Three Little Piggies

At first, things went well. Saturday morning Bacall went into labor, and before too long we were admiring the first wet mewing lump that emerged.

For the rest of the day we waited to for more, but as far as the cat was concerned she was done. I’d been prepared to let nature take its course, but by Sunday morning even I had to admit that something was wrong — even if Bacall acted perfectly normal.

Having long since known that something wasn’t right, Wendi quickly scooped up both mother and kitten and took them to an emergency clinic. Not a moment too soon, either!

An x-ray confirmed that there were two more kittens in the oven, and that their heads were likely too big to let them get out.

And that’s how Bacall came to have a caesarean, and why her one of her kittens is a full day older than its siblings. Fortunately, everyone seems to be okay.

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The View from a Cabinet

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been reading Euro Horror by Ian Olney. I’m more of a cinephile than a student of film, so I don’t always comprehend the language of film theory. Still, Olney’s book is reasonably approachable, and it’s gotten me to re-examine my fondness for the largely disposable genre films of the 1950s-1980s.

To do great disservice to his thesis through half-informed summary, Olney observes that many of these films invite viewers to invert cultural norms and expectations, sometimes through plot (cannibal films that show Westerners as prideful encroachers) but often through performative spectatorship (simplistically, the use of POV shots to experience alternative perspectives). In other words, as the films provide ample titillation, gore, and thrills, they also allow an escape from our everyday points of view.

Euro Horror is absolutely worth a read, if you’re interested in critical analysis of how we interact with film. I really can’t do Olney’s observations justice with my rambling, so please check out the book for yourself.

As I thought over all of this in the shower (where else would one think about horror?) I recalled sequences from a creaky old house mystery I’d recently seen. “House of the Damned” (1963) was described to me as a cross between “The House on Haunted Hill” (1959) and “Freaks” (1932). That may not seem like a glowing recommendation to you, but to me it sounded like a curiosity that simply had to be seen. Ultimately, I believe we may both be correct.

Spoilers are about to be dropped like so many phat beats, but honestly if you have ever seen an episode of “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” you already know the entire plot.

The basic premise of “House of the Damned” is that the long-term lease on a secluded mansion has expired, and the owners want an architect to determine what should be done with the place. The final tenant was a retired carnival owner who was a bit of a recluse. In fact, he hasn’t been seen since he paid the remainder of his rent a few months ago. Enter desperate architect Scott Campbell and his wife Nancy, who assists in taking measurements.

I mentioned spoilers, yes?

The majority of the film consists of carnival folk trying to scare the Campbells away so they can continue to stay in the house. One of these characters is played by Frieda Pushnik1, a woman born without arms or legs. She is featured in some of the more effective scenes of the movie, which just happen to involve examples of performative spectatorship via POV shots. Pushnik’s scenes revolve around a cabinet in the large room that the Campbells use as their bedroom and base of operations. The cabinet has a fine mesh front, through which Pushnik watches everything they do.

In the first of these scenes, the camera watches Nancy Campbell undress through a sort of screen2. In a reverse shot, this screen is revealed to be the mesh facing of the cabinet, and we briefly see Pushnik’s impassive face. It’s a startling transition, forcing the viewer to reinterpret the leering, male gaze just shared. Is Pushnik disapproving? Attracted? A threat, or a victim? We don’t have enough context, and so the mystery lingers as the movie continues.

The second sequence involves a guest — Loy Schiller, whose husband brought the job to Scott Campbell. Once again, we look through the eyes of Frieda Pushnik as a woman changes clothes. At least we can assume it is Pushkin observing again, as no evidence is presented to the contrary. It’s essentially the same shot as before, except for the lack of reveal. Again the viewer shares in the voyeurism but is left with unresolved tension.

The final version of the scene at last resolves the tension in a way that inverts the situation completely. The audience looks once more through the mesh of the cabinet, but this time it’s no peep show. Instead Joseph Schiller enters the room, looking for clues to his wife’s disappearance. He notices the cabinet, and as he approaches to investigate, we can’t help but feel trapped behind the door. When Frieda Pushkin is finally revealed, everything falls into place.

The spectator was powerless all along. Pushkin (and the viewer) may have been spying, but she is a passive force — completely at the mercy of the observed should they turn on her. By sharing her viewpoint, we’re put in that same position of helpless observer. In the end we are meant to empathize with the carnies, and by exposing the surveillance in which we’ve participated as the vantage of weakness the film prepares us to wish them well.

I have no idea whether the filmmakers intended this cumulative effect when those scenes were filmed. Certainly there are other — directly commercial — reasons to put in two sequences of women undressing, and having them being watched adds some much-needed danger (as well as a flimsy excuse for the titillation). Just as certainly the inversion of power in the third sequence is deliberate, taking good advantage of the pattern established by the earlier scenes. The revelation of Frieda Pushkin’s vulnerability I can believe was an intentional deflation of the accumulated tension, but was it meant to literally put us in her place?

I don’t know. The effect is there though, and it’s nicely accomplished at that.


1. Frieda Pushnik’s character is not given a name, so I will refer to her by the actress’s name.

2. The tastefulness of these scenes is almost shocking for modern viewers.

Digital Drive-In Doom!

Disruptive technology, put simply, is innovation that transforms things so completely that everybody has to adjust. It can render entire industries obsolete or force everyone to upgrade their personal equipment. Holding out against disruptive change is hard, but sometimes it’s even harder to adapt.

I spent this past weekend in Vandergrift, PA to attend a 2-night Peter Cushing film festival at a drive-in. There are very few of these theaters remaining, and they’re staring at a deadline that threatens to finish many of them off once and for all. The studios are planning to go digital-only next year.

Digital is great for showing movies. There’s no “print” as such to break and decay1. Storage is much smaller and easier. The definition is crisp. There are probably enormous benefits for 3D.

There’s just the little matter of the roughly $75K needed to upgrade to a digital projector.

Drive-ins have a limited revenue season — many in the northern states only operate during summer — and like indoor theaters they make most of their money from concessions. So basically we’re looking at a snack bar that only operates for a few hours a day, during four months a year, needing to come up with tens of thousands in additional profit or give up on showing current movies.

I suppose they could get loans, but a bank is going to want to know how the hell profits will increase enough to pay the loan back. It’s not as though going digital is likely to bring in more customers. It’s simply necessary to not lose more business when the new releases stop being available on film.

It’s a sad situation. People who run small drive-ins stand to lose their businesses. As a culture, we stand to lose an enjoyable piece of our living history. That’s the way of disruptive technology. There’s nothing unique about the fate of drive-ins; I’ll just happen to notice this loss. With the pace of change accelerating, we’re all going to experience these disruptions many times in our lives. (Anyone else have to replace their LP collections?)

Through a 3rd-hand source I learned that the studios may relent on the hard deadline, or at least push it back. It would make sense; if there are fewer screens, there is less money to be made. More time might actually help. The drive-in I was at has raised a significant portion of the upgrade cost through fundraisers, but they still have a long way to go.

If there’s real hope in this case, it may lie ultimately in nostalgia. The mere act of watching a movie at a drive-in is antiquated. Who’s to say if showing older movies won’t increase attendance? Double-bills of famous mid-century films like “Giant” or “The Blob” could be a retro draw. See the movies your parents watched, as they watched them!

You never know. Revival screenings might just pay for the ability to show new movies going forward.


1. There are still ways to render a digital “print” useless, but let’s just agree that the rate of loss is much lower.

Cats-R-Us

The rescue cats have continued to dominate our lives. Their second trip to the vet went fairly smoothly. Wendi took them back to the exam room one at a time (in individual carriers) while I kept the others company in the waiting room. The kittens got their first round of shots, and their mother… The vet says that we can expect more kittens in a few weeks.

She's made of tinier cats.

She’s made of tinier cats.

In the meantime, the cats having tested clean for nasty diseases, we’ve started leaving the porch door open while we’re home. Mother cat — now dubbed Bacall, as she resembles our Bogart — immediately took over the house. Largely indifferent to the hissing and growling directed her way, she’s used the inside litter and generally crossed every line so far as our boys are concerned. Ling does not appear to care overmuch, as long as she gets fed.

The extent of feline retribution for this intrusion has been one piddle, defiantly beside the litter box.

Bacall’s kittens largely keep to the porch. The girl, Sadie, comes out every now and then to try to get to our betta in the lower aquarium. She can’t quite figure out how to get through the glass, but she appears to have fun in the attempt. The boy — named Taz in honor of the carnage he wrought at his first vet appointment (I still have a small scar) — pokes his head inside but retreats whenever he’s noticed.

Our concern now is how to provide a warm and comfortable nest on the porch for Bacall and her next wave of tiny furballs.

One cat. We set out to save one cat…