Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Scientology and Its Aftermath, part 2: “Fair Game” (A&E, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I switched to Arts & Entertainment for the second episode in actress and former Scientologist Leah Remini’s exposé of the church, this time profiling Mike Rinder, the church’s former enforcer of its “fair game” policy. The “fair game” policy was created by L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, as a part of his elaborate “ethics” scheme in which everybody in the world was ranked according to their usefulness or faithful servitude to Scientology. In 1967 Hubbard sent out a letter headed “Penalties for Lower Conditions” (available online at http://www.xenu.net/fairgame-e.html) which explains that people in the lowest “ethics” condition, “Enemy,” “may be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.” Hubbard formally revoked the “fair game” policy a year later but, according to the former Scientologists interviewed in this program, the church still acts on the policy — it just no longer calls it that. Rinder said in the program he got disillusioned with the church when he had to cover up for David Miscavige, current head of Scientology, who took over the church after Hubbard’s death in 1986 and who seems to have established his own personal craziness as part of it (sort of like Stalin after Lenin), including physically attacking Scientologists who displease him in some way. Rinder had been assigned to the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF), Scientology’s internal discipline regime, and was living in an un-insulated trailer on the grounds of Scientology’s worldwide headquarters in Hemet, California (though they also have a setup in Clearwater, Florida that houses the Sea Org — Scientology’s main governing body, whose name is a relic of the time in the late 1960’s when Hubbard decided to evade the growing scrutiny of the British government of his operations there by relocating to a ship called the Apollo, which except when it needed provisions would be kept in international waters and therefore no government would have jurisdiction over it) when he was assigned to stop a documentary critical of Scientology being filmed by a British journalist named John Sweeney.

He gave an interview to Sweeney in which he said the accusations that Miscavige physically attacked people were “ridiculous,” but the task of defending a psycho against a journalist who was on to the truth about him was too much for Rinder. He describes his walkout in dramatic terms — he just walked out of the Scientology building, bought a ticket on the London Underground and turned up at the doorstep of one of his few non-Scientologist friends and asked for help — but the real tragedy was he left his entire family, including a dying mother as well as his wife and their three kids, behind in the church — and naturally the church used them as weapons to try, not necessarily to get him back, but at least to shut up. He relocated to Clearwater, remarried, had a son with his new wife (lucky kid; at least he’ll be spared the horrors of growing up in Scientology), got a job with a car dealership — and got regularly picketed by Scientologists carrying signs accusing him of being a drug addict, a child molester, and everything else they could think of. Rinder also discovered that the Church of Scientology had literally bugged his home through a camera concealed in a birdhouse that was photographing his property 24/7, and he found that under Florida law, unless the picketers actually came on his property, they weren’t breaking the law and there was nothing he could do about them. What’s fascinating about this show is that the conditioned response of the Church of Scientology to any criticism, from defectors, journalists or anyone else, is to unleash a nasty barrage of attacks — sort of like Donald Trump (they should feel right at home in TrumpAmerica!) — as salon.com writer Melanie McFarland wrote about this show (http://www.salon.com/2016/11/30/aes-leah-remini-scientology-and-the-aftermath-your-antidote-to-seasonal-belief-disorder/), “Including excerpts of these letters in the telecast is the network’s way of covering its backside from a legal perspective, a stipulation probably required by the church. Doing so also has precisely the opposite effect of what the Church of Scientology intended, in that they further solidify any outrage a person might feel at hearing allegations of physical, psychological and sexual abuse recounted in Remini’s series. … Knowing that Remini’s series has so vociferously riled up the church has to have goosed the curiosity of the A&E audience far more than if it had done the minimal disavowal and left it at that. Which (insert uninhibited, maniacal laugh track here) would never happen.”

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Boss (Gary Sanchez Productions, On the Day, Universal, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Three nights ago Charles and I watched a surprisingly good recent movie, The Boss, the latest vehicle for the Saturday Night Live alumna Melissa McCarthy (as I’ve noted in these pages before, an apprenticeship on Saturday Night Live seems as de rigueur for aspiring comedians these days as a shot on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson once did). I’m generally not a fan of modern comedies — while dramatic films have benefited from the breakdown of the Production Code (but also suffered from it in that literalness and explicitness too often take the place of imagination) and action films have improved with the advent of CGI (even though a lot of the comic-book movies have action scenes that look digitally created and I sometimes find myself missing the craftspersonship of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen with their stop-motion animated models), there’s generally no contest between the comedies of yore — the vehicles for Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon and Lloyd in the silent era and Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields and Abbott and Costello (whom I wouldn’t have put in the pantheon but I’m getting to respect more and more as Charles and I work our way through the boxed set of their complete movies for Universal, which include 28 of their total of 36) — and the comedies of today. Still, there’ve been exceptions — Stranger than Fiction, Little Miss Sunshine and the amazing, unexpected Kabluey — and though The Boss isn’t quite in that league, it’s considerably better than the common run of comedies today. The Blu-Ray disc we got it on offered you the choice of the 99-minute theatrical release (rated R “for sexual content, language and brief drug use”) or a 104-minute unrated version, and I went for the unrated version and I’m pretty sure I know which scene they had to delete to get an “R” rating instead of the “NC-17” kiss of death (one in which McCarthy is shown spraying artificial tanning solution on her private parts).

The basic plot casts McCarthy (in a film directed by her husband, Ben Falcone, with both of them and Steve Mallory as screenwriters and the daughter of Falcone and McCarthy, Vivian Falcone, playing McCarthy’s character as a 10-year-old whose foster parents return her to the Roman Catholic orphanage from which they got her because she was too much of a bitch for them to handle) as Michelle Darnell, a Chicago-based female finance diva who’s a sort of combination of Martha Stewart and Suze Orman. She’s shown at the beginning of the movie delivering a live presentation of her financial secrets, flown in on a model phoenix (the phoenix, the legendary bird symbolizing rebirth, is her personal talisman) in a scene that reminded Charles of Fricka’s entrance in Die Walküre in a chariot pulled by rams, and reminded me of Liberace’s entrance on his final tour, in which he was flown in, Peter Pan-style, wearing a preposterous feathered costume that made him look like a giant angel. She then proceeds to deliver a lecture containing the usual “success” bromides, after which she returns to her office building and demands that her long-suffering assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) and her long-suffering chauffeur Tito (Cedric Yarborough) make sure she doesn’t have to wait for the elevator. If you’ve seen more than three movies in your life you’re going to be certain the spoiled diva is being set up for a major comeuppance, and said comeuppance quickly arrives when rival financier Renault (Peter Dinklage, Hollywood’s current go-to actor when they need a male little person, and especially when they need a male little person villain) reports her to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for insider trading. Unlike Martha Stewart, who in real life was able to take over her business empire as soon as she was released following a brief “Club Fed” imprisonment on a similar charge, Darnell finds herself wiped out financially since the SEC not only got her convicted but seized all her assets and left her destitute. With nowhere else to go, she turns up on the doorstep of her former assistant Claire, who has a nine-year-old daughter named Rachel (Ella Anderson) and has a shit job for a woman broker with all of Michelle’s unscrupulousness and bitchiness and none of her charm. Michelle moves herself into Claire’s apartment and even ends up in Claire’s bed after the folding couch she was supposed to sleep on buckles itself closed when she’s in it and throws her across the room (a gag as old as Chaplin, but still funny).

Naturally Michelle is looking for a way back into the financial heights, and she discovers it when she’s dragooned into accompanying Claire and Rachel to a meeting of Rachel’s Dandelion troop (or “troup,” as it’s misspelled on their banner). Helen (Annie Mumolo), the adult leader of this Dandelion troop, takes an instant dislike to Michelle and says it’s inappropriate for a convicted felon to be at a troop meeting — the fact that Michelle’s crime had nothing to do with kids doesn’t seem to faze her one bit — and though there’s a sad-faced troop leader named Sandy (Kristen Schall, who proves they didn’t break the mold after they made ZaSu Pitts), Helen and her “giantess” daughter are clearly running the place. Driven out in humiliation, Michelle decides to strike back. She’s got a secret weapon: a killer brownie recipe Claire makes for Rachel. Michelle thinks that she can put the Dandelions’ (read: the Girl Scouts’) cookie drive out of business in Chicago by having Claire make up packages of her brownies, which she renames “Darnell’s Delights,” and organizing the girls who are fed up with the Dandelions and want to make some money for themselves (Michelle has pledged that her salesgirls will make a commission on their sales which will go to help them save up for college) into a rival sales force. There’s a great scene which seems to be a sort of nonviolent (or less violent) version of the rumble from West Side Story in which Michelle and the Delights girls confront Helen and the Dandelions and win — and an even more fun alternate version of this sequence available as a bonus item on the Blu-Ray disc in which Michelle confronts a bunch of guys headed by a big, hunky guy named Chad (played, according to imdb.com, by professional wrestler Dave Bautista — proving that these guys would actually be sexy if they weren’t costumed for their wrestling performances as if they were auditioning for Kiss), whom Michelle wallops in the nuts and then, as he’s cowering on the ground, asks for his phone number.

To expand Darnell’s Delights into a nationwide business Michelle seeks venture capital from her old mentor Ida Marquette (Kathy Bates, almost unrecognizable in a shrieking platinum wig), who helped her get her start in business and worked with Michelle until Michelle screwed her out of a deal. Michelle uses the money to take over a commercial kitchen in which Claire can bake the brownies, only just as the bigger operation is getting underway she spies Claire talking to her old nemesis Renault, and thinking Claire is about to sell her out to Renault, Michelle beats her to the punch and sells the operation to Renault herself. Then, in a sequence that probably had the ghost of Frank Capra smiling down from heaven and saying, “Folks, you learned my lessons well,” Michelle has a crisis of conscience and determines to get the company back from Renault by organizing herself, Claire and Claire’s boyfriend Mike Beals (Tyler Labine) — a nice bear-like schlub from Claire’s brokerage house whom Michelle encouraged Claire to date because she felt it was about time Claire started having sex again — to burglarize Renault’s building (“played,” ironically enough, by the Chicago Trump Tower with Renault’s name digitally replacing Trump’s) and steal back the one copy of the sales contract. Of course, Michelle and Claire end up with the company back, Claire gets Mike and Michelle gets Renault — she’s willing to forgive him everything because he’s so good in bed — and we get a comedy that seems, despite the “sexual content, language and brief drug use” that got the movie an “R” rating (the “brief drug use” occurs during a flashback showing Renault and Michelle as lovers before they became bitter enemies both in business and personally), surprisingly old-fashioned.

No one pukes or farts in this movie — which itself sets it above most movie “comedies” being made today — and aside from the Capra-esque finish one could readily imagine this movie having been made in the early 1940’s, with Preston Sturges directing, Barbara Stanwyck as Michelle, Joan Leslie as Claire and Claire’s single-parenthood explained by having her husband get killed in combat in World War II. (Stanwyck actually did play a Martha Stewart-type character in the 1945 film Christmas in Connecticut, but the gag in that one is that she was a columnist presented as a super-housewife but she really didn’t know the first thing about cooking or any of the other domestic arts — she got the recipes from a restaurateur friend of hers played by S. Z. Sakall and faked all the rest of it.) Surprisingly, one of the bonus items on the Blu-Ray disc is a tape of the original improv sketch in which Melissa McCarthy created the character of Melinda Darnell — and it’s surprisingly lame, which is a testament to the skill of her and her husband Falcone in developing a character who was just an avaricious bitch into one who had enough complexities she could sustain an entire 100-minute movie. The Boss isn’t a great film, and aside from a few McCarthy pratfalls it rarely had me laughing out loud, but I was amused throughout and some of the gags (notably one in which as part of the burglary team Mike is dressed as a phoenix, and the security guard turns out to be a Satanist who energetically engages Mike in a conversation about devils and thereby is distracted enough to let Melinda and Claire get by his station) are weird, audacious and beautiful. (There’s also a gag about which of the three principals — Michelle, Claire or Mike — is going to give the other security guard a blow job that’s just dumb and, as Charles pointed out, more typical of the Gay gags that got into movies a decade ago than what we expect in 2016.)

It’s a Wonderful Life (Liberty/RKO, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided to watch last night’s NBC-TV presentation of Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. I hadn’t seen it in years but when I first caught it on a local TV station in 1972 I was blown away by its outfront sentimentality and its ineffably moving parable of an ordinary man whose compulsive pursuit of the welfare of others robs him of all his own ambitions, until at the end a life crisis forces him into an awareness of himself and how much good he’d done for other people staying just where he is. It’s a Wonderful Life actually began as a story by writer Philip Van Doren Stern, who wrote it as a booklet called The Greatest Gift and had copies printed privately so he could send them out to his friends as his Christmas card for 1943. RKO bought the movie rights and put a number of writers on it, including Clifford Odets, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Dorothy Parker (whose sensibility seems miles away from the film that actually got made), but RKO head Charles Koerner (the one who had fired Orson Welles after he took over from George Schaefer in 1942 and announced that from then on RKO’s movies would be based on “Showmanship Instead of Genius) didn’t like any of the scripts that crossed his desk and put the project aside. Then in 1945, Frank Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens, all just back from having directed for the U.S. war effort during World War II (Stevens was the leader of the first camera crew to enter the concentration camps, and it so deeply moved him as a human being it wrecked him as a filmmaker; unwilling to do the kinds of quiet romantic comedies that had been his best pre-war work, he insisted that every movie he worked on must project High Seriousness, and made a series of films that got gloppier, more sentimental and less entertaining with each go: A Place in the Sun, Shane, Giant, The Diary of Anne Frank and the Jesus biopic The Greatest Story Ever Told), organized an independent production company called Liberty Films. The logo for the company was an uncracked mockup of the Liberty Bell that Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin had used as the logo for their first independent production, Meet John Doe (1941), and looking for a partner among the major studios they hit on RKO. RKO had already had distribution deals with Sam Goldwyn and Walt Disney that were making them lots of money, and they eagerly grabbed the right to co-finance and distribute Liberty’s product — only when Capra arrived on the RKO lot he had no idea what he wanted to make.

Koerner tipped him to The Greatest Gift, figuring (rightly) that a man driven to the end of his wits who’s given a chance to see what the world would have been like if he’d never been born was right up Capra’s alley. He agreed to sell the story to Liberty for the price he’d initially paid Van Doren Stern for the Christmas card, and threw in the rejected scripts for free. (Odets later said he hated the film that got made, and the only idea of his that got used was to have the hero, George Bailey, as a child notice that the druggist Mr. Gower has inadvertently filled a prescription with poison out of grief over the death of his son in the 1919 influenza epidemic.) Capra went into production and decided that the lead character, George Bailey (called “George Pratt” in the original story), was “a good Sam who doesn’t know he’s a good Sam,” and there was only one actor who could play him: James Stewart. Stewart had just got out of the U.S. Army Air Corps (it was only after World War II that the U.S. Air Force became a separate branch of the military) where he’d flown bombing missions in combat, and he wanted something appropriately “serious” for his first postwar film. He was moved by the tale of a man driven to contemplate suicide and ultimately saved by a guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers, presenting quite a different appearance from the only other film of his I’d seen when I first watched It’s a Wonderful Life: The Invisible Man, in which he played the head of the research lab that had previously employed John Griffin, the title character played by Claude Rains) and agreed to make the film. Capra cast quite a few of his “regulars” in the supporting roles and also put in a number of John Ford’s “regulars” as well, including Thomas Mitchell as George’s alcoholic (but depicted charmingly) uncle Billy; Beulah Bondi as George’s mother (according to imdb.com she played James Stewart’s mother no fewer than five times, including one of Capra’s previous films with him, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington); Ward Bond as Bert the cop, George’s lifetime friend; Frank Faylen (just back from the chilling scene as the nurse at the D.T. ward in Bellevue in The Lost Weekend) as taxi driver Ernie (there’s a widespread belief that Jim Henson named two of the Muppets “Bert and Ernie” in tribute to this film, but according to his daughter that’s not true); H. B. Warner as druggist Gower; Todd Karns as George’s brother Harry; Samuel S. Hinds as their dad Peter, founder of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan in Bedford Falls, New York around which most of the action revolves; Frank Albertson as George’s friend Sam Wainwright; and Sheldon Leonard as Nick, bartender at the restaurant owned by Martini (William Edmunds).

For the other main principals Capra selected Donna Reed to play Mary Hatch Bailey, the local girl George marries; Gloria Grahame (who’d been languishing under contract at MGM, of all unlikely studios for her, when Capra borrowed her on the basis of some MGM screen tests one of their producers showed him) as the town’s “fast” girl, Violet Bick; and as the villain of the piece, Henry Potter, Lionel Barrymore. Capra had previously used Barrymore in his 1938 film You Can’t Take It With You but had cast him sympathetically, as the head of an eccentric family that attracts the ire of multimillionaire Edward Arnold because Arnold’s son (played by James Stewart in the first of his three Capra films) has fallen in love with Barrymore’s daughter (Jean Arthur, who was Capra’s first choice for the Donna Reed role in It’s a Wonderful Life but turned it down because she was rehearsing for the Broadway production of Born Yesterday — only the temperamental Arthur walked out on the show in its out-of-town tryouts and it was the then-unknown Judy Holliday who acted it on Broadway and became a star therefrom). This time around Capra cast Barrymore as the villain, an embittered rich man who owned virtually every business in Bedford Falls except the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan, and who’s positively Scrooge-like not only in his greed but also his lack of any family connections. Apparently Capra cast Barrymore because of his long history of playing Scrooge on radio — Barrymore had been set to do the film version in 1938 but at the last minute his chronic arthritis became so advanced he needed a wheelchair, so Reginald Owen replaced him but Barrymore remained so identified with the part he appeared in the film’s trailer — and in this film, as in many others he made around this time, Barrymore used his real-life disability to add bitterness and gall to his characterization.

Just about everybody knows the story of It’s a Wonderful Life by now — George Bailey is seen at the opening contemplating suicide, while an unseen voice from heaven (called “Franklin” in the original Van Doren Stern story after President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but unnamed in the movie — Capra, a lifelong Republican who voted against FDR all four times, would hardly have been likely to pay him tribute in a movie even though he was often referred to in the 1930’s as “cinema’s propagandist for the New Deal”) notes that quite a few people on Earth are praying for him. Accordingly Franklin assigns his case to Clarence, an “angel second class” because he hasn’t earned his wings yet, and Henry Travers’ rather befuddled, milquetoast playing is absolutely right for the part. Franklin briefs Clarence on Bailey’s life history — giving us the flashbacks that make up most of the film — and the impression he and we get is that time and time again George has put his own dreams aside in service to others. The result is that when all George’s woes come together at Christmastime — his brother loses $8,000 at the Building and Loan (he borrowed a newspaper from Potter to read the story of Harry Bailey being given the Congressional Medal of Honor for his war heroism, and when he returned it inadvertently folded the envelope with the money into it) just when bank examiner Carter (Charles Halton), who goes into his work with a grim determination that makes Javert seem open-minded by comparison (typically, the only time we get an indication that Carter has any normal human feelings is when he says he wants to wrap up Bailey’s case before nightfall so he can go home and spend Christmas with his own family); Potter sees the money, is briefly tempted to return it but then realizes that this is his chance to put the Bailey Building and Loan out of business once and for all (and, surprisingly for a 1946 film, there isn’t a worm-turning scene in which Potter turns decent and returns the money); George takes out his frustrations on his kids, his kids’ teachers, his friends and just about anyone in earshot — and he’s about to throw himself off the Bedford Falls bridge when Clarence shows up and jumps into the water himself, realizing that George’s good-Samaritan instincts would immediately switch him from offing himself to saving someone else from that fate. George Bailey says he never did himself or anybody else any good and he wishes he’d never been born — and Clarence decides that the way to save George’s soul and earn his wings is to grant his wish.

George Bailey steps out into what one critic called the closest Capra ever came to directing a film noir: in this alternate version of its history Potter not only took over all the businesses in Bedford Falls but even had it renamed “Pottersville.” Martini’s nice little homey Italian restaurant is a dive bar owned by Nick, who instead of the rather decent guy he is in the main story is playing his part with all Sheldon Leonard’s gangster inflections. We know it’s a dive when we see a Black piano player pounding away with ragtime (as usual in 1930’s and 1940’s movies there’s a contrast between “nice” Blacks, represented by the Bailey family maid Annie [Lillian Randolph], and not-so-nice Blacks like the piano player in Nick’s) and Nick throws both George and Clarence out of the bar (and Clarence, in a nice touch, feels he has to reassure his handlers back in heaven that he didn’t actually drink alcohol). George finds that his dad’s building and loan went out of business when dad died; his brother Harry died at age eight when he was sledding on a shovel and crashed through the ice (in the main story George saved his brother’s life by pulling him out of the ice, though at the cost of his hearing in his left ear); the working-class housing development the Bailey Building and Loan funded is a local cemetery (the usual colloquial meaning of “potter’s field” as a place where people whose families couldn’t pay for funerals were just dumped — though even in the alternate “Pottersville” reality the Baileys were well off enough they bought an elaborate tombstone for their eight-year-old son); Bailey’s Uncle Pete is in an insane asylum (probably due to his chronic alcoholism — the Irish-American Thomas Mitchell was often cast as a character who drank); Gower the druggist is an alcoholic street person who served 20 years in prison for manslaughter (since George wasn’t there to stop him from giving out the poisoned prescription); all the men in the troop transport Harry Bailey saved by shooting down the kamikaze that was about to attack them (for which he won the Medal of Honor) died because George hadn’t been around to save Harry; and in what for the alternate George is the final straw that makes him want to live after all even though he’s being threatened with exposure and arrest, his wife Mary is an old maid (wearing glasses, which she doesn’t in the main action) who’s just about to close up the library. (This has been criticized as clichéd, but at least Capra and the final writers he ended up with — the husband-and-wife team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, with Capra’s former colleague Jo Swerling credited with additional dialogue — “planted” it with a line of dialogue establishing that Mary was working as a librarian before she married George.)

It’s a Wonderful Life was Capra’s (and James Stewart’s) favorite among his films, though if nothing else it shows how increasingly desperate he was becoming at giving his movies happy endings: the breakdown of Claude Rains’ character on the Senate floor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is singularly unbelievable; for his next film, Meet John Doe, Capra shot five different endings trying to work out a resolution; and in It’s a Wonderful Life, in order to end the story happily he literally had to resort to supernatural intervention. The life of It’s a Wonderful Life after its release is almost as bizarre as the process by which it got made; it was a box-office disappointment on its initial release (it grossed $3.3 million on an investment of $3.7 million, though it did well enough that the next year RKO greenlighted a similar film, Magic Town, also starring James Stewart, directed by William Wellman and produced and written by former Capra collaborator Robert Riskin — which was an even bigger flop) and was little known until 1972, when the copyright expired and there was a clerical error on the renewal application. The film thus fell into the public domain and for the next 20 years became a staple on local TV stations looking for something Christmas-themed for the holiday season — until the early 1990’s, when Republic Pictures reacquired the rights to Philip Van Doren Stern’s original story and bought the copyrights to Dimitri Tiomkin’s music, thereby successfully taking It’s a Wonderful Life out of the public domain: an unhealthy signal of how crazy and ludicrously overprotected “intellectual property” would become in the era of increasing corporate control over everything.

And one odd lapse in this film is it’s one of the few Capra made with scenes set in sub-zero temperatures in which you don’t see the actors’ breaths steam as if they were really out in the cold. For his 1930 film Flight Capra had tried putting pellets of dry ice in cages he put in the actors’ mouths — which would have worked O.K. in a silent film but made it impossible for the actors to utter dialogue intelligibly — and for Lost Horizon (1937) and Meet John Doe (1941) he had rented space in a Los Angeles icehouse, usually used for storing frozen meats, so he could shoot inside and not only have the actors’ breaths steam but use the icehouse’s artificial-snow machines (generally used to cut up large ice blocks and spray the results onto the meat and fish to keep them frozen) to blow snow at them. For some reason Capra didn’t do that in It’s a Wonderful Life; instead he shot the December scenes outdoors in the big Bedford Falls set he built on the RKO backlot (though the exterior of the house George and Mary Bailey live in is clearly our old friend, the recycled set from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons) in the middle of a July heat wave. RKO’s engineers invented a new type of artificial snow made out of foam (for which they got a technical Oscar) instead of the previous substitute — ground-up cornflakes — which were too noisy for scenes that involved snow but not blizzards. But that still left the actors having to perform difficult action scenes dressed for a New York winter in the 102° heat of a California summer, and at one point Capra gave his cast and crew a day off just to recover.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow Four-Night Crossover Event (DC Comics, Berlanti Productions, Warner Bros., 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a surprisingly good episode of Supergirl that the CW network is billing as the first night in a four-night superhero “crossover” event which will continue on tonight’s episode of The Flash, though this also worked as a self-contained story as part of the Supergirl sequence (even though we won’t be getting a new episode of Supergirl until January 16!). The episode title was “Medusa,” and Medusa turns out to be a bioengineered virus created back on Krypton by Supergirl’s natural father (who appears in the episode as a sort of dream vision, much the way Marlon Brando as Superman’s father Jor-El kept turning up as a ghostly vision in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies and, via unused footage from Superman II, kept playing that part even after Brando himself died!) as a sort of defensive bioweapon. The gimmick is it would kill anyone who wasn’t Kryptonian (though writers Jessica Queller and Derek Simon never explain why it’s harmless to Earth people) and could therefore be loosed in case of an interplanetary invasion, since it would kill the invaders and leave the home population alone. Medusa gets released as a sort of test-marketing campaign in a bar frequented by aliens (one can’t help but be reminded of the Cantina scene in the original Star Wars — or, as it’s called these days to fit it into the mega-cycle, Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope) and all of them die; Mon-El from Daxom (Chris Wood) survives because he was outside the bar fighting Cyborg Superman (David Harewood) when the virus was released, though he got exposed by going into the bar later and trying to rescue the patrons and he comes close to death.

It turns out that, since Daxom was a sister planet of Krypton and therefore Kryptonians and Daxomites are genetically similar, that Mon-El gets sick from Medusa but survives, and his immune reaction to it is strong enough that Eliza Danvers (Helen Slater), biomedical researcher and mother of Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh) and foster mother of Kara Danvers, a.k.a. Supergirl (Melissa Benoist), is able to use it to synthesize an antidote. Meanwhile the people behind the Medusa release are the secret society Cadmus, headed by Lillian Luthor (Brenda Strong), who’s determined to exterminate all aliens from Earth because she’s still pissed at Superman for having branded her genius son Lex as a super-criminal and got him a life prison sentence. She asks her daughter Lena (Katie McGrath) — who until this episode we’ve been led to believe was a good Luthor to make up for her bad-Luthor mom and brother — for “Isotope 454,” the only medium through which Medusa can be released, and after Cadmus agents stage a break-in at Lena’s corporate headquarters but fail to steal the isotope, Lena merely gives it to her mom … only there’s a beautiful final scene in which the red flakes of isotope that are carrying Medusa slowly shrivel up and disappear in mid-air, and it turns out Lena rendered the isotope inert before she handed it over and thus the big rocket that was supposed to disperse Medusa worldwide and kill all the aliens spread a useless item. There are also the usual subplots, including a turn in the relationship between Alex Danvers and her friend Maggie Sawyer (Floriana Lima), with whom Alex fell in love, realized that she was a Lesbian and then got jilted by Maggie because she doesn’t do Lesbian newbies; this time around they share a pizza at home and it turns out they may be relationship-bound after all. (I’m still pretty amazed that a superhero show in 2016 can prominently feature two Lesbian characters and at least hint at a relationship between them; how pre-Trump!) The only part of the show relevant to the much-hyped “crossover event” takes place at the end, when a hole in the space-time continuum (that first appeared early on during the Danvers’ Thanksgiving dinner) opens and reveals Barry Allen, a.k.a. The Flash (Grant Guskin), and his long-haired and considerably better-hung (at least from the size of their on-screen baskets) sidekick Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes), though what they’re doing in Supergirl’s home town of National City and how the plot is going to continue are mysteries that aren’t going to resolve until tonight’s episode of The Flash and the other two shows in the sequence. — 11/29/16

•••••

I watched the CW Network’s episode of The Flash that was the second installment in the four-night “crossover event” that united the Legends of Tomorrow, as DC Comics is calling its younger superheroes when they work together. The series had started with Monday night’s Supergirl episode — though that had also been a self-contained advancement of the Supergirl story arc and had benefited from that — at the end of which The Flash, a.k.a. Barry Alden (Grant Gustin, personable and handsome without being drop-dead gorgeous), and Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) crashed through a hole in the space-time continuum to reach Supergirl on a parallel Earth. Yes, this is one of those science-fiction stories in which they can do alternative histories by positing that there are a series of universes, each of which contains an Earth where the overall arc of history has been the same as the one on the Earth we know but the details can be strikingly different. As if that isn’t enough plot for you, The Flash episode also included time travel and the so-called “butterfly effect” — it seems that 40 years later than the events we were watching, Barry Alden did a time-travel run back into the past and did something that disrupted the space-time continuum and led to the death of Cisco’s brother (so Cisco is really pissed at Barry!) and the sex-change of one of the other characters’ kids from a son to a daughter. So the young superheroes spend as much time fighting each other as they do fighting the menace from outer space they’re supposed to be taking on: the Dominators, a race from another planet (their makeup and CGI look a lot like the White Martians on Supergirl, enough that it’s possible we’re supposed to read them as the same species) who in 1951 sent an advance guard to gather intelligence on Earth and see if we had any way to resist them. We didn’t, but after a while the Dominators gave up, got back in their spaceship and left. Now, 65 years later, they’re ba-a-a-a-ack, and Barry sets up a training to see if their heroes can fight super-powered aliens by using Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) as their sparring partner. It doesn’t go well for Our (Other) Heroes, and after kidnapping the President of the United States (Jerry Wasserman) — if this happened after January 20, 2017 I’d be tempted to tell the aliens, “Keep him!” — to lure the Legends of Tomorrow, the Dominators use a Star Trek-style transporter beam to beam them into their own spacecraft, to do heaven knows what with them — that’s the cliffhanger. There are some interesting characters in this one, including Stephen Arnell as the Green Arrow, a.k.a. Oliver Queen (he’s sort of a male version of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, though the Green Arrow was apparently a minor character in the DC universe well before Suzanne Collins started her trilogy); Willa Holland as Speedy, a.k.a. Thea Queen; Franz Drameh as Firestorm, a.k.a. Jefferson Jackson; Caity Lotz as White Canary, a.k.a. Sara Lance; failed Superman (he starred in the flop Superman Returns from 2006 that almost killed the whole franchise) Brandon Routh as The Atom, a.k.a. Ray Palmer; Keiynan Lonsdale as Black superhero wanna-be Wally West (he insists that he can run faster than The Flash and only needs training to don his superhero mantle); Candice Patton as his sister Iris and Jesse L. Martin from the final cast of Law and Order as their father. But the story seems pretty by-the-numbers and I can only hope it gets better over the next two nights! — 11/30/16

•••••

I watched the latest episode of Arrow, the third out of the four “crossover nights” on the CW channel and a show that was virtually incomprehensible because I’ve never watched the series before and therefore it was impossible for me to tell what was supposed to be “real” in the series’ universe and what was being altered for this episode. At the end of The Flash episode seen the night before, three of the superheroes who more or less united to fight the Dominators — the super-powerful, high-tech-equipped beings from outer space who first came to Earth in 1951 and decided we were a species on such a low level of technology they could easily defeat and slaughter us and take over our planet — were beamed onto the Dominators’ spaceship. One might have expected a show filled with spectacular action scenes as the three heroes on the ship — including Oliver Queen, a.k.a. Arrow (in the comic books he was the Green Arrow but I suspect they dropped the color to avoid him being confused with the Green Lantern!) — fought their way off the vessel, but that didn’t happen until the last 15 minutes of the show. Instead they did a surprisingly Ray Bradbury-ish “memory” episode in which the outer-space intelligence creates a dream world for them out of the memories in their own psyches and gives them a bucolic middle-class existence at variance with the ruling assumptions of the overall series. I had a hard time figuring out who was who, what was what and how the plotline of this episode deviated from the series until I looked up the imdb.com page for both the series as a whole and this particular show. The synopsis of the series read, “Spoiled billionaire playboy Oliver Queen [Stephen Arnell] is missing and presumed dead when his yacht is lost at sea. He returns five years later a changed man, determined to clean up the city as a hooded vigilante armed with a bow.” The synopsis for this episode reads, “Oliver wakes up to a life in which his parents are alive and he is about to marry Laurel; Felicity [Smoak, played by Emily Bett Rickards] faces a new threat with the help of The Flash (Grant Gustin) and Supergirl (Melissa Benoist).” The show is actually considerably more interesting when it’s following Oliver and his doomed relationship with Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) than when the dream sequence ends (courtesy of yet another break in the space-time continuum that allows the three humans caught up in it to revert to their normal existences, though being trapped inside a Dominators’ ship hardly counts, even by the standards of superhero fiction, as “normal”) and they leap back, are still captives of the Dominators, and have to hijack a shuttlecraft to get back to Earth — and they find hundreds of other Dominator shuttlecraft chasing them, the “cliffhanger” on which this episode ends. Had I been following The Arrow all along I probably would have liked this one better, and had it actually featured Oliver Queen as the sort of male Katniss Everdeen I would have expected from the title and the central premise instead of portraying him through most of the action as a normal, non-super human being, that might have helped too — but at least I give writers Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg credit for ambition. Ripping off people at the level of Ray Bradbury and Stanislaw Lem is obviously at least aiming for a higher level than just cranking out another superhero tale inspired by old comic books! — 12/1/16

•••••

I put on the last of the four episodes of the CW Network’s big “four-night crossover” event between their superhero shows Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow dealing with a threatened interplanetary invasion from the Dominators. The Dominators are an outer-space race who first came to Earth in 1951 for a reconnaissance mission and are now back, though just who they are and what they want remains ambiguous until the very end of this show. At first I thought this was going to be a simple Independence Day-style tale of a super-race from another planet who zeroed in on Earth as a technologically backward planet whose inhabitants they could simply wipe out so they could take over our world as a colony. The final resolution suggests that the writers, Phil Klemmer and Marc Guggenheim, couldn’t make up their minds whether they wanted the Dominators to be nasty, genocidal aliens à la Independence Day (and The War of the Worlds before it!) or aliens genuinely concerned about saving the universe from out-of-control Earthlings à la The Day the Earth Stood Still and Plan Nine from Outer Space. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow are a rag-bag collection of superheroes and superhero wanna-bes including The Atom, a.k.a. Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh, who seems to have got this role as a consolation prize after his Superman movie, Superman Returns, bombed and nearly killed the Superman franchise on film), who aside from what you might think is not a superhero whose power is to turn himself invisibly small; White Canary a.k.a. Sara Lance (Caity Palmer); Firestorm a.k.a. Jefferson Jackson (Franz Drameh), who not only can spit fire from his hands but can use them to transmute elements into other elements; Reverse-Flash a.k.a. Eobard Thawne (Matt Letscher); Vixen a.k.a. Amaya Jiwe (Maisie Richardson-Sellers); Steel a.k.a. Nate Heywood (Nick Zeno); and Heat Wave a.k.a. Mick Rory (Dominic Purcell), who’s the most interesting character of the bunch: an ex-con with a strongly anti-social attitude who doesn’t have flame-throwing powers himself like Firestorm but wields two heat weapons, one in each hand, and his overall anti-social bias and moral unpredictability reminded me of Rorschach in another D.C. property, Watchmen.

The plot deals with the Legends going back in time to capture one of the Dominators who invaded in 1951 and interrogate him to find out what the Dominators want from Earth — only the Legends themselves get captured by a group of sinister government bureaucrats dressed in Men in Black uniforms and the Dominator gets tortured — oops, given “enhanced interrogation.” With all the fooforaw in previous episodes about the changes in the timeline Barry Alden, a.k.a. The Flash (Grant Gustin) made — among other things, eliminating Cisco Ramon’s (Carlos Valdes) brother and giving the non-super head of the Legends, Dr. Martin Stein (Victor Garber — it’s nice to see this actor again but, aside from him being older than I remember him, he’s not particularly well-used here), a daughter, Lily (Christina Brucato), who’s a scientific genius in her own right and has the key to vanquishing the Dominators: a weapon which, when shot into their skin and then electrically activated, will cause them excruciating pain. It also turns out that what the Dominators were afraid of and why they invaded Earth was that they were fearful of the existence of super-powered “metahumans,” which include most of the superhero dramatis personae of this story (actually all of them except Supergirl, who like her cousin Superman got her powers by coming to earth from another planet, Krypton), and in particular what might happen if a person with an evil character was also meta-human. (Yipes! Donald Trump with a superpower! Maybe the Dominators have reason to fear us … ) Anyway, during the last two acts or so we finally get some kick-ass superhero action as the Dominators (who speak English in this episode even though it’s previously been established that their own language is a variant of Hebrew — I explained that to Charles and his eyebrows went up, and then I said that the explanation was that the Old Testament God had created everything and therefore His language, Hebrew, was the baseline for languages throughout the universe) attack the Earthlings and the Earthlings counter-attack with Lily Stein’s weapon until the Dominators, who had surrounded the earth with their ships in the best War of the Worlds and Independence Day traditions, call a general retreat and leave until the writers of these shows decide they need them again for a menace. As pretentious as this “four-night crossover” was, as difficult as some of it was to understand unless you’ve been following these shows all along (which, aside from Supergirl, I haven’t been), and as shaky as the transitions were between episodes, the whole event was actually good fun and I’m glad I stuck it out until the end. — 12/2/16

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Scientology and Its Aftermath, Episode 1: “Disconnection” (Arts & Entertainment, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the first episode of Leah Remini’s show Scientology and the Aftermath, an Arts & Entertainment documentary mini-series about the Church of Scientology and the horrible things it does to people who leave it (or try to) or question its tenets or basically just cause trouble for it. The show touched on a bit of Scientology’s bizarre history — there’s a film clip of founder L. Ron Hubbard — but mostly it’s about Scientology today told from the point of view of people who left in the last few years, some of whom (including Amy Scobee, who once ran Scientology’s Celebrity Centre in Hollywood — one of her job assignments was to hire Tom Cruise’s household staff and make sure they were all Scientologists so Cruise would never interact with someone who wasn’t part of the Church) had quite high positions in the Scientology administration. Remini was a successful actress (best known for the TV series The King of Queens) who had risen through both the Hollywood and Scientology ranks and was a high-profile spokesperson for the Church until she started noticing that the way it treated its members, especially the non-celebrity ones, was radically different from the way it presented itself to the world as “salvaging” Earth and bringing about a new order of peace and love through “clearing the planet.”

Some of the things said about Scientology in this program won’t make sense unless you have at least some understanding and knowledge of Scientology’s theology — and the particular focus of this episode was “Disconnection,” the church’s insistence that once someone is thrown out of the church or leaves of their own accord, no one still in Scientology is allowed to have contact with that person on pain of being thrown out and declared a “Suppressive Person” (which basically means anyone Scientology’s establishment doesn’t like) — and that especially means family members. Amy and her mom Bonny appear together and explain that once Amy left the church, Bonny was visited by a Scientology “ethics officer” who told her in no uncertain terms that she had to choose between her daughter and the church — and she chose the church, mainly because her husband Mark was still in and if she’d defied the church, he would have been ordered to divorce her. This business of breaking up families is hardly confined to the Church of Scientology — it’s standard operating procedure for religious cults in general — and when Amy said that at age 14 she was working for a 37-year-old Scientology staff member who insisted that she have sex with him even though she was underage and he was married, and when the Church found out about it they insisted that she not report it to the police because it would be handled “internally,” I immediately thought that this was hardly unique to the Church of Scientology: it’s the same sort of cover-up used by the Roman Catholic Church to protect their pedophile priests, and was done for the same reason — to avoid the P.R. hit the Church would have taken if it became known publicly that they harbored pedophiles in the ranks of their clergy. One of Remini’s key collaborators is Mike Rinder, who before he broke with Scientology was head of its enforcement arm; and throughout the program there are titles showing what the Church of Scientology had to say about the people who had once been trusted members of their hierarchy but now, according to the church, are perverts, liars, thieves and criminals — the sheer vileness of the accusations the Church routinely throws out against its adversaries, though not unknown in other sorts of current discourse (can you say “Donald Trump”?), says as much or more about the true character of Scientology than any number of heart-rending interviewees of families separated by Scientology’s diktats.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Under the Streetlamp (Star Productions LLC, CPTV, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the KPBS telecast of a PBS pledge-break special featuring a 1950’s rock revival group called Under the Streetlamp — when I saw the promos for this it took me a while to realize that “Under the Streetlamp” was the name of the group as well as the title of the program! Apparently these people have become stalwarts of PBS’s increasingly intense begging sessions (it’s interesting to study the pitches and realize how PBS’s copywriters are including just about every strategy they can think of, from flattery to shame) and they’ve done two PBS pledge-break specials before, but I’d seen neither one. If you take a look at Under the Streetlamp, with four male members all dressed in matching black suits and with their hair kept short, combed back and Brylcreemed (or whatever the modern equivalent is), you’d probably think of the Four Seasons, and that wouldn’t be coincidence. Apparently the members of Under the Streetlamp were originally one of the casts of Jersey Boys, the sensationally successful biomusical about the Four Seasons, and after their run in that show finished they decided to form their own group and go out on the road — though, fortunately, they did not become just a Four Seasons tribute group and instead learned a wide variety of late 1950’s and early 1960’s rock ’n’ roll.

The members of Under the Streetlamp are Shonn Wiley (that’s how the chyron spelled it!), Brandon Wardell, Christopher Kale-Jones, and Michael Ingersoll, and a fifth person — their musical director, conductor and arranger, Patrick Williams, has a major role in making their act as good as it is. The show opened with Williams and the band playing Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” — not exactly the first song you expect to hear when you’re watching a TV show billed as a tribute to late 1950’s and early 1960’s rock ’n’ roll — but when the Streetlamps came in they were singing “Rock Around the Clock,” and Williams’ arrangement artfully combined the two songs for a lovely effect. The next song was Martha and the Vandellas’ soul classic “Dancing in the Street” — Motown was among the sub-genres the Streetlamps promised us in their promos but this was the only song from Berry Gordy’s empire they vouchsafed us, and they did it very well even without the shimmering intensity that made the original a classic. After that they did Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” pulling a trick they played several times in the concert — starting a song much more slowly than it was done originally, playing it that way for a chorus and then speeding it up — and though the killer organ lick (which for a while back in 1961 I thought was a flute!) wasn’t as loud or as prominent as it was in Shannon’s original, the whole thing was fun and a worthy version of one of the few really good rock songs from the early 1960’s. (There were Dale Shannon and Ricky Nelson among the solo artists, and the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys among the groups, but aside from them rock really was a pretty dead zone between the death of Buddy Holly and the advent of the Beatles!) The rest of their first set was taken up with a nice version of the rock ballad “Since I Don’t Have You” and a Four Seasons medley (they had to acknowledge their roots!) consisting of “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” — which I can’t hear anymore without thinking of the Forbidden Broadway parody, “Walk like a man/Sing like a girl” — and “Bye, Bye Baby (Baby Goodbye),” a relatively obscure Seasons song to go with the familiar ones.

After the first of their interminable pledge breaks (more tolerable than usual since the Streetlamps were actual in-studio guests and they turned out to be nice, warm, funny guys) they did “Rockin’ Robin,” which was a hit for Bobby Day in the 1950’s and the pre-pubescent Michael Jackson in the 1970’s — and while none of the Streetlamps could match Jackson’s kid voice on this one (it was so high he really did sound like a robin!), they were clearly having fun with the song and they did it engagingly. Next was an odd medley that started with Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World,” segued into the Drifters’ “Up On the Roof” and “This Magic Moment,” and ended with “Stand by Me,” the beautiful song (rewritten from a gospel piece) that was one of Ben E. King’s first (and biggest) solo hits after he left the Drifters. Like most white singers, the Streetlamps couldn’t phrase as eloquently as Cooke or King, but they did well enough and the songs remain imperishably beautiful — especially “Up On the Roof,” with the haunting street poetry of Gerry Goffin’s lyric and the soaring melody supplied by his then-wife, Carole King. Then came an intriguing version of the song “For Once in My Life” that acknowledged that it was a middle-of-the-road easy-listening hit for Tony Bennett before Stevie Wonder got hold of it, rocked it up a bit (but kept it slow enough that it still worked as a love ballad) and had a hit on it all over again even though it always seemed to me an outlier to Wonder’s usual stuff. On Tony Bennett’s first Duets album he and Stevie Wonder did the song together, but they kept the whole version at the ballad tempo of Bennett’s original, though with some nice harmonica playing and soul “worrying” by Wonder at the end. The Streetlamps did their first chorus at Bennett’s tempo and then sped up to Wonder’s. Then they did Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive and Wail,” though I daresay this probably wouldn’t have found its way into the Streetlamps’ act if rockabilly and big-band revivalist Brian Setzer hadn’t covered it in 1998, 42 years after Prima, his wife Keely Smith and their sax player Sam Butera first recorded it. Shonn Wiley had mentioned in one of the pledge-break interviews that he was a great fan of tap dancing and had studied it, and he showed off his tap skills — he’s the blondest and by a pretty wide margin the cutest of the band members — on “Jump, Jive and Wail,” and he was damned good.

They closed their second set with a Beach Boys medley that oddly came off better than the one they did on the Four Seasons, their original inspiration — I’ve often described the world of early 1960’s rock fandom as, “If you lived, or wanted to live, on the East Coast you thought the Four Seasons were the future of rock ’n’ roll. If you lived, or wanted to live, on the West Coast you thought the Beach Boys were the future of rock ’n’ roll. Little did you know that the future of rock ’n’ roll was in England — and not even in London, in Liverpool!” It began where you might have expected it to, with “Surfer Girl,” though the arrangement used “God Only Knows” as a counter-melody, and then segued into “California Girls” (in a nice chart that didn’t quite shimmer the way the original did — Brian Wilson said it was the first record he made on LSD and, though lyrically it’s a typical “girls” song from the days when virtually all the Beach Boys’ output was about surf, cars and girls, musically it’s a sophisticated composition showing the way to Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations” and the unfinished (at least at the time) Smile. The Under the Streetlamp Beach Boys medley went from “California Girls” to “Don’t Worry, Baby” and then — surprisingly — to “Good Vibrations,” which they did surprisingly well except they cheated on the electronic instrument. “Good Vibrations” was ballyhooed when the Beach Boys’ single was released as the first rock record featuring a theremin — though one can see videos from the time and note that the instrument was not a theremin, but a variant thereof in which the sounds were produced by rubbing a strip instead of waving one’s hands in space over an electrically charged rod (which controls the volume) and loop (which controls the pitch) like a true theremin.[1] (Captain Beefheart’s 1966 album Safe as Milk, and particularly its songs “Electricity,” “Yellow Brick Road” and “Autumn Child,” was actually the first rock record to use theremin, and according to the liner notes for the CD reissue of Safe as Milk, the theremin player on it, Sam Hoffman, learned to play the instrument from its inventor, Professor Leon Theremin.) Alas, Under the Streetlamp musical director Patrick Williams, most of whose arrangements were quite clever and added to the songs, copped out on the theremin (or whatever it was) and had the part reproduced by the upper ranges of an organ, much the way he reproduced the high organ part Del Shannon had used in the original “Runaway.”

After the next interminable pledge break, Under the Streetlamp’s repertoire turned decisively towards the middle of the road, with a song called “Brand New Fool” that they performed in a medley with, of all things, the Nat “King” Cole hit “L-O-V-E,” and for their next song they also tapped the Cole songbook, for “That’s All” — which, blessedly, they performed at the slow ballad tempo Cole used on his record and not the speeded-up version Bobby Darin did, which turned it into yet another superficial time-filler for a Vegas lounge act. Their finale was Mitch Ryder’s medley of “Devil with a Blue Dress” and Little Richard’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” a surprise since little in their previous act had indicated they’d be able to do justice to such raunchy hard rock, and indeed they started “Devil” considerably slower and funkier than Ryder’s version, but they quickly sped up to Ryder’s tempo and they were clearly having fun singing something considerably hotter and less boy-bandish than everything else they’d sung that night. Next was another interminable pledge break, after which we were promised a major encore — but all we got was Under the Streetlamp performing, under the closing credits, a snatch of Bob Seger’s anti-disco “Old Time Rock ’n’ Roll” anthem from 1978 — considerably later than most of the Streetlamps’ material — though the line we anti-disco types cherished back then (“Don’t ever take me to a disco/You won’t even get me out on that floor”) wasn’t included. Under the Streetlamp is a quite good, professional group of clean-cut young men who are clearly having fun with their music and who undoubtedly give their audience a good time, too; and if they aren’t tapping some of the darker strains of 1950’s rock, that’s fine because that’s not what they’re about. Their latest PBS pledge-break special was actually quite entertaining and well worth watching.



[1] — It’s more like the ondes Martenot, a pioneering French electronic instrument devised in 1928 by Maurice Martenot, which sounded like a theremin but had a conventional keyboard that was played with one hand to control the pitch, a sliding metal element under the keyboard that could be pulled out and manipulated in place of the keyboard, and a box of controls on the left side of the keyboard that controls volume. The Wikipedia page on the ondes Martenot identifies the instrument used by the Beach Boys on “Good Vibrations” as an “electro-theremin,” which like the ondes Martenot “uses a slider to control an oscillator's pitch.”

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Lang Lang: New York Rhapsody (PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was another episode in the PBS “Fall Arts Festival,” a Great Performances show of pianist Lang Lang (whose name is posted in big letters at the back of the stage which I presume could be lit up at a climactic point in the performance, though that wasn’t done last night) in a concert from May 3, 2016 called New York Rhapsody. I was attracted to this program by the promos for it, which showed Lang Lang playing George Gershwin’s famous “Rhapsody in Blue.” On the 2015 “Capitol Fourth” concert on the Washington National Mall Lang Lang had been featured playing what I called at the time “a wretchedly truncated version of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue that seemed to have been chopped up in a meat grinder. It’s true, as Leonard Bernstein once said, that Rhapsody in Blue is so sloppily structured a composition that you can take out just about any piece of it and not affect it much except to make it shorter, but the edits were infuriating — especially since the performance was compelling enough (with [conductor Jack] Everly playing the original jazz-band orchestration instead of the later symphonic one, but at the same time playing it more slowly and lyrically than Paul Whiteman did) I’d have wanted to hear it complete.” So I had my hopes up that this concert would present Lang Lang with a top-flight orchestra doing a complete Rhapsody in Blue — only my hopes were dashed early on; though longer than the 2015 Capitol Fourth version (about nine minutes instead of four), it is still not the complete Gershwin score.

What made this program even more infuriating was that for the first time in the history of Great Performances it was presented in pledge-break style, with long intermissions that took almost as much time as the actual program in which local announcers declaimed about the incredible need of PBS for money, money, money, and made the insulting comment to the effect that what we were watching on the air was merely a loss leader for an incredibly expensive ($170) DVD that would contain the entire concert — essentially the same marketing strategy as Trump University, where if you showed up for their “free” seminar on real estate you’d get a pitch to sign up for a $100 seminar, where you would get a pitch for a $1,000 seminar, where you’d get a pitch for a $3,500 one. Now that Donald Trump is going to be President and the entire government in Washington, D.C. is being run by Republicans — and the GOP in general has not exactly made it a secret that they’d like to see the federal funding for public broadcasting ended — we’ll probably be subjected to even more of these insane pledge breaks as well as out-and-out commercials (which run on PBS between the programs now, though in PBS Newspeak they’re called “enhanced underwriting opportunities”). The New York Rhapsody, with a pick-up orchestra conducted by one Jason Michael Webb (who seems to have got the job because he’s young, cute and “urban” — i.e., Black), was organized from the get-go as a “crossover” event, the sort of thing that symphony orchestras are turning to more and more because they’ve noticed that their audience is aging and they figure they can stay in business by giving the younger public what they seem to want — which is celebrities they’ve actually heard of, whether what they’re doing has much to do with classical music at all. I’m not against all crossovers — I remember not long ago hearing a download from a BBC “Proms” concert at which the Pet Shop Boys presented Chrissie Hynde singing four of their songs and also offered an original cantata, A Man from the Future, about the Gay British computer inventor Alan Turing, which at least aspired to some of the same ambitions as genuine classical music — but this one was a bit too crossed over for me.

Of the nine selections we got to see on TV (as opposed to whatever the live audience got and we’d have to buy the $170 DVD to obtain), only four — the Rhapsody in Blue, a “New York Medley” performed by Lang against a backdrop of outdoor movie footage of the city, a version of “Tonight” from the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim score for West Side Story, and Danny Elfman’s Spider-Man theme (with Lindsey Stirling delivering some absolutely scorching electric-violin playing — it didn’t have much to do with classical music but it was still fun) — were instrumentals. The others were a wide variety of songs, and the concert’s organizers at least deserve credit for picking an assemblage of pieces about New York City and including ones with a relatively negative view of the place (notably Don Henley’s “New York Minute” and especially Lou Reed’s “Dirty Boulevard”) as well as the upbeat ones that generally crop up in a tribute like this. After the woefully truncated Gershwin Rhapsody — which Lang Lang played rather well, though he couldn’t resist adding a few octave doublings and other touches not in the score, or slowing down for one passage only to speed up for the next — the next song was Don Henley’s “New York Minute,” performed in a voice that was neither fish nor fowl — neither Broadway nor rock, but a bastard mix of the two from someone named Kurt Elling. By chance Charles and I had just been playing through a couple of compilations he made for Thanksgiving, including Scott Walker’s song “Thanks for Chicago, Mr. James” (Charles had looked around my iTunes files for songs with the word “Thanks” in their titles), so I had in the back of my head the sort of voice Elling would have needed to pull off what he was trying to do, and from which he fell far short. It made me want to bring out my copy of Henley’s original just to remind myself what a good song this really was!

After that came an interminable pledge break and then Rufus Wainwright doing an original of his called “Who Are You, New York?,” and doing it well enough except that he was too much the jumping-bean on stage (for someone who’s so often professed his admiration for Judy Garland it’s odd, to say the least, that he hasn’t adopted her stock-still stance on stage) and a richer voice like the 1970’s Scott Walker could have done more justice to Wainwright’s song than he did himself. Then came an intriguing medley of Lou Reed’s “Dirty Boulevard” with the song “Somewhere” from West Side Story, composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (whose own work as a composer should have been represented and wasn’t — Sondheim’s song “The Ladies Who Lunch” had been the high point of a previous PBS arts show, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs), with the Reed sung by Suzanne Vega (quite movingly even though she has too good a voice to be quite comfortable in a song by Reed, who wrote his stuff for his own monotone) and the Bernstein/Sondheim by heavy-set Black soul singer Lisa Fischer. I can see why the producers of this concert did these as a medley — after several stanzas describing urban degradation Reed ends “Dirty Boulevard” with a peroration from a boy named Pedro who wants to “fly, fly away from this dirty boulevard,” while “Somewhere” is the lament of a racially mixed couple torn apart by their families and gang members who wish that “there’s a place for us/Somewhere a place for us.” And though the concert took place on May 3, six months before the Presidential election, the verse in “Dirty Boulevard” about immigration — “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor I'll piss on ’em/That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says/Your poor huddled masses/Let's club ’em to death/And get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard” — seemed all too appropriate in the age of TrumpAmerica. But the two songs didn’t really fit that well together musically, even though both were superbly sung and Vega’s “take” on Reed makes the song seem richer even if also less heartbreaking than the original.

After that came the Spider-Man theme, and then another interminable pledge break, and then Lang Lang sitting in front of a series of images of New York out of doors as he played his medley — which began and ended with the “Theme from New York, New York” by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and in between offered Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” (a great song but one that doesn’t sound especially “New Yorky”), Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and the Leonard Bernstein “New York, New York” from the musical On the Town he wrote in 1944 with Betty Comden and Adolph Green. (This show definitely deserves points for representing artists who were Gay or Bisexual, including Bernstein, Sondheim, Strayhorn, Reed, and Wainwright.) Then there was a quirky rendition of “Moon River” from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which squeezed in yet another Gay artist at least by reference (the film was based on a story by Truman Capote) and which was sung by Regina Spektor, who said in an interview that out of all the versions of this song that have been performed — including the original hits by Jerry Butler and Andy Williams, both of whom had real voices — her favorite was the one Audrey Hepburn sings in the movie. This probably explains why she “dumbed down” her voice to sound as much like Hepburn as she could — anyone who sees Breakfast at Tiffany’s will wonder why anyone in Hollywood had the idea that Audrey Hepburn could handle the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, yet when she signed for the role she assumed she’d do her own singing and was quite upset when they pre-recorded two songs with her (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” and “Show Me”) but then brought in Marni Nixon as her voice double. I’m not familiar with Spektor as a singer but I’m pretty sure she’s generally better than she was last night, when she all too faithfully imitated Hepburn’s nasal tones and flat intonations. The song also included a dobro part by Jerry Douglas, who I believe is actually a descendant of the Douglas Brothers who invented this lap-held slide guitar with a metal resonator and named it after the first syllables of “Douglas” and “Brothers.”

After “Moon River” the show brought on Black trumpeter Sean Jones for “Tonight,” done as an instrumental — Jones isn’t that great a trumpet player, and the arrangement kept him all too close to the melody so it was hard to tell from the concert whether he could actually improvise — and then came the finale, a committee-written song identified as “Empire State of Mind” but really its follow-up, “Empire State of Mind (Part II): Broken Down.” It began as a song by rapper Jay-Z, written by Angela Hunte and Jane’t Sewell-Ulepic. Hunte was supposed to sing a vocal part to counterpoint Jay-Z’s raps, but at the last minute they decided they needed a stronger singer, considered Mary J. Blige, but finally hired Alicia Keys. Because the song “sampled” another piece called “Love on a Two-Way Street” by Sylvia Robinson (the “Sylvia” in Mickey and Sylvia, a 1950’s R&B duo two of whose songs, “Love Is Strange” and “Dearest,” were covered by Buddy Holly, who also ripped off Mickey’s guitar lick from “Love Is Strange” for a number of his originals, and later the producer and label owner for the first true rap record, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”) and Burt Keyes, their names ended up on the songwriting credits, as did Alicia Keys, her writing partner Alexander Shuckburgh, and Shawn Carter. (Songwriting credits are getting as convoluted as screenwriting credits!) After the song — released as a duet but with Jay-Z getting billing over Keys — Alicia Keys decided to record her own version “because she wanted to express her own personal feelings about New York” (according to the Wikipedia page on the Jay-Z original), and so she created “Empire State of Mind (Part II): Broken Down,” which has the same set of seven songwriting credits as Jay-Z’s and was pretty obviously what guest star Audra Day was singing (quite powerfully) on the Lang Lang New York Rhapsody concert. But Day’s great singing couldn’t conceal that the song appeared to be pasted together from bits of scrap paper (which, knowing how rap productions sometimes go, could well be the truth) and didn’t really seem to go anywhere.

The basic problem with New York Rhapsody was that the music, except for the Rhapsody in Blue and the Spider-Man theme, didn’t really challenge Lang Lang: through all too much of the running time he seemed to be an extra in his own show, handling the piano parts of the arrangements well enough but looking uninvolved and bored. Though he didn’t put a candelabrum on top of his piano (the only thing that was there was a tablet computer with copies of the scores he was playing from so he could access his music instantaneously and not have to fumble through pieces of paper), dressed in a normal suit instead of sequins or feathers, and didn’t talk to the audience between songs (one tradition of classical concerts it was nice to see preserved here), his whole schtick here seemed uncomfortably close to Liberace’s, as he tried to dumb down his musicianship and skill to lower himself to the material he was playing. New York Rhapsody actually had some good moments, but for the most part the show was one of those not too digestible cultural mixes that wasn’t especially good as a showcase for Lang Lang and didn’t really explore the wealth of music that has been written on, about or for New Yorkers, either in the classical or pop vein. The main piece of music I’d have liked to see included is Gershwin’s Rhapsody No. 2 for Orchestra and Piano — that’s how he billed them — of which he wrote the first version for the 1931 Fox musical Delicious to accompany a scene of Janet Gaynor, an undocumented immigrant from Scotland, rambling through the New York streets and avoiding the immigration agent who’s after her to deport her. In this initial form it was actually called New York Rhapsody, and having Lang Lang and the orchestra perform it “live” while the film footage was shown would have been an interesting addition to this concert!