12 Angry Men

 

12 Angry Men
dir. Sidney Lumet
scr. Reginald Rose
based on his teleplay
Commissioned by Steven Fishman


    There is a quiet at the start of Sidney Lumet’s searing 12 Angry Men that seems appropriate. The trial is finished, the deliberations are about to start, and the judge has given the special instructions to the seated jurors. One by one, they file into a small juror’s room with no working air conditioner or fan, taking their seats, and then we’re off and running without any real preamble. There’s not an ounce of fat on this script, adapted by Reginald Rose from his own teleplay, and it’s a murderer’s row of terrific character actors, all of them hungry for the red meat the script offers up. Looking at them now, it’s amazing how many of these guys went on to huge, iconic careers, but in 1957, it was easier for these guys to all blend together.

    All except Henry Fonda, of course.

    Henry Fonda built his career as a movie star on a general foundation of decency, and the only notable exception to that gained enormous power from casting against it. In this film, Fonda is perfectly cast as the moral compass for this group of radically different types. He’s surrounded by some remarkable performers like E.G. Marshall, Robert Webber, Ed Begley, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, and Jack Warden, and there’s almost nothing to the film except these men sitting in a room and talking. There had been a live TV version of the play just three years earlier, with a pretty great cast and with a solid director, so at first glance, it might seem strange for Hollywood to turn around and make it again so quickly, so why do it? After all, movies were battling with TV at that point, and the entire point was to offer the theatrical audience something they couldn’t get at home.

    At its heart, 12 Angry Men is one of the best films ever about how we see each other and why, and in 1957, it must have felt urgent to make a film that espoused such simple human decency. It was an era of change, and there was something building in America, a need to do something, to find some way to start to right wrongs that were already institutional by that point. What I find almost unbearably sad about the film is how it seems to be morally outraged by a point in society that I wish we could get back to from where we are now. Things were in need of some serious rethinking, but at least the issues seemed clearer-cut. Today, there is so much signal noise around every conversation about what’s right and what’s wrong that I’m not sure we’ll ever actually get around to fixing anything. In 1957, Sidney Lumet could be forgiven for thinking that his art might actually help make the world a better place.

    There is something delicious about the idea that Henry Fonda’s kids were Easy Rider and Hanoi Jane, because if I had to pick actors who summed up what I think of as a quintessentially American ideal, Henry Fonda would be on that short list every single time. And I don’t mean it’s ironic or that I think they were any kind of negative response to who he was onscreen or off. I think it is entirely fitting that someone who was not only decent but thoughtfully, actively decent would raise kids who push back at the idea of what is American and what is moral at a given moment. You don’t have to agree with everything the kids did or even a single thing they did to see the value in having raised people who genuinely engage with the world around them instead of simply passively accepting it. Even John Wayne, as staunch a conservative as the industry ever turned out, was angry when people attacked Jane Fonda because he knew her as she was growing up, and he knew that her protests against Vietnam came from a genuine place.

    12 Angry Men spotlights one of the things that our entire idea of American civilization is built on, something which we not only take for granted but actively view as a burden. I’ve never done jury duty. I’ve been summoned, but I’ve never been picked, and I’m actually bummed that it happened that way. I think it’s one of those things that every citizen should do, and lately, I’ve been thinking about citizenship and how little we seem to value it as actual citizens. Bring up jury duty to most people, and they’ll talk about how they’ve tried to get out of it. It’s such a normalized idea that it’s a joke as far as pop culture is concerned, like when Liz Lemon breaks out her Princess Leia outfit anytime she gets summoned on 30 Rock, that it almost seems weird to hear that someone actually did their jury duty. In Lumet’s film, we don’t get any sort of backstory about jury selection or how anyone ended up there. It’s a given that these men showed up to do their duty. They may want to get it over with as quickly as possible, but they’re there.

    Right out of the gate, the men seem ready to find the young man on trial guilty. By a vote of eleven to one, they vote to convict, and that single act of defiance begins a heated debate that lasts a full 96 minutes. Part of my love of this movie comes from the perspective of a writer, because I am in awe of how easy Reginald Rose makes it look to drop 12 characters into one room for an hour and a half, debating some fairly heady ideas, never naming anyone but somehow making each of them feel like a fully realized person. My first produced work was in 1994, a play called Sticks and Stones. It was a one-act, running around a half-hour, about a cop who shot a boy in the line of duty. Witnesses heard him using racially charged language, though, and as a result, he’s looking for a lawyer to help defend him in what he’s sure is going to be at the very least a civil action, and possibly even criminal. Our entire play is just that first meeting between Sal Di Palma, the cop, and Alan Klein, the “good Jew lawyer” who Sal tries to hire. They end up battling over the words we use and the reasons behind the way we use them, and it was exciting to sit in a theater every night of that run, listening to people react to these full-force punches of dialogue back and forth. Part of the reason we wrote that play was because I had always admired the simplicity of this piece, and also because I loved the way this simple framework gave Lumet and his cast to talk about… well… everything.

    I know that when we wrote Sticks and Stones, it came from a very immediate place. Living in Los Angeles at the time, it was impossible not to feel a sort of building racial animus in the city, especially between police and citizens. The Rodney King tape and the resulting riots in LA were terrifying, not because I thought I was going to get attacked or killed, but because of what it revealed about the condition of our city and the fragility of the peace here. That anger that erupted was earned, and our piece attempted to make some sense of it, admittedly from our very sheltered and privileged perspective. Think of what the major news stories were in 1957. Eisenhower and Nixon are the White House, Earl Warren is the Chief Justice, the Klan was on a tear in the South, and Ginsberg’s “Howl” was seized when it came through customs and declared obscene.

    One of the key things happening was the burgeoning American Civil Rights Movement. In August, Senator Strom Thurmond, who was 147 years old at that point, set the record for the longest filibuster in US Senate history when he preached (and there was nothing else you can call that kind of oration) for 24 straight hours in order to try to defeat a civil rights bill. That is a startling display, as was the scene when the National Guard had to be rolled out to try to prevent nine black students from registering in the Little Rock Central High School, leading to the President having to roll out actual federal troops to force the National Guard to stand down. No matter that the Civil Rights Act of 1957 actually passed and went into effect; our country was determined to tear itself apart.

    In the film, race is not the foremost issue being discussed by the men, but it is clearly the unspoken thing that underlines everything they’re talking about. The film is even careful to never directly refer to the race of the defendant, but there’s plenty of coded language here, and there’s a creeping malice to the way the conversation unfolds that is part of the brilliance of the piece. They take that early vote to see where they are, and the only holdout is Juror 8, played by Henry Fonda. He’s not digging in his heels and proclaiming the kid’s innocence, but he’s not ready to convict without a conversation about the case and the facts and the evidence. He wants to get to reasonable doubt before he makes any decisions at all, and almost immediately, he pisses off Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb), setting a tone for the way the rest of the film plays out.

    What I find most compelling is the way the film shows a group of people come to an agreement about something as difficult as the guilt of another human being. Juror 8 starts from the least popular position in the room, and he slowly works on everyone in the room by simply asking questions. In my heart, I want to believe that this is who we truly are, that we can be reasonable and we can discuss things, and we can even have the hard conversations and still look each other in the eye. It’s hard, though, to retain that belief and not have it colored by cynicism over time. It’s oddly soothing to watch these men question and challenge each other over the course of the film, and there’s a real momentum to the way the argument builds. What it all boils down to is humanity, and the recognition of it in one another. Without that, we are lost, and 12 Angry Men forces these people to grapple with that in themselves. Lumet’s career largely dealt with people at moments of great moral crisis, and he loved people who look like normal people. That helped him communicate how common these moments were, and how these are not ideas that only affect certain types. These are the common things that make us all human, that unite us. When he cast E.G. Marshall or Ed Begley or Martin Balsam or Jack Klugman or Jack Warden, he was casting them precisely because they weren’t movie stars. Robert Webber’s probably the most conventionally movie-star-looking guy in the room, and he had a long, terrific career as a character guy. These were New York stage actors, guys who Hollywood didn’t have much use for (yet), and Lumet leaned into that.

    One of the things that we take for granted about mass entertainment is the way it normalizes any experience. There was something private and mythic about what happened behind the closed doors of jury rooms, and unless you’d been through it, you didn’t really know what it entailed. At this point, thanks to the endless hours of television that have been devoted to every single facet of the legal system, we have a pretty firm understanding of it, and we’ve seen breakdowns of how things should work, how they fail, and we’ve seen it treated as drama, comedy, and frustrating human-level horror. Lumet’s treatment of the subject is still one of the most pure and direct versions of it I’ve ever seen, and there’s an honesty to the way the re-votes progress over the course of the day. It’s not just one big turning point. Instead, it’s a series of small conversations, points both related and unimportant, until it starts to add up to what can only be described as “reasonable doubt.” Juror 8 is there at the center of it, but it’s not like the film sets him up as the unassailable good guy with someone else as the indefensible bad guy.

    Instead, there’s some truth to the way the film pushes some of the jurors to explore why they’re voting the way they’re voting. Instead of simply coming right out with some cartoonish racists, the film treats these people as characters, and the prejudice we hear from them is very real. My experience, as someone who grew up with extended family in Mississippi and Arkansas and Tennessee, is that racism is rarely simple and uncomplicated. It would be so much easier to grapple with if that were the case. Racism is instead a filter that is laid over everything that someone says and does, the way they approach things, they way they talk about other people, and the way they talk to them as well. My most direct long-term exposure to racism came in the form of my grandmother. She was a woman of many sharp corners and hard words, and kindness was expressed in odd ways by her. She lived in Memphis for most of my life, and every time I was with her, I would find myself quietly horrified by something. She would watch the news in the evening, and she would offer up a running commentary, largely consisting of guessing the race of the people who had committed the various crimes that were mentioned before they showed the people. She invariably guessed black, and she seemed delighted when she was right. She would grumble about people when they would leave the room, and she would cluck disapprovingly if the wrong person handled her food. She struggled with the language she could use around me without it erupting into a full-fledged fight, and her combination of the most disgusting and common term with a term that was considered correct a good 20 years before I was around resulted in her use of the word “nigra,” a skin-crawling substitute that never failed to make me wince.

    The real failure I saw in her, though, came in the fear that made up so much of her world-view, and that fear was the root of every awful thing I ever heard her say. I don’t know what Memphis was like in the ‘40s or the ‘50s or the ‘60s, and I don’t know what she experienced growing up in rural Mississippi before that. But I do know that the fear that she tried to pass along to me was something I rejected completely, and that fear is something that runs through every scene of 12 Angry Men, a generational fear of whatever’s coming next. As our country wrestles with its own history of racial prejudice, and as we watch a reactionary demagogue in the White House stir anger and separation and fear into a potent cocktail that he uses to get his fanbase drunk, we pretend we can’t see any way to fix this. The truth is that we don’t want to fix it. We don’t want to do the hard work that these people do, sitting down and talking through every single point. There are conversations they have in this film that I wish I could have had with my grandmother, conversations about where these fears come from and why we see each other at a remove, and obviously, in the film, these are issues that you can resolve because you have the right words and because someone eventually listens with an open mind and an open heart, even if they’re reluctant to do so. In real life, that may not always be possible, but I’d like to think that reason and humanity win out over hate. We may want to do things quickly or easily like Jack Klugman, determined to make his Yankees game, but we eventually have to recognize that the hard work will take some real time, and we can’t rush through it.

    Sidney Lumet’s work as a filmmaker is invisible but precise. He is a magician, even in this early work, juggling everything with a sure hand, never choosing the cheap sensation over the genuine expression of these ideas. His visual style is startlingly bold, but it doesn’t draw attention to itself. He uses the close-up carefully, building up a vocabulary over the course of the film as to when he’ll get close to someone and when he won’t. He saves the close-ups for the moments when he really wants us to get under someone’s skin, to see them wrestling with the core ideas of who they are. Because, ultimately, that’s what we do in those rooms. We put ourselves to the test, not the person on trial. We test ourselves to see if we’re able to set aside all of life’s disappointments and our personal prejudices and we see if we can look past whatever baggage the prosecution or the defense carries in, and we have to try to see these people as people. We have to try to see the truth of who they are because that’s the best way to know the truth of what they’ve done. If we can do that, and if the system really does work sometimes, then there’s hope for us. As long as those twelve angry men end up finding someplace where they can agree, there is a chance we can do that on a larger scale as well. It’s only when we stop talking and stop listening and stop trying at all that we are truly lost.

Angels With Dirty Faces

 

Angels With Dirty Faces
dir. Michael Curtiz
scr. John Wexley and Warren Duff
based on the story by Rowland Brown
Commissioned by Derrick Schnaiter

    Who are your heroes?

    We use the word “hero” fairly loosely in our society, and there is a sense that we have devalued it. It’s dangerous to call someone a hero simply because you like their work, and it raises serious questions about what values are truly important to people. The last year has seen a fairly radical shift in which we’re finally starting to at least have the conversation about whether or not being a genius justifies terrible behavior. (It does not) And as the conversation about whether you can separate the art from the artist gets louder, it’s important to realize that the conversation does not stop with filmmaking and filmmakers, and it did not start with the birth of the #MeToo movement.

    The Prohibition era led to some very complicated feelings about the government and law enforcement for people, as did the Great Depression. The fact that they overlapped is what made the ‘20s and the ’30s such a ripe era for the rise of the gangster movie. Prohibition began in 1920, and there was an entire decade where the country was prosperous and alcohol was illicit but omnipresent. Bootleggers were definitely outlaws, but romantic outlaws. They were just bringing the people what they wanted, after all. Then the bottom fell out of everything financially, and as the ‘30s began, Hollywood pretty much perfected the genre, and since the Hayes Code had not yet been instituted, there was freedom to make these characters into appealing anti-heroes. Movies like Little Caesar and Scarface helped not only define a film genre, but they actually helped sway public opinion in a way that made real gangsters into celebrities. And when you’re talking about people who defined the era, you have to talk about James Cagney.

    The Public Enemy must have felt like punk rock when it played in theaters originally. William Wellman was already a rising star by this point, having won the first Academy Award for Best Picture with Wings, but he was known for being rough and tumble, and he ended up in a conflict with the studio that kept him from being allowed to attend the ceremony where he won. He was a decorated pilot for his career during WWI, having shot down numerous other planes. There was a full-throated intensity to his work, a robust energy, and that informed The Public Enemy in a big way. James Cagney was cast as Tom Powers, a life-long gangster, and the film follows him as he makes his way up the ranks of the criminal underworld. He’s got a best buddy by his side (played by Edward Woods) and he’s an unrepentant bastard with a perpetual grin, and he made it all look like a goddamn blast. The film was a sensation, and a critical success as well, and it made Cagney an icon. That was 1931, and thanks to the follow-up success of Smart Money, he became a major star for Warner, the studio that had been considering dropping him only months earlier. Taxi!, Winner Take All, The Crowd Roars, Hard To Handle… he cranked the films out, and the audiences couldn’t get enough. He battled with Warner Bros as he got more and more famous, demanding more money. He walked out several times, pressuring them to renegotiate his contracts, and he also bristled at being typecast, forcing them to give him room to grow into a song-and-dance man, giving him room to show how gifted he was at comedy. One of his frequent co-stars was Pat O’Brien, and it was a pairing with him that led Cagney to sue the studio. When he won the lawsuit, something that would have killed other careers, Warner ended up signing him again because he was still their biggest box-office draw. Talk about shoring up your reputation as a real-life tough guy.

    That paid off when he was put together with the script for Angels With Dirty Faces, and it paid off in a way that felt like a direct reaction to The Public Enemy from earlier in the decade. You almost have to watch both of them to truly appreciate what a wonderful subversive reaction one is to the other. It feels like Cagney’s work from the entire previous decade, all dropped into a blender and then released as this concentrated thing, and it’s little wonder audiences ate it up with a spoon. The project had been kicking around for a while. It started with Mervyn LeRoy trying to make a Dead End Kids movie, but screenwriter Rowland Brown managed to get Grand National onboard, and it was during one of Cagney’s angry break-ups with Warner that he ended up at Grand National, where he first read the script. When he went back to Warner, he took the script with him, and he set out to find a filmmaker who would help him tell the story of Rocky Sullivan.

   Michael Curtiz was a totally different kind of filmmaker than Wellman, and the differences between them define the differences between these films. Curtiz is a brash showboat of a filmmaker, and his movies are perhaps some of the most sophisticated and entertaining of the golden age of Hollywood. He had already had a full film career by the time he made it to Hollywood, and he brought a strong visual style with him from his work in Europe. He made nearly 100 films for Warner Bros after moving to the US, and he worked at a breakneck pace. Angels With Dirty Faces was his second film in 1938, and considering the first was the absolute stone-cold classic The Adventures Of Robin Hood, it’s safe to say this guy was spitting fire.

    Part of what made movie gangsters so irresistible was the way they lived by a code, and that code was clearly defined and easy to understand. Michael Curtiz had a gift for genre, adapting his voice as a filmmaker to each different genre so that he leaned into them, giving them a whole-hearted sense of style. You look at his early horror work like Doctor X or his mystery films like The Kennel Murder Case or his swashbucklers like Captain Blood, and this is a guy who felt genuinely comfortable doing all of it. These were M-O-V-I-E-S, filled with larger-than-life movie stars at their movie starriest. Curtiz may well be the greatest of the studio-era storytellers. At the very least, he’s the most flamboyant.

    Context is everything. It’s weird when you start watching older films, no matter what age you are or what age you live in. “Older films” is just whatever happened before you showed up. For me, that 1970, and I really started paying attention around 1976. Anything made before that was “an old movie,” and as I started filling in the gaps in my knowledge of “old movies,” I did it in what can only be described as “completely random order.” I think for most people it works that way. So when you first see someone tends to be the way you think of them. If I saw someone work frequently when I was young, and they were already old by that point, it was always strange to me to go back and see them in films when they were young. It’s also strange to see people who became legends before it happened. When you see Humphrey Bogart in this film now, it gives off a gravitational pull because you know that Humphrey Bogart is a giant iconic movie star. But this is not his movie. He’s just an actor in it. Only, seen now, that’s not the way it works. He can’t be “just an actor,” any more than any other icon can. And so it makes the film feel unbalanced, even though it didn’t when it came out. Not drastically, and let’s be honest… no one could steal this film from James Cagney, no matter how they tried.

    Movies did not screw around in the ‘30s.

    It helps that Cagney spoke roughly 8577 words per minute, because the storytelling in Angels With Dirty Faces is downright breathless, right from the start. By seven minutes into the film, it’s covered more ground than Pacino’s Scarface manages in its first two hours. We meet Rocky and his buddy Jerry, Rocky roughs up young Laury Martin, she vows revenge on him, they try to steal stuff from a train car, the cops chase them, Rocky is arrested but his friend gets away, and Rocky embarks on a life of crime, ending up in and out of jail as he grows up. He’s an adult and facing his latest rap by the time we catch our breath, and Rocky’s making a deal to go to jail for someone else. His lawyer, Jim (Bogart), knows that Rocky’s going to do much better inside than he would, and to Rocky, spending time in prison is no big deal. He’s certainly not scared of the idea, especially not if he’s going to get $100,000 the day he gets out.

    The kid they cast as Jimmy Cagney at the beginning is so well cast that it’s almost unsettling. He’s got the mannerisms down, and little wonder. Not only was Cagney a giant star, but he built this character out of lots of little tics and twitches. He may have regretted it later, because he did such a good job of defining these tics that every impression every hack comedian every did of Cagney seemed to built on things they got from this movie. Warner knew this was the sort of film where Cagney’s charisma would be cranked up to supernova, and so they cast someone opposite him who they already knew could hold his own. Pat O’Brien’s a terrific choice as Father Jerry, the priest who only had a shot at life because Rocky made that sacrifice for him as a kid, and that chemistry between them is crucial if the film’s going to land its biggest punch.

    The film is sneaky about its primary agenda, which is one of the reasons I dig it. Curtiz knows that if he throws enough entertainment at you, you’ll lose track of what you’re “supposed to” get from the film. He did indeed end up casting the Dead End Kids in the film, a group of actors from New York, and they play important roles in the movie, as does Ann Sheridan as the girl Rocky teased as a kid. There’s little or no surprise when the film reveals that Rocky has a heart, and that he’s not just some mindless thug. Far from it. In fact, the film makes that clear from the start. That’s not what is meant to shock us, and it’s not really a struggle for Rocky. He’s always trying to do something decent for someone. He’s living by his code, after all, and his code is not about hurting people for no reason.

    If anything, Rocky’s the most principled of the shady characters crowding the margins of the film. Jim Frazier’s the real scumbag here, the one who has no moral code whatsoever. When Rocky’s released from prison, he goes looking for his money. Frazier doesn’t have it, but he assures Rocky he’ll get it. Instead, he sends his goons to kill Rocky, which sets off a cycle of violence in which Rocky seems perfectly willing to accelerate things. Even so, he knows that he’s being watched, and not just by the authorities. His relationship with the Dead End Kids gets a good deal of screentime, and Cagney reportedly bristled when dealing with the young rising stars. Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, Huntz Hall, Billy Halop, Gabriel Dell, and Bernard Punsly had appeared in a play together in the mid-‘30s called Dead End, and it did well enough to become a film. Because of the film, they were hired as a group to basically do the same thing in a whole series of films. The name of the group shifted a bit depending on where they were making their movies, but they started as the Dead End Kids, and that’s who they were here. Hall and Gorcey were the leads within the group, and they’re the ones who spare the most with Cagney. That bristling onscreen energy was due to some real tension on the set that resulted from Cagney asserting his position as the star, getting rough with Gorcey during the first scene they shot together.

    The Kids steal Rocky’s wallet the first time they run into him, but as the film wears on, it’s clear that they look up to him. They’d made a few films with Bogart already, including Dead End, and they had raised hell on their earlier sets. Cagney wasn’t having it, though. He laid down the law, and onscreen, so did Rocky. Rocky and Frazier trade blows back and forth, with kidnapping and extortion in the mix, and eventually Rocky shakes his money loose. In doing so, though, he ends up pushing Father Jerry into a tough position, putting him in Frazier’s crosshairs. Rocky murders Frazier, making sure his old friend is safe, and that eventually leads to Rocky’s arrest. The entire time, Cagney’s cracking jokes and kicking ass and he’s just dancing along, enjoying his time on the front page of the newspapers, making it all look appealing, just the way Cagney’d done all decade long.

    He’s sentenced to the chair, and when Father Jerry goes to talk to him about it, Rocky seems unconcerned. This is what he’s done his whole life. He deals with the consequences, whatever they are, and he does so with his chin up. But now Father Jerry can see directly what impact it’s having, this tough guy routine, because of the Dead End Kids. It’s hard to believe how much you’ll invest in a group of characters named Soapy, Swing, Crab, Hunky, Patsy, and Bim, but that’s Michael Curtiz for you. He starts milking it early, knowing where he’s got to eventually get the audience, and knowing how he’s going to try to play on your sympathies. Father Jerry explains what’s going to happen if Rocky keeps up the tough guy routine right to the end. He’s going to be a legend. He’s going to be a hero to these kids forever. That’s music to Rocky’s ears. He loves the way they look up to him. He knows that he’s cool as shit, so why wouldn’t they?

    Father Jerry pushes the point, though. He wants Rocky to break down and be a coward in front of the witnesses at the execution. He wants Rocky to make a spectacle of himself so the Kids will hear the story and they’ll realize that he’s not a hero at all. It’s a betrayal of everything Rocky is… but it’s not. That’s what makes it such a great script. The whole thing is really only about this one choice, and by making sure to write Rocky as a rich, complicated person, they earn the right to really milk that last long walk down the hall as Rocky struggles to decide what’s right. He’s spent his whole life building his reputation, and it’s the one thing he knows he’s been able to control. He’s taken his lumps. He’s paid his debts. He’s stood up and been knocked down and stood up again. And now Father Jerry wants him to burn it down and piss on the ashes as his final act. It’s a horrible choice to have to make.

    The whole walk to the chair, Rocky stays resolute. He can’t bend. He can’t break. It’s just not in him. But he can’t let those kids down, either, and in the end, when he breaks, he breaks in spectacular fashion. It’s been written that Cagney almost turned the film down because he didn’t want to play that final scene and he didn’t want to appear weak, but his qualms obviously disappeared by the time he shot the film. He is amazing and heartbreaking and he humiliates himself. The witnesses carry the word out, and we get to see the reaction the Dead End Kids have to hearing about what a coward Rocky was in the end.

    Father Jerry has to destroy everything his friend stood for in order to help those kids, and the best thing about the back and forth between Cagney and O’Brien is how little hardselling O’Brien has to do. These real-life friends were able to play that shorthand that comes with real friendship, and the result is the perfect bow on the present that is Angels With Dirty Faces. It is a potent and witty observation of both the dangers and responsibilities that come with the elevation of people to hero status, particularly when what we’re rewarding is bad behavior. Even now, almost 80 years later, the film retains a potent kick thanks in large part to both star power and directorial savvy. For fans of the golden age of Hollywood, these Angels are heaven, indeed.

Night Of The Living Dead

 

Night Of The Living Dead
dir. George Romero
scr. George Romero & John Russo
Commissioned by Steven Fishman


    There are very few films where I would recommend that the first time you see it, you try to find a less than perfect video source, but there is something about Night Of The Living Dead that almost demands you discover it at 2:00 AM on a UHF station, without warning or context.

    That’s how I saw it the first time. It took me a while before I knew for sure what I’d seen. It was this thing that I stumbled across while my parents were otherwise occupied, and I started it a few minutes late, and then I just got pulled in because it didn’t feel like any other movie I’d seen up to that point. It occupied space in my memory as something that happened, not something I watched, and it was only years later, when I sat down to watch it, that I realized what it was. That made the experience even weirder. I was watching the opening and didn’t recognize it, and then Barbara (Judith O’Dea) goes running up to the abandoned house and encounters Ben, and all the hair on my arms stood up, because I suddenly knew the rest of the film. The rest of the movie gave me the craziest feeling of deja vu, and if anything, it made it feel like more of a nightmare.

    George Romero’s most famous movie… indeed, one of the most famous horror films made by anyone ever… is almost impossible to judge fresh for new viewers today because of the way it has been utterly and completely absorbed by popular culture. I wish I could have seen the film in context in 1968. the first piece of criticism I ever read about the film was by Roger Ebert, reprinted in Reader’s Digest, and it was a scathing attack on the audience that was at the film when he went to see it. He was violently outraged at seeing young viewers in the audience. He felt violated, and his outrage practically jumped off the page.

    It floored me at the time, because I didn’t know people reacted like that to movies. Ebert admitted that he didn’t really watch horror films, something that became important once he was appearing on Sneak Previews (or At The Movies or whichever title you remember) with Gene Siskel. The two of them became one of the most prominent forces in film criticism in the ‘80s thanks to that TV show, and they railed against the new age of graphic make-up-effects-driven horror films. They were not entirely wrong, of course. Part of what distinguishes the horror genre is the energy with which filmmakers seem willing to rip off anything that even vaguely resembles a success, and there were plenty of pedestrian slasher films that would have annoyed me wildly if I had to sit through them for work, as well. I know this because I’m knee-deep in them right now for ‘80s All Over, and I’m amazed at how they all blend together after a while.

    But if you’re looking for a target for anger over empty exploitation and needless violence in films, Night Of The Living Dead seems like the wrong place to start. It must be a contextual thing. It must have felt like a shock to the system to someone in 1968 in a way I can’t understand from this perspective. The MPAA’s rating system hadn’t taken effect yet, and so there was no real warning about the stark, unrelenting nature of what audiences were going to see. There are a few sequences with explicit violence, and they’re staged with a blunt, documentary quality that makes them upsetting even if the make-up isn’t particularly good. That’s not why the film worked, though, and it’s not why it endured. I’m not sure what Roger Ebert eventually thought of the movie after time passed, but I hope he eventually saw it for what it was. George Romero is both success story and cautionary fable for any American independent filmmaker, and Night Of The Living Dead is both triumph and tragedy in one.

    If anyone understood just how voracious the appetite is in American film to rip off something original, it had to be Romero. Has there ever been anyone who has seen their work so successfully mainstreamed without benefiting from it directly? It pretty much breaks my heart to know just how much Romero struggled to get his work financed at every stage of his career, largely due to a mistake made in the manufacturing of theatrical prints. Romero’s film isn’t completely without precedent; anyone familiar with Richard Matheson’s landmark novel I Am Legend will recognize the way that book’s take on vampires influenced Romero. He never uses the word zombie anywhere in his film, opting for “ghoul” instead, and the zombies that had existed on film prior to this were all connected to voodoo, corpses working under the control of a voodoo priest. Even so, in this first film, he set many of his signature tropes into motion, and he began to define a genre that is still a huge commercial force, maybe more so than ever before.

    And he made it all look so simple, too.

    One of the crutches filmmakers in the horror genre fall back on when they make a film that doesn’t really hang together narratively is to credit that to “nightmare logic,” as if that automatically forgives incoherence. It’s harder to pinpoint what it is when it works, but an excellent example would be Romero’s movie. Even in the very beginning, there’s something stark and odd and slightly off about the way Johnny (an uncredited but iconic Russell Streiner) and Barbra (O’Dea) deal with one another, and when he starts teasing her about how “they’re coming to get you,” he seems to summon the horror out of thin air. What are the odds that at the exact moment we spot the first ghoul, Johnny would happen to make that joke? It’s a beautiful moment, and from that point on, there’s no safe foundation for anyone in the film. The world makes no sense. There is one sequence where there’s some speculation about what’s going on thanks to the TV news, but there’s no concrete answer given, and I wish there was even less of an attempt to put a name on things.

    Part of the reason for the choices Romero makes is budget, and here’s a case where someone leaned into something and made it a strength. Everything is stripped down and direct to the point of being almost blunt. It’s surreal because of that stark quality, and much of that stark quality comes from the way the film was made. More than its influence as a horror film, people should give Night respect because of what it represents as an independent film. One of the most important things about it is where it was made and how. Romero and his collaborators, including co-writer John Russo, made a Pittsburgh movie, through and through. When Hollywood makes a movie about the end of the world, they focus on the superheroes who work to stop it from happening. When an indie filmmaker makes a film about the end of the world, they focus on one person’s perspective on what’s happening, from ground level. A group of people in a house argue about what to do with things waiting outside to destroy them. That’s all that happens. But within that simple event, Romero plays out everything, everything that’s happening in every building across the country, from the tiniest shack to the White House. There’s a very simple fear that sets in immediately when you realize that everything’s falling apart, and Romero nails it in the dynamic that he sets up between his characters.

    I’ve been in Los Angeles long enough to have gone through a few events that felt apocalyptic, and when they’ve happened, there is a truth that plays out that makes me appreciate Romero’s film more and more as I get older. When the LA riots happened, it was clear within a day that the only thing that kept the city from burning to the ground was the agreement between us as people. There certainly weren’t enough first responders to do anything about it if things had really gotten out of hand. The riots never covered much of the city, but things shut down. If it had gone on even a day longer, it would have seriously altered the rhythm of the city, and if you’ve lived in a city long enough, you know that’s not easy to do. When I was in the Northridge earthquake, it was devastating, and there was nothing normal about the way the city responded to it, or the way people acted around us.

    Some people immediately became a better version of themselves, while other people seemed to use it as an excuse to drop the pretense that they gave a shit about things. The real appeal in this storytelling is how you can use it to discover who people really are, and Russo and Romero (who aren’t particularly great technical writers) built a template here that has been used so many times that its worn thin at this point. You can’t hold that against them, but you do need to see the film before you see its endless imitations. Like Psycho, it is best appreciated if you can see it somewhat pure. Barbra finds this empty house, and then she runs into Ben (Duane Jones), a striking young black man. As soon as she realizes she’s safe with him, she basically breaks down the middle. She never questions him, because shock is setting in, and over the rest of the movie, Barbra breaks down almost completely. She barely knows what’s happening around her. Ben immediately begins barricading the house up, and he doesn’t seem scared of the things outside so much as he is annoyed or inconvenienced. What scares Ben is the obstinate nature of the family they discover locked in the basement of the house. Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) is the voice of panic, a guy who is so scared that he’s not thinking anymore. He’s just reacting, terrified, worried about his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), who has been bitten by one of those things. For those of us familiar with the genre, it’s pretty clear where that’s going to go, but I’m guessing at least part of Ebert’s outraged response to this movie came from the way things play out at the end of the film. When Karen finally turns and kills her father, it’s a transgression, an affront. It is not what movies had conditioned people to expect. Karen attacks her mother, and that basement sequence is honestly the most graphic the film gets. To make a child the most confrontationally violent thing in the film may not have been a conscious plan by Romero, but it’s one of the reasons his film resonates so loudly.

    Romero always said that he wasn’t looking to make a grand metaphorical statement with the casting of Ben, and I respect him for that. I believe him. But movies do not simply belong to their creators; they also belong to the moment in which they are released, and 1968 doesn’t give a shit whether Romero meant to make a statement or not. When Ben is killed at the end of the film, it hurts. It hurts because of the bitter irony. Here’s the one person who did everything right, who struggled hardest to survive, who fought for it and won, and he’s snuffed out by mistake. If that’s not Black America, I can’t imagine what is, and maybe that’s why Romero’s intent doesn’t matter. You cannot remove race from the conversation in this country. You never could. We simply didn’t have the conversation for a long time, and then once we did, we realized that we’re not equipped to have it honestly. My generation did better with it than my parents did, and they did way better than their parents did. I’m encouraged by my kids, who I think have a good handle on this stuff. When we watched this film recently, my oldest (who is about to turn 13) jumped up at the moment Ben was shot and killed, and despite it being 12:45 on a Friday night and my windows being open on the alley where all my neighbors also have windows, he bellowed, “That is BULLSHIT!” at the screen.

    The ending bothered both of the boys, and it was interesting to see that for Allen, the youngest, the outrage was more about the awful irony of surviving everything just to die that way. For Toshi, there was no doubt why Ben was killed at the end. He seized on it as a metaphor, as an example of the way the system fails to protect black men, preferring to see them as black bodies, objects to be disposed of instead of people to be honestly dealt with. He’s been reading about the way the civil rights movement went down in the ’60s, and he’s become upset about the way political assassination defined the end of that era so completely. He’s also upset by the constant barrage of imagery he sees now of an America that doesn’t really look like what he’s experienced. He knows that he’s not treated the same way as someone who is the same as him in every way except for skin color, and it eats at him. Instead of denying the entire notion of privilege, he seems to wear it uncomfortably, determined to fix the system and not just quietly benefit from it. We talked about the film for days after they screened it, and then again the next time I saw them. He asked me if all zombie movies or all horror movies have “hidden stuff” in them like what he read as the racial message in Night of the Living Dead.

    I explained that one of the real benefits of writing genre fiction is the way it allows you to discuss almost anything through a filter that makes it somehow easier to process. Night of the Living Dead is a terrific microcosm of society, and we still watch the film because the observations it makes about human nature are still true. If you try to get too specific or too pointed, you can still make a good film, but chances are your movie won’t age as well. Romero became more overt in the points he was making as he got older as a filmmaker, and his full body of work is worth consideration because he so clearly worked in a personal vein every single time he worked. More importantly, the people who have ripped him off so incessantly… I’m sorry, paid tribute to him… sometimes use the template to examine bigger ideas, and sometimes they don’t, and there are good examples and great examples and terrible examples. I love a film like Train to Busan, where the tropes are used to comment on a culture at a particular moment in a way that feels personal and observational and deeply emotional. I find myself frustrated by stuff like The Walking Dead and World War Z where the iconography is used to hollow effect.

   More than anything, I lament that all of it exists in a way that never enriched Romero in a way that felt fair. We measure artists by many metrics, and maybe I should let go of caring about how much money he made or how easy it was for him to get financing for his films. In the end, Romero casts as long a shadow as anyone who has ever worked in horror, and for as long as we throw these images up on screens to try to scare each other, his work will be in the mix.

Bad Day At Black Rock

 

Bad Day At Black Rock
dir. John Sturges

scr. Millard Kaufman
adaptation by Don McGuire
based on a story by Howard Breslin
Commissioned by Dwayne Allen


    I love movies that start with trains rolling into town.

    We all have those things about movies that are automatic buy-ins. I know my list is very weird and specific, and I don’t care. It’s my list. I like doctors who smoke in hospitals. I like it when a movie is set in a year that was in the future when the film was made, but it’s in the past now. I like it when people mispronounce the word “robot” as “ro-bitt.” If you have a movie that is narrated by a smoking doctor and opens with “The year is 1994, and the ro-bitts have conquered Earth,” then I am in.

    And, yeah, I like it when trains roll into town to open a film. Maybe that comes from my first exposure to Once Upon A Time In The West. I saw just the opening scene of that film when I was very, very young, before I could consciously understand it, and it stuck in there somewhere. When I finally saw it again, it was the recognition of it that shocked me so much. I remembered it, and it was like this weird chemical reaction for me. I remembered the way Leone had stretched anticipation to the breaking point, turning it into an exercise, seeing how far he could push the audience before giving them one explosive moment of reckoning.

    Another fetish for me is super-widescreen photography from the ‘50s and ‘60s. There’s something about the way directors started to explore that super-wide frame and the color on the film stock from those decades that just drives me into an aesthetic frenzy. This is one of the films that helped define just how exciting that use of the widescreen could be, and it’s impressive to see how fully-formed the visual language is here, how impressively it’s used to create a town that is sealed in by distant mountains even as it lays exposed on the flat, featureless anvil where it stands.

    This is all preamble to me saying that Bad Day At Black Rock is a film that feels like it is aimed directly at all of my pleasure centers, and I do not return to it nearly often enough. Part of the problem is that John Sturges isn’t really considered part of the canon, and I often neglect his work, even though much of it is important to me and central to the way my love of movies developed in the first place. And in Bad Day At Black Rock, he’s created one of the ultimate games in seeing how long he can tease out a reveal, an exercise in anticipation and dread, built around one of the great movie star performances of the ‘50s.

    That first shot of the train, from high above the desert, as it cuts across miles and miles of nothing with the opening power chords of that André Previn score… man, that’s the good stuff. The second shot, we race towards the train, along the tracks, directly facing it, and then lift up so it races under us just as SPENCER TRACY fills the screen. It’s the kind of opening that feels like the filmmakers grabbed you by the shirt and they’re just shaking you. “ARE YOU AWAKE? WE’RE STARTING NOW!” I love it. I think there’s this weird religion of “reality” in movies, where people love movies because of the “realism,” and I am not sure I understand the point of that. The entire title sequence is cut like you’re being slapped. Just WHAM! Here’s Robert Ryan’s name! WHAM! Anne Francis is in it, too! Every cut is a new angle on the train, and it feels like it’s going 1000 miles an hour. It’s all so goddamn urgent, which makes sense. The film runs a grand total of 81 minutes, and not a single one of them is wasted.

    I’ll be honest. Bad Day At Black Rock wasn’t an instant favorite for me the first time I saw it. Like several of the other films that were commissioned in this first round of reviews for Pull The Strings, this was featured in the Danny Peary Cult Movies books, and it’s interesting how that worked out. If you’re someone who reads about movies for fun, you’ve probably stumbled across Peary in one form or another. Peary loves this movie, and his love for it is what got me to try it in the first place. This was an early Criterion laserdisc title, and that’s how I watched it. At that point, I was 21, 22 years old, and Spencer Tracy bugged me. I didn’t get him at all. He was a lumpy old man, and my entire life as a filmgoer, that had been my impression of him. Even when he was young, he was an old man. There are certain actors who are like that. Ed Asner. Wilford Brimley. They were born at the age of 50, and they just kept getting older from there. Now that I’m older, I’m fond of Tracy, whose acting style seemed more suited to the heightened naturalism of the ‘50s. That curmudgeonly persona is exactly what I dig about him, something I didn’t get when I was in my early 20s. The pleasures of a film like this were not the pleasures I was chasing at that point.

    So the train pulls into Black Rock, and we get our first look at the “town.” It’s not even that. It’s a casual agreement of buildings at what appears to be a random spot in the middle of nowhere. The conductor of the train can barely slow it down long enough to toss Spencer Tracy out with a warning.

    “I’ll only be here 24 hours.”
    “In a place like this, that could be a lifetime.”

    And what kind of place is this, exactly? It’s the kind that pushes back as soon as Spencer Tracy steps off of that train. He’s met by a belligerent telegraph worker, upset that no one told him the train would be stopping. It’s the first time the train’s stopped there in four years, so that’s the kind of place it is. Tracy mentions that he wants to go someplace called Adobe Flats, and that’s it. We’re off and running. Clearly, he’s got a secret, and clearly, so does the entire town. Everyone watches him walk towards the hotel, not even trying to hide their interest. He hasn’t even reached the door before people are on the phones, calling ahead to talk about him.

    Watch him try to check into the only hotel in town. The guy at the front desk can’t even figure out how to lie to him effectively. It’s so obvious from frame one that something’s wrong, and that Tracy is there to expose it, that it stops being a mystery and we feel immediately like we’re watching a sporting event. And despite his one working arm, something the film introduces in a very subtle manner, Tracy appears to be the one who wades in with fists flying. Metaphorically, of course. He just refuses to hear the word “no.” He checks himself in while staring the front desk guy in the eye, daring him to do something about it. And then his first exchange with Heck David (Lee Marvin), who sits in the lobby staring at him as he registers, is an all-timer.

    “I don’t know why you’re so interested, but the name’s MacReedy.
     It’s right there in the register.”
    “You look like you could use a hand.”

    I love Tracy’s moment where you can see him register the insult, debate how he should handle this shitkicker, and then roll right on up the stairs, smile on his face because he can already tell that this town is going to do it the hard way. What I like about the storytelling here is that you get a sense of who MacReedy is from the way he responds to the very clear threats being made. I mean, if Young Lee Marvin decided to rattle me, I would be rattled. This is someone you have to carefully consider. Young Lee Marvin is like a goddamn rattlesnake. You know he’s dangerous. You know someone’s going to get hurt. It’s just a matter of when.

    Tracy just starts… poking. He wants a car so he can drive out to Adobe Flats. He decides to walk down to the jail. Every new beat is iconic. And the dialogue is just terrific.

    “Nobody asked you here.”
    “How do you know?”

    I love the open antagonism. This is the first time he says the name Komoko. And the reaction from everyone who hears that name makes it clear that something awful happened in the town, and enough people have blood on their hands that MacReedy is wading in dangerous water.  Sheriff Horn (Dean Jagger) is weak and dented from the start, and he’s got no shame at all. He starts drinking as soon as he opens his eyes, right in front of MacReedy. And when MacReedy drops that name on the desk like it’s a blood-covered murder weapon from a covered-up crime, Horn almost knocks over his bottle of cheap rotgut, only to have MacReedy reach out, lightning-quick, to save it.

    “Almost a disaster.”
    “A fate worse than death. You move fast for a crip… for a big man.”

    The name stops things cold. Horn throws him out, and MacReedy’s back on that one street, his audience settling in to watch him as Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) steps up to try to head things off. Smith’s the one really running things. That’s obvious the moment he makes his first appearance, a dead buck strapped to the front of his car. He runs the biggest ranch in the area, and he’s the one who employs Heck and Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine), the most obvious muscle in town. Reno tries talking to him, tries reasoning with him, and then MacReedy rents a jeep from Liz (Anne Francis) and he’s off and running, leaving Reno to lay the problem out for everyone else. They have an informal town meeting, right there in the streets.

   “This guy’s like a carrier of smallpox. Since he’s arrived, this town’s had a fever, an infection, and it’s spreading.”

    The difference between rear-projection and actual location photography has never been clearer than it is during a terrific scene where MacReedy’s driving out to the area he’s investigating as Trimble terrorizes him with his car. The location stuff is amazing, and then the projection shots are… not. I get the reason for it, and William C. Mellor was an amazing photographer, one of the titans of the studio era. Look at a film like Giant or The Diary of Anne Frank or A Place In The Sun or The Naked Spur. This guy had an amazing eye, and he made his collaborators look great, and his work always served the film. To me, that’s the mark of a really great photographer. It’s not about them having a style you notice; it’s about telling the story with every possible tool.

    When MacReedy shows back up, it’s clear something has changed. Being run off the road has made it clear that they aren’t going to let him push this investigation any further. He seems to have been cowed and beaten. He plays along with Borgnine’s version of events, agrees that he was the problem on the road. He tells everyone he’s leaving. He tries to catch an earlier train out than the one he originally intended. But when he walks back down to the garage, he manages to get Liz talking, and he finally starts to make some headway. But under all of it, it’s clear that he knows that he’s going to die in Black Rock, and there’s not a goddamn thing he can do about it.

    It’s clear that Black Rock is America, no matter what MacReedy says. He says it’s not representational of the country at large, but it is uncomfortably close to the way we’re living now. “The gorillas have taken over,” he says at one point, challenging Liz as she keeps pretending there’s nothing wrong with the people in her town. She runs off with the Jeep, making sure he’s stranded, and then Smith shows up, ready to lay down the law.

    “I believe a man is as big as what he’s seeking.
      I believe you’re a big man, Mr. MacReedy.”
    “Flattery will get you nowhere.”
    “Why would a man like you be looking for a lousy Jap farmer?”
    “Ehhh… I’m not so big.”
    “Sure. I believe a man is as big as what’ll make him mad.
     Nobody around here seems big enough to make you mad.”
    “What makes you mad, Mr. Smith?”
    “Me? Nothing?”
    “Oh, you’re a pretty big man yourself.”

    The scene that unfolds between Ryan and Tracy at the gas station is the heart of the film, and it’s one of the greatest scenes either of those guys ever got to play. It lays out one of the hardest corners of the American heart, the part that wants to find a piece of land, dig in, and never let anything change again. It’s part of the individualism that defines our country, and it’s part of the xenophobia that has been a recurrent theme, era after era, shifting the focus of the fear from one group of outsiders to the next.

    Then that scene is followed by another all-timer, as Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) does his best to play it straight with MacReedy. He even offers him a way to try and run for it. Brennan could easily tip into caricature as an actor, but he’s wonderful here, and when his car won’t start and MacReedy realizes how trapped he is, it’s heartbreaking.

    “You’re not only wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice.”

    Ernest Borgnine is one of those guys who I think of as his off-screen persona, amiable and approachable and down to earth, so watching him play a vicious piece of shit here is a little disorienting. When he finally pushes MacReedy to violence, it’s shocking, and Trimble definitely doesn’t see it coming. He earns it, though, and MacReedy puts a hurt on him fast, and he makes it stick. The fact that it’s one-handed makes it humiliating, too, and it announces to everyone else that MacReedy isn’t the soft old man he appears to be at first glance.

    If the only thing you want from the film is that constant ratcheting of tension, it’s a masterpiece, but the reason Bad Day at Black Rock is worth re-examination, now more than ever, is because it is one of the few pieces of mainstream entertainment to ever even grapple with the weight of what we did to the Japanese-American population during WWII. We don’t talk about it in our pop culture because we are not good as a country at dealing with shame. It’s one thing to make a huge national mistake. It’s another thing to make it, then avoid ever processing it. After WWII, Germany was forced into a position where they had to grapple with what they’d done, and that national reckoning is an important part of processing things that have happened. In America, we learn to push things down and never deal with them, and it’s one of the reasons we’re so deeply crazy as a nation these days. We can’t deal with the history of slavery. We can’t deal with what we did to Japanese-Americans in WWII. And Bad Day At Black Rock knows that the poison we leave in the wound is the poison that eventually kills us.

    “Well, isn’t that noble? You haven’t forgotten and you’re ashamed.”

    The secret of what happened to Komoko isn’t the film’s best reveal. Instead, it’s the reveal of why MacReedy cares in the first place that finally makes sense of things. Smith was the one who led the others to kill Komoko, swollen with fury over Pearl Harbor and his own inability to enlist in the aftermath. They didn’t kill him over land or over money, but out of pure racially-driven anger. He was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Komoko’s son was in the service with MacReedy and ended up dying to save his life, and the idea that MacReedy has to come to Black Rock to give a medal to the father of a soldier, only to find his was killed for being Japanese… those are bitter ashes to try and swallow. There is no happy ending to a story like this, because it points at something baked into our national character.

    In the end, it comes down to Smith and MacReedy in the desert. Smith’s armed. MacReedy isn’t. Sturges couldn’t have known how profoundly American his film would feel, even this many years later. All he did was take a great script, cast it perfectly at every level, help define modern wide-screen cinematographic language, and then avoid the temptation to overdo it. He made a lean, mean, broken-hearted classic, and when the film reaches its final moments, with Walter Brennan and Spencer Tracy waiting for the train to arrive, it feels like something important has happened. It is a small-scale movie in the best ways, but what it has to say is something we would all do well to hear these days. Some towns come back. Some towns do not. Right now, there’s no way of knowing which way things will go for our town, and it all depends on how deep that wellspring of decency really runs.

The Idol

 

The Idol
dir. Hany Abu-Assad
scr. Hany Abu-Assad & Sameh Zoabi
based on the true story
Commissioned by Lexi Alexander


    This is the first of these reviews that was commissioned by a filmmaker. That was a nice surprise. What was even more surprising (unless you know Lexi Alexander) is that she did not commission a review of her own work.
    
    I recognized Hany Abu-Assad’s name from Paradise Now, but it wasn’t until after I sat down to watch the film she picked for me that I realized he was also the director of last year’s The Mountain Between Us. I’d lost track of him after Omar, and I’m not sure why. It’s easy when an international filmmaker’s work isn’t being given a major domestic push. You don’t intentionally lose track of people, but there are already so many films that I watch each year because of the new reviews I write, the podcast I co-host, this project, an upcoming secret project that is the biggest wallow in film history I’ve ever been part of, and more. I have films on deck to be on deck every hour of every day, and I’m fine with that. It’s what I signed up for. But it means that it’s real easy for stuff to just disappear if I don’t make an effort to track it down.

    This morning, I looked over at Lexi’s Twitter feed, and the top entry reads, “When you’re an Arab on Twitter and your feed is flooded with news from Syria & Palestine, your neurochemistry is taking constant hits and gets altered. I don’t have any advice, I’m not an expert, but in our culture, we don’t talk about depression so I wanted to at least Tweet this.” Seems fitting. She speaks often about her identity as an Arab and as someone from Palestine, and it’s a voice I don’t read much of in other places. I do my best to follow people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds on social media because it gives me some window into what their concerns and feelings are, and if we’re ever going to get any better at understanding each other, we have to start using all of these amazing communication tools to actually communicate. I’ve told the story before in print about how it was viewings of Pather Panchali and The Seven Samurai when I was young that led to me getting interested in foreign-language films as a way of seeing what it might feel like to live in another place, and what it might be like to have been born somewhere else.

    Increasingly, we find ourselves talking about defaults in storytelling, and it’s perhaps the most important conversation you can have before writing something. I’ve been working as a writer for a quarter-century now, and in that time, I’m willing to admit that more often than not, I’ve started from the automatic assumption that if I’m telling a story, it’s going to be about a white guy as the main character. That is not the case today, and I’m not sure how that’s going to impact the next thing I write. It will, though. It has to. And not because there’s some movement telling me what to write, but because now that we’re having the conversation, there are points that seem inescapable. Take Ready Player One, for example. There have been all sorts of conversations about that film and the book it’s based on, and one of the things that the film makes almost painfully clear is that there are characters in that story who would have been far more compelling if they were the leads. Both Aech (Lena Waithe) and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) are miles ahead of the dull white kid who is the lead, and it really does seem ridiculous that we’re seeing the story from his passive participant point-of-view instead of following these dynamic leads who are actually making things happen and driving the secret revolution. It’s almost baffling that they’d drive right by those characters, but that’s what happens when you have a default. You don’t ask questions that could make your story more interesting, and it feels to me like one of the biggest questions that we should be asking is “Why is this story being told from this point of view?”

    In the case of The Idol, it’s clear that Hany Abu-Assad was just one of the millions of people who were inspired by the real story of Mohammed Assaf, which happened recently enough that for many people in the Arab world, it’s still something current, something that matters to them right now. And when I speak of the Arab world, realize… I have an enormously limited view of what that is. My view is informed perhaps a bit more than that of the average American because it actually matters to me. I want to understand the daily life of someone in Palestine and someone in Israel and someone in the Arab Emirates, and I understand enough to know those are all different things. The daily experience of someone in Lebanon is not the same as the daily experience of someone in Egypt, and those cultural differences are lost on most Western audiences. We are largely sold a monolithic view of the Arab world, which does everyone a disservice. Mohammed Assaf won the second season of Arab Idol, and there was no small symbolic power to the idea that he was the only entrant who managed to get out of the refugee settlement in Gaza where he grew up. For a filmmaker like Abu-Assad to decide to tell the life story of someone who was only 20-plus years old, it was clear that the story had some special resonance.

    The film, which Abu-Assad wrote with Sameh Zoabi, spends a good 40 minutes on the childhood of Assaf, and the casting for the kids is a big part of what made me fall for the film. Mohammad (Qais Atallah) is a natural singer, a gifted talent, and his sister Nour (Hiba Atallah) spend the days (and some of their nights) unsupervised, running wild amidst the rubble. She sees what his music can do to people, and she wants to support him. She wants him to be heard by other people, and she wants for people to feel the same joy she feels. For a while, the film has this loose shaggy energy as they put together a band with their friends Ahmad (Ahmad Qasem) and Omar (Abdel Kareem Barakeh). They try buying black market instruments, and once they do finally get instruments, they start playing weddings. And through it all, what I took away as a Westerner was the accumulation of the little details that make it clear just how small the world is for these kids and how, even as they dream about a larger life, they are constantly reminded that they are essentially prisoners. Nour is the real firebrand here, and young Hiba Attalah really tore my heart out as a parent and as a viewer. She’s got such a big spirit, and she’s unafraid of anything as a performer. She’s got a great smile, and when she plays anger, there’s nothing phony about it. For a kid to have this kind of access to their emotions is impressive. It’s an adult performance in terms of how controlled it is, but she still strikes me as a genuine child. She’s a tomboy, and there are moments when you can see the 40-year-old she’s going to be someday. She’s precocious, but in a real kid way, not like an obnoxious movie kid.

    When she gets sick, I thought I had the film figured out because I didn’t know Assaf’s real story. I assumed he was going to grow up with his sick sister and then go on the show to win enough money to get her a kidney transplant. Instead, the film is unsparing, and when it jumps forward it time, Assaf is missing a key part of who he is as a person. Perhaps the most inelegant portion of the film takes place after the time jump forward. It’s been seven years, so now he’s played by Tawfeek Barhom, who evokes both a young Bob Dylan and a young Frank Sinatra, depending on how clean-cut he is. He’s still interested in singing, and he’s still driven by memories of Nour, but he doesn’t see any way he’s ever getting out of Gaza. When he runs into Amal (Dima Awawdeh), a girl he met when she had dialysis at the same hospital as Nour, she rekindles his interest in using his voice to remake his life. He can’t even get a visa to get to where the auditions are being held in Egypt, though, driving home just how trapped Assaf is. Again… there’s some pretty on-the-nose material here, but what carries it over and above that is the reality of the way this film feels. Abu-Assad finds so many moments where he sells it by simply letting us see. Assaf is driving a cab when he runs into Amal, and he takes her for a drive with her friend. Amal asks him to sing, and when he begins, her friend treats it like a joke… at first. But then Assaf’s voice drops into a groove and Abu-Assad takes the moment to simply give us a long unbroken look at the window. One building after another, one block after another, all rubble. That’s what these people see every day. That’s all they have to look forward to, as well. There’s no options open to them, no future promised to them. And Assaf’s voice, which is trained to sing prayers just as easily as pop music, is unmistakably Arab, and unmistakably lovely, and it feels like the perfect sound to communicate this life, even beyond Abu-Assad’s images.

    Once the film gets Assaf out of Gaza, it falls into a pretty basic formula and rhythm, but even here, the details linger. When Assaf makes it to Beirut, which I assume is the Arab Idol equivalent to Hollywood week, he is sent to a hotel with the other contestants. The room he stays in is nicer than anything he’s ever seen, even though it’s a pretty standard luxury hotel room. When he finally sings and his voice reaches audiences throughout the Arab world, the montages that Abu-Assad cuts have a blunt-force power. He doesn’t overdo it with songs, only really showing us Assaf’s first big song and his song for the finale. In-between, the emphasis is on the audiences, on the way he begins to reach people, and on the way it impacts the community he had to leave behind. There is real power, blunt or not, in seeing these people, so often portrayed as impossible to unite, when something as primary and universal as song brings them together. This is what art is supposed to do, and this is what people who are upset about a diversity of voices in our mainstream don’t understand. The mainstream has an infinite amount of room. There is no capacity to what we can love and what we can make room for, and every time someone sees themselves in art and every time someone feels seen by art, we potentially gain another voice that might be the one that tells us the next great story or sings us the next great song. It would be naive to think that any singer is going to heal wounds as deep as the ones that have created the ongoing conflicts in the region, but it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that once you remind people of one thing that they have in common, they may well use that as a way to find more.

    The Idol feels like it would have been a big broad mainstream movie if it had been made in America, but it’s hard to imagine any American reality show story that would carry the built-in cultural tensions that this film so expertly charts. In the end, I am haunted by the performance by young Hiba Attalah, and by the idea that something we see in America as just another dumb game show on TV managed to transform so many people with such deeply-held feelings, if even for a moment.

You Can't Cheat An Honest Man

 

You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man
dir. George Marshall
scr. George Marion Jr. & Richard Mack & Everett Freeman
story by W.C. Fields
Commissioned by Mark Woodvine


    Now that I am an angry, irritable old man, I finally understand W.C. Fields.

    There are filmmakers whose work has always been important to me, and there are filmmakers I have learned to love, and there are filmmakers whose work I never warm to. We all have reasons for the ways we connect to the work of different artists, and in the case of W.C. Fields, I bounced right off of him for most of my life.

    The exception was It’s A Gift, the film he made in 1934. You can credit Danny Peary with that, since his write-up in Cult Movies set the table just right. There are a number of films that I was led to by Peary’s work, and I credit him for the breadth of his taste even if I don’t always agree with him. There are films he spotlighted in those books that I have never warmed to, and there are films I think he misjudged severely. But he nailed it with It’s A Gift, and the thing that’s so beautiful about it is the way it positions Fields as a modern-day Job, suffering through the daily afflictions of a million tiny paper cuts. Prior to that, my main exposure to Fields had been his collaborations with Mae West, which represents a tiny portion of his overall body of work. Whatever you think of Mae West and Fields, they aren’t comics whose work was ever particularly aimed at children. I grew up with Chaplin and Keaton and The Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello and The Marx Brothers and Harold Lloyd and plenty of comedy from the early days of Hollywood, and a lot of it is still important to me. But Fields? It just didn’t happen.

    Overall, time has not been terribly kind to the legacy of Fields, who had a fascinating arc as an artist. There are reasons for that, and some of them involve race in his movies. If we’re going to talk about You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man, we’re going to talk about Eddie Anderson and we’re going to talk about the casual deployment of words like pickaninny and Ubangi and, yeah, we’re going to talk about how fucking weird it is that there’s an entire scene with a puppet wearing blackface.

   As it feels like we’ve begun grappling with the history of race in America and the history of how we’ve handled it onscreen, watching some of this work can feel like tapdancing in a minefield. It’s one thing to simply say “it was the times,” but it feels like there’s more value in really looking at the context of the times and then actually looking at what’s being said and how. Fields gained more and more control over his work as he got older, a rarity for a comedian in his era. You look at genuine geniuses like The Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton and you look at how they struggled more as they got older, and you see how Abbott and Costello’s career slowly crumbled under the weight of itself, and it’s almost a miracle to see someone going in the other direction.

    Fields didn’t really follow the same career path as anyone else, though, and part of what saved his life was his popularity on radio. Here’s another reason Fields wasn’t as important to me as some of his peers. I am a movie guy. I am a TV guy. I am not a radio guy. I know the history of radio programming in America, and I understand why it was popular when it was popular. I think it’s great that there was this entire media form that people were very good at producing work for, and if it’s your thing, great. It’s just not something I ever felt compelled to go back and really learn in depth. I never heard the show that rebuilt his career after he basically crumbled into alcoholic ruin. He went to radio in disgrace, and that's where he was paired with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, who basically hammered on him non-stop.

    Let me try to put into perspective how far below the bottom of the barrel that must have been for Fields. He had been a fairly big movie star, after all, and now he was trading insults with a ventriloquist. On the radio. That is the absolute strangest way to get famous I can imagine. “I’m a mime for the blind.” It’s almost beyond ridicule. The real appeal of McCarthy had nothing to do with how convincing Bergen was or wasn’t as a ventriloquist, of course. McCarthy was the filthy id that Bergen could never voice himself, and the puppet was allowed to say things on the radio that the person could never say directly. I’m not sure if censors all legitimately had some sort of brain damage or if they just thought it was a cute workaround, but McCarthy was pretty scathing under the guise of being incorrigible, and that gave Fields permission to open fire with both barrels right back at him. They exploded, and people began to tune in specifically for that back and forth.

    Universal took the chance on Fields, and they gave him a fair amount of creative control. The films they got in return were big movies, each of them getting bigger, before they gave him enough rope to hang himself with Never Give A Sucker An Even Break, a movie even Deadpool would call “a little too meta.” The biggest hit was The Bank Dick, and it’s a big broad mainstream bullseye. The weirdest film of that batch, though? It’s got to be You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man, and before we talk about anything else, let’s get back to what I mentioned before, because I am not kidding you. There is a goddamn puppet in goddamn blackface.

    Midway through the film, Fields and Bergen & McCarthy have been busting balls back and forth with ever-increasing stakes. Fields pays one of his guys to beat the shit out of both Bergen and the puppet, which is one of the weirdest things I’ve ever typed in a plot synopsis, and when they show up, yes, they both have black eyes. Because that’s the kind of movies that Fields made. Reality was malleable as long as it was funny. He was willing to bend the natural order a bit for a good joke. To cover up the injuries, they decide to do their act in blackface for the evening, a perfectly reasonable hey wait a minute what the hell did that puppet just look at himself in blackface in the mirror and say, “Hey, I AM cute!”? Because that is madness. Madness. It’s an insane comedy beat to play, and it is complicated terrifically by the way Fields speaks to the great Eddie Anderson in every scene where they appear together. Anderson was famous as Rochester, Jack Benny’s valet, and he’s playing a character named Rochester here as well. Fields is an abusive ill-tempered swine to everyone. It’s his nature. That’s the character he’s playing, and he plays it beautifully. But watching him lambast and degrade and pick at Eddie Anderson, calling him a pickaninny to his face, is unbearable. It would have been unbearable then. It’s not just about when it was made. Fields was unafraid to make anyone the antagonist in his comedy, and it works best from the point of view of the person who is put upon by the world. Comedy works best along certain power dynamics, though. We want to see the mighty laid low, and if it happens because we’re laughing at them, that’s great. Watching Fields slide his nasty, ugly little epithets into his digs at Anderson feels unfair. Jack Benny worked with Anderson for years and managed to create what felt like a comic collaboration in which Benny was well aware of the value of Anderson both as a performer and as a person. Fields goes right to describing him and the rest of the black carnival workers as “the Ubangi.” It’s grotesquely unbalanced and dragging Bergen and McCarthy into it feels like Fields not fighting fair.

    So is that it? Is the film unwatchable because it’s a pretty clear indicator that Fields was forward thinking in some ways and very much trapped in an ugly past in other ways? Depends on your mileage. I won’t be including this in my personal repertory in the future, because there are Fields films that don’t have this same gnarly baggage. But overall? There’s some great stuff here. Fields, with his usual no-joke-too-broad style, appears as Larsen E. Whipsnade, the owner and lead con man in a traveling sideshow. He’s got a daughter who is in love in the Gummo Marx subplot of the film, but at least it’s Bergen she’s interested in, meaning her love interest gets to pretty much non-stop dunk on her father. Whipsnade lives one step ahead of the police, perpetually adopting other identities to skirt custody.

    This is Fields as the victim of his own vice, and he makes sure to constantly deflate Whipsnade, which is one of the reasons I have any mixed feelings at all about what could otherwise feel cruel. Ultimately, Whipsnade is the one who keeps ending up at the bottom of the pile, and there’s a self-perpetuating element to the abuse that lands on him that is particularly rewarding. And, yes, the relationship he has with McCarthy is fascinating, not least because it’s different than the relationship he has with Bergen. The film treats Charlie like he’s alive, even as it acknowledges just how weird ventriloquism is in general. It’s one of the reasons I can’t quite pin down my own feelings about the film’s sense of humor. It is so strange, so willing to throw any joke at the viewer, that it is hard to get hung up on any single joke or even any particular kind of joke.

    This last creative burst for Fields only lasted a few years, and I’m guessing it was a huge strain on him to pull everything back together after literally having to dry out from the DTs because he was such a robust and profound drunk. Still, you have to respect the clarity of vision he had even as he struggled in his private life. I’m not sure there was any mainstream studio comedy filmmakers/performers who pushed quite this hard on both sides of the camera until Jerry Lewis hit his stride in his solo career. His filmography is one that any serious student of Hollywood should become familiar with, and the innovations he brought to the table in terms of how to stage and shoot and, most important, cut a comedy sequence cannot be undersold. That’s one of the ways his work still feels modern, because he had a very keen sense of timing and how to keep jabbing you with a joke as many times as he could get away with it. He’s not wildly sentimental, and like many of the comedy filmmakers of his era, he seems impatient with anything that isn’t built purely on jokes. The closest thing I can think of to the appeal in the best moments of these films is the feeling I got when I saw Caddyshack or Back To School and saw Rodney Dangerfield firing at full force. It’s about understanding exactly what is funny about the character they’ve built and throwing as many worthwhile obstacles at that character as you can.

    The sad truth is that I find myself tortured by the banal at times, and maybe the greatest value I find in the work of WC Fields is that I can recognize when I’m turning into him, allowing the world to grind me down, and in those moments, if I can get just enough perspective, I can laugh instead of simmer. And, when I’m feeling extra honest, I can even acknowledge that I am often my own worst enemy. Getting that kind of added worth out of something this happily silly is why we’re still discussing it, warts and all, almost 80 years after the fact.

Eraserhead

 

Eraserhead
dir. David Lynch

scr. David Lynch
Commissioned by Shawn Hoelscher


    There is no filmmaker whose work strikes me at a more primal level than David Lynch, and here’s how I know that. Almost every time I’ve seen a David Lynch film, my first reaction has been immediate, furious anger and outright loathing. I have hated many David Lynch movies upon first viewing, but in every single case, I have later embraced those films as essential works of art, part of the reason I love film as a whole. The gap between those two reactions is what makes him such an ongoing source of fascination for me, as well as a filmmaker whose work I continue to grapple with each and every time I watch it.

    My first exposure to this one came before I knew who he was as a filmmaker. It was because of the cover of Midnight Movies, one of the first books to turn me on to some of craziest fare the world of movies had to offer. In the days before home video, I would haunt my local libraries looking for books about movies. There was the great Richard J. Anobile, who published these oversized hardcover books where he would blow up movie frames to recreate an entire film in book form. Those eventually morphed into the Fotonovel, but his Film Classics Library series was enormously influential for me. Danny Peary’s Cult Movies books were another early road map for me, as was the work of Pauline Kael. Collections of her reviews fascinated me, and I loved reading about movies I not only hadn’t seen but had no way of seeing any time soon. I felt like I was reading travel guides to exotic places and dreaming of the time I might get to go and visit for myself.

    But when I saw that cover of Midnight Movies in 1983, it was a lightning bolt moment. Something about that image. Jack Nance in front of a strange black and white background, that hair of his almost seeming to be made of the light and the shadow. I devoured what J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, knowing that I’d never track something as rare and exotic as Eraserhead down. There was no way I’d ever end up part of a world where you could just watch something like Eraserhead or El Topo. Those were like lightning in the wild, these dangerous things that happened far away that I might glimpse at a distance, but never close-up. Of course, today, I can look across my office from where I sit as I write this, and there’s a Blu-ray of El Topo (next to a Blu-ray of The Holy Mountain), signed by Jodorowsky when we did a one-hour conversation together at SXSW a few years ago, and I realize that we have truly entered a blessed age where the obscure exists at our fingertips and in the most remarkable form we could have hoped as film fans.

    It almost feels wrong to be able to summon up Eraserhead on demand. I can click three buttons on my computer any time I want and there it is, this thing that took David Lynch years and years to finish. It is only 89 minutes long and every single one of them feels like it took a war to produce. I can sum up what I feel it is about very simply: the anxiety of parenthood. But to say that and then to see the actual film, you get a sense of just how special film is in capturing the feeling of something. This is what makes it my favorite art form… it is the combination of writing and music and performance and sound and light and accidents and the brutal dictatorship of the editor. Film has to be produced collectively, but the end results can be so singular that we can attribute “authorship” to an individual. How David Lynch ever convinced any other human beings to help him make Eraserhead is a mystery, not because it’s a bad film, but because there is truly nothing else that compares to it. There’s no way any storyboards or screenplay or even pre-production art could fully convey what it was he was hoping to accomplish, but the end result is one of the most confident works of film art I’ve ever seen.

    The opening moments of the film are perhaps the most audacious opening moments of any director’s first feature film. In a series of images that almost seem to evoke the title card from 2001: A Space Odyssey, we get Jack Nance giving birth through his mouth to a strange spermy thing while a man covered in lesions or boils watches a pit of primoridal goo, pulling levers to ready it for the arrival of Jack Nance’s weird spermy thing. They collide, everything turns to bubbles, and then we find ourselves with Nance, playing Henry, as he makes his way across this landscape mainly marked with rubble and decay and industrial piping.

   That is, apparently, what fucking looks like in David Lynch’s world. Makes sense. Henry emerges as a sort of a put-upon silent comedy figure, a very particular silhouette as he makes his way through this world that apparently exists simply to produce noise and steam. There’s really not much story until almost a half-hour into the film. Before that, it’s just Henry, his horrible little room, his dirty socks, and a message that’s been left with the girl across the hall, a message that Henry is supposed to have dinner with someone named Mary. That dinner is one of the most disturbing “meet the parents” sequences I can imagine, complete with a tiny squab that screams and bleeds when you cut into it in what can only be described as an obscene parody of what childbirth looks like. Henry finds himself cornered by Mary’s mother, who informs him that there’s a baby. “They’re still not sure it is a baby,” Mary wails, and then almost immediately, we cut to what has now become Mary and Henry’s daily life. The Eraserhead baby is one of the great accomplishments in film puppeteering. David Lynch has always carefully protected any detailed conversation of how they brought the baby to life, but it’s not hard to imagine it is a combination of different creations, each designed to do certain things. When you shoot a film for seven full years, you’ve got a lot of time to try to capture the perfect shot of a puppet, the one that fully sells the illusion, and there is something wet and awful about the design of the creature. It looks like a young goat that’s been skinned and swaddled. It looks like it would smell like some kind of wurst. It has a disturbingly wet tongue. When it cries, it is a sound that feels almost engineered to make you uncomfortable, and we eventually see it drive Mary mad.

    When I first saw Eraserhead, I watched it as a dark comedy, and I still think Lynch is brutally funny as a filmmaker, especially when he plays things very straight. It’s a major part of what makes his work so special. He’s the Robin Williams of surrealists. He loves this sort of spitball free associative storytelling, he loves the grotesque, and he loves creating these spaces and scenes where the audience has no compass telling them how to react. There is something unnerving and true at the heart of Eraserhead, and when I had my first son, the six weeks or so that he was first at home after he was born were the scariest, strangest six weeks of my life. You don’t sleep when you first have a child. You don’t sleep at all. You exist in some weird twilight world beyond sleep, and all you can do is try to take care of the needs of this baby and your own needs if you remember, and you just do whatever you can to get through. When Mary gets fed up and leaves Henry, it’s something that every parent has probably thought of at least once, simply out of exhaustion and fear that you’re going to do something wrong and screw up this poor defenseless little thing.

    I started having these crazy anxiety nightmares as soon as my son came home from the hospital, but even worse, I would find myself hit by these panic flashes, these momentary glimpses of the most awful things happening to the baby, and I felt like I was going crazy, like some part of me was thinking about these things and shouldn’t be. I felt like I was going to accidentally invite something into our life simply because I was having these thoughts. I felt like a bad person, not because I did anything, but simply because I imagined all the bad things that might happen. The first time something bad did happen, even though it was just a routine childhood bump, it felt like alarms were going off, like I was suddenly under a harsh and brutal spotlight, and anything less than the exact right response would result in people stepping in and giving Toshi to actual adults, to people who would do right by him. When the baby gets sick, Henry is surprisingly calm. But it’s super-upsetting, a bizarre skin ailment that makes him even less appealing. Henry can’t leave at all without the baby melting down. It’s like there’s no right choice for him.

    Reality begins to fray at the edges for Henry. Considering how disturbing his reality already was, that’s saying something. The Lady In The Radiator makes her first appearance, and that’s right around the time I remember thinking on my first viewing, “This is the weirdest movie I will ever see.” That is not true, not by a long shot, and the particular mix of ‘50s iconography, the violence of her stomping on the creepy things onstage, and the goofy nature of her dance feels like the precursor to an entire aesthetic that really took hold in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. If anything, Eraserhead makes so much sense that it’s almost disappointing. There’s something very direct about the sexual imagery. The child is a punishment. Whatever’s wrong, Mary and Henry should have never been together. Their congress is poison, and there are images that Lynch creates that have haunted me ever since. There’s the night where Henry pulls creepy giant spermy things out of his bed that he shares with Mary and throws them against a wall where they explode. There’s the strange stop-motion dance of the creepy worm.

    And, yes, there’s the dream of the actual eraser head. In my own work, I have used the device of a severed head that retains some sort of life more than once, and I think there’s something about that image that speaks to us on a deep and unconscious place. Henry’s head is severed as a response to an encounter with the woman who lives across the hall. Is it a dream of infidelity, or does Henry dare to actually stray? The way things unfold afterward suggest this is just Lynch’s own fears about the way parenthood and marriage can be seen as traps, as chains that keep you from what you want, and when Henry transgresses, he literally cannot hold himself together. One of the things I can tell myself honestly about the various failures I’ve had in relationships over the course of my adult life were not about infidelity. I never saw that as an option. To me, when you’re in a relationship, you owe it to that person to be in it completely, and to be faithful. Without that, what is the point of a relationship?

    Temptation is human and understandable, and pressures push us to consider things we might not, but this film seems to question whether we are even free within our heads to think of these things. The “sex scene” is so disturbing that I’m not sure it counts as one. Henry and the woman across the hall melt into a bathtub full of what looks like milk, and then Henry witnesses another song by the Lady in the Radiator. He steps out onto a stage to join her, stepping into his fantasy, and then something that looks like a tree in a wheelchair rolls in, decapitating Henry, revealing his baby’s face in the stump. Its cry fills the soundtrack, a wall of awful sound, and then Henry’s head drops into a pool of blood, through to another place, where it is swept up from the street by a boy who sells it to someone. It sounds disturbing, but again, Lynch plays things with this tone that lets us know that he is well aware how goddamn weird this is, and he thinks it is hilarious. The guy who buys the head from him, the relationship he has with Paul at the front desk, and the process by which they get pencil erasers from Henry’s head… it’s all funny.

    The final stretch of the film is where it descends from this kind of heightened “Yes, we all feel like the world makes no sense when we first have babies” into “Sometimes, we are too broken to be trusted with someone else.” Henry, left alone with the baby, cannot deal with it. He has been abandoned by Mary. His fixation on the woman across the hall is a dark fantasy, one that is now closed to him. And the baby just seems to be getting worse. When he finally decides to unswaddle the baby, it is such an awful sequence of images that I find I can’t really break it down. It is the worst version of what could be under those blankets, and Henry’s reaction is, apparently, to put this thing out of its pain. If we cannot trust what we see in the film as real, I can trust that the way these last few minutes make me feel is that I have witnessed something truly wrong. There is such suffering in the performance of the baby, and such sorrow in the performance by Jack Nance, that it feels like we’re really witnessing a transgression. He murders his baby, and he is shattered by it on a molecular level, unable to ever be rebuilt.

    David Lynch’s work exists beyond box office trends and easy narrative digestion, the closest thing I can name to someone simply pointing a camera into their own head, somehow printing the things beyond language directly onto the celluloid. That he has continued to work in such a personal mode for his entire career while still managing to build what has to be considered a genuinely successful commercial brand is perhaps the greatest mystery of all, and one I have happily spent over thirty years confronting.

 

Heathers

 

 

Heathers
dir. Michael Lehmann

scr. Daniel Waters
Commissioned by Rod Paddock

 


    “I love my dead gay son!”

    I remember laughing so hard at that anguished cry during my first viewing of the jet-black comedy Heathers that someone in front of me turned around to look at me like I had called their mother an asshole.
    
    Then, a moment later, a little girl turned around to glare at Veronica (Winona Ryder) and J.D. (Christian Slater), tears on her face, making both of them feel like assholes for laughing as well. And in that moment, I knew that Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters were absolutely on the right side of the very difficult jokes they make in the film. It’s a film that is gleeful about pushing the envelope to the point where it shreds, and it makes plenty of missteps, but it is also plotted tightly, unfolding with a sort of dreamy inevitability. It is bratty and rude and ham-handed at times, and it is, without a doubt, one of the most scathingly honest reflections of teenage angst ever captured on film.

    Right now, I’m watching my first teenager snap slowly into focus, and it’s a nightmare. It feels like someone’s pranking me. This person I’ve known for over a decade, who I’ve watched develop little by little, suddenly took a left turn and now I’m not exactly sure how to talk to him or what’s going on inside of him. When I say “it’s a nightmare,” I am exaggerating, of course, and I am aware that it is a cycle that my own parents went through. They laugh when I talk about what I’m experiencing with Toshi. It’s one of those moments that makes you recontextualize everything. You realize what your parents were thinking and feeling while you were going through things as a teenager, and it’s sort of mind-blowing. What I remember about being Toshi’s age was that everything I was feeling was SO IMPORTANT and everyone was SO STUPID and I was SO MISUNDERSTOOD, and it all felt like the end of the world at every single moment. Part of that was driven by the pop culture I ingested, and I think one of the reasons my parents were able to forgive me my insanity in a way that their own parents were not prepared to forgive them is because they were the first generation of post-war American teenagers. They invented teenage angst. My generation just took their generation’s invention and fine-tuned it, weaponizing it into movies and music that told us that we weren’t crazy, our parents were. And then our generation passed it down to the next, and they’re doing it their own way, making us crazy all over again. Heathers came at a moment when the second-generation teenage programming was just coming to an end. John Hughes had moved on to grown-ups, Patrick Dempsey had stopped chasing older women, and there was already a new Karate Kid.

    It does not surprise me that Heathers remains far from a universally beloved classic. Determined to obliterate whatever the outer limits of acceptable darkness was, the film is what happens when the worst instincts of every high school movie get cranked up to high and then allowed to metastasize into something meaner and uglier than even the meanest and ugliest. There were plenty of films that tried to emulate the language of the John Hughes films, but Heathers feels like the first film that truly dared to hold up a funhouse mirror to them and say, “This version of the teenage experience you’re buying into is toxic and phony and it will lead to nothing good.” It was honest because it was surreal, and it was abrasive because it was unafraid. Heathers had nothing to lose, and because of that, it felt like anything could happen from moment to moment. Daniel Waters wrote a script that is determined to shock you, no matter what, and perhaps the best thing about his collaboration with Michael Lehmann is the way their sensibilities seem to push against each other, rather than meshing perfectly. There’s something arch and ridiculous about some of Lehmann’s staging and his choices in production design that is not necessarily a part of what Waters wrote. It’s a big choice, and it’s because of that choice that so much of the movie’s most scathing moments manage to be palatable in any way.

    Winona Ryder gives one of the best teen movie performances of the ‘80s in the film, and taken in the context of the work she did on either side of it, it’s ferocious. She stars here as “the good one,” the girl whose wry commentary on the world around her shows that she not only understands what’s going on, but she’s above it all. She may also be one of the great unreliable narrators of all time. She is not a hero by any standards, and the film makes sure to lay out just how many ways Veronica has failed. When the film begins, she’s the runt of the litter in the most powerful clique in Sherwood High School. It feels like a deliberate near invocation of Shermer, Illinois, the fictional setting of the John Hughes films, and this world feels familiar for a few moments. There are the same basic social divisions as we’ve seen in the Hughes movies, and the Heathers sit atop all of it. There’s Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk), Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), and the queen bee of the whole thing, Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), with Veronica there alongside them, an honorary Heather. As the film opens, she’s already compromised her soul deeply. She knows it, too, but she doesn’t do anything about it. Veronica is smart enough to know what popularity gains her, but she’s also smart enough to know what it costs her, and she’s okay with that. We see that she’s burned down the kid she used to be, leaving behind friends like Betty Finn, and we see that Heather Chandler knows exactly how much she owns Veronica because of the access to adulthood that she represents.

    There is some savage honesty to the film’s first act, even before it starts to get into the really dark and crazy material. What this film understands is that the entire clique thing is exhausting if you buy into it, and the only way to win it is to refuse to play at all. When J.D. is introduced, he’s interesting immediately because he’s basically Neo at the end of The Matrix. He’s seen the code, he’s stepped outside of it, and he’s ready to shake it up for everyone else. It’s bizarre watching Christian Slater’s performance these days. If you don’t know how iconic Jack Nicholson was at the moment the film was made, you might wonder what it is that Slater’s doing. It is a dated, odd choice, but removed from context, it feels less like a specific impression and more like a smart kid who is just plain trying too hard. That’s what draws Veronica to him and vice versa. If they could just step outside the nonsense together and make fun of it and ignore it all, they’d be fine.

    They can’t, though, and the film goes to great lengths to make sure it gives J.D. enough back story to explain his actions. His dad’s a lunatic who very probably intentionally blew up his mother, and J.D. has been moved so many times that nothing feels real to him anymore. He’s a deeply broken kid, and in a serious film, there’s enough meat on the bones to really explain how he might find violence an acceptable answer to whatever it is that’s eating at him. But this film isn’t serious, and you should know that from the moment where J.D. first pulls a gun at school and gets suspended instead of arrested. The film is not about the way something would play out in reality, but it is emotionally as accurate as anything I’ve ever seen about the way schools respond to crisis.

    And I know what I’m talking about here. When I was in high school, I produced a daily show with my buddy Scott Swan, and we did half of the show as live announcements, with the second half for a taped feature. We weren’t the only students who produced material for the show, but we produced the lion’s share. We worked non-stop, and we produced all kinds of material, including a regular movie review show a la Siskel & Ebert. We were bratty kids, and we were just starting to stretch our creative legs, and our teacher gave us a lot of leash. He let us produce some pretty edgy material, and we were lunatics about how we shot things. We had one episode of our review show where Scott and I disagreed about the film we were discussing, and in a very reasonable escalation of our disagreement, I lit him on fire. To accomplish this trick, we utilized such high-tech safety gear as hairspray and towels. We drove our teacher crazy, and we laughed about it as we did it. It was three years of unfettered goofy non-stop creativity, and it led to a twenty year collaboration between me and Scott. But our senior year, there was a dark cloud over the school. There was a suicide, and then there was some copycat violence, and the school got real worried real quick. For the first time, Scott and I found ourselves under a different degree of scrutiny, and that freedom we’d enjoyed ended abruptly. We saw the school’s administration up close as they struggled to figure out what was happening, and they stank of flopsweat. It was scary to realize that these adults had zero answers, and when Heathers came out about a year later, I found myself almost unable to sit still during all the scenes involving the school administration debating how to handle the “suicide” of Heather Chandler. The fear, the finger pointing, the phony textbook language… it was shockingly on-target.

    There is nothing funny about suicide, of course. There is a horrible lonely human nature to suicide that makes it one of the most unsettling subjects we can discuss. I’ve had some pretty brutal long dark nights of the soul over the course of the last 48 years, and I can honestly say I’ve considered whether or not it was worth it to continue. I’ve always been able to answer that question for myself, but I know there are people who reach that place where they can’t, and I have deep empathy for what it must take to push them there. Heathers is not about suicide, though. It’s about the panic that sets in around suicide, and the way it becomes a commodity. Watch the way the yearbook kids are practically giddy about the layout they get to do around Heather’s “suicide note.” The film keeps cranking up the joke, with the murder-suicide pact between Kurt and Ram serving to also make some very pointed jokes about how something becomes acceptable in death that would not be acceptable in life. There comes a point about midway through, though, where it’s clear that this is really more along the lines of a Gun Crazy or a Bonnie and Clyde, a dark comedy Badlands in which two doomed lovers careen headlong towards mutual destruction. J.D. wants Veronica to be as broken as he is, and that’s where the film earns the dark comedy, no matter how savage. Heathers is about the importance of maintaining the ability to empathize with someone else’s pain no matter how little you think you have in common. When we do glimpse people who are really hurting, like Martha Dumptruck (Carrie Lynn, whose largely silent performance is one of the most affecting in the film) or Heather McNamara, the film never asks us to laugh at them. It saves its scorn for the way everyone is so busy with their own reactions to the drama that they lose sight of what they’re supposed to be upset about. J.D.’s righteous anger is as fake as Heather Chandler’s suicide note, an act to excuse whatever it is that he wants to do. It’s no different than the power games the Heathers play, no different than the rigidly enforced caste system agreed to by every student at Sherwood. You play the part that gets you closest to what you want. You fake it until you make it. High school is a time when identity is up for grabs, a pressure cooker that can make even the most well-adjusted student feel like blowing up a building from time to time.

    Veronica pulls back from her suicide run with J.D. just in time, but I can’t help feeling like the version of the story we watch is the version she’s telling to make sure we still like her at the end of it. The truth is that Veronica lets herself do these terrible things with J.D. because that’s who she really is, and her “victory” at the end is simply her putting her mask back in place so she can move forward. I want to believe in the kindness she shows to Martha as the film’s credits roll, but this film’s heart is so authentically black that I can’t help but wonder what it is Veronica’s going to get out of it.

Two For The Road

 

Two For The Road
dir. Stanley Donen
scr. Frederic Raphael
Commissioned by Pamela DeLeone


    After sitting through Two For The Road, I’m sure even the ethereal, delicate Audrey Hepburn would agree: marriage is a motherfucker.

    This process of writing reviews on commission has been interesting so far, and I’m only a few weeks into the experiment. My writing about film developed in a very strange organic way, starting with me only writing about what interested me, when it interested me, and nothing else. If anything, it was a hobby. It was a way of taking my mind off my creative work while still keeping it engaged in film theory. When I decided to actually buckle down and make writing about film my job, it was because I had young children and I wanted stability. Turning it into something that was done on the timetable of the studios and their marketing plans slowly but surely leached the joy out of what I was doing, and it started to affect the way I even thought about film. It was dangerous, and when I finally left HitFix, I was burned out, not sure I wanted to write about film or, frankly, much of anything.

    There is something fundamentally weird about the entire endeavor of writing art criticism in the first place. It is an act of description. It is an attempt to capture the feeling of one experience and convey it in a totally different way. It is a fool’s errand, one I repeat every single time I sit down to talk about a movie… and I love it. I love it more now than I did when I began. I love it because I have come to view it as a thing that is not a book report, not a consumer guide to how you should spend your eight dollars, and not a punctuation mark on the end of someone’s release strategy for a movie. Film criticism stands separate from all of that at its best, and I feel lucky to have been reminded of that.

    Sometimes, accepting that art is an imperfect way of conveying something is part of the process, and struggling to find a new way of conveying it can be thrilling for a filmmaker. When you’re someone like Stanley Donen, who started his career with On The Town, and who made one of the greatest movies of all time, Singin’ In The Rain, his fourth time at bat, it must have been fascinating to see how films evolved between the early ‘50s and the late ‘60s, and instead of watching it all roll by, he was right there in it, stretching and doing his best to add to the expanding vocabulary of film instead of just digging in and doing things the way he’d always done them. To be fair, there are moments even in something as broadly mainstream as Singin’ In The Rain that feel almost experimental, and it feels to me like Donen was always interested in finding a way to create a strong emotional reaction in his audience. He wanted you to feel, first and foremost, and that seems far more important to him than story or structure.

    Imagine then, that you’re Donen in the mid-‘60s, and you’re watching this eruption of energy from England with an explosion of raw, emotional storytelling, and the movie Darling just flattens you. Frederic Raphael’s script for that film was an award-winner and deservedly so. It’s smart and honest and unsparing, and Donen must have felt lucky to get Raphael to collaborate with him on something as new as Two For The Road. Taken as a story, it’s simply about a married couple driving to a party together, about twelve years into their marriage, and fighting about things on the way to the party, during the party, and then after the party. That’s it. But the way it tells that simple story is what distinguished the film at the time, and even seen today, there’s a boldness to the storytelling that is all in service of trying to capture something piercing and true.

    How does your memory work? Do you think of things chronologically? Because that’s not my experience. When I think of the past, it is often not voluntary. It’s something that hits you like a wave, and as you get caught up in it, other memories come rushing in around it. Memory is like a chain, or like a net, this piece connected to that piece, that piece connected to those, all of them somehow linked, even if the links make no obvious sense. There is a Proustian effort to wrestle the nature of memory to the ground in Two For The Road, a fragmenting of time that could easily be disorienting if done wrong.

    How does love work? Is it a switch? When people talk about falling in love, what exactly are they talking about? What’s the moment that qualifies something as love? How do you define it? Is love transitive? What’s the difference between the love you have for a spouse and the love you have for a child? Why does love end? If it’s genuinely love, can it end? There is a shortcut to the way films depict love that we all accept, but it’s almost completely removed from the honest experience itself.

    Between love and memory, Donen and Raphael basically picked two of the hardest things to honestly convey on film, and they knew that the language of studio movies wasn’t adequate to try and do what they wanted. For Donen, there was a way of doing things behind the scenes that was the same, but in pursuit of something new, and it’s startling that he was able to convince Audrey Hepburn to make the leap with him considering how carefully cultivated her movie star persona was, but I can’t imagine it would have been easy to convince anyone to play the role. Hepburn was 37 when the film was made, and she was as in-control of her image as anyone in the era. Her other movie that year, Wait Until Dark, was a more conventional “movie movie,” adapted from a popular play and wildly commercially successful when it was released. Small wonder. Wait Until Dark is pure thriller, pure candy, while Two For The Road is, to say the least, a bitter pill.

    Hepburn was delicate as an onscreen presence. There was something about her that always felt like the world might break her if she ever had to deal with the reality of it. Her characters seemed to move through the world in bubbles, Disney princesses launched into the real world. The movies she made with Donen like Charade and Funny Face are fantasy, and happy about it. They are charming, like Hepburn, and they hinge entirely on that delicate charisma of hers. It never mattered much to me who they paired her with in films, because she was the one who drove whatever it was she was in. One of the most surprising things about her decision to make this film was the way it almost completely burned down all of that image-building, all in service of a film that ended up stiffing at the US box-office.

    No matter. One of the things I love is when you talk to someone about a film and they light up at the mention of it, and Two For The Road is one of those films that makes certain people light up immediately. I’ve spoken to several people whose reaction to seeing it the first time was to watch it again as soon as possible, sometimes in the same day. I get it. That happens to me with movies, and sometimes I can’t even articulate why. Two For The Road doesn’t feel like any other film, and it’s not any one thing that makes it stand apart. There’s the performance by Hepburn as Joanna, which features shades she never played before that, and frankly never played again. She is confounding at times, in no small part because it is mystifying why she would fall in love with Mark, played by Albert Finney. Because the film takes place over a little more than a decade, they’re both playing a broad age range, and it’s interesting seeing how they distinguish the different eras of their life together. Finney was almost a decade younger than Hepburn, and he is perfect as the young, bullheaded version of Mark. He’s the very model of callow youth, and when he pontificates at Joanna, you get the feeling he’d monologue whether she was there or not. He blathers on about why marriage is terrible, he blatantly hits on one of the girls she’s traveling with before settling on Joanna because she’s the only one of her group who doesn’t get chicken pox, and he is flat-out mean to her in pretty much every single conversation. Wow. What. A. Prize. There’s the score by Henry Mancini, one of his very best, a gorgeous piece that adds a melancholy pulse to the entire affair. There’s the photography by Christopher Challis, and there are few things from the history of film that hit me in the aesthetic pleasure center the same way that ’60s De Luxe color Panavision photography does. There’s the remarkable work by editors Madeleine Gug and Richard Marden, who manage to make this crazy juggling act make sense, and it’s their work that serves as the spine that the rest of the great work hangs on. Without the sophistication of what they do, none of the rest of this matters.

    It’s said that Hepburn was going through a turbulent patch in her own marriage when she made this film, and maybe that’s why her performance cuts so deep. While I may be mystified by the early parts of the relationship, when it begins to fall apart, it becomes very recognizable, indeed. Honestly, the experience of watching this film is odd because it almost feels designed to send you pinwheeling off down your own rabbit hole of memories. It gets so close to the way memory actually works that it is eerie. You see Mark and Joanna in a new car, driving, and they start talking about the first car they bought together, and tht memory leads to them talking about picking up a hitchhiker, which reminds them of when they were hitchhiking together when they first met, and that reminds them of their first morning together, but that reminds them of another morning where they stayed at the same place years later, but that reminds them of a fight they had, and another fight just like it, and the way they made up that time, and the time they didn’t, and they move forward and backwards through the years instantly, all of it happening at once. All you can do is follow the cues of the hair and the wardrobe to keep up, and even if you aren’t sure where each moment is grounded, that’s kind of the point. I know that every one of the major relationships I’ve had lives as both past and present within me. I am lucky today to finally be in a relationship where I feel both valued and valuable, where my partner genuinely accepts me as the flawed human being I am instead of some percentage of the person they will eventually make me become, and even so, I often find that some passing event or some scent or some location can throw me instantly back in time with the force of a carnival tilt-a-whirl. I can be present here today and still flash back to the apartment I shared with my first serious girlfriend, and I can look at the 17 year old cat asleep in the room with me now and flash on the kitten I lost a lifetime ago to a hungry coyote, and that thought reminds me of the end of one relationship and the shock and the anger, but also the start of that relationship and the promise and the potential, and that starts me thinking about first kisses, and the good ones and the bad ones and the ones I wish had led somewhere and the ones I wish I could take back. There’s a running thread in Two For The Road that Mark is terrible with cars, and pretty much anything he touches will explode or catch fire or roll off a cliff or just plain not work, and that makes me think of my dad and his luck with boats, and the way we kept buying them and they kept turning into distinct, delightful disasters. I remember storms at sea and sunken boats and being shipwrecked as a kid, and the memory of being rescued by the coast guard makes me think of a similar storm I drove home from in college, and that makes me think of the person I drove with, and that’s a new flood of memories, and it just constantly keeps churning and rolling, all of it together.

    That’s what Donen was chasing in Two For The Road, and at its very best, that’s what the film does so well. In the end, it doesn’t matter if we understand what Joanna sees in Mark or he in her or why they forgive each other or why they still fight. What matters is that we recognize in their ebb and flow the same ebb and flow we all feel, and we see the way our histories become all-defining for us. One of the reasons marriage, and indeed any human relationship, becomes more difficult over time is because the longer you are around someone, the more human they become. The ability to see someone completely, to see all those contradictory things that make us who we are, and to still see the good first is what allows us to build something that lasts, something that is real. Marriage is a full-contact sport that no one wins, and as Two For The Road makes achingly clear, the only reward comes from playing with your full heart.

The Muppet Movie

 

The Muppet Movie
dir. James Frawley
scr. Jerry Juhl and Jack Burns
Commissioned by Jim Knowler


    Jim Henson was a genius.

    Seems like a non-controversial statement, but then again I just learned this year that there are people who think Mr. Rogers damaged a generation of children, so I’m surprised at just how wrong human beings can be.

    I was introduced to the Muppets via Sesame Street, and even though that show was educational and enormously effective at it, there was also a pretty basic joy that was communicated through the humor of the show. Jim Henson and the other Muppet performers were amazing at communicating personality and behavior through their hands and mere felt. I still, to this day, don’t quite understand how much range of emotion they were able to evoke through the faces of their characters.

    When The Muppet Show premiered, it was an immediate mainstay in my home, and it was clear that my parents loved The Muppets in a very different way than I did. In the early days of VHS, one of the first tapes my parents every owned was a compilation that had been put together by someone, many of the best sketches from Sesame Street and other sources collected in one place. That tape went everywhere, to parties and on vacation and to church camp, and everywhere we took the tape, the tape was a huge hit, and with every age group. The Muppets were as close to universally loved as any entertainers of my childhood, which is certainly an accomplishment, but which doesn’t really qualify Jim Henson as a genius.

    And, yes, I know James Frawley is the director of The Muppet Movie, and he certainly deserves credit for his part in the film. Frawley is as old-school as old-school gets, and his attachment as the director is part of what helped convince the financiers that they could indeed make a Muppet movie. But you’ll notice that they never asked an outside filmmaker to direct the Muppets again, though, and that’s because the Muppet performers were already more than equipped to do it all by themselves, even if no one else had that initial faith in them.

    Jim Henson knew what he was doing from the very start. He was working with puppets when he was still in high school, and Sam and Friends, his first puppet comedy, was on the air while he was in college. Sure, it was the early days of television and pretty much all you needed to get on the air somewhere was a desire, but to have had that kind of clarity of artistic vision is pretty amazing, because it’s not like he had the Muppets to look up to. I get why there are puppeteers today. I understand how someone could spend their whole lives amazed by the work these performers do and end up compelled to do it themselves. That’s me with filmmaking, so of course I understand the urge. But to be there first, to be the one who comes up with an entire way of approaching comedy, that’s vision. And to see that it could be something more than that? Well… that’s genius. He went from helping to make puppets for a children’s show someone else produced to changing the entire way people thought about children’s programming. It wasn’t an immediate thing, either. He went into commercial production with Muppets, Inc., and those early ads had such a great skewed left-of-center sense of humor that he immediately began to build a recognizable aesthetic sensibility. He also ended up ahead of the cultural curve, as the kinds of things he did in local ads became commonplace in national ads. He was wildly successful, and in the early ’60s, he started building out his company with new performers, including Jerry Juhl and Frank Oz, and he was smart enough to learn from them, allowing them to help expand the sensibilities of Muppets, Inc. I can’t imagine what Jim Henson would have been without Frank Oz, who frequently served as the other half of the great teams in the Muppet Universe, the Bert to Henson’s Ernie, the Miss Piggy or the Fozzie to his Kermit.

    When the Children’s Television Workshop asked Henson and his company to work on Sesame Street, they couldn’t have known the size of the crater that explosion of creativity would leave. And even as they were rewiring an entire generation of kids, Henson pushed to do adult work that would make sure people saw the company as “more” than just family entertainment. I am fascinated by how bad a match he was for Saturday Night Live, but looking at it from a distance, I’m not surprised. There is a sincerity to The Muppet Show and to most of Henson’s work that is almost at odds with the ironic distance it took to drop a culture bomb like Saturday Night Live. That early incarnation of the show was desperate to project an air of dangerous degeneracy like they might accidentally burn down the network every time you tuned in, and The Muppets just didn’t fit that same mold.

    Henson was very smart about show business, and you can read the bad guy in this movie, a fried frog leg mogul determined to get Kermit to be his official spokesman, as a metaphor for the life as an ad man that Henson rejected when he decided to simply “make millions of people happy,” as Dom Deluise promises Kermit in the film’s early sequences. There’s a sort of winking self-aware quality to every part of this movie, starting with the way they all assemble at the beginning in a screening room to watch the final product. Remember… The Muppet Show was huge at the time this was released, and still on the air. These really were stars already, but this was something new for all of them. There’s something very sweet about seeing these already-beloved icons nervous as they settle in. Then Robin leans over and whispers, “Uncle Kermit, is this about how the Muppets really got started?”, and BLAM… we get that first big blast of magic.

    You have to imagine how this played to a theater full of Muppet fans in 1979. That first shot of the real swamp. The first chords of that perfect song by Paul Williams. It’s just perfect. And then Kermit starts singing, just after the rainbow fades, and the camera keeps pushing in on that real swamp. That’s important because the Muppets were the furthest thing from real. Sesame Street was amazing precisely because it wasn’t a real place. It was what we hoped a real place could be, but it wasn’t meant to be real. The Muppets, by their very nature, are restricted to studios and sets and carefully constructed environments.

    Meanwhile, let’s take a moment to talk about Henson as a singer. Because he’s already doing a voice when he does Kermit, he can’t just open his mouth and give it everything he’s got. He is singing as a character, and there’s this great clipped unsentimental thing that Kermit does as a singer that is honestly more emotional and powerful than any runs you hear by any Mariah Carey clone. Henson sold a song from the very heart of whoever he was playing, and as Kermit, that stripped down quality is part of what defines him. Kermit The Frog is Henson’s everyman, the closest thing he has to an avatar in his own work, and defining him can be tricky since he’s such a malleable presence. The Muppets have starred in enough parody projects and been written by enough new voices since Henson’s death that it’s hard to remember what it was that specifically defined him in that original incarnation. He is decent, kind to a fault, but easily exasperated. He is a leader, but he can feel crushed by that. He is funny, but in a dad-joke kind of way. More than anything, he is someone who recognizes what is good in others, and who encourages that. He is the fan on the spark that causes the talent in other people to burst forth in full flame, and that’s the role that evolved most clearly during the Muppet Show era. Kermit ran the show like he knew it was always one disaster away from full nuclear meltdown, and he managed to somehow juggle all of the lunacy of the other Muppets into something genuinely wonderful every week. If The Muppet Movie is the metaphorical rise of Henson in the entertainment industry, then the film is a love letter to all of the wonderful oddballs he accumulated along the way, the same oddballs who helped him bring that love letter to life.

    By the time that opening shot finally reaches Kermit the Frog, somehow seated on a log in a swamp, playing a banjo and singing and not a puppeteer in sight, I remember the reaction in the theater. People started whispering, and it was clear what they were whispering to each other, over and over. “How did they do that?” Forget that you’re hearing this amazing, profound, beautiful Paul Williams song for the first time. The images were brain-melting. As Kermit sings the bridge, Frawley does this tilt from him sitting and playing to his reflection in the water, and it’s a show-off moment. “Look! Look where he is!” It was such an immediate declaration that whatever rules we thought there were about how the Muppets worked and how puppeteering worked and what it could do on film, those rules were done. Forgotten. Annihilated. For the entire movie, that’s the underlying tension that is working on us in a totally different way than the comedy or the emotional stuff. How did they do that?

    The obvious answer is because the Muppets are real.

    That’s what makes it more than a trick or a show-off technical stunt. Yes, the Muppet performers are wizards, but when the first thing you see after Kermit leaves the swamp is him riding a bicycle… and talking… at the same time… that is madness, and obviously dark sorcery was involved, and so you just have to accept it. Kermit is real. He’s heading into the real world, and he’s real. Meanwhile, the script is pretty much one long series of one-liners fired back and forth between the Muppets, their co-stars, and a continuous cast of cameos that serve today as a reminder that everyone loved the Muppets and they were the hippest guest appearance you could book. Every generation of entertainers builds off of whatever came before them, and lots of what the Muppets lean on belongs to the vaudeville era. The entire format of the Muppet Theater on The Muppet Show is a throwback to an earlier age, and there’s something sort of delightfully old-fashioned about this kind of rapid-fire pun-driven patter. At the same time, I think Henson was a profoundly modern filmmaker. He always seemed to be determined to find the best way to make something feel real, and he was always embracing new technology as a way of making his characters or his worlds feel more real. If he had lived longer than 1990, I think he would have pushed the cutting edge of digital character work even earlier than it happened. Motion-capture in the hands of Jim Henson would have been an awesome thing, and he didn’t seem to have any problem with the notion of a digital character as a type of puppet. His final TV projects showed that he was heading that direction. In 1979, though, it was all about solving impossible real-world problems like figuring out how to have two puppets drive a car, and the Muppet Performers were amazing at mixing simple and complicated tricks to pull off the desired effect.

    Most musicals wish they had one song as good as “The Rainbow Connection,” but Kenneth Ascher and Paul Williams knocked it out of the park. In addition to that song, a justifiably beloved classic, they also wrote “Movin’ Right Along,” “Can You Picture That?”, “Never Before, Never Again,” and the lovely “I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along,” and the songs are perfectly deployed in the film along the way, whether introducing Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem or leading Kermit to bond with Rowlf the Dog over loves lost. Even now, at 48, with a wealth of experience behind me, I am struck every time I reach the end of this film by both the promise of its final lyrics and the loss of the man who willed all of this into existence in the first place.

“Life’s like a movie, write your own ending
Keep believing, keep pretending
We’ve done just what we set out to do
Thank
to the lovers, the dreamers, and you”

    That lyric, coupled with the sight of 250 different characters onscreen at once, all of them moving and alive, no computers involved, and no short-cuts possible, always shatters me. It is gorgeous, and this film stands as one of the most beautiful statements of intent I’ve ever seen from a popular artist. For the rest of his career, Jim Henson and his collaborators worked to make challenging, humane entertainment that could be watched by everyone, but that never pandered or treated any audience member as less than anyone else, and that final frame, spilling over with life and love and ambition and creativity, is as great a memorial as any filmmaker could ever hope to leave behind.

Two Mules For Sister Sara

 

Two Mules For Sister Sara
dir. Don Siegel
scr. Albert Maltz
Commissioned by Mark Cratsenburg


    The term “movie star” has become fairly loaded in any conversation among hardcore film fans because it means different things to different people. Some people pin it to economics, calling Tom Cruise and Will Smith the last of the conventional movie stars. Even that doesn’t seem to be true anymore, though, based on the way something like The Mummy or Collateral Beauty can go belly-up even with the movie star front and center. I think opening a movie and representing a certain amount of average box-office around the world is certainly a metric for measuring stardom, but it’s not the one that really matters.

    A movie star is someone you want to watch, no matter what. It’s that simple. You watch them because they are compelling, because the camera can’t get enough of them, and because they make things more interesting simply by showing up. Movie stardom is impossible to quantify, because not everyone reacts to the same stars the same way. When I was young, there was a definite canon that my parents believed in, and I was raised watching their movie stars. When I started making my own choices about movies, there were movie stars I felt more possessive of. Harrison Ford, for example, belonged to my generation. He was Han Solo. He was Indiana Jones. He belonged to us.

    But for my father, Clint Eastwood was the movie star he could claim as his. His generation owned Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee and Lee Marvin and absogoddamnlutely Clint Eastwood. Clint’s stardom wasn’t automatic, either. Some actors walk onscreen and they immediately pop and they’re the center of attention and you get it. Eastwood started working in the mid-‘50s, playing background military characters in monster movies. The first time he actually got a credit was for a Francis The Talking Mule movie. He moved back and forth from movies to TV for the rest of the decade, finally landing his breakthrough role as Rowdy Yates on Rawhide in 1959.

    Here’s what I love about writing about film… following threads and thinking about context and when things happened and how they played out. Eastwood’s career fascinates me because in many ways, he’s the guy who marks the moment where the Western went through one of its most fascinating eras. That genre is one of the most durable in Hollywood’s history. There are, at last count, exactly 18 billion Westerns. That’s a lot. I’m pretty sure my dad showed me most of them over the course of my childhood, and over time, you realize that the genre is an illusion. You can tell any kind of story in the American West because it is a mythic time and place. We pretend that recent history is set in stone in a way the distant past is not, but that just isn’t true. Our relationship with the American West is important because the West defines us as America. We settled here from other places, sure, but then we expanded, and that expansion was written in blood, thousands of stories of individual morality played out on a canvass that we wrote over an indigenous people. We had to make it a myth because if we didn’t, the cultural memory would be too much to take.

    Westerns were simple when they began, with basic good guys and bad guys drawn in terms that are, to say the least, uncomfortable now. Indians are savages, vicious and mysterious. Cowboys are heroes, unless they’re dressed in black. Gradually, over time, some of the storytelling evolved, but the archetypes didn’t evolve. When Rawhide started airing, it was pretty conventional stuff about a cattle drive. As they pushed along the trail, they encountered different people and situations, and they’d often have to help someone solve a problem before they could move on. Little wonder it ran for seven years; it’s a pretty easy premise. Rowdy Yates was kind of a hothead when the show began, but gradually he became a better-balanced character even as the show grew more daring in terms of subject matter. The Western would go in and out of favor, with the death knell having been rung on the genre at various times, but Rawhide happened during one of the most interesting evolutions of the genre, and it definitely reflected that in the way it evolved as a show. For filmmakers watching it, Eastwood’s work must have been exciting to watch as it evolved, and Rowdy ended the series as the actual trail boss. He grew up, basically, giving the show a stronger arc than it originally seemed like it would have.

    There was a much harder line in those days between TV and movie stars, though, and Clint Eastwood’s sterling work on Rawhide wasn’t exactly winning him starring roles in big Hollywood movies. His last bigscreen role before the show was the forgettable Lafayette Escadrille, a Tab Hunter movie about WWI flying aces. He had to leave America to get a starring role in 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, and thank god for that. Sergio Leone’s innate sense of iconography led him to recognize that Eastwood was basically a walking talking piece of beef jerky, pure sundried cowboy essence. They refined that image together in For A Few Dollars More, and I love how Leone just embraced the idea that this didn’t have to be the same character for them to just keep playing variations on a type. The Man With No Name is great precisely because it doesn’t matter. Leone’s painting in lightning. And the year after the show goes off the air, Leone and Eastwood cap off their trilogy with one of the greatest Westerns ever made, The Good The Bad & The Ugly.

    When Eastwood did return to Hollywood, they were desperate to welcome him back, but it’s not like they were particularly interested in innovation. Hang ‘Em High, directed by Ted Post, is solid and grimy and works well on its own terms, but it gains enormous power from the groundwork laid by Leone. Eastwood’s absolutely playing The Man With No Name here, presumably for a larger paycheck than he’d ever made before. And then all of that, the entire cumulative weight of what he’d done up to that point, made Don Siegel’s Coogan’s Bluff way more interesting than it would have been otherwise. He’s a cowboy cop going to the big city, and because it was Eastwood, fresh off that iconic run, there was no doubt about his cowboy credibility.

    As much as Leone, I think Siegel is responsible for the longevity of Eastwood as a movie star, because Siegel was the one who picked it up and ran with it. He saw that the real fun wasn’t just doing the same thing, but twisting it and bending it and breaking it. If Coogan’s Bluff is the beginning of his anti-Leone trilogy, and The Beguiled is the end of it, then right in the middle comes the most delightful of the films, Two Mules For Sister Sara, and as a study in pure movie star chemistry, this one’s double-barreled, and better for it.

    See, Siegel knew there was value in finding another way to turn Eastwood’s mysterious stranger icon inside out, but to do it, he had to run a riff on The African Queen, pitting him against a strong female lead who was his opposite in the most entertaining possible way. If you were making the film in 1970, then one of the absolute tops of any list you make for actresses who can play that role would have to be Shirley MacLaine, who was wrapping up one of the great hot streaks I’ve ever seen. From the moment she made her breakthrough in Artists and Models, she managed to build an iconic character that made her unique. She was sexy, but she was also hard as nails. She was feminine but she not only could hang with the boys, she could probably out-drink, out-joke, and out-fight most of them. She was hilarious, but she could be brutally honest at the drop of a hat. She was a broad, in the best sense of the word, and when she starred in Two Mules for Sister Sara, she was top-billed, not Eastwood.

    She almost didn’t play the part, though. Elizabeth Taylor was the one who took the material to Eastwood, hoping to play the part. It was based on a story by Budd Boetticher, one of the best writers to work in the genre, full-stop, and one of the reasons it’s so fun is because it’s built around such a great female lead. Taylor would have been fine, I guess, but I have trouble imagining her collaborating with the Mexican revolution. There is something so much more grounded about MacLaine, and it really pays off here. She plays the role of a nun who is accosted by bandits on the road and almost raped, only to be saved by Hogan (Eastwood), a cowboy who just happens to ride up at the right moment. When he appears, he looks like he just rode off the set of one of Leone’s movies. It’s costuming so close that I’m surprised no one got upset about it. But that’s what makes it work. When that character runs into Sister Sara, he’s the one who is changed by the encounter. The Old West finally meets an Irresistible Force, and from the moment she thanks him for saving her, she is constantly working him to forward her own very secret agenda. He has no idea how in-over-his-head he is, but it’s amazing writing for both characters.

    One of the reasons we are drawn to movie stars is because of their sheer animal charisma, and MacLaine is fascinating in that regard. Perhaps because she refined her onscreen persona at a time when sexual mores were already shifting, but she managed to play a more honest spectrum of sexuality than most actresses from generations before her, and she got to do it without having to constantly be punished for it onscreen. She seemed like she was just as in control of her persona as any of her male co-stars, and this was the end of the era when women were the leading box-office draws. She won Oscars. She headlined major hits. She seemed like she was cut from the cloth of the movie stars who could do everything, whether it was singing or dancing or digging deep, and a role like Sister Sara really asks an actor to play a lot of different things all at once. Sara has her secrets, and the film takes great pleasure in peeling them back, little by little, just like MacLaine takes obvious pleasure from playing them as they all get revealed.

    The film’s title is a wry reference to the nature of the relationship between Hogan and Sara. She has one mule, and she often compares Hogan to it. He is indeed stubborn, but more than that, he is terrified that if he tells Sara he wants her or needs her, it is going to strip something from him, something essential. He is a walking metaphor, and she is the change that is coming whether he likes it or not. She not only represents a more civilized age that is coming like a wave, about to crash over the West where Hogan has learned how to thrive, but she also represents a more progressive age. She sees the French occupation of Mexico as an outrage, and she is doing everything she can to help end it. And, yes, I know that the film is set in Mexico, but the history of our relationship with Mexico is tied firmly into our mythmaking about the American West, and this film shows how closely those things are intermingled. By the time the film’s closing images play, she’s managed to completely and utterly subjugate him, and he does not mind a bit. He is up front with her throughout the film about how attracted he is to her, and he makes the point repeatedly. She knows he wants her, and she’s not above being the bait on the hook. When the big reveal in the film comes late, that Sara is a prostitute who only pretended to be a nun, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Her layer of polish starts to wipe away pretty quickly, and she’s very obviously not as pious as she pretends to be.

    For me, though, the film’s greatest image comes at the very end, as we see the two of them, finally united as a couple, with her decked out in the height of fashion, him still dressed like the Man With No Name, now very obviously The Man With A Wife, riding off into what one can only assume will be a fairly randy sunset. Budd Boetticher may not have liked much of what Siegel made of his film, but it is a master class in what happens when you take two real movie stars and you line them up to see their charisma collide.

The Groove Tube

 

The Groove Tube
dir. Ken Shapiro
scr. Lane Sarashon and Ken Shapiro
Commissioned by John Bishop

    I’m afraid to look up the actual date, because I’ll start second-guessing my own memory, and I’ve had this image burned vividly into my brain for as long as I can remember. I was sneaking back downstairs late on a Saturday night, not an uncommon occurrence since I was one of those restless kids who had to make nine or ten guest appearances post-bedtime every night. I was on the stairs, and I stopped because I heard my parents laughing uproariously. Not just laughing, but howling. I’d never heard that before, and I moved so I could see what was happening.

    On the TV screen, there was a woman speaking in a weird high-pitched sing-songy voice, trying desperately to act like all was right with the world as sheets of blood spurted from her obviously-wounded hand. I didn’t realize the woman was Dan Aykroyd as Julia Child, and I didn’t hear any of the set-up, but I certainly had a reaction.

    It was galvanizing. It was electric. I was instantly immobilized by what I was seeing. The contrast between the hyper-vivid gore and the seemingly-unflappable nature of the woman was bizarre to me, and yet, my parents were laughing. It looked terrifying, but that’s not the reaction they were having. And watching the scene continue, the blood like a geyser the entire time, I found myself laughing, loudly enough that my parents realized I was there and my introduction to the subversive humor of Saturday Night Live was cut short, but laughing nonetheless and not regretting it a bit.

    Over time, I learned that my dad had a much lower tolerance level for subversive comedy than I did, and it caused occasional friction. Richard Pryor albums had to live inside the Star Wars soundtrack sleeve. Hard-won copies of Mad or National Lampoon would get shredded and thrown out if discovered. My dad faced life in a transitional age in America. He’s fairly conservative at heart, but he genuinely worked to be tolerant in a way the generation before his was not. When he found himself outraged by the comedy of the ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s because it genuinely challenged some of the ideas and ideals that he held dear. My mom’s sense of humor was always way more open to those things than his, and I think that helped open him up. With me, though, he would sometimes clench up because he worried about how these things might affect me and who I was going to be. Over time, he grew to accept that I could enjoy these things and question these things and yet still respect him and become a person he could be proud of, and thank god for that. Still, I try to imagine him watching The Groove Tube, which features full-frontal male nudity before the opening title is even shown onscreen, and I can only imagine what a total trip it must have been for him in 1974.

    While Shapiro’s film predated a lot of other films and TV shows that were similar, he certainly didn’t create it in a void. There was a new movement of underground comedy, of improv comedy, with groups like The Groundlings and the Second City and the Committee springing up. There was a lot of crossover between these things. The National Lampoon Radio Hour helped launch various members from all of these groups into the national conversation. One of the guys who popped up over and over, uniting many of these things, was Chevy Chase, who is indeed in a few scenes in The Groove Tube, but who was also in Tunnel Vision as well as Lemmings as well as Saturday Night Live and I remember in the early days of my interest in all of this, just as home video was starting to become a thing, and how confusing it was to figure out what was related to what and how, and actually tracking the films down was difficult. It took me years to see them all and sort them out, and each one has its own attitude, its own voice.

    Ken Shapiro was part of an ongoing show at the Channel One Theater in New York, along with Lane Sarasohn and other performers, where they set up televisions to show video shorts to a live audience. If you look at when this was being done, in the early ‘70s, media was starting to get self-reflexive. There’s a reason certain targets loomed large for everyone doing sketch comedy in this era. Advertising became very targeted and sophisticated in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Look at how many TV shows featured characters who worked in advertising. It was seen as a sexy job, but there was also a growing unease. So much of Mad magazine was based on this attitude that advertising, in general, was to be mistrusted, and that it was probably a bad thing, and similarly, much of The Groove Tube is focused on reacting to the way advertising was starting to shape the world. There is a skepticism that is baked into the comedy that is a healthy reaction to what was going on.

    But Shapiro was also hopelessly juvenile, and some of the most unsophisticated moments in the film are an unfortunate reflection of that. He is delighted by jokes about poop and butts. More than that, this is positioned as a counterculture comedy, and with co-star Richard Belzer, it has a real claim to that. Looking at it in the year it was released, I have no doubt that The Groove Tube felt radical, but looking at it now, it’s pretty clear that it is not particularly progressive. Shapiro’s a cheap joke artist, leaning on ridiculous exaggerated names pretty heavily, and when he misfires, it’s ugly. There’s an entire sketch with Belzer playing a black woman. Blackface and drag at the same time. To make it uglier, he’s playing a giant prostitute who is beating the shit out of a john, and it is about as nuanced a performance as you’d expect. No one is saying that the moment you put on a dress in comedy, you have to aim for total realism or upstanding representation. Monty Python has a long tradition of shrieking weirdos, for example, but the longer they did it, you’ll notice how more and more general human observation crept into the work the Pythons did. Their drag came out of the pantomime tradition and the history of English stage comedy, and it’s part of a continuum.

    There’s a big difference between that and what Shapiro and Belzer do in that sketch, and it made me realize that much of what we talk about as the “counterculture” of the ‘60s and ‘70s is really only a counter to white middle-class mainstream culture. It’s still a “choose your own adventure” where everyone’s white. For white kids who were part of the fringe, it was mainly about rejecting the career paths that their parents laid out for them and indulging in drugs and sex in a way that older generations hadn’t. There is a hedonism to the white counterculture that has nothing to do with genuine radicalism. There is a lot of bratty attitude to The Groove Tube, but very little righteous anger. Shapiro’s sense of humor still punches down, and I think part of that is simply because he goes for the easiest joke in many cases. It’s easy to make fun of something about someone, but it’s hard to figure out why you’re lacerating them. What purpose is there to the joke?

    More than anything, I think Ken Shapiro wanted to be a star, and in the early ‘70s, there was a moment where that was actually possible. After all, this is the era where guys like Elliott Gould and George Segal and Woody Allen and Donald Sutherland and Walter Matthau were top box-office draws. I love all of those guys as performers, and I love that they all had their era, but they were nothing like the typical version of good-looking movie stars from previous eras. There was a sense that audiences wanted to see people who looked like actual people, and for a while, it felt like character actors stepped forward and got their chance to be the movie stars. In that kind of atmosphere, I can see Ken Shapiro thinking, “I’ve got a chance here.” The Groove Tube is largely a showcase for him, and I’ll say this: he gives it everything he’s got. There’s a dance sequence that closes the film out that is just long tracking shots of Shapiro dancing all over New York City, and while he’s not a dancer, he throws himself into it with abandon, and there is a dizzy sense of joy that sort of builds and builds as the sequence plays on. He’s giddy, and he’s daring these unsuspecting New Yorkers not to react to that happiness.

    I mean… I know it’s a big jump, but there are moments where it evokes that same kind of emotion that you get from those scenes in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha or Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang. It’s pretty apparently not the equal of those films, but it’s interesting to see how even Shapiro, a vulgarian blunt instrument of a filmmaker if I’ve ever seen one, manages to stumble into something great.

    In general, his instincts are pretty solid. Opening with a 2001 parody is a pretty good instinct, for example. Just ask Mel Brooks, who got there about nine years later.  The idea of the television as the monolith is more than just a joke. There’s a pretty cutting observation in there somewhere, and again… you have to remember that this came before Saturday Night Live. This came before the omnipresence of this kind of media satire. And you can’t go wrong with Curtis Mayfield as your opening music. As Shapiro’s ape-men groove out, they accidentally invent fire. Eventually, instead of using a tool to kill something leading to the infamous bone/spaceship cut from 2001, Shapiro jumps from grooving out by the fire to a hitchhiker on the side of the road, and the film is off and running, leaning into the whole “tune in, turn on, drop out” vibe. There’s a contempt for corporations that runs through the entire film, with the Uranus Corporation and their disturbing Brown 25 product as a running thread. If you look at the speed of today’s non-sequitur visual comedy, The Groove Tube feels positively sedate. There’s a children’s show early on called Koko The Clown where Shapiro plays a typical ‘50s TV clown, with the high screaming voice. He tells all the parents watching that they have to leave the room for imagination time, and then when they’re gone, he switches demeanors entirely. He begins reading erotica from Fanny Hill, talking about taking requests for different passages from classic filth. That’s the whole joke, and the sequence takes a good eight or nine minutes. There’s a baking show where Shapiro, playing a woman only seen from shoulders to waist, tries to keep up with the show’s voice-over announcer to make something called a Heritage Loaf, failing miserably and only producing a disgusting bowl of greasy water, and the scene just keeps playing and playing and playing.

    By far, the biggest sequence in the film is a parody of a sitcom called The Dealers. Shapiro and Belzer play two guys who smuggle a bunch of weed into the country, then encounter nothing but trouble as they try to unload it, and you could make the case that Cheech & Chong’s entire aesthetic was born here and then lifted wholesale. There’s even a pretty exact duplicate of one of the scenes from Up In Smoke, and that threw me. My first exposure to Up In Smoke was on cable. I was probably thirteen or fourteen years old, and I saw the first half-hour or so. There’s the bit where they’re driving and a cop car pulls in behind them, prompting Cheech to immediately start eating everything they’ve got. Even though I had a very limited knowledge of what pot was or what it did, I immediately understood that comic premise and the way it was staged and the way it was performed, it was immediately hilarious to me. They do that same gag in this film, with both of the guys eating everything before the cop car pulls out around them and drives off, and while I like the Up In Smoke version better, it’s hard not to wonder about how close the sequences are. There’s one way where they differ, though, and it’s pretty significant. While Cheech and Chong are poor, they also always end up drifting through the chaos, untouched and okay. The Dealers is a huge bummer, and by design. The Dealers gets worse and worse as things wear on, and the guys get robbed, they flush their stash out of paranoia, and they end up with nothing. They’re so poor they can’t even eat. Shapiro has a breakdown where everything shifts into crazy Peter Max style hippie trip animation, and then he starts sobbing about how miserable he is and how he can’t go on. The bit ends with Shapiro coming out to Belzer, professing his love for him. Belzer rejects him, acting like he doesn’t understand what he’s saying, and then Belzer offers him some pills instead. Defeated, Shapiro looks into the camera and a final title appears: Presented by the National Council of Churches. It’s a long way to go for a joke about how propaganda comes in many guises. It starts off as a celebration of this freedom, this life outside the law, and then ends with the somewhat disturbing idea that the worst case scenario involves being gay. It’s a big messy joke, and it runs 20 full minutes in a film that is only 72 minutes long.

    What value does The Groove Tube have to the average filmgoer now, just stumbling across it without context? Marginal, at best. But taken as a point on the way underground comedy made its way from the fringe to the heart of the mainstream, The Groove Tube is a valuable signpost. I’m just surprised how much it also confirms some of the worst of what the conservative pushback against the ‘60s always asserted. There really is a selfish emptiness to the “freedom” on display in the film, and a fundamental conservatism that makes all the hippie outfits look like cosplay.

    Maybe the greatest truth that The Groove Tube lays bare is that there often was no “there there,” and just throwing hand grenades at other culture doesn’t mean you’ve got anything better to offer.

DAY ONE

So...

Since this is an experiment, let's start with an update.

You guys commissioned four reviews yesterday. I've already got my playlist started and those films hit the queue today. I'll start sending the reviews out tomorrow, since today's all about finishing up the Last Jedi piece and seeing and writing about Tomb Raider before tomorrow morning's embargo release.

Right away, I am delighted by the variety in the titles you picked. The Groove Tube. Eraserhead. Two Mules For Sister Sara. Two For The Road. The Muppet Movie. I am most certainly not going to be bored by the choices you guys make, and the opportunity to write about all four of those entertains me tremendously.

If this works and I end up doing enough of these to eventually collect them, each review will have the name of the person who commissioned it permanently attached. I'll always give you a credit if these get reprinted anywhere, and I really do appreciate that even four of you were willing to give this very odd new idea a try.