Tuesday, April 8, 2008

To Kill a Mockingbird

Three children approach a dark, shadowy, mysterious house. It is encased as if by fog in the legend of Boo Radley, the son of the meanest man ever to draw a breath, a young man who spends his days chained to his bed only to venture out at night to spy upon children as they sleep. The three children sneak around back. They slip under a wire fence and begin to open the garden gate – SQUEAK! They apply some spit to the hinges. They try again – squeak. Some more spit and it silently opens. One child crawls up to the porch and then up to a window. A human shadow appears, twisted, sinister. It engulfs the boy. The children can’t breathe, can’t scream. The shadow disappears. The children run for their lives.

A young boy (Jem) and his younger sister (Scout) remain in the car as their lawyer father (Atticus) pays a visit to the family of his latest client (a black man accused of attacking and raping a white woman). Atticus goes inside the house. Scout falls asleep. Out of the woods emerges a man, a drunken man, an evil man, a racist man. Jem remains at a safe distance, enclosed in the car, observing the horror as if it’s a scary movie on late-night television. He wants to cover his eyes, but he can’t. Scout is blissfully unaware, having fallen asleep before this late show got under way. Atticus returns. The evil recedes after spitting some venom at the children’s father.

Those are two scenes from the 1962 classic film To Kill a Mockingbird based on the first and only novel by Harper Lee and starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. They have a fairy tale-like quality full of dark woods and heroic parents and haunting, ghost-like figures from the frightening adult world. These scenes reminded me of my fascination with films centered on children such as Children of Heaven and Fido. The kids in the former focus on a lost pair of shoes, letting the greater hardships of life fade away. In the latter, a boy avoids the realities of his parents’ unhappy marriage by befriending a zombie. Children have a way – as if for self-preservation – of seeing the horrors of the world through both ends of a telescope.

Literature is filled with forbidden houses just down the lane. Haunted houses are horror story staples. In Meet Me in St. Louis, children “kill” wicked neighbors by hurling flour in their faces before fleeing screaming. And don’t forget Hansel and Gretel and that sweet house containing a wicked witch. Children have an innate way of magnifying what might harm them and turning these things into monsters lurking behind closed doors and inside passing cars, perhaps containing a monster bearing gifts of candy. Based on all evidence, the house of Boo is to be feared and best to remain so until the evidence proves otherwise.

The children of To Kill a Mockingbird see racism at a distance. They glimpse it while being boosted up to peek through a courtroom window. They observe it through car windows in the dark, late at night – or sleep through it. They look at it obliquely from the balcony of a courtroom. They meet it uncomprehendingly face-to-face in the form of a lynch mob. (Why is that man who was so nice the other day acting so mean now?) To Kill a Mockingbird reminds me of another great movie about children facing unimaginable horrors – Forbidden Games. In that film, a young girl’s parents are killed by Nazi aircraft gunfire, but she, as if by protective instinct, blocks out the horrific realities and instead fixates on a little puppy that was killed by the same gunfire. In both films, the children flip the telescope around backwards, its objects still there but made small and insignificant, stored away to be dealt with later.

To Kill a Mockingbird begins with magnified close-ups of trinkets removed from a cigar box. It ends by revealing the giver of these gifts – Boo Radley. And for the first time young Scout and Jem lower the telescope and see this source of their fears through unencumbered eyes. No need to scream and they can now breathe easily. Putting the telescope away regarding racism will be their next challenge.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


I’ve always thought the ideal zombie movie would depict a world where zombies had found their natural place and things had returned to normal. I always pictured this as a world where all that remains is zombies, hard at work – or more likely staggering about – trying to build a new post-human society. You know, something like we glimpse all too briefly during the opening scene of George Romero’s Land of the Dead. When Andrew Currie wrote and directed Fido, he forgot to ask me for advice and only got part of it right. I’ll forgive him though. What he got right is thoroughly delightful.

The greatest moment in Land of the Dead (which really doesn’t deserve its bad reputation) is when Cholo (John Leguizamo), having been bitten by a zombie and sure to “turn” soon, stops his buddy from shooting him in the head and declares, “I’m going to see how the other half live.” It really makes clear how the zombies are really just us after falling on a bit of misfortune. In Fido, Timmy Robinson (the priceless K’Sun Ray) and his mother Helen (Carrie-Anne Moss) seem to be following in Cholo’s footsteps when they defiantly tell their dad/husband Bill (Dylan Baker, one of my favorite actors since his mesmerizing turn in Happiness and just as courageously good here) that they are siding with a zombie. Timmy says, “I’d rather be a zombie than dead.” Helen continues, “Timmy and I are going zombie.”

The premise of Fido is delectably simple. Set in a lovingly evoked 1950s middle-anywhere-America, it poses a what-if scenario where particles from space (what else, genre fans?) have settled on Earth and starting bringing the dead back to life. After the dark years, the zombie war years, a corporation called Zomcon and a brilliantly mad-looking scientist named Dr. Geiger (yes, you read that right) have found a way to restore order by domesticating the legions of walking, flesh chomping ghouls. Something resembling shock collars for dogs are placed around their necks that, when activated, render them as docile as the little curly mutt sleeping in my lap as I type this. The zombies become citizens – decidedly second-class – performing much needed roles in society. They are crossing guards. They carry groceries. They mow lawns. And my favorite: They wave to motorists as they pass a sign welcoming them to the town of Willard.

That’s the setup actually. The bulk of the story involves the Robinson family’s adding of a zombie to their household – later named Fido by Timmy – and all the ups and downs that ensue as relationships are formed between Fido as his new owners. You could say that Fido is like a new-fangled boy and his dog story by way of E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial with Fido representing something different to each member of the Robinson family. To Timmy, he’s a much-needed friend and protector. To Helen, he offers romance for a lonely, neglected, stay-at-home housewife. To Bill, he’s a comparatively virile threat. (Not a good thing when you are less of a man than a zombie.) This E.T., and generally all things Spielberg, evocation is made explicit when a startled Fido backs into some shelves sending their contents tumbling and clattering about and when a “scary” moment (no moment is really scary in Fido) is framed against a huge telephoto shot of a full moon.

Fido clearly aims to be a satire. To this end, it is hit or miss. It hits its targets, but the targets are too obvious, and too obviously hard to miss.

From the very start, during a lovingly crafted classroom educational film like those Cold War “duck and cover” films, Currie makes it clear that he’s taking shots at the Bush administration’s response to 9/11. The film within a film is titled A Bright New World and focuses on Zomcon’s protection of the “homeland.” The head of Zomcon and “decorated hero of the zombie wars” Mr. Bottoms then tells the kids, “We’re going to take everybody’s picture, just in case one of you gets lost.” When Timmy expresses uncertainty, Bottoms tells him, “This isn’t a world where we guess, young man. You either know something or you don’t.” (Yes, that’s all pretty blunt. Fortunately, it plays a bit better than it reads.)

Currie also aims to poke skewers through the 1950s, but he never quite transcends 1950s clich├ęs. Helen spends her days at home lonely and baking huge pans of cookies. When Bill arrives home, she greets him all dolled up in a sexy red dress and holding a three-olive martini. After revealing her newly acquired zombie to Bill, she says, “Isn’t it wonderful? Now we’re not the only ones on the street without one.” And in Fido, kids are clearly meant to be seen and not heard. Helen tells Timmy “Why don’t you go watch some television? I’m sure there’s something wonderful on” before engaging Bill in some adult talk. (Fido survives all of this as well thanks mostly to Carrie-Anne Moss who plunges head first into her role and plays everything perfectly straight, which works, well, perfectly.)

Fido doesn’t really feel much like a horror film. It is more like a reworking of Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes’ re-imagining of the 1950s (and Douglas Sirk’s melodrama All That Heaven Allows). Both films are lovingly detailed recreations of the time period. Both feature women who are stuck in marriages running low on passion and who seek affection in a man who happens to be in the right place at the right time. Yes, I’m suggesting that Bill Connoly’s Fido is the latest step in the lineage that began with Rock Hudson’s Ron Kirby and continued with El Hedi ben Salem’s Ali in Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul and Dennis Haysbert’s Raymond Deagan.

And it is from this relationship to this distinguished list of melodramas that Fido finds its greatest strength: It is a story about people developing loving, caring relationships – never mind that in each case one person is no longer living, at least not in the classical sense. For Timmy, Fido is like a best friend, father-figure and faithful dog all rolled into one. There are moments between them that’ll rip your heart out. It made me as sad saying goodbye to Fido as I was while waving goodbye to Lassie each week as a kid.

For Helen, Fido is as close to a lover as I imagine Currie felt he could get away with. When they dance and embrace and playfully get wet while washing the family car, one gets a genuine feeling of romance and even eroticism without it ever feeling icky (although I may have a higher threshold for icky than most people – you be the judge).

Most surprising to me of all is the relationship that develops between two secondary characters – next door neighbor Mr. Theopolis and his girl zombie Tammy. At first, it is played as a joke. Tammy died in prime condition and, dressed in a blue mini-skirt, is a candidate for the cinema’s sexiest zombie and Mr. Theopolis gets his kicks by having her bend over to pick up the morning newspaper. Things develop beyond that simple joke though. Later, in an almost magical moment, Fido looks on as Mr. Theopolis and Tammy share a bedroom moment (shown in silhouette through drawn curtains and bearing a humorous resemblance to S&M). By the end of Fido, Mr. Theopolis and Tammy display genuine love for each other sharing a kiss as they part, possibly forever.

Yes, Currie got many things very right. Fido has heart. I’m sure he would be pleased to know that my teenage daughter – a self-described zombie movie nut – turned to me during one particularly touching boy-and-his-zombie scene and said, “Dad, I want a zombie.”