Inhuman Swill : Movies
            

The Falcon and the Snowman: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack In 1985, I was a far bigger fan of jazz guitarist Pat Metheny than just about any other musician. The album that infected me was 1982's Offramp, which sounded unlike anything else I'd ever heard. I became a hardcore consumer of any and all vinyl featuring either Metheny or his compositional partner in the Pat Metheny Group, pianist Lyle Mays. (My friends and I could and did spend hours debating the meaning of the 20-minute title track from As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. Yes, we were not normal.)

Thus it was inevitable, thirty years ago, that I would buy the new album from the Pat Metheny Group as soon as it appeared, even if it was the soundtrack to a movie I had not seen. I had a vague understanding of the true-life espionage case behind The Falcon and the Snowman (based on the book by Robert Lindsey), which told the story of Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee, two young men from southern California who were arrested in 1977 for selling intelligence secrets to the Soviet Union. (Boyce was a falconry enthusiast and Lee a cocaine dealer, which is where their sobriquets came from.) I always meant to see the film, but never did.

But that didn't affect my enjoyment of the soundtrack. In fact, it might have enhanced it, as I could listen and try to imagine what was happening on screen during each passage. It wasn't my favorite Metheny album by any means, but parts of it I liked quite a lot. I even grudgingly came to enjoy the collaboration with David Bowie that kicked off side 2 of the record, "This Is Not America"—though I disliked the way the credits on the single made it seem like the Pat Metheny Group was just Bowie's backing band.

Anyway, it was late in 1985, when I was 18, after I'd been living with the album for eight or nine months, that a close friend of mine, whom I call "Andy Kilmer" in The Accidental Terrorist, came to me with a request. This passage is from the book:

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My first R-rated movie

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The Star Chamber
Reading this edition of "The Big Question" at Hitfix.com got me thinking about the first R-rated movie I ever saw. The film itself—a Michael Douglas thriller called The Star Chamber—was not so memorable, but the circumstances around my viewing of it are, in retrospect, amusing.

When I was growing up, the LDS Church strongly cautioned parents not to let their children see R-rated movies, so that was exactly the rule my parents established for us. I followed it, too, though not always happily.

I don't remember what it was about The Star Chamber that made me willing to break that rule. Since I was close to turning sixteen, it was probably just time for it to happen. My friend David, who was a little younger than I was, kind of wanted to see it too, so he asked his parents to take us. So, it was time plus opportunity, I suppose.

(I had seen R-rated movies already, but on video at friends' houses, not in an actual movie theater.)

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The likelihood of unlikelihood

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Having seen the French caper flick Rififi last night, in which an alarm system is disabled with fire extinguisher foam, what are the odds that I would today read a Donald E. Westlake short story ("The Ultimate Caper: The Purloined Letter") in which an alarm system is disabled with Redi-Whip? Long odds, it seems to me. Long, long odds.

If I hadn't seen the movie last night, I doubt I would have caught that tiny joke in the Westlake story. Yet how many times have you caught a reference that you wouldn't have caught unless you'd seen, read or heard something else within a fairly short amount of time? I know it's happened to me quite often.

As uncanny as these coincidences seem, it seems to me that culture can only exist and be transmitted via a vast network of shared references. There must be a supply of these matching references that is limited only by number of nodes in our network of cultural references, a vast supply, which we only really notice when a pair of them smack us in the face, like foam defeating an alarm system. Rather than finding the coincidence usual, I tend to think that the strange thing is that we don't notice more of these coincidences. After all, they must be going on around us all the time.

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Apocryphal MacLean

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theblackshrike.jpg
In junior high school, the Alistair MacLean virus swept through a lot of the boys and some of the girls in my class. I caught it from HMS Ulysses, which my father thrust into my hands at some point and told me I had to read. (He always maintained that war novels and spy novels were more instructive about the real world than science fiction novels.) In truth, though, I had probably caught a mutant strain of the virus in very early childhood, from the movie version of Ice Station Zebra. (My father on occasion would bring a film projector home from the school where he taught, along with library prints of flicks like that or Ivanhoe. I movies, I guess.)

Anyway, those of us afflicted scoured the school and public library shelves for every Alistair MacLean novel we could lay our hands on. Our guide, our index, our grimoire in this pursuit was that most magical of lists, the Also by This Author list in the fronts of the battered paperbacks we passed around. Many of those books were easily found, others discoverable with some detective work, two or three as vanishingly rare as Willy Wonka's Golden Tickets. We thought of them—though in terms more unformed than this phrase—as the MacLean Apocrypha.

I know now that the Apocrypha were apocryphal because they'd been published under different titles in the U.K. (The Secret Ways), been published under pseudonyms in the U.K. (The Satan Bug), or both. But I didn't know this, or care, when I finally managed to lay my hands on the Holy Grail of the Apocrypha—The Black Shrike.

I can only imagine with what anticipation I tore into that lurid tome with the ominous tropical landscape on the cover, an unreal book that seemed to have dropped from an alternate dimension. And as much as I hated to admit it to myself, I discovered an unfortunate fact about apocryphal writings.

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The bully's speech

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A couple of weeks ago, Laura and I bought tickets online for an evening showing of The King's Speech. We went out to dinner first but failed to leave ourselves enough time to get to the movie theater early. By the time we arrived, our theater was nearly full. We could have sat together in the front row or sat apart. Neither prospect appealed to us so we went to the box office and got a refund. We had to eat the $2.00 online ticketing fee, but it was our own fault for not getting there early enough for decent seats.

Last night we tried seeing The King's Speech again. This time we got to the theater a full hour early. This was probably overkill, but we did end up scoring ourselves the perfect spots, dead center two rows up in the stadium seating section.

Well before the previews started, we couldn't help but overhear an elderly couple bickering in the seats directly behind us. I rolled my eyes, hoping this wouldn't continue once the movie started.

The theater was filling up fast. Shortly after the old man excused himself to go buy popcorn or use the restroom or whatever, we heard a young woman asking the old woman if she would move over so she and her husband could sit together.

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Why I love Malcolm Tucker

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I think most people know me as a fairly laid-back guy in person, never getting too exercised or losing my cool, even when someone's being a jerk to me. If that's your opinion, then you've never worked in an office with me. Seriously. Ask the good, long-suffering people at BenefitsCheckUp or Sesame Workshop. (Actually, don't ask the people at Sesame Workshop. Most of the folks I used to work with there got the ax even before I did.)

If you talked to them, you'd find out that I could be a real bastard in the workplace. Some people at my last job were apparently afraid to talk to me when I thought they'd messed up, or at all. I made at least one producer at the Sesame Street website cry. Mind you, I'm not proud of this. No, wait, actually I am.

Over the past week or so, I've watched the recent film In the Loop three times on DVD. Besides its scathing, cynical view of the political process that lubricated our way into Iraq, I can't get enough of Malcolm Tucker, the angry, profane press secretary who never encountered a functionary he couldn't intimidate or a problem he couldn't spin his way out of. I want to be Malcolm Tucker, or at least be that articulate when I'm enraged.

Tucker, as played by Peter Capaldi, is also a character on the BBC comedy series The Thick of It. That's the source of the short video clip below (decidedly NSFW in its language), which pretty well sums up the Tucker philosophy.

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The phantom reviewer

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There's a good chance that you've seen this already, but if you haven't and you care about good, clear storytelling and you have 70 minutes to kill, you must watch this epic deconstruction of The Phantom Menace.

Aside from the pointless serial-killer subplot (seriously—the narrator of the review is supposed to be a delusional serial killer), this is a brilliant and funny dissection of why the Star Wars prequels suck so hard. It crystallized for me many of my own unfocused thoughts about the films, and gave me ten times as many new reasons to hate the them. The sequence where the reviewer asks friends to describe specific Star Wars characters is alone worth the price of admission.

Because of the 10-minute limit on YouTube content, the review is broken up into seven parts. (Part 7 doesn't always seem to play in its original configuration. If you have that problem, try this version of Part 7 instead.) Here's Part 1 to whet your appetite:

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I love Google for its geeky in-jokes. If you haven't noticed this one before, search for "recursion" and see what the result page offers as a suggestion under Did you mean.

I'm also reminded of Inglourious Basterds, which I saw yesterday morning, in which one instance of the word "Merci" was translated in the subtitles as "Merci."

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A "Hangover" to relish

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Early last week, Laura and I were lucky enough to win an invitation to a preview screening of the new comedy The Hangover, which opens today. Having been seeing the commercials for weeks already, I was looking forward to the screening. From the little I'd seen, the film looked right up my alley. Laura was more cautious going in, especially when our host Capone (of aintitcool.com) gleefully warned us we were about to see some disturbing images.

I won't beat around the bush. The Hangover may be the funniest movie I've seen in my life. Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but both Laura and I—and the rest of the audience—laughed so hard and loud that there was some dialogue we couldn't even hear. We hurt when we left the theater. I haven't laughed that hard at a movie since the first time I saw South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.

The film is very cleverly written and structured. It follows a group of three men (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis) who have taken their soon-to-be-married friend (Justin Bartha) to Las Vegas for an extended bachelor party. The three men wake up in the morning in a trashed hotel suite rife with clues that something big happened the night before, but with no memory of what that was. Oh, yes, and the groom is missing.

The main thrust of the plot details the friends' attempt to reconstruct the night's events and figure out where they lost track of the groom. Along the way, they meet not just a bevy of colorful characters and assorted weirdness, but also a good deal of violence. I'm tempted to drop hints about my favorite scenes—like the taser bit that just keeps getting funnier and funnier and funnier, even when the trailers have spoiled the final punchline—but I will resist the temptation. Given the media blitz that's been going on for weeks, you already know some of those bits, but that's only scratching the surface. You should go in with as clean a slate as possible.

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It has to have been 1988 when I first read Watchmen. I was a Mormon missionary stationed in Wenatchee, Washington—a zone leader, no less. We weren't allowed even to read newspapers or magazines, let alone comic books, but some sainted individual at church (I now forget who) had found out I was an aspiring science fiction writer and decided I needed to know about the most exciting thing to happen in the field in the time I'd been away. He (because he was definitely male) made me a gift of Issues 2 through 12.

I still remember the marathon reading session that went on that night. Two other elders were hanging out at our apartment that night, and as I finished each issue I would hand it off to my companion, who handed it off to the next elder, and so on. I think all our minds were blown that night, to one extent or another. I don't know what stood out for the other elders, but I was as fired up by the formal brilliance of the books, the panel-to-panel transitions and juxtapositions and visual motifs, as I was by the surface level of the story. Even at 20, I could tell that I had just watched a depth charge exploding against the hull of superhero mythology. I could also tell the blow had been delivered in a way no other medium could have accomplished.

My reading experience wasn't crippled, I think, by not having Issue 1 at hand, though the next day I dragged my companion to the first comics store I could find and plunked down something like ten dollars for a copy. That hurt a little, but it was still less than I would have paid for all twelves issues had I bought them as they came out. I still have those books, bagged in plastic and locked in the safe. I'd be hard-pressed to part with them, even though my Issue 1 is not from the first printing.

But now I digress. I've reread Watchmen many times over the years, and even turned my wife into a fan, so like any other fan I approached the news of a movie adaptation actually going into production with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. I didn't go to a midnight screening last Thursday night, but I did see the earliest showing I could get to on Friday. And I sat rapt, thrilled, and hypnotized for nearly three hours. Seeing those familiar scenes translated so beautifully and faithfully to the screen, I was transported.

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The Accidental Terrorist 30th Anniversary Sale

Signed editions
that even a
missionary
could afford.

Order yours now!

William Shunn

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