Friday, December 31, 2010

Mike's Picks for Best Top 10 Lists of 2010

And so we say good-bye to 2010. You had your highs, you had your lows. The Tea Party showed its muscle and BP took advantage of our oil addiction and tried to make us all O.D.

But all that is behind us now. 2011 is rife with possibilities. Sweet ambrosia, good karma, puppies and blow-jobs for all!

And what would an End-of-the-Year Round-Up be without a Top 10 List to ring out the Old Year? Empty and meaningless, I say. So without further ado, here is my official Top 10 List of Top 10 Lists of 2010:

On the last holiday of the year it’s important that we look back at some of the other great holidays, but especially everyone’s favorite: Halloween. And Halloween Express reminds us that kids look cute dressed as Buzz Lightyear and even the Green M&M is sexy with a babe crammed inside!

Yes, it’s almost a cliché to include Roger Ebert in a Ten Best Round-up, but he is our most valuable and valued film reviewer, a fact we can’t deny. Roger made the decision to break up his Top Ten into two lists, and while his Top Ten for domestic releases is entertaining, his Top Ten Foreign Films shines a spotlight upon a Top Ten we may not have been otherwise aware. Plus, by separating out the offerings of other countries, it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are a Global society.

Not content with a mere Top Ten Round Up, Time Magazine gives us fifty Top Ten lists through which we can relive 2010 and say “that was the year that was”. My favorites of the Top 10 of Everything are a tie between the Top Ten Under-reported stories (Five million people raped in the Congo? Five million? Who knew?) and the Top Ten Tweets, highlighting the wit and wisdom of such luminaries as John McCain (who swears he’d never tax your tanning bed) and the ever-ubiquitous Lindsay Lohan. is a one-stop shop for all answers and they rounded up their most hard-hitting headlines about getting from here to there via flying phone booth. For my money, they could have condensed it all to their number one slot regarding the Icelandic volcano eruption grounding flights for days on end. Their title: “Pain in the ash”! That’s just good hindsight.

The pessimists among us would rather remind us about all the endangered species that went horribly extinct this year, but ASU is filled with forward-looking optimists. We may have seen the last of the Zanzibar Leopards, but science has discovered the “Bug Eating Slug”, and that fills my heart with hope.

Though you have to sit through an ad to watch a video that originally ran on Broadcast Television covering the most-watched free video clips, ABC’s focus on the lighter and fluffier side of 2010 is a breath of fresh air, truly. We’re all so busy mourning the loss of the Gulf that we sometimes forget to remember the beauty that is the Old Spice Guy. Although one can’t help but feel a twinge that there was no pardon granted Billy the Kid after all these years. Americans, we can’t keep holding on to old grudges!

ABC offers only one commercial. TV Squad gives you Ten! The most entertaining consumerist moments of the roundest-numbered year so far include the E-Trade Baby, Kevin Bacon playing the ultimate Kevin Bacon fan (never once mentioning Forty Deuce, surprisingly) and, of course, our old friend the Old Spice Guy.

While not technically a Top Ten List, Cinematical’s critique of Stephen King’s Top Ten for Entertainment Weekly is a Top Ten in and of itself. It’s an in-depth account of the Top Ten of a man who’s seen more than his share of Top Ten lists.

It’s not something we like to think about, but if we don’t, woe be unto us. Trip Advisor saves us the trouble of packing the blacklight on our trip and brings us advanced warning. Under no circumstances should anyone stay at the Heritage Marina Hotel in San Francisco. The carpet needs replacing and there are conflicting reports of bed bugs!

Although it sounds like yet another warning, this time against marauding hoards of digital readers, it’s really a thoughtful gazing at the best electronic devices available to man. If you’re not reading this Top Ten Top Ten on one of these, way to go: the terrorists have won!

So there you go, folks. I’m sure you all have your own personal favorite Top Ten of 2010, and you should! But this is mine. And come midnight, wouldn’t it be nice if we all took a few moments to pause and remember what makes these Top Tens so wonderful. Is it the memories? The emotions we feel when reliving the events as listed? Or is it the sharing of these Top Ten Lists with loved ones? However you like to list your Top Ten at the end of each year, remember to do so responsibly and safely. And here’s to a very Happy Top Ten of 2011!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The First Amendment: A Mother-Fucking Civics Lesson

As a creative-type person, as well as someone universally-recognized as having a big mouth, I’m a fan of the First Amendment. In fact, you could say it’s my favorite of all the Amendments, particularly the Top Ten. Not to take anything away from the others, like the Third Amendment, for instance, preventing the quartering of troops and ensuring I’m not up to my elbows in enlisted men, tromping around using my favorite coffee mug and wearing my Muppet t-shirts. And, well, of course, the ever-popular Ninth Amendment, which protects our rights not otherwise enumerated, or as Swan referred to it in Winslow’s Phantom of the Paradise contract, “All excluded shall be henceforth deemed included.” But the First Amendment, really, is the one nearest and dearest to my heart.

For those who might be unfamiliar with this Big Daddy Number One of Amendments to our United States Constitution, which seems to include nearly all Americans (“If you like to invoke the Constitution and America’s founders, without having the faintest idea about either one, you just might be an American.”; “If you demand that Government refrain from instituting socialized medicine and in the same breath herald your sacred Medicare… you just might be an American.”; “If you”— okay I’m done), lemme break it down for you:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Don’t like this Shakespearian dolphin language? I’ll break it down further for those in the Red States (yeah, I’m being snarky, as per my right granted by Amendment Number One):

The First Amendment guarantees all American citizens the inalienable rights to Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Religion, Freedom of the Press, the Right to Assemble and to write to your Congressmen/women/children to voice any and all complaints, no matter how weird they may be or how high your expectations that something will actually happen.

It does NOT grant you the right of freedom from any of those things. And it doesn’t give you the right to take away the same rights of other people, just because they happen to be melon-headed nimrods who know not of which they speak. If you disagree, you’re allowed to argue, to shout them down, drown them out, stick your fingers in your ears and go “la-la-la”, or, best of all, ignore them and go do something else.

“Freedom of Expression” does not mean that you can throw things at them, set them on fire, or stuff rags/fish/children into their mouths to shut them up. In short, the First Amendment does not guarantee your right to not get your feelings hurt. Offensensitivity is your problem, not the Constitution’s.

I want to point this out once and for all because we’ve all been guilty of acting like or actually being banjo-playing mouth breathers at some point in our lives: these rights apply to all Americans or, really, anyone who is touching American soil at the time of exercising said rights. If a French guy wants to stand in the middle of Times Square and scream “I surrender!” “I hate all of you American cocksuckers!” he’s allowed to. Now, the number of times he’s allowed to say this before the laws against “Disturbing the Peace” kick in is a matter of debate. But if he wants to call us cocksuckers, no matter how black his personal pot might be as compared to our shining kettles is neither here nor there. You have the freedom to not like it, but not the right to kick his teeth in, nor the right to gag him or have him arrested and his tongue cut out.

Are we clear about this?

In this wonderful place we call “America”, we all, each and every one of us, has the right to say, think, feel and write, in public or private, any goddamned thing we want, no matter how stupid that thing/thought/idea may be. It’s why Creationists, Darwinists, Moon-landing deniers, Dane Cook, fans of Dane Cook, Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart, and Glee’s audience all continue to co-exist more or less, if not peacefully, then with a minimum of daily bloodshed. Blood pressures can be raised, weapons cannot. Not in this case. And don’t go evoking the 2nd Amendment because you know damn well that’s not what it means!

If you want to use a blowtorch to create an image of the Prophet Mohammed on your grilled cheese sandwich, here in the great U.S. of A., you can. I’d eat that sandwich before heading to the Middle East or certain parts of New Jersey, but it’s not like you can take it on the plane with you anyway. But as long as you’re in America, you can make as many yummy Prophet Mohammed grilled cheese sandwiches as you like. If your Muslim neighbor doesn’t like it, but resides in America, he’s perfectly within his rights to make a “Jesus Christ Masturbating to Porn” grilled cheese sandwich in protest. Neither of you are allowed to blow up the other person’s house because grilled cheese sandwiches are, in this case, protected speech.

Are we clear on this? Because I can’t move forward unless we’re clear. You, in the back, do you have a question?

Yes, telling me to “Go fuck myself” is protected speech too. So is my retort that you do the same as well as to the manner of equine conveyance upon which you arrived.

Where things get thorny with Number 1 is when the speech/expression is uttered privately or publicly. See, the part that says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of…” means that the government can’t make it illegal to say “Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot and so is Al Franken”. It can’t throw you in jail for writing for or reading the National Inquirer.

And it cannot use taxpayer money, for example, to declare one religion is better than another. It can’t declare that “All Americans, henceforth, are Druids under penalty of imprisonment”. Which is why some people get bent out of shape over Nativity scenes erected on courthouses, but no one shows up to protest an inflatable one on someone’s private lawn. Lousy taste is still protected under that “Free Speech and Expression” thing. You are granted freedom of religion, but the government really has to keep its nose out of it. You can book time on Community Access TV and read from the Bible, the Koran or the New York Times until your lungs collapse. Your mayor, elected by a majority of voters (usually 12% of a given population) cannot. He has to remain neutral. He can say that he’s a Judeo-Christian Satanist, but he’s not allowed to say that you have to be too or you can’t live here.

Is this clear? You, the citizen, is granted freedom of religion. A governing body or representative of such can’t play such favorites.

Erecting stone obelisks displaying the Ten Commandments, a hallmark of the Judeo-Christian religion, on government property, is another example of “don’t do it”, even if things start to get tricky here. It implies that the government is endorsing Moses and his ill-conceived stationary. This makes people of the non-Judeo-Christian leanings uncomfortable because they pay taxes too, and some of that money may have gone to the creation of these monuments. While said Ten Commandments sculpture itself, whether out of stone or butter, is protected artistic expression, its location is what is under debate. So its best to move it across the street and off of public property if there’s any doubt. Because “public” means “everybody”. You can’t herd everyone in a three-mile radius into a Baptist Revival Tent and you can’t keep everyone out of said tent at gunpoint.

Are we still clear?

So if you happen upon a photo of the Virgin Mary sitting on Santa’s lap, but it’s in a building owned by a person, you can’t call “Constitution!” and have it removed. But if the owners get a sufficient amount of flack from offended patrons who just won’t follow the suggestion of “don’t look at it”, and they keep getting their tires slashed (not an example of freedom of expression, fyi) and decide to take said photo down and replace it with that Magritte painting of a guy with an apple for a face, this is also not “Censorship”. The humorless creeps can’t call the cops in to force the owner remove the photo, however. An individual hung the image. The same individual removed it. It’s his wall, his building and his tires. If he wants to cave in to the demands of humorless creeps, it’s his choice.

Which brings us to the Smithsonian Institution. At the beginning of December, G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian, bowed to pressure from celebrated asshole (protected speech!) Catholic League President Bill Donohue and the ever-so-orange Congressman John Boehner and removed from  the National Portrait Gallery in Washington the video installation "Fire in My Belly" by the late artist David Wojnarowicz.

Wojnarowicz created the video in 1987 after the death of his mentor and lover, photographer Peter Hujar. Hujar died from AIDS-related complications and Wojnarowicz himself had recently learned that he was H.I.V.-positive himself. So “Fire in My Belly” is not a happy-go-lucky video. It’s a dark, grief-stricken and painful piece, filled with documentary images of violence as well as cultural and religious imagery making an angry statement about society, government and sacred institutions, their addiction to warfare and unrest, and a feeling of isolation from civilization, particularly institutions that are meant to bring comfort. As a way of making his point, Wojnarowicz includes among his images, a shot of ants crawling over a crucifix. The shot is broken up and in total lasts about eleven or so seconds in the film’s quarter-hour total.

The exhibition "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" featured a seven-minute excerpt of the movie alongside significant work from other homosexual artists throughout history. It was, according to official literature, “the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture”. Funded by private donations, the exhibit went up in late October and was to run through February 13. The Smithsonian Institution, as a body, operates under federal support. Meaning: taxpayer money.

The exhibit was run by private funds. The building it ran in was paid for by the public.

This wasn’t the first time that Wojnarowicz and his work came under attack. In ’89, notorious just-as-big-if-not-bigger asshole, Douglas Wildmon, a Methodist Minister and founder of the American Family Association, sent a pamphlet to Congress singling out Wojnarowicz’s work as blasphemous and/or pornographic. Because the man’s work appeared in an exhibition partly supported by the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts, public money), Wildmon frothed and seethed at what he perceived as Congress making a “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Public money supporting the denigration of Christianity, said Wildmon, and he demanded the exhibition pulled and the NEA defunded. He did that a lot, actually. That led immediately to Wojnarowicz suing Wildmon for misrepresenting and “selectively editing” his art. Wojnarowicz won. Wildmon’s right to be offended infringed on Wojnarowicz’s rights to artistic expression. Since the NEA is constantly on the verge of defunding, nothing was really accomplished by Wildmon’s impression of Helen Lovejoy.

This time around, Clough felt it in everyone’s best interest, particularly that of the exhibit’s, if he gave in to Donohue’s outrage, who called it “hate speech”. "It is designed to insult. This is a sad commentary on the judgment of the Smithsonian." Particularly galling, aside from the eleven-second ant-appropriation of Jesus, was its depiction of homoeroticism. Homoeroticism? In an exhibit focusing on homosexuality? Outrageous!

Soon-to-be Speaker of the House and notorious “anything to get my name in the paper” chest beater, John Boehner said, through his spokesman, Kevin Smith (different guy, possibly also an asshole), "American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy. While the amount of money involved may be small, it's symbolic of the arrogance Washington routinely applies to thousands of spending decisions involving Americans' hard-earned money."

Just looking out for those hard-working Americans who have the rights to not get their feelings hurt or be made to think about things. Except, of course, that they don’t have those rights, remember?

Still, rather than risk slashed tires or more protest against the entirety of the exhibit, Clough removed the installation, saying that the outcry was “distracting” to exhibition’s message. This sparked outrage on the other side, decrying the decision as “censorship”. It wasn’t. It may have been cowardice or CYA, but it would only have been censorship had Donohue or Boehner walked in with Marines and forcibly removed the video. Neither of these two assholes did any actual removing. They bullied, they threatened. At no point were offended eyes poked out.

“Fire in the Belly” had every right to be part of the exhibition. As a private exhibition, Hide/Seek had every right to display anything it wished. And as the curator of the exhibit, Clough had every right to remove the exhibit to avoid future chest-beating and thinking-of-the-children. It wasn’t a censorship issue. Technically. The video went viral on YouTube and millions more people were exposed to it than they would have at the Washington display. This, of course, opened up a whole can of copyright infringement worms, but that’s a different essay. Other galleries across the country jumped to the late Wojnarowicz’s defense and included “Fire in the Belly” in their own show of solidarity and attempts to make a buck, including the irony-in-and-of-itself Andy Warhol Museum.

Oddly, in a further display of ill-used balls, the Smithsonian refused to remove a painting from the exhibit, one entitled “Felix, June 5, 1994”, by AA Bronson. Saying they’d had enough of bullying, the Smithsonian was putting its foot down! Except that the demand came from Bronson himself, outraged over the perceived censorship. So… there’s that. The sort of thing up with which they will not put.

Really, what Clough, Boehner and Donohue accomplished by removing “Fire in the Belly” was denying a whole host of people the opportunity to be offended by something they only vaguely understood, judging from the excerpt from the whole. If there’s one pastime that Americans love more than sports, it’s being recreationally offended.

To further illustrate our lecture of rights, I want to bring up the most odious, noxious, possibly-evil and certainly nauseating Westboro Baptist Church. Founded by Poltergeist II villain Fred Phelps, his Mist villain wife Margie, and made up primarily of their ever-breeding extended family, the Westboro Baptist Church exists to spread God’s hate to the land. With homosexuality as their particular bugaboo, they’ve declared that nearly everything that exists now or in the future is an example of God’s wrath against alternate lifestyles. With the Divine Homophobe, apparently, as their shepherd, this small but extremely loud group of the devoted enjoy little more than popping up at the funerals of soldiers and famous people with their “God Hates Fags” signs to show the world just how much, uh, God hates fags. The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are God’s punishment too, see. Because America permits homosexuals to be alive, God sends soldiers to the foreign lands to kill them. It can be assumed that God hates fags but he loves outsourcing. “Thank GOD for dead soldiers” reads one of their most popular signs. Breast Cancer is also punishment for homosexuality. So, too, is Two and a Half Men. They also hate Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Sweden and the ambidextrous (pick a side, fag! We’re at war!). I only made one of those up. But mostly it’s those damned fags. Christ, they’re just everywhere! (Saddam Hussein and Al Gore, however, are okay. I’m being serious.)

Now, any rational person can easily write off these creeps as Bible-banging Neanderthals and ignore their hate speech if it weren’t for their utter disrespect for human beings. Remember: respect is not one of the Big Number 1’s guaranteed rights. Neither is decorum. Even the drunkenest Yahoo News-posting racist would think twice from showing up at a person’s funeral, generally considered a sad-enough occasion, and start bad-mouthing the deceased no matter how Mexican/Irish/Liberal he might have been. Not only out of a sense of human decency but, you know, self-preservation.

But the Phelps’ clan thinks that human decency is neither here nor there. It’s all beside the point. The point is… well, the point is, God hates fags. And he’s gonna kill every last one of us until there are no more fags left. If you take that ideology to the obvious conclusion, if homosexuality were bred out of the species, so too would death be eliminated. But that, of course, is nonsensical Darwinism, which is also an affront to the point-and-shoot God of the Westboro Baptist Church.

But the part that takes Phelps and his looney-toons followers from the Realm of Asshole and puts them in the Grand Duchy of Evil Fuckery is this: they don’t believe a word of their own crap.

Fags, no fags, who the fuck cares? See, Phelps and his hideous mutant offspring are predominantly lawyers. In Fred’s case, ex-lawyers, seeing as he was permanently disbarred in 1989. Their schtick is publicity and lawsuits. They love getting on TV, getting booed and hissed and adding to their hit list. They hate Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly equally. Howard Stern has Fred’s daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper and her family on semi-regularly and spends the time ridiculing them into the pavement. And they love every minute of it. They smile and wave at the camera, hold up their signs and watch as their stock in hatred and sign-making soars.

They go to funeral, solemn and grief-stricken occasions, in the hopes that one or more of the bereaved will attack them in outrage. And then, the Westboro Baptist Church will face their attackers and sue them. Because all they were doing was exercising their Freedoms: Speech, Religion, Assembly and Expression. They were the requisite 150 feet away, keeping the rancor down to a dull roar. Sometimes they’re completely silent and just wave their signs a little more emphatically when the local (and usually national) news arrives. This is what you do when you want to be a celebrity but can’t dance or juggle. You outrage. It’s all about the cash settlements and the hits on YouTube.

As The Onion reported, excerpting City of Charleston v. The Kanawha Players, “quoting” Supreme Court Justice Breyer, “It doesn’t matter how fucking annoying the speech is, nor how filthy the speech is, nor how fucking insufferable a douche-nozzle the speaker is”. Phelps’ “God Hates Fags” is protected under the Big Numero Uno A-Number-One Amendment of the United States Constitution. Whether you want to attribute the quote to Voltaire or his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is the fundament of the First Amendment. Infamous deist, slave-owner and founding father Thomas Jefferson himself wrote this little ditty: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every from of tyranny over the mind of man.”

And whether you like it or not, attempting to silence the Westboro Baptist Church, as orgasmically satisfying and Global I.Q.-raising as it might be, that would be “tyranny over the mind of man”. Even though “man” in this case is represented by evolutionary U-turns whose routine couldn’t get them on The Gong Show if it ran following The Jersey Shore.

This, and possibly this alone, makes the United States so superior to the other menial countries on this planet. (Because it sure isn’t our healthcare.) We’re federally protected from prosecution (if not persecution) if we were to say “The United States can take its Freedom of Speech and shove it up its socialist, gay-loving ass!” We could shout that into the Grand Canyon, grandest of all canyons, and we’d be allowed to do so. Unless there’s a sign around that says “No Shouting”, which would be a blanket order and not specific to ass-shoving speech.

So it might be frustrating to have no ammunition against the shameless, gormless, worthless, dickless Phelps family, the First Amendment covers them so that it may also cover the rest of us. Small comfort, sure. But moronic ass-hat stupidity is protected speech. Protest songs, anti-homosexual tracts and mime are all protected freedoms of expression.

And so far, thank god and all homosexuals, no one has taken that away from us. 

Next week: the sticky wickets that are libel, slander and bar fights.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

We Don't Take Kindly To People Who Don't Take Kindly To People Around Here

Or… My Yearly Screech Against So-Called “Civilization”.

This time of year gets me to banging my head on my desk a little more than usual. Maybe it’s the lack of sunshine, the shorter days, the eternal struggle between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” or maybe just general winter ennui, but for the last few years, as soon as the calendar flips its pages to December, all I want to do is crawl into my own sock drawer until the year ends. It’s not that I don’t love the Christmas Season and all its consumer-driven madness mixed with family stress, even though, like all people and especially sitcom characters, I feel over-saturated with Holiday Cheer sometime around Labor Day. Unlike the Grinch, it’s not the noise, noise, noise I object to, but the rest of mankind. That’s nothing new, of course, but the wretched, the awful and the miserable seem to come into sharper focus around December. And when I look back for happier times behind me over the course of the year, I realize how ungodly long that year has been. And the sock drawer starts to look that much more enticing.

I have yet to reach my December breaking point, but it’s coming. I thought it had arrived last week, when I was gripped with such lethal apathy that I literally could not get out of bed for the bulk of the day, but that turned out to be the simple return of my manic depression. I thought it felt too familiar to be the breakdown, which apparates a little differently every year.

What’s going to finally tip me over the edge, either before Christmas or immediately after, is, as usual and as stated, my ol’ bugaboo “racism”—namely my hatred for the human race. Maybe I pay too much attention to the news. Given that my morning commute invariably ends with my shrieking shutupshutupshutup! at the radio, that’s a definite probability. I also read a lot of news online and in the office men’s room, so I’m constantly surrounded by the pettiness of the other humans in charge. I don’t give myself an opportunity to escape it. Not that I could if I wanted to, living as we all do broken down on the information superhighway. There are “newsy” items in every sidebar on every webpage, selling us all products, events and ideologies. We’ve taken the “personal advertising” idea from Minority Report and brought it to life via our own insatiable nature, Victor Frankenstein yearning to play god. It’s getting so you can’t even log onto a nice, quiet porn site without being screeched at to watch Sarah Palin kill a moose from her car or how Barak Obama is a Socialist for Big Business.

Given their “mandate” from the 20% of the people who bothered to vote in the midterm election, the GOP mounted the stairs of the Capitol and declared that they wouldn’t rest until the tax breaks were extended to the rich… and, okay, the rest of you rabble can have them too. Anything else brought before them would be ignored, tabled, filibustered and pissed on until they achieved their goal of lower deficit by higher spending.

And on the Democrat side, with spines made of Slinkies, declared that the teacher had forgotten to assign homework for the weekend. Having failed to get anything done while they were a majority, upon seeing the wall erected by the GOP attempted to run straight through it with all the legislation they could. Even though there had to be a door there somewhere, they continued to smash their poor widdle selves into the barricade and oh how the Republicans laughed!

We don’t have leaders in the government any longer. I’m not quite sure when we did last; certainly not in the recent past. What we have now is a rich white-guy touring company of Revenge of the Nerds, with the GOP standing in for Stan Gable and the Alpha Betas and the Democrats as the Tri-Lams. Minus, of course, the good looks and sexual prowess of the former and the genius intelligence and third-act display of courage of the latter. Both sides are simply stuck in an immature impasse, both frats engaged in an endless and counter-productive panty raid and lemme tell ya, here in America, we wear some expansive lingerie. It ain’t pretty no matter how you wear it.

And stuck in the middle, the rest of us. Those either too stupid with rage to think beyond name-calling or those so tired and beaten that we merely throw up our hands and flip to Two and a Half Men, now on 24 hours per day for your viewing abuse. You want to see frustrated impotence? Ignore the first five seconds of your average Viagra commercial and click over to Yahoo News. Pick any story—anything—a “story” about new American Airlines fares to Rangoon—and read the comments. Dozens upon dozens of folks screaming at the top of their keyboards, grammar and spelling and logic be damned, shrieking into the yawning blackness of the insular internet, enraged over anything and everything. Yahoo isn’t the only dumping ground for insipid outrage, of course; there are millions of websites out there. If something has a “comment” button, you can bet your ass there are fights going on. Log onto and duck the punches!

“Look, I came here for an argument.”

“Oh, sorry. That’s next door. This is Duel to the Death.”

No one is merely “wrong” any more. Everyone is fucking wrong and fucking stupid and an asshole and and and gay too! If arm-waving, chest-beating and spleen-venting were made an Olympic event tomorrow … guaranteed there’d be fighting about it.

“Happy Holidays!”

“It’s Merry Christmas, you lousy Communist! Go back to Maryland where you belong, you illegal immigrant!”

“Can’t we all just get along?”

“No! And fuck you and fuck your mother and fuck your hamster and fuck your favorite color and fuck your deepest wishes, hopes and desires! Jerk!”

Christ, we can’t even agree what to fight about. The GM bailout turns into a debate of the virtues and/or evils of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Debates about DADT morph into cage matches between Mitch McConnell and Michael Moore. There’s a sound-bite about Ted Turner, instantly he’s decried for marrying Hanoi Jane and then divorcing her for reasons other than being Hanoi Jane, and who the hell is Hanoi Jane, anyway?

Glee = pedophilia and so does DADT. And the GM stimulus bill!

Obama’s a Muslim socialist who’s gonna take all the money away from everyone and just give it to the guys on Wall Street.

Sarah Palin is a smokin’ hot moron with smokin’ hot dorky glasses who doesn’t know the difference between North and South Korea but who cares because she’s a real woman and you can’t handle a real woman, can you? Now get in the kitchen and make me a turkey pot pie, bitch!

God hates (insert hated thing here) and so should you! Because that’s what a loving God wants!

Abortions for all!


Abortions for none!


But think of the little unborn babies! If we kill them before they’re born, we won’t get the chance to kill them later with war, capital punishment, lead-painted toys or carcinogenic food additives! You MONSTER!

You can’t redefine marriage just to suit the gays. Marriage is and has always been between one man and the dowry-holding family of whats-her-name. The chick. Your beloved. Shut up and say “I do!” Next thing you know, you’ll want to use the word “ignorant” when you want to say “rude”.

“We have an agenda to ensure that Barak Obama is a one-term president. So I hereby declare D.C. closed until further notice.”

“It’s imperative that we pass this bill for health care for 9/11 first-responders. Quick, let’s hide it under this pile of legislature for ‘Illegals for Islam’—it’ll be sure to pass then!”

“Oh, and speaking of Islam, did you know 119% of all Muslims are out of their minds batshit insane and want only to fly buildings into planes because they hate our freedom and our taste in footwear? And if they do, they get 72 Virgin Tom Collinses in Heaven. It’s true. ‘Cause they can’t drink here. Allah said they can’t hold their alcohol—it’s true!

“It’s Sallah, you racist douschebag! Where do you think Indy’s sidekick got his name?”

“Dude, I hated Crystal Skull. George Lucas should have his spine pulled out of his ass for what he did to me.”

“The Wikileaks guy should be put to death for telling us what we don’t want to hear!”

“Rush Limbaugh wants us to kill all Liberals!”

“You Liberal hater—don’t you understand satire?

“But… but he said ‘Go kill all Liberals!’”

“Just like a Liberal to have no sense of humor! Typical lib hater spewing your typical lib hate. Hater!”
“Conservatives are going to turn the poor into Soylent Green to feed to Israelis in order to perpetuate the war in Afganistan, using money made from blood diamonds and angel’s tears!”

“Who told you that?”


“Oh, well then it must be true.”

We don’t need a Rally to Restore Sanity, we need some sort of DNA-scrambling logic pulse to put us right with the world again. Or maybe Snake Plisskin had the right idea with that electromagnetic doohickey at the end of Escape from L.A.* Maybe we could all do without a little technology. If only for a little while. Because the World Wide Web made the World a lot less Wide somehow and, frankly, I’m feeling a little crowded. I’m heading for the sock drawer now. Wake me in 2011.

(*Dude, I fuckin’ hated Escape from L.A.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

New All-Things Mike Watt

So... new updates to the grand ol' website... I spent several days writing new code for it, then finally said "screw it" and went with a Google Site template.

Don't judge me.

ALSO, since video trailers for books seem to be the "in" thing, and everyone knows how "in" I truly am, I created a trailer for my new novel Suicide Machine. Amy Lynn Best reads as Tanith, I stole some unused Scooter McCrae score from A Feast of Flesh for the soundtrack, and used Mike Okamoto's gorgeous cover for the visuals. If this doesn't make you want to buy the book, the only explanation is that your eyes fell out while watching the video.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Book Review: It Lives Again! Horror Movies in the New Millenium (yeah, I read!)

We’re an incestuous bunch, we of the horror community. If we don’t know our heroes personally, we’ve hobnobbed with those that do and through them “met” Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers vicariously. Our love of the genre pushes us forward and nearly all of us are driven to create in some way, be it in the form of podcast, short film, feature, website—whatever. It’s been observed before that few other fanboy genres encourage originality. Where many hardcore science fiction, fantasy or anime fans (for example, not limited to or devoid of exceptions) are content to re-create their favorite characters, right down to the thread count on their Legolas costume, in the horror community, you’re practically dared to make your own monster. Yes, the icons abound in every costume contest, but so do the personal nightmares dredged up from individual imagination. This can be attributed to a more easy-going or nurturing nature amongst the fright set, but it may have more to do with the fact that, unlike physics-bound science fiction, or monomythical structures of fantasy, horror has very few rules. It can be gory or bloodless, supernatural or hyper-real. Horror comes from fear and fear is personal. When the mainstream deigns to pat horror on the head, generally around Halloween, the question is inevitably asked: “What scares you?” Not “what scares everybody?” but you. And everyone has a different answer.

While the horror industry continues to celebrate two decades of renewal that can be traced back, perhaps inaccurately perhaps not, to Kevin Williamson’s and Wes Craven’s tongue-in-cheek self-referential Scream that broke box office boundaries and managed to elevate the genre from the “second-to-porn” attitude basement, the genre never died or rested, no matter how often the critics pronounced the time of death. The trends in horror continually evolve, reflecting the attitudes of its audience, and Hollywood constantly scrambled to cash in on the new types of fear. But what is scary today might not be scary tomorrow, but might be scary again in a year or so. Like humor and the weather, horror is unpredictable.

What these two aspects of the genre have to do with each other is this: horror makes its fans strive towards contribution, we all start as fans before (hopefully) evolving into professionals, and when one of “us” makes it good, underneath the teeth-grinding jealousy is the satisfaction that he or she did it for all of us. Their legitimacy adds a little more legitimacy to the community as a whole. That maybe horror fans aren’t just black-t-shirt-wearing freaks plotting to gun down their classmates, but might understand something that the non-horror folks don’t. Because we look under the beds and closets hoping to find something awful in there, if only to have a new story to tell.

Which brings me to the astonishingly terrific coffee table book, It Lives Again! Horror Movies in the New Millenium written by Axelle Carolyn. The handsome hardbound from Telos Publishing is filled to overflowing with gorgeous stills and promotional from hundreds of scary movies, It Lives Again! is one of those must-have books for students of any type of film, horror or otherwise. Between the pictures are perfectly-chosen words that, taken as a whole, provides a year-by-year breakdown of the horror movies produced and released (or not, in some cases) in the first ten years of the ‘aughts, beginning in 2000 and coming to rest in mid-2009, seemingly just minutes before the book’s publication. (Nit-pickers keep your nits to yourselves regarding the start and finish of a decade, okay? We’re not listening on New Year’s Eve, we’re not listening now.)

What Carolyn does with the book is what makes it special. This isn’t one of those “greatest hits” fistfight books or even a simple chronological listing. The author examines the movies released during a given year and contextualizes them, analyzing the geo-sociopolitical climate of the given year in an effort to discover the source of our trends in fear, given what’s exploding around us.

To say the ‘aughts were a tumultuous time is to exercise historical nearsightedness—we’re not out of the woods yet and the decade isn’t over—and to say that cultural anxiety has nothing to do with entertainment isn’t just a specious argument, it’s downright ludicrous and false. Carolyn connects the dots between early ‘00s political unrest and the tamer horror of the time through the 2001 hysteria and post-9/11 paranoia, psychological agony and despair. She traces the rise and fall of the so-called “torture porn” subgenre (even uncovering the very genesis of the lazy shorthand appellation) through the ethical dilemmas our government was forcing upon all of us with their justification of “enhanced interrogation” tactics and the Western world’s juggernaut xenophobia. She takes a hard look at the newfound love for zombies and how that creature became the all-purpose fear-mongering metaphor, the undead standing in for rampant capitalism, unstoppable hordes of political opposition, and even a generation’s self-loathing. While viewing the surface silliness of kayro blood and latex limbs, Carolyn attempts to give our floating anxiety and love for the genre a solid piece of ground to stand on. In a sense, It Lives Again! attempts to psychoanalyze international populations via their entertainment, to explain why anti-social gore gave way to J-Horror, which  was the “in thing” for a while before falling out of favor with the public and then, maybe inevitably, drained of all blood and substance for the Twilight crowd.

But It Lives Again! never becomes a stodgy master’s thesis, thanks to Carolyn’s straightforward, non-judgmental style. Part of this style is due to her being an exceptional writer and some of it is due to her being “one of us”. Carolyn herself was once a fan of both “horreur” and the “fantastique”, growing up in Belgium before joining the ranks of “pro” journalist through Fangoria and other publications. Her fervor for the genre led her to small roles in movies like Brian Yuzna’s Beneath Still Waters and larger roles in Neil Marshall’s Doomsday (which in turn led to a marriage with the latter director) and Centurion. So she’s well-versed not only with the movies, but the artists who created them, peppering the description and criticism with personal interviews conducted with the principals.

With this unique inside look, we get to understand how Eli Roth feels about the “torture porn” label and how Mick Garris feels about the self-cannibalizing Hollywood system. This intimacy gives a unique pigment to her critiques of the movies as well. As close as she might be with a particular artist, she won’t soft-peddle if a certain movie fails to live up to its promise and her disappointment is palpable just as it’s, often, shared. And just because both Marshall and Garris contribute introductions, don’t think for a second she lets either of them off the hook if she feels they’ve turned in less than their best efforts. Which is not to say that this is a gonzo narrative either, Carolyn keeps herself out of the storytelling, keeping her critiques for the mechanics, both technical and physical. It Lives Again! is both scholarly and accessible, but it’s also a terrific representation of the not-dead-but-definitely-wounded idea of “journalistic integrity”.

If criticism can be hurled it’s that the independents are woefully misrepresented. Only a few titles are given a passing mention and the divisive Murder-Set-Pieces is the only one discussed with any sort of depth. On the other hand, the book is focusing on the mainstream productions—and the “sidestream” of direct-to-DVD—and the effects on / reactions to the filmgoing world. To take every offering from Camp Motion Pictures, Media Blasters, MTI, Heretic, Subversive, SRS and so on would not only be impractical for a project like this, but would result in a gorgeous, hardbound book affordable to only the six richest kings in the world and transportable only by dirigible.  

But, if you consider yourself part of the “horror community”, you may already know Carolyn through Myspace or Facebook or have met her in person at this festival or that. That should be more than enough reason to scrounge through the couch cushions for the scratch to buy a copy. If you only know of her, rest assured, she remains one of us. Maybe she’s walking down more red carpets now than most of us ever will, but she’s still sitting in the theater with the same gleeful anticipation we all feel as the lights go down. 

And if you're the sort of horror community guy that I am, it should suffice in the promise that you'll delight in the awful frustration with self and society when coming across a title that you've never heard of, is not available in this country short of the gray market, and only adds to your overwhelming to-watch list. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

More words about the RAZOR DAYS shoot, Thursday past.

Thursday, November 11, Happy Cloud Pictures shot a very tiny piece of what will be our sixth feature film. Those of you who have been along the HCP ride, with its odd twists and unexpected stops for maintenance and to transfer passengers, know how long this journey has been. We don’t choose our productions lightly and don’t leap blindly into the movie chasm, so we haven’t made anything we were ashamed of in thirteen years. But this new film is different, because it’s been alive almost as long as the company. (Almost. HCP formed in 1997 and we didn’t conceive the first draft of Razor Days until 2002, but it’s been alive, in one form or another, all of this time.) And now we’re finally in a position to make it.

I don’t want to give away too many details at the moment—yesterday I presented the story of its life in fairy-tale form—but I do want to say again that this is a different animal for us. We’re trying something different: a horror movie.

I’ve been saying for years that I don’t feel like we’ve really made a horror movie yet. We’ve done hybrids— comedy/horror, science fiction/horror, something-slash-horror. Razor Days is as much a thriller as it is a horror film, truth be told, but it’s still horror at the base. Horrific things happen and not all of them of the “ooh, cool effect!” variety. So I hope you’ll all bear with both my excitement and anxiety, since this was such a long time coming.

After a few months of wrangling and ironing out legal details, HCP formed a partnership with RAK Media, the publisher of Sirens of Cinema, to make Razor Days our first feature. There are grand plans for it, but it has to be made first. That first “production” step was taken on the aforementioned Thursday.

To announce officially, Razor Days stars Debbie Rochon, Amy Lynn Best, David Marancik (The Sadist), Jeff Monahan (Lone Star) and Alan Rowe Kelly (A Far Cry from Home), with Michael Varrati, Gwendolyn and fan-favorite Bill Homan making special appearances (as well as many of our HCP family members). Alan is also taking on a goodly portion of produce-orial duties. Robert Kuiper is the exec producer. Special Make-up designed by Gino Crognale (Sorority Row, Hostel III). Special props were created by Chris Pezzano. Cinematography would be conjured from the magical realm of electromagnetism by Dominick Sivilli (The Tell-Tale Heart) and Bart Mastronardi (Vindication). The bulk of filming will take place in the Spring of 2011.

But we all really wanted to get started sooner. So we got together and worked something out.

Two years ago, I covered George A. Romero Presents Deadtime Stories for Fangoria. Jeff Monahan wrote the three stories told in that upcoming anthology and directed one of the segments. He cast Amy in a cameo for the last story and we hung out on the set for the majority of that particularly shoot. Which took place in the historic Laurel Caverns outside of Uniontown, PA. Thirteen-plus stories down and dozens of miles long, the caverns are a natural cave formation open to the public nine months of the year. Located at the bottom of a very steep mountain road, wintertime is treacherous in that area.

But the location is beautiful inside and out and I fell in love with the idea of shooting something there, and hey, our Razor Days script requires a cave setting! So what the heck, right?

We got the ball rolling back in July. First we needed to obtain permission. Then we had to make sure the partnership was in place, legally, so we could transfer our production insurance. Then came all the team building—assembling the right people with the right skills for the right time period, then figuring out how to get them down here and then what to do with them once they arrived. All the stuff I hate to deal with. Fortunately, Amy’s really good at all this stuff. So even though she’s one of the film’s stars, she undertook most of the pre-production duties.

All the big-picture stuff fell into place rather quickly, but the details started to dissolve. Our previous insurance company had restructured during the whole “economic clusterfuck” period, so we had to scramble to find new coverage. Fortunately, Alan was able to provide that solution after weeks of false starts. (This wasn’t an option—not only did we need to provide the cavern’s administrators with proof of coverage but we weren’t about to haul a dozen or so people 100 feet into the bowels of the Earth without making sure they’d be taken care of should a vicious cave troll eat their foot during filming!) But even with Alan’s guidance, we were still racing the clock and the calendar. The caverns are closed during the week after Labor Day, then close completely the weekend after Thanksgiving due to mountain snow causing untold amounts of potential death. The closer we got to Thanksgiving, the more we risked inclement weather, postponement of production and loss of mojo.

So I lit incense to Cinemagog, the God of Fillmmaking, and left out a dollar bill as an offering to Ifirs, the God of Executive Producing, in the hopes of getting these guys on our side. I also shouted to the heavens that I was not, nor could I possibly be confused with, Terry Gilliam, so they if they could see their way towards laying off, we’d be grateful.

The overall plan was to shoot as many of the little cave flashbacks as possible in as short a time as was feasible, then cobble together the footage for an extended trailer. It wasn’t a “film shoot” per ce as it was a trial run for the new family. Having met David Marancik and Dominick Sivilli socially, I’d never worked with them before. Alan had done some voice over work for me and sat for an interview for the Res. Game DVD, but we hadn’t done a project together. Heck, we’ve known Debbie for over a decade and shot five movies with her but for never more than a day or two at a time! So this was gonna be something new.

Fortunately, everyone likes everybody (and David). Plus, I had on hand the additional wonderful person of Michael Varrati, Razor Days publicist and HCP’s therapeutic counselor. He’s gotten through many a stressful convention and I felt confident he’d keep me from leaping off a ledge during filming.

So I don’t know if it was the incense, the begging, combined positive karma or if the universe was just in a particularly good mood last week, but the one-day shoot came off without a hitch and barely over budget! Alan, Dom and David were not killed in a horrible moose-crossing accident on their way from NY to PA. The Pittsburgh Airport did not give Debbie Ebola, the insurance company didn’t try to stick us for a dollar-per-dollar policy, the caverns did not fall in, explode or mysteriously move (though our GPS refused to actually get us there!) prior to our arrival (nor while we were there). In fact there was only one isolated bit of idiocy and that was on my end.

In the summer, I decided that HCP should upgrade its lighting kit. Perusing the wonderful digital garage sale that is Ebay, I came across a gorgeous little three-lamp halogen kit for a decent price. Ordered it, received it, looked at it, oohed, ahhed, and put the damn thing away. Without ever checking to see if the lamps had bulbs in them.

And, of course, they’re the kinds of bulbs made by Madagascan children, rolled on the thighs of plump Cuban women and only during the third full moon of the year and are not, therefore, available at Wal-Mart.

I don’t embarrass easily.

You know those dreams you have where you’re speaking in public and you realize you’re naked?

I get applause in those dreams.

But hanging out with a professional director of photography doing an equipment check and realizing that you didn’t—not once in three months—make sure you had light bulbs for your light kit—it’s a painful moment.

Dom rolled with it. Gave me a hug. Told me it would be okay. Realized that he had no way home without the other two. Told me it would be okay again. Thanks to Bill Homan and his 500 watt lighting kit, it was. But tell that to a drunk and sobbing me, crafting a noose out of old 16mm short ends!

Fortunately, the run-up to that was both relaxing and productive. After working part of the day and all of us rehearsing for the rest of Tuesday, Debbie, Amy and Michael sat down with their laptops and commenced a marathon Facebook chat, ending up with 200 posts on one thread. And if that isn’t a record… really, it should be. Meanwhile, I edited, chimed in when I had something incredibly witty to say, and endured Glee. Amy and Michael wanted to watch it, Debbie went to her happy place to avoid it; I wound up watching it. And paying attention to it. It was their “It Gets Better” episode. Meanwhile, we were all be-dogged by a quartet of canines confused by the company.

Wednesday night, prior to the humiliation brought about by lack of bulbs, Alan, David and Dom managed to reach Waynesburg unscathed and we had a production meeting over a Bob Evans dinner that was slightly less bland than not eating at all. It was then that I realized that we were lacking in specific set dressing. The cave is meant to be a cannibal lair. I had no bones. By which, I mean, external bones (x-rays have revealed me to be vertebrate, thank you).

Bill Homan to the rescue again. “How many do you need?” he asked. Which is not the first time such an ominous question was proffered to a ridiculous question. “A few,” I said. “A handful.”

“I don’t have hands,” he said. “I have legs and skulls and ribs and—”

The next morning, there was a large box waiting for me outside his house, filled to the brim with what used to be inside a small herd of Bambis. Like the cannibals in my story, however, Bill eats everything he kills, so he’s given a carnivore pass. Unlike the office bozos I’ve worked with in the past that just like to “kill stuff”.

Convinced I had left nothing else behind or unchecked, we led the caravan to the caverns. Michael and I sat in the backseat of the car, encumbered by heavy equipment, while Amy and Debbie drove in the front, less encumbered but laden with coffee. If any of you out there have ever met Amy or Debbie, you know that coffee is consumed by the oceanfuls. A week later and my house still smells like the inside of Juan Valdez’s bladder.

One grievous mistake made that cannot be solely attributed to me was the notion that we would accomplish more with a smallish crew. This was meant to be a fast, one-day shoot. Get in, get out. It was a paid shoot, all professional and everything, and we were hesitant to go too crazy over what would amount to about four minutes of footage and an ersatz trailer. So we’d all slap on our multiple hats and schlep cable, whip up craft services, provide make-up, “Hollywood” bounce boards and flags, whatever. Just the seven of us.

Do you know how long a walk 100 near-vertical feet is? You do? Are you over 30? You’re not? Then shut up, Mr. 127 Days. I’m still amazed that we met neither death-by-exhaustion nor a Minotaur during our frequent treks up and down that cavernous mountain. Because, of course, the room that wound up as everyone’s favorite was one of the furthest down from the visitor’s center and homebase. Glorious, grand, proof-of-God’s majesty, yeah, yeah, yeah. Still a long, steep fucking walk! And we all discovered our inner Indian (Cheroke, Ute or Algonquin—your preference) by getting lost at least once and following the light-kit wheel-tracks to freedom and sunlight again. Made us all feel smart and survivorish. 

 Photo by Amy Lynn Best

The temperature that deep in Laurel Caverns is about 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit year round. Which is fine in August. Coming in from 60 degrees outside to a ten-degree drop, stripping to the waist (in David’s case) or tied into limb-sleep stress positions (in Debbie’s case), and staying there for six hours well…Hey, Neil Marshall—you know what I’m talking about, right? Holla!


The benefit of shooting only flashbacks is that you can cheat a lot of things. Hairstyles don’t have to match precisely if there are other scenes between the shots you’re getting. The make-up can change. You can dictate the amount of time the characters are spending even if the script doesn’t spell it all out. The drawback is actually trying to figure all of that out and explaining it to everyone else when the script doesn’t spell it all out.

Actually, that was the biggest drawback of all, for me, at least: directing. I’ve joked in the past that actors are little more than “walking props”. I’ve often called the “noise bags” to the set when I’m ready to roll. And I’ve gone on and on how I much I dislike the actual production part of filmmaking. Let me write it, let me edit it, and tell me how all that middle stuff went. You know, for my blog.

But here we were, half-a-mile down in the belly of the Earth, the stars hoisting and toting along with the grips (which, that day, included Walt and Ian, two of the Caverns’ caretakers; the wonderful Doreen, who facilitated all of our desires, wisely stayed in the visitor’s center where it was saner—uh, warmer). Everyone was enduring the same chill, the same dirty conditions (the bowels of the Earth are just filthy!). And they kept asking me questions—endless questions—simply because I was the so-called director!

Now, since we started, Amy and I have always operated as a team. We’re like a married version of the Coen Brothers. Generally, even when I’m listed as “director”, Amy will work with the actors and I’ll work with the camera department. I’m just not an emotionally-giving guy. “I wrote the damned thing! It’s right there! What more do you need? Just do that!”

That’s not the best tactic, apparently.

And while the two of us had discussed the scenes ahead of time and the best way to play them, I was still, for all intents and purposes, directing the scenes. So I had to have answers. Which meant I had to know how to communicate those answers. “Act more!” would be unacceptable. 

 Photo by Amy Lynn Best

I was grateful that the first few shots we were doing were cutaways—close-ups of eyes, shoulders, props, things that formerly resided inside deer. All I had to do was say, “Great”, when Dominick asked me how I liked the framing. While he did that, Alan worked make-up and Amy did both producing and Best Boy work for Dom, I tried to figure out what the hell I was going to do.

Like I said: there was to be no cheating on this one. I couldn’t rely on Amy taking the reins with the actors as she did on Splatter Movie because she was going to need directing as well. I couldn’t fake my way through a scene with an Irish accent, joking and calling out “Gimme an Alien 3,” as I did on A Feast of Flesh. If everyone else was going to treat this like a hardcore professional film, I would have to as well. (This is not to belittle anyone else’s contribution to previous HCP films, nor to belittle the films themselves. We’ve never made anything I was anything less than sinfully proud of. This is all meant to bespeak of my attitude towards things. I rely on others to do excellent jobs. But now I had to leave the dugout, to use a barely-understood sports term.)

Photo by Amy Lynn Best
After the first couple of shots, we broke to set up for an elaborate take. We realized that something had been left behind “upstairs” and Amy took it upon herself to go running. “Direct your actors,” she told me and gave me a big smile. It was as much a pep talk as it was a suggestion. If you’ve been together with someone for sixteen years, you don’t need an “atta boy” every couple of minutes. But a well-timed one is always welcome.

There has only ever been one other moment in my life when the meaning of the word “directing” actually dawned on me, and that was a small test shoot in a hotel room after a convention, for a movie that never came together. But I had three professional actors before me who all needed to know specific things for the scene. Their questions crystallized the concept of “motivation” for me. The word wasn’t just a tired punchline. It wasn’t a prompt for the comeback “to get through the scene so we can go home”. “Motivation” is a single-word short-hand for “what is happening and what are we doing at this moment in time?” It also implies “what came before?” And I needed to have those answers. 

Suddenly, I had them.

Everyone down in that cavern was a friend of mine; some for a very long time and some I’d only gotten close to recently. Half-a-mile beneath the surface of the Earth was a safe place then, because there was a common goal ahead of us. But if I was going to say that, for all intents and purposes, that I was the captain of this particular subterranean ship, then goddamn it, I’d better captain.

I forced myself to forget my own anxieties. I called upon what I knew of these people as both people and artists. I told them what I wanted. 

Frame Grab - photography Dominick Sivilli

The first couple of times, I botched it. I’m not always the clearest of communicators, so it took me a few tries to find the right expressions to convey what was in my head. I had to dictate how these people felt. It’s not enough to say “Okay, you’re scared because this guy is doing this.” Of course you are. But scared how? For life and limb? To what degree? Terror or hysteria? And what else? Grief and shock? “You’re happy”. Yeah? Happy how?

Directing isn’t a con game. Friedkin can get away with shooting off a gun mid-take to get a reaction and Norman Taurog can threaten to shoot Jackie Cooper’s dog but that’s all smoke. That isn’t building a scene, that’s manipulation. That’s control, not shared art. If I wanted David to convey happiness, I couldn’t just buy him a puppy. 

 Frame Grab - photography Dominick Sivilli

Filmmaking isn’t like sex, as Peter Bogdanovich once said, because you never get to see anyone doing it, therefore you don’t know if you’re doing it right. It’s like sex because it’s different every single time. Even if you stick to the same positions, rhythm and timing, it’s still different because of chemistry, temperature and all other stimuli, internal and external. And you never really learn how to make a movie. You only learn how to make the movie you’re making. I still have some learning to come, but like a good joint, I knew right away when it hit me. Like any metaphor I’ve ever met, I found the right mix.

At least I think so. The footage looks gorgeous. We captured some amazing performances surrounded by gorgeous, natural surroundings (like in our other movies, this setting is going to be a character as well), production value you just can’t buy. And as exhausted as well all were at the end of the night, we were still friends. We’d gone through and come out the other side without egos taking the trip.

I could make the snide remark that Debbie and David had subjected us all to Tommy Wiseau’s monstrosity, The Room, the night before and if we’d left the lens cap on the camera we’d still have made a better movie than that—not to mention that if we can endure that hideousness as a family, we could survive anything.

But I won’t.

I’m just going to finish the edit of the teaser, start showing it around, get the damned thing some attention. Then in the Spring, we’ll return to work and wrap with something I have no doubt will be very special, a story worth telling. 

And I’ll remember the bulbs next time. And hopefully the bones.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The birth of RAZOR DAYS - a fairy story about survival horror.

Back in 2002, while working at Incredibly Strange Video in Dormont, I happened to have on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. As it ended, I thought to myself, “Marilyn Burns’s character is going to need so much therapy.” Then came the little post-script title about how no evidence was ever found after a massive police search of the area. My wheels started turning. While no scholar of the slasher genre, I’d seen enough of them to wonder about those surviving “final girls”, what their lives would be like from that point on.

In 2002, the endless cycle of remakes hadn’t yet reached the theaters, so there hadn’t been a major Hills Have Eyes or Texas Chain Saw “type” of movie released for a while. The indie scene was filled to the brim then—and will always be—with survival horror, homages and rip-offs of the original films. In fact, later that day I watched Carnage Road, which featured a character named “Quiltface” for his impressive mask made of multiple skinned faces. The idea that there are psychotic cannibals out there, hoping to catch, kill and eat us, was always a fascinating little terror of mine. It had grown stronger in recent months as Amy and I scouted out rural farmland for our new home. Passing one back-woods house with a gaping hole in the side, while the proud owner sat on the porch skinning…something (all I remember are clumps of blood and fur as we increased speed), I turned to Amy, indicating the “For Sale” sign on the trailer next to the lot. “If I’m going to be murdered in my sleep,” I told her, “I definitely don’t want to be raped and murdered.” So we kept looking.
Then I rediscovered this Berni Wrightson comic cover and things started to gel in my head. 

  Survival horror always reached an end, either with triumph, rescue, succumbing to madness, or that final surprising resurrection—that dead hand springing back to life and grabbing the final girl just as the credits rolled to the sound of her echoing scream, betraying everything she’d gone through. What these types of horror movies never addressed were the scars left behind.

The first reaction to that consideration is, of course, “Who wants to see a crying victim in therapy for two hours, telling the story to her shrink?” So skip that part too. What happens after? After the survival, after the therapy, after the investigations and allegations and accusations. One person out of four survived a camping trip. Could they be to blame? Isn’t that more plausible than Leatherface and his family? Police find no evidence—how the hell hard were they looking? Or are they in on it too? (Something that was addressed in the inevitable Texas Chain Saw remake.) But most importantly, all that convolution aside, how do you put your life back together after something like that?

Having lived in the world, journeyed out amongst other people, I have met survivors of rape and molestation. I have met people who have survived moments of horrible and random violence. I’m not referring to brutal abductions or even war flashbacks. Comparatively small things like a mugging, a bar fight, or even the prolonged illness of a friend or relative, leaves behind its echo. Even if these folks seem, outwardly, to have completely recovered, the violence is still there in scarred-over memory. And it comes out. Usually rarely, but those wounds open, sometimes with a minutia of prompting. So if its particularly shattering, how do you put yourself back together?

After a couple of turns with this germ of an idea—first as a short story and then a comic book—I found the meat of this story I wanted to tell, and the first thing to go was that image of the head hunter from Wrightson’s painting. As much as I would have loved to tell that story, it wasn’t the story that wanted to be told.

The story that became Razor Days was much more intimate and introspective. But very violent. It’s about a trio of final girls and what they decide to do after the credits have rolled.

So here we are eight years later, and I’m finally getting the chance to turn this script into a movie. There were multiple fits and starts over the years, including a nasty little few weeks where we had the film ripped away from us in pre-production by a dishonest producer who promised the world then took it all away. That was a carpet-yank moment for us because this wasn’t just a movie we could make on weekends in our backyards. It required a realism that our other movies did not. It wasn’t a ____-horror movie, either. It wasn’t a comedy-horror like Severe Injuries or a semi-futuristic zombie fantasy like The Resurrection Game. We couldn’t invent our own worlds here. Razor Days required solid ground beneath our feet. Which requires money. So we put it on the back burner, turned the fire low and let it simmer.

In the meantime, Amy and I worked on the script, refined it and brought it down closer to eye-level, working out how even the most fantastic elements could have a light shone on them and still feel solid. While we’re used to not giving up—the Happy Cloud motto is “The bumblebee doesn’t know that its physically impossible for it to fly”—we had two others in our court who never gave up either: Debbie Rochon and Alan Rowe Kelly. The pair of them mentioned that movie to anyone who would listen. Then, one day, the right listener came along.

Bob Kuiper, my long-time friend and publisher of Sirens of Cinema, who has displayed more faith in me than what is surely rational, was someone I’d worked with for over five years, but had never met. Circumstances kept us from seeing each other in person. Some of this problem was caused by distance—he in Indiana, we in the nowhere-zone of PA—and was compounded by other things, chiefly bad timing. He’d been burned by partnerships before—had a movie or two collapse around him—as had we, so our initial conversations about producing a film together required a lot of circling and dancing, resembling many of the knife fights from West Side Story minus the snapping.

Then, by chance, the planets aligned and the three of us finally met, face-to-face and over beer, at Horrorhound, Indy. We discuss plans for the future and we hint that we’d love to make Razor Days. There is much nodding and smiling and great plans for the upcoming empire.

And who is one of the first people we introduce Mr. Bob to? Alan Rowe Kelly.

What’s the first thing he says to us? “What’s going on with Razor Days? I love that script!”

It was an unscripted, unpaid for moment. But it was enough proof for me that the universe isn’t constantly out to get me. Because by the end of that weekend, Bob had provided the green-light for this movie to be made. The first project for the partnership of RAK Media and Happy Cloud Pictures will be something completely different from anything we’ve attempted before.

After all the struggling and fighting and the inherent madness of the indie film industry, after all the back-stabbing, the trash-talk, the horrific allegations and the depressing dissolution of long-time friendships, we were reminded that sometimes, this business doesn’t completely suck. There are wonderful people out there. They’re tough to spot through the guarded gauze of cynicism and self-defense, but they’re there, and they’re willing to expose themselves to your dreams and desires. And the only price is: you have to live up to their trust.

Because betrayal is a violent act as well. It can leave scars just as deep and leave damage behind. Now all of a sudden, you’re on the other side. You’re not the survivor or the altruistic hero. You’re standing on the precipice of villainy. You want to be the villain of your own life story—act selfishly, lie, cheat, and fuck your way to the top. It’s actually faster—an express elevator to success.

I’m happy that, after all this time, we took the stairs and had good friends to walk with.