Found-Again Friday: Altered States

This week’s Found-Again Friday, like last week’s, is a cheat—though in the case of Altered States, the joke is on me. Twenty minutes into rewatch, I turned to my companion and said with dawning horror, “There’s no point in revisiting this! It’s a Ken Russell movie!”

Why Found-Again? Let me clarify: I have a strange affection for the movies of the late Ken Russell, a man who seemed to share a lot of my offbeat interests—poetry, Pre-Raphaelites, folklore, ballads—but who had a truly funhouse-mirror way of looking at all those things. In his case, I’m pretty sure “batshit” is the clinical term, and if you don’t believe me, revisit the dream sequences in Lair of the White Worm until you do. “Like” or “dislike” doesn’t really enter into it, so giving Altered States a second chance ends up being moot.

Nonetheless, rewatch it I did.

Premise: Academic who believes himself the center of the universe gets temporary endorsement from said universe.

William Hurt plays Eddie Jessup, who defies character-naming conventions by being a scientist rather than a Western henchman. He meets a fellow academic, marries, and has a family, all while chasing the ultimate nature of human consciousness. Will a series of sensory-deprivation experiments reveal what he’s looking for, or will they threaten to destroy his life while giving Ken Russell a chance to crank his Symbol-o-Matic up to 11?

I stand by my belief that there’s no point in judging Russell films by normal standards, but Altered States has always drawn my particular ire for having such a rich premise and then Not Living Up To Its Full Potential in a welter of psychedelic hooha. It’s a perfect role for William Hurt, and Blair Brown is excellent as his occasionally estranged wife. In short…

The Verdict? …it’s a perfect example of why the failure of a movie that could, should go right is a hundred times worse than that of one that just goes wrong.

Might go well with: Gothic, Jurassic Park, intoxicating beverages.

 

Next time: More Highlander. Yeah.

There Can Be Only Monday! Talking about Highlander…A Lot, Part 1

Going back to the old hometown to take care of a relative is, in movies, usually a time for personal growth: you realize you’re on the wrong path, reconnect with a long-lost love, and generally point your life in a better direction.

In my case, I spent my time in the swamp working on stories, running errands for said relative, and watching the movies I’d brought with me over and over. I did uncover a new superpower, however, and one I am going to share with readers: years after initial viewing, I can still talk for hours about the first Highlander movie. This is not necessarily more useful than my other superpower—the ability to fill a Downy Ball to the line without looking—but it is a good deal more bloggable.

My History with the Methos…er, Mythos: That’s the other reason I thought this might be a fun topic to tear into: I didn’t see the movie till the late ’90s, by which time I’d spent years surrounded by people, including my mother, who were fans of Highlander: The Series. I’d watched the series quite a bit. (I’d also seen perhaps ten minutes of the second movie, which, like many right-thinking Highlander fans, I have decided does not actually exist.) Yet I can’t remember the moment I first came into contact with the premise, or the line “There can be only one”: like Star Wars, it’s one of those things that seeped into the collective unconscious of the culture, which I find even more interesting.

When I finally did watch the movie, I became an instant and mildly obsessed fan. I’ve always loved anything with a lot of swordfighting in it—Zorro, Robin Hood—so there was no real chance Highlander would disappoint. And though it still doesn’t, repeated viewings suggest to me that the film has got…issues. In some cases, issues that resist what is popularly known as fanwank; in some others, issues that delightfully adapt themselves to it. And here we are.

A Word of Warning: This is in no way intended for people who haven’t seen the movie: a lot of the things I want to talk about involve patterns, so while I’ll be roughly chronological about bringing things up, there will be references to later scenes. Probably a lot of them. Anyway, why haven’t you watched Highlander? It’s fun. There’s a Queen soundtrack. Go do it.

 

PART 1: WHAT’S CONNOR’S DEAL, ANYWAY?

This is something it took me several years to notice, in part because the conventions surrounding heroes in a movie like this are so strong that you fill in details that are never made clear. When we first meet our protagonist, he is sitting in the audience at a professional wrestling event, looking as if he’d just seen a bus filled with puppies drive off a cliff. (I could instantly relate: this is the exact face I make when I’m at a party I don’t want to attend.) He senses another immortal, and they abscond to the parking lot and have a swordfight that involves pointless back flips. Naturally, the Highlander prevails.

Through the rest of the movie, there’s a sort of implication—during his training with Ramirez, for example—that Connor is at best a reluctant participant in the whole Gathering process, and certainly not someone who stabs first and asks questions later. So what is he doing there? Is he torturing himself by going to watch wrestling that gives him origin-story flashbacks? Does he have an appointment with Fasil for some sort of showdown? Or is he actually hunting the guy?

Read the next one: More intro + our villain.

 

Next time: Stealth Ken Russell.

 

 

 

 

 

Found-Again Friday: Cast A Deadly Spell

Found-Again Friday is a feature for rediscovering things and, in many cases, giving another chance to movies/television/books I disliked the first time around. ‘Tis the season, however, so I’ll cheat a little and write about the 1991 HBO movie Cast A Deadly Spell, which I  hadn’t watched since my VHS tape stopped having a place to play.

Why Found-Again? It’s available on YouTube, the place I constantly forget to check for entire films. In that respect, it’s the media equivalent of the back seat of my car, which is the storing-things equivalent of Narnia.

Premise: Even living in an alternate universe where magic and the Necronomicon are real can’t stop the residents of 1948 Los Angeles from noiring up the place.

One of the problems with this movie is convincing other people to watch it, in part because the chief difference between fans and detractors talking about Cast A Deadly Spell is tone of voice. For example, try reading the following in tones of either joy or disgust:

“Fred Ward plays a detective named Lovecraft.”

“There’s an oatmeal demon!”

“And on a night when the stars are aligning…”

In other words, if you already love this movie, your best bet for convincing others to watch lies in heavy use of the phrase “early role for Julianne Moore.”

 

And I really do love this movie, which takes a number of things I like—noir, the Elder Gods, David Warner chewing scenery, torch songs, egregious literary riffs, villains played by Clancy Brown—and combines them into an interesting stew. I’ve spent the past year listening to a lot of old-time radio mystery podcasts, and hearing the source material has only given me more respect for Cast A Deadly Spell’s handling of noir tropes. (It also had me persistently hearing Ward’s lines in the voice of Pat Novak-era Jack Webb, but even that isn’t the deterrent you’d imagine.)

The Verdict? As I said, I’m cheating with this one. I’ve always loved this movie, though you do need a high tolerance for silliness. There will be gremlins.

Might go well with: The Haunted Palace; The Maltese Falcon; the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio or Mean Streets OTR podcasts.

 

Next Time: Down and dirty with a weirdly classic movie?

 

Introduction/Navel-Gazing

Welcome to Our Cynical Omelet, the site that’s been rebooted so often I might as well have named it Dracula.

Yesterday I began rereading Stephen King’s The Shining. This is something I do perhaps quarterly, but this time lines up with the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. I read The Shining maybe twenty years later than most bookish people my age—they tended to devour everything up to Tommyknockers, whereas I kind of liked The Dark Half, wasn’t fond of Thinner, and hated every single character in ‘Salem’s Lot so much that I gave up long-form King for years. So finding out The Shining is an amazing book was both a relief and a glorious surprise when I finally tucked into it.

The book is also, I’m sorry to say, a favorite of mine because it echoes a lot of the problems in my own family, which is why I found myself getting ready for work this morning and thinking, “The Overlook would have got to my dad much faster.” My father was almost certainly an honest-to-god narcissist, an idea I had trouble with until the night last year when he called to yell at me for spending too much time with my mother on Mother’s Day weekend. I thought, till I began doing research on the subject, that to be one of those you had to be a high achiever, and Dad had spent my whole life—maybe not his, I hope— as a schemer on the level of maybe Daffy Duck.

Shortly thereafter, I tremulously took this new-gathered information to my mother, to friends who knew him, and was met with a resounding “Duh!” I was literally the last to know. Perhaps when you grow up being called “little [Dad’s name]” when you get in trouble, it’s harder to think that big [Dad’s name] might be broken in some fundamental way.

After the funeral, my friend said, “I’ve never seen anything like it: nobody cried.” It was true: all his friends from the old neighborhood, all his old tennis buddies, even his reluctant child, all had Dad’s number at last.

Which is why, when I say I read The Shining and am reminded of my own family, I don’t wholly mean it in a bad way. Jack Torrance clearly loves his wife and child; he just can’t resist the voice that tells him they’re standing in his way, the voice that tells him he’s too special for all this boring stuff.  And that reminds me that Dad probably couldn’t either.

 

Next Time: Gosh, anything more cheerful than this.