Friday, April 29, 2011

More messes like STAGE BEAUTY please.

As a tragedy of artistic obsolescence, a feminist triumph fable, and pan-gender love story—and sometimes all at once--Stage Beauty is perhaps unavoidably a mess. It often seems poleaxed by the endless mirror reflections of its themes of sexual personae and desire. But along with high-delight-ratio turns by Billy Crudup and Claire Danes, Beauty actually delivers a rare pleasure, the sense of being a movie in heated argument with itself.

But you have to get through an annoying first act to get to the film’s chewy center. Ned Kynaston (Crudup) is Britain’s most adored “leading lady”, the last of the red-hot drag queens who dominated British theater in the 1600s. (“A woman playing a woman—where’s the art in that?” he queries.)

Kynaston’s dresser Marie (Danes) is an actress manqué performing Shakespeare on the sly in underground productions. King Charles II (Rupert Everett) catches a show, and, at the urging of his wannabe actress lover (Zoe Tapper), declares female impersonation illegal. Unfortunately, director Richard Eyre (Iris) seems worried about our attention span, resorting to handheld, zoom and rack-focus camera gymnastics.

But as farce turns to drama, Eyre ditches the showy stuff and the movie hits its stride. Kynaston is reduced to performing skeezy he-she shows; Marie’s thespian shortcomings offer him a chance to teach her how to really be a woman, and so return him to legit theatre.

We know Crudup’s a fine actor: here he’s something possibly better, an A class showman. And after the mean de-glamming she suffered in Terminator 3, Danes comes back bristling with an almost predatory sexual intelligence.

After his banishment, Marie invites the identity-stripped Kynaston to her place for rest and rehab. She’s interested about the minutia of man-on-man action, but more fascinated by its possibilities as a tool for defining her self.

With no make-up, hair pulled back and a loose gown affording us glimpses of her small breasts, Marie looks the ideal androgyne. She mounts Kynaston, taunting, “Who am I now, a man?” She lies under him. “Am I a woman now?” That they eventually end up a pile in a pile of giggles is adorable, and so much for the immutability of sexual power roles. It’s a romantic dream view endorsed here and then wrecked in high, viscerally effecting style by the late film production of Othello.

The chastened (?) Kynaston plays the Moor soldier with a crazed virility suggestive of a punk rock Brando. Marie’s Desdemona becomes an early Blanche Dubois. Even while seemingly endorsing these pre-Method methodologies, the performances criticize it: Are simulated off-the-chart evocations of female suffering more ‘real’ than the stylized mode? Is this enraged masculinity how we define a ‘real’ man? Or is Kynaston really using his return to grace as an ultimate act of drag lampooning the idea of machismo that, as a bonus, also serves to help Marie? With one elegant last sentence, the film ends honestly, with a triumphant declaration of uncertainty.

Monday, April 25, 2011


The 2006 first season of BBC America's Torchwood was the most singularly vexing tease of a televisual sci-fi experience a geek could imagine. For every strange delight--the show's instantly identifiable gritty/glossy digital noir look, queered Hawksian banter, sudden-death romance, and fevered willingness to insert sex into everything, typified by an episode about an alien who feeds off orgasms--there was an equal negative. The worst offenders: a reliance on 11th-hour high-tech deux ex machinas and an increasingly Lost-like sense that the show's creators were just making shit up as they went along.

But with the second season, Torchwood's bi-sci-fi geek promise of being a randy mix of Queer as Folk and Doctor Who--creator Russell T. Davies respectively created/reanimated both shows--was seriously fulfilled, thanks to the appropriation of one actor from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and a generous infusion of tropes from Joss Whedon's classic. For example. he got really good at killing off characters...

With the good chance that you've neither seen nor heard of Torchwood, some exposition.

"Torchwood" is a secret group operating "outside the government, beyond the police" so as to staunch the flow of aliens, ghosts, Romans, the black plague, and sundry other inter-temporal flotsam slipping into our world through the Rift--a space-time anomaly in Cardiff, Wales.

Working from an underground lair done up in retro tubeway chic, complete with mortuary and in-house pet pterodactyl, Torchwood is composed of plucky local cop Gwen (Eve Myles), laddish cynic physician Owen (Burn Gorman), IT girl Toshiko (Naoko Mori), and fashion-conscious teaboy (!) Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd). All are under the command of the ever-grinning, mysterious, possibly immortal American Capt. Jack Harkness (John Barrowman).

Unfortunately, the first season strained to define its themes and characters with sufficient velocity to prevent U.K. viewers from switching to Heroes' vanilla recombinant pulp, often devolving into an alien-of-the-week format dashed with tantalizing bits of identity politics. What kept fans tuning in was the promise of the Torchwood crew and Capt. Jack, who was kind of great from Day 1. A sexually omnivorous, fine-jawed scamp in a 1940s military long coat, Barrowman plays him like a camp Tom Cruise, alternately/simultaneously arrogant, pigheaded, flirty, world-weary, and idealistic. But in the first season's fantastic finale, Jack morphed from lovable rogue into an entirely new genre archetype.

Due to a time-machine gaffe by Owen, an inter-temporal, life-absorbing God--"The Great Destroyer," no less--threatens life on Earth. With the chips down, Jack's browbeating and flirtatiousness dissolve to reveal an absolute, almost fatherly love of his co-workers. He forgives Owen and sacrifices his own immortal self--seemingly for keeps this time--to slay the opposition. One acolyte--excuse us, Gwen--waits at his side for days until Jack rises briefly before disappearing, presumably to allow his followers to follow his example and continue his good works.

Needless to say, it's cheeky to blatantly reposition your horny gay-leaning hero as a Christ substitute, a deliriously fun conceit that prefaced the high learning curve seen in the second season's opener, an episode aptly titled "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang."

It opens with the chase for a coke-snorting alien blowfish--seriously--and the cheerfully unexplained return of Jack, before segueing to time traveler Capt. John (James Marsters, aka Spike from Buffy), who swaggers out of the Rift done up in Adam Ant pirate-punk gear, paralyzing lip gloss, and a horny leer to the accompaniment of Ennio Morricone-esque audio camp.

Captains John and Jack meet in a sleazy bar, make out, beat the crap out of each other, share a drink, and then bitch about each other's wrinkles. If you'd never seen the show, you could be forgiven for thinking your TV went completely insane. Turns out, John is Jack's dark doppelgänger/ex-lover gone gleefully bad and willing to fuck and/or kill every member of Torchwood in order to--well, no spoilage here.

Marsters' appearance is both a reminder of just how much Torchwood already owes Buffy--for obvious instance, the alien-spewing Rift is a sci-fi take on Buffy's demon-spewing Hellmouth-- and a preview of just how smartly it would appropriate from Whedon's world, which, in a weird/wonderful bit of intertextual alchemy, has allowed Davies' show to become more indelibly, well, Torchwood-like.

Like Buffy herself, Gwen struggles to keep her life as a normal person and world saver separate. Toshiko has expanded from a dangerously archetypical "Asian"--all cool competence and raised Spock brows--into Torchwood's Willow surrogate, the show's supercute, smart, intrinsically open-souled center.

But geeky citations aside, what Torchwood most effectively assimilates from Whedon is the use of supernatural events and creatures as metaphors for the characters' inner demons, along with a sort of soap opera humanism--the repurposing of deep weep melodrama as a means of addressing the group's existential pains.

In that way that renders the science fictional literary, Jack's horrifically traumatic youth is revealed; his response to it explains why he needs to help people. A parallel-universe episode offers the anxious, socially inept Owen hiding under his semi-douchebag skin. And Toshiko finally meets a man she can love--a WWI soldier suffering from PTSD--but her painful duty to the greater good trumps romances, and so much for that.

And so fused in a cauldron of its characters' essential loneliness, the Torchwood crew, as in most great TV, coheres into a alternative viable family. Davies would follow this with Torchwood: Children of Earth, a steep learning curve jump into near-Arthur C. Clarke-style grand SF and, as I write this, a Starz Network reboot about the end of death (!).

So looking back, what was Torchwood season two on about? Same as it ever was. That beneath its ambisexual snogs, quips, and action-plot tragedies, Torchwood was and will always be about difference, empathy, and striving to do the right thing in an indifferent-or-worse world while knowing you'll inevitably getting it wrong half the time and learning to forgive yourself for doing so. In the end, it's an atheist's idea of grace.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Some 'spect 4 D.E.B.S.

At a tone-defining juncture, raven-haired arch villainess Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster) is so overtaken with passion for blond superspy Amy (Sara Foster) that she’s compelled to kareoke her way through the entirety of Erasure’s 80s electro-camp classic, “A Little Respect”. And that pretty much sums up the cockeyed appeal of D.E.B.S.: Uncontrollably goofy, smart but not too, and most of all, cute, adorable even.

While the tagline leers, “They're crime-fighting hotties with killer bodies!” writer/director Angela Robinson’s film is a knockabout milestone of another sort—the first lesbian action comedy.

Robinson’s lark was shot in candy-colored 24P video on a low budget--a good deal of which must have been spent on clearances for it’s cool-kid hit parade of cuts by The Cure, Death in Vegas, Goldfrapp, and New Order. It revolves around the neat conceit that, hidden in SATs, is a secret recruiting code for rooting out future members of the D.E.B.S. (“Discipline. Energy. Beauty. Strength.”) spy team.

Our featured spies in matching plaid minis: a sexed-up, chain-smoking French (!) bad-girl (Devon Aoki), a catty but sweet airhead (Jill Ritchie), no-nonsense African American leader (Meagan Good) and frustrated art student Amy.

Their mission: find and arrest Lucy, who, besides robbing banks, is infamous for her failed 1999 attempt to sink Australia (“I don’t like their attitude,” she explains.) What nobody knows is that Lucy’s main concern is her crappy love life: crime pays, but getting dates is a bitch.

The D.E.B.S.—doing their nails while hanging from the rafters of a tony restaurant—stake out Lucy only to find her trying to escape a blind date with a surly Russian assassin (Jessica Cauffiel). After their surveillance is ruined by all-thumbs Homeland Security agents, Sara runs into Lucy, and instead of shooting her, finds true love at first Mexican standoff. Their ensuing affair leads to much inter-friend and agency agita lensed in frenetic screwball comedy style and ending in a small-scale cavalcade of queer affirmation.

Originally a Sundance short film favorite, Robinson’s feature version shows some strain at being elongated to feature length, and her characters’ repartee loses its zing at critical junctures. Still, there’s not a mean bone in the film’s body, and like John Waters circa Hairspray and onward, it understands that there’s nothing like a relentless charm offensive to change hearts and minds.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Look!--It's Jesus' Son

After a lot of dealing, overdoses, and nodding out, a young junkie known only as Fuckhead (Billy Crudup) is going nowhere on a subway car when, jonesing big time, he sees Jesus. And so like any man, he gets a raging hard-on.

Yes, it's a joke, but it's also the Passion and the narcotic and the mix. All of which are just parts of the impressive cinematic kit and caboodle that comprising Alison Maclean's Jesus' Son, a film so inventive, well-acted, spiritually uplifting and just plain brilliant that criminally neglected barely describes the lousy fate awarded this obscured fine effort.

Based on Denis Johnson's superb short-story collection of the same name, Jesus' Son takes place in the 1970s in a series of interchangeably grim nowhere towns. We meet Fuckhead--FH for short--hitchhiking on the highway, hung over and filthy. In a slacker-noir voice-over, FH tells us that he knows the car that's about to pick him up is also going to crash. And the car does crash--all stuttering images, disembodied screams, and bloodied chrome. Then we're in another car with some nattering wack-job salesman.

We would, at this early juncture, be justified in worrying that we're trapped in art-film hell. But Maclean isn't just going pretentious on us. The scattershot technique proves an effective analogue for the mental gum works that pass for a junkie's thought processes. We soon become accustomed to the flip-flopping reality effect as a series of vignettes connect the dots between FH's descent into assorted hells and his nomadic drift toward redemption.

Illustrative of Maclean's subtle modus operandi is a segment of the film called "Work." FH is invited by drunkard pal Wayne (Denis Leary) to do "a salvage job." They rip apart one of a row of abandoned prefab houses. The house turns out to be Wayne's. Between his life-drained face and the blasted-heath landscape, his reasons are clear: He's destroying his house as a means of destroying his past.

Outside the house, Wayne and FH catch a glimpse of a naked woman harnessed to a kite being pulled into the autumnal twilight sky, a beatific look on her face as she literally rises above the squalor. "Now that," Wayne says, "is a beautiful sight."

And it is. The rest of the film looks pretty damn fine too, courtesy of cinematographer Adam Kimmel (Monument Ave.), who films each segment with a mood-enhancing color palette, ranging from Wyeth-like pastoral hues to forensic-room fluorescent blues. But beneath its shifting surface sheen and alternating currents of hard-boiled humor, Grand Guignol gruesomeness, and off-center sweetness, Jesus' Son is all about lost souls searching for . . . well, they're not sure what.

There's Georgie (Jack Black), FH's co-worker at an emergency room. When a redneck ends up in the ER with a hunting knife rammed into his eye, Georgie saves him--but mainly out of a lunatic act born of running low on bennies rather than good Samaritanism. At a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, a partially crippled ex-druggie named Mira (Holly Hunter) offers FH some sexual healing, but her dead/alive demeanor sends him back on the road in search of a more palpable release.

In what's almost a cast-off bit, the film finally shows its cards. A post-overdose FH is asked by a nurse if he's hearing voices. He says no. A tray of computer-animated cotton balls (!) begs to disagree. "Help us!" they squeak in his head, giving voice to the agony that everyone in the film quells with dope and delusions, "Oh God, it hurts!"

At the heart of all this inspired strangeness is FH's girlfriend, Michelle, played by Samantha Morton, who's so good she probably will not win an Oscar. Everyone's known a Michelle. She wears the skimpiest halter-top at the party and is the first to do a big bong hit. She's the girl every boy (and plenty of girls) wants to bed, for reasons that elude them. Michelle's odd allure is that she's both chaos personified and, by default, a born healer. She gives FH's life (and Jesus' Son) an emotional center of gravity. Without Michelle, FH wouldn't last long enough for the quietly grand epiphanies that await him later in the film.

And Crudup? He's as good as he should be, and never aspires to better. When other characters fall off the edge and he's left standing, the actor's cute/doofy face wordlessly lets us in on his own inner wonder at being spared.

With only one other feature (Crush) and some shorts and TV episodes (including a Homicide) to her credit, Maclean already has filmmaking technique up the wazoo. More importantly, she knows how skill weaves the very delicate fabric of her very particular stories. Although informed by the more spacey efforts of Robert Altman (Three Women, Images), her film is free of egocentric auteurisms, and so becomes, appropriately enough, imbued with a rare sense of grace.

While surveying a group of spiritually bloodied survivors, FH says with wonder, "I had never known, never imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us." It's a testament to both the actor and his director's skills that we come to long for such a place, and even feel we might deserve to belong there too.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Friedkin's Eternal Struggle

Thirty-four years after his career-defining Antichrist smash, The Exorcist, director William Friedkin still blames the devil. "Everybody has this thin line between good and evil," he told me from his cushy seat in Lionsgate's swank Manhattan PR suite back in 2006, a week before the release of his fevered late-career high, Bug. "And sometimes we cross it.

"Like the kid in Virginia. I don't think he was born evil, but I think it was the devil that caused him to do it."

Speaking in a measured drawl, he projects a sense of holding court rather than being interviewed, reminiscent of a long-tenured professor who doesn't really care what you think of his opinions but can't help but express them in detail. The odd takeaway is that everything he says sounds completely rational. But the devil? As in Judeo-Christian?

After discussing the inability of psycho-social context to explain Hitler's atrocities, he nods. "It's very well expressed in the Judeo-Christian manner," he says. "We can [at least] get a handle on it as a metaphor. But yeah, the devil, a force of evil--just as I believe in a force for good."

In Bug, the war between evil and good plays out in moral gray tones on a notably secular proscenium as the conspiracy theory-crazed war vet played by Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd's soul-blown waitress go mutually mad in the middle of a very American nowhere.

Deviling these lost souls is a post-truth world where Friedkin says we can no longer "trust the government" or a media that "takes what's fed to them and print it as fact." In short, Bug is partially about how, bombarded with disinformation and with no viable filters, we're all going crazy.

But there's more. After an aghast recollection of a recent poll showing that 35 percent of potential Democratic voters and not a few Republicans believe that George W. Bush knew about Sept. 11 before the planes hit the towers, Friedkin says, "Another thing that's at work is how people who are vulnerable, lonely, and isolated--which is most of us--will hook up with somebody who's in the same boat and attach ourselves to their worldview.

"So when this guy comes on in the film and spouts out these theories, she believes them . . . because they make sense to her in the same way it makes sense to [all those voters] that Bush knew."

Friedkin insists that Bug, Lionsgate's marketing aside, is not a genre film in the post-Hostel frame, but a very new sort of horror picture. "It could be viewed that way," he says. "This would have been flagged in the '60s or '70s as a horror film. But the horror film . . . isn't what it was. And that's too bad, because it was a very promising genre."

What Bug inarguably is is a relentless mind-fuck. "All of filmmaking is a kind of a game between the filmmaker and the audience," he points out. "Ever see one of Michael Haneke's films?"

But like the Caché director, Friedkin takes the "game" to extremes. Instead of opening up Tracy Lett's play, he makes it even more constricted, shooting most of it in one room in purposefully static closeups. ("Some of the most dramatic events take place in a room where personalities clash," he says, putting the kibosh on that discussion/critique.)

And for a director known for his inspired use of unconventional music--think Mike Oldfield's pre-ambient "Tubular Bells" in The Exorcist or Tangerine Dream's nightmare sound swathes for Sorcerer--Bug is notable for its lack of a score. "The score is the air conditioner and the coffeepot," he says, and so much for that topic as well.

But the biggest mind-fuck is the movie's subjectivity. "I can't vouch that anything in that film actually happens," Friedkin says. "I don't know how much that happens is their combined fantasy. The only way I could make that film is to be able to see the world through their eyes."

As for Judd's frighteningly visceral performance, which finds her sweaty and filthy when she also isn't naked and/or covered in sores and cuts, Friedkin rather charmingly expresses both admiration and awe. He likens her interpretation of Lett's often febrile text to what "often occurs with a musician and a score. . . . A score's a bunch of illegible notes on paper, and then Pinchas Zuckerman plays it and it breaks your heart. And Ashley does that."

What is impossible to imagine is Judd, covered in fake gore, segueing from shrieking "I am the super mother bug queen!" to ordering a ham sandwich when the director called "cut." "In many ways, [Bug is] a black-comedy love story," Friedkin dryly notes.

But Friedkin says "that's exactly what she'd do. Immediately after I said `cut.' The same way that Linda Blair was able to. If you saw the outtakes of The Exorcist, she'd go through the most outrageous things, I'd say `cut,' the camera's still rolling, and you see her start to giggle and from offstage a prop man hands her a milk shake." He shrugs. "I can't tell you that I know where that comes from. I just don't have it."

But with Bug, Friedkin has at least sussed out his own career-long motivation for making movies. "In the maybe 40 seconds of introspection I encounter in a year, I was thinking, Why did you do this [film] or that?," he says. "And the same theme keeps popping up: The constant struggle of our better angels to exceed over the horrible impulses all of us get."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Aronofsky before the SWAN

I interviewed Darren Aronofsky back in 2000, the week of the release of Requiem for a Dream.

I include it here because I think it fascinating in retrospect to see how formed he was as artist 11 years before Black Swan and even as he contemplated some really bad ideas (a Batman project? Whew.)

We see how wrong critics were about this artist regarding matters of style, how Dream's hyper-kinetics were a cinematic application just as The Wrestler's grungy verite was the same. We see that, more than anything, he is a director of actors, especially female actors (think the women who surrounded Mickey Rourke, of Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood, and the way they gave that wreck of a man a reason to exist.)

But anyway, without more preamble, the artist before the Swan...

After the surprise 1998 indie hit Pi, a hyperstylized exploration of mathematics and obscure Orthodox Jewish ritual, Darren Aronofsky's choice of adapting Hubert Selby Jr.'s 1978 novel Requiem for a Dream, a downbeat drama about a clan of drug addicts in New York's Brighton Beach, might appear to be an act of random perversity. As it turns out, Selby has always been a major influence on the writer/ director.

"He's one of my heroes," Aronofsky says. "When I went to film school, I made his short stories into a short film called Fortune Cookie. It's about a fortune-teller who gets addicted to the fortunes in cookies."

Aronofsky's obsession with Selby's work eventually led him to contact the author about adapting Requiem for the screen. The 31-year-old auteur and the 72-year-old writer's visions proved to be eerily in sync: Comparing his Requiem script with one Selby had penned in the 1970s, Aronofsky discovered that "about 80 percent of the scenes he had chosen [from the book], I had chosen. After that, we just traded notes."

The finished film, which was shot in 40 days in and around Brooklyn's Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach neighborhoods, cost only $4.5 million to make--a bargain by current industry standards. Although full of praise for all of his cast's performances, Aronofsky speaks with a certain awe of Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn's turn as cross-addicted widow Sara Goldfarb.

"Her performance is unbelievable. Definitely the best thing I have ever been involved with was having the honor to catch this performance," he says. "She's 67. And she had four prosthetic necks that took about five hours a day to work with; she had two fat suits. I mean, just technically, huge problems. And she just seized them."

None of this skill and artistry much impressed the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) when Aronofsky submitted his film for rating. To the MPAA, even more troubling than the characters' drug use was a strobe-lit scene of lesbian sexuality involving Jennifer Connelly's Marion. "The three-minute psychological intensity of the film's climax," the director says, "they had problems with that and wanted it to be toned down."

The MPAA doled out the dreaded NC-17 rating, a virtual guarantee of diminished newspaper coverage and theater distribution. The filmmaker, with a slight undertone of "fuck 'em" in his voice, says he refused to comply with suggested snips. "We turned it down," he says. "It'll be released unrated. It won't be cut at all."

Aronofsky seems drawn to films--Pi, Requiem, a projected new Batman movie ("We'll see what happens," Aronofsky cautions)--that focus on marginalized heroes and subcultures. He says that his projects all share a more specific subtext: "It's being a Jew in the world. When you're Jewish or another minority in America, you're still an outsider.

"The notion of being somehow different puts you on the outside. You just sense it--you grow up in this world and see all the fucked-up things people do to one another over and over again, and it makes you wonder why. I think I'm attracted to darkness, just to explore that idea."

But do we really need yet another drug movie? "I don't think the movie is about drugs. It's more about addiction," Aronofsky says. "What is a drug? It could be TV, it could be coffee, alcohol. The word 'heroin' is never mentioned in the film because I wasn't really interested in telling that sort of story.

"Selby's message is the [to which] length people go to escape reality. And that when we do that, we create a hole in our present," he says. "Addiction vs. the human spirit. And that struggle, no matter who you are, you deal with that. You battle with your own addictions. And they are your own demons."

Monday, April 18, 2011

Deliver Us from Evil

We’re almost charmed when we first meet ex-priest, Oliver O’Grady, now living in Ireland and awaiting a Vatican pension thanks in part to a President Bush pardon. He’s a gnomish, easily smiling senior with mischievous blue eyes. His soft tenor voice enjoys a melodious Celtic lilt.

Even as he talks about how he’s always liked children, the younger the better, and especially naked, even as we learn that he’s raped hundreds of them--from one-year-olds to grizzled tweens--for over twenty years, the disconnect between this gentle old coot and his crimes persists.

Then director Amy Berg presents us with a psychologist who stresses the need for a thought experiment. She says we need to walk through the reality of a grown man’s genitals being forced into the tiny aperture of an infant’s.

And so denial dissolves: in Deliver Us from Evil, we are dealing with the lowest form of human monstrosity as Berg etching a synergistic relationship between O’Grady and a Church gone lousy with criminal indifference and contempt for its customers, that deals with its shadow side, as a victim’s lawyer says, with "deception, denial and deceit from the highest levels".

Berg uses her experience at CNN and on 60 Minutes to give us a dry, damning-fact-laden accounting. Known as Father Ollie to his parishioners and victims alike, O'Grady--sometimes almost whimsically--narrates his adventures during the 70s and 80s.

He thinks back to the good times--raping children at one parish and then being moved by the Church to another to rape children there.

Berg’s unearthed DA video interview footage reveals a Cardinal Roger Mahoney--still Archbishop of Los Angeles--and doddering Pope Benedict--once in charge of investigating priestly abuse--showing no remorse, none, zero, zip, as they equivocate, cling to legal minutia, or brazenly lie about their complicity in Ollie’s crimes.

Worse is the prevalent Church view that pedophilia isn’t all that big a deal--a big deal would be homosexual sex between consenting adults.

The shredded heart of Berg’s film belongs to a core group of survivors--Nancy Sloan, Ann Jyono and Adam M.

In the film’s most horrific intersection, Adam, a handsome, clenched jaw, emo sort of guy, revisits the place where O’Grady raped and sodomized him as a kid.

A few minutes later, O’Grady recalls doing so with not much more than a shrug.

Ms. Jyono’s story is godawful not just for the unimaginable suffering the degenerate directly inflicted on her, but in how those crimes spread, cancer-like, to her entire family.

Ms. Jyono’s an attractive professional nearing forty and fearful that the spiritual scar tissue left from her priest’s acts will leave her unable to ever have a relationship, ever.

Jyono’s immigrant Japanese father recalls how a holy Church was part of his American dream.

And so he allowed Father Ollie into his home, where the priest seduced and fucked his wife.

It's no hyperbole to say that the tension becomes almost unbearable as we wait for the inevitable, precisely because we know it's inevitable: kindly Father Ollie, then actually living with the Jyono family, raping his child at age five.

When Mr. Jyono finally reaches this ultimate betrayal, this reserved man completely falls to pieces, weeping, cursing himself, the Church and God.

With the exception of some new footage of a meditative O’Grady at church--meant, one supposes, to evoke the mystery of the creature in its natural habitat, but which ends up feeling intrusively cinematic--Berg maintains her properly detached tone throughout, enhanced only by mournful, liturgical songs by Nick Cave and Joseph Arthur.

Berg seems to slip on the side of saccharine as the survivors engage in a sort of group therapy, but that view promptly evaporates when we see O’Grady composing a letter to the survivors suggesting they all fly to Ireland for a salving group confab.

To which Adam suggests his ex-pastor go fuck himself. And amen to that. Unfortunately, the institution that made O’Grady’s crimes possible is still at large and unaccountable.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Four films in and Darren Aronofsky’s short life in pictures turns out to have been a rehearsal for Black Swan, his masterpiece. The obsession with paranoiac spiritual mastery in Pi mirrored in the failed The Fountain, the bottomless empathy for two generations of tragic women in Requiem for a Dream, the use of the body as a thing beaten for redemption in The Wrestler—all these seemingly disparate themes fuse into this grisly fantasia of ultimately transcendent beauty. Watching Black Swan is like breathing in and being unable to breathe out until the final, perfect image.

Natalie Portman, in the performance of her life, plays Nina Sayers, a ballerina in a top company at New York’s Lincoln Center. Nina lives in a perpetual state of nearly losing her shit—not that she’d mind, as long as she attains an artistic perfection she can’t yet imagine.

She shares a cramped Manhattan apartment with her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), who was once a dancer herself. Does Erica treasure dedicating herself to her child’s success? Does she hate her for being born? Will there be scenes of horrifically eroticized Oedipal terror? Yes to all three, but these are Aronofsky women, so everything will be much more complicated.

The company’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel, all bemused, cocky swagger), is reconceptualizing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake as a sort of minimalist nightmare. He needs a dancer who can embody both the libretto’s innocent White Swan and evil Black Swan.

Nina, who, for all we can tell, has been so dedicated to dance she never got around to having sex, aces the White Swan. The Black Swan, not so much. And so she must learn about her dark side, which means sex, which inexorably leads to Lily (Mila Kunis), a spiritually lithe new dancer from San Francisco.

At first, just hanging around someone like Lily, whose life goes beyond ballet’s constricted black-and-white world of work and nothing else, gives Nina a liberating, sexualized buzz But even as Nina lands the Swan role her reality principle starts to fracture. Who is Lily, really? Is she out for a good time, to steal the Swan from Nina, or is Nina just going batty?

At the same time, the movie’s backstage melodrama kicks in with discomforting rawness as Nina deals with the legacy and fleshy reality of ex-Swan Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder, truly scary, seriously great). As if all this wasn’t enough, Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin’s script adds a layer of Cronenberg-esque body horror to the movie.

More important to Aronofsky is the idea of dancers pushing their bodies to grotesque extremes to create the illusion of effortless grace, and so he lavishes Nina’s zero-fat, injury-wracked body with lingering closeups. Nina/Portman’s use/abuse of her body verges on the contemptuous, an act of will over breaking bone, torn muscle, and ceaseless pain.

You already know from the ads that Nina and Lily have sex, but the movie’s actual turning point has to do with Nina and Beth and the single most horrific act of self-mutilation in cinema since Cries and Whispers. And from there, we’ll say no more.

Aronofsky’s usual team works with intuitive brilliance. Matthew Libatique’s Steadicam Technicolor work underscores the monotone, uncannily cocoon-like quality of backstage and the mad colorful delirium of night-clubbing. Between Clint Mansell’s score and Ken Ishii’s sound production/mixing, you’re awash in string music, Tchaikovsky sound quotes, and theater-rattling, bird-wing flutter musique concrete. It’s relentless. Like John Boorman and Nicholas Roeg before him, Aronofsky makes cinema as though it could be a hallucinatory drug.

Portman’s performance grounds it. She trained for a year to gain her ballerina bona fides. Her dancing isn’t prize-winning, but it’s wonderful, haunting, and strange.

Ultimately, her Nina will be remembered as one of cinema’s great ciphers. You see her as a trembling child-girl, a doe-eyed ingenue, an imperiously demanding taskmaster, but who is she?

One sense is someone of terrifying loneliness: Her entire life has been her mother’s apartment, training rooms, backstage, onstage. Lily is fascinated by the fact of her alien quality. Black Swan’s ending may anger or shock, but it felt emotionally sincere for someone like Nina—in a strange way, the only way for her. It’s a triumph in a truly great movie.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

With Herzog on Kinski and Wagner

It's the year 2000, and I'm on a one year sabbath from New York (long story) and in a Baltimore hotel room with Werner Herzog, one of cinema's true living legends.

"It's a very interesting city," he says, looking out at the Inner Harbor, recalling earlier trips to the city. "It's not a coincidence that such a fine man as John Waters grew up and made his films here. A very strange, very dangerous place, full of conflict and real life."

Most of which the director won't have the opportunity to enjoy, as he's busy putting finishing touches on his staging of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser with the Baltimore Opera Co. while also doing press for My Best Fiend, his documentary about his famed collaborator, lunatic thespian Klaus Kinski.

Herzog has always approached his art with a fierce sense of independence and intuition. He financed and shot his first film at the age of 20, and has since completed more than 40 films in almost every conceivable form and genre. "I never went to film school," he says. "I've never been inside a film studio to this very day." Without any "academic bullshit" to bind his vision, Herzog's films have encompassed experimental works (1976's Heart of Glass, with its cast acting under hypnotic trance), ambitious art-house favorites (1975's The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser), and rule-breaking documentaries such as 1997's Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

Still, he is probably best known for his five features starring the notoriously addled Kinski: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972); Nosferatu (1978); Woyzeck (1979); Fitzcarraldo (1982); and Cobra Verde (1988).

Kinski's personality was composed of equal parts megalomania, consumptive womanizing, insane insecurity, and bouts of general assholery. Before his death in 1991, he appeared in more than 200 films, usually playing cameo roles that required him to spend only one or two days on the set. If Kinski stayed longer than that, Herzog says, "He was intolerable -- with very few exceptions."

As My Best Fiend illustrates, an absurd level of patience was needed to deal with the actor's world-class tantrums. "It was as if a volcano had erupted," Herzog says, "as if a tornado had passed by! It was like this all the time!" All the director could do was "let the storm rage. It was a necessity that the storm had to exhaust itself first, until work was possible again."

However, even Herzog had his limits: Filming Aquirre in the Peruvian jungle, the two artists' "explosive, almost dangerous creative relationship" hit its demented peak when Herzog seriously contemplated whacking his nut-job star.

"We had a tacit understanding and agreement that what we were doing was beyond our private feelings," the director recalls. "This never must be violated. But when he was about to violate it [by storming off the set], of course I was determined not only to threaten him -- I would have shot him."

Today, Herzog views the near-homicidal situation as weirdly funny, although at the time he was "dead serious." "Thank God time has this mysterious quality to change our perspective," he says.

Herzog says he has no regrets about having worked with Kinski, naming the titles of their five collaborations as sufficient justification. "It was worthwhile for what you see on the screen. Who cares if every gray hair on my head I call 'Kinski'?"

Asked if any actors today are in Kinski's league in terms of sheer intensity -- Gary Oldman, perhaps? -- Herzog shakes his head. "[Oldman] is kindergarten in comparison to Kinski. I mean, he has a certain intensity, he's a good actor, but not the caliber of Kinski. There has never been a man in cinema who had such a presence, such a ferocious intensity on the screen. He's beyond comparison."

A director with a history of shepherding such operatic intensity onto the screen would seem a logical choice to direct an actual opera. Filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola and Atom Egoyan have actively sought out opera as an alternate means of expression, but Herzog, a serious opera buff, says he has "never volunteered to do operas. I was almost dragged into it."

Considering that the Baltimore production is his fifth version of Tannhäuser, and that he has previously staged a dozen other operas, one can only guess that Herzog likes being "dragged." At any rate, his excitement over this latest production is obvious: "Having the privilege to work with some of the greatest music ever composed, the finest musicians available -- that's a wonderful thing."

Michael Harrison, the Baltimore Opera's general director, recalls how the filmmaker got "dragged" into his Charm City gig: "I knew of Herzog's extraordinary [opera] productions, and I was discussing this with a colleague who is a head of the Teatro de la Maestranza in Seville [Spain], and he said 'I'm doing Tannhäuser with Werner Herzog. Would you like to be a part of it?' "

It was an offer the big-time Herzog fan couldn't refuse. "We did [approach Herzog], approximately two years ago," Harrison says. "But it had to be done when he and his production team were available. I think he became so entranced with the music of Wagner that he began to see a corollary between his ideas of creativity and the emotion that permeates this music. He became very taken with this medium, while I was taken with his ideas, his vision."

Like many a classic Herzog film, Tannhäuser deals with a lone man fighting insurmountable odds to gain redemption. ("You should be cautious to touch that idea with a pair of pliers," he advises of this comparison, "because when you look at Tannhäuser, that's Wagner and not me!")

The opera is set in typically Wagnerian mythic, medieval Germany, jam-packed with angels, goddesses, and sexual implication galore. In the Baltimore Opera Co. production, Jon Fredric West and Louis Gentile co-sing the demanding title role; Petra Lang sings the part of Venus; and Eva Johansson plays Elisabeth, the object of Tannhäuser's salvation.

Although opera is free of the variables (such as bad weather) that plague the location shooting Herzog favors, he says that working on stage presents its own challenges. "It's music and light and wind, and very elaborate choreography," he says. "The technical translation is complicated."

In addition to the basic problem-solving (last-minute costume acquisitions, replacing a noisy wind machine) involved in mounting any opera, Herzog says he brings his own approach to the form. "I just listen to the music and transform these images onto the stage," he says. "I always say, 'Opera is achieved when the whole world is transformed into music.' And I think I've achieved it somehow."

And of his future opera plans? "At the moment, I say, 'No, I will not be dragged into it,'" he says, then laughs. "But I've said that a couple of times."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

David Cronenberg talks with me about madness

Most American films dealing with mental illness lie their way to the bank, finding ready marks in audiences used to a diet of unreal assurances and cheapjack positivism. A Beautiful Mind, Antwone Fisher and Girl, Interrupted not withstanding, profound mental illness is not an eventually transcendent state that leads with perky inevitably to joy, redemption, and Jennifer Conneley. Mental illness looks a whole lot more the Douglas ‘Spider’ Cleg we see in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s’s novel named after this very lost man.

I spoke with the director in 2002. His droll, charming manner hardens on mention of Ron Howard’s insanity crowd-pleaser. “A Beautiful Mind is not truthful in terms of what normally happens--it’s devastating normally. There are many ways to truth. I felt that ours was the way through art as opposed to contrivance.”

But Cronenberg did not want was to sacrifice metaphoric fluidity on the alter of medical correctness. “I felt a need to allow Spider to develop. [I did not want] to not worry about ‘Would a schizophrenic do this?’, ‘Are these symptoms correct?’ and so forth.”

Fiennes, however, did meet with schizophrenics and psychiatrists, but again, Cronenberg was concerned about things getting too literal. “I said, ‘Ralph, I’m sure that you’ll find something as an actor that you can use from that, but I want you to remember that this is not a clinical study of the disease, I’m doing a study of the human condition. And Spider here is the tool that I’m using to explore that.’”

And as it turned out, a rather uncanny tool. On the day of this interview, Cronenberg was approached by no less than three journalists (this author among them) whose lives had been shattered by the direct and collateral effects of mental illness, and found his film to be the only accurate representation of the disease in North American cinema.

Meanwhile, at a screening in Toronto, “a woman came up to me afterwards, a woman that I knew slightly” who could not help but comment on an emotionally lacerating scene of Spider attempting to fit his adult body in a too-small tub for an agonizing bath.

The woman asked Cronenberg, “’How did you know about the bathtub?’ And I said ‘What do you mean?’

She said, ‘My son, he’s 6”3’, he’s 23, he’s schizophrenic and that is exactly how he lies in the bathtub.’ She said ‘You must have done research,’ and I said no, in the script it just says ‘Spider lies in the bathtub.’ She found it totally accurate--I never expected something like that.”

This is Cronenberg being humble: in fact, every aspect of the film had been painstakingly designed to increase viewer empathy. As with Videodrome and Naked Lunch, Cronenberg returned to ‘subjective filmmaking,’ shooting his film in such a manner that the audience experiences everything as Spider would so as to gain visceral access to his inner turmoil.

The film’s depopulated locales (shot in and around London and Ontario, Canada), bare bones décor and minimalist language vividly both evoke Spider’s lonely worldview while betraying Cronenberg’s main aesthetic influence. “Beckett was a touchstone for us for Spider,” he says. “In the sense that Spider could have been a character from Beckett and those photos of Beckett wandering around the streets looking like a vagrant. But of course, not being one.”

Cronenberg enhanced the introspective feel by suggesting that cinematographer Peter Suschitzky utilize a “kind of lighting which is not realistic. There are scenes where light is coming from a wall where there is no window. I said, ‘It’s his inner landscape that we’re lighting.’ Normally cameramen hate that stuff, but Peter got into it.”

Cronenberg’s obsession with audience identification--“I’m a sincere filmmaker; Spider is completely non-ironic”--extended all the way to the type of film used--a low contrast film stock “which tends to make foregrounds and background blend together.” Both Howard Shore’s sparse piano soundtrack and the film’s alternately pastoral/sonically-threatening sound design were crafted to create the “hyper sensitivity” often experienced by schizophrenics.

Although many of Cronenberg’s films explore by default the dark romance of madness-inspired transcendence—-the daft techno “New Flesh” ideology of Videodrome, reprised in the car accident appreciation cultist’s ode to mayhem in Crash--Cronenberg adds that, personally, “I resist that kind of mysticism.”

“I think that madness truly is physiological derangement. There are kinds of psychological derangement, certainly. But madness in the clinical sense is, I think, physiological and something that you have to endure and try to work with rather than something that is a transcendence to be aspired to.

“But as a continuing metaphor, it has all kinds of potential. Things that you don’t want in your life but are very neat in your art...”

Friday, April 8, 2011

Screaming Mimis! aka Some Women in Metal

For me, it started with a blond. A German, muscled and pretty in that hard way you get working in the underground. And make no mistake—metal that isn’t Metallica is a real underground, a place of indigenous rituals, rights and lingo, where selling 15,000 copies world wide is considered a smash hit.

But back to that blond. Her name is Angela Gossow, her band, Arch Enemy, one of the most killer death metal bands in the game.

In interviews, Gossow sports the vibe and soft muscularity that suggests a helpful gym instructor. In performance, she’s terrifying.

The smile curdles, the voice becomes a pan-gender shriek run through the woodchopper in Fargo, the perfect accompaniment to the band’s battering ram brand of finessed death metal. On CD, there is no way to tell Gossow from a metal dude. Her success has positioned her as many a metal fans’ first encounter with the new wave of female vocalists, or what I’m calling Screaming Mimis or SM for short, for obvious reasons.

This current SM explosion—it’s contextually kind of awesome when you think of how totally depressing the history of women in heavy music has been. How, until the '90s, there was no real history of femme metal partially because artists appeared and disappeared in loud bursts.

After paying hard dues under the (creative) whip of the legendarily foul Kim Fowley and his invented group, The Runaways, Lita Ford found power anthems could be metallic and had hits before falling off the charts. Doro Pesch, aka Doro, also had metal-pop hits but she was just too European for the English-speaking world.

The real and most lasting queens of noise were Girlschool, who kept the metal faith at a time (the '70s) when there seemed no sane reason to do so, and Jarboe, who spent hard mid-'80s time in the aural concrete that was Swans.

Jarboe’s voice has mad plasticity, going from girl's school coo to nightmare caterwaul and has graced records by all sorts of metal combines, including A Perfect Circle, Cattle Decapitation, Cobalt, Jesu, Neurosis and more.

The in-your-face punkisms of '90s Riot Grrls like Babes in Toyland, L7, Bikini Kill and Hole to set a loud precedent for females in hard, fucked up music but real balls-to-wall female metal almost happened.

Sure, as early as 1994 Crisis and their shamanic lead wailer Karen Crisis crafted a unique form of metal, but the band promptly imploded.

Most of the '90s were spent suffering the waking hour nightmare of nu metal, unaware that something better was on the way and a woman was at the helm.

Alas, the breakthrough didn’t come from someone like Otep, the GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination) Award nominated, political-metal powderkeg. And it did not come from the brilliantly bonkers Made Out of Babies, whose Julie Christmas squealed, squeaked, snarled and in general became the only lead singer in metal comparable (in a good way!) to Bjork.

No, unfortunately, the paradigm-changing breakthrough came in 2003 via the viral strains of Evanescence, led by patient zero Amy Lee.

What the Twilight film series is to real horror cinema, Evanescence was to metal. If you ever wanted to know what a Broadway show led by a generic metal band would sound like, here was your chance.

Evanescence sold mad amounts of records and the virus spread worldwide. Taking advantage of a Balkanized Eastern Europe that left many a symphony with time on its hands, soon every girl who could scruff up a band, an orchestra and a choir went all Evanescence on our asses.

Some of the better ones are After Forever (Netherlands), Amberian Dawn (Finland), Battlelore (Finland), Eyes of Eden (Germany), Nightwish (Finland) the dreadfully named Sirenia (Finland) and Within Temptation (Netherlands).

The post-Evanescence explosion continues to prove that goth is a surprisingly fertile soil. Ava Inferi uses the gloom and general high-strung emotionalism but with a far more sophisticated sense of atmosphere and even restraint: in a way, this is what Cocteau Twins would sound like as a post-goth metal band. At the wonderfully loony end of everything, is Spain’s weird/wonderful Forever Slave (insert dominatrix joke here.)

Imagine a Hot Topic Bangle (Lady Angellyca) fronting a tinkertoy light metal version of t.a.T.U. with touches of discount store techno and you have Forever Slave. Such studied bizarreness, it is my belief, must be supported.

By the late '90s and onward, women were beginning to do everything imaginable in all of metal’s endless subgeneres.

The Dutch band The Gathering, with exquisite lead singer Anneke van Giersbergen mixed prog, pop, and metal without sucking the life out of any of their subgenera. While Giersbergen may not have used a true SM voice, she did find a way for a ‘clean’ vocalist to work in a balls-out context.

Similarly, Lacuna Coil’s clean-voiced Cristina Scabbia mixed more naughty gothy S&M imagery, ass-scraping real metal and the "beauty and the beast" approach, wherein the girl switches vocals with a death metal dude’s growl. Compared to, say, Five for Fighting, Lacuna Coil’s sales are thin gruel but in the teensy world of real metal, she’s a bone fide, unit-shifting diva.

Even that most extreme metal terrain, the quick-picked, reverb drenched, and super disturbing, discordant and depressing world of black metal (in the Addams Family world of metal, "disturbing, discordant and depressing" are buzz words) found its ranks filled with excelling females.

And so the rusted iron miseries of Melancholia Estatica (music and voice by, yep, a gal named Melancholia) and Maria Kolokouri’s seductively fucked up Astarte. And for anyone who thinks Takaski Miike’s Audition had a black metal soundtrack, there’s the terrifying yowls of Japan’s black/doom agonistas Gallhammer, led by the charmingly named Vivian Slaughter.

Metal genres are notoriously hard to parse, so just take our word for it that for neo-death/grindcore, nobody touches Landmine Marathon, whose Grace Perry whose shriek seems the immediate result of ripping her vocal cords out with her own small pointy fingers.

For melodic death metal there’s Luna Mortis, The Project Hate MCMXCIX (Sweden) and our old friend Angela Gossow/Arch Enemy. For the most interesting industrial metal out there that isn’t Rammstein there’s Chicago’s I:Scintilla (US) although Toronto, Canada’s The Birthday Massacre sells more doing a similar thing in a more juvenile manner.

Metalcore (metal with a seasoning of hardcore) boasts Maria Brink’s In the Moment and Walls of Jericho’s Candace Kucsulain. Melodic deathcore (you can figure it out) has Alissa White-Gluz shrieking and crooning in The Agonist.

The current stoner/sludge/doom boom offers the distaff, weed-ready pleasures courtesy Blood Ceremony (Alia O’Brian) and Serpentcult (Michelle Noon).

Dillinger Escape Plan fans needn’t go cold turkey with the likes of strangeness, Rolo Tomassi (spazzy mathcore, UK) and Iwrestledabearonce (spazz metal WTFcore, US) around.

And finally, for those craving basic meat ‘n potatoes metal, there’s Scotland’s Firebrand Super Rock (Joplin-esque flame-thrower vocals courtesy Laura Donnelly) and the UK’s Pythia (Emily Alice).

Operating in and out and to the brilliant sides of all of metal’s genres shmooshed into one are Norway’s Madder Mortem, who are simply awesome, as in instilling awe.

Madder’s singer is Agnete M. Kirkevaag, that vocalist we talked about earlier, the one would could be the best in any imaginable popular music.

Kirkevaag can coo, croon, shriek, scream, mutter and clean your windows with her voice for all I know. Depending on a song's demands, she can become metal’s own Sinatra, its Grace Slick, it’s Angela Gossow and it’s Natalie Maines—often in the same progressive/art/doom metal song.

The list complied here is stunningly incomplete. I’ve not even talked about the artists behind the best CD of 2011 yet, “No Help for the Mighty Ones” by Utah’s Subrosa, a never-heard-before cauldron brew of doom, psych, the Incredible String Band, Dixie Chicks and the meaner lower end of classic ‘Sabbath.

And yet, with a straight face and pen, music writers writing about any femme-led bands will, at some point, inevitably, feel compelled to contextualize the band with the phrase "despite working in a male-dominated field."

Seriously, I think they have special keyboard retrofitted with this phrase. Are some, many of these obscure? Of course they are! But when did ‘obscure’ put off a hipster trying to up his cred by babbling over the next newly found freakfolk obscurity from Slovenia?

But seeing as writers really do know most of these bands and still use that phrase, I think there’s something else at work here. Something more . . . sinister.

Okay, not sinister anymore really—just lame. Misogyny. Just typing “misogyny” makes a person un-cool. It’s such an earnest thing, pointing it out. There’s nothing ironic about it.

Anyway, at the crap end of the misogyny shit pool are dickheads who out and out insist chicks can’t do the metal. These are knuckledraggers may think they’re just in some way layin’ it down but share the same DNA with those who listen to Sarah Palin and hear sweet sounds.

The lousy reality of metal’s Joe the Plumbers hit me in the face when I emailed a prominent webcast that tended to treat women as Megan Fox-shaped meat. In a jocular we’re-just-guys-here tone, I suggested they might not do so if Gossow or Jarboe were present.

The response from listeners was rabid with ignorant people taking nitwit umbrage. Which just proved again that nobody likes being called a bigot. Especially if one is a bigot.

On the other end of the scale is the post modern metal male, the one who lives in the hipster enclaves of America, wears a Serpentcult tee to go with his distressed rock jeans, and is super aware of this unisex situation. Their acceptance of SMs is more nuanced, ranging from sullen assent, with a dawning understanding that having some kick-ass T&A around can’t be all bad.

You see this later reaction, a sort of passive/aggressive attempt to maintain the primacy of the penis by good-natured objectification, in Metal Hammer and Revolver magazine's calendars of the hottest babes in metal.

It’s exploitation and negotiation. The guys get to see Maria Brink spill out of her corset; the women get free publicity that they can say is feminism by quoting the 1950s pin-up craze as third wave, self-reflective feminism.


Misogyny crops up in more weird, stealthy ways. When a screaming Mimi screams, male reviewers suddenly get all puritanical and pissy about vocal authenticity, accusing her of augmenting her shriek with electronics, like that was a bad thing.

Like John Lennon didn’t electronically alter his voice in "A Day in the Life," like David Bowie didn’t phase shift his vocals in "The Man Who Sold the World" for maximized spookiness, to say nothing of the ProTools plug-in that’s turned Kanye into a hot robot or James Blake into a sad-face hipster boy toy.

Frankly, if a metal singer didn't do everything s/he could to sound evil as all fuck, I’d feel like they weren't trying. Is Gossow’s symphonically fucked up caterwaul on "We Will Rise" the product of one clean voice? Did Mastodon’s Brent Hinds suddenly learn how to go all Electric Light Orchestra on the poppier songs on “Crack the Syke” sans ProTools? Bitches, please.

All this shit aside, I’m thinking that, ultimately, what makes screaming Mimis so valuable is the screaming itself. It’s the sound of anger, the forbidden emotion for women even at this late date.

The fact is that the ichorous seepage of Christianist fanaticism into the public discourse, pop culture has gone seriously retro in terms of how a woman can express the less dainty emotions. And so we’re at a point where what a woman screams at is immaterial: just the act is nothing short of revolutionary.

Today’s endlessly reiterated cool It girl is the archetypal indie wall flower, she of the asymmetrical haircut, haute irony, and Pitchfork-dependent identity, whose emotional palette starts at off-white longing and peaks at beige wistfulness.

But metal? In metal, blood-red piss-offed-ness is the dominant identity color and there is no single congruent subcultural text.

The secret trick of expressing rage, especially when backed by stacks of ridiculously loud amps, is that it’s mobilizing, cathartic, freeing. It’s healthy.

It’s why Gossow sprints off the stage after an Arch Enemy show flush with more energy than when she started. You may not be able to live on a diet of anger, but an hour or two at max volume could be the difference between sanity and madness, submission and freedom.

[Images: Angela Gossow, Julie Christmas, Jarboe]

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

PIERCE and BONE: It's about the money!

In one episode, the third, where Monty runs out of money and Mildred (Kate Winslet) starts supporting him because Mildred is all about her men/money when she isn't all about her monster daughter, MILDRED PIERCE went from moderately engaging Todd Haynes melodrama to the MOMMIE DEAREST of the Oughties.

I mean, this is some sort of meta-something, right? This is Haynes being funny ha-ha deconstructionist, right? See, I'm trying hard to excuse/make sense of the scenes where Veda tells Mildred that Monty said he'd fuck her fucked 17 times and then a scene with Monty yelling something along the lines of, "This scene needs some rape!" and Mildred making out with him for a while 'cause what girl can resist a rape line? Or maybe the rich air of his mansion still had her in a tizzy, even though Monty's got no more money and is basically Mildred's bitch now and *she doesn't even realize it*.

(By the way, Morgan Turner plays Veda as a girl, and Evan Rachel Wood plays her as TRUE BLOOD's Queen Sophie, er, as an adult. It's with no pleasure that you say mean things about a child, so I'm going to assume Haynes directed her to act as a ridiculous tiny tot she demon that even a great actress like Kate Winslet cannot make a human connection with.

(When people say, This is a great film! I look at these two and I am baffled; I do not understand how they see anything here but drag queenery. And when Wood--a very good actress--shows up doing her Queen Sophie, I can only think that Haynes, who grew up reading the same art theory books I did, is playing with her status as an Opposing Text against the Text in Michael Curtiz's film and James M. Cain's literal text. Or he saw her in TRUE BLOOD and went, "Hey, she does evil bitch excellently!" and so much for that.) )

Anyway, back to the high hilarity of a daughter who screams about her mom's lover talking about her mom's hot legs and getting fucked 17 times. I mean, what could be more, uh, what? Because, here on Planet Sane, this is either 1. So Sickening the Film MUST Become a Psychological Horror Film or 2. Proof the Director--who is also Co-Screenwriter--has No Idea How Shark-Jumped His Film Has Become or 3. Proof the Director is Making a Female Noir "Showgirls".

I'm betting on a savory mix of 2. and 3.

Anyway. I had some time to think about this and just got more cranky. I also saw parallels between MILDRED PIERCE and WINTER'S BONE. Mainly, that they both share the same heroine enduring one damn poverty-blighted thing after another narrative structure.

In MILDRED, Mildred lives in a highly art-designed house owned by her neatly-coifed husband in the Hollywood suburb of Pasedena. After gaining the house from him she gives in to every male that comes along, with all her thinking done by her neighbor played by Melissa Leo and are you getting as tired of the smarmy Leo as me or what? As for Mildred's daughter situation, we know about that.

BONE's 17-year-old Ree lives in danger of losing her godawful house owned by her crank-cooking Dad in the filthy, hopeless Ozarks, where she fights kicking and screaming against every single fucking male assailant who comes along. She takes care of her siblings; she teaches them how to deal when she isn't figuring how to deal with life by her own damn self.

PIERCE is hailed by one and all as "feminist"this or that. BONE is often derided as "poverty porn".

Angelo Badalamenti: The Sound of David Lynch (and so much more)

Dressed to the Euro-style nines as he strides into an Italian trattoria on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Angelo Badalamenti could easily be mistaken for a Continental banker or suave Mafioso instead of the composer of the most uncannily gorgeous music for some of the most disturbing films of the last quarter century.

But after seating himself me, handing me the lunch menu, pointing out the best dishes, ordering me a coffee, and insisting he pay for lunch, it rapidly becomes clear that the truth is that Badalamenti’s a delightful sort of automatic mensch, one who talks like a Catskills comedian on double espressos. One who gladly, often gleefully, answers questions about his thirty-plus year career in epic Hollywood tall tales that have the value-added aspect of being true.

Although capable of the stylistic variety required of any working film composer, Badalamenti is also the owner of one of the most instantly recognizable sonic signatures in the soundtrack business, with the word ‘dark’ inevitably showing up next to aligned adjectives such as ‘lush’ and ‘melancholic’ when describing his work.

“It was always with me,” he says of the lovely gloom in his music’s heart. “I looked back at material I wrote as a young person, 13, 14, 15 years old. At songs or instrumentals—I was always at a keyboard writing, I had a need. And I said, ‘God! I can’t believe it! It’s got the same sound! That same kind of beautiful darkness.’”

And filmmakers just can’t resist that singular beautiful darkness and all its manifold manifestations—from the melancholic overtures, ethereal tone poems and sleazy big band struts that characterize his twenty-two year-long continuing collaboration with David Lynch, to the vast, Romantic minimalist strings that mirror of lonely ache of Jennifer Connelly’s ghost-marred isolate in Walter Salles’ Dark Water to the genre-appropriate aggression accompanying outright slashers like Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Suspended Animation or Cabin Fever.

Then there’s his theme for Twin Peaks, whose first three notes of gothic surf guitar (actually sampled guitar blended with digital synthesizer) are probably among the most instantly recognizable in Western culture. It’s music that both soothes and unnerves—usually simultaneously.

And while other score writers may include the occasional pop song into a score with the hope of later Academy Award consideration, Badalamenti—whose early life goal was to be a staff songwriter--regularly integrates pop tunes—albeit very odd pop tunes--into his work, with said songs usually sung by women. “Even in my early days as a songwriter,” he recalls, “all my favorite artists were female. My songs just seemed to gravitate towards women. I don’t know what it is.” (Among women who’ve since sung his melodies are Roberta Flack, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson, Melba Moore. Della Reese and Patti Austin.)

A waiter takes our order as Badalamenti proudly begins a biographical voyage by describing himself as “a Brooklyn boy, born and raised!” that “grew up in a household with musicians coming over and playing" (his brother is a jazz trumpet player.) After a scholarship and subsequent schooling at the Eastman Scholl of Music in Rochester and the Manhattan School of Music, Badalamenti received master's degrees in composition, French horn and piano. Soon, he was playing “piano in nightclubs and weddings and”—-a hearty chuckle-—“and divorces.”

But his dream? To write pop songs. Normal pop songs written assembly line style in song factories like New York’s fabled Brill Building, and that could later be sold to singers who, up until Bob Dylan and The Beatles, seldom wrote their own material.

At one point in the 60s he even managed to get some tunes to then-teen idol Bobby Darin (of “Mack the Knife” fame). “After Bobby heard three songs, he said, ‘You can come to my home on any Sunday afternoon, Angelo. I’ll have my family there, and I’d love for you to play your songs for everybody. I mean, this is my kind of thing. But these are not street songs—I can’t get any do-wop records out of these melodies!”

Badalamenti laughs and accepts from the waiter a single-person bay-leaf-and-tomato pizza, carefully cuts out a bite, and munches thoughtfully before continuing. “As hard as I tried to hide the darkness [in the songs]…it still came through. There was something kind of off-center about them…there’s a darkness to the beauty.”

It never occurred to Badalamenti that that his music’s off-center beauty might work well in films. “I was hoping just to be a successful songwriter. I mean, how do you break into films?”

Fate answered in the early 70s in the form of small Palomar Pictures, where Badalamenti had a job “working on a TV show” and in the person of Ossie Davis, the actor, director and civil rights activist perhaps best known for his late career turn as an African American JFK in Bubba Ho-Tep.

“It was the time of Superfly. Ossie Davis was doing Gordon’s War, a black exploitation movie. I read this script. Some themes came to mind. I call Ossie, “Can I play these for you?” He says, "Well, uh, um, this is an all black film and we were going to get Barry White to do the score.”

“I said, ‘Well, just come over to the piano so I can play you a couple of themes that I’ve written.’”

Davis, who Badalamenti recalls as having been a “very nice, very classy guy” sat next to the composer who said, “Here’s the theme for the girl.”

And then, to a catchy R&B melody, Badalamenti sings, “I was a child of tomorrow, born in the world yesterday”. He follows that with an impassioned melody for the film’s featured pimp, the crooning of which garners some of the restaurant’s diners’ stares. “Dream, dream about paradise…grab a little happiness tonight!”

Badalamenti grins as he recalls Davis’ reaction. “He says, ‘That’s exactly right! It’s perfect for the movie. But there’s a problem…

“And I say, ‘Ossie, I’m Sicilian. Look at the map. You can swim from the bottom of Sicily to Africa in like 15 minutes. I may not be a brother, but I’m certainly a cousin.” Badalamenti takes a bite of pizza. “And he said, ‘Okay. Do the movie.’”

He did—with the resultant score for Gordon’s War being credited to “Andy Badale.” He went about the work of learning about timing cues, SMPTE code and the other arcana of film scoring “on my own”. More small film work followed, but we can thank Isabelle Rosselini’s need for singing lessons for the career-long association with one David Lynch, matched only in fecundity and brilliance by Howard Shore and that other David (Cronenberg).

Badalamenti—now done with his pizza—tucks into his life-changing tale. “Isabelle Rosselini had to sing ‘Blue Velvet’, the standard” he recalls. “But David wasn’t happy with the way she was singing it, just backed with piano.”

And so a friend of a friend who was working for producer Dino DeLaurentiis’ called Badalamenti and asked if he could pop down to North Carolina where Velvet was shooting and help Rosselini with her vocals.

Not entirely sure why he should do the coaching when so many qualified folks were available, Badalamenti metaphorically shrugged his shoulders flew to the set. “I worked with Isabella and made a cassette after three hours or so of work. David heard the tape, and said, ‘I could take this cassette and put it in the movie right now and all she’d have to do is sync up and it would be perfect.’

Something he couldn’t sync up were the rights to use the Dead Can Dance’s “Song of the Siren”, one of the UK combo’s typically heavenly weaves of sonic gossamer. “That was David’s favorite song. He just loved it with a passion. But Dino DeLaurentis didn’t want to spend $15K on the rights.”

Badalamenti suggested that Lynch write some lines and although leery of some New York guy’s ability to create something that would replace the treasured Dead tune, Lynch wrote some words. These were in turn dutifully delivered to Badalamenti by Rosselini during a recording session.

Although the title was evocative-- “Mysteries of Love”—the words themselves lacked the rhyme and meter needed for normal songs.

Badalamenti recalls thinking, “What am I going to do with this? How do you write a song from what’s more poetry than anything? I’m a songwriter—I have to have some kind of a hook, you know, like [sings snippet of Four Seasons hit] ‘Walk like a man!’ “

Meanwhile, the only direction given him by his director was a Yoda-like suggestion that the composer “’Make it slow. Make it endless like the waves in the ocean. Go thorough time and space.’”

Badalamenti did just that. And with the film’s release, the world would heard the first clear iteration of the inimitable Badalamenti sound—those sad yet transcendent cloud banks of chords, crafted by blending old analog synthesizers, string samples and real orchestra. The whispering melodies that both resolve and retain their dissonance while a female singer—in this instance, the angelically voiced Julee Cruise— sings an angelically conversational melody.

Extraordinary stuff. Badalamenti smiles. “Bottom line is the joke really turned out to be on me. Because I wrote [the song] and never changed a single word David had written. And he loved it.”

Lynch then asked if Badalamenti could write a score “like Shostakovich?’ I said, ‘I’m not half as good, but I know what you’re talking about. Like “Symphony #5?”” [The hauntingly beautiful work by the persecuted Russian composer combining avant-garde and Romantic techniques.]

The resulting score secured for Badalamenti the career he’d never sought out. Soon he was adding his many flavors of melancholic oddness to films both in, out and straddling the horror and dark fantasy genres.

For Chuck Russell’s Nightmare on Elm Street 3, he went for sonic stealth, ”to start most cues very calm and serene, and then slowly add and layer dissonant notes, which would build into mental frenzy.” Bob Balaban’s quirky suburban cannibal horror film, Parents offered Badalamenti a chance to really stretch as he used “over the top 50's style music” to get across a sense of “the perfect heart of American family, listening and constantly dancing, to music of the rumba, mambo, and Cha-Cha” and “then intertwine it with flesh eating…weirdness.”

After over seventy films, Badalamenti has streamlined his process of creation. These days, his work is often created at a home studio in a quiet New Jersey suburb not unlike that of Blue Velvet’s bucolic Lumberton. “I live in a home where adjacent to mine I purchased a studio. So I can come out of my home, put on my robe and work. I haven’t built an underground tunnel yet, but”—a theatrical cackle dissolves into laughter—“but that’s next! [For you gearheads out there, Badalamenti uses Macs, a Windows XP Pentium 4 and Pro Tools system. Fave synthesizers and samplers include a Roland V-Synth, Korg Triton, Kurzweil K2600R and a MOTU MachFive soft sampler.)

When it’s possible, Badalamenti utilizes a downright chatty compositional process evolved from his working style with Lynch, who will sometimes describe to him ideas before a script is even written, and to which Badalamenti will then compose themes. “Most directors have their films edited and then they put their music to it. David will even cut scenes to fit the music or based on ideas he finds there.”

“Now I’ve got enough confidence and have worked on so many films where I tell directors, ‘Okay, I’ve seen your films, I like it, Come sit next to me at the keyboard. Just talk to me.

“I did that with Walter Salles with Dark Water. He came to my home, spent three or four days. In fact, I don’t think he had the film with him! “ He laughs, recalling the odd assignments the film, which moodily detailed the downward spiral of an unhappy woman and her daughter stuck in a haunted apartment on New York’s Roosevelt Island. “I recorded about an hour’s worth of music just from his descriptions—Jennifer Connelly’s going to go up the steps…She’s going to the water tower…

“And I needed a theme for the dripping of the water, and for the little girl. I literally wrote the whole score in four days with Salles sitting next to me.” The goal of his score was to add emotional texture to Connelly’s character, “to understand her emotional journey and her relationship with her daughter. And create a beautiful strangeness.” He chuckles. “And then there was, you know, some genre stuff. The big [makes a startled ‘surprise!’ noise] ack!”

Badalamenti’s combination of regular Brooklyn guy accessibility and Old World grace have earned him repeat business from not only Lynch, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (scores for City of Lost Children and A Very Long Engagement) but also Paul Schrader, for whom he scored Witch Hunt (1994), The Comfort of Strangers (1990) and Auto Focus (2002) and for whose work he paid back with a massive mitzvah.

As every genre fan not living in a remote cave over the last decade knows, Schrader shot a meditative take on faith, lost and re-found, under the franchise’s banner, only to have his film exnayed and re-shot by Renny Harlin as a dumb action-horror film called Exorcist: The Beginning. Or as Badalamenti recalls, still aghast, “Paul said to me, 'It’s like you’re driving along in a car and you open up the driver’s window and you take ten million dollars and just go [makes fluttering greenbacks sound].”

After the failure of Harlin’s bad film, “the producer came back to Paul, and said ‘I can’t do too much more, but maybe we can do a DVD [of Paul’s cut] and a limited theatrical release.’

Schrader went for it, but there was scant money for a score appropriate to his original film. “So Paul says, ‘I’d like to come out and just talk to you--but Angelo, there’s very little money!’ But Paul’s such a good friend, almost like a David Lynch to me. So I said, 'Don’t worry about it.' Bring your film and we’ll talk.

“So Paul comes out, brings his video. I sat down and played twenty, twenty-five minutes of music [mainly recorded samples of strings and percussion]. And he says, ‘My God—you’ve got it!…but I don’t know what to do! I don’t have…I’m so embarrassed!’

“And I said, ‘Paul, don’t worry about it. This is from me to you.’

A few days later, Schrader showed up bearing a gift in appreciation for Badalamenti’s gratis score (with additional bits from metal band Dog Fashion Disco) for what would eventually be released as Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist, “a beautiful refurbished Rolex watch, inscribed, To Angelo. Thanks, Paul.”

Really, if there’s such a thing as ‘karma’, Badalamenti’s must be in extraordinarily good shape. Aside from the Schrader gift, there’s the musical present he graced on one Eli Roth, a longtime co-worker and friend of both Badalamenti and Lynch.

“’One of these days, Angelo,’” the composer recalls the fledgling auteur saying, “ ‘I’m gonna make a movie. When I do, will you do music for me?’” To which Badalamenti responded, “‘Eli, you get to that point, not only will I do it, but it’ll be on the house.’”

Which is just what happened when Roth finished Cabin Fever. “I did three or four themes,” Badalamenti recalls. “Among them a love theme, a blood-on-the-thing theme”--Badalamenti laughs--“I don’t know! But Eli loved it. And then he had a composer [Nathan Barr] do a wonderful score.”

While Badalamenti has spent a goodly portion of his career playing the field—from the romantic comedy Cousins, mafia mini-series The Last Don, to the James Spader-starring S&M truffle Secretary--there’s also no denying the call of the darkside in his filmography--including Neal LaBute’s regretable remake of The Wicker Man. Do the horror and dark fantasy genres hold a special attraction to Badalamenti?

A sip of post-pizza coffee. “Yes. I think I like the undertones of horror—the implications. Like the scariest thing about Blue Velvet—was the intended violence—you never really saw mutilation—yet you knew it was all around you.”

The composer becomes almost poetic when asked to describe the strange thing he’s been compelled to do with music since he was a boy—that weird element X that makes a Badalamenti score, well, a Badalamenti score. “You know what it is? It’s a dissonance that you feel. It’s the middle voice. Like, you have the top of your head and the bottom of your toes and there’s something in the middle and we don’t know what the hell that is—and there’s where the uncomfortable thing is—it doesn’t come from the melodies or the chords or the bassline.

“There’s that middle voice that’s there that’s constantly interweaving and intertwining that’s constantly rubbing. The chords aren’t so weird, but the inner voices that rub wrong against each other--it’s almost like they don’t belong. And yet it’s the most beautiful dissonance in the world.”

Monday, April 4, 2011

Choice of Evil

James Ellroy recently said that "the great unspoken theme in noir fiction is male self-pity."

Just one minute's reflection destroys argument: what else is noir but an almost fetishistic glamorization of romantically wretched/"fated" males? Who insist on living in swine-filled cesspool cities, knowingly falling for cruelly colorful fatales whose main function is to either fuck and leave or gum up the hero's hopeless quests, all of which leads to lonely hours of self-pitying drinking.

Of course, Ellroy is as guilty of this love of self-pitying losers as anyone. As readers, we also can't get enough of this. But Ellroy makes a very large assumption.

As the title Choice of Evil makes ironically clear, Andrew Vachss' characters -- the most spiritually cauterized of society's cast-offs, at-core malformed survivors of sexual predation, repeat childhood abuse and neglect, of rape -- these people don't have the nihilist luxury of self-pity. They have no choices just as their perpetrators had all the choice in the world.

Considering that Vachss views writing as an adjunct to his real profession, that of being an attorney whose practice deals only with young people and children, the most distressing aspect of his writing is that it may not be fiction at all, but rather, case studies done up in narrative drag.

Years before some degenerates caused people to use the phrase otherwise, Choice of Evil, is set in the under-reported "ground Zero" of the festering urban sinkhole of the universe --a.k.a. New York City. Despite Disney and Mayor Giuliani's efforts, the horrors of the Vachss milieu do not politely disappear with cosmetic urban renewal: they've just moved further underground.

Burke -- no other name given him by his foster home -- is a by-default detective whose obsession with child abuse, rape and other beyond-the-criminal-pale atrocities compels him to take cases other detectives -- or most law-order professionals -- would shun. Burke is a classically traumatized hardcase who gives lie to the usual romanticized noir hero.

He's more concerned about maintaining the anonymity of his bunker-like apartment than keeping appearances. He doesn't have a gum-smacking secretary. He doesn't even drink. Again, Burke is not about self-pity: he's about survival. His own, and, perhaps even more importantly in terms of Vachss' larger concerns, that of Burke's non-biological family.

Among the members of Burke's chosen family are: a mute Mongolian strong-arm named Max; Michelle, a deeply empathetic transsexual; Mole, a brilliant techie who lives in a junkyard; and the Prof, a diminutive black schemer who speaks mainly in rhyme. While some have accused these characters of being cartoonish, it's missed that, by giving his characters only one name, Vachss underscores a basic premise: blood relations often have little to do with "real" family.

Choice of Evil begins with Burke's girlfriend being murdered in a drive-by killing at a gay-rights rally. It seems like an extreme -- if typical -- random homophobic action. Until someone starts dispatching the fag-bashers themselves -- somebody who calls himself "Homo Erectus" (we kid you not).

Burke is hired by a backroom cabal of extremist gays of both genders. They want Burke to find Homo Erectus and make certain he is whisked into safety. Hopefully after he finishes polishing off a few more fag-bashers. Burke takes the case mainly as an opportunity to exact revenge for his lover's murder. Within 30 pages, the reader is confronted by a common Vachss hard-ass ethical conundrum: Okay, killing gays is wrong.

As is vigilantism. But most fag-bashers get away with light sentences, if they're caught at all. So what's the problem with there being a guy who's doing little more than some well-focused street-cleaning? Strong arguments are made for both sides. But onward.

Homo Erectus' modus operandi is nerve-wrackingly similar to that of one of the most frightening characters in Vachss' already nightmarish canon: Wesley. Wesley was an ice-blooded, remorseless triggerman. The ultimate killing machine. Burke grew up with Wesley, and idolized him as a child, but unlike Wesley, he somehow developed a few functional human attributes. But in a prior novel, while killing the entire graduating class of a New England prep school, Wesley died. Or did he?

Because now, it seems, he's back. Perhaps in the form of Homo Erectus, perhaps as an unknown cyber-villain. And maybe as a ghost.

A typically labyrinthine Vachss plot ensues. Burke becomes homeless. The cops finger Burke as Homo Erectus. A twisted S&M relationship with a possible female ally gets even more twisted. As always, the supporting cast of characters is like some graphic comic drawn by Frank Miller while suffering some hallucinogenic bi-polar incident.

There's Xyla, Gen-X geek programmer extraordinaire; sexed-up investigative assistance from Strega, a Queens-based ex-mobster wife with a voodoo gloss and a few memorable others whose mention would give away a doozy of a plot. I will let go the fact that there's a new wrinkle to Vachss and Burke's ongoing struggle. Something the other books contained nary a drop of: hope.

I opened Choice of Evil with a certain amount of trepidation: Vachss' last few Burke books were not, I thought, up to par. The intricate plots and true-to-the-darkest-life characters were being pushed aside somewhat in favor of long sequences where I felt that Vachss was, for lack of a better word, preaching. There was also, I sensed, a bit of weariness, which was understandable, considering what the author must encounter on a day-by-day basis.

In Choice of Evil, the author is seriously back and running on all six cylinders, turbocharged, using every literary implement in the house, co-opting cyber and S & M culture, elements of supernatural fiction, pulp and literary structural trickery and more to bring his dark universe to light.

Although renowned for his minimalist style -- entire "chapters" are often not more than a paragraph long -- Vachss here proves to be a stylistic and cultural omnivore. Words, for this author, are weapons, and he does not discriminate against any particular bit of ordnance. There's also sly humor beneath the gritty veneer -- witness this play on Thomas Harris-style cat-and-mouse between a hyper-intelligent nemesis and Burke:

"Ah. You surprise me. I would not have thought --"
"I did a lot of reading in prison," I told him.
"Which apparently included a great deal of pop psychology," he said dryly.

Never known for his tolerance for weaker or ethically confused characters, Vachss shows a new maturity in this book. There are very touching thumbnails of a cop trapped by his own testosterone and a seeming fatale revealed as a pitiable victim of a subtly insidious form of evil.

Because of his chosen material, Vachss is forced into making his first-person alter-ego both potentially nuts and relatively sanguine about life's niggling details. It's a hell of a high-wire act, and the author barely breaks a sweat here). A proven master of unrelenting darkness, Vachss seems to have found a use for gray.

Vachss has also forged an entirely new sort of human monstrosity, a book-long, mostly epistemological creation cobbled together from police reports, the speculation of victims and Burke's employers, postings on the Internet and, finally, an extended discussion between Burke and an encoded 'net-based diary written by this monstrous character. It's an understated, chilling performance. Hannibal Lecter comes off as an amiable cartoon character next to this human demon. And, even in hardback, the book's dénouement is so left-field disturbo, it's easily worth the price of admission.

There are flaws. The death of Burke's lover seems a somewhat distant event; we never quite sense his grief. Here and there, his Internet lingo may make the geek-reader mutter about not being cutting-edge. And sometimes Vachss' terseness becomes too terse, leaving the uninitiated reader a bit at sea.

But what the author truly accomplishes here is making an exciting, deft and incisive argument against his detractors.

We live in times of cheapjack nihilism and an unearned postmodern cynicism; a sort of media-glut, empathetic exhaustion. After the Menendez brothers, O.J., or, for that matter, the Columbine slaughter, Burke, and by extension, Vachss' raison d'être, threaten to appear anachronistic. Burke evokes, to some extent, a tarnished hero from a simpler, more idealistic time (about seven or so years ago, maybe). Vachss' roughly behaviorist worldview -- that we are not formed by complex bio chemical structures (where would HMOs and Prozac be without this construct?) -- is seen as simplistic by many critics of his work.

And, from a certain POV, it is. Vachss keeps carping simplistically about terrible homes, horrific parents, insane laws (in New York City, selling a small amount of cocaine is a more severely punished crime than multiple rape). It's imaginable that, like Brett Easton Ellis, he could have a psycho character go to the laundry and complain about blood in his designer shirts a la American Psycho, but, unlike Ellis, it would be equally important to find out why he would do so.

What served to create this monster?

We don't know why Hannibal Lecter is the way he is: he's just the boogeyman. Knowing the details of what formed him, seeing in him a sense of melancholy at his fall from psychological grace: all that would be tiring, would make the reader perhaps see too much of him or herself in the work. Vagueness in characterization is hip, moral relativism is even hipper.

Vachss chooses not to be attuned to the vogue of vagueness. Evil exists, he says. It's a real thing. And it's a preference, a conscious choice. In light of liberal and conservative bloat-chatter about choice and "empowerment," what Vachss says is entirely logical: If we can pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and choose life, then why can't we also choose its polar opposite and become total, unredeemable shitheads?

So yes, Vachss' arguments about evil are simplistic. Then again, what do you call a human-shaped mistake that feels good about itself as it finds rationalizations for sodomizing five-year-olds?
Do you really think therapy has the tools to deal with this?

Our best mystery writers, whether they say it or not, are in the business of locating, defining and vanquishing evil, no matter what they may actually call it.

Ellroy sees it as some weird energy causing Los Angeles to seethe from generation to generation with some sort of ambient X-factor, which causes infinite corruption. Joe Lansdale finds it in the vast emptiness of the Texas desert. James Lee Burke finds it in the combination of a loss of spiritual values and the collision of cultures in New Orleans.

Vachss' work is not site or philosophy-specific. It cuts to the chase: evil lives, potentially, in everyone's heart. His real mission -- done up as an extremely satisfying "entertainment" in Choice of Evil -- is to implicate the reader. To not only investigate the atrocities on display in his work, but to reflect on our own lives, and see just what we have chosen.

[Written in 1999]