Hey, Everyone... "Moriarty" here. Harry's asleep, taking the day off, enjoying Chicago, preparing to meet up with many of you this evening. Me, I'm here, working away, trying (and failing) to condense two weeks worth of RUMBLINGS into one article. I wouldn't be surprised if the henchmen were all huddled in some dark corner of The Moriarty Labs tonight, plotting my destruction. Hell, I almost wouldn't blame them. They've been forced to listen to the same song, over and over, for the entire weekend. I can't help myself. I'm still not sick of it. Blame Garbage. Blame David Arnold. Blame Philipp Stoelzl, who directed the video. Even now, Shirley Manson's wail echoes from every wall of The Labs:
"The world is not enough/But it is such a perfect place to start, my love/And if you're strong enough/Together we can take the world apart, my love"
It's the perfect romantic music for an Evil Genius, a gorgeous woman singing about the erotic thrill of world domination. The fact that it's a classically-styled Bond theme only enhances its allure. I'm happy to see the music of the Bond franchise currently residing in the hands of composer David Arnold. His SHAKEN & STIRRED album was, like most guest star anthologies, a mixed bag. Even so, it was a strong argument for Arnold's appreciation of the history of Bond music. I don't think anyone will ever hit the same heights that John Barry did, but a smart, wicked little track like The Propellerheads' "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" or the new TWINE theme suggest there's some great funky life left in the series.
Don't get me wrong... that's not all I've been up to. Far from it. I've met many readers of the site over the last couple of years, and I always enjoy it, even if it does get harder to find free time as various experiments make larger demands on me here at The Labs. Sometimes, though, you meet someone worth making a little time for, and that was part of the weekend for me. I also managed to dedicate a little time to moviegoing. I made my way to AMC's Century City 14 so I could catch a showing of BEYOND THE MAT, a new documentary from Universal/Imagine which was directed by Barry Blaustein.
Quick history lesson for those of you who aren't familiar with Barry's other work. As a bit of an SNL compulsive, I've always thought of him as a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE writer before anything else. He and David Sheffield were most famous for being partnered with Eddie Murphy during his glory days on the show. They were responsible for the development of most of the characters that you probably remember Eddie for, like Buckwheat, Gumby, Velvet Jones, and Mr. Robinson. If you loved those bits, then you're already a Blaustein fan. You just didn't know it yet.
When Eddie moved on to movies, so did they, and the partnership has continued to yield some wildly popular results -- COMING TO AMERICA, BOOMERANG, and THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. It was the producers of NUTTY and the upcoming sequel THE KLUMPS who Barry turned to when he wanted to make a personal film, a documentary about a subject he'd been passionate about since childhood. As he explains in the very funny opening to BEYOND THE MAT, Barry has always loved wrestling. He doesn't love it because he thinks it's all real. He loves it precisely because it's theater, rock'n'roll, larger than life. It's the show biz that hooks fans and brings them back. Or, at least, that's how he explains the allure in the film, and he makes quite a case for it.
You see, unlike Barry or Harry, whose review first brought this film to my attention, I can't claim to be a wrestling fan. I don't even think I could convincingly pretend to be one. I never watched it. There's only so many hours in your life that can be spent on entertainment, and I never chose to expend any of them on wrestling. Couldn't imagine the point. I've been aware of its existence, and of course there are wrestlers who have crossed over to just being show biz figures, but the actual event itself and the appeal of it just never scanned. As a result, I didn't walk into this theater with any expectations about wrestling or wrestlers. Instead, I was there as someone who has a lifelong love of the documentary form.
For me, there's something so powerful about dipping into other people's lives, observing, getting this close up glimpse into someone else's human drama. I think in many ways, it makes me feel better about people. So often, I hear about something or read about something, some news story, and I wonder what's wrong with people. I mean, I'm Evil. It's my job. What's everyone else's excuse? But then I see a great documentary, something that transports me to a world or a culture or a life I simply didn't know existed, and I get some glimpse of something that shows me that no matter what differences we have with someone, there are basic human things we all have in common, and it makes me feel better. I have Roger Ebert and Errol Morris to thank for my early infatuation with the form. It was back in the late '70s that I saw an episode of the show in which Roger practically had an evangelical experience while espousing the virtues of GATES OF HEAVEN, a brilliant, brilliant film that is ostensibly about the people who would use the services of a pet cemetary. It is, of course, about so much more than that, as are all good documentaries, and when I managed to see the film, I was simply astonished by it. I was young, too, so I had never realized that you could capture a type of reality in a movie. I thought they were all make-believe. Since then, I've gone out of my way to see any documentaries in the theater that I could. I love seeing them with audiences.
This past Sunday, I was not disappointed at all by the crowd that turned out for BEYOND THE MAT. I'd like to emphasize that word... "crowd." That theater was full. I was more surprised by that than by the people who filled it. Normally, if you go see a doc in the theater, it's a typical art-house LA crowd. Not this time. These people were there to see their favorite wrestlers on the big screen. This was a wrestling crowd. That means this was an energetic crowd, and that sure did make a difference in the experience for me. They applauded favorite wrestlers when they showed up onscreen. I was sorting out who everyone was on the fly, as the film unfolded, but all it took was a glimpse of someone like Stone Cold Steve Austin or New Jack or Mankind to set the crowd off. It made it feel less like a film than a match, something lively, something that was just slightly rowdy. It was astonishingly fun.
Now, a big part of that is because Barry Blaustein has made a truly engaging film here. He's a character in it himself, and he makes no bones about his long time love of this particular bent of "sports entertainment." He never overpowers the film, though. He's too interested in talking to guys like Terry Funk, Vince McMahon, Jake "The Snake" Roberts, Chyna, Jesse Ventura, Coco BWare, and Mick Foley. He's too invested in giving them time to establish who they really are when you take them out of the ring, when they turn off the characters. Being a fan himself, Barry has managed to make a film that truly conveys the reasons he's fascinated by wrestling, even as he captures the sense of discovery that he had while getting to know these people.
Terry Funk is an older guy, past 50, who is in miserable physical shape. The first shot of him waking up and struggling up out of bed is just sad. This is a guy whose every joint must just ache. A doctor's visit and a set of x-rays makes the case for him quitting immediately, but he shrugs it off, pushes on. He can't imagine not doing it. Even when he announces his retirement, there's a sense that he doesn't believe it. He can't walk away. In fact, he can't really walk at all. Still, in the ring, he manages to come to life, shake the pain off, and just be Terry Funk, the wrestler the fans have come out to see. There's something sort of Jake LaMotta about this guy. He won't go down. There's a sort of bruised, broken-nosed nobility to Funk.
There's nothing noble or dignified about Vince McMahon or his attempts to transform wrestler Darren Drozdov into "Puke," named for his amazing ability to vomit on command. There's plenty that's hysterical about it, though, and there's even a touch of the sleazy, carny appeal of the whole thing. I think that part of the charm of what I saw here is the feeling that all of this is so no-holds-barred, all-bets-are-off, good taste just doesn't matter. In the ring, that is. It's like rock'n'roll in that regard. When you're out there, onstage, it's all image and attitude and charisma. It seems to come at a price, though, and for some of these guys, it's worse than the physical deterioration of Terry Funk.
There's Jake Roberts, for example. This guy is a shattered soul, a ghost who's just waiting to die by now. He's this great big walking wound, wide open and fucked up and out of control. When Barry cuts in footage of Roberts from his peak, it's startling. This guy got old and didn't take care of himself in any way. He's worn out. I'm surprised he can still get in the ring at all. For some reason, he really opens up to Barry and starts spilling his guts on camera, leading to some of the best material in the film, like the truth about his parentage and his relationship with his daughter. By the time Jake is actually on crack and rambling for the camera, at his lowest, you have to feel for this guy. He's got issues that go so far back into his life that it's a miracle he ever pulled it together enough to get famous. That he's still alive is a miracle in its own right, and one can only hope that he sees this movie, sees himself in it, and pulls out of his tailspin.
I say that because of the sequence featuring Mick Foley, better known as Mankind. There's some pretty remarkable footage of this guy in the ring, some remarkable footage of his family watching him, and some truly piercing footage of him watching their reactions to what he does. Of all the people we meet in this film, we are allowed furthest into the world of Mick Foley, and I'm glad. He's a great guy, a big gentle friendly pear shaped dude who has a wide open childlike quality about him. He's enormously appealing when being interviewed and when he's with his family. He comes to life when he's playing with his kids, and it's obvious that his priority is making his family happy. When we see as an audience what sort of pain they're in while watching him, it does the impossible, the unthinkable... it makes wrestling real again. When you see the gash in Foley's head and you realize how devastating it would be if anything happened to him, genuine fear creeps back into wrestling. The ending of the match may be predetermined, and there may be elaborate choreography involved, but you couldn't pay me enough money to take the hits to the head these guys do, or to take the falls and the slams and the bruises and the breaks.
The really tragic part of all this is that you may not see this film in a theater. There's a good chance you're just going to get your first shot at it on video. That would be an epic mistake on the part of Universal. They have a real winner here, a specialty release that could be platformed into a genuine hit. Take a look at the weekly ratings on all wrestling right now. Pay close attention to that brutal Thursday night six way battle, where the one show making consistent gains is UPN's SMACKDOWN. Open this week's ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY and read their power list. See that entry about wrestling? Check out the box-office on the exclusive Academy-eligibility run that's going on right now. There's money out there. The audience will come. This is a case of a filmmaker handing the studio an unexpected present, a little gem that no one saw coming, and the studio having no idea what they've just been given.
Believe me, Universal... it's gold.
And now, just to prove that I'm not above shifting gears at random, let's go from the world of wrestling to my sit-down conversation last week with author Neil Gaiman. We had a chance to meet at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. I had Harry Lime along for the ride, and he spent the entire hour with his face buried in an advance copy of the new SANDMAN hardcover book, the hauntingly beautiful THE DREAM HUNTERS. Illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano, it's a short novella with eerie, lyrical paintings to enhance the text. It's also a welcome return to the series that made Gaiman one of the comic world pantheon. These days, of course, Gaiman is promoting this Friday's English-language release of Miyazaki's PRINCESS MONONOKE, and that's what afforded me this opportunity.
When we first were introduced, I was struck by the fact that if you took Steven Spielberg from the '70s and David Cronenberg from now and put them in the Brundle chamber, you would come up precisely with Neil Gaiman. He was instantly friendly, and our conversation on the front patio was relaxed. My first question was whether or not Bill Farmer's SANDMAN draft for Warner Bros. is dead yet or not. Gaiman assured me that it was, and I can only hope our writing about that abomination here at AICN contributed in some small way to that process. I'm not sure who was angrier at Jon Peters as we talked -- me or Gaiman.
One thing's for sure, though... the experience of watching Peters and the studio fumble through years of development on the project has left Gaiman with a clearer idea of how he wants to see his properties brought to the screen. He's involved with adapting both NEVERWHERE and STARDUST for Dimension Films, and he's determined to both write and direct DEATH: THE HIGH COST OF LIVING for Warner Bros. He's not looking to dive right into the director's chair, though. Someone should fund his short film version of his short story "Snow Glass Apples" so we can see how well his imagination translates to the medium. He's also working on some original material, including a version of BEOWULF with Roger Avery that is being produced by ImageMovers, Robert Zemeckis' company.
One of the things I really love about this guy is how he takes storytelling forms that other people look down on and he pushes to raise the medium, to tell unconventional, original tales, and to challenge peoples' ideas of what can be done. I don't even think it's a conscious thing for him. He told me that he likes to push himself, always trying new things. Take, for example, the Seeing Ear Theater production of NEIL GAIMAN'S MURDER MYSTERIES, which can be found at www.scifi.com. The synopsis from the site should be enough to hook you:
"In this mystery noir set in heaven's City of Angels before the fall, the first crime has been committed. It is an awful one. While the angelic hosts labor to create the world and its workings, one of their number is mysteriously slain by one of their own. Raguel, Angel of Vengeance, is mandated by Lucifer to discover both motive and murderer in this holy dominion that had so recently known no sin."
It's great stuff, with some pretty darn cool performance by Brian Dennehy, Anne Bobby, Michael Emerson, Thom Christopher, and others. Brian Smith, the producer and director of the show, did a good job of bringing to life Gaiman's adaptation of his own short story. I'll be honest with you... I'd never think about listening to a radio show on the Internet, but Gaiman really seemed excited by the project, so I gave it a chance. Now I'm glad I did. It's a really pure representation of the writer's vision, and I can see why he got excited about it.
When I asked him about his favorite storytellers, he demurred, instead recommending a couple of recent reads that impressed him. Lynda Barry's CRUDDY and Peter Straub's MR. X were both mentioned, and talking to him about what he responds to in other people's work gave me a real look into him. He's not all wrapped up in his own oft-proclaimed "genius." Instead, he's a guy who loves what he gets to do for a living. Like many of the best writers, he has his themes that he returns to in all of his work. His best pieces are concerned with the very nature of storytelling. He takes classical myth archetypes, famous fantasy characters, and historical detail, and he shakes it up in a rich melange that is still fresh and exciting. He described a little bit about his upcoming AMERICAN GODS, a new novel, and it sounds like a perfect fit with what has come before, even as it sounds like an extension, a new twist.
There was a great little anecdote that he shared with me in the midst of all our various digressions that perfectly sums up my impression of the playful mind of Neil Gaiman. As he was tracking down the origins of the word "yeti," he fully expected to find some rich Tibetan myth about the so-called Abominable Snowman. Instead, he learned that the word simply translates to "that thing over there." When the first European explorer asked the first Sherpa guide to identify a mysterious figure on the mountain, the guide offered up the most basic description possible, and the word was misconstrued. Relating this little tidbit made Gaiman laugh, and it was catching. I'm happy to say that I don't just enjoy Gaiman's work. Having finally met him, I enjoy the person just as much.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Gaiman would be quite fond of tonight's Halloween episode of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Personally, I think it's one of the finest hours of TV I've seen in a while. The show's been solid so far this season, but this is a real triumph. Even people who aren't regular viewers should tune in and give it a try this evening. If you're not converted by what you see, then I give up. "Fear Itself" is both scary and funny in equal measure, and manages to achieve real highs in both departments. Supporting characters like former demon Anya (Emma Caufield) or occasional werewolf Oz (Seth Green) have some really important, defining moments, and each of the series regulars is allowed to push their characters to new, totally believable places. We learn a lot about these people in this 43 minutes, but this isn't just some group therapy session or a boring dialogue piece. The scares are consistent and interesting, and the haunted house storyline is good enough that it should make the producers of this weekend's HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL sweat a bit. In particular, I want to single out the show's ending as a perfect example of what I watch this show for. Not only is it a surprise, it's also a perfect thematic summation of what's going on underneath the surface of the show. This is one of the best running examples of subtext on TV. Do yourself the favor of tuning in or taping tonight. I can't imagine anyone else on TV's going to do anything half as appropriate this holiday.
Well, I've just taken a quick look at the RUMBLINGS so far, and I've got no choice but to break them up. I'm going to bring you a special Thursday edition this week, just to catch up. We've still got another documentary film, trailers and casting news, the second half of my Gaiman talk, and more to work our way through. It wouldn't be fair to just rush through. I'll see you guys back here then. Until then...