Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Hooper Super

Halloween is nearly here, and I've got the Skittles in me belly to prove it. Last night Mrs. Word Player and I watched our annual scary movie to prep for the big night: 1963's THE HAUNTING.

To me, Russ Tamblyn will always be "Dr. Jacoby"

As you may have noticed, everyone and his brother has a "Top Horror Movies" list going on their site, and Robert Wise's adaptation of Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel "The Haunting of Hill House" made it on most of the lists. Add to that a personal recommendation by a knowledgeable horror movie fan, and it was Netflixed like Chex Mix (The Movie).

Boy, did it feel like a movie from another era. The era where movies didn't have to make sense as long as the production values were up to snuff. THE HAUNTING looked great in sharp Panavision B&W and infrared, and the sprawling gothic manse itself was plenty creepy to serve as the setting for a haunted house chiller.

One one level, it was fun to see a film that, stylistically, inspired future possessed addresses in THE SHINING, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, and POLTERGEIST. On the other, the movie so unequivocally failed to deliver on its juicy premise and character setups that I felt betrayed and bewildered.

My friends and I saw POLTERGEIST as part of my 11th birthday party. Nice.


As the film slowly descended into its arbitrary and vague climax, I started thinking of another Halloween movie night several years ago. We hosted a couple for a double feature at our tiny flat on Horatio Street in NYC. We the gents made two selections we thought couldn't miss- Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY (1932) to be followed by Tobe Hooper's groundbreaking (1974). I had only seen MASSACRE once before, in college late at night in a room full of woozy dudes, and couldn't wait to see it again in a clearer state of mind.

After some wine and grub and MUMMY, we turned the lights off completely and popped in MASSACRE.

Big miscalculation.

Turns out it's not at all geared towards the ladies. What I hadn't remembered is that the second half of the film is basically the terrorized heroine running for her life in the dark with Leatherface and his demented kin nipping at her heels. My friend and I wound up feeling awful for subjecting the ladies to such a grueling viewing experience, but to the girls' credit they watched it to the bitter end.

And then, of course, they let us have it. What kind of assholes would subject their wives to a movie like that?!

This look sums up how the ladies felt about watching TTCSM

I hadn't thought of that night for years until Mrs. Word Player recounted it at a dinner party hosted by another couple here in LA, much to the delight of Host Husband, a horror fan with an encyclopedic enthusiasm for the genre.

As luck would have it, several months later the same Host Husband was picked up by a friend to attend the premiere of his writer friend Dan Madigan's new horror film SEE NO EVIL (2006) starring the hulking wrestler Kane. On their way to the premiere they picked up one more person- MASSACRE director Tobe Hooper. In the car, Host Husband told Hooper the story of how Mrs. Word Player was so shaken up by that long ago Halloween viewing of his film, and he replied that he was genuinely touched that his movie was still able to deliver the goods all these years later.

I gotta tell ya, it felt super cool when Host Husband told me that Tobe Hooper was tickled to hear about Mrs. Word Player's reaction to my disastrous Halloween night movie pick! I knew there was a reason I made it!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dog Ears #6: A Prayer for Owen Meany

His vocal chords had not developed fully, or else his voice had been injured by the rock dust of his family's business. Maybe he had larynx damage, or a destroyed trachea; maybe he'd been hit in the throat by a chunk of granite. To be heard at all, Owen had to shout through his nose.

"It is Owen who made me a believer."

So we hear from narrator John Wheelwright on page 3 of John Irving's 1989 novel A Prayer For Owen Meany. So the reader never forgets this unusual method of speaking, John's best friend Owen's dialogue is IN ALL CAPS FOR THE DURATION OF THE BOOK.

At first I found this authorial choice almost too mannered (even for Irving), but the deeper I push into the book (I'm little more than halfway through on p.350) the more I recognize that it's pivotal to never forget Owen's physical peculiarities as the mystery of his "purpose" is slowly revealed to us through the narrative.

I admit the book has been slow going the last 100 pages or so, but the book's reputation as a classic and my faith that Irving is building to some wonderful fireworks in the Third Act are keeping me going.

That, and the beautiful writing of course.

I'm nervous about how Vietnam will figure into the story of Owen and John

Before I get to some of the many, many dog ears from the first half, I'm wondering if anyone else has noticed a great deal of similarities between Owen Meany and Max Fischer from Wes Anderson's RUSHMORE (1998). I'll have to watch the film again after I finish the book, but off the top of my head Owen and Max both:

1. attend a tony private all-boys school, but only with financial assistance
2. become enraged when Latin is removed from the curriculum
3. suffer from delusions of grandeur
4. feud with the school's headmaster
5. are the central figure at the school's newspaper
6. are central figures in local/school productions of dramatic plays

and I'm sure there are more. I'm also curious to know if the book's quasi-official film adaptation SIMON BIRCH (also 1998) is worth watching. Apparently, John Irving sold the film rights, but only with the stipulation that the title never be used. Irving himself came up with Owen's replacement name "Simon Birch."


OK, on with the prose.

p.7 "–but every study of the gods, of everyone's gods, is a revelation of vengeance toward the innocent."

p.34 "Your memory is a monster; you forget–it doesn't. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you–and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!"

p.38 "And in addition to being an almost perfect mother, I also know that she was a happy woman–and a truly happy woman drives some men and almost every other woman absolutely crazy."

p.57 "It's a no-win argument–that business of what we're born with and what our environment does to us. And it's a boring argument, because it simplifies the mysteries that attend our birth and our growth."

p.83 red-letter: of special significance
Function: adjective
Etymology: from the practice of marking holy days in red letters in church calendars
Date: 1704

December is chock full of red-letter days

p.111 "... Mr. Merrill was the most appealing because he reassured us that doubt was the essence of faith, and not faith's opposite."

p.128 "Mrs. Hoyt was the first person I remember who said that to criticize a specific American president was not anti-American; that to criticize a specific American policy was not antipatriotic; and that to disapprove of our involvement in a particular war against the communists was not the same as taking the communists' side. But these distinctions were lost on most of the citizens of Gravesend; they are lost on many of my former fellow Americans today."

p.292 "And Hester was committed to irreverence..."
(what an outstanding commitment! Hester the Molester, I salute you!)

p.309 "Don't ask for proof–that was Mr. Merrill's routine message.
'Faith itself is a miracle, Owen,' said Pastor Merrill. 'The first miracle that I believe in is my own faith itself.'"

'It takes more practice,' I told him irritably.
'FAITH TAKES PRACTICE,' said Owen Meany.

Monday, October 15, 2007


The October 14 New York Times Magazine featured an extensive series of articles and polls that took a close look at what wealth means to the city's over 8 million residents. As a former, briefly-tenured, New Yorker my favorite stat was that only 51% of those polled "think that living in New York City is worth what it costs."

You only find out about the five months of winter AFTER you move there

Since I moved away from NYC, I've had to field many questions as to why I wanted to leave. My favorite answer is "New York is a city designed for the very young or the very wealthy, and by the time we left Mrs. Word Player and I were neither."

According to Mercer's 2007 Worldwide Cost of Living Survey, NYC is the most expensive city in North America (and 15th in the world- shockingly, Moscow edged London for the top spot). I remember a NYTimes article from a few years ago that really took the wind out my sails about NY. It's premise was basically that a married couple with two kids and an annual household income of $1 million could only break even living in Manhattan.

Depressing, no? In 2001, we paid $2000 a month for a 450 sq.ft. apartment in Manhattan... I shudder to think what it's going for now.

Anyway, this Sunday's Magazine had an article on the "superspecialized workers who serve the supperrich" of NYC, such as nannies, party planners, etc. One guy's profession in particular caught my eye- William D. Zabel, Postnup Lawyer.

If you're a "nonmoneyed spouse", this man is the Angel of Death

"What the hell is a postnup?!" I wondered. Here's the blurb from the magazine:

Postnups” — or postnuptial agreements — “are usually for couples without prenups,” says Zabel, a trusts and estates lawyer with Schulte, Roth & Zabel. Why people get postnups: “Either the nonmoneyed spouse — usually the wife — in a 30-to-40-year marriage wants to know what she’s worth and gain some financial security, or the moneyed spouse in a newer relationship — usually the husband, and these days, often a young hedge-fund manager — wants to see if the wife is in it for the money and wants to cap the assets paid out if the marriage were to end in divorce.” Do his postnup negotiations ever lead to divorce? They usually help a marriage, because “everybody knows where they stand.”

Although I'd never heard of such a thing, my gut was in instant disagreement with Zabel's assertion that postnups usually help a marriage. After discovering that "postnuptial agreement" isn't even in the dictionary (though "prenuptial agreement" is), I poked around a little more and found a Time article from 2001 that made more sense to me.

After shocking me (I'm easily shockable these days apparently) with the stat that 20% of newly married couples get prenups, the article lists other reasons that couples get a postnup, including dramatic changes in finances from an inheritance, protection from liabilities one of the spouses may be experiencing in business, and controlling inheritance paths in blended families.

Blake Edwards' films contained hilarious/terrifying perspectives of marriage

I am a happily married man, and admittedly naïve when it comes to marital ruthlessness , but I have been around the block enough to understand (to a certain degree, anyway) why a party with a sizeable amount of wealth wants to protect themselves from someone entering into marriage under false pretenses.

What I don't understand is how any spouse could feel anything but impending doom if, after their marriage partner inherited a big chunk of change, called in the lawyers to cap how much they could get in the event of a divorce. Wouldn't that signal something awful on the horizon if it happened to you? Or am I just being Mr. Sensitive Guy?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Use Your Reimagination

I'm sure by now everyone has noticed this, but the taglines for two miserable-looking comedies out now are almost exactly alike. The curiously ubiquitous Dane Cook's GOOD LUCK CHUCK's tagline is "Sometimes, Love Blows" while "Love Blows" sells us THE HEARTBREAK KID, Ben Stiller's ill-conceived remake of the 1972 Charles Grodin vehicle.

Nobody can curl a lip like Grodin

How unimaginative, right?

Perhaps, when they're remade in the future, someone will "reimagine" the taglines too.

Hollywood has apparently become dissatisfied with the term "remake", because lately I've been reading that films like Rob Zombie's 2007 HALLOWEEN aren't remakes, but "reimaginings" of the source material.

From Wikipedia:

Recently, the term "reimagining" has become popular to describe remakes that do not closely follow the original. The term is used by creators in the marketing of films and television shows to inform audiences that the new product is not the same as the old.

But how close is "closely"? Is there a definitive dividing line that separates the mere remake from the far more grandiose-sounding reimagining?

I've been plagued by/secretly enjoying nightmares "adapted from" John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN my entire adult life

First we have to sort the "reinterpretations" out of the equation. BATMAN BEGINS (2005) is not a remake of nor a sequel to BATMAN (1989), but rather a reinterpertation of the same DC comic book source material that inspired BATMAN the movie and BATMAN the 1960's TV series. So, then, it would seem that BATMAN BEGINS (and its 2008 sequel THE DARK KNIGHT) are technically "readaptations", right?

Who the hell knows. It just seems depressing to me that rather than fostering new ideas, we're doomed to a neverending cycle of cannibalism and reheating of leftovers. The Wikipedia section listing film remakes is so long that it has to be broken up into two sections: A-M and N-Z.

Back to reimagining. All of the film and TV franchises that have been deemed reimaginings are in the horror and sci-fi genre: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974 & 2003), BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (1978 & 2003), DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978 & 2004), BIONIC WOMAN (1976-2007), etc.

I wonder why that is? Why is Michael Bay, who as producer has already re-somethinged the AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE HITCHER and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE franchises, now turning his attention to FRIDAY THE 13th?

It's hard to believe FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER was 23 years ago...

Because IT'S EASY! Is there anything more American than following the path of least resistance to the pot of gold? These films and franchises have brand equity and name value, so it doesn't really MATTER how wildly they're reimagined or bastardized... basically the same format and structure are gonna unfold whether or not it's a no-name low-budg horror film or it's a big-budg "Rising/Birth of" chapter or a THEORETICALLY daring shift of location or temporal setting (JASON GOES TO HELL and/or MANHATTAN, Aliens fight Predators, etc).

A large group of teens/scientists/mercenaries are gonna be whittled down by the killer, at least one in a sexually compromising position, until a final showdown where the killer is vanquished... or is/are they?

Repeat as necessary.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Colossus of Rhoda

For a long time, my job entailed reading screenplays that had been submitted to various film and TV production entities. During that decade I began paying a different kind of attention to the movies and TV shows I saw for pleasure and for work, trying to keep track of successful and unsuccessful screenplay structural trends. I continued studying structure (among other things) during a two year screenwriting program in NYC, where I applied what I'd learned from the thousands of scripts I'd read and tens of thousands of films and shows I'd seen to scripts I was now writing.

During this process, one of, if not the most important aspects of dynamic storytelling that was elevated from instinctual and/or unspoken to conscious, front-of-the-brain awareness was the pivotal role of the primary supporting character as it relates to the lead or "hero" character.

no word yet on whether the Bronx has a Rhoda statue in the works

I figured out that every good hero's journey requires a best friend or sidekick. Unlike novels, film and TV characters have little or no "internal" life (barring the novelistic cheat of constant voice-over narration), so for the audience to understand what the hero character is experiencing we need a character to stand in for us and listen to/experience along with the trials and tribulations of the lead as they attempt to conquer the villain/opposing force that stand in their way.

In other words, Mary Richards needs Rhoda Morgenstern to succeed. Speaking strictly for TV and excluding movie characters, I'm pretty sure that Rhoda was the best "best friend" character in television history.

I grew up watching THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW because it was one of my mom's favorites and at that time there was only one set in the house so the kids watched whatever was on. I hadn't thought of MTM much since my 1970s childhood until a recent foray into EVERYONE LOVES RAYMOND. During its first run, I avoided RAYMOND, believing it to be just another lowbrow comedian huckstering "isn't middle class American hilarious?" schtick. By the time it settled into reruns, Mrs. Word Player and I had heard enough positives about it to give it a try so we dutifully set the DVR to "record series" and were pleasantly surprised.

Although we both HATED Chris Elliot's "Peter MacDougall" character (the brother of Ray's brother Robert's girlfriend/wife Amy), we loved Amy's parents, played by Fred Willard and Georgia Engal. Despite the nearly 30 year gap since watching my last MTM episode, the first time Georgia Engal's "Pat MacDougall" appeared onscreen I blurted out "That's Ted Baxter's girlfriend!"

Long story short, Mrs. Word Player hadn't seen a single MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, so we harnessed the awesome power of Netflix and began watching them in chronological order, starting with the first episode of Season 1, first broadcast September 19, 1970.

And we laughed and had ourselves a "new" show just like that.

will Netflixing RHODA be wonderful or sad???

We're now approaching the end of Season 3, and in two recent episodes it's been teased that Rhoda might be leaving Minneapolis. Thankfully the third act of each had Rhoda firmly back in her bachelorette apartment above Mary's, but the specter of Valerie Harper's Rhoda character being spun-off into her own show (we know it happens, but not exactly when) has me pondering just how important she is to the show.

The answer, or course, is very. MTM has aged remarkably well, thanks in large part to the incredible ensemble cast of character actors assembled by co-creator and legend James "Hell" Brooks. Judge Smails and Captain Steubing in the same show? Oh HELL yeah.

it's no coincidence that his dog was named "Baxter"

Thanks to terrific writing and acting the character of Rhoda, Mary's best friend and confidante, is the one that holds Mary's hilarious and quite frequently touching single-gal odyssey through the 70s together.

And for that, I salute you. People often argue about who's "the Mary" and who's "the Rhoda" in a friendship, each one usually believing that they are the Mary. I personally am more comfortable as a Rhoda.