You’s think that, given a title like the one above, that I’d be ranting against Hollywood’s lack of innovation, its crass celebrity culture, its smug sense of self-satisfaction, or any one of the numerous sins the industry has committed in the 100 years of its existence.

You’d be wrong. I come before you today to rant about something very different: Hollywood’s double standard when it comes to censorship and activism.

One of the major points that industry professionals have emphasized is the ability of their movies to make social points and advance worthy causes, addressing racism, classism, other -isms, and oppression at home and abroad. And it’s true that movies have done that…up to a point. But it’s only recently that the line in the sand has become clear.

Remember in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Soviets were the go-to bad guys? Films weren’t afraid to point out the brutal nature and horrific human rights abuses committed by the communists. And yet, in films today, you never see the few contemporary communist regimes–with one exception as we shall see–portrayed as the rights-abusing boogeymen that they often are. Why is that?

The answer is simple: money. The old Soviet bloc, and other states that espoused similar versions of nastiness in favor of a future utopia that would never be (as opposed to the fascists, who espoused similar versions of nastiness in favor of a past utopia that never was)…they never screened American films, or did so only rarely. There was no money to be lost by pointing out horrific crimes, because there was no chance of Hollywood movies unspooling officially behind the iron curtain.

That’s all changed. In a move that can only be described as Machiavellian brilliance, nasty regimes have opened up their markets to Hollywood films with strict central control. You can make your millions from a movie-hungry foreign audience…but only if the powers-that-be say so. This creates a powerful economic incentive not to piss off a given country, like China, by calling attention to any social points or worthy causes. Thus instead you have craven sucking up to the selfsame governments where once there might have been criticism, like the scenes added to Iron Man 3 or the evil, inept Americans as a contrast to the heroic, competent Chinese government in Transfourmers: The One With Swords and Dinosaurs.

Perhaps a worse example has just been dumped on our laps, though: The Interview. For a long time, North Korea has been one of the few acceptable movie bogeymen, with its abuses and excesses and brutality always on glittering display, because the Hermit Kingdom, like the Soviets of old, allowed no American movies outside of the Kim family’s private theater and there was therefore no chance of alienating a revenue-paying audience. Only the Nazis, discredited and repudiated and dead to history, were more reliable villains throughout the 2000s and 2010s–hell, several movies and video games (like the remake of Red Dawn and the first-person shooters Homefront) were reworked at a late date to swap out Chinese villains for North Korean ones in defiance of all logic. North Korea was “safe.”

But that’s all changed. The Interview apparently touched a deep nerve with the North Koreans, portraying as it does the attempted assassination of King Jong-Un. So the Koreans retained a group of hackers to sabotage Sony, the producer and distributor of the film. Releasing internal documents, emails, and even a few completed films…all this hurt the filmmakers where it hurt most, in the wallet. Realizing that they were in the same position to lose money through hackery, theater chains have begun pulling the movie entirely. They’re billing it a “safety” issue, but it’s really a monetary one–North Korea has proven, at least for now, its ability to cost Hollywood money, and no one wants to pay that price for their principles.

So, in an even more craven move than crudely editing Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing into Iron Man 3 to suck up to China, the fear of revenue loss has essentially allowed the world’s most brutal dictator veto power to censor media critical of him. People are dying under jackboots in the Hermit Kingdom as they have been since 1945, but rather than let even a relatively mild “Springtime for Kim Jong-Un” satire unspool safely, Hollywood would prefer to quietly go back to making money.

I’m sorry. That’s craven, it’s crass, and it sets a dreadful precedent for everyone who doesn’t like their portrayal in free media: if you cost people enough money either by denying them revenue or hacking it away, they’ll meekly let you go about your business. That, in my mind, is the biggest reason to seek out and see The Interview if you can find anyone brave enough to distribute it: to send the message to those selfsame craven, crass bean counters that there are bigger things at stake than their damn bottom line. A thousand reboots, a thousand thousand remakes, a thousand thousand thousand vanilla rom-coms before handing the veto stamp to those who deserve the harshest, glitziest spotlight the industry has shone upon them.

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The Muscogee County Film School was established in 1984 on a cheap patch of formerly fallow land about 20 minutes outside of Hopewell. It was the beneficiary of state largesse that Governor Blanchard hoped would create jobs and attract tourism, much like his support of Six Flag AutoWorld in Flint. And, like AutoWorld, it was a colossal fiasco.

For one, the MCFS was located very close to Southern Michigan University, which had a small film program under the auspices of its Department of Communications, as well as a small Theatre minor attached to Liberal Arts. Incensed that Blanchard’s money went to a new entity rather than SMU, and that his administration and trustees hadn’t been consulted, then-SMU president John Henry Brand refused to support the MCFS. Faculty and students were duly warned that associating with it would mean dismissal.

The MCFS was therefore forced to offer highly subsidized tuition to undercut SMU and attract students from the rural parts of Michigan as well as out of state. It was a money sink, but nevertheless managed to attract both students and teachers, graduating its first class in 1985. There were modest sets, editing suites, and state of the art equipment and film stock. Student entries successfully competed in the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and indie filmmaker J. H. Crofthume brought some notice to the school when he was shortlisted for an Oscar in a technical category.

But it soon began to fall apart thanks to a short film that was completed and screened in 1987: Kashish Is Everywhere. No copies are known to survive, but a newspaper clipping indicates that there was an outbreak of violent nausea and headaches when it was unspooled at a Hopewell grindhouse. The students whose names were on the film claimed to by mystified by the content, which they said they did not remember filming. The title–Urdu for “attractive”–was a mystery as well, as none of the students were from India or spoke Urdu.

Nevertheless, the phrase Kashish Is Everywhere soon began appearing throughout other films, in audio recordings, and even scrawled on chalkboards in the classrooms. MCFS teachers blamed it on an elaborate practical joke by students, or sabotage by a vindictive President Brand. Either way, the films in which the phrase appeared reportedly had the same nauseating and migraine-inducing effect on the students working on them, and even those who were unaffected were deeply unnerved.

Enrollment plummeted for the 1988 season, but despite half the number of students and half the teachers consequently on furlough, Kashish Is Everywhere continued to appear throughout every medium that the school made, taught, or used. Due to a lack of students and teachers, the 1989 season wound up being the last for the MCFS. The classes were suspended pending an infusion of cash from the state government, but with Governor Blanchard’s 1991 electoral defeat, the funds were not forthcoming. The school was quietly abandoned without a formal closure or sale.

Thanks to this abandonment as-is, the Muscogee County Film School became popular with urban explorers in the 2010s. But attempts by filmmakers to take advantage of the site have so far failed due to corrupted files on digital cameras, and explorers report that the school is overwhelmed with Kashish Is Everywhere graffiti.

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I hate remakes and reboots because they are generally marks of intellectual and creative bankruptcy. But it’s also possible to use the renewal they provide to improve on a flawed original or give an interesting concept a second go. So in the interest of full disclosure, here are some classics I wouldn’t mind seeing remade.

The Black Hole (1979)
Disney’s answer to Star Wars was to employ nearly every old-school effects technician in Hollywood to put together this brilliantly atmospheric but overlong and occasionally ridiculous transposition of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to the event horizon of a black hole. The design of the main ship, a gothic masterpiece of glass and steel, has for my money never been equaled, but the ludicrous third act (which reimagines the black hole as a literal hell), overly cutesy robots designed to cash in on the R2-D2 market, and the extended portions of the film where people breathe in space make it deeply flawed. Imagine what a director with vision could do with the concept, especially if they added a more postmodern sensibility but kept the ship design.

Fantastic Voyage (1966)
A pioneering sci-fi adventure story (read the novelization by Isaac Asimov, it’s amazing) about a team of scientists and military men shrunk down to navigate within the human body to save a man’s life. Its setup is so perfect that it’s almost a trope, but the current film is rather antiquated in its special effects and sleekly 1960s aesthetic, and even more so in the cringe-inducing behavior of the chauvinistic male lead toward the only female character. The same basic setup could be the basis for a white-knuckle ride along the lines of Das Boot; anyone who ever rode on the sadly-defunct Disney World Body Wars ride (directed by Leonard Nimoy!) saw what possibilities there were for an update.

The Land That Time Forgot (1975)
With the 100th anniversary of the First World War upon us, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ daft masterpiece as adapted in the American International Pictures’ daft screen adaptation has never been more ripe for reinvention. What other movie can boast a U-Boat and dinosaurs, let alone combining them in an uneasy-allies story of Imperial Germans and castaway Georgian Brits trying to work together to escape an island overrun with bad special effects? Better special effects and a tighter screenplay could make this AIP cheapie a keeper.

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This post is part of the May 2014 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s prompt is “Take a Character, Leave a Character”

MELINDA: Hello and welcome to our program! We’ve got quite the show for you here today, as always! But first, let’s meet our panelists. First up is Ulgathk the Ever-Living, Elder Lich of the Seven Lands. Tell us a bit about yourself, Ulgathk.

ULGATHK: Well, Melinda, I’m currently a sitting member of the Council of Undeath, sole ruler and commander-in-chief of the Unholy Army, and Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs in the Obama Administration. In my spare time, I do volunteer work to help rehabilitate the public image of what I like to call the ‘neglected undead:’ liches, wights, ghouls, ghasts, and my other non-zombie and non-vampire brethren.

MELINDA: Touching! Executive experience, leadership, and volunteering? He’s a triple threat, ladies and gentlemen.

ULGATHK: I am a threat to all that lives or cools in undeath, Melinda.

MELINDA: Our next panelist is sure to be familiar to all you sports fans out there. It’s Tom Hicks, color commentator for NBS Broadcasting. Tom, I hear next season is looking pretty good?

TOM: That’s right, Melinda. I look forward to providing meaningless patter to help fill the otherwise dead air in between sacks, home runs, zombie attacks, and other pulse-pounding moments in sports.

MELINDA: And what would you say to people who call sports commentary boring or vapid? Are they wrong?

TOM: That’s right, Melinda. I would challenge those people to actually listen to one of my rambling monologues, delivered in a sports voice, during the interminable pregame show for a major sporting event. In addition to the usual useless statistics that assume causation, I touch on themes as universal as the philosophy of consciousness, artificial intelligence, and predestination as I am chained in that chair for hours on end with airtime to fill but no one paying attention. Unable to live, unable to die. Back to you, Melinda.

MELINDA: Also joining us on our celebrity panel is Dowager Empress Cnhyn Hallud of the Crimson Empire. Viewers of the popular reality show Princess Search know her as a judge there, but before that she was the 19th and final wife of Crimson Emperor Testarossa, plucked from obscurity for her beauty before outliving the Emperor by 40 years and counting.

HALLUD: The many splendid mushrooms of peace be upon you and yours, Melinda. I seek only to see the beauty in everything, especially that which has no beauty. For what is life but a journey of self-discovery and love and flowers and smiles and puppies and rainbows and love?

MELINDA: Dowager Empress Hallud, how do you respond to critics that call you out of touch, given your fabulous personal wealth and unimpeachable position as stepmother to Crimson Emperor Testarossa II, or criticize the Crimson Empire’s human rights record?

HALLUD: I don’t think about it for even a moment, Melinda. I was a lowly milkmaid until my beloved Testarossa executed his former wife in my favor; as a self-made and powerful person, I seek to help others realize the self-actualization and harmony with nature that I have already achieved. Human rights are but a fleeting shadow substituted for true enlightenment, as my old bocce ball partners Elena Ceausescu, Imelda Marcos, and Madame Mao would tell you.

MELINDA: Here in the corner, still in his neural interface suit and HUD rig, we have noted RPD (remotely-piloted drone) jockey and interstellar prospector Cameron “Cam” Hickson, RPD (remotely-piloted drone) jockey. Cam, I understand that RPDs use faster-than-light communications technology to remotely survey the far reaches of our galaxy with the human pilots safely back on Earth.

CAM: Bullseye, Melinda. Communications are fast, spaceships can be made fast, but we humans are awfully, awfully squishy. Space exploration becomes an order of magnitude easier and cheaper when you strip out the parts needed to keep humans from becoming chunky salsa.

MELINDA: So you sit at home and pilot your drone all day? What makes you any different from a gold miner in an MMORPG like Dungeons of Krull?

CAM: Well, for one thing, I am paid in cash for my surveying and prospecting, and I own my own rig, and I don’t have to kill a hundred kobalds to level up my piloting mojo. For another, when your character in Dungeons of Krull dies, you just respawn. There isn’t a chance of a neural feedback loop that might kill you. And instead of farming the same patch of ground endlessly, I–or, more accurately, my drone–am out there finding real things that will be actually exploited to make life better for everyone. Provided that claim jumpers and psychotic griefers don’t wreck my rig.

MELINDA: Perhaps our most distinguished panelist is next: French filmmaker Auguste Des Jardins, director of Les trois Juliets and multiple Oscar nominee and Palme d’Or laureate. Forgive me for asking, Mssr. Des Jardins, but didn’t you die in 1976?

DES JARDINS: A man must have his secrets, Melinda, and a filmmaker even more so. A wiser man than I once said that no one dies until the last person who knows them through their works can no longer remember; by that measure, I have never been more alive and have, I hope, many long years ahead of me.

MELINDA: Mssr. Des Jardins, your films are as divisive as they are critically acclaimed. There have been widespread reports of seizures, hallucinations, and out-of-body experiences viewing your cinema, especially your last film, The Sacred Cenote. Would you care to respond?

DES JARDINS: I will only say that filmmaking as a whole is a violent seizure, a vivid hallucination, an out-of-body experience of the most profound kind. It is a linking and a meeting of minds, of souls, and I was able to make only very gradual progress toward that ideal with my work. The Sacred Cenote came closer than all my other works combined to the true unity to which I realized I had been aspiring all along. If that makes people uncomfortable, there is always Jaws.

MELINDA: Splendid! Our final panelist was chosen from a pool of applicants to help add a more popular dimension to our program. Please welcome Odessa “Dessie” Mullin, paranormal enthusiast and native of Hopewell, Michigan.

DESSIE: Oh man, it is just such a huge honor to be here, Melinda! I watch this show so religiously that I really ought to be ordianed in it as a high priestess or something. I do just want to say, though, that ‘paranormal enthusiast’ is kind of a misnomer. I do love all aspects of the paranormal, but my first and truest love is zombies. And, in fact, I sometimes slip into a horrifying alternate dimension where the zombie apocalypse, or zompocalypse, has already occurred, and-

MELINDA: Ms. Mullin? I-

DESSIE: -it hasn’t done anything to decrease my love for those lovable brain-eaters. On the contrary, I love them more than ever! But I also love ghosts, and ghouls, and liches, and banshees, and wights, and ghasts, and barghests, and Ulgathk the Ever-Living, and…you know what? Maybe ‘paranormal enthusiast’ is an okay thing to call me after all.

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post their own responses:
Ralph Pines
Sixpence
writingismypassion
Sneaky Devil
BBBurke

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The Cramper (1960)
Director: Jonathan Fort
Producer: Jonathan Fort
Writer: Jonathan Fort
Cast:
Jonathan Fort
Samantha Fort
Wilmer McField
Stacey Pinchot
Music: Jonathan Fort & Marcus Geraldstein
Editing: Jonathan Fort
Distributor: Liberty Pictures

One of the most dire of the gimmicky no-budget monster movies to wash up in the early 1960s. The Cramper, like many, sought to turn its liabilities of a low budget, no bankable stars, and a Poverty Row studio into strengths. It posited that the numbness of cramps is actually the first stage of possession and eventual consumption by an insidious “cramper” parasite. The apparent hope was that crowded grindhouses with uncomfortable seats would provide the needed cramping among audience members, but as a gimmick it is surely one of the most lame ever attempted.

There are unconfirmed reports that the director Jonathan Fort, wearing more caps than a hat rack for the production, hoped to slip a cheap cramping agent like cytorinabarmuphate into concession stands at theaters showing the movie, but being made the bottom half of a double feature with Goat Women of Venus put an end to that ambition. Fort, a longtime production assistant, quickly returned to that role after the movie underperformed (box office estimates for the opening week hover near $100 to $150 dollars).

The only noteworthy trivia about the film (other than its legendary camp value and the fact that 6 out of the 10 names on the marquee are the same, rising to 7 if you include Mrs. Jonathan Fort, the female lead) is the participation of Golden Age Hollywood composer Marcus Geraldstein. Having been blacklisted not long after his Hollywood debut, Geraldstein was a few years away from his first Oscar nomination and no doubt needed Fort’s meager paycheck to keep the lights on at home.

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Many film critics preface their lists of notable cinema with the term “the best.” The best movies of the year, the best movie of all time. It makes for dramatic copy, but it’s also highly inaccurate. It would be better for them to simply say that the list contains their favorite films of the year, but that makes less attention-grabbing reading and removes the gloss obscuring the fact that all moviegoers, even critics, are subjective viewers. Only through consensus over time can anything have a claim to be “the best.” Everything else is just “my favorite.”

This explains why occasionally you’ll see a moviegoer or critic defend their love of a particular film (as the late Roger Ebert notoriously did with Burt Reynolds’ Rent-a-Cop) despite the fact that it’s nowhere near perfect cinema. A favorite movie is like a favorite car or a favorite pair of jeans–you love it for what it is, warts and all.

I recently realized that my favorite movie, at least insofar as I can name one, is 1993’s Jurassic Park, an assessment reinforced by its recent reappearance on the big screen.

Jurassic Park is in many ways a synthesis of other things in its director’s oeuvre. It combines the broad optimism evident in E.T. and the unrelenting horror from Jaws into something that’s its own beast, apart from the book and the many, many creature feature imitators that followed. There’s action, adventure, laughs (mostly courtesy of Jeff Goldblum, much more effective as a scene-stealer than a lead in the sequel), and a real human element as well.

That’s one criticism that “serious” critics leveled at the film that I never agreed with–that the special effects are great but that the characters are cardboard. I don’t think anyone was robbed at Oscar time, but Grant and Hammond have significant character arcs. Grant, the curmudgeonly character who hates kids, is forced to come to terms with his parental side by guiding the kids through the park; willing to scare a kid to death for insulting a dinosaur at the beginning, he’s ready to give up his life to protect one by the end.

And Hammond (a much different and more sympathetic character than in the book) has his idealism and showmanship tempered by harsh reality. Not only the controller who’s lost control, but an old man faced with the sobering reality that his dream may have cost the lives of the people he loves. My favorite scene in the film doesn’t involve any dinosaurs or special effects, but rather Richard Attenborough musing quietly on his life of showmanship over bowls of melting ice cream.

I’d be the first to agree that Jurassic Park isn’t a perfect movie. Several subplots from the book are shoehorned in and left dangling, most notably the mystery of the sick triceratops and the “lysine contingency.” Despite its screen time we never learn that the triceratops was becoming sick by eating West Indian Lilac as a crop stone, and the throwaway mention of the lysine contingency adds nothing to the picture other than a hurdle for future sequels to grapple with or ignore. The conceit that all the park workers except the main characters leave the island due to the storm (or perhaps daily, it’s not clear) strains credulity.

But still, I find myself as thrilled and engaged by Jurassic Park now as I was in 1993. Even a few notes of John Williams’ magnificent score are enough to make me want to pop in the DVD. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s perhaps my favorite.

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Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a November 23, 1975 WHPL interview with French filmmaker Auguste Des Jardins prior to the American release of his final completed film. Des Jardins’ film, Le fantôme de la lande (released internationally as The Ghost of the Moors), was a major success in France and a minor success elsewhere. Critics usually regard it as a “lesser” work when compared to Des Jardins’ other films (most notably his masterpiece Les trois Juliets), but its immersiveness and potent psychological horror profoundly influenced later filmmakers’ own horror efforts. Notable proponents of the film who cited it as an influence include Kubrick, Carpenter, Craven, and King. Des Jardins died suddenly four months after the interview was recorded leaving a number of incomplete projects; it was his last public appearance and one of only a handful of times he was interviewed in English.

INTERVIEWER: You’ve constructed a–such a really effective, one might even say horrifying in the most flattering possible sense, ghost story. So the question, ah, suggests itself: do you, yourself, believe in ghosts?

DES JARDINS: I don’t believe in ghosts. I believe in humans, fantastic creatures who tirelessly search for the answers to impossible questions, who cannot resist a good story, and who are so adept at seeing things that aren’t there they’ve made it a billion-dollar industry.

INTERVIEWER: And yet you’ve created a–well, directed a film which features them–ghosts, that is–in a starring, ah, role. Would you care to speak to the, ah, apparent contradiction of a man who does not believe in ghosts directing a ghost story?

DES JARDINS: You believe the film is about ghosts? Perhaps you should watch it again.

[gentle laughter from DES JARDINS, INTERVIEWER, and AUDIENCE]

DES JARDINS: That knock on the door late at night, that spectral form prowling the ancient halls? They are as much in our minds as one’s imagination, one’s soul, one’s neuroses. Oh, there may well be some slight external reinforcement–a gust of wind here, a reflected shaft of moonlight there–but it’s the human mind that provides the essential pieces.

INTERVIEWER: So the film is, well, about as much about what’s in the character’s heads a-as what they experience supernaturally?

DES JARDINS: It is entirely about what is in their heads, my friend. Think about it: our minds are the lens through which we must experience all the world has to offer. Yet we know from dreaming that the mind has no inherent rules, and that it is certainly not bound to any of the petty laws of the outside world. The central assertion my film makes–that all of my films make–is that we exist in a strata of rules and laws imposed from without. The film, the book, the painting, even the brightly painted schoolbus–all represent chinks through which we can glimpse a purer world from which all constraints have been removed.

INTERVIEWER: So you, ah, see your work as having a somewhat…a somewhat wider context than a single story, is that it?

DES JARDINS: If I can take viewers to a place where, for whatever reason and by whatever mechanism, they are able to make their own laws of nature, motion, and time, then I will be happy.

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