Thursday, March 23, 2017

EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS

   Through a series of odd events, I was in attendance at a Christmas party in the Hollywood Hills stretch of the Santa Monica Mountains in the year 2000. Knowing full well I was making a mistake by doing so, I couldn't resist the opportunity to theoretically schmooze with writers, directors, actors, composers and possibly a gaggle of moguls. The woman who invited me earned her living repping a variety of hotshot musicians who provided smarmy soundtracks to medium budget romantic comedies. She had encountered me winning a game of eight ball at a star bar on Vine and thought my impression of Fred C. Dobbs was hilarious. (Note: Fred C. Dobbs was a character played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) The young man I was slaughtering at pool did not share her admiration and she thought it best that we get away before he carried out his threat to do to me what the bandits did to Dobbs in the movie.
   The valet took the keys to her Lexus and together we strolled by the lush garden up the wine-colored walkway to what I suppose was the front door. She pressed the intercom button and the door tilted open, revealing a room bathed in dark orange. It looked like a magnificent dark room where photographers might work, but it was actually just the entryway to the rest of the house, possibly the largest house ever to permit my humble entrance. Once we felt our way through this room, another door swung open and the brightness off the outdoor pool glared through the glass walls and I found myself temporarily separated from the agent. In such a situation--not that I have been in that many such situations--I did what I always do: I adopted a false persona. 
   I pretended to be the Warren Beatty character in the movie Mickey One. Please understand that I am no Warren Beatty. But I had seen the movie for the second time recently and it was weighing on my mind and the suit I had fallen into resembled the one Mickey wore, so that was what I did. And so no sooner did a horde of unemployed actors swoop up the agent woman than a couple young guys positioned themselves on either side of me and continued their conversation as if I was not standing between them. You know the type. Right. I introduced myself to the one on my left. "I'm Mickey," I said. "I'm the king of the silent pictures. I'm hiding out until the talkies blow over. Will you leave me alone?"
   The two bozos exchanged a nervous glance and wandered away. 
   The agent returned immediately with an older woman on her arm. "Gladys, my deah," she said. "I'd like you to meet--My goodness, I never did get your name?"
   Sticking with the Warren Beatty concept, I switched movies. "Clyde Barrow. This here's Bonnie Parker. We rob banks. Now you might as well know, I ain't much of a lover boy." 
   Gladys didn't seem to know quite what was going on, but to her credit the agent picked right up on it and asked Gladys if she had a cigar, which, strangely, she did not.
   It should be noted at this point that my memory is somewhat selective. Half the time I could not tell you my own middle name, but I can remember the words to any song I've ever heard and most of the lines in any movie I've ever seen. It's a curse. The curse, for me, is that the rest of the known universe does not possess this ability and so I often recede into my own social hole, which is fine by me, at least most of the time. In this case, however, I should have been projecting my own personality. Being vastly out of my element, I pulled the chicken switch instead and remained in various characters throughout most of the evening, much to the dismay of the people who were trying harder than they should have to be nice to me. 
   Word got around and I found myself standing at the poolside bar trying to teach my gin and tonic to stay cold. After a few minutes of watching the ice swirl in the glass, I realized a man standing next to me was looking at me as if I might be a science experiment. 
   I spun to face him. He smiled. "You like the women here?" he asked.
  I wasn't about to let the Beatty fixation get away just yet. "You ever listen to women talk, man? Do you? Because I do, till it's running outta my ears! I mean I'm on my feet all day long listening to women talk and they only talk about one thing: how some guy fucked 'em over, that's all that's on their minds, that's all I ever hear about! Don't you know that?"
   The man took me by the hands and said, "I'm Arthur Penn. There's someone I'd like you to meet."
   If the name means nothing to you, I will explain. Arthur Penn was an amazing movie director. His credits happened to include Mickey One, Bonnie and Clyde, and--inexplicably--Penn & Teller Get Killed
  For a moment I thought that maybe this person holding onto me was as much a loon as myself and perhaps had deluded himself, or, on second thought, that he was some aging hipster who was playing the same kind of game I was. I studied his face a few moments longer and realized that I was in the hands of greatness and therefore allowed him to spin me around where I stood face to face with the man whose characters I had been embalming all evening.
   He did not introduce himself, for there was no need. He just said, "I was listening to you earlier. You're good. I mean, I think you're good. He is good, isn't he, Arthur?"
   Let me say this: Warren Beatty is and was one fine looking fellow. He looks just like he does in the movies. And he really has perfect hair. He is so good looking that even men want to sleep with him. I can't imagine what women feel.
   Before Arthur had a chance to confirm or deny my goodness, I jumped into my own personality and revealed for all to see just why it is often more wise to pretend to be someone else. What I said to Warren Beatty--Warren Fucking Beatty!!!--was: "It all started with you and Arthur Penn. You guys completely changed the way people understand motion pictures. Without you guys, sure, I know, Godard, Truffaut, all that French New Wave stuff, yes, but they were just giving us back movies from the Forties. You guys took what they were doing and Americanized it and made movies real in ways they never had been before, at least before fucking Spielberg and Lucas ruined it for everyone with goddamned blockbusters."
   Beatty smiled at me. He smiled the gracious smile one delivers to an orphan on Christmas. He said, "Arthur, do you have that phone number for me?"
   And with that they were gone. I never did reconnect with the agent woman. I had the valet call a taxi for me. 
  Why the hell is he telling us this?
  I am telling you this true story because I want you to watch the documentary film Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2003). The lovely and irreplaceable Lisa Ann bought a copy for me a few Christmases ago. This is not quite as good as A Decade Under the Influence, which came out the same year. But Lisa Ann bought me the former and not the latter and now that she has passed away, I may very well watch that movie at least once a month and so should you, at least until you come to believe that Warren Beatty, Arthur Penn, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Robert Altman, Paul Schrader and others between 1967 and 1980 made the best movies ever made. You may even get a sense as to how the blockbuster crippled Hollywood. 
   And if you ever run into the agent woman, tell her she owes me cab fare.
  P.S.: I love you, Lisa Ann, with all the love in the world.

Monday, March 6, 2017

LOLITA

   The writer hereby speculates that we were not necessarily intended to like the movie Lolita (1962). That is not to say that director Stanley Kubrick (who only used twenty percent of novelist Vladimir Nabokov's adapted screenplay and wrote the rest himself) did not want us to enjoy the movie. I mean that he did not intend for us to approve of it. The only people Kubrick hoped would approve of it were the Catholic Legion of Decency and the souls behind the Hayes Code. It is fair to say that neither group had the director on their Christmas list, but the movie was released with the consent of the Production Code of America, in large part because producer James Harris and Kubrick worked with the director of the PCA, Geoffrey Shurlock. Kubrick tried his damnedest to convince Shurlock that this movie about pedophilia was no such thing. It was actually a dark and smart comedy that poked fun at a middle-aged professor's fascination with a young girl. 
   Shurlock was not immediately convinced. 
   Kubrick upped the young girl from twelve to fourteen and made sure his casting director, James Liggat, gave the title role to a relative unknown, in this case a seventeen-year-old named Sue Lyon. He also made certain that the role of the curious professor, Humbert Humbert, went to an actor whose career was in decline, in this case, to James Mason. (Granted, the other actors Kubrick wanted all turned him down--David Niven, Rex Harrison and Noel Coward among them). Casting Peter Sellers in the role of Clare Quilty was expected to take the edge off as well.
   But what really got the film into the theaters was the tone of the movie. Instead of Humbert and Lolita doing the nasty under the sheets, the sexuality was rather more implied and that is one of the reasons why, despite not approving of the movie--even after fifty-five years--we can at least like it. In fact, that is one of the reasons the genius of Lolita endures. 
   When we meet the young Dolores (Lolita), she is tanning in the backyard in a bikini. Humbert rents a room from the girl's mother, Charlotte (Shelley Winters). To be close to Lolita, Humbert pretends to care for Charlotte. But being the academic type, he cannot help but write the truth of his feelings in his diary. When Charlotte discovers how Humbert actually feels, she runs out into the street where she meets with a prompt demise. 
   The closer Humbert gets to Lolita--and her attempts at flirtation early on suggest that she has been to the movies a few times herself--the more she is compelled to manipulate him without giving him precisely what she believes he wants. He has custody of the child and when she behaves as a girl of her temptations reasonably might, Humbert writhes with visible and expressed jealousy. 
   Depending upon one's own personal chemistry, one might find Lolita's rebuffing to be exactly what the oldster has coming. One might also feel a bit of pity for the professor. It is unlikely one would feel both, at least simultaneously. 
   It is only once we recognize the danger that the long-lingering playwright Quilty presents to Lolita that we begin to reluctantly join motivation with Humbert. But even then we risk being taken in by the charm that Sellers brings to his character. When Humbert arrives at Quilty's house with the intent of murdering him, Humbert demands to know for certain if this strange fellow is in fact Quilty. Sellers replies, "No, I'm Spartacus. You come to free the slaves?" (Two years earlier Kubrick had directed the film Spartacus.)
   Our allegiances are never solid. They cannot be because the story keeps shifting us until we begin to sense that this is not a comedy--dark or otherwise. This is a classic tragedy lacking only a hero to provide catharsis. 
   Although Lolita was technically Kubrick's fifth feature-length film (preceded by Killer's Kiss, The Killing, Paths of Glory and Spartacus), this was the first time the director used his tremendous talents to affect what I have referred to elsewhere as a Stanley Milgram type of audience manipulation. By dazzling us with directorial expertise, he establishes his authority just as Milgram's instructors established theirs with white lab coats. Instead of telling us "The experiment must continue," Kubrick tells us, "You must see what happens next."
   Just as with Milgram's subjects, once we become slowly aware that this was an experiment--only a movie--we feel even more wrecked than we did when we allowed ourselves to believe it was happening. When Milgram's "teachers" believed they were shocking the "learners" with high voltage electricity, they did so because following orders gave them more comfort than refusing to do so would have. When we see that what Humbert feels for Lolita is more love than lust, we gain an insight that is every bit as disturbing as Milgram's revelations.


Sunday, March 5, 2017

A LITTLE COURAGE IS ALL WE LACK: ANOTHER REVIEW OF BONNIE AND CLYDE

A little bit of courage is all we lack
So catch me if you can, I'm goin' back

   --Carole King, "Goin' Back"

   First there was then. Now there is now.
   As usual, we begin with now.
   More than one million Americans marched on Washington D.C. on January 21, 2017, in response to the ascension of the illegitimate existence of Vladimir Trump. Those people could have spent their Saturday out watching horrible movies or listening to mindless pop music. Instead they properly allowed their outrage to channel into action and made their way to the city of lies to somewhat politely thumb their noses at the administration of insanity. A similar number, albeit, in smaller groups, marched on their cities and state houses to let the rulers know that the presumed popularity of extremism in this country is not so popular after all and that we are not going to put up with it.
   These ongoing protests have had their value: Vladimir Trump goes crazier every day, a condition which does not necessarily make the world safer but which at least tells our friends that they should not judge us by the actions of a handful of lunatics who may have voted for the "scumbag," as the beautiful Maxine Waters calls him.
   Only one thing would have made me happier. I would have been delighted if all those millions of pissed off people had taken one extra step forward and marched right into the White House, dragged that crazy bastard out of the Oval Office and done to him what the Italians did to Mussolini. 
   Do you have any idea how easy that would have been to accomplish--even metaphorically? The people were already there. All that was necessary was to move their feet one step closer. The Secret Service, the National Guard, the Armed Forces of the United States could not--and probably would not--have harmed anyone, much less everyone. I don't know how many people can fit into the Oval Office, but I imagine the room is durable for up to one or two hundred. Just walk in--don't even knock--find Il Duce hiding beneath his desk with his unsecured cell phone and his hyperactive thumbs plumbing out some moronic tweet, call the loser up top and explain that it is time for him to leave voluntarily. "Vlad, man, the joke is over. You proved to our satisfaction that a foreign power can indeed do a coup d'etat on us, and we thank you for that lesson. But now you have to go. Go back to south Florida where the idiots still love you. Go copulate with that dimwit Rick Perry and vacation in El Paso, if you like. Go do a golden shower on Stalin's tomb. But you have to leave. There are millions of us outside. Your money can't save you from an ass-whooping, if that's the way you want it. But you are going out that door, one way or another. We don't want to have to get mean."
   That is what they do in real countries. In 1968 the communist party of Czechoslovakia replaced the USSR's puppet with Alexander Dubcek. Dubcek pushed practical reforms, which would, as he put it, place “a human face” on socialism. He established “a humanistic socialist democracy which would guarantee, among other things, freedom of religion, press, assembly, speech, and travel.” Granted, the stinking Soviets crushed the rebellion, but that did not come as a surprise to the Czechs. Yet they fought anyway. They had courage.
   In 1989 Chinese students marched on Tienanmen Square in Beijing, knowing full well they would be destroyed. They did it anyway. They did it because they did not want to die as cowards. 
   But Americans, militarily, are a bunch of pathetic cowards and always have been. 
   Watching the march on Washington, I was hoping we might have evolved from the days of dropping bombs on unarmed civilians and actually mutate into passionate and reasonable humanoids. Committing genocide against indigenous natives, dragging across the ocean slaves from whom we built our economy, dropping nuclear weapons on a country that had already surrendered, massacring people in Indochina, Latin America, the Middle East--we are the punks of the world, a pack of gangland hoodlums taking over neighborhoods owned and operated by crippled old ladies. 
   So it should not have surprised me much that we didn't have the courage to throw that rancid real estate king back out into the vomit-encrusted gutter where his parents no doubt conceived him. 
   Please do not take it that I am calling for the violent overthrown of the United States Government. Such a call to action would be highly illegal. I would never suggest such a thing and neither should you. 
   I am, however, very much suggesting that people are a lot more powerful than they may believe. The realization of that real power scares us sometimes, especially when we learn how incredibly easy it is to cultivate it. When we grow disgusted by the leadership of the major political parties in this country pretending to look after our interests, it may occur to us that we are the only real caretakers of our own interests. Expecting billionaires to care about the sick and the poor is ridiculous. They don't even care about one another. Why would they care about you and me? 
   But don't take my word for it. Just think back on those fiery words of days gone by:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

   Such a plea to return to the days of Jeffersonian democracy sounds quaint, no doubt--sincere, perhaps, yet quaint. I should know. I am the king of quaint.
   As such, I am also here to convince you to watch the movie Bonnie and Clyde (1967). 
   As this review is written, the United States is only one of several global entities hellbent on blurring the distinctions between global criminality and business as usual. Today federal and international laws exist to further that blurring so that no one is accountable for the subjugation of the poor except--legally--the poor themselves. Keep the masses doped on heroin, Scientology and the latest technology and they won't have the presence of mind to deviate. They will go along with the same tired line of nonsense that declares "Every man a king."  Horatio Alger's potential lies within us all? Well, at any rate, it certainly lies.
   Such was not always the case. 
   Bonnie Parker's mother was a seamstress. Her father was a bricklayer. Clyde Barrow's parents were sharecroppers. By the time the Great Depression officially hit in 1929, neither had the slightest prospects for survival.
   In director Arthur Penn's version of the lives of these two (using a script by David Newman and Robert Benton, doctored by Robert Towne), there is an early scene where Clyde is downing a cola with Bonnie. He tries to impress her with his toughness by admitting that he has been in the State Penitentiary for armed robbery.
   "What's it like?" she asks.
   "What? The penitentiary?"
   "No. Armed robbery."
   At this point the audience has been quite properly assured that Bonnie and Clyde is a different kind of film. Bonnie's face flashes the delight of hybristophilia. 
   When the movie was first released, audiences expressed confusion. Was it a comedy? Was it a celebration of the counterculture? Was it seditious?
   The movie had those elements. But this film shot across the seats of the cinema theater and the echo of its ricochet still resonates. The fate of these two young people (the movie legend was "They're young. They're in love. The kill people.") came ordained from the instant they met. This was not some (comparatively) silly James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson picture with an artificial morality attached to appease the public. This was real life through a camera lens and nobody gave much of a damn whether the public approved of it or not. This was a successful attempt at art. The public be damned.
   I think of Bonnie and Clyde as the movie Parker and Barrow would have made of themselves. As such it is a third person narrative where the "warts and all" attitude uses the skin flaws to show the beauty beneath. During one scene where the Barrow Gang have pulled off the side of the road for a family argument with the police in pursuit, Bonnie insults Clyde about his sexual impotence. No sooner do the words leave her mouth than she knows she has gone too far, that she has wounded him unfairly. As Bonnie, Faye Dunaway's instant facial expression conveys that realization with as much honesty as Clyde's (Warren Beatty) ultimate reaction: he just stands there, immobilized not by the truth of the statement but by the fact that his partner would actually say it. The violence to which some people took exception was simply sprinkled around such life details the director, writers and Beatty himself gently crammed into this film. 
    Bonnie and Clyde, unlike various global industrial concerns, do not claim that their crimes are on the whole good for society. These two were not the couple version of Pretty Boy Floyd, who actually was something of a Depression-era Robin Hood. They committed their crimes for the excitement, the bonding, the spoils. And if their limited class consciousness reminds them that they are "just folks" (as they assure the Gene Wilder character in the process of stealing his automobile) like everybody else, they are long in ambition and just smart enough to know that they have no other way out of the West Dallas slums that spawned them. 
   Some talk was popular at the time of this movie's release that the writers played loose with the facts. The C. W. Moss character, for instance, did not exist. He was a composite of several gang sidekicks, most notably one named Deacon Jones, who traveled with the gang for less than a year. Texas Ranger Frank Hamer was real, the only falsities in his presentation being that he was a sexist who retired from the Texas Rangers rather than work for a woman. 
   In the shooting version of the script, Clyde is impotent, although, in the only truly corny scene in the movie, he manages to pull through to fulfill his obligations and finds that he did just fine. The reality is that the original script had Clyde as inviting the C. W. Moss character to a menage with Bonnie and himself. The real world reality was that while in the state pen, Barrow was repeatedly raped by another convict. Clyde killed that man rather than suffer continued abuse. 
   But worrying over such details is as silly as arguing over which CIA operatives murdered John Kennedy or whether the real Richard III was very much like the one Shakespeare wrote about. Bonnie and Clyde, the movie, has its bona fides in place and needs to offer no apologies for inaccuracies. It is indeed the story the way the two of them would have wanted it told. That, of course, is exactly why the movie, to this day, can make us uncomfortable. 
   Unease after fifty years is remarkable. What else is remarkable is that all the people involved in the movie--except possibly Morgan Fairchild, the body double for Dunaway--came together with such integral perfection. The writers wanted Truffaut to direct. He turned them down, as did Jean-Luc Godard. Even Arthur Penn himself tried to bail out, having worked earlier with Warren on the under-appreciated Mickey One. Even the studio, Warner Bros., lacked faith in the film, possibly due to some early critical pans. Beatty threatened to sue the studio and rather than be sued, head Jack Warner demanded the movie receive a proper release. Pauline Kael wrote a lengthy and brilliant review of the movie. The film is now more of a legend than the people who made it happen.
   The artistic and commercial success of the movie is one of those rare things, like the discovery of radium or the development of the internet. It seems so obvious now that we have it.

Monday, February 27, 2017

THE BIG CHILL

   "May you live in interesting times" is said to be a seminal Chinese curse. The time--though not the curse--has eluded us of late. I would place the demise to be May 1985, but whatever the specifics, more erudite minds than mine have pegged the end of our enlightened era at the mid-1980s. Two movies that featured actor Tom Cruise hammered in the nails. Top Gun was a Pepsi commercial intended as overt propaganda in support of a President looking for a war and The Color of Money, which was intended to be nearly everything it turned out not to be, was a cooptation and slap in the mouth of Hollywood talent of years gone by, as well as of the radical dreams they inspired.
    But if directors Tony Scott and (inadvertently, one assumes) Martin Scorsese pounded the nails, it was the unfortunate Lawrence Kasdan who shot movies in the frontal lobe with the abysmal film blanc The Big Chill (1983).  
   Former idealistic teenagers from the late 1960s get together in contemporary settings to mourn the loss of their best and brightest friend Alex. The friend had the most promise and consequently didn't amount to much, whereas all the others did quite well by themselves and spend the rest of the movie (the song "You Can't Always Get What You Want" plays at the funeral) bemoaning how they are having a hard time getting over being the sell-outs they happily became. Think of it as The Breakfast Club for thirtysomethings. 
   The cast cannot be faulted for the pathetic choice of subject matter. Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, Kevin Kline and JoBeth Williams offer more than is expected of them by the Carson Company (as in Johnny Carson, who, whatever his skills at delighting late night TV viewers, was as square as a peg. Indeed, the entire film reeks of being exactly what the squares thought the people of the 1960s were all about). 
   Kasdan was completely in his element here. Before embalming the cast of this film, he had amassed a strong reputation among studios that loved blockbusters with his screenwriting of The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat, and Continental Divide (the latter his apparent attempt to embalm John Belushi pre-mortem). Kasdan went on to exploit all he could get out of his Star Wars tie-ins despite having worked on both Silverado and I Love You to Death, two movies even more lacking in soul than The Big Chill. 
   Kasdan is all about the shine. When we glimpse a coffin, we are supposed to imbue the inhabitant with unearned grace because of the number of people who attend the funeral. When Scott Glenn saddles up, we are intended to admire him because of the revolver he polishes. When Han Solo remarks something glib, we are supposed to swoon in anticipation of the shared looks of the supporting actors. It's all shine and it adds nothing to the value of movies. It does save a writer from having to do the hard work of thinking up something original, or something to which the audience can feel by way of empathy or confusion, or something that has not been accomplished in quite the same way before. 
   The Big Chill is a cynical sellout to a Reagan-era pack of salivating sheep ready to slurp up any swill the master would sling together. For those of us who spent much of our formative years in movie houses with our eyes wide in wonder of the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde, of Billy and Wyatt, of Alvy and Annie, Kasdan's movie was a below-the-belt blow that I for one still reel from thirty-four years later. 
   Thirty-four years? Seriously? 
   I watched Warren Beatty on the Oscars thing last night. Here is a man who has been more things to more people than almost anyone else in Hollywood history: actor, director, producer, stud, philosopher, historian, heartthrob and genuine talent. And yet some schmuck hands him the wrong envelope and he gets treated like garbage by a pack of ignorant loudmouths who have never seen a great movie in their rancid little lives, or if they had seen one, they wouldn't know what was so great about it. The whole idiotic affair completely overshadowed his onstage partner Faye Dunaway, who for her work in Network alone deserves to be not only worshiped but studied. Host Jimmy Kimmel (who otherwise did a fantastic job of making the four hour presentation about the show rather than himself--hint to Ellen DeGeneres) blew all the great work he had done by going for a cheap laugh at Beatty when what he should have done was to just shut up and let the actors work it out, which is what happened anyway. 
   So, yeah, thirty-four years and I'm still nursing the wounds to my presumably sturdy sensibilities. 
   What we watched last night on the Academy Awards was revelation unspoken. We saw, for one thing, people defying the present political administration in the most poetic of ways, rather than in the exploitative manner he reserves for his own enemies. We also saw black people getting nominated for their roles in contemporary films. Maybe films such as Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures will inspire a much-needed renaissance in the film industry. The edginess of the subject matter won't do it, just as the superior talent of the acting won't do it, just as the excellent scripts won't do it--though all three issues helped make these three movies the deserving successes that they are. What it will take is a sensibility among directors who are able to convince decision makers at studios that movies are more than merely mirrors of the times in which we live. Sometimes, when the right combination of elements coalesce, a movie can change the way we experience those interesting times in which we live. And that is not a curse at all.

ANIMAL CRACKERS

   Wherein Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx) is an African explorer who returns from the wild, attends a gala, and tries with his brothers to retrieve a stolen painting from the palatial Mrs Rittenhouse. 

Sample rant: "Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west, and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce, they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now, uh... Now you tell me what you know."

Animal Crackers (1930) was not the Marx Brothers' best movie (that would be either Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera), but it usually appears first alphabetically and so you owe it to yourself to at least watch it. Certainly you would not want to go through life without having heard "Hello, I Must Be Going" and "Hooray for Captain Spaulding." Groucho proves himself an amiable roustabout as well as quite the dancer. Harpo plays the harp, Chico knocks out a number on piano, and Zeppo plays the straight man. Based on the stage play by George S. Kaufman. 
   If you need another reason:

Capt. Spaulding: One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know. Then we tried to remove the tusks. The tusks. That's not so easy to say. Tusks. You try it some time.
Roscoe Chandler: Oh, simple: "tusks."
Capt. Spaulding: [shakes Chandler's hand] My name is Spaulding. I've always wanted to meet you, Mr. Chandler. As I say, we tried to remove the tusks. But they were embedded so firmly we couldn't budge them. Of course, in Alabama the Tuscaloosa, but that is entirely ir-elephant to what I was talking about.


   Directed by Victor Heerman.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

CAREGIVER

Scene 1.

[Mel, a man in his late fifties, is lying on a narrow bed gazing at a copy of The New Yorker magazine. He is gazing at it, one page at a time, his expression somewhere between a lack of comprehension and vague annoyance. Sitting on a stool near Mel is Leo, his son. Leo is studying Mel's face for some type of positive reaction. As the moments clock by, Leo struggles to control his impatience. At last, Mel puts down the magazine.]

Mel: What kind of magazine is this? A comic book?

Leo: It's The New Yorker, dad. 

Mel: I can see that. Lots of cartoons, huh?

Leo: That's my short story in there.

Mel: I see that, Leo. I see that.

Leo: Well?

Mel: They pay you to write that?

Leo: Yes, they paid me. They paid me a lot.

Mel: Good. They ought to pay you.

Leo: The New Yorker, dad, it's a big deal.

Mel: Yes. 

Leo: Somehow I thought you'd be more impressed than this.

Mel: Well, I'm not. Come here a second.

[Leo leans in. Mel whacks him on the head with the magazine. As he does, Tonya, Mel's wife and Leo's mother, enters the bedroom.]

Tonya: I guess you didn't like it.

Leo: He didn't like it.

Mel: I didn't read it.

Tonya: Then how can you say you don't like it?

Mel: Was there something you wanted?

Tonya: It's time for your medicine.

Mel: Who are you? Nurse Ratchett? I don't need any medicine.

Tonya: Leo, please explain to your father that--

Mel: The boy can speak for himself.

Leo: Do you want your medicine?

Mel: I'll let you know.

[Tonya and Leo exchange a look. She sighs and exits.]

Mel: She gone? [Leo nods.] Give me that morphine.

[Leo takes the small plastic bottle from the dresser.]

Leo: You need this or you want this?

Mel: Squirt some under my tongue and shut up.

Leo: [Administers dose.] The pain bad?

Mel: [Swallows it] No, the pain's good. Reminds me I'm still alive. Truth is I don't feel sick. I can still kick your ass.

Leo: I know.

Mel: Damn right, you know. What's that song on the box?

Leo: "Rank Strangers."

Mel: Stanley Brothers. See? I knew what it was. How much they pay you?

Leo: For the story? Twenty-five hundred.

Mel: Dollars? Give me a cigarette. They pay you that kind of money, you can spare your old man a smoke.

Leo: I can't do it. You'll have to make do with the dope.

Mel: Is it like that guy Stephen King?

Leo: The story? Not much, no.

Mel: It's not one of those horror stories?

Leo: It's a just a story about--You can read it when you feel better.

Mel: Don't you go confusing yourself into thinking this is self pity, boy. But I won't be feeling better. This is as good as it's going to get. [Tosses magazine onto the floor.] I want you to take care of Tonya for me.

Leo: We're a long way from that point.

Mel: I can't get out of this bed. I use a pan. I'm on morphine. I have lung cancer. You were there with me. You remember what the oncologist said? She said to make me comfortable. You know what that means? It means there's nothing anybody can do. You think one more cigarette is gonna kill me? 

[Leo thumbs one out of a pack, lights it for him.]

Mel: We have some money in the bank. Tomorrow you're gonna go with Tonya and she's going to give you power of attorney. You know what that means?

Leo: Mom can take care of herself just fine.

Mel: Your mother is unbalanced. You must have noticed.

Leo: She's fine.

Mel: Some guy called the other day. Told her she'd won a recreational vehicle.

Leo: When was this?

Mel: Told her she could come pick it up but first he needed her bank information for tax purposes. 


Leo: Oh no.

Mel: I was listening on the line. I cussed that bastard a blue streak. Leo, she does that kind of thing all the time. Runs in the family.

Leo: I didn't know that.

Mel: We don't tell you everything. 

Leo: I guess you don't.

Mel: Tomorrow. Don't forget.

Leo: I don't mean to beat this to death--

Mel: Then don't.

Leo: I thought you would be proud of me.

Mel: For that story? I'm glad for you. You used to write those little things for the radio, you remember?

Leo: That was a long time ago.

Mel: You were in high school. What did they call those?

Leo: Just segues between songs.

Mel: They paid you for those. 

Leo: First writings I ever had. . .published.

Mel: How's your real job going?

Leo: I quit.

Mel: Oh? Your mom's not the only psycho in the house.

Leo: I'm going to take care of you--and mom. Full time.

Mel: You go with her tomorrow. Tonya and I already talked about it. You'll pay the bills--don't overpay them. Just pay what the bills say. The car insurance comes due in two months. Property taxes won't be up until first of the year. Wait. February. I don't know why it's February. Pay the income taxes at the last minute. One other thing.

Leo: Okay. You sure mom knows about this?

Mel: If you mean do I think she'll remember, I plan to remind her tonight. And in the morning. But there's one other thing.

Leo: You just can't say you're proud of me, can you?

Mel: I could. Truth is that in a lot of ways you have been a good son. You didn't stay out late getting stoned or whoring around, as far as I know. You always were a hard worker. How long have you been--were you with the firm?

Leo: Nine years to the day.

Mel: Nine years. And you quit. Maybe you did the right thing. We could have brought somebody in.

Leo: Who? I'm your only child, remember?

Mel: I remember.

Leo: What's the other thing?

Mel: Your mom's pregnant.

Leo: What?

Mel: You got no sense of humor at all, do you? I want you to call my brothers and let them know what's going on with me. I don't want to talk to them myself. Greedy bastards'll be tripping over each other to stick it to you. Ray will be the worst. He may be my brother, but you remember this: he's a self-centered prick. Earl's almost as bad. He invented the hard luck story, the little shit. Those two don't get squat, understand?

Leo: You have a will?

Mel: It's with the lawyer. Copy in the safe. You don't worry about that. Whatever's left, you use it to take care of your mom. Whatever's left after she dies, if there's anything, that's yours. 

Leo: [Takes Mel's hand] I'll do my best, dad. Mom won't want for anything.

Mel: Here she comes.

[Tonya returns]

Tonya: Honey, it's time for your medicine.

Mel: I guess you better give it to me then.

Leo [As Tonya reaches for the morphine]: Dad just had a dose.

Mel: I think I would know, wouldn't I? Tonya, just squirt some under my tongue.

Leo: You're going to overdose.

Mel [Accepts the dose from Tonya]: Ummm. Yummy. Hey, you know Stephen King here wrote a story?

Tonya: I know. It's beautiful. So much better than those horrible things you used to write.

Leo: The music reviews?

Mel: They always stiffed you for those.

Leo: I was paid.

Mel: Couldn't quit your day job, could you?

Tonya: Did you tell your father about leaving the firm?

Mel: He told me. Whew. That last dose was a good one.

Tonya: Leo, let's leave your father to his rest.

Mel: Where's that liquid Xanex? My nerve's are shot.

Tonya: I think you've had enough for now.

Mel: You afraid I'm gonna die? Jesus! You afraid I'll be too stoned to remember my last days after I'm dead? Give me the goddamned Xanex!

[Leo opens the drawer, takes out the bottle, gives Mel a small squirt.]

Mel: You guys go on and busy yourselves. I'm going to enjoy the show. Leo? What song they playing now? 

Leo: "Bean Blossom." 

Mel: Ah, Bill Monroe. [He falls asleep.]

Tonya: Honey?

Leo: There's no music, mom. It's just a game we play.


Scene 2.

[Leo and Tonya are sitting at the kitchen table sipping coffee. The room is filled with flowers and get well cards.]

Tonya: How did the calls go with Ray and Earl?

Leo: I can see why dad doesn't want anything to do with them. Have they always been such jerks?

Tonya: Ray was very interested in me. Before I met your father, that is. When Mel came home from the war and I caught a look of him in his Air Force uniform, I forgot all about Ray. I suppose he's still bitter.

Leo: That was a long time ago.

Tonya: And Earl? I never knew him very well. He was always so shy. I would come over to visit your father and Earl would go hide in his room.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS

   One of the most intelligent and mature movies of Woody Allen's career, as well as one of his most accessible, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) blows apart the anhedonic nebbish of his best early films and resolves that the meaning of life is life. 
   The movie concerns Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest) and the men who keep messing up their lives as those men try in vain to remain relevant. Hannah is married to a well-off accountant named Elliot (Michael Caine) who is in love with Lee. She is involved in an odd relationship with Frederick (Max von Sydow), a frustrated but gifted artist many years her senior. Holly exploits Hannah's need to be liked by hitting her up for permanent loans as she struggles to find her purpose in life. Holly has even survived a date with Mickey (Woody Allen), who just happens to be Hannah's ex-husband. If this description sounds soap opera-esque, the characterizations run infinitely more deep than that. 
   Part of what makes this movie so special and spectacular is the way plot and characterization become one and the same. Everyone here is searching for something. If you asked each person, she or he would give an answer specific to that character. By the end of the film, however, we recognize that they have all been seeking the age-old question: what is the meaning of life? Just as in real life, not everyone arrives at an answer. Von Sydow's character is perhaps the most sympathetic because as he loses Lee, we ache with the knowledge that she has been his sole (soul) connection with the world outside his home studio. His self-analysis gets projected out at the world--and not in a favorable way--to the point where he watches television just to have something that makes him feel superior. 
   While I will resist giving away more of the story, I will tell you that the story appears to have been extremely important to the director. Gone are the self-conscious camera angles and affinity for black and white cinematography. Nowhere do we find the homage to foreign filmmakers. What we do get are living, breathing people with honest problems that materialize through deception, desperation, exploration and even a bit of procreation. This was a major evolutionary leap in Allen's development. By the mid-1970s, he had already joined the ranks of the world's best filmmakers (Kubrick, Kurasawa, Bergman, Fellini, Vargas, Altman, Godard). With Hannah and Her Sisters, he became a stylist of the tallest order.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

NASHVILLE

   I suppose these days everyone has their favorite something: favorite football player, favorite pop singer, favorite pest control expert. My favorite things have always been people--at least, certain people--and that is why, if pressed, I would select Robert Altman as my favorite movie director and Nashville (1975) as my favorite film. Altman populated his motion pictures with so many people that a first-time viewer might assume that some of them were extraneous. But such things rarely exist in his movies, and they certainly do not exist in Nashville. Even a small child resting on his daddy's shoulders in a crowd scene after a country star has been assassinated at a political music festival exudes substance. I have noticed that many people confuse substance with explicit meaning. Naturally, I disagree.
   It is not my purpose here to confuse Altman's style with absurdist works such as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, mainly because I have always found Beckett to be obvious and boring. Neither does he come across as some pretentious polecat in the spirit of James Joyce, whose writings always struck me as being in need of a decoder ring. If Altman's directorial style does have a literary equivalent, it might be a blend of Eugene Ionesco and Philip Roth, but even that fanciful thought still misses the mark. The most clear explanation I can offer is that he caught all the minute details of human interaction and adhered them to the old adage that comedy is tragedy plus time. When Keenan Wynn's character, Mr. Green, receives the news that his wife Esther has passed away, Scott Glenn's military character rushes up to him to babble out some wonderful--i.e., meaningless--good news. As Mr. Green strains to absorb the unexpected loss of his wife, the camera stays on the two men, neither of whom is reading the cues of the other, leaving us to struggle with the reverse of the adage. Throughout much of the movie, tragedy is comedy minus time. 
   Most directors--even some good ones--would not have had the imagination to conceive such a scene. But even those who might have found it within their abilities would not have been able to follow it up by having Mr. Green vindictively chase down Shelley Duvall who, as L.A. Joan, was more interested in chatting with men in the local music business than with caring about her dying Aunt. 
   It is no coincidence that we never meet Aunt Esther.
   We also never meet Hal Phillip Walker, the disembodied voice who is campaigning for President of the United States on the Replacement Party ticket. His long-winded witticisms come at us throughout the movie via a sound system atop an old campaign van winding its way through the city. Walker believes the National Anthem is a stupid song, that all the lawyers should be thrown out of Congress, and that churches should lose their tax-exempt status. He also believes that Christmas smells like oranges. In short, his message is one of populism. Released between Watergate and the American Bicentennial, Nashville summed up precisely where our country existed at that time.
   But such a statement fails to do justice to Altman's film, or to Joan Tewkesbury's screenplay, or to the brilliance of the casting and the performances the director allowed to flow from such heavyweights as Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, Henry Gibson, Michael Murphy, Shelley Duvall, or any of the twenty-plus other actors prominently featured in this film. In this movie (which Altman called a musical, what with more than one hour of the total running time being devoted to mostly unappealing countrypolitan drivel, much of it written by the actors themselves, with the rest penned by Nashville stalwart Richard Baskin), we encounter people who are so beaten down by the lives they consciously created for themselves that they are largely unaffected by the public execution of the country star for whom they have all clamored, Barbara Jean, played to perfection by Ronnie Blakley. To quell any emotional response the crowd might express, or to seize an opportunistic moment, Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), who has been looking for a break since the festival began, takes the microphone and howls out a Gospel version of the only really human song in the film, Keith Carradine's "It Don't Worry Me." The audience eats it up. After all, they came to be entertained. 
   Five years after this movie came out, Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon to death. Some reporter called Altman and asked if he felt any responsibility for Chapman's actions. Altman, whose actual reaction can only be imagined, told the story that he answered back, "Do you feel any responsibility for not learning the lessons of Nashville?"

   

Sunday, January 29, 2017

THE LATE SHOW

   When I checked out the guide and saw that The Late Show (1977) was coming on in half an hour, I skipped across the room with my arms in the air and my feet a-sailing. I had not seen this wonderful Robert Benton-directed Robert Altman-produced movie since the day it hit the theater in Huntington, West Virginia. I left the movies that day feeling I had just watched a terrific movie, a movie that captured the strange spirit of odd friendships. It was also the first time I can remember thinking that a movie's casting has more power than its plot.
    So there it was on TV tonight. Lisa Ann heated the cheese and I pulled out the chips and I loved every minute of it. Lisa Ann turned to me when the closing credits were rolling and said, "That was sort of a Phil Mershon movie, wasn't it?"
   I didn't say anything for a few seconds. I recognized that I had not been insulted. But I wasn't clear on exactly what she meant.
   She said, "It was cute."
   "Cute" is one of those words people use when they try to make you feel better about the fact that they do not want to sleep with you. "Oh, you are so cute. But, no, it just wouldn't feel right."
   "It's your kind of humor," she clarified. "I can see why you like it."
   Well, hell. She nailed me. It is my kind of movie. If I made a list of my one hundred favorite films, I would expect that at least ninety of them would have friendship as a theme. If you are honest with yourself, the same is true for you.
   The Late Show would be on my version of that list.
   Citizen Kane is not just a movie about Patty Hearts' grandfather; it is about friendship, or the horror of its absence. Casablanca is more than a love story and Nazis; it's also about the grudging admiration Rick has for Victor Laslo. MASH is very much about friendships that would never have happened had the participants not been dragged into an idiotic war. Goodfellas is less a movie about gangsters than it is a movie about friendships betrayed. Name any movie that has stuck with you over the decades and I will bet that some type of strange friendship is at that movie's heart. 
   Strange friendships are right up director Robert Benton's alley. The first movie he wrote was 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, the two main characters of which, it will be recalled, weren't all that much in the lover department, but her desire to reinvent herself was the impetus for the friendship between the two. Five years later, Benton was back with Bad Company, a civil war era film about draft resisters who team up for an unlikely life of armed robbery. But with the script for The Late Show, bolstered by Altman's genius in casting Lily Tomlin and Art Carney in the leads, Benton has earned his way into heaven. As Margo, Lily Tomlin is a little bit goofy, a little bit astrological, and very edgy. As Ira, Art Carney is cagey, weather-worn, and lonely as an abandoned hound dog. Even within the realm of the 1940s detective noir to which this movie pays considerable homage, we recognize right away that their relationship will be an unusual one. 
    Someone has kidnapped Margo's cat. In fact, the cat is being held for ransom by someone to whom Margo owes money. She is introduced to Ira at a cemetery where he is sending off one of his best friends, another private detective named Harry. Margo wants Ira to find her cat. Ira is offended at the suggestion. He may be old, he may be living in a modest home, he may be lonely, but he has not degenerated to the point where he tracks down missing felines. 
   Ira discovers that the recently departed Harry was murdered while trying to do that very thing.
   The rest of the plot runs amok. And that is not a criticism. The story has a kind of logic--just one that's nearly impossible to follow. Besides, the plot doesn't matter.
   What matters is the way Margo and Ira come to care about one another. Being young and feisty, she gets on Ira's nerves. For instance, when she mentions to him that she had to sell some marijuana to pay his fee, he asks, "How long have you been a pusher?"
   When Ira has to go into a room that will probably reveal something they don't want to see, Margo, who has actress among many other jobs on her resume, panics. Ira says, "You're an actress, right? Well, act calm."
   This is not The Bickersons. These two people are together in a somewhat contrived series of situations and just try to make the most of it. Margo does not want to fence stolen merchandise or sell pot to make ends meet, but she can't pay her bills on the money she makes as an actor, an agent, a talent manager, or any of the other careers she admittedly does not have the self-discipline to do well. When she suggests to Ira that he take the vacant apartment next door to her because they work so well together, we recognize that both of them have an emptiness they would love the other to fill and when he turns her down because he has grown so accustomed to his life of quiet desperation, we actually ache for the both of them. 
   Look, there was a time in my life, somewhere around the time when I first saw this movie, that I harbored a secret wish that by the time I reached Carney's age, I would be just like his character in this movie. So, yes, as usual, Lisa Ann was correct. It is a Phil Mershon kind of film, at least to the extent that nuggets remain of the person I was then. As the Black Panthers used to say, "The more things remain the same, the more they remain the same."
   If you have read this far, then just maybe you have some of that Art Carney or Lily Tomlin in you as well. Hey, different generations have different heroes. But just as the great actors of my parents' generation transcended typecasting--it's a straight line between, say, Humphrey Bogart and Orson Welles to George C Scott and Peter Sellers--so do two actors most celebrated for their comedic skills make those legends irrelevant in this movie. Tomlin worked the camera as well as anyone who ever stood in front of one and not once yielded to any impulses to become too endearing or sympathetic. The same with Carney: every time our feelings shift from empathy to sympathy, he comes out with guns a-blazing and makes us reevaluate what we think we know. 
  My advice? Watch this movie with someone who will tell you afterwards that this is your kind of movie. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

DEFENDING MADONNA

    Some people call him President. I prefer to think of him as the Ghastly Gremlin of Doom. Amid some of the most massively attended protests since the days of Civil Rights and Vietnam, where people from every continent on this planet came out to assure themselves and the rest of the world that this Ghastly Gremlin of Doom in no way represents their interests, a few whining losers bemoaned how what the protesters actually should have been doing was giving the poor bastard a chance. Meanwhile, Sean "The Spaz" Spicer was going apoplectic over the audacious media for reporting what was going on, as if his boss was locked in a battle over whose was bigger. Madonna, very much to the point, had the best response to this: "Fuck you." Give Hitler a chance to murder Jews before we try to stop him? Fuck you. Limit press coverage to nothing but Fox and Breitbart? Fuck you. Intimidate scientists by taking down their names? Fuck you. 
   I eschew profanity. It gets over done and loses its impact and all too often there are hateful aspects of it that blur the message. On the other hand, just as I refuse to abdicate the flag and God and apple pie to the bad guys, so do I decline to let bad manners be only within the purview of people for whom I have no respect.
   On occasion, and done without carelessness, I therefore reserve the right to be precise and purposeful in my use of the expletive and of the rights of famous people and all the rest of us to do the same, and so I join with Madonna in saying to the President and his lapdogs, "Fuck you."
   Ah, that feels so much better. Thank you for indulging me. 
   I do not say this entirely in the spirit of comedy. 
   We have a lot of work to do and as the streets swelled worldwide today with women and men and lots of young people who are simultaneously scared of the totalitarian proclivities of the Gremlin and thrilled to have a real voice in shouting him down, one very much got a sense of unity that I am convinced will not only protect us but actually help us thrive as we rid this country of the need for you know who.
   You may be wondering what I mean by "need." I am happy to explain.
   Racism and sexism and other forms of bigotry are used by people in power to keep us divided. Because America holds incredible diversity, the powerful have no shortage of opportunity to work us against one another. Under normal circumstances, we find it difficult to internalize the idea that rich people would exploit us, in part because some people hope to become rich very soon and eventually turn into smirking bastards themselves. It's much easier to hate the guy across the street than some invisible monarch on Wall Street. Our "need" for the Gremlin will vanish the instant we stop to realize that our neighbor has no real negative impact on our lives, while multinational CEOs have almost total control. And today those multinational CEOs were symbolized, quite properly, by the Gremlin. 
   Many protesters today took pains to say that the millions of people who turned out were not part of an anti-you know who rally. But of course, that is exactly what it was. If you are pro-choice, pro-PBS, pro-voter, pro-woman, pro-man, pro-democracy, pro-sensible gun legislation, pro-free press, pro-truth, then you want this reign of disaster, doom and dread to end before the gas chambers even get built. We cannot and we will not wait until the corporate polluters have turned us into China and the Gremlin has turned us into the Kremlin before we raise our voices and arms and shout out something in the spirit of Madonna.
    Madonna, Cher, Robert DeNiro, Michael Moore--they need no defense from me. But as many people we like get pigeon-holed into being thought of us elitists, it falls to the rest of us to tell the liar-in-chief that he himself is buck-nekked and more than a little flabby. 


   

Friday, January 13, 2017

STARDUST MEMORIES

     Whether by character or by sensibility, there are those for whom filmmaker Woody Allen holds little or no interest. I recommend that those people--whom I'm sure are very nice--may want to skip what follows. 
    You're going to read it anyway, huh? Suit yourself. But you probably will not be able to get beyond the predisposition that there is something a little creepy, a little unsettling, unpleasant and maybe not even funny about the man, in spite of all the fine things you are possibly about to read.
   Woody Allen is the perfect link between not only classic movie-making from the 1930s and 1940s (Marx Brothers, Orson Welles, Michael Curtiz) and today; he is also the same kind of link between art film directors (Fellini, Bergman, Godard,) and contemporary romantic comedies. His use of absurdities to amplify genuine human feelings runs consistent through the bulk of his work. Because many of his early movies had Allen playing characters who might be described as a passive-aggressive nebbish, as someone who is himself intelligent yet wary of intellectuals, as indefatigable in his willingness to let his indecisiveness screw up his plans--there has, over the years, been a tendency to assume that those fictional characters were to a great extent reflections of the man's overall perception of himself, and that, given such consistency, he was therefore a narcissist.  
   For all the people who did indeed take him to be a nebbish, a man suspicious of cant, a narcissist, Woody Allen made a movie to debunk all of that rubbish. He called it Stardust Memories (1980). Coming as it did after four successful directorial knock-outs (Love and Death, Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan), Stardust Memories left more than a few people dampened in their reactions. The protagonist, Sandy Bates, played by Allen, was clearly mocking his fans and their adoration of him, or so many people editorialized. His use of a wide-angle lens in close-ups of the exuberant crowds that gaggled around him at a retrospective of his films made the people look paralyzed with their own ill-fitted self-importance. 
    This kind of reaction--and it was widespread upon the movie's initial release--was simply wrong. It was wrong to the extent that it was (a) irrelevant, and (b) ignorant of movie history. 
   The point of whatever hostility Woody Allen may have felt against his fans and supporters, especially in light of the disappointment many felt with his attempts at seriousness with Interiors, did get some support from the director himself, what with the most often-repeated line in the movie being to the effect that people wanted him to go back to making funny pictures again, like he used to do. A lot of people did say that at the time. So I will concede that he was drawing from his own personal experiences there. But none of that makes a bit of difference because in this movie the audience is viewing those fans from the camera point of view of the protagonist, the character with whom, to some extent, we are expected to identify. 
   Anyone still not as yet convinced should take a gander at the film upon which Stardust Memories pays homage: 8 1/2 by Frederico Fellini. When I say that Woody pays homage to Fellini, I do not mean in the same sense that Brian De Palma often paid homage to Alfred Hitchcock. In other words, Allen did not steal from Fellini. He created a conscious and deliberate parallel of the Marcello Mastroianni character in Fellini's film, a parallel which utilized elements of the nebbish character Allen had been using for years. And the stylistic similarities with not only 8 1/2 but also with Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt are as deliberate as they are honest. 
   But all this explication ignores something I believe is far more important: this is a genuinely enjoyable movie, one crammed with some of the best screenwriting Allen has ever done, with lines that bite like sabers, one of the best of which takes place in a large field where UFO believers are apparently awaiting the landing of aliens and one of the men looks right into the camera, declaring that the Soviets are beaming satellite transmissions from the Empire State Building to cloud our minds, and finishes by saying, "And I'm the only one who knows."
  Stardust Memories also introduces a specifically American audience to visuals for which that audience was, to put it mildly, unprepared. The presentation of the troubled ex-girlfriend Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling) implied rather than showed the depth of her struggles. There are otherwise empty shots of her enigmatic beauty, yet, near the end, we see her in rapid still shots as she babbles helplessly in a mental institution. 
   In Sandy's apartment, as he is being berated by studio people who want him to go back to making funny movies again, we cannot help but see that behind him, on the large wall, is an enormous photograph of the famous image from the Tet Offensive where a Viet Cong prisoner is about to be shot in the head by a South Vietnamese General. A few minutes later the picture has been replaced by a radiant Groucho Marx. 
   I realize that I have not said anything about the plot of this movie and that is because plot in this movie is nothing more than a device through which the writer-director is able to express the idea that personal and social responsibility can be tough in a world where most people only like you because it makes them feel important to do so. A small but vocal number of those wounded people may even try to kill you.
   At the end of the scene in the field with the expectant UFO-seekers, Sandy Bates is confronted by a fan who points a gun at him and fires. A little more than three months following this movie's release, Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon. 
   So for those of you--nice people, one and all--who resist enjoying Woody Allen because you find him a bit creepy or because you don't find his ideal characterization of himself to be something with which you can relate, I nevertheless urge you to reconsider your position by seeing this movie. Listen, even if all this art work and cinematic stylism eludes you, even if the struggle for morality in this film leaves you unsettled, even if you just don't want to watch it no matter what I say, you can tell yourself that it's a great way to people watch. You'll see a very young Sharon Stone, plus all sorts of other cool New York people, such as Judith Crist, Laraine Newman, Louise Lasser, Tony Roberts, and Anne DeSalvo, among others. If you look even closer, who knows? You might even see yourself.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

WATERSHIP DOWN

    We have come a ways from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first animated movie I ever saw in a cinema. That was in the summer of 1967, thirty years after its original release. The studios heralded Snow White as a Walt Disney story, but of course that was a lie, as anyone familiar with the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm will attest. The true origins of the story actually go back beyond the Brothers Grimm to sixteenth century Germany where Philip IV fathered Margarete von Waldeck who, upon her maturity, fell in love with a prince who would go on to become Phillip II of Spain. Margarete's parents disapproved of the relationship and either banished her or poisoned her, much to the horror of the children (dwarfs) the family held as slave laborers. Kind of puts a different spin on the old "Whistle While You Work" motif, doesn't it?
   The Wicked Queen in that movie proved to be the image of nightmares for a few weeks, somewhat on a par with the Wicked Witches in The Wizard of Oz. The first time I watched those flying monkeys tear apart the Scarecrow, I thought I was going to faint.
   Both of those films are thought to be kid movies which are commonly enjoyed by adults as well, although the pleasure grown-ups get from such things may have something to do with nostalgia for their own presumed innocent days of youth.
   The 1978 animated movie Watership Down maintains its appeal to this very day and that appeal has nothing much to do with nostalgia since I only saw it for the first time earlier this evening and must confess to having been quite engrossed. 
   Whenever I watch a so-called feature-length cartoon, I take a moment to consider if I would have enjoyed the movie as a child. I believe that I would. I am certain that I liked it as a more or less grown person. And even though a few scenes display some violence and horror, the very nature of the construct of that horror is not in the least gratuitous and I believe would not much disturb any child who ever lost a goldfish to the perils of the toilet bowl.
   The story is about a warren of rabbits who escape from the progress of mankind. In the Martin Rosen film, as in the Richard Adams book, the rabbits talk. But these rabbits are not much like Bugs Bunny. Mankind, for that matter, is not much like Elmer Fudd. The thoroughly naturalistic animation catches details that any child would recognize, such as the way a rabbit's soul appears to be conveyed by its eyes, the way a rabbit sniffs and chews, the movements as they scurry hither and yon. All the details are perfect and not a bit boastful. Mankind's encroachment is only the beginning of the problems for our rabbits, however. It seems their social systems have a few authoritarian elements as well as a share of cosmic-inclined characters who can foresee disaster. 
   The real menace for our adventure-seeking harmony-loving rabbits is a big old bastard of a rabbit named General Woundwort who rules by inflicting scars on his people. His brutality is complete and as irrational as that of any Wicked Queen. Woundwort is also the ultimate foil and without his cruelty there would be much less of a story to tell. The movie also delivers a sinister pussy cat who is just as evil, though not as sophisticated, as Woundwort. Both are sufficiently frightening.
   Even if a person were to murmur some objections to the rotten behavior of the bad actors in this movie, I would counter that the splendor of the film's resolution is enhanced by all that comes before it and that without the violence, that resolution would be fey and dismissed by any kid in attendance, much less by his or her parental guardian. 
   This issue of violence strikes me as important because it seems that the BBC and Netflix are about to release a four-part mini-series remake of the original for sometime this year, but have decided to tame down the tension for fear of scarring the children who might watch it. 
   We are not talking about some sick, twisted garbage movie here. This is not I Spit on Your Grave or Friday 13th or even Caligula. This is an actual movie with believable characters about whom we come to care a great deal in a brief period of time and when something bad happens to one of them, we feel it, just as we do in real life, despite the efforts of sensationalists to desensitize us. Watership Down is a movie that aims to sensitize us to our place in this mad universe, to connect us with our fellows, to breathe life into each precious moment and in order to do that in a way that is honest and sincere, a few rabbits do indeed get hurt. But as Frith the Creator tells us, "There is not a day or night that a doe offers her life for her kittens, or some honest captain of Owsla, his life for his chief. But there is no bargain: what is, is what must be." Frith has a lot of interesting things to say, including, "All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed." 
    I'm sure it is too late to get the BBC and Netflix to reconsider their "sanitizing" of the story. I have not seen previews of the work, but I suspect they may stray from the naturalist appearance of the original and go for a "real" look instead, the difference between natural and real being, say, the difference between Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. Real is seldom an improvement. 

   

Saturday, January 7, 2017

ORNETTE: MADE IN AMERICA

   "If we could start with universe, we would automatically avoid leaving out any strategically critical variables."
  --Buckminster Fuller

   No one since Charlie Parker has built on what already existed and totally transformed that music as powerfully as Ornette Coleman. The Ft Worth, Texas, native summed up his revolutionary philosophy thus: "If I'm going to follow a preset chord sequence, I might as well write out my solo." Because his compositions do not have chord changes, variable pitch, or asymmetrical phrases, they are free to transfer the listener's attention from a dominant soloist to collective improvisation. Because his groups based their solos on melody rather than on chord changes, Coleman referred to this blend of harmony, melody and motion as "harmolodics." It was in 1959 that Coleman assembled a double quartet that included Don Cherry on trumpet, Ed Blackwell on drums and Charlie Haden on bass. The result was a thirty-six minute album on Atlantic called Free Jazz. The album was more liberated from musical convention than anything ever recorded to that point. As Len Lyons and Don Perlo describe it, "The music is based on a given tonal center, around which collective playing alternates with solo performances." Another way to describe it is divinely sublime noise. 
   Almost everything Coleman did for Atlantic is stunning, changing the way the world understood music. In addition to Free Jazz, his 1959-1961 period also created Change of the Century, The Shape of Jazz to Come, and This is Our Music.

   Revolutionary director Shirley Clarke spends little time on Coleman's classic period and instead intersperses his childhood in Ft Worth with a wild presentation of the saxophonist's symphonic hook up in The Skies of America. Risks abound when pairing a wild talent documentarian such as Clarke with a massive creative force such as Coleman. Shirley is relatively careful in not letting the movie be about the making of the movie rather than about the subject matter, although the rhythmic jump cuts and deliberate scene duplications don't necessarily add much value to the process. What makes the Ornette: Made in America (1985) work so well as a vehicle to tell the story is her use of interviews. Denardo Coleman, son of the master, proves himself to be more than just another brilliant rhythm man. He tells stories of his father well, stories that matter, stories that reinforce the mutual respect we see between the two men. 
   One of my personal favorite segments of the film occurs when a Coleman critic-advocates talks about watching Ornette play just like Charlie Parker, almost as if to prove that he actually could make music with structure and finesse when he chose to do so. 
   We also meet poet Jayne Cortez, ex-wife of Ornette, as well as writer William Burroughs and composer George Russell. But it is Coleman himself who we came to see and it is Coleman who tells the best stories of all, whether remembering how when another Ft Worth sax man, King Curtis, hit the big time, the two of them took a ride in the latter's limo, or what it was like being a child in a house just a few feet from the heavily-trafficked railroad tracks. 
   This is a good movie and a very accessible introduction to the life and work of a complicated genius.