Half of My Heart

And now it’s Friday. It’s hard to imagine that it’s almost Thanksgiving already, but the initial pandemic shutdown also seems like it was more than a million years ago–when dinosaurs roamed the earth–rather than a mere eight months or so ago. Eight months we’ve been dealing with this; even though it seems more like eight fucking decades. But I’ve noticed that time has sped up lately–for the longest time it felt like time was dragging and was taking forever to pass, but now…now time is flying.

I suspect it’s the looming deadlines and being behind on everything, quite frankly.

The sun is bright this morning in my eyes and I cannot find my baseball cap–it’s probably stashed somewhere I thought I’d remember where it was–so I’ve had to move my chair and I am writing this while sitting at a weird angle to my desk. I’m working at home again today, and will be walking to the gym for today’s workout when I am finished with this afternoon’s work. Yesterday for the Cynical 70’s Film Festival I watched The Boys from Brazil and The Towering Inferno–more on those later–and I think that for today I might just dip back into some more Halloween horror. We also started streaming Mr. Mercedes, which is now available on Peacock for free–I am actually impressed with everything they are offering; it’s very similar to HBO MAX, but am still not willing to pay for another premium service yet–and I have to say, I am enjoying this adaptation. It’s fairly true to the books–at least as I remember, although I don’t remember the neighbor Ida, played by the amazing Holland Taylor–and I have to say, the three Bill Hodges novels (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch) have been my favorite Kings of this century thus far; Mr. Mercedes very deservedly won the Edgar for Best Novel some years back, and as much as I loved the books, I was very sad when I reached the end. King himself was an executive producer, and the television series adaptation was written by David E. Kelley, who has also been responsible for a lot of good television over the years, including Big Little Lies and The Undoing, which we are greatly enjoying as well. There are three seasons of this adaptation, and I assume each season covers one of the books.

The Boys from Brazil is an interesting film, and very much of its time. Based on the novel by Ira Levin, both book and film were very much of the 1970’s, and also encapsulated that cynicism and paranoia of the decade perfectly. It was also one of those stories that permeated the zeitgeist; everyone knew what”the boys from Brazil” were without reading the book or seeing the movie. The movie is a very close adaptation of the book–Ira Levin was known for his brevity as a writer, so rarely did things need to be cut out of the books for the screenplay. The Boys from Brazil was actually Levin’s longest novel–I could be wrong, but I don’t think so–and the film has some impressive star power, with Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, and James Mason in leading roles, and an incredibly impressive supporting cast, including Rosemary Harris, Anne Meara, and Uta Hagen. The film also opens with a focus on a young character played by an extremely beautiful young Steve Guttenberg (whatever happened to him? He was a big deal in the 1980’s and then just kind of faded away) as a young Jewish-American man who goes Nazi hunting in Paraguay, and is actually the one whose investigation tips off the big Nazi hunter played by Laurence Olivier about what’s going on and kicks the film into gear before he is, of course, caught and murdered by the Nazis.

It’s hard to imagine now that the 1970’s were forty years or so ago now; the world has changed so much…but the 1970’s were also only a few decades removed from the second world war and Nazi war criminals were still being hunted down worldwide by the Israeli secret police. (The Germans were also hunting them down for trials; the Israelis were killing them.) The Lieberman character played by Olivier (he got an Oscar nomination; ironically, he also got one for playing an escaped Nazi war criminal in Marathon. Man a few years earlier) was based on Simon Weisenthal; does anyone even remember Weisenthal today? (Weisenthal was one of the people who helped track down Eichmann.) It’s no secret that many Nazis escaped to South America after Berlin fell, and Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay in particular; so much so that it was so much a part of the zeitgeist that everyone knew and a casual reference was easily picked up on. Levin took that, decided to make Josef Mengele, the escaped Nazi “angel of death”, and put him at the center of the story. And the scene where Leibermann finally realizes what Mengele’s plans are–that is the scene that earned Olivier the Oscar nomination. The film doesn’t pack the same emotional wallop that the book does–probably because by the time the film was released, most people knew what the title referenced and what it was about (Levin was a master of the huge surprise twist), which killed some of the suspense. Gregory Peck isn’t very good as Mengele, either; paired with his listless performance in The Omen, Peck was clearly phoning it in for the most part in the 70’s and cashing the checks.

And as I always say, you can never go wrong with Nazis as your villains. The two best Indiana Jones movies have him fighting Nazis; you just can’t come up with better villains–having the opposition be Nazis alone immediately makes your hero pure of heart and decent and makes you root for him. (The Vatican, however, is an excellent fallback choice.)

There’s also an excellent essay to be written about The Boys from Brazil, comparing and contrasting it to Robert Ludlum’s The Holcroft Covenant, which is also about an attempt to resurrect the Third Reich, with the the seeds planted in the waning days of the war.

The Towering Inferno was part of the big wave of disaster movies that was a thing in the 1970’s, spawned by the huge success of Airport and The Poseidon Adventure. Like all disaster films, it boasted an all-star cast chock full of award winners and household names–Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Jennifer Jones, Fred Astaire, Robert Wagner, Susan Blakely, and Richard Chamberlain, to name a few–and a terrible script that was focused more on the adventure than the actual characters. (It’s also jarring to see O J. Simpson in a supporting role; and to remember he had a fledgling acting career before he murdered two people) Disaster movies inevitably fit into the Cynical 70’s Film Festival because they are always about preventable disasters that wind up happening because of greed and people in positions of power that invariably shouldn’t be; there’s always one scene where the person in charge of cleaning up the mess and solving the problem sanctimoniously lectures the person they feel is responsible for it: in this case, fire chief Steve McQueen lectures architect Paul Newman about the irresponsibility of building skyscrapers from a firefighter’s point of view (and having witnessed 9/11….yeah, watching the scene made me squirm more than a little bit)–but Newman, you see, is the hero; the fire and the building’s failure to be properly prepared isn’t his fault; construction manager Richard Chamberlain cut corners on the electrical wiring and so forth to stay on schedule and under budget to please building owner (also his father-in-law) William Holden. I watched the movie for the first time several years ago–and couldn’t make it all the way through on a rewatch. The acting is too bad, the writing too awful, and the story not compelling enough. It was nominated for like seven Oscars, including Best Picture–which should give you an idea of what a bad year that was for film. It was based on two novels, published around the same time, that covered the same ground–a fire in a new skyscrape–so the rights to both had to be secured to prevent lawsuits: The Tower by Richard Martin Stern, and The Glass Inferno, by by Thomas Scotia and Frank Robinson, with their titles blended into The Towering Inferno.

Around the time I originally watched The Towering Inferno I rewatched three other big disaster movies of the time–Airport, The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake–and none of them really hold up. There were scores of other disaster movies of the time too–several Airport sequels, a movie about killer bees, etc.–but if the BEST of the time don’t hold up, the ones that weren’t considered good at the time must be really horrific.

And on that note, it is back into the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader, and I’ll catch you tomorrow.

Holy Ground

I came across the coroner’s obituary last night.

As I typed it, I realized what a New Orleans-like thing it was to say; and it made me smile a little bit. The coroner in question wasn’t currently serving New Orleans; he had retired in 2014 after ten terms in office, and his name was Dr. Frank Minyard. He played the trumpet, and was actually a gynecologist rather than a pathologist. Was he good coroner or a bad one? A little of each, I would gather, based on the obituary by John Pope you can read by clicking here.

But he was, like so many New Orleanians used to be, quite a character. New Orleans has always been a city full of characters, which is why so many people write about New Orleans, and write about it well. Not only can you probably get away with writing anything crazy-seeming about New Orleans; chances are if you dig a little into our history here, you’ll inevitably find crazier shit than anything you could dream up on your own. I have to say I have really been enjoying reading up on our local history here.

Hurricane Sally came ashore earlier this morning, and it had continued turning enough to the east that we didn’t get much of anything here in New Orleans. The panhandles of Alabama and Florida (in particular Mobile and Pensacola) are an entirely different story; my heart sank down into my shoes (well, my slippers) on seeing footage and images from that section of the Gulf Coast. Hurricane season is so emotionally exhausting, really; all that stress and tension and worry, and then when it goes somewhere else the enormous guilt one feels about the relief that your area escaped unscathed while others are losing everything–including some lives–is horrible, just horrible. It’s oddly gray and hazy-seeming outside the windows this morning, with the crepe myrtles and the young live oaks in the yard on the other side of the fence doing their wavy dance thing they do when the wind blows; the sidewalk outside also looks wet so we must have gotten some rain as well overnight, but not enough for me to notice anything as I slept through it all. (That’s the other thing about hurricanes, particularly the ones that come ashore overnight; you go to bed wondering what you’ll wake up to find in the morning–or worse yet, disaster will rip you out of a deep sleep.)

So, yes, this morning I feel very emotionally drained; well rested, but exhausted emotionally.

And then, of course, once the danger has passed, you have to reset yourself and get back to normality–whatever the hell that is, or what passes for it, at any rate.

Yesterday’s entry in the Cynical 70’s Film Festival was The Omen, which was a huge hit back when it was released in 1976 and spawned two sequels, Omen II: Damien and The Final Conflict. I had never seen the sequels, and I think I originally rented the film–I don’t think it played at the Twin Theater in Emporia–but I did read the book (the book was written by David Seltzer, who apparently, according to the opening credits of the film, wrote the screenplay; which came first? I don’t care enough to look it up) and of course, was put in mind of it by paging through The Late Great Planet Earth, which laid the groundwork for the movie. Obviously, it’s about the anti-Christ, who is Damien Thorn; the movie opens with the Robert Thorn (played with an almost wooden-like quality by Gregory Peck) arriving at a hospital in Rome only to be told that the child his wife has given birth to has died; he worries about her mental stability and how she will handle the news–and so a priest offers a substitute baby whose mother died giving birth. (And this is the first place I called shenanigans on this rewatch; one, he is about to start a lifetime of lying to his wife and two–was there any need to tell Robert Thorn his child died? If the idea was to have the Thorns accept the anti-Christ into their home as their child, wouldn’t it simply make more sense to swap the babies, so neither of them knew? Because how could they have been so certain Thorn would accept this literal deal with the devil?) The movie is paced fairly well, and it moves right along–there’s not a lot of gore or blood and guts, but it does beggar credulity at more than one point–and perhaps I am looking at it with jaded eyes some forty years later, but both Peck and Lee Remick, who plays his wife, seem to just be phoning it in for the paycheck and there’s also the element of their age; they seem to be fairly old to just be trying to start having a child at the opening of the movie. (I think the book plays this up more, stating that Kathy Thorn has suffered innumerable miscarriages leading up to this birth and it has shaken her mental stability; kind of hard to do that on film but it certainly would have made his motivation in accepting this needless deception–again, they could have just as easily substituted the baby without having to go through this entire risky rigmarole.) After finishing, I looked for Omen II but it’s not streaming for free anywhere; I then watched The Final Conflict, which was simply terrible (outside of Sam Neill, who was terrific and charismatic as an adult Damien, saddled with an incredibly bad and far-fetched script).

The movie does fit, however, with the Cynical 70’s Film Festival, because here we have yet another conspiracy, one in which some members of the Catholic Church have turned to Satan to try to bring about the end times as well as the birth of the Antichrist–because whereas in the 1950’s and the early 1960’s, it would have been unimaginable for such a film to be made, but also to be believable; who would have ever believed such a thing was possible? Of course, both book and film of Rosemary’s Baby set the stage for The Omen, but both were later 1960’s, when things were starting to change, times were getting more cynical, and so were people. Rosemary’s Baby changed almost everything, both in the world of novels and film, in showing that horror was both bankable and mainstream. The early 1970’s saw the publications, and enormous success, of books like Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Thomas Tryon’s Gothic horror masterpiece The Other, and eventually, Stephen King’s out-of-nowhere bestseller Carrie. Soon Peter Straub would publish Ghost Story and Carrie would become a hit movie, triggering a horror revival that brought both the literature and the films into the mainstream. This revival didn’t lose steam until the 1990’s, and frankly, I think horror is on the verge of another revival.

I could be wrong, of course. I certainly have been before, but I am seeing some really terrific work as well as amazing new voices–over the past year alone I’ve read some astonishing work by new-to-me writers, and I only wish I had more time to read everything I really want to. Paul Tremblay is amazing, and so is Bracken MacLeod, Christopher Golden, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, among others; I’m seeing a lot of new and interesting looking titles being announced or reviewed almost every time I turn around.

I guess today is Wednesday? I am really not sure, living in this weird world that comes with hurricane watches, where it is very easy to lose track of dates and times and what day of the week it actually is. But a quick glance at Weather.com assures me that all the other storms out in the Atlantic basin pose no threat to Louisiana, so I guess we can relax for a little while, at least.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines.