertson to say, “A deer’s gotta be taken with one shot.” Except in The Deer Hunter they do find and shoot a deer. In Shoot, they never find anything. But when they find another hunting party, they end up killing one of them. A theme of this film seem to be that guns are meant to be fired eventually, and if men cannot find animal prey to shoot at they will shoot at each other. Humans are, after all, the most dangerous game.

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There is a scene in Sam Peckinpah’s western classic Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid that seems to be a direct influence on this movie. In Bloody Sam’s 1973 movie, James Coburn watches a family on a boat float by on the river. The man on the boat is target shooting at empty bottles that his son is tossing in the river. Coburn decides to also fire at the bottle. Earlier in the film he did the same thing when coming up on his friends target shooting at chickens. Coburn’s character (unseen by his friends) started shooting at the chickens to surprise them. Back on the river, the man on the boat becomes scared at this stranger on the shore firing a gun, so he takes a shot at Coburn. His family hides on the boat. Coburn grabs his rifle and prepares to fire back but doesn’t. Both men size each other up and think about what just happened and what could possibly happen. They each hold their rifles and the boat passes down the river without further incident. They watch each other with understanding. This is a very elegiac and poetic scene in a film about changing times. I am happily surprised that a producer didn’t cut this scene.

Three years later, in Shoot, we have a very similar encounter. Our team of 5 hunters who are bored and frustrated at not finding any deer discover another team of 5 hunters across the river. They size each other up. Both groups are wearing green camouflage clothing and orange wool caps. It’s a surreal mirror image. Ernest Borgnine’s character even states, “They look just like us.” Then one of the other men fires on our team and hits a character in the head. Everyone shoots back and a firefight ensues. The original shooter is shot in the forehead and dragged off. Borgnine keeps yelling, “NO! NO!” which reminded me of Warren Oates yelling the same thing during his shootout in Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head of Alfred Garcia. Random violence broke out for no reason. Did one team think the other team was trespassing on their land? Trying to kill them? Were they guarding a drug lab? Did they just want to kill a stranger? We will never know, and that actually isn’t important. Unexplained misunderstandings and ‘hunting accidents’ happen. Boredom, machismo, brotherhood, and violence bubbling just under everyone’s skin caused this. Vietnam veterans probably suffering from PTSD with no outlet for their rage and training. A national obsession and worship of guns and firepower. Add in themes of tribalism and territoriality and this all could be an allegory for most wars of the last few decades. There is usually no turning back after an initial act of violence and death happens.

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Even though this is decidedly a man’s movie, three women characters are given very interesting counterpoints to the male characters. Cliff Robertson learns of the funeral service for the man who was killed on the riverbank and goes to meet the widow. He poses as an old friend to learn what she knew about the killing, and whether the other men in that group are plotting revenge. Kate Reid just about steals the show as the widow. She reveals that the men have described the incident as a stray bullet causing an accidental killing. The way she asks him “Are you a hunter, sir?”, is both wounded and defiant. Grieving and drunk, she talks about sleeping with a gun under her pillow. She gets in an interesting discussion about 2nd amendment gun rights and her fear of crime and drug users. Typical conservative philosophy. She makes racist comments blaming minorities for crime in general, and babbles about hippies deserving what they get. It’s a fascinating scene, and very well acted.

Another interesting scene is when Cliff Robertson’s wife says to him, “Why are you home early on a Saturday night? Is it that time of the month for your friend?” We immediately know that their marriage is ending or over, and he has a mistress, but the wife still remains there. They are clearly only together for their daughter, and the wife’s misguided hope that it will get better. He implies that one of them could move out and she says, “I prefer it this way.” He may be primarily absent, but at least he is there sometimes.

Then Helen Shaver puts in a stellar performance with her one brief scene. She plays an acquaintance of the main character trying to get a job from Cliff Robertson, and she comes on to him strong. It turns out she doesn’t even want the job, she just wants him. She’s full of flirty comments, promises, and allusions. She tries to seduce him in an office and does a lot with very little. He resists her blatant offers for sexual involvement. I was so impressed with her performance here, it’s such a tour de force. I’d love to know if this scene was scripted this way, or if there was some improvisation. Shoot appears to be her first major studio film, so this was a great debut of a talented new actress.

Ernest Borgnine (Lew) gives a stunning speech late in the film during a planning meeting of the team. Cliff Robertson (Rex) is planning on how to get weapons and additional men to go out and ambush the enemy. It’s a study of the concept of groupthink. Everybody is just going along with the insane plans except Borgnine’s character. He listens to the plans and struggles with it before finally trying one last time to talk them out of it. He continues to resist the group’s trajectory towards more violence, and debates their potential actions eloquently and passionately. His monologue is logical but heartfelt, and very convincing. This scene alone is worth watching the movie for.

Rex: “But if one of those guys fires one shot…just one shot. God help ’em.”
Lew: “No…God better help YOU. Because you WANT it to happen.”

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While arranging to get their veterinarian friend to treat the head wound and debating what to do about the incident, Cliff Robertson says “I do respect Pete’s bleeding head, and Lew’s bleeding heart.” That summarizes the balance perfectly as the main character tries to placate all opinions. Revenge vs. Mercy. I don’t think the film is actually taking a position philosophically. I think militaristic gun-loving people can enjoy the film as well as pacifist liberals. One could find the film celebrating this gun-culture machismo, or one could find the film condemning and criticizing it. There are certainly scenes of men cleaning their guns and valuing firepower above all else. And conversely there are scenes vocalizing and damning the ludicrous actions taken by fearful men. Obvious connections to fascism with one dictatorial leader are present, and I was also reminded of the fascistic leanings of the first Dirty Harry film in 1971. The scenes of violence can be enjoyed as in an action movie, or judged as man’s brutal inhumanity to man. It’s the moral and philosophical questions the film raises that interested me the most. I also thought of similar films like Southern Comfort and Red Dawn, as well as the obvious comparisons to Deliverance and First Blood. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s one you probably haven’t seen and should.

This film follows in the steps of many other great 70’s films of a certain bleak grit. Taxi Driver, released the same year, was the story of a sociopathic Vietnam Vet having trouble fitting into the world and taking on a cause. It ends in an infamous bloodbath. Soldier Blue was a western that builds to a gut-wrenchingly violent climax. Straw Dogs is another uncomfortable Peckinpah film that builds up to the riveting violent conclusion. Deliverance, Death Wish, Dirty Harry, and Rolling Thunder (released after Shoot) all have violent denouements that aren’t particularly happy endings. Even if you win, you lose. Often at the cost of your soul.

Here is the only online version that I could find. I sincerely hope this film gets a DVD/BluRay release soon.

Film Geek: Expert Level

Do you want to know what level of film geek I am? Expert.

Here’s a recent example.
While watching the film Spirited Away in theaters, I heard the exact same musical cue as used in the movie Death Wish.
Spirited Away is a 2001 Japanese animated kid’s movie from 2001 by Hayao Miyazaki under Studio Ghibli.
Death Wish is a 1974 Charles Bronson vigilante movie by Michael Winner.

I went home afterwards and put in my Blu-Rays of both films to confirm what I heard. Sure enough, it’s the exact same music.
THE. EXACT. SAME. MUSIC.
It’s done on piano. It’s just two chords. Just a few short seconds. But it’s so memorable in Death Wish that I can recall it whether I’ve seen that movie recently or not. Kind of like most of us can start humming The Imperial March from the Star Wars movies on cue. I can do that with this theme from Death Wish. Herbie Hancock composed the music for Death Wish, so he can pursue the copyright infringement case if he wants to.

If you want to check it yourself, please do.
DEATH WISH: At the 35:04 mark. Bronson is in the shooting range for target practice in preparation for becoming a vigilante. He says to his friend, “I loved my father.” He fires the gun. The piano cue plays on the soundtrack. It’s this scene right here:

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SPIRITED AWAY: At the 5:38 mark. Young Chihiro is walking through the dark scary tunnel with her parents. They emerge from the tunnel and pause in a large room with colored windows and benches. They walk across the room to the exit. The piano cue plays on the soundtrack.

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These two films couldn’t have less to do with each other. And I’m not even really suggesting that one copied the other. I’m just happy to notice and recognize a grouping of notes that was used by two different film composers decades apart from two different countries. It’s bound to happen. There are only so many notes and chords, after all. But damn if I didn’t make a surprised face as I watched the kid’s anime, heard the cue, and thought immediately of Charles Bronson blowing away muggers in New York City. Which is the absolute last thing that I should be thinking of during that movie.

I suppose if you really wanted to stretch for another similarity between the two films, you could make a case that Charles Bronson is No-Face.

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All I do know is, if there’s ever a trivia question asking what the movies Death Wish and Spirited Away have in common, I’m taking home the prize.