|Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, September 06, 2003
( 9/06/2003 01:37:00 PM ) Bill S.
"FIGHTING CRIME, TRYING TO SAVE THE WORLD. . ." – Ah, the new teevee season is gearing up: last night saw the start of a fresh batch of Powerpuff Girls toons! The Cartoon Network wisely airs each new show twice on Friday nights – once at 7:00 EST and then at 11:00 – and since the latter timeslot is on the one weeknight that you don't get new eps of The Daily Show, we caught it then. A good start for the new season: first toon was a witty parody of all those kids' cartoons espousing effortless multi-culturalism (really!), the other an even funnier entry centering around a mouthy talking dog. Great to see the girls are still flyin' strong. . .
( 9/06/2003 09:23:00 AM ) Bill S.
GRIFFY – Mark Evanier has responded to Bill Griffith's current "Zippy the Pinhead" strip wherein Griffith's cartoon persona, Griffy, asserts that the only "true" cartoonist is one who pencils, inks and letters his own work. Mark, who has worked with comic industry greats who haven't traditionally done all these tasks, rejects this blanket statement and winds his piece with a somewhat snippy comment about Griffith’s wholly self-produced work.
A simple enough exchange, but I'm wondering if Mark hasn't missed a nuance. "Griffy" has always been depicted as a caricature of Griffith – prone to overstatement and excessive intellectualism – and, as such, he is placed in the strip as a foil for the all-impulse/short-attention-span pinhead. Consequently, I wouldn't necessarily take the words of Griffith's cartoon persona to be an entirely accurate depiction of his thoughts. The cartoonist may indeed believe that the only true cartoonist is the one who does it all him/herself (one advantage of a caricature persona: you can make 'em express extremist views that you really believe and later deny it's anything more than satire). But it's also likely that he's put this polarizing statement in his inked persona's mouth because it’s just the sort of overarching comment his character'd make.
Just look at the way Griffith draws his cartoon self, stalking off and babbling self-righteously. . .
UPDATE: Bill Griffith has since emailed ME with his own clarification.
Friday, September 05, 2003
( 9/05/2003 03:25:00 PM ) Bill S.
A LONG SQUAWK – Okay, so after a few days without 'em, I started missing the act of periodically checking this blog for comments, so I'm trying out another program, Squawkbox. Still intend to go back and retrieve some of the cooler old commentary, but YACCS is still inaccessible, damn their eyes. I know: you gets what you pay for. . .
( 9/05/2003 01:27:00 PM ) Bill S.
BABES AND BALD IGGLES – The cover to Li'l Abner: The Frazetta Years, Volume One, 1954-1955 (Dark Horse) puts its marketing agenda up front: posed on the front cover, showing off her bodacious figger is series regular Moonbeam McSwine. Titular hero of the strip, Abner Yokum, is nowhere to be seen, not even in the red-tinged strips that are used as background. We don't buy a collection of Frazetta art to look at buff Dogpatch boys; it's the babes that bring in the fanboys.
Packaging considerations aside, it's great to see a fresh collection of Capp's classic comic strip. Back in the 90's, Dennis Kitchen's Kitchen Sink Press had taken on the Promethean task of reprinting the long-running strip's dailies; Kitchen got up to 27 volumes (covering 1934 – 61) before the company crashed. Most Capp fans despaired of ever seeing future reprints; now, Dennis has found another publishing outlet for one of his long-standing fannish obsessions – and good for him!
Figures that the only way he could sell Capp's work to another comic publisher, though, was to focus on the work featuring fan-favorite Frank Frazetta. The popular fantasy illustrator was an assistant to Capp for seven years, starting out on the dailies (see Volume 20 of the Kitchen Sink reprint series – if you can find a copy) where he initially both penciled and inked the strip until bosses at the syndicate reportedly began complaining about how different it all looked. Frazetta moved to penciling Sunday strips instead, with a separate Capp assistant inking to downplay his distinctive sinuous linework (full Frazetta made the characters so explicitly sexual that the risqué jokes Capp had long imbedded in the strip became even more obvious). This he continued to do until 1961, when Capp's refusal to give the artist a raise led to Frazetta leaving the strip to pursue a career in book and magazine illustration that'd ultimately prove more rewarding.
Unlike the daily strip, which tended to feature prolonged continuities, "Li'l Abner" Sundays mixed single entry and two- or three-part stories with slightly longer fare. Volume One shows Frazetta coming on board mid-continuity in a fifteen-week strip about "The Wrecker," appropriate since the storyline concerns one of Capp's dangerous women: a seemingly innocent girl whose mere walking presence is enough to ruin any marriage by driving the men who see her insane with desire. Frazetta's propensity for rendering pulchritudinous women was put on display from the get-go – and where better to show it off than on the color Sunday strips?
The first volume, edited and annotated by Kitchen, presents 106 Sundays in color reproduction that emphasizes the strip's humble pulp newsprint origins. Instead of recoloring or prettifying the strips (much as DC and Marvel have done with their archival reprints of old comic book series), Dark Horse has chosen to reprint 'em on lightly tanned paper from old repro-ed news pages. The end results come closer to the experience of reading a paper from 1954 – even the newspaper headings and headlines for each Sunday are reproduced, which can amusing by themselves ("Struggles of Lonely Girl on Broadway – See Magazine Supplement," sez one heading) – though at times the reproduction can be a bit too close, particularly when it comes to copying the era's sometimes slapdash color printing.
Still, the book remains a treat for anyone who enjoys author Capp's unmatched blend of soap opera clichés, cornball dialect humor and broad-swiped satire. I'm one of 'em, though in general I prefer the more convoluted dailies to the Sundays, so it's no accident that I find the best sequences here to be the three longest: the aforementioned Wrecker continuity, a twelve-week series featuring grasping capitalist General Bullmoose and Capp's mock communist country Lower Slobbovia, plus a nine-episode surrounding one of the strip's trademark strange foods, Druthers. In the first, we get to see the women of Dogpatch struggling to fend off the approaching Wrecker, keeping their menfolk away from the sight of this mysterious marriage-wrecking creature (though why the girl is considered more dangerous than the male-paralyzing Stupefyin' Jones – who was allowed to wander around Dogpatch for decades before the townswomen neutralized her – is not explained). In the second, General Bullmoose brings the entire country of Slobbovia to the "Hew-Hess-Hay" just so he'll have a ready market for a line of dog food so awful even American dogs won't eat it.
Neither of these two tales are models of cutting satire. In the Slobbovia tale, for instance, we're introduced to the Bald Iggle, a creature so preternaturally cute that whoever clasps eyes on it is driven to tell the truth. So whom does Capp unleash this fabulous creature on? Politicians, lawyers and salesmen (including – hold onto your hats! – a used car salesman!) The Wrecker continuity is even more quaint, driven as it is by a premise most readers today would find extremely suspect: the femme fatale's secret lies in the way she wiggles her posterior, something none of the Dogpatch gals notice because, we're told, "A woomin watches another woomin's face to see if she's flirty! But wif men, it's diff'runt!" Men and woomen sure are diff'runt, ain't they?
But Capp's knack for goofy complications and cartoon inventiveness still hold strong, even if his satiric commentary doesn't. One of the geniuses of "Li'l Abner" resides in its erection of a world of dynamic caricatures – dopey man/child Abner, long-suffering wife Daisy Mae, self-righteous and powerful matriarch Mammy Yokum, weaselly Pappy Yokum plus all the other Dogpatch Denizens – and their larger-than-life comic struggles. No other cartoonist has consistently made misanthropy so much fun – and, with Frazetta on board, so attractive either. . .
( 9/05/2003 07:51:00 AM ) Bill S.
WHIPLASH ROCK 'N' ROLL – Sean Collins asks why Danish band the Raveonettes is getting all the current rock press praise while fellow feedbackers Black Rebel Motorcycle Club can't get no respect. Could be, as Lissa Townsend Rogers notes in a Village Voice piece on the two bands' new releases, simply a matter of the former being more upfront about their musical sources – nothing irks a critic more than a group that won't acknowledge its forbearers.
Too, on the conceptual front the Danish duo has it all over the boys from San Francisco. Their first release, the extended player Whip It On, contained eight tracks all in B-flat minor, while new album Chain Gang of Love (Columbia) is entirely in B-flat major - talk about taking punk formalism to a new level. The gimmick by and large works, though the pair has an easier time sustaining interest on the shorter release than they do a full twelve cuts.
I got a copy of Chain Gang earlier this week, and after a few casual listens I'm digging it. Yeah, they sound like Jesus and Mary Chain, and, yeah, they owe a lot to Buddy Holly (their very name is a take-off on Holly's "Rave On" – get it?) But the influence that comes across even more strongly to me is that of fellow Texan Bobby Fuller, primarily known for "I Fought the Law" and a major connecting point between early rock 'n' roll and the Beatles. The album's first single "That Great Love Sound" even borrows from both Holly's "Words of Love" and the guitar line/sound from The Bobby Fuller Four's "Let Her Dance" – and sounds endlessly cool for it. Not only is it a great love sound; it's a great rock sound.
Sean ends his pop rant by wondering if today's pop critics are swayed by the fact that the Raveonettes come from Denmark than the good ol' U.S.A. I haven't been keeping up on all the current rock writers, but my general sense is that there's been a long-standing bias among critics against European rock-istes. Okay to let 'em do the cutesy club music a la Junior/Senior, but good-ol'-fashioned rock 'n' roll is American Music, Baby! (well, maybe we'll let the Brits into the clubhouse). If Europhilia is a factor in the current round of critical kudos than it's a relatively new phenomenon (starting with the Hives, perhaps?) that we can probably lay at the feet of an American music industry that's done such a piss-poor job supporting American rockers in the last ten years.
I'm less familiar with the Black Rebels (like the few cuts I've heard, though: they remind me of Supergrass in places), so I'm unprepared to make any heavy-duty sonic comparisons between the two groups. I will note, however, that both boy & girl Raveonette look better than any of the Clubbers – and that you should never underestimate the power of hotness when it comes to Next-Big-Thing-ness.
Thursday, September 04, 2003
( 9/04/2003 10:08:00 AM ) Bill S.
THE VOICE OF MCGUIRK – Also caught another sitcom as part of Trio's "Brilliant, But Cancelled" run: Beat Cops. I found the pilot fitfully funny, but it was cool to see Jon Benjamin, voice actor and writer for Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and Home Movies (he plays both hero Jason and Coach McGuirk) in the film flesh. I'm always intrigued to see actors primarily known as faceless voices working in film, watching 'em utilize more than just the one instrument. Makes you wonder how they perform in the recording studio – do they move and gesture even if no one can see 'em? Viewing a mini-doc on the making of Shrek a few weeks ago, I was struck by how much Cameron Diaz used her whole body to act, a fact that animators took advantage of when they brought her Princess Fiona to computer generated life. So the question running through my head is: are film actors more inclined to do this than voice actors?
( 9/04/2003 07:45:00 AM ) Bill S.
A LITTLE BRIGHT, PERHAPS – Been watching more entries in Trio's "Brilliant, But Cancelled" (haven't caught Edie Falco’s Fargo vehicle yet, though). And, as I noted before, some of this stuff may have been promising on paper, but looking at the finished product I can see why the execs passed. Case in point: Rewrite for Murder, starring a young George Clooney and Pam Dawber(!) as reluctant writing partners for a network detective series. She's an affected representative of the old school British drawing room mystery; he's an ex-con writing hard-boiled tuff guy fiction. Watch the sparks fly as these two discordant personalities feud and fuss – and occasionally solve real mysteries, too!
The show had some cute ideas – periodically, we get re-enactments of each writer's story ideas (each author portraying their lead detective, of course), which amusingly morph once the other writer intrudes into the fantasy – but they were too broadly played to be genuinely funny. As an actor, Clooney was still in his proletarian period (better repped by his early appearances on Roseanne), and I never quite bought that his character was capable of crafting a series of successful pulp novels. Rewrite's murder mystery didn't pop up until the hour's last twenty minutes and was flimsily resolved. On the plus side, we got to see John (Dean Wormer) Vernon play a washed-up Hemingway-esque writer, though.
Bottom line, I suspect that Clooney's career probably benefited from the fact that Rewrite for Murder lost the pilot sweepstakes. Pam Dawber's career is a whole other matter. . .
Wednesday, September 03, 2003
( 9/03/2003 09:45:00 AM ) Bill S.
THE RACE IS ON – Since the company has reinstated its Marvel Masterworks hardback reprint line, I've been following Marvel's releases with an eye toward getting those titles missing from my currently limited collection. Two recent entries, Fantastic Four Volume Two and Doctor Strange Volume One, meet that criteria and I've ordered copies via two different routes.
The FF volume (reprinting Lee & Kirby work from the title’s second ten issues) I bought through Amazon; it was going for $34.95 with postage and handling thrown in. One problem: though I've seen the hardbound in comic shops going for its full $49.99 price, Amazon sez that the book isn’t being released until October. I placed my order in the second week of August, and today I'm told that the order still hasn't been filled. Amazon is sticking to the book's October 2003 release date, but at this writing, they've notched the price up to its $49.99 level.
I won the Doc Strange collection (with its juicy selection of early Lee & Ditko classics) on eBay: Marvel's Masterworks books and DC's Archives titles can both often be found on the auction site, sold in shrinkwrapped editions by comics dealers. (It goes without saying that paying full price for these books seems pretty ridiculous when there are less expensive options out there.) I bid more than once on Doc Strange books before winning one at $28.99 plus $6.00 for priority shipping from Village Comics (the other two times, the bidding rose past my personal stopping point). My winning auction ended on August 27, and I paid over the weekend via PayPal. At this writing, the payment is still being listed as "pending."
So now the question is: of these two purchasing routes, which one'll get my book to me faster?
I'll let you know.
( 9/03/2003 08:40:00 AM ) Bill S.
GO KEY LARGO – Periodically, this blog will indulge in unapologetic fannish raving re: Walt Kelly's unparalleled newspaper comic strip, "Pogo." For those unfamiliar with this landmark strip (over twenty-five years gone I'm shocked to realize), Scott Tipton over at Movie Poop Shoot has just posted a primer introduction with plenty of good representative strips. It's the first time I've read one of Tipton's pieces, but I think I'll backtrack. (Via ¡Journalista!)
UPDATE: Checking out Tipton's "Comics 101" archives, I see that he primarily focuses on supertypes, doing a synopsis of their history and appearances (with some curious omissions: he skips, for example, Moebius' Silver Surfer mini-series from the late 80's). His "Pogo" piece is atypical for that column, but, hey, Kelly's possum has never been a run-of-the-mill creation either.
( 9/03/2003 07:43:00 AM ) Bill S.
THEY ALSO PLAYED A FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE SONG – One week after moneyed nerdboy Seth (Adam Brody) talked "graphic novels" with a hot blond at an Orange County cotillion, we see the lad reading the most recent Legion series on last night's ep of Fox's The O.C. It's the second of a five-parter, Seth tells brooding foster bro Ben (Ryan Atwood), and the ringer-for-a-young-James-Spader indicates that he's read the first chapter and would like to read the second once Seth's done with it. Male bonding over the Legion of Super-Heroes!
Tuesday, September 02, 2003
( 9/02/2003 02:59:00 PM ) Bill S.
MANGA TAWK – My Happy Mania review appears to have brought a few more folks to this blog than usual today (what a time to not have a working comments program, eh?), thanks to linkage from the usual suspects (a.k.a. Dirk & Sean). Mister C. includes me in an overview of manga discussion and notes that I appear to be flailing some in my review:
. . .by his own admission, this book may be perfectly good, but there's almost no way for an American adult to find magnetic north when reading the damn thing.I wouldn't go as far as that. As a reader approaching manga with only the most generalized sense of the art form, I'm not much different from a lot of other comic readers checking out the buzz. We each of us bring a sense of storytelling basics to our entertainments, after all, and within that range of understanding it is possible to come to some conclusions. On one level, my explorations aren't much different from those undertaken by the putative Jess Lemon – only without the Dickens references. . .
( 9/02/2003 01:07:00 PM ) Bill S.
"PERHAPS IF YOU WATCHED A LITTLE MORE TELEVISION, YOU'D BE BETTER AT YOUR JOBS!" – We recently started getting Trio as a part of our cable service, so I spent part of the weekend watching the channel's "Brilliant, But Cancelled" marathon. Viewing an hour-long survey of pilots that never made it is a revelation. Occasionally, you quickly realize, even network execs manage to get it right – it's not all brilliant, guys.
Caught one pilot last night that managed to prompt a few sighs of if only: a half-hour sitcom featuring Adam West as a blithely idiotic actor still living off his short-lived fame as a 70's teevee cop. Created by Conan O'Brien and Robert Smigel, Lookwell is probably built on a premise too insular to sustain a full twenty-two ep network season – but the pilot was plenty funny on its own. Bet it could've worked as a limited series on Comedy Central.
West's self-absorbed ham teaches an actor's workshop that alternates between class viewings of his old series (so generically titled that nobody can accurately recall the name of the character he played) and meaningless quotes from the Bard. Inbetween offering dubious advice to his students and showing up at fruitless casting calls, Lookwell also provides unasked-for "services" to the L.A.P.D. He's too cocooned to notice that the cops see him as a pain-in-the-ass.
West is better in the role than I expected him to be (just because you're a camp icon doesn't mean you can actually do comedy), and I'm betting his teaching scenes are even funnier to acting students who've experienced this kind of pretentious foolery. Lookwell's pilot has plenty of knowing laughs. According to Captain Spaulding, the ep was originally broadcast once on a Sunday night with zilch in the way of advanced publicity: hopefully, Trio's "brilliant, but cancelled" gimmick'll bring the show a deservedly larger audience.
( 9/02/2003 06:09:00 AM ) Bill S.
NO COMMENT – After this Labor Day weekend and reading Dirk Deppey's comments on the crankiness of YACCS’ comment system, I've decided to drop the comments function for now. It's not as if this blog has been a hotbed of rabid reader commentary, and like Dirk I've gotten tired of waiting for rateyourmusic.com to let the rest of my page load, only to find that the comments function wasn't working anyway. I do intend to go back and rescue some of the longer bits (Shawn Fumo's two extended manga comments are the first that come to mind) before they're lost in the aether forever.
Monday, September 01, 2003
( 9/01/2003 10:46:00 AM ) Bill S.
SIXTY-MINUTE MANGA – (Episode One: In which our self-proclaimed gadabout commences a series of manga graphic novel test drives.)
I begin my explorations on a Saturday, in downtown Normal during August Corn Fest. It's a big day for local merchants (college students have just returned to town, and they wanna get 'em accustomed to spending money downtown), my comic shop supplier included, and the streets are filled with items shouting buymebuymebuyme! Acme Comics has chosen to put out boxes of ten-cent comics (lots of kids are rifling through 'em) and a rack of manga GNs along the sidewalk. Clearly, that’s where the walk-in action is.
Following its debut, I did a Gadabout piece on the American version of Shonen Jump, so I decide to open with works theoretically aimed at an older audience than SN's market of pre- and teenaged boys. Publishers like Tokyopop and Viz put the intended age range for each book right on the covers, but another quick way to spot the "Mature" titles is their shrinkwrapping. I grab one book that I've seen recommended in other comics-related blogs (Battle Royale) and one that looks totally different in both audience and tone, Moyoco Anno's Happy Mania (Tokyopop). Let's start with the second, shall we?
(The Inevitable Opening Disclaimer: For the purposes of these pieces, it should be acknowledged that this writer is an ignoramus when it comes to Japanese comics and culture. Any egregious mischaracterizations that appear should definitely be viewed in that light, so caveat lector, kids!)
The pink-tinged cover of the book's back/front cover ("One of Japan's most provocative mangas!" the text at the bottom tells us) depicts a short-skirted girl/woman, standing assertively in hitchhiking pose, a frown on her lipsticked lips. This, the cover announces, is a take-charge kind of gal. But is she?
The woman in question is Kayoka Shigeta, a twenty-something bookstore clerk who we first meet reading a Love Horoscope. It's a pose that captures the character succinctly, for Shigeta is obsessed about one thing: her unattached state. "Why does everyone have a boyfriend except me?" she asks herself again and again (and again and again and again). The thought permeates every aspect of her life – each time a studly male comes within eyeshot, she starts fantasizing that this one's Mister Right – but she ignores the guy she's working with, the bespectacled Takahashi who, of course, has a thing for her.
A pretty typical romance comic heroine, right? Only Anno kicks things up a notch. For one thing, Shigeta is Little Miss Mood Swing: ebullient over her imaginary relationships one panel; depressed and p.o.ed the instant she realizes the guy's not all he's cracked up to be. She thinks nothing of trying to steal a new co-worker's boyfriend mere moments after she’s first met him, and when she does have a one night stand with a handsome customer, she's immediately convinced he loves her. When he gives indications to the contrary, she angrily turns on the guy, shouting, "I want a boyfriend! Not a fuck buddy!"
Further on in the book, she stalks a handsome boy she meets at a club, ultimately beds him and then stops going into work, convinced that marriage is imminent. She refuses to admit anything else might be happening until the second of two other girlfriends shows up at the guy's apartment. Then she throws a fit, breaking one of the duo’s His and Her mugs.
Happy Mania, the romance series for Borderline Personality Disorder teengirls everywhere.
One volume in, and I have a difficult time getting a sense of where my sympathies are supposed to lie – which is okay, but certainly different from American genre comics. It’s clear that other characters find Shigeta irritating: at one point, her older roommate Fuku is shown thinking, "It's really hard to believe you're 24 years old," while the first volume ends with Takahashi plaintively asking the reader, "Can someone please tell me why I like Miss Shigeta!" Tokyopop's cover blurb compares our lead to Bridget Jones, but unlike that comically neurotic heroine, Anno's protagonist displays little capacity for even misdirected self-analysis.
Anno's black-and-white art is clean and simple, but not as sexually charged as the book's cover image would suggest. Our heroine's big-eyed look (often with blank pupils that make her appear like she's from a Harold Gray adaptation of Fatal Attraction) often works against her attractiveness. At least one scene is disturbingly rendered – Shigeta examining her naked self in a mirror and cataloging her perceived deficiencies – which I think is the point. (Second volume in the series features a cover more in tune with Anno's story: Shigeta with lipstick smeared all over and around her mouth, looking anything but the romance comic heroine.) A few times we're also treated to Shigeta's fantasies without any warning. When she returns home from one of her one-night-stands, for example, Anno draws her like a Legionnaire returning from service in the desert. In other panels, we see her in what I think of as a standard manga pose: mouth opened widely like some comics incarnation of Lucy Ricardo.
Is this comedy or serious romance, character flaw or pure pathology? Darned if I know, but it sure makes the sight of a young Aunt May flashing a condom in Trouble look tame. One thing's certain: if I wanted to open my journey into manga GNs with something different from American comic mores, I couldn't have picked much better than Happy Mania. An essentially unlikable heroine misusing her sexuality in pursuit of an army of superficially attractive men, who basically lacks the wit to make her emotionally stunted state entertaining over the long haul – I'm not sure I want to meet the audience who identifies with Shigeta's travails. Like our anti-heroine, I bet they'd be really aggravating.
Sunday, August 31, 2003
( 8/31/2003 08:59:00 AM ) Bill S.
RECOMMENDED READING – A somewhat family-friendly Neal Pollack does the writing-in-front-of-the-teevee thing on this year’s MTV Video Music Awards for salon. Skip on through the obligatory commercial to catch this piece: Pollack is sharp and he knows his rock ‘n’ roll. (Plus, he echoes Sean Collins on the night's faux provocative Britney/Madonna smooch.)
[Note to Sean: my copy of The Immaculate Collection sez that Madonna was a decent pop singer once upon a time.]
( 8/31/2003 08:27:00 AM ) Bill S.
THE COMPARISON GAME – Caught a third flick on cable during the first half of this rainy day weekend – the FX-laden potboiler Eight-Legged Freaks, which half-successfully tries to do for giant spiders what the first Tremors did for big ol' killer worms – and just to be critically frivolous, my wife and I started comparing it to Insomnia.
( 8/31/2003 07:55:00 AM ) Bill S.
COMMENTS – My Comments window appears to be only sporadically available this Labor Day Weekend (according to YACCS, they're working on correcting the problem), so if you see the link and you wanna say something, please avail yourself of the opportunity before the window disappears again.
( 8/31/2003 07:38:00 AM ) Bill S.
GUILTY COPS – Watched two cop flicks this weekend, both dealing with guilt-ridden lawmen. Clint Eastwood's Blood Work and Christopher Nolan's Insomnia, starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams, are the movies in question. I like Clint when he's playing all-too-human coppers (Tightrope, In the Line of Fire), but Work was not up to his best genre exercises. An inconsistent comic subplot featuring Paul Rodriquez proves an irritating distraction, while the identity of the flick's serial killer isn't much of a mystery. Insomnia (a remake of a Scandanavian film) doesn't truck with comic relief – its tone is pretty relentless – and if it isn’t the mind-blower that the director's debut Memento was, it's Hitchcockian in ways that few of Hitchcock's imitators know how to be. It's the better movie of the two, though I think I prefer Eastwood's toughly subdued acting to Insomnia lead Pacino's typically more florid style.
Like I say, both pics feature protagonists wrestling with guilt – Eastwood with survivor's guilt when he learns that the woman who provided the heart for his life-saving transplant was murdered, Pacino for something we don't fully learn about until the movie's last act. Eastwood's guilt drives him to risk his life, going after the killer mere weeks after his surgery; Pacino's into sleeplessness and a horrible accident that threatens to taint his investigation into the murder of a teenage girl in an isolated Alaska town. One movie ends happily; the other doesn't.
Both works are effective at suggesting the physical struggles each hero has to undergo in the course of their investigations. Until the inevitable chase and shoot-out, you're constantly aware that Eastwood plays a man in the midst of recovery: we see him regularly charting his temperature and popping prescription pills, and there are moments when we know the character is just barely able to catch his breath. Pacino's sleepless cop markedly deteriorates as he trudges through six days of bright Alaskan nights, and the director unblinkingly follows him: visually echoing his increasing disorientation and hallucinations, utilizing the movie's setting to suggest how removed from everyone else he has become. There's a foot chase in the movie that's paced in a wonderfully off-kilter fashion: both hero and villain deliberately walking/running across a river of logs – and it outstrips anything in Blood Work for sheer suspense.
Another area of commonality between the two movies: they feature killers played by actors known more for comedy than heart of darkness police suspensers. Williams is the one to watch here. Tamping down his trademark over-the-top comic style (and wouldn't it have made Insomnia a totally different movie if he'd tried to match Pacino's histrionics?), he's remarkably effective. Makes me want to see his work in Twenty-Four Hour Photo now.
And, oh yeah, both movies also contain a moment where the older hero gets to bed a younger woman. I bought the pairing in Insomnia, if only because the gal in question was Maura Tierney, who excels in playing the type of world weary woman who'd take the momentary relief with both eyes open. I was less convinced by Eastwood's tryst with the sultry Wanda De Jesus, perhaps because I've seen him do this type of thing one too many times. Besides, there was that didn't you recently have major surgery thing still hanging over things.
Still, like I say, I enjoy these kinds of genre works. I find 'em reassuring in a way that super-cop flicks like Dirty Harry or the Die Hard entries can never be. At their best, they show us how even flawed working policefolk do the job we all count on 'em to do. And when Pacino tells Hilary Swank, the Alaskan cop who ironically ends up investigating him, to remain committed to the truth, the moment feels hard earned and true: a positive ending to this pitch-bright noir film.