Tuesday, February 26, 2008

You're Going to Be in a Car Accident

This commercial gave me chills when I saw it during Sunday night's Oscar broadcast.

I've often said that all advertising plays on at least one of two basic emotions: hope and fear. This spot deftly combines both into an ad that's incredibly simple -- and effective.

It comes from San Francisco's Venables Bell & Partners, who are also responsible for what I thought was the very unfunny Godfather spot during the Super Bowl, also for Audi. Ironically, the Godfather spot is all over the web, whereas this one proved much, much harder to find. Funny, given that this is such a superior spot.

Sorry, VB&P, but sometimes the kiss comes with a slap.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Ivan Albright and "The Picture of Dorian Gray"

It's not very often I pull out Blogger's "large" photo setting, but "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Ivan Albright deserves it. If you click on the photo you'll get a still larger version, but even that doesn't do justice to this magnificent painting.

The original is enormous -- 85" high by 42" inches wide -- and is housed at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was commissioned for MGM's 1945 version of Oscar Wilde's novel.

Albright lived and worked in the Chicago area almost his entire life, from 1897 to 1983. He was a prolific painter, engraver and printer, despite the fact that a single painting could take years to complete. Wikipedia says, "Albright's typically dark, mysterious works are some of the most meticulously executed paintings ever made, often requiring years to complete. Lace curtains or splintered wood would be recreated using brushes of a single hair."

Earlier in this blog I called out decay for being one of horror's cliches, and I still stand by that. But decay isn't a look Albright adopted for this one painting. It was something he specialized in, depicting it in a series of large-scale portraits and still lifes with the most minute, obsessive and original detail. There is no one else like him.

I could look at one of Albright's paintings for hours and still feel as though I hadn't seen the entire thing. That's especially true of "The Picture of Dorian Gray." It's by turns horrifying and incredibly beautiful, once you get past the initial shock of seeing it. If you're ever in Chicago, visit the Art Institute and make sure you get the opportunity to stand in front of this piece. It's something you'll never forget.

Visit the Ten Dreams Gallery for more examples of Albright's work. (To see larger versions, click on the thumbnails even though it looks like you can't -- Ten Dreams has a wonky interface that I think is intended to thwart picture grabbers.)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Razor's Edge

Yesterday's post got me thinking about other things that make me shudder. Then last night, about 2:30 AM, after waking from a dream, for some reason I thought about this very brief scene from Francis Ford Copolla's 1992 film, Bram Stoker's Dracula.

I won't get into vampires here, except to say that, for the most part, their immortality has caused them to outlive their usefulness. Vampires aren't frightening. Especially the "sexy" or "funny" ones that seem to be everywhere these days, and through whose undead hearts I would dearly love to drive a stake.

I didn't find Bram Stoker's Dracula to be especially frightening, either. Stylish, yes. A masterful and lovingly crafted return to the original story, yes. But nothing that kept me awake at night or caused me look uneasily over my shoulder when there's nothing but a dark room at my back.

Except during the scene when Keanu Reeves is shaving while he talks to the Count. Reeves cuts himself and, as he attends to the nick, Dracula (played by Gary Oldman) picks up his straight razor and briefly turns away to lick the blood from its blade.

(Oldman throws in a delightful flourish during this little bit of stage action, by actually turning the blade against his tongue, so that the razor's edge momentarily passes against it.)

It made me cringe the first time I saw it, and the entire theater erupted in a collective "ewww!" I've since seen this movie on several other occasions, and it happens every time. Why? It's not because blood is especially revolting. (There isn't even that much blood visible.) It's because when we see that we can't not think about doing it ourselves, and in the process slicing deeply into our own tongue.

I have a good friend who can watch people take axes to the head or be sliced through the middle -- in films, mind you -- and never bat an eye. But show him someone getting their hand cut or injured in any way and he has to look the other way. Why? "Because you can't imagine what it feels like to be cut in half," he says, "but everyone's hurt their hand. You know how much that hurts."

Why not watch the scene right now and see for yourself? It's about one minute into this trailer.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

How Do You Take Your Tea?

Meret Oppenheim, darling of the Dada-ists, created the fur-lined tea service to the left, coyly titling it "Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure)," which roughly translates to "lunch in fur."

Considered shocking when it first appeared in 1936, "Object" hasn't lost much oomph over the last seventy-plus years. A viewer who encounters "Object" is first struck by its sheer perversity. By covering it in fur (from a Chinese gazelle) Oppenheim has rendered the tea service unusable. And yet, if that viewer is anything like me, he or she can't not imagine what it might be like to use the cup, saucer and spoon anyway.

This, I think, was Oppenheim's goal, and one she achieved admirably.

You first fill the cup with tea, soaking the fur inside it completely and watching as one or two loose hairs float lazily on the surface. Next, you pick up the spoon to scoop some sugar from a nearby bowl -- one or two or more, to your taste -- then dip the spoon into the cup and stir until the sugar is dissolved. You tap it against the cup's rim, because that action is practically automatic, then set it down on the saucer. Finally, you grasp the handle -- careful, the fur makes the cup both slippery and more heavy than usual -- then place your lips against the hairy rim and enjoy a surreal sip. At this point, you might put the cup down and pluck a hair or two from the tip of your tongue.

Is "Object" horrifying? Not exactly. Not even when one takes the time to imagine what it would be like to use it. But it does cause a shudder and that, sometimes, is just as good.

Monday, February 18, 2008

"Right at Your Door"

2006; written and directed by Chris Gorak

I don't know what happened to Right at Your Door. I don't know why it wasn't given a larger theatrical release and why the DVD has hit video stores without any support. Could be that it hit too close to too many people's post-9/11 terrors and, as a result, was just too damned scary.

This incredibly tense apocalyptic thriller follows what happens to a happy, middle-class couple when a series of dirty bombs explode in Los Angeles. Rory Cochrane plays Brad, a musician/slacker who's recently moved into a new home with his wife, Lexi (Mary McCormack). When the film opens he's staying home to finish unpacking boxes and she's driving downtown to go to work.

Then all hell breaks loose.

Working within an indie budget, first-time writer/director Gorak -- whose previously worked as an art director on films such as Fight Club and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- keeps the focus of his story tight and uses creativity to suggest the large-scale disaster he can't show. As someone once said, it's the horror you can't see that's most frightening because your imagination is always worse than the real thing, and the film takes advantage of this at every turn.

Gorak creates an in-the-news tension and terrific mood by describing the bombs' destruction and chaos in a series of radio broadcasts that continue almost uninterrupted through the entire film. Brad first notices something is wrong when his morning news is interrupted by the urgent tone of the Emergency Broadcast System.

The phones are jammed and Brad can't contact Lexi, so he jumps into his car intending to drive downtown and get Lexi at work. He tears through the streets of his neighborhood as the radio announces additional explosions and greater destruction. When his rescue mission ends in police blockades just a few blocks away and the shooting of a man from downtown who's probably "infected," Brad returns home.

Turns out the bombs are dirty, packed with radiation, chemicals and/or biologic agents. (The film never makes the exact mix clear -- another smart choice, because it mirrors the confusion that would actually follow such an event and makes the terror that much more effective. It also helps set up the film's dark ending.)

The radio warns listeners to seal up their homes and avoid contact with anyone who may come to them for aid. Brad and a handyman from next door wait for Lexi and watch as the fallout heads their way. When they can't wait any longer, they reluctantly seal up the house with duct tape and plastic tarps, but not before Brad puts a few supplies outside in case Lexi does make it home.

Which, of course, she does, frantic and covered in ash, grateful to finally be home, terrified and enraged when she realizes that Brad has shut her out and can't open the door. Even though the story lags a bit at this point -- the first 30 minutes' screaming panic just can't be sustained indefinitely -- it soon builds up steam and interest as Brad and Lexi struggle with the reality of their situation, negotiating their stand-off and figuring out a way to survive until help arrives.

Not everything disaster-related happens off-screen. Gorak gives us some eerie shots of the Los Angeles skyline shrouded in gray clouds and a lovely but upsetting scene when toxic ash falls onto Brad and Lexi's backyard like snow.

Like Cloverfield, Right at Your Door makes a virtue of its limited perspective. But unlike this winter's big horror hit, there's not a lot of metaphor at work here. Gorak admits in the DVD's bonus materials he was inspired by 9/11. Maybe it's because his monster is all-too plausible that executives got cold feet when it came time to market and release Right at Your Door, even though it had been nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and won for its cinematography. (This last one I don't get -- if I have one criticism it's with the film's sometimes muddy look.) For whatever reason, Right at Your Door came and went with a limited U.S. theatrical release and nary a word in August of 2007, virtually guaranteeing viewers would miss it. But don't be one of them. Right at Your Door is one of the scariest films I've seen in a long time.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

I Miss Keith Haring

Eighteen years ago today Keith Haring died from AIDS-related causes at the age of 31. This May 4 would have been his 50th birthday.

Seeing a piece of Haring's artwork will immediately remind you of how the 1980s looked and felt (if you were around to experience them). You'll also be impressed by how vibrant and timeless his work continues to be more than twenty years later. This ability -- to be identified with a specific time and yet also transcend it -- marks Haring as one of the late-20th century's great artists.

In his brief career Haring created hundreds of images on vinyl, paper, canvas and walls throughout New York City, America and the world. His output was both prolific and rapid, and Haring is reported to capable of painting an entire mural in one day. It's almost as if Haring knew his time to make his mark was limited, and he set out to make the most of it.

While most remember Haring for his happy, brightly colored images -- and there were a lot of them -- many of his lesser-known works are darker and more sexual in nature, especially those created around 1988, when he learned he was HIV-positive. You can check out a large catalog of Haring's work and pick up screen screensavers at the Keith Haring Foundation site.

Thanks, Keith.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Assassin Next Door

Thursday at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, 27-year-old Steven Kazmierczak entered a lecture hall dressed in black and wearing a black stocking cap. Armed with a shotgun and three handguns, he opened fire on over 100 students, killing five and injuring 16 before turning the gun on himself and committing suicide.

Kazmierczak had been a master's student in Sociology at NIU but may have transferred to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. According to NIU President John Peters, "By all accounts that we can tell right now (he) was a very good student that the professors thought well of." Kazmierczak had no arrest record or contact with the police. His motive is currently unknown, but the most recent reports indicate that he may have stopped taking prescribed medication and his behavior had become erratic.

This is the fourth such shooting in the United States in the past week. The others occurred in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Memphis, Tennessee and Oxnard California. My sympathies extend to all the victims and their families for what are truly horrifying events.

But what I find most frightening about the NIU shooting is Kazmierczak's apparent normalcy. Classmates and teachers describe him as a good student, sociable and helpful. He isn't emerging as the typical misfit with an ax to grind and access to guns.

Something happened to make Kazmierczak snap, yet no one seems to know what it was. Perhaps details about his past will emerge and bring his actions into sharper focus. But for now, all we have is a picture of a smiling guy-next-door assassin who could have been anybody. Who, in fact, was.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Seeing Faces

The photo to the left is from a blog entitled Faces in Places.

Some of the photos gathered there -- from all over the world -- are cute.

Others, kind of creepy.

Ever since looking through the site, I've been seeing faces myself, everywhere I go. In the back of cars, on the side of buildings, in the most unexpected places. Check it out -- and prepare to have your perspective altered.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Every Horror Plot

The following is the first paragraph of Caleb Crain's review of Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King, which appeared in The New York Times Literary Review on September 12, 1999. I've always been impressed with its insight and accuracy about what brings a horror story to life.
Every horror plot hinges on at least one moment of grand imprudence. You really shouldn't buy that 1958 Plymouth Fury. You really shouldn't take that job as the hotel's winter caretaker. And you really shouldn't dig up your dead son and re-inter him in the enchanted Indian burial ground. But of course the hero acts unwisely, because in some dark cellar of his personality he wants the bad thing. And the reader, with a lesser, merely voyeuristic rashness, wants to see him do it. In the efficient economy of the horror novel -- too efficient for the psychologically fastidious -- the resulting nightmare delivers both a thrill surreptitiously longed for and a punishment for having indulged.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Oh, and Whew

Mitt Romney dropped out of the race today, so there's one less nightmare to worry about.

For now.


2006; directed by Paddy Breathnach; written by Pearse Elliott

This is what today's post was originally going to be, before that NPR story got me all riled up.

Shrooms was released in the U.S. on Feburary 1, 2008, but for some strange reason has also been playing on HDNet the past month or so. I was actually kind of excited to see that, because I'd seen the trailer a couple weeks earlier and was looking forward to what appeared to be a different kind of horror film.

And it is at first, and then it's not.

Shrooms combines The Blair Witch Project (there's that film again) with that crazy-sexy-cool LSD segment from Easy Rider. Ghosts and hallucinations? I think that qualifies as a full weekend in just about anyone's book.

The film opens with six attractive college students driving a van through the Irish equivalent of Appalachian back-country. It's shroom season on the Emerald Isle and the cast has come to par-tay!

But then weird things start happening. The van hits a strange animal in the woods and is dragged away for cleanin' and cookin' by two mush-mouthed locals, slobbering all the way. There's a legend that's told about an old orphanage nearby where a horrible massacre occurred. Oh, and something important: there's this one kind of mushroom that looks almost like the magic mushrooms they've come for, which they should stay away from because it could make them violent and go crazy and also see the future. So don't eat those ones, okay?

Early on, when someone manages to eat one of the dreaded manic mushrooms anyway, I was surprised. I'd been expecting the mix-up to happen later on and was looking forward to all the ensuing mayhem it would create, kind of like when everyone starts getting sick in Cabin Fever. When it happened, I wasn't sure whether the movie was suddenly smarter than me or had just made an error.

But following that one moment of surprise, everything else seems like an error. Soon enough good judgment takes its leave and people start making classic horror movie mistakes. They get separated. They go into dark, weird places all alone. Oh, and something important: they take strong hallucinogens in woods that are supposed to be haunted.

This last one I can forgive, because without it we don't have a movie. But the others had me looking at my watch and wondering how much longer this thing was going to last. And then there was the surprise! twist! ending! that's required by law for every horror film since The Sixth Sense.

does have a few things going for it besides its terrific premise. The cast of unknowns makes it tougher to pick out the one or two stars who'll emerge from their adventure sadder but wiser. The cast sits around the campfire and complains about the Leprechaun series not being scary. And there's a lovely scene in the slack-jawed locals' cabin that would have made me squirm even more if I'd been able to understand what either of the actors was saying through all their dental prosthetics and Irish accents. (I turned on the subtitles, and it was worth it.)

Unfortunately, a good premise, an unknown but game cast, one genuinely weird scene and sharing one of my own deeply held beliefs isn't really enough to keep things from crashing, and Shrooms ends up feeling like the cinematic equivalent of a trip that never really takes off.

I Love My Country, But I Fear My Government

This is National Public Radio. Today on Morning Edition it aired a story on the Pentagon's proposed defense budget. At over three-quarters of a trillion dollars, it is the highest it's ever been since World War II. Here's why.

This is the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor fighter jet. After 25 years of development and a cost of approximately $60 billion, the F-22 has finally reached what the Air Force calls "full operational capability." Each F-22 costs about $300 million, and was specifically designed to fight the Soviets in air-to-air combat. Yet with two wars going on, the F-22 has yet to fly a single mission in either.

This is the Taliban, our enemies in the Afghanistan War. The Taliban does not own a single fighter jet. Nor are they likely to ever own a fighter jet.

These are Iraqi insurgents, our current enemies in the second Iraq War. The Iraqi insurgents do not own a single fighter jet. Nor are they likely to ever own a fighter jet.

This is Al-Qaeda, with leader Osama Bin Laden in white, our enemies in the larger Global War on Terror. Al-Qaeda does not own a single fighter jet. Nor are they likely to ever own a fighter jet.

Despite all this, Lockheed-Martin's F-22 fighter program is still very much alive, along with many other big-ticket items which analysts estimate make up about 50% of the Pentagon's regular annual budget. Even though they have almost no value when it comes to anti-terrorism efforts, they are all de facto items when it comes to creating the military's budget.

This is the Pentagon's proposed budget for 2008. It totals $769 billion and is larger than all other countries' defense budgets combined. Yet our military troops are the smallest they have ever been since the end of World War II. And our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan still lack basic equipment such as body armor, and everyday necessities like sunscreen, toothpaste, deodorant, lip balm, soap, shampoo, shaving cream, razors, gloves, socks, pocket calculators, snack food, you name it. You can send a care package to a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan through AnySoldier.com.

This is President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first military general to serve as President of the United States in the 20th century. Shortly after his inauguration in 1953 he stunned Congress by advocating deep cuts in military spending. He said, "To amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another." Eight years later in his 1961 farewell address, he also warned the nation against the unchecked growth and influence of a vast "military-industrial complex." You can watch the video of his prescient address here.

If you're not scared yet, you just haven't been paying attention.

You can listen to NPR's entire report here. Once you do, you can express your disagreement, frustration and horror with the whole damned mess here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

My Nightmare Republican Ticket

Mitt Romney for President, with Mike Huckabee as his Vice Presidential running mate.

Pundits are speculating that Huckabee is gunning for a VP spot on the ticket with his string of Southern wins in last night's primaries.

And there's talk that Romney could still get the nomination if conservative resistance to John McCain continues to grow.

If that happens, and they somehow win, get out your copies of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, because they're going to become survival manuals.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Art of Kathleen Eaton

The image to the left -- entitled "Parkway" -- is just one of many by Chicago-area artist Kathleen Eaton.

Eaton specializes in paintings and painted editions of urban and suburban environments. Many are strangely deserted, as if they've been captured just moments before the early morning rush, or at an unexpectedly quiet moment during a weekend afternoon, or so late at night everyone else has gone home.

This feeling may have something to do with Eaton's color choices, which tend to vibrant oranges and reds, or spectral blues and violets. Or the long shadows that stretch across the frame.

When people do appear in Eaton's work, they may only be silhouetted inside windows and doors, or somewhere off in the distance attending to something just out of sight.

You may have seen Eaton's work if you've ever flown in and out of Chicago's Midway airport, where several of her large-format paintings are on display.

I've been a fan of Kathleen Eaton's work for many years now, and post it here because I've been thinking a lot about art and design in horror. Too much of it, I think, relies on the tried-and-true conventions of blood, decay, knives or other weapons, skeletons and skulls, vampires, cackling witches or other supposedly monstrous entities. These things aren't scary to me, and I doubt they really are to you, either. They're often gross, usually distasteful, almost always trite, expected and boring. But rarely ever frightening.

Eaton's art relies on none of these visual cliches, yet it still manages to create a sense of unease that's both seductive and disturbing. Viewing her work, I want to be in the scene so that I can get a better sense of what's going on. At the same time, I'm glad I'm not there, because it seems that something strange is just moments from taking place.

I encourage you to visit Kathleen Eaton's site, where you'll find many more examples of her work.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Horror of Britney Spears

Let me begin by saying that I'm not a Britney Spears fan, but I bear her no ill will. And like most of the world, I've watched with horrified fascination as she's spiraled out of control.

The last year of Britney news has been like driving past a car wreck every other day. At first it's a thrilling change of pace and you can't wait to get a good look. But after a while you start to notice a pattern. "Another car wreck?" you say, even though you're still craning your neck to see what happened. Then you begin to get concerned. "There's a car wreck here all the time," you think. "What the hell's going on?" Next, you become alarmed. "Something's really wrong here," you think. "Someone should do something about it." Finally, after so much carnage, you grow bored and annoyed with the whole thing. You stop driving down that street entirely because it's obviously bad news and you warn your friends about it as well because no one needs to get caught up in that mess.

That's kind of where I am with Britney right now. The thrill is gone. Someone should have stepped in a long time ago. This needs to be fixed. Now, I just don't want anyone else to get hurt and am avoiding it as much as possible.

So why this post?

Simple. I feel bad for Britney because I've behaved erratically myself from time to time. In the moment, it never seems like that big of a deal. There are always extenuating circumstances and no one really knows how I feel and they certainly don't have my best interests at heart and besides it's my life. It becomes easy to do the wrong thing.

But after the dust settles and I've had some time to think things through, I realize I made a bad decision. I've embarrassed myself, damaged my reputation, hurt others. Worse, everybody knew this was happening at the time and they've been talking about it ever since. Now I have to come back, apologize and watch my shit like a hawk, because I know everyone's watching and placing bets on when the next shoe is going to drop.

The last time this happened, I backed out of an out-of-town client meeting the day before our flight. For you, it might have been getting drunk at a party and donning a literal or metaphoric lampshade, getting involved in an ill-considered bout of adultery (is there any other kind?), getting addicted, arrested, caught, committed, criticized, hurt, implicated, imprisoned, shamed, you name it. There are a million and one ways to screw up and everyone's done it.

If you're a normal, average person, the blast radius of whatever bomb you just dropped is probably limited to family, friends and coworkers. If you're fortunate, many of them will be supportive once they've surveyed the damage and brushed themselves off.

But if you're Britney Spears, and the hits just keep coming, and every time one does it's splashed on every screen in the world, and some people are obviously taking pleasure and/or financial gain from your trouble, and you're probably suffering from a treatable and not-uncommon mental illness as well, it makes a graceful recovery damn-near impossible. And that's got to hurt like hell.

Imagine your worst embarrassment. Multiply it by a thousand. Add in constant media coverage with some people predicting things will get worse and others hoping they really do. Combine with not knowing which of your friends and family you can trust. I bet you still can't imagine what Britney Spears is feeling now or will be soon.

Congratulations, world. Britney Spears had a massive and near-total meltdown, and we all got to watch. We're still watching and commenting from the sidelines and licking our chops in anticipation of what's going to happen next. We just can't get enough of her misery. I think we secretly hope it never, ever ends.

I don't know if Britney Spears can recover from something like this. I don't know if anyone can. But if she does, by some measure of strength or grace, I'll become her biggest champion because what's happened to Britney Spears, what's been done to her and is still being done, is nothing short of horrifying. It's probably one of the worst things that could ever happen to a person.

I hope Britney gets the time and space and peace and help and understanding she needs to deal with this and put it behind her.

And I hope none of us will ever need it ourselves.

Good luck, Britney. Be well.