Nomadic Homes

During the daylight hours I spend my time in the Sales Department at TASCHEN, working out of the offices on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood. We are currently in Sales Conference, where many of the books for the coming season are presented to the reps that they might begin pre-selling. Most of the prominent and important titles are presented by their editors, but the ones that aren’t quite as major are presented by the reps.

This time around, I drew Nomadic Homes, which is a compilation of photos and essays and information about mobile homes, from early wagons, to revamped airstream trailers, to luxury yachts for the eccentric rich. It is actually a rather nice-looking book, and interesting, though it is destined to serve primarily as chum for fauxhemians to purchase at twee boutiques where the idle upper middle class peddle snake oil and fetishize an idea of spirituality that doesn’t jibe with the actual definition.

My friend Erin challenged me to offer up my presentation in the form of a haiku, so I did. I include it here for posterity:

Nomadic Homes, or
Apocalypse real estate:
on your lawn, quite soon.

Sunday Service

Holy man in the subway, fingers stretched to breaking across a pearl keymap
(Well, maybe not pearl
But close enough in the Universal Scheme)

Seeks a new sound—
One to break the deadlock of evolution
And unite the world as one.
But the world is already one:

All gods are the same god,
Of the same spark fanned
And bred;
Lonesome walks the traveler who
Understands
This great truth.

But the Holy Man is not lonely,
For he sits among the rest.
They pass him by without a thought,
But the squawk of his horn is
The pouring forth
Of the same confusion.

Saturday, 3:30am

Down in the graveyard,
Behind my grandpa’s stone,
I saw a glint in the eye of a demon.
His teeth white under the moon,
He tuned a fiddle of bleached bone
Strung with fresh sinew

And I asked the demon
“Did you know my grandpa?
When you think of him, does your fiddle whine?”

And he said, “No, I didn’t know the man.
I didn’t know his smile,
Or the sour notes that rode his breath as he praised you.
I know only that this headstone
—reaching as it does for falling stars—
Casts the deepest shadows over the rest.”

With a sigh, the demon ran his bow across taut flesh
And it hissed,
And sent ravens into the sky.

Aching Forest

Vines grow fierce along the edge of every whim
Each notion pulls with it twelve other seedlings
That ripen and bulge and invite
The neighbors into your kitchen

You may believe that islands stand individual
Warriors of solitary purpose projected toward the sun
But each base gloms onto the earth
Thirsty, without the benefit
Of advocacy

We live in sagging huts
Blankets between you and us and
Songs that slip across the great expanse
Harsh whispers to the untrained ear

Myths stand under the stars, not thee
Lips pursed in quiet judgment as gods titter
Come home to roost among queer birds
On branches beaten from the finest
Silver

Maps will not illuminate you
As unfathomable as the ebb of the cosmos
Ever collapsing onto one point of light, screaming
The bleat of midnight, the call of darkness unbidden

Tragedy Queens

About five months ago or so, I received a notification that Leza Cantoral—an engaging fellow writer I’d met in passing at 2016’s AWP show—was editing an anthology called Tragedy Queens: Stories Inspired by Lana Del Rey and Sylvia Plath for Clash Books. While I am familiar with the work of both artists, I am not what you might call a super-fan; however, submitting a story under those parameters seemed like an interesting challenge. Additionally, an earworm of a song called “Dayglo Reflection”—featured on Bobby Womack’s 2012 release Bravest Man in the Universe, but co-written by Del Rey, who handles most of the vocals—had worked its way into my brain, and it had been percolating there, waiting to spring into inspirational action. I worked hard on my story, sent it along, and went back about my business.

Well, my hard work bore fruit: my story was selected for publication in the anthology. I’m proud of it, and excited, and honored, and I hope those of you out there who are privy to this online whisper will seek out the book and give it a look. In addition to my own scribblings, it will feature a formidable collection of oddball authors who deserve your attention. Release date is TBD, but as I am helpless before the promise of a good plug, you can be sure that I’ll post that info here when I have it.

Thank you all for reading. Without you, I’d just be telling stories to myself in the dark.

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

darling_photo_05

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.

kinderman-1

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.

sunlight-1

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).

kinderman-and-dyer

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.