Monday, March 31, 2008

Album of the Day--March 31, 2008

Bob Mould
Virgin Records
Produced by Bob Mould

While watching the NCAA tournament and getting my first exposure to TV commercials in a few months (I really try to avoid TV that isn't on DVD), I discovered that someone has been using Bob Mould's "See a Little Light" in a commercial. I guess Bob needs the money. I hate it when songs I like end up in commercials; so to protest I turned down the sound on the TV and dug out and blared my old copy of Workbook. After the breakup of the classic hardcore speed punk trio Hüsker Dü a year earlier, 1989's Workbook was Mould’s first solo album and demonstrated a breadth of styles that the latter few Hüsker albums only hinted at. Cellos! Keyboards! And Mould even owns an acoustic guitar! From the mellow acoustic instrumental opener “Sunspots,” to “Wishing Well” (my favorite track, which I recall getting some alternative radio airplay at the time), to the Hüskers kiss off “Poison Years,” to the hit single “See a Little Light”—well, it’s all good. Only at the end (“Whichever Way the Wind Blows”) do the amps get turned up. Although Mould has had a pretty decent solo career, despite his unfortunate discovery and love of techno (his latest album—District Line—is not album of the day...yet), Workbook remains the high-water mark. Well, it and the three Sugar albums...

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Out of Mind, Out of Sight

Today's movie from my Sci-Fi Box poses important questions about invisibility.

Previous movies in this series are:
She Gods of Shark Reef
Moon of the Wolf
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
Queen of the Amazons
The Incredible Petrified World
The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)
Auteur/Perpetrator: Edgar G. Ulmer
Star of Shame: None to speak of
Monster(s): Nothing, really

You have to admit—if you were going to make a science-fiction movie, invisibility is the most cost-effective solution. After all, what more would your special effects budget need than string?

The Invisible Man being taken, the makers of today’s film dug into their Roget’s Thesaurus and decided that if they couldn’t use the word “invisible,” hey, “transparent” was just as good! And, in keeping with the naming conventions of these movies, they had to add some kind of hyperbolic modifier—although I’m not certain that “amazing” is the most appropriate descriptor of the movie’s transparent man; “silly,” “dorky,” or “lunk-headed,” perhaps, but certainly not all that “amazing.”

The Amazing Transparent Man was one of the lesser Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes—such that I can’t recall a single riff from their treatment of this movie.

At any rate, as the movie opens, searchlights seek out and find the titles, and we realize that this features a no-star cast. Cool music, though. For you fontophiles, the 1960s was the heyday of Dom Casual, and while the titles don’t look entirely Dom Casual, they are a close approximation (except for the title itself, which is something else entirely). I would say it’s kind of like Dom Semi-Formal or perhaps Dom Casual Friday. I would imagine the filmmakers couldn’t afford a name-brand font. The producer credit comes on, and suddenly we get a script font—I guess this is a Lester D. Guthrie signature film. The director gets the same font treatment, although its hard to read his last name—Edgar G. Ulmer is what it apparently says. The Internet Movie Database tells us that he has directed about 50 movies, with Beyond the Time Barrier being shot at the same time as The Amazing Transparent Man. It also says that he is the director of the 2000 movie Swiss Family Robinson, but this is “unconfirmed,” which is not surprising given that Ulmer died in 1974. If I were going to come back from the dead, I dare say my first order of business would not be to direct a Swiss Family Robinson movie. But I may be alone on that.

At any rate, back to our transparent movie. We start on a tight shot of a siren, and prison guards firing into the night at an escaped prisoner. There appears to be a Gatling gun atop the guard tower. Is this the 1880s? Is Charles Guiteau escaping from prison? The hounds have been released to track him; one of the dogs looks like a dachshund—is that really the best choice to chase an escaped prisoner? The escapee—whose name we will discover is Joey Faust (and absolutely nothing is made of that name, although the potential was certainly there)—runs through the woods and is picked up by a woman in an immense car. They drive in silence through the night. Faust changes into a tuxedo, which would have been my first choice upon breaking out of prison.

They are stopped by a police roadblock; Faust pretends to be a drunk husband of the woman, who claims they are returning from a party. The officer explains, “A man escaped from City Prison. This is just routine.” Hm; do people routinely break out of City Prison? Maybe they need better security than a Gatling gun and a dachshund. The driver of the car says her name is Laura Madsen and that her husband John’s license was suspended because of drunk driving. Says the kindly officer, “There’s no need to wake him. He’s had enough trouble tonight without waking up to the badge of an officer.” Or stilted, badly written dialog, either. Anyway, after that thorough inspection, the car is on its way. We then find out that Laura has broken Faust out of prison, and he doesn’t know why. “You’ll find out when we get where we’re going.” Could it be a Faustian bargain in the making? No, probably not. They drive well into the next day and turn down a dirt road which leads to what looks like Mary Tyler Moore’s apartment house. The hired goon, Julian, is waiting for them with a shotgun. (Julian? That’s a name for a hired goon?) Julian says that the boss has been “chewin’ up the carpet for two hours.” Hopefully Laura brought back groceries, or at least new carpeting. Julian doesn’t like Faust, and there is some sort of awkward tension between them that the shotgun doesn’t really do much to assuage.

Inside, Laura introduces Faust to Major Critter (at least that’s what I think she said). “‘Major?’” asks Faust. “What army” “Oh, there have been several. Take your choice.” Huh? Nothing more is made of this very bizarre statement. Major Critter is playing with a piece of shrapnel—the one that ended his military career, offers Laura—which he keeps playing with for the entire movie. Major Critter dismisses Laura and explains why he broke Faust out of prison. “I can use you,” he says. Apparently, Faust is an expert safecracker and can open vaults. “They musta dug that shrapnel out of your head,” says Faust. “I can’t poke my nose through a bank door without getting it blown off.” Now that would be worth seeing. “You’re bitter, Faust. Mean and bitter. You trust no one and you hate everyone. You’re the kind of man I need and understand.” I’ve seen want ads like that. Mostly in publishing. But I digress... Critter knows all about Faust’s background—apparently Faust’s wife turned him in, and Faust has a child he’s not allowed to see. This last point gets Faust’s goat. “If you ever mention my daughter’s name again, you’ll have another hole in your head, I promise you!” Well, first, Critter didn’t mention his daughter’s name, and second it was Faust who suggested the shrapnel wound was in Critter’s head!

Major Critter is tall, thin, and noodly—he kind of looks like a lobster’s eye stalk, but with legs.

Anyway, Critter tells Faust that his job is to carry “fissionable materials.” “That’s atom bomb stuff,” says Faust. “Include me all the way out.” Well-said. Julian and the shotgun make a reappearance, changing Faust’s mind. “You know what one of these bullets will do, son?” asks Julian, rhetorically, of course. “Rip out your spine and roll it up like a ball of string.” A remarkable piece of ammunition that. Finally, Faust relents: “What’s the score, Critter?” 3-2, bottom of the ninth? No; “You work for us faithfully or we turn you over to the authorities.” A Faustian bargain? Still nope.

Critter then leads Faust up to the laboratory. Now get this. We are shortly told that this lab involves experiments in nuclear physics. So why are there lots of bubbling beakers around? Do many nuclear physics boil chemicals in beakers? Is the professor making coffee? Speaking of the professor, we are introduced to Professor Ulyov, who of course has a Russian accent. Critter says that he is “an eminent nucular scientist.” Grrr.... Faust has heard of Ulyov, for some reason. Critter says that he was lucky to have been able to convince Ulyov to work for him. Bwa-hahahaha. Critter then suggests that Ulyov give Faust a demonstration of what they have been working on. Major Critter points out a safe whose walls are made of lead two inches thick (except that they are so not two inches thick) and then chides the professor for leaving his toys around; “I told you to move this; it could cut through this safe like butter and the whole countryside would go up in a fireball.” Then why do you have it there? Might it not be better in, like, the basement or something? The professor then moves the offending equipment three inches to the left. Whew! That was close.

Then professor then explains what he has been doing. Hoo boy: “This is the principle of X ray but goes farther.” Huh? “X ray only pierces the outer shell of the body to show what lies beneath. This ray neutralizes all tissue and bone structure in the body.” In what way are tissue and bone not neutralized as a matter of course? “This machine utilizes X ray, alpha, beta, and omega rays and ultraviolet, combining them for best effect and filtering out qualities that would hinder our operations.” Wow—that explained absolutely nothing. This guy must write technology company press releases. Says Faust, “Yeah.” Faust then asks why the worry about the safe? Because lead shielding doesn’t block all rays, and if the ray comes into contact with the contents of the safe, it could start a chain reaction and “fission could result.” In other words, “Boom.” Which again raises the question: if it’s so touchy, why the heck not move the safe somewhere, well, safer?

Critter and Faust then withdraw into a heavy lead-lined vault or control room while the professor takes a guinea pig out of its cage and straps it to the table under the ray-generating machine. “It’s not going to hurt,” the professor tells the rodent. Then why is everyone hiding in a lead-lined room? There is a fair amount of padding as the professor flips switches and solders two orbs together for reasons passing understanding. He then also withdraws into the lead room, turns his apparatus on, and we watch as the guinea pig becomes invisible. Actually, it’s kind of a cool effect, as first the fur, skin, then bones go. Then everyone comes out and the actors get the chance to pet empty air to prove the guinea pig is invisible—I mean, transparent. “Dr. Ulyov has perfected the ray to the point where there is no danger to the subject.” Then, again, why does everyone hide in a lead box? The professor then makes the guinea pig visible again.

“A mechanism like this has unlimited possibilities,” says Major Critter. Actually, it seems to have possibilities that are quite limited: namely, to turning things invisible. Critter then suggests that Faust must be tired. Faust concurs, but first he is inexplicably drawn to a closed door at the opposite end of the lab. “What’s in here?” he asks. Critter then says, in a panicked voice, “It’s no concern of yours.” Hmm...seems suspicious to me. He could have simply said “Oh, it’s just a closet,” but no he had to go get all Bluebeard. The professor then, left alone, reflectively pets the guinea pig.

Some time later, Major Critter is about to go out and instructs Julian—still clutching his shotgun rather like a security blanket—to keep an eye on Faust. “He’s dangerous and locks mean nothing to him.” Unlike the rest of us, who bow down and genuflect before every lock we encounter. Critter leaves, and Julian stands (well, sits anyway) guard outside Faust’s room. Someone thoughtfully left a bottle of booze in Faust’s room, so he gets up and pours himself a glass. For some reason, he then starts rubbing the glass on the back of the door. This attracts Julian’s attention, and I guess really bugs him because he insists that Faust knock it off. He then opens the door and, surprise!, is bonked on the head by Faust, knocked unconscious, and tied up. He’s not a very good hired goon.

Faust grabs the shotgun and instead of leaving the house, goes upstairs to the lab. He calls Ulyov’s name, but gets no response. Locks mean nothing to him, of course, so he starts to pick the lock of the Forbidden Door. The barely audible scraping of the lock wakes the professor, whereas loudly calling his name didn’t disturb him. “I came up to see you,” says Faust to the professor. “You seem to the only one around here who isn’t a member of Critter’s fan club.” He also seems to be one of the only people around there at all! So what’s the professor’s story? Why is he working for Major Critter? “My daughter,” says the professor. “He’s holding her.” He gestures toward the Forbidden Door. “In that cheesebox?” says Faust. Cheesebox? “Just get her out!” He has a point. Apparently, Ulyov fled Europe after World War II with his baby daughter, and his wife had died as a result of experiments he had been forced to perform while in a concentration camp ( he German or Russian, then?). When he fled to the U.S., no none knew he was a scientist “except spies like Critter.” He was a spy? I thought he was a major. Anyway, long story short: if the professor doesn’t do what Critter wants, his daughter will be killed.

The professor then looks hopefully at the locked door. “You indicated that you could open it.” Locks mean nothing to Faust, after all. “Not now, Doc, I’ve got problems.” What?! Suddenly he’s too busy to pick a lock? Don’t tell me locks are starting to mean something to him. “Please, Mr. Faust. Free my daughter and take her to some safe place.” “Knock it off, Doc. I’ve got my own troubles.” Jeepers, he was the one who went up there. What a dink. “Then you can’t open it?” “I could open that thing blindfolded.” Which he then proceeds to do. Man, this guy’s mood swings are like Foucault’s pendulum.

But of course, boop! Laura shows up in a frilly nightgown with a gun. “Downstairs, Faust. And please try not to be amusing.” Huh? Is he ever? “Good night, Dr. Ulyov,” says Laura, in a tone that insists that he’d better have a good night.

Downstairs, Faust stands and laughs. Why? “For a dame that’s supposed to be so greedy, you don’t know a thing about playing a hole card. Did you ever think how much that ray’d be worth to a guy who wanted to rob a bank? With that thing I could get into every vault in the country in broad daylight.” It seems like this idea never occurred to anyone before. He then tries to bargain with her. A Faustian bargain at last? Not really, no. She seems interested in his proposition. At that point, Julian comes out of the bedroom and whacks Faust over the head. Yes! I’m glad someone finally did it. Julian had overheard their conversation....Laura is worried that he took her seriously. She then tries to bargain with Julian, who is happy now that he is clutching his shotgun again. A Faustian bargain? Still no. There is a knock at the door—Critter is back after having left only five minutes earlier. They live in the middle of nowhere. It takes that long just to get to the end of the driveway. Where could he have gone to and returned from in such a short period of time?

Faust is awake and seems to be suddenly in cahoots with Laura. Julian lies to Critter. The wheels are coming off the wagon.

The next morning, Critter confronts Laura, slapping her. Julian had confessed all the details of the previous evening, and he hates being double-crossed. He then slaps her again. “And lay off the wodka.” Wodka? Is he Chekov all of a sudden?

Upstairs, the professor puts Faust under the ray. Critter and Laura are there to watch. And away he goes into transparency. No one seems to anticipated that once invisible he would be difficult to see. “It’s Faust—he’s here,” says Laura. Well, yeah. No one also seems to have anticipated that once invisible he could easily beat the crap out of Critter. Faust then insists that Critter will owe him lots of money for his cooperation. They go downstairs and talk it over. A Faustian bargain? Nope.

Critter claims that he doesn’t have the money to pay Faust what he wants. So robbing banks never occurred to Critter? An attack of ethics? I mean, his whole plan was to have Faust break into a nuclear power plant and steal fissionable materials. All the radiation must have screwed up his moral compass.

That night, hijinks abound as Faust, invisible—er, I mean, transparent—sneaks into a nuclear power plant (or something), beats up a guard (who does an admirable job of throwing himself around), and steals a container of...something. Ever notice how people’s footsteps are so much louder when they’re invisible? It must be for the same reason that noises always sound louder at night.

Now, cut to an unidentified office. It says “Security” on the door—is it the nuclear power plant’s security department? Dunno. Anyway, a dead ringer for John F. Kennedy is grilling the two guards and barely believes their story. Kennedy says, “Before this decade is out, we will discover who stole the X13.”

That scene peters out, and we are back in the lab, where the professor points out that there is a problem with the guinea pig: it is taking more time to make it invisible—er, I mean transparent—and less time to return it to full opacity. It is, it would seem, building up an immunity to transparency. “What about Faust?” asks Critter. “It is too soon to tell. He will also build up a resistance.” Critter then asks about the new stuff they just stole—the “X13.” “I need more time to study it. It has different properties than other nuclear materials. I do not like keeping it here.” Oh, so the safe that could level the countryside is perfectly fine? Where did they get this guy?

Critter mulls it over and keeps playing with his shrapnel. He then says that the professor will use the X13 on Faust, that he must know the full potential of the professor’s invention. And now we learn what Critter is up to: “My aim is to make an entire army invisible.” Oh, I see, that’s—huh?!? “I did not agree to kill a man by deliberate radiation poisoning,” protests the professor. Critter laughs. “You’re too old-fashioned to be a genius.” What the heck is that supposed to mean? The professor digs in his heels and refuses to use the X13. Until Critter ambles over to the Forbidden Door. He keeps playing with his shrapnel.

Downstairs, Faust has made himself at home and is sucking down a glass of wodka and rhapsodizing about how great the transparency ray is for would-be bank robbers. “You’d better lay off the giggle water,” says Laura. Giggle water? How much had the screenwriter been drinking?

Major Critter comes down and gives Faust his next assignment: breaking into a vault in broad daylight, as security on the night shifts has been tripled. How many nuclear labs are around there, anyway? It’s a good thing they are located in the heart of Nuclear Valley, I guess.

Faust is brought upstairs and zapped into transparency again—using the X13. However, the professor has a crisis of conscience, and can’t pull the switch. So Critter does instead.

Laura then drives a transparent Faust into town. She is having a crisis of conscience. “Stop running Critter’s errands. Let’s not get any more involved.” Huh? Jeez, talk about fickle. Anyway, Faust announces a change of plan. They are not going to the nuclear lab but rather to rob a bank instead. Laura thinks that is even dottier. He promises her 40% of the loot. A Faustian bargain? Faust points out that he can’t open the door or people will get suspicious, so he climbs out (it’s a convertible). As he does so, the car bounces up and down like those low-riders on Crenshaw Blvd. in L.A. Apparently, when transparent, he weighs 800 pounds.

At the bank, a doddering old security guard, arms akimbo, notices the glass doors opening of their own accord. A transparent Faust ambles into the vault, steals what looks like about $100, and walks out. The guard notices a floating bag of money, and moves to grab it. Faust then smacks him. Unfortunately, Faust at that moment starts to become visible. Doh! He then draws a gun (wait—why had the gun been invisible? Was it on him when he was transparentized?) and beats cheeks out of the bank. Everyone gets a good look at him. He and Laura drive off briskly back to the ranch.

Meanwhile, at the Security office (where is this?), JFK is taking a statement from a woman at the bank who witnessed the robbery. She leaves, and JFK points out that everyone at the bank identified Faust as the robber. JFK’s assistant says, “What can we do? A man makes himself invisible...locks mean nothing to him...” They’re certainly blasé about the whole thing. And, well, locks meant nothing to him before he was invisible. The assistant continues, “He did take the X13. What can we do to stop him?” “Nothing,” says JFK. Well, OK, first, how did they make the leap from “stealing X13” to “the guy can make himself invisible”? And I would think there are lots of things one could do to stop him. For example, if they see a floating object, like a sack of money, shoot at it. Even if invisible, he can presumably still be shot.

Laura and Faust drive back to the house, but Faust can’t go inside unless he’s invisible—for some reason. Meanwhile, inside, Critter and Julian are listening to KPLOT, the plot-specific radio station that has the full story of the bank robbery. Critter is upset; he doesn’t like being double-crossed. Critter is apparently in the process of moving his base of operations; everything he owns fits into two suitcases which he instructs Julian to take outside. On the road, Laura begs Faust to flee with her, so they can start over. A Fausti— oh, never mind.

Faust gives her her share of the loot, then decides to leave. He then abruptly turns transparent and heads toward the house.

Critter is in the lab with the professor, still playing with that damn shrapnel. He is instructing the professor what to take and what to leave. The professor is not leaving; he has decided to stay. Critter tries to console him about what went wrong with the transparency ray; “we’ll figure it out in the new location; an invisible army would be worth billions!” It would? Critter then announces he is taking the professor’s daughter Marie with him. He unlocks the Forbidden Door, and Marie comes out. She is quite handsomely attired and quite cheerful considering she’s been locked in a windowless room for several years. An invisible Faust storms in and locks Critter in Marie’s room, and wants to know why he keeps appearing and disappearing. The professor doesn’t know, and insists that he will only help Faust if he whisks him and his daughter away.

Outside, Julian—shotgun ever in hand—captures Laura and brings her inside. They run into Faust, the professor, and Marie. Laura then confronts Julian: “You believe what he old you about your son being alive and in a prison in Europe?...You’re a fool; your son’s dead, Julian.” Julian swallows this a bit too readily, and relinquishes his beloved shotgun. Man, everyone in the movie has offspring problems.

Everyone leaves the house. Then professor accosts Faust: “You know what Critter is after? An invisible army so he can invade your country.” That was Critter’s plan all along? Good grief. It turns out that the professor is dying of radiation poisoning—and so is Faust. “You have weeks, perhaps days, to live.” Funny—the guinea pig was zapped how many times and is fine. “Thank about what he is doing to your country.” That doesn’t get the professor anywhere so he tries appealing to Faust’s child. “Is that the kind of world you want for your child?” A world where bozos try to create invisible armies? What are the odds of success anyway? That seems to change Faust’s mind. “How long do I have left?” “A month. No more.” I thought he had weeks, if not days? Is the professor just making this up as he goes along? The professor then walks up to his daughter and utters the money quote: “There is a man who has unlocked every door—except the one to his own soul. Now he has the key.” Waka waka. But, you know, locks mean nothing to Faust.

Still, Faust charges back into the house. After all that gabbing, it took Critter that long to realize he could shoot the lock on the door. Laura is still locked in the bedroom; Faust releases her. Critter runs downstairs and starts shooting at Faust, hitting Laura; Faust grabs the shotgun and chases Critter upstairs. Now get this: Critter has a gun. So what does he do? He lies in wait for Faust to walk upstairs, then hits him in the arm with a bottle of acid. Why not just shoot the guy? They beat the crap out of each other for a while, and, Faust knocked to the floor, Critter starts futzing with the ray. He opens the safe and takes out the Real Bad Stuff. Faust jumps up and starts strangling Critter—who screams like a girl. We zoom in on the container of Real Bad Stuff that fell out of the safe, and cut to a mushroom cloud.

Some time later, the two guys from the mysterious Security room—who introduce themselves as “Drake and Smith, Security”—drive up to a police roadblock. They are not allowed any further, as there is “too much fallout.” The JFK guy takes out a pair of binoculars and stares at the scene where Critter’s house used to be. Workmen are bustling about wooden wreckage with Geiger counters. However, those are remarkable binoculars he has; they automatically cut to several different shots while he is looking through them. Drake (the JFK guy) walks over to a car, where the professor is in the backseat (but wasn’t he right in front of the house when it exploded?). “Well,” he says, “you and your friends succeeded in blowing up half the county.” I guess it’s not a very big county. “There isn’t enough left out there to make ashes.” Yes there is! We just saw it though your magic binoculars.

And what does the professor say? “I’m deeply sorry, of course.” Ah, that’s all right. We didn’t like this county very much anyway. “I warned Major Critter of the dangers. But he was the product of a deranged mind. All he could think about was the creation of an invisible army, and the power such a force would give him.” “This idea of an invisible army is quite interesting,” says JFK. Not in this movie it wasn’t. “Perhaps it would be better if we let the secret die with Major Critter and Joey Faust. It’s a serious problem.” I’m sure. He then looks directly into the camera: “What would you do?” The End. What? Me? What would I do? I didn’t know there was going to be a quiz. I wasn’t paying attention. Um...false. True. A! None of the above! 63! Pass!
Well, let’s see. If I were to possess the secrets of invisibility—or transparency—what would I do? Firstly, I would certainly stay away from the silly “invisible army” idea. Just the logistics alone would be a colossal headache. How could you tell when anyone was AWOL? Secondly, I think there would be better ways of resolving the problem than blowing up an entire county. Sure, there was no one actually living in that county, but I liked the house. Maybe I’d use a neutron bomb, but certainly nothing thermonuclear. Thirdly, I’d definitely move the safe with the highly fissionable materials to the basement, a potting shed, horse barn, or somewhere far from the ray that could detonate it. Fourthly, I’d avoid blackmailing lunk-headed ex-cons into doing my dirty work; that never works out. Fifthly, if I were going to name my lead character “Faust,” I’d have the reference pay off in some way. And lastly, I’d make sure that locks meant something to me.

Album of the Day

Herewith, we introduce a new feature to Blogito Ergo Sum—Album of the Day.

Script for a Jester’s Tear
EMI Records
Produced by Nick Tauber

I haven’t listened to this in a while, but this morning’s New York Times Acrostic Puzzle had a quote about the qualifications of being a jester, so the CD player in my head cued up this album. SFAJT was the debut LP by new-progressive band Marillion, and came on the heels of a brace of popular (at least in Britain) singles, “Market Square Heroes” and “He Knows, You Know,” the latter of which made its way onto the album. Marillion couldn’t have been more out of step with the times; at the height of 80s-esque New Wave, here was a band that picked up right where Peter Gabriel-era Genesis left off (1973, basically). Lead singer Fish (né Derek Dick) even sounded not unlike Gabriel, and even performed in costumes and greasepaint—much like Gabriel. If that weren’t enough, the debut single’s B side (this was the era of vinyl, after all) was a 17-minute epic called “Grendel” that was reminiscent of Genesis’ own 20+-minute “Supper’s Ready.” One movement of “Grendel” even quoted one of the riffs of “Supper’s Ready.” Oh, and the single was produced by David Hitchcock who produced...Genesis’ Foxtrot, the album that featured “Supper’s Ready.” The Genesis comparisons aside—and digging into the album, there really aren’t all that many—this was a terrific debut, full of great songs, strong musicianship, and well-written lyrics, even if Fish could go a little over the top (for example, “Chelsea Monday”). The album starts with the title track, with Fish singing a capella; he is soon joined by solo piano and quiet instrumental accompaniment which gradually builds to a crescendo. It’s a great opening and the track would remain a concert favorite, even in the post-Fish years. Side 2 (remember: vinyl) opens with “Garden Party,” a funny song about class warfare, social climbing, and hypocrisy (the single was subtitled “The Great Cucumber Massacre”)—“Swooping swallows chased by violins/Straafed by Strauss, they sulk in crumbing eaves...” The album ends with the epic “Forgotten Sons,” about the strife in Northern Ireland but, more generally, the pointlessness of war. Prog rock may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I was big fan of this record back in the 80s and it has held up well in the 20+ years since—not surprising, since it sounded like nothing else that came out in 1983.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Reading Railroad Keeps A-Rolling

I ran out of time on Wednesday, so here is the continuation of my earlier post on the books I have been reading.

Lucky You
Carl Hiaasen
February 2008

Whenever I go to Miami Beach (which, thankfully, is not very often) I read crime novelist Carl Hiaasen, whom I started reading on my last trip in 2003. Discovering there were two of his novels I have missed, I picked them up in preparation for my southward trek in February. The first one I read was Lucky You, the premise of which is that two people have won the Florida Lottery--one is an African-American woman who wants to use the windfall to save a local wetlands from becoming a strip mall, while the other is neo-fascist moron who wants to use the money to start a neo-Nazi militia. The latter discovers there was another winner and plots to beat her up and steal her ticket. It being Hiaasen, the satire is painted with very broad strokes and the bad guys get their rather grisly comeuppance at the end. There is also an intrepid reporter, whose editor throws a nutty and joins up with a local tourist trap that features a weeping Virgin Mary and some turtles with the Apostles painted on them. It goes a bit off the rails toward the end, and it’s not one of my top Hiaasen books, but it's not bad.

The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket
Trevor Corson
March 2008

Everything you ever wanted to know about sushi, one of my favorite foods. By turns, a document of a semester the author spent at a Southern California sushi "academy" detailing the students’ struggles to master the art of sushi preparation, and a history of sushi and how it has changed over the centuries, not just as it emigrated to the U.S. but also in Japan itself. There is a sprinkling of natural history about the fish, and a lot of interesting stuff I never knew--including the "proper" way of ordering and eating sushi (i.e., you are not supposed to use chopsticks, and dipping the sushi in wasabi-infused soy sauce is technically a no-no). I had quite the yen for sushi after reading this one...

Native Tongue
Carl Hiaasen
Mar. 2008

As Native Tongue opens, a pair of local yokels (of which there seems to be no short supply in South Florida) have stolen a pair of blue-tongued mango voles from a (fictional) Key Largo theme park (not unlike Disneyworld). Thinking the voles are just rats, the yutzes are not all that concerned about tossing them at passing cars and are only moderately worried when it turns out the voles have ended up dead. It is only after they discover that they were the last remaining members of their species that they panic a bit--and incur the wrath of the elderly yet feisty environmentalist who hired them to vole-nap the critters. Meanwhile, the PR director for the theme park has a crisis of conscience and begins to wage a crusade against big Florida real estate developers (in particular, the owner of the theme park), especially after having a run-in in the woods with Skink, a former Florida governor who "went native" some years earlier. Skink is a recurring Hiaasen character and one of my favorites of his (even if he is a bit hard to believe). This is one of Hiaasen's better books, if only because the bad guys are a shade more well-drawn than is usually the case with Hiaasen (well, except for Pedro Luz, the theme park's head of security, who is a steroid-addicted nut job who ultimately gets a Hiaasen-esque comeupppance with a "playful" dolphin). Again, the satire is painted with broad strokes (Francis X. Kingsbury, the theme park's owner, is a complete scuzzball with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever) but one doesn’t read Hiaasen for subtlety or nuanced characters. Hiaasen is also a bit too priapically obsessed at times, it seems, but ultimately, though, Native Tongue is a fun, brisk read and his points--concerning the preservation of Florida's rich biological diversity--are very well taken.

The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus
Joshua Kendall
March 2008

One would hardly think that a biography of Peter Mark Roget, who compiled the first thesaurus, would be utterly compelling, and yet, in the tradition of Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman (about the Oxford English Dictionary), it is a fairly gripping story of how one man's obsessive-compulsive behavior resulted in one of the landmark and long-enduring reference works of all time. Madness--in particular, depression and psychosis--ran in Roget's family, and many of his relatives, including his mother, his sister, and later his daughter, were completely destroyed by mental illness. Roget avoided the same fate by making lists--that is, when the world got too much for him, he organized it, compiling lists--most often of synonyms--over the course of his lifetime, culminating in the publication and immediate success of the Thesaurus when he was in his 80s. Thanks to his compulsive list-making, he was able to stave off the demons that ran in his family, and led a long, prosperous career as a doctor, scientist, and lecturer. The book's publicity perhaps plays up the madness aspect a bit more than is warranted, but there does seem to be a cottage industry of "loony scholar" books emerging. Still, Kendall's book is well-researched, and is written in a brisk narrative style that makes this far-removed from a dry scholarly text, which it could very easily have been. Very enjoyable and fascinating, to boot. I always liked books that put a face and a personality to famous names and works about whom very little is known. Interesting fact: the Thesaurus was wildly unpopular in the U.S. when it was first published. What made it popular over here? The crossword puzzle craze of the 1920s.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Reading Rainbow

For those who are interested, here is a rundown of the things I have been reading since I last updated my reading log (June 2007).

Mere Anarchy
Woody Allen
June 2007

When I was 13, back in the Pleistocene Epoch, I found a copy of Woody Allen's Without Feathers (a collection of New Yorker articles) in my parents' basement and it was the funniest thing I had ever read in my life. Granted, at 13, there wasn't a whole lot to compare it to, but even now, many many years later (I did reread it) it still is the funniest book ever written. I then found its predecessor, Getting Even and it was also side-splittingly hilarious. Then I bought Side Effects when it came out circa. 1982 and, also, extremely funny. This trilogy of books would inform my own writing and humor style (a high school friend described it at the time as "hit and run humor"). So imagine my disappointment when I picked up Woody Allen's first collection of prose in more than 20 years—and it was utterly unfunny. At least at first. The last several pieces retain the old Allen style and had me on the floor, but the bulk of this admittedly slim volume seemed to be written in an overblown pseudo-literary-cum-hard-boiled style that reads like Raymond Chandler trying to emulate William F. Buckley. Or vice versa.

Children of Men
P.D. James
June 2007

I bought/read this because the Film Forum was showing the film adaptation, and while I liked the book, I utterly loathed the movie—maybe because I had read the book first. In the book (as in the movie), the premise is that for whatever reason, the human race has been unable to reproduce itself and the last generation to be born has reached adulthood (the media carry reports of the last known child born). As a result, civilization is on the decline. And there the similarities between the book and movie end. In the book, a mild-mannered British college professor is approached by a young woman who is trying to get an audience with the professor's cousin, who, as it turns out, is the Warden of England. He falls in with her band of revolutionaries, one of whom happens to be pregnant... I thought the book was well-written and fast-paced, with the kind of genteel style one would expect from the 800-year-old P.D. James (who usually writes mysteries). The movie was one long streak of violence and unpleasant characters who are all the opposite of their corresponding characters in the book.

Fellow Travelers
Thomas Mallon
June 2007

I read Mallon's Dewey Defeats Truman (bought just for the title alone, really) back in the 90s and it was OK. I came across Mallon's new book in the NYT Book Review and it sounded vaguely interesting, so I picked it up. It was good, but kind of a yawn. It is the story of two gay lovers who work for the government during the McCarthy years, with all the societal and political implications that entails. Mallon is a good writer and the end was rather touching, but overall it was kind of a struggle to get through.

A Home at the End of the World
Michael Cunningham
August 2007

Recommended by a friend of mine, this was by Michael Cunningham, who wrote the Pulitzer-winning The Hours. It is the story of a unique family—Jonathan, his childhood friend Bobby, and his adult friend Clare. Jonathan is gay and lives in NYC as an adult with Clare, who is about 10 years older than he. Bobby comes to visit and moves in with them—then falls into bed with Clare and gets her pregnant, and the three of them decide to become a family and move to the country. It's an OK book, and Cunningham is a very good and lyrical writer, but the characters all really annoyed me after a while (typical baby boomers—self obsessed and whining). Maybe The Hours is better. I don’t think I’ll find out.

Inside Out
Nick Mason
August 2007

Steven H. had this on hand when I visited him in London last August, and I just couldn’t not read it. Nick Mason was (is?) the drummer for Pink Floyd, and has the distinction of being the older bandmember who has been in every phase of the group, from the early Syd Barrett days, to the heyday in the 1970s, to the short-lived post-Wall Final Cut era, to the revived post-Roger Waters era. So it's basically a history of the band, from its tentative early days, to the wild 60s London era, to the recording and aftermath of Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, the internecine fighting, and ending with the band's reunion at Live 8 a couple years ago. Probably not for anyone other than a hardcore Pink Floyd fan, but a good read. Mason (or his ghostwriter) has a wry, witty style. Not a lot of wholly new information, but enlightening in certain respects anyway. Definitely not a "tell-all" book and is very very short on lurid details. (I expect with Pink Floyd there weren't all that many—as Roger Waters pointed out in the commentary track for The Wall movie, all the "groupie" scenes were entirely fictional as, he seems sad to relate, Pink Floyd were never quite the groupie magnets that other bands were. That's almost hard to believe...)

He Died With His Eyes Open
Derek Raymond
August 2007

Steven H. loaned this to me, and I read it largely on the flight back from England. It is a modern British noir supposedly in the style of Raymond Chandler or, more properly, James M. Cain. The nameless detective is an antihero in the best noir tradition—out for truth and justice but is given to his own dark vices. he takes of the cause of man who was beaten to death and dumped on the street, leaving behind a lengthy set of cassette tapes that comprise a kind of audio diary. Mr. Nameless gets a bit too involved in his life while doggedly trying to find out who offed him. Well-written, and certainly shows the dark, seedy side of London. Parts of the plot go a bit off the rails, but it is quite compelling. I'm not sure I would read anything else by Raymond, but this one wasn't bad.

The Penultimate Truth
Philip K. Dick
August 2007

Another great Philip K. Dick dystopian future. In this one, most of humanity lives in underground "ant tanks," manufacturing robots (called "leadies") who are supposed to be fighting a war that is being fought on the surface. What most of the people don't know is that the war has been over for years, and the leadies are actually being manufactured as household servants for the private demesnes of those who rule the earth, including Stanford Brose, an old, largely synthetic person who is in charge of everything (he reminds me of Dick Cheney). The purported leader, Talbot Yancy, doesn’t really exist, and is instead a robot that simply repeats the speeches that are programmed into it. (No comment.) When one of the underground tankers secretly makes it to the surface, he finds out what has really been going on, and finds himself embroiled in a plot to free the tankers. Or is that the plot? This seems to me one of the most fleshed out of Dick's novels, and despite the basic premise (which is not an unfamiliar one in the annals of sci-fi), it does go in unanticipated directions. And like good sci-fi, it asks probing questions: what is truth? Is the truth always the best policy? What is a leader? What qualities make up a leader? What makes a good leader vs. a bad leader? Are despots are benevolent leaders driven by the same things? And so on. This has to be one of my new favorites of Dick's.

The Pickwick Papers
Charles Dickens
September–October 2007

After visiting Charles Dickens' house in London, I was motivated to embark on a reading of his entire oeuvre, starting with his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. Serialized in 1836-7, it relates the adventures of Samuel Pickwick and several of his friends as they travel about the British countryside and get involved in a variety of misadventures, including a run-in with fast-talking rogue Alfred Jingle, a pair of newspaper editors supporting opposing political parties, and various romantic assignations. It's basically a comic novel, with Dickens' social commentary a bit more broad and slapstick than it would become later in his career. One of Dickens' favorite books was Don Quixote, and Pickwick was designed as a modern (well, Victorian anyway) Quixote, and when he finds his Sancho Panza (Sam Weller) things really take off. A Three's Company-like misunderstanding finds Pickwick sued by his housekeeper for reneging on a purported promise to marry her, and the resulting courtroom scene is a laugh riot. A very funny book, and one which deservedly made Dickens' reputation. There was a BBC adaptation of it which is good, bit they seemed to have forgotten that they were making a comedy.

Diaries 1969–1979
Michael Palin
October 2007

Michael Palin, of course, was one of the Monty Python troupe, and had kept a daily diary since 1969. Enlightening, and one comes away from this with an immense liking for Palin. He seems like one of the most genuinely nice people in show business. One also gets a good warts-and-all look at the other Pythons (they all had tremendous respect for each other, even when they occasionally drove each other crazy). Probably could have been edited down even more than it was, but still a good read for us Python-o-philes.

Oliver Twist
Charles Dickens
November 2007

Dickens' second novel and his first "real" novel is a well-known story of the hapless orphan Oliver Twist and his escape from a provincial workhouse, his flight to London, and his falling in with a band of criminals (Fagin, The Artful Dodger, the evil Bill Sykes, etc.). Not bad, but if it has any weaknesses (and these were common ones with Dickens) it's that a) his title character is boring and doesn't really do anything, and b) the title character only prospers as a result of a kind of deus ex machina, or the random encounter with an altruistic soul. As always with Dickens, though, the ancillary characters (especially the villains) are the most colorful, although I did like Mr. Grimwig, a crotchety old crank whose favorite refrain was "I'll eat my own head if it's so." A very fast read; but Dickens would get better.

Nicholas Nickleby
Charles Dickens
November 2007

Dickens' third novel corrects some of the faults of Oliver Twist (Nicholas is a bit more proactive). Orphaned in his late teens, the titular Nicholas is sent off by his evil, miserly uncle Ralph to be an assistant to the vicious Yorkshire schoolmaster Wackford Squeers (Dickens was great with names). He eventually beats the crap out of Squeers after seeing Squeers flog an innocent simple-minded student (the depiction of Yorkshire schools was based on an actual tour of them Dickens undertook) and joins the Crummles acting troupe, who are the most virtuous characters in the book. The plot is convoluted, but I really enjoyed this one much more than Oliver Twist, even if Nicholas' "rescue" by the Cheeryble Brothers is a bit far-fetched (talk about deus ex machina!). It also has some of Dickens' best comic characters.

The Old Curiosity Shop

Charles Dickens
November 2007

Little Nell lives with her grandfather, who owns The Old Curiosity Shop. Unfortunately, his gambling debts have led him to borrow money from the usurer Daniel Quilp, an evil dwarf. Quilp finds out and buys the store out from under the grandfather. Nell then realizes that their only hope is to flee the city under cover of night, and much of the novel involves them fleeing to the north of England, with Qulip hot on their trail. As fond as I may be of evil dwarves, this was not my favorite, and Nell got on my nerves more than she probably should have, and all I wanted to do was beat the grandfather with a large, blunt object. Still, it does have some good moments; I like the character of Richard Swiveler, who speaks almost entirely in song lyrics. He is introduced as a bit of a buffoon, but Dickens rethought his role and he ends up being the hero of the book! Good, but not great.

Barnaby Rudge
Charles Dickens
December 2007

One of Dickens' most overlooked books, and one of his least successful, I thought it was terrific. It is an historical novel, set against the backdrop of the 1780 Gordon riots (Protestants were up in arms about Parliament relaxing their persecution of Catholics, which culminated in a series of riots that burned down much of London). The "hero" of the book is the simple-minded Barnaby Rudge, who lives with his mother and his pet raven, Grip (based on Dickens' own pet raven, and said to have been the inspiration for the Poe poem). The book starts with a decades old murder mystery, and soon the characters are drawn into the band of rioters. The point of the book is that the people responsible for the most destruction have little actual grasp of the issues at hand; they are just illiterate buffoons who like to get drunk and destroy things. Funny how things never change. The scenes of the riot themselves are grippingly written (so to speak), and kept me reading late into the night. I loved this one.

Martin Chuzzlewit
Charles Dickens
January 2008

That said, my favorite Dickens novel thus far has to be Martin Chuzzlewit. It has a great cast of characters, a compelling plot, and some of Dickens' best social satire. This was the novel that was written after Dickens visited America for the first time, which disappointed him immensely, and young Martin's journey to America only to be immediately taken in by a real estate scam gives Dickens to send up his American cousins as he did his native countrymen. By turns laugh-out-loud funny and bitterly tragic, this is a great one.

Dombey and Son
Charles Dickens
February 2008

Paul Dombey is an extremely wealthy and successful businessman who, at the novel's start, finally has a son who can live up to the business' name. (Dombey's daughter Florence is cruelly dismissed by her father, as she is "a base coin that couldn’t be invested.") However, his son doesn't exactly live up to his expectations. Another great novel--I can't decide if I liked this one more or only slightly less than Martin Chuzzlewit. Another great cast of ancillary characters, including the hook-handed seaman Captain Cuttle, Mr. Carker and all his teeth, Mr. Toots who is incapable of getting anyone’s name right, the blowhard Major Bagstock, and many others. The ending is a trifle deus ex machiny and Dombey's turnaround is much too facile, but this one was still enjoyable from beginning to end.

It is at this point that I am exactly halfway through Dickens' oeuvre, and now it's time to cleanse the palate for the second half of his career...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Childhood's End

Another of the greats has been lost, at the tender age of 90. Says the New York Times:
Arthur C. Clarke, a writer whose seamless blend of scientific expertise and poetic imagination helped usher in the space age, died early Wednesday in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he had lived since 1956. He was 90.
The author of almost 100 books, Mr. Clarke was an ardent promoter of the idea that humanity’s destiny lay beyond the confines of Earth. It was a vision served most vividly by “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the classic 1968 science-fiction film he created with the director Stanley Kubrick and the novel of the same title that he wrote as part of the project.

His work was also prophetic: his detailed forecast of telecommunications satellites in 1945 came more than a decade before the first orbital rocket flight.

Other early advocates of a space program argued that it would pay for itself by jump-starting new technology. Mr. Clarke set his sights higher. Borrowing a phrase from William James, he suggested that exploring the solar system could serve as the “moral equivalent of war,” giving an outlet to energies that might otherwise lead to nuclear holocaust.

Mr. Clarke’s influence on public attitudes toward space was acknowledged by American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, by scientists like the astronomer Carl Sagan and by movie and television producers. Gene Roddenberry credited Mr. Clarke’s writings with giving him courage to pursue his “Star Trek” project in the face of indifference, even ridicule, from television executives.

In his later years, after settling in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Mr. Clarke continued to bask in worldwide acclaim as both a scientific sage and the pre-eminent science fiction writer of the 20th century. In 1998, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

Mr. Clarke played down his success in foretelling a globe-spanning network of communications satellites. “No one can predict the future,” he always maintained. But as a science fiction writer he couldn’t resist drawing up timelines for what he called “possible futures.” Far from displaying uncanny prescience, these conjectures mainly demonstrated his lifelong, and often disappointed, optimism about the peaceful uses of technology — from his calculation in 1945 that atomic-fueled rockets could be no more than 20 years away to his conviction in 1999 that “clean, safe power” from “cold fusion” would be commercially available in the first years of the new millennium.

Monday, March 10, 2008


Another short short story, written over the weekend for a Writer's Digest contest (and this time I made the deadline!), the "prompt" being: "A character walks into the kitchen at the end of the day. He finds something on the kitchen table that is not supposed to be there." My big challenge is conciseness; I find it very hard to stay under 750 words! Still, I kind of like it.

It was the end of a tiring day as he plodded into the house. He was hoping for a quiet evening; alas, he would have no such luck. Entering the kitchen, he immediately noticed that the surface of his round wooden kitchen table had been transformed into what appeared to be an infinitely deep portal; as he casually glanced down into it, he could see what was likely an infinity of stars casting their light from an eternity of space-time. He sighed in annoyance.

“Arthur!” he yelled. “I’m not in the mood right now!”

The portal started to close up iris-like.

“Arthur, where’s the folder that was on the table?”

With an audible foop! a manila folder popped up out of the closing portal like a slice of toast from an overly enthusiastic toaster. He grabbed it in mid-air and quickly made sure all his paperwork was there.

“Arthur, I don’t like this anymore than you do, but I have to sell the house. I’ve been transferred and as much as I’d like to stay, I can’t. The realtor is coming by shortly; please behave yourself.”

He saw tears oozing from the walls in the hallway—a common sight lately. He got out his spongemop, and couldn’t help but think that at least tears weren’t as messy as the blood. Still, he had to admit he’d miss Arthur, all things considered.

A short time later, the realtor arrived, and he led her into the kitchen. They sat at the table, the surface of which, he was glad to note, remained perfectly solid. They discussed the house, the neighborhood, the asking price, and all the improvements he had made in the five years he had lived there. She took notes, and seemed satisfied that it would be a quick sale.

“There’s one thing I should mention,” he added.

Her pen paused in mid-letter. She knew from experience that that was never a good thing to hear. She figured it involved either plumbing, electricity, or the roof.

“The house is, um, haunted,” he said.

The pen fell from her hand. She looked blankly at him. “Haunted.”

“Yes. By Arthur. He’s, uh, the ghost.”

“Arthur.” She wondered: was it too early to start drinking?

“I know this doesn’t seem like your typical haunted house. Usually they’re big, old Victorian mansions and not 25-year-old suburban raised ranches, but I guess people die in just about every house.” He smiled sheepishly.

She continued staring blankly at him.

“Arthur—the ghost—he was the brother of the previous owner. He had been visiting from out of town and was sleeping in a sofabed in— well, in the small bedroom just down the hall on the left.” He gestured toward it. Her eyes followed his hand, then snapped back to his face. “During the night, somehow, the sofabed broke a spring or something and closed rather forcefully, crushing him inside it. He’s been haunting the house ever since.”

She wasn’t sure how to respond. “A sofabed.”

“You should probably make a note of that,” he said, pointing to her notepad. “He’ll freak out if someone tries to move in a sofabed. Trust me.”

She was really hoping he wouldn’t elaborate.

“Other than that, he’s really quite a pleasant...well, roommate, I guess you’d say.”

“Roommate,” was all she could say.

“Oh, sure, there’s the occasional blood oozing out of the walls, odd disembodied laughing or moaning. Interdimensional portals appearing at random. But it’s not too bad.” He paused. “He used to rattle chains, but that was before he got the harmonica.”

“Okay, I think I have everything I need.” She was going to pretend this last conversation never took place. “I’ll keep a spare key in a lock box on the front door and I’ll keep you up-to-date.”

“Thank you,” he said.

As he saw her out, he began to feel bad. After all, he and Arthur had bonded in a way that most haunters and hauntees never did. The loud moaning didn’t help.

The realtor called him at work a few days later. “I have good news! A family has made an offer, which is only slightly under the asking price.”

“Did you mention...Arthur?”

“I didn’t even need to. He made himself perfectly apparent during the showing. But as it turned out, they have an eight-year-old boy who got along famously with Arthur. In fact, it was the ghost that had been what closed the deal.”

He sighed with relief, knowing that Arthur would well looked after.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Pearly Whites

We forge ahead through our 50 Classic Science-Fiction Films box set. This week:

She Gods of Shark Reef (1958)
Auteur/Perpetrator: Roger Corman
Star of Shame: None to speak of
Monster(s): Stock footage of sharks, weird old woman in floral sarong

There is arguably no filmmaker whose name is wont to strike fear into the hearts of moviegoers more than Roger Corman. Not that his films were particularly scary (or at least not intentionally so); they were just bad. These days, Corman appears to have achieved elder statesman status, and his students—like Jonathan Demme—now pay him tribute, which is more upsetting than you can imagine. IMDb lists 382 films with Corman as director; it’s entirely possible that the sum total of all their budgets would be only a fraction of what a major movie today costs.

Corman’s films (like Attack of the Giant Leeches) have often turned up on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and for good reason, although The She Gods of Shark Reef was not one of them. Why this movie was included in a box set of science-fiction films remains a mystery.

Given all of that, it’s easy to make at least three generalizations going into this movie:
  • it will have been shot on a shoestring budget at the same time as another Corman film (Naked Paradise, as it turns out)
  • it will prominently feature native women cavorting in festive sarongs
  • someone will get eaten by a shark (even if the “shark” is primarily stock footage and/or the size of a schnauzer)
So, that all said, let’s dive in, shall we?

The title sequence spares no expense; over shots of water, plain yellow text announces the title and its “stars.” In my DVD version, the yellow of the graphics bleeds into the water making it look like sloshing urine. It’s an appealing start. The opening song is “The Haunting Love Song from She Gods of Shark Reef.”

We are then told that the film was shot on location in the Territory of Hawaii. It’s entirely possible that the filming of this movie put off admitting Hawaii to the Union by at least a year. Certainly international treaties have been breached.

The music stops, there is some stock footage of a shark swimming, and we find ourselves underneath a dock, where Lee Johnston (Don Durant) and an old Indian guy fresh from snake charming, it looks like (complete with turban) stealthily swim up. It’s obvious they’re up to no good. However, Corman makes a bold (and probably budget-related) move by choosing not to light the scene in any way, so it’s not entirely clear what is going on. They slosh about in the water while guards patrol the dock, but not very observantly.

Lee and Mutoppa (as we will find out much later his name is) climb up on the dock, and Mutoppa takes out a large machete, which is what I think the movie had been edited with (Corman does like to reuse things). It’s suddenly day, and Lee sneaks up behind a guard, waiting for him to turn around before garroting him. There are some awkward closeups of the guard’s nose as he struggles and makes odd noises, which sound like they were overdubbed by Crazy Guggenheim. As Mutoppa plunges the machete into the guard, we switch to "MacheteVision" as the camera zooms into the man's chest. That done, Lee and Mutoppa find a wooden crate, break into it, and start to take out some guns. Another guard shows up, and they put the guns back in the crate. Mutoppa, Sikh and tired of the whole affair (ahem), dives into the water and takes off. This catches the attention of the new guard, and with an odd whistle, Lee jumps on him. There is a brawl. In one classically dumb moment, the guard charges at Lee while holding a rifle, but elects not to shoot the rifle and end the whole thing, and instead attempts to club Lee with it. It doesn’t work, and the guard is overpowered. Lee decides that Mutoppa had the right idea, and dives into the water.

It is during this scene that we are impressed with the Hawaiian locations, particularly the corrugated metal shacks.

A hairy hand unfurls a map of what looks like the Himalayas, but is apparently Hawaii. Lee’s voice intones, “Under cover of darkness—” (well, bright, sunlit darkness anyway) “—I made my way to the other side of the island—” (They were on an island?) “—where my brother had a small trading schooner.” Ah. He then says that they were sailing for another island where he could hide, but a hurricane swept out of the China Sea (huh?) and they foundered on a reef. That would be “Shark Reef,” of course. There is then stock footage of storms and a shipwreck.
The next morning, several kayaks filled with be-saronged women sail out and free Lee and his brother, Chris, from masses of seaweed. There are sharks, but the women have a way with them.

Chris (Bill Cord) is the hero and he has blond hair, which is in direct contrast to his “evil” brother who has black hair. Corman at least knows his cinematic iconography. Chris also has a tattoo that says “U.S. Navy,” for some reason, although nothing further is ever made of this. They arrive on the women’s island, which is devoid of men (natch) and ruled over by an old, den mother-esque figure named Queen Pua, although she kind of looks like Cruella De Ville. She asks Chris what happened; he says his compass went out in the storm (?) and they were wrecked on the reef. There was also a third guy named Jim who was killed and presumably eaten by sharks. Cruella tells him the gods are angry and that there has been “great wind for a month.” She also chides him, “You were foolish to set out in so small a boat.” Jeez, rub it in, why don’t you.

Lee then comes to and asks where they are. Cruella says, in a thick, weird accent, that they are on the island of Monokai, which is owned by the “Island Company.” I’d be curious to know what kind of company can get away with owning an island of women. She then says, “Visitors are not allowed on this island.” Of course they’re not. Chris says that they don’t want to be there either, and asks when they can leave. Cruella says “A company lunch [?] will be here in 10 days.” Lee says, “10 days? We can’t wait that long,” to which Cruella responds, “You will not mind.” And the way that the prettiest native girl has already taken to Chris, I’m sure he won’t mind at all.

Cruella then takes them to the “guest house,” which is an odd thing to have on an island that doesn’t allow visitors. She then has the women get the men some sarongs. Chris says they were out collecting specimens for a museum. Yeah, right. “You are a scientific expedition?” Cruella asks, and you can tell she doesn’t believe it either.

Chris asks about the girl who rescued them, and reaches into his pants (?!). Cruella wisely stops him and says, “There is no need to pay.” I’m hoping that’s all he had planned to do! Cruella then says that everything is provided by “The Company.” Chris asks, “What company.” “The Island Company,” says Cruella with reverence. “A world-famous concern.” Of what? “Pearls.” Ah. The men grin. You’d think there’s be a bit more security or protection for an international pearl diving enterprise. I’m not sure an old woman is particularly effective, although she is pretty strict.

Some time later, Cruella is surreptitiously hoisting a flag, which is apparently some kind of signal. The men notice. Lee is concerned that the police will have his description. Since he looks identical to every other white male in the 1950s, it would be hard for them not to have his description. Lee reiterates that he is on the lam, and they are determined to find a boat and flee ASAP. Lee is eager to find the island of Rara Too (?) where Mutoppa will hide him. Yeah, I’d trust that guy. “If only you hadn’t killed a man,” chides Chris. “There was no other way,” says his brother. “That’s always the way it is with you.” Ouch.

Chris then asks Cruella about the message. “I send message every day. Today I tell about you.” I didn’t know hoisting a flag up and down could convey such a nuanced conversation. Chris then mentions that he saw something inside the reef; we cut to it, and it looks at first glance like a large stone coffin, but is actually a stone head, kind of like an Easter Island statue after Slim Fast, or perhaps Mono Tiki Tia from Scooby-Doo. Cruella says that it is actually Kangarooa (?) the Shark God, who is responsible for bad weather. Chris asks if there is anything they can do to put him in a better humor; Cruella just says that he is hungry. Ah.

Chris and Lee go fishing, or something, attempting to collect specimens that will give them money. Cruella waxes poetic about luck and cruel fate; she’s quite the downer. You’d think being on a beautiful tropical island would have improved her spirits. But then, she does worship a shark god, which seems to say it all.

Lee then asks about food; Cruella points off camera (the Craft Services table?) and says “Go there when you are hungry. The women will help you.” They then pass another hut, which is where the pearls are stored until a ship comes and takes them. The men are not allowed in there; “company rules.” I would have thought it would be a subclause in the “no visitors allowed on the island” rule, but maybe the Company has really thorough corporate attorneys. Cruella then claps her hands: “Feed these men!” She must be head of HR.

The men then sit down to dinner with the women, who start singing and dancing. (You knew it was only a matter of time.) Chris cozies up to one particular woman, Mahia. She explains how the dancing tells a story, in this case about how the men were stranded there. Like they need to be reminded.

Then a proper hula dancer starts up, telling the story—it would seem—about how she feather dusts the furniture (I could be reading that wrong). Mahia then coerces Chris into dancing with her, and a ukulele starts playing. Cruella is not happy (yeah, big surprise). Admittedly, I can never hear a ukulele without thinking of Tiny Tim, but while Chris and Mahia are tiptoeing through the tulips, she puts a lei around his neck, which he, being a complete klutz, breaks. Yes, he’s a lousy lei. Anyway, this is apparently a big taboo and everyone freaks out. Cruella gasps, “Bad!” and pulls Mahia away. You know, they could have explained this to him earlier. "Breaking lei=bad." Think of all the problems they could have avoided.

The women gather up spears and shields and head for the kayaks. Meanwhile, there is another poorly acted porch scene between Lee and Chris. “You’ve never been taboo to a woman in your life,” says Lee. “They’re all hopped up on this superstition,” responds Chris. “I saw a shark come through the reef this morning,” says Chris. “Great,” says Lee, “if those babies can get in it means we can get out....I’ll scout around and see if I can rustle up anything.” Aaron Sorkin could only dream about writing dialogue like this. Chris helps one batch of women launch their kayak, and Lee ambles about the island.

Not much happens for a while, so while they are all puttering around, maybe now would be a good time to share some facts about Hawaii. Did you know that Hawaii was admitted to the Union on August 21, 1959? The are eight “main islands,” which are, from the northwest to southeast, Niʻihau, Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, Kahoʻolawe, Maui, and Hawaiʻi. The last is the largest, and is often called the “Big Island.” The Hawaiian archipelago is situated some 3,200 km (1,988 mi) southwest of the North American mainland. Hawaii is the southernmost state of the United States and the second westernmost state after Alaska. Only Hawaii and Alaska are outside the contiguous United States and do not share a border with any other U.S. state.

Hawaii is the only state of the United States that:
  • is not located in North America
  • is completely surrounded by water
  • has a royal palace
  • does not have a straight line in its state boundary
  • continuously grows in area (due to currently active lava flows, most notably from Kilauea (Kīlauea).
The Hawaiian language is comprised almost entirely of vowels, and it is not unheard of for Hawaiian words to mysteriously acquire long strings of the letter “e” seemingly overnight—

Oh, wait, I think something might be happening in the movie...

Lee has found an old disused boat in the woods. Meanwhile, Chris is walking along the beach and sees Mahia out for a swim and dives in after her. She disappears under the water, and the two of them frolic like dolphins. They run back up on the shore, and she explains what the deal with the lei was. Cruella had said that the Shark God was hungry and that when people drown on the reef, the shark god eats. Since Mahia had saved Chris and Lee, the shark gods were, in a word, pissed. This could also explain why Cruella had been chasing the men around with a bottle of ketchup and a shrimp fork. Mahia is upset about the taboo business, and sensitive Chris responds by heaping shame on her religion. There’s nothing like blasphemy to turn on the ladies! They then kiss. Cruella notices and boy is she mad. Or something.

Lee then tells Chris that he found a boat, but it needs a new mast. (You know, there’s a ton of intact kayaks on the beach.) Cruella then accosts the men and tells Chris to leave Mahia alone. The men are more resolved than ever to get off the island.

Jungle drums start beating, and there is more singing, likely a ritual to atone for whatever they have to atone for. Cruella appeases the shark gods by throwing what look like moccasins into a fire, which subsequently explode. (I guess they don’t have Odor Eaters on the island.) “Kangarooa, take our sin away from us,” she intones, looking at Mahia while she says this. Jeepers. “We are humble people, Kangarooa. Give us a sign!” And she throws some wood on the fire—and it burns! I guess if you set the bar low enough, anything can be a sign from the gods. But, uh oh, the gods are not satisfied. The next day they have to make the “purification.” Whatever that is, it can’t be good; religious purifications always involve something unpleasant. Funny how that works.

At any rate, I guess you could say that Kangarooa is hopping mad.

Mahia explains this all to Chris in some sort of fractured English. Kangarooa is hungry; well, just feed him for crying out loud! Ah, but they’re going to: they’re going to swim out to the shark gods—and Mahia is going to be lunch, since it was she who made the gods angry. Chris is not happy about this, and we already saw how tolerant he was toward their religion.

Chris and Lee watch the women sail out toward the reef. (I guess it’s the next day already?) Chris finds a spear and a surfboard on the beach (?) and paddles out after them. Cruella starts speaking in tongues (or maybe it’s just her goofy accent) and seems way too cheerful about chucking Mahia and several other women overboard. I guess the stone head is the shark god, but it really looks like it was purchased at a discount god store. I mean, come on, if you’re going to invest in a deity, that’s not the time to cut costs. But if the head is the god, what are the sharks? And how is a big stone head a shark god? I’m no anthropologist, but the whole theology of these people seems a little whacked.

Anyway, the sharks arrive and Chris probably doesn’t do much to erase the whole taboo thing by killing one of them with a spear. Way to go, buddy. Cruella is really pissed now. Chris carries Mahia back to the shore, and he is pursued by Cruella and the others.

Cruella is in quite a state and sends out another signal with the flag, which is apparently an alert to the police to come immediately. Why it takes so long is anyone’s guess, because anyone close enough to see the flag must surely be close enough to get a boat there in about five minutes.

In the guest house, Chris talks Mahia into leaving with him. He doesn’t need to twist her arm all that much. Meanwhile, Lee is almost done replacing the mast on the boat he found. Again, he does realize there are a bunch of intact kayaks sitting on the beach in plain view, right? Cruella watches them assembling the boat. You’d think she of all people would be in favor of them leaving. She goes to the guest house and accosts Mahia and attempts to take her away to safety. Since Cruella just tried to feed her to a shark, I’m not sure I’d trust her all that much. There is then a really upsetting catfight between Mahia and Cruella, and Chris and Lee come to the rescue.

They drag Cruella back to the guest house, and Chris tells Lee that he intends to take Mahia with them. Lee is not happy, and not only because there is a big honking boom mike in the shot. Meanwhile, they bind and gag (yes!) Cruella, something they should have done an hour ago. “It’s always the same with you, Chris,” chides Lee. “You always have louse things up because of some dame.” Ouch. Lee then smiles knowingly. “She an ace in the hole!” I have no idea what that is supposed to mean, but Chris apparently does and slugs his brother, whose sarong starts riding up upsettingly. They then agree to look for supplies and a map. “Do you want me to go with you?” asks Chris. “No, there’s no time. It’s nearly dawn now.” Huh? They were just outside a second ago and it was noon.

They agree that to keep Cruella from telling the others, they have to take her on the boat, too. Suddenly it’s a Carnival cruise they’re booking. Lee goes to the company office and takes some maps. One of the women sees him in the office and freaks out. The rest of the women start chasing him, which I suspect is no small fantasy on his part. But now that everyone knows they’re leaving, why do they need to take Cruella with them?

They sail for the reef; they ungag Cruella who accuses Lee of stealing pearls, which Lee protests. For some reason, they can’t go forward and they can’t go back, so they decide to land on the reef. Why? Good question. They tie up Cruella, and she lays a guilt trip on Mahia—“I fed you, I looked after you since you were a little girl.” Yeah, but didn’t she just try to feed her to a shark?

While they’re waiting, Lee then swims back to the island (weren’t there sharks in the water?) and goes after the pearls, knocking out one of the women in the process. Boo! (I guess to take the curse off it, it was a large, mannish-looking woman. But still...) He makes off with a sack of about a dozen pearls. Not exactly a high-volume enterprise they’ve got there.

Chris explains to Mahia that Lee is wanted by the police for stealing guns. Oh, so that’s what he was doing at the beginning of the movie.

Chris and Mahia are cuddling on the reef, and while they are thus engaged, Cruella frees herself and swims back to the island. She makes it in seconds—faster than Lee made it back to the reef from the island. Quite the swimmer, Cruella is. What is she, Gertrude Ederle all of a sudden? And, hey, why didn’t they pass each other? Good question. I guess Lee took back roads the whole way or Cruella was swimming too fast to be seen clearly.

Back on the reef, Lee chides his brother for letting Cruella escape. “The whole island will be after us!” I thought the whole island already was after them. And, by the way, why did the women let them get away so easily? Chris spots the sack Lee is holding, and castigates him for going back to steal the pearls. Mahia is surprised that no one was guarding the storehouse. Lee reluctantly admits that someone was. “They won’t be warning anyone for a long time,” he says proudly. “It always ends up this way, doesn’t it, Lee?” chides Chris. Man, these two have some issues. They should spend the pearl money on a good group therapist. “We can’t go on running forever, Lee,” says Chris. “I can,” says Lee, and karate chops him across the throat. Chris goes down. The brothers fight and Lee defends himself by bonking Chris on the head with the sack of pearls, which lays Chris out. Lee heads out to sea in the boat. In the distance, the women are in kayaks and are gaining, albeit slowly—although it took Cruella five seconds to swim the same distance. As if that weren’t bad enough, a shark fin cuts through the water, purportedly heading toward him.

This next sequence is very confusing. Lee ends up in the water, either knocked overboard by the swinging of the sail or by deliberately jumping overboard to fix the sail, neither of which actions makes much sense. Lee gets tangled on a rope and can’t get out of the water as the shark approaches. Chris jumps in to rescue him, and Mahia jumps in to rescue Chris. Well, the shark gods had better not complain about being hungry after this all-you-can-eat buffet. Mahia grabs a dagger and slits open one shark, which I suspect is not going to help mend any fences with Cruella. In Lee’s struggle to get back on the boat, the sack of pearls is upended, and ill-shapen pearls—they look more like rock salt—rain down on the sea floor. So much for that idea. Then a teeny tiny shark gently head butts Lee in the stomach, and that’s apparently the end of him. Chris despondently swims away. He and Mahia climb into the boat, as Cruella beckons from a nearby kayak. “The tide is high and the wind is strong. We’ll leave evil behind us,” says Mahia, as Cruella sadly calls after her. They sail into the sunset, although it’s supposed to be dawn. Lee is slowly digested—hopefully, the shark gods are appeased. Heaven knows the audience isn’t.

Man, this was a dull one; the admittedly scenic locations really didn’t make up for the lack of plot. Funny, the DVD box gives star billing to Bill Cord (Chris), but the only highlight of his career was appearing in a couple episodes of Perry Mason. Don Durant (Lee) had a bit more of a distinguished career, appearing in a ton of westerns, in film and on TV. Jeanne Gerson, who played Cruella, didn’t do much else, although IMDb has her listed as “Slave Woman with Donkey” in The Ten Commandments. That’s one for the resume. By the way, I get the "Shark Reef" of the title, but what about "She Gods"? There weren't any; just "shark gods." But then I guess Shark Gods of Shark Reef would have been a tad redundant.