Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Blowing the dust off the old video tapes

Sally asked, “What are you going to do with those boxes full of video tapes?”

Beginning last spring Sally and I set out to de-junk, reorganize and get our basement into some sort of shape. It looked like Fred Sanford’s house, or a reality show about hoarders. There were some large boxes full of videos, stacked haphazardly in a room along with all of our holiday decorations, and anything else for which we had no other designated spot.

I said, “Let me look through them and see what I have.” And I did. I took about half of the tapes for thrift store donations. But there were still at least a couple hundred video tapes, factory-produced movies, and even many that I had recorded from HBO or other cable channels in the '80s and '90s. I got those organized, and when it was done I found space for them on a shelf.

But I had no VCR on which to play the tapes. I haven’t had one for several years. I looked in thrift stores. I had a remote for my old long-gone Zenith VCR, so I went to the same place where I had donated the tapes, and for $5.00 I found a perfectly good Zenith VCR. The remote works with it. I even buy movies, like the ones whose covers I have scanned for showing today. At the Deseret Industries store, just about a quarter mile from my house, they sell video tapes for 50¢. So every time I go in the store I find something to add to my collection. And yes, I watch them. I watched this one today:

 An action movie, and like many action movies entertaining but silly. In real life nothing would go as smooth or as easy as these two thieves make it look. But then, that is why it’s a movie, not real life.

I haven’t watched this yet. I saw it years ago. Chris Elliott is still active, still making movies and TV. His father is Bob Elliott of the famous Bob and Ray comedy duo, so he has comedy genes built in.

 Another one I’ve seen and don’t remember. I bought it because I like both Martin Short and Kurt Russell.

Here is a classic I never tire of. I believe it is Danny Kaye’s finest movie. I have some nostalgia for it because my parents took me to see it in a theater when it was released in 1955. For years my father quoted a line from the movie, “Get in, get it over with, and get out.” It became his philosophy for covering a whole range of situations. My personal favorite is the snappy and alliterative tongue-twisters about which of two drinking cups holds deadly poison: “The pellet with the poison is in the vessel with the pestle. The flagon with the dragon holds the brew that is true.” And then there is Kaye’s turn at impersonating Giacomo, “King of jesters, and jester of kings.” ...I could go on and on.

 If it takes place in space I like it. I have seen both of these movies before.

There are a lot more where those came from. Unfortunately with these 50¢ vids I am fast replacing all the movies I gave away.

A bit of history...

I bought my first VCR in 1979, an RCA dinosaur. Big and heavy, it had clunky manual controls (the remote was actually plugged in to the VCR via a wire, and had only “pause” as a function). If you remember there were a couple of formats for home video taping and playback, VHS and Betamax. My friends bought Sony Betamaxes. If Sony had licensed the technology to other manufacturers instead of keeping it all for themselves, Betamax might have been the industry standard. Anybody could license VHS, and that quickly took over. I seldom, if ever, see Betamax tapes.

That RCA cost $779 at a local discount store, Stokes Bros., closed now for over two decades. It was where everyone went for a bargain. Department stores were selling VCRs for around $1100. Even at the price I got it took me a year to pay off the RCA. There were no video rental businesses at that time. They began to open sometime in the '80s. The first rentals for a movie were $5.00 per movie for one night. That was a lot of money in the early '80s, and I went a little crazy for a while renting movies. My wife was quite upset with me. I wonder if any of the residue of her anger at my obsessive-compulsive disorder, renting movies and spending $$$ we could not afford, bubbled to the surface when she asked me to get rid of the video tapes.

A funny clip from The Court Jester. If you have the time you can go to YouTube and watch the whole movie, which is also available. You don’t need to spend 50¢ like I did. (My standard disclaimer: if the screen below is black it is because of YouTube, not me.)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Make your own zombie movie

The Living Dead Festival was held this weekend in Evans City, Pennsylvania. The Festival is an annual event in recognition of Night Of the Living Dead, the great-granddaddy of all films featuring walking corpses that want to eat living flesh. The first part of the movie was made in the Evans City Cemetery. Among the guests was the writer/director of that famous film, George Romero.

 Big George in the (living) flesh!

I first saw NOTLD in the early '70s, and recognized in it some of the themes that were common to my nightmares: being in a confined space, and besieged by monsters who wanted to get in and get me. Yikes. Romero had filmed my bad dreams!

I have always  compared other movies in that genre to the original. I’ve seen many, but not all, so-called “zombie” movies (which is a misnomer, according to Romero, who does not call his animated dead zombies. They eat human flesh so they are ghouls). Many of those movies do not work for various reasons. Sometime in the past couple of months I watched World War Z with Brad Pitt which I thought failed. It had a reported 190 million dollar budget, was full of special effects and action, and yet for me it flopped. Why? My guess is that it was too big, and got away from elements that make the best of those stories memorable: the sense of isolation, being trapped, and of course total paranoia.

As successful as the TV series The Walking Dead is, it often strays from those tenets, yet it works. I guess it has to do with the ongoing characters and some interesting situations involving them. Once we identify with characters a movie or TV show is halfway home. Add to that several scenes each episode of “walkers” getting their heads blown apart, or stabbed through the skull, or beheaded in graphic detail, and you have a recipe for success as a cult hit. The violence, the same reason many will not watch it, is why some others love it. For the record I don’t turn away from the violence, but I think it is overplayed. I prefer it to be an ever-present threat to the living people, but used less often to much better effect.

Last week I watched a German movie with those common zombie movie themes called Rammbock, subtitled Berlin Undead. The movie is only 63 minutes long. It gets right to the action and does not waste any time making its point. I appreciated that, but thought except for it being in German and set in an apartment building in Berlin, it added absolutely nothing to the  genre.

I felt I could make a movie like that. You could too.

For one thing, Rammbock was filmed on a small budget by some clever filmmakers who used real locations and a bunch of friends to play the dead people. Most zombie movies just copy other movies. In Rammbock they did some things right that you could copy in your own movie.

First, use an ordinary guy as your protagonist. In this movie Michael has come to Berlin from Austria to give his ex-girlfriend, Gabi, her keys, and to try to win her back. As he walks into her apartment he finds out she is not there and there is a plumber banging on the radiator. The plumber is the first we see of the victims of the particular virus that causes murderous rage.

This seems ridiculous to us Americans who all carry high-powered assault rifles and .44 Magnums at all times (or so it seems, especially to folks in other countries), that the plumber’s young assistant is shooting at zombies with a slingshot. A slingshot! But it always works in movies to get away from more traditional ways of killing zombies with something more exotic than guns or knives. Maybe you could try killing a zombie with a cocoanut, or dropping a piano on it. It does not really matter what you use to kill them with, just make sure it is interesting and bloody.

Rammbock seemed to skimp on the traditional zombie appearance, depending more on make-up and frothing mouths than more elaborate rotting-face appliances. Why are zombies’ faces all messed up, anyhow? Well, for horror movie shocks, that is why. If you think about it, it seems that some of them would be funky-faced, and others would not. But I guess there is nothing scary about a zombie that doesn’t look like what we expect a zombie to look like. So, on second thought, go with what the audience expects, rotting faces.

You can do like the movie did, and show a crowd of zombies from a distance, and in motion. This was done with a hand-held camera, which gives it a frenetic feel. A bunch of undead running around, grunting and growling, camera moving jerkily, adds to the atmosphere.

The other thing that adds to the atmosphere is, as I mentioned earlier, setting it in a small space. In this case an apartment complex, confined to a few dingy rooms. There were times in the movie when I thought the real-life apartments they filmed in looked squalid enough to be depressing. But it added to the overall atmosphere of fear, anxiety and that good old paranoia.

Before the final scene the main character goes to the roof and looks out over Berlin, with some matte shots of smoke rising above the city. That is a good way to show that everyone is being affected, not just his little group in the apartments.

Unlike Rammbock you could also have a few sex scenes and some naked boobs. Earn your R-rating with more than gore.

I have written before of the original Night of the Living Dead and why, despite its low budget origins, the movie still has the ability to frighten and disturb the viewer. You can read about it in my 2008 post “The Forty-Year Night.”

Saturday, October 04, 2014

A spoonful of opium helps the medicine go down; or, Nineteenth century over-the-counter addictions; or, Passing laws that make drug problems worse.

They Laughed When I Sat Down by Frank Rowsome, Jr came out in 1959 and was a best seller. The book is a look back at advertising in America, especially the early advertising of the prior century. Chapter Four, “Shake Well Before Using,” is the story of patent medicines and their excesses, both in advertising claims and contents. The inevitable result was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Selling concoctions of flavored water, herbs, alcohol and opium will at some point cause major concerns.

Scans are from the McGraw-Hill first edition. Copyright © 1959 Frank Rowsome, Jr

Stories of children in day care (and yes, the 19th century did have day care centers; but they were probably informal and not regulated) being dosed with Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup to keep them calm and sedated during the day lead me to speculation as to how patent medicines caused addiction that lasted after the products were taken off the market.

This 1999 comic, Brave Old World, has a frank view of an era many view as nostalgic, but on examination was far from the rosy images of later generations. This sequence of panels illustrates what I'm talking about:

Suddenly having the supply of cheap narcotics bought at the local drug store yanked away caused people to ask doctors to prescribe. Many then got their drugs legally. However, the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914 brought a stop to that. It stated that addiction is not a disease, therefore not a medical problem and could not be treated by a doctor. So, no more prescription pad relief for addicts.

We are a society geared to punishment. We believe that weaknesses by others should be listed as crimes and handled through the prison system rather than medically. Even modern era painkillers, which have a definite purpose but can be abused, are controlled by the Feds through intimidation of physicians. Trying to cut off the supply of drugs by making them illegal has only led to criminals stepping in as the suppliers.

The War on Drugs, which is one of the most miserable failures of the past forty-plus years, has been like Prohibition of the twenties and thirties. It does not work. Yet for the billions spent trying to stop the flow of illegal drugs only a small portion is spent on treatment for addiction.

According to the online article, “History of Drug Use and Drug Users in the United States” by Elaine Casey, in the 1920s “addiction became a federal crime . . . the [Supreme] court thus lowered narcotics use into the underworld, forcing addicts to migrate to the urban centers of illicit supply. It also forced formerly decent and responsible citizens who had acquired an unfortunate habit to become aggressive and violent criminals. It made addicts conform to the image of nonscience, as they robbed or cheated or prostituted themselves to support the illicitit price, they did indeed become debauched, corrupt and depraved. In 1923, as many of 75 percent of the women in federal penitentiaries were Harrison Act prisoners (Clark, 1976).”

In 1918, a Congressional committee released findings that showed that the underground traffic in narcotic drugs was about equal to the legitimate medical traffic. Instead of opting for lessening of the laws to allow treatment or handling of addictions by physicians the Harrison Act was tightened. As the article says, “. . . the nation was finding that ridding itself of heroin would require considerably more than legislation.”

 Caution on the bottom of the label: “May be habit forming.”

I have heard recently that cracking down on doctors prescribing the heavy-duty painkillers has just turned prescription pain pill addicts to that old standby, heroin. It is the Law of Unintended Consequences in action. The Feds put the squeeze in one area, and it opens up more business for the traffic in illicit drugs.

The past century has seen various attempts to control narcotics and illicit drugs and nothing seems to work. In many ways, by just putting the stuff on store shelves as was done in the 19th century, seems almost better than what has happened since then with the attempts to turn people away from illicit drugs.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Race switching in The Equalizer and an obscure Star Trek comic

News that The Equalizer was the top movie this past weekend prompted me to recall the 1980’s television series of the same name. Edward Woodward (1930-2009) was Robert McCall, a man who was available to solve any problems for a price. And sometimes for free.

This 4-page satire from Cracked #228, from 1987, pretty much gets the gist of the show. And it is drawn by John Severin, which is always a plus for me.

It doesn’t surprise me that Denzel Washington plays Robert McCall in the movie. Washington is a great actor and has a track record at the box office. The fact that he is African-American really doesn’t matter, and it seems that it happens more often. It did seem surprising to me to see Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in The Avengers, but the biggest surprise to me was seeing Will Smith as James West in The Wild, Wild West. Okay! Whatever sells tickets.

But the reason I mention it is because of something else I noticed this past weekend when I picked up a 1979 Peter Pan Book and Record Set of Star Trek at a local thrift store. In the well-illustrated but uncredited comic book Uhura has suddenly gone from being African-American to a blonde white woman, and Sulu has transformed from Japanese to African-American.

Some reviews of this comic on the Internet  have called the depictions mistakes, but c'mon...the comic was done in 1979, the television series was in endless reruns, and copious photos were available of all the characters. Even without Mr. Spock to explain it logically, the reason would be is they did not have permission of the two actors to do their likenesses. George Takei and Nichelle Nichols probably decided not to sign off on being represented in the comic. Why the people who produced this comic just didn't do something as simple as change the names is a puzzle to me.

On the other hand, with satire John Severin could do a likeness of Edward Woodward because it is parody, therefore fair use.