John Ramsey Miller

On my mind.
Films this week.

I have eagerly anticipated the Cohen Brothers’ remake of TRUE GRIT. Maybe I’ll see it this weekend in the majamboplex, but more likely when it comes out from Netflix. I’m sure I’ll like it better than the John Wayne version. I sustained brain damage from being exposed to Glenn Campbell’s acting in the original. I think Matt Damon will do some better in Glenn’s role. And there was the fact that Kim Darby played a girl half her age. I know the Cohen Brothers’ version will be in all ways superior, because (face it) John Wayne played pretty much John Wayne in every single movie he ever made. In every Western the Duke even wore the same Colt single action Army with the yellowed ivory grips, the same hat and vest and probably the same boots and socks. Don’t get me wrong, I liked everything about John Wayne and I’ve seen every movie he ever made.

John Wayne was an icon in an age when men were actually men and the only feelings they admitted to were horny, hunger and thirst. He was not an actor with a great deal of range. Can you see him playing the femiguy doing the John Wayne walk in Le Cage Aux folles? But I digress. Charles Portis wrote TRUE GRIT and it appears to be in and out of print. Great book by the way. I suspect whoever has the rights to publish it now will run off a few copies for those who didn’t read it originally––like 99.9 percent of American readers. I see they released it on Kindle in November of 2010. Duke won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for playing Rooster Cogburn. Had it not been for the new film, I doubt they would have rereleased it. Portis has written other books including NORWOOD and GRINGO. The latter is a slurish title that is blatantly offensive to WASPS may have to be re-released under a softer title, like THE WHITE ANGLO-SAXON PROBABLY PROTESTANT FROM NORTH OF THE US BORDER WITH MEXICO.

Back to the point. Here’s the thing. Duke purists hate the fact that anybody would dare remake TRUE GRIT since HE was in it and got that Academy Award for it. That is actually more because they were to a man afraid that Glenn Campbell might return to reprise his role.

Normally I hate film remakes because I think that, while it is not often the remake is better than the original, remakes are already a property the studio doesn’t have to pay for, there’s already a script to go by, and the film was almost certainly successful. Remakes of foreign films into American films are another pet peeve of mine, although I would rather see a film without subtitles or a good dubbing. I think Hollywood takes the easy (and most profitable) path when they can. Imagination is so draining and threatening to the non-imagining types who think they are. And a new film has no track record.

Last week John Gilstrap blogged about the Huck Finn edition that loses the “N” word in. I thought about that one a great deal, and I can see clearly the Twain teacher guy’s point and John’s as well. What I wondered was if the scholar guy gets royalties from the cleansed version, since he’s taken a work that clearly in the public domain and altered it using find and replace on his computer. I seem to recall that Faulkner’s family actually published some of Bill’s books in their original/ original form (before editing at Random House) so the family could start the clock over again. But again, I digress…

I have been spending a lot of time with my four-year-old grandson (we’re best pals because we have a common enemy) and he insists we watch all three Jurassic Park movies every time he is here and not necessarily in the proper order. After I realized I could go line for line with the actors (including the grunts and squeals of the Velosciaptors). I ordered all three Toy Story DVDs and they came on a slow ship from Hong Kong. I got those today, and I’m going to buy a variety of childrens films else I will sour on Buzz Lightyear and Woody.

Last week, Rushie and I watched Ron Howard’s “How The Grinch stole Christmas” Forget changing two words in Huck Finn. Ron Howard expanded the book well beyond anything Dr. Seuss imagined. I understand the author’s wife liked the movie script. I’m sure she didn’t mind the money either. Howard invented subplots, added characters and dialog. What would Theodore Seuss Geisel have thought about the final films? I thought the movie sucked lemons through a bird’s nostril. I discovered that Grinch was voted Worst Christmas Movie Of All Time and was also a financial flop. Jim Carey and one child actor almost saved the film from being totally embarrassing. All I saw of Cary were his yellow and red eyes––all of Mr. Carey to be seen that was not latex and green.

Is it so wrong to remake a classic? If it works and exposes a new generation to movies they wouldn’t normally see, especially old films in black and white. How about we remake “To Kill A Mockingbird, with either George Clooney or Tom Hanks as Atticus Finch, Denzel Washington as Tom Robinson, Billy Bob Thornton as Boo Radley. How about Scout, Jim, Dill? Give me some child actor’s names.

Who would you cast in a remake of Casablanca, Jaws, Lawrence Of Arabia, The Ten Commandments?” Pick your favorite film that shalt not be touched and give me the cast.

Best Chases and Shootouts

By John Gilstrap
Following up on yesterday’s discussion of sex scenes in fiction, I thought I’d go the other way today and talk about violence, a fairly indispensible element of thrillers and mysteries.

Chases are staples of suspense fiction. Film is inherently better suited to chases than books are, but some books have left me gasping for breath at the end. Chases are hard to write. The secret, I think, lies with the pacing of the prose. Shorter, rapid-fire sentences give the writing a quicker pulse that passes on to the reader.
Another staple is the shoot-out, which I think is particularly difficult to pull off on the page. Movies have a decided edge here, simply because of the audio track.

All this thinking about violence and its fiction elements prompted me to cobble together my own one-voter Best List:

Most Off-Puttingly Violent Novel:
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. If you’ve read it, you know why. If you haven’t read it, know what you’re in for. Just awful.

Most Off-Puttingly Violent Movie:
This category is complicated by all of the Saw-esque stuff that rolls through the theaters. Since bloody violence and audience gross-outs are the very point of these films, I think it would be disingenuous to call them off-putting. If you’re wired that way, you shouldn’t go to spatter movies. To qualify for this category, the film needs to be a “real” movie that happens to turn my stomach. The winner, for the second category in a row, is American Psycho. (Why, one might ask, would one watch the movie after hating the book. Good question, for which I have no good answer.)

Best Chase Scene in a Novel:
This one’s a slam-dunk for me: the final sequence in Frederick Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal, in which Claude Lebel is closing in on the shooter. I’ve written here before how TDOTJ is the book that made me want to write thrillers. The entire book is taut as an over-wound watch spring, but that final sequence—which, now that I think about it less of a chase than a will-he-get-there-in-time sequence—is amazing.

Best Chase Scene in a Movie:
Goodness gracious, where to start on this one? As part of my arbitrary ground rules, I decided that only serious car chases would count. That leaves out Smokey & the Bandit, and nearly every other movie Burt Reynolds made in the seventies. Even that restriction leaves a big plug of movies. The best I can do is pick a few of my favorites.

We’ll start with the obvious: Bullitt. I was 11 years old when that movie came out in 1968, so I wasn’t allowed to see it in the theater. In fact, to this day, I’ve never seen it on a screen bigger than the living room television. I really should oughta do that. Anyway, I can extrapolate from the small screen to the big, and I’m well aware that that San Francisco chase sequence between the 1968 Dodge Charger and the 1968 Mustang GT—two of the hottest cars ever—forever reset the bar for car chases.

Next up: The French Connection. We’re in 1971 now, and I saw this one live in the theater. Holy freaking cow! I had never had an experience like that in a theater. What makes it particularly interesting—and sets it apart from many other car chases—is the fact that it’s really about a car chasing a train. Rumors abound that the sequence was shot without permits or permission from the City of New York, but I find them hard to believe.

The next winner is also from 1971, and premiered on the small screen: Duel, Steven Spielberg’s first movie. Starring Dennis Weaver as a motorist terrorized by the faceless driver of a big rig, this could be one of the most unsettling, unnerving movies I’ve ever seen. Certainly, it was the most unnerving movie that I had seen until that time.

Okay, my last entry in the Chase Sweepstakes comes from 2002: The Bourne Identity. Having Franca Potente in the shotgun seat for this wild ride through Paris provided a lot of eye candy (and great acting). I consider this to be the best car chase since The French Connection, made better by the fact that it was done the old fashioned way, without benefit of computer graphics.

Best Shoot-out in a A Novel:
You know what? Nothing comes to mind.

Best Shootout in a Movie:
Time for more arbitrary rules. In this case, war movies don’t count. I know that one could argue that the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan was one long shootout, I’ll concede that it may be the best action sequence of all time, but for some reason in my mind, it does not qualify as a shootout. Feel free to disagree. Here’s my list, in no particular order:

True Grit. I so hope they don’t get this wrong in the Jeff Bridges edition of this Western classic. That scene as Rooster Cogburn charges across the field with the reins in his teeth, Colt in one hand, Winchester in the other always works for me. “I aim to kill you Ned, in one minute, or see you hang at Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s Convenience. Which’ll it be?”/ “I call that mighty bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!” / “Fill your hands, you sonofabitch!” Really. Does it get better than that?

Tombstone. Okay, I like Westerns, and I confess that this 1993 classic is as much about great mustaches as it is about plot, but it is hands-down Val Kilmer’s best performance. Among many gun-toting set pieces, my favorites are the unpleasantries at the OK Corral (“You know what, Sheriff? I don’t think I’ll let you arrest me today.”), and the 20-minute retribution sequence that peaks with Wyatt Earp wading into the stream without cover and taking care of business. Great stuff.

The Untouchables. I know in my heart that this is not a “good” movie, but it is one of my favorite guilty pleasures, and it is chock-a-block with outstanding shoot-em-up set pieces, including a shameless rip-off of Sergei Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence from the 1925 classic The Battleship Potemkin. This is Brian DePalma being Brian DePalma, with an utterly blind eye turned to history, but the movie really works for me. (“You got him?” / “Yeah, I got him.” / “Take him.” BANG!)

Heat. In many ways, this film is Michael Mann at his most self-indulgent. The movie is way too long, and way too talky, but the running shootout after the bank robbery might be the best gunfight ever filmed. Be sure to watch in with a good sound system.Wow, this is a long post. Okay, Killzoners, belly up to the bar. What have I missed?

Perfect Lines

By Johngilstrap

My bachelor’s degree comes from the College of William and Mary in Virginia. As most graduates from prestigious schools, I am capable of being an academic snob when the occasion arises. It happens far less frequently now that I’ve become a gentleman of a certain age, but back in the day, my loyalty to the alma mater was pretty fierce.

In the late ’70s, when I was in college, Virginia Tech (then known as VPI-Virginia Polytechnic Institute) had nothing of the reputation that it enjoys today. It was every good student’s “safety school,” the one you knew you could get into if W&M and UVA let you down. In the good spirit of interschool rivalry, I held it in low esteem. Thus, as a young safety engineer investigating an explosion at the explosives processing plant where I worked, I made multiple references to “Techie engineering” as the primary cause of the accident. It was my throw-away phrase to describe anything that was well-meaning yet substandard.

Remember that I was all of 28 years old at the time. Many minutes into my presentation to the seniormost members of management, after I had committed to this good-humored course of bashing my academic rival, Paul Lumbye, the vice president of all things that paid my salary, raised his hand and said, “John, I think it’s appropriate for me to tell you that I am a graduate of VPI.” Something seized inside my gut. Then he went on to point to a good thirty percent of my senior-executive audience, all of whom were likewise graduates of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and at least twice my age.

When Paul-the-VP was done, the room was silent, and I found myself facing a dozen smug smiles, all of them rejoicing that I had been so thoroughly put in my place. It was my moment to cower and apologize.

Alternatively, it was my moment to show the true depth of my loyalty. With all those eyes staring, I made a point to look Paul in the eye when I asked, “Does this mean I need to start over again and use smaller words?”

To this day, I look at that comment as a pivotal moment in my professional career. I learned that all reasonable people appreciate a great line well-delivered. I wish I could say that I continue to be that glib and fleet of tongue, but forever and ever, I will know that at least once, I delivered a killer rebuttal. It’s a great feeling.

Which brings me to the actual point of this week’s blog entry: great lines. More specifically, great movie lines—the ones that perfectly capture the emotion of the scene and stick with you long into the future.

A few that come to my mind:

“Fill your hands you son-of-a-bitch!” – Rooster Cogburn, True Grit.

“I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do those things to other people and I require the same of them.” — J.B. Books, The Shootist

“Are you going to do something, or just stand there and bleed?” — Wyatt Earp, Tombstone

“Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy.” – Josie Wales, The Outlaw Josie Wales

“I’m thirty years older than you are. I had my back broke once, and my hip twice. And on my worst day I could beat the hell out of you.” – Wil Andersen, The Cowboys

“The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.” – Rick, Casablanca

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Chief Brody, Jaws

Each of these lines, at the moment they were delivered, slyed their respective audiences. Certainly, they slayed me. What about you? What are your favorite lines from the real world or the world of fiction? C’mon. You know you have one. Or five. Share.