View from the end of our street, February 22nd, 2019

Friday, October 28, 2011

Happy Halloween!

          Imagine that, a blog post themed to Halloween...  I'll bet you aren't going to find anything like this anywhere else on the web!  I put a lot of thought into what to do for this momentous occasion, and what I've come up with after all this wood burning is to take a look back at the movies that scared the b'Jesus out of a child those many years ago, explore what made these the scariest ones in my lexicon, and invite y'all to tell some fright stories of your own.  So, like #2 granddaughter likes to say, "Let's get this party started!"
          Igor, to the vault! (Dude the Insane Beagle looks at me with an expression that fairly screams, "Who's Igor, and what's this vault you speak of?  There food in there?")
          While he's figuring that out, I'll lay out some of the terms and conditions for these Scariest Movies.  First, virtually every movie that's intended to frighten you succeeds while you're sitting in the theater (or on your sofa) with your suspension of disbelief fully engaged.  What I'm talking about here is the movie that accompanied you home and made you check under the bed before you got in it, lose sleep, or otherwise change your routine because the movie fright was still with you.  Narrows it down some, yes?  Let's proceed.
          First, let's take a look at the things that didn't frighten me.  Oddly enough, the genre that actually bears the name Horror Movie I don't find all that horrible.  The classics, Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man, I viewed as boring gab-fests, even as a small child.  Frankenstein is the story of a man who sewed a bunch of body parts together and reanimated the result with a lightning strike.  If his nincompoop assistant hadn't stolen the wrong brain to put in it, there wouldn't even be a movie here.  I always felt like the monster was a much more compelling character than the doctor.  The Wolf Man is about a guy who has a really bad hair day every time the full moon rises, kills some people, then wakes up the next morning naked in a strange town wondering just how much he had to drink last night, anyway.  None of this is his fault.  He didn't set out to be a bad guy, he has no control over it, and it's always sad when the ignorant peasants chase him up a tree with pitchforks, and set it on fire.  If anything, he's more sympathetic than the good doctor's reassembled corpse.  And then we come to Dracula.  Dracula, and every vampire movie since, is a chick-flick.  It is a movie about the ultimate date gone wrong.  I'm sorry, guys, but if you think you're straight, and you're digging on Twilight and its sea of imitators, it might be time for a Brokeback Mountain check.  The Mummy didn't get good until it was remade with modern special effects, by which time I was too old and cynical to be frightened by a movie, and The Invisible Man...  What is this guy, six years old, wearing a pair of pants out along a country road, frightening innocent travellers?  I'm sorry, folks, but if I ever turn invisible, I'm heading straight for the Ladies' Room.  (Speaking of changing your routine, there's something to think about next time you're in there!)
          The modern ones, your Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Saw, and so on, maybe I was too old again, but these aren't horror movies to me.  They get their impact from the shock effect, and how many times does an armed madman jump out in front of the camera before you get numbed to it?  Now, I did find the Nightmare on Elm Street series briefly interesting, once I caught on to the fantasy aspect of it.  These other guys you could avoid.  Nothing made you pay a midnight visit to the empty house outside of town; you didn't have to break into the abandoned strip mall; it probably isn't necessary to take your clothes to the laundro-mat at 2:00 AM, but you have to sleep.  That was when good old Freddy Krueger paid you a visit, taking over your dreams and making them real.  The only escape was confrontation with a guy who was very good at what he was doing.  Unfortunately, as with all ideas that bring in some money, they proceeded to beat the life out of it.

          No, what I have always enjoyed is what is colloquially called the Monster Movie.  I uniformly enjoy the story about the predatory life form that has never been encountered before, whether it comes from space or has hidden here on earth throughout human history.  I will cheerfully suspend any amount of disbelief, and the only way a studio can drive me away is to make their monster so ludicrous that it makes me laugh.  Take a look at this abomination, and I can save a couple of paragraphs of explanation.  I also enjoyed the BIG monsters, but truthfully, they weren't all that scary.  You could see Godzilla coming when he crested the horizon, and the ground was probably shaking well before then.  There were a few other hugies, both living and robotic, and all suffered from the same problem:  You'd have to be deaf, blind, and paralyzed to get trapped by this thing.

          All right, enough buildup already!  What did it for me?  You're probably going to be surprised at how bad some of these things are, but the first film that put a twist in my diaper introduced Steven McQueen to a long and successful film career, and a certain tyke of nine summers to the concept of looking under the bed, through the closets, checking the heater vents, and then lying awake for hours, jumping at every tiny sound until exhaustion finally had its inevitable effect.  The Blob was released in 1958, and by today's standards, the special effects were laughable.  Of course, people who live in a future time of holodecks and similar forms of entertainment are going to look at what we have now in our movies, and say that the special effects are laughable.  It's all relative.

The Blob, having just popped into the late-night
matinee for a snack
          So, in the movie, The Blob is a baseball-size wad of pink Jello that arrives on a meteorite.  It lands near an old hermit's shack outside a small Midwestern town, and said hermit goes out to investigate.  He finds the meteorite, with said blob of Jello inside, which immediately attacks him, attaching itself to his hand and beginning to digest it.  He runs toward town in search of help, and is nearly run over by Steve McQueen, who is playing a teenage hot-rodder out with his girl for a cruise.  McQueen gives him a ride to the town doctor's house and waits outside while the doc examines him.  By this time, it's over his elbow, and the doc decides he'd better amputate.  He calls his nurse, scrubs up, and goes into his examining room to find the old guy gone.  He has, of course, been eaten.  The blob gets the doctor and his nurse, witnessed by McQueen and his girl from outside.  They flee to town to raise the alarm, and you can just imagine the reception they get from the small-town cops.  By the time they figure out that this is for real, the thing has gobbled up half the town, and is the size of a suburban house.  The final denouement is as heart-stopping as the opening scenes, as the thing has trapped McQueen and friends in a diner, oozed in around the window cracks, and begins to flow down the stairs to where they are trapped in the basement.  I about had a heart attack before they figured it out at the last possible moment.  It's definitely worth a rental, even today.  Just make sure you don't get the crappy '80s remake wherein The Blob is a secret government weapon that's escaped from its tank.

          Moving on to the age of ten, we arrive at 1959's The Beast from Haunted Cave.  My mother took me to this on one of her infrequent visits to town.  Before you question what kind of mom takes a ten-year-old to a movie like this, you should know that she also took me to Francis the Talking Mule Joins the Army; she was kind of clueless about young boys.  The aforementioned Beast in this lavish production didn't resemble the movie poster in any way but shape.  It was a vaguely humanoid ball of hair that had set up housekeeping in an abandoned mine, and anyone who wandered in (why?), lost hiker, forest ranger, or the girlfriend of a fugitive bank robber would be ambushed, glued to the wall, and have their blood sucked out in increments whenever the thing got hungry, leaving them too weak to fight back or attempt to escape.
The Beast in all its hair-enshrouded glory, probably the
only monster in history to be made with a cotton candy
          That is pretty close to what spiders do, and I think that was the "hook" this thing had on me, being helpless, and watching something come back again and again to slowly suck the life out of you.  The whole concept still gives me the willies, and while I don't lose sleep over movies anymore, I still get that chill up my spine at anything from a movie like this to a documentary that shows spiders paralyzing their prey to be sucked dry at their leisure.  Something deliciously macabre about that, and proof that you don't have to postulate some Ninth Circle of Hell to find a decent monster...

          Let us fast forward to 1962.  I was thirteen that year, and a movie was made of a John Wyndham novel called Day of the Triffids.  Now, that poster looks as lurid as Invasion of the Saucer Men, and maybe for that reason, I was pretty relaxed and jovial as I went into the theater with a couple of wisecracking friends.  Oops, wrong mindset.  The production values were a hundred times better than the poster suggests, the chill started early, and accompanied me home, maybe for the last time.  The movie begins with a man in the hospital.  His eyes have been damaged, and they are bandaged up.  Everyone, including the nurses in his ward, is watching this magnificent meteor shower that he can't see.  His bandages are due off tomorrow morning, and he wants to take them off tonight and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime show.  Nothing doing.  Next morning, nobody shows up to remove the bandages, no one answers the nurses' call, no one replies to his shouts.  Eventually, frustrated and I'm sure more than a bit frightened, he removes the bandages himself to find the hospital nearly deserted, no traffic on the street, almost no one to be seen.  He goes outside to investigate, and finds that everyone who watched the meteor shower, which means virtually the entire population of the planet, is blind.

Yeah, buddy, it's right behind you!
          But that isn't even the worst of it.  No, the little cherry on top is that the radiation has caused some tiny little foot-high plants called triffidus celestius (apparently the seeds arrived with an earlier meteor shower) to grow into the monsters portrayed on the movie poster.  The plants on the screen are not nearly as cartoonish.  They can uproot themselves and slowly move around by dragging themselves with their roots.  The whiplike appendage projecting from the top of the plant is a lightning-fast stinger that attacks any nearby sound, and injects a plant toxin that is going to cause you to drop within a short distance if you are hit by it. After that, friend triffid slithers over to your corpse, sends roots into the flesh, and absorbs everything but the skin. Charming. As the picture above suggests, there is a lot of psychological suspense before we tangle with the monsters, and they don't stand up well in the daylight scenes, though that is when you can really see how many of them there are. They do their best work at night, though, and there are enough of those scenes to satisfy the most jaded man-eating plant aficionado. I'm not sure this film would have made the cut, but we were having heavy rains for a about a week afterward, and the sound made by a stalking triffid is exactly the same as rain falling from the eaves!  I don't know what the record is for going without sleep, but my personal best is about five days...

          We now turn to the grandfather of the summer blockbuster.  It's 1975, I'm twenty-six years old and about to start my family, and you wouldn't think I'd be susceptible to the spell of Hollywood any more, however...  There are movies that transcend age and conventional wisdom, and this bad boy was it.  It spawned a school of sequels, each progressively worse than the one before, but none of them detracted from the glory of the original.  You know you've gone to a monster fish movie.  You know people are going to be killed and eaten before your very eyes.  Chrissy goes into the water; it's obvious that's going to happen.  But from the first two notes of that magnificent theme:  Duh-dunh... duh-dunh...  They have you.  Dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh, and you're off on a ride that in many ways has never been reproduced since.  Denise Cheshire, known mainly for stunt work, plays Chrissie when she's in the water, and if there was an Academy Award for Best Performance Without a Spoken Line, it should be on her mantle.  We don't see the shark during this attack, or the next one, but her face, her incredibly expressive eyes, draw us into a horror ride that goes on and on for two unrelenting hours, during which, terrified as a two-year-old, we are utterly unable to look away.  This was an unbelievable tour de force that launched the career of a 28-year old Steven Spielberg.  If you love the man's body of work, and who doesn't, this is where it all begins.

Oh yeah, it's got her!
          And how, you may ask, did this movie get onto this list?  I was far removed from that child of the '50s, and even if I weren't, it wasn't like a 25-foot shark was going to crawl eight miles to my North Park studio apartment and hide under my bed.  Well, I can't say definitively that this exact movie is the causative factor here, but here are the facts.  I was born and grew up in a handful of California beach towns.  I've lived my life on the shore of the Pacific except for a few years spent in the navy, when I was either on ships, or serving on a tropical island where my main hobby was snorkeling.  From the day I walked out of the theater after seeing this movie, I have never gone back in the ocean again!  You are welcome to draw your own conclusions; I have.
          I'll wrap up with a couple of other Halloween-themed tidbits.  First, I've been looking forward to Grimm.  Premiers tonight on NBC, check your local listings, blah-blah-blah.  This hasn't been over hyped, so it's probably real good, or it's already been cancelled.  Naturally, my crazy schedule has me at work tonight, so I'll not be watching.  If anybody has any opinions on the first episode, I'd be pleased to hear them.
          Second, there is a local jazz station, of which I am a member, staunch supporter, and some people say, pimp.  They stream their programming on-line, and there is a link for that in the sidebar.  In case you miss it, here it is again:  Sunday nights at 8:00 PM Pacific Time, an old knowledgeable gentleman named Lou Curtis does a 2-hour show called Jazz Roots, on which he plays music from the dawn of recording technology.  I'm always amazed when I hear something from 1904, and say, "Wow, I thought Mick Jagger wrote that!"  This Sunday, and every Halloween, he does a show of songs with spooky/scary themes.  I'll leave you with a lyric from one I heard last year, done in the style of an Irish folk quartet:

Don't you linger in the outhouse,
'cause something lurks in the hole.
Just finish up your business,
pull your pants up and run
if you don't want to lose your soul!

          See you soon.  Now, get out there and live life like you mean it!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Tell a Big One!

          I'm going to change the direction of this periodic little get-together here, and attempt to get my readers to ponder a question, maybe to the point of actually speaking up about it; wouldn't that be nice?  My evocative skills may not be up to this, but, here goes...

National Defense Service Medal,
awarded for serving for a relatively
brief time in America's military.
Those of you who have known me for a while are aware that I am a Vietnam Veteran. If I told you that I had been awarded seven decorations during my military service, six of them directly related to my Vietnam service, you might be surprised by that. Given my complete lack of military bearing, heroic demeanor, or even adult behavior much of the time, you may even want to challenge me on that statement. That would be a minor faux pas on your part, as the statement is absolute gospel, and easy for me to prove.
Republic of Vietnam
Campaign Medal,
awarded by South
Vietnam to virtually
every foreign service
member who served
in their behalf.

Vietnam Service Medal,
awarded for in-country
service during arbitrary
periods set by the military.
I got five of these.
          But what if I told you that after my hitch in the navy was completed, I took the skills I had learned as a radio operator, used them to join a mercenary outfit, and spent the next eighteen months humping a PRC-26 through the jungles of Cambodia with an anti-government paramilitary strike unit? Let me hasten to clarify that that is an outright lie, but what if I told you that, and you never found out different? Are you harmed by it?  What if I told you this, and this caused you to view me as a more romantic, "Hemmingwayesque" figure than I might otherwise perceived to be.  And what if you decided to pursue a friendship with me based on that perception, and that friendship turned out to be rewarding, uplifting, deep, meaningful, everything you've ever imagined a friendship could be?  And then, twenty years into it, you suddenly discover that I never served in a ground unit, and I've never been anywhere near Cambodia?  Would the twenty years of fulfillment be negated by discovering that one fact?  In other words, are you harmed by it?  Hold that thought...

          What if I tell you that I was awarded the Silver Star, America's third-highest decoration for valor on the battlefield?  This, too, would be a lie, but what if I did?  And what if that statement was never challenged, and one day I decided to run for public office?  Nothing big, just a City Council seat, or a small-town sheriff?  And what if I defeated a better-qualified candidate based on the perception that the winner of a Silver Star was willing to offer up his life for the principles he believes in, thus demonstrating the highest possible integrity?  Of course, the "integrity" part is somewhat offset by the hidden fact that I never got a Silver Star...  Are you harmed now?  Is there a difference?
          I think there is.  Whether you do depends on whether you think you were harmed in the first example, but in the second, I think we can all agree that everyone lost out at the very least by voting in an inferior official to perform a public function, and that brings me to my point.
          Here in America, and throughout most of the world, we have laws to protect us.  Granted, they don't always function as designed, but they exist.  You are not allowed to murder me, cut off my nose, steal my video games, spread pernicious lies about me, or even put a ding in my car and walk away scott-free.  These things "harm" me, and are not allowed.  It was briefly, as delineated by the Stolen Valor Act of 2006, illegal to claim to have won military awards that you hadn't, which served to protect communities from events like that in the second example, though that was hardly its only purpose.  But now...
          A member of the Water Board in a California town was recently convicted under the Act for claiming that he was a former Marine who had won the Medal of Honor (Come on, stupid, claim one that's not so easy to check!).  He was sentenced to several hundred hours of community service in a Veteran's hospital, and a fine of a couple of grand.  He'll probably have a tough time being reelected to the Water Board again as well, and I say, good on you, mate!  However, this being California, he challenged the constitutionality of this law, which he claims infringes on his right to free speech.  The local court ruled in his favor, and now the Supreme Court is going to rule on it.
          The sad fact is that we all lie. We call in sick when we want to go fishing. We tell that girl we're trying to impress that we were in a Special Forces unit when in reality, we loaded trucks 1,000 miles from the war. We tell our wives they look good in those pants. The argument is that if you're going to make telling one lie a crime, then they all have to be. My first thought is that we'd better start building more jails, but wait a minute. Aren't there already some lies that are legislated against? Didn't Bernie Maidhoff and the Enron crowd go down for lying to investors about expected profits? Or was it perjury, because they put it in writing, or something? I don't know, but ultimately, didn't these people lie to get money that they weren't otherwise entitled to? Isn't that why they're in prison today? Isn't a job on the Water Board, with its attendant salary and benefits, money that guy wasn't entitled to? What do you think?
          Come on, folks, talk to me...  Is anybody out there? 

Friday, October 14, 2011

End of the Rainbow

          It's been a rough few days.  I've finally come to terms with the fact that I'm not interesting enough to get a single one of the 7,000,000,000 people on this self-absorbed little marble to comment on as universal a subject as The Worst Movie Ever Made.  Really?  Not one?  Money's tight, my old dog of a pickup is giving me grief, my boss has me working on the most boring wild goose chase ever fabricated, and I'm kind of between hobbies right now, having found that most of the things that have interested me for most of my life have suddenly become less exciting than watching paint dry.  One of the little pleasures left to me, the Nerd Lunch Podcast, doesn't want to run on my computer, and then I come home to this.

          This is Venus, Executive Officer of the Magnificent Seven.  She's little sister to Brian Jr., big sister to Angel and Kris, and special buddies with Grandpa.  That's me.  These pictures were taken less than an hour ago.  In the shot to the left, she's parked in my living room teasing Dude, the insane Beagle, with a potato chip; he isn't picky.  She stayed over last night, and again tonight, methinks.

          Venus, aka Venom, is a fun kid.  What she sees in a man old enough to be her grandfather is a mystery, but I'm glad she does.  She always has, and I have a theory about that.  Sandwiched as she is between two siblings, she was overlooked on both ends.  Brian Jr. is a year older than her, and was the first grandchild.  Everyone was terribly excited about the baby.  At the time she was born, Brian was a year old, a very interesting age, as he was learning to walk, to talk, to explore the world around him.  Venus was a screaming alimentary canal who laid in her bassinet and bayed at the moon.  About the time Venus was getting to that age, Angel was born.  By then, the families were ready for another baby, and Venus was passed over by the excitement of the sibs on both sides of her.  Probably didn't help that she was one of the ugliest babies ever; looked like she didn't have skin.  But no matter, there was always Grandpa, saying, "Come on, Venus, let's go to the park... Let's go for a walk... Let's go for an ice cream."  Now that she has the personality of a comedian, and the face of a movie star, she still knows who her buddy is.

          Ah, the tales we could tell.  Oh, I know what.  I'll tell some!  When she was a year old, and there were just her and Brian, they lived with us at our old house in Spring Valley.  She had just started walking, and couldn't talk yet.  She would crinkle around the house in her plastic diaper investigating everything she came up to, and I would often hear a deep, bellowing, "Ho, ho, ho," like Santa Claus.  All winter long I thought it was Brian!  Nope.  My dainty little granddaughter commenting on her surroundings.  At a year-and-a-half, we were sitting out on the porch swing together.  I pointed out a fly on her shirt, and faster than Billy the Kid, she snatched it off her shirt and stuck it in her mouth; in the immortal words of Ray Romano, She Aaaaaate It!!!  At two, she was standing in one of the chairs in the top picture, hopping around, rocking the chair, inches from a bad tumble.  Everyone had taken a turn telling her to sit down.  She wasn't having it.  I sneaked around behind her, and from inches away, roared, "Sit down, Venus!"  Eyes the size of silver dollars, her feet flew out in front of her and her butt bounced on the chair seat.  Scared the crap out of her, everybody laughed, and she was mad for a week, but we got past it.  Three years old, she's drawing with a pencil.  Little sis, Angel, wants in on it.  "Don't play with that," Venus tells her every time she reaches for pencil, paper, or anything.  "Don't play with that."  Over and over; Venus is like that, a bundle of fine single-minded persistence.  "Don't play with that."  Mommy tells her to stop.  "Don't play with that."  Mommy warns that she's about to get sent to her room.  "Don't play with that."  A couple more warnings, and Mommy drops the hammer.  Venus ain't in the mood to go to her room.  Mommy standing over her, hands on hips, tiny little Venus, hands on hips, glaring back up.  This can only end one way.  Venus goes to room.  A few moments of silence, then the curly little head appears around the corner.  "Don't play with that."  Last word, Venus.

          She's not all cuteness and sass, either.  She is a ferocious protector of the smaller sibs and cousins, whose first sobriquet was Chainsaw.  At the age of five, she engaged brother Brian in a knock-down, drag out brawl in my living room that would have had the denizens of a biker bar lining up to place their bets.  Brian was punched under the chin so hard that his feet left the ground before his butt made contact.  Shortly thereafter, he threw her down the length of a coffee table, face down, feet arched over her head like the tail of a scorpion.  She went off the end onto her face, but anyone who thought that would have been the end of it would have been surprised.  She came right back over the table, murder in her eye, where her dad caught her in the air, claws extended, probably averting a toddler homicide.  What set off this half-pint tornado?  Brian had snatched a stuffed animal away from four-year-old cousin Anna.

          She's deep. Asked to write something about herself in first grade, she produced, "I look in the mirror, and what do I see? A child. A stranger..." There's a lot more there than just what your eyes see. My wife, Bonnie, is half Cherokee. She does some of the eerie native things, like telling you it's going to rain while the sun's beating down (it always does), and communing with the flowers, birds, and lizards out in the garden. Venus has those same traits, and we sometimes refer to her as the Little Shaman. It's legit. She knows things that can't be known through the normal five senses the rest of us get. Yet, she's still a kid. She plays video games (Left 4 Dead is a particular favorite), digs the latest music, and wears trendy clothes with the best of them.

          So, that's my little buddy, and a big part of what keeps me from being just another old git with a gas problem.  It's a joy to share her with everyone, because I feel like, I don't know, like I've earned her favor, which is a huge honor, and at the same time that I made a large contribution to the delightful, independent, capable young lady that she is.  Maybe...  Anyway, I've wasted enough time on people who don't talk to me.  It's time to go enjoy my baby!