Thursday, June 21, 2012

Mickey's Last

July 17th was the 6th anniversary of the death, at the age of 88, of Mickey Spillane, one of the bestselling authors of all time. The Mick was an unpretentious, even anti-pretentious, writer of hardboiled crime stories, with emphasis on the "hard"--hard-hitting, hard drinking, hard-headed, and pushing the envelope with regard to sex and violence in popular fiction damn hard. His most famous creation is Mike Hammer, and to the extent that the character was Spillane's fantasy version of himself--and it's probably fair to assume this was largely the case--it doesn't speak well of him, but Spillane was an extraordinarily talented pulpster. Their often reprehensible aspects aside, his tales sold so well because they're damn good. I was a fan.

Upon hearing the news he'd died, I spent an hour or two writing a sort of obituary in a rough counterfeit of his style, with several twists on some of his more memorable lines. I've never really done much with it. I came across it a few weeks ago, decided I sort of liked it, and, entirely by coincidence, the sixth anniversary of his death was approaching, so I thought I'd post it here (then forgot about it until a few days after the anniversary--sue me):

MICKEY'S LAST

The old man coughed and sputtered, tossed in his bed and cursed whatever gods made him old, made him weak, made him sick. "God must be a woman," he grumbled, and maybe the thought made him feel a little better. As tired as he was, he was still a tough old bastard, but as he sensed his end upon him, he knew Death was one rap he wasn't going to beat.

"Fuck you," he growled. "I got one more story to finish, and you can't have me 'till it's done."

Hauling himself off the bed and over to his desk took nearly everything he had, but he managed it, flopping into his chair with a grunt, wheezing, trying to catch his breath. His old Smith-Corona--"Betsy," he called her--was there, the paper already spooled and ready to go, carriage poised where he'd left it earlier. He'd banged out a lot of tales on the old girl over the years. All the blood and thunder that had made him one of the best selling pulp writers in human history had spooled though her on the way from his mind to the book-shelves. Beatings, rapes, murders, all the tools of the hardboiled trade--she'd seen it all.

He didn't have a lot of time left, now, though, and he knew it. His next story was nearly written. His last story. For weeks, as he'd felt Death creeping up on him, he'd worked on it like a madman, devoting his every waking hour to it, correcting as he went along. It was put-up or shut-up time. Get it in the can, or forever hold your peace.

And he desperately wanted to get it in the can. Of all the lousy luck, he'd been hit with some first-rate inspiration right here in the last few days of his life. "With me it always has to be the hard way," he thought, and the curse he spat at malevolent fate filled the room, as he glanced at the page to remember where he'd stopped, paused a bit to put himself in the moment and try to get the swimming feeling out of his head, and started typing it out.

This wasn't just hack-work, his last story. He'd done hack-work, and he knew the difference between it and the real stuff, even if he made a show of never giving a damn one way or the other. That's why he wanted to get this new story done--it was the real stuff, and it was really good. It was the best damn thing he'd ever written. He had to get it on the page.

He'd known how it was going to end before he'd started, and, after working through it in his head for a few weeks, he knew it was nearly finished. He even had a pretty good idea of what the last paragraph would say--it would be a big reveal, and a big blowout ending. It was just a matter of getting it there. "Best damn thing I've ever written." The thought drove him. As he typed along, he was fading, though, no way around it. He was numb, his eyes getting heavy. He had the story by the balls, but his fingers flew over the keyboard more and more slowly. For an hour, he kept himself focused, kept himself together, hammered away at it at best speed.

Finally, he'd nearly licked it. He'd broken himself, but it seemed he'd outrun death after all. He was down to the end, the big finale. It felt good, a weight off his chest. He was ready to put his much-contemplated final paragraph into place and call it a wrap. He knew roughly how he wanted it to go; he'd turned it over enough in his head. He definitely knew the last line. He paused to think it out. It had to be perfect--it would be the last paragraph of the last story he'd ever write. The last paragraph of the best story he'd ever written. He leaned back in his chair, eyes closed, breathing deeply and mulling it over until he had it cold perfect, every word in line in his head. He cracked his knuckles, and a smile crossed his lips. As he opened his eyes, he noticed, through his window, the first rays of the dawn sunlight peaking over the Carolina horizon. "Quite a sight," he thought, and he suddenly went lightheaded. "Goddamn it," disgustedly. He never felt his head hit the typewriter.


He was outside his body, a soul or a spirit or some damn thing. He could see himself lying in a pile slumped over his typewriter and knew his big finale would never be written. He shook his head, offered another disgusted "goddamn it." Beside him stood a figure in a black robe with the face of a corpse.

"Death, right?", he asked the visitor.

Corpse-face nodded his head.

"Y'know, I was almost finished with that," pointing to the typewriter.

"I know." Spectral, creepy voice.

The old man looked surprised. "You knew?"

Corpse-face noded again.

"Then... how could you?!" The old man thundered incredulously.

Corpse-face smiled wickedly at the old man. "It was easy."

* * *

To the extent that he was his characters, the Mick was a reactionary, a sadist, a misogynist, a scumbag, and there's not a whole hell of a lot good you can say about that.

He was a hell of a writer, though. And sometimes, that hell is enough.

Mickey Spillane died today, at 88 years of age. He'll be missed.

--j.
17 July, 2006

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A few extra notes: Spillane died of pancreatic carcinoma. At the time this was written, I didn't know that. It's years ago, of course, but as I recall, the press reports just mentioned an illness, and I made him sort of generically ill. Also, my comments about his character at the end could be taken as pretty harsh, if not read carefully. People who knew the Mick said he was actually a good fellow, and if that's true, I'm glad to hear it.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Rating the ALIEN

PROMETHEUS, Ridley Scott's much-hyped prequel to ALIEN is upon us, and in anticipation, Lebeau, over on Le Blog, has written some thoughts on the ALIEN franchise. I was going to comment on it, but, as happened a few months ago when I was replying to some things he'd written about Kevin Smith, it started to run a bit long, and, as then, I thought, "why not post it here?"

The "c" word is overused. There can be no denying it. Times being what they are, it has simply become a part of our casual, everyday conversation, alongside a lot of other unfortunate habits that progressively degrade our language. I've probably abused it myself on occasion. This, however, is a case when justice wouldn't be served by the application of any lesser word.

The original ALIEN (1979) is, simply put, a classic.

It wasn't entirely "original," though.  Lebeau quotes ALIEN co-writer Dan O'Bannon: "I didn't steal ALIEN from anybody. I stole it from everybody!" It wasn't quite "everybody." Plot-wise, the film was a warmed-over stew of basic story elements lifted from IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE and Mario Bava's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, with a tiny smidgeon of THE THING and a pinch of post-Watergate Malevolent Authority from JAWS thrown in to taste.[1]

Still, it would be absurd to look upon the film as a mere retread. It wouldn't have earned the revered place it rightfully holds in cinema history if that had been all there was to it. No, this ALIEN's DNA was a lot more rich and varied. First, it was just a hell of a movie, a great, gory, suspense-filled horror picture full of mystery and menace that hooked you early and held you 'til the end. Beyond that, nearly everything about the way the film is written, designed, performed, and shot is practically revolutionary, a giant leap forward for genre pictures. In ways that count--and that far outweigh any negative stigma that may attach to its acknowledged plot recycling--ALIEN was, indeed, an original. It's also--to clip another overused but entirely appropriate accolade--a film ahead of its time. So ahead of its time, in fact, that, as I see it, it is, for the most part, still ahead of its time.

Often--far too often, in my view--filmmakers choose to present these kinds of sci-fi/fantasy stories through the lens of overwrought melodrama. Dialogue of puffed-up soap-opera pseudo-profundity, delivered through broad, overdone, anti-naturalistic performances. Two years before ALIEN, STAR WARS had set a standard for this species of film, and practically every line of dialogue in it is an example of this phenomenon. Plenty of ham-and-cheese-with-corn-on-the-side performances, preposterous speechifying, and so on, but no one at any point acting or sounding like real people in a real world.

The worlds in which these stories are set often don't look or sound real, or seem plausible, or feel relatable. Escapism, an important element of this kind of fiction, is often allowed to predominate to the detriment of such considerations,[2] which, while I'm certainly never down on escapism, I've always found unfortunate, because I think it contributed to the ghettoization of this brand of genre cinema for decades, and still contributes mightily to the Philistinian-yet-widespread perception that such films are inherently something between entirely unserious popcorn and low-grade trash for the socially impaired.

ALIEN is a key film in the development of a much more naturalistic approach to sci-fi and fantasy. The characters don't speak in that awful, stilted, anti-naturalistic way so common to these films. They don't use any pseudo-futuristic pseudo-jargon or techno-babble. They yack about mundane subjects over dinner, complain about not being paid enough, talk over one another, argue at times. They're a band of ordinary working stiffs, and seem entirely like people who could exist in the real world. Instantly relatable. And their world feels real. Instead of some clean, neat, sterile environment, their ship looks like an actual workspace--industrial, grimy, practical, full of equipment that looks usable. When the alien, in its various forms, appears, it seems, in every way, like a genuine, organic being, one that is alien. The reactions of the various crewmembers to their increasingly dire situation feel quite real, as well. There is, in all of this, a reclamation of the genre from those whose (mis)treatment of it has resulted in its being so often dismissed as mere nerd porn.

ALIEN is special in many other ways, as well.

Its special effects--all practical, in the blessed pre-CGI era--are, almost without exception, excellent (the visual effects took an Academy Award in that category). Thirty-three years later, nearly all of them are not only still impressive, but, for the most part, blow away anything we get out of the computers that do all the work for us these days. To understand how impressive this is, consider what passed for special effects a few decades before ALIEN.

More broadly, the film is a consistent visual treat. Its tagline, on release, was "In space, no one can hear you scream," and space, as the film presents it from the opening, is a vast, cold, lonely, and inhospitable place indeed, a place where a seemingly-immense mining ship amounts to a tiny bit of nothing. A hell of a place to get into a jam. As the story proceeds to its conclusion, the ship becomes a claustrophobic death-trap, where a catastrophic fate-worse-than-death may be lurking literally anywhere in the smoke, flashing lights, and shadows of its seemingly ever-tightening corridors. By the end, Ripley, the last survivor, must try to save herself while trapped in the single room of a shuttle with the creature. All of this is pure visual storytelling--the last 20 or so minutes of the film contain almost no dialogue.

Lebeau pays appropriate homage to the film's imagery:

"Alien gave us so many indelible images that have seeped into pop culture... Alien (along with Scott’s Blade Runner) created a new set of visuals that would inform every science fiction movie made in the last several decades. Its cultural impact can’t be under-estimated."

This was Derek Vanlint's first feature as cinematographer. He made only two other movies in that capacity before his death in 2010.

This was only Ridley Scott's second feature as a director. His next, BLADE RUNNER, was even more impressive (and more important). He capped off a trilogy of solid genre efforts with LEGEND, a film that, while not even remotely up to his earlier efforts, was still an enjoyable fairy tale.[3] Unfortunately, this was virtually the death of Scott as an interesting filmmaker. His artistic collapse was sudden and it was shocking, but it was very nearly complete. Of his subsequent 17 features, only THELMA & LOUISE rose above the level of entirely forgettable, standard-issue Hollywood trash. There's a great deal of hype surrounding his present return to the ALIEN fold with PROMETHEUS. The last 27 years of his career offer absolutely nothing to justify this.

Lebeau covers the entire ALIEN franchise that followed, but there isn't really that much to say about the others. James Cameron's ALIENS was a big moneymaker, and, when younger and more foolish, I was rather fond of it. Since I grew up, not so much.

Lebeau says something about it I can get behind:

"The genius of Cameron's take on Alien was that he changed up the formula. Where Scott's film had been a psychological thriller which Scott described as a 'fun house', Cameron's sequel was a take-no-prisoners action movie more along the lines of a roller coaster."

I don't see this (or anything else about ALIENS) as any sort of "genius," but I do think it prudent for sequels to aim for a great deal more than merely repeating the earlier film, and while Cameron sort of got that sequels should be different (though his own replicated the plot structure of the original so closely that it could virtually be called a remake), he didn't get that they should be ambitious, and didn't do anything new or original with his own. Whereas Scott took a plot made up entirely of elements ripped off from previous material and made something new and special from it, Cameron took a whole heap of things from previous films and made a big, noisy film made up of things from previous films. He copied a great deal of the work he'd already done as an art director, production designer, and general jack-of-all-trades on Roger Corman's GALAXY OF TERROR and FORBIDDEN WORLD.[4] It wasn't enough to merely duplicate scenes from THE TERMINATOR--Cameron hired Michael Biehn to repeat the scenes Biehn performed in THE TERMINATOR. The film's much-commented-upon "Vietnam metaphor" was he and Walter Hill rehashing what Hill had already done much better in SOUTHERN COMFORT.[5] Most wearying, he managed to throw in just about every worn-out action-movie cliché in existence. If it had been done before (and done and done), Cameron wanted it done again for his picture. He replaced the one-man-army action hero in vogue at the time with a woman, and, as a consequence, he's sometimes credited with the innovation of the female action-hero lead, but while this is wildly inaccurate, it is true that the success of ALIENS helped spur a proliferation of Ripleyesque screen tough-chicks that continues to this day.

I won't beat up on ALIENS too much. It doesn't aim high enough to merit much scrutiny. There's nothing wrong with a movie being a roller-coaster, and this loud, fast-paced, explosion-filled picture certainly qualifies as that. There just isn't really anything special about it.

The subsequent films continued this decline. For the most part, they're just terrible. Lebeau covers them, and I think I'll just defer to him and call this a wrap.

--j.

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[1] As disarming as it is to see O'Bannon freely concede his "borrowings," he isn't always so open about them--at least once, he denied having ever seen PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. Readers can view both films and form their own conclusions regarding the veracity of this claim. The existence of this footnote indicates my own.

[2] For examples, see absolutely everything in the very unfortunate STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION.

[3] It was, however, one that fell back into that pattern of anti-naturalistic dialogue I was dissing earlier. The persistence of this approach and the sparsity of material that runs counter to it (the revised BATTLESTAR GALACTICA being a prominent example of the latter) is one of the ways in which I think ALIEN, today, is still ahead of its time.

[4] Both of which began life as intended ALIEN rip-offs, then evolved in more original directions.

[5] In SOUTHERN COMFORT, the soldiers were untested recruits and undisciplined weekend warriors who had, at no time, been in any sort of dangerous combat situation. Their repeated stupid decisions were an outgrowth of this. This film's colonial Marines, by contrast, are described as tough, seasoned vets, and played by guys in their 30s. They turn out to be a lot of utterly ineffectual, all-mouth cretins who fall apart at the slightest sign of trouble and, at every turn, make their own situation worse solely because the script calls for it. (This note added 11 June, 2012)