Thursday, August 31, 2006

More Snakes than bucks

Mr. Cavin writes:
Based on information I read at The New York Times, I was under the impression that Snakes on a Plane was reaping the norm for a late summer horror release, and that any illusion of its poor performance was due to hopes being inflated by the internet hype phenomena (a lesson apparently no one took home after the halfhearted opening weekend of Steven Spielberg's AI). Certainly SOAP isn't bombing, though, just merely normal.
This argument reminds me of Joan Crawford's in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Joan Crawford: You wouldn't be able to do these awful things to me if I weren't still in this chair.

Bette Davis: But you ARE, Blanche! You ARE in that chair!
True, Snakes on a Plane wouldn't be a belly flop if it hadn't been the most-hyped Internet phenomenon in Hollywood memory, with 31 million Google hits (as of a minute ago) compared to 8 million for the movie of the summer, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. But it WAS, Blanche! It WAS!

According to the Internet Movie Database, here are movies that did better on opening weekend this summer than Snakes on a Plane, which did $15 million. First I list the title, then the opening-weekend gross.

  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest $135 million
  • X-Men: The Last Stand $122 million
  • The Da Vinci Code $77 million
  • Ice Age: The Meltdown $68 million
  • Cars $60 million
  • Superman Returns $52 million
  • Mission: Impossible 3 $47 million
  • Talladega Nights $47 million
  • Click $40 million
  • Scary Movie 4 $40 million
  • The Break-Up $39 million
  • Over the Hedge $38 million
  • Nacho Libre $28 million
  • The Devil Wears Prada $27 million
  • Miami Vice $25 million
  • The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift $23 million
  • Monster House $22 million
  • Poseidon $22 million
  • Little Man $21 million
  • You, Me and Dupree $21 million
  • Silent Hill $20 million
  • Step Up $20 million
  • Lady in the Water $18 million
  • World Trade Center $18 million
  • Invincible $17 million
  • The Omen $16 million
  • RV $16 million

    "Let's make a summer action movie starring Samuel L. Jackson, hype it until its very title becomes a catchphrase on the lips of millions, open it on an August weekend with no competition, and make about half as much money as Nacho Libre" is not a recipe for Hollywood success, however you try to spin it.

    Snakes on a Plane wound up making the same opening-weekend box office as Barnyard, made by people so stupid they don't know that bulls do not have udders.

    Its first week, Snakes on a Plane grossed $20 million. Its second week, $6 million. At this rate, will it still be theaters a fourth week?

    To paraphrase Bette Davis again: What. A. Flop.

    (For what it's worth, the only other airliner-in-peril movie this summer, itself overhyped, grossed only $11 million its opening weekend. But United 93 already has grossed more than twice its cost; that seems a forlorn box-office hope for Snakes on a Plane.)
  • Tuesday, August 29, 2006

    Conversation overheard in Frostburg

    Two guys in an athletic facility:

    "Do you get Martin Luther King Day off?"

    "That ain't a real holiday. Now, if we had a James Earl Ray Day ..."

    Authentic American voters! There you have 'em, folks.

    Snakes lacks legs

    Before the movie Snakes on a Plane opened, my hero F. Brett Cox wondered aloud:
    It'll be interesting to see how the movie does after all the hype.
    Well, now we know: It bombed. The opening-weekend gross was $15 million, less than a third of what the virtually hype-free Talladega Nights raked in its first weekend.

    Amid all the opinion pieces about why the movie tanked (precious few of which concern themselves with whether the movie was any good), has anyone speculated that the recent mid-Atlantic terror scare has put people off airliner-in-peril movies?

    Everyone's talking about Little Georgie

    I laughed loudly at this Arthur D. Hlavaty post, and was only mildly ashamed.

    Christopher Rowe, meanwhile, is right in remembering that in Robert Lawson's children's book Rabbit Hill, the lyrics of Little Georgie's song come complete with a melody. I can't read music, alas, so it could be sung to the tune of "Happy Birthday" or "To Anacreon in Heaven," for all I know.

    Christopher adds:
    I sing little songs too. In fact, a lot of times I make up a little song for whatever story I'm working on; the one for "The Voluntary State" even made it into the text.
    Do you mean Tonight we'll remake Tennessee, every night we remake Tennessee? I am delighted to know this. It reminds me of the various creation myths in which the gods sing a world into being.

    Kip W., meanwhile, recalls that Lawson was featured years ago in an exhibition of children's book illustrations at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va. I have visited the Chrysler only once and had not thought about it in years, but it's a fine museum, highly recommended. Kip W. adds:
    I remember in 8th grade, snickering because Lawson's drawing of a gangster called "Fish-Eye" looked a lot like one of my teachers.
    Now I want to see the illustration! What book was it in?

    More "German" and "French"

    Trent Hergenrader writes, in part:
    This is almost on-topic, but German Chocolate Cake gets its name from the type of chocolate (German's Sweet Chocolate) used ...
    I did not know that. The story is told here at the invaluable

    During the First World War, I wonder, was it renamed "liberty chocolate cake"?

    Trent also alerts us to the obscure word "cataglottism," meaning French kissing. He adds:
    Had I only known this in high school, so much would be so different today...
    My knowing that word in high school would have helped me not at all. I knew many terms for acts I was at no risk of actually enjoying. I would, however, have inserted the word into snarky remarks: "What's the matter? Cataglottism got your tongue?"

    Sunday, August 27, 2006

    Boy: Tales of Childhood

    I was taken aback by Roald Dahl’s memoir Boy: Tales of Childhood, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been; this is the author of Switch Bitch, after all. With rare exceptions, all Dahl’s childhood memories are awful: surgeries without anesthetic, a car accident that cut off his nose, and above all, vicious beatings by sadistic schoolmasters, one of whom went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Dahl writes:
    By now I am sure you will be wondering why I lay so much emphasis upon school beatings in these pages. The answer is that I cannot help it. All through my school life I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely. I couldn't get over it. I never have got over it. It would, of course, be unfair to suggest that all masters were constantly beating the daylights out of all the boys in those days. They weren't. Only a few did so, but that was quite enough to leave a lasting impression of horror upon me. It left another more physical impression upon me as well. Even today, whenever I have to sit for any length of time on a hard bench or chair, I begin to feel my heart beating along the old lines that the cane made on my bottom some fifty-five years ago.
    On a cheerier note, I was pleased to learn in Boy that young Dahl and all his classmates at Repton were tasters for the new confections being developed by the Cadbury chocolate company:
    Cadbury's were using some of the greatest chocolate-bar experts in the world to test out their new inventions. We were of a sensible age, between thirteen and eighteen, and we knew intimately every chocolate bar in existence, from the Milk Flake to the Lemon Marshmallow. Quite obviously our opinions on anything new would be valuable. All of us entered into this game with great gusto, sitting in our studies and nibbling each bar with the air of connoisseurs, giving our marks and making our comments. "Too subtle for the common palate," was one note that I remember writing down.
    Young Dahl's daydreams about how wonderful it would be to work in the inventing-room at Cadbury's resulted, of course, in his second children's book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 35 years later.

    More information german to the measles

    Somewhere upstream, I declared that the G in "german measles" ought to be lowercased, since it means german as in "germane," not German the nationality. Beth replies:
    Is your source really sure it's from germanus or is this a folk etymology? I'd wager a guess that it's German measles just because this is a colloquial way of indicating "not true/not standard/from elsewhere" -- like Welsh rabbit or French kissing or Dutch courage.
    A touch, a touch, I do confess!

    Neither the Oxford English Dictionary nor Webster’s New World Dictionary gives the origin of the term "German measles," but both uppercase the G, and the OED goes further by listing the illness under "German" with a capital G, not "german" with a little g. So Beth’s argument is looking pretty good, and Ye Humble Blogsmith is feeling more humble than usual.

    Can anyone point us to a definitive origin of "German measles," or is this one of the (countless) terms for which no such definitive origin is known?

    As for whether "German measles" might have been a jingoistic way of saying "faux measles," it’s interesting that the earliest appearances of "German measles" cited by the OED are medical journals of the late 19th century, the Bismarck era, when anti-German sentiment may have been at high tide.

    Still, the term isn’t as obviously insulting as "Welsh rabbit" or "Dutch courage" or "Irish taxi" (a wheelbarrow). And "French kiss" seems, to modern sensibilities, downright complimentary!

    Wendy houses

    Saturday a week ago, while reading Roald Dahl’s memoir Boy: Tales of Childhood, I was pleased to stumble across a British phrase new to me: “Wendy house,” meaning a child’s playhouse. I made a mental note but forgot to mention it to Sydney.

    The next day, Sydney told me she just had stumbled across an interesting British phrase in Barbara Vine’s novel A Dark-Adapted Eye: “Wendy house,” meaning – well, you know what it means.

    Wendy houses get their name from Wendy in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Upon the publication this year of Alan Moore’s long-awaited novel Lost Girls, about the sexual adventures of the fantasy heroines Wendy, Dorothy and Alice, the phrase “Wendy house” may gain a whole new meaning.

    Sunday, August 20, 2006

    Little Georgie Sings a Song

    We're happy that our new neighborhood has an abundance of small wildlife: groundhogs, chipmunks, squirrels and, especially, rabbits. One of our neighbors spotted seven rabbits under a single tree a few nights ago, but we commonly see five or six during our early-morning or late-evening walks.

    Soon after we moved in, Sydney dubbed the area "Rabbit Hill," and whenever a baby rabbit hopped across our path, she cried, "Little Georgie!" She was aghast when I got neither reference. "You mean you never read Rabbit Hill when you were a child?" she asked. When I told her I never even had heard of Rabbit Hill, she tracked down a copy at the library and thrust it into my hands.

    So now I personally can attest to Rabbit Hill, written and illustrated by Robert Lawson, being a lovely book. It's about the little animals of the pastures and woods waiting expectantly for the New Folks to move into the Big House, in hopes the New Folks prove to be kind and generous with such things as their garden and their garbage. The moral is "There is enough for all," and so there is. Lawson set this book, first published in 1944, on his own farm in Connecticut; like E.B. White's Charlotte's Web and Walter R. Brooks' novels about Freddy the Pig, it's an enduring children's book about farm life written at mid-century by a publishing-industry veteran long resident in New York City.

    Most interesting to me, for personal reasons, was Chapter 3, "Little Georgie Sings a Song," about the youngest member of the rabbit family:
    Little Georgie lay back in the warm grass and sang his
    song --
    New Folks coming, oh my!
    New Folks coming, oh my!
    New Folks coming, oh my!
    Oh my! Oh my!

    There weren't many words and there weren't many notes, and the notes just went up a little and down a little and ended where they began. Lots of people might have thought it monotonous, but it suited Little Georgie completely. He sang it loud and he sang it soft, he sang it as a paean of triumph, a saga of perils met and overcome. He sang it over and over again.
    How admirable the word "paean" in a book aimed at 10-year-olds! But I digress. This description of Little Georgie's song perfectly fits Sydney's little songs, too.

    Most people don't know this, but she makes up and sings little songs about things that make her happy. For example, we like to vacation in Kill Devil Hills, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and we generally rent the same condo, year after year. As we approach the condo, Sydney sings:

    It's our condo!
    Our little condo!

    Transcribed like that, it doesn't look like much, but it suits both Sydney and me completely, and its melody does indeed go up a little and down a little and end where it began. Sydney doesn't remember when she started habitually singing these little songs, but I'm convinced they come from her reading about Little Georgie when she was a child -- or, even earlier, having her mother read to her about Little Georgie. Little Georgie probably was one of the first writers and musicians of her acquaintance.

    (For a very different take on New Folks moving into a neighborhood teeming with rabbits, read Kelly Link's brilliant story "Stone Animals," in her brilliant collection Magic for Beginners.)

    Thursday, August 17, 2006


    I just finished reading Marion Elizabeth Rodgers' terrific biography Mencken: The American Iconoclast (Oxford University Press, 2005). The writings of the late H.L. Mencken have enraptured, exasperated and obsessed me since I stumbled across his essay "The Sahara of the Bozart" as a teenager; Rodgers brings the Mencken I knew to vivid life but also reveals many other Menckens as well, Menckens I never dreamed existed.

    Rodgers might well have subtitled her book The American Contradiction. Mencken said awful things, publicly and privately, about African-Americans and Jews, things that he genuinely believed; yet he crusaded against the Klan when it was at the peak of its political power, and lobbied on Capitol Hill for an anti-lynching bill when even the Roosevelt administration turned a deaf ear. A thunderous agnostic, he heaped more ridicule upon religion in all its forms than any other public figure in American history; yet he knew more about the Bible than some of his drinking-buddy theologians, and he enjoyed nothing more than a good tent revival, where he sat on the front row and lustily sang every hymn from memory. He prided himself on being, first and foremost, a reporter's reporter, interviewing more people, doing more legwork and churning out more copy than youngsters 40 years his junior; yet he lost all interest in the story of his career, the Scopes "monkey trial," and went home to Baltimore before the verdict even came in. He assailed his fellow Americans as a "timorous mob of goosesteppers" and publicly argued the political and cultural superiority of his ancestral land, Germany, not only during the First World War but during the Second, at serious risk to his career, his freedom and his life; yet the magisterial research project to which he devoted much of that life, The American Language, was a triumphant declaration of independence for his native tongue and a thousand-page tribute to the seething kettle of classes and races that had created it.

    Remarkably consistent across his half-century of fame, however, was Mencken's amazing prose style. He idolized Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw, and it shows, as does the influence of Ambrose Bierce; but no one in the English language ever ranted like Mencken. His screeds are their own subgenre. Harlan Ellison, Hunter S. Thompson and Bruce Sterling, to name but three of Mencken's obvious descendants, are timid souls compared to H.L. at gale force.

    On each page, Rodgers cherry-picks three or four glorious Menckenisms, for example his assessment of the dumbing-down of American politics: "We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." Mencken may be better served by excerpts than by full reprints; at length, even his most laudable fits of indignation can become exhausting, self-defeating. As I read Rodgers' book, I found myself jotting down the ones that seemed to comment, not on 1916 or 1936 headlines, but on 2006 headlines:
    We [Americans] posture as apostles of fair play, as good sportsmen, as professional knights-errant -- and throw beer bottles at the umpire when he refuses to cheat for our side. ... We deafen the world with our whoops for liberty -- and submit to laws that destroy our most sacred rights. ... We play policeman and Sunday-school superintendent to half of Christendom -- and lynch a darky every two days in our own backyard.

    Europe sees Americanism, in brief, as a sort of Philistine uprising against the free spirit of man -- as a conspiracy of dull and unimaginative men, fortuitously made powerful, against all the ideas and ideals that seem sound to their betters.

    Once the world is made safe for democracy, all that will remain will be to make democracy safe for the world.

    The kinds of courage I really admire are not whooped up in war, but cried down, and indeed become infamous. No one, in such times ... ever praises the man who stands out against official balderdash, and seeks to restore the national thinking, so called, to a reasonable sanity. On the contrary, he is regarded as a shabby and evil fellow, and there is not much protest when he is punished in a summary and barbaric manner, without any consideration of the evidence against him. It is sufficient that he refuses to sing the hymn currently lined out. That alone is enough to condemn him.

    We are, in fact, a nation of evangelists; every third American devotes himself to improving and lifting up his fellow-citizens, usually by force; the messianic delusion is our national disease.

    What becomes of the old notion that the United States is a free country, that it is a refuge for the oppressed of other lands?
    We need Mencken today more than ever, and not only medicinally; he is marvelously funny, and his torrential vocabulary and thundering rhythms are a mother lode of inspiration for any writer or speaker. He is also an absolutely American creation, essential to any understanding of our often-invoked, often-ignored national heritage, whatever that turns out to be. Yet I get the impression he's not widely read, and that most of his books are out of print. That no Library of America set of Mencken exists is a serious omission; I hope someone is diligently working on that massive task. Mencken, of course, would have jeered at that sentiment, too. "One civilized reader," he wrote, "is worth a thousand boneheads." Reading Mencken, I'm never quite sure in which category the Sage of Baltimore would pigeonhole me: anointed among the civilized, or cast among the boneheads. That he still can cause such unease, more than 50 years after his death, is the best reason to read him.

    Sunday, August 13, 2006

    Capclave in October

    Sydney and I plan to be at Capclave, Oct. 20-22 in Silver Spring, Md. The author guest of honor is Kim Stanley Robinson, and others scheduled to attend include Catherine Asaro, Susan Casper, Dennis Danvers, Gardner Dozois, Laura Anne Gilman, David Hartwell, Peter Heck, Klon Newell, Patrick and Teresa Niesen Hayden, Paul Park, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Darrell Schweitzer, Michael Swanwick, etc. Y'all come!

    Saturday, August 12, 2006

    More Kevin Smith confessions

    In reply to my confession that Sydney and I own a Dimension Collector's Series DVD of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, my hero Brett Cox writes:
    But will you both be going to see Clerks II? Jeanne's already told me I'm on my own for Snakes on a Plane.
    Do you know, I haven't even seen the original Clerks yet? That's too bad, considering I have seen Mallrats. Seeing Clerks II before I see Clerks just seems wrong.

    As for Snakes on a Plane, I suspect that it'll be just you and a few million of your friends.

    Come to think of it, though, I wonder whether recent news events will hurt the popularity of that venerable subgenre, the airliner-in-peril movie, as briefly happened after the Sept. 11 attacks.

    A Carter Family hint

    On the topic of the Duncans' visit to the Carter Fold in Virginia, Andy Wolverton writes:
    I've always thought that you could write a great Carter Family story... (slight, not-so-subtle hint) Maybe for that next collection?
    Thanks, Andy. Interestingly enough, I already decided to claim the Carter Fold trip as a business expense.

    Measles, sort of

    My hero Barry Johnson writes:
    Here's an interesting bit of fact that I just learned myself last week, over a dinner conversation with a physician. "German measles" aren't really measles. Who knew?
    I did not know this, either, but I am delighted to learn it, and you inspire me to look it up. "German measles" is another term for rubella, which isn't measles but resembles measles, hence the "German" -- not a reference to Germany but from the Latin "germanus," meaning "similar" (as in the English word "germane"). Those doctors and their Latin!

    I guess this means I have to buck the AP Stylebook and its fat ally, Webster's New World Dictionary, and spend the rest of my life lowercasing the G, since "german" is not a geographic reference: hence, "german measles," not "German measles."

    This sort of thing buoys my spirits for hours on end.

    Hey, Barry, while you were having dinner with that physician, did you ask about that mole on your back and that ache in your toe and that sore place in your mouth, the way I always do? Got to grab the health care where you can.

    Wednesday, August 09, 2006

    No more "freedom fries"

    This should have been bigger news: French fries and French toast are back on the menu in the cafeterias of Capitol Hill, three years after they were renamed "freedom fries" and "freedom toast" by two Republican congressmen indignant over France's opposition to war in Iraq.

    Today, 60 percent of Americans are just as opposed to war in Iraq as the French ever were; one of the two "freedom fries" advocates, Bob Ney of Ohio, just bowed out of his re-election campaign amid an ongoing corruption scandal (though you wouldn't know it from his website); and the other, Walter Jones of North Carolina, now favors a pullout of U.S. troops. "I’m more concerned about terrorism south of the border than I am in Iraq," Jones says.

    During World War I, amid a wave of anti-German sentiment, patriotic Americans similarly renamed things. Hamburgers became "liberty sandwiches," dachshunds "liberty hounds," sauerkraut "liberty cabbage" and -- my favorite -- German measles "liberty measles." (If they hated Germans so much, why not blame the measles on them?) "Freedom fries" are receding just as rapidly into obscure history. The war will be with us much longer.

    The Carter Fold

    On Saturday, Sydney and I rode with her family to the Carter Family Memorial Festival at the Carter Fold in Hiltons, Va.

    The Carter Fold is an 800-seat music pavilion built into a hillside a few yards from the cabin where A.P. Carter was born and the general store that Carter ran in his later years, long after the original Carter Family musical group had broken up. Old-time, bluegrass and country musicians, mostly local and regional, perform at the Fold every Saturday night, and once a year dozens of them converge on the place for the festival.

    Both the Fold and the festival were started in the 1970s by Janette Carter, daughter of A.P. and Sara. It was A.P.'s dying wish that the Carter Family's music, and the music that inspired them, would not be forgotten in the valley the Carters have called home for generations.

    This was the first festival without Janette, who died in January at age 82, but her work is being carried on by her children, Dale and Rita. For this year's festival, Rita even made the pinto beans and cornbread, just as her mother did for so many years.

    Anyone interested in old-time music should make the pilgrimage to the Fold at least once. Even today, Hiltons is a fair approximation of what my parents used to call the Back of Beyond, i.e. proverbially remote. It's a 40-minute drive from the interstate, along a dauntingly twisty two-lane highway. With the exception of a couple of houses, the Fold pretty much has that part of the Clinch Valley all to itself. How much more isolated the homestead must have been in 1927, when A.P., Sara and Maybelle braved the death-defying, daylong drive to Bristol to audition for Ralph Peer!

    This year's festival lineup included the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, the Old Dominion Cloggers, the Eastern Tennessee State University Bluegrass Band (which boasts a young Japanese woman on fiddle), and my favorite band name in some time, Fescue. The pavilion was packed, and hundreds more people milled around outside, slurping ice cream cones (Pet is still the brand of choice, as it was at A.P.'s store), listening to impromptu jam sessions, and exploring the general store and cabin, both of which are Carter Family museums now.

    Some of the most celebrated artifacts are elsewhere -- Sara's autoharp, for example, is in the (excellent) Country Music Hall of Fame museum in Nashville -- but there's plenty of neat stuff to look at in Hiltons. Sydney was most impressed by a couple of June Carter Cash's dresses ("She was so tiny!"), while I gravitated to A.P.'s upright piano and his Underwood typewriter. When no docent was looking, I reached out and lightly depressed the "D" key -- not enough to tap the roller; just enough to feel the key, for a moment, push back. I learned to type on a Royal, myself.

    I would post photos, had I remembered to take the camera!

    An essential book on the Carters, and on much else besides, is Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music, by Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg. Read it; heed it; and meet us at the Fold sometime, y'hear?

    Husbands off the map

    Of "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band," the last episode of Nightmares and Dreamscapes, Katy Miller writes:
    Also, may I point out that the WIFE was in NO WAY involved in that couple "driving themselves off the map" as you so sweetly put it.
    Excellent point, Katy. The same dynamic was at work in "Crouch End," at the other end of the series: The wife spoke good sense from the beginning, but the husband refused to listen and dragged them both into disaster.

    Come to think of it, that's pretty much the plot of The Shining, isn't it? Have we spotted a motif? (In Stephen King's fiction, I mean. That this is a motif of real life is undebatable.)

    Genius at work

    Sydney took this candid photo of me in the home office.

    Note the Innsmouth High School Swim Team T-shirt.

    Tuesday, August 08, 2006

    Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Episodes 7 & 8

    My expectations for TNT's Stephen King anthology series steadily diminished through the run, to the point that I was amused by the final two episodes even though neither was precisely what I'd call good. I guess I was applying what John Kessel calls, in reference to genre fiction, "alternate standards of excellence."

    Of the two, I preferred "Autopsy Room Four," with Richard Thomas as a paralyzed man who awakens on a gurney to find himself being prepped for autopsy, with no way of communicating that he's still alive. Veteran couch potatoes like me immediately will recognize this as the premise of "Breakdown," an episode from the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents -- an episode starring Joseph Cotten and directed by Hitchcock himself.

    In King's short story, the protagonist remembers that Hitchcock episode, too, though it doesn't help him any. The Nightmares & Dreamscapes episode likewise acknowledges the original; during a flashback, it's on a TV screen in the background. This sort of footnote absolves the living from charges of plagiarism, but not from charges of unoriginality. To King's credit, his short story is a real page-turner and a tour de force of point of view, as the reader experiences everything poor Howard Cottrell experiences, but nothing more.

    Much of this power is frittered away for television, alas, in order to pad the story to an hour's length. Writer April Smith and director Mikael Salomon give us not only lengthy flashbacks involving Cottrell's fiancee (a character not in King's story), but scenes involving the fiancee, the golfing partner, the doctor who makes the hasty diagnosis, the slacker orderlies, etc. -- all of which takes us away from where we ought to be, on the slab in Autopsy Room Four. And the ending is even sillier than King's ending, which I would not have thought possible. Still, whenever my interest threatened to flag, someone picked up a pair of shears or an anal thermometer, and I was right there on the table with John-Boy again.

    "Breakdown" was remade, with John Heard, for the ill-considered 1980s revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, so "Autopsy Room Four" really is the third go-round for this story on the small screen. The original Hitchcock episode was written by Francis Cockrell and Louis Pollock, and my hat's off to them.

    Before I leave "Autopsy Room Four" behind, I must quote King's afterword to the story, in his collection Everything's Eventual. The paralysis in the story is caused by the bite of an exotic snake, a Peruvian boomslang. King writes:
    I doubt like hell if there's any such reptile as a Peruvian boomslang, but in one of her Miss Marple capers, Dame Agatha Christie does mention an African boomslang.
    Ah, research!

    With "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band," Nightmares & Dreamscapes goes out not with a bang, but with a couple of guitar riffs, maybe on air guitar. Kim Delaney and Steven Weber play a vacationing couple who drive themselves right off the map and into a town called Rock and Roll Heaven, where they are menaced by the likes of Roy Orbison, Duane Allman and Otis Redding. The actors playing the dead rock stars look almost nothing like the dead rock stars (Orbison looks more like Phil Harris, who sang "The Bare Necessities" and "The Thing"), and the episode would have been greatly improved had writer-director Mike Robe hired Bruce Campbell to play Mayor Presley, but in a weird way the poor likenesses actually work, since this isn't supposed to be, say, Janis Joplin, but a lip-syncing, maggot-spewing malevolent entity masquerading as Janis Joplin, in a sort of Karaoke Festival of the Damned.

    This may be the silliest story King's ever written, but anyone forced to listen to 30 minutes of classic-rock radio will find the episode's view of Hell rather convincing.

    New letter to the editor

    Today the Cumberland Times-News published my second letter to the editor, about a month after it published my first one.

    Wednesday, August 02, 2006

    Mongo only pawn in game of life

    On a July business trip to Indiana, I found myself in the town of Mongo. Here's the evidence.

    According to a local business, Trading Post Canoe Rental, the town's name is short for the Indian name Mongoquinong, but as I long ago memorized Blazing Saddles, all I could think, driving through, was: "Mongo straight." And probably it is.

    Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Episodes 5 & 6

    Both these episodes disappointed me, though "The Road Virus Heads North" came very close to being good, and certainly was the only genuinely scary episode of the series thus far. It's basically our old favorite about the haunted painting, with Tom Berenger as a best-selling horror writer who Chooses Poorly at a yard sale and Suffers the Consequences.

    I re-read the King short story after I saw the episode; it's in the King collection Everything's Eventual, and it originally appeared in Al Sarrontonio's millennial all-star horror anthology, 999. In some respects, the episode, written by Peter Filardi, improves on the original. In King's story, for example, Kinnell ditches the painting at a rest area, whereas in the episode he takes his aunt's advice and throws it into the river, which is much more visual and dramatic. In the episode, the painting causes a near-fatal moment of driver distraction, which suggests the painting is actively trying to kill Kinnell; this episode is absent from King's story. Kinnell's New Age ex-wife is only mentioned in King's story; in the episode, he actually visits her on the drive northward. (Here occurs the scariest moment in the episode, a moment not in King's story, when the ex-wife innocently asks, "Were they trying to steal your painting?")

    In fact, the episode does a good job all around of giving Kinnell a fleshed-in life. Whereas King's story introduces us only to his aunt, the episode also introduces us to his doctor, agent and ex-wife, all likeable and believable, which serves to make Kinnell (well played as a gruff old bear by Tom Berenger) more likeable and believable, too. Much of this, I'm sure, was added just to stretch a rather thin story across a one-hour running time.

    Other additions in the episode, however, serve only to confuse things. Most importantly, adding a medical crisis for Kinnell before his fateful drive north forces us to read the "Road Virus" in the painting as a metaphor for Kinnell's own (possible) illness, which would mean the spooky goings-on are entirely in Kinnell's mind -- a horror writer dealing with the bad news in terms he can understand. But the episode also demands that we view Kinnell's pursuer, the ghost of the painting's vengeful artist, as objectively real, a separate entity that murders people; director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, in fact, is rather more insistent on this point than the original King story, which stays locked into Kinnell's imaginings throughout. (Those imaginings, by the way, include a crucial point of clarification and bonus creepiness, one left out of the episode: The disturbed artist Bobby Hastings destroyed all his paintings, including this one, and was as dismayed as Kinnell to discover this particular painting rather resistant to destruction.)

    The implication seems to be that Hastings' rampage is Kinnell's doing, maybe even that Kinnell and Hastings are, on some level, the same person, a point heavy-handedly slammed home by the episode's overblown ending, and I just don't buy that.

    Full credit, though, to whoever actually painted the canvas that's the star of the show. On the creepiness scale, it's right up there with the portraits in Lewin's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Corman's House of Usher.

    In his introduction to the story in Everything's Eventual, King writes:
    I actually have the picture described in this story, how weird is that? My wife saw it and thought I'd like it (or at least react to it), so she gave it to me as a ... birthday present? Christmas present? I can't remember. What I can remember is that none of my three kids liked it. I hung it in my office, and they claimed the driver's eyes followed them as they crossed the room ...
    Who painted that original, I wonder?

    Oh, yeah, that other episode. Not much to say about "The Fifth Quarter," a violent, non-supernatural revenge tale about an ex-con who celebrates his parole not with his wife and child but by going after the thugs who iced his buddy. Jeremy Sisto and Samantha Mathis, appealing performers, are wasted here. Sadly, all that most filmmakers seem to have learned from Quentin Tarantino (or vaguely picked up on from watching the trailer to one of his movies once) is that shouted, foul-mouthed conversations between people holding great big loaded guns in one another's faces are inherently cinematic; not true. Much more interesting in "The Fifth Quarter" are the themes of infidelity and sexuality that get mentioned here and there, but the filmmakers (writer Alan Sharp and director Rob Bowman) aren't really interested in that stuff. What they are interested in, is not interesting.