Posts Tagged ‘Wordy Albatross’

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CLT Recommends Vol. 1: The Thing

June 16, 2011

Way, way, way back in the day (May 26, 2010 to be exact), I kicked off a self-congratulatory snarkfest entitled “The Fancy Plans Guide to AFI’s Top 100 Films.” Having typed that mouthful would have seemed to have been enough, but I was challenged (on my home turf!) by FJ/RXJ to tell you about some of the movies I actually like. (This may also become a catch-all for music, games, pop culture detritus, entities, books, magazines, short-form videos, img macros, that thing I saw on Facebook, etc. Anything that I can recommend with maximum wordiness will be typed the hell up and shot into the ‘tubes. You’ve been warned…)

It’s an interesting idea. As another occasional writer (but now more occasionally a photographer), RXJ is well aware of the fact that it’s much easier to tear something down than it is to build something up. Negative reviews flow like tainted water. Good reviews tend to build mountains out of molehills made entirely of used-up superlatives. So… goddammit. Here we go.

As we head into this spectacular failure entitled “The Capitalist Lion Tamer Guide to Things Wot I Like Vol. 1” (or whatever), keep in mind whose fault this is. And then go to his blog, ooh and ah over his spectacular pictures and then comment on them… I suppose. But be sure and give him “the look” while you’re there, just in case this goes down as badly as I’m already promising it will.

(Note: If you were expecting me to kick this off with some high class entertainment like a Bertolucci flick, well, quite obviously, I am not. If you’re thinking I’ll be getting to that sort of thing later, prepare to be disappointed! I’m [apparently] not That Guy.

Not that I’m claiming some sort of Pabst Blue Ribbon-esque street cred by pounding out overly-long tributes to pulp cinema, but rather that I find I like the things I like for no real reason, which will be explained via a longish list of reasons and very frequent digressions. Volume 1 will be no exception [mostly due to it being Volume 1, a.k.a. “The Standard Bearer”.])

(Note II: This thing about The Thing is exceedingly long. [4,400+ words.] Wear something comfortable.]

THE THING

John Carpenter’s 1982 film is very loosely based on 1951’s The Thing from Another World, starring James Arness (most famously, Man with Hat on the long-running Gunsmoke) as some sort of sentient space carrot.  The original has its fans, most of whom are presumably dead or running out their remaining years in managed care. Some may even claim the original is superior, but if that were truly true, I wouldn’t be writing this then, would I? There’s only one correct opinion as far as I’m concerned, and as long as I’m doing all the typing, that would be mine.

Quick summary: a crew of scientists uncover a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of the people (among other things) it’s taken over. Shot way the hell up north in British Columbia (see below for how far the hell up north) and on 40-degree sound-stages in Los Angeles. Looks, feels and sounds fucking cold. Appropriately disgusting with groundbreaking special effects. Appropriately violent and turbocharged with atmosphere. The atmosphere is kill. Oppressive paranoia hangs all over the place. Kurt Russell sports some impressive facial hair. Dogs are involved. Way too involved.

It’s a lot like 1979’s Alien, being that it also crafts an incredibly dark story using a small, tightly knit cast, none of whom look like movie star cliches, but rather like people that wandered into the auditions while trying to find directions to the nearest truck stop or liquor store (and still nailed it!).

Way the hell up there.

UNINTENTIONAL DIGRESSION

(This means I’ll probably have to run through Alien as well. Good stuff, with some surprising ultraviolence and killer special effects. Plus, H.R. Giger got to bring his weird-ass, phallus-obsessed art to the mainstream, resulting in a spectacularly evil-looking alien with a psychosexually charged penis-dentata-meets-acid-blood structure.

I’m sure I’m reading way too much into it, but there’s a definite weirded-out-by-pregnancy subtext present, what with the facehugger’s ability to lay eggs… in your fucking mouth. Eggs that mature and hatch. And then burst right the fuck out of your chest with a maximum amount of pain and blood and a minimum of forewarning or painful contractions. It’s familiar ground, one trodden on by David Cronenberg (The Fly) and David Lynch (Eraserhead). Something about the undeniable alien-ness of a being growing inside someone’s body, completely hidden. Probably the most common form of “body horror.” The exit of said being in The Thing is rather messy as well.)

Back to The Thing

Nothing is more authentic than a beardsicle.

KEY #1: AUTHENTICITY

Not many people could do what Carpenter did with this one, including refrigerate the hell out of his cast for an authentically cold feel.

Nothing feels as cold as The Thing does. The key is the breath. That’s real condensation there. Seeing your breath is real. They do it now with digital effects and you can tell. It looks no more real than the synchronized, equally-sized breaths of Madden football players in a snow game. (Little known fact: down lineman breathe in sync.) You can see the fakeness and feel the warmth of a 72-degree actor pretending to be cold and completely failing as an almost-but-not-quite puff of white “breath” appears somewhere near their face. More actors need to be pushed to discomfort. As Neil Simon (or possibly Spencer Tracy) once said: “The physical labor actors have to do wouldn’t tax an embryo.”

They don’t fake it in The Thing. That’s Key #1. (Which should probably have been labeled “KEY #1” up above this for clarity. No matter. We’ll fix it in post. [Another film term. It means “this continuity error will be mocked mercilessly and enshrined forever at IMDB.”])(Oh, but look: I fixed it anyway. Good for me and my foresighted hindsight.)

KEY #2: PARANOIA

Another reason this film works so well is the steady ramping up of fear, distrust and paranoia. Everyone’s possibly infected. This element is deployed mercilessly. Everyone is always yelling at everyone else and threatening each other with severe violencings. Guns are waved around a lot. So is a flame thrower. Some knives get waved about threateningly. This description would seem to make The Thing just another guys-pointing-guns-at-each-other-and-getting-shouty flick*, but it never devolves into anything that played out.

In fact, it heads completely down a separate path with the “blood test” scene, in which half the principals are tied up and the other half are pointing guns and flamethrowers at each other, even though nobody really knows who’s “infected” and who’s “clean.” If you haven’t watched the flick yet, the scene is reminiscent of getting an STD screening, only the doctors are ready to kill you if you ring up a positive and the rest of the patients are either tied up or waving around a (probably unlicensed) handgun and will also kill you if you show the slightest sign of toilet seat herpes. Plus, it’s really cold outside and your chances of living out the rest of your life as a happy and productive horseback rider are swiftly heading past “slim” towards “none” faster than the atmosphere inside the paranoid clinic or the harsh British Columbian wintry mix (not including wind chill) outside.  So: tense.

*Also known as “Fuck You! No, Fuck You!” flicks.

There's a journalism joke in here somewhere.

Key #3: KURT RUSSELL

I’m not one of Russell’s acolytes* but he does completely own this role. He is exactly the sort of guy who would ask for a transfer to the Antarctic simply because above-zero temperatures no longer interest him. The extensive bearding helps, at times taking over a scene entirely. He’s a low-level badass because the situation only calls for low levels of badassery. In manufacturing terms, he’d be more concerned with throughput than process. Point A to B. What’s the most direct route? Even (or especially) if the direct route has resistance.

In fact, it’s probably better if there is resistance. (No, I think you will use that centrifuge!) Just a no-bullshit, get-things-done attitude that grates on the other team members, but they realize the value he adds and so they don’t say much about it, especially if he’s been drinking. I would imagine this sort of kicking-ass-taking-names probably plays hell with the scientific method. (Screw your control groups and peer review bullshit! We don’t have the time!)

*EXTENDED FAUX-FOOTNOTE DIGRESSION

I have dealt with Russell’s acolytes, most of whom champion Big Trouble in Little China as the zenith of filmmaking. I’ve watched parts of it, but I’m not seeing it. This isn’t meant to disparage Russell’s faithful, a few of whom are good friends and whose taste is generally spot on otherwise. Maybe I’m missing something. Feel free to champion BTiLC in the comment threads. I’m always open to another viewpoint. (“Open” and “willing to ignore.” It’s as dichotomous as it is deeply hypocritical. I would apologize for this, but surely you’ve dealt with bloggers before. )

And not “appreciating” BtiLC is by no means a knock against Russell. I enjoyed his work in Tombstone even though he was far from the best thing in it. There were a few scenes of his that would have been better off being replaced with tasteful insert shots of Sam Elliott’s glorious “I-have-no-mouth-and-I-must-drawl” mustache. (Namely: any time he and his wife “interact.” And I don’t mean “having sex” like I normally do when I say “interact.” I mean anytime they converse or make eye contact or say “laudanum.”)

I can guarantee you that no one has made fun of that mustache and lived to tell about it.

[This would also include any scene featuring Bill Paxton front-and-center. Paxton spends nearly the entire running time looking like he’s five minutes away from getting his ass kicked. It’s the pained expression of a schoolkid willing the clock backwards, knowing that as soon as the bell rings, he’s going to get slaughtered by the bully on the playground.]

Paxton's fav emoticon is /:{ It means "Please stop yelling."

I also enjoyed Russell in Death Proof, where he was easily the best thing about it (other than the soundtrack and the decapitation-via-tire car wreck). Any time he was onscreen meant less time given over to girls talking like Quentin Tarantino imagines girls would talk if they were trying to sound like guys. (Especially guys who are former video store clerks.) Also a bonus: no gratuitous shots of Russell’s naked feet.

He was also pretty excellent in Used Cars, another movie I could have sworn Harry Dean Stanton** appeared in.

** Usually the best part of anything, especially when used sparingly, as in Twin Peaks:Fire Walk with Me, in which he refers to a dead woman’s trailer as being “more popular than uncle’s day at a whorehouse.” He delivers this line to a perfectly coiffed Chris Isaak (yes, that one) in the rattiest bathrobe ever attributed to Hollywood costume department.

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