Archive for the ‘The Craft’ Category

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Whenever the subject of horror movies is introduced, I stoutly maintain that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the ultimate horror movie. As in, you never need to see another one. I’m prepared to defend at length the proposition that it is an exceptional piece of work which transcends its genre. If I were still taking a film class at Santa Monica College, I could write a paper on it for sure.

I remember liking the sound effects and the music. I read somewhere that one of the victims screams for the last 30 minutes of the film, but I don’t remember that, and it’s the sort of thing I notice, because about 3 seconds of screaming is plenty enough for me. If indeed a woman screams for one-third of the film’s length, it is a testimony to its other elements that I didn’t register it.

I like what The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has in common with Picnic at Hanging Rock – the portentous brooding evil of a bright day. Heat waves shimmering over a green field – how do you make that look sinister?

Hitchhiker is a facially-birthmarked grave robber whose character was based on the actor’s real-life schizophrenic nephew. When Leatherface performs an atrocity one of the lost teenagers, the cannibal father grouses, “Look what your brother did to this door.” Touchingly, Leatherface dresses for dinner in a shirt and tie, and a mask made up with rouge and eyeliner.

The only surviving kid finally gets away, and the most memorable image, fittingly, is the last scene. In the tender pastel light of a dewy dawn, in the middle of a country road, Leatherface is having abandonment issues. Still wearing his white dress shirt and tie and suit jacket, he whirls about in a grotesque frenzied dance of lonely frustration, chain-sawing the empty air.


Once, I recommended The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to a pair of friends. They rented it, watched it, hated it, and have never trusted me since. A like-minded film critic said,

…sadistic in the extreme and unrelieved by any artistic value whatever.

In Gadfly magazine Daniel Kraus, who will be quoted again, wrote,

…it was banned in the U.K., Germany and Sweden for over twenty years. Britain’s chief film censor, James Ferman, damned it as “psychological terrorism” and Harper’s magazine spat that it was, “a vile piece of sick crap . . . Nothing but imbecile concoctions of cannibalism, voodoo, astrology, sundry hippie-esque cults, and unrelenting sadistic violence as extreme and hideous as a complete lack of imagination can possibly make it.”

Michael Bronski speaks of a new aesthetic which…

….probably traceable back to the 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre – treats the graphic mutilation of human flesh as a satisfying end in itself.

Just a moment, Mr. Bronski. Okay, for Leatherface, mutilation is an end in itself. I give you that. He lives to wield the chainsaw. It is his passion.

But there is nothing graphic about it. The last time I watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it was with the express purpose of tabulating the visible violence, which seems to have been more implied than illustrated. Presumably there is dried blood on Leatherface’s apron, but I don’t think there is a drop of fresh blood. I think the only actual violence we see is, after the girl has been captured and put into a cloth bag, the cannibal father hits and pokes her with a stick.

But even here, the violence is, in the most technical sense, implicit. The odds that the girl is inside the bag approach certainty, but we still don’t see a direct assault on human flesh. It is a fine distinction but an important one, and one I think the director consciously drew.

Of course it could be that the violence is more explicit than I recall. If I’m all wrong about this, please speak up. Tell me in which scene a weapon, or a body part used as a weapon, actually strikes a blow that is shown landing, and I’ll watch the movie again and slap my own forehead in dumbfoundment.

Then again, Kraus says,

It’s the kind of movie where you swear you saw the rusty meat hook sink into the girl’s soft back, when it really wasn’t shown… Was it?

Wilson Bryan Key, author of Subliminal Seduction and Media Sexploitation, claimed that the film had those subliminal horror frames in it, which if true, could explain why some people are so appalled. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is said to have been made on a shoestring budget in seven weeks. It grossed $21 million in the first year, mostly at drive-in theaters. Then, next thing you know, it had made $30 million, and who knows how much by now?

In the summer of ’73 it was hot, hot, hot in Austin. Kraus says,

Under the lights, animal flesh and bone festered and burned, raising a sickly stench… Outside, a doctor applied nausea medicine to vomiting crew members.

As to story’s original inspiration, Kraus says,

The grisly case of Eddie Gein, who simultaneously desired and loathed women reminiscent of his mother, inspired the landmark 1960 film Psycho, as well as the shocker classic Silence of the Lambs. But in the fall of 1974, a film came out that — for sheer, relentless terror — devours them both.

And just in case you ever wanted a complete list of the nastiness promulgated by the real Ed Gein, the Gadfly article provides a full list. But in another publication, director Tobe Hooper told an interviewer,

Our family doctor told me that when he was a pre-med student, he once skinned a cadaver’s face and wore it as a mask to a Halloween party of med school guys. That’s where Leatherface came from; we weren’t consciously ‘doing’ Gein and had done no Gein research.

Vindication is Sweet –
Marks of Distinction Awarded to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (A Partial List)

It was chosen “Outstanding Film of the Year” at the 19th Annual London Film Festival, and shown there again when its 25th anniversary rolled around.

It was shown at the Cannes festival, where Rex Reed said it was the most horrifying motion picture he had ever seen, and was carried in Essential Media, the hippest catalog.

It was acquired (along with The Hills Have Eyes) by the New York MOMA for its study collection. The museum said, “We’re not willing to say yet these films are works of art. There is always a possibility that they will be accepted into our permanent collection but they haven’t been yet….” Then later on, it was accepted as part of the permanent collection.

A report from the 8th International Paris Festival of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films said,

Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre… touted last month by Dan O’Bannon as the state of the art in horror films before Alien, was awaited with the greatest anticipation of any entry. Record crowds, estimated at 5,000 or more, were turned away, causing the first riot outside. When the movie was shown, it turned out to be a heavily censored version, sorely disappointing the audience and almost provoking a second riot.

Ridley Scott, director of Alien, said,

I think there are certain types of underground movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre which are frightening beyond belief – really outrageous.

Joe Bob Briggs, author of Profoundly Disturbing: The Shocking Movies That Changed History, was asked by interviewer Sara Rimensnyder, “If you could show the moral nags one movie, what would it be? His answer:

Actually, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which 30 years after its release is still always used as an example of cultural decay and the depravity of mass entertainment. I’d have them tell me what about it revolts them so much. It’s a comedy!

Back when I lived in LA, a trip to the intellectually elevated Nuart Theater, where they kept a request log in the lobby, revealed that it was the most frequently requested film by Nuart patrons.

A review in Playboy said the movie was done with taste and conscience, and,

There are films that skate right up to the border where art ceases to be thrown off and exploitation begins, and those films are often the field’s most striking successes. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of those. I would happily testify to its redeeming social merit in any court in the country…

Daniel Kraus saw it as representing civilization versus the wilderness, “the rural getting revenge for the urbanite sins — business, familial and sexual.” Praising its brutal simplicity and “the sick grandeur of an age-old myth,” he cited “our barely concealed collective nightmare and hidden lust for a world of destruction and negativity.” He also said the film

…re-affirmed our ability to be repulsed and shocked, an ability we lost with the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, the atomic aftermath in Hiroshima, and the concentration camp atrocities of World War II… The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has entered the popular unconscious to such an extent that it effects even those who have not seen it.

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One Way to Look at It



Different kinds of movies are like this animated fractal. Some take in a very large scene and portray a lot of action. Dr. Zhivago.

Another kind of movie zooms in to examine a branch of that first fractal image, and does it in as much detail. It might be M*A*S*H, what goes on in one corner of the big war.

Then maybe Cassavettes is a good example of another degree of magnification, the interactions between just a few people.

Another kind of movie zooms in even closer, approaching the classical ideal where the action of a play happens within one day, in real time and in one setting. And still there is enormous detail. I’m thinking of Inserts, the movie that changed my life.

And then somebody comes along and focuses on one actor’s nose hairs for 23 hours and 59 minutes. In which case the viewer’s own mental resources are placed under heavy demand to supply the detail.

But then moving in closer, the various pixels of the nose hair epic could be amazing abstract designs.

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Burn After Reading

It’s wicked funny. It’s smart funny. Frances McDormand is in it. John Malkovich’s part was written for him, so what does that tell you? This is a gem.

Malkovich plays Ozzie Cox, who gets fired from the CIA. His boss says he has a drinking problem, but that’s not true. We see him scrupulously waiting till 5:00 to pour. I love to see a weathered, bald guy trying to explain to his father why he “quit” his job to write his memoirs. Especially when the ancient dad is incapable of speech anyway.

McDormand is Linda, who wants to have 4 different plastic surgery procedures so badly, she’ll do anything. Everybody’s having affairs with everybody else. I love the way Harry’s wife snarls, “Honey!” I love Tilda Swinton as a sadistic pediatrician.

The big surprise is how goddam funny Brad Pitt is. When he’s talking with his blackmail target, his attempt to look hard and evil is wonderful. The filmmakers say that in this work, Pitt has “embraced his inner knucklehead.”

The score is great, just on the edge of parodying the suspense genre. Carter Burwell wrote it and, as Ethan Coen told an interviewer, “his soundtrack fits the movie the characters think they are in, rather than the actual film we are watching.”

Here’s what they mean when they say, if you’re writing a screenplay, show it, don’t tell it. Linda goes to a movie with a guy who doesn’t laugh at the part she thinks is hysterical. When another guy invites her to the same movie, she pretends not to have seen it. They both laugh at the part she thinks is hysterical. It’s love! And when he takes her home and shows her his new invention, she doesn’t freak out. The invention alone is worth the price of admission.

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code unknown

It doesn’t really have an ending. And it confounds all expectations. I think the black kid is going to die. I figure, that’s what the scene with him and white girl in the restaurant is all about. To show that he can be mellow, non-confrontational, sweet, etc. – so that when he is killed, we will care.

Then, the horrible prolonged scene on the subway where the Arab insults and eventually spits on Anne. I figure, she will react to that hysterically, causing her boyfriend to kill the next dark-skinned person he sees – who will just happen to be that guy we have learned to like. But that isn’t what happens. Nothing happens. As we go along, I make up several different endings, none of which is the one provided by the movie.

The other remarkable thing is, it shows the ordinary routine of being smuggled into France and then deported, an everyday occurrence for the Romanians.

Juliette Binoche can look so plain, and also so luminously beautiful. She’s an unparalleled physical actor. The body as instrument, to the nth degree. All the set pieces show her off.  Movies often have those, as actor bait. Write something a real actor would love to sink teeth into, and a real actor with a name will do it for union scale. It happens. It happens the other way, too. The clever producer or director or writer gets with a huge name actor and says, “What do you want to do on the big screen? Sing, tap dance, drown, masturbate? You name it, and we’ll write it into the script.”

For a film, that can be a disaster. But not here. However they came about, these amazing scenes show off so well the genius of Juliette Binoche. The one where she’s listening to a kid being abused in the building. And at her acting job, the locked-in-a-room-by-a-twisto scene. And that off-the-scale scene, more literally a tour de force than many others given the label, where alone on the stage she stomps around being a total uninhibited madwoman, with large awkward movements like Mountain Girl in Intolerance. The viewer is far, far back in the theater. What the hell is that? Is it from an actual play that already existed, or was it created for the purpose of this film?

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Hollywood, the Thirties: a washed-up former movie director, referred to as the Boy Wonder (Richard Dreyfuss), is reduced to making pornographic short films in his about-to-be-condemned rented mansion. His stars are Harlene, a wisecracking flapper par excellence who supports herself by waitressing and her habit by actressing, and Rex, a stupid and egotistical no-talent whose sideline is grave-digging. In the midst of the day’s shooting, producer Big Mac arrives; since he is paying the bills he can’t be thrown off the set. With Mac is a woman he introduces as his “fiancée – maybe”, Miss Cathy Cake. Mac, as usual, has brought Harlene’s paycheck in the form of a packet of white powder. This time, she overdoses, and while Mac (Bob Hoskins) and Rex (Stephen Davies) are away disposing of the body, Cathy Cake undertakes to seduce the supposedly impotent (owing to the failure of his career, and his massive intake of alcohol) Boy Wonder.


This intricately structured film, written and directed by John Byrum, is both an allegorical representation of the film industry and an extended metaphor in which each character is an archetype, portraying the various ways in which individuals relate to Art with a capital A.

Harlene (Veronica Cartwright) represents the artist of real but abused talent. Despite her junk habit she is a professional – out of her dress and ready to start work the minute she arrives; listening intently as the Boy Wonder explains the purpose of a shot; getting it on the first take – even Big Mac recognizes that she is a “good little worker.”

Harlene’s affair with the Boy Wonder is part of their shared past. Refusing to believe that he can’t or won’t resume it, she gently tries to arouse him, which he tolerates up to a point but finally, patience exhausted, dumps her from his lap onto the floor. Her expression at that moment is worth the price of admission.

She is also a clown. When the wind-up camera grinds to a halt, destroying an intense scene, she rips her slip open and makes a ridiculous face to distract the director from his exasperation at having to rewind. Of the two women Harlene is by far the more sympathetic character: loving, generous, supportive, naïve, spontaneous, a little dumb. Her honesty, her humor and openness, her already anachronistic flapper attire and giddy ways, are all endearing. Although worldly-wise on the surface, she is essentially an innocent with the fabled heart of gold.

Cathy Cake (Jessica Harper), on the other hand, is dangerous and weird, a pasty-faced caricature of innocence, a bisque doll who plays the lady while casting sidelong glances at Rex’s crotch.

Cathy’s coy ways disguise her twisted motivations and insidious intent. Although she aspires to be an actress, she realizes her total lack of talent and creativity, admitting that her liaison with Big Mac is a stratagem designed to bring her the opportunities that her own efforts cannot. But this ambition to be in the movies can be furthered at the same time as her new goal: once she learns that the Boy Wonder is theoretically incapable of sexual relations, she sets out to get him into bed. She proposes to meet the challenge of reawakening his desire if he, in exchange, will put her in front of the camera and take on the much more daunting challenge of teaching her “to be great.” The longest sequence of the film consists of her amazing relentless campaign to this end.

Cathy has already demonstrated plenty of what may be termed psychic vampirism: she wanted to go watch Harlene shoot up; when the director was arguing with Big Mac she watched them as if a spectator at a tennis match. She breaks the Boy Wonder down by digging at his feelings for Harlene, his doubts about himself as a creative artist, his agoraphobia, and every other weak spot she can detect in him. Just when all this psychological probing gets to be too much, Cathy switches tactics and displays a dazzling array of manipulative and exploitive ploys. The ultimate irony of Cathy Cake is that she is indeed a superb and inspired actress – everywhere but in front of the camera.

Eventually Cathy succeeds in gaining the Boy Wonder’s confidence, and his body, along with causing a painful misunderstanding, and a lot of trouble for them both on Big Mac’s return. Even in the heat of passion she is true to her vampire nature – when the Boy Wonder wants to nuzzle and kiss, she pushes his head back in order to observe his face in the flushed and vulnerable erotic state. Her quintessential line, repeated several times throughout the film, is, “I want to see it all.” Her zombie-like appearance during the first scene was exactly right: she is an example of intelligence and curiosity with no ruling consciousness; out of control, like some monstrous child. Cathy’s outstanding trait is this half-voyeuristic, half-vampiristic need to feed on the pain of others. Archetypally, she is the Fan: this quality of being an emotion junkie is what going to the movies is all about.

the Inserts poster

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What is it with people, anyway? The film industry spends millions to deliver experiences that will take us out of the boring everyday world. That’s one of the things we pay for, when we go to the movies. So, why complain about the lack of verisimilitude in a work of fictional cinema? Look at it this way: if absolute factual accuracy is essential, why not just watch documentaries instead? There are thousands of great ones out there. It would take a lifetime to watch just the best, and several more to watch the rest. So go away and quit picking on Scott Rosenberg.

He wrote Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995), and remarked in the DVD version’s supplementary material, “I created a language, I created a subculture,” crediting Vietnam-era military slang, biker slang, and stuff he made up on his own. Well, some critics had a cow about the film’s language. Not the cussing, but the vernacular. M.V. Moorhead, for instance, called it “gaudy, self-conscious slang…” The well-respected Kenneth Turan described it as “a wacky kind of pumped-up slang laced with mysterious, evocative phrases…” Another commentator wrote of “dumb new slang phrases,” and so on.

Two different things are going on here: an accusation that certain terms used by the characters are inauthentic; and an assumption that making up vocabulary for a movie is somehow not okay. Where did that idea come from? Who knows? Writers do it in novels all the time. Look at that Jerzy Kosinski book where a serial molester lays out his entire bizarre personal dictionary of rape-related terminology. William Gibson makes up words, and so does Norman Spinrad. Tolkien made up a whole language. One of the greatest speculative fiction books ever, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, requires the reader to scale the heights of a steep learning curve just to get past the first page. And James Joyce? Don’t get me started. The point is, extensive use of self-referential slang occurs in works of fiction, whether presented in print form or on film. What’s the problem? It’s all part of being, as one reviewer put it, “hyper-stylised.”

In real life, some people do speak in impenetrable patois. In real life, small subgroups do have their own languages, sometimes specific to the locale. Maybe I’m wrong to assume that the authors of police procedurals engage in research, but let’s say they do. In a detective novel I read once, when the cops were on the job but out of uniform, they called their attire “soft clothes.” In no other crime novel have I encountered that term for plainclothes or civvies. Somewhere in America there probably is a police department where they say “soft clothes.” In various detective tales, when the cops go after the bad guy they call him the perp, the doer, the unsub… Apparently the worlds of crime and law enforcement both are rife with slang.

In writing the dialogue for Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead, did screenwriter Rosenberg make it all up? And if he did, so what? The second question has been answered.

One of the expressions peculiar to the movie is “Give it a name,” which betokens affirmation and endorsement. It means “You got that shit right,” “Tell it like it is,” or “Word.” It seconds the motion on a thing that needed to be said. And if it wasn’t already in use before Rosenberg adapted it, well, it should have been.

Actually, the phrase itself has been around for quite a while, although with a different and more direct meaning. In the Charles Dickens novel Hard Times, published in 1854, a bartender asks a customer what he’ll have. Will it be sherry? “Give it a name,” he says. In the short story “Ulysses and the Dogman” by O. Henry, we find these lines:

“S-h-h-h!” said the dogman, signaling the waiter; “give it a name.”
“Whiskey,” said Jim.
“Make it two,” said the dogman.

The term is also used the same way, coincidentally, in the great Ulysses of James Joyce.

“Arrah, give over your bloody codding, Joe,” says I, “I’ve a thirst on me I wouldn’t sell for half a crown.”
“Give it a name, citizen,” says Joe.
“Wine of the country,” says he.


This expression seems to bother some people a lot, but don’t blame Scott Rosenberg. A contributor to the online Urban Dictionary notes that the word was used back in 1979, in a Season 5 episode of the TV series “The Rockford Files.” In that context, it’s defined as “a series of small painful beatings administered in such a way as to inflict maximum pain without causing permanent damage or desensitizing the recipient. Implies endless pain.” The dialogue quoted is, “Give me the name, or it will be a long night of buckwheats.”

In Things, the old guy, Joe Heff, who explains a lot of this stuff enlightens his fellow loafers in the diner. A sentence of buckwheats means the victim is to be executed in an excruciating and lingering way, such as having a bullet fired up his ass, which results in a fifteen-minute death scene.

The 1999 edition of The Mafia Encyclopedia by Carl Sifakis includes the term, but of course the film had already appeared by then. What I don’t know is whether the 1987 edition contained it. This page from the Sifakis second edition describes several gruesome buckwheats hits, and seems to imply that the term has been around for a long time. It’s also found in Pete DeVico’s 2007 book The Mafia Made Easy: The Anatomy and Culture of La Cosa Nostra.

In Things, there’s a very effective scene where The Man with the Plan mimics and mocks the dread that Jimmy will feel and have to live with, never knowing what his fate will be. The Man trembles and stutters, “Buckwheats. Or maybe not! Maybe, yes, maybe, buckwheats, may maybe buck buckwheats, or, no.” I’m guessing the Mafia, never renowned for sensitivity, coined the term based on the movie character Buckwheat, in the old Our Gang comedies. This was a black kid whose fearfulness was expressed in various ways. His hair would stand on end, or he’d turn white from fear (primitive SFX, done with the film’s negative.)

Back in 2001, Dan Rather told an interviewer how the cowardice of his network superiors forced him to cover a story against his will. He said, “What happened is, they got the willies, they got the buckwheats, their knees wobbled…” My theory is, he’d seen Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead, and meant that his bosses were shaking and stuttering, pretty much like the demonstration given by The Man with the Plan. Of course Rather was publicly scolded by African Americans for using an offensive racial slur. Question: why didn’t Rather’s remark draw criticism for insulting people with a certain name? Maybe Willie Nelson should sue.

There’s a rather cryptic mention in a 1982 New York Times article on the theater, covering a revival of the play Rose-Marie, which was first staged in 1924. It refers to the question of whether “Leslie Shreve’s curse of ”Buckwheats!” made Lady Jane an endearing creation.”

There’s no doubt that Things contributed to the popularity of the word. In 2005, someone’s comment about a hoax website claiming Christopher Walken would run for president was titled, “Buckwheats for Bush?” In 2006, in a forum discussing favorite music choices, one writer seemed to take for granted that people would understand what was meant by the comment “I suggest buckwheats for everyone who contributed to the list.” In a 2007 discussion we find this line: “That piece of anal excretion that was speaking up for the murder cult leader needs a buckwheats.”

In the same year, elsewhere online, there’s this: “It’s buckwheats for him, innit. Apparently, that’s an Americanism for being shot up the arse. With a gun, like.” Also in 2007, the following contribution was made to a serious discussion of the merits of a Swiss-made weapon: “Legend has it that Pancho Villa got his buckwheats with a number of Mondragons!” A humorous 2007 blog entry by Steve Graham says, “So anyway, this chicken had to be dealt with. I’m talking buckwheats. Because if I let him get away with this, soon everyone would think they could crap in my yard.”

In 2008, a political discussion site includes the sentence, “It’s buckwheats fo’ ya!” On another site, in a discussion about surveillance and related matters, someone named Jsin wrote, “In ten years the oil wars will be in full swing, the feds will not know shit, and your pixels will be dead. The worse that can happen is someone will know you and remember you pissed them off for some reason… Then ya know it’s just buckwheats.” In the same year, this remark showed up in another discussion group: “The fact that these punks made a video with the intent of putting it on the internet cements our feelings on the issue – buckwheats. All of them.” Elsewhere: “And this one goes right between Obama’s beady eyes…This next one is buckwheats! Right up Olbermann’s bunghole…”

A few more recent examples of contemporary use: “That dude that did this is gonna get buckwheats…” “This was a buckwheats hit to Toshiba, plain and simple buckwheats.” Writer Bob Murphy, when considering the case of Ralph “Bucky” Phillips, titled his piece “Buckwheats for Bucky?” Here’s the one I relate to, from a poem by Katrina Rasikari:

My God do I miss you!
Life is pure buckwheats without you!

Video gamers have enthusiastically adopted the term, as explained by another entry in the Urban Dictionary: “A person who has called buckwheats on another player will often avoid other players, ignore easy kills, and disregard danger to oneself in order to punish their enemy for some perceived slight.” There is, in fact, a website called Buckwheats.org that has to do with gaming. And there’s a site called La Familia, in support of one subgroup of the players of Shadowrun, a “punk game set in an alternate near-future.” Its lexicon defines buckwheats as “a vengeance murder involving torture, mutilation and a slow death,” and offers as an example of usage, “He died buckwheats.”

Another gaming site elaborates by explaining that buckwheats “is usually reserved for traitors, informers, welchers, and other people who need to serve as an object lesson… The look on the victim’s face is usually good for a nightmare or two.” Other random outbursts found on similar sites include “Buckwheats for that guy,” and “I have one word for you: ‘Buckwheats!'”


Moving on to a more pleasant topic, screenwriter Scott Rosenberg absolutely did not invent “boat drinks.” This term is the title of a 1979 song by Jimmy Buffet, whose lyrics include the lines

Waitress I need two more boat drinks
Then I’m headin’ south ‘fore my dream shrinks

A boat drink typically contains rum, and comes with a little umbrella or some other decoration. There’s a difference between boat drinks and, for instance, the self-medicating shots of hard liquor slugged down by a dock worker after a day of brutal labor. Boat drinks are luxury. They serve not as an anesthetic for the woes of life but as enhancement to an already high level of satisfaction. A fellow named Mark Knowles wrote, “There is something special about boat drinks, because ‘boat drinks’ is really a state of mind rather than a particular drink.” In the film, it’s an all-purpose salutation and expression of good will and fellowship. Andy Garcia, who should know, said “boat drinks” is a metaphor for heaven.


Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead contains a multitude of colloquialisms, both traditional and invented for the occasion.

Assigning Jimmy to detain and frighten the fiance’ of his son’s ex-girlfriend, The Man says, “It’s just an action, it’s not a piece of work.” In other words, yes, get violent, but no, don’t kill the guy. “Piece of work” is, of course, a familiar construction. The first thing you think of is Shakespeare – “What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason.” And there are a whole lot of other ways to use it. But Scott Rosenberg may have originated this one.

Also, it appears that he invented “Blood runs when the time comes,” which Joe Heff quotes portentously as the first rule of life. It sounds like something that genuine bad guys would have thought up, but apparently it is made up. The saying has been used in a song, “Hell Bound” by Helder which probably was written since the movie came out. Here’s the verse:

we’re never satisfied
but tonight we go with the tide
blood runs when the time comes
I’m gonna stick to my guns

“Bangtail” is standard black American slang for prostitute, but “lunchy” may be a neologism, at least the way it’s used here. It’s how the old guy describes Bernard. Looking it up, we find meanings like mediocre, stupid, dull-witted, and irresponsible. While Bernard is all those things, I think “lunchy,” as used here, is short for “out to lunch.” It’s an expression we’ve all heard, and it implies something stronger than any of those other qualities: namely, a connection with reality that’s tenuous, if not completely severed.

And here’s an expression known to probably everyone: “It is what it is.” Somebody could write a book on that one. I know I could. So, what I’d like to say here is, don’t pick on Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead. It is what it is, and that’s damn good.


RELATED: Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead

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Andy Garcia and Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken – three of my “if he’s in it I’ll watch it” actors. Not to mention, great dialogue and a story line that never quits. This one is definitely a keeper.

The most interesting thing about it is the character of Jimmy (that’s Garcia). He’s a decent guy in a place and time where decency is a scarce commodity. He studied to be a priest, but lost the calling and became a gangster, but then he lost that calling, too, and turned “citizen” and started a business. His company is called Afterlife Advice, and the time frame of the story is back when videography was still done by professionals. The videos made by the dying people are one of the best things about this movie, and nobody who discusses it mentions them. One viewer grouches that the film’s title doesn’t make any sense, which seems kind of obtuse. Obviously, one thing to do in Denver when you’re dead is provide your relatives with guidance from beyond the grave. Half a dozen of these vignettes are interspersed throughout. It’s art within art, like the dancing plastic bag in American Beauty. Come to think of it, The Dreamers uses the same device, with clips from classic films that reflect the story, or complement it, or comment upon it.

At work, Jimmy has the gravitas of a funeral director. With friends, he’s demonstrative. I can’t remember a movie where so many straight guys hug so many other straight guys. For an example of his style, I like the conversation with a gay colleague who shows him an ad layout. Jimmy is not impressed. “Every fag in the world is good at this kind of shit, and I gotta wind up with one that’s klunky?”

In one conversation, there’s a reference to Jimmy’s boat fund. This establishes him as a man with hopes and dreams, a future with something in it that’s innocent and nice. What this means in filmic terms, of course, is that he doesn’t have a future. What he does have is integrity. When things go south in a big way, he does his best to look after the people who are in jeopardy because they trusted him. Everybody’s always telling him how different he is, like, how noble. (Being told such things must make life difficult for anybody who really is noble.) They call him Jimmy the Saint.

He’s a guy who, as Damian Cannon put it, “treats everyone without judgment and tries to be all things to all men.” Jimmy can function in any surroundings, and the way he does it is not by changing, but by being his same self everywhere, and it works. There are such people, and they’re fascinating. I imagine Duncan Grant having the same kind of low-key magnetism. He was a painter, related to Virginia Woolf. In all the millions of words written by and about the Bloomsbury Group, nobody ever went on record as disliking him. It’s so easy to envision Andy Garcia as Duncan. Grant was mostly gay, but that’s exactly the point about this kind of charisma. It can be found in anyone – straight male, straight female, gay male, gay female – and it envelops everyone. Even psychopaths will sometimes, though not always, respond to the aura of a person like Jimmy.

Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead became, from the first, one of my all-time uber-favorites. I’m gonna go on record that this is a great fuckin’ movie. After the third or fourth time I saw it, I went online and looked at comments by regular people and criticisms by critics. Taking note of their objections, I watched the movie again. Directed by Gary Fleder, it was written by Scott Rosenberg, supposedly in two weeks. Once that becomes public knowledge, some smarty-pants critic will always say “The script was written in two weeks, and it shows.” Actually, some incredible scripts have been swiftly written. John Byrum wrote Inserts over a weekend. The creation of one of these self-contained, self-referential worlds is best done in an intense burst. Philip K. Dick wrote that way, too.

Reviewers make fun of the home-brewed gangster slang, but I don’t see anything wrong with it. I went pretty far into the linguistics angle, far enough to write a whole separate piece about it. Another thing the opinionators like to say about Things is that it rides on the coattails of Reservoir Dogs, copying Tarentino’s mood, style, etc. And who is anybody to accuse Rosenberg’s script of being derivative, anyway, when Reservoir Dogs provided such a renowned example of plagiarism? And – here’s the interesting part – Things was written first. Take that, Reservoir Dogs.

So. Two toughs approach Jimmy with an invitation that can’t be refused. He’s been summoned by his old mentor, The Man with the Plan, a quadriplegic crime boss played by Christopher Walken, who has never been more menacing. Walken does put some strange emphases on words. But it doesn’t matter. He’s the creepiest. The Man is sentimental about his deceased wife, and that’s related to the old-time connection with Jimmy somehow.

The Man confides to Jimmy that his son Bernard is “crazy as a shithouse rat” – and you’ve got to respect him for that. Not many parents can admit that their kid is a serious mess. Bernard has become especially deranged since his longtime girlfriend broke up with him. He expresses his grief through gratuitous violence against random victims, but The Man isn’t so much bothered by that, as by his son’s most recent indiscretion. Bernard hopped the fence of a schoolyard and interfered with a little girl, in full view of dozens of witnesses, which got him arrested. The Man has a plan for his boy’s rehabilitation, and wants Jimmy to recruit some muscle and make it happen. He presents Jimmy with the news that he’s bought the note on Afterlife Advice from some other gangster, so basically, Jimmy really doesn’t have a choice. The Man even sweetens the deal by offering $50,000, which Jimmy can split with his helpers as he sees fit.

The new boyfriend is on his way to Denver. This suitor is to be intercepted, convinced to quit the relationship, and turned around and pointed back to where he came from. “It’s just an action, not a piece of work.” They’re not to kill the orthodontist, only rough him up enough so he’ll go away and dump the woman. Bernard will then get her back, and be happy, and give up the egregious misbehavior. That’s the plan.

Jimmy can relate to Bernard’s problem, because he too is in love. He’s just met the very beautiful sweet innocent yet so sexy Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar). She is lovely and very slinky. Her thighs don’t touch when she walks. She looks like the mermaids painted by fairy tale illustrator Arthur Rackham. There is something fetchingly weird about her top lip, like collagen gone wrong. Dagney is made for candlelight or anyplace else where she can glow softly. The first question Jimmy asks her is, “Are you in love?” because if so he’ll back off. He smells her hair – it’s a fucking shampoo commercial now? But here, as in so much of what we call art, superficial things signify deeper truths. Even though we don’t like to admit it, scent plays a big part in attraction. Because of their relative heights, his nose happens to be in line with her hair, but it’s her he’s smelling.

Some viewers have complained about the rather goofy pickup dialogue sequence, but when people scope each other out as candidates for carnal interaction, the words don’t matter. I mean, you’ve got to say something. The real action is in the looks and the moves, the vibe. Later on he says to her, “You’re a thing to be amazed by,” which is not bad, as declarations of love go. One online critic complains about Dagney’s voice. Picky, picky.

So Jimmy goes to collect the helpers he needs. Franchise is an extensively tattooed biker type, who now has three kids and another one on the way. His wife doesn’t want him to have anything to do with it, but of course he needs the money.

One guy is called Pieces, although when they go see him, he insists “My name is Olin.” He doesn’t want to be called Pieces any more. He has a circulation problem that makes his fingers and toes fall off. But I don’t think the nickname came from the medical condition, I think that’s a grotesque coincidence. I bet he got the nickname way back, in prison, or long before. Olin Pieces is something even kids could think of. (If I misheard the name and it isn’t Olin, then, as Emily Litella would say, Never mind.)

The third recruit is a black guy called Easy Wind, and the fourth is Easy Wind’s natural antagonist, a headcase called Critical Bill, because critical is the condition in which he tends to leave his opponents. He works for an undertaker. Jimmy and Franchise arrive to find him in boxer training mode, using a corpse for a punching bag. Jimmy catches Franchise’s eye with that conspiratorial, slightly rueful, yet indulgent “whattaya gonna do” smile that one parent might flash to another when their kid does something typical, slightly reprehensible, but nonetheless cute. A Johnny Cash song blasts from the stereo, and Bill coordinates his punches with the rhythm as skillfully as any good percussionist who complements the beat of the band’s main drummer.

Bill explains to Jimmy that this new exercise program is actually healthy. Since he’s been on it, he hasn’t beat up any live people. “It keeps my powder dry,” he says. Which is actually a stupid analogy. Dry is the condition in which powder is supposed to be kept, so it can be ignited and explode at will. Wet powder is the kind that isn’t dangerous. So it doesn’t make sense, which is why it’s good dialogue for this character, who is basically dumb as a box of rocks. Here’s a real-life example. I once interviewed a conscientious apartment building manager, who wanted to emphasize how very much the place had improved since he took over. “I turned it around 360 degrees,” he said earnestly. No doubt he had heard of situations being turned around 180 degrees, and figured, if that was good, then 360 degrees must be twice as good. He was clueless in regard to the fact that if something rotates 360 degrees, it’s right back where it started. This is the kind of thing Critical Bill would doubtless also say.

They’re going to set up a roadblock, with two team members posing as police officers. Billy begs to be one of them, promising to behave himself and let Pieces do all the talking. Against his better judgment, Jimmy gives in. There’s that pesky decency again, wanting to give the guy a chance. Big mistake.

Jimmy spends a night with the beautiful Dagney, and then it’s time to rock’n’roll. The crew stakes out the road. Pieces and Critical Bill are in a squad car, Jimmy and Franchise are in a truck (which is where the “cops” are supposed to bring the victim to be beaten up.) Easy is in a car. They wait and wait, and then it’s night, and then it starts to rain. When the orthodontist finally shows up and gets stopped, he doesn’t believe they are cops, and smarts off to them. He won’t get out of his van, and of course Critical Bill loses patience and goes berserk. Jimmy can’t see any of this, he’s relying on Easy’s radio report from his vantage point. For some reason, Easy downplays the degree of resistance the victim is putting up, and the loss of control experienced by Pieces and Bill. When Billy threatens the victim with a knife, Pieces points his gun at Billy. The crazed paramilitary fanatic seems to back off, but the orthodontist is stupid enough to mouth off one more time, and Billy stabs him fatally. Suddenly, a woman appears and screams. It’s Bernard’s ladylove, who has been sleeping in the back of the vehicle. Totally startled, Pieces shoots her fatally.

Jimmy and his friends take the bodies to the funeral home to be slid into a trick coffin along with a legitimate corpse. Jimmy calls Dagney but there’s no answer. He goes to see The Man with the Plan, who is now attended by a corrupt cop, Lt. Atwater. The Man’s for-old-time’s-sake sentiment just barely allows him to spare Jimmy’s life. “We go back,” he says. He tells Jimmy to “put it in the wind” – accept banishment instead of death. He has 48 hours to get out of Denver. “It’s the milk of human kindness I’m giving you,” The Man says. But the other four fuckups are history. Like the standup guy he is, Jimmy says “It wasn’t their fault. They were following my orders. I take full responsibility.”

Personally, I think Easy should be assigned a large part of the blame. When the “action” went down, and he was the one who could see what was happening, he should have apprised Jimmy sooner. But he waited till the situation was catastrophic, then reported to Jimmy, “They fucked it.” Then he descended on Pieces and Critical Bill, throwing all the blame solidly on them.

Anyway, The Man sentences the four accomplices to “buckwheats,” this gang’s term for execution in the most painful way possible, generally with a hot lead suppository inserted at high velocity, if you get my drift. The victim takes fifteen or twenty minutes to expire, and it’s not pretty. Jimmy meets with his crew at the cemetery to give them the news, and they ask if he is also condemned to buckwheats. Jimmy the Saint is a guy who, generally, tries to be as honest as he can, but this is a dilemma. He lies and tells them the same fate awaits him. Or maybe he figures The Man lied to him and he’s dead meat too. Which may explain his reaction when Lucinda shows up on the street covered with bruises.

Lucinda is the junkie prostitute Jimmy is sort of a big brother to. In a typical interaction, she hits him up for money and he warns “You’d better stay clean.” Lucinda wants to get out of the life and find a straight job, but most of all she wants to have a baby, because that might keep her off heroin. This has the unmistakable ring of truth to it. It’s an unfortunate fact that people have babies for the most putrid reasons. Anyway, one of Lucinda’s regulars had beaten the shit out of her. Jimmy takes her to the office building where they guy works. They bust into a conference room where he roughs up the john in front of everybody and tells them why. Pure wish-fulfillment. Haven’t we all dreamed of such a magnificent act of revenge? Even as the security guards drag Jimmy away, he’s still holding onto the scumbag by the neck, dragging him along too. Would Jimmy have made this magnificent gesture in the normal course of events? Or is he extending himself because he’s under sentence? It’s the kind of thing somebody would do, knowing he only had a couple of days left to live. I know I have my list, and you probably do too.

To deal with the four marked men, an extremely skilled contract killer known as Mr. Shhh is called in. This is where it all starts to go a bit over the top, but then again, isn’t that what movies are for? This one does depict a strange moral universe. Even Mr. Shhh is not one-sided. He gratuitously breaks up a 4-on-1 alley fight – maybe because he has a shred of decency, maybe just to keep in practice.

In the latest viewing of Things, I paid more attention to such matters as composition, etc. Looking at it as a graphic novel, I really get it. Scenes are framed like the panels in a noir “comic” book that has nothing funny about it. The set decoration is expressive. In the funeral home, when the crew fight over whose fault it all was, the background is a window made up of many small squares, all red, backlit so you get the feeling of the flames of hell. In The Man with the Plan’s house, he and Jimmy talk against a similar backdrop, a window with numerous small panes, only this time there are red and white squares, like a chess board for the deadly game they’re playing. I was amazed, at the end, to see so many music credits flow by. I hadn’t realized I’d heard anywhere near all those songs. The selections in the sound track fit in seamlessly, always a propos and never obtrusive. And in the club, the live band is Buddy Guy. Excellent choice.

Jimmy knows a black crime boss who owes him a favor, so even though the gangster doesn’t like Easy, he agrees to protect him. Besides, this gangster likes The Man with the Plan even less, so there is the principle of, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Jimmy meets with Pieces, to pay him off, but he says no, keep the money – “You do something good with it.” This is quite a scene, actually. Pieces has no intention of running, and he explains why. It’s a great thing for a person to be ready to die because he feels like he really lived. How many of us can say the same? That’s the gist of the Pieces philosophy. Maybe this explains why, when Mr. Shhh shows up to execute Pieces, the contract killer complies with his request to “do it quickly.” No buckwheats here.

Jimmy’s in the diner when in comes Bernard, who doesn’t yet know that his ex-girlfriend is dead. He’s upset because he can’t get in touch with her. The softer side of Bernard shows, and he swears he doesn’t mean anybody any harm. He just wants to hear her say in her own voice that things are okay with her and the new guy. (Well, duh, you’d think it would be obvious.) “Her happiness is more important to me than my happiness,” he avers. Jimmy’s natural, instinctive compassion battles with disgust for this pervert, who is the cause of everything going to hell. He knows that Bernard is sincere in this moment, but also knows he’s full of shit, because he can’t help himself and will surely go on being more erratic. This conversation is one of the most fascinating scenes in the movie.

The person with no intention of going gently into that good night is Critical Bill, who turns his apartment into a fortress and, clad in jungle-commando drag, sustains himself on speed. He also pees in a gallon milk jug and keeps it on top of the refrigerator. Perhaps because going into the bathroom would require leaving his post, perhaps for some other reason. Regardless of the fact that he begged to wear a police uniform and take a more active part in the roadside “action,” he tells Jimmy, “It was irresponsible of you to put me out on point.” We all know people like this. Nothing’s ever their fault. Critical Bill also tells his side of the story concerning the rumor that he’s a fecal freak. Setting the record straight, he assures Jimmy that he actually only ate shit once, only a tiny little portion, and it was on a bet. For $500, who wouldn’t?

Mr. Shhh shoots up a whole nightclub full of people to get to Easy. Franchise packs up his family, ready to leave town. He accuses Jimmy of not being as nervous as a fellow buckwheats candidate ought to be, and naturally he’s pissed. Jimmy goes to see The Man with the Plan and asks him to spare Franchise’s life for the sake of his wife and kids, which is a mistake. Jimmy sees The Man’s corrupt police lieutenant talking to Dagney, confronts him in a parking lot and beats him with a bat. They end up back in the presence of The Man, and Jimmy berates him for having Franchise killed when he’d said he wouldn’t. Here comes one of the most-quoted lines of dialogue.

“You gave me your word,” the outraged Jimmy says.

“Jimmy, don’t you see? I’m a criminal. My word doesn’t mean dick.”

The Man humiliates Jimmy and directs the thugs to kick the shit out of him. Dagney is threatened with dire consequences if Jimmy doesn’t get out of town for real this time. Yes, he still has the option to escape, but he’s now sentenced to live in constant fear, knowing that The Man might change his mind any day and have him killed either quickly or slowly. And he’s not to take the woman he loves with him, or he will definitely be killed, after watching her die in some gruesome way. This is another similarity with Inserts, where the director who has failed to please his criminal overlord is punished by having his film released in a form he loathes. He’ll have to live on knowing, as the boss says, “It wasn’t what you wanted.” The Man with the Plan is going to make Jimmy live on in circumstances where he doesn’t dare include Dagney in his life.

Knowing that his days are numbered anyway, Jimmy decides to do the worst thing he can to The Man. He kills Bernard. I have to say I didn’t see this coming. I never thought Jimmy the Saint would do such a thing. There may be a continuity problem. After killing Bernard, Jimmy dragged him out of the car and threw his cap after him. But a bit later, he drives past the goons who are still waiting for Bernard outside the bowling alley, and frisbee-flings the cap at them. Maybe he went back and got it.

Meanwhile, Mr. Shhh nails Critical Bill, and it’s spectacular. As he approaches Bill, the knife slides down his sleeve and into his hand like a burgeoning erection. Here’s a neat parallel – Bill winds up being killed by Mr. Shhh because he can’t resist mouthing off one last time, which is the same way the orthodontist got himself killed by Bill. Neither of them can keep their mouth shut when appropriate. Then it’s Jimmy’s turn to die – but not before he knocks up Lucinda and makes an Afterlife Advice video for his kid.

This film popularized, though it didn’t invent, the term “boat drinks.” It’s kind of an all-purpose expression of camaraderie, a salute to a utopian future, like “Next year in Jerusalem.” At the end, there’s a heartbreaking scene where Jimmy and his crew of four are out sailing on a beautiful day in a tropical climate, enjoying “boat drinks.” The film started with a scene of blissful innocence, the little girls jumping rope on the playground. It concludes with a scene of blissful innocence, the friends in their floating Valhalla. Even in heaven, Critical Bill has a knife in his hand.

NOTE: Michael Oppermann quotes an interview in Melody Maker which isn’t online: Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg said, “I lost my father after a three-year battle with cancer. Rather than writing directly about that experience, I decided Denver would be a metaphor for terminal disease. It’s like, 30 minutes in, these guys have seen a ‘doctor’, and he’s told them they’ve got days to live”
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