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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.

   
   

Thursday, January 5, 2017

THE LONG GOODBYE

   I can be bought. Let there be no doubt. But my price for saying nice things about you in print comes at a very high cost. What it would take to get me to say something favorable about someone in the book publishing industry or elsewhere would be to receive a book called Black Amazon of Mars: and Other Tales From the Pulps, an anthology of writings by one of the greatest writers whose words I have had the pleasure to digest: Leigh Brackett.
   Those words first came to me in a college course, of all the unlikely places. It was in Dr. Robert Gerke's Science Fiction class back at my beloved Marshall University in the late 1970s that I read "The Jewel of Bas" and from whence forever my opinion of all those science fiction nerds did change. Bob Gerke and I had a custom of amusing one another by smoking Camels in his office while belaboring pointless subjects such as whether Anthony Burgess could be thought of as an sf writer, would it be fun to actually have dinner with Kurt Vonnegut, and the suggestion that just possibly George Orwell had known and written about everything that needed to be known, so why the hell even bother with anything else? One day I punctuated one of my pathetic smoke rings with the question, "Who is this Leigh Brackett, anyway? Why isn't she on the cover of Time magazine? These stories of hers are incredible!"
    "Do you know your Raymond Chandler?" he asked.
    That was such a cool way to ask the question, I thought. It was the way a practicing southern attorney might have asked the jurors in a murder trial, "Do ya know your Bible?"
   "Yeah, I know Chandler. Detective fiction. Philip Marlowe."
   Bob shook his head and ground out a Camel. "The Shakespeare of the modern detective story. He wrote The Big Sleep. Hollywood made it a film. Leigh Brackett wrote the screenplay with a little help from William Faulkner. Leigh Brackett is one of the best. That was back in the forties. You ever hear of a little thing called The Empire Strikes Back?"
   "I don't watch Stars Wars movies."
   "Why not? Don't be a snob, Mersh. The trash aesthetic has elevated more people than Milton, I assure you."
   This from the man who taught Chaucer in Middle English.
   "Well, Leigh Brackett wrote The Empire Strikes Back. In the old days she turned out horror films, westerns such as Rio Bravo, all kinds of movies, while still writing her stories. They called her the queen of the space opera, but as we have seen, she was far more than that. What you really should do, if you want to have a good time, is take some young lady to go see The Long Goodbye. The people who put together the movie schedule here are going to run it later this month. Robert Altman is the director. Elliott Gould plays Marlowe, or The Marlboro Man, as one of the characters calls him. It's brilliant."
    Young ladies were not exactly lining up to accompany me to the movies in those days, so I went stag and had to agree with Bob Gerke: it was brilliant.
   The actual movie added and subtracted a few items from the Leigh Brackett script, but you can read the original here and decide for yourself: Leigh Brackett Screenplay for The Long Goodbye. You will learn a lot from reading this.
   One of the things you will not necessarily learn from either the screenplay or the movie that eventually appeared, is how the $350,000 made it's way back to gangster Marty Augustine, but what you will discover for certain is that Raymond Chandler, Leigh Backett and Robert Altman cared very much about friendship. 
   They knew how to express that concern.
   The opening scene of the movie has detective Marlowe waking up at 3AM because his cat is hungry. The cat nudges him and he crawls out of bed with some reluctance but with a manner that convinces us he has been in this situation before tonight. Seeing that he is out of Coury Brand Cat Food, Marlowe fries some scrambled eggs and serves them to the cat. The feline is not impressed. Undeterred, Marlowe leaves his apartment to go to the all-night grocery to fetch some cat food. As he leaves, one of his neighbors, who likes to do yoga sans clothing while inhaling various mind-altering substances with her like-minded girlfriends, asks him if he will pick her up two boxes of brownie mix. He says he will. And he does. But the store is out of Coury Brand Cat Food, so he settles for a different brand. Knowing the cat is nobody's fool, Marlowe sneaks into the kitchen, fishes an old empty Coury can out of the trash, and shoves the faux cat food into the can. He lets tabby into the kitchen and makes a big production about how this is the real stuff, see, I'm taking it out of the can and placing it in your dish--and the cat is not fooled. From that one scene we learn that the cat kows things about people that Marlowe has yet to understand.
   Both Elliott Gould and the cat deserved major award recognition for their performances together. If acting is at least in part about reacting, these two characters reacting to one another is one of the finest extended moments in motion picture history.
   Elliott Gould, despite having been one of the most in-demand actors of the very early 1970s, had perhaps suffered from some overexposure by 1973, when this picture was released, and from interviews I've read, it appears he was relieved to get the job. He had already set the world on fire by playing Trapper John in Altman's MASH. After turning down a star role in the same director's McCabe and Mrs Miller, Gould accepted roles he wanted in critical faves and commercial busts such as Little Murders and Getting Straight. Even though he would go on to have parts in three more Altman films and was never out of work for long, The Long Goodbye was his last major role on the big screen. 
   With Brackett's words, Altman's direction and his own brilliance in front of the camera, Elliott Gould shines darkly in one of the most under-celebrated movies of the ages. 
   If by any chance my saying that Gould is magnificent is in and of itself insufficient to get you to watch this classic movie, then I will add that the support cast includes Sterling Hayden as a self-destructive writer type, probably based to an extent on Hemmingway, Henry Gibson as the notorious Dr. Verringer (the Hollywood equivalent of a Doctor Feelgood), David "Kung-Fu" Carradine as a long-winded storytelling convict, and, even though he is uncredited, I have it on reasonable authority that one of the gangster's henchmen is Arnold Schwarzenegger. 
   No one will tell me who played the cat.
   It has been written elsewhere that in this movie, private eye Philip Marlowe goes to sleep a 1953 detective and wakes up in a 1973 world, with all the shallow narcissism that concept implies. Perhaps that is the reason for one of the most substantial differences between the original Chandler novel and the finished movie. In the former, Terry Lennox, a friend of Marlowe's, is a real friend: fascinating, sympathetic and symbiotic. In the movie, he is a fake friend: boring, pompous and parasitic--although Marlowe does not accept this until deep into the story. 
   And so this movie is about the nature of the longing for friendship. It is about the nature of the longing for friendship in Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood. It's some Nathanael West (The Day of the Locust), a little Warren Zevon, a bit of the audience from "Let's Make a Deal." But mostly it is the invincible threesome of Brackett, Altman and Gould. And while the director made sure the soundtrack included as many different versions of the title song as possible, it was the closing credits tune that actually tells the story: "Hooray for Hollywood," by Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting:

Hooray for Hollywood That screwy ballyhooey Hollywood Where any office boy or young mechanic can be a panic With just a good looking pan And any barmaid can be a star maid If she dances with or without a fan Hooray for Hollywood, Where you're terrific if you're even good Where anyone at all from Shirley Temple to Aimee Semple Is equally understood Go out and try your luck, you might be Donald Duck Hooray for Hollywood Hooray for Hollywood That phoney super-Coney Hollywood They come from Chillicothes and Paducas with their bazookas To get their names up in lights All armed with photos from local rotos With their hair in ribbon and legs in tights Hooray for Hollywood You may be homely in your neighbourhood But if you think that you can be an actor, see Mr. Factor He'll make a monkey look good Within a half an hour you'll look like Tyrone Power Hooray for Hollywood



   

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

SCANNERS

   With Scanners (1981), writer-director David Cronenberg presented himself with one of the all-time great cinematic quandaries: how do you convey the act of telekinesis without making the actor appear ridiculous? What you want to avoid is having your actor look like William Shatner in an old episode of "Star Trek." 
   You also want to stay away from the actor trying overly hard to appear cool while in the midst of mentally forcing someone to do something against his will, as with David Keith in Firestarter
  What you do want is a fast cut to the protagonist so that the audience doesn't dwell on the inherent absurdities in the situation, which is one of the reasons why Sissy Spacek was so credible, not to mention terrifying, in Carrie
   In Scanners, lead actor Stephen Lack looks simply stupid.
   So stupid does he look, that one can hardly distinguish between the times when he is scanning out and those occasions when he is vaguely normal.

   None of this would matter much to the sophisticated cinema-philes who frequent these pages were it not for the lost opportunity during the first few minutes of the movie when Cameron (Lack) stumbles through a food court, snatching cigarettes and eating off deserted food trays. We gather that he is homeless and possibly schizophrenic. We are half right. Two proper middle-aged women observe this and one of them reckons aloud as how Cameron ought not to be permitted out among decent people. Cameron takes this in and goes all scanner on her: speeding up her heart rate, bloodying her nose, and giving her one nasty migraine. Because he is properly paranoid, when two CIA agents catch him in the act of scanning, he flees up and down escalators, eventually getting tranked and sent to visit the friendly old professor-type secret agent, Dr. Ruth. 
   Ruth points out to Cameron that he isn't nuts at all. He is a scanner, one of two hundred or more special people who can look into the minds and bodies of mere mortals. 
   Right there we have what could have been a brilliant set up. All those sad folks we see walking the streets screaming about how Henry VIII shouldn't have run off with Catherine the Great are not psychos at all. In fact, they might just be more tuned in than the rest of us.
   Unfortunately, we have no such luck. It's just a bunch of special effects nonsense, pregnant pauses that amount to nothing and some meaningful glances between Cameron and anyone unlucky enough to meet him.
   The absolutely only reason to watch this movie is to take in the scene where Cameron is on a school bus for special kids that plows right into the local Disco-Mart, destroying all manner of crappy albums by the Robert Stigwood Organization, the latter actually paying for product placement to have their merchandise go up in flames.
   That's all the personality this thing offers. None of the actual characters display enough humanity to evoke our sympathy in any regard and the complete dependence on plot and effects yields the usual results: if the choice is between watching this and contracting smallpox, go with the disease.

Monday, January 2, 2017

CLERKS

  On the one hand, I come away from director Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994) with a strong sense of "who cares," without the question mark. But movies without conventional plots, shot in black and white, with vaguely existentialist themes sprinkled throughout do on occasion have their value and seeing as how the film had the decency to lack special effects, the least I can do is offer up a cursory review without damning it with too much severity.
   The best thing to be said for this movie is that it might be used at success coach seminars by people who have an abundance of slackers in their audience. Even slackers prefer to believe they are worthy of being elevated by the lectures they receive, so the Wayne Dyer pull-your-own-strings attitude gets mixed with some verbal self-reflection, as when Randall, the video store clerk, bluntly tells Dante, the convenience store clerk, that all the latter's bitching is pointless because he is doing exactly what he wants to do in both his personal and professional life--well, you may get the idea that you have not stumbled into a prequel for Avatar, not that such a thing would be any more enlightening.
   Probably the most depressing aspect of this admittedly amusing film is that none of the people to whom the wit is directed actually rise to the level of the movie itself. When the director cuts away to illustrate some of the stupid people with whom Dante must interact, he's actually talking about other under-achieving gen-xers, even though he doesn't know it. Out of every ten people who watched this when they were in their early twenties, maybe three caught the reference  implicit in the main character's name and of those three, one might have read somewhere that the film is divided into nine segments, corresponding to the circles of The Divine Comedy
   Of course, I don't actually believe any of that. I never did believe there ever was such a thing as Generation X, unless you are referring to the Chelsea group that spawned Billy Idol. Was there ever a specific post-boomer age of disaffection and directionlessness? That sort of widespread apathy would require a level of social engineering far beyond the abilities of any governmental or corporate officials I've ever had the displeasure of meeting. 
   Now if you want to argue that music and movies went to the turd factory by the late-1980s, I will shake your hand and stroke your brow. But that has been a symptom of the crass behavior of the people in the entertainment industry rather than the disaffection of youth, per se. If you want to persuade me that the acceptance of narcotics use has become so widespread that we as a whole--and especially the young--have collectively dropped our brains into a cesspool of stupidity, I assure you that I come pre-persuaded. I am likewise convinced that dwelling on it is counterproductive. Sophomores--sophisticated morons--have always walked amidst the rest of us. Being reminded that even sophomores are smarter than some other people is a drag. 
   Pardon me? What happened to me saying something nice about the movie? The director plays Silent Bob, friend to a drug dealer, and a cooler-looking person in a black and white movie I have never seen. The acting is spectacular, especially given the rapid-fire pace with which the lines are delivered. And without onscreen nudity of any sort, the movie manages to be so verbally profane that you will either laugh yourself to tears or commit suicide. The choice, you will understand, is all yours.