Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Balancing Accounts: How to Avenge Email Snubs

Here is something i sent out last week that may amuse those of you who have ever been snubbed or ignored in your efforts to communictae in this very volatile world of email.

To whom it may concern,
Please read this in its entirety if you have any interest in improving your business sense.
If you are receiving this message, here’s why: In the last 12 months or so you have, deliberately or otherwise, ignored emails sent you regarding my wares (books, scripts, articles, etc, all suffused with that unique, sadly underappreciated Horsley genius).
I am sure you have your reasons for this. Everybody always has reasons. But unless such reasons entail a debilitating sickness, an unforeseen accident, a lawsuit, abduction by aliens or something equally earth-shattering, I am not really interested. I am concerned only with the effects which your discourtesy had on me at the time. It may have been months back; perhaps you weren’t even aware of snubbing anyone at the time, much less now. But I do remember.
Writers have longer memories than elephants. Those like myself, touched or cursed by momentary genius, we are petty, obsessive, vengeful beasts. (All decent writers write at least partly for revenge.) Some day, when the success and recognition I shamelessly covet is finally mine, all your snubs will mean nothing. They are, I freely acknowledge, part of the necessary tempering of the artist, and I shall not kick against these pricks. But allow me at least to point them out.
It is in the interests of cleansing my psyche of you once and for all that I am sending this email, collectively, to let you know that, witting or otherwise, you have offended this “hot-headed fantasist” (quoting Pauline Kael, get it??)
Perhaps you think you (or your time) are too important to observe what my mother calls “good manners” and common courtesy? Perhaps you consider these ideas old-fashioned in the age of stem cells and Internet? Whatever business you are in—in most cases a publishing house or agency—I guarantee this is not so, and that your own advancement is suffering from such an attitude. Snubbing potential clients isn’t just sloppy and rude—it’s bad business.
I wanted to keep this short. Only those with sufficiently morbid curiosity (and any of you who still have consciences) will still be reading anyway. What is this maniac trying to accomplish here? I will tell you.
This email serves as a collective Curse upon all of you who had the temerity and arrogance to ignore one of the visionary talents of our age. It is a Curse in the old, Egyptian sense, not the modern, angry expletive sense (though I am tempted). Do not expect plagues of locusts or for blood to come through your bathroom faucet. Any of you who happen to lose a limb or contract brain cancer in the next few months, please don’t blame me. The curse should fit the crime, so this is a very mild curse, intended to cause just the amount of rancor, frustration, stress, righteous wrath and indignation that you have all (wittingly or not) inflicted upon my own sensitive psyche. A particularly obscene traffic jam, perhaps, an underserved parking ticket, an unaccountably rude bank teller, painful humiliation at the hands of a beautiful woman (or star client), and suchlike—expect any or all of these in the following months.
This Curse will become effective as of next Tuesday, 31st of October, being the day of All Hallow’s Eve, also called Sam Hain, popularly know as Halloween. Any of you who feel undeserving of this cybernetic hex, contact me with humble apology and/or convincing explanation within the next seven days, you will hereby be exempted from it. The rest of you? The next time some stupid unthinking SOB snubs, disses, or ignores you FOR NO GOOD REASON, you will think of me.
That’s all. Now go about your flagging business.
Yours karmically,
The genius-whose-daddy-didn’t love him enough,
Jake Horsley
Divine Virus Productions

And the solitary response (two hours after i sent the email, a week ago, from a US publisher):


Your email notice certainly did the trick in making me feel a “member” of the cursed.

With that said, I do apologize for not getting back to you over the last 12 months and I am truly sorry that I haven’t been able to connect with you in a way that ended up in our making a deal for one of your projects.

Please forgive me and don’t stop sending projects to me for review in the future.

Best wishes,

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

’Til Art is No More: Hollywood Devours Its Young

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? An axiom that Hollywood regards with all the cynical opportunism of an unscrupulous mechanic—not only fixing things that don’t need fixing, but deftly messing them up in the process.

The 2006 remake of The Omen is the latest example of Hollywood opportunism run amok. So far as I can tell, the only reason the film was made—the only vaguely “creative” rationale behind it—was to make a big marketing strategy out of releasing it on June 6, 2006, (06/06/06, geddit?). Big, fat, hairy deal. They could have saved themselves $50 million and re-released Richard Donner’s original film, now thirty years old, with Gregory Peck (whom Liev Strieber does a peculiar, nostalgia-inducing impersonation of in the current film). Audiences would then have received a decent (if dated) bit of movie horror hokum, instead of a shallow rehash with nothing but some “cool” imagery and the stunt casting of Mia Farrow (remember Rosemary’s Baby?) to distinguish it.

The only thing that makes The Omen remake worth writing about is how it provides one more piece of irrefutable evidence as to the complete poverty of imagination or innovation in the higher echelons of Hollywood studios. Remakes have been the rage for a couple of decades now, but it’s only in the last few years that the industry began to cannibalize itself with such speed that, within another decade (Armageddon permitting), it will be remaking its hit movies fasting than it can come up with the originals. Where once there was at least the pretense of a creative justification for such remakes (i.e., old movies like The Postman Always Rings Twice, being done over to take advantage of the new permissiveness), there is now a total void of artistic rationale to cover the mercenary and soulless agenda at work.

Gus Van Sant’s Psycho was perhaps the turning point. Ironically, the movie was supposedly a “labor of love” on Van Sant’s part (so he would have us believe), a grand follie that remade Hitchcock’s movie, shot for shot and word for word, as a “homage” to the master. (Can pissing on someone’s grave be considered a homage? Only in Hollywood.) The studios probably approved Van Sant’s heroically demented enterprise because it meant getting a Psycho that was in color, hence could draw in mass audiences. (Colorizing Hitchcock’s original would have caused far too much of a stink even for studio execs to want to deal with.) Van Sant’s misguided Psycho was neither a commercial nor a critical success, but even so it seems to have set a precedent for “paint by numbers” sequels (and “join-the-dots” profits?).

Nowadays, it is perfectly natural for studios to employ no-name (and usually no-talent) directors to remake “classic” horror movies that aren’t even that old and where a simple re-release would serve. As prophesized by Robert Altman’s The Player, such a procedure may represent Hollywood executive dreams come true: the means for entirely removing writers from the filmmaking process. (All emphasis here on process, none at all on filmmaking.)
Assault on Precinct 13, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, The Hills Have Eyes, When a Stranger Calls, and now The Omen and The Wicker Man, have all enjoyed the Hollywood “upgrade” in recent years, always to the detriment of the original movie (in cases such as Amityville, admittedly no great loss; the one exception to this rule is Dawn of the Dead, which almost justified itself by being a rip-roaring bit of splatter fun, just like the original.) So what’s next? A remake of Eraserhead, with Bill Murray as Henry? Or how about a new, extra special edition of Close Encounters (by James Cameron?), now that we have CGI? Hell, let’s remake E.T while we’re at it! Soon there will be no way to tell new releases from old favorites.

What I have to ask is, why not, for heaven’s sake, remake horror movies that might actually benefit from being done over? Either films whose potential wasn’t tapped the first time around or that didn’t have the technology needed to do full justice to the director’s vision? Let Cronenberg do a $50 million rehash of Videodrome, and inflict us with the postmodern paranoid epic he has always dreamed of inflicting upon us! What about all those horror movies with fantastically inspired plots that never managed to deliver on their promise? Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To, John Carpenter’s They Live, the visionary but disappointing Dark City? What about the old Nigel Neale “Quatermass” TV shows? The answer is that none of these have the instant recognizability of those ’70s horror “classics” which, once remade, pretty much sell themselves because even younger audiences have heard of (but hopefully not seen) the originals. There may be something like morbid curiosity compelling people to see these movies, out of a mixture of nostalgic affection for the originals and a desire to see how awful these new versions really are. I, too, have allowed myself to be tricked into watching these films—actually paying money to see them—despite the absolute certainty that I will repent of it afterwards. And invariably, I do.

Judging by the continuing stream of this warmed-over dreck, remakes of movies that either didn’t need remaking or never had much potential to begin with—so long as they are easily identifiable by title—more or less guarantee a profit for the studios. What could be simpler than taking a previous hit and giving it a glossy, FX-happy make-over? If they are in the mood for a good scare, people will go to see a horror movie, just like they will go to a dumb-out comedy for a laugh (let’s face it, like they will go the movies, period), no matter what it is. Remakes share their title with some movie that audiences have heard about and which they assume must be great; the mere fact it’s been remade means it’s a classic, right? They go to the movie out of some fuzzy “logic” (or rather, irrational hope) it will provide whatever special thrills made the original special. Teenage audiences (the target audience of these movies) have next to no awareness of film history and even less interest in it; they have all the memory or discernment of MTV-raised, ADD goldfish, and apparently, they like it that way. So long as they’re served the requisite gore and cheap thrills and can max out to their popcorn, who cares if they’re eating moldy old leftovers—and not last week’s but last year’s? It’s all been microwaved and MSG-ed to cover the lack of nutritional value or of anything faintly resembling flavor. Their retinas, brains and eardrums are being assaulted; and that, man, is what the movies are all about.
Ye gods. And this Hollywood agenda looks set to proceed, with all the inexorable inevitability of a fundamentalist Armageddon, verily, until Art exists no more.

The only possible way to justify an Omen remake—with its ever-more topical “Antichrist in the White House” archetypal unfolding—would be either by coming up with a whole new twist to the tale or by making the scariest goddamn movie ever. The new Omen accomplishes neither goal; most depressingly of all, it doesn’t seem to aspire to anything at all. The strongest sensation I got while watching it was an eerie, unsettling déjà vu that took me back to seeing the first film (a dozen times) as a teenager. This new version is so similar to the original, and yet so fundamentally inferior in everything but the cinematography, that it creates a kind of vacuum in the viewer—at least in those of us who have seen the original. It’s exactly the sort of vacuum you’d expect when an art form had begun to cannibalize itself. It’s happening so rapidly now that an art form is disappearing before our eyes.

If the antichrist were among us today, I wonder: would he be running a Hollywood studio?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Inner Voice of Paul Thomas Anderson

In Dogville Vs. Hollywood I wrote a single line on Magnolia, calling it “a sprawling, only partly successful imitation of Altman, [that] suggested Anderson was a filmmaker with aspirations possibly beyond his talents.” Having seen the film for second time, seven years later, I have some serious crow to eat.

A soaring, almost wholly successful work (some scenes with Julianne Moore still strike me as overwrought and heavy-handed), Magnolia seems to me now the most heartfelt and original movie epic since, well, since forever. (I was going to say since Nashville, but the truth is, Magnolia is a considerably richer and more personal work than Altman’s.)

There’s no doubt Anderson’s ambitions as a filmmaker border on hubris; but what’s truly astonishing is that he actually has the wherewithal to see them through and do almost complete justice to them. With only his third film, Anderson made a masterpiece, a film that walks the high-wire between nigh-esoteric subtlety and melodrama bordering on soap opera, and it does so without a net. (At over three hours running time and a cost of over $40 million, anything less than a tour-de-force could have vaporized Anderson as surely as Heaven’s Gate vaporized Cimino.) Even so, Magnolia confounded many viewers (myself included obviously) with its brazen originality and disregard for movie conventions. To fully appreciate the scope, depth, and intensity of Anderson’s film, it may be necessary to meet the writer-director halfway, to allow his peculiar vision to unfold at its own tempo and in its own, unique manner. However brilliant a movie, Magnolia is not an ingratiating work; Anderson appears to deliberately confound his audience’s preconceptions about both art and entertainment, delivering a work unlike any other American movie of the last thirty years, without apology. As Anderson said to the crew on the first day of shooting, making a great movie is “nothing to be ashamed of.”

As a work of art, Magnolia is hugely entertaining, as well as being the closest American movies have come in recent years to a genuine labor of love. Against all odds, Anderson has made an intimate epic that stays true to his individual vision, a film that is both disturbingly personal and sweepingly universal in its reach. Anderson makes a proud and plaintive cry to be saved from the ranks of the freaks who suspect they can never love anyone; and the deeper he reaches into his own heart and soul, the more profoundly he connects with ours.

With his ability to pull off something this freakish—a movie that, by all the usual standards for judging movies, simply should not work—Paul Thomas Anderson proved himself to be a truly Promethean talent, a bona fide filmmaking genius. As Pauline Kael wrote of Coppola in his heyday (The Godfather Part Two), “that’s the inner voice of the authentic hero.”

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Tarantino's Licensed Depravity

I just watched HOSTEL, which I found disgusting. I am not one to take moral stances, much less on movies. But in this case I am sorely tempted. Tarantino should have his head examined for supporting something as grotesque as this. That said, it does have some powerful imagery, once the barbarism begins (the first hour was just crap), and obviously it evoked a strong emotional response in me. But how hard is it to get an emotional response from scenes of graphic torture? (I felt the same about Tarantino’s ear-slicing scene in Dogs, which was just exploitation cinema done up in new, postmodern rags). The film was disturbing, sure, but at a visceral rather than psychological level. Footage of animal experimentation would also be disturbing. Big deal.

What I admire about movies like Blue Velvet and Casualties of War (also M), and even Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is the way they get to the psychological roots of sadism, (by) creating empathy not just for the victims (easy enough, obviously), but for the perpetrators also. Tarantino seems devoid of empathy as a filmmaker. It’s hard to imagine a greater defect (I think Kubrick suffered from it too, however, so I guess there are ways around it!). He delights in depicting scenes of pain and dismemberment with all the sadistic relish of a Goebbels.

They say a society gets the heroes it deserves. Tarantino’s success strikes me as (like everything) symptomatic of just how “depraved” (removed from basic human qualities like compassion, introspection, kindness) audiences have become, that they would take pleasure in what amount to sadistic orgies of violence with no leavening “moral” (i.e. artistic) intent behind them.

In the end, there can be no credible argument made for censorship of any kind. But if there was, Hostel would be exhibit A.