Thursday, July 16, 2009

Raised on guns and dynamite

I was on the treadmill yesterday watching Rio Bravo on AMC. It's been called Howard Hawks' finest film, and that may be, but sweating through my fifth mile I was struck mostly by how cheaply life was regarded in the glory days of the Western.

In one scene, John Wayne and Ricky Nelson gun down three outlaws who have been distracted by a flower pot tossed out a window. The poor saps are just standing there, and then they're dead in the street without so much as a "drop your guns." When the Duke notices another man trying to flee on horseback, he kills him too. Fifty yards out and a moving target, that's pretty good shooting. But the guy was running away. Might want to review your guidelines on the use of deadly force, sheriff.

So we've got four men dead in about 15 seconds of screen time. By way of comparison, the actual gunfight at the O.K. Corral resulted in three fatalities, and we're still aware of it 128 years later. I swear, I watched dozens of movies like Rio Bravo during my formative years and I sometimes wonder today why I don't use more gunplay in my daily routine.

Or more dynamite. In westerns, dynamite appears only slightly less often than Colt revolvers or Gatling guns. Rio Bravo has a sequence where Walter Brennan is hurling sticks of it at an outlaw hideout. John Wayne and Dean Martin then detonate the sticks by shooting them as they land on the porch. The house gets blasted to kindling, of course, but the surviving outlaws stumble out with limbs somehow intact. Message: Dynamite is not just for contractors.

Dynamite has a starring role in another Western I viewed on the treadmill: Two Mules for Sister Sara. This one, starring Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine, also has a body count that seems a bit jarring in a movie billed as a comedy. As part of his scheme to steal a chest full of gold, Eastwood enlists the aid of Mexican peasants who hope to get rid of their French oppressors. In the climactic firefight, about 140 of them die horribly -- a fair number by running mindlessly (as extras so often do) into the business end of a Gatling gun. That's a lot of fatherless families to think about. But it's all good, as Eastwood and MacLaine ride wisecracking into the sunset.

I like old Westerns as well as the next guy -- maybe somewhat more than the next guy -- but I have to agree that movie-making has come a long way since then. Today even bad movies attempt to consider the consequences of gunshot deaths, if only to show how messy they are. And yet, somehow, guns get used in real life a lot more now than they did when the Western ruled the screen. Dynamite, thankfully, has been slower to catch on. I guess it's possible to overestimate the influence of pop culture on human behavior. It doesn't form us, after all; it only reflects.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Showing "Twilight" how it's done

I've grown disgusted with vampire movies over the past few years. Now that the simpering Gap models of "Twilight" have taken over, with their finicky diets and childish crushes, I'm about ready to put a stake in the heart of the entire genre. Bela Lugosi must be rolling in his crypt right now. Assuming he's still in it.

And yet, I come to praise a recent vampire movie that also blends romance and horror. Unlike "Twilight," it succeeds. It's moving, it's horrifying and it's somehow believable. "Let the Right One In," a Swedish film released last year, is the most engrossing movie I've seen in many months -- and that includes quite a few that didn't involve the undead.

Briefly, it's set in 1982 Stockholm, where the misfit boy Oskar has become the target of bullies. You can see why: He's a pale, sensitive lad who seems barely strong enough to lift his own limbs. He goes out at night to role-play some revenge, jamming his little knife into a tree and reciting the litany of insults his tormentors have just inflicted on him. When he turns around, there's a girl watching him from the jungle jim. It's snowy out, and bitter cold, but she's not wearing a coat. More importantly, she doesn't seem to need one.

Oskar's new friend is Eli, who turns out to be quite strong, quite a climber and quite adept at solving a Rubik's cube. On the downside, she can't stand daylight and can't enter a dwelling without being invited. When her true nature begins to dawn on Oskar midway through the film, he asks if she's very old. "I'm 12," she says. "But I've been 12 for a long time."

If the movie were only about vampire puppy love, it would get old a bit more quickly than Eli. But director Tomas Alfredson creates a cold, dark Stockholm where despair and foreboding seem to haunt every shadow. And Eli isn't one of those vampire vegetarians, like the dopey Edward Cullen in "Twilight." She needs to feed, and it isn't pretty. That's another thing I like about this movie: It remains true to the conventions of genre even while giving its vampire some sympathetic qualities.

Even if you don't like vampire movies, you might like this one. It's subtitled, but that doesn't matter, right? Dave Bob says check it out.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

We'll say goodbye -- just not right away

I'm not going to be one of those people grousing about all the Michael Jackson coverage. Yes, it's kind of remarkable that he's been dead nearly two weeks and he's still not in the ground, but that's up to the family and the promoters -- and of course the millions of fans, who seem a little too enthusiastic to be called mourners. Fact is, you can't jam several thousand people into the Staples Center and not have a casket there. Let's just hope they had the good taste to keep it tightly closed. I keep thinking of the Ayatollah Khomeini's funeral in 1989, where the mourning got so out of hand the cadaver actually fell out of the coffin.

To put things in context, it took just under one week to bury Princess Diana. But then she didn't sell 750 million records. Also, she was quite good looking and seemed to represent a sort of class and dignity that Jackson himself had largely abandoned. You didn't like to think of her being carted, 12 days dead, into a large sports venue; with M.J., you sense this is just what he would have wanted. Also, not to be crass about it, but his face in death could not be a lot less expressive than the odd face he'd crafted for himself over the last 15 years.

With Jackson, it's hard to know exactly what to mourn. The man himself? Maybe, but he's not been seen much anyway, apart from the footage where he's dangling the kid off the balcony or moonwalking atop a van after his child-molestation trial. His music? Well, he seemed to have quit that too, and it's safe to say the best of his music isn't going away -- ever. His incisive take on current events? Hmm. I can't remember M.J. ever saying anything that wasn't about his own celebrity.

I liked much of Michael Jackson's work. I wouldn't say, as so many have, that any of it changed my life. That's overestimating the power of pop. And it's not like he was going to write a lot more of it. I'm sad he died the way he did, but mostly I'm sorry he never got around to redeeming himself. Maybe that wasn't going to happen either, but I like to think he might have tried harder, if only he'd known what was coming.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bad choices equal hard times

I need some income. I'm not kidding. The writing thing has not turned into the major score I had hoped, and I'm pretty sure there won't be anything for me in Michael Jackson's will -- not since that day I saw him hitchhiking with his dog outside Winnemucca and slowed down like I was going to stop, then took off laughing just before he reached the pickup. In hindsight, that may not have been my smartest move.

I did have some money put away, but I'm starting to think it might not be enough. I mean it wasn't enough before the economy tanked, so I'm not kidding myself. Maybe I shouldn't have taken all my blackmail dough and invested it with this friend of a friend, this cat named Benji or Bernie or whatever. That was in November. I've been trying to call him to see where I stand, but nobody's answering the phone. He makes me show up there in person, he's going to be sorry.

Looks like all that cash and cocaine I funneled to the Norm Coleman campaign isn't going to pay off either. My fallback position has been always been landing a cushy job as a Senate page, maybe sell a little blow on the side. I thought my generosity would help them look past the fact that I'm 58 years old. Who knew Stuart Smalley had the stones to stay in the race for eight months and eventually pull it out? Hey, those are the breaks. You win some and you lose some.

But I am going to need some work. Something doesn't open up pretty soon, I'll have to start calling in some IOUs. I have plenty of them, believe me. There's that guy down in Honduras, I once took a bullet for him in a bar fight at this dive called Carmelita's just outside Puerto Cortes. I hear he's done pretty well for himself since, got elected president. Soon as I finish breakfast, I'll give Manny Zelaya a jingle, remind him of old times.