Suburban Gothic [2014)

Dear devoted fans [chuckles heard offstage],

I am still alive.  Battling a serious case of MBA.  And, as such, I was duped into watching what turned out to be one of the finest films I have seen in awhile.

But how did I stumble across this little gem in the first place?  For that I must thank the inimitable Kat Dennings.  [More about her as we go on.]

Let us first, however, start with Matthew Gray Gubler.  As someone who watches very little TV, I was unaware of this rising star in the acting world.  Gubler plays Raymond:  a newly-minted MBA who can’t even lock down an entry-level job.  His character grew on me…from, at first, an American Apparel model come to life…to a lovable outcast with impeccable comic timing.

Circling back, I was curious how Gubler’s 21st-century archetype (the unemployable MBA) would fare in this comedy.  As I found out, Suburban Gothic is actually a film of great depth masquerading as a campy horror send-up.

It’s really remarkable, but this film actually does speak for me in some strange way.  Perhaps it was because I was listening to The Dead Milkmen this morning. [Watch the film and you’ll understand why.]

Yes, Raymond’s town is a “depressing shithole” to borrow Enid Coleslaw’s pithy diction from Zwigoff’s Ghost World.  And the ghosts here are real–literal.  But what most impresses me about Richard Bates Jr. (who needs a Wikipedia page) as a director is that he manages to evoke the crappiest reaches of America…from the bombed-out city center of Albany, New York to the harrowing motel highwayside of Roanoke, Virginia…from the strip malls of San Antonio to…well, you get the picture.

It’s one of those films…like Ghost World.  It’s Anywhere, U.S.A.  [Well, almost anywhere.]  It’s the fake vomit-inducing magic of Orlando.  It’s the sprawl of Los Angeles.  It’s that suicidal ennui which Arcade Fire so deftly encapsulated on their album The Suburbs.

Pariahs of the American south will especially appreciate the wonderful redneck evocation of Raymond’s high-school-football-coaching father (played magnificently by Ray Wise).  Yeah…

This film hits a lot of themes.  People change.  Fat kids get thin.  Sensitive souls can’t shake the wimp label.  Some places are especially difficult for creative types to endure.

And so if your life consists of frequenting your local Starbucks on the edge of a super-freeway (I certainly don’t know anyone like that…wait?  Nope, no one like that around here.  This very minute.  Right here.), then you just might find Kat Dennings to be especially on-point as the salty crowbar-toting Becca.  This film is more about Gubler’s character, but Dennings is indispensable to this moral play.

And what’s the moral?  The moral is this:  no matter how much you know about demand and supply curves (supply and demand to us lowly folk) there is always a more important line to shift outwards.  It’s more micro than microeconomics.  It is, in a word, empathy.  Respect for the dead.  Paranormal.  And, most of all, conscience.  It is that latter word which sticks in my head…falling from the lips of Godard (forever in my mind) in his whispered Swiss French.

Conscience.

Sure, this film makes Poltergeist look like Citizen Kane, but one senses from the opening credits that such is largely intentional.  No big budget here, and yet…this film is frightening and laugh-out-loud.  And like a good Simpsons episode, it is more touching than anything Hallmark rolls out of their platitude factory.

John Waters makes quite a fine cameo, but the lion’s share of credit goes to Gubler and Dennings and their auteur-in-the-making Richard Bates Jr.  Really a worthwhile flick!  Thank you.

-PD

The 39 Steps [1935)

Oh, to be a spy.  At once the dream of the adventurous and the curse of the actualized.  Why?  Why does Robert Donat let Annabella Smith come home with him from the music hall???  Perhaps it is her allure…  Her strange foreign accent.  Once you take the first step, the case collapses to become a chute…a slide.

Perhaps Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) was simply curious.  We know how the cat ended behaving thusly…

Perhaps Hannay was horny?  It was, after all, 1935…things were lightening up a bit.  No Tinder, but still…one might luck out at the music hall.

Well, Hannay has the misfortune of true cloak and dagger.  Annabella Smith…Hannay asks if she’s ever heard of persecution mania?  Yes, a good question until she comes stumbling from the kitchen with a knife in her back.

And so Hannay sees her fears materialize before his very eyes.  Sure, she could have stabbed herself in the back, but it’s not bloody likely!  And what’s this?

Her last words…cryptic…and a map of Scotland clutched in her hand.

Hanney has become a believer.  It is that moment when hypothetical (suppose she’s right?) becomes, to a certain extent, proven.

No time to split hairs quibbling…she makes it clear with her last breath:  they killed me and you’re next.

Why trust?  Perhaps the spy becomes tired.  She is, after all, a mercenary in a foreign country.  Yes, she is protecting the Kingdom, but for a price…  Her homeland is elsewhere.

And so an act of transference occurs.  Robert Donat now bears the burden of a secret…a hint of a secret…a trail.

He has a couple of choices.  The decision he makes ends up saving his life, yet it is completely counterintuitive.

He decides to get the hell out of there.  Annabella Smith is dead on the bed.  Hanney makes a deal with the milkman (1935) and creeps off towards the train station.

To Scotland.

Things begin to go very hard for Mr. Hanney.  He is pursued relentlessly.  A daring escape from a train stopped on a bridge brings him eventually to the Scottish moors and the village circled on Annabella’s map.

On the way he must overnight with a farm couple…  The man of the house is an overbearing null…the woman, an angel trapped in an unhappy provincial cage.

This is really the beginning of the James Bond idea.  In 1935, they shared but a kiss.

Now, if you have made it this far you will be spared further spoilers…because that is not the purpose of my site.  This isn’t Cliff’s Notes.

We must talk of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States.  Perhaps you have noticed the news element of my homepage?  It is really not fair to criticize our CIA…it is too easy.  There can be no doubt as to the difficulty of their work.

As a citizen of the USA I have dreamed of being a secret agent…just as many people do.  It would be a treasonous dream for me to wish employment by the MI6.  I am not British.  So my thoughts have turned now and again to my own country’s external intelligence organization.

Oh, I am too old to be a covert agent…too out of shape to have a fistfight with a Daniel Craig type.

But we remember certain things from our readings.  Wall Street = CIA.  This was Michael Ruppert’s assertion in his excellent book Crossing the Rubicon.  May Mr. Ruppert rest in peace.  No doubt he tried to do the right things during his time on this earth.  It was not until recently that I learned of his death.

Perhaps I began studying business as a roundabout way to court adventure.  There is no doubt that my future is not on Wall Street.  In fact, I don’t see much future at all.

Why?  Because I am like Robert Donat’s character in this film.  I can’t leave well-enough alone.  Killing in self-defense or in the defense of others can be honorable, but stretched to its limits by tenuous connection it eventually becomes murder.  When I read about the leading intelligence agencies of the world, I get the whiff of murder.  I get the scent of those who are “just following orders”…just like those good little Nazi soldiers.

It is this thirst for justice which makes me unemployable.  I know it.

And so I soldier on.  I do my cardio.  I lift my weights.  I study my texts.  I enrich my mind.

I am just a loner with my films.  I would like to contribute, but I was born of no prestigious family.  I don’t speak Dari or Pashto.

There are two camps of which I wish to be part of neither.  Camp one holds that everything America does is just and good. Camp two holds that nothing America does is just nor good.

I do not wish for a clean slate.  It is not possible.  Those who wish for the collapse of society are fools.  They are wishing for their own death and are far too optimistic about the practicality of starting over.

Now, dear film lover…you must be asking what this has to do with The 39 Steps.

Mr. Memory.

Office of Strategic Services.

Office of the Coordinator of Information.

Robert Sherwood.  movie critic.  Vanity Fair.  Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley.  Algonquin Round Table. Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent.  Hitchcock.  Yes, it is a tenuous link.

Continuing…

Admiral John Godfrey.  “M”

Centre for Spastic Children, Chelsea.

…and finally

William Stephenson (c’est-à-dire) James Bond

the Icelandic orphan

alluded to in Casino Royale (2006)

to wit

British Security Coordination

Camp X (Whitby, Ontario) [the original Farm]

Ian Fleming, Roald Dahl

Rockefeller Center (35th and 36th floors of the International Building)

under the cover of British Passport Control Office

For better or worse, CIA is MI6.  Where does one stop and the other begin?  To what extent is this a private army for the corporate members of the Council on Foreign Relations (Royal Institute of International Affairs)?

Surely we’re all playing by the Chatham House rules here, aren’t we, gents?

-PD