Friday, October 20, 2006

Prime Viewing

The following article was written for print two years ago. Due to the irregular distribution of the film involved the piece never made it into syndication, and so appears here. The format is a bit atypical due to the constraints of its intended venue, but I’ll let that slide as a review of this particular film on this particular site has been far too long coming.
Oh, and please note the care with which any and all spoilers have been avoided.

From the moment the picture begins to light up the screen, you realize that something is different. You see no beautifully constructed set, no amazing recreation of real life—instead you see a garage. A genuine garage. And with that for a beginning what you see is real life—in fiction.

Primer is something unique, an oil-painting among the framed prints that are Hollywood flicks. It is something that many Americans probably never expected would ever be seen. It is a thriller about engineers, made by an engineer.

Yes, the main characters wear the archetypical ‘geek’ garb of white shirts (collars and sleeves unbuttoned, of course) and haphazard ties. True, they are far from the suave heroes of the Hollywood thriller—but then they aren’t pretending to be suave.

These men are just guys who live their suburban lives like the rest of America. While building cool stuff, that is. Their weekend tinkering has even formed the basis for a small business. And now one of them wants to build one more device...

This movie succeeds as a thriller because of the great care with which it has been crafted. The eerily sedate telephone narration brings up questions from the start. The suspense, however, is not manufactured but instead comes naturally. The viewer is forced to remain alert by the complicated plot’s peculiar—and logical—loops. Not until the theater’s overhead lighting is ready to flicker back on can the mind completely make sense of some elements.

The reasons above are why Primer makes a great thriller. It succeeds as a great film for other reasons.

Writer/producer/director/cinematographer/actor/composer Shane Carruth, the engineer behind this production (literally), has given moviegoers something that cannot be considered merely part of a genre. The interaction between and among characters doesn’t ‘feel Hollywood’ (possibly because the film is Texas made...), it just feels real. Primer was shot entirely on location with commonplace people and was written ‘realistically’ but retains the human warmth—and coldness—that makes life interesting.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Ball Lightning (or a Good Pinch-Hitter)

In honor of Friday the Thirteenth, I present a True Story recalled from my childhood.

I was twelve years old or so. For years I had been a fan of Bertrand R. Brinley’s Mad Scientist’s Club, and was really just now starting to be able to truly emulate their brainy schemes. This particular time, I was wiring an audio pick-up and radio transmitter. Specifically, I was trying to build a working replica of the rig the guy who stated every week “I Was a Communist for the FBI” carried through a nefarious meeting of saboteurs.

Dad noticed the bundle of wires, diodes, transistors, etc, and grimaced at the thought of another one of my projects. I braced for another lecture on not electrocuting myself, not to mention the possible barked order not to proceed at all. I managed to scurry by before he could reprimand me. You see, as the youngest member of the household, my family always considered me somewhat incompetent when it came to safety (not to mention other things), especially if I was embarking on some field none of them understood personally. Prior to my late teen years, nothing I ever wired was powered off anything but small store-bought batteries (even if I did find interesting ways to arrange them), so I felt pretty safe. Had I been sticking bare wires into the wall sockets maybe I would have seen reason in all the panic the sight of my person with wire cutters and solder instigated.

Well, my pint-sized transmitter went together without incident, and rather quickly since I was basically assembling ready-made parts from previously used (and worn out) items. All that was left was to secure all the pieces inside the little plastic case I had picked for them, close enough and securely enough that the loose connecting wires couldn’t be torn out. So, I plugged in my brand-new hot glue gun and picked it up to await the stick’s melting.

That’s when it happened.

They were tiny at first, probably at least half a dozen of them. Little light-blue bubbles, varying maybe from one to five millimeters in diameter. They sounded like a set of spark-gap transmitters, each floating in slow-motion upward and away to the left or in front of me. One by one they disappeared, not so much exploding as imploding, each implosion accompanied by one to three flashes. As these were detonating, more were materializing just above the glue gun’s heating coil and making like in Rome. Then came the two Over-Size Balls of Fire.

The Over-Size Balls of Fire. They were most definitely a pair. Each was somewhere between three and five centimeters in diameter, one a little smaller than its mate. Again, they were pale blue, vaguely translucent. Not so bright that they hurt the eyes (as a light bulb does), I stared directly at them, mesmerized, picking out slight variations across their dimensions. Then, one began orbiting the other or, more likely, they began mutually orbiting each other. A few white sparks flashed, buzzing, between them.

As the Two rose, all of the smaller spheres seemed to disappear beneath them—though probably I was merely so distracted by the giants I simply ignored the others. These larger balls refused to pop as quickly as their brethren, or to veer away from me as the others had. These two bounces randomly back and forth, a few centimeters this way and that, but averaging a path that was most definitely headed directly for my face. I pulled what has since becomes known as a “Matrix,” bending backwards to pull myself out of their path, my eyes still fixed to them. They imploded inches above my face, maybe a foot, foot-and-a-half. Five brilliant flashes played on the white walls around me as though someone were busy with an arc-welder.

Most eyewitness accounts of ball lightning and analogous events mention a loud bang at each globe’s disappearance. My recollection of the audio track accompanying the implosions (some of which generated highly localized bursts of sparks) is hazy. I seem to remember that the buzzes got much louder each time, shortly culminating in a hollow crack. But more lucid than this is the thought, as I saw my father dashing to either rescue me or survey my cadaver, that dad must have looked up to see the flashes emanating from the room after hearing some spectacular sounds produced therein.

Pop’s attempt at rescue was unneeded, as I had yanked the cord on the glue gun out of its socket simultaneous to jerking out of the Two’s path. It was all over by the time he got to the doorway. His assumption was that I had somehow managed to complete a rather large circuit with my body, and generally mess up everyone’s day. I explained that the culprit was the cheap glue gun, which, by the way, I could touch only very gingerly. Its end came a few minutes later when I threw it into the garbage, inside a cardboard box thoroughly bound by duct-tape.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Why and How I’m Proud to Say that I Know James Warner Bellah

Many people have been introduced to Mr. James Warner Bellah without ever realizing it.
Such was the case when, at three years old (or less), I watched John Ford’s Rio Grande with my grandpa. (If you’ve ever bought a Louis L’Amour paperback at a library booksale, Grandpa’s is the name hand-written on it.)

Rio Grande is that film many casual filmgoers may remember as “John Wayne wearing a mustache, next to a guy with an eye patch.” I watched hundreds of movies, almost exclusively western, with Grandpa during my formative years. This one stuck out above all the rest in my mind. Some of that has to do with John Wayne’s moustache and the other guy’s eye patch, some with the fact that it is probably the only western my brother did not openly mock. But certainly, a good deal of its memorability is the robust characterization present in almost every inch of celluloid and the exceptional action that appears near the end.

In 1998 or ’99, the Warner Bros. Westerns label appeared on VHS in Wal-Marts everywhere, bringing with it She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, made by John Ford the year prior to Rio Grande. Of course, I bought it. Once one manages to muscle past being distracted by the New York Times quote (“A dilly of a cavalry picture. Yeehooooo!”), there is this on the back:
John Wayne plays Brittles in this second film in Ford’s renowned cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache and Rio Grande are the others).
Something struck me quite keenly. While Wayne plays the character of Col. Kirby York in both of the other two films, I was already familiar with the character of Capt. Nathan Brittles. I was also familiar with his 1st Lieut. Flint Cohill. For mere months before, I had listened to an audio cassette of the “Escape!” (one of radio’s grandest theaters of adventure) show aired 6 December, 1949 and entitled “Command.

Wayne’s performance as Nathan Brittles, USC, is generally considered one of his finest by film buffs (I’d readily place his Tom Dunson of Red River above it), but whatever it is, it is not the true Nathan Brittles. Brittles is the aged war horse of the cavalry, about to be put out to pasture. John Wayne’s moustache is gray (yes, another moustache), his face tired, his mannerisms almost perfectly those of aching maturity. An excellent accomplishment when his years were only forty-two (his Dunson, by the way, was similarly ripened just as well several years earlier, but B&W film did aid that). But Wayne cannot help, or more likely, Ford will not let Wayne help being an affectionate old cuss, even when he spits out Brittles trademark “Never apologize. Sign of weakness.”

The Brittles we meet in “Command,” on his first patrol with the irate Flintridge Cohill, has a hardness in each of his few words. A coldness to his efficiency. A bitterness to his guardianship. “He will die a captain, in spite of his apology.” Bill Johnstone’s voice, not John Wayne’s, is all that I can hear when listening to Captain Brittles.

“Command,” Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande. There are many threads that overlap any given three of that set, but (aside from a U.S. Cavalry setting) only one thing entirely in common. Each is based on the tales of one James Warner Bellah. (If you’re interested, he also co-wrote Sergeant Rutledge—screenplay and novel—and the screenplay The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.)
Armed with this knowledge, I set out on a quest for the short cavalry works of Mr. Bellah. That universe of Nathan Brittles, Flintridge Cohill, Tyree, MacLendon Allshard, Ross Pennell, et al; that history alive with concisely reiterated departmental orders and flowing visually emotional prose.
Epochs of research and miles of microfilm brought me only one story, “Command” as originally printed in the 8 June, 1946 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

Today, I own that cassette of “Command” as well as a pitiably optically-printed paper copy, that VHS of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, three copies of Rio Grande (a VHS from shortly before I adopted DVD, my grandpa’s well-used copy, and the DVD “Collector’s Edition”), and the newly-released DVD of Fort Apache. And . . .

My discovery of the WorldCat electronic library catalogs came very shortly before they were made publicly available on the internet, no subscription of any kind required. [Readers can now search those catlogs via the thingy direstly to the right of these words.] There were a few choice works and authors I immediately ferreted out, James Warner B. among them. What I found was Massacre, a paperback anthology of Bellah’s mounted cav named for its final story (the basis of Fort Apache). Unfortunately, not one of the three libraries holding it smiled on my local branch’s inter-library loan request.

But there was one option left! Yes, that’s it: the inner reaches of the Amazon! Now that I knew precisely what I was looking for it was a simple matter. I opened an account (yes, I’m a late adopter) and made the purchase.
While at it I snagged a few other titles that crossed my mind, but I won’t here go into them.

And, this afternoon, my little Lion Books no. 43 arrived. It is in impressive condition, clearly having spent many years pressed neatly between other volumes on someone’s shelf (the cover is crisply colored except on the spine where it has faded to yellow from light exposure).

I have already read tonight the first two stories (“Command” and “The Last Fight”), and will begin the third before retiring to bed.

I am most contented.

(Say, as of now there is one more copy available over at the Amazonian market. Just saying ... )