Microsoft Rewards – Your Story Matters

If you use Bing as a search engine, you accrue what are called “Microsoft Points” — get enough, and you can redeem them for gift cards, things like that. Recently, I got a prompt from Microsoft:

“Your story matters to us. We love getting to know our fans! Just click in the section that’s most relevant to your favorite Microsoft story, and tell us all about it. To thank you for sharing, we’ll award you 500 bonus points!”

Never one to turn down an opportunity, I decided to take part. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a good Microsoft story, so I wrote this one instead:

Once I went down to the dog pound to find a dog to bring home with me as a gift to my young son, who wanted nothing more in the world than a dog of his own to cuddle and play with. I found the right dog on the second floor of what can only be called an enormous doggie prison, where so many poor animals were crammed together in tiny cages, the weakest shivering in the back corners while the strongest and proudest rattled the bars and nuzzled small, dented metal cups ahead of them, waiting for the smallest charity.

I saw my son’s future friend in the last cage I visited, huddled with two doggie friends and communicating in hurried and desperate doggie whispers. “Woof,” they whispered. “Woof woof woof…” Their eyes flitted to and fro, and I knew that this was no normal doggie whispering, that I had, in fact, stumbled upon a doggie prison break.

Well, my own father had been a corrections officer, and he’d been stabbed to death during an attempted prison break, and I never forgot the look in my mother’s eyes when she heard the terrible news. “No…” she mouthed, as tears ran down her porcelain cheeks.

Cruel memory causing me the deepest pain, I dropped to my knees, shouted “NO! NEVER AGAIN!” and pointed right at the ringleader. “THIS IS THE DOG! THIS ONE! I SHALL ADOPT THIS ONE!” That dog turned toward me, horrified, then looked back at his fellows. They all froze, caught. My sneer pulled up into a smile of triumph. One of the guards came over, opened the door, and wrestled that treacherous pooch out of the cage. His friends were too weak to put up much of a struggle, and I was assured that they would both be put down within the week, leaving them no real time to pull together a new plan, particularly without the smart one to help them along.

My son loved that dog, but the dog never warmed to him. It even bit him once, and while my son hoped that I would have mercy, the truth was that I never trusted that damn dog, anyway. He was bitter in a way that good dogs just aren’t. I drove him up the highway one night, and left him in the woods. As I opened the door to my car and slipped behind the wheel, a flash of lightning illuminated a grizzly bear as it loomed over that dog. I heard a yelp, and I knew that nature had solved the problem for me.

Anyway, I used a Microsoft computer to look up the address of that pound. And my son used a Microsoft computer to post on message boards about his missing dog.

Darling

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That Friday in July was just one of those nights. I was antsy, and I wanted to go out, but I delayed and delayed until chasing the night was pointless. At about midnight, I decided to watch a movie.

Netflix recommended something called Darling to me; Darling was one of the most well-received horror films of the year. “The Best Horror Film of 2016!!!” screamed multiple outlets.

It started off pretty well, with really stark black and white photography and the presence of Lauren Ashley Carter, a talented and striking actress who’s built a career out of being the horror film analog of, say, NBA player DeMarcus Cousins, a talented big man who puts up great stats on bad teams. Speaking as someone who’s sat through Jug Face and The Woman a couple times apiece, I can attest to her strength and grace as a performer. And like Cousins, who so readily elicits takes predicated on the notion that he’d be better served as the second option on a better team—because despite his immense talent, he’s never proven himself capable of dragging one of his sad collections of basketball misfits to the playoffs the way, say, a LeBron James has—, Carter fails to bring Darling off; she is committed and game, but it doesn’t matter, as the movie surrounding her is content to parrot Repulsion, but with Roman Polanski’s supreme control of atmosphere and tension and his sense of humor replaced by baffling and uncomfortable long takes and a self-seriousness determined to belie Carter’s miraculously effective, wide-eyed performance. I could imagine her in consultation with the director:

“Now, in this scene, you roll around on this small bed, screaming and crying, until I say cut.”

“…why?”

“Because it’s CREEPY.”

<Carter’s return smile is half-wince. She throws herself onto the bed, and begins yelling and weeping, grasping desperately at any small motivation she can, channeling the spirit of Margery Kempe, taking solace in the idea that there is some religious fervor in her pantomime madness. After five minutes of this, without hearing “cut,” she catches a glimpse of the director from the corner of her eye. He has contorted his body remarkably. His face is buried firmly in his crotch, and he is inhaling deeply.>

Midway through the film, I paused it, and I called my friend Lila, a talented writer whose sardonic wit and ability to appreciate my rants as they flit between apoplectic rage at the most minor deficiencies of the world and self-indulgent moaning about the most minor physical ailments has helped carry me through more than one depressing evening at home.

Lila listened—bemused, I’m sure—as I interrupted her assuredly more interesting evening to rattle off an increasingly unhinged list of grievances, ostensibly directed at the movie, but driven perhaps in part by a skin condition I’d developed over the waning summer months, something that seemed like prickly heat, the kind of thing that you scratch, and then don’t scratch, and then someone suggests that you soak your arms in cold water with powdered oatmeal and you listen because Gold Bond and Hydrocortisone haven’t worked, and it’s Friday at midnight, and the irritation is immense. My arms air-dried as I paced to and fro; the oatmeal clung to my skin in off-white streaks.

“Just turn the movie off, Manny. You don’t need to do this to yourself. You can go to bed. You can read. Darling isn’t worth it.”

“No, Lila. I can’t. It makes me too angry. If I stop now, I can’t effectively complain about it. I have to let it run its course. The movie is only 70 minutes long as it is, and I’m more than halfway through. I won’t let it beat me.”

“Boiling this down to some sort of nihilistic competition is insanity. There are no natural laws at work here. There is no course. It is all man’s creation. Just stop.”

“Enough! The rally is downtown, sister, not in this house. Take your bleating elsewhere!”

“The rally is within us all. And it is quieter than you realize.”

After we hung up, I listened carefully to the beating of my heart. It fluttered. Was my inability to shut off this thoroughly mediocre and over-hyped film school experiment a symptom of a larger problem? I sat, and I pressed play. I began to scratch one of the scaly lesions on my right arm. The oatmeal flaked away, and the flesh beneath was red and raw.

 

 

The Exorcist III (Shout Factory Blu-Ray)

exorcistiiice

(I pitched this review to Slant Magazine, but never got a response—with the disc having been out for nearly two months at this point, I have my doubts that Slant will be picking it up, so I figure I’ll get it some air by posting it here.)

Beneath the shocking effects of the original Exorcist, there rests a simple story about the power of faith in our lives, and the means through which we confront evil. When William Peter Blatty—writer of the novel and screenplay upon which William Friedkin’s film is based—decided to take a crack at adapting his follow-up novel, Legion, for the screen, it was this aspect of the story that he chose to highlight. The novel is an examination of what Blatty calls “the problem of evil”—why it exists, what purpose it serves, how an ostensibly good and righteous God can allow it—wrapped up in the trappings of a supernatural murder mystery. It is quiet and contemplative where The Exorcist is abrasive and visceral.

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The film version, written and directed by Blatty and ultimately titled The Exorcist III, is, until its climax, similarly constructed. The Exorcist III is a film of ideas and dialogue, of men of various levels of faith wrestling with the often ugly realities of the world they inhabit. Lt. Bill Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb in the original film; George C. Scott here) is a Washington, D.C., police detective investigating a series of gruesome murders that bear a striking resemblance to killings committed fifteen years earlier by the since-executed Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif). Details indicate that the current spate of killings is not the work of a copycat. Kinderman’s investigation—and the trail of murders—leads him to a hospital where, in the mental ward, he discovers a patient who may very well be Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller, reprising his role from the original)—a patient who forces him to confront long-buried demons and reassess his own beliefs.

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Blatty handles this material with the confidence and sure hand of a seasoned director, despite having directed only one previous film (the Golden Globe–winning The Ninth Configuration in 1980). The Exorcist III is heavy on atmosphere and masterfully conveys a sense of dread—particularly during a justly famous scare scene that is shot almost entirely from one camera set-up in a hospital corridor. The performances are roundly excellent—especially those of Scott and Dourif, who bring life to exposition-heavy dialogue scenes that might have dragged in the hands of lesser actors. Also of note is Ed Flanders in the role of Father Dyer, whose friendship with Kinderman offers both a welcome source of levity in a film preoccupied with such serious concerns and an opportunity for Blatty to indulge in the sort of humorous writing that was his bread and butter early in his career (before The Exorcist cast him as a serious horror writer, Blatty wrote comic novels, and co-wrote A Shot in the Dark with Blake Edwards).

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Production company Morgan Creek was less enamored of Blatty’s quirky, quiet vision, and puzzled that a film entitled The Exorcist III (against Blatty’s wishes) did not contain an exorcism scene. Either Blatty was forced to shoot one himself, or one was shot without him (stories differ), but as a result, the climax is a special effects extravaganza that sits uncomfortably next to the remainder of the film. Nicol Williamson is hastily shoe-horned into the proceedings as Father Mourning, who heroically confronts the evil (as well as snakes, an exploding Bible, and some flesh-ripping) until Kinderman can arrive for an explosive, rain-drenched denouement.

Studio tinkering turned The Exorcist III into something it was never meant to be, but in spite of this, what remains—however flawed—is a thoughtful and creepy film that has achieved cult status and garnered its share of critical appreciation by relying on suspense, ideas, and creative direction.

IMAGE/SOUND:
Shout Factory’s Blu-ray is an upgrade from the previous Warner Bros edition of the film, but not a significant one. Flesh tones are warmer, and the contrast is stronger, but the transfer is darker, particularly in indoor scenes. On the audio end, Shout Factory offers both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 mixes, both of which provide great fidelity, though the surround track seems strangely focused on the front and center, only periodically dipping into the side and rear channels, which is disappointing for a film with such great and often hair-raising sound design.

EXTRAS:
Disc 1 of this Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of The Exorcist III includes a new 2K scan of the inter-positive of the theatrical edition, as well as a vintage featurette and interviews, TV spots, theatrical trailers, and deleted and alternate scenes. But the biggest news here is the long-awaited release of a Director’s Cut, included on Disc 2. According to Shout Factory:

We conducted an exhaustive search through a pallet of film assets from the original shoot to re-create William Peter Blatty’s intended vision. Unfortunately, that footage has been lost to time. To that end, we turned to VHS tapes of the film’s dailies to assemble the director’s cut. However, even some of that footage was incomplete, so scenes from the theatrical re-shoot were used to fill in the gaps. This director’s cut is a composite of varying footage quality from the best available sources.

Shout Factory has done a commendable job in its creation of this version of the film, and it is certainly a must-watch for fans, but the variable nature of the image quality has the unfortunate effect of hurting the atmosphere that is one of the film’s primary strengths. As a result, the Director’s Cut is more of an interesting curio than a revelation, though it is instructive to see how Blatty originally structured the film, particularly for those familiar with the novel, Legion; besides the alternate climax, some scenes are rearranged, and much of Brad Dourif’s performance (which was reshot for the theatrical version) has here been replaced with takes from the dailies. Also, in both versions, the final shot leaves the film somewhat open-ended, though in the Director’s Cut, the implications are much different.

A far-reaching interview with Blatty that touches on the production, his relationships with several of the actors, his thoughts on filmmaking and writing, and his faith can be played as a commentary over the Director’s Cut.

Additionally, Disc 2 includes a recent interview with Dourif in which he discusses the intricacies of his performance during the original shoot and his lingering discontent with the released version of the film (he essentially had to recreate his entire performance in a different location on very short notice), as well as his relationship with Blatty and his opinions on the various controversies surrounding the production.

A featurette about the reshoot relies on interviews with production manager Ronald Colby (who was brought into oversee the filming of the new climax) and editor Todd Ramsay, neither of whom was particularly impressed with Blatty’s original version of the film and whose commentary offers an interesting counterpoint to the mostly pro-Blatty slant of the other features (though much of their criticism of Blatty as a director indicates that neither is aware that he had previously directed a film).

Also of note is a featurette devoted to composer Barry DeVorzon’s chilling score.

OVERALL:
William Blatty’s The Exorcist III is a smart, scary, and atmospheric thriller that, despite its flaws, manages to step out of the long shadow of the original classic. The release of the Director’s Cut sheds long-awaited light on Blatty’s original intentions and highlights his oft-overlooked strength as a filmmaker.

Lady Haley

Some ghosts don’t haunt you; instead, they walk at your side, and they live a simultaneous existence, one that you never see clearly, one that you gather in snippets, in small messages, sometimes glimpsed between lines of text that seem banal until their full weight hits you in the middle of the night; it’s a weight that rouses you from a fitful sleep and sends you to your porch to sit under the street lights, and despite the discomfiting feelings that come with having been awoken by whispers that are not really whispers, you pull that weight around you, and it’s warm, and it shields you from the cool night air.

I know such a ghost. Her silhouette is long and narrow and draped in garments that highlight her otherworldly nature, and she steps along the dusty ground of the desert with what seems like conviction and purpose. Her smile is warm but inscrutable, and her eyes, though they sparkle, are deep black pools that betray nothing. And yet, there is a tentativeness that accompanies her movements, because her purpose is not a purpose, but a search, and one that may never end.

At night she lives with me; while I sleep, I can feel her breathe, but when I’m awake her breath is distant, and she is words on a page, or photos on a screen. All of this seems like it should be so simple, and yet somehow it isn’t.

Joan Didion once wrote: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I am not usually one for quotes, particularly ones so calcified as that one, but in writing this, it struck me.

A Word on “Creative Nonfiction”

“Creative Nonfiction” is a bullshit phrase invented by MFA professors to sell gullible students on unnecessary writing courses. There is already a term for what “Creative Nonfiction” accomplishes: Fiction. For centuries, writers have taken true-to-life occurrences and exaggerated them and mixed them with flights of fancy to create a narrative—this is called fiction.

And there’s nothing wrong with it! Fiction is wonderful, and should be celebrated, and its practitioners should be proud. “Creative Nonfiction” is a phrase borne of an inferiority complex—the realm of people cowed by the idea that fiction is somehow less-than; it is the refuge of people who wish to call themselves journalists, but who are too lazy to do research. It is a phrase that should be shot into the sun.

Write fiction, my friends; enjoy the process! It is one of our great gifts as a species. But please, do not try to convince me that it is something else.

Nova Express by Andre Perkowski

I have been absolutely, positively obsessed by these fragments lately, and I yearn to see the full version, should it ever show somewhere again. Mr. Perkowski, if you’re out there, watching, listening, reading, please tell me how I can see this all of a piece.

Perkowski seems an interesting cat—the king of repurposed footage. The stuff that he’s shot by himself leaves me cold, for the most part, but work like this, and his Silent Shadow of the Bat series, is absolutely brilliant.

Mlle Lefebvre

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I went on a date last night, an early one, to happy hour at this place called The Falls in Downtown Los Angeles. I hate downtown; until recently, I’ve enjoyed Los Angeles primarily because of the sense of indifference it seems to have had toward the insults of other cities—New York and San Francisco in particular breed a certain kind of person, the kind who looks at Los Angeles and sneers because it’s “not a real city” or some such nonsense. I’ve always liked that about Los Angeles. What is a real city? Does it have to have a specific center? Must it be well-defined? Los Angeles always felt avant-garde to me because of its lack of a center. Incoherence has never been to me any kind of wall—more like a peephole. And so I’ve spent the last 15 years enjoying Los Angeles.

But Downtown puts the lie to LA’s attitude. Downtown Los Angeles, since its revitalization, has become desperate and sad. “Please love me, New York and San Francisco,” it cries. And it’s a bunch of bullshit. A similar sort of thing is happening to Hollywood now. There’s a plan to turn the building where Amoeba Music is into a giant glass high-rise, because apparently the future of Los Angeles and Hollywood is a series of anonymous glass high-rises. This is necessary because of the influx of NY and SF ex-pats. “If you don’t like what it’s becoming, then leave!” they say. But why should I have to leave? I liked LA as it was. If you don’t like LA the way it was, why come here? It’s maddening, and it reduces the town to a bullshit status symbol.

I’m more cynical than this, usually, and more resigned, but it bothers me. But downtown, despite its faults, is convenient. And that’s why I met my date down there, because it was between us. Maybe the city does need a center. Maybe I’m a dinosaur.

My date was this beautiful Belgian girl whom I’ve been out with several times at this point. What is our relationship? Who knows? But she is beautiful, and funny, and has a crooked smile and long, messy, brown hair. I’m not sure that we have much to discuss. We’ve got past the point at which we’ve shared personal stories and have moved into the “here and now” portion of dating, but neither of us seems to have a ton going on—that lends itself to fascinating stories, at least. She drinks, but I do not, so usually what happens is that she gets two classes of chardonnay in while I stay sober, and she reveals a lot of herself and then stops and yells at me about not revealing enough, despite me having revealed quite a bit, I think. But I am naturally more reserved, and without drink more inhibited, so maybe she’s right.

What I’ve learned is that she is rather bitchy, and pretentious, or so she says. I can see why she’d say it, but I like her anyway, so maybe she’s right and I’m just willing to overlook it. Does this have any sort of future? I have no idea, and I don’t really worry about it. Mostly I just like to watch her, because she is a fascinating creature. I don’t even care what she’s talking about a lot of the time, just that she’s talking and her teeth are beautifully imperfect, and her hair is a mess, and sometimes there’s a pencil holding it in place and sometimes not.

Last night I promised her a knock-knock joke, and I almost didn’t deliver. She hated my first attempt, and mocked me for being unable to follow it up, but I came up with a solid one later on and got a pass, which I was more happy about than I am now comfortable admitting. Christ, am I a people pleaser? This date was different from previous ones because she stood more fully revealed, in all her bitchy, pretentious glory. Before, there was a pleasant veneer, and I thought she was a nicer person, and so this time it took me a little time to catch up to the atmosphere. Once I was there, though, we traded insults for a long while, and snide comments, and shared some laughs before I walked her to a sushi restaurant, where she was meeting a friend in town from Mexico, named Ivan. Ivan looks like some ridiculous hippie type with a rope necklace and long wavy hair. I don’t know if he’s her friend or her friend, but I’m not particularly concerned. He seems nice enough, in a Eurotrashy sort of way.

I don’t know when I’m going to see her again. Part of me wants to take her bowling; she expressed an interest once, and I want to watch her body while she bowls. I really don’t know who she is or what she’s after. But dating I think is more fun when it’s about meeting interesting people instead of interviewing for the job of “boyfriend” or “husband.” I may never see her again, and that’s okay. But Lord knows I could use more Belgian disasters in my life.

Anise

Oh, Anise,
Would you be so kind
As to listen
As I unburden myself?

As this dance, which lingers—
Malformed—
In my mind
Takes from me that lasting dignity:
What remains of the rhythm
That animates my spirit?

Or would you sigh,
Anise,
And stroke your eyebrows
As my thoughts—
Vaporous—
Dissolved before you?

As my throat constricted,
Would you fall into reverie,
Content with your own dance—
Graceful—
And delicate—
And elusive—?

Walt Disney of the Amphetamine Age

I had reached a point in my fame at which party attendance was no longer mandatory to sustain my mystique. It was a strange position. After years of cocktails and small, empty talk with would-be artists about the maddening circular logic of the world, all that was left for me was to sit in the dusty corners of my studio, dreaming of projects that would never be.

Once, I picked up a newspaper, and I read that there would be a party at the Statue of Liberty. Intrigued, I began to dress, but midway through my preparations, I received word from the gossip sites that I was already there. My presence already confirmed, there was nothing to do but get back to work, and so my evening jacket slid from my shoulders and before it hit the ground I was sitting in front of a canvas that would remain blank for the rest of my days.

Sometime later, I was alerted to an exhibition of my work at one of the small, hip galleries that had begun to dot the downtown landscape: sad, white spaces filled with cardboard boxes painted lavender and repurposed sewer grates and rain gutters sprayed chrome silver that glinted in harsh fluorescent light. It seemed odd that my simple paintings would be of interest to the half-mad proprietors of these over-hyped storage spaces, but what was even more perplexing was that the work on display was advertised as brand new, when, in fact, every last bit of it had been completed and shown a decade before. As I stood before the open door and scratched my head at the “ooh”s and “aah”s of the growing crowd, someone tapped my shoulder. I turned and faced an art critic who’d interviewed me a number of times over the years.

“Isn’t it wonderful,” he asked, “that this work would debut here? That after all his success, he’s still willing to work with small galleries? The man is a treasure.”

I smiled and nodded, and as the critic pushed his way into the tiny space, I looked over my right shoulder at a sandwich board next to the door, which prominently featured my face.

I returned to my studio, to find a message left for me — a note thanking me for my contribution to a charity auction, and declaring that surely a new piece by someone of my stature would bring in a great deal of money for the foundation. Enclosed with the note was a photograph of the man who’d sent it, standing next to the first piece I’d ever sold, a piece that I’d long thought lost, hung as it had been on the walls of an old Tudor destroyed in a terrible storm. I called the number at the top of the letterhead, confused, and I asked to speak to the gentleman.

When I identified myself, I was told that it was quite impossible for me to be me, as I was already there, in the office, speaking to the man I wished to speak to. The voice at the other end of the line wished me a good day and hung up.

Quite impossible though it may have been, I made my way down to the foundation to confront myself. The foundation in my sights, I squared my shoulders and marched to the door. As I entered, I glanced, casually, at one of the television screens in the lobby, which was turned to a cable news station. Breaking News was announced in large, red letters. It seems I had died, the victim of a sudden cardiac event. I felt sweat along my brow; I couldn’t remember the last time I’d experienced that sensation, and my knees felt weak, and suddenly the light through the glass panes that lined the office was very bright. I sat in one of the lobby chairs, sank into the cushion, and wiped my brow.

A man in shirtsleeves and a red vest noticed me from his position behind the information desk, and came to check on me.

“Are you all right, sir?”

I looked at the television screen, and then I looked at him and said, “To tell you the truth, I’m not certain.”

He looked at the television screen, too, and then returned his attention to me. “Yes, it’s a shame when a man like that dies. It’s difficult to process that even someone so influential is ultimately just a person.”

A recently photo of me flashed across the screen. The man in the vest asked, “Did you know him? Or were you a fan?”

“A little of both,” I said.

I undid the top button of my shirt. “I’m feeling a bit peckish. Can you bring me a glass of water?”

“I already have, sir,” he replied. “It’s on the table next to you.”

I looked at the table. The glass was there, but it was nearly empty. I lifted my fingers to my lips. They were moist, though I didn’t recall licking them. The news announced a memorial service in my honor.