SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER AND GRIMSCRIBE by Thomas Ligotti

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Thomas Ligotti seems to have retired from fiction writing. Suffering from chronic anxiety and general So Whatidness, his non-fiction writing delves into his nihilism at great length. The creator of TRUE DETECTIVE has acknowledged he is a fan of Ligotti’s pessimistic work.

Ligotti has not published a novel, though he has published a longish novella. Most readers will not delve into his non-fiction opus on the uselessness of it all, THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE HUMAN RACE. I’ve read a little of it, and while I understand the attraction for some it just isn’t my cup of arsenic-laced tea.

My Cliff’s Note’s summary: Everything sucks, the universe is the void, and human life is one long denial of all of the horrors we endure until the end of our unendurable existence. The End (thank the godless universe).

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TRUE DETECTIVE season one, which was great, though the excellent ending was also a bit incongruous.

Ligotti had his greatest popularity for a short time in the nineties and early 00’s, when S.T. Joshi and other critics championed him. When Penguin published a combined edition of GRIMSCRIBE and SONGS, it looked like he had arrived, since Penguin books get the sort of reviews small press collections of horror stories never do. The good reviews came, but Ligotti was no longer putting out many stories. He seems to have retired from his day job. http://www.ligotti.net is still a going concern, but the News section is all about panels at conventions about his work and foreign publications.

For a guy so many tried to make happen, Ligotti doesn’t seem to have caught on.

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Ligotti is not another Stephen King. He’s not even another Dennis Etchison, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Kathe Koja or Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom have distinct styles more out-there than King’s, all of whom have gotten more acclaim and are better known than Ligotti.

His work is about a mood, the creation of a state where his philosophy can permeate the reader’s thoughts. His stories often lack solid, satisfying conclusions. Mix some of Kafka’s worldview with some of Lovecraft’s dread. Ligotti isn’t big on striking characters; his stories usually feature some guy who stumbles into a situation and then continues stumbling until he stops.

His stories come to climaxes, but the reader is usually left as puzzled as the characters are about where their ramble has brought them.

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The Penguin SONGS/GRIMSCRIBE opens with “The Frolic.” This was adapted into a short film, a nice effort that manages to be tedious and comes to a less-satisfying ending than the original. It’s one of Ligotti’s tamer stories, and an odd choice to open the book; if someone new to Ligotti read this first they’d wonder, “What’s the big deal?” A psychiatrist interviews a serial killer, “John Doe” (this was written over a decade before SEVEN), who kills children so they can “frolic” together, and the psychiatrist has a child. The story’s ending is both sharp and inevitable. But the story isn’t going to make anyone think, “WOW! This is like nothing I’ve ever read before!”

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“Les Fleurs” is a series of excerpts from the diary of a man who meets a woman who we think might be The One, but he’s more into her job at a flower shop. At first I thought this would end up like a Ramsey Campbell “And then he pulled out the hammer and pounded her head in, the blood hitting the arrangement of lilies in the vase” take on a serial killer, but it drifts away from the usual narrative target. Our hero belongs to a mysterious group, the members of which become concerned with his interest in her.

It’s less about a satisfying narrative than creating a mood of oddness and despair.

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“Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” is just what the title says. The narrator talks about horror stories, then seems to fall into a ‘real’ world he investigates, leading to his personal transformation that is a kind of post-modern fleshy embodiment of his theories.

I’m telling you, this guys stuff is messed up.

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My first Ligotti, which puzzled more than it spooked.

Like all fine horror writing, Ligotti’s work is best taken in moderation. Read one of his stories, then read something else for a few days or a week. His dark outlook is expressed in stories that might frustrate a reader’s desire for a more straightforward narrative. But if you’re like me, Ligotti’s unique work will take up residence in your mental library. You know what I mean when I describe something as “Like Stephen King,” Kafkaesque, or Lovecraftian; after a few of these stories, you’ll know what someone means if they say “Like Thomas Ligotti.” Not that you’re likely to ever meet someone who knows his work.

 

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It ain’t The Shawshank Redemption, so it’s got that going for it.
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Random Thoughts on THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI

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Made because Orson Welles needed cash for a stage show destined to flop, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is another chapter in the long-running series, Welles Movies the Studio Ruined. Released over a year after its completion, with an hour lopped off and a hideous musical score by Heinz Roemheld slapped on, LFS manages to be both entertaining and pretty weird for a big studio flick.

Why ‘weird’?

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Everett Sloane’s lawyer goes around with not one but two canes, a bitter little lawyer who ends up defending a man who’s been set up to be the fall guy in a murder plot with Sloane as the target. He spends the movie either drunk or snarling at the world.

Rita Hayworth, famous for her long red hair, had her hair cut and dyed platinum blonde. That’s not a big deal these days, of course, but when you’re the puppet of studio head Harry Cohn and you change your look that much, you’re already on the far side of what Hollywood considers acceptable. Hayworth would’ve had an easier time playing an ax murderer, as long as she had that hair, and maybe lip-synched a few tunes and got to dance.

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Orson Welles’ fake Irish accent is so distracting it does a disservice to some fine photography and direction. If he’d spoken in his normal voice it might have aided in grounding the story a bit, and it needed some of that. He was rightly proud of his radio and theater work, and he loved using fake noses, but it’s too bad someone he trusted didn’t tell him, “You don’t sound Irish, you sound like Orson Welles putting on an Irish accent.”

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This has some of the most balanced camera work of any Welles movie. It’s got odd angles and close close-ups, but it’s all restrained, never drawing attention to itself until the climax in the Hall of Mirrors sequence. There is a variety of locales, from Central Park to Errol Flynn’s yacht at sea to beaches to San Francisco, and while the visuals are interesting they’re focused on telling a crime story that’s not as complicated as it sometimes seems. (Welles recounts the plot in the climax, and then Hayworth does it from her point of view. This after a wounded witness has already told us what’s happening half an hour before.)

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The aquarium scene is, again, weird because the use of process screens enlarges the fish to monster-size while our hero and the femme fatale are pitching woo. At one point a giant eel swims up behind Hayworth that would fit comfortably in a ScyFy Sharknado sequel.

The movie is best known for that Hall of Mirrors scene, most recently referenced in JOHN WICK 2: ELECTRIC SHOOTALOO, where we learn that more mirrors don’t make for a better scene. It works so well here because after an hour and twenty minutes of overly-complicated plot, it feels like the whole thing comes to a screeching halt. Hayworth’s explanation of why she killed whoever fills us in, and then we heard the squeak and thump of hubby Sloane’s canes. The quiet of the place except for the voices are a relief, and after being a McGuffin for the balance of the movie, Sloane suddenly becomes the moving force of the climax. He’s still snide towards his wife, calling her “Lover,” but as he says, he’s pretty tired of both of them. The shootout that smashes the mirrors and kills the husband and wife are hurt by Roemheld’s screaming, annoying music. How could whoever took over post-production from Welles not get that? Still, the visuals of this scene are among the most famous in all of Welles, and rightly so. It’s a metaphor for the many sides we see of these people, none of them the whole person. Even as she’s dying, we still have no clear idea of Hayworth’s true feelings for Welles.

I’ve never thought of this as a great noir because the tone is one of bemusement. Despite the story about the sharks, there’s never much of an investment in Welles’ hero, and since he doesn’t seem much bothered by dying, we don’t worry about it. Losing an hour just might kill some of the drama in a crime film.

Peter Bogdanovich does a breezy commentary on the DVD and makes several mentions of how much Welles hated the musical score. Bogdanovich’s wish that Bernard Herrmann could have done it almost hurts. Welles’ career, as magnificent as it was, is littered with such Might Have Beens.

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Not ONE fat joke made.

Seeing Renn: VIDEODROME

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Jimmy would marry his Xfinity’s NFL RedZone package if he could.

“You’re so analytical,” says William Hurt’s character in THE BIG CHILL. “Sometimes you have to let art flow over you.”

Case in point: VIDEODROME.

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I understand the plot. Max Renn works for a Toronto TV station. You know it’s Canada because when the characters talk of domination by a world-controlling New Flesh guru they don’t say he might control all of Canada (“Who cares?” snort, drinks beer), but that he might control all of North America (“That might interfere with the Superbowl. OK, how do we kill this guy?”). Videodrome is a TV show of just violence, no plot, no characters, and in seeking the source of it (Spoiler, it’s the weird guy we saw on the TV set), Max begins hallucinating violent thoughts. The TV guy reminds me of the Architect in the TV room at the end of the first bad MATRIX sequel. Then we learn that there are two factions battling for control of what Videodrome can do. Max becomes a walking weapon able to be programmed. He is being transformed, not so completely as Jeff Goldblum in Cronenberg’s THE FLY, but gradually, through his mind. But as with Brundlefly, Max’s transformation goes down a one-way street.

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I wish she didn’t disappear from the movie partway through.

I’m always mesmerized by VIDEODROME until the dude with the big teeth in the optical shop shows up. I have a low tolerance for Is It A Dream, Or Is It An Illusion, I Mean Reality? stuff. Movie makers who play such games don’t impress me as being intellectuals because such games are by their nature pointless, actually mock the idea of the movie having a point. (INCEPTION was bullshit, sorry to tell you.) (But I like FIGHT CLUB, so go figure.) The mechanics of the Church of Boob Tube-ology (my name) vs. Big Teeth Fascist Guy (my name) seem kind of clunky beside the scene of James Woods making out with his T.V. set. From that point on, the movie is like a pulpier SCANNERS until Max hides out in a rusting tug, where he meets his destiny. Maybe.

VIDEODROME is Cronenberg’s ultimate expression of his body horror/mind game inclinations, even though THE FLY, M. BUTTERFLY and DEAD RINGERS were in his future. It’s a companion piece to NAKED LUNCH, both of them movies in which Cronenberg had larger canvases on which to splatter his weirdness. After these two and THE FLY, where did he have to go with his obsession with transforming flesh?

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The Pizzamax format never caught on

Due to the need to get things moving while tax shelter cash was plentiful, Cronenberg was writing the screenplay while filming was going on, so I don’t feel like a total dope when I say I think the twists and turns of the script are less planned than some might assume. I’m not complaining that the movie isn’t locked off in a three-act structure–just the opposite. Once Max starts hallucinating and starts battling the way exposure to the Videodrome death ray is messing with his head, the movie is that rare horror/sf flick to really follow ‘dream logic.’ Max is trapped in a tumor-induced new reality, very different from the tumor-induced visions of Johnny Smith in THE DEAD ZONE. Max is both poisoned and liberated by the melting of his brain by Brian O’Blivion’s TV eye–he is heading toward his destruction, but his search for something beyond mere reality TV torture shows is exhilarating. Pulling guns out of his gut, “hand” grenades, whipping an undulating TV set, the eye glass guy exploding in the throes of combustible cancer–the hell does it all mean? What’s it saying about television? (The multiple mentions of MTV on the Criterion disc’s commentaries are almost cute. Who the hell watches MTV for videos anymore?)

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#sobaked

James Woods is very good in a role he’s perfect for, projecting intelligence, aggression and sleaziness. In his DVD commentary he links the movie to Philip K. Dick’s DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? That makes sense, especially the Mercerism and mood organ material ignored in BLADE RUNNER. I’d forgotten how quickly he and Debbie Harry hop in the sack, and her character’s unapologetic kinkiness; would these characters be allowed in today’s cinema? Sex on the first date, sure, but our first sight of her on the date is when she’s rummaging through his tapes looking for porn.

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I’m sorry, we’ve already cast the role of Exploding Head Guy. And that’s a different Cronenberg movie.

Rick Baker’s effects (there’s barely what you’d call make-up) are still effective, even though the breathing TV set looks like it’s made of plastic. Mark Irwin’s photography is the best of his Cronenberg films, especially in the darkness of Max’s apartment. Howard Shore’s rumbling score is even better than his fine one for SCANNERS.

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I’m sorry, we’ve already cast the role of Cyclops.

The ending of VIDEODROME is one of the finest of Cronenberg’s, even with the What-Is-Real? angle. Max Renn has no place to go, so he ends up on a rusty old tug, sitting on a squatter’s old mattress, his mind gone over to Videodrome decay. He’s sitting in the dark, staring at a television set that isn’t really there, alone, and he puts a gun to his head and shoots. Having seen this on TV, he repeats it in ‘real’ life, precisely.

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I’m not completely sure what it all means, but it feels right, which is what matters in dream logic.

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I can’t believe I watched the whole thing.

 

VIDEODROME is an original vision that isn’t particularly hard to follow, or analyze. Once you hook into what Cronenberg feels and how he expresses it visually, the suspense devices of the whole civil war between the Brian O’Blivion and Videodrome factions are a bit of a disappointment. Imagine if Cronenberg made the movie today, with a Nolan-sized budget? Cronenberg doesn’t seem to have Nolan’s ambitions for sets and effects, but it’s intriguing to think about what he might do. It’s gratifying to realize that it’s not insane to think that someone like Cronenberg could get this sort of thing financed today. I just don’t know if there is a director out there capable of writing and directing a horror/sci-fi screenplay that doesn’t rely on effects but uses them as tools to tell a story that says something critical about the visual media.

Goddamnit: DAN FANTE, 1944-2015

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My last five years have been kind of nutty, a blur of hospitals and unemployment and under-employment and bad movies and unfinished books I’m racing the grim reaper to complete. I don’t keep up with popular culture the way I once did, so I keep finding that folks I like have died months or even years ago. Recent case in point: director Jonathan Demme.

Today’s “Goddamnit, I didn’t know HE died” example is writer Dan Fante, who died at the age of 71 a couple of years ago.

He was a writer of books inspired by the sordid events in his own life. He was the son of writer John (ASK THE DUST) Fante, who was beloved by Charles Bukowski. I can take or leave Bukowski–like Hunter S. Thompson, he’s someone I can appreciate while thinking he’s overrated and a bit of a snore–but Fante Sr. was a fine writer of the down-and-almost-out.

 

If you want to know what Fante’s son was capable of, you should read CHUMP CHANGE.

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“Bruno Dante” is in quite a state of despair. He wakes up in a porn theater getting a blowjob from a dude, a surprising situation for our straight narrator, not so surprising when we learn what an alcoholic he is. His estranged wife helps him limp back home to deal with the impending death of his father. In the days that follow, Bruno calls his shrink, ends up with an underage hooker, watches old movies, and carries on like a character in a John Fante novel, wanting to be better but not really trying very hard as he marches toward his father’s inevitable doom.

Just read it. I’m too pissed off to explain why.

 

 

Gang of Insiders: THE BROOD

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For some of us, SHIVERS and RABID are still the movies some think of when they think of “Cronenberg,” in the way ERASERHEAD is still the uber-Lynch movie. For others, it’s SCANNERS and VIDEODROME, the latter still the ultimate statement of his style. Except for the balance of his career Cronenberg hasn’t been a horror director, or even a “Cronenberg-like” director of body horror.

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THE BROOD is where he stepped away from the gross, venereal horrors of SHIVERS and RABID, the beginning of his mainstream horror period, when he controlled his material in a way that made it acceptable to critics and more mainstream audiences. Significantly, he has said it was inspired by his painful divorce and custody fight for his daughter. Going into the movie with these facts in mind makes this less a horror movie and more like a more visceral, less genteel version of KRAMER VS. KRAMER.

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The child is understandably wary of being so close to Oliver Reed when he’s holding a loaded pistol.

Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) spends the movie trying to get his daughter away from his nutty wife who’s in therapy in Dr. Ragland’s (Oliver Reed) psycho-therapy band camp. Meanwhile, in a seemingly unrelated development, people connected to his wife are being murdered, starting with her abusive mother and neglectful dad. When Frank is attacked by a strange little person who might be related to the dwarf in DON’T LOOK NOW, he seems only mildly disturbed. Creepier than the sexless monster is the pathologist, who seems to think the discovery of a new form of human life is kind of funny.

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“Carveth is NOT a stupid name!” Well…

Ultimately, Frank goes to Ragland’s place, and learns the murderous little people are the children of Frank’s wife, Nola, played by Samantha Eggar (looking really good until she starts licking a fetus). It turns out Ragland’s therapy involves directing one’s rage into the creation of actual creatures, these sexless blonde dwarfs that go out and kill those with whom Nola has anger issues.

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Some pregnant ladies get hungry for pickles, but Nola had more refined tastes.

THE BROOD is a mystery movie: What’s going on with Nola and Dr. Ragland? Why are people being killed? We learn all in the climax. Unlike his previous horror flicks, Cronenberg holds back his more grotesque material until the big reveal at the climax. No parasites passed through lesbian kisses this time, just some ugly blond kids and then we see Nola’s secret.

The movie works not because of gore but because of that story, fueled by Cronenberg’s life. The movie is deliberately paced, the work of someone who knows what he’s doing, when he can take his time because the material is strong enough.

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The little beasts bite Oliver Reed to death. All soon died of alcohol poisoning.

This is the first of many films Howard Shore scored for Cronenberg. Although he began producing fine work with their next collaboration, SCANNERS, his work here is distracting, especially the PSYCHO-like music for the murder scenes. His learning curve was almost vertical, though, so who cares? My only technical beef is with the tools used to kill the cute teacher Hindle has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flirtation with–those damned little toy hammers can’t even bang down a giant plastic screw, they certainly can’t brain a teacher.

THE BROOD is the simplest of Cronenberg’s movies, but in its quiet way it’s chilling. In the final moments we see what we were shown earlier, that an abusive parent can often create an abuser. That’s as scary as a bloodsucking armpit syringe, in its way.

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FYI: Horror, Crime, Horror, Crime

I’m rushing to get things in order around here and elsewhere, such as my Amazon page…

https://tinyurl.com/yconxydu

…and my YouTube channel (coming January 1). I’ve been bugged by my attempts to figure out an orderly way of mixing up the dark and weird subjects, the horror and noir, the crime books and SF/fantastic/weird stuff.

I did what you imagine I’d do when confronted with such a mess: I gave up.

Starting today I’m simply going to alternate horror commentaries with noir/hardboiled with “weird/fantastic/unclassified” stuff. I’m sure folks who land here will prefer one over the other, but I gotta be me.

Horror, crime, books, flicks, fantastic/weird…

About the only unifying constant will be ‘dark and weird,’ so no comedies, no westerns.

Keep me posted as to any writers, movies and/or stuff you find that isn’t getting enough attention. We need to bring more attention to those gems that are lost amid the noise. Stay tuned.

The Henry Krinkle Show: Some Random Thoughts on TAXI DRIVER

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“Jerry! I love your show!”

Martin Scorsese’s interest in celebrity and how the public responds to phony celebrities is most overtly expressed in THE KING OF COMEDY. DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin is Travis Bickle without the violence. Pupkin’s anger is internalized. He has a lot of drive, has no problem trying to barge into a private office to meet with Jerry Langford in an attempt to get on his show. Travis Bickle simmers. He doesn’t order the cuckolded husband played by Scorsese out of his cab, he sits and takes it. And his resentment builds.

That the public applauds these two characters’ success is a crucial element of the endings of both movies. Their celebrity isn’t earned, it’s captured by vigilante violence and kidnapping of a celebrity –that seems to irk Scorsese. It doesn’t take much to imagine his disgust at Bernard Goetz, the subway shooter. I’m not sure what he thought of John Hinkley, Jr.

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Bernard Herrmann’s score is pushy–it doesn’t sit back, quietly nudging the audience. Pauline Kael and others have complained that it’s too overwrought, too pushy, but I disagree. The recurring snare drums and the orchestral crescendo musically illustrate Travis’ wound-up rage boiling over and fading away–momentarily. Scorsese had a problem with the last musical ‘sting,’ when Travis looks in the rearview mirror. Herrmann thought for a second and said to just play the music backwards, which works beautifully–Travis is just waiting to build up and explode again. Then Herrmann went back to his hotel room, fell sleep and died.

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I wonder where anyone got the idea that violent movies can influence psychotic behavior.

“Fun” violence in movies gets blamed for violence in real life, yet violence in films with high-minded artistic aspirations gets a pass. A bit ironic, considering a fan imitating Bickle’s climactic rescue was responsible for an assassination attempt on President Reagan. Julia Phillips, the producer, related the story that when she bragged about this to someone (jokingly, since she’s dead and I’m going to be charitable), the person said if it had been a better movie Reagan would’ve died.

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Nope, ain’t goin’ there.

The casting and acting are stellar. DeNiro has been riding his performances in this and RAGING BULL for decades. Based on his first fifteen years in the business, he’s up there with Brando in the American movie acting pantheon. Based on much of what came after, he’s down there with Brando in the Holy Shit How’d We Ever Thing This Guy Could Act? basement.

 

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And so is Travis.
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This guy was good. I wonder if he’s been in anything else.
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The dude’s soul has crooked teeth.

I’m still not sure if I like Cybill Shepherd in this. She is meant to be a dreamgirl Travis would never be able to get with, and that’s how she is presented to the viewer, with a slow-motion glamour shot. But she and Albert Brooks are in their own little movie. I don’t believe this character would go out with Travis.

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The most unbelievable element of the movie.
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Christ, he’s in everything.

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Desaturating the color in the climax doesn’t help or hurt, I think. The one thing that hurts is something makeup man Dick Smith pointed out, which is that when the guy gets shot in the hand it looks fake because a hand would not explode like that.

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I’ve read this is some reference to Holy Communion. A lot of film analysis is interesting but stupid. Present company excepted, though, right, kids?
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Taxi Driver trading cards never really took off.

Michael Chapman’s cinematography isn’t as flashy as his great work on RAGING BULL but these two films are like Owen Roizman’s one-two punch of THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE EXORCIST, two masterpieces that are perfect visualizations of their scripts.

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Rejected ad campaign?

TAXI DRIVER has been a huge influence on directors in terms of the gritty look. Paul Schrader’s script is rightly considered a classic, second only to CHINATOWN in the American crime movie screenwriting top ten. But it doesn’t seem to have been as influential as LETHAL WEAPON and DIE HARD on the American crime film. That’s too bad, but not surprising. This isn’t something just anyone can write. Quality writing is hard.