Barton Fink

•April 13, 2013 • 1 Comment

Lately I’ve been on a writer’s kick on Netflix, so to speak, watching documentaries about famous writers like Hunter S. Thompson or about the trials, tribulations, and small joys of screenwriting – Gonzo and Tales from the Script if you want to know. For those who know me, I’m a bit obsessed with writing, both the craft and the writers themselves, and will go on spiels about poetry to anyone who has the stomach to listen to me ramble on. I’ve been hunting down documentaries on writing because I’ve been in kind of a literary ferment: coming up with new ideas all the time, working on several writing projects at once, dreaming of winning the Pulitzer Prize for the modern epic, etc. It’s a good time to be a writer right now, because I have a creative momentum going, but it isn’t always like that. Sometimes I get the blank page horrors, that mental stasis when trying to start a poem, story, or movie review. Actually, I get it almost every time, but usually it doesn’t last very long, not long enough to stifle the writing process. When it is bad though, I can’t get started for days. That’s why Barton Fink resonated for me. It’s the story of a man with terrible writer’s block, trying desperately to get over it so he can write the screenplay for a movie about wrestling. I can understand the feeling.

Barton Fink starts with the titular writer nervously watching his play being performed. There’s resounding applause but Barton still thinks it falls short of his dream of creating a kind of play that accurately reflects the lives of the common man, which will usher in a movement that completely transforms theater to focus on and champion the working class. However, he reluctantly goes to Hollywood on the advice of his agent to work for Capitol Pictures, a company that will pay him a handsome sum to write movies for them. He checks into the eerily deserted Hotel Earle, where the only other resident he meets is his neighbor Charlie Meadows, an insurance salesman. Barton gets assigned to write the screenplay for a wrestling film by his boss at Capitol Pictures, Lipnick, but he can’t seem to get past the first few lines. When he asks for help from the wrestling film’s producer, he’s told to find a writer to help him with his screenplay. It seems to be his good fortune when he meets a famous novelist by chance in the restroom, but the novelist in question, W. P. Mayhew, is an alcoholic lout who has trouble writing and getting his act together. The only good to come out of seeing Mayhew is that Barton meets his secretary and lover Audrey. Barton commiserates with his neighbor Charlie about the working man, though almost never listening to what Charlie, an actual working man, has to say. A whole week passes as he tries to write in his room, where it’s hot enough that the wallpaper comes unglued on a regular basis and mosquitoes bite him when he sleeps.

With only a day left to present the story to his boss, Barton invites Audrey over to his hotel room to help him figure out what to do. She gives him a few pointers about starting with broad strokes and general plot ideas to build his story. In the process, Audrey inadvertently reveals she had written and edited Mayhew’s screenplays and most recent novels. The two end up having sex. The next morning Barton wakes up to find Audrey horrifically murdered beside him, but he has no memory of murdering her or how she had died. He calls on Charlie for help, who disposes of the body while Barton passes out from shock. Barton wakes up and goes to Lipnick to present his story, but manages to dodge admitting he has no story by telling Lipnick that he can’t reveal anything about a work in progress because it interferes with his writing process. Barton returns to the hotel where Charlie says goodbye – he has to leave on insurance business – and gives Barton a box. Not much later, Barton comes across a pair of detectives who tell him his neighbor is a serial-killer named Madman Mundt. They found out Mundt was at the hotel after finding the body of a woman – which incidentally fits Audrey’s description – decapitated in a lake; they’re clearly suspicious that Barton’s somehow involved in the murders too; he lies and tells them he doesn’t know much of anything about Mundt and neglects to say anything about the box, which may or may not contain Audrey’s decapitated head.

In a sudden fit of creativity, Barton writes the screenplay for the wrestling movie all at once. He even celebrates by going to an USO dance after he’s finished, because he’s so excited about what he’s done. However, he finds the two detectives in his room when he returns, asking about Audrey, whose blood still stains the mattress, and where Mundt is. Before they have a chance to take him in, they hear the elevator and reason that it’s probably the killer. They cuff Barton to the bed and try to arrest Mundt, who pulls a shotgun from his briefcase and shoots them both while fire engulfs the hallway. Mundt helps Barton get free and tells him he’ll always be next door if he needs help. Barton shows his script to Lipnick, who tells him it’s garbage, because it’s more focused on the main character wrestling with his emotions than wrestling in the ring; this is incredibly devastating, because Barton considers the script the best he’s every written. Since Barton is still under contract, Lipnick says he can’t leave Los Angeles, and he has to keep writing screenplays for Capitol. Lipnick promises to throw out every one of his screenplays until he learns to write like they want him to write; since Capitol Pictures technically owns all of his creative output, they can do that. At the end of the film, Barton sits on a beach in a daze with the mysterious box Charlie/Mundt gave him and looks out on the ocean.

Allow me to set you straight. I said Barton Fink resonated for me because I understand what it feels like to have writer’s block, but I’ve never gone through anything as surreal and existential as Barton goes through. Barton is stuck in a much bigger rut than I’ve had to face, and the stakes are much higher. For instance, I’ve never had to write screenplays on a deadline for a living…or woken up next to a corpse. However, I think Barton is empathetic whether you’re a writer or not. The film isn’t just about struggling with writer’s block and starting a screenplay. It’s about Barton being transported to a strange, absurd, eerie world, where he doesn’t know the rules and never quite fits in. The only friends he makes in Hollywood are Audrey, who’s violently murdered, and Charlie, his insurance salesman neighbor who eventually turns out to be a serial killer. He’s caught between bright, sunny Hollywood, which is largely indifferent to his struggles, and the humid, empty purgatory of Hotel Earle, where he sits in front of a typewriter for over a week producing nothing. Barton tries to stay true to artistic aspirations of championing the common man but ultimately fails because it’s too heartfelt for Hollywood; by the end of the film, he’s stuck in a situation where he has to keep writing screenplays that may never get produced. I’d argue that Barton Fink is an existential tragedy – with a few elements of comedy and horror thrown in. We may not know what it’s like to be a writer or to work in a Hollywood, and we may not identify with the surreal situations, but we still feel for Barton as he struggles in a world that’s against him. It’s a great film, and I’d recommend it to writers and nonwriters alike.

Evil Dead (2013)

•April 5, 2013 • 2 Comments

It’s finally here. After months of fans drooling over the teaser trailers, Evil Dead, the remake/sequel-thing to Sam Raimi’s much-acclaimed The Evil Dead, has arrived. And it is awesome.

If you’re reading this, chances are that you’ve watched the original film. For those not in the know, however, The Evil Dead is about five college-age kids spending their vacation in a cabin in the woods. The cabin is a little rustic, but it all seems rather cozy until they discover a book and a tape recorder in the basement. The kids play the tape, which contains the recordings of an archeologist, who explains that the book is the Naturon Demonto and that it’s used to summon demons; it’s worth noting that the Naturon Demonto is called the Necronomicon in later movies. The man on the tape recites an incantation, and all hell breaks loose. One by one they’re possessed by evil spirits, turning them into psychotic monsters that can only be destroyed if they’re dismembered. The Evil Dead is a maniacal bloodbath as the main character, Ash, fights back against each one of his possessed friends, ultimately defeating them by burning the Naturon Demonto.

The Evil Dead is a horror classic, so it’s not surprising someone in Hollywood decided to remake/reboot/capitalize on it. Although the new Evil Dead isn’t a remake per se, it does take the same basic elements from the first movie – five college-aged kids, remote cabin, Necronomicon used to summon demons – so I feel justified in saying that Evil Dead is an example of a remake done right. Although I am often a champion of bad movies and on occasion an apologist for them, I’d find it hard to deny that the recent spate of remakes/reboots of classic horror franchises have missed their mark. You will probably cry heresy when I say that I actually liked the reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but I admit that it was lacking something that made the original unique and scary, that hallucinatory conflation between dream and reality. Evil Dead is an example of a remake done right, because it has that special something: the spirit of the original movie.

Evil Dead is relentless, visceral, and over-the-top to the point of absurdity. Like its predecessor, Evil Dead starts off with a scare, goes somewhat slow, then ramps up the action and doesn’t let up. The tension is rarely broken, maintained by the frequent, violent fights between the kids and their possessed friends. I don’t usually think I’m squeamish, especially after seeing the Saw series and Cannibal Holocaust, but this movie made me cringe…in a good way, I assure you; it kept me on edge. There are a lot of grievous injuries to make your skin crawl and copious amounts of gore and other excretions; clearly director Fede Alvarez is taking after Sam Raimi. To top it all off, there is a hint of dark humor in the film, playing out in the over-the-top sequences that strain credulity; mind you that I’m saying it’s straining credulity in a film about demons possessing people.

Evil Dead captures the spirit of the original film by mustering all these elements. It has the same ‘all hell breaks loose’ kind of frenetic action from the original, as well as the occasional slower, eerier moment to maintain that relentless tension. It has the same visceral horror and icky gore. It even has that same glimmer of humor, which was fairly subtle in The Evil Dead but became more pronounced in the sequels, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. Add the stylish cinematography, bigger budgeted effects, a new plot that I won’t spoil for you, and a genuinely surprising, kickass climax and Evil Dead has the all the qualities to make it a classic in its own right.

Evil Dead will not depose its predecessor from its throne. The Evil Dead has the advantage of low budget charm and Bruce Campbell on its side. However, I highly recommend it for fans of the Evil Dead series – should we call them deadites perhaps? – and first timers to the series alike.

Chupacabra vs. the Alamo

•March 30, 2013 • 1 Comment

The key to selling a trashy horror movie is in part its title. The Gerund-ing or Something vs. Something Else are always promising titles. Having lived in San Antonio for eleven or so years, I had to jump at the opportunity when I heard the Syfy Channel was airing a movie called Chupacabra vs. the Alamo. I couldn’t resist the appeal of both the familiar and the patently ridiculous.

Chupacabra vs. the Alamo starts with a drug cartel near the border to Mexico, which in this movie is southeast of San Antonio, because there is no Gulf of Mexico. The main character, Carlos, rides his motorcycle from San Antonio to crime scene, traversing about a hundred in miles in a couple of minutes. He meets his new partner Tracy at the crime scene and immediately starts acting like an asshole toward her by treating her like a wet-behind-the-ears intern. While investigating the crime scene, Tracy recognizes that the slaughtered gang members look like they’ve been torn apart by animals instead of a rival gang. A chupacabra attacks Tracy as she’s performing the investigation, and Carlos saves her with a gunshot and a smartass remark.

Because Chupacabra vs. the Alamo abounds with wonderful people, we soon learn that Carlos’s son, Tommy, is a member of a gang that has connections to a Mexican drug cartel; he hints that the chupacabras are responsible for the killings, but he doesn’t learn the truth about that until the next scene. Tracy and Carlos go to meet her creepy, douchebag ex-boyfriend, who is dissecting the chupacabra they killed. Unlike Carlos, who hasn’t read the title of the movie, we’re completely unsurpised when it turns out, zomg, that the hideous dog-creatures are in fact chupacabras; yes, I went there…I typed zomg.

Anyhow, this wouldn’t be a horror movie without dead teenagers, so the film cuts to a Cinco de Mayo party that Carlos’s daughter Sienna is attending; every time I heard her name, I added the word burnt before it. Of course, Sienna’s friend has to go and make out with her boyfriend, alerting every chupacabra in a hundred mile radius that underage sex is imminent and needs to be punished with swift and merciless death. Especially merciless, given that the chupacabras bite the boyfriend’s dick off and toss another young man high enough to score a field goal. Incidentally, this is the third film that I’ve seen that involves penile mastication, following Snakes on a Plane and Teeth. Sienna and her friend escape to the nearby high school and are rescued by Carlos from the relentless chupacabras. He figures they would be safer with Sienna’s aunt, so he drops them off at her house. However, as you well know, chupacabras are vindictive creatures and they track the two teens down. Sienna manages to protect herself with an electric carving knife long enough for her father to show up once again and save her, but Sienna’s friend doesn’t make it.

Later that day, Carlos and Tommy meet while visiting Sienna in the hospital. Despite his misgivings, Tommy agrees to team up with Carlos to protect San Antonio from the vicious chupacabras, if only for the sake of his sister. Tommy and his gangbangers trade awkward Spanish insults with Carlos – though surprisingly refrain from calling each other cholo – before joining up with him and with the police to track down the chupacabras. Because they’re thugs, they have fully automatic weapons, which are hidden discreetly in toolboxes where anyone could see them. We also learn that Carlos once prevented Tommy from making a deal with the police to get out of jail, hoping that time in prison would set him straight. He further states that he doesn’t expect Tommy to forgive him and he doesn’t need to be forgiven, because Carlos is a model father and a lovable main character.

The group moves in on a group of chupacabras in a factory and manage to gun down quite a few, but are forced to retreat when most of the policemen and thugs are torn apart or dragged into the shadows to be eaten. They retreat to the Alamo and seal off the exits, hoping to fight off the chupacabras from their fortified positions. Just like the Battle of the Alamo, this ends with chupacabras breaking through the defenses, forcing the group to shoot them with rifles dating back to the 1800s and to run from place to place. Thankfully, Tommy happens to have some plastic explosives – because he’s involved with Mexican drug cartels I guess? – and the group decides that the best way to get rid of all of the chupacabras is to lure them into the fort and blow up the Alamo. They all escape through a tunnel under the Alamo in time to watch the whole place go up like CGI fireworks. All of the chupacabras are dead and everyone is relieved, even though the Alamo is still billowing smoke the next day, showing that San Antonio is now most likely engulfed in flames. Yay!

As a former San Antonian, I can attest that many of the location shots are accurate and I was certainly pleased to see my town. Naturally, that’s about all the resemblance there is between this movie and San Antonio. I was amused that in the first few seconds of the film, they established that the border is southeast of the city, which it isn’t, and made it look like Carlos took a leisurely drive to get to the border, instead of the hundred mile drive it should have taken. Better yet, it’s clear that the actors really aren’t in San Antonio, at least not all of the time. Several shots are conspicuous photographic backgrounds over which the characters traverse, making it look like they’re on location; this is especially egregious when there are shots of Carlos riding a motorcycle, but he’s clearly sitting on a stationary motorcycle while a green-screen background moves past him. Furthermore, the characters are clearly not at the Alamo when they’re running around that fort, even when it’s not the obvious CGI/green screen shots. The Alamo doesn’t have palisade walls or wooden gates. All that’s left of the original structure are stone walls and several buildings, most notably the iconic chapel. I’d be inclined to forgive that kind of inaccuracy if it didn’t take a few minutes of research on the internet and one look on Google maps from the street level to know the Alamo doesn’t look like it does in the movie.

It’s worth noting that Spanish is extremely common in San Antonio and Spanish words and phrases will be casually thrown into everyday conversation. What was amusing was how awkwardly everyone used the words. I couldn’t stop laughing at the beginning of the film when Carlos is talking to his daughter and he says, “You can go live with your brother Tommy and life will be one big fiesta!” It just struck me as absurd, like dialogue someone would write for hispanic San Antonians without knowing how they’d actually speak. On the other hand, all the Spanish words and phrases shoehorned into this movie definitely add color and are amply repaid by one of the greatest one-liners I’ve ever heard. While fighting off a chupacabra, Carlos says, “Chupa this!” and blows off its head with a shotgun. For those of you not in the know, in Spanish chupacabra means “goat-sucker” – chupa means “sucks” and cabra means goats – hence he was saying, “Suck this!”

So what do I as a San Antonian think about a film with a terribly unlikable main character, awkward Spanish thrown into make it sound more Tejano, ludicrous misunderstanding of the location and geography, all ending with the explosion of our beloved landmark and symbol of our city? I think it’s awesome of course! How many times do you get to see your hometown invaded by vicious chupacabras? How many times do you get to see someone triumphantly cry, “Remember the Alamo!” then blow it up a few minutes later to kill the aforementioned chupacabras? Chupacabra vs. the Alamo reaches the upper echelons of absurdity and for that I salute it. I couldn’t be prouder of my erstwhile home knowing that it was the stage for the two most important battles in Texas history: the battle against the Mexico for independence and the battle against the cupacabras for the safety of our goats.

The Lay of Skathen Nord: Canto II [cont’d, part 3]

•March 22, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Raven Fairlies:
“Your father was a man of worth.
I drink in praise of him today.
And may the Witch King’s castle burn
After he and his army are slain.”

Though Raven was startled by the thought
That Skathen worked for Tartaria’s king,
She knew he was no royal cop
And wouldn’t jail her like a fink.

He fought for vengeance and for honor.
She knew that she could trust his word.
When looking in his eye she saw
His loyalty was well assured.

Raven Fairlies:
“Then let us go through the Elder Woods
And find the blacksmith you will need.
I will not fight for the kingdom’s good,
But I shall help you cross the sea.”

So Skathen paid the silver owed
To Raven Fairlies before they left.
They mounted their steeds and forward rode
From the tavern and burning bodies reft.

The sun climbed higher every hour.
The day grew hotter as time progressed.
Skathen grimaced, Raven loured,
And both had yearned for the woods for rest.

Soon their respite was in sight.
A canopy of trees hung over
The road, obscuring the burning light,
Entreating the two to take repose.

Though Skathen urged the pirate on
To ride until they reached the town,
Raven dismounted with a yawn
And chose a shady spot to sit down.

Despite his words, she took her rest
Beneath the darksome forest trees.
All of a sudden, Skathen oppressed
With weariness near fell asleep.

It was as if the shady forest
Encouraged them to sit and lounge.
In fact it seemed a sinister force
Haunted the shady resting grounds.

He didn’t know what dark enchantment
The forest held that made him weary,
But Skathen struggled against entrapment,
From being snared by eternal sleep.

The Lay of Skathen Nord: Canto II [cont’d]

•March 17, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Bleary-eyed, the barkeep mopped
The last of the blood upon the floor.
All night long he hadn’t stopped
Until he’d cleaned away the gore.

Skathen noted the bodies gone,
Assumed they’d all been buried deep.
Unaware they were on the lawn
All together in a burning heap.

The barkeep stopped his task to cook
Some food for Skathen, who sat and thought.
Raven, hung over from rum, came looking
For Skathen and ordered a morning shot.

Raven Fairlies:
“It’s hell to wake so early, caitiff.
I’m used to sleeping when ashore.
Unless we’ve got to run away,
Why rush when we could sleep some more?”

Skathen explained the situation,
Bringing out a tattered map.
He traced the route to their destination
And warned of the forest’s hidden traps.

Raven Fairlies:
“I’m well aware of the woods, dear lad.
I’ve heard the legends as have you.
There’s nothing there to fear but bandits,
And meeting me they’d surely rue.

“But more important, why a blacksmith?
You want to cross the Strait of Caul,
But what’s across that needs attacking?
Don’t lie or you won’t cross at all.”

Skathen Nord:
“I’ve not admitted my true intent;
For that I shall apologize.
And yet I feared you wouldn’t lend
Your boat if I had not just lied.

“The Witch King lives across the strait
Within an icy citadel.
He has revived and plans to raise
An army fierce from the pits of hell.

“Long has he slept in seeming death,
Felled by my father, Aldric Nord.
In truth, he lived – on madness fed –
Until he had regained his force.

“My father suffered long and hard
Against the madness ever growing.
The Witch King cast a curse that scarred
His brain before the final blow.

“The Witch King feigned his death but fed
On Aldric’s growing insanity.
He lost his mind and died in his bed,
While Witch King thrived on his agony.

“I will avenge my father’s death
And reap in blood what he is owed.
I’ll hear the Witch King’s final breath
And feed his guts to hungry crows.

“But more, I fight for Tartaria.
The king has sent me on this quest.
If the Witch King’s barbarians
Assemble, all will suffer death.”


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