April 29, 2008

INTERVIEW - A Few Sincerely Jolting Moments With Author Sloane Crosley

Sloane Crosley's new book I Was Told There'd Be Cake presents many unfortunate incidents (and some bizarre triumphs) from her past, beautifully recalled with the sort of wry humor that hovers in New York's atmosphere along with benzene and carbon monoxide. I spoke with Sloane this week about her favorite scary movies, but as usual have preserved her unedited comments here for your enjoyment (speaking of scary movies, I find the diorama video on her site strangely unsettling!)

TB: Does making light of personal tragedy in your work wind up changing the way you remember it?

SC: For one thing, "tragedy" is a strong word for what happens in these essays, unless you consider quitting one's first job or locking oneself out of an apartment "tragic." But yes, it certainly helps me cope with the way I remember things. Though the truth is, few tragic events in our lives are purely tragic, even as they're happening. But even throughout those more trying incidents, there's always a little bit of funny to be found.
[Click here for more]

TB: After the inevitable barrage of receptions and events related to promoting a book, are you ever going to be able to stand the sight of cake again?

SC: Always! I shall never turn my back on cake. Unless I develop a dairy or wheat allergy.

TB: If any of the essays in your book was given the bastardized Hollywood treatment and wound up being adapted into a horror movie, which one should it be?

SC: I could see The Ursula Cookie being kind of an indie Devil Wears Prada, given the basic dynamics of the relationship I had with my boss. But I personally would like to see Sign Language for Infidels-- the essay in which I accidentally kidnap a small animal-- being made fairly horrific in an over-the-top way. There are a lot of little revelations and visual discoveries in that essay that cry out for some zoomed-in shots and dramatic music.

TB: What upcoming scary movie are you looking forward to the most?

SC: It's not typically suspenseful, but I am looking forward to the Iron Man movie. I'm a huge Robert Downey Jr. fan and of all the comic books that have been morphed into film, I am least familiar with the basic storyline behind this one. So I expect there to be a few sincerely jolting moments.

TB: Why do you enjoy scary movies or think they're important?

SC: I love how they involve you in the movie-watching experience -- from the old noir ones to some of the summer blockbusters. If you could conduct a scientific experiment in which you had a subject watch Terms of Endearment, Casablanca, and The Shining, you'd find the most physiological chances occurred while watching The Shining. Even if you cry hysterically or swoon over the other two films, it's the thrillers that hook you differently. If they're well done, they are more of a direct shot into the suspension of disbelief that occurs between the filmmaker and the audience.

April 22, 2008

Magician Matthew Holtzclaw On The Victory of Art Over Cruelty

PhotobucketMatthew Holtzclaw is living my dream. (One of them, anyway... I'm already living most of the others.) Professional magician and magic consultant, his act knocks people's socks off (Susan Sarandon's, at least) even when someone else has the stage. I spoke to Matthew this week about his favorite horror movies, but his thoughts on Arrested Development, YouTube amateurs, and the art of expertly crafting nail-biting moments of suspense were too good to leave on the cutting-room floor:

TB: Being a career magician is many people's childhood dream. What happened along the way that contributed to this being a reality for you?

MH: I remember saying in middle school that if I could do magic for a living I would do nothing else. I never imagined such a thing was possible. I moved to New York in 2002, met a few working magicians, and said "I can do this". I think living in the right city is key. It doesn't work in most places.

TB: Consulting for magical effects in theatre sounds amazing, but very different than performing in person like you do at other events. Do you consider yourself to be a performer first and foremost?

MH: I'm definitely a performer first, writer second, and consultant third. I have a bachelor's degree in theatre and because I am self-employed and have to go where the money is, I can't always work in theatre and film as much as I would like to. The collaborative feeling you get when working on a project for the stage or screen is thrilling. I just finished work on a magical, violent production of Macbeth directed by Teller (of Penn & Teller) and almost every day I would be literally hopping up and down in joy because some magic or gore effect came together beautifully. I'm now consulting for a stage production of Dracula and again I'll be finding ways to make actors appear, disappear, and most importantly for the titular character, bleed. Strangely, I'm often asked to find creative ways to kill people.

[Click here for more]

TB: While everyone enjoys magic tricks, it's obvious they tap into some dark place in our minds that relishes a sense of mystery or danger. Is this part of the allure for you?

MH: Magic should be scary. It should unsettle. Now, an overweight man with a greasy ponytail wearing a vest decorated with playing cards IS unsettling and, sadly, the norm for most people's experience of live magic, but that's not the kind of "scary" I'm talking about. The construction of a moment of horror is similar to the construction of a moment of magic. Both have to be clear and concise yet disruptive. I always say, the monster in your front yard is more disturbing than the one in the haunted house. You walk into a bad place, expecting bad things. A good magic trick sneaks up on you while you're just relaxing. That's why the best magic doesn't happen on TV or on a stage, but rather in the comfort of your living room.

TB: There seems to be a renewed interest in or amusement with magic in the past few years, thanks to stuff like Arrested Development, The Prestige, The Illusionist and so forth. Has that had an impact on how people react to your work?

MH: There is a definitely a renewed interest in magic. I've heard it called a renaissance but that would imply that a lot of it is good. Gob Bluth is one of the best characters ever created and I think very good for magicians to see how we are perceived. I adore The Prestige. It's the best movie about magicians ever made. The Illusionist, however, is a piece of contrived, saccharine nonsense.

Magic is very much in the zeitgeist right now. I'm not a doom sayer but I do wonder if the overload of magic everywhere won't cause a backlash in the near future. The movies about magic, even The Illusionist, are great for business. The morons on YouTube, either performing badly or outright exposing magic in their bedrooms are probably the biggest threat right now. But hey, what do you do about it? Technology and information being that accessible is a wonderful thing. There's this asshole with really spiky hair right now who has is own well produced weekly internet show and he's exposing well known tricks to the public. These are tricks that working pros use to make their living. The guy is probably making some nice coin. This is called a "whore" in show business. That guy, the YouTube kids, and TV magicians selling their magic tricks on magic websites, directly after they perform them on a special-- these are probably the worst things happening to magic right now.

TB: Why do you love horror movies or think they're important?

MH: I simply love movies. I think film is the highest of art forms. A horror movie, like magic, is usually done without a brain in its head. No point of view, no personality, just shock. The sad thing is, people think horror is easy. It's not! To take something fake, that is outwardly false, and of no actual harm to an audience and use it to bring them to a state of rattling, shaking, jumping fear is incredibly hard. The audience pays for their ticket, saying, "Okay, I'm going to watch a flat screen, full of editing, lighting, acting, fake blood and sound effects and I'm going to pretend for an hour and a half that it's really happening." We know there aren't ghosts, demons, aliens, or zombies out there. There are madmen and killers but thankfully, most of us never meet them when they are mad or killing. For me, horror movies are a celebration of humanity, art, and most importantly life. I always quote Penn & Teller on the beauty of fake blood and violence- "Gory special effects celebrate the victory of art over cruelty."

April 21, 2008

Armourer Norman Finkelshteyn Aims For the Kishkes

Norman Finkelshteyn wears many hats, but one of those hats is a steel-plated battle helmet. I interviewed this armor craftsman about his favorite scary movies back in January, but our conversation is worth revisiting in its entirety-- even if it's been a while since you jousted.

TB: Who exactly buys armor nowadays?

NF: Reenactors-- people who play at history (like the Civil War stuff but medieval and ancient). There are a number of groups, from some who are really serious about authenticity, to those more like a frat party in costume. Many of them use this armour in actual combat, either as performances or as competitive sports.

There is also a sort of minor development of people (separate from the reenactors) doing Western Martial Arts, like swordsmanship and jousting. The horse jousters have even got professional competitions with sponsors and ESPN coverage.

Also, people who think it would just "look cool" in the living room...
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TB: What's the most complicated piece of armor you've made?

NF: The Dalton School wanted a helmet for a fake Mongol burial that they have their fifth graders excavate. Getting really educational, I tried to involve as many features of Mongol helmet design as could plausibly fit into the one example. Some bits involved really intricate steel bending-- like three opposing directions at once. Then you go from steel hammering to fine sewing on soft leather. But that may vie for design intricacy with a Russian breastplate I made: the steelwork was quite simple but the whole thing was held together and moved on hidden leather straps so the trick was visualizing the whole thing in every aspect of movement as you try to design the separate pieces, then match up just the right bits of leather and decide where to put the attachment points (all with a client out in Texas who I've never actually seen - he just sent me measurements).

Of course, in reality, the toughest pieces are little detail bits that people barely notice-- the brass ear guard on a Roman helmet I did as an aprentice, a little bracket on an otherwise simple helmet... things like that.

TB: How did you get your start?

NF: I came to a Renaissance Faire and asked an armourer there to aprentice. He was one of a few craftsmen who actualy demonstrate their work rather than just sell stuff. I aprenticed for him at that faire for a number of years.

TB: What else do you do for a living?

NF: Write, draw comics, write computer programs. Mostly I'm a lawyer nowadays. Right now in fact, I'm awaiting with baited breath whether the Supreme Court will grant my petition and hear what I think is a major Civil Rights case that could revolutionise the American publishing industry. Here are the starting papers on that case.

TB: Why do you love horror movies or think they're important?

NF: Tricky question, that! For me, horror is escapist fantasy. Is it important? Some would say no, they want realism. But screw that-- I got enough realism at home! That's actually why I don't like slasher horror-- I want the full-blown fantasy, not something off the yellow journalism sheets.

It all depends on what you mean by "horror". The best ones tap into and explore the darkest recesses on our mind. Not just the human mind, but the kishkes, the primal lizard mind hiding in our stomach. But then, I suppose the "horror porn" does the same thing but in salacious/ icky way. There is only so deep you want to go-- that's why Freud considered repression to be a good thing!

I really apreciate the classy/fantasy stuff, the religious mythological pretentions of raising eldrich ancient gods in something like Hellboy or Constatine (though I thoroughly disagreed about the movie reworking of that one). Of course, getting to the roots of it - I love the 19th century Gothic fantasyand really get into the reworkings of it in the movies. And then there's the pre-WWII pulp like Lovecraft and Robert E Howard (Conan). After reading enough Lovecraft, you find that most of modern horror are really copies of stuff he did-- from primal horrors under the seas to the inbred hick imagery of Deliverance.

April 18, 2008

King Me

This week I put together an Ultimate Fan Quiz about Stephen King movies for AMC. The prize is a Jack Nicholson DVD collection, and watch out, that quiz is sort of goddamn hard. But in the process I got to watch clips and bits of a lot of really awful movies, as well as some really great ones, and though I now have an irrational fear of my household appliances (or perfectly rational, in King's opinion) I also have a new perspective on the films and books I crammed my head with when I was a young sprout.

Someone's paperback copy of Cujo was making the rounds in my seventh grade science class, from which I first learned the basic mechanics of masturbation. The fact that this act was performed as a gesture of vengeance by one of the book's more unsavory human characters was troubling to me, but for the first time I realized that reading grown-up books was the only way to find out all the things that Apache Junction didn't want me to know about. Thus through the extended King canon I also learned the mechanics of drug abuse, mental illness, and homosexuality (which back then almost always took the form of victimization or child abuse in his books). It was King who taught me about the importance of the clitoris, and about the loneliness and despair of death.

In eighth grade I read his novella Rage, which King himself took out of print when school shootings became the new hotness. Did I evolve or fester as I relished every word of his revenge fantasy about a gunman holding a high school hostage and gradually gaining the support of his captives? Was I better or worse in the years following as I explored my own version of high school hell and flirted with the notion of vigilante justice?

Stephen King evolved a conscience about the same time I was losing mine. Beginning with Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game, and onward through Rose Madder and beyond, King began to explore issues such as feminism, motherhood, lesbianism, and misogyny with a new fervor. He claims that his wife challenged him, pointing out that his female characters were often the weak links in his work. It probably also had something to do with his daughter Naomi revealing that she was a lesbian. This was a satisfying end to my personal addiction to King's works; when Desperation and The Regulators came out, I adored the latter and tolerated the former, and for one reason or another have never picked up another King novel since.

Okay, that's a lie. I ho-hummed my way through The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon during a lunch break when a copy arrived at the used bookstore I used to work at. And that's where it ended for me, for keeps.

Anyhow, because of the persistence of memory, I am what you could call an Ultimate Fan of King's writing and subsequent films. This quiz may seem pretty dry, but researching it put me back in touch with memories some very dark and confusing years-- years which can't be put aside as easily as a genre or an author or even an actual paperback book. It's true though that whatever you choose to put in your head remains there forever, something that we are very careless about yet which comes to define us utterly. Once I relied on the dark stuff to search for clues as to what was made me different. Now I write about it for a living, looking for the same patterns in culture at large. Does anything really ever change?

Enough navel-gazing. Just take the damn quiz already! (oh, and thanks to Chris for the Carrie image above, we dabbled in LOLCarrie for a while last year and I thought it eerily appropriate.)

April 15, 2008

CNN Video Editor Lee Hughey Discusses Fear And Film

The news media may sometimes resort to scare tactics to influence public opinion-- but they've got nothing on Dario Argento. That's the conclusion I've drawn from speaking to CNN video editor Lee Hughey about his personal taste in film. As usual, you'll find his top ten scary movies provided at the AMC link for you to pick over, and I've included his additional thoughts on the intersection of news, terror and film below. Meanwhile, I've got to see Suspiria, like, now.

TB: Earlier you told me, "Everything I learned about visual storytelling, I learned from movies, and esp. horror movies." Can you elaborate on this a little?

LH: Even though I work in TV, I learned my "visual sense" from movies. What better teachers are there than people like David Lynch and Sergio Leone to teach you composition, Robert Altman to teach you editing and pacing, Peter Greenaway and Danny Boyle to teach you about the use of music to tell a story, etc? Horror movies are all about creating mood, and about delivering little jolts or surprises to the audience when they aren't expecting them. Even when your subject isn't horror, I think that's an effective tool for keeping the audience interested in your story.

Obviously you apply it a little differently to news and documentaries than you do to dramatic films, but being a life-long movie freak gives you a lot of inspiration to draw from.

TB: How do you think powerful or upsetting images in the news affect people, compared to images they see in movies?

LH: You hear a lot of talk about how movies desensitize people, but I don't buy it. I've seen people confronted with really disturbing, horrific images from real life- Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq-- and the effect is has on them (and me) is profound. No matter how immersed you get into a horror flick, part of your brain never forgets that it's all fiction.

During the war in Bosnia, I knew people who started to suffer the effects of PTSD just because of the terrible, terrible things we were seeing in the raw video being fed back to Atlanta- horrible images of death, dismemberment, really unimaginable suffering. Real-life images can affect you in ways that fictional images never will, because you don't have that emotional distance from the real-life images.

TB: Why do you love horror?

LH: I love horror movies because I like getting scared! I like horror movies that put the characters into intense, seemingly inescapable situations- surrounded by zombies, or stalked by an evil-doer who's always a step ahead, etc. It throws my imagination into overdrive in a way that other kinds of films just don't. It's my way of looking for an endorphin rush, I guess.

I also love how varied horror movies are; they can be about supernatural evils or man-made ones. They can be over-the-top with violence and action, or they can be very subtle and create a quiet kind of dread. They can even be sort of funny, although I don't much like comedy-horror unless it's done by Sam Raimi.

View Lee Hughey's Top Ten Horror Movies

April 13, 2008

Tekkon Kinkreet

When I interview people they rarely get away without recommending some movies, and whether or not those rec's are of any use to the general public, they've certainly kept MY attention. The latest example is Cliff Chiang, a comic book artist who I interviewed a while back about his favorite animated films. His mention of the anime film Tekkon Kinkreet aroused my curiosity, and so the other day when I saw a copy for ten bucks, I figured what the hell.

What the hell, indeed. This movie broke my heart and blew my mind about every five minutes, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it for days now. It's basically a Peter Pan story about street-orphans fighting a real turf war against gangsters and developers over their magical little scrap of neighborhood. In doing a little post-viewing research, I realized why I never got around to seeing it when it played (briefly) in NYC: Julia Wallace's dismissive review in the Village Voice ("It's both too cute and too rambling"). Why do I ever listen to these people? Alright, sometimes they really have good points about why this or that harmless entertainment should be dangled at arm's length over the wood-chipper. But every now and then I get a little too trusting and wind up missing out on seeing a glorious film on the big screen just because some cranky reviewer started writing before their morning coffee.

Anyhow, here's the trailer for Tekkon Kinkreet. The music in it is sort of tonally misleading, but if you're even a little intrigued by what you see then add this to your queue pronto.

April 8, 2008

A Meaty Interview With Zombie Scholar Helen Matthews

I've been itching to talk to Helen Matthews ever since Vince told me that she studies zombies for a living; the truth is both more interesting and less sensational than that. Helen listed her top ten horror movies for my AMC article, but her comments on zombies and folklore were too tasty for the cutting-room floor, so here they are in their entirety. (For the record, still looking for people for my weekly "Who Loves Horror?" feature. Give me your friends, I'll be nice.)

TB: So, tell me as plainly as you can-- what exactly do you do?

HM: I’m a graduate student in the process of writing my Master’s Thesis in French Literature at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I also teach French. By day, I answer questions about the subjunctive. By night, I read and about awesome stuff. Not that the subjunctive isn’t awesome.

TB: How did you come into your niche academically-- what inspired you seek it out?

HM: I love language and literature. When I realized that I could study them at the same time, it was a pretty natural choice. I started grad school and fell in love with Haitian literature. Then came the zombis...

[Click here for more]

TB: Can you tell me a little about your study of zombies in literature?

HM: I’m studying the zombi in the works of two Haitian authors, Dany Laferrière and Émile Ollivier. I’m interested in the ways in which the figure of the zombi can be used to interact with outsiders’ perceptions of Haiti. The zombi activates themes of slavery, American occupation, womanhood, dictatorship, and, most importantly to my research, exploitation. I’m mapping out the texts’ explicit and implicit references to zombification, and placing them in the context of an international dialogue that they reflect, particularly between Haiti and the United States.

TB: Zombie movies have are common as dirt now, though very few of them pay homage to the origins of zombi(e) folklore. Why do you think this is?

HM: The early Hollywood flicks, like White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie, placed the zombie in a Caribbean context. They were interesting films, but they were made during a time in which America was more interested in what was going on “down there” in Haiti. The Serpent and the Rainbow, the Wes Craven film based on Wade Davis’ book, took the zombie phenomenon back to Haiti, but with terribly exploitative results.

At this point, most zombie movies are so far removed from Haitian mythology that they don’t have any right to pay homage. They could pay their etymological dues, I suppose. At this point, the Hollywood zombie films are entrenched in a thematic mythology so complete that they probably don’t have room to bother with Haitian zombis. The proliferation of viral zombie movies speaks for itself: watching contagious zombies eat flesh and run really fast is way more entertaining than pondering the pain of losing your individuality and being forced into labor on a Haitian plantation. What a strange world this is!

TB: Does the proliferation of modern zombie movies make your work easier or harder?

HM: Easier. Way easier. The more sensational and further removed from Haiti that zombie films get, the more material I have to prove my point(s).

TB: Has the way you enjoy horror movies changed since you were younger, as a result of your studies?

HM: I was never a huge fan of zombie movies, and you’ll notice that none made my top ten, but my Netflix queue is teeming with them. I watch them mainly to stroke my imaginary beard and ponder the many ways in which Haitian mythology is being exploited by American popular culture. I readily admit that I’m usually stretching it.

ME: Which horror movie do you think you've probably seen more times than any other?

HM: I pop on Pumpkinhead sometimes while I’m grading my students’ homework. They’d probably be disturbed to hear that.

April 7, 2008

Weekly Recap III-- Oh Yeah, and Birthday

It's my birthday! I'm 29 and fine with that, definitely looking forward to my decline into madness and ruin. For my birthday (or maybe just because they like me) AMC gave me Mondays all to myself on Monsterfest. If you'd like to show me you care, the best thing you can possibly do is check out my stories that posted today, since the format is all new and web traffic is the lifeblood of my career (MADNESS AND RUIN!!):

Reviews for The Ruins--which I actually saw last night and found to be pleasantly mediocre. In this weekly feature, I snag the bitchiest comments from all the reviews I can get my hands on. Get yer Schadenfreude here!

A wonderful list of movie rec's from someone who studies zombies in literature for a living (Complete interview will be posted here tomorrow)

A new feature where I actually get to comment on the new DVD releases of the week (It's a pretty grim trio this time around too...)

A roundup of movie news, including the 100th birthday of Baby Jane herself.

Thanks all, for your messages and tidings.

April 3, 2008

Scary/Not Scary



Carnivorous Plants

With gory new stills and clips from The Ruins spoiling everyone's appetites (and spoiling the movie as well -- shame on you folks who can't wait!) it's worth mentioning how bizarre they are in real life. As a former Venus Flytrap owner, I can vouch for the fact that you never really get over the mental nausea of seeing a plant move suddenly, nor does picking disgorged fly-carcasses out of its teeth ever stop being offensively gross. In anticipation of The Ruins opening this week, why not take a stroll through the Galleria Carnivora, a stunning gallery packed with photos of ravenous weeds doing what they do best. Predatory plant life gets the short end of the stick when it comes to horror -- and even then Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Little Shop of Horrors want us to think that the threat will come from space. A field full of Sarracenia Alata with their hungry mouths gaping will more than convince you that Earth is plenty inhospitable on its own.

sean connery.jpg


Sean Connery

The original 007 has been many things to many people--father, lover, ghetto mentor, dragon-- but the one thing he has never been is scary. Announcements that Connery is negotiating to become the new villain Bond faces in Quantum of Solace have me thinking that a fan campaign might be in order to pull him back from the ledge. Has he already forgotten the fiasco of Sir August de Wynter, a name that so chilling I only dare whisper it? As the arch-villain in the agonizing The Avengers he surely intended to riff on his Bond career, but instead merely roared all the weather-related puns that Batman and Robin forgot to use. If Bond filmmakers are trying exorcise their franchise of its legacy of high camp, they'd be wise to lowball Connery and claim they can't afford him. Or perhaps schedule all shooting late in the evenings, when he'd rather be snoozing in the solace of his recliner?

April 2, 2008

Can You Spot the Pattern?

Whether or not you're a fan of Björk's music, you'll be astounded/traumatized by the new video for "Wanderlust". It was filmed in 3-D, but I can barely handle it in 2-D.

April 1, 2008

Jill Sobule's Creature Feature

Jill Sobule is pretty busy recording the new album that fans contributed over $80,000 to finance, but she took a few minutes to talk with me about her favorite horror movies. Here's the article and list, but note that I've included her unedited comments below:

Jill Sobule's Top Ten Horror Movies:

10. "I guess it would be a toss-up between the original Frankenstein, The Werewolf, Dracula, The Creature From the Black Lagoon and the 1963 movie, Black Sabbath. They all played on Saturday afternoon on a local Denver show, Creature Features!"

9. Don’t Look Now – "Not sure it counts as horror, but it creeped me out. And it had a stunning 1970s Julie Christie."

8. The Birds – "My parents took me to the drive-in to see it when I was a mere infant. My first movie."

7. The Exorcist - "I can’t believe my mom let me go. I was in 6th grade."

6. Trilogy of Terror - "Especially the one where the doll comes after Karen Black."

5. Repulsion – "I could never eat rabbit after that."

4. The Shining – "I grew up in Colorado and have stayed at the Stanley Hotel (the one that it was based on). It was in the summer and I never saw Diane Arbus- looking murdered twin girls."

3. Nosferatu – "I recently saw it on the big screen. He was way scarier than Bela."

2. Suspiria – "The art direction is so amazing. And of course the evil lesbian witch is a real bonus."

1. Rosemary’s Baby – "Ruth Gordon is delicious. I love horror. But what I am not as into is the new over the top violent Saw-like movies. Give me Mia Farrow eating raw meat any day."