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.