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Once upon a time, in Quentin Tarantino’s universe

Posted in Uncategorized on August 29, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

basterdsGather round, boys and girls, and listen to your Auntie Gena tell you a story about my origins as a film snob.  Being that I was a lonely, introverted only child, I spent a lot of time alone, either reading or watching TV.  Luckily, my parents got cable when it was still considered a luxury, which made my TV watching experience that much better.  We rarely paid the phone bill on time, but dammit, we had HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, Prism, the works.  Mostly I watched horror movies, but occasionally, because my parents rarely monitored what I watched to make sure it was age appropriate, I saw stuff like A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver and Looking for Mr. Goodbar as well, all of which could be considered horror movies of a different kind.  I didn’t claim to understand any of them very well, but I found them deeply fascinating, mainly because they were just so different than much of the other stuff that was on TV and in the theaters, where everything was bright and happy, and everybody always got what they wanted at the end.

I particularly embraced the “different” aspect of it once I entered high school, when I convinced myself that my problem wasn’t that I was a socially maladjusted geek, but that I was simply living in a place that didn’t appreciate my “eccentricities.”  It certainly didn’t appreciate film snobs–I lived in an area where there were exactly two movie theaters within a forty mile radius, and their idea of an “art film” was Fatal Attraction.  Instead I haunted the local video store near my grandparents’ house, one of those dying breed tiny mom and pop run places that rented porn in an area curtained off in the back, slowly but methodically working my way through the horror section, but also trying to educate myself in other areas as well.  I was on a big Martin Scorsese trip for a while, followed by Francis Ford Coppola, followed by Stanley Kubrick, followed by Brian DePalma.  I read magazines like Premiere and Movieline, before they both gave in and went the fluff route, plus the harder to find stuff like Film Threat and Cinemafantastique.  I worshiped Joe Queenan’s ability to dissect such sacred cows as Woody Allen with a sense of humor as sharp and cutting as an X-acto blade fresh out of the package.  I actually aspired to be a film critic myself, that’s how pretentious I became, until it occurred to me that, being I also liked movies like the Naked Gun series and stood in line with the other plebes to watch Tim Burton’s Batman on opening night, I should probably get over myself a tad.

I do have a point here, somewhere.  I’ve watched a lot of movies, particularly during my teens and into my early twenties.  Many of those movies I’ve seen numerous times, but only twice did I ever watch a movie on video, get to the end, then immediately rewind it and watch it again.  One of those movies was Heathers.  The other was Reservoir Dogs.

It’s a cliche to describe a movie as “like nothing I’d ever seen before,” but Reservoir Dogs was like nothing I’d ever seen before.  The dialogue buzzed and crackled, the plot was deceptively simple yet dizzyingly sharp.  To this day I can watch it and still find something I missed before.  The most amazing thing was that the writer/director, Quentin Tarantino, was a high school dropout who worked in a video store while working on the script.  He wasn’t a Hollywood insider, he wasn’t related to anyone in the business, he got his first big break through sheer perserverance and talent.  He was an inspiration for all of us underdogs who thought we could do a better job of making movies, or at least, talking about them, than those who were signing the contracts and rolling in profits.

Cut to seventeen years later, and Quentin Tarantino is a millionaire filmmaker, while I’m a blogger who has started several screenplays, even finished one, yet has done nothing with any of them, either because I discover that my idea isn’t as original as I initially thought, or because, well, it probably sucks.  I have no hard feelings towards Quentin Tarantino, though, as success stories like his are such a rarity in the film industry that the chances of it happening a second time, at the same level are almost negligible.  It also helps that he hasn’t gotten lazy and boring.  He hasn’t taken a $20 million contract to direct a film adaptation of The Six Million Dollar Man.  He hasn’t resorted to cliched plots involving split personalities or evil twins no one knows about until the script calls for it to be discovered.  Thankfully, blessedly, he hasn’t discussed a great desire to write and direct a conventional romantic comedy.  Even his weaker movies in his near-twenty year career are still pretty darn good, and they get better upon repeated viewings.  Yes, I even liked Death Proof, his segment in Grindhouse, a whole lot, and I’m not at all averse to saying that if you didn’t like it, you pretty much missed the entire point of Grindhouse and the genre of film it was emulating.  But I digress.  In fact, this entire article up to this point has been one long digression, so let’s get to the real meat and potatoes: my thoughts on Tarantino’s latest Inglourious Basterds, his first period piece, a WWII saga that is one of his funniest, exciting, most gripping films yet.

Inglourious Basterds stars Brad Pitt, though he’s not in it as much as the trailers would have you believe, nor is the movie about him specifically.  He plays Lt. Aldo Raine, the Tennessee-born leader of a group of renegade Jewish soldiers, the “Basterds” of the title, who kidnap, torture and murder Nazi soldiers, often scalping them for souvenirs.  They’re a fearsome group, with such particularly notorious members as Sgt. Stieglitz (Til Schweiger) and the baseball bat wielding Sgt. Donowitz (Eli Roth), known as “the Bear Jew.” While Raine and his Basterds are weaving a path of destruction through the French countryside, on their way to meeting a German spy, we also make the acquaintance of Sgt. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a high-ranking Nazi officer whose speciality is finding Jews in hiding, mostly with just his master detective skills and smooth, oddly charming interrogation tactics.  The film opens with Landa questioning a French farmer, wearing him down until he admits to hiding a Jewish family in his basement, all without a single threat, or even raising his voice.  He prefers using charm, gentle but persistent persuasion and mind games to get the answers he wants; in fact it seems that the answers themselves are mostly arbitrary.

Landa’s soldiers murder the family, save for one member who escapes: oldest daughter Shoshana (Melanie Laurent), who flees to Paris, changes her name and becomes the proprietor of a movie theater, with her romantic partner Marcel (Jacky Ido) as the sole employee.  Shoshana meets a German war hero (Daniel Brühl), who is immediately so smitten with her that he requests that a film made about his exploits, directed by Joseph Goebbels himself, be premiered at her theater.  Shoshana and Marcel then come up with a plan to set fire to the theater during the premiere, using highly flammable silver nitrate film, killing everyone from Goebbels to  Heinrich Müller all the way up to Hitler himself.  Though they never cross paths with Shoshana, the Basterds have their own plan to destroy the theater and kill Hitler, et. al. themselves, infiltrating it with the help of Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a beautiful actress working as a spy.

Now, obviously Inglourious Basterds isn’t going for historical accuracy, nor has Tarantino ever claimed that it was.  I don’t even know that you could classify it as “alternative history,” since we’re given no indicator of what kind of far-reaching change would have occurred if the events in the film had actually taken place.  It’s more like history as Quentin Tarantino, and probably a lot of people, would have liked it.  I’ll be frank, it’s kind of amusing to imagine a bunch of tough Jews causing Nazis to quake in their jackboots over stories of fellow soldiers being beaten to death, the survivors set free but not before swastikas are carved into their foreheads with a very big knife (the one pictured in the photo above, to be exact).  It’s not minimizing or making light of the true horror of World War II, specifically the Holocaust, as some of Tarantino’s critics have suggested.  People still like watching John Wayne’s The Green Berets, even though only the most jingoistic, gullible fools would still insist we won in Vietnam.  It’s all just escapism, enjoying what could have been rather than what actually was.

This has become the longest film review of all time, so let me try to at least begin wrapping it up.  It’s impossible, really, to say in just a few sentences what I most enjoyed about Inglourious Basterds, and yet I’ll try: few films have you both laughing and literally wringing your hands in nervousness, and this is one of them.  A scene that takes place in a tavern unexpectedly overrun with Nazis, where some of the Basterds and their spy contact try to keep their cover from blowing, is like watching a lit fuse move slowly but steadily towards a pile of dynamite.  They know they’re going to get caught, you know they’re going to get caught, it’s only a matter of when and how, and it’s deliciously torturous.  It’s a smart film made by a smart writer who respects his audience and knows that they’ll understand what’s happening without his having to spell everything out for them.  It’s one of the things I like best about Quentin Tarantino, besides the fact that he writes excellent roles for women and he rarely resorts to gratuitious sex and nudity to pad an empty script.

The acting is uniformly strong, though, and I realize I’m probably the sixtieth or so self-professed “critic” to say this, the real star of the show is Christoph Waltz as Col. Landa.  In his American film debut (though he’s been an actor for nearly thirty years), he’s nothing short of marvelous, quietly intimidating, droll yet a little silly at times, particularly his delight in discovering American slang.  You buy from the minute he appears on screen that despite his smile and impeccable manners, he is not someone to be crossed, not one little bit.  May he enjoy a career in competing with Jeremy Irons for roles, since they share that similar reptilian, chilly charm, one where even the most seemingly benign interactions are tinged with quiet menace.  You can easily see how someone would be drawn into conversation with him, despite there being something just not right about it, the sense that he is a cat carefully working a mouse into a corner, doing God only knows what when it gets there.  I don’t know any other actor, particularly one who was already well known, who would have been able to do the role without lapsing into Oscar pandering showboating.

So yeah, Tarantino, to use a bit of Hollywood hyperbole, has done it again.  He may come off as a bit douchey in real life, but if I had the brains and creativity to make the kinds of movies he does, I would too.  Hell, I come off as a bit douchey here, and I don’t have a single film credit to my name.

Babies: Katie Roiphe’s anti-drug

Posted in Uncategorized on August 26, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

Found through Pandagon, author and noted anti-feminist Katie Roiphe, a first-time mother of a six week old infant, wonders why feminists, particularly those of the childfree variety, just refuse to admit how wonderful babies are.  After all, motherhood for her so far is a hippie, touchy-feely wonderland where every waking moment of her life is consumed in her child, and she loves it.

There is an opium-den quality to maternity leave. The high of a love that obliterates everything. A need so consuming that it is threatening to everything you are and care about. Where did your day go? Did you stare blankly at the baby for hours? And was that staring blankly more fiercely pleasurable, more compelling than nearly anything you have ever done? One of the minor dishonesties of the feminist movement has been to underestimate the passion of this time, to try for a rational, politically expedient assessment. Historically, feminists have emphasized the difficulty, the drudgery of new motherhood. They have tried to analogize childcare to the work of men; and so for a long time, women have called motherhood a “vocation.” The act of caring for a baby is demanding, and arduous, of course, but it is wilder and more narcotic than any kind of work I have ever done.

Some of the pressing tasks I do—say, running to the drugstore to buy more pacifiers—are just excuses to think about the baby, to obsess and dwell upon every little thing about him. Here again is the singular fixation that characterizes addiction rather than calm productivity.

Ah yes, spoken like a new mother who has not yet had to deal with teething, tantrums and bodily effluvia in a variety of fascinating colors and textures.  There is something charmingly irritating about a woman who has just very recently given birth and is already convinced that she has this motherhood thing down, that every moment she spends with her child is spiritual and poetic, that she has all the answers and can’t understand why other mothers can’t get it together.  These are the women who claim that as their children grow they will make every outing with them a “learning experience,” that they’ll never resort to fast food or frozen chicken nuggets even for a quick meal, that they’ll never lie to them, that they’ll always make time for them no matter what.  They have not yet discovered that the first six weeks of parenthood is the easiest time you’ll ever experience, because your child does little more than sleep, poop and cry.  After that, it gets a lot harder.  It becomes more rewarding and entertaining too, but make no mistake, it gets harder.

Katie Roiphe has long been a thorn in the side of feminism, mostly because she says stupid things like claiming that the fact that she’s never met anyone who was date raped must mean that date rape is an overexaggerated problem, not to mention that she seems to be one of those women who thinks we’re just better off being soft and feminine and letting men be in control.  I’m not surprised that she would have a similar, overly romanticized view of motherhood, to the point where she implies that anyone who doesn’t share her opinion on it couldn’t possibly know what they’re talking about, they just don’t know what they’re missing.  I am, however, surprised that she mentions going back to work soon (although I suspect Roiphe’s definition of “going back to work” differs from average, lower middle to middle class mothers), as I pegged her to be the type to immediately quit her job upon giving birth, declaring that she’s found her calling, there is no more to her life, at least for the next ten years or so, than to be a mother.  Considering she later states in the article that she can’t imagine choosing to write award winning novels over having children, as Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf did, clearly she believes that a woman who gives birth is worth more to the world than one who contributes to culture and the arts.  You’ll note that Roiphe has done both, so there’s a smugness to her essay that makes it damn near insufferable by the time it gets to the end.  It’s reminiscent of pretty much everything Caitlin Flanagan writes, especially on the subject of the “choice” we make to be working parents or stay at home mothers, a “choice” the majority of American women don’t actually have.

I wouldn’t wish colic or ear infections on an innocent baby, but it will be interesting to see what it will take to pop Katie Roiphe’s little bubble of self-satisfaction.  Once the hormones wear off and reality sets in, and she realizes that there isn’t anything all that poetic about discovering that you haven’t brushed your hair in two days because you’ve been chasing a growing toddler around the house, one that seems to grow extra arms and legs when you try to pick them up, as well as the ability to scream at a decibel equivalent to a 747 jet engine, she’ll get off this “feminists just need a whiff of new baby smell and they’ll see what’s really important in life” trip.  Motherhood is an incredibly important task, and it’s a choice I never once regret making for my own life.  However, I’m not going to kid myself and others by claiming that it’s the end-all, be-all for every woman, especially since I’m not naive enough to believe that parenting is a breeze for everyone.  The “I could just stare at his bitty little eyelashes for hours” phase doesn’t last long.  After that, it involves a lot of cleaning, a lot of soothing of tears, a lot of putting off either things you really need or at least want to do to watch Veggietales for the fifth time in a row.  Motherhood ain’t always pretty, and you’re in for a big disappointment if you’re picturing it through some hazy, Victorian-era lens, where you sit beatifically in a wicker chair with a pink-faced, perfectly dressed infant dozing adorably in your lap.  I’m fairly certain that the decision to not have children is not made lightly by most women, and I doubt Katie Roiphe’s holier-than-thou insistence that feminism is preventing women from experiencing the unending, incomparable joy of motherhood will change most minds.

PETA: Nothing but class

Posted in Uncategorized on August 17, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

peta
“Jacksonville, Fla. — A new PETA billboard campaign that was just launched in Jacksonville reminds people who are struggling to lose weight — and who want to have enough energy to chase a beach ball — that going vegetarian can be an effective way to shed those extra pounds that keep them from looking good in a bikini. The ad shows a woman whose “blubber” is spilling over the sides of her swimsuit bottom and features the tagline “Save the Whales. Lose the Blubber: Go Vegetarian. PETA.”

Anyone wishing to achieve a hot “beach bod” is reminded that studies show that vegetarians are, on average, about 10 to 20 pounds lighter than meat-eaters.

“Trying to hide your thunder thighs and balloon belly is no day at the beach,” says PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman.”~~PETA press release, earlier this month.

I don’t think this really warrants much comment from me, except to remind readers that PETA has still yet to produce any real scientific evidence that vegans and vegetarians are invariably healthier and thinner than meat eaters. After all, chocolate bars and onion rings don’t have meat in them either. I could stand to lose about fifteen to twenty pounds myself, but it ain’t meat that’s the problem, it’s starches and carbohydrates. Ergo, PETA as always scores a coup in both offering misinformation and being offensive about it at the same time. If they could somehow join forces with Fox News, they could take over the world in a veritable tsunami of fail.

Smoke ’em if you got ’em

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on July 15, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

chesterfieldAs seen at pretty much every news outlet everywhere, a study commissioned by the Pentagon and the Department of Veteran Affairs is pushing to ban both the sale and use of tobacco on military bases and even by officers serving in active combat.

According to the study, tobacco use impairs military readiness in the short term. Over the long term, it can cause serious health problems, including lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. The study also says smokeless tobacco use can lead to oral and pancreatic cancer.

My first question after reading this is “How much of our tax dollars went towards a study that results in information we already knew at least thirty years ago?” My second is “Really? Really?” Not surprisingly, follow-up articles suggest that this would not be a popular decision with many of those serving our country.

McCarter echoed the sentiments of many active-duty and retired military personnel when they learned of the proposed ban this week. Message boards on popular military forums like military.com, armchairgeneral.com and officer.com were burning up with reactions like “what a CROCK” and “If they really do ban tobacco in the military there are going to be some ****ed off troops.”

Do people actually censor the word “pissed” when they type it out? That’s actually kind of cute.  But I digress.  I don’t smoke, I think I’ve mentioned that before.  Growing up in a family where nearly everyone smoked like chimneys at some point, I made it a point never to pick up the habit myself.  I’ve also mentioned before that my father died earlier this year from complications of emphysema, an illness that could have only come from a forty year long addiction to cigarettes.  Despite all that, I find the notion of banning smoking in the military, even for soldiers risking their lives in some godforsaken desert in the middle of Iraq, to be rather ludicrous.  Considering the suicide rate for military personnel is already distressingly high, not to mention the fact that quitting cigarettes can have the same effect on a person emotionally and physically as quitting harder drugs such as heroin and crystal meth, I shudder to think what sort of effect a widespread ban on tobacco use would have.  I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want our troops even more aggressive and temperamental than they already are.  Considering the sobering statistics of rape and violence in the military, that appears to be quite enough of a problem as is.

I’m going to guess that, particularly for soldiers serving in active duty, asthma and the possibility of heart disease are low on their list of things to worry about, when they’re faced every day with the chance of stepping on a landmine or getting their heads turned to jelly by sniper rifles.  It seems to me that the real issue here isn’t about military personnel who smoke and the effect it has on their health, but the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses by VA hospitals.  It’s a reasonable concern, considering that in many cases the government funded medical services provided to veterans are woefully inadequate, but eliminating smoking entirely, particularly when it may be the only thing that keeps someone’s shit together when faced with the very real horror of combat, seems rather cruel.  What are they supposed to use as an alternative, chewing gum? Carrot sticks?

It’s also ironic when you take into account that, barely a generation ago, the military was where many young men first took up smoking in the first place.  My father served in the Army in the early 60s and recalled being given cigarettes as a reward for completing assignments at his base.  My ex-father-in-law did a tour of duty in Vietnam and was given cigarettes as part of his rations.  Originally plying their servicemen and women with cigarettes as incentive for being good little soldiers, now they want to take them away, mostly because it costs too much money to take care of them if those cigarettes make them sick.  Will there be funds and facilities available to help them through the agony of nicotine withdrawal? Not likely, if the piss-poor state of mental health support is any indicator.  I’ve never been the flag-waving, yellow ribbon sporting “support our troops” type, but I gotta say: let these people have their damn smokes.  It may be literally the only thing they rely on for comfort.  They know it may make them sick down the line, all people who smoke know it’s bad for them, but last I checked it’s still legal for a person to take that chance.

Admin note

Posted in Uncategorized on July 7, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

Due to my impending trip to Phoenix, AZ, where Earth is currently just six inches away from the sun, Deadly Stealth Frogs will be on hiatus until next week.  Unless I am reduced to a pile of ash during my stay, I’ll see you then.

Stay deadly! Stay stealthy!

Yr. Pal,

Gena

Happy Fourth!

Posted in Uncategorized on July 3, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

I’m lazy and it’s a holiday weekend, so I’ll just leave you with this, and my wish for a safe and happy Fourth of July.  God Bless America, even the parts that piss me off.

In defense of introverts

Posted in Uncategorized on June 22, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

Found through Jezebel, the UK’s The Guardian runs an article by Rachel Denton on her choice to live a life of solitude, with little contact from the outside world.

I moved here in January 2002 and started my life as a hermit, naming my house after St Cuthbert, the patron saint of hermitage. On a typical day, I pray between 6am and 8am. After breakfast, I work on my calligraphy business, perhaps on card designs or wedding invitations, until midday. I eat, nap and read until two, then work in the house or garden until five. Over supper, I listen to the radio for an hour, followed by more prayer. In the evenings I may sit and watch the fire, sew and wander around the garden.

I try to live a simple life. I grow my own fruit and vegetables and, on an income of around £8,000, I have to be careful what I spend. I don’t have a television and I allow myself only an hour of radio each day.

I made an official commitment to be a hermit in November 2006, at a special mass. Before you can take your vows in the Catholic church, you have to put together a “rule of life” agreed by the bishop. My vows were poverty, chastity and obedience, which I have interpreted as simplicity, solitude and silence.

Though the word is never used, it’s clear from Ms. Denton’s oft-mentioned desire to be alone that she’s a classic introvert, which seems to be a dying breed in today’s culture, particularly in Western countries.  I know, because I’m one too, and while reading the comments at the Jezebel article I was genuinely surprised to see how many readers envied Ms. Denton’s quiet, solitary life, where she has no suitors and only sees friends and family a couple times a year.  I was surprised because introverts tend to get a bad rap as being unsociable malcontents.  As someone who has spent most of my life being told by extroverts that I’d be much happier if I just stopped being a wallflower, I’ve come to accept that we’re a largely misunderstood lot, alternately categorized as shy and insecure yet somehow arrogant and snobbish at the same time.

Most introverts aren’t actually shy; in fact they tend to be excellent conversationalists, once they’re comfortable with someone.  They also don’t dislike people in general, but don’t necessarily feel the need to befriend everyone they meet either.  Socializing, particularly on a superficial, going to a party and meeting a bunch of new people at once level, is more stressful to introverts than extroverts, but it doesn’t mean they look to avoid any situation in which they’re forced to make conversation.  We just like our space and our alone time, and people who are constantly on the go from one social event to the other, often while complaining that they have very little time for themselves, baffle us as much as we baffle them.

We’re at a strange impasse, a thoroughly 21st century conundrum, in which, due to the nature of communicating on the internet, it’s not unusual for a person’s closest friends to live hundreds, even thousands of miles away, yet people, particularly women, who spend a lot of time at home with mostly themselves to keep them company, even if that’s their preference, are considered weird and a little sad. While the strong, silent man who doesn’t speak until he has something important to say is a much beloved cliche that will never go away, women are expected to be social butterflies, with an ever-growing circle of friends and acquaintances and a limitless supply of energy to dedicate to every one of them.  Quiet, aloof men are deemed “mysterious” and “sexy,” while quiet women are “mousy” and “timid.”  Though lots of people find shy men appealing, believing them to just need the right partner to open them up, you’d be hard-pressed to find “shy” high on the list of desirable female traits.  Most of the time, we just have to go through the motions of being gregarious and sociable, whether we want to be or not.

Rachel Denton has achieved the introvert’s dream: a quiet, unassuming life where she has total control over how social she chooses to be, seemingly without guilt and without her friends and family giving her a hard time or making assumptions about it.  I love living in New York City, both the worst and best place for an introvert to reside, yet I often fantasize about moving to a farm somewhere and raising goats, not just because I think goats are awesome, but because sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the need to just get away, closing my circle to just a select few friends and family members.  It is, however, at this point at least, a pipe dream, one, because I don’t know the first thing about raising goats, and two, because I’m not sure it’s a decision I could make without worrying about what people would think of it.  A move like that is generally perceived as rejecting the world, removing yourself from the big picture as if to suggest that you might be a little too good for it, and people don’t tend to like that.  All introverts have someone in our lives, a mother, a sibling, a friend, a co-worker who always want to tell us what we’re missing, who want to draw us out, who perceive our distance as a rejection of sorts.  Most of us are continually expected to give in to society’s expectations of what’s “normal,” no matter how exhausting and against our nature it might be.