Cut. Print. Review. The Theory of Everything (2014)

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 Reviews: Character Spotlight – Lynn Tanner

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 the 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 defining 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 of the Duckworths 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 must 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 at 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: Kiss Me Deadly (1952 / 1955)

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 Aldrich’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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

ALF Reviews: Season Three, Reviewed

And so we close out another season…with only one left to go. That’s about all that needs to be said, but just try ‘n’ shut me up.

Season three was a really odd beast. I mentioned that the season seemed to be dragging, which, in a way, makes sense: it’s the longest of ALF‘s four seasons. But it’s only longer by one episode…so the fatigue certainly shouldn’t have set in as early or as easily as it did.

I have a theory for why it felt longer than it really was: season three plays like two half-seasons jammed together.

It wasn’t really, of course…but it sure feels that way.

The first half of the season stands separate in just about every way from the second, right down to the cast. Unless I’m forgetting something, Jake only appeared in “Turkey in the Straw” in the first half…but played major roles throughout the second. It was apparently a scheduling issue rather than a creative decision, but Jake’s appearing/disappearing act is the clearest discrepancy between the two.

It’s not, however, the most important.

The most important was, simply, the quality of the writing.

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

See, the first half was pretty damned lousy. I was warned before starting this series that the show peaked with season two. Everything after that was, I was told politely, an unmitigated disaster of global proportions.

And when season three began, I certainly wasn’t doubting that. In fact, the first six episodes seemed designed especially to make me give up on this project. “Stop in the Name of Love,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” “Tonight, Tonight,” “Tonight, Tonight 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold,” and “Promises, Promises” were all fifty shades of dickshit. The latter episode, in fact, marked the first time I sat at my computer unable to bring myself to even write about it. It was bad.

And things didn’t get much better from there. “Turkey in the Straw” had its moments — owing mainly to a solid guest turn by David Ogden Stiers — but was still a pretty massive pile of crap. And right after that we got “Changes,” “My Back Pages,” and “Do You Believe in Magic?,” that last having the dubious distinction of being the episode that actually made my childhood self throw up his hands and say, for the first time, “Fuck this show.”

The lone highlight of the first half was “Alone Again, Naturally,” which took an interesting idea (ALF finding out about a potential other survivor of the Melmapocalypse), handled it decently well, and gave us a daringly sad ending. It wasn’t a classic episode of television by any means, but for ALF it was good, and for ALF season three it was great.

ALF, "Funeral for a Friend"

But things picked up for the second half of the season…and they picked up considerably. In that back half we had “Fight Back,” “Superstition,” “Funeral For a Friend,” and “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow,” all of which are going to jostle for space on my list of favorites. Compared to the single, flawed highlight of the first half of the season, this is a marked improvement.

What’s more, even the bad episodes had good ideas. Okay…maybe not all of them…but though I came away from many of them feeling disappointed, I at least agreed that they had ideas or stories worth exploring.

“Running Scared” was about somebody blackmailing ALF to keep his alien origins a secret…and the reveal that the blackmailer meant a different kind of alien was a perfect way to resolve the story without breaking the status quo.

“Torn Between Two Lovers” was pretty lousy, but it ended with a strikingly astute observation about gender roles in relationships, and gave Lynn a chance to assert herself as a human being in a show that so often treats her like she’s not one.

Then there was “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” which deserves at least a little credit for attempting to resuscitate Brian, and “Shake, Rattle and Roll” which opened a nice conversation about mortality…even if it didn’t quite know what to do after raising the issue.

That, I have to admit, is a solid back half.

ALF, "Standing in the Shadows of Love"

And as I mentioned before, Jake’s frequent presence helped it a great deal. Josh Blake did some excellent work considering what he was given (and the ultimately disposable nature of his role), and there was always a sense of promise when he appeared at the Tanners’ door; we knew that somebody in the scene to come would actually give a shit about what they were doing.

So far, so good, but with both halves feeling so different, it honestly felt like I reviewed two seasons back to back without a break.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that the back half didn’t have its genuine stinkers. “Suspicious Minds” was basically a half hour of ALF reading Elvis’ Wikipedia page, “Standing in the Shadows of Love” had our alien hero lusting after an underage Carla Gugino, and “Like an Old Time Movie” was a loveless homage to what the writers shrugged and assumed silent films were like.

…but you know what? I liked them.

ALF, "Suspicious Minds"

Not really. Like is a pretty strong word. But there was something enjoyable about them in a way that so many of this show’s other bad episodes never achieved. There’s a kind of awe I find myself experiencing when an episode is not just bad, but is so deeply, thoroughly misguided…and I end up loving the fact that it exists. No, I’ll never watch ALF hanging out with Elvis again as long as I live, but every so often I’ll remember that some dumbass television crew devoted a week of their lives to making it, and I’ll laugh. It, along with many of season three’s other crap baskets, is stupid to the point of achievement. And I’ll take that any day.

Honestly, season three might be my favorite season yet, from a reviewing standpoint. Which is why I find it odd that the inevitable “Why don’t you stop watching?” conversation came smack in the middle of it. This was seriously the perfect mix for me…it had the periodic high quality of season two, combined with the batshit insanity of season one. It was the best of both worlds, as far as I am concerned. It had episodes I could enjoy and speak at intelligent length about, and it had episodes I could barely see because my head wouldn’t stop shaking. And that’s wonderful.

In fact, this might be the season I’d recommend to somebody who wanted to know what ALF was like. It’d do a good job of showcasing both why people enjoyed it, and why it’s almost entirely neglected today. It’s all of the show’s best and worst impulses in one stretch of episodes. It’s the way ALF should be remembered, and also the reason ALF should be forgotten.

As much as I pick on the crappy episodes of this show, I do enjoy it when the writers take risks, and when they explore unexpected territory. Neither approach pays off for them very often, but there’s something fascinating and instructive about this show’s failures. And, flatly, that’s what I’d call season three: fascinating and instructive. It’s a backhanded compliment, but that’s more than I can usually give this show.

ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

One thing that struck me as very odd was the disappearance of previously important characters. Jodi and Dr. Dykstra, for instance, were two favorites of mine, so their absences were easily felt. Granted, I think they’ve only been in about three episodes each, but for the entire season to go without so much as mentioning them…it’s worrying.

ALF introduces characters frequently, and they’re nearly all fucking terrible, so when the show creates not just one but two that I enjoyed spending time with, it feels like a slap in the face when they disappear entirely. Couple their absence with the untimely death of Jake and I’m really starting to dread season four.

Odder, though, is the lack of Kate Sr. She was a very important part of season one and a fairly important part of season two, but she didn’t appear at all in season three. She’s not one of my favorite characters, so this isn’t really a complaint, but it’s kind of odd that the only recurring member of the extended family simply ceased to exist and wasn’t mentioned once. I can’t quite articulate why, but her absence strikes me as bizarre.

ALF, "Having My Baby"

But, yeah, that’s about it for season three.

We’re entering the home stretch now, with everything that happens in season four being the last time it ever happens. I’m excited by that, and a bit sad. As much as I’ll be glad to stop thinking about / writing about / dreaming about ALF, it’ll be a bit sad to lose the little community that built up around these reviews, made better points than I did, and yelled at me about abortion.

…we’re getting ahead of ourselves, though. Two more bonus features, and then we’re on to the final batch of episodes. And then there’s — shiver — Project: Fuckin’ ALF.

The Tanners have a new baby, the best actress no longer gives a shit, and the only good characters don’t appear anymore.

I’m positive the show will be better than ever!

Grab a snack, settle in, and let’s give this show the farewell it deserves.

Roll on, season four.

ALF, "Turkey in the Straw: Part 1"

Review: Game Art, by Matt Sainsbury

Game Art, Matt SainsburyReleasing next week, Game Art is a directly-titled look at one of the most indirect forms of art out there. In fact, if I wanted to take issue with the book, that’s where I’d point; the title’s simplicity almost seems to do a disservice to the depths plumbed within.

To put it as succinctly as I can: I very much enjoyed this book. So much so that it took me several weeks to write this review. It’s easy to get drawn into, and when you manage to pull yourself away there’s so little that it feels like one can add to it. It’s a perfect study of a traditionally unstudied medium, and it’s hard to put any of this better than the author — or his interviewees — already did.

I received a review copy from Matt Sainsbury himself. I mention that by way of dual disclaimer. Firstly, I got the thing for free, which is always good to know…but by this point I hope you realize how much I hate all things, generosity included, so that wasn’t about to shape my opinion. Secondly, I know Matt. But I know Matt, primarily, as a writer. As a critic. As someone who has been doing exactly what he does in this book for the past several years. If my opinion of Game Art is enhanced in any way by my knowledge of Matt, it’s because his body of work has earned that respect.

Game Art feels like the culmination of a passionate lifetime of independent study and appreciation. It’s an oddly magical journey that gives respectful, gallery treatment to the kind of art that so frequently flits along in the background while somebody tries to survive a gauntlet or solve a puzzle. And it’s pretty incredible stuff.


Quite why game art (lowercase) gets the short shrift, I’ll never know. It’s in the same boat game music was in a few decades ago; creations by talented people that were not perceived as legitimate works. In the case of game music, the rise of OverClocked ReMix did much to grant retroactive legitimacy to these compositions. It provided a platform for other artists to pay homage to and develop upon the source material, and it opened a path to reappraisal and rediscovery.

Game art, oddly, has not had the same opportunity. As graphics improve massively year over year — and as games are often derided for not looking good enough — there’s a stunning lack of appreciation for those images as art. They’re a box to be checked, and then the world moves on to judging the next one against some cold, arbitrary scale.

Matt opens the conversation for reappraisal with Game Art, quite literally. Because in addition to presenting some stunning imagery, he gets in touch with the artists and game designers that put these visuals together, and does something unthinkable: he asks them to talk about it.

The result is a guided tour through underappreciated works by those who labored to create them, and there’s an overriding and charming sense of humility in the words of just about every interviewee. These aren’t artists who demand to be noticed or even understood. These are creators speaking about their processes of creation, and it’s a beautiful read.

In fact, the book could have functioned perfectly well in either of two ways. It could have been a big, glossy, quiet showcase of in-game and concept art worthy of a second look. It could also have been a collection of interviews with the unsung artists behind the games we love and a few we’ve forgotten.


Instead it’s both, which is why it’s so hard to put down. Read a few interviews, and get lost for minutes on end in the companion visuals. Find an image that draws you in, and dive immediately into the words of the artist who created it. It’s not just a great way to understand and experience game art; it’s a companion to itself.

Most importantly, familiarity with the games themselves isn’t necessary to appreciate the book. While I’ve played a few of the games covered here, I can safely say that I missed out on the majority. The conversations, though, are about larger topics. Like these comments from Michael Samyn, who has five games featured in the collection, regarding the somewhat limiting interplay between his role and the programmers’ in putting a game together:

If you want to get really creative, you’re up against a wall all the time thanks to the rigidity of the programming. Artists have very complex logic of their own; it’s just that their minds work differently than a programmer’s. I do think that’s perhaps another reason there aren’t as many interesting games from an artistic point of view.

He then goes on to discuss a — potentially exciting — aspect of artistic design that’s very specific to an interactive medium like video games:

The player not only has the imagination to complete the work, as they would with a movie or book, but they can actively change the narrative itself. We also like to make our games rich so players can express themselves and do things depending on how they feel. That means we can’t really finish a game like you would finish a book or a movie.

These aren’t conversations that require a specific frame of knowledge to understand; these are unique and valuable insights into the nature, obstacles, and experiences of the creative mind.


Game Art is at once an easy read and deceptively dense. It’s difficult to speak concretely about it, because much of what the book does is get your own mind working. When, as above, a question of leaving room for audience interplay is raised, it’s conducive to independent thought. It gets your mind working as a reader, if only because these are concepts that haven’t been explored in the public consciousness before. These are considerations that are familiar to those creating within the industry, and regularly glossed over by those enjoying the fruits of their labor.

Matt’s bridging of this disconnect feels long overdue, and the fact that it’s handled in such an appealing, gorgeously visual tome is, frankly, more than we deserve. It’s the sort of book that’s impossible to read without being at least mildly envious of the author for identifying such a massive gap and paving over it so perfectly.

I’ll remind you again that Matt’s my friend. He’s a great guy. And I’ve interviewed him here before in the early stages of the project. But none of that shapes my opinion of the final product. It doesn’t make me like it so much as it makes me appreciate all of the time and the effort that I know has gone into this. It’s a book that very much succeeds on its own merits, and absolutely lives up to its ambition.

If you have any interest in games, visual arts, interactive arts, or the creative process in general, Game Art is very much worth your time. It’s also a handsome enough volume that it makes for a great gift.

It’s available on Amazon and from No Starch Press directly. The latter offers it as an ebook for an outright psychotic $32, though, so, seriously, pitch in the extra few dollars for the physical version.

Here’s hoping Game Art is able to elevate the levels of appreciation and discourse when it comes to…well, game art. It’s a welcoming, inspirational, and by no means exhaustive way to open the conversation. It’s our job to keep it going.