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Monthly Archives: September 2008
Between HBO’s True Blood and the upcoming film adaptation of Stephenie Meyers’ hotly-read teen novel Twilight, it looks like we’re going to be up to our — and I only realized the appropriateness of the simile as I write it — necks in smoldering, sexy vampires for the next couple months. And I guess that’s cool if you’re a kid — teens are into vampires the same way they’re into semi-albino guy rock singers who sport eyeliner; as long as parents just don’t understand, pallid loner romanticism will always seem like an attractive escape hatch.
But, to be blunt, I hate that kind of post-Anne Rice take on the vampire mythos; to me, it just seems more moronic than Byronic, misreading fantasies about power from concepts and cultural ideas that work better as grim reminders of our mortality and morality. To me, the finest vampire movie of modern times is Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 cult classic Near Dark … a vampire movie that roughly wrenches itself free from the pop-culture preconceptions you normally find wrapped around the sub-genre, that smashes up Western and horror film imagery and ideas to create a distinctively dark hybrid of a film, a vampire movie so eager to challenge your expectations that it doesn’t even have the word ‘vampire’ in it.
Set in America’s Southwest, Near Dark owes just as much to Sergio Leone and ’50s film noir as it does Bram Stoker; at the same time, even loaded as it is with classic and retro references and nods, it never feels staid or stagey but instead plays on-screen as vulgar and vital and real. The plot’s simplicity itself, as young, restless Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) meets a pretty girl, Mae (Jenny Wright), who’s just passing through. “I sure haven’t met many girls like you. …” “No, you haven’t met any girls like me. …” They talk, they kiss … and she bites. Stumbling home in the burning morning sun, Caleb’s picked up by a RV, discovering Mae’s traveling along with what seems like a fairly weird extended family — Jesse (Lance Henriksen) and Diamondback (Jeanette Goldstein) as mom and dad, Severen (Bill Paxton) as the bad older brother and Homer (Joshua Miller) the bratty little brother. Caleb soon finds out that meeting Mae is kind of a package deal … and that the package gets scarier as you unwrap it.
Jesse and his extended family are a group of vampires (and, again, that word’s never used) who drive around the Southwest drinking and killing and drinking and killing. There’s a certain grim joi de vivre to the ‘family’ — when Caleb has the temerity to ask Jesse how old he is, Jesse just grunts. “Let’s put it this way: I fought for the South. We lost.” Caleb’s been bitten, but he has to learn to feed for himself if he’s going to fit in and survive … which leads to Near Dark’s signature scene of grim and grisly terror, as the family, who swagger, stagger, threaten and pose like Manson followers who know they can’t be killed, wander into a out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere bar with the simple agenda of killing every person in it and giving Caleb the chance to fully embrace what he’s become. As the group’s high-spirits reveal their homicidal intent, Bigelow makes the tension excruciating, with a spooky version of ‘Fever’ by The Cramps playing on the jukebox as the family runs riot. Bigelow’s a brilliant action director — her latest film, The Hurt Locker, about an Army bomb-disposal unit in Iraq, made an impressive bow at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival — and Near Dark is full of great action sequences. For one example, there’s a siege sequence — which is logically illogical as only a great genre film can be — where the local law finds the family holed up in a shabby hotel bungalow hiding from the day; when the cops open fire, the group’s not worried about the bullets coming through the walls but rather the sunlight coming through the bullet holes. …
Near Dark’s a B-movie, but it’s an awesome B-movie; Bigelow was married to James Cameron at the time, and you get the sense that, casting Near Dark, she just walked onto the set of Aliens and said “You, you … and you …” to Henriksen, Paxton and Goldstein. At the same time, the three of them are great — grim and grizzled and hatefully arrogant. And the finale isn’t cloaks and stakes and brooding; it’s guns and knives and brutal violence, with quick, painful death or doomed eternal life on the line. True Blood may be earning buzz with sultry sexuality, and Twilight will probably make money at the box office hand over fist later this year as book readers become ticket buyers, but if you want a vampire tale which knows terror, tension and blood are better than pouting, posing and blandness, edge up to Near Dark.
Back in the U.S.A. for a week after 16 days in Canada, I’m still feeling a little behind, a touch out of it, a bit confused. Part of that is just the sheer exhaustion of covering a film festival; I got to talk to a number of insanely talented people at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, directors like Darren Aronofsky and Kathryn Bigelow and stars like Rachel Weisz and Ed Harris. Another part of that feeling of dislocation comes with spending 16 days out of the news stream; I was packing when John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate, for example, and missed all of the Republican Convention. And, somewhere along the way, between exciting interviews and interesting news, I knew I wanted to watch 1995′s Apollo 13 again.
Part of that had to be, of course, sitting down with Ed Harris to talk about his new film Appaloosa; when you’re talking to an actor as impressive and iconic as Harris, there’s always the fear that, no matter how professional you are, the talk’s going to turn into a variation on The Chris Farley Show: “Remember that time you were in The Abyss? And you slapped Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio back from the dead? That was awesome. …” But Harris and I talked about his excellent western Appaloosa, and the challenges of film financing, and a few other things and I kept — or, rather, tried to keep — my cool. Harris is a real talent, and there are any number of films I could have re-visited with great pleasure after I had the chance to talk with him.
But catching up on the news since I got back, I kept flashing on Apollo 13. Sure, it’s just a movie and sure, parts of it are phonied up, but at heart it’s a true tale, brought to the screen brilliantly (and in no small part that’s thanks to an uncredited rewrite by John Sayles, one of the underappreciated geniuses of modern moviemaking). Harris earned an Oscar nomination playing NASA chief Gene Krantz as a can-do thinker loaded with guts and grit. In Apollo 13, when the Apollo 13 moon mission faces a catastrophic disaster that scrubbed the mission and it seems that the astronauts, in a crippled spacecraft, are certain to die, Krantz rallies the troops to find a solution. “Let’s work the problem, people … Failure is not an option.” It’s a great line, and so what if the real Krantz never said it?
And lately, reading the news, it’s hard to imagine that failure’s not an option. Banks are melting down; jobs are disappearing; lives are being lost half a world away. The phrase “community organizer” is sneered as if it were an insult; blatant lies are being bandied about as truth; a sizable percentage of voters believe Barack Obama is a Muslim (And even if that were true, how would that disqualify him from higher office?); Sarah Palin’s personal life gets more attention than her political record. And trust me, I know movies aren’t journalism, and I can tell the difference between film and fact — when Apollo 13 came out and I watched as astronauts faced disaster and American ingenuity saved the day on-screen, I couldn’t quite forget that when the real Apollo 13 mission took place, America was still at war in Vietnam and Richard Nixon was committing high crimes and misdemeanors left, right and center. But even so, in an age when everything seems to be going wrong, a brief reminder of how, with hard work and sincere effort, things can go right is a pleasure that’s warm and welcome; if that’s all Apollo 13 gives us, that’s still pretty good.
I’m an immigrant to this country — I actually have my interview for citizenship in November, on the day after the election and Guy Fawkes Day, in a series of coincidences too odd to ignore — and when my friends in Canada ask me why I’m bothering to get my citizenship, I usually joke about how paying taxes and not voting makes me feel like an idiot, or how the paperwork and processing fees will all be worth it the second that I can cast my write-in vote for Martin Scorsese on my first Presidential election ballot.
What I don’t say to them is what I’m really thinking: I live here. My life is here. And people all over the world dream of America, maybe from seeing it on the news, maybe from seeing it in movies. And those of us lucky enough to live in America have the choice, and the challenge, and the chance, to make that dream actually mean something, not just for the world but for everyone here, too, and that’s what I want to be a part of. That’s what I’ll be thinking at my citizenship interview — I doubt I’ll say it, as nobody’s going to want to hear that kind of Jimmy Stewart Capra film crazy talk, but it’ll be on my mind. I won’t be voting in this election. Maybe you can. Whichever candidate it is you vote for, as someone who lives here and believes in the best this nation can be, let me just say this: I hope you vote with your head, not with hate; I hope you vote your hopes, and not your fears; I hope you look for a candidate who has solutions, not slogans. Failure’s always possible, but right here and now, with the stakes on the table we’re looking at, failure is not an option.