Monday, July 27, 2015

RAGING BULL

   One may as well attempt a reasoned argument with an Armageddonist Christian about the propriety of a nuclear-free Iran as to take issue with most people when the subject matter involves cinematic violence. When artiste auteur darling directors tow their gratuitous violence through Styx and into the darker sphere of adult realism, claiming that the only way the audience can internalize the tragedy befalling a hero or his victims is with red-lens filters, slow motion shooting, and stop action precision, often as not those directors reap the celebratory accolades of their filmmaking brethren and of the critical community at large, all of which speaks not well for the movie directors but ill for the community that idolizes them. If, as I believe, one of the purposes of a movie that seeks to do more than merely entertain is to fill the audience's lungs with a new chemical that stirs dormant sensations and primordial recollections akin to remembering that sometimes for convenience we forget what it means to be alive, then the presumably cheap and tawdry efforts of directors such as Tobe Hooper (Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and George Romero (Night of the Living Dead) fulfill this supreme mission far better than more "great cinema art" aficionados such as Martin Scorsese. 
   When Raging Bull was first released in 1980, I resisted seeing it for a couple weeks, mainly because a friend of mine kept insisting that I simply had to watch it, that Robert DeNiro proved himself to be truly beautiful and the natural precursor of all the great method actors who had preceded him, and that the director, this Scorsese fellow, had evolved from the city realism of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver to the venue of great tragedians such as Aeschylus and Sophocles. Statements of that sort infuriated me because (a) I didn't believe them, (b) I sensed a profound misogyny in Scorsese's work (give or take Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), and (c) whenever I hear that so-and-so is the greatest anything, I tend to disbelieve it, especially when it comes to movies. So I sat back and read the reviews and listened to the talk about Raging Bull to the point where I felt I had already watched it several times. Despite more than a few invitations from people who had already seen it to join them for an encore presentation, for two full weeks I proudly and steadfastly refused to budge. 
   Then one Wednesday afternoon, instead of going to Geology class, I walked down to the one and only movie house in town, gave the ticket-taker a couple bucks for the matinee and muttered out the name of the movie. 
   I liked it. I did not love it, not by any means. But I liked it. I thought DeNiro radiated all the beauty that had been claimed for him. I recognized the classical tragedian structure of the story. I agreed that Joe Pesci would likely become the perennial sidekick in Scorsese pictures. Best of all, I was able to say to people whose lives appeared to revolve around little else that I had at long last watched this movie and now could people kindly leave me alone?
   Flash forward to a couple weekends ago. A friend agreed to watch the movie with me on DVD. She made no bones that she wasn't too happy with the idea, but once in a while I have introduced her to a motion picture that she likes a lot and there was always the chance that this might happen again. So she put on a brave face. She leaned forward in her chair. She smiled in anticipation. 
   The smile did not remain for long.
   "I liked Joe Pesci in it, " she said. "I didn't like the way it depicted the way men treated women. I thought it was way too bloody, even in black and white. I turned my head away." 
  My friend is not a child repulsed by the reality of a cruel world. Likewise she is not a blue-haired prude, leaping in terror at every falling branch. My friend is a decent, brave, respectable human being with strong feelings and love for her family. Why she wants to spend her time watching movies with the likes of me is anyone's guess. But she does. And when she ventures an opinion or reaction to a movie, I shut up, listen, and think about it.
   For a movie that supposedly bookended an era in movie-making that merged reality with art (the other end of the shelf being the far superior Bonnie and Clyde), Raging Bull has aged less than well. One reason for the lingering stench lies in the efforts at making the boxing matches so authentic. What could be done in 1980 by masterful craftsmen can today be done by clever twelve-year-olds. So the violence becomes obsolescent. But the bigger reason for the movie's disappointment can be summed in an appropriately adolescent shrug: So what? Why should the audience--today's audience, or the audience of 1980--give a damn about Jake LaMotta? Was he the 1940s version of Macbeth, a single-minded individual who forced his closest allies to betray him while thumbing his nose at his closest enemies? No, he was a tremendous fighter who was possessed of a blind drive for violence, the source of which is never identified but which we are led to surmise has something to do with him being Italian. Since LaMotta is portrayed as a wife-beating, paranoid, belligerent thug, it's hard to give much compassion to him when he begins to slide somewhere along Act Three.  
   "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." So said Dr. Sammy Johnson. Dr. Johnson, among other things, was an erudite snob reactionary prone to being long-winded and rude. He also contributed to eighteenth-century English literature in ways that few others did. Jake LaMotta used to beat people up very effectively. That may have made him some kind of an artist. Telling his story with realism does not do the same for the director.
Scorsese and DeNiro


AMERICAN QUESTIONS

1. How many unauthorized immigrants live in the United States?
   According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants lived in the USA. Of that number, 52% (5.9 million) were from Mexico. As a whole, unauthorized immigrants account for 5.1% of the U.S. labor force. [1]

2. What is the religious make-up of the United States?
   Not all Americans wear make-up. However, if you're looking for self-identification, PEW makes it clear:
Christians account for 70%
Jews: 1.9%
Muslims: 0.9%
Atheists: 3.1%
Agnostics: 4.0%
Nothing: 15.8%

3. How do Americans view themselves regarding political party affiliation?
   39% think of themselves as Independents
   32% see themselves as Democrats
   23% are Republicans [2]

4. What is the demographic structure of the United States in 2015?
   Thirty-eight percent of the USA describe themselves as members of a minority group, with 44.4 million being Hispanic, 42 million being Black Americans, and 13.3 million being Asian Americans. 
   The median age of the U.S. population is 37.6 years. 
   More than half of the population live in one of thirty-nine urban centers. 
   Twenty-five years ago, the West and southwest were the least populace regions of the USA. Today those two regions account for 37.7% of the total population, while the Midwest, back in 1990 the most populated part of the country, declined to 19.1% [3] in 2015.

5. Do Americans only urinate in their own swimming pools, or do they do this while on vacation overseas?
   According to Travel Zoo, who polled American, British, Chinese, Canadian and German travelers on a set of eight travel faux-pas, Americans were the most egregious offenders. More Americans admitted to peeing in the pool, skipping work and leaving without paying their bill when on vacation, according to the poll.[5]

6. We Americans think of ourselves as a peace-loving people. How did we get such a contrary reputation among the rest of the world?
   The reason could be due to the USA being at war for all but seventeen years since its inception in 1776. [6]
   It could also be that even though violent crime has steadily declined in recent years, rates of gun violence remain high. On average, 33,000 Americans are killed with guns each year, and the burden of this violence falls on young people: 54 percent of people murdered with guns in 2010 were under the age of 30.3 Young people are also disproportionately the perpetrators of gun violence, as weak gun laws over easy access to guns in many parts of the country. Far too often, a gun not only takes the life of one young American but also contributes to ruining the life of another young person who pulls the trigger. [7]
   There's also the unfortunate fact that since 1976, the United States has executed 1,412 incarcerated inmates, although the annual execution rate has been steadily dropping since Bush Jr left office.[8]
American lifestyle

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

SERIES FINALE OF THE WORKS IN A DRAWER

Previously on The Works in a Drawer:

Paul Luab
Who's in charge here?


Grandpa
Trixie's got the sword.


Paul Luab
How old are you, little girl?


Trixie
Who wants to know, sailor?


Paul Luab
Paul Luab, Fire Police Detective.


Trixie
Nice hose. You're a big guy. I'm nineteen.


Grandpa
In a pig's sty.


Paul Luab
Hey, watch your mouth, Grandpa.


Grandpa
Name's Crabb Woman, pal.


Paul Luab
Okay. Crabb Woman Pal, what are you folks up to? If you'll pardon me ending the sentence with a preposition.


Grandpa
Right now, I'm wondering where my wife might've gotten off to. If you'll pardon me ending the sentence with the word "preposition."


Paul Luab
Mrs. Crabb Woman Pal, by any chance, was she about seventy, two hundred pounds, carrying a bag of soy beans (with the taste of real wood) and radiating a more or less blue complexion?

Trixie
No, she's about seventy-two, hundred pounds, puking up toadstools we picked in Albuquerque. 


Grandpa
So you seen her? If you'll forgive me using the wrong verb tense in a strictly colloquial manner.


Paul Luab
Nope. No eyes of mine have been laid on her.


Haley
We're following the fire. You really are big.


Paul Luab
The fire? Oh. Real scorcher, that one is.


Ted
Ted Det, Action News Panic Alert.


Paul Luab
Paul Luab, Fire Police Detective. Former lumberjack. Anyone here have a permit for the omen?


Car Salesman
They talk, you know?


Paul Luab
Not surprised. Hot out today. Guess I am bigger than most.


Car Salesman
They say the word "sapphire."


Paul Luab
Makes sense. Just a fancy word for "blue." (Turns to the oxen.) Hey, Babe!


Oxen
Sapphire!


David the Jihadist
Will you people please stop them from saying that?!?


Paul Luab
You got a slingshot there, pilgrim?


David the Jihadist
Maybe.


Paul Luab
You want to show me your permit?


David the Jihadist
I bought it at a slingshot show in Arizona.


Paul Luab
Ah, the loophole. Just don't do any giant slaying, bub. Well, guess I'll be on my way.


Ted
What about the fire?


Paul Luab
Petered out.


Grandpa
Who?


Paul Luab
The fire burned itself out just across the Texas borderline. Citizens committee figured it might be part of a federal invasion force, so about nine hundred of them hopped up and down on it, stamped it out. 


Grandpa
Well, back to saving matches. Kids, guess we're headed back to Detroit.


Trixie
Hell's bells.


Grandma (From a very long distance)
Trixie, mind your manners!


Oxen
Sapphire!


Paul Luab
Why don't you folks saddle up on the bovines? Davy Boy here and I will lead you all back to the Broken Promised Land. What do you say, Jiji?


David the Jihadist
Wherever there's discontent in a city, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beating a guy, I'll be there. Wherever people are confused and frightened and have access to firearms they don't know how to use, I'll be there.


Paul Luab
Well, he's in. How about the rest of you?


Everyone
Hee-haw!


Paul Luab
Keep movin', movin', movin'
Though they're disapprovin'
Keep them omens movin'
Hee-haw!


Eve Eve (back in the studio)
And that's why I traded my High Definition Radioactive Wifi-based Television Set for the new Hotlegs Convertible.


Jan (No longer on the plane but instead back in the studio)
Just as reality TV fades away, reality automobiles make a comeback. Kind of makes you want to go to Detroit, doesn't it?






Sunday, July 19, 2015

THIRD INSTALLMENT OF WORKS IN A DRAWER

    My advice is that you peruse the first and second installments before advancing deeper into the abyss


  Car Salesman (Having joined the others deep on the trail of the 1100 mile fire.)
   Not just anyone can sell the 450 Hotlegs Convertible (with rotary fins and a zero torque transmission), but anybody can join up with what we in the media are calling the Wickiup Procession.


Grandpa
Damned right, Jailbait.


Car Salesman
You're the Grandfather on this little junket, right?


Grandpa
I'm sure not the rabbit ear antennas, now am I?


Car Salesman
Talk about what brought your caravan together out here somewhere between the states.


Grandpa
You got anything to eat?


Car Salesman
Sorry. No.


Grandpa
Mother! I'm feeling empty!


Grandma
Here! Have these freeze-dried soybeans (with the taste of real wood). 


Grandpa (Gobbles them)
Takes some getting used to. In a pinch though--


Car Salesman
Why not eat the oxen?


Grandma
Hush!


Grandpa
Caroline, he didn't know any better.


Grandma
Needs to mind his manners, Rudolph.


Grandpa
Name's Crabb, woman.


Car Salesman
Okay, Crabb Woman. Tell me about the oxen.


Grandma
Hush!


Grandpa
You noticed them, huh?


Car Salesman
Twelve of them at the far end of the Procession.


Oxen
Sapphire!


Grandma
See! You boys woke them up with your foolishness.


Grandpa
They've been hoofing with us the whole way, Crabb Woman. You see, Mister, the oxen are what I like to call an omen.


Car Salesman
What do you mean by that?


Grandpa
As you know, oxen are castrated bovine. What we call a draught animal. We're in the middle of a thirty year drought. 

Car Salesman
Did you say castrated?

Grandpa
I guarantee you they ain't no bulls. Where's that guy, Ted? He asks better questions.


Ted
Right here, Crabb Woman.


Trixie
Grandpa, I'm hungry!


Grandpa
Ask your Grandmother for some toadstool patties (with the taste of real salmon).


Grandma
We're out. The damned ox ate the last of them.


Oxen
Sapphire!


Trixie
Shucks!


Grandma
Mind your manners, Trixie.


Car Salesman
When you say "omen?"


Grandpa
Figure it out, Jailbait! Oxen? Omen? The Third Reich twisted the letter "m" into an "x." That's how we got the Second World War. Don't they teach people nothing in school?


Haley
Exactly.


Grandpa
Question is: are the oxen an omen for us or against us? Oh, look!


Grandma
What the baldheaded camel is that?


Trixie
It's that star lady with the airplane!


Ted
And just in the nick of Ted.


Grandpa
Wondered where you got off to, boy.


Ted
Right here beside you, old timer.


Grandpa
Name's Crabb Woman, Slick.


Trixie
Can we focus on the broad with the plane?


Grandma
Mind your manners, little girl.


Trixie
Grandma?


Grandma
Yes, honey?


Trixie
The next time you say somebody needs to mind their manners, I'm going to feed you to the oxen.


Oxen
Sapphire!


David the Jihadist
Will somebody please make those beasts stop saying that?!?


Everyone
No!


Ted
You're David the Jihadist?


David the Jihadist
In the flesh. Autograph?


Ted
Not right now.


David the Jihadist
Oh! Too good for me, huh? Don't want to dirty your stinking fountain pen on the fingers of a rancid little terrorist, eh?


Ted
Got kind of a short fuse, don't you, Dave?


David the Jihadist
Yep. That's why so many people take us for suicide bombers. Can't get away fast enough is the real reason.


Jan (Yet again clinging to the plane's wing as Roger the pilot swoops in to drop the jet fuel payload)
Everybody duck!


Oxen
Sapphire!


Grandma
She said "duck," you idiots!


Oxen
Meow!


Grandma
I give up.


Jan
Hit the dirt!


Grandpa
All right. Don't go getting riled. Get down, people.

The plane swoops down and empties its jet fuel load at the end of the burning 1100 mile trail, the pilot taking care to ensure that the width remains a delicate seven inches. 


David the Jihadist
Hee-haw!


Grandpa
Caroline, hand me my periscope.


Ted
You mean telescope, don't you?


Grandpa
I meant binoculars.


Car Salesman
There's something you see everyday.


Grandma
What's that?


Ted
I think you mean something you don't see everyday.


Car Salesman
Whatever I mean, it appears to be a blue woman! Strange I didn't notice it until now.


Grandpa
Been eating some of Trixie's toadstools.


Grandma
I ain't no blue woman!


Haley
Yes, you are! Grandma's a blue woman!


Grandma
Mind your manners! Oops.


Trixie
Now what did I say, Blue Bell? What did I tell you? 


Grandma
I don't remember.


Trixie
Hey, little oxen? Are you all good and hungry?


Oxen
Sapphire! 


Trixie
David! I'll be needing your sword.


Grandma
Help! (Runs off into the desert)


Grandpa
Damn. She had all the soybeans (with the taste of real wood) in her backpack. 



Saturday, July 18, 2015

WORKS IN A DRAWER 2

  We recommend that you read the first segment of The Works in a Drawer before venturing farther--or further. One never knows for certain.


  Grandma
I'm not turning blue all over.


Grandpa
That's a relief. Now, can we all get back to the fire, please?


Haley
Grandpa, you're so impatient. Hey, who's the woman on the wing of that airplane?


Grandpa
Burn, ye foul brew! Recompense these barbarians back to the stonehenge. Airplane? What?


Jan
I'm Jan Naj with the Action News Panic Alert Team! 


Trixie
How you get that plane to hover so close to the ground, lady?


Grandma
Mind your manners, Trixie. That there lady is a star.


Jan (from wing of plane)
What can you folks tell us about this fire?


Grandpa
She's a scorcher, that's what she is.


Grandma
She's talking about the fire, Luke.


Grandpa
Aw, shut up, Gladys. I know that. Hey there, Jan! Wanna sell a poor family some high powered jet fuel?


Grandma
My name is Caroline.


Grandpa
Mine's Rudolph, but we all have to make sacrifices.


Jan (Still on wing)
Now what would you folks want with jet fuel?


Haley
Grandpa wants to keep the fire going. Are you really a star?


Jan (Not relinquishing the wing)
You better believe it, kiddo. (Singing) "I could have been an actor but I wound up here."


Grandpa
Time's come to heal this evil planet with a holy blaze.


Jan (Somewhat stubbornly clinging to her position)
 Sounds like a plan. Let me check with Roger.


Plane roars high up above.


Ted (Back in the studio)
Folks, I've been in this business for eight long days and I'm here to tell you I've never seen anything quite like this. We will be back with more on our ongoing real life catastrophe right after this paid political renouncement.


Bert (Commercial politician)
  Hi. I'm Bert Treb. Are you tired of sweating out your life in a state of constant confusion? Erus uoy era. With oil prices skyrocketing and employment opportunities wetter than a hound dog's saliva, why not do what I always do and vote for a winning candidate like me? Senator Huxley couldn't take the pressure. Lieutenant Governor Orwell followed a holy man to India. That leaves you folks with me. While I may not have all the answers, I have my share of questions and someday I'll be happy to tell you exactly what they are. 


Announcer
Bert Treb. Someday he'll ask the right questions. Paid for by the Bert Treb for Governor Magistrate Commissar Commissioner Committee, Chicanery Consortium. 


Jan (Back on the wing of the low-to-ground airplane)
Roger the pilot says it's a deal.

Ted (back in the studio)
Is that "Roger" as in "ten-four," or "Roger" as in the name of the captain?

Jan (Hanging on)
There was no comma after the word, Ted, indicating a subordinate clause, so rest assured--

Ted (Back in the studio)
If I only could, Jan.


Grandpa
Hot damn! Let her drop!


Jan (Smiling despite her perilous position)
Just one thing: That fellow in the ninja outfit? Is he with you people?


Grandma
Oh, him? He's been following us since we left Detroit. No idea what he wants.


Trixie
He's getting kind of close, Grandma.


Grandma
Well, you kids mind your manners.


David the Jihadist (A bit out of breath)
Surrender, infidel swine!


Grandpa
On whose authority, masked man?


David the Jihadist
I am David the Jihadist! I demand your surrender on behalf of the silver star of Bathsheba and the Temple of Terror.


Grandpa
Aw, you don't scare us, ya sissy.


Grandma
Get back to the auto plant, boy. We've seen real troubles.


David the Jihadist
I shall smite thee into submission, thou wretched wench. And why are you suddenly blue all over?


Grandpa
Ya ain't even figured out the name pattern, have ya, Ahab?


David the Jihadist
Listen! It's my first week, okay? I was selected by my sleeper cell due to my unyielding courage--


Grandma
You got any money, Jihad Boy?


David the Jihadist
I have no need for your bitter currency!


Grandma
Look, freeloader. We're trying to bring about the ruination of civilization as we know it, okay? 


David the Jihadist
Me too!


Haley
See? We're not really all that different, after all, are we? 


Ted (Still back in the studio)
   We will be right back after this message about what you can do to help get that reckless fire engine from clogging up our nation's freeways.

The next thrilling episode begins here.

Friday, July 17, 2015

THE WORKS IN A DRAWER

     Car Salesman (Commercial)
   It's 2000 years in the future. Will the 450 horsepower Hotlegs Convertible you buy today still be driving itself to and from the office? Will it be humming outside your front door cell waiting for your return like Lassie in an old movie? 


   Eve Eve (Commercial)
  Wait! That's not an automobile! That's a stone cold cheeseburger (with the taste of real porcelain).


  Car Salesman (Commercial)
  My God, woman! You may be right!


   Eve Eve (Commercial)
  I may be crazy.


  Car Salesman (Commercial)
  It just may be a brand new car I'm looking for.


Eve Eve
Am I not the customer?


Car Salesman
It's just that kind of thinking that landed us all into this mess.


Ted (interrupting with news bulletin)
  We interrupt this commercial to bring you the latest Action News Panic Alert. I'm Ted Det. Women across the country are turning the color blue. Oxen are suddenly bleating the word "Sapphire!" Senator Huxley resigns amid allegations of rampant ramping. Outside in downtown Chicanery it's a balmy 130 degrees. But first: A fire seven inches wide and eleven hundred miles long rages between California and the state of New Mexico. For an on-the-spot report, we join Jan Naj, already in process.


   Jan (On wing of  airplane above the burn)
Thank you, Ted. As you can see, I'm standing on one wing of a DC-10 flying half a mile above the fray that inspectors say was started in Chicanery, California and now stretches all the way to Taos, New Mexico. Only seven inches in width, the steady inferno has been holding an average speed of seventeen miles per hour. Stranger still, while the blazing has been raging for over a week now, the Fire Police claim no one got around to reporting it until just a few hours ago. I spoke with Fire Police Captain Roger Regor Mortis just a few minutes before take-off.


Roger (Standing outside grounded plane)
   We've had more than three thousand brush fires this summer, Jan. I guess nobody thought this one meant that much. Heck, everybody has their own personal favorite.


   Jan (Voice-over)
   Oh, I can relate to that, Roger. I always liked the Tapio Mia fire over near the dried-out wash basin.


Roger
Yeah, the wife and kids brought back some great wireless photos on that one.


Jan (Voice-over)
What kind of car they drive, Roger?


Roger
Hotlegs convertible. Fire engine red. Boy, that thing'll eat up the road like a fat man slurping spaghetti when he thinks nobody's looking. 


Jan (back on wing of airplane)
  Captain Regor Mortis is piloting this plane, carrying a payload of what the Captain calls "fire retardant." He says just as soon as we find someone willing to pony up the money to reimburse him for the jet fuel, he'll be glad to snuff out this nasty little blaze. Ted?


   Ted (Back in the studio)
  Jan, I don't know if you can hear me?


Jan (Still on wing)
  Not a word.


Ted (In studio)
  In that case, let me just say that I've always found you extremely attractive. I've been on this job so long, I'm getting burned out.


Jan (On wing, looking off the edge)
   Ted, I don't know if you can hear me, but we've just spotted a strange procession of people--it looks like maybe a dozen of them--walking along the side of the fire. If I had to guess, I'd say it was a family. There's a man with a cane, a woman with a walker with those cute little green tennis balls on the legs, some middle-aged people of several different races, and a bunch of little white children. 


Ted (In studio)
  Can they see you, Jan?


Jan (Wing)
I can't hear you, Ted, but if I could, I'd reply that you're one fine looking man.


   Grandpa (On ground next to fire)
Burn, damn ya! Come on, little fire. Don't quit on us. Engulf this heathen civilization into your teeming bowels.


Grandma (Following husband)
Dammit, pa! Not in front the grand kids!

   Haley (The youngest child)

That's alright, Grandma. We like it when the old fart cusses.



Grandma
Don't you young-uns get smart with me.


Trixie
How come Grandma's turning blue all over?


The show continues right here.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

KISS ME DEADLY

   As Pauline Kael supposedly said of Dirty Harry, so do I say of Kiss Me Deadly (1955): "A fascist masterpiece." Seldom does a movie sixty years of age continue to offend on so many levels while providing a disturbing degree of engagement. What claws at the conscience has less to do with the apocalyptic conclusion or the general sense of embraced brutality, but the amazing cinematography of Ernest Laszlo and the taut tone of director Robert Aldrich. In short, the damn thing persuades the viewer that things are not only the way they appear in this movie, but that they are almost supposed to be this way.
   What way is that? Well, that a quite young Cloris Leachman (as Christina Bailey) should be running down a roadway in the middle of the night as an escapee from the laughing academy; that Ralph Meeker (Mike Hammer) should be driving a Jaguar he cares more about than he does his own mother; that all of the women in this movie radiate a blurry weirdness that leads us to recall the "Bogart" line from Play It Again, Sam: "I never yet met a dame who didn't understand a good slap in the mouth or a slug from a .45"; or that a hydrogen bomb could somehow be contained inside a lead crate and opened and closed at will. This manifestly misogynist movie succeeds on the stilts of its own callous stupidity and not because Meeker's acting is especially persuasive or because the story makes any sense at all or even because we give a hoot about what happens to any of the characters. We are more impressed by the fact that Hammer has an in-home answering machine in his wall in 1955 than we are with the story itself. What makes this ridiculous film cling to our jacket pockets after all this time resides in the film work, as I mentioned (especially the overhead shots of Hammer on the sofa pulling the plot together in his brain, as well as the recently restored ending with the couple on the beach), and the decidedly refreshing interaction between the reptilian Hammer and his nervous yet fun-loving mechanic Nick Va Va Voom. The only time Hammer exudes anything resembling humanity happens when he and Nick are working together, helping one another out, sharing a hearty laugh as the brothers in struggle that they are. Hammer's not-well-disguised hatred of society screeches to a halt when it comes to his relations with working men, be it the gas jockey, the bartender, or the mechanic. Hammer may need women for sex, but he clearly grooves on the company of his gender mates. 
   It doesn't hurt that we get to see a fight that includes a young googly-eyed Jack Elam and a short sequence with an even younger Strother Martin (who we keep expecting to lament "What we have here is a failure to communicate"). These two, and Leachman, join a support cast that's actually too good for the movie they're in, which simply adds to the frustration of trying to stomach the unending callousness, as when Hammer instructs a man whose house he wishes to search to tell his wife to shut up and the man shrugs and tells her, "Shut up." 
   Mickey Spillane wrote the novel, reportedly hated the movie, and was probably responsible for the incongruous literary references sprinkled throughout the film. Recommended to those who prefer their sadism to be artful.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE

   For anyone needing evidence that nothing new has happened in American cinema in more than a while, we offer a recent remark by actor Dustin Hoffman to the UK Independent: “I think right now television is the best that it’s ever been and I think that it’s the worst that film has ever been – in the 50 years that I’ve been doing it, it’s the worst.”
   The first half of Hoffman's statement is spurious--television does not exist, at least not in the sense of historical interpretation implied by the observation. "Television" today harnesses youth-oriented technology in its drive to maintain an ahistorical experience for the viewer. High Definition, Netflix, satellite transmissions, internet access: we are a long way from a box with rabbit ears, at least in terms of science. In terms of art or whatever "best" may mean, the comparison breaks apart because on one side we have an emphasis on story and on the other the thrust is technique. 
   But the knife in Hoffman's words mostly applies to movies. And that is one experience that is kicking to hang on to the tradition of its presentations while making concessions to the mode of communication. Despite the near death of the drive-in theater, the omnipresence of the multiplex, the alleged convenience of online streaming, nothing yet has been able to wipe out the magnificence of sitting in a darkened cinema with cold popcorn, overpriced soda splashing into your lap, sticky concrete beneath your feet, an idiot child kicking the back of your seat, a fat man wearing a plumed hat taking the spot directly in front of you, and a date with a cell phone obsession parked clingingly next to you, all juxtaposed against your own internal anticipation that the motion picture about to appear on the giant screen in front of you will reveal itself to be the most marvelous example of cinematic pulchritude ever imagined by mankind. That you have inadvertently wandered into a screening of something like Fast and Furious 7 is beside the point. 
   The technological progression in movies that birthed the "blockbuster" has reduced shooting times from one hundred days to closer to twenty. We've also seen a profusion of reboots, franchises, specialized documentaries, mass produced romantic comedies and a bane of animated features, all of which seem to lack a certain "organic" nature that film-goers once took for granted. Of course, some people used to complain that "talkies" would be the death of the art form, too, just as my great-grandparents fretted that television would kill off the movie theater in the same way it did radio. But the introduction of audible dialogue into motion pictures furthered the expansion of the story (after the initial novelty wore off), whereas special effects do not inherently expand anything beyond superficiality. 
   In 2004 I sat in just such a movie theater waiting for Fahrenheit 9/11 to play. The Coming Attractions started up first, of course, and I sat with a somewhat horrified gape pressed onto my mouth as the "new and improved" version of The Manchurian Candidate was splashed in pieces upon the screen. I felt my fists getting tight and I might have thrown something at the projectionist had it not been for the fact that the other people I was there with--all of whom were half my age--groaned in unison, one of them muttering something about the lack of originality in Hollywood. It feels good to know you are not the only Luddite in the room.
   A few movies have had such an impact on the public that the idea of remaking them--even with an eye towards making them more contemporary--revolts the informed cinema fanatic. Would you remake Casablanca, Raging Bull, Patton, M*A*S*H? These films are specific to either historical events or people and updating them would somehow cheapen the original impact. Contemporizing the films would, I suspect, dumb down the audience. It would unquestionably infuriate most lovers of the originals. But most of all, these movies have no need to be rebooted because they translate to any time period inhabited by sentient beings. The same is true of some movies without the constrictions of history. Jules and Jim, Goodfellas, The Bicycle Thief, Jaws: new technology would do nothing to improve the experience of enjoying these movies. One of the funnier segments of Robert Altman's The Player occurs when Buck Henry pitches the idea of a new movie to the producer: The Graduate II
   So even though Hoffman speaks in absolutes regrettably reminiscent of a Donald Trump speech, he makes his point at a time in our presumed evolution when a lot of people have sort of shrugged their shoulders and decided that the real fun is to be found on TCM or on the DVD shelves of the local Zia Records Store. 
   The original (1962) Manchurian Candidate (and how I loathe the need for that adjective) stars Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey as returning Korean War veterans who, along with several of their co-soldiers, have been brainwashed by the communists. Harvey, being the most susceptible to the programming, has been selected as a future assassin. His character is decidedly unlikable, except when he is in the company of his mother, played by Angela Lansbury. She oozes such glowing yellow evil that Harvey actually comes to life when she is in the room. 
   We do not understand The Manchurian Candidate too quickly. We see something bad happening, we recognize its implications, we ache for the nightmares the brainwashing creates, but it takes a while for the viewer to fathom what is happening. The various flashback scene devices director John Frankenheimer developed add to the challenge of getting things straight in our minds--and that is just as it should be because it aids the telling of the story for us to go through a state of confusion similar to that of the characters onscreen. 
   I do not want to give away too many details of the film here, but I do want to encourage you to watch the movie. As pure propaganda, nothing beats it. If one were looking to start a new Cold War, this film could launch such a thing all by itself. It also works as satire, as when James Gregory's character, a stooge U.S. Senator, claims to have the names of 207 members of the communist party who have infiltrated the U.S. Defense Department. If Sinatra's acting falls a bit short of his singing abilities, he's still better here than he was in From Here to Eternity, where he was far from a failure. Lansbury's performance devastates, Leslie Parrish is likeable, and the Chinese psychiatrist will keep you up nights wondering how you know what you think you know. 
   Epistemology is really what the movie is about and that remains one of the best reasons to go out of your way to see The Manchurian Candidate. You will be able to ignore the fact that Sinatra's girlfriend, played by Janet Leigh, comes across in her opening moments as if she is a spy for the KGB and exits having contributed next to nothing.

Leigh
Maryland is a beautiful state.

Sinatra
This is Delaware.

Leigh
I know. I was one of the Original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this straight. Nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter.

Sinatra
I guess so. Columbus is a tremendous football town.


  What you will not ignore is how fast you attach your own emotions to these otherwise engaging characters and how engrossed you become in yearning for their salvation. 
  Once you have seen this movie, you will never have seen anything quite like it. 
   

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

THE RAINMAKER

   Sometimes I like having a movie this obvious and contrived making its points right in my face. The Rainmaker (1997) posits director Francis Coppola [1], [2], [3] alongside a sharp cast and a script inspired by novelist John Grisham. What would be diseased proselytizing in the hands of almost anyone else comes across as something more than mere entertainment. The Rainmaker is that rare film that gets you feeling good by presenting you with the dignity of hard realities.
   An insurance company operating in poor sections of Memphis and elsewhere routinely denies all claims made for medical procedures. Donny Ray needs a bone marrow transplant to save him from leukemia. The insurance company says no on eight separate occasions. Donny Ray dies. 
   Fresh out of law school, Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) itches to kick some corporate ass, so he links up with a law firm owner named Bruiser (Mickey Rourke) who hooks him up with an assistant named Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito). Rudy embodies jaded optimism while Deck exemplifies utopian cynicism. Their would-be foil is the insurance company's legal team, headed by Leo Drummond (Jon Voight). Leo tries to play Rudy like a violin, but Rudy doesn't like being played and fights back. A lot of that fight comes from the off-screen narration, a tact that's easy to abuse, yet Coppola never allows a flicker of unease.
                               Rudy
Sworn in by a fool and vouched for by a scoundrel. I'm a lawyer at last.

Or:

                               Rudy
My dad hated lawyers. You might think I became one just to piss him off, but you'd be wrong. Did piss him off so much though that when he heard he fell off a ladder and didn't know who to sue first.

   Plot may be the guiding light of most movies. It is just short of irrelevant here. The beauty lies in the way the characterizations elicit the social forces that have created the people struggling for a place in a world they did not create. Danny Glover as the trial judge makes no effort to disguise his contempt for the insurance company. DeVito as the paralegal is righteously offended at the suggestion that there's anything wrong with being an ambulance chaser. Claire Danes, who plays Rudy's love interest, meets her salvation while in the hospital from a beating delivered by her husband and his aluminum baseball bat; her performance is so understated that we cannot help but feel every bruise and shattered bone she endures. Chain smoking Mary Kay Place, as Danny Ray's mother (and wife to a shell-shocked Korean War veteran), makes us lean forward to catch every subtle nuance of speech and facial expression. Having met all these people, our fists clinch when the big dollar legal team strolls up to their house to take a deposition, feigning unawareness of the run down neighborhood, barking dog, dozens of stray cats living in the junked car in the front yard. We can see who the bad guys are, we can identify the victims, and we intuit that the heroes are those on the side of young Danny Ray.
   If you live long enough, someone will eventually tell you that there is no such thing as either black or white--there's only shades of gray. What I tell people who say that is that gray happens when people don't have enough insight or information to sort out the real situation. Granted, gray can appear more multi-dimensional than black and white. Gray gives the false impression of complexity, confusion, layers of depth. The Godfather was gray, for instance. It was a movie about people who did some very bad things presented from their own point of view. We might not want Al Pacino to have the Pope killed, but we also don't want the head of the crime family getting shot. In The Rainmaker, the only gray character is Bruiser. He's a big time crook who flees the country under criminal indictment, yet when we find him lapping up the sunshine on a tropical island, we don't really mind at all. In that sense, Rourke's character deserved more screen time than he received. 
   Through its obvious tendencies, through its contrivances, Coppola's movie shakes the charcoal and separates good from evil. This filmmaker shows that he understands a motion picture to be a means of telling a story and that a story is capable of having a child-like simplicity without once being false. 
Danny Devito, Matt Damon, Jon Voight


Monday, June 29, 2015

THE COLOR OF BABY POOP

   Diane Keaton plays her cinematic roles with such precise imagination that it can be fun to argue that no one else could have embodied her characters in the early Woody Allen movies, or in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Crimes of the Heart, The Godfather, The Little Drummer Girl, or the majority of her other successes. It also holds true that on rare occasions some of us wince in pain when exposed to movies beneath her talent, movies that failed less because the roles were uninteresting and more because the premises of these films subvert the proud deviations her best works have celebrated.
   Baby Boom (1987) stinks on ice. 
  No reasonable person can blame the odor on the acting. Keaton, Sam Shepard, James Spader, Sam Wanamaker, the twins who play the baby, even the typically estimable Harold Ramis all work their lines with brilliance. The script itself--and its directorial delivery--smells up the theater in this movie. It accomplishes this formidable task by its fevered embracing of the Yuppie Aesthetic so omnipresent during the 1980s love affair with what some sociopath decided to call romantic comedies. 
  Keaton plays J.C. Wyatt, an executive in some corporation who puts in a one hundred hour work week, has scheduled sex sessions with her paramour that last one full minute, and certainly has no time for a baby of her own. When one gets handed to her (it doesn't really matter how this comes about), she resists the idea and eventually gives in (as we know she will because otherwise there's no movie and what are we all doing sitting together in the cinema?) and moves, as all yuppies do, to the country where she develops her own brand of baby food which takes off like the Yarnell Fire and sweeps across the nation because clearly Keaton's character is made of stronger stuff than you or (especially) me. 
   If the storyline sounds moderately uninspired (I'd call it immoral, but I've taken a twelve minute vow of restraint), you should check out the dialogue that was geared for yucks.


Doctor Jess Cooper
You know, you kind of remind me of some kind of bull terrier.


J.C. Wyatt
I'll bet you say that to all the girls.

And then there's:


J.C. Wyatt
I can't have a baby because I have a twelve-thirty lunch meeting!

   I know. Sad, isn't it? Perhaps the musical accompaniment will enhance the experience of being subjected to pre-programmed drivel? No chance. The songs were by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, the latter once described in writing as being so laid back it's a wonder she can stand up. 
   No, the entire enterprise (and that word is selected with serious intent) exists for no other reason than to reinforce the psychotic drive to be the best you can be by enlisting a supreme act of will and drive, one which deprives the actor of any auxiliary aspirations--doing what you do for the good of the company, the husband or boyfriend, the species, the child, the town--when there is no Godly reason to expect any person to forego an appreciation of the things in life that actually matter, things such as the company, boyfriend, species, child, town--things that might be valued if the actor/savior (after all, her name is J.C. for a reason) weren't so busy burning herself out to appreciate them. 
   Maybe that's one reason no one uses the word "yuppie" any more. It's certainly the main reason nobody rushes to Netflix or elsewhere looking up romantic comedies from the 1980s.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

SPIDER FEAR

  "If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read 'President can't swim.'"
   --Lyndon Johnson


   Steven Spielberg served as the uncredited second unit director, the man responsible for shooting stunts, establishing shots, inserts and cutaways. Uncredited or not, his prints glow on Arachnophobia (1990), which is one of the sources for the expression "The Spielberg glow." In movies such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this appeal to wholesome mischief is appropriate. In a movie about spiders--specifically bad spiders--the glow gets in the way. 
   The idea for the story is as old as horror movies themselves. Jeff Daniels plays a doctor who moves his family to the country to escape the pressures of city living only to find an insidious trail of monsters awaiting him, threatening the very sanctity he so desperately wants. Okay, so there's only so many plotlines in the world and as such things go, that one stinks less than most. 
   Dan Jacoby, Al Williams, and Wesley Strick came up with the story, which Pauline Kael referred to as resembling a Boy Scout remaking Jaws. That's a funny line, Pauline, and I've always wanted to work it into a review of my own and if you weren't already deceased, I'd be worried about lifting it in such a shameless manner. 
   But back to Spielberg, first-time director Frank Marshall ground bones with the Spiel Man on Back to the Future, Poltergeist, Raiders of the Lost Ark and other glowing balls of good clean fun that eschewed logic for brain drain. But influence does not equal exchange just as correlation fails to equal causation. For instance, in the aforementioned Jaws, the title character is the emotional focus of the film, the vortex around which the personal relationships in the story spin. In Arachnophobia, the monster is a transplanted tarantula that sets up a kingdom in Jeff Daniels' barn. Yet the monster does not dominate the attention of the audience. That honor goes to John Goodman, in the guise of the perfectly named Delbert McClintock, the town exterminator. We welcome his intrusions into the prefabricated anxiety we keep expecting to feel from the platoon of killer spiders. We want Goodman to argue with Daniels, to seduce Daniels' wife, to haul out the blowtorches and napalm the barn in order to save it--something, anything! As the only person in the movie who swings emotional content, we virtually yearn for Goodman to save the picture. But that would shift the glow from E.T. to Animal House, something the Spielberg folks--who are more terrified of chaos than any other major filmmakers--simply could never endure. So instead of Goodman doing what we can see he wants to do, we get impotent attempts at humor such as this:

Molly Jennings (the wife): Why is all the wood rotting?
Delbert: I'll tell you why. Bad wood.
Molly: So what do we do?
Delbert: Tear out bad wood. Put in good wood. 

Or. . .

Delbert: Would anyone object if I tore this floor out?
Molly: I would.
Delbert: False alarm then. Lead on.

  As a result, people filing out of the theater say things like, "That was cute" rather than saying "That thing scared me to death!" 
   I imagine Spielberg must occasionally feel akin to Lyndon Johnson. Here is a man who has created the cinematic equivalents of Medicare, The Voting Act and the Civil Rights Act and yet people just can't quite get over that darned Vietnam thing.