Tyranny and the Righteous Man: A Look at Pulp Fiction

Since its release in 1994, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction has continued to entertain and captivate audiences. With its endlessly quotable dialogue and endearingly twisted humor, the film has established itself as an unequivocal classic and is arguably Tarantino’s finest work. Yet while its popularity is no doubt due to its sheer entertainment value, close scrutiny reveals it as a deceptively simple morality play buried cleverly beneath layers of violence, foul language, and absurdity. It is through the film’s famous non-linear structure along with subtle clues, symbolism, and clever camera work that its themes are revealed.

The opening scene is, of course, a direct lead-in to the final scene. This is an effective framing device as it book-ends the film both literally and thematically. It also helps to give the first-time viewer a frame of reference for the film’s structure, as once we get into the main body of the story, it initially appears we’ve moved past the characters in the opening scene and into a series of unconnected, or loosely connected, vignettes. It also helps to pay attention to the opening titles, as the credit “Stories by” rather than “Story by” hints that there will be multiple narratives. Additionally, halfway through the title sequence there’s an abrupt burst of radio static as the station changes, suggesting a short attention span and a bounce to something else. Already we know we’re in for a wild ride.

Now we meet Julius and Vincent, the most famous and lovable hit men in all of cinema. At first they appear to be having a meandering conversation about nothing relevant, talking about how McDonald’s is different in Europe, and the content of the discussion itself is indeed nonsense. But it’s relatable and it humanizes these men. Aside from being brutal killers, they’re just like everyone else. And of course, Tarantino is setting up the next scene, where the same content will be used in an entirely different way.

Arriving at their destination, Vincent begins asking questions about Mia, the wife of their boss, Marsellus Wallace. At first, it appears to be more irrelevant dialogue, but this conversation will have deep ramifications for what is to come. In the elevator, they discuss the fate of Antoine Roccamora, AKA Tony Rocky Horror, whom Marsellus had thrown from a fourth story window, supposedly for giving Mia a foot massage. The camera tracks with them as they emerge from the elevator, keeping them in a medium shot, while they discuss whether Marsellus was justified in his actions. They arrive at the door, realize they’re too early, and move on down the hall, continuing their discussion. Instead of following them, the camera lingers by the door. This has the dual effect of keeping their ultimate destination hovering in the viewer’s mind, while also allowing the remainder of the conversation to play out in an unconventional composition. Long shots alienate the viewer from the subject, while close-ups are more intimate. Key information is typically conveyed in close-up, or at least medium, but this entire portion of the conversation plays out in a long shot. They’re also framed in a doorway, creating a frame-within-a-frame, giving the moment a fly-on-the-wall quality, like we’re eavesdropping. And the frame is canted slightly, telling us that all is not as it seems. At this point, Vincent’s tone shifts from playful banter to one of gravity. The ultimate effect is to suggest that this is something important – and it is. As he explains to Julius the sexual aspect of giving a woman a foot massage, as well as the implicit betrayal on the part of Tony, he sets up the tension for his own upcoming scenes with Mia. Nestled within Vincent’s assertion of Tony’s betrayal is another tension – between greed and nobility. This is underscored by Julius’s biblical quote (an invention of Tarantino’s) about the good shepherd versus the “inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.” The choice between greed and nobility is the film’s central theme and will determine the fate of the characters.

When at last we get to to crux of this sequence, the McDonald’s dialogue comes back, only this time Julius uses it to intimidate his victim. This motif of seemingly innocuous things like hamburgers and milkshakes as masks for what’s really going on will continue throughout the film. The target of the hit, Brett, stands as he tries to explain himself, but Julius motions for him to sit. With a simple hand motion, Julius establishes his dominance, and then the camera stays low, giving us Brett’s perspective, as Julius looms over him, eating Brett’s food and slurping his drink till it’s empty, all while looking Brett in the eye and telegraphing that it’s all over for him. This is the first of many examples of power plays within the film, and the tension between greed (the weak), power (the tyranny of evil men), and morality (the shepherd) is the core of the entire piece.

Everything thus far has been prologue, and we now move into the main body of the film. As the segment entitled “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife” commences, we take a detour to introduce the character of Butch Coolidge. It saves us time down the road when we get to his story in full, but more importantly, it introduces Marsellus in a tangible way. We get a direct sense of who he is and how he operates. But it’s more of a tease, really. Initially, we’re focused on Butch and we only hear Marsellus’s voice. Our first actual glimpse of the crime lord is the back of his head, with a band-aid at the base of his skull, generating mystery. That’s all we’ll get until later in the film, but it’s enough to build him up for now so that the stakes feel more real as we get into the meat of the segment. There’s also a brief exchange between Vincent and Butch, establishing the animosity between them which will be resolved later.

After a brief bit setting up Vincent’s drug-dealer friend, Lance, we finally introduce Mia Wallace. Our first glimpse of Mia, as with Marsellus, is from behind, once again creating an aura mystery. But in this case, rather than sitting face-to-face with someone, totally at ease, Mia is perched over a control panel like some kind of Bond villain, watching Vincent on a security feed and giving him instructions while using a joystick to follow him with the camera. The immediate impression is that she’s toying with him. She’s not a super-criminal. She’s just the bored wife of one, and Vincent is her entertainment for the evening. Our first glimpse of her face is a close-up of her lips, suggesting sensuality. And next, as she finally joins Vincent, Tarantino keeps the camera in a low tracking shot, following Mia’s bare feet – a direct visual link to the previous conversation about Tony and the foot massage. The sexual tension is immediate and clear, as is the power dynamic between these two.

The “date” takes place at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a retro diner filled with classic cars and look-alikes of movie stars from the golden age of cinema – the era when the sort of lurid crime novels on which the film is based were popular. It is divided into two segments. The first is filled with the sort of nonsense talk that made up the first scene with Vincent and Julius, but instead of a display of easy camaraderie, here it consists of forced small talk and discomfort. As with the previous scene, though, we’re setting things up for later. We’ve already learned that Mia starred in the pilot episode for a TV show that didn’t get picked up. Now we learn that her character would have had a running gag where her character had picked up a bunch of jokes from her vaudeville performer grandfather and that she would have told a different joke in each episode. Since only one show got made, she only ever got to say one joke. Vincent wants to hear the joke, but Mia refuses to tell him, because she’s afraid she’ll be embarrassed. He presses her, but she refuses, exerting a different, less sexual kind of power over him, but one which is still a sort of forbidden fruit. The small talk fizzles into an awkward silence where Vincent and Mia are framed in profile, heightening the uneasiness. Mia says she’s going to the restroom to “powder her nose,” a fun little euphemism as she snorts cocaine for the second time this evening. Before leaving the table, she tells Vincent to think of something to say while she’s gone. This serves as the dividing line between the two segments.

When she gets back, Vincent has thought of something to say, though he’s initially reluctant to say it. She presses him and he reluctantly asks her what she thinks of Marsellus pushing Tony out of a window. We learn from Mia that Tony did not give her a foot massage after all, and she doesn’t know why Marsellus pushed him. But since the incident is still on Vincent’s mind, it must be weighing heavily on him. When focused on Vincent, Tarantino keeps the camera at eye level, even though Vincent can’t seem to look Mia in the eye. But when we’re looking at Mia, it’s a low angle. Mia still has the power here. The power to impart information or not. The power to give Vincent what he wants or not. The tension is broken when a dance contest is announced and the two of them take to the floor in a beautifully composed profile shot where the background frames the two of them in wonderful symmetry. And Mia is still barefoot.

Returning home after winning the trophy, Mia and Vincent are still dancing, having evidently broken the ice, and as he dips her, they share a moment. The sexual tension is on the rise, and Vincent retreats to the bathroom to talk himself out of screwing his boss’s wife. Mirrors in film are a commonly used device, often indicating introspection or sometimes duplicity. Here, Vincent speaks to his reflection of loyalty, returning to the central theme of honor versus selfishness. Earlier, the drug-dealer Lance, who made a point of calling Vincent a friend, was visible reflected in a mirror during their conversation, indicating duplicity. It is the drugs Vincent bought from Lance that cause Mia to overdose. Vincent calls Lance for help, but Lance refuses, dodging responsibility for his part in this and fulfilling the foreshadowing set up by the mirror. When Vincent crashes his car into the front of Lance’s house, causing some damage, it makes for a nice comeuppance. In a tense scene, they save Mia with a shot of adrenaline. With Mia looking considerably worse for wear, and sex decidedly off the table, Vincent takes her home. Before he leaves, Mia tells him the joke from her TV show. The exchange is something real and heartfelt. They’ve bonded in a way far more meaningful than if they’d just had sex. And Vincent has kept his honor – at least as far as Marsellus goes.

This theme of honor versus greed continues in the following segment, entitled “The Gold Watch.” We return to Butch Coolidge and learn of the heirloom which has been in his family for several generations. But where Butch’s ancestors were all war heroes, having achieved honor by fighting for their country, Butch is just a second-rate boxer at the end of his career, and much to his own distaste getting paid by Marsellus Wallace to throw his last fight. In the end he can’t go through with it, breaking the pact he made in favor of pride – and the alternate deal he made with another bookie. But the gold watch still has deep meaning for him, and not just sentimental meaning. It is a link to the nobility of his forebears that he himself was never able to achieve. So when it turns up missing, he has to go back for it, seeking something he hasn’t earned but desperately needs. By a twist of fate, he catches Vincent off-guard. The animosity set up earlier comes to a head, and Vincent meets his fate, murdered by his own gun. This is significant, and will tie in at the film’s finale.

At last we get our first look at Marsellus’s face in a nice little homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Butch, driving back to get his girlfriend before leaving town, sees Marsellus crossing the street, who stops and sees Butch. The staging and the framing are identical to the scene in Psycho when Marion encounters her boss while fleeing town after stealing the money. The best films deliver the unexpected, and after a suspenseful chase down the street, we veer right into bizzarroland as the fight between Butch and Marsellus is interrupted and they fall into the clutches of some weirdos who seem like something out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Butch manages to escape, and at last reaches the turning point of his arc. It would have been so easy for him to just leave his enemy to his fate, but he can’t bring himself to do it. Reclaiming his honor, he selects a weapon for the rescue. As he goes through several possibilities, the choice is significant. We go from hammer to baseball bat to chainsaw, and each of these weapons is more effective than the last, but finally Butch settles on the perfect selection: a samurai sword. The weapon of a noble warrior. And Butch is rewarded for this nobility. He still has to leave town – Marsellus has to save face – but he will no longer be hunted. Butch can live out his days in peace, knowing that at last he has earned the gold watch through the honor of the battlefield

In the film’s final segment, “The Bonnie Situation,” the arcs of Julius and Vincent converge in a perfect showcase of the central themes. We loop back to the beginning, resuming the sequence where we first met them. We pick up just as they’re about to finish off Brett. The first sequence concludes with Brett’s death, and as bullets riddle his body, there’s a series of quick dissolves to flash frames before a final dip to black as his life fades. We’re experiencing that moment from his perspective. He reaps the rewards of his life of crime and dies by the sword, as it were. He doesn’t get to see what comes next. But now we’re seeing it from the perspective of Vincent and Julius. Examining information the film has already given us from new perspectives will be the dominant motif of the remainder of the film. There’s one final exchange of gunfire as one of Brett’s friends bursts in, emptying his gun. He has them dead to rights but somehow every shot misses and the two hit men gun him down. Julius becomes convinced that only divine intervention could have saved them, and it has a profound effect on him.

The following portion of the segment, in which Vincent accidentally kills the sole survivor of the massacre, is largely played for laughs, but there are still some interesting things going on. We get to see the difference in character between Julius and Vincent. Marsellus dispatches a fixer known as the Wolf to bail them out. The Wolf bursts onto the scene, wasting no time and and taking care of business, doling out jobs to everyone involved. Julius is respectful and appreciative of the help, but Vincent gets uppity, demanding respect that he hasn’t earned. This is after all his fault, accident or no. This speaks to his inner self-involvement and weakness of character. He may show loyalty to his boss, but in all other respects he’s kind of a jerk – in addition to being a criminal.

There’s also another nice fly-on-the-wall moment as the Wolf speaks with Jimmie, the owner of the house where they’ve brought the body. The camera is placed in the hall and we’re looking through a doorway at the Wolf, while Jimmy is only partially visible, sitting on the bed across from him. Jimmy argues about using his best linen, an irreplaceable wedding present, to cover up the blood in the car. But when the Wolf flashes a wad of cash, suggesting that the gift givers would no doubt love for him to have a beautiful new oak bedroom set, Jimmy immediately caves. To Jimmy, money is obviously more important than sentimentality. The camera switches to a profile shot for this exchange, bringing us into the moment and leaving us to ponder what we’d do in Jimmy’s place. Yeah, we’d probably take the money.

With the Bonnie situation neatly wrapped up, and sporting the ridiculous clothes we saw them in earlier, thus answering the question of why they were dressed like that as well as helping us to place the current sequence chronologically, Vincent and Julius decide to grab some breakfast. Sitting in a diner, they return to the question of divine intervention and Julius reveals that he’s chosen to give up his life of crime. Vincent thinks this is ridiculous, and it is indeed played comically, with Julius alluding to becoming like Kane in the TV show Kung Fu, but things turn serious while Vincent takes a bathroom break – and is seen reading the same book he has with him when Butch kills him, reminding us of his fate. The armed robbers return and we realize we’ve returned to the opening scene, once again looking at something from a different perspective. During the ensuing standoff, with everyone pointing guns at each other, Julius refuses to give up the case belonging to Marsellus – honor among thieves – but more importantly, demands his own wallet back while giving the money inside to Ringo. Julius tells Ringo he’s buying Ringo’s life, and he recites the fictional Bible passage from the earlier scene. Once again, we’re looking at something from a different perspective. What was previously just a way to intimidate his victims has now taken on deeper meaning for him. After surviving something that should have killed him, Julius experiences an awakening and makes a choice. He spares Ringo, choosing the path of the righteous man rather than aligning himself with the tyranny of evil men. This sets him apart from Vincent, who has chosen to continue his life of crime. As they exit the film, what awaits Julius is for him to decide, but we already know Vincent’s fate. The moral is clear and simple and encapsulated in that Bible passage.

That the film’s core theme should manifest as a bible passage, even a made-up one, is worth examination. There is a fan theory that the glowing contents of the mysterious briefcase are actually Marsellus Wallace’s soul. It sounds absurd, but the theory is not without merit. When Vincent opens the case and sees what’s inside, he pauses, momentarily breaking the persona of the unflappable murderer to puff on his cigarette and gaze at the contents of the case, his face bathed in golden light while a low rumbling sound fills our ears. It’s not drugs or money in the case – that wouldn’t provoke such a reaction in Vincent. When Ringo gets a look inside, he gawks and says, “Is that what I think it is?” and then, “It’s beautiful.” Like Vicent, Ringo would not be so stunned by drugs, money, or even bars of gold. No, there’s something very special in that case. Then there’s the band-aid on Marcellus’s neck, presumably covering the wound where the soul was extracted. And of course there’s Marcellus’s detached demeanor, like someone lacking humanity, lacking a soul. Lastly, the combination to open the case is 666. Maybe Marsellus made a deal with the devil? Another theory is that the briefcase contains the diamonds from Reservoir Dogs, and there’s some evidence for this as well, since it is implied and Tarantino has confirmed that Vincent Vega is the brother of Mr. Blonde from the earlier film. While the briefcase did contain diamonds in an early draft, that concept was ultimately abandoned. This is one question the film leaves deliberately unanswered. In fact, the briefcase is a direct reference to the 1955 noir film, Kiss Me Deadly, in which the MacGuffin is a box with glowing contents. Does the briefcase in Pulp Fiction contain diamonds? Could be. Does it contain Marsellus Wallace’s soul? Maybe. I can’t refute any of that conclusively. But it’s never explicitly established, so it can’t ever be part of a definitive interpretation of the film. Tarantino has said that the contents of the box were left mysterious on purpose, so personally I think that it is really just an homage.

Despite the debate over the contents of the box, it remains a fact that there are references to the Bible in the film, and for many people, morality and religion are inexplicably linked. Pulp Fiction, for all its delightful quirks and in-jokes and references, is in the end a simple morality tale. But it is one that is so expertly crafted, in terms of narrative as well as visual style and symbolism, that it emerges as more than the sum of its parts. The combination of all these elements will ensure that this film will continue to enjoy its status as a time-honored classic that will be remembered for many years to come.

Attack of the Creeps

My goodness, Attack of the Clones is terrible. Sure, we all know the prequels suck. But conventional wisdom tells us The Phantom Menace is the worst, right? Wrong. There’s something far, far worse than the maniacal screeching of Jar-Jar Binks. And it’s called The Hot Mess of Anakin and Padme.

I sat down to watch Clones this time around with the same attitude I’ve had watching all the Star Wars films recently. At all times, I would ask myself, “What would little kid Jon think of this?” And usually I figured little kid Jon would be pretty entertained by all of it. But in this instance, I just couldn’t look past the sheer suck of what was unfolding.

Right from the start, Anakin is off-putting. In the elevator car, as he tries to one-up Obi-Wan, there’s an instant sense that this kid is going to be insufferable. The second-hand embarrassment as he fails to impress Padme in their first scene together is bad enough, but we’re just getting started. Padme lays it all out up front: “Anakin, you’ll always be that little boy I met on Tatooine.” This will inform everything that follows.

In TPM, Padme was only sixteen years old, but she’d already been elected to the highest office on her planet. She was smart, capable, and she led her people through a crisis and saved them from the Trade Federation. Granted, Anakin helped with that, and that’s not to be overlooked, but bottom line, it was Padme’s show. It was her plan. She was in charge. Now, ten years later, she’s grown from an already impressive girl into a woman. She radiates professionalism and maturity. She’s the very epitome of grown-up. And here’s this little punk Anakin trying to get into her pants because he has a crush. EEEWW!!!

Every scene they share is awkward. From his confession that he’s been obsessing over her for ten years to his leering at her every chance he gets – which she tells him flat-out makes her uncomfortable. He trash-talks Obi-Wan behind his back, which clearly does not impress Padme, coming off as a whiny, entitled brat. He talks over her during an important meeting just to flex his muscles, which she clearly finds off-putting. And then he starts touching her inappropriately when she’s made it very clear she’s not interested. On their little outing to the countryside when he talks about how great fascism would be, not only does he make himself look stupid with his utter lack of understanding of politics, but this should have been the last straw in which Padme sends him packing and informs the Jedi she no longer needs their protection.

But holy crap, we’re not even done! We’ve got their super-awkward fireside chat in which she’s so uncomfortable she has to move to the other side of the room. And as painful as that is to watch, it’s nothing compared to Anakin confessing that he just slaughtered a whole village of Sand People – including the children – and she just brushes it aside, and then a few scenes later tells Anakin, “I truly, deeply love you.” What the ever-loving God Fuck?!!! There is absolutely no basis whatsoever for her to fall in love with this creep! All along, it has been played as a creepy stalker chasing an older woman with whom he has nothing in common. This should have ended with her making a full report to the Jedi council about what he’s been up to and his expulsion from the order. Certainly not them getting fucking married!!

“You like me because I’m a psychopath. There aren’t enough psychopaths in your life.”

I used to enjoy the set pieces – the chase on Coruscant, the fight on Kamino, the Battle of Geonosis, but all of these fell flat this time around because my skin was still crawling from the scenes between Anakin and Padme. Okay, fine, we’re supposed to see how this guy becomes Darth Vader. But in order for us to be invested in that, we need to see an essentially good man who is seduced by the Dark Side. Instead we get a whiny, creepy stalker sociopath who is completely off-putting. And it undermines the character of Darth Vader. In the original trilogy, Vader was a super-badass. He had his shit together. He whined about nothing. And for his backstory you give us this?!

Not only that, but for us to be invested in the doomed romance of Anakin and Padme, we have to want them to be together. We know going in they’re not going to have a happily-ever-after. But for that to mean anything, for us to follow them on that journey, it needs to be tragic. We need to see them happy up front in order to be sad that it’s not going to work out. Instead, we just want to scream to Padme, “Run! Run as fast as you can!”

This movie sucks. My god, this movie sucks. I wish there were something I could praise, but there isn’t. You could argue that it has nice visuals, but the CGI hasn’t aged well, and compared to any given modern movie, they’re nothing special. You could say it’s got decent action scenes, but if you’re not invested in the story, it’s just shit blowing up and I don’t care. This is easily the biggest botch job of the entire saga. And with the resources at their disposal, they should be ashamed of themselves.

Still more romantic than Anakin and Padme.

A Unique Spin on the Fantasy Genre: Mornnovin

Okay, strictly speaking, this falls outside the parameters of this blog, since it is not from the 20th century. However, I’m making an exception in this case because I want to help promote an excellent book that deserves to be read.

The fantastic art of Scott Baucan graces the cover of Mornnovin

Elves, castles, magic, kings and queens, swordplay, imaginary languages – yes, we’ve seen all this before, and Alyssa Marie Bethancourt’s debut novel, Mornnovin has them in droves. That is not to say these elements are automatically tired in any way. There’s a reason we keep revisiting them. But in the wrong hands, they can admittedly feel stale or even silly. Fortunately, Ms. Bethancourt knows her genre, and navigates the material with ease. The best fantasy will make you forget that it’s fantasy, allowing you to completely buy in to what you’re reading. Mornnovin is such a novel. Beyond this, however, and perhaps more importantly, it gives us a wholly fresh perspective in that the author is autistic, and her elven characters are also coded as such.

Bethancourt’s elves are emotional basket cases. Their feelings run the gamut, their internal lives raging storms of passion, guilt, and self-recrimination, yet they are expected to maintain a veneer of stoicism that would make Mr. Spock proud, even to the point of making elaborate hand gestures to indicate their feelings rather than allow a genuine emotion to reach their faces. These elves are no Vulcans, though, and their ability to maintain this cool facade is, shall we say, less well-perfected than their sci-fi counterparts. This is, in fact, an amazingly on-point depiction of the autistic experience. People on the spectrum spend most of their lives learning to hide what they’re really feeling, having been told over and over that their expressions of emotion are inappropriate. For this reason, autistics are often viewed as cold, rude, and distant. But this is largely learned behavior, the only reaction that makes any sense when it seems like everything you do is wrong.

That Bethancourt’s autism stand-ins are literally not human reflects the feeling many on the spectrum experience of not really being a part of humanity, of being aliens in their own world. This is further illustrated by the state of isolation in which the elves of Mornnovin have placed themselves. They live in Evlédíen, also called the Valley, hidden away from the rest of the world to protect themselves from the humans who once tried to exterminate them. The Purification, as the humans call it, could be viewed as a parallel for the erasure experienced by autistic people every day. Often, the lives and perspectives of the autistic community are ignored. The clueless and ignorant have even gone as far as to say that autistic people are not even really people, and that those on the spectrum actually have no inner life, no genuine feelings or sense of identity. What is this if not a low-key extermination, if not in fact, at least in spirit?

Onto this stage emerges our heroine, Loralianasa Raia, nicknamed Lorien. Though she’s over a hundred years old, she’s only just on the cusp of adulthood in elf terms. As the crown princess whose parents have long-since been murdered, she now faces the unwelcome responsibility of ruling her people. To make matters worse, this coincides with a global war among the humans as well as a sinister plot that soon drags the elves back onto the world stage. Lorien now faces the almost unthinkable decision to expose the existence of her people to the rest of the world in an effort to save the very people who once brought them to the brink of extinction. This funhouse lens coming-of-age story perfectly illustrates the exaggerated gravity that an autistic person faces upon joining the adult world. In much the same way that Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer used monsters as a metaphor for growing up and learning adult responsibility, so does Bethancourt use her fantasy landscape of imagined cultures in a global war engineered by a vengeful sorcerer.

Of course, no coming-of-age story would be complete without a romance, and Bethancourt does not fail to deliver the goods. The concept of lovers bound by a telepathic link has perhaps been done to death in numerous online fanfics, but this manages to feel fresh, perhaps because of the earnestness with which it is written. It might also have to do with how truly endearing the love interest is. Naoise (pronounced Nee-shuh) Raynesley is the prince of Grenlec, a kingdom at war with their longtime rival, Telrisht. We meet him in the first chapter and there’s instant sparkage with Lorien. He’s bright, kind, open-minded, thoughtful, and witty. Indeed, he borders on being a Mary Sue, though thankfully never quite crosses the line. By the end of their first encounter, Naoise and Lorien are mystically joined, and though separated afterward for a large chunk of the story, their love grows stronger and stronger through the psychic bond they don’t even know they share. Visiting each other in dreams, they become each other’s only solace from the hellscape their world has become – though Naoise arguably has it worse, being that he’s stuck on the front lines of a battle that seems frustratingly unwinnable for reasons that will eventually become ominously clear.

As the story unfolds, we’re introduced to a colorful cast of supporting characters as intriguing and memorable as anything offered up by J.K. Rowling, Marvel, or even Tolkien himself. There’s Lorien’s sister Lyn, who having been raised away from her people has never learned their stoicism and therefore expresses herself with some delightfully creative profanity. We’ve also got Naoise’s womanizing brother, who manages to be charming despite being a total heel; a mercenary named Cole who struggles to outlive his shady past; the brusque elf warrior Sovoqatsu questing to fulfill a sense of purpose; and Sefaro, a good-natured ambassador from a distant country who serves as the moral compass of the group. Aside from the main party, there’s Lorien’s taskmaster guardian, Tomanasil; Naoise’s overbearing father, King Lorn; and a mysterious fairy named Sun.

But the greatest gem, for me at least, is the villain, Kataki Kurome, a sorcerer grieving over the murder of his wife at the hands of the humans. He engineers the war between Grenlec and Telrisht as a way to thin the herd and lessen the task he’s set for himself of annihilating humanity. He easily could have been a thinly-written mustache twirler, but Bethancourt gives him depth, pain, and a cold civility that at once makes him relatable and utterly terrifying. His cold determination, detached sense of purpose, devious craftiness, and sheer power make him seem utterly unbeatable. This, coupled with his age and inflexibility make him the perfect foil for the young and idealistic Lorien, who was already overwhelmed by the adult world even before the shit hit the fan.

No character is ignored, and Bethancourt not only gives depth and individuality to all of her primary characters, but breathes life and personality into even the most minor characters. Such a task naturally requires a lot of breathing room, and Mornnovin is not a short book. But it never overstays its welcome, and indeed the epic scope of the proceedings demands the necessary space to unfold. Beyond that, the pace never wavers, and the novel’s bulk is never daunting. Quite the contrary. This is the kind of expertly-woven story that draws you right in and keeps you anticipating each new development. Mornnovin isn’t just one of the best fantasy stories I’ve ever read. It’s easily one of the best novels I’ve read in recent memory, and I eagerly await the next installment in the series, due out next year.

Mornnovin is printed by Dogwood House press and is available from all major online booksellers.

Full disclosure: I am married to the author. However, this is my honest assessment of the piece.

Jaws 4 – A Fan Edit

Speaking of Jaws

“Rahr!”

A while back, my wife and I decided to watch all the Jaws movies. When we got to Jaws: The Revenge, mid-way through my wife said, “This is really stupid. Sharks don’t have telepathy. They don’t target specific people.” And she’s right about all those things. So I got to thinking… What if there was no supernatural element to this move? What if the shark wasn’t hunting Brodys? What if there were no telepathy and this was just a regular Jaws movie? What would that movie even look like? Would it even make any sense? I decided to find out.

“Thea, dear, did you know your Grandma has psychic powers?”

My first step was ripping the video files off the blu-ray disc, something I’d never done before. I had to google how you do that and download some software, but eventually I had some video files that I could work with. Next step, convert the files to a format my editing software could read, which required another software download. After fiddling with the settings, I was in business and ready to edit.

Digital scissors in hand, I began mercilessly hacking away at the film, removing everything I thought was stupid. Not just every single reference to telepathy or vengeful sharks, but needless padding like Mike and Carla arguing about garbage, a seemingly endless casino scene, and Jake giving Mike a hard time the day after his brother’s funeral. The end result was barely over an hour, really lean and to the point. When my wife and I watched it together, we agreed that it was an improvement over the official version, but it was a little too short to be satisfying. So I went back to the drawing board. In the end, I added back in pretty much all the padding, leaving the original storyline intact, minus the psychic shark stuff. However, I did make a few other minor alterations to two scenes.

The first is Sean’s death scene. When the shark initially attacks him, we see the shark thrashing about and hear the tearing of flesh as Sean screams. Then, a moment later, he pops out of the water looking no worse for wear. I thought that was silly, so I cut that bit, ending the scene with the boat sinking and a shot of the shark’s fin lifted from Jaws 3-D.

Mike Brody prepares to escape the shark by giving himself the bends.

I also recut the sequence where the shark attacks Mike in the mini-sub and then pursues him into a shipwreck. Some of this footage actually wound up in a completely different part of the film. The result is more realistic and more consistent with the tone of the first two films. I don’t want to say exactly what I did, though, because I think you’ll get a kick out of it.

Finally, I fixed the ending. All home video releases of Jaws: The Revenge have featured the ending from the international cut where the shark inexplicably explodes and then Jake pops out of the water, still alive. I got rid of that nonsense and restored the original ending from the theatrical version where the shark just gets impaled and Jake stays dead – except in my version, the shark no longer roars. Oh, and I replaced the main title card, retitling the film Jaws 4 and using the proper Jaws font. And I made a minor tweak to the Universal logo that probably only die-hard Jaws fans will notice.

Yuck! Let’s see if we can do something about that.

The end result is… well, it’s still bad. After all, I could only do so much. But it’s slightly less bad than it was. Like by about 20% or so. If you’re interested in checking out my work, feel free to contact me.

DISCLAIMER:

I want to stress that I do not condone piracy and will not sell my fan edit in any format. The typical way it works is that you will need to send me a photo of yourself holding a legally-purchased copy of Jaws: The Revenge on blu-ray and I will then be happy to share my fan edit with you at no charge.

Jaws: A Lifetime of Memories

The Great White Shark glides into frame – and into my subconscious.
Image credit: Universal Studios

There’s little I could possibly say about Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece that hasn’t already been said. So instead I’ll focus on my own personal memories. My relationship with one of my all-time favorite movies.

My family. Back row from left: my brother, my mom, and my dad. Front row: moi.

My parents were your average middle-class suburbanite couple. They were both slim, fit, and attractive, and their teaching jobs at the local high school had allowed them to purchase a pretty nice house with a great big yard. That house would be my home for the remainder of my childhood. We had just moved in and were still getting comfortable. It was 1980, and I was three years old. I wandered into the family room one evening where my parents were watching a movie. I asked what it was and they told me it was Jaws. For some reason, they let me join them, even though I was easily scared and prone to night terrors. But I’m glad they did, because it was a revelation. I was utterly captivated by what was playing out on screen.

I’m not sure exactly at what point in the movie I started watching, but they were already aboard the Orca. It might have been the scene when they’re comparing scars. I have a vague memory of the planks bending in as the shark attacks the hull and Brody falling down with water under him. I didn’t know what a shark was, so my parents had to explain it to me. I had seen fishing boats on Mr. Rogers, so I sort of understood that. I thought that when they went down through the hatches to work on the engine that they were in the hold where the fish are kept. I also didn’t really know the difference between that and the forward cabin. I just knew they went down into the bowels of the boat to do things. When the boat starts flooding, I didn’t understand that it wasn’t supposed to be that way. I didn’t understand how these things work. I figured they kept water down there for the fish to swim in. You know, so they’d be fresh, I guess. I was three, okay? What do you want from me? When Hooper went down into the cage, I didn’t understand what that was. I thought he was going down into the bowels of the boat again, and somehow the shark had gotten into the boat. Then when it pops out of the water and lands on the deck, I thought it was coming up out of the hold. I wasn’t sure how the shark had gotten into the boat, but there it is.

From that moment on, I was utterly obsessed with sharks in general and Jaws in particular. I talked about both topics constantly, probably annoying everyone. For my fourth birthday, I got a children’s book called Whales, Sharks, and Other Creatures of the Deep. This was my first encounter with many sea creatures, such as manatees, manta rays, giant squid, and others that would also fascinate me for the rest of my life.

The next few years were a dry spell for me. I didn’t see Jaws or any other shark movies for what seemed like forever. Remember, this was the early 80s – before Netflix, before home video. You had to wait for things to come on TV. Finally there was a movie on HBO called Beyond the Reef about a young man and the tiger shark who befriends him. At the time, I found it a bit tedious, but I watched it anyway because there was a shark in it. I saw it several times, but then it disappeared from my life. I would think of it from time to time, but I didn’t see it again until recently – a span of more than thirty-five years. Watching it as an adult, I found it to be a flawed but entertaining film – though perhaps I’m viewing it through rose-colored glasses, filtered through memories of my toddler self watching it with my brother and grandmother.

One day I asked my brother if he’d ever seen Jaws and he told me he’d seen Jaws 2. He had to explain sequels to me. His only memory of it was a woman on a boat seeing a shark fin and yelling, “Uh-uh-uh-SHAAAARK!!!-uh-uh-uh-uh.” He was clearly referring to when Brody and Ellen find a traumatized Tina lost at sea. Somewhere during this period, I must have seen Jaws 2, or at least part of it. All I remember is the shot where the camera follows Brody out to the end of the dock, where Hendricks is aboard the police launch. I guess I couldn’t tell the difference between Roy Scheider and Don Adams, and since I didn’t know the character’s name, I started calling him “Get Smart.” At some point, someone told me they killed the shark with a power line. I thought that meant they just threw the power line onto the shark.

In the summer of 1982, we took the first of many annual vacations to Jacksonville Beach, Florida. I would have been four years old. I have a vivid memory of running out across the vast expanse of sand between our motel and the Atlantic Ocean. The beach was huge, not at all the narrow strip of sand I had been expecting. Because I didn’t know the actual setting of Jaws, I arbitrarily decided that it took place at Jacksonville Beach and that Brody killed the shark from the end of Jackonville Beach Pier. The first time I went swimming in the ocean, I was terrified of getting eaten by a shark. There actually was a day when we couldn’t go swimming because of a shark warning. Despite straining my eyes as I stared at the ocean, I did not see a shark.

It was around this time that I saw a documentary about sharks and learned of the extinct giant shark, megalodon. The host erroneously stated that the shark in Jaws was a megalodon. I took this to heart, and assumed that the shark in Jaws was a hundred feet long.

The following summer, Jaws 3-D was released. By now I was in school, and a classmate saw it and told me about it. I was excited to see it, but missed it in the theater. I didn’t catch up with it until it played on HBO. I think I found the premise a bit odd, a little sci-fi compared to the others, but it was scary and I dug it. I was also surprised to find that it was about a regular great white and not a megalodon. There was still much for me to learn about sharks, of course, and I didn’t understand how utterly absurd it was that this film’s great white was thirty-five feet long. Real great whites grow to a maximum of twenty feet long, so despite calling it a great white, it really was much closer to a megalodon in size. I was too young to realize what a stink-bomb the movie was. There was a shark in it, so that was good enough for me. My brother watched it with me and even though he thought it was stupid, he embraced it for my sake and we obsessed over it together for a while.

Jaws 3-D may have been a box-office bomb, but it was a staple of my early childhood.
Image credit: Universal Studios

We decided, my brother and I, that we were going to make Jaws 4. The neighbor kid, however, told us that they’d already made Jaws 4, so we changed our plan and said we were going to make Jaws 5. The neighbor kid then told us that they’d already made both Jaws 4 and Jaws 5. In my gut, I knew he was messing with us, but my brother believed him, so we changed our plans yet again. Despite knowing perfectly well that there are only four Jaws movies, I still occasionally go searching for part 5 thanks to that idiot neighbor kid. Anyway, we got to work. My brother would write Jaws 6 and I would take on Jaws 7. Probably just to be a jerk, my brother decided that his shark was going to be so big, the only way to kill it was to blow up the world – which they did, with a doomsday bomb. But he left the door open for part 7, saying that Earth had a sister world called Amnesia where the Jaws saga would continue. Sigh. Thanks, Collin.

Writing an entire novel proved to be an overwhelming task for a five-year-old, though, and I eventually gave up. My brother and I briefly talked about using the family’s Super-8 camera to film a Jaws movie, and we approached our Uncle Ron about playing Brody because we thought he bore a passing resemblance to Roy Scheider. But those plans came to a halt when my uncle refused to work without his daily wages. Years later, I would encounter the same problem with professional actors.

For a long time, it seemed like Jaws 3-D was the only Jaws movie I was ever going to get to see. It played multiple times on HBO, and I seized on every chance I had to watch it. It was a Jaws movie goddamn it. But of course, a part of me longed to see the original. I wondered if I would ever get to see it again, and I asked my mom to tell me the story. Initially, she just said a bunch of people got eaten by a shark, but I knew there had to be more than that. I pressed her, and she continued. “The chief of police and an oceanographer went out on a great big boat. Aaand… some people on the boat got killed. And they… shot the shark… yeah, they shot it. And the chief of police and the oceanographer… swam back to shore.”

The VHS release of Jaws, featuring one of the most iconic images in all of pop culture.

1985. Everything changed. We got our first VCR. We drove to a video store called Nite Owl Video to get our first video membership. When my mom and I walked in, I started browsing titles, and there it was. That iconic image of the shark hurtling up under the unsuspecting swimmer. That bold font. Jaws. I grabbed it and showed it to my mom and obviously she had to rent it for me. To my utter disappointment, we couldn’t rent it that day. I’m not sure why – something to do with the process of signing up. But we would be able to next time.

The wait was agony, but finally there we all were – me, my parents, and my brother. By now, my brother had made it clear that he didn’t really care for the Jaws movies, and I had the sense that my parents were indifferent. They were indulging me. I recorded the event with my tape recorder so I could at least enjoy the audio after we’d returned the film. “Jaws,” I said. “Jaws One. Starting.” Duh-dunn. Duh-dunn. The movie began to unfold. Instantly I sensed that this was a better film than the third one. Everyone laughed at the jokes, and the shark attacks were bloodier and more intense than the ones in the third film. I was enjoying what seemed to be to be a pretty good Jaws movie. And then the switcheroo happened.

I knew from my mom’s telling of the story that they would eventually go out on a boat to kill the shark, but I figured that would be at the very end, and I had no idea what the movie was going to pull. The camera dollies in on the jaws of a shark mounted on a window, the Orca visible beyond, heading to sea, as if sailing right into the jaws of the shark, and John Williams was suddenly scoring a different movie. Not a horror movie. An adventure movie. I still get chills every time I watch the movie and it gets to this point. But this was only the beginning. After a while of hanging out on the boat, I began to realize that we were nowhere near the climax. And then the shark pops out of the water. Rather than a horror set piece, suddenly it’s adventure on the high seas! Quint, Brody, and Hooper leap into action as the score builds the excitement. It’s fun, funny, and thrilling, and then… that harpoon comes into view as John Williams delivers six musical notes that would forever change the way I experience movies. Holy. Goddam. Shit. This isn’t just a Jaws movie. This is Jaws.

The rest of the movie played out. There were more exciting chases, more thrills, and then some mind-bending terror. When it was over, my brother and I went upstairs and went utterly ape shit. Later that day, I came up with QBH, a sitcom which I performed live with my action figures in which Quint, Brody, and Hooper get an apartment in New York and have many comedic adventures together, including run-ins with Superman and Lex Luthor, a giant mechanical arm, and a trip to space. QBH became a way of life for me and my brother, dominating the rest of our childhoods.

Due to a great cosmic injustice, there were no Jaws action figures for us to play with, so we had to substitute. For me, Emperor Palpatine became Quint, an ATST pilot with Luke Skywalker’s head was Brody, and a little astronaut figure from my Construx set stood in for Hooper. For my brother, Quint was a Chief Quimby figurine from Inspector Gadget, Brody was Luke Skywalker in his Jedi outfit, and Hooper was a jet pilot. It was the best we could do, and it served us well enough at the time. But we needed a playset, and that’s where Grampap came in.

Grampap shows off the catch of the day on one of our many trips to Jacksonville Beach, Florida.

Grampap was an interesting man. With his high cheekbones and weathered complexion, he was like a wooden Indian come to life. A veteran of World War II, he was full of stories from a colorful past. He was a carpenter, and it seemed as if he could build anything you wanted in his garage. He’d already made numerous wooden toys for both of us, so it seemed only natural to ask him to build the Orca. Working from memory, I drew the boat to the best of my ability and gave it to him for reference. A few days later, I had my first highly inaccurate model of the Orca. Not long after that, my brother spent a week in the garage with Grampap building what he called, “The Ultimate Orca.” The overall shape was wrong, but the details were all there and it was functional. It had a removable fighting chair, removable barrels, and a fold-up shark cage. Many hours were spent on the further adventures of Quint, Brody, and Hooper using this model of the Orca.

“Quint,” “Brody,” and “Hooper” head out to “sea” aboard the Ultimate Orca.
Grandma enjoying her patio.

My grandmother was a roly-poly bundle of love who had seen some hard times and had learned the value of family. She was also a hard-core shopper, and if there was something you wanted and it could be found, she would find it for you. So I asked her for Peter Benchly’s original Jaws novel in hardcover. I figured I had set her an impossible task, and in a way I had, since Jaws was not even in print at the time. But she came through, sort of. I don’t know where she found them, but she picked up Jaws 2, by Hank Searls – in hardcover, no less – one each for me and my brother. And she inscribed it on the first page: to Jonathan, from Grandma, “1986.”

I took the book to school and began reading it – my first grown-up book. It was a bit difficult for me, and I kind of slogged through it. Much of the book dealt with gangsters and police work. I felt a bit guilty for finding it so dull, but I kept at it. It took me all year to read it, but I did, reading through the final few chapters in one sitting and with trembling hands. It had been a tough book to get through, but the ending was a good payoff. However, there had been a price for taking it to school. The dust jacket had been ripped to shreds. I was mad about that, holding a plain red book in my hands with no picture of a shark on the cover. I put it on the shelf in my bedroom closet, where it stayed for many, many years.

Jaws 2 may have been tough to get through, but I still wanted to read the original, so my Grandma took me to Nancy’s Fireside Book Exchange, which she thought was our best shot at finding it. Sure enough, there it was. Not hardcover, of course – the mass-market paperback that had flooded book stores in advance of the film’s release. I didn’t start reading it right away, and by the time I did, my brother had already read his copy and spoiled much of it for me. But I read it anyway, zipping through it much faster than Jaws 2. There was much more shark in this one, and even the romance and mafia stuff held my interest. Maybe I was growing up; who knows?

The movie version of Jaws 2 played on ABC, and we taped it. I was surprised at how different it was from the book. It drew me in pretty quickly. The opening attack on the two divers was cool, and the attack on the speedboat was downright awesome. But then it ran out of steam. Talk, talk, talk, talk. Where the hell was the shark? By the time it showed up again, it was time for me to go to bed. I had to wait until after school the next day to finish watching. The second half was much more satisfying than the first. I was a little bored by all the scenes of the teenagers drifting around at sea, but there was enough shark action to hold my interest, and the climax was pretty slick. My verdict at the time was that it was okay, but not as good as one and three. Still, it was the first Jaws movie that we actually owned, so I watched it quite a bit.

And then, on our next trip to Florida, the original Jaws played on ABC and we taped it too. We had to set the VCR to record it automatically, and I recall being really tense for the whole trip, worrying that something had gone wrong and it had failed to record. But I put that out of my mind when we stopped at a motel on the way down and watched the movie in our room. To my surprise, there were several scenes that hadn’t been in the version we’d rented. My brother didn’t believe me, and it wasn’t until the movie aired on HBO several years later that I was finally able to prove that the TV version was different.

The novelization of Jaws: The Revenge, by Hank Searls

One day my grandma informed me they were making Jaws Goes to Hawaii. The title sounded like a joke, and I didn’t know where she heard that. Grandma was very good at the things she was good at, but there were also lots of things she was just clueless about. I figured she didn’t know what she was talking about. Over the course of the next year or so, anytime I brought up Jaws, she reminded me that Jaws Goes to Hawaii was going to be coming out. I took this with a grain of salt, of course. A new Jaws movie would be nice, but I wasn’t getting my hopes up. And then one day we were at strip mall a few miles from home. She was busy hunting bargains when I asked her if I could go over to the drug store to look at the books. She said yes and I headed over. I spotted it immediately: Jaws: The Revenge, a new novel by Hank Searls. Holy crap, it was true! As I’d suspected, the title was not Jaws Goes to Hawaii. The destination, it turned out, was the Bahamas. Still a tropical setting, but not Hawaii, and with a much more sensible title. Needless to say, I got Grandma to buy it for me.

I started reading it at once and was horrified to discover that Shawn Brody dies in the opening scene. Partly because I was so shocked, but also partly because I decided that I didn’t want to spoil the movie for myself, I set the book aside for the time being. Finally the movie came out and my whole family went to see it. The marquee said Jaws 4. So that settled that. There was no Jaws 5 and I could permanently put that matter to rest. (Please wait while I conduct a Google search for Jaws 5.) It may seem strange to you, but I actually enjoyed Jaws 4 quite a lot. Maybe it was just because this was the first time I was seeing a Jaws movie in the theater, or maybe it was just because it was brand new. But whatever the reasons were, I loved it, and it completely escaped my notice how utterly stupid it was. Hey, I was ten, okay? I was still at the age where I was watching He-Man. Cut me some slack, will ya?

Not only did I enjoy it, but I liked it enough that I dragged my poor Aunt Patty to see it just to have an excuse to see it again. Every so often, I glanced over to see how she was reacting to things. She just sat like a statue, not reacting at all. I’m sure she was thinking, “What the hell is this garbage?!” When it was over, she told me she’d enjoyed it. God bless her.

By the time high school rolled around, Jaws was an old friend. I not only knew all the dialogue by heart, I could actually watch the movie shot-for-shot in my head with almost perfect clarity. I’d come around to the notion that the sequels weren’t worth anyone’s time, and I hadn’t watched them in years. My brother had always said his favorite movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had never really settled on a favorite movie. For a while, maybe between the ages of twelve and fourteen, I would often say my favorite movie was Dawn of the Dead. That didn’t quite feel true, though. I loved it, but was it really my favorite? Then one day, my brother said that while he still loved 2001, if pressed he would have to say his favorite movie was Jaws. Whoa, buddy! You don’t get to go claiming that! I’m the Jaws nut in this family! I didn’t say that, of course, but on the spot I decided that Jaws was my favorite movie of all time. That felt much more true than Dawn of the Dead.

In my senior year of high-school, I needed a sound byte for an audio drama I was working on. I pulled out our old copy of Jaws 2 so I could record the sound of the shark being electrocuted, but the audio quality was not that great, so I went down the street to the nearest video store and rented it. I was surprised at how much better the picture quality was on the studio-produced copy. Since I’d paid to rent it, I figured I may as well watch it. To my surprise, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was. In fact, it was pretty good. Not good like the original, but pretty good.

My experience with renting Jaws 2 had convinced me that the taped-off-TV copies we’d been watching weren’t going to cut it anymore. I had to get factory-made copies of both Jaws and Jaws 2. Not 3 and 4, mind you. I still thought of those as crap. But the first one for sure, and the second one, meh, why not?

After all these years, I finally encountered a hardcover edition of the original novel – in, of all places, the high-school library. It wasn’t anything like I’d imagined. Instead of the famous artwork from the movie poster, it was a plain black cover with a basic-looking shark. If this had been what my grandmother had given me, I likely would have been disappointed. It occurred to me that perhaps I could photocopy the dust jacket from my brother’s copy of Jaws 2. But color photocopying was not as advanced then as it is today, and I wasn’t happy with the results. Still, at least my copy had a cover again, albeit an imperfect one.

Many times on our vacations to Florida, we would go deep sea fishing aboard a big party boat called the Miss Mayport. It was fun, but crowded, standing elbow-to-elbow with strangers. The summer after I graduated from high-school, however, Grampap had a surprise for us. We showed up at the dock and my brother and I headed for the Miss Mayport as usual when Grampap called to us. We turned around to see him standing on the deck of a small charter boat. At first we thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t. He’d done what we’d been talking about doing since we’d first seen Jaws. He’d chartered a small fishing boat like the one in the movie. Usually when we went fishing we’d each come home with maybe one or two small-frys. This time we caught so many fish – big ones, king mackerels – that we had to throw some back. It was the best day at sea I ever had and one of my fondest memories.

Heading out to sea for real – a surprise gift from Grapap.

Life marched on. I did a semester at Cal U, I went to film school, I got a job. I made my first feature film. I got my first grown-up job working as a projectionist at various local theaters. I dated. I had my heart broken. My uncle and my grandparents died. I struggled with creative success. I made friends. I lost friends. My twenties disappeared into a black hole. And I emerged from it all… changed. And kind of tired. I decided that in the interest of looking smart, I had turned my nose up at a lot of movies I’d once loved – sequels especially. After a long time away, I revisited Jaws 3 and Jaws: The Revenge. And God, they were so… awful. By any objective standard, they were prime examples of the worst drek Hollywood had churned out in the early 80s. And I loved them anyway. Every godawful frame of them, I loved it all.

Thanks to the internet, I was able to obtain a new dust jacket for my copy of Jaws 2. Also, Random House released a new edition of the original novel, this time with the cover art from the mass-market paperback. It was exactly what I’d hoped my grandma would find for me all those years ago, and it made a nice companion edition to what she’d bought me. I decided to revisit the novel of Jaws 2 and it was a different experience reading it as an adult. I was able to appreciate the subtle nuances of character development that I’d missed as a kid. The mafia stuff didn’t bore me this time, and I plowed through it quickly. Ultimately, I did decide that the movie was better. In the novel, Brody doesn’t even suspect there’s a shark until the very end, instead wasting his time chasing after a two-bit crook. It makes him look like a fool. His arc in the movie is much more satisfying. But I didn’t care. I was able to enjoy this childhood gift with a new level of appreciation. As I read the final chapters, I trembled with the same excitement I’d had the first time, and when I finished, I closed the book and looked at it for a moment, then hugged it as if it were my grandma.

My hardcover Jaws books – a beautiful set I waited a lifetime for.

One day my brother declared that he’d always suspected that Jaws wasn’t really my favorite movie. He said he thought The Thing was my favorite movie. At the time, I insisted he was wrong, that Jaws really was my favorite movie. But these days, if I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure I really do have a favorite movie. I love Jaws. I also love The Thing. And I love Dawn of the Dead. And Back to the Future. And Raiders of the Lost Ark. And a host of others. I have a lot of favorite movies, not just one. And that’s okay. I don’t think it’s necessary to single out one movie as your tippy-top favorite. There’s room in my heart for more than one movie.

As of this writing, I’m forty-one years old. In many ways, I couldn’t be more different from the little toddler who wandered into the family room to find his parents watching a strange, scary movie about a shark. In other ways, it’s like I’ve come full-circle. Or perhaps almost full, the starting point forever out of reach. I’ve lived this long life full of discovery and change, and now it’s like I’m trying to reconnect with myself. Or maybe I’m just grasping at a simpler time, my fingers closing around water, the reflection dancing and rippling before me, teasing me. But at least I know now that I don’t have to impress anyone. It’s okay for me to like whatever I want, even if it’s bad, and I owe an explanation to no one. When a friend saw blu-ray copies all four Jaws movies sitting on my shelf, he was baffled. He could understand owning the original. He could even understand owning the second one. But the third and fourth? Surely I had better taste than that. Why did I own them? The answer is simple. Because a little boy I used to know likes sharks and wants to watch movies about them.

War of the Worlds – season nada, episode zilch

A Martian invader gives up the ghost in the original 1953 classic.

Okay, I’ll say it. Uncle.

I tried. I really tried to watch the whole thing. Last time I posted, I said I had one more episode on disc one and that I was going to at least watch that before calling it quits. But I couldn’t even bring myself to do that. Season two is just… so, so bad. So bad it makes the crappy first season seem like gold by comparison. I fully intended to at least watch that last episode, but when the time came, I just couldn’t. I thought maybe I’d watch it the following week, but nope. Week after week, this went on, and I felt like I couldn’t write about anything else till I’d finished all the episodes, hence no new posts. Well, okay. I’m throwing in the towel. Maybe someday I’ll polish it off, but it probably won’t be anytime soon.

It’s kind of a shame, too. I have to confess that one of the main reasons I bought the collection was that I had always been curious about season two. I’d never watched any of the episodes, although I’d caught snippets here and there and was somewhat intrigued. I had heard that the premise of season two was that the Earth had been overrun by the aliens and Blackwood was leading a ragtag band of rebels against the aliens. That not only sounded cool, but much more in keeping with the novel.

In Book II, chapter VII, “The Man on Putney Hill,” the narrator encounters an artilleryman he’d met in a previous chapter. The artilleryman outlines a plan to resist the invaders by setting up bases in the sewers. Together, they will recruit more survivors, watching and learning from the aliens, collecting stores of knowledge where they can until they can mount an effective counter-attack, perhaps even taking control of some of the Martian War machines and mounting a real offensive. Right here we have a premise for a War of the Worlds TV series that I would absolutely watch. And season two easily could have played into this.

A promotional still from season one. The show wound up looking nothing like this, but season two could have. This could easily been the survivors of an alien holocaust making their way across a hostile landscape.

In season one, Quinn had already told Blackwood that a new invasion force was on the way. Season two could have opened with the arrival of that invasion. The season finale had also introduced a new race of aliens, enemies of the Mortaxians, who wanted to harvest humans for food. This also harkens back to the novel, in which the Martians fed on the blood of humans. Having two races of invaders fighting over Earth could have been interesting too, with humanity caught in the middle. There was a lot of potential there, and it’s a real shame it was wasted.

If season two had given us more of this sort of thing, it would have been way more interesting.

One might argue that they never would have had the budget for such an ambitious concept, but I disagree. Going completely on the cheap, they could have used stock footage from the movie for many of the effects. Or, if they wanted to splurge on an impressive season opener, they could have created new special effects for the premiere and then recycled the footage for the remainder of the season. Many of the episodes would see Blackwood and Ironhorse or whoever else sneaking around in the woods or in ruined backlots and such, every so often cutting to a stock shot of a war machine on patrol. It could be done very easily, with big fx set pieces only occasionally needing to be freshly created. Sure, the premise deserves better than to be done on the cheap like that, but those were the conditions, and I think I would have been satisfied with it, especially at the time, when expectations from TV shows were lower than they are now.

But alas, they did what they did, it was disappointing, and there it is. And I’ve got other stuff on my mind. Peace out, War of the Worlds. You were fun for a while, but it’s time to move on.

War of the Worlds – episode 2.3: “Doomsday”

Plug up one water pipe, bring a whole city to its knees. Yep. Sounds legit.

The title makes quite a bold promise. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t deliver.

The aliens have blocked off the city’s water supply in the middle of a heat wave. The city sends exactly two people into the tunnels to investigate and they’re handily dispatched by alien soldiers. With no water, the residents are going full Mad Max, ready to knife each other for a jug of water.

In the world of Team Blackwood, Debbie comes down with heat stroke, so they need to get her some water pronto. Kincaid says he knows a place and they take her to a church. The church doesn’t have any water, though, so I’m not sure why that’s a good idea.

Well, the aliens come through, though. They’ve been reading the Bible and they get the idea that if they perform some “miracles” they can get people to worship the Eternal. So they make water flow from the holy water basin and everybody’s just delighted. Then they stage a “healing” where a woman with distorted joints is suddenly fine.

“Believe in aliens and ye shall be healed! Or… something.”

They clone the preacher and his son, make it look like the kid dies, and then “resurrect” him. The people are whipped into a frenzy and Kincaid gets suspicious. He goes to investigate and learn the truth, quickly getting sidetracked and killing aliens.

Blackwood and Suzanne find alien tentacles in the basement and sort out that the aliens are behind the water miracle. Somehow they trace this into the tunnels and find the blockage. They meet up with Kincaid, have a shootout with the aliens, and plant charges to free up the blockage.

“We’re totally not aliens.”

They find the real preacher and rescue him so he can duke it out with his clone in some kind of weird battle of wills that kills them both, along with the kid clone. The aliens vaporize the clones – in front of everybody – and then bail.

Then it finally rains, breaking the drought, which Harrison calls a miracle.

If my synopsis makes any of this sound remotely interesting, be assured it isn’t. The whole thing plods along like a tortoise on valium. There’s no suspense whatsoever, the characters are bland and uninteresting, and what little action there is fails to entertain.

Beyond that is the sheer strangeness pervading not only this episode, but the entire season so far. Why the hell is everyone dressed like it’s 1950? Why is there no color in the production design? Why does the church look like something you’d find in a third world country? Why does the city put so little effort into emergency relief efforts? Where’s the rest of the world? What city are we even in? What is the alien agenda? How many of them are there? Why does it feel like we’re in some kind of post-apocalyptic landscape when nothing has happened to indicate that an apocalypse has happened? So far, every episode has left me asking WHAT’S GOING ON?!!!

This episode was frustratingly bad. It may actually be the worst thing I’ve ever seen on television, and I’ve seen some pretty bad television. Season one of this show was a train wreck, a blend of bad writing and bad production quality that made Ed Wood look like a genius. But at least it had a sort of campy charm that made it somewhat fun. There’s none of that here. It has all the flaws of season one without being remotely fun or interesting. It tries to be dark and edgy but winds up just being bland and boring. I gotta be honest … I’m not sure if I’m gonna make it to the end of the series. There’s one more episode on this disc. I’m going to watch that. And then I may just have to call it quits. We’ll see.

War of the Worlds – 2.2: “No Direction Home”

The new HQ – Kincaid’s bunker.

So it’s not cloudy anymore. Guess we’re dropping that whole thing. No explanation is given for that.

Following the destruction of their cottage headquarters, Harrison, Suzanne, and Debbie (Suzanne’s daughter) are riding with Kincaid in his van when they spot a black car following them. Blackwood immediately goes for a gun. Because that’s something Blackwood would do. Kincaid manages to lose the car when it spins out of control and crashes. Although our heroes get away, the aliens snatch up a priest to use in their experiments.

Kincaid takes the others to his bunker, which will evidently serve as the new base of operations. For some inexplicable reason, control-freak overbearing know-it-all Blackwood asks Kincaid what to do next and what to do about Debbie, who is evidently in shock following the events of the previous episode. Kincaid tries to contact the military, but they totally blow him off. He lies to them about having been in contact with Blackwood and is generally evasive and uncooperative. He terminates the call and concludes that they no longer have the support of the government.

Like… what the shit?!!!!

“MY BALLS!!!”

Meanwhile, the aliens clone the priest. During the cloning process, the priest mentions God, which causes one of the alien scientists to scream like someone is squeezing his testicles. I’m not sure what that’s all about. The cute alien scientist chick reports to her boss that things are going well. “I hope so Commander, for your sake,” he tells her. “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.” I’m paraphrasing, but that’s basically what he says. I’m not sure what’s going on there. The priest clone decides to devote himself to the one true god, the Eternal. Whatever that is.

Back at the ranch, things are dark and gloomy. Leaving Suzanne at home to knit them sweaters or whatever, the manly men rush out to do action. (I can’t help but notice that the only two cast members to get axed were people of color – funny, that.) They go to the warehouse where the aliens were holding Ironhorse and find the cocooned remains of humans. Two aliens show up and obligingly die when shot. Then Blackwood finds an icky thing on the floor and decides to keep it. He figures if they study the alien technology, they can find a way to stop the enemy. Kincaid thinks that’s dumb and would prefer to … I dunno, lose or something.

Gross! Lets keep it!

They take it back to the bunker where Suzanne realizes it allows you to read minds. That night, Blackwood and Suzanne don’t sleep well and wake up not feeling rested. They also discover that overnight the alien thingy has tripled in size. It also projects holograms of the aliens walking around. Because Kincaid is utterly stupid, he doesn’t realize they’re holograms and wants to shoot at them. Fortunately, Blackwood and Suzanne are able to stop him before he riddles the place with bullets.

Debbie is watching the monitor and sees the alley that Kincaid is spying on for whatever reason. A crazy guy is talking about a priest who’s not really a priest. The team figures out that the priest in question must be a clone and they race off to deal with him, taking the alien gizmo with them.

They find the priest clone, who his holding the crazy guy hostage. For some reason, they touch the gizmo, which for some reason causes the priest clone to double over in pain, allowing Kincaid to shoot him, which for some reason causes the gizmo to self-destruct. For some reason, the clone dying doesn’t kill the actual priest. Naked and covered in slime, the priest gets out of the cloning device and is happy. Evidently the aliens don’t care if he leaves, because in the next scene he’s back at the shelter fully clothed and thanking the team for rescuing him.

For no obvious reason, the team arrives back at the bunker laughing about something. Even Debbie, who I guess isn’t in shock anymore. She says she’ll miss Ironhorse and Norton, which for some reason makes the others smile.

Nothing in this episode made any sense. When the first episode didn’t make any sense, I figured they were just leaving certain things to be explained later. But now I’m convinced that those things are never going to be explained. Everything in this season so far is utterly half-assed, even moreso than season one. It takes a supreme lack of talent to make me long wistfully for the good ol’ days of season one, but new showrunner Frank Mancuso Jr. (of Friday the 13th fame) has pulled it off. We’re only two episodes in and things are not looking good.

With the Mortaxians dead and the team cut off from their military resources, the last elements from season one have been swept away. As incompetent as they were, at least the Mortaxians were loosely based on the aliens from the original film. At least we occasionally got to see the original war machines. At least Sylvia Van Buren made occasional guest appearances. At least we had John Colicos. I doubt we’ll see any of these things again.

As awful as season one was, it had a certain campy charm that made it kind of watchable. I’m not sure what we’re left with now. Boring villains, boring heroes, and boring plots. It’s got that early 90s vibe of generalized dullness that infected so many shows of that era. It’s just a bunch of people standing around in dimly-lit rooms looking glum while mood music plays. That’s not interesting. That’s not fun. That’s not art. That’s just boring.

A very different Harrison Blackwood (Jared Martin) heads up the cast of season two, minus Norton and Ironhorse.

And what’s up with Harrison? It’s like we’ve completely ditched his whole character. Season one Harrison was an arrogant overbearing vegetarian who hated guns and solved problems with a tuning fork. New Harrison is edgy, has a beard, goes for his gun at the first sign of trouble, and asks Kincaid, who he barely knows, for advice. Who the hell is this guy? Yes, season one Harrison was stupid and annoying, but that’s not the point. You can’t just arbitrarily change a character like that. Take Buffy Summers for example. In season one, Buffy is bouncy, jovial, and girlish. By season seven, she’s far more serious, more cynical, less innocent. What happened? Seven years of shit went down, that’s what happened. And yet as different as later Buffy is, at her core she’s still the same person. She still has the strength of character, the courage, the dedication to her duty, the loyalty to her friends that the season one version had. The core identity is the same, but how she behaves, how she interacts with the world around her, that has been changed by her life experiences. That’s called a character arc, kids, and it’s what makes stories interesting. I could buy that season one Harrison could evolve into season two Harrison. I could see a battle-weary Harrison who has seen too many friends die start to let his principles slip. But we jump over that narrative and just overwrite the old Harrison with the new. That’s sloppy writing.

Incoming producer Frank Mancuso Jr. seems to have adopted a scorched-earth policy regarding every aspect of the show. In replacing Greg Strangis as showrunner, Mancuso displays arrogant disdain for his predecessor. The on-screen execution of the advocacy for their incompetence even plays as a symbolic execution of the previous producer. It’s as if Mancuso were publicly saying, “You suck, Strangis! Let me show you how it’s done!” But in so doing, he has put his own balls on the chopping block, and if he doesn’t deliver, it’s going to end very badly for him. Well, snip snip, buddy, cause what the shit are you doing?

How do you get rid of body-stealing aliens only to replace them with more body-stealing aliens? How do you manage to serve up an alien menace that’s actually *less* threatening than the Mortaxians? The Mortaxians were global in scope. So far, these aliens seem confined to a single warehouse. The Mortaxians were stealing every body in sight, hopping from body to body at will and leaving a path of destruction in their wake. These guys seem to just be cloning people here and there. How many of them even are there? Are they global or is it just the handful we’ve already seen? What’s their plan? Are they seriously going to invade Earth by cloning one person at a time? What are they doing? WHAT’S GOING ON?!!!!

War of the Worlds – 2.1: “The Second Wave”

Fascist aliens invade Earth in the original V (1983-1985).

Let me get this straight. The vastly superior alien invasion series V gets canceled after only 19 episodes and this crap-fest gets picked up for a second season? Who sold their soul to Satan to make that happen? Whatever.

The terrifying Martian invaders destroy everything in their path in the 1953 classic, The War of the Worlds, which this show does not do justice.

We open with Harrison and Suzanne standing on the terrace looking up at the night sky. They wax philosophical for a bit about the aliens and whatnot. And then Harrison spots a falling star. And another. And another. They’re coming down in a deluge – close. One of them lands just over the next hill. Horrified, Harrison realizes it’s a full-on invasion. The swan-shaped machines rise out of their pits, their heat rays spewing death everywhere they go. First New York falls. Then London. Then Moscow. City after city after city is wiped out by the merciless onslaught. Harrison and his beleaguered team flee their headquarters just as an alien war machine blasts it to smithereens. The military is powerless to stop the invasion, and this time Earth’s bacteria is useless against the aliens. Within days, humanity is brought to its knees. Harrison and company take refuge in a subway tunnel. As the aliens patrol the devastated countryside picking up stragglers for extermination, the ragged and demoralized team begins making plans. The first step will be to find any survivors they can and bring them back to the tunnel. Cowering in sewers and subway systems, Harrison and his people prepare to strike back. Somehow, though they don’t yet know how, humanity will rise from the ashes of their ruined civilization and take back their world.

An illustration from the 1906 edition of The War of the Worlds. I wonder what H.G. Wells would think of this show.

That’s what I wanted to see. What I hoped I would see. What I knew I wouldn’t see. Here’s what we got:

An alien planet blows up. A dot flies to Earth and makes it… cloudy. Or something. New aliens have arrived on Earth. They’re called the Morthren and they decide to execute the Mortaxians for being completely incompetent. Can’t say I blame them, because they’re not wrong. What I can’t figure is why the Mortaxians just obediently step into the disintegration machine. Well, whatever. The Mortaxians never were that bright. The Leader of the Morthren communes with a hologram of their leader, the Big Giant Head (a huge one-eyed tick), and receives instructions.

Harrison goes to an S&M bar to meet up with someone – we’re never told who. He gets into trouble and is about to get his ass kicked when some military guys randomly show up and bail him out. But they turn out to be aliens here to kidnap him. Fortunately some dude named Kincaid shows up and saves him. They go back to HQ where we learn that Ironhorse knows Kincaid and doesn’t like him.

Ironhorse goes to investigate a building where the aliens are supposedly hiding and gets captured. The aliens clone him and send the clone to wipe out Team Blackwood. Blackwood and Kincaid get worried and go to rescue Ironhorse. They find him and and escape together.

Meanwhile the Ironhorse clone kills Norton (!) and plants charges to blow up the building. He takes Suzanne’s daughter as a hostage. Harrison shows up with Kincaid and Ironhorse and they catch the clone in the act of abducting Suzanne’s daughter. Ironhorse concludes based on nothing that he and the clone are linked and kills himself, thereby killing the clone. The team escapes the building just as it blows up.

The boring aliens from War of the Worlds – season 2.
You don’t scare me. Work on it.

This episode was… confusing. Who the hell are these new aliens? What is their relationship to the Mortaxians? Why do the Mortaxians allow themselves to be executed? What’s going on with the clouds? Why are Ironhorse and the clone linked? The aliens say that the cloning process would kill Ironhorse. But if the clone dies when Ironhorse dies, how is that useful? There are a lot of new elements introduced in this episode. I don’t have a problem with that. The show needed a new direction. But they handled it very poorly.

Overall, however, I will admit this is an improvement over season one. For starters, they shot it on higher-quality video, so the picture is a lot sharper. It’s lit better and the production design is more inspired. The cheese factor is greatly reduced and the overall tone is darker, more serious. That could go either way. The stupendously awful train-wreck that was season one offered a lot in the way of unintentional laughs, which actually made it fun in a way. If season two lacks sufficient camp to make it funny and takes itself too seriously, it could wind up just being really dull. But this episode at least held my attention, despite being really confusing.

Bottom line, though… this still has nothing to do with the 1953 movie or the novel it was based on.

War of the Worlds – episode 1.23, “The Angel of Death”

“Scene 23, take one.”

There’s a new player in town. A glowing ball of energy deposits a woman dressed in black who never, under any circumstances, stops doing yoga. She can fire energy beams from her hands and she is determined to track down the advocacy and eliminate them. She does this by finding all the aliens she possibly can, ordering them to tell her where the advocacy is, and when they refuse, killing them. She’s… not a very good tracker.

Team Blackwood gets suspicious when the alien bodies start piling up. Blackwood thinks maybe there are new aliens in town. They set a trap by luring some aliens to a warehouse, hoping the tracker will show up. She does and starts blasting everything she sees. Because they’re stupid, the aliens think Suzanne is the tracker and run off to report to the advocacy. The tracker disappears and everything’s back to square one.

“Wake me up when this episode is over.”

The tracker takes Ironhorse captive and amidst unnecessary yoga moves explains that she’s Q’Tara from the planet Q’arto and she’s here to stop the Mortaxians. Ironhorse decides they have a common enemy and can help each other. He rushes home to tell the others.

The advocacy decides to take the offensive, leading their troops into battle, and heads out to ambush their enemies.

The whole team goes to Q’Tara’s hideout to discuss strategy, but the Mortaxians follow them. A shootout ensues in which Q’Tara and all of Team Blackwood are gunned down. Having accomplished this, the Mortaxians leave. It’s not made clear whether the advocacy has been taken out or why they stop the assault after their enemies have been overwhelmed, but not killed.

Some time later, Q’Tara fixes herself – having been revealed to be a robot – and then heals team Blackwood. She has to go now, but promises to return in a year to continue the fight. Blackwood is delighted to have found new aliens who are friendly. But once he’s out of earshot, Q’Tara radios back to her planet that humans are still endangered as a potential food source. Uh-oh!

Q’Tara has to be the cheesiest thing I’ve ever seen in just about anything. Like seriously, Ed Wood himself couldn’t have out-cheesed this lady. Like so much in this show, she has to be seen to be believed. She’s just so over-the-top. She’s got some serious 80’s hair, sleeps leaned against the wall like a plank, and then there’s all the ridiculous yoga moves, a hilarious warble to her voice, and a stilted and laughable delivery for all her lines.

In addition, the whole episode is completely disjointed. Plot threads are introduced and then dropped, the action scenes are poorly staged and nonsensical, and the whole thing is just so utterly cornball that I challenge anyone to make it through without laughing. In short, it’s a fitting end to a season made up almost entirely of trash.

But we made it through! Hooray! We’re finally done!!

Wait, what? There … there’s another season?! …

SON OF A … !!

*sigh*

Okay.

*Does shot of whiskey, slams the glass down on the counter*

Let’s do this.