“I’ve talked with a couple of people from Eraserhead and its imprints, and they explained that as a small press they just don’t have the budget for copy editors.”
While I’m generally supportive of small presses, as a reader and consumer I find this statement incredibly obnoxious and offensive.
Being in a beleaguered profession doesn’t absolve one from upholding the basic standards of that profession. I’m curious to know if these publishers would be okay with a mom ‘n’ pop diner protesting that, as a small business owner, they just don’t have the budget to check their food for rat feces.
I’m sorry, but no. If you’re going to present yourself as a publisher, and charge people money for the books you publish, you need to put in the time to make sure you’re putting out a polished product. Small business owners don’t have the luxury of excusemaking. When I ran a small business, I didn’t get to do shitty work and excuse it by saying I couldn’t afford more employees. If something was wrong, and I didn’t have an employee to fix it, I had to do it myself, even if it meant putting in long hours.
Here’s what this “can’t afford copy editors” excuse says to me: I can’t be arsed to put in the time to put out a quality product. I accept sloppy manuscripts because I don’t give a shit about polished writing, and I will publish authors who can’t be arsed to proofread their own work. I will sell you this shoddy product because (a) I think you’re too stupid to notice; (b) I think you share my own low standards; and/or (c) too bad — you bought it, we got your money, sorry sucker!
And you know what — well-meaning though these people may be, this is just a foolish attitude from a business perspective and an industry perspective. OK, maybe you’re content with limiting your readership to people who don’t notice sloppy editing or don’t care. Fine, godspeed.
But you’re losing people like me who are eager to support small presses, but aren’t about to spend money on publishers who can’t even be bothered to give their books a basic proofread. And you’re destroying the reputation of small presses in general by reinforcing the impression that small presses are just amateur hour open mics with zero standards.
Sweet Jesus, I just discovered that Eraserhead also put out Edward Lee’s horribly edited — well, printed — Brain Cheese Buffet. You people should be ashamed.
Day Three: I didn’t anticipate my Man Alone half-week turning into a Man Alone film festival, but here we are.
I was watching the first few seconds of the opening titles of Drive when it occurred to me that this might actually be my favorite movie of the last five or six years. I thought, nah…no way. But then I went online and searched back, year by year, through all the films I’ve admired over the past five years, and actually, yeah.
Every so often I fall in love with a film. It isn’t necessarily the most profound film, or the most exquisitely crafted, or the most artistically challenging. There are lots of films I’d readily admit are “better” than The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, for instance, or Lost in Translation. I won’t make extravagant claims of originality or flawless craft or “greatness” for them. But these movies, for me, are absolutely perfect collections of everything I love about movies.
Drive is one of these. For what it is, it is — for me — a work of total perfection. The imagery, the cast, the story, the emotion, it all comes together in a way that is so beautiful and transcendent and sublime that it literally makes my chest hurt to watch it.
So let me take you through a selection of my favorite shots from the film. For best results, play this while you’re looking at these frames:
First of all, I mean, come on. This film had me from this quintessential “A Man Alone” shot:
Another thing that grabbed me from the very outset of this film is director Nicolas Winding Refn’s eye for color and composition. In this early scene in a grocery store, you have the camera following The Driver (Ryan Gosling) as he wanders up and down the aisles, and stumbles upon Irene (Carey Mulligan) shopping with her young son.
Despite the mundane setting and the fact that nothing particularly significant happens, it’s still an arresting series of images, riotous with color, and the camerawork is a little dizzying.
I love the way Refn uses different color palettes to set mood in a scene or a setting, or in contrast with each other for emotional effect. The opening scenes of Drive are dark and full of dramatic shadows. Then we move on to a film set where The Driver’s doing some stunt work, and the colors there are mostly subdued and grayish. The interiors of The Driver’s apartment building are also subdued, almost all browns and golds.
So when we suddenly move to the inside of the market, the sudden bloom of color is rather heady.
I could write an entire book just analyzing the way color is used in this film. But I’ll just say that, in a film in which the main characters don’t say very much to each other — or more precisely, they don’t verbalize what they’re feeling — the colors around them are often telling the story of what they’re feeling inside.
I love this shot (below), which comes shortly after The Driver finds out that Irene’s husband is being released from prison. A Man Alone, he’s had a taste of human companionship and budding romance, only to find himself pushed back into Man Aloneness. Appropriately, he winds up at the counter of a diner, which is where all Men Alone must eventually come to roost. (And note that we’re suddenly back to cold, dull, subdued monochrome.)
This next series of shots comprises Drive’s emotional climax. I couldn’t say what made Refn choose these colors, but the rich golden hues are perfect for the heightened emotions of the scene. It’s simultaneously the most romantic and the most horrifying scene in the film.
The Driver and Irene are leaving their apartment building when they encounter a stranger in the elevator. This guy is completely out of place in this building, so it’s pretty obvious that he’s up to no good.
In case there was any doubt of this guy’s sinister intentions….
Irene, the innocent, has no idea what’s happening, but The Driver knows exactly what’s about to go down. He spots a gun holstered inside the stranger’s suit jacket, and prepares for the bloodshed about to come.
This next series of shots happens in languorous slow motion that imparts a heartbreaking tenderness to The Driver’s gestures. He moves his hand down and back across Irene, moving her protectively into the corner and away from the impending violence.
Irene doesn’t resist. There’s puzzlement on her face, but it’s not just from wondering why he’s moving her like that — it’s also because it’s probably the most intimately we’ve seen him touch her through the entire film, and I think she’s also kind of pleasantly surprised and welcoming of his touch.
Carey Mulligan is a fantastic actor, by the way.
The first and only kiss the lovers share in the film. The Driver knows what’s about to happen, and he probably also has some sense that this is the last time he’ll see Irene, either because he’ll be dead soon, or because the other guy’ll be dead, and she’ll never look at him the same way again. Whatever happens next, it’s the death of the sweet, innocent, beautiful thing they had together. This is a goodbye kiss.
The lighting in this sequence is unbelievably poetic. The way their faces move in and out of shadow. The way the light forms shifting halos around their heads. The soft amber glow.
The central theme of this movie is encapsulated in a line of dialogue later in the film that references the fable of the scorpion and the frog. (This isn’t very subtle, of course; I mean, The Driver wears a jacket emblazoned with a gigantic scorpion.)
In the fable, a scorpion asks a frog to carry him across a river. The frog says, “Wait, though, you’re a scorpion. You’ll sting me!” The scorpion says, “Look, if I sting you while you’re carrying me on your back, you’ll drown, and I’ll drown too.” Which seems reasonable enough, so the frog carries him across. Halfway across the river, the scorpion, sure enough, stings the frog. As they’re both sinking, the frog says, “Why did you do that? You’ve killed both of us!” And the scorpion says, “I’m sorry, but I’m a scorpion. It’s my nature.”
That’s what Drive is about — people who can’t help acting according to their nature. Every character in the film does what they must do according to their nature, even if it’s completely counter to their interests, even if it dooms them. They’re not unaware — they know exactly what they’re doing, and they’re helpless to do otherwise.
So we’re in the elevator, and The Driver knows he’s going to attack and kill this bad man. He knows it’s going to ruin his connection with Irene, and destroy his chance at happiness. But he can’t help it — it’s his nature. So in the midst of this one final moment of perfect happiness, we see the scorpion on The Driver’s jacket, front and center.
And so, what must happen, happens.
Finally, here are some faces. Drive features some incredible faces.
(By the way, note Albert Brooks’ lack of eyebrows. He shaved them off for the role, to make his character look more scarily blank and emotionless. Totally worked.)
Hannah went out of town for a work thing. For four days I will be…A MAN ALONE.
Day Two. Weirdly, Man on Fire turned out to be a lot better than I remembered.
I mean, it was definitely an extremely dumb, overwrought movie, that’s unintentionally hilarious in more than one scene. But, sort of like with Michael Bay movies, it’s really only when you compare it with lesser films that its artistic worth emerges.
(Um, spoiler alert, I guess.)
Man on Fire is directed by Tony Scott (for some, this will be all that need be said)1 and stars Denzel Washington as a former CIA assassin2 who’s descended into a miasma of alcoholism and self-loathing. With nowhere else to go, he ends up in Mexico City,3 where he gets set up with a job as a bodyguard for a wealthy Mexican businessman (played by Marc Anthony — OF COURSE).
The complication is, and I actually like this premise, Marc Anthony comes from a rich family, but he himself is on the brink of bankruptcy, burdened by massive debts left behind by his father. However, he has to be able to keep up appearances, which for him means propping up an opulent household, supporting a beautiful blonde American wife, and sending his young daughter to the best schools, etc.
Now, the movie is primarily concerned with the endemic kidnappings in Mexico City, which is so prevalent as to have become part of everyday life. Wealthy families are targeted; a member of that family is kidnapped, ransom demands are made, and if the demands aren’t met, body parts start showing up in the mail. It’s such a common thing that wealthy Mexicans buy kidnapping insurance as a matter of course.
Marc Anthony’s dilemma is that he can’t afford a decent bodyguard for his daughter, but he can’t get kidnapping insurance unless he has a bodyguard. So his sleazebag attorney (played by Mickey Rourke — OF COURSE) advises him to hire a cut-rate bodyguard, get the insurance, then fire the bodyguard at the first opportunity. So Denzel applies for the job. He’s wildly overqualified, and when Marc Anthony asks him why his asking price is so low, Denzel says, matter-of-factly, “I drink,” and proceeds to tell him that, despite his credentials, if anything amiss actually occurs, the quality of his response will be commensurate with his pay. Marc Anthony is just like, “uhhhhh,” which I think is actually an intentional bit of comedy so it doesn’t count as an Unintentionally Funny Moment.
The core of the movie is Denzel’s relationship with his young charge, Pita (played by Dakota Fanning — OF COURSE). This part is actually genuinely charming. Since Denzel’s all world-weary and beaten down and shit, naturally at first he wants nothing to do with Pita on any personal level — he wants to keep things strictly professional, with a minimum of conversation, so he can just get through the day and go home and crawl inside a bottle. Understandable.
Pita, however, is so sweet and totes adorbs that Denzel can’t help being charmed by her. Despite his resistance, Denzel eventually succumbs and falls in love with adorable Pita, becoming the attentive father figure that her actual father isn’t. So of course it sucks pretty bad when Pita is kidnapped and killed, setting Denzel off on a gruesome rampage of vengeance.
Dakota Fanning totally saves this movie. She was probably about nine when this film was made, but as we all know she was a super precocious little kid, and this film makes the most of that, making Pita not just your typical wisecracking movie kid, but a genuinely smart, witty, open-hearted little girl, so there’s nothing remotely forced or contrived about Denzel becoming smitten with her. This is basically the story of that Looney Tunes cartoon with the gruff bulldog (named Marc Anthony, actually) who falls for the sweet li’l kitten, but then has to continually keep saving the kitten’s life.
Anyway, Pita totally brings Denzel out of his self-loathing death spiral4 and gives Denzel something — someone — to live for again. Then she’s kidnapped and killed.
So, what I remembered as the biggest chunk of this movie, but which surprisingly doesn’t take up that much of the running time, is a super-grim, dead-faced Denzel going on the hunt for the people behind Pita’s abduction. This is where the “orgy of destruction” stuff kicks in. Fingers are amputated. Bombs inserted into rectums. Fingers are blown off. Either the writer or director has an obvious fear of finger trauma. It really is pretty extreme, and I don’t buy the defense of it that it isn’t sadistic because Denzel only tortures/kills people for information and/or justice. That’s true, but the torture is also very much about audience gratification — we’re all pretty messed up by Pita’s death, so we just really want to see these guys hurt.
It’s all incredibly over-the-top and overwrought,5 but you know, it still kinda works. Gimmicks that seemed vulgar in 2004, like all the arty rapid-fire montages of heavily treated, distorted images, are now fairly commonplace and don’t seem all that bizarre. And although it wields an incredibly blunt hammer of cornball sentimentality (yes, there is a stuffed bear that Pita names after Denzel’s character), it at least comes across as sincere and uncynical.
What really helped redeem this movie in my eyes is the next movie I watched that day — Taken 2. And let me just say that I knew exactly what I was getting into when I watched this movie. I blame no one.
Here’s really the only thing I need to say about Taken 2. Afterwards, I was telling Hannah about the movies I’d watched that day, and I went from Man on Fire to Drive, and knew I’d seen something in between, but I couldn’t remember what it was. I struggled to remember what film this was, but the title and anything about the story just wouldn’t come back to me. This is a movie I’d watched about four hours ago.
The thing is, Taken 2 is a bad movie, but if you put it up right next to Man on Fire, which is also a bad movie, you can, or should be able to, discern a huge qualitative difference between the two. They’re both bad, but one is on a far more insidious plane of badness. Man on Fire is ridiculous in a lot of ways, but what justifies it, for me, is that it at least tries to say something. It tells a recognizably human story that wants the audience to give a shit about the humans involved.
Taken 2, on the other hand, couldn’t care less. It’s a completely soulless, perfunctory exercise in big-budget, professionally crafted thrills ‘n’ violence. The complete indifference can be felt in every numbed-out, by-the-motions scene. I mean, Man on Fire is big-budget, professionally crafted, and slick, but it actually takes itself seriously, whereas Taken 2 — and Taken was exactly the same way — for all its glumly serious tone, is virtually devoid of any authentic emotion. Bleah.
So then I watched Drive, which I honestly believe is one of the most perfect films ever created. Before that, though, I did watch another movie, or at least a few minutes of one.
One of the very first movies I remember watching — looking at the dates, it must have been one of the first, since I was only a little over two at the time — was 1971′s The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston.
Now, I was obviously way too young to be watching a post-apocalyptic action-horror film about mutant vampires. And to parents who agree that kids shouldn’t be taken to scary grown-up movies, but think it is okay for babies, since they don’t understand what they’re seeing, take heed of my story. Because yes, The Omega Man completely fucked me up.
The part of The Omega Man that fucked me up isn’t actually any of the mutant vampire stuff, which I barely even remember. It sounds silly to my own ears to hear what it was, but remember that I was two years old at the time. What the traumatic thing was — uh, spoiler alert, I guess — was the very last shot of the film.
Charlton Heston’s been impaled with a spear and is bleeding to death in a fountain. There’s an emotional farewell with the human survivors, who drive off in a van or something, leaving Charlton Heston to die in the water in a spectacularly super-subtle crucified-Jesus pose.6
But then, just before the end credits roll, something crazy happens:
Yeah, the image polarizes!
Now, again, bear in mind that I was two years old. I suspect now that I had never seen this effect before. I understood the concept of movies, but I don’t think I’d ever seen a transformation like this. It fucking terrified me. I mean scared shitless. That polarized Charlton Heston haunted my nightmares for years afterwards, and even as I grew up and my memories of the film (which I never watched again) warped and faded with time, I never forgot that one horrific image.
(So, parents, please take this into consideration. You don’t know and cannot predict what crazy, random thing will be the thing that screws up your child forever. FOREVER.)
I thought about it again recently in talking to Hannah about something — I can’t remember now what it was, but I think it was actually on a Drive To Place episode. Anyway, my memories of that film were really fuzzy, and I could no longer recall exactly what the context was of that polarized image. Then a mind-blowing thought occurred to me: why don’t I just download the movie and watch that last scene?
I’m not kidding that this thought was mind-blowing. It’s one thing to be all, “hey, remember that one Nine Inch Nails single?” and then go download it or look it up on YouTube. But when it’s something like The Omega Man, it doesn’t automatically occur to me to try to find it on the Internet. For 42 years, it’s been fixed in my mind as something that belongs to my memories, and is therefore inaccessible. It’s not even like a classic film that one has enjoyed for decades and periodically rents or streams or downloads or whatever. It’s just this strange, scary memory that only exists in the recesses of my brain.
The idea of pulling the actual film up and watching it again seems astounding to me — it feels like time travel. I mean, imagine some incident from your early childhood. If you could peer through some sort of window through time, and witness that exact incident, in every detail, as a spectator from your present-day perspective, that would basically be time travel, right?
If I had watched The Omega Man more than just that one time, maybe every few years throughout my life, the idea of watching it wouldn’t seem that bizarre. It would be like It’s a Wonderful Life, just part of the fabric of my existence. Not watching The Omega Man since I was two has transformed it from a mere film into one of the oldest artifacts of my past.
So on Sunday I thought, what the, I could actually just go and download that movie and watch the actual scene that has haunted me my entire life. So I went and did that. And, well, okay. First of all, the whole thing is absolutely ridiculous. It’s beyond cheesy. It actually transcends cheese to inhabit its own cosmos of ineffable wacked-outedness. Just, like, wow. Two is probably the correct age for me to have seen that movie and not just howled with laughter through the whole thing.
Second, it’s really odd how different that last scene is from the way I recall it. In my memories, the shot right before the final Charlton Christ Superstar shot is the survivors all standing around him as he lays dying in the fountain. But the actual scene is not like that at all. I don’t know why I remember it that way. What actually happens is so much lamer — basically the (uber-hippie) survivors are just all, “thanks for everything, see ya!” and pile into their van and drive off, leaving Charlton to bleed out all Jesus-y in the water.7
But what is exactly the same as I remember is the tone of the scene. Between lines of dialogue, it’s very quiet and still. That’s another thing that spooked me about the movie when I was a kid. That quietness. I don’t know why. Something about the quietness and the dying together. But forever after that, there’d be times when I was, like, killing bugs in the backyard, or psychologically and physically tormenting another kid, and suddenly I’d be aware of how quiet it was, and I’d be consumed with existential horror.
Man, just writing that makes me feel like a goddamn psychopath. If I lived with me, I’d periodically shine a flashlight into the crawlspace under the trailer, just, you know, in case.
And third, the polarization thing still scares the shit out of me.
I’m a little contemptuous of people who ridicule and dismiss a celebrity when that celebrity is alive, but when the celebrity commits suicide, then they abruptly act all remorseful and sympathetic. However, that’s basically how I feel about Tony Scott. I always imagined Tony as the shallow, glib, unserious counterpart of his brother Ridley. His movies — The Hunger, Top Gun, Days of Thunder, True Romance — are, or were, derided as exercises in style over substance. But what if that’s an unfair accusation? What if the truth is that Tony Scott was actually completely sincere and earnest in trying to express emotion on the screen, and he happened to be an expert at portraying emotion onscreen in a particularly hyperstylized way? What I mean is, just because you’re skilled enough and have a certain aesthetic sensibility so that you express yourself in a way that is very slick-looking, it doesn’t mean you’re less authentic in your feelings than a filmmaker who portrays things in a gritty, low-fi style.
That’s an odd kind of privileging that leads filmmakers to deliberately make their films look low-budget and low-fi even though those technical/financial limitations don’t actually exist. (See the Duplass Brothers.) So then, who is the more phony and cynical — the filmmaker who says what he says using the aesthetic, technology, and funding available to him? Or the filmmaker with the same resources who tries to convince the audience that he has less at his disposal than he does, to preserve his reputation of authenticity?
I don’t know. I think maybe Tony Scott was one of those unfortunate people who is so completely earnest and open with emotion that people raised in an ironic culture assume he’s full of shit. I might be wrong and reductive, but I think that a man who is truly cynical and shallow doesn’t commit suicide when he’s extremely wealthy and in good health and can just kick back and wallow in material and sensual pleasures while the rest of the world burns. I’m a little haunted by the idea that the tormented, self-loathing hero of Man on Fire might actually reflect where Scott was at when he made the movie. And by the way, the hero of this film does attempt suicide.
Unintentionally Hilarious Moment #1: When Denzel sits down at a backyard family pool party with his former CIA partner and buddy Christopher Walken — OF COURSE — and over prodigious whiskey drinks Denzel looks at Walken and says, dolefully, “Do you think God will forgive us for what we’ve done?” Which isn’t funny in itself, but this conversation happens in like the first five minutes of the movie, which is kind of early to start with this kind of thing. Plus, the line is punctuated with a rapid-fire montage of blurred, vaguely atrocitous actions, and brown people. I mean come on, you have to build up to this level of emotional intensity.
Unintentionally Funny Moment #2: If you’re from or have ever visited El Paso, Texas, you’ll be either amused or outraged by the opening of the film, which kicks off with a montage of “Scary Mexico” shots starting with El Paso, which apparently Tony Scott believes is actually in Mexico. Granted, I’ve only visited El Paso once, but (a) I’m pretty sure it is in fact a city in Texas, United States of America, and (b) it looked more or less like a Southwestern American city, and not like a Juarez shantytown populated by extras from Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
Unintentionally Funny Moment #3: Denzel has a dark night of the soul early on when, tormented by guilt for his past sins and his failures in life — supplemented by a rapid-fire montage of past sins and failures — he puts a loaded gun to his head and pulls the trigger! But the gun doesn’t go off! Because, as Chris Walken tells him later, “a bullet always tells the truth” and Denzel wasn’t meant to die that night. That’s some deep stuff right there.
Unintentionally Funny Moment #4: When a guilt-ridden Marc Anthony agonizes over his misdeeds in a room of his house that’s a huge, incredibly gaudy shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and is confronted there by Denzel, who leaves him a bullet — THE bullet — and, as an offscreen gunshot indicates a few minutes later, a bullet truly does tell the truth.
This movie is absolutely ridiculous and excruciatingly, wincingly awful, and should never be watched (a) alone or (b) unironically.
When I die, if I’m at all able to move my limbs at the moment just before death, and I have the presence of mind, I’m totally going to arrange myself in a crucified-Christ pose. That will totally freak out the hospice worker / paramedic / carjacker / spouse. Maybe not the spouse because she’s already familiar with my messiah complex.