The world may be screwed, but we’ve always got the movies

Everyone’s got their social routines that have been buggered by this abominable year to date. Even though life is a lot more normal now here in New Zealand than it is in other places, it’s still a bit shaky. 

But at least, we’ve still got the movies, even if it isn’t quite the same. I know it’s a stupid thing to focus on in a world with so much pain and loss and stress going on right now, but I have to admit I think a fair bit about how in a brighter alternate timeline, I’d have seen the new Black Widow, James Bond and Wonder Woman movies by now, not to mention a handful of other wonders new and old. 

But my very cool local retro cinema finally reopened this week, with what turned out to be a sold-out showing of 1993’s True Romance. Driving up to the theatre last night, I saw crowds of people outside and had trouble finding a parking space. I was a bit confused by all the bustle. For a 27-year-old movie starring Christian Slater! (And written by Quentin Tarantino, I might add.) People were clearly starved for the magic of the movies. It was great to be back, and appreciate the strange communion of the cinema, which streaming just can’t quite recreate. 

It still feels a bit decadent, a bit strange, to be able to be crowded in a sold-out theatre with hundreds of others, nobody wearing a mask, in the age of COVID. But we’ve fought a hard battle here to get to this place of near-containment, and that does make the little victories like hanging out at the movies with a mate, a soda and a popcorn taste that much sweeter. 

The New Zealand International Film Festival is mostly online this year, which is understandable, but also a bummer – some of my best theatre memories in recent years have revolved around the bustling, diverse wonders of the festival, where you can pivot from a gory crowd-pleaser to a touching Tongan documentary with ease. New Zealand’s tentative reopening meant the festival had to stick to mostly online showings this year, which sadly isn’t quite the same. Fortunately, my local retro cinema is also showing a few of the movies in person in limited viewings this season, which I won’t pass up.

New movies are thin on the ground in 2020 and it’s kind of looking like it might stay that way all year long – this year’s summer movie season, a gaudy showcase of spandex, explosions and spaceships for as long as I can remember, simply does not exist. But hey, True Romance was pretty fun to see again for the first time in ages. And everything old is new again. 

Lights, camera, action. A crowd of strangers and a flickering screen. It may not be 100% normal life, but I’ll take what I can get. 

Harold Lloyd, hanging on for nearly a century

Harold Lloyd isn’t quite the household name the other silent clowns of his generation are – Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy. But doggedly, cheerfully, he endures, and in some ways he’s still the most modern of the lot.

It’s a strange feeling watching a movie made nearly a century ago and knowing that everyone in it and who worked on it is long dead. But 1923’s Safety Last, even at 97 years old, still speaks to today’s world with its singular image, of a man frantically trying to keep his balance in a changing world. 

That’s not to say Harold Lloyd was quite the genius Chaplin or Keaton were – but at his best, his work comes mighty close. I adored Chaplin and Keaton from the moment I first discovered “the silent clowns”, but Harold Lloyd was almost forgotten after his death in 1971. It’s mainly thanks to that remarkable imagery from Safety Last that he hasn’t become as obscure as some of his peers. 

Keaton was famed for his stone-faced expression, and Chaplin for his childlike innocence. Lloyd started out as a second-rate Chaplin imitator, but his character “Glasses” is how he broke through into legend. Lloyd smiled more, a genial wide Midwestern-type grin, and Glasses was just an ordinary guy, a striver in the roaring ‘20s trying to make it big, gutsy yet appealingly insecure. He seems a tad more human. And indeed, through the 1920s Lloyd was one of the world’s biggest box office stars.

The Criterion Collection has done a magnificent job restoring Lloyd’s ouevre the last few years with sweeping special editions of Speedy, The Kid Brother, The Freshman and of course, Safety Last, arguably his masterpiece and definitely the film he’s most remembered for. 

Like most silent comedies, Safety is thin on plot and long on pratfalls. Harold is a country boy who moves to the big city and gets a lowly job in a department store, determined to impress his country girlfriend. When she comes to town, he ends up in an escalating series of hijinks culminating in a still-astonishing climb up the department store skyscraper. There’s something captivating about Harold’s struggle – he doesn’t MEAN to climb the whole thing, you see – and yet he battles on, against the odds. Like Chaplin and Keaton, he’s the little guy – and everybody loves an underdog. 

Suspended in mid-air, clutching a clock’s hands to keep from falling to his death, the eternally striving Harold Lloyd feels like a meme before memes were a thing. His struggle pierces the veil between slapstick and genuine feeling, not always easy in the frantic world of silent comedy. 

It’s easy to get jaded in the age of CGI superheroes and wizards, but I’m always astonished when I contemplate the sheer guts and ingenuity of the silent clowns, when every somersault, stunt and crash were carried out by fragile blood and bone. Crowds reportedly fainted and fled the theatre at some screenings of Safety Last. Lloyd’s climb in Safety Last isn’t ENTIRELY what it appears to be – some great documentary footage on the Criterion disc shows how it was done – but it was still dangerous, challenging work.

Almost a century on, it still dazzles. 

Charlie Chaplin spoke out, but the world didn’t listen

A movie where the lead actor suddenly drops character at the end and delivers a passionate 5-minute speech directly to the audience shouldn’t work. But somehow, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator endures, and his plea for kindness still seems revolutionary nearly a century later. 

Viewed 80 years on, Charlie Chaplin imitating Adolf Hitler doesn’t seem so radical. Mocking der führer has been done since by everyone from Donald Duck to Mel Brooks to Taika Waititi. 

But what separates 1940’s The Great Dictator is he was one of the first, doing it while Hitler was still alive, still in power, on the rise. America wasn’t even at war with Germany yet. Time shouldn’t dim how revolutionary and bold this film was. It pulls no punches about the Nazi campaign against Jews, its warmongering and spreading of hatred. (Even Chaplin didn’t have any idea of how truly horrific the Holocaust was in 1940, and years later expressed some regrets about his film as a result.) 

Chaplin walks a fine tightrope here – he plays two roles, a “Tramp”-like kind-hearted Jewish barber, and the raving Hitler stand-in Hinkel. He’s magnificent in both roles. As the movie goes along the Jew and the dictator’s identities become swapped (never mind that nobody until the end of the movie seems to note the resemblance between the two characters). 

That leads to the grand climax of The Great Dictator, when the little barber has stumbled into the dictator’s shoes and has to address a crowd of thousands of his subjects on the eve of war. After years of silents, The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first full talkie, and he unleashes a torrent of pent-up words to make up for lost time. 

What happens next is still controversial – it’s a naked act of utterly mawkish sincerity, and from a strict storytelling perspective it barely works at all. Yet it doesn’t matter, because Charlie Chaplin, the mostly mute film star, stands up before the cameras, drops all pretence of acting as the barber, and delivers an impassioned, 5-minute long call for peace and understanding among all people. It’s like Iron Man stopping before the final battle with Thanos and sitting down on a stool and talking about brotherhood in Avengers: Endgame. 

Chaplin starts slowly, almost apologetically:  “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone.” 

Nobody likes a sermon in place of a climax, do they? And indeed, the first time I saw The Great Dictator years ago it did strike an odd note. It breaks the spell of the story, but that was Chaplin’s intention, as France fell and Hitler’s plan gathered speed. The older I get, the more Chaplin’s no-bullshit appeal stings for me:

“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in.”

Those words seem to ring even louder in the age of coronavirus and populist blowhards. Or is it just that sadly, humanity’s flaws and foibles haven’t changed a heck of a lot since 1940? 

It’d be nice to say that Chaplin’s big speech made a difference. But history tells us otherwise. The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s biggest hit, but it also was the end of the road for him. The “Tramp” character never returned, and while Chaplin made a few more great films, they weren’t hits. His liberal politics during the McCarthy era saw him exiled from America to Europe. Despite the boldness of The Great Dictator’s final speech, Chaplin ended his career as a kind of pariah. 

Yes, it’s a strange way to end a film. Yet when artifice and bombast and trolling seem to have an unbreakable hold on us, I’ll take kindness over selfishness every single time. 

That one time Bela Lugosi got to be the hero

Poor Bela. 

Bela Lugosi has been cast as a kind of cinematic cautionary tale over the years, with Martin Landau’s indelible Oscar-winning portrait of him in his decline in Ed Wood forever painting the Dracula star as a drug-addicted has-been stuck in terrible no-budget movies. Hell, even Bauhaus sang mournfully for him in “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” 

While Lugosi certainly had his problems, his career at its peak was fiery, and his presence on screen had a brooding Gothic grandeur that’s been imitated by every Lestat and Twilight sparkle-vampire wanna-be ever since. 

The sad thing is that Bela Lugosi very rarely got to play the hero. His iconic performance in Dracula defined him, for better or worse, and the ensuing typecasting meant that he rarely played non-villainous roles. He was also hobbled by the thick Hungarian accent he never quite shed. 

But in one of his best roles, 1934’s The Black Cat, he got to play a daring kind of anti-hero, teamed with Boris Karloff for the first time in one twisted piece of pre-Code horror. Lugosi is Dr Vitus Werdegast, a former prisoner of war who returns to exact vengeance upon his traitorous commander, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). Dr Vitus’ mission gets tangled up with two fresh-faced newlyweds who become pawns in a showdown between him and Poelzig. 

At a brisk 69 minutes, The Black Cat is Universal Horror near its peak – all razor-sharp shadows and crackling thunder, but with a creepy, real-life edge that foresees the horrors of the Nazi party. The monsters here are all very human. Poelzig, who’s not just a war criminal but a bona fide Satanic cult leader, is one of the more unnerving villains Karloff ever played, all sallow, black-eyed stare and unrepentant malice. 

But it’s Lugosi who steals The Black Cat, looking impossibly handsome and dapper as Dr Vitus, vigorous and strong. (It’s interesting to realise that Lugosi was actually a bit taller than Karloff, who played the towering Frankenstein’s Monster.) He’s a haunted man, but one who wants to do the right thing. The tragedy of The Black Cat is that in doing so, he is seen as a villain too.

There is a scene where Dr Vitus discovers the preserved corpse of his wife, kept in a glass case by the madman Polezig (I told you this was a twisted bit of pre-Code horror!). The agony and shock that plays over Lugosi’s face in this moment is a masterpiece of horror acting. 

Of course, The Black Cat is hokey – the newlyweds are a plot device, Lugosi’s character’s inexplicable hatred of cats is kind of hilarious today (at one point, he straight up murders a cat!). But there’s a primal fear to it too that movies from Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Saw have mined ever since, about good people ending up in a web of unspeakable random cruelty. 

I love the brief image we get of Lugosi as the doomed hero, a good man shattered by wartime cruelties and the sadistic tortures of Poelzig. In the end Dr Vitus gives himself entirely to revenge and cruelty, mutilating Poelzig, and flicking the switch to blow up everything and almost peacefully, intoning, “It has been a good game.” 

In another world, maybe Lugosi would’ve played the hero more often. But when he did, he was unforgettable. 

The endless boozy charms of Nick and Nora and The Thin Man

Nick and Nora Charles never worry about money, politics, or viruses. They sleep in, drink all day and solve crimes at night. Who wouldn’t want to be Nick and Nora? 

During the current troubles, I’ve found solace by rewatching all of the great 1930s-40s Thin Man series of films, featuring husband-and-wife detectives Nick and Nora (and of course their dog, Asta). I first saw these movies as a teenager, and the snappy banter and elegant charms of a vanished black-and-white world won me over instantly. 

The unforced charisma of William Powell and Myrna Loy are what elevate the Thin Man series of six films over dozens of other forgotten screwball pics of the ‘40s. Wisecracking and booze-soaked (in the first few movies particularly), but deeply in love, Nick and Nora are one of the few couples of old-time Hollywood you can actually imagine having a sex life. Powell and Loy’s chemistry is so strong many people assumed they were actually married in real life. 

The first Thin Man sets the stage for the entire series – someone dies in mysterious circumstances, hard-drinking, wealthy, sort-of-but-not-really retired detective Nick Charles and his plucky heiress wife Nora get involved, there’s lots of banter, and in the end the crime is solved. In all the movies, the mystery really is secondary to the boozy, flirty interplay of Nick and Nora. They’re formulaic to a fault – every movie ends with a “Clue” locked-room type showdown where Nick Charles assembles various suspects for this episode’s mystery and there’s a dramatic reveal. But you don’t watch these for the mystery – you watch for the banter and the style they ooze. The first movie features some of the catchiest lines and Nick and Nora are particularly young, sexy and smart.  

1936’s first sequel After The Thin Man might just be my favourite of the series – unlike the first film, it doesn’t take ages to get to Nick & Nora, and the mystery is genuinely engaging, led by a very young Jimmy Stewart in a supporting role. For Nick and Nora, crime fighting is more of a lark in between boozy parties, and After The Thin Man does the best job of the series of capturing their pleasant debauchery while also wrapping in a good yarn. 

1939’s Another Thin Man adds the wrinkle of a baby son to Nick and Nora’s lives. It works here because the baby clearly cramps Nick and Nora’s style, but not so much that the fundamental appeal of the series goes missing. There’s also a bit of pathos behind the scenes as Powell was diagnosed with cancer between films and was in pretty rough shape, physically, but he rises admirably to the challenge. (Dig that lengthy monologue at the end of the movie and imagine how well you could deliver that in his state!)

The series does go on a gentle downward trajectory after the superior first three movies, but every Thin Man flick is worth watching. Shadow of the Thin Man ages up Nick and Nora’s son to around 4 years old and features a rambling murder plot about a racetrack. They always say having a kid is the downfall of romantic couples on screen. Nick Jr is kind of annoying here, to be honest, although I do like seeing Nick adapt his drunken ways to parenthood. Nora, on the other hand, definitely loses some of her spark as a character with her new motherhood. There’s also a rather cringe, broadly portrayed African-American maid character who hasn’t aged well at all, making Shadow one of the lesser flicks. But there’s highly amusing scenes set at a wrestling match and a great restaurant brawl. 

The Thin Man Goes Home is considered the low point of the series by some, but I actually enjoyed it because it focuses a bit more on Nick and Nora’s characters, by bringing in Nick’s aging parents and a change of scene to the sleepy town he grew up in. It’s amusing seeing Nick attempt to go “dry” (by drinking nothing but cider), and Nora remains spunky as all hell, although unusually for the series, this instalment treats her a bit too sexist. (A comic scene where Nick mockingly “spanks” her did not age well.) Their child is nowhere to be seen in this one, thank god, although the murder mystery is even more complicated and incomprehensible than usual. Goes Home gives us an unexpected side of confident, cocky Nick Charles, showing he’s still a son trying to please an unimpressed father. 

Lastly came 1947’s Song of the Thin Man. After 13 years, Nick and Nora have aged a bit and they’re a long way from the boozy, sexy young couple of the first films – Powell was in his mid-50s by now. The son is back, but this time much less annoying, played by a young Dean Stockwell (!), and the mystery this time revolves around a murder in a jazz band. The most amusing parts of this one come from Nick and Nora being dropped into the bebop post-war jazz scene, and being utterly lost amongst the hep cats, daddy-o. Back in the first Thin Man, Nick and Nora were cutting-edge cool, but now, suddenly they’re the aging hipsters adrift in popular culture. It’s a clever move that acknowledges time passing in the series. Firmly positioned in the middle of the series, Song is still a nice little farewell. 

Nick’s last line? Once the murder is solved, Nick says, “Now Nick Charles is going to retire.” Nora asks, “You’re through with crime?” “No,” says Nick. “I’m going to bed.” I like to think of Nick Charles trapped in amber at that point, perpetually toddling off to bed with a stiff shot of bourbon in his hand, waiting for the inevitable midnight phone call of yet another murder in the city, a case that only he can solve.

Movies I Have Never Seen #6: Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

What is it: The biggest box-office hit of 1984, it turned Eddie Murphy into a superstar. Axel Foley is a street-smart Detroit cop who goes to Beverly Hills to uncover the truth about a friend’s murder. Hijinks ensue. 

Why I never saw it: If you’d asked me, I would have thought I’d seen Beverly Hills Cop. After all, it was EVERYWHERE in 1984 when I was a wee tween. Yet when Mr. 16 and I decided to watch it the other day, I realised unless I’ve completely and utterly blanked it from my mind, I’d never actually seen one of the biggest hits of my childhood years. (I’m fairly sure I have seen Beverly Hills Cop II, which I think I confused with the first one.) I felt like I had seen it because it was simply in the air. It’s hard to state just how big Eddie was in 1984, the summer of Ghostbusters and Walter Mondale-mania. (Was that a thing?) My brother owned the soundtrack on cassette tape, but because BHC was R-rated, I, a mere sprat of 12, never saw it in theatres and missed out on videocassette, a medium by which I date myself horribly. Yet like every kid in 1984, I knew the plinky keyboards of Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F earworm, which pops up in the movie approximately every 30 seconds. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Eddie Murphy’s material is hit-or-miss for me. He’s full of charm, but a lot of his stand-up comedy has dated a lot worse than his idol Richard Pryor (the movies Raw and Delirious are unwatchable to me today, all preening ego and lots of rank homophobia and sexism). Yet in movies like 48 Hours and Coming To America he’s one of the great comic actors. He singlehandedly makes BHC worth watching with his ultra-confident, cocky cop who’s got an answer for everybody.

It’s also worth noting that it was by far the biggest blockbuster of 1984, and the first time a black actor headlined such a smash hit. BHC doesn’t make racism a dominating plot point, but there’s certainly an awful lot of subtext here (Axel Foley keeps getting arrested by cops, for instance). He’s the smartest guy in the room, outsmarting all the by-the-book white cops and crooks. Eddie’s Foley takes the proud black heroic figures from blaxploitation movies of the 1970s like Dolemite and Shaft and plugs them into a more mainstream action blockbuster. It was a winning combination. But seen 35 years on, BHC doesn’t seem quite so revolutionary – and it’s genuinely a bit baffling that the boilerplate script actually got an Academy Award nomination. The murder mystery at the centre of the plot lacks any tension, and most of the other actors are blown off the screen by Murphy. Strip Eddie out of the movie and replace him with Sylvester Stallone (who was originally set to star) and you’ve got Cobra. 

Worth seeing? It’s worth a watch, but I don’t consider it anywhere near as much of a classic as ’84’s other big hit comedy Ghostbusters is in my heart. (Then again, maybe if I’d seen it at the same age as I first saw Ghostbusters, I’d feel differently.) Beverly Hills Cop is an entertaining ride for a cop action-comedy, and it’s full of ‘80s fashion and excess, but to be honest, other than Murphy’s still-dazzling charisma, there’s nothing here that hasn’t really been done better elsewhere. 

Pandemonium: My top 10 fictional apocalypses

It’s weird times. My country has closed its borders to the world, which sounds like the opening sentence to a hundred dystopian fiction novels and movies. It doesn’t quite feel real.

New Zealand has been luckier, so far, than many other nations during this global pandemic. But we’re all still connected, and all still freaked out a bit. We’ve seen the end of the world coming many times in stories, and maybe that’s why this particular crisis seems so terrifying and uncertain. We’ve imagined how it could go for years. 

In the spirit of howling defiantly into the abyss, here’s my top 10 apocalypses of all time – an apocalypse defined as one where most of the population bites the dust. We’re not there in real life, yet, cross fingers, and hopefully we never will be.

10. Atomic Knights, DC Comics

I always dug this old 1960s sci-fi serial comic from the pages of Strange Adventures, which images a post-World War III world (the war of 1986!) where a group of plucky survivors don old medieval suits of armour that turn out to be ray-gun proof and fight evil warlords and also there are giant mutant Dalmatians and … OK, it’s pretty silly, but good fun, and this may be the most cheery, clean-cut apocalypse of all time, in the G-rated way of Silver Age comics.  Plausibility factor – Could this actually happen? Medium. While we may get all wiped out in a nuclear war, it probably wouldn’t be quite as tidy as this comic imagines. Trigger warning – Would I want to revisit this if self-isolating during the current unpleasantness? I’m always up for goofy sci-fi comics. 

9. The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver

Of everything on this list, this is probably the most “realistic” work, a fine epic novel from 2016 starting with the economic collapse of America in 2029 and following what happens to one family as everything goes to shit.  Plausibility factor – High. This is one of those books that may seem eerily prescient.  Trigger warning – High. The Mandibles is great, but all too plausible. 

8. Dawn Of The Dead (1979 and 2004 versions)

Zombies run amok and the only sanctuary is a shopping mall. While George Romero’s original is a stone-cold classic of the zombie genre, Zack Snyder’s millennial remake is surprisingly good too, amping up the action and yet still keeping the essential unease of the premise. Plausibility factor – Low. We’re still not at zombie stage of this outbreak. Trigger warning – Medium. Both Dawns offer up a lot of scary scenarios for society breaking down. 

7. Battlestar Galactica

I grew up not knowing this was regarded as a Star Wars ripoff, but at its core, both the underrated cheese of the original and the stoic doomsday of the reboot are about humanity carrying on after it’s been reduced to mere shreds of itself. Plus, Cylons! Plausibility factor – Low. Remember when we all worried about the robots killing us? Trigger warning – Medium. The reboot gets pretty damn dark sometimes, but the original is swashbucklingly easygoing for the most part. 

6. Marvel Zombies

A series of Marvel comics starting in 2005 imagined what might happen if superheroes turned into brainless zombies and ate the world. Often hilarious, very gory and, until the premise started getting wrung out by endless sequels, one of the more creative “what ifs” of the overused superhero dystopia genre. Plausibility factor – Low. First, we’d have to have superheroes, then zombies. Trigger warning – Low. A good bloody tonic for the staying-at-home blues. 

5. 1984 by George Orwell

One of my all-time favourite novels, barely fitting into the “apocalypse” scenario, but a lot of the action in Orwell’s imagined “Big Brother” world is predicated upon endless wars with unrevealed death tolls and a world laid low by chaos. Its message of media control and manipulation only seems more urgent every day. Plausibility factor – High! Trigger warning – Medium to high. While pessimistic at its core, to me 1984 is still a story about the power of hope. 

4. “The Deathbird” by Harlan Ellison 

This 1974 short story from Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories collection has always kind of got me right in the feels. It’s kind of a rewritten take on the Bible, where Satan is actually the good guy, and it’s about finding the strength to end everything. It’s also very emotionally vulnerable, not always a quality associated with the bigger-than-life Ellison, and beautiful in its shattered way. It’s a quiet storm about the very end of all things. Plausibility factor – Low. Of all the things I have to worry about, the Deathbird is low on the list. Trigger warning – Medium to high, depending on how you feel about sad stories about dying pets. 

3. The Stand by Stephen King

The plague novel to end all plague novels, and one of King’s finest epics. A disease sweeps across the world, leaving only a handful of people to face a second kind of Armageddon against a very real devil. As the critics say, “impossible to put down,” even if it’s approximately 3000 pages long. Plausibility factor – Medium. We’re not likely to see Randall Flagg wandering Las Vegas, but as always with King, he’s got a lot of tiny details that ground his fanciful fiction. Trigger warning – Medium. The famous scenes of characters trying to make their way out of a body-filled Manhattan might be a bit harrowing now. 

2. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson 

They’ve tried to make this into a movie several times, but nothing touches Matheson’s original novel, about the last human on earth in a world of vampires. Claustrophobic, creepy and stark, it’s a gem in apocalypse literature.  Plausibility factor – Medium. Matheson ably captures the siege mentality of self-isolation, but so far vampires aren’t really a threat. Trigger warning – Medium. Matheson eerily captures the feeling of being the last man on earth. 

1. Planet of the Apes/Beneath The Planet of the Apes

Damn dirty apes, Charlton Heston in a loincloth, Roddy McDowell and quite possibly the bleakest single ending to a big-budget franchise in history (the nuclear annihilation of Beneath) – what’s not to love? Sure, most people are dead, enslaved or hideous mutants living underground, but still, for all my end-of-the-world needs, I’ll always go ape first. Plausibility factor – Low. Even when the great more recent Apes reboot tried to make it more plausible, we’re still a while from Caesar swinging in the trees. Trigger warning – Low, unless you’ve recently visited the Statue of Liberty. 

RIP Kirk Douglas, the last man standing

“They’re cheering more than a man tonight. … They’re cheering the story of a boy who rose from the depths of poverty to become Champion of the World!”Champion, 1949, Kirk Douglas’ breakthrough film.

The death of Kirk Douglas isn’t a surprise, I suppose. The man who was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky 103 years ago lived a long, remarkable life, and was the last giant standing from Hollywood’s golden age. He was also always one of my favourites, a reliable jut-jawed, iron-eyed rock who stood tall in many of Hollywood’s greatest – and often quietly subversive – films. 

It’s the end of the line for a pantheon of actors most people only ever saw in black and white, of the stars of the 1940s and ‘50s who dominated Hollywood years before I was even born. There’s a couple others still kicking, but I wouldn’t argue that Olivia de Havilland (also 103!) is quite the icon Douglas became. He was truly the last of the line. He starred with Lauren Bacall and Robert Mitchum and Lana Turner and Laurence Olivier, and they’re all gone now. 

There’ll be a lot of people saying now that “they don’t make them like Kirk Douglas anymore,” but it’s a cliche because it’s true. He was an alpha male from a bygone age, and while times have thankfully changed and a lot of the more odious sexism and racism of that golden age is gone, Kirk Douglas always embraced his swaggering manhood with an edge to it. All impossibly-angled chin and fanatic’s eyes, Douglas chewed the scenery hard, a lot of time, but he never choked on it. 

We’d call it irony, now, but when you look at the martyr Spartacus, the doomed soldier in Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory, the lost and confused Vincent Van Gogh of Lust For Life, the cowboy left behind by modern life in Lonely Are The Brave, a cruel film producer in The Bad And The Beautiful, you don’t quite see heroes. You see men with flaws, unafraid to break a little. (John Wayne, who thought irony was what you did to clean clothes, once supposedly told Kirk, “We got to play strong, tough characters, not these weak queers.”)

More than Bogart or Cary Grant or Brando, Douglas seemed most comfortable skirting the edge of villainy. I loved Kirk Douglas because his characters were always flawed rogues. No movie shows this better than my favourite of his films, Billy Wilder’s 1951 Ace In The Hole, a pitch-black satire of media madness that still stings 70 years on. Douglas is Chuck Tatum, a cynical reporter who rides a tragedy as his ticket back to fame, but loses his soul in the process. There is perhaps no better movie that sums up the Douglas mystique than this bitter pill, a movie that only seems more prescient in 2020. In real life, Douglas was often a supporter of liberal causes, including breaking the Hollywood blacklist of the ’50s.

Kirk Douglas lived his fair share of years, and it’s hard to feel gutted at the death of someone who made it to 103. But the fading black-and-white world he represented, the clatter of cowboys on horses and wisecracking cynics in shadowy rooms and a world that seems a million years ago rather than just 60 or 70 years … Yeah, I’ll miss that Hollywood. I can call it up on a screen anytime I want to, I know, but with the death of Kirk Douglas, I know it’s never coming back. 

Comic conventions and me: Being a fan and a dad

(Been a bit busy lately, but here’s a freelance piece I did late last year that never quite found a home, tied into the local Armageddon Expo series of pop-culture conventions held around New Zealand. It’s also a kind of ramble about being a fan and being a dad. Give it a read and more “content” soon!)

Having a child means passing on the things you love to them, and hoping they stick. 

Every parent does it, whether it’s the All Blacks, the Beatles or Star Wars

When they’re young and malleable as modelling clay, you imprint them with your likes. 

Then as they start to form their own opinions, their shape changes, and as a parent you just hope they kind of hold on to the geeky love for Spider-Man that their dad once taught them. 

For years, my son and I have had a ritual of heading each Labour Weekend to Armageddon Expo, New Zealand’s biggest pop culture convention. I’m a comic book fan, and no son of mine was going to grow up not knowing his Green Lantern from his Green Arrow.

We’ve been at Armageddon pretty much every year from the time he was 5 until now when he’s pushing 16. 

Armageddon is small potatoes compared to some of the massive US comic book conventions I’ve been to, but it’s just right for New Zealand. It’s an assault on the senses with celebrity visits, hundreds of booths filled with every cult item you can imagine, video games blaring, bodies packed tightly together in the aisles and the occasionally overpowering odour of other fans. 

It’s crowded. It’s hot. It’s full of people in amazing costumes, sometimes with really pointy edges. It’s a Disneyland for three days of fans and fandom, and for years we wouldn’t miss it for the world. 

When I look back on my muddled journey of being a dad, I often think of how the boy and I journeyed deep into the world of Armageddon each year, and I tried to show him how to be a fan. 

There was the year we saw two Doctor Whos (well, OK, two actors who played The Doctor) and the boy became very keen to watch this long-running TV show that started years before his parents were even born. 

Over time, we got to see some of the greatest names in science fiction and fantasy history. Christopher Lloyd from Back To The Future, Nichelle Nichols from Star Trek, Jenna Coleman from Doctor Who, Nathan Fillion from Firefly.

We met New Zealand comics creators and bagged weird toys and big bargains and junk food, and ended each visit weighed down by our loot and overstimulated by sensation. When the boy was younger, I’d sometimes carry him back to the car and he’d fall asleep before he even hit the seat. 

It was a little different when I was his age. I was embarrassed to tell most people I read comic books. I had grand mythic adventures with a few like-minded pals playing Dungeons and Dragons until I worried what everyone else would think of me and grew out of it. 

These days, movies starring the Avengers whose comics I tried to hide reading make billions of dollars and what once seemed a bit nerdy and uncool is mainstream culture. People on the street know who Thanos and the Black Panther are. 

At some point in my life – embarrassingly late, I must admit – I got comfortable with telling other actual grown-ups that I’m a huge comic book fan, that I can rattle off obscure trivia about Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko to you until the sun sets. 

Pretty much everyone who’s an avid fan of something feels a bit like an outcast sometimes. Maybe someone bagged on you for liking anime, or digging Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But at a pop culture convention, everyone’s a fan. There’s no shame in your passion. 

It’s OK to like what you like, be what you want to be, embrace whatever fantasy world turns you on. 

That’s the message of a place like Armageddon, where you can dress up like a samurai, a robot or a superhero for a day and be surrounded by your people. And it’s cool. 

That’s not the worst message to teach your son. 

I don’t know how much longer the boy and I will go to Armageddon together, before I become an embarrassment to him or he’d rather hang out with his friends. 

You measure parenthood by rituals, things you do every year which become commonplace until one day you don’t do them at all anymore. 

The boy I once had to crouch down to hug is now nearly as tall as I am, and I still can’t get used to it. He seems to grow a few centimetres a day. 

Now he’s into big epic World War II video games that kind of give me a headache to watch, and the Lego he once spent every waking moment playing with is getting dusty. I still read comic books and keep running out of ways to rearrange my shelf space. 

Once, he would watch Cars over and over. Now, he and I are sitting down to watch Apocalypse Now. He’s not the same little boy I once hopefully tried to tutor in the ways of Star Wars and Marvel Comics. He doesn’t like everything I like. 

But he likes a lot of it. 

He still loves Star Trek and watches reruns with us at least once a week. He’s into his own things, his own passions, and instead of me teaching him about Jedi Knights and Earth-2, he’s the one rattling off factoids to us about the things he’s into. Now he’s the fan, trying to convert us. 

Armageddon is a big, huge, crazy crowded event full of people who are all fans of something, whether it’s Pokemon or Call Of Duty or Deadpool. 

But for me it’ll also always be a place where my son and I bonded over superheroes and spaceships, and I watched him grow from a tiny boy dwarfed by a Dalek to a hulking teenager with his own obsessions, his own thoughts and his own fandom.

May it live long and prosper. 

Movies I have Never Seen #5: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

What is it: One of the most famous horror movies of all time, Tobe Hooper’s grim ’n gritty 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a low-budget smash, changing the horror genre forever and inspiring Halloween, Friday The 13th, Evil Dead and a million other ‘slasher’ movies. It sets the template for countless gore-fests, with a small group of sexy young people running afoul of a house full of murderous redneck serial killers in rural Texas, notably the chainsaw-wielding maniac “Leatherface.” 

Why I never saw it: Look, I’m a big horror movie fan. Monster movies, Universal classics, John Carpenter, Evil Dead, Hammer horror, you name it… except I don’t really care for slasher movies. There have been some great “slasher” flicks I dig, like the original Halloween and the fantasy-tinged Nightmare on Elm Street series, but to be honest, I’ve never liked horror that leans too much into sadism (I know, a bit hypocritical). The whole “torture porn” genre of Saw and Hostel type movies that are direct descendants of Chainsaw Massacre are not my bag at all. So even though I’m keen to fill in the gaps in my movie watching ledger, there was something kind of offputting about Texas Chainsaw Massacre for me that took me a while to get to it. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Absolutely. Chainsaw sets up its mood of intense wrongness from the opening scenes. It’s a movie where death and evil seems to lurk behind every tree. It takes a little while to “get going,” and there’s a fair bit of rather bad acting by the amateur cast until the carnage starts, but when it does, Chainsaw turns into a white-knuckle ride of sheer horror until the very final moments. The last 30 minutes or so, as lone survivor Sally flees for her life and escapes by the thinnest of margins, is unrelenting in its intensity. It doesn’t let up, and the viewer echoes the shocked, dazed trauma of Sally (Marilyn Burns) by the end. You feel pummeled, haunted by glimpses into an abyss. Chainsaw doesn’t attempt to explain its killers, to give them any motivation beyond sheer madness, and that’s scarier than anything else. 

How it’s different than I thought: Well, despite the carnage left in its wake, the original Chainsaw Massacre isn’t a terribly gory movie. The horror mostly comes from suggestion – we don’t actually see that chainsaw carving up kids, but what we do see is in some ways more terrible. It is a very scary, haunting movie, without a doubt, but it’s not wall-to-wall blood. 

Worth seeing? Yes, for its place in film history, its intense sense of mood and place, and for plunging deep into the depths of depravity – but I don’t really feel the urge to see it again any time soon. Once was enough to look into this darkness. Your mileage may vary.