Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

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Arts in Entertainment

After several months of planning, we’re ready to a major project:

Arts in Entertainment, a six-volume book series about the ways in which creative works shape lives.

This is very exciting stuff, and I look forward to revealing more details in the near future. But, for now, an overview.

Six authors have come together to talk about the works of art that have shaped their lives and changed the way they see the world around them.

Nowadays there’s a lot of virtual ink spilled about what we like, don’t like, how things were made, what they mean…but very little is said about how a work of art makes us feel. How it shapes us as people. What it does to fundamentally change who we are.

That makes sense, in a way. Personal experience of art is something we all have, but it’s also something we don’t have an established vocabulary to discuss. And so we say very little, or nothing, and the most important changes happen silently within us.

Until now.

Arts in Entertainment is dedicated to opening that conversation, to discussing the most important part of any story: how it affects who we are.

This series of books will continue beyond the first six — as long as authors and readers exist to carry it — and the volumes are as varied as their authors. They’re funny, they’re tragic, they’re charming. They’re profound and they’re silly. They take sharp turns into memoir, history, interview, self-help, criticism, confession, and psychology.

The books will be professionally edited and printed at a Denver-based printhouse. I’ve seen samples and they look incredible. Each book will be between 200 – 300 pages, with a cover designed by Mishi Hime (cover artist for The Lost Worlds of Power).

We will be raising funding through a Kickstarter campaign which is set to launch next week, so use this time to let me know any questions you might have about the project. More info is to come, but questions are welcome as we gear up to a successful launch.

The minimum funding we’d need to start is $6,800. It’s a little higher than I had hoped, but with Kickstarter’s fees there wasn’t much we could do about that. However I’m doing my best to make sure that all pledges ($10 or above) will receive at least one book in return, so that everyone gets something of value for contributing, and it becomes more of a pre-order than a funding campaign. That’s important to me.

If funding is successful, copies will be available here and through all major retailers around the world, in both physical and ebook form.

I reached out to the strongest, most interesting, most varied writers I knew to pitch ideas for this, and received a lot of great ones. I couldn’t publish all of them, so I chose what I’m confident will result in the best series possible.

Sample Covers

Here are the six launch titles:

1) I’m Still Here

Professional critic, essayist, and A.V. Club MVP Nathan Rabin discusses 2010’s fictional documentary about Joaquin Phoenix’s career crisis, and sees in it a reflection of a dark and worrisome side of himself.

2) Titus Andronicus

Shakespearean scholar, actress, and leading authority on The Bard’s “worst play,” Catie Osborn talks about how this often-derided bit of Shakespeare canon has recurred throughout her life, shaped the path she’s taken, and helped her to say goodbye to her father.

3) This is Hardcore

Actor and humorist David Black walks us through his youthful experience with this underloved Pulp album, a collection of songs that disappointed and confused fans, and the reception of which disappointed our author in the media, the listeners, and in the band itself.

4) Synecdoche, New York

Critic and comedian Zachary Kaplan finds guidance and release using this famously befuddling film as a method for understanding, and coping with, the tragic suicide of his mother.

5) Mystery Science Theater 3000

Noiseless-Chatterguy Philip J Reed revisits this cult favorite to understand his own struggles with anxiety and introversion, and finds unexpected life lessons within: sometimes you find your place in the world, and other times you build it yourself.

6) Hatsune Miku

Critic and author of the best selling Game Art Matt Sainsbury takes an in-depth, personal look at the unexpected cultural implications of a digital instrument that was given a carefully-crafted personality…and which has managed to shake up a lot more than just the music industry.

I’m massively excited to bring this series to readers. The pitches were incredible, and I have total faith in every one of these writers. Something pretty incredible is going to happen soon…an entirely new and unique approach to the world of criticism. And every one of these will be worth reading, even (or especially) the ones about subjects you’re not familiar with.

More thorough synopses to come, as well as words from the authors, announcements of backers’ perks, concept cover art, and more.

Let me know your questions and feedback, and I’ll get them answered before kickoff.

Tune in next week for the official Kickstarter launch, and to help this become a reality.

ALF Reviews: The ALFies! (Season 3)

October 1st, 2015 | Posted by Philip J Reed in alf - (24 Comments)

The ALFies

At long last, we bid farewell to season three. And we’re doing it with the most anticipated event of the century: THE FUCKIN’ ALFIES BITCHES

I’m warning you now: this is your last chance to catch your breath before we dive headlong into the shitstack that is sure to be season four. Of course, there will be a few more chances to catch your breath during, as I’m sure to miss a few weeks for brain damage.

Whatever. This is the little thing I do after every season which nobody seems to enjoy but me but THAT IS OKAY BECAUSE I DO NOT WANT OR CARE ABOUT YOUR OPINION.

So sit back and enjoy The ALFies, brought to you by Cosmique Cosmetics, Alan Thicke’s World of Ants, and the Alien Task Force…now with one convenient location!

And also by Kettle Chips. Kettle Chips: When you want the great taste of kettles, but you’d rather eat a chip. Kettle Chips!

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Fight Back"

Whither The Midget? IMDB lied to me…it said that he appeared in “Tonight, Tonight” (presumably in a clip), but my Midget Vision failed me. He wasn’t there as far as I could tell, and so my running joke of crowning him Best Actor Emeritus comes to an end. Once I realized he wasn’t in his single credited episode for season three, I figured I’d give this one to Anne Schedeen. After all, my favorite thing about The Midget was the hairy garbage bag they made him wear…and I felt kind of bad that Schedeen — who actually has been a good actor — kept losing out to my dumb gag. But then season three rolled on and…she just wasn’t that good anymore. She had her moments (her double “are you fucking kidding me?” faces when Willie proposes a funeral for ants is an all-time highlight), but overall you could tell she was done. And while I don’t blame her, it does mean that she wasn’t actually the best actor this time around. No, that’d be Josh Blake, who did the impossible and made ALF‘s Cousin Oliver an actual character, and one worth paying attention to. Blake not only did his best with the material he was given, but he seemed invested in turning Jake into someone who actually deserved the audience’s time. He may have been a late game addition to the cast, he may have been almost completely MIA in the first half of the season, and he may never appear again, but Josh Blake did enough good work in his short window of time that he deserves the first unironic ALFie. Congratulations, kid. Now let’s never speak of you again.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

I love Joan Embery. I really do. She’s an intelligent and passionate animal-rights activist, with a genuine charm and warmth. She’s worked with the San Diego Zoo for decades (still does, as far as I can tell), and hosted educational nature programming on television in many different capacities, from her own shows to segments on kids’ programming like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Xuxa. Where she really captured the public’s eye (and heart) however was The Tonight Show, as her genuine love for and knowledge of the animal kingdom combined with Johnny Carson’s quick wit to create some truly memorable television. It makes sense that ALF would invite her along for its own ride through Tonight Show territory, but it doesn’t make sense that it would ask her to sit quietly and speak only when spoken to. Those weren’t her strengths, and it shows. While she sits with Lucky on her lap — the cat’s only appearance in season three, as far as I can remember — and stiltedly recites scripted banter with a hand puppet, it’s hard not to feel uncomfortable on her behalf. She’s absolutely terrible here, but that makes sense; she’s explicitly being asked not to do the things she’s good at, because those things require a level of responsiveness that Paul Fusco isn’t capable of. As a result the segment fails to elevate ALF to her heights, and succeeds only in bringing her down to his lows. It’s a joyless reminder of how much fun it usually is to watch Embery, and it’s one more reason ALF can go fuck himself.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Having My Baby"

Yes, defying all expectations, Eric Tanner is easily my favorite new character. How could he not be? He just arrived on the show and already he can’t fucking stand ALF. After a season’s worth (okay…two episodes throughout a season‘s worth) of buildup, baby E.T. finally arrives on the scene and…immediately turns away and ignores ALF’s desperate cries for attention. It’s a beautiful thing to see a newborn with such presence of mind, realizing within his first day on the planet that he’s trapped in the worst show imaginable. He’s already beyond giving a shit about pretending to enjoy himself, which it took the rest of the cast somewhere between one and three seasons to admit to themselves. Eric, you’re a waste of space, but you understand that, and that’s why I respect you. You’ll never achieve the incredible height of the little girl who wanted to kill ALF way back in “Looking for Lucky,” but I’d like to think that’s just because you can’t talk yet. While the naked puppet monster spews sixty-year-old pop culture references at the back of your head, I’m keen to believe you’re thinking the very things she said. Noiseless Chatter salutes you.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Do You Believe in Magic?"

I loved ALF as a kid. I really did. I had the Burger King hand puppets, the little plastic toys, the stuffed doll…and probably a bunch of other ALF crap I can’t remember. I used to watch it all the time, and I’d get worried if we were out and I thought we wouldn’t make it home quickly enough to catch the new episode. But at some point, my enjoyment of the show began to falter, and by “Do You Believe in Magic?” I must have been pretty ready to turn in my fan club membership. That’s the episode with the scene that made me realize…well…maybe the show wasn’t all that great after all. Even as an undiscriminating watcher of bullshit of all kinds, I knew that there was something painfully lazy about ALF asking for Willie’s watch so he can smash it, and then Willie handing him that watch and getting pissed that it’s smashed. It wasn’t clever…it was just mindless. It’s not even the stupidest thing Willie does in the episode (that’d be giving ALF actual US currency to burn), but something about its unapologetic idiocy turned me off, and it was a change I’ve never felt compelled to second guess.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Breaking Up is Hard to Do"

HEY LOOK. It’s an ALFie being given not for snark, but for historical interest. See, in “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” (which, rest assured, was utter shit), Mr. Ochmonek is sitting in the Tanners’ kitchen, listening to some crappy library rock music. He turns off the radio and observes, “That Sinatra sure could sing.” The joke, obviously, is that the song sounded nothing like Sinatra. Willie says that it sounded like Pink Floyd…but no, it fucking didn’t you asshole. Well, here’s what apparently happened: the show did license a Pink Floyd song for that joke, but it was replaced in subsequent airings and on home video with “The Royalty-Free No-Name Boogie.” I wouldn’t normally care, but Mr. Ochmonek introduces the song as being his and his wife’s favorite…which means that we have some potential character work here. Someone’s favorite song — especially a couple’s favorite song — says a lot about who they are, what they enjoy, what they hope for. We know it’s Pink Floyd, but that doesn’t help much. If their favorite song is “Comfortably Numb” that means something different from their favorite song being “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” which means something different from their favorite song being “Time.” Music rights issues are always annoying, but in this case it’s worse than usual; ALF pre-dates the internet boom, and nobody seems to remember (or have a recording of) the original music. All we know is that ALF revealed exactly once the name of the Ochmoneks’ favorite song…and it’s since been lost to the ages. That’s not ALF‘s fault, but we’re poorer for not knowing. (Mine is “Wot’s…Uh the Deal?” Remember it, because the next time you read this post I’ll have replaced it with “Generic Rock Song.”)

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

It’s important to keep in mind that “Tonight, Tonight” wasn’t framed as a fantasy episode. ALF isn’t dreaming, or thinking about the idea while he masturbates in the tub. “Tonight, Tonight” was Paul Fusco’s late-night pitch package, a proof of concept that ALF could thrive in other contexts…ones that were — importantly — free of those pesky fellow cast members who wanted laugh lines now and then. While Paul Fusco got to appear on the actual Tonight Show set and work with actual Tonight Show staff, nobody else from ALF was invited to share the experience. Ace commenter kristin shared some photos a few weeks back of the old warehouse that contained the ALF set; the cast and crew of America’s Worst Puppet Show had to attend to their solemn duties in the middle of an industrial park, in a large, windowless cell that didn’t scream “showbiz” so much as it screamed “65 hour work week.” These photos were posted in support of Justin, who wrote, “It has been said that one of the reasons the cast was so miserable is because they were literally surrounded by factories and warehouses. You didn’t have that magical ‘studio lot’ feeling that you so often get when you walk around one.” When ALF got to stand on a real stage — with real credibility, working with real talent — Fusco made sure the rest of the cast stayed behind in squalor and misery, where they belonged. It was a pretty clear “fuck you” to his costars, but the worst thing about it is that it wasn’t even worth it. The Tonight Show, Starring ALF was garbage, and even fans of ALF shiver when they think of “Tonight, Tonight.” Fusco set out to prove that his character could succeed anywhere, but only foreshadowed the reasons he’d be relegated to Radio Shack commercials twenty years later.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Having My Baby"

Don’t ask me what they were going for when they did it, but the writers turned some pretty meaty portions of their season finale over to clips of The Dick Van Dyke Show. And, hey…there are worse things to be watching. I can’t fault it for quality, but I can damned well fault it for relevance. As Kate prepares to give birth to Eric, ALF watches the Petries prepare to have their own little bundle of joy. Thematically that’s fine…but there’s no follow-through, meaning we just cut every so often to ALF watching an unrelated and much better show. The writers never bother to build to any kind of payoff, making it pretty clear that they’re just padding their runtime and aren’t interested in exploring their own story. It’s definitely one of the most mystifying things I’ve seen ALF do, but I have a feeling I ain’t seen mystifying ALF decisions yet.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

This is not only a picture of Willie that makes it look like the crack hobo sucking him off just bit down; this is the best picture of Willie that makes it look like the crack hobo sucking him off just bit down.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Suspicious Minds"

Admittedly, this was a tough call. Season three had a hell of a lot of flashback / fantasy bullshit, and Willie’s hippie dream with a caption that suggested he’d been asleep for four years was a strong contender. Then there was the dreary silent noodling of “Like an Old Time Movie,” which was, to be generous, fucking terrible, and part of me really, really wants to give the ALFie to that episode just so I can kick it one last time in the balls. But “Suspicious Minds” ultimately wins this one, simply because we didn’t know we were watching a fantasy. In “My Back Pages” there was no secret made of the fact that Willie was dreaming, and “Like an Old Time Movie” had ALF and Jake at a typewriter hammering this shit out. Similarly, when Angel Bob turned up in “Stairway to Heaven” it was pretty fucking clear the new timeline wasn’t going to stick. But “Suspicious Minds” not only gave us an unfunny, pointless story about ALF meeting Elvis, but it withheld until the end of the episode the information that this didn’t actually happen. It was a needless punch in the neck for anyone who bothered watching to the end. “You stuck with this shit?” it seemed to say. “Well, fuck you, because none of it was real!” It would make a little more sense if Aaron King actually was Elvis, but the open possibility that he was just an obsessive Elvis fan meant that there was an in-universe out that the show decided not to take, preferring instead to dick over the audience. ALF, I’m aware that you’re going to spin fantasy story after fantasy story. All I ask is for a little bit of honesty up front, so that I know what I’m making fun of.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Standing in the Shadows of Love"

Here’s another one with some damned strong competition. Remember, we had three episodes focusing on Lynn’s sex life, and one of the season’s most unfortunately memorable moments was Officer Willie slapping ALF around with a floppy black dildo. But, no, the absolute creepiest, most revolting moment comes in an episode that sees ALF trying to get Jake laid. The worst part is that that’s not even the problem; later on ALF starts lusting after Jake’s underage sweetheart himself. Wait, that’s not even the worst part. “Standing in the Shadows of Love” manages to out-revolt itself yet again with the short scene before the credits, which — a propos of nothing — sees ALF violently orgasming to the sound of a dog whistle. Why? Fuck you, that’s why. In an episode that should have already been the creepiest based on its premise alone, ALF manages to find new ways to disgust. When you watched this show as a kid were you waiting with bated breath for the scene in which ALF would writhe on the ground in sexual ecstasy? I sure as fuck wasn’t, but here we are. We get to watch ALF cum all over himself to the inaudible erotic shriek of a dog whistle. And as horrible as so much of the other sexual crap was this season, nothing could possibly top a scene in which ALF actually ejaculates in front of two kids. This was a classic show and I’m glad to revisit it!

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

The Christmas episode that for some reason wasn’t a Christmas episode sees ALF putting a spin on It’s a Wonderful Life. You know…like it did in that last Christmas episode with the suicidal man named George being stopped from jumping of a bridge. This time ALF meets his guardian angel, Bob, who shows him what life would be like if he’d never met the Tanners. And, really, you don’t get too much higher concept than that. What you’re essentially doing with an episode like this is unraveling your show’s entire premise and knitting it back up another way. It can be fun…and it can certainly be clever. But jeez oh man does this episode aim low. The biggest change, as far as I can tell, is that Mrs. Ochmonek burps. What’s ALF up to in this alternate timeline? Oh, he’s selling makeup on the phone. You know. Like he already did way back at the start of season one. ALF is a show of infinite possibility, which makes it immensely frustrating when you realize how creatively bankrupt its writing staff must be. Evidently the comic books did a story about ALF crashing into the Ochmoneks’ garage rather than the Tanners’ (hat tip to whomever told me that! [EDIT: it was star commenter kim]), which is a very simple shift that would almost guarantee some interesting character work, and make for an alternate reality worth spending at least a little bit of time in. (Seriously…how would the Ochmoneks react to him?) Instead the show’s writers couldn’t even be as creative as the shitty spinoff cash-in comic books, and we got a rehash of an idea from season one embedded in what was already a rehash of an idea from season two. Great job, guys.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Superstition"

I liked “Superstition.” It was a lot of fun, and, for my money, it had one of the better punchlines ALF‘s ever managed: the simple, quiet, “Sorry about the book…” that undercuts the elaborate absurdity of the Bibliocide Ritual. ALF often leads us down long paths of meandering bullshit, but so rarely does it find a worthwhile payoff at the end. But one of the best things about “Superstition” was the meat suits. In particular: Willie’s meat suit. Because all of Melmac’s rituals involved food or date rape we got lucky that this is what the Tanners were asked to do. But while the cheap sight gag of sausages hanging around Kate’s neck isn’t exactly worth celebrating, somebody in the props or wardrobe department deserves props for Willie’s wardrobe. (SEE WHAT I DID THERE) He’s the only one, after all, who keeps his meat in the package…a perfect character observation, and absolutely in line with the kind of guy I keep wishing Willie actually was. He not only doesn’t want to get his clothes greasy, but he doesn’t want to waste perfectly good lunchmeat. It’s a great detail, and it’s enhanced by the pleasing visual accident that Oscar Mayer’s packaging resembles military epaulettes when worn on the shoulders. Somebody, at some point, decided not to just drape this crap over Max Wright…but to turn it into a fun detail of its own. It’s the sort of thing no writing room would hit upon themselves; it takes somebody putting the outfit together to realize that there can be another level to the comedy. And, for once, “Superstition” put forth the effort to reach that second level. I’m glad they did…because otherwise this scene would have just been a bunch of bologna. B-)

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Promises, Promises"

HEY GUYS DID YOU KNOW I HATE “PROMISES, PROMISES?” Well, good news! There was even more shit in that episode than I could bring myself to talk about. Such as this sequence, which I glossed over completely, in which a vaguely Mexican ALF sings “Cielito Lindo” to Lynn as an apology for ratting out her elderly fuckbuddy. ALF screaming Hispanic gibberish in the back yard would have been enough to merit my ire — how little do they care about keeping ALF a secret, again? — but him doing it in aid of making amends for something he shouldn’t even be sorry for is tremendously misjudged. On top of that, though? “Cielito Lindo” is best remembered today as the fucking Frito Bandito song, so just for an extra layer of idiocy you can picture ALF’s musical apology for busting Lynn’s relationship with her rapist being delivered in the style of a racist corn chip mascot. “Ay, ay, ay, ayyyyyyy…IIIII’m ver-ry sor-ry!” ALF sings, because we live in a shitty world and deserve this.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Hide Away"

“Hide Away” contained several stories that needed to be told, but I’m not sure if the writers were aware of any of them. For starters, there’s the fact that we’re finally meeting one of Willie’s colleagues. Willie bringing a coworker home would be a great way of fleshing out his work life…a major aspect of the character that the show seems stubbornly disinterested in developing. Then there’s the fact that our title character is a lonely shut-in, and so is Willie’s coworker. For different reasons Jimbo is living much the same life as ALF; they have almost nothing but common ground, and this should be the first (or maybe second) time ALF really should meet the guest of the week. But instead the episode is just one long, uncomfortable joke at Jimbo’s expense, with the family treating him like shit for being a poor, boring, lonely guy whose parents are dead. You know…the sort of thing social workers do whenever they hear that somebody’s going through a rough patch. So instead of developing Willie’s work life, helping ALF to see that he shouldn’t be a pissy-wissy fuckface to people because they might have a lot in common, or Willie pulling it together and realizing that there’s more to being a social worker than beating people up and spitting on them, we get some half-assed story about the FBI and the fake FBI, and also ALF installs a satellite dish. Okay, yes, “minor rewrite” is being pretty polite, as this was several drafts away from coherency let alone awesomeness, but the guest star and the central concept both deserved the attention. “Hide Away” should have been a series highlight. Instead it’s just another 20 minutes of padding between credit sequences.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Shake, Rattle and Roll"

It’s bad enough that Jake has to go. The kid was the only reliable highlight of season three, after all. And while scheduling conflicts kept him from having much of a presence until the season’s back half, he made the most of his time. Which is good, because — for whatever reason — he won’t be returning for season four. (Honestly: does anyone know why that is?) That’s unfortunate enough…but what makes his absence so darkly perfect is the coincidence of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” marking his last appearance. That episode saw ALF having a crisis of mortal awareness, and he was driving everybody crazy by talking about how tenuous life is. The Tanners manage to shut him the fuck up by the time the episode ends, and, sure enough, none of them die. ALF’s concerns were unfounded…in their cases. In Jake’s, however, it feels retroactively prescient. In Jake’s final scene in the entire show, ALF delivers a litany of ways the kid could be killed the moment he leaves the shed. Jake tells him that’s a load of crap, leaves the shed…and never returns. I’m sure we never find out exactly why Jake vanished, but ALF‘s hilariously poor timing makes it all too easy to conclude that one of ALF’s predictions was correct. I’ll never stop being amused by this…at least not until the marvelously ill-conceived cliffhanger at the end of season four steals the Most Unfortunate Timing award for good.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

Truly, season three’s back half belonged to Jake. He had great minor roles throughout, but got one genuinely strong spotlight toward the end: “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow,” an episode whose title, at last, is the most annoying thing about it. Here we explore the reason he’s in L.A. to begin with, digging into his home life and his upbringing, and managing to define an entire family of characters in a few simple scenes of dialogue and human interaction. ALF has never been good at characterization, but both Jake and his mother are well enough painted (and well enough acted) that the sadness between them is immediately recognizable, and all too understandable. Yes, I’m fully aware that my own experiences inform my reading of this episode, but I can’t say enough how drastic an improvement it is from “Tequila,” an earlier example of ALF trying to spin a moral from the same demons I’ve had to fight in the past. Identifying is one thing, but enjoying is quite another. “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow” managed to get both responses out of me…and I’m not being sarcastic when I say that that’s no mean feat. It wasn’t heavy-handed in its execution, and it left us with a complicated morality. Sometimes you do have to leave the ones you love. Sometimes the most painful way forward is also the right one. And your family isn’t the one you’re born into; it’s the one you build for yourself. This episode, and a few others, have exceeded my expectations of ALF as a whole, and have entirely justified this review series for me. No back-handed compliments with this one; I thought it was very well done, and it’s proof that ALF was capable of so much more than it often bothered to give us.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Promises, Promises"

…and then there’s this shit. Yeah, I know, this Worst Episode award is surprising to nobody; I never shut up about how much I hate this one, so I guess the most surprising thing is that “Like an Old Time Movie” is getting away without one final savaging. The thing is that “Like an Old Time Movie” was fuckawful, but it was easy to ignore. “Promises, Promises” was not, and it remains icky to me. I took an extra week to review “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow” because it deserved the additional thought. I took an extra week to review “Promises, Promises” because I couldn’t bear to think about it. Obviously my dissatisfaction with it is well documented by this point, and I don’t really have much to add to what I’ve already said…but I think it’s worth repeating that I’ve never seen a show present such worrying material in such a normal way. ALF must have been staffed by some truly warped individuals, because so much of what happens on this show (shitty marriages, shitty people, awful social workers, inappropriate underage sexual situations, toxic relationships, and so on) is just treated…normally. They’re not jokes, they’re just aspects of the characters and how they interact with each other. Their behavior is regular behavior and nothing to worry about…which is the most worrying thing of all. “Promises, Promises” did a great job of outlining the warning signs of a dangerous, sexually manipulative relationship…and then spun it into a story about ALF feeling bad and Kate being more worried about some never-before-mentioned knick-knack than she is about her daughter’s safety. It’s gross, it’s inhuman, and it’s irresponsible. It’s also, unquestionably, the biggest reason I’m looking forward to season four: it’ll give me something new to bitch about.

The ALFies

That’s that, Mattress Man. Join me next week as we dive into ALF‘s final stretch. In the meantime, see if you can come up with six more dismaying words than “Jim J. Bullock joins the cast.”

Philip’s Note: let me know your thoughts on this one! This is a piece by friend and reader (and film buff) David Savage. I’ll be more than happy to provide a platform for his writing and musings if you enjoy it, so leave a comment and let me know what you think. For now, take it away, David…

The Theory of Everything

How does one film encompass a person’s life? Specifically, what approach is best suited? A narrative film is traditionally expected to be two hours long, so a lot of ground in a biopic (biographical picture) will either be skipped, glossed over, or shortened as possible. One example a film will take is combining several characters into one or even eliminating characters.

Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski understand that. Their screenplay for The People vs. Larry Flynt takes the titular character’s two lawyers in real life and combine them into one played by Edward Norton. Bela Lugosi’s wife Hope Lininger, whom he was married to after his recovery to a Demerol addiction, wasn’t mentioned in their Ed Wood screenplay. Mr. Alexander and Mr. Kraszewski understand that it’s not necessarily about how accurate the film is about the truth but about making the film interesting to an audience; to treat the subject matter as if no one doesn’t know who they are or why their story is being told.

It’s why it’s incredibly sad to say that James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything not only fails as a narrative film but also fails at portraying Stephen Hawking’s life as interesting.

A question is raised right off the bat. Was Stephen Hawking’s life interesting? If not his entire life, what about a specific part of his life?

The film goes with the latter, beginning in 1963 at Cambridge University with his courtship of of Jane Wilde, developing ALS, and concluding with the separation of the Hawkings and Stephen refusing knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. During the 123 minute running time, Stephen Hawking’s condition worsens to the point of losing the ability to move and speak, but he continues his research in physics, culminating in the release of his pinnacle book, A Brief History of Time.

Stephen Hawking was, as told to us by Anthony McCarten’s screenplay, a genius. But therein lies an unfortunate misstep the film takes: we’re told why the subject matter is brilliant or important, but never are we shown his brilliance. I think of how The Aviator, directed by the impeccable Martin Scorsese, handled Howard Hughes’ brilliance and his OCD taking over his sanity. Through the making of Hughes’ Hell’s Angels, testing the H-1 Racer, his purchase of TWA, and his life depending on the success of the Hercules aircraft, we are shown rather than told through Robert Richardson’s Oscar winning cinematography and Thelma Schoonmaker’s Oscar winning film editing how important these events are. Because it feels important to the characters and the world they’re inhibiting, it feels important to us.

One character meets Stephen Hawking for the first time and then says he’s the most brilliant man she has ever met, in spite of the previous scene offering anything to back up her assessment. Once again, we’re being told rather than being shown. The Theory of Everything makes a logical error in both dumbing down Prof. Hawking’s teachings through poorly done exposition and not once making it feel important to the characters; it takes a step back to the love story.

Since the film doesn’t care for Prof. Hawking’s finding and would rather tell you that he’s brilliant and just move on, how does the love story fare? Abysmally. Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde fall in love because…because.

The film fails at even presenting us a reason why they fall in love other than they’re pretty and she cries. Yes, Felicity Jones is a beautiful woman and a talented actress, but she’s given nothing to do except stand there and exist. Eddie Redmayne, who won the Oscar for Best Actor for this performance, fares slightly better. The Tony award winner shows his total commitment to the physicality of the role that does recall element’s of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar winning turn in My Left Foot.

However, the major flaw in Redmayne’s performance is that he fails at making Stephen Hawking a compelling character to watch. It doesn’t feel like we’re watching a real person we can sympathize with but an object that we are meant to feel for just because he’s handsome and he has a horrible disease. To do this with a subject matter as brilliant as Stephen Hawking is unforgivable.

Another important character to mention is Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), a widower that Jane meets at a church and begins to have feelings for him. The film delves into the possibility that they have an affair but never reveals if they did or didn’t, taking this whole escapade into Three’s Company territory. Later on, Stephen begins to have feelings for his caretaker, who is never treated as a person but as a cheap excuse for the Hawkings to separate and for Jane and Jonathan to become a cute couple again as light beams through the church, which feels cloy and manipulative, rather than heartwarming and touching.

The film makes a poor attempt to go into a debate on the existence of God; Jane had a strong Christian faith while Stephen was an atheist. These scenes ring very false due to how poorly developed the characters are. Once again, we are told what they believe in instead of feeling it. It’s an interesting subject matter for the film to dive into. The idea of an existence of a higher power and the relationship it has with scientific discoveries. Can they both coexist together? Once again, the film cares very little for a good debate and rather focuses on the E! True Hollywood Story account on the marriage of the Hawkings.

Film is a visual medium and in the case of The Theory of Everything, Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography utterly fails. Many scenes alternate between blue, red, yellow, and orange filters without any rhyme or reason. One scene utilized a green filter that made Jane Wilde look like the Hulk. Using filters just for the sake of using them doesn’t make for a unique filmgoing experience but one of utter frustration. It culminates in the laziness of the recurring motif of home videos of the Hawking family. The execution is quite laughable to the point that stretches of the film is dedicate to white people frolicking in the forest.

I go back to Martin Scorsese and how he utilized the home footage motif for Raging Bull. He uses the footage of Jake La Motta, his wife, and his brother and cross cuts it with Jake La Motta’s successful boxing career; we understand clearly how important La Motta’s family and career is to him and how ultimately, both cannot successfully exist together. James Marsh, who directed two wonderful documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, has shown in his award winning career how important it is to successfully match images to information. And yet he is hopelessly lost in his transition back into narrative filmmaking.

Ultimately, it comes back to the question of whether a person’s life (or one particular aspect) is worthy of a narrative film. I think of Fruitvale Station, which portrays the last day of Oscar Grant III in an 85 minute film. Oscar Grant III is not as important of a figure as Stephen Hawking, but the film does a brilliant job of inviting you into Oscar’s life and his family and when the tragic events occur, you feel it hit like a ton of bricks. It comes down to execution and how one wisely can convey a real life person’s to be relatable. In the case of The Theory of Everything, it feels as if I’m in a poorly taught college class being lectured on the importance of Stephen Hawking but never feeling why he was important.

When writing this article, I came upon a wonderful point about the film. A user by the name of Shiva The God of Death on the Awards Watch forums made five astute points that the film failed to go into concerning the marriage of the Hawkings:

1. What was it life for a one-in-hundred million genius to be married to someone who (despite being quite intelligent) can’t possibly compare to him in the IQ department, and can’t understand his work beyond the basics?

2. Why was she so attracted to him in the first place, apart from his intelligence?

3. When a deeply religious person is married to an outspoken atheist, how does it work? Did he respect her beliefs? Did she believe that she’s heaven-bound, but her husband isn’t?

4. What kind of emotions are involved in having a child when you’ve been told you’ll be dead before his kid is a toddler? What made them decide to have children under those circumstances?

5. How do you maintain a friendly relationship with someone after you’ve spent years as his caretaker, and you’ve turned away someone you had feelings for, and then he dumps you for his nurse?

If the film was more focused in the handling of the story with a mature hand, these points would’ve been more properly addressed. As is, we have a poorly done biopic that would rather manipulate the audiences to tears rather than transcend the material. At the end of the film, Stephen Hawking looks at his three children with Jane by his side and says, “Look what we made.” The funny part is that the children in this film have been given no more than five words of dialogue. They are soulless.

ALF, &quotA.L.F."

Lynn. Lovely, lost, unappreciated and underutilized Lynn.

When I started this series, I swept her to the side along with every other character on this show. She was nothing, after all. They were all nothing. And I wasn’t surprised by that in the least; while I watched ALF regularly as a kid, the only thing I remembered of the human characters was that the dad was a shitty actor. Revisiting it in my 30s did nothing to change that, and I didn’t expect it would; I’d watch an episode, write 50,000 words about everything that happened, and would still be unable to tell you who the fuck these people were.

So I was dismissive of Lynn. Can you blame me? I was convinced that the only character who was a character was Kate, and that’s largely because Anne Schedeen was in a position to channel the real-world frustrations felt by every member of the cast. She was convincing because she was supposed to be a bitch. While I largely enjoy and appreciate her work on this show, even I have to admit she got lucky. If she were supposed to play, say, a happy-go-lucky optimist type, she’d probably come off just as horribly as everybody else.

Time passed, and while I would be able to tell you more about the characters now than I was able to at the end of season one, my readings of them are informed — as was my reading of Kate’s — not by their words or their actions, but by the personalities of the actors shining through.

That’s why much of what I have to say about Willie overlaps with Max Wright’s general awkwardness and disinterest in anything that’s happening.

That’s why much of what I have to say about Brian overlaps with Benji Gregory’s smoldering hatred of the world around him.

And that’s why much of what I have to say about Lynn overlaps with Andrea Elson’s good-natured warmth and humanity.

ALF, &quotRunning Scared"

No, I don’t know her. I don’t know anything about her. I’ve never read an interview with her, or seen her in anything else. (At least, not that I recall.) I could be dead wrong. She could be a major pain in the ass intent on bringing misery to every last person she meets. She could be a raging, selfish monster.

…but she isn’t.

I’m sure she isn’t.

And I’m sure she isn’t because ALF‘s writers aren’t that good; they don’t give the actors anything to work with aside from who they already are.

We don’t watch Kate, Brian, Lynn, and Willie…we watch Schedeen, Gregory, Elson, and Wright. The words on the page are interchangeable; they’re all setups for ALF’s punchlines anyway. Personalities fluctuate and backstories either don’t exist or are contradicted regularly. Nobody on the planet has a favorite Willie moment, even though he’s ostensibly the second most important character. And that’s because, in all seriousness, he’s nobody. He’s a presence for ALF to react to. They’re all presences for ALF to react to.

Which means that when warmth comes through — when Lynn says or does something sweet — it’s Elson’s. The writers sure as shit didn’t give her anything more (or anything unique) to work with. Characters have heart-to-hearts with ALF all the fucking time. If Lynn’s heart-to-hearts register more, or feel more genuine, it’s because they’re in line with who Andrea Elson really is.

And you know what? She seems pretty great.

ALF, &quotWeird Science"

Lynn’s growth on this show — I should really say Elson’s — has been the most unexpected pleasure of revisiting it. At first I was mainly happy that the puppetry was good. Then I was satisfied by the fact that I’d get a couple of decent episodes to look forward to each year. Then I got a shitload of boners over Mr. Ochmonek’s wardrobe.

All good things, to be sure, but nothing that really surprised me. Elson’s growth, however, was genuinely unexpected, and it’s gotten to the point that I both look forward to and dread her scenes. I look forward to them for obvious reasons — hers is a pleasant and welcome presence — but I end up dreading them because the writers have demonstrated time and again that they don’t know what to do with her…and often end up doing something pretty horrible.

I’m protective of Lynn by this point. It’s odd to say and maybe impossible to explain, but seeing the writers mishandle her feels something like a betrayal. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen, by now, several perfectly valid ways for the character to be handled, and it gets frustrating that the writing staff can’t tell them from the wrong ways. Or maybe, more likely, as this hellish, miserable production churns along and ruins the lives of everyone involved with it, I hope against hope for Elson to come out of it relatively unscathed.

ALF, &quotHit Me With Your Best Shot"

The betrayal came to a head in “Promises, Promises,” which I’m sure you remember is the one time I failed to meet a deadline not because I was busy (or lazy…don’t forget lazy!), but because I couldn’t bear to sit down and write about it.

That’s never been a problem before. I like Kate, but she show’s treated her like garbage often enough and that’s never warranted more than some snarky comments in the review. I like the Ochmoneks, but aside from rhetorically asking you to TELL ME WHO THE BAD NEIGHBORS ARE SUPPOSED TO BE I can make it through their character abuse just fine.

Lynn’s different. Maybe it’s because she’s younger than most of her co-stars and there’s a natural inclination to want to keep the youth safe. Maybe it’s because she’s fairly attractive, and I HEAR SOME GUYS LIKE THAT. Maybe it’s because she comes across as a gentle, happy human being and we always need more of those in the world.

But maybe it’s just because this show is in dire need of actual characters…and Elson is positively handing one to them on a platter. The show ignores her, moves on, tries something different every week, and all the while she’s still there. Still being herself. Still waiting to be taken seriously.

ALF, "Oh, Pretty Woman"

We’re far enough into the show’s life that we can take a longer view of the characterization. In season one, for instance, she was just the daughter. She was a high school kid and a big sister. And that’s…kind of it. There was an episode about her wanting a car, and an episode about her dating, but that was as far as they ever got with exploring what her life was like.

Which is odd…ALF is a show about an alien who is experiencing Earth culture (well, American culture) for the first time. Which means that the basic makeup of the family (nerdy professional male, frustrated neat-freak housewife, gregarious high school girl, brain damaged son) was conducive to ALF having second-hand experience of many, many different facets of that culture.

Willie might introduce ALF to Bach while Kate introduces him to The Rolling Stones and Lynn introduces him to Cyndi Lauper. (Brian, in a hilarious subplot, is fatally electrocuted while plugging in the radio.) The point is that having a high school girl in the cast should expose ALF — and us — to things that high school girls like, need, and want. But the writers don’t care to figure out what any of those things are.

So she wants a car. And she wants a boyfriend. Which is about as deep as their understanding goes, and they’re, sadly, fine with that.

Oh, but there is one more thing high school girls want: they want to fuck their brains out.

Good thing ALF is on hand for that.

ALF, &quotDon't it Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

Yeah, we don’t get much in the way of even superficial nods to 1980s youth culture, because the writers hit upon the idea of ALF wanting to spray her womb with Melmac shellac, and that was that. For the entirety of season one, that was her role. Lynn Tanner was an object that men could — conceivably — fill with semen. The most problematic approach to the character was the only one they attempted to see through. Lucky us.

Consider that ALF already has an unhealthy fascination with Willie and Kate’s sex life (hiding under the bed to listen to them fuck) and will eventually reveal that he watches the Ochmoneks hump as well, and you realize that the writers don’t even need Lynn in order to provide commentary on Earthling mating rituals…it’s just that they’re more interested in sex — interspecies, underage, degenerate puppet sex at that — than in developing her as a character.

And, well, so be it. Characterization wasn’t their strong point anyway. If they chose to focus on something they were terrible at, can I really get upset that they did it instead of focusing on something else that they were terrible at?

Periodically the writers did throw her a few token attempts at development. For instance, she got a few humorously “ditzy” lines throughout the season…which, when combined with her timeslot’s equivalent of a sex life, seemed to position her as what I called a family-friendly Kelly Bundy. (I’m blanking on what a lot of those lines were, but I do remember her “It wasn’t funny” being a highlight of “It Isn’t Easy…Bein’ Green.”)

But that’s reaching, as it really only holds true for a select few episodes. Overall, Lynn Tanner was nobody, and was nothing.

…except when she wasn’t. To me, there was one Lynn moment that really stood out in season one: in the show’s very first good episode, “For Your Eyes Only,” she arranges a date between ALF and Jodie, sowing the seeds for a great friendship between the alien and the teen in season two.

Lynn became his closest confidant, the one who believed in him most, and the one who would support him when nobody else would. That latter aspect nearly culminated in a great ending to season two as well.

ALF, &quotVarsity Drag"

Lynn taking him to see Jodie was such a small thing that I could understand it not even registering to many viewers. But, to me, it was the first time a human being acted like a human being on this damned show. I believed that Lynn felt sorry for him, and when that aspect of their relationship took center stage in season two, I continued to believe it.

Lynn was — and remained — a naturally caring individual. She’d come to ALF’s defense whenever he needed her, whenever he didn’t have another friend in the world. And it all built to — or should have built to — “Varsity Drag,” in which Lynn had to face the consequences of that unflinching support: ALF has bankrupted the family, and they can’t afford to send her away to college.

We were so, so close to getting some interesting character work out of season two, and I feel more than a little vindicated that my favorite thing about Lynn in season one — the blink-and-miss-it camaraderie from “For Your Eyes Only” — laid the groundwork for their relationship to come, but, ultimately, “Varisty Drag” bailed on the idea of their relationship being truly tested. Instead Willie and Kate delivered some newspapers and Lynn decided, eh, whatever, this show can’t decide if I’m even college age anyway, so what does it matter?

Despite the botched landing, though, season two developed the right kind of relationship between these two characters. ALF wasn’t trying to fuck her, and she wasn’t being a slutty idiot. No…what seemed to develop between them was something we humans call “friendship.” And while seriously testing the strength of that friendship would have been a great way to end the season — and establish a retroactive emotional arc between them — I find it hard to complain about the rest of it.

ALF, &quotI'm Your Puppet"

When everyone else was punishing him, she brought him lemonade (at night, confusingly) in “Somewhere Over the Rerun.” She came to his defense over the broken window in “Can I Get a Witness?” She tried to get him to overcome his guilt at accidentally murdering, desecrating, and eating the flesh of Willie’s uncle in “We’re So Sorry, Uncle Albert.” And she encouraged his new hobby in “I’m Your Puppet.”

All of which was very convincing, mainly because Andrea Elson, unlike every last one of her costars, does not seem to be overpowered by hatred. The writers recognized that despite the grueling hours, despite the awful working conditions, despite the star of the show shouting “nigger nigger nigger” to entertain the crew between takes, Elson could still be believably nice. And sweet. And understanding.

And just as we know the writers weren’t that great at their jobs, we know Elson wasn’t that great at acting. No…what we saw throughout season two was a natural intersection between who Elson really was, and who the writers were smart enough to let her be. While I’m sure every one of her lines was scripted, I don’t think we’d have seen much of a difference if, in the scenes I’ve mentioned, the writers simply included a stage direction that said “Andrea cheers him up.”

Most satisfying to me, though, is the fact that their relationship wasn’t entirely one-way. Lynn didn’t live to serve ALF; he helped her, too…and you can count the times he’s helped others on one truly mangled hand. The most obvious example of this was surprise highlight “Oh, Pretty Woman,” which saw him shepherding her through a crisis of self-worth. It was a funny, sweet episode that went a long way toward convincing me that he cared about her at a depth greater than that of her vagina.

ALF, &quotKeepin' the Faith"

Of course, season two also introduced Jake, who seamlessly picked up right where ALF left off: trying to shove dicks in all of her holes.

Now, I like Jake…but I’m saying so as we close season three. When he was introduced in season two, he was a character with serious issues, and the fact that his secondary personality trait was that he wanted to cum in Lynn’s butt didn’t help the show stay in my good graces. (His primary trait was commenting on the spiciness of meatballs.)

The sexualization of Lynn is vaguely bothersome, and I can’t put my finger on it. (OOPS NOW I DID IT TOO.) I think, in this case, it’s because I have the real-world knowledge that Andrea Elson suffered from a particularly nasty eating disorder while working on this show, and I honestly wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that ALF so often treated her as a piece of meat…something for male characters to slobber over, make inappropriate comments about, and then toss along to the next one.

She was by no means the only actor to suffer for her time on ALF, but it does make me feel bad in a way that I don’t feel for the others. An underpants-clad Max Wright smoking crack in an abandoned warehouse will never not make me laugh…but Andrea Elson looking in the mirror and thinking she sees some fat, hideous monster staring back at her is just heartbreaking, and cosmically unfair.

So season two gave us the best possible relationship between Lynn and ALF…but it also retained the worst impulses and skeeviness of season one. The show giveth with one hand, and sexually assaulteth with with other.

ALF, &quotThe Boy Next Door"

Which brings us to season three…where we really complicate things. On the bright side, the show performed some course correction in terms of Jake’s lusting for Brian’s sister and Willie’s daughter (both of whom just sat there numbly while the kid joked about wanting to finger her savagely). Season three saw Lynn pushing him away — as evidenced notably in “Fight Back” — and the net result was that it now seemed more like cute flirtation than it did like unwelcome sexual advance. It didn’t take much…just a moment or two of assertiveness…to recontextualize the whole thing. And, in doing so, it freed Jake up to become a character who just happened to also be attracted to the neighbor girl. It was no longer one of his distinguishing traits, and he got to move on to more interesting business as a result. It was a win all around.

But that was the only win. ALF’s friendship with her all but vanished, which is odd to me. It was such a natural, effortless part of season two, but, for whatever reason, she became just another family member again in season three. Maybe ALF, like so many shitheads and fratboys before him, realized he wasn’t going to get any and therefore it wasn’t worth paying attention to her.

Whatever the case, we lost out on seeing their relationship develop (or at least sustain) over the course of the year. The single richest relationship in the show just…stopped. They were roommates, and that’s all. And that’s disappointing.

Not nearly as disappointing, though, as the increased focus on Lynn’s sex life, which formed the centerpiece of three different episodes.

ALF, &quotStanding in the Shadows of Love"

Prior to this, Lynn dated. That’s understandable. But while she’d like Scott in “Don’t It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?” or bring Lizard to her parents’ Halloween party in “Some Enchanted Evening,” her romantic dabblings shifted into season three’s foreground…with often icky results.

This means that season three actually has the distinction of being the season that most developed Lynn as a character…but it developed her in the wrong direction.

“Stop in the Name of Love” is the first of the Lynnsertion Trilogy, and on its surface it’s just some dumbass episode about ALF being stuck in the back seat of a car during one of her dates. It’s a stupid, forgettable episode, which is fine. (God knows that’s not a complaint exclusive to “Stop in the Name of Love.”) But it does something bizarre along the way, introducing us to the idea that, between seasons, Lynn got engaged to her boyfriend Lloyd…then they made plans to marry in a planetarium…and then they broke up.

This is odd in every conceivable fucking way, not least because Lynn already had a recurring boyfriend in season two’s Lizard. (Though she went out with at least one other guy, Rick, during that time.) Now she was planning on marrying someone we never met and will never be referred to again. Which is strange…but not as strange as how quickly she rebounds from the fact that her fiance dumped her, and pounces immediately at some new guys: the Duckworth cousins. She wanted one, ALF hooked her up with another, but she ended up with the right one instead, so, like the whole planetarium wedding thing, it really wasn’t worth bringing up the complication to begin with.

Lynn bouncing among three men in the episode — so quickly and without more than a token nod at feeling sad about her broken engagement — diminishes her as a character, and makes us care less about her feelings. After all, if a woman can bounce back so quickly from losing her future husband, what can any of her romantic fumblings mean?

The three men thing carries on into “Promises, Promises,” without any of the three being the same. Neither Duckworth nor Lloyd have anything to do with Lynn’s indiscriminate fucking in “Promises, Promises.”

No, it’s Patchouli (though one commenter tells me it might actually have been Julie…I admit I still have no idea how to translate Wright Speak), Eddie, and Randy. The former (if it is a man) is evidently out of the picture by the time of the episode, and the latter is mainly a smokescreen to keep her dad off her back…because really what she wants is to be plowed by an inappropriately older man named Eddie.

ALF, "Promises, Promises"

It’s creepy, and off-putting. But not as creepy and off-putting as the fact that she keeps seeing him after she’s understandably forbidden to. ALF rats her out…and then the episode is about ALF apologizing for trying to keep her safe from the kind of oily bastard who cruises for teenage girls to fuck.

Within the reality of the show, of course, I know that Lynn isn’t being victimized. But outside of that reality…once you move beyond the boundaries of your TV screen…the episode is troubling.

Children are watching this. Young boys and girls. And they’re being shown many signs of a sexually manipulative relationship (much older partner, mandatory secrecy, lies and false arrangements) and seeing it framed as something trivial. ALF, for one rare (though unintentional) moment, does the right thing…and then he’s the one punished for it. Even Lynn’s mother doesn’t seem to care much. Oh, you’re still seeing that old guy that’s been touching you and telling you your parents can never find out? Kids will be kids!

It was disgusting, and while ALF has never been the most intelligent show, that was the first time I’d seen it be destructively stupid.

And then, finally, there was “Torn Between Two Lovers,” which saw Lynn’s love-life simplified by having only two men wanting to bone her. In fact, they were two men from previous episodes (Danny Duckworth and Randy), so I don’t have much to complain about there. But the outcome is a strange one. Throughout the episode it feels as though it’s building to Lynn’s realization that Danny isn’t very good to her (and he’s definitely not), but when it ends they’re still together. Randy is set up (as far as I can tell) as a better romantic choice for her, but she neither goes for him nor comes to the conclusion that she doesn’t need either dick inside her.

Of the three Fuckapaloozas, “Torn Between Two Lovers” is by far the least horrible (and it has a great moment of Lynn asserting herself toward the end), but it’s still disappointing, as it leads right up to — and deliberately falls short of — Lynn acting like a person and realizing that she doesn’t need this manipulative, controlling shit in her life.

Oh, and we can’t forget the hilarious “Turkey in the Straw,” which revealed that in spite of their hatred for their neighbors, the Tanners used to pair their naked children off with distant Ochmonek relatives for bathtime sexplay.

Happy Fappy, everyone!!

ALF, &quotTurkey in the Straw: Part 1"

But you know what? Even as this show ran Lynn through the wringer — and introduced a hilarious recurring gag in which people THREW FOOD ALL OVER HER FUCKING FACE — she was still played by Andrea Elson. And because of that, the warmth never left her.

She was still there when ALF, or anyone, needed her. She was still prone to laughing at jokes her character probably wasn’t actually meant to laugh at. She still had a winning and sincere smile. She was still, in spite of everything, a happy and caring human being.

I know a few commenters have said that they had crushes on Lynn growing up. I don’t know if I can understand that completely, since Lynn is still just something on this show for ALF to bounce off of, but I can absolutely understand having a crush on Andrea Elson.

She’s a strong person. She has to be; everyone around her — Anne Schedeen included — has given up on this show. They’ve stopped trying. They’ve stopped pretending that they’re happy, smiling in promotional photographs, and saying nice things about it in interviews. They’ve given up. They spend every moment at work wishing they could go home, and every moment and home wishing they didn’t have to go to work.

But Elson?

ALF, &quotWe're So Sorry, Uncle Albert"

She’s keeping it together. She’s fighting her own demons in her own way…but when the camera is rolling, she puts it all aside. She accentuates the positive. She can see the bright side, even on the set of cocksuckin’ ALF.

She may never have become much of an actor, but she was always a professional. She was a warmer and more genuine presence than this show deserved. She didn’t get many jokes — and didn’t often avoid stepping on the few she did get — but she was something others on this show so rarely are: convincing.

She acted like a sister to Brian. She acted like a daughter to Willie. She acted like a friend to ALF. She was something this show needed much more of: someone who is who we’re told she is.

I watch ALF now, and I find myself disarmed often by Elson. She gets harder and harder to make fun of as the episodes go by, because I appreciate the small breath of humanity that she represents. When she’s on screen I’m not trying to think of jokes to make…I’m looking for her to break into a fit of unexpected chuckles, or to smile in a way that’s too convincing to be false. I turn to her for the assurance that, yes, it is possible to make it through the entire run of ALF, and come out the other end feeling okay.

Lynn Tanner isn’t much of a character. But Andrea Elson sure is. And if we got to see behind the camera more often, I bet she’d even be the hero.

There’s one more season to go. And I admit I have no idea what they’re going to do with Lynn next.

But, whatever it is, we can make it through.

Right, Andrea?

ALF, &quotChanges"

Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955The line separating bravery from idiocy is finer than you might think.

The same self-assurance that helps you triumph in the face of insurmountable odds is what causes you to beat your head repeatedly against a brick wall. The same refusal to succumb to tempting lies is what keeps you from accepting uncomfortable truths. The same unrelenting confidence can lead you to glory or damn us all.

Kiss Me Deadly is Robert Aldich’s noir masterpiece, and one that ensured we’d never be able to see the genre the same way again. It was — and is — a knowing study of itself…a loving condemnation of hardboiled detective fiction, while also managing to be one of the screen’s best examples. What’s more, its success hinges entirely upon its willingness to second guess its source material.

I love noir. I can’t make that clear enough. The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, The Thin Man, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Long Goodbye…when I brainstormed a list of titles to cover for Fiction into Film, those and many more rushed to the top. In fact, I could base an entire series around noir adaptations only, and while nobody in their right mind would read it, I’d have a hell of a fun time keeping it pointlessly alive. So I consider it something of a personal triumph that I waited a whole four installments to get around to covering one. And now that I am, there’s no more fitting emissary than the brutal, desolate, devastating Kiss Me Deadly.

Based on the book of a similar name (Kiss Me, Deadly, with a comma) by Mickey Spillane, the film follows private investigator Mike Hammer through a conspiracy that centers around a dead woman…and what she did or didn’t know. Hammer is warned off the case by the police, but he follows what little of the trail he can anyway, in the hopes of unraveling the mystery and finding a big pay day at the end.

As his secretary in the film puts it, “First you find a little thread. The little thread leads you to a string. And the string leads you to a rope. And from the rope you hang by the neck.” It’s a metaphor Hammer adopts himself — intentionally or not — when he explains his motives to another character…conveniently leaving out that last bit.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

In print, Mike Hammer was a grizzled, world-weary detective in the tradition of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. But Aldrich saw something in Hammer that he didn’t see in those other, spiritual colleagues of his: he saw that Hammer was a jackass.

The film, as a result, is a passive deconstruction of what was (at the time) an immensely popular character. It was a daring move…one that earned Aldrich the scorn of Spillane and his fans, but one which also ensured that the film would outlive the character. While Hammer might have fallen from the cultural consciousness, characters like him have not, and Kiss Me Deadly is just as damning a condemnation of Hammer’s type as it is of Hammer himself.

Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly toys from its first scene to its last with a single idea: what if this central detective figure is dead wrong? What if the man we’re trusting to sort things out for us is actually making them worse? What if this character who is meant to be one step ahead is always, unknowingly, several steps behind?

The exploration of this theme is by turns hilarious and horrifying. From the page Hammer retains all of his swagger, his wit, his brash charisma, his sexuality, and his willingness to work behind the back of the law. But the film robs him of the one essential thing that all hardboiled detectives secretly need: the authorial promise that he’s right.

As a result we get a detective film that plays entirely by the rules of the genre, and still manages to deliver us into a hopeless and inescapable climax; a nuclear nightmare in which the cool confidence of the main character has doomed us all to a slow and torturous death. It’s like a version of The Maltese Falcon that ends with Sam Spade going door to door gunning families down in search of the real thing.

It’s tempting to see this adaptation as a mean-spirited jab at Spillane’s talent, but I don’t believe it is. In fact, the first time I read Kiss Me, Deadly I was surprised by how effective the writing was. It wasn’t great, and certainly wasn’t the kind of thing I’d recommend to anyone who wasn’t in desperate need of detective fiction, but Spillane was good at what he did.

He wanted to create a cruel world of crime and violence, with one manly chunk of justice keeping karmic balance in the center, and that’s what he did. By his own rules of his own universe, Spillane crafted experiences. You’d taste the blood, feel the sweat, smell the danger. You were there along with detective Mike Hammer and you’d better be grateful for that, because otherwise you wouldn’t be getting out alive.

But once you remove Hammer from his element — from his necessary context — you see other, less admirable sides of him that the novels kept hidden. It takes no work to recontextualize the man as a vindictive, reactionary bully; all one needs to do is view him in isolation. Hammer shifts immediately from being a heroic figure to a sociopathic and dangerous one when you take no more than one step back from the action. Aldrich saw that, and crafted his film around the distance between what Mike Hammer thinks he is, and what he actually is.

Ralph Meeker plays our thick-skulled protagonist marvelously; more than half a century later I’m not convinced the screen has ever had a better portrayal of unearned, unchecked confidence. Hammer — on the page and on film — is a legend in his own mind. The difference is that on film we shy away from him. He question him. We wonder if his brutal, abusive, gleefully cruel methods are, strictly speaking, necessary. Meeker portrays him as a man who knows everything, except what the hell he’s doing.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Whereas Spillane never noticed (and whose success as an author hinges upon us continuing not to notice) that Hammer was a violent numbskull, Aldrich makes that the primary conflict of his film. His version of Hammer is a protagonist he positively dares us to root for. “Go ahead,” he says. “Follow this guy. See where it gets you.”

Both versions of the story open the same way. Driving alone at night, Mike Hammer nearly strikes and kills a panicking woman. She’s naked apart from a trenchcoat, and he gives her a ride away from whatever it is that she’s fleeing. He learns that she’s escaped from a mental institution, and at a service stop she mails a cryptic letter to him…just in case she doesn’t survive the night.

Sure enough, she doesn’t. Hammer is run off the road by a group of goons who kill the woman while torturing her for information that she never gives up. They then shove Hammer’s car off a cliff — with an unconscious Hammer and the woman’s corpse inside — and when he comes to, our hero sets out seeking answers of his own.

In the book, he picks up the thread fairly quickly. The woman had Mafia connections, and the men who killed her were trying to get their hands on two million dollars worth of drugs. The identity of the MacGuffin comes to light relatively quickly and easily, and Hammer spends the bulk of the novel trying to track it down before the Mafia does.

The film, however, plays it coy. Hammer doesn’t know what he’s chasing down until he finds it. In fact, he doesn’t even know what it is until well after he finds it. It’s not a cache of illegal drugs, and he’s not up against the Mafia. No…compared to the actual situation he finds himself — too late — embroiled in, those things would be a comforting reprieve. He’d trade every ounce of his reality to be at the mercy of the Mafia, because what he finds instead is something even he can’t convince himself he can handle.

Staring into the cold eyes of organized crime is nothing, after all, when compared to the raw, undiscriminating, destructive power of the Manhattan Project.

I started reading Kiss Me, Deadly as I was finishing Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (which will likely be covered here at some point, but not the version you’re thinking of). It was a nice opportunity to compare and contrast the way Chandler and Spillane handled their signature characters.

Both Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer operated outside the law, and they each viewed themselves as a lone kind of justice in a world that desperately needed them. But, operationally, that was where the similarities ended…and I think reading Kiss Me, Deadly and The Big Sleep so close together illustrated that quite well.

As The Big Sleep comes to a close, Marlowe’s client — the dying Colonel Sternwood — is made aware of the fact that Marlowe lied and misrepresented himself while working on the case. “And do you consider that ethical?” Sternwood asks him, clearly rhetorically. “Yes,” Marlowe replies. “I do.”

If, ultimately, it serves his client well, Marlowe is willing to bend the rules. It’s an adherence to a kind of ethics; one that may not match up with yours or with mine (or with Colonel Sternwood’s), but one he can justify to himself. One that allows him to look in the mirror and see a man he respects staring back at him. Marlowe is the damaged and weary heart at the core of his stories, the character who elevates Chandler’s novels above mere works of detective fiction and allows them to become complex, interlocking character studies. Marlowe will do the wrong thing in service of the right thing, and hate and admire himself in equal measure for it.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

As Spillane’s Kiss Me, Deadly opens, Mike Hammer outlines his own code of ethics. He explains to his secretary Velda why he’s going to see this dangerous case (which nobody hired him to investigate) through to its end: “I hate the guts of those people. I hate them so bad it’s coming out of my skin. I’m going to find out who ‘they’ are and why and then they’ve had it.” Importantly, he grins at Velda before he says this.

His code of ethics? Fuck you; that’s his code of ethics.

Hammer takes joy in hatred. He relishes it. He’s fueled by vengeance and bravado. And for Spillane, that’s enough. There’s no need to explore or undercut his attitude; it’s Hammer’s. If you don’t like it, you can shove off and find another book.

Flawed heroes by no means suggest “lesser” works of art, but the author must be aware that his heroes are flawed. Spillane, clearly, is not. He operates on Hammer’s side, watching him booze and batter and romance his way along the sunny California coast. In Spillane’s mind, that’s what Marlowe did, too. And he’s right…except that Marlowe suffered for it. Sure, Hammer comes away beaten and bruised, but Marlowe slinks back to his lonely apartment to play chess alone and wonder why he’s still alive. Marlowe’s suffering is emotional, spiritual, psychological. Hammer’s is expressly physical. Spillane doesn’t see a difference. I find it hard not to.

This is probably a large part of why Spillane’s writing hasn’t seen the kind of critical reappraisal that Chandler’s has. For all of their superficial similarities, the fact is that Chandler wrote about terrible things with a kind of love, a jilted affection, a hopeless hope for a better — or at least a decent — tomorrow. Spillane wrote about the same terrible things with a frothing hatred, a frenzied desire to inflict revenge until the karmic tally balanced out. One of those approaches proved to resonate through the years. The other, flatly, didn’t.

Spillane’s blindness to the weakness of his own prose is what holds the Mike Hammer novels back from critical recognition. Spotlighting that blindness is what allowed Aldrich’s adaptation to achieve it.

In the film, Hammer is portrayed as the worst kind of man; an imbecile who won’t keep himself in check. And Aldrich also gives him an identifiable reason for that: greed. Hammer on the page is a successful private eye. Sure, he don’t play by no rules and a couple-a noses get busted here ‘n’ there, but he ultimately proves himself correct. He gets his man. His methods are vindicated. Importantly: he wins.

Meeker’s Hammer doesn’t seem to have won in a long time. He might never have won. Sure, he’s got the charm, the nice suits, the sexy secretary. He’s got the sideboard full of booze. He’s much like his textual counterpart in those ways. But part of the reason he gets wrapped up in solving the mystery — what Christina Bailey, the mysterious woman, knew…what she was killed for knowing — is that he imagines a substantially larger payout than he usually gets. See, in an early — marvelously tense — scene, a board of inquiry grills Hammer as soon as he gets out of the hospital. And it’s there that we learn, if we couldn’t tell already, what a shit he is.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Christina Bailey’s dead. Hammer gave her a ride that night and lied to police at a roadblock to keep them from knowing that fact. Later they find her corpse and Hammer’s unconscious body in the wreck of his car. He’s obviously peeved to be asked about it, but you can hardly blame them for treating him as a lead.

He refuses to talk, however…so they talk for him. We learn that he’s what they call “a bedroom dick.”

He hounds out infidelity by creating it himself. He schmoozes the wife, and he sics Velda on the husband. They dig up whatever they can and sell the information to the other spouse.

He’s not an honorable man seeking justice; he’s a lowlife with dollar signs in his eyes. He’ll knowingly and deliberately hurt others and interfere with their relationships in order to maintain his station in life.

He sits there while the investigative committee asks him questions and tries to prod a response out of him, but when you’re comfortable with being that much of a jerk, you’re beyond the reach of insult. Their sharp words about his business practices don’t seem to faze him at all. No surprise there, and as its main purpose in the film is background exposition I admit the scene doesn’t faze me much either.

Aldrich, however, doesn’t leave it there. We get a much more affecting reprise of the theme later on, when Hammer lets himself into Velda’s apartment late at night. She’s in bed…sweating and unhappy. She reports to him about the man he sent her out to see, and we see that she’s not happy with the way Mike essentially functions as her pimp.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Maxine Cooper’s Velda is a harrowing creation…all vulnerability and desperate to please. She’s a beautiful woman with a good heart who is trapped in a toxic arrangement with her boss. It’s off-putting, disgusting, and perfectly handled by the film. Throughout Kiss Me Deadly she worries about Mike. She worries about his safety. She advises him not to dive head-first into a search for something people are dying over and which he can’t even identify. (Not bad advice, you have to admit.) But here, for perhaps the only time, she’s worried about herself.

She doesn’t want to say so. And she never does get around to saying it directly. But the toll that this “dating” is taking on her is clear. She uses the four-letter word “date” in place of another four-letter word films might use today. She feels filthy and disappointed in herself for having to “date” these men simply because her boss tells her to, and tonight’s brings her pretty close to the breaking point. All we need to know is expressed in her shivers, in her unfocused, desperate rambling.

“He…tried to date me,” she explains to Mike, who is only half listening. “With a few drinks…and one thing leading to another…I suppose I could get some more information…”

She’s hoping, clearly, that Mike will tell her she doesn’t need to go any further. She’s keeping the door open for him to say exactly that. We get the sense that she’s always leaving this door open…and that he closes it every time.

When he doesn’t respond, she asks him outright: “Do you…want me to date him?”

It’s in line with his narrative treatment of her in the book. Hammer is constantly proud of having such an attractive girl on his arm. He relishes the looks other men give her. For lack of a more tactful way to put this, he gets off on it. Strangers stare at Velda getting into and out of cars in Spillane’s version of Kiss Me, Deadly, and Hammer couldn’t be more proud of himself. They’d kill for the chance to touch her, but he knows she’s never leaving the palm of his hand.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Velda isn’t his wife, his girlfriend, or his love interest. She’s a pet. She’s someone over whom he exercises control, right down — as the film assures us — to who she fucks, and when, and for what purpose.

He toys with her across both media, but only the film gives us a scene like this, in which she’s on the verge of breakdown while her concerns are ignored. Sure, by this point in the film we knew he was a bedroom dick. There are no narrative surprises here. But the toll it’s taking on Velda has the capacity to shock. To upset. To revolt. And it does all three.

It’s scenes like this — raw with unspoken pain — that remind us that though Kiss Me Deadly is having a lot of dark fun with the troubling conventions of noir, and is at least passively interested in exaggerating them so we can see how ugly and ridiculous they are, we aren’t watching a parody.

There’s a lot of great comedy in Kiss Me Deadly, but it’s hard to laugh, because there’s a lot of hurt and anguish and crushed innocence as well. No, in spite of its inversions and subversions and intentions to tease out each of the genre’s many hypocrisies, it’s not a parody; it’s a serious film that just so happens to star a jackass.

Funnily enough, Aldrich’s adaptation tones down Hammer’s jackassery. It’s sharper and more critical in its development and presentation of the man, but a large amount of awfulness is actually excised from the character. Mickey Spillane was unsurprisingly unhappy with the way Hammer was portrayed in this film — an unhappiness which may have led the man to portray the character himself in the eventual adaptation of The Girl Hunters — but he should have been happy that his most troubling material never left the page.

There’s his treatment of Velda…which does largely carry over, but is missing an integrally offensive scene in which he assures her that, as a woman, she is incapable of taking care of herself. This, mind you, while he’s sending her out on what he knows is a dangerous mission. (Some pep talk, there, Hammer.)

In both the novel and the film, Velda ends up kidnapped and ultimately rescued by Hammer. In the film, however, that at least manages to play like poor planning on the part of the detective, whereas the book has an inherent “Told ya so” attitude to the development of her going missing. And, like Spillane playing Hammer in The Girl Hunters, the moral of that part of the story seems to be “If you want it done right, do it yourself.” Neither Spillane nor Hammer could trust the delicate business of slapping a city around to lesser people.

But there’s more to Hammer than the shitty way he treats Velda. For instance, there’s the shitty way he treats everyone else on Earth.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

The novel sees him following clues that lead to an apartment. When he tells a woman in the building that he’d like to see the superintendent, she informs him that she is the superintendent. He tells her he wants to speak to her husband, then, because she’s nothing to him.

It’s only mildly stomach churning until the climax of the scene, in which Hammer’s behavior inspires her husband to start being dismissive of her as well. In fact, her husband shutting her down plays like a triumphant moment…one we’re meant to enjoy, and one which is meant to reinforce Hammer as being the hero.

Look! He just helped this guy in his marriage! Before he met our heroic private eye, this guy was probably treating his wife as some kind of equal!

Now, of course, we need to take into account the time during which the book was written. That’s the same reason we didn’t get into the socially problematic portrayal of “the black boys” in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and it wouldn’t be fair to deride Kiss Me, Deadly for being complacent in its sexism when it was published in the early 1950s.

However there’s a difference of intent between scenes like this and a background level of sexism: Spillane’s work isn’t merely comfortable with or accepting of the treatment of women in 1950s America; it celebrates it. Spillane has Hammer right wrongs by showing uppity women their place. He makes sure they stay where they belong, and don’t get any big ideas. He equates their silence to a necessary male triumph, and that’s the difference.

A novel like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest can contain a problematic portrayal of black people as residue of the culture in which it was written. By contrast, a hypothetical novel that celebrates segregation and sees its hero organizing lynch mobs to keep blacks in line cannot fall back on the same excuse.

The superintendent moment does have an analogue in the film, but it’s much shorter there, and is at least played for laughs. It’s also one small part in a much larger, more artistic work that conclusively condemns Hammer’s behavior, which is important to keep in mind. The same scene that makes the woman look like a bitch in one context makes Hammer look like a bastard in the other.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

We also see sexism manifest itself in a bizarre way through the character of Michael Friday. Michael is female, and in the book there’s some back and forth about the fact that she shares her first name with Hammer. However nothing really comes of it, making it seem like Spillane started telling a joke and forgot to get to the punchline, which is why her incarnation in the film is just named Friday (and is that much better for it).

In both versions, Friday is the half-sister of Carl Evello, a dangerous cog in the machine Hammer is attempting to dismantle. However her film incarnation doesn’t have anything to do with the plot after Hammer flirts with her and uses her fondness to gain access to Evello’s estate.

And that’s fine. After all, even the best detectives in these kinds of stories need to use and manipulate others. A little bit of eye contact and double entendre over hard drinks is nothing. Hammer knows that Evello won’t be happy to see who’s schmoozing his sister, so there’s a psychological element at play here in addition to the simple, logistical one. In a Marlowe story we could question the ethics here (and there’s no doubt Marlowe would question them himself, alone at night in his empty apartment), but we already know that Hammer doesn’t have a code of ethics; he wants to win and doesn’t want to lose. It doesn’t get any deeper than that. Keeping that in mind, his treatment of Friday in the film is about as positive as one can ever hope to see.

In the book, however, both he and Spillane have bigger plans for her. She gets involved — and used as a pawn — in the conflict between Hammer and her half-brother. He gets information from her. He strings her along romantically (though it does appear, at times, that his feelings for her are genuine). And, ultimately, he sends her off, deeply entangled in a situation she wishes she knew nothing about, on a fact-finding mission that is likely to get her killed. She goes…and we never hear from her again. There’s no resolution, and she is apparently murdered on this mission without Hammer ever following up to rescue her or to make sure.

It’s an uncaring end for a character that seemed integral to the novel, and it gets even less caring when Hammer reveals that he’s mainly disappointed by her death because he’ll never get to fuck her. All that foreplay for nothing! Our poor hero. Fortunately, though, when he rescues Velda his first thought is that he will fuck her, so I guess everything worked out after all.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

In fact, in the book Hammer has a habit of going through femme fatales like dental floss.

The character type is a staple of the genre, but when they keep getting introduced and killed on his watch — the mysterious woman at the beginning, Michael Friday at some point off camera, Lily Carver toward the end of the book, very nearly Velda — it borders on unintentional self-parody. Spillane never realizes how ridiculous it feels to read this.

Introducing one femme fatale and immediately disposing of her — as with the mysterious woman at the novel’s beginning — works as a shock to the reader’s system. That’s the reason Janet Leigh’s structurally untimely death in Psycho hits the way it does; we meet a character and believe, at least to some extent, that we know what to expect from her arc. When an outside force — the unseen passengers of another car, Anthony Perkins — derails that character’s trajectory, we feel it. We have our sense of security shattered. We feel lost…and there’s nobody’s hand to take but the storyteller’s. We are, as they say, in their grip.

It’s an effective method of audience manipulation, but Spillane keeps doing it…and numbs its impact. It becomes comical at best, and a reminder that Spillane isn’t totally in command of his material at worst.

And all of this doesn’t even touch on the violence throughout the book. While a fair (okay…a more than fair) amount of violence is to be expected in hardboiled detective fiction, it’s typically violence that occurs to and around our detective figure. That, after all, is what separates him (and it is always a him) from the bad guys.

Not so in Kiss Me, Deadly, in which Hammer takes a dimaying pleasure in causing others pain. About midway through the book he murders two people who have designs on his life…which makes sense and was likely necessary. Less sensical and by no means necessary is what he does next: he arranges their dead bodies in a “cute” tableau against a sign reading DEAD END. Like James Bond, Hammer is always ready with a quip after besting his adversaries, but I don’t recall Bond’s sense of humor stretching to include the desecration of corpses.

He also confronts a character, Dr. Soberin, toward the end of the book, and kills him in cold blood rather than turn him over to the authorities. This after he breaks all of Soberin’s fingers just for the sport of it. And at another point he searches for the man he believes has taken Velda, and anticipates “the pleasure of killing him slowly.”

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

In Spillane’s world, though not in Spillane’s perspective, the hero’s actions are indistinguishable from the villain’s. The only real way to tell them apart is that one of them has the benefit of first-person narration. If we were watching from an outside perspective, the line between them would grow hazier, and eventually non-existent. Villains, by their natures, like to drag pain out…inflict it with gusto…relish the agony. Hammer, by his nature, appreciates the same things on the same level.

He’s ostensibly on the side of justice, but he believes that everyone should be able to appreciate some good, unnecessary torture. (Dick Cheney was a huge fan of the Hammer bibliography.) Chandler would definitely have said that Marlowe was a flawed man, but Hammer makes Marlowe look like Barney the Dinosaur.

These are all things that don’t carry over to Aldrich’s film. His version of Hammer — the one so gloriously, smugly inhabited by Ralph Meeker — is informed by this behavior, this mindset, this callous disregard for the feelings and needs and respect of others, but he does Spillane a favor by eliminating Hammer’s more sociopathic excesses.

It’s a favor Spillane could only repay with spite and vitriol, but had Spillane allowed himself to view Meeker’s portrayal as the kind of guy Hammer would be in real life, he’d have gained invaluable perspective.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

One of the most interesting structural changes in the adaptation is the role of Pat, a police offer attempting to untangle the same web of clues Hammer is. In the film, which I saw first, Pat embodies an identifiable — almost necessary — type of character: the adversarial lawman.

Our lone wolf detectives may always get their men, but in order to do so they need to operate on their own terms. This is where the lawman comes in. He warns the detective to leave the job to the guys with badges. He may threaten our hero’s safety. And while he may be either honorable or crooked, he represents an approach to crime solving that is hindered by its own process and procedures. A private investigator answers to none of that — though he may ultimately have to account for it — which is why PIs are so often the heroes, and straight-laced emissaries from the precinct so rarely are.

In the film, Pat seems to fit that adversarial role quite well. Aldrich has him do all of the things we’d expect: warn Hammer off the case, try unsuccessfully to get Hammer to share the information he’s uncovered, and, ultimately, shake begrudging hands with the resourceful man who solved the case before the boys in blue could.

…only we never get around to that last part, because all Hammer succeeds in doing is leading the bad guys to the dangerous nuclear material they’ve been chasing, and obstructing the official investigation that could have stopped them in time.

Hammer’s army-of-one approach to the case is precisely what bungles it, as sharing even the most basic information would have immediately made the scope and nature of what was happening more clear. In perhaps the most obvious example, Hammer tracks down Lily Carver, the frightened roommate of the recently deceased Christina Bailey. He spends the majority of the film with her, sheltering her and protecting her as he chases down his leads. When she disappears toward the end of the film — conveniently after he discovers the location of the stolen nuclear material — he mentions her to Pat…and Pat replies immediately that Carver’s body was found a week ago.

Hammer realizes then that he’s been used…that he’s the reason the bad guys are going to win. The smallest sharing of information, the narrowest attempt at cooperation, would have prevented this. Hammer was too preoccupied with holding all the cards to realize that he’s been slipped a counterfeit. He took a lie at face value, and the human race is endangered for it.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves with that last sentence, there. All of this is meant to be compared to Pat’s role in the book, which is much different. In the film, he’s an identifiable archetype (albeit one who, subverting our expectations, knows what he’s doing). In the book, he’s Hammer’s pal.

Pat, on the page, is a hopeless boob. He’s ineffectual, and impressed (isn’t everyone?) by Hammer. He does his best to help Hammer and makes only token warnings about his safety. He calls in favors with the other officers and he dutifully stays out of the PI’s way, knowing (as he must) that nothing can stop our hero.

Compared to Pat on screen, this is a much less satisfying character. Indeed, he only exists to remind us of the ostensible danger over which Hammer regularly triumphs; as we experience the plot through Hammer’s eyes, and Hammer is a vial of pure, distilled confidence, we need somebody else to tell us just how incredible he is for succeeding. Mike Hammer makes surviving the streets and single-handedly taking down the entire Mafia look easy…so if he’s to be our filter character, we need someone else to remind us that, no, actually that’s pretty hard; Mike Hammer is just that rad.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

In the film, Pat knows better. He views Hammer the way most of us would in real life: as a putz who doesn’t know better than to get out of the way. In fact in both the book and the film, Hammer has his PI license and gun permit revoked. In the book, this is presented as the work of the powerful, connected Mafia who are pulling strings to keep Hammer off their backs, with Pat expressing worry and remorse over this development. In the film, however, Pat takes great pleasure in revoking that license and permit himself, and even issues a direct threat for disobedience: “If I catch you snooping around with a gun in your hand,” he says, savoring every word, “I’ll throw you in jail.”

The book wants us to believe that Pat and Mike are old friends who have earned each other’s respect over a lifetime of bailing each other’s asses out. The film knows better; no cop in the world would want, or would benefit from, an impulsive brute like Hammer dragging his knuckles all over a crime scene. And so the revocation of license and permit are a necessary first step for Pat in the film. Whereas his literary counterpart hopes Hammer can win in spite of the handicap, Film Pat personally handicaps him to keep him out of the way.

We even get a great line in the film that isn’t revealed as great until the ending puts it into perspective: when told to step aside and let the police do their jobs, Hammer asks, “What’s in it for me?”

He finds out too late, and so do we: he and a lot of other people would have gotten to stay alive. Hammer serves up the sort of confrontational attitude that is so often framed as a positive quality for detective figures, and the film then guides us through a long series of scenes that make clear that it’s a positive quality for nobody.

As he explores and teases out the mystery of Christina Bailey, we follow him along on a trail identifiable to any fans of the genre. He checks in with landlords, with friends. He hears a few names uttered in relation to hers and he tracks them down as well. He finds kindly old gentlemen, haunted family men, boxing managers. He assembles a network of willing and unwilling informants, and pieces together what they know. On the surface, it’s every detective we’ve ever seen before.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

But beneath the surface, there’s something darker. We see it in how quickly Hammer gives himself over to anger. How cruel he can be, and how perfectly amused he is by that cruelty. In one scene he tracks down a man who may or may not have some information about another man who may or may not have some connection to Christina’s death. It’s a hunch several other hunches deep, but before he even asks a question he pulls a record off the man’s shelf, identifies it as “a collector’s item,” and snaps it in half.

Meeker’s look of smug satisfaction is perfect here. The man hasn’t withheld any information, nor is Hammer even sure he has any. He just sees the man’s extensive collection, pegs him as a music lover (the man was singing enthusiastically along to opera records when Hammer arrived), and decides to be a dick about it.

It’s one of the single cruelest moments in the film, because it’s one of the only times we know that a character truly cares about something. Hammer deliberately destroys it and leaves him with the pieces not because the man wouldn’t talk, but simply to assert himself. A man who had nothing to do with anything Hammer’s seeking has one of his prized possessions snapped in front of him, and Hammer couldn’t be happier about it.

His behavior is a far cry from Marlowe’s, as the latter is painfully aware of how rare goodness is in the world around him. When he finds those uncommon “straight” folks, he remembers them. When he sees how the world treats them for being straight, he’s tormented by it. Harry Jones in The Big Sleep is an example of a character with a good heart who doesn’t hope for anything more than to take another character away from all the madness and murder and misery. When Jones is killed before Marlowe can get to him, our detective feels the world grow that much colder. Hell, the entirety of The Long Goodbye could be said to focus around this idea, as Marlowe befriends Terry Lennox, a disfigured war hero the world — and seemingly everyone in it — beats down for no other reason than that they can. And when Marlowe learns later that Lennox himself isn’t such a great guy, either, it’s a charged, raw, painful revelation for him…a kick in the pants for being dumb enough to believe that goodness could even exist nowadays.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Compare that to Hammer’s treatment of a rare straight, honest fellow that he encounters in his travels: in both the book and the film, the desk clerk at an athletic club refuses to accept a bribe in return for information on one of its members. Marlowe, whatever his subsequent course of action, would be (at least temporarily) reassured by the knowledge that there still exists a kind of man who can’t be bought. Hammer, by contrast, grabs the man by the lapel and slaps the shit out of him.

This also highlights another difference of approach between the two detectives: Marlowe’s not a particularly big guy. He can’t count on winning a battle of sheer brutality, which ultimately results in a better character because it means he needs to outwit his opponents. On the page — where we can very clearly see the workings of mind but never the workings of body — this works very well. And where Marlowe out-thinks, Hammer overpowers. Both are valid approaches, but one is far better suited to the literary bent of the genre.

In fact, throughout Kiss Me, Deadly, Hammer reveals himself to be exactly the kind of guy Marlowe is regularly bringing down a peg. Someone with an inflated sense of self-worth without the ability to see that he’s ridiculous. And while this could — and should — rightfully feed a pride-before-the-fall approach to characterization, Spillane doesn’t see this as a flaw to begin with. Hammer just comes across as a meathead.

His dimwittedness is passive — and clearly unintentional — in the book, but Aldrich was a close and a respectful reader. He emphasizes Hammer’s intellectual failings, even as he reconstructs the central mystery to make it more satisfying.

In both the film and the book, Hammer receives a cryptic note from the mysterious woman (played in the film by an unexpectedly sexy Cloris Leachman)…after her death. She mailed it from a gas station in the final minutes of her life, having gotten his address from his license in the car. So far, so similar.

But the message in each case is very different. In the film, it’s two words long:

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

“Remember me.” That’s all. And yet…that’s not all. Because while she can’t spell out what she needs to tell him — for rightful fear that the note will fall into the hands of those seeking the nuclear material for their own nefarious purposes — she can hope that he’ll put several different pieces of information together and figure it out. He is a detective after all…right? That shouldn’t be such a novel idea…

And yet it is, because compared to Spillane’s original “mystery,” Christina’s message conceals its secret much more intricately.

There’s the note, of course. But the film adds layers. There’s also the way she introduced herself to Hammer: “Do you ever read poetry? No, of course you wouldn’t. Christina Rossetti wrote love sonnets. I was named after her.”

When Hammer goes to investigate Christina’s old apartment, he finds a book of Rossetti’s works…including one that begins with the words “Remember me.”

He pores over the poem with the woman he believes to be Lily Carver, Christina’s old roommate, and she helps him to decipher its meaning as it relates to Christina’s predicament. Hammer doesn’t realize it — though he would if he’d worked with the law rather than against it — but “Carver” has a vested interest in finding the item’s hiding place, too. In fact, she has more of an interest than even Hammer does; she actually knows what she’s looking for, and what it’s worth to others. Hammer, by contrast, is still chasing what Velda referred to as “the Great Whatsit.” By this point in the story he’s even sacrificed her to his search…without knowing what it is he will find.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Eventually, it clicks for him…and it clicks with the following lines: “For if the darkness and corruption leave / a vestige of the thoughts that once I had.”

He works through it:

“If it’s a thought, it’s dead because she’s dead. It’s got to be a thing. Something small, something she could hide. But where would she hide it? She didn’t have time at the gas station. She swallowed it!”

He heads to the morgue to demand an autopsy, where they find a locker key in her stomach.

That’s a mystery. And whether or not you buy Mike Hammer of all people stumbling upon the solution through impulsive poetry analysis (as much as I love the film, I’m not sure I do), it is a puzzle that gets solved. What’s more impressive is the way that Aldrich built all of this around Spillane’s source material.

He finds a real-world poet who has written a poem that can be boiled down to both a seemingly simple phrase and a deceptively rich clue…one that will lead his Hammer to the same conclusion Spillane’s found, but in a less direct and (dare I say it?) more “mysterious” way. It requires renaming a character (Christina Bailey was called Berga Torn in the book), but it’s worth it. See, because while I might have seemed like a smartass above about the novel idea of treating Hammer like a detective, Spillane didn’t really do it.

His version of the message is embarrassingly direct: Berga writes to Hammer, “The way to a man’s heart–” and leaves it at that, essentially structuring the novel’s central mystery around a Kiddie Korner fill-in-the-blank puzzle.

It’s especially (and again unintentionally) comical when both Hammer and the entire sprawl of the Mafia are angrily unable to solve it. It’s absurd that nobody in the universe of this novel has heard the idiom before (apart from Berga Torn, I suppose), and the net result is that we have a state-wide life or death scramble over what may as well be the solution to “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

In filming Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich knew that wouldn’t fly. There’s more to a mystery than a withheld solution…especially one that the viewer would guess the moment the question is raised. He may have revealed Spillane’s central character to be a helpless dolt, but he had respect for his audience.

The final stretch of the film is christened by a scene in which Hammer finds the Great Whatsit and realizes he’s out of his depth. It’s a realization that literally scars him.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Having solved Christina’s dying riddle and arrived at the object of his search, Hammer locates the mysterious box in a locker at the athletic club. He relishes the approach, taking his time with the buckles and clasps that keep the case closed. He never questions whether his search has been worth it; his only question is how much it’s worth. The tension is high, but the stakes, as far as he’s concerned, are non-existent. He’s already here.

He’s already won.

So Hammer takes a well-deserved peek at his prize. It’s not a cache of drugs. It’s not a sum of money. It’s not even something that can be divided and sold: it’s unstable nuclear material, and a moment of panicked exposure is enough to disfigure Hammer’s wrist.

It’s also a moment that has resonated through the years, with the searing light of an unseen force being visually reprised in films such as Repo Man and Pulp Fiction. Hammer’s nightmare endures.

He jerks away, bitten and shaken by what just blinded and howled at him from a hiding place that suddenly feels far too exposed.

The injury to his wrist smarts, but one gets the sense through Meeker’s deeply affected performance that the real scar is psychological. However much it hurts on the outside, it’s the blow to his dignity, his confidence, his self-assurance that he’ll never recover from. He had this. It was right there. It was in his hands. And now he wishes to god he never found it.

Lily Carver, who made the trip along with him, goes immediately missing. The clerk at the athletic club is terrified. And Hammer can’t even turn to Velda, who’s been taken by the very goons who were searching for this dangerous weapon. The very goons that Hammer just led directly to it. The very goons who even did him the courtesy of coming to the bar to tell him they took Velda away…but he was passed out drunk when they arrived, and so he still doesn’t know who they are, or where to find her.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

He’s some guy, that Mike Hammer.

He returns to his apartment and finds Pat, but there’s no more swagger, no more confidence in his gait, no more questions of “What’s in it for me?”

Meeker incredibly, deeply, disarmingly sells the emptiness. The hollowness. The complete and immediate wrenching change within. The distance between Charles Bronson and Al Bundy covered in the shift of an eyebrow.

Hammer is a broken, defeated schlub…all mussed hair and rumpled suit. His smug, self-satisfied grin is replaced by a hangdog sense of impending doom. He hasn’t just fumbled a case, or lost out on a nice payoff; he’s well and truly fucked a lot of people…and he can’t prevent the damage that’s about to unfold.

This is still Mike Hammer, but he’s Mike Hammer as Mickey Spillane could never imagine him: as a human being.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Pat is here with the upper hand, to rub it in, to remind him, and us, of what he’s done. He speaks with a gentle brutality throughout the film’s best speech…an expository patch that functions also as punishment for a misbehaving toddler. The Hammer who slapped and punched and abused his way forward has found the implications of those actions to be beyond his control. Pat rightfully lays into him without breaking his calm, which somehow renders the entire thing that much scarier.

“You’re so bright, working on your own. You penny-ante gumshoe. You thought you saw something big and you tried to horn in. […] Now listen, Mike. Listen carefully. I’m going to pronounce a few words. They’re harmless words. Just a bunch of letters, scrambled together…but their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean. Manhattan Project. Los Alamos. Trinity.”

Harmless words. Just a bunch of letters…scrambled together. There’s only the meaning we give them, but that meaning is very important. That meaning can change everything.

Mike, deeply abased, delivers the most fragile three words he’s ever said. They’re three harmless words. Just a bunch of letters. But their meaning is very important:

“I didn’t know.”

It halts Pat in his tracks. It’s the sort of thing that might have mattered this time yesterday. Now, at this stage, it’s too late. “You didn’t know,” Pat spits back at him. And then, “Do you think you’d have done any different if you had known?”

And that exchange…those two lines between two characters…betray a deeper, richer, more fascinating story on their own than the whole of Spillane’s source text managed.

Obviously the proper response here is that Spillane wasn’t interested in telling the same kind of story Aldrich is telling, and that’s okay. But there’s something reassuring about the fact that Spillane’s masculine, abusive cavalcade of triumphant violence didn’t last, while Aldrich’s dark, cynical undercutting of the same events did.

There’s a comforting reminder about the resonance of art, its staying power, its tenacity in outliving its inspirations and its creators. Its ability to take on a life and a legacy of its own. Books, movies, music, any kind of media will always have its comfort food, and that comfort is always fleeting…but art survives. It outlives the countless deaths around it. It carries forward into a world that has been somehow altered by it. It stands and remains a monument to itself.

While humanity fumbles and falls, a work of art is unchanged. It endures. It lives.

The end of the film sees “Carver” succumbing to her own curiosity and opening the box. The hungry force of destruction inside devours her as she burns and screams in agony.

It then devours the room.

And the house.

And the darkness of the night sky.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

The destruction comes fast, and is unexpectedly thorough. Our hero is on the scene, but only to be made painfully aware of his own helplessness, his impotence in the face of a real obstacle. In his escape he finds Velda, but there’s no feeling of reunion, of relief, or of anyone living happily ever after.

Together they stumble onto the beach with the nuclear disaster unfolding at their backs, and they take what minor, temporary comfort they can in the ocean as the swelling, repeating blast beats down on the world around them.

In the book? Oh, the book ends with Hammer being deeply repulsed by the fake Carver, who reveals that her body is disfigured and therefore she wasn’t worth all the time he spent trying to fuck her. He sets her on fire and leaves her to slowly burn alive.

How that — that — resolution could be reworked to become this horrific nuclear nightmare is a genuine example of spinning straw into gold. Aldrich did a great job not of adapting Kiss Me, Deadly, nor of improving it, but of sounding its hollows. Finding what it said without saying it. Ascribing grand meaning to a bunch of letters, scrambled together.

It’s tempting to give Aldrich the benefit of timing…arguing that the social climate in which he made his film was different from the social climate in which Spillane wrote his novel. But in truth they were released only three years apart — the cultural blink of an eye — and nuclear anxiety didn’t look much different in 1955 than it did in 1952. It’s not a matter of Aldrich filming in a different world than Spillane was writing; it’s a matter of Aldrich being interested in reflecting the needs, the fears, the paranoia of the world around him, whereas Spillane, flatly, was not.

In Aldrich’s hands, the story was elevated from an effective though forgettable bit of pulp to a Cold War horror show with a modernized Pandora’s Box as its central metaphor, the entire mess fed through a warped noir filter.

He did a lot more, that is to say, than point his camera while characters recited somebody else’s dialogue.

He created something that outlived the novel. He created something that outlived Spillane and himself, and is destined to outlive Hammer. He created something that still shocks today, something that continues to ring with terrible, destructive power. Something that reminds us that the wrong person in the wrong place can wipe out everything we’ve worked to build…often without even realizing that he’s done it.

The world of the novel was fragile. It splintered under the barest touch. But in the patterns of those splinters, Aldrich found something of harrowing beauty.

Instead of ignoring Spillane’s shortcomings as an author, Aldrich spotlighted them. He didn’t hide the flaws; he rearranged them so that they’d form a statement. And he didn’t redeem Spillane’s creations…he quite literally blew them up, along with the entire genre.

Kiss Me Deadly is often spoken of as noir’s grand finale…the last word that could ever be said on any one of its subjects. It’s a daring, definitive piece of punctuation that doesn’t only wrap up its own story, but seems to wrap up the stories of every hardboiled gumshoe, every dangerous dame, every nobody who’s ever been in over his head. It’s a blaze of glory that irreversibly consumed the genre that had given rise to it.

It was a great trick…but as Daffy Duck once observed, you can only do it once.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Kiss Me Deadly
(1952, Mickey Spillane [as Kiss Me, Deadly]; 1955, Robert Aldrich)

Book or film? Film. So much for all that “the book is always better” talk, huh?
Worth reading the book? If you’ve read all of the Chandler and Hammett and Cain you can get your hands on, then maybe.
Worth watching the film? Definitely.
Is it the best possible adaptation? Not only is it a better adaptation than the book deserved, the film makes a strong case for being the most intelligent noir in cinema history.
Is it of merit in its own right? The film is of merit, I’d argue, even to those who dislike noir. It’s one of the most daring and least apologetic adaptations I know of, and is a quietly damning study of Hollywood male bravado.

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