Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Carving Out Its Legacy

Last night, my wife and I went to a free showing of the 1974 classic horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at Brewvies. By now, you probably already know how the story of this movie goes, because you've seen it aped in hundreds of other horror films since it's been made. Bored, suitably affluent, oversexed teenagers decide to pile into a van and go on a trip to spend the night outside of their hometown in a kooky, spooky mansion. Lo and behold, a family of cannibalistic rednecks terrorizes and murders them one by one with chainsaws and the kids find out very quickly that "they ain't from around here."

By now, this plot is all-too-familiar territory for anyone who's seen a horror flick in the past thirty years and, while breaking a lot of new ground in 1974, this formula had been used before (Psycho is perhaps an earlier example.) What endures with Tobe Hooper's film is the heat, the grime, the noise, and the escalating nightmare that suspends the film goer in that sense of being horrified but unable to look away that is the signature of any horror masterpiece. The way that the camera jogs from one tiny semi-lit room to another only to be transfixed on some gruesome and unsettling thing, like a piece of cannibalistic artwork, and how it locks its gaze momentarily on that thing so that it just treads over the limit of your comfort zone. The way that the heat boils and simmers in a room until you're convinced that there can never be any escape for these people, that they have only these few hours of madness left in their lives before their brutal death. All of these elements are so carefully forged that it can only result in a celluloid sledgehammer of a horror film like Texas Chainsaw.

I have to admit that I haven't seen the 2003 remake of this film, but I can tell you that I'm not particularly interested in seeing something as perfect as Texas Chainsaw warmed over and made palatable for a jaded, modern audience. The film can't be duplicated because what makes it scary, unnerving, and brilliant is inextricably tied to a particular time and place. The original Texas Chainsaw is scary because it was made in 1974 in richly saturated, violently red 16mm by crazy Texans who were working with a shoestring budget and had completely involved themselves in the nightmare of making their movie.

Texas Chainsaw was filmed over a period of four weeks in record breaking heat in rural Texas. The actors had to spend long hours in unventilated rooms being filmed by cameras that required extra hot lamps to receive adequate lighting. During the immortal dinner scene, Marilyn Burns, the actress playing the girl who gets kidnapped by the cannibal family, gets her finger cut with a knife by the chainsaw wielding Leatherface and her blood gets gruesomely sucked up by the corpse-like grandfather of the family. During the filming of this scene, Icelandic-American poet and writer Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface) got so fed up with the malfunctioning blade that was supposed to squirt fake blood onto Marilyn Burns's finger, that he replaced it with a real blade and actually cut Burns's finger deep enough to produce enough blood for the actor that played the grandfather to slurp up. This is footage of people that are overheated, exhausted, and at the end of their rope, and the only outlet they have is to play this mania for the cameras. It's just one of the many things that brings out the authenticity of the horror in this story.

Seeing the film again, I was particularly struck with how well Gunnar Hansen brings Leatherface to life. You almost feel sorry for the big slobbering maniac. He lumbers over the scenery, waving his chainsaw like it's the only thing capable of cutting through all of the things that have made his life horrible, trapped as he is in a house full of rotting corpses and lorded over by his domineering brothers. There's a scene where he hangs one of the teenagers on a meathook and beheads another with his chainsaw, but then he pauses and sits down and starts hitting himself on the forehead with his palms. The camera closes in and we see his all-too-human eyes peering out of a mask of human flesh. We get the sense that he hates what he's doing, but can't find a way out. And he can't pull off the mask of Leatherface without risking something that's grown to be terribly important to him. It calls to mind the scene in Frankenstein when the monster accidentally drowns the girl when he attempts to play with her. Leatherface is ultimately too savage and too inarticulate, and he's been brought up in such brutality by his family, that the possibility of happiness for him has been completely foreclosed. At the end of the film, he's left entirely alone, piroetting madly with his chainsaw in the sun's merciless red glare.

It's been a few years since I've seen it, but I can say for sure that the film only improves with multiple viewings, and it got some good screams out of my wife to boot, which is the whole point of taking your best girl to horror flicks. This Halloween, make sure to include the immortal Texas Chainsaw Massacre in your candy-corn stuffed monster movie lineup.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Fire and It's Antecedents

In addition to biting social commentary and satire, The Nightwatchman's mission is to greatly expand general interest in the arts. It's also a convenient way to reel off some of my poetry and hock my bloody wares in the smelly and crowded bazaar of the internet. Here, is a sample of some of my poetry with all of its unabashedly cloyed earnestness and hackneyed splendor. I am compiling all (well, most) of my poetry into a book that I will self-publish some time next year. Without any further ado I give you...

Fire and It's Antecedents

Perhaps I am like the bird.

A glance, a fleetness of

Posture. Always seeing and

Hurtling towards the seen.

Perhaps I am like the bird.

I am afraid.

A fistful of dry grass

And I remember when

The wetness of new grass

Was the sheen of rabbit’s

Fur. “I am with you,”

Was spoken. The rabbit

was the fist of silence.

The night has no grandfather

On the lake’s other side

Rocking, whispering. We

Want for commandment

Censure, approbation

When we have no hill’s

Lean hunter, gamesman,

Or senator to unmake

Such a forest

Of bright little eyes.

As a boy I stood up

In the short stubble, nothing

Else around, maybe juniper,

Tamarisk. My skin white

A blasphemer, my arms

Turning, working themselves.

I thought I was an eminence

A thought like a tall white cloud

Or an invader, omniscient

Like a train.

When I see the moon in its maddest geography

Will my mask be red enough to remind him of me?

As a man its altogether

Too much.

It’s time now. Can you tell?

She has forgotten how brief

All of it has been

And how I am so delicate

To the vapor of peanut

Shells, newspapers, coffee.

I cannot sort

The sudden promenade

Of indisputable life

from the meat of the self

There’s the headaches

The coral profuses

Itself redly against

The stony parts of my head

Corrupting the straighter corners

of their cleanness.

Too much.


Red, blue, forgive me forgive me

My hands are weaker now

My shears unyielding.

I want the white flowers

At the grace of decline

When their frills become partial

Folded, indefinite

Their color richening,

Comprehending the sun

In its blush of death

And then severed, floating

In a cool gray bowl.

I want for them

What I want for myself.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Thomas Friedman's Mixed Emotions

Folks, Thomas Friedman, op-ed columnist for the New York Times and renowned author of the books The World is Flat and The Lexus and The Olive Tree, has some good news and some bad news. The good news is that 2.00 gas prices are back. Last week the average price for gas fell to 2.91 a gallon - the lowest it's been in nearly a year. The bad news is that with cheaper gas prices, we just might be tempted to go out and buy more of the stuff.

Mr. Friedman is given pause when Americans are finally feeling some modicum of relief at the gas pump while commodity prices rise ever higher and stock indexes spiral towards an uncertain fate. Surely, now is not the time to congratulate ourselves for using public transportation, walking, carpooling, or biking to work during those hard months this past summer. According to Mr. Friedman, now, more than ever, is the perfect time for us to feel more guilty.

He's afraid that affordable gas will be the death knell for the green revolution. That Americans, drunk on their maniacal power to freely consume affordable gas, will stop demanding green-tech cars from Detroit and will stop seeking alternative means of transportation and energy altogether. Never mind, that food, clothes, and shelter (read:houses) are now more expensive and harder to get than they have been in decades. Friedman thinks that at the first whiff of lowered gas prices, Americans will go back to buying gas guzzling SUVs and sports cars. We will abandon our dreams of a cleaner environment and better energy alternatives, regarding them as faddish and naive, to drag our cigarette boats with our Dodge Rams over America's congested roadways and into steadily more polluted lakes and reservoirs. Only, when our planet has been polluted beyond habitability will we lift our clenched fists to the sky and cry, "Why? Why, didn't our governments and authority figures regulate our horrible, irresponsible choices?"

Never fear. Mr. Friedman has the solution. He wants a government standard put on all utilities to produce at least 20% of their emissions from clean energy sources - wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, biomass - by 2025. He points out that more than half the states already have this standard, but apparently states can't be trusted not to pollute the environment, so the feds have to step in and take credit for a standard that already exists in most states in America. But, what happens if a state is not particularly abundant in clean energy resources (no wind, very little solar, etc.) or if the people of a state oppose nuclear energy? What if meeting the standard just costs a state too much money? Too bad, says Friedman, you have to save the environment or go broke trying.

It gets better. Friedman also wants Washington to require state utilities to switch to a system called "decoupling-plus." As far as I can tell, this is fancy economist-speak that means that utilities pay you more for getting you to use utilities less. Constant reader, I am no economist, but let me try to understand this. Let's say that a utility company sells bananas instead of heating gas. Using decoupling-plus, the banana company convinces me to buy less bananas because my banana consumption is completely out of control and the company is being forced to conserve the world's bananas. They actually pay me NOT to buy bananas. Their plan works. I only buy one banana per week. So, they keep paying me not to buy their bananas, but if they keep paying me more than I pay them, they're losing money. Who will bailout the poor, beleaguered banana company who now has no more money after decoupling-plus? I'll give you three guesses.

He also suggests "targeted investments" to mass-transit and clean-tech manufacturing, which is an old stand-by for social engineers like Friedman who see American tax dollars as so many pawns on a chessboard. If the government throws enough money at new ideas, maybe they'll work. The government's track record for keeping pace with innovation is lackluster to say the least. Remember, when Bush was first elected he invested in hydrogen without really doing the homework on hydrogen actually being expensive, scarce and overall not a good energy alternative? Still, will we ever get that money back to put it into something more worthwhile? Moreover, why would Friedman suggest more government spending when, by nearly all accounts, we are teetering on the brink of recession? As Ronald Reagan once eloquently put it, "Here we go again."

To read Friedman's article for October 22, 2008 visit: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/22/opinion/22friedman.html?_r=1&ref=opinion&oref=slogin

Saturday, October 18, 2008

ME, ME, ME....

Hello! Thanks for stopping in. Pull up a red velvet wing-backed chair and pour yourself another generous snifter of brandy, while I bore you to death with the details of my long, sad life. My full name is Michael Robert Gillham, and I was born in 1983 in a tiny shit-kicking outpost in middle-of-nowhere Wyoming. My father was a fly-by-nighter whose name I don't know and face I'd never recognize. My mother came from hearty frontier stock and had a passion for cross-stitching, Christianity, chores, and the actor stylings of the late Michael Landon. Not long after my birth, my mother met and married a diminutive yet highly efficient civil servant named Larry Gillham (hereafter referred to as "Dad"), whose name I share. They had one son, who is my half-brother a bespectacled, energetic little hobbit named Jason. And we were accompanied by my half-sister, Sheila, who was from an earlier marriage of my mother's and was several years my senior.
Early in my life, my mother contracted cervical cancer and we had to move to the bustling metropolis of Salt Lake City, Utah (where I still live) so that she could receive the care she needed. Sadly, she passed away from her illness in the fall of 1988, and only a matter of weeks later, Sheila was killed in a tragic shooting accident. This left Mr. Gillham with the burden of raising Jason and I by himself and with very little help.
My dad is an extraordinary parent by any measure. My brother and I ripped each other apart when we were kids and he gave us a very nice home and managed to send us both to a bizarre social experiment that masqueraded as a private high school. On the surface, this school appeared to be a good environment for teenagers; small class sizes, open teaching styles, and strong academics were at all times visible. But, bubbling just beneath the surface, was a conspiracy formulated by the teachers and administration to kill us by subjecting us to backpacking, white-water rafting, and rock climbing in such exotic and dangerous locales as Vietnam, Costa Rica, and Mexico. I was lucky to escape with my life. Others have been less fortunate.
From 2003 to 2007 I attended the University of Utah where I graduated with a BA in English with a minor in keg-stands, football stadium vandalism, plagiarism, and napping. That same year I married a smart and sassy lady named Amanda McFarland and we now live near downtown Salt Lake City in our shoebox apartment with a muskrat/chinaman/dog hybrid named Frida Kahlo. I am a devoted libertarian, an atheist, a vegan, an avid swimmer and runner, a man of letters, and a gentleman and PATRIOT, to the last. I like reading, watching TV, wine, beer, sex, profanity, sleeping, and maybe writing if there's still time.