Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Santa From Hell

“I’m an eating, drinking, shitting, fucking Santy Claus,” says Willie, an alcoholic, thieving, self-loathing department store Santa, as he sits at a bar.

Sue, the adorable bartender says, “Prove it.”

Cut to the parking lot, where we hear Sue chanting, “Fuck me Santa, fuck me Santa, fuck me Santa, fuck me Santa,” as she bounces up and down on Willie’s Yule log in the car.

That’s the kind of Christmas movie Bad Santa is, and if you haven’t seen it and this intrigues you, do yourself a favor – do not watch it on broadcast television or it’ll be a different movie entirely.

Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is a safe-cracking thief who has an arrangement with fellow thief Marcus (Tony Cox), a black dwarf whose Asian wife Lois (Lauren Tom) is an astonishingly greedy, materialistic woman who cares about nothing but the loot Willie and Marcus can shower her with after their yearly Christmas department store heist. Every Christmas, they go to work in a department store with Willie playing Santa and Marcus his elf. Once employed by the store, they go about robbing it, making off with the money in the safe and all the merchandise on Lois’s long and demanding list.

Marcus is the brains of the operation, but only because Willie is a bleary-eyed drunk. He’s got a really, really bad case of alcoholism. He drinks to numb his feelings of worthlessness, his complete and utter hatred of himself. It’s often said that most alcoholics will not become determined to turn their lives around until they’ve hit rock bottom. Willie hit rock bottom a long time ago and set up residence there. He’s now the mayor. Marcus does not like working with Willie, and he likes it less each year. Willie is unreliable, a constant complainer, and ... well, he’s just not very good company.

“You're an emotional fucking cripple,” Marcus tells Willie. “Your soul is dog shit. Every single fucking thing about you is ugly.” And every word of that is true. But as bad off as he is, Willie is not hopeless. He is still salvageable. And his salvation comes in the form of a morbidly obese little boy named Thurman Merman.

When we meet Thurman, he is walking from the bus stop to the mall with snot running from his nose. He can’t even walk that short distance without being picked on by bullies. He is a magnet for ridicule, and it’s obvious by his reaction to this bullying – which is no reaction at all – that none of this is new to him. He just waddles on, seemingly unaffected as the boys call him names like “dipshit” and “moron,” not even blinking as the leader of the pack says, “Dumbass, why don’t you turn around?” and throws an empty soda can that hits Thurman in the back of the head. He doesn’t even flinch. He has internalized his pain so deeply that it doesn’t even show anymore. Thurman does not need to utter a word to let us know that, even at his young age, he is a battered bundle of hurt. This is as much Thurman’s story as it is Willie’s.

His destination is Willie, the department store Santa in the mall. By the time he gets there, a drunk Willie has had chocolate and snot sneezed all over his beard by a little boy and his foot has been stomped by an unhappy little girl. Children do not react well to Willie’s crankiness. While perched precariously on Santa’s knee, Thurman makes an observation about the droopy, dirty beard.

“It’s not real,” he says.

“No shit,” Willie says. “It was real, but you see, I got sick and all the hair fell out, so I had to wear this fuckin’ thing.”

“How’d you get sick?”

“I loved a woman who wasn’t clean.”

“Mrs. Santa?”

“No, it was her sister.”

Willie is trying to be offensive. He wants to scare this irritating fat kid away and be done with him. But Thurman is undaunted. Without missing a beat, he asks his next question with the same deadpan delivery: “What’s it like at the North Pole?”

“Like the suburbs.”

“Which one?”

“Apache Junction. What the fuck do you care? Now get off my lap. You sit there like a fuckin’ retard.”

“You are really Santa, right?”

Unable to believe the kid is still asking questions, Willie says, “No, I’m an accountant. I wear this fuckin’ thing as a fashion statement, all right?”

Thurman says, “Okay.” He is guileless and trusting, but those traits do not seem to come from stupidity. They come from a heartbreaking need to believe someone, anyone, to be able to trust someone, rely on someone. Anyone. We soon learn that Thurman has no one.

Willie encounters Thurman again in the mall parking lot. The boy interrupts a fight Willie is having with a man he encountered in the bar. Willie drives him home to find that he lives in a nice house in an upscale neighborhood. We learn that Thurman’s dad is “on an adventure exploring mountains” and he won’t be back until next year. And Mommy? “She lives in god’s house with Jesus and Mary and the ghost and the long-eared donkey and Joseph and the talking walnut.” Thurman is so immersed in his own world – the world to which he’s had to retreat to escape the pain and isolation of his life – that it never occurs to him that Willie might not know what the hell he’s talking about. Thurman is taken care of by Grandma, a dotty old lady who apparently does only two things – sleep and make sandwiches. No one else lives in the house. No one at all. Willie’s next question is, “Does your daddy have a safe?”

Willie moves in, drives the car in the garage, and barely tolerates Thurman’s endless questions. The boy follows him everywhere, clings to him like a piece of lint, comes to see him again at the department store. On his second trip from the bus stop to the mall, the same bullies accost Thurman again, this time pulling his undershorts all the way up to his chest in an epic wedgie. The look Willie gives him when he sees this is at once hilarious and crushing. It’s a look that says, How can you possibly be so pathetic? And it’s coming from a man who is so pathetic he can barely stand to live in his own skin. Pity gets the better of Willie and he begins to soften ever so slightly toward Thurman.

Meanwhile, the store’s manager – a stammering, timid, easily embarassed man named Bob Chipeska – is suspicious of Willie and Marcus. But especially Willie. Shortly after hiring them, Chipeska finds Willie having sex with a heavyset woman in a dressing room. He watches their feet under the door as Willie says, “Yeah, baby! Yeah, baby! You ain’t gonna shit right for a week!” When Chipeska nervously tries to let Willie and Marcus go, Willie tells him to reconsider and threatens to stir up a backlash.

“What are you talking about?” Chipeska asks.

“I'm talkin’ about firin’ a little black midget. A colored, African-American small person. That's what I'm talkin’ about. I'm talkin’ about your face all over goddamn USA Today, that's what I'm talkin’ about. I'm talking about 150 of these little motherfuckers all over the sidewalk out there, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Little picket signs, chantin’ and ravin’, and usin’ bullhorns and shit like that. Screamin’ and hollerin’ your name out. Unfair practices. Get me?”

It works, but Chipeska is still suspicious enough to go to the store’s detective, a laid-back, orange-slurping man named Gin. He explains the problem and asks Gin if he can find something on these guys. Gin is happy to oblige and begins to look into Santa and his elf. He learns where Willie is staying, learns that Thurman’s father is doing time in prison for white collar crime and that no one lives at the house but Grandma and Thurman. Gin puts the pieces together, figures out what Willie and Marcus are up to, and sits them down for a talk. He says he doesn’t want to take over, doesn’t want to be involved at all. He just wants half of the take. Marcus argues, tries to negotiate, but Gin is intractable. Half.

This setback sends Willie into an even faster downward spiral. He shows up for work falling-down drunk, wets his pants, and scares away a crowd of kids and parents. Later, Thurman finds Willie sitting in the car in the garage, engine running, a hose going from the exhaust pipe into the car window. A groggy Willie gives Thurman a letter to give to the police when they come to retrieve his dead body. And then Willie notices that the boy has black eye. Cut to Willie in his Santa suit beating the crap out of the lead bully who’s been tormenting Thurman. “You know, I think I turned a corner,” Willie tells Marcus later. “I beat the shit outta some kids today. But it was for a purpose. Made me feel good about myself. It was like I did something constructive with my life, or somethin', I don’t know. Like I accomplished something.”

Willie is right – he has turned a corner. Thurman desperately needs someone to believe in and Willie desperately needs someone to believe in him. Somehow, these two miserable, pain-wracked human beings have managed to find each other. Along with Thurman, Willie has also found Sue, the bartender with the Santa fetish. It was the fetish that first attracted Sue to him, but she seems to see something under Willie’s disgusting exterior that makes her stick around. Gin continues to complicate things – and later, Marcus complicates them further as the story gets even darker.

I often hear how funny Bad Santa is – and it is, that’s true – but no one ever talks about how painful this movie is, and how difficult it is to watch that first time. With its abundance of profanity and its dark tone, it appears to be the ultimate anti-Christmas Christmas movie. But there’s a lot more going on here than foul language and anal sex jokes. I can’t think of any other comedy that contains as much genuine emotional pain and personal anguish as Bad Santa. Willie and Thurman are vastly different characters inhabiting two worlds that could not be more dissimilar. But they are both raw, emotionally crippled, hobbled by their views of themselves and the way others view them, and both are in desperate need of help that they are incapable of asking for.

The first time I saw the movie, I was expecting a raucous comedy. Instead, I was bludgeoned with misery. I recognized that what I was seeing was funny on a certain level, but it was just too painful to laugh at, too raw to enjoy. At first. In part, it was the supporting cast that helped me to get past that pain and start laughing. Their reactions to Willie drew me in. But mostly, it was Terry Zwigoff’s sensitive, astute direction that makes it work. Stories about emotionally crippled misfits are Zwigoff’s specialty. He directed the deeply disturbing documentary Crumb (1994), about the life and family of underground comic book artist Robert Crumb, and the funny, effective movies Ghost World (2001) and Art School Confidential (2006). This movie could have been unredeemably offensive, throwing its obscenities at us for nothing more than their shock value. In Zwigoff’s hands, it is a surprisingly affecting character study, an abrasive comedy that attacks our current celebration of Christmas from a couple of different directions at once -- our greedy, insatiable materialism and our neglect of those among us who are in need, not necessarily of material goods or like food or housing but of emotional nourishment and shelter. In the process, it plays a trick on us – a pleasing trick, but a trick nonetheless. More on that in a moment.

The supporting cast is the Christmas movie equivalent of a box of sparkling ornaments. Lauren Graham, who plays Sue, is such a delightful and appealing blend of wholesome naughtiness that it’s rather amazing that she hasn’t had bigger and more frequent roles in movies. In his last film performance before his sudden death just two months prior to the release of Bad Santa, John Ritter stands out as the milquetoast store manager Bob Chipeska. He’s a squirming, twitching mess, and if given to the wrong actor, the role might have damaged the movie by being overly broad and cartoonish. But Ritter, whose strength was always physical comedy, pulls it off with great ease. His scenes with Gin, the store detective – beautifully underplayed by the late Bernie Mac – are memorable. As Marcus's wife Lois, Lauren Tom is unapologetically grating and despicable. The great Cloris Leachman’s performance in the small role of Grandma is uncredited, but she manages to make the empty-headed old woman not only funny, but somehow sweet and sad. But the performances of the three central actors are what make this movie tick.

Brett Kelly’s expressionless, deadpan performance as Thurman Merman is a small Christmas miracle. Rather than acting and emoting, he seems to be trying to hide from us, to hunker down and go unnoticed through life. It’s a quiet little gem of a performance that helps makes this movie as sad as it is funny, as heartbreaking as it is obscene. As Marcus, Tony Cox is completely convincing and explosively funny. I would advise you to try not to have any food or drink in your mouth when he delivers some of his lines. He has one exchange with Bernie Mac that made me laugh so hard, I missed the next few minutes of dialogue. Willie has shown up for work in a drunken stupor. Gin, the store detective, tells Marcus, “Get him outta here. I’ll go smooth things over with Chipeska. Tell him food poisonin’ or somethin’.”

Marcus says, “What do you mean, get him outta here?”

“Take him to the car.”

“In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a motherfuckin’ dwarf. So unless you got a forklift handy, maybe you should lend a hand, hm?”

“Special treatment ‘cause you’re handicapped. You’re all the same.”

“Special treatment? I’m three foot fuckin’ tall, you asshole! It’s a matter of physics! Draw me a sketch of how I get him to the car, huh?”

“Bitch, bitch, bitch.”

“Sketch it up, you fuckin’ moron! Fuckin’ Leonardo Da Vinci.”

“Whatchoo call me, thigh-high?”

“I called you a fuckin’ guinea homo from the fifteenth fuckin’ century, you dickhead.”

“I could stick you up my ass, small-fry.”

“Yeah? You sure it ain’t too sore from last night?”

“You got some lip on you, midget.”

“Well, these lips were on your wife’s pussy last night. Why don’t you dust that thing off once in a while, asshole?”

After “a fuckin’ guinea homo from the fifteenth fuckin’ century,” I was lost, laughing until I had tears in my eyes. Who knew “Leonardo Da Vinci” could be such a funny pejorative.

The star at the top of this Christmas tree is Billy Bob Thornton. As I’ve pointed out in another review, I think this guy is among the very best movie actors working right now. He is able to convey volumes with the smallest touches. He makes Willie tragically human. The pain in his face and voice is palpable. We never learn exactly how Willie got to the depths in which we find him, but it’s all there on Thornton’s face, in his posture and gait, in his voice. Thornton creates a walking, talking, human wound, and he maintains that even while he’s being gut-bustingly funny.

As mentioned earlier, Bad Santa plays a trick on us, a little sleight of hand. One of the tag lines used to promote the movie when it was released in 2003 was, “Get naughty this holiday season.” It was sold as a bitter, foul-mouthed, anti-Christmas Christmas movie, and it delivered on that promise. But at the same time, it fooled us by being everything we expect of a Christmas movie. Under all the rank, obnoxious behavior and language lies a familiar story of two aching lost souls who manage to find a glimmer of hope and redemption at Christmas, who realize that they are worthy of love and acceptance after all, despite all they’ve been told about themselves – despite all they’ve told themselves about themselves.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Christmas Noir: The Ice Harvest

“As Wichita Falls, so falls Wichita Falls ... “

Someone has been writing those words on the walls of men’s rooms in bars, restaurants and strip joints all over the town of Wichita Falls. We don’t know who until the end of The Ice Harvest (2005), but those words are a thread that leads us through this melancholy, darkly comic story of corruption, murder, and quiet desperation at Christmas time. It touches on the ultimate meaninglessness of our existence even as it addresses the importance of self-assessment and personal responsibility.

When we meet Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) on Christmas Eve, he has just stolen over two million dollars from his boss, a local gangster named Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid), with the help of his friend Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton). Vic decides to hold the money until they can get out of town. In the brief exchange during which this decision is made, we quickly learn that Charlie is a hesitant, reluctant thief who’s not sure he’s done the right thing, while Vic is a cold, hard-as-nails man who feels entitled to the money and possesses not a shred of doubt about the deed, a man who merely tolerates Charlie’s presence in this deal. We know all of this because the scene – the entire movie, in fact – is so brilliantly written and acted that even though everything on the surface is spare and minimal, it reveals volumes of information.

Charlie is a lawyer. A mob lawyer, as his friend Pete Van Heuten (Oliver Platt) is so fond of pointing out loudly and drunkenly when they meet in a bar later that evening. Pete is married to Sarabeth, Charlie’s ex-wife and the mother of Charlie’s two children. It turns out that Pete is no happier with Sarabeth than Charlie apparently was. Charlie drives the drunken Pete to Sarabeth’s parents’ house for Christmas Eve dinner and Pete makes a confession outside the house.

Pete says, “Back when you and Sarabeth were still married that last year ...“


“She and I were fucking.”

“No kidding,” Charlie says.

“Like minks. Everywhere. Kitchen table, your bed, garage.”


“Jesus, Charlie we were friends. It doesn’t make you angry?”

“Actually, it makes me curious. Makes me wonder who she’s fucking now.”

There’s genuine affection between these two men, and it’s the most interesting relationship in the film. The scene in the house that follows the one described above is among my favorites, but it’s hard to pick favorites in a movie so full of one memorable, standout scene after another. All movies tell a story of some sort (well ... theoretically), but great movies are made up of outstanding moments. These are the scenes you remember most vividly afterward, scenes that capture a mood, an emotion, or the essence of the entire movie. The Ice Harvest is rich with such moments.

The entire film takes place on Christmas Eve. We follow Charlie Arglist around town as the web in which he finds himself entangled – by his own doing, of course – wraps around him more and more tightly. There’s a great story here. The Ice Harvest is the best crime film to come along in years. But as always with the best film noir – and this is pure, unadulterated noir – it’s not the story that stays with us after the movie ends. It’s the overall mood, the emotions expressed, the things the movie made us feel. For a movie with such a high body count, it’s in the feelings where The Ice Harvest hits us the hardest. And they are not the warm, cuddly feelings we’ve come to expect from a Christmas movie.

Early in the film, Charlie and Pete sit in Charlie’s car at a traffic light and have a conversation about regrets. Charlie says he doesn’t believe in them. He talks about his father and his father’s twin brother.

“Fraternal,” he says. “Looked a lot alike, though, him and my uncle. Different temperaments completely. My father, he's a cop. By-the-book guy. Believed in the law, wanted his only son to be a lawyer. Drank in moderation, didn't smoke. Kept up his life insurance premiums. Voted in every election, not just for president.”

“Lemme guess,” Pete says. “Uncle didn’t vote.”

“He said he didn't want to encourage the bastards,” Charlie says. “In and out of jail from the time he was 16 ... drunk all the time, fucked everything that walked. Won a fortune playing poker, lost it all the same way. Lost an eye in a fight. My father was 54 when he died of a massive embolism, right here in Wichita. My uncle died the very next day in a car wreck in California. So the point is ... it is futile to regret. You do one thing, you do another ... I mean, so what? What's the difference? Same result.”

Just as we quickly learn a lot from the first scene between Charlie and Vic, there’s a lot of information revealed about Charlie here. Is he telling this story to Pete alone? Or is he telling it to himself as well, trying to convince himself that he really doesn’t believe in regrets, that he has none? Throughout the movie, Cusack’s weary, quiet performance is loaded with regret. Even though it’s obvious that Sarabeth is a stone-cold bitch, Charlie seems to regret that he couldn’t make their marriage work. He regrets walking away from his children. He certainly regrets the fact that his son now hates him, and fully understands why. He even regrets being unable to talk his friend Pete out of marrying Sarabeth and knows all too well what Pete is going through now. And he regrets ever stealing that money from Bill Guerrard. This whole movie screams regrets. The only person with no regrets is Vic -- and that says a lot about people who have no regrets.

There is more sterling talent in and behind The Ice Harvest than we usually find in a single movie these days. The script, based on Scott Phillips’s novel, is cowritten by the great Robert Benton, whose writing, producing and directing resume includes such titles as The Late Show, Superman (screenplay only), Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart, Billy Bathgate, Nobody’s Fool, and another wonderful film noir from 1998, Twilight (not the one about sparkly vampires). The other cowriter is Richard Russo, one of the best novelists working today, who has worked on two film adaptations of his books, Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls, and also cowrote Twilight and the delightful dark comedy Keeping Mum, among other things. The Ice Harvest is directed by writer, producer, director, actor and comedy god Harold Ramis, whose fingerprints are all over some of the greatest comedies ever made, including Caddyshack, Stripes, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Back to School, Groundhog Day, Analyze This – the list goes on.

From the stars to the supporting actors, the cast is impeccable. John Cusack gives one of his best performances here – wistful, sad, funny. Billy Bob Thornton is, in my opinion, one of the greatest movie actors alive today. He is able to convey so much with so little and is a quiet but powerful screen presence who demands your attention at all times. Equally adept at comedy, menace and even tenderness, I can’t imagine any role that Thornton could not successfully tackle. Here, he is colder than the snow and ice that permeate the film. The counterpoint to Thornton’s bitingly cold performance is the seductive Connie Nielsen. If the act of sexual intercourse could be transformed into a single living, breathing human being, it would be Nielsen in The Ice Harvest. Her smoldering, sexual turn as strip club manager Renata harks back to the steamy femme fatales that were common on movie screens back in the forties and fifties but are so sadly rare today.

As Bill Guerrard, Randy Quaid is big, ugly and menacing. He appears only briefly, but he’s a presence throughout the film, and when he finally steps onscreen, he is everything he has been built up to be. Ned Bellamy is gut-bustingly funny as the angry, violent bartender who says the most obscene things you’ve ever heard anyone say about his own mother (“Shut up, you toothless old whore!”). But even in the midst of all these glowing performances, there is one actor who stands out explosively and steals the spotlight every time he’s onscreen. Oliver Platt doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention, but in the future I think he will be recognized as one of the finest character actors of his generation. As Pete Van Hueten, he’s as angry as he is depressed, as hilarious as he is sad, and he will make you laugh hard.

Be sure to watch the DVD extras. They include two alternate endings. While I understand why the existing ending was chosen – it’s far more commercial, for one thing – I personally prefer either of the two alternates, because both are consistent with the film’s tone throughout, and both – to me, anyway – are more honest and satisfying. There’s also an interesting conversation between Benton, Russo and novelist Scott Phillips about adapting the book for the screen.

The Ice Harvest is more a movie that takes place at Christmas than an actual Christmas movie, but frankly, it’s the kind of Christmas movie I prefer. There is a mood during the holiday season that exists at no other time of the year, and contrary to what the media usually tells us, it is not necessarily a pleasant one. Writer Kate L. Bosher said, “Isn't it funny that at Christmas something in you gets so lonely for – I don't know what exactly, but it's something that you don't mind so much not having at other times.” I like that quote. It captures something most of us feel at Christmas that is so elusive, even Bosher can’t pinpoint it while describing it. The Ice Harvest is a movie that is, in part, about regrets. Wrong decisions. Mistakes made. Because Christmas comes at the end of the year, it’s a time when we tend to take personal inventory. For that reason, I think it’s a very appropriate movie.

The Ice Harvest takes us through a Christmas Eve that is dark, funny, sexy, sad and disturbing. At a time when we’re told we’re supposed to feel warm and happy and generous, this movie asks, What the hell are we doing here and what does it matter? It will make you feel quite relieved that all you have to do this holiday season is spend some time with your crazy family.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Long Road to Paperback

Two of my books have recently become available as paperbacks and ebooks after many years spent languishing in obscurity as limited edition hardcovers. Lot Lizards was published in 1991 and Sex and Violence in Hollywood in 2001.

After living in southern California for a few years in the 1980s, I ended up, due to a string of unfortunate circumstances, moving back in with my parents. Do I need to say that this was not an ideal situation? During that time, I got into the habit of going out late at night and writing in all-night coffee shops. Back then, there were a few of them around here – these days, the only things open all night are Denny’s and Walmart. One of the places I frequented was the 76 Truck Stop. That’s where I met Dawn.

She was the night manager of the travel store/gift shop and every time I went there, I walked by her counter on my way into the coffee shop. We had an occasional conversation at first, then she began to spend her breaks with me in the restaurant. She was a horror fan and was especially fond of vampires. When I mentioned that my vampire novel Live Girls had just been released, she brightened and said, “You wrote that? I loved that book?” She wasn’t being coy. She’s always been a voracious reader, but she’s never paid much attention to the name of the author on the cover of each book. She’s gotten a little better about that. A little.

One night while writing at the coffee counter, I overheard a conversation between two truckers about lot lizards. I’d never heard the term before and didn’t know what a lot lizard was. So I asked. I learned that a lot lizard is a prostitute who works the trucker's parking lot at truck stops. She goes from truck to truck, selling her wares, sometimes for money and sometimes for drugs.

“Stay away from ‘em,” the trucker advised me. “Most are diseased tweakers. And they’re all uglier than a jar of warts.”

I loved the term. Lot lizards. Once my imagination had latched onto it, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I wrote Lot Lizards over several weeks; most of it was written there at the coffee counter in a notebook, then I’d take it home and type it up.

The novel was published as a limited edition hardcover in 1991 by Mark V. Ziesing, and no other edition has ever been published. Until now. Lot Lizards is now available as an ebook –

– and as a paperback.

I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback over the years from readers who’ve enjoyed Lot Lizards. Some have said it makes a good companion piece to Live Girls. The books are unrelated and have very different settings, but they have something in common: vampires who are beautiful and seductive, but vicious. They do not sparkle. It has been optioned for a movie – that would be wonderful, but I’ve had enough experience with movie options to know that I shouldn’t get my hopes too high.

In 2000, I was itching to write something outside the horror genre. With nothing in mind except that I wanted to write about life in Los Angeles on the fringes of the movie business, I began writing about a young man named Adam Julian, who was having an affair with the wife of his obnoxious but very successful screenwriter father. I kept writing for about a thousand manuscript pages. Nothing has ever flowed out of me as smoothly or rapidly as Sex and Violence in Hollywood and it remains my most joyous writing experience. It's also my personal favorite of all my work. It follows Adam through a landscape of sex (lots of sex), movie stars, Hollywood wannabes, sleazy pornographers and elaborate murder, and ends with a rather wild, high-profile trial. Oh, and it’s a love story.

I showed it to my agent, Richard Curtis, and his boisterous enthusiasm for the book caught me completely off guard. With his guidance, I trimmed the manuscript, then he took it to the New York publishers and pushed it hard.

The response from those publishers was overwhelmingly positive. They loved it. But ... they had no idea how to market it. It was a thriller. It was erotic. It was funny. It was horrific. But it didn’t fall squarely into any particular genre. It blurred the lines between a few genres and as a result, they didn’t even know what to call it, let alone how to market it. For that reason, they all turned it down with regrets.

It was published by Subterranean Press in 2001 as a limited edition hardcover. But Subterranean is aimed primarily at readers of horror, who were very familiar with me as a writer of horror fiction – which this was not. The result was that not many copies sold, although the critical reaction was very positive.

So, much to my disappointment, the book I believe to be my best has gone largely unread. Now it’s available to a wider audience in a much more affordable edition. Two editions, actually. It’s now an ebook –

– and a paperback.

These are two very different books. One is most definitely a horror novel and the other is not. But after a long time spent out of the reach of most readers, both are now more readily available than ever before, and I hope you’ll give them a look.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Christmas Movies 1: The Romantic Comedy to End All Romantic Comedies

Dawn and I have a large movie collection, and at about this time every year, we start pulling Christmas movies off the shelves. Our definition of a “Christmas movie” is broader than most. It ranges from beloved holiday classics like Dickens’s A Christmas Carol or the great Irving Berlin musical White Christmas to non-traditional movies that just happen to take place during the Christmas season, like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard or the disturbing Canadian slasher flick Black Christmas. I love to write about movies, so I thought I’d cover our Christmas viewing this year.

Love Actually is a Christmas movie, but it’s also a romantic comedy, and that genre is perennial. Its popularity never seems to fade, although the same can’t be said for its quality. Right now, the romantic comedy is in a pretty dismal state. It seems we’re bludgeoned over the head with one after another these days, nearly all of them wilted by-the-numbers exercises that range from vaguely amusing (often by accident or in unintentional ways) to deadly dull to deeply insulting. Each of these movies would maim or kill to have been written by the current king of the romantic comedy genre, Richard Curtis. He’s the man who gave us Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary. He has also been a force to be reckoned with in British comedy for the last three decades. When Curtis writes a romantic comedy, he seems to know precisely what we want, but he always spins a brody on our expectations and then gives us something more that we didn’t expect at all.

In Love Actually, he seems to have decided to create a romantic comedy to end all romantic comedies. There are at least ten love stories in this movie, all happening at once, each located at different spots on the relationship spectrum, and all taking place at Christmas. The cast of characters is long, and the cast of actors is stellar.

It’s led by Hugh Grant, who gives what I believe to be his best performance. No, wait. Grant gives virtually the same performance in every movie. I’m not being critical because that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Cary Grant – with whom Hugh Grant is often compared – did the same thing, and we never tired of it because it was wonderful. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Love Actually provides Grant with his best role. He plays Britain’s new Prime Minister, a very eligible bachelor, who, on his first day, realizes he’s fallen instantly in love with Natalie, a member of his staff (charmingly played by Martine McCutcheon) and says, “Oh, no, that is so inconvenient.” The PM’s sister, Karen (Emma Thompson), is married to Harry (Alan Rickman), an attorney who might be about to cheat on her. Harry’s assistant Sarah (Laura Linney) is in love with coworker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). She thinks this is a secret, but it’s obvious to everyone at the office. Unfortunately, Sarah’s pursuit of this relationship is hindered by the fact that she feels obligated to be at the beck and call of her institutionalized schizophrenic brother.

This is just a small sampling of the many characters who populate Love Actually, and I'm afraid my descriptions of these relationships are very brief and inadequate. They are brief because, if they weren’t, we’d be here all night and I’d spoil the movie for you. They are inadequate because they sound mundane and fail to convey the richness and depth Curtis gives them.

There’s also Jamie Bennett (Colin Firth), a British crime novelist whose relationship with his girlfriend just ended unpleasantly, who goes to a cottage in France to work in solitude and lick his wounds and falls in love with his Portuguese maid Aurelia (Lucia Moniz). And then there’s Mark (Andrew Lincoln), who’s in love with his best friend’s new wife Juliet (played by Keira Knightley, or, as I call her, Skeletor – have a few sandwiches, Keira). There’s even a visit to the Prime Minister by an obnoxious United States president (Billy Bob Thornton) who’s sort of a blend of a lecherous Bill Clinton and a bullying George W. Bush. The president hits on Natalie and inspires Grant’s PM, in a memorable scene, to stand up to him rather boldly during a press conference. Watch for the delightful cameo by Rowan Atkinson, with whom Curtis has a long working relationship.

But it is Bill Nighy who tucks this movie under his arm and effortlessly walks away with it. He plays Billy Mack, a washed up, crusty old rock star who’s trying to make a comeback with a cover of “Love is All Around,” which has been transformed into a clumsy Christmas song. Mack is hoping his song will be the Christmas Number One and beat out the favored band, a group of slick youngsters called Blue. He goes from one radio and TV guest spot to another to promote his song, always accompanied by his longtime manager, Joe (Gregor Fisher), who looks sad and worried. Joe looks sad because ... well, we don't know exactly why, but just looking at him, we can see behind him a life filled with disappointments, a life lived on the fringes of the happiness of others. He is worried because he knows Mack is beyond caring anymore and will say and do whatever pops into his head. This provides some of the movie’s funniest and most touching moments. While on a radio show, Mack says, “When I was young and successful, I was greedy and foolish, and now I'm left with no one. Wrinkled and alone.” He says it matter-of-factly, but we know he means it, we know it’s true. The DJ expresses his gratitude for Mack’s frankness, and Mack says he’ll truthfully answer any question asked. So the DJ says, “Best shag you ever had.” Mack responds, “Brittney Spears.” Then he adds, “No, only kidding. She was rubbish.” When Mack begins to act up on a TV show, the hosts remind him that children are watching, so he says, “Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don't buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free!”

Love Actually is a necklace strung with one beautiful, priceless gem after another. It deftly shifts from sparkling comedy to real emotion, though the emotion is always delivered in an understated way. Since my first viewing in 2003, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen it, but it has not lost an ounce of its effectiveness. If anything, it has become more effective. There are at least four moments in the movie that choke me up and make it necessary for me to blow my nose no matter how many times I see it, moments of such honest expressions of love and emotion that they hurt, but in a good way: When “Bye-Bye Baby” plays at Joanna’s funeral; when Karen opens her Christmas gift and realization dawns on her; when Mark reveals himself to Juliet at the front door and then tells himself, “Enough. Enough now,” as he walks away; and the scene that really knocks me out is when Billy Mack leaves Elton John’s party early to spend Christmas Eve with Joe and spills his guts to his astonished, teary-eyed manager. They aren’t the only ones, just the ones that hit me hardest. If you’ve seen the movie, you know the scenes I’m talking about. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?

Curtis is brilliant in his use of pop songs throughout his movies, and Love Actually is no exception. After watching the movie, it’s hard to imagine it without those songs, or to imagine what other songs would have been more appropriate in the spots where they’re used. It's one of Curtis's many touches of perfection. Along with the songs, Craig Armstrong’s score is buoyant and uplifting. The whole thing is topped off by a spectacular rendition of “All I Want For Christmas is You,” beautifully performed by young Olivia Olson. Mariah Carey, eat your breast implants out.

The movie runs about two hours and ten minutes, but according to Richard Curtis on the DVD supplemental material, the original cut was three and a half hours. Some of the deleted footage is included on the DVD, and I strongly recommend watching it because it’s brilliant. I would love to see the movie restored to its full length. I guess the conventional wisdom is that it simply would not do for a romantic comedy to run that long. There are critics who slammed Love Actually for being too long at its current running time. I don’t understand this. Roger Ebert wrote, “No good movie is too long; no bad movie is short enough.” In my opinion, Love Actually is a great movie – quietly, gently great, but great nonetheless – and running for three and a half hours would not have changed that. Movies that run that long certainly aren’t unheard of, but they aren’t romantic comedies. War movies or historical epics, maybe, but never romantic comedies. Richard Curtis once said, “If you write a story about a soldier going AWOL and kidnapping a pregnant woman and finally shooting her in the head, it's called searingly realistic, even though it's never happened in the history of mankind. Whereas if you write about two people falling in love, which happens about a million times a day all over the world, for some reason or another, you're accused of writing something unrealistic and sentimental.”

Love Actually begins with a voiceover by Hugh Grant while we watch people reuniting at Heathrow airport, all of which was shot by hidden cameras placed there for a week. It sets the tone for the entire film. I think it’s beautiful:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion love actually ... is all around.”

This Christmas, watch Love Actually with someone – or a group of someones – you love.