Sunday, September 30, 2007

Incredibly Strange Films

My latest random book read was RE/Search #10: Incredibly Strange Films by V. Vale and Jim Morton (1986). This book explores the world of B-movie, exploitation, horror, and genre films through interviews with directors, actors, and producers; articles on film genres; and essays on individual films. The entire book is nicely illustrated with film stills and movie posters.

The interview section is by far the strongest part of the book, particularly the interviews with Larry Cohen, Frank Henenlotter, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Russ Meyer. My head is still reeling from the oddness of the interview with Ted V. Mikels. The interviewers for the most part ask interesting questions and let the director speak at length about his or her process, work, philosophies, and interests. The directors come from different generations and focus on different genres, and while some come to the business with their eyes on the profit margin, you can still tell that they all really enjoy telling these stories and working outside of the mainstream.

The essays on film genres (including biker films, J. D. films, beach party films, LSD films, sexploitation, and women in prison films) are often interesting and provide an overarching history of low-budget cinema. I particularly liked the section on Industrial Jeopardy films by none-other-than Rick Prelinger (of the totally awesome Prelinger Archives available on the even more totally awesome Internet Archive.)

The low-low-low point of the book are the film essays, particularly the ones on Young Playthings and Wizard of Gore [sample sentence: "The temporal regression toward the idyllic Golden Age parallels the psychological transformation of the group members as they uncover and adopt an instinctual awareness (much like a newborn's) untainted by modern accretions of sexually repressive attitudes and conformist obeisance to society's dictums." Ugh.] I'm not sure why the editors decided to include these essays that weigh down the films with unnecessary (and honestly, unreadable) academic interpretations.

One of the film essays, however got me excited about seeing Daughter of Horror (aka Dementia) a movie filmed in 1955 with no sound, but narrated (oddly enough) by Ed McMahon and with a theme song composed by George Antheil and sung by Marni Nixon (who did the singing for Natalie Wood in Westside Story and Deborah Kerr in The King and I). And speaking of the greatness of the Internet Archive, the entire film is available here!

After the essays, the book is finished up with some miscellaneous sections including a brief encyclopedia of strange films, quotes from movies, and a list of the editor's favorite genre films.

Even with its weaknesses, this book is definitely worth reading for anyone who enjoys low-budget films, or who is interested in the film making process. In a way the book serves as a time-capsule of low-budget genre film-making in the 1980s. Many of the interviewees mention the advent of VHS and how it is changing the playing ground for film distribution and funding. I'd love to see follow up interviews with some of these directors to see what they think of the internet, digital film making, and the other changes that have happened in the past twenty years.

[Oh, and excerpts from the book are available on the RE/Search page, here.]

Thursday, September 27, 2007

It's Alive

The book I'm reading right now (more about it after I finish it, which will probably be this evening) has rekindled my ultra-love of Larry Cohen (which, honestly, did not need that much rekindling).

This clip is from It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987). So far I've only seen the first of the It's Alive trilogy. I think I'm going to have to remedy that soon...

Monday, September 24, 2007

Things I Irrationally Love

What I love: The Roomba.

Why I love it: It is a robot! That vacuums for you!

Also -- this.

Why that is irrational: I don't know anyone who has one, I have never seen one in action, and it would probably die in five minutes from all my ridiculous hair.

Why I don't care: It is a robot! That vacuums for you!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Galactic Patrol

Haven't you been wondering what's been going on in the world of the Lensmen? Thanks to the lovely choo, I've just finished the the third book in the series by E. E. "Doc" Smith, Galactic Patrol (1937). This was originally the first book in the series, so it makes sense that things really start getting interesting here. And yes, the cover can be believed, there are a lot of spaceships and not a few space pirates.

Here we follow the swift career rise of Kim Kinnison from his graduation at the top of his class for the Galactic Patrol and the receipt of his Lens, to his captaining of a cutting edge ship that leads to the the capture of pirate/bad guy plans, to his promotion to "Gray Lensman" -- a coveted classification giving him a blank check to do what he thinks needs to be done to fight the bad guys and promote the cause of Civilization.

Kinnison's main foe in Galactic Patrol is the unidentified "Boskone," head of the space pirates that are terrorizing inter-galactic space commerce and civilized planets everywhere. The novel takes our hero through a series of exciting quests and adventures that culminate in a battle with the big guy himself. And just guess which side wins.

As in the other books, Smith is at his best when describing strange new worlds and the beings that inhabit them. The guy can also write a very engaging space battle, and the action sequences are top-notch. We don't get any romantic interest until about halfway through the book when, laid up with a battle injury, Kinnison meets a firey, sexy, smart, red-headed and brave nurse named Clarissa MacDougall. Naturally they hate each other at first...

But just tell that to the doctor and Kinnison's commander, who, in a really odd scene, play matchmaker based on the quality of the couple's skeletons:

"First, just notice that skeleton. It is really remarkable. Slightly out of true here and there right now, of course, but I believe it's going to turn out to be the first absolutely perfect male skeleton I have ever seen. That young man will go far..."

"...I want the files on his nurses, particularly the red-headed one."

"I suspected you would, so I had them sent down... Here are her pictures, conventional and x-ray. Man, look at that skeleton! Beautiful! The only really perfect skeleton I ever saw in a woman..."

Do I hear wedding bells?

[Back cover on my copy is available here. Other nice covers are here.]

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Things I Irrationally Hate, Part of a Neverending Series

What I hate: Those single-serve coffee makers and their dumb coffee pods.

Why I hate them: Wasteful! Expensive! Are you too rich and cool and trendy to just drink regular old coffee out of a regular coffee maker? I imagine that whole beans freshly ground in an inexpensive coffee grinder would taste more fresh than an individually packaged coffee pod any day. In addition, who only drinks one cup of coffee? I like my coffee by the 12-cup pot, please.

Why my hatred is (sort of) irrational: I've never actually seen one of these in person or tasted the coffee from it. Plus I have no idea how expensive the pods are and I'm too lazy to find that out.

Why I don't hate you if you like them: They do look kind of cool.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Chambers vs. God

I love Ernie Chambers for so many reasons, but this is the latest one. Sadly after serving in the Nebraska Legislature (aka The Unicameral -- and we are the only state that has one, woo!) since 1970, he is not allowed to run for re-election in 2008 after the passing of a term limit law (which some say was created just to stop Chambers from being elected again).

Mr. Chambers, I formally invite you to move down here to Texas and help straighten our Legislature out. You can totally crash on our couch until you find your own place...

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Lost Princess of Oz

My latest Oz adventure was The Lost Princess of Oz (1917). After books that hardly took place in Oz at all, and ones that recycled characters from other Baum books, The Lost Princess of Oz is a return to form for the Oz series, and ended up being one of my favorites.

In this book, Dorothy wakes up to discover that Ozma is missing. And not only Ozma, but also her magic picture that can show you what anyone in the world is doing at any time, the Wizard's magic equipment, and Glinda's potions as well as her magic record book that writes down anything important happening anywhere. Since one of these items is usually the deus ex machina that saves the day in the Oz books, I was immediately excited about an Oz story where these crutches were taken away.

The book reads like a mystery where groups of our favorite characters spread out to the four corners of Oz in search of their princess. We are latched onto the group containing Dorothy, Toto, the Wizard, the Patchwork Girl, the sawhorse, Betsy Bobbin, Trot, the Woozy, Hank the mule and the Cowardly Lion (whew). And to top it all off, this group is later joined by Button Bright, the little boy who is always getting lost and then found again.

Various adventures ensue as the group makes its way into the unexplored regions of the Winkie country (including an awesome spinning mountain range). At the same time that the group is heading out in search of Ozma, a woman from the isolated land of the Yips named Cayke the Cookie Cook realizes that her magic jewel-encrusted dishpan has been stolen! She needs it to make her awesome cookies so she and a giant frogman (who used to be a regular frog but grew to a large size in a magic pond and now wears fancy clothes and acts very wise) leave their sheltered country in search of it. The parties naturally join, after also picking up a Lavender Bear (the king of the teddy bear country) and his tiny wind up pink bear that can answer any question. This is a lot to keep track of.

Rest assured that mysteries are solved and things are returned to normal. It all boils down to an overly ambitious shoemaker (and really, doesn't everything?). This reads as a very nice adventure story, and even though a few too many characters are crammed in there, the book makes an excellent addition to the Oz universe.

[And, as always, you can read the whole thing here. Don't you love the public domain?]

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Hippity Hyper

This is my new favorite game. Sorry I don't have time to post about anything. Shockwave games and a bottle of wine have taken over my life.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Power Power

Steamy leading man Tyrone Power wins the prize for an actor having a name that one would swear has to be a pseudonym, but that turns out to be real. In fact, it was his father's name and his great-grandfather's name: Tyrone Power (1795-1841). And all of them were actors, which just goes to show how far a powerful (and real) name will take you.

[Sadly for Tyrone Power, Jr. his heart was not as strong as his name and he died at the early age of 44.]

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

To the Lighthouse

Have I mentioned before that I lovelovelove Virginia Woolf? Because I really do. There is something about her writing style and my sensibility that clicks perfectly. So it should be no surprise that I am completely gaga over To the Lighthouse (1927).

In this book, as in many Virginia Woolf books, not that much actually happens. The book is divided into three sections. The first, "The Window," is the longest of the three and describes a day at the vacation home of the Ramsay's. Mr. Ramsay, a professor of something (metaphysics perhaps?) and his wife have eight children and a crowd of weekend guests with them in their vacation home that overlooks a bay with a lighthouse in the distance. Much discussion is devoted to whether or not a group of them will be able to sail to the lighthouse the next day. In the second, very brief and much more abstract section, "Time Passes," time... passes. And in the third section, "The Lighthouse," we return to a single day at the vacation home, ten years after "The Window," and finally visit the lighthouse.

So why would I like this book?

Woolf uses a stream-of-consciousness style of writing in which dialogue and internal thoughts are interspersed and the point of view travels seamlessly from character to character. With this the reader gets a more intense and real-feeling picture of the lives of the characters and their relationships with one another. We see what Mrs. Ramsay thinks of herself, and what everyone else thinks of her, and back and forth between all the characters as they interact with one another in everyday sorts of ways. We feel along with the characters as their happy feelings are shattered by an tossed off comment or action, and later their sense of isolation and disconnection is evaporated by a glance or a phrase. Much like real life, important things aren't always happening, and the things that seem important to the characters go unnoticed by everyone else.

Reading this shortly after As I Lay Dying brought up all sorts of parallels between the writing styles of Faulkner and Woolf. They were contemporaries (To the Lighthouse came out a few years before As I Lay Dying) and I wonder if they ever read one another. These books in particular both use a changing point of view (between family members and neighbors/houseguests) and stream-of-consciousness style to explore the relationships of a family that is changed by a death. Although Woolf's novel (while sometimes very bleak) is ultimately much more hopeful than Faulkner's. I'll definitely have to think on that some more...

[I was going to put a scan of my copy of To the Lighthouse up to illustrate this post, since I love the design, but it looked so gross and dirty when I scanned it. It really doesn't look that disgusting in person, but let this be a lesson to those who design book covers: white probably isn't a good idea.]

[And if the idea of "books" with "covers" totally disgusts you anyway, then knock yourself out and read the entire text of To the Lighthouse here.]

[Update: Reading this post over I feel like I make the book sound kind of boring and unapproachable. But really, I found reading it to be energizing, exciting, and relaxing all at once. And I know I'm a fast reader, but this really did read quickly. Don't be frightened away!]

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Mr. Wizard

Dr. M comes up with another fabulous invention: The Beeritar. We will be developing a gift set that packages this with the very popular Beer Phone. You will be able to buy two Beer Phones and two Beeritars in a handy six-pack. I predict that this innovation will be our ticket out of this dump. See you later, suckers!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Alice in Email-land

This week I finished reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 37 sections, delivered to me via e-mail, upon a timeline of my choosing (which was one installment a day) -- all thanks to the fantastic innovation of dailylit, a site with hundred of public domain books all neatly split up into bite sized bits for your reading pleasure. Think you have no time to read? How often do you check your email? Do you have two minutes a day to devote to slowly ingesting some great text? I think that you do.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is, of course, totally great. And really well suited to this delivery format. I hadn't read it since I was a kid, and it was, in many ways, quite a bit weirder than I had remembered. I love Alice and her fearless acceptance of the weird goings on in Wonderland. The only thing I missed by reading this online were the wonderful illustrations, but, of course, those are available online too. What can't the Internet do?

[I'm reading Henry James' The Turn of the Screw in 50 installments next...]

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Just Dial a Number

I don't remember exactly how I got this copy of Just Dial a Number by Edith Maxwell (1971), but I know it was sometime in junior high. It seems like my aunt gave it to me when she was cleaning out her books, or maybe I got it at a garage sale somewhere. Either way, I kept it unread on my shelf for many many years, and then brought it home to Austin the last time I was at my parent's house.

When I got this book, I was on a major Christopher Pike jaunt (closely followed by an equally excessive Stephen King fascination). I think I thought this book, with its evocative title, dark cover illustration, and declaration that "a prank phone call leads to terror" on the front cover would be a teen horror book along the lines of Chain Letter.

Instead, the "terror" in Just Dial a Number is more on the lines of a guilt-riddled adolescent girl than a creepy horror fest. Cathy and her friends are seniors in high school who recently put on a play in which her only line was "Someone tried to kill me" -- which she whispers into a phone before dying. Back at her house after the show and fooling around, the four friends decide to dial a number at random and have Cathy say her line from the play. Unfortunately, their joke is taken seriously by the woman who answers the phone -- she and her husband think the caller on the other line was their daughter and rush home to help her, dying in a single-car accident on the way.

The book does a nice job of contrasting Cathy's reaction to the accident with that of her boyfriend and her other friends. Her guilt is focused into an obsession with the orphaned girl, a sophomore at their school. As she becomes more and more involved in the girl's life, an eventual outing of her involvement in the parent's death is inevitable.

This young adult novel was published in 1971, and although many of the teenage issues still ring true today (popularity, boyfriends, parents, etc.), some are rather dated (lots of "should I or shouldn't I" over pot at parties, gender roles -- particularly in the character of the mother, a climax set in the turn-on tune-in drop-out community of San Francisco). Although it didn't deliver the teenage horror promised by the title, I found this book to be quite enjoyable, particularly if you are a fan of young adult fiction for teenage girls. And if you aren't, brother, I don't want to hear it.

[Back cover available here.]

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

As I Lay Dying

The latest selection from the ultra-elite Smarter Than You Bookclub is As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930). This is the first novel of Faulkner's that I've read -- I'd previously read some short stories that I liked, but for some reason had never dipped into the longer works. I really enjoyed this one, and managed to read half of it on the way to Chicago and the other half on the way back home.

This novel follows the Bundren family as they journey to bury their wife and mother, Addie, back in her hometown. The story is told through a first person point of view that shifts between the husband, the sons, the daughter, the neighbors, and even the dead mother herself. The combined viewpoints coalesce into a deeply drawn picture of the individuals, the family as a whole, and their relationships with one another. I really enjoyed this.

I don't want to get into too many details (gotta save something for the bookclub, yo), so instead I'll mention that the copy of this book that I ordered off of Amazon came with two California lottery tickets from a year ago stuck into the back. In addition, don't you find it odd that the first three pages of a google image search for "As I Lay Dying" are almost entirely related to this metal band, with only two pictures of the Faulkner novel?

Monday, September 03, 2007


I have returned! Chicago was lovely, and I experienced maximum archival geekouts.

Sadly the body slices exhibit was not in place at the Museum of Science and Industry [they also charge extra to go inside the submarine (which was still cool from the outside) and for the traveling CSI exhibit. This = lame]. They did, however, have a truly great exhibit of robot toys.

I was on a tight budget, so I didn't experience much of the restaurant culture, but I did have fun eating granola bars and triscuits and making bourbon cocktails in my awesome hotel room. Overall, I just can't wait to go to Chicago again.

Full photo set here.