Saturday, February 28, 2009

The American Ruling Class (Independent, 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was The American Ruling Class, an engaging 2005 pseudo-documentary written by then-Harper’s editor Lewis H. Lapham — a sort of apostate from the American ruling class since he has the right background, gets invited to all the right parties (including the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland — the primo get-together of the world’s ruling classes — which he’s written scathingly about in his magazine) but trashes them every chance he gets. Directed by John Kirby from Lapham’s script, The American Ruling Class presents its documentary material in the context of a fictional framing story in which two recent Yale graduates are contrasted: Jack Bellamy (Caton Burwell) knows perfectly well that he wants a stint in the American ruling class, and he has managed to land a job as a beginning broker at Goldman Sachs (the investment bank that’s primus inter pares among America’s investment bank and has been the recent go-to place for both Republican and Democratic presidents for secretaries of the treasury); and Mike Vanzetti (Paul Cantagallo), who’s debating whether he wants to go after a similar job or take a year off to write a novel and support himself by being a waiter. (The symbolism that Jack has an Anglo last name and Mike has a white-ethnic one is unstressed but definitely there.)

Along the way Jack and (especially) Mike meet up with a lot of real people playing either themselves or thinly veiled versions of themselves — Barbara Ehrenreich turns up as a waitress with the name tag “Barb” (her best-selling book Nickel and Dimed, in which she lived underground for several months as a member of the modern proletariat, tried to make ends meet on what these jobs were paying her and found she couldn’t, began as an article assignment for Harper’s) and Howard Zinn as a tour guide through the “people’s history” of the U.S., while such heavyweights of the American ruling class as former secretary of state James Baker, former secretary of defense Harold Brown, former State Department spokesperson Hodding Carter III, former commerce secretary William Coleman (one of the first African-Americans to integrate the American ruling class), Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian, New York Times chair Arthur Sulzberger, and former Harvard University president and World Bank economist Lawrence Summers (whose appointment by President Barack Obama as his economic czar was the biggest signal that “change you can believe in” was going to mean “change the ruling class doesn’t have to worry about” — this despicable, evil man, who was already on record as saying that Africa wasn’t carrying its fair share of the world’s pollution and that women weren’t intellectually qualified to be scientists, is shown in the film as saying that American poverty isn’t so bad because even “poor” people are fat and have TV sets: the sort of slimeball comment one would expect to hear from Rush Limbaugh rather than the principal economic advisor to a Democratic President!) — and it’s pretty obvious that the only way they ended up in this movie was because Lapham is still enough of a good friend of theirs he could talk them into it, mostly as interviewees being asked by Cantagallo in his Mike Vanzetti character, “What is the American ruling class, and how do I get into it?”

It’s basically a bunch of old white Anglo-Saxon men in suits — though increasingly the doors have been opened to women and people of color (and one audience member at the Activist San Diego screening made the observation that as America expands its corporate interests worldwide there’s a reason why the members of the ruling class want to let a greater diversity of races and ethnicities into their club: they want ruling-class members who can be accepted around the world as “looking like us” and being able to interact with members of other countries’ ruling classes) — and their unifying principle, as the film explains, is the idea that they are simply a better order of humanity than the rest of us and therefore they’re entitled not only to a greater share of life’s material goodies but also all the political power they need to keep that share. This is actually how ruling classes have behaved throughout human history, ever since so-called “civilization” was instituted and we came out of our relatively communal hunter-gatherer societies — though the only real historical insight into the persistence of ruling-class/working-class arrangements comes from a quote as an epigram at the movie’s beginning of the motto of the Medici family: “Money into power, power to win money.” (I’m quoting from memory but that’s the gist of it.)

The American Ruling Class is an interesting attempt to break through the American public’s unwillingness to think of themselves as members of economic classes or their society in class terms by creating a film that will not only be informative but also entertaining. The filmmakers’ strategy to do that is quite obviously influenced by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht — to set the more audacious aspects of their social critique to music (the theme song of the film, “The Wurlitzer Plays On,” even sounds like a tune Weill could have written for one of Brecht’s texts!) and enact it with characters who aren’t important in and of themselves but for what they represent in terms of class conflicts. Nonetheless, I’m not sure how effective a film like this would be in reaching beyond its natural audience on the Left — people who are already convinced there is an American ruling class and pretty much agree on who is in it and what they want — to possible audiences outside the clique of initiates. For one thing, this film is particularly weak on just how the ruling class rules — the intricate web of associations both before (in the elite schools which members of the ruling class have attended and the social contacts they have made even before they reach adult age) and during (in the extent to which public institutions, think tanks and corporate boards and executive corps interlock) their ruling-class membership, detailed so well half a century ago by C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite (a book Cantagallo is briefly shown reading in the film) is pretty much assumed instead of documented.

It’s a clever film but it won’t reach a fraction of the audience that really needs to see it — especially now that the Obama administration’s appointments and the limited “changes” of its economic proposals (especially its heartfelt declarations that they will never, no way, no how even consider nationalizing any major banks and thereby wiping out shareholder equity) in the face of America’s greatest economic crisis since 1929 are a first-rate demonstration of how enduring the power of the American ruling class is and how immune it is to serious challenge. (At least one commentator on this film noted that it leaves a feeling of despair, even though the ending — with Pete Seeger, playing himself, assuming the role of anti-capitalist guru and offering parables about the eventual efficacy of persistent resistance — is clearly meant to instill hope.)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Inner Sanctum (Film Classics, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the 1948 “B” noir Inner Sanctum, made by arrangement with the producers of the radio show (and with Simon and Schuster, who published the Inner Sanctum tie-in books) by an outfit called Film Classics three years after the Universal series ended. The film was only 52 minutes long (the entry on it alternately lists 52 minutes and 62 minutes as the running time, and it’s possible there was a longer version and the one that survives is a cut-down print edited to fit into a one-hour TV time slot, but it’s also possible that the 62-minute listing is a mistake) — but it turned out to be a quite interesting little vest-pocket thriller.

It was produced by Samuel Rheiner and Walter Shenson (Shenson’s presence puts everyone in this cast one degree of separation from the Beatles — his most famous producing credits are, of course, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) for executive producer Richard B. Morros, and based on a devilishly clever script by Jerome T. Gollard (a writer otherwise unknown to me) that even evoked an unusual sense of style from the generally abysmally hacky director Lew Landers. It opens on a train, with hard-as-nails gold-digger Marie Kembar (Eve Miller) getting a lecture from a mysterious white-haired man named “Doctor Valonius, the Seer” (an almost unrecognizable Fritz Leiber) with an uncanny ability to tell time without a watch and read the minds of his fellow passengers.

When the train stops she insists on getting off, and in order to keep her from doing so he tells her a story that, as a flashback, becomes the main part of the film — Harold Dunlap (Charles Russell, a tall, thin, rangy-looking actor, unglamorous but quite right for this part), tries to sneak off a train but is confronted by his girlfriend. He slams her to the ground and she knocks her head against a water pump (or something — Allen G. Siegler’s shadowy noir cinematography leaves it ambiguous) and dies. He pitches her body onto the back of the train as it sets off again but is seen by Michael Bennett (Dale Belding), a typically obnoxious, bratty movie kid whom he comes close to murdering just to shut him up (and, quite frankly, I was rooting for him to kill the brat!).

A flood, represented by some more ambiguous shots of something or other that turns out to be a driving rainstorm through a forest, hits the town and forces Harold to seek shelter — which he does in a boarding house that turns out to be run by Michael’s mother Ruth (Lee Patrick), which seems to be the only residence in the entire town; at least we don’t meet any characters who don’t live there! What’s more, the place is so crowded that Harold is forced to share a room with Michael and spend his whole time there fearful that Michael will expose him — which he doesn’t more because he’s afraid of mom’s reaction if he confesses to her that he went to the railroad station on his own than because he’s intimidated by having witnessed a murder committed by a guy who’s sleeping in the same room with him.

Harold enters — or at least attempts — a doomed relationship with another piece of noir flotsam, Jean Maxwell (Mary Beth Hughes, an underrated, underused actress who shone in the virtually unknown 1945 noir directed by Anthony Mann, The Great Flamarion), who blew in from San Francisco, got stuck in this little town and sees Harold as her ticket out of it. After an intense action climax in which Michael gets kidnapped, then gets rescued and Harold gets his, the film dissolves to the train we saw in the opening sequence, and Marie Kembar gets off — whereupon Harold confronts her and kills her as we saw in the opening of what we thought was a flashback but is now revealed as a flash-forward, Valonius’ correct prediction of what would happen to her if she got off the train to confront her absconding boyfriend.

That odd supernatural sting-in-the-tail is about the only thing that connects this movie with Inner Sanctum the radio show, the previous movies or the books, but even before that this was quite a good movie, an inventive spin on some old clichés and a welcome bit of noir from a surprising source. Our source print was pretty splicy, but even so it would have been worth it for Universal to include this movie in their Inner Sanctum box even if they didn’t produce it and Lon Chaney, Jr. wasn’t in it (which was probably just as well!).

Not My Life (Cinetel Films/Lifetime, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was Not My Life, which began as an almost risible parody of a Lifetime TV-movie — heroine Alison Morgan (Meredith Monroe) lives an idyllic, picture-perfect existence with her husband, Dr. Steve Morgan (Ari Cohen, darker-haired than usual for a Lifetime leading man but the usual lanky body type), marred only by her inability to remember her past and a chronic heart condition for which she’s taking a medication her husband obtains for her. All she knows — or thinks she knows — about her past was that her parents abused her, as did her previous husband, and she was rescued from a fire by Dr. Steve, who saved her life but has been unable to have children by her. She has a good friend, Janet (Ellie Harvie — a charmingly reversible name; I could well imagine a male Lifetime actor named “Harvie Ellie”!), whom Steve can’t stand, ostensibly because Janet is an alternative health advocate and Steve feels professionally threatened, especially when Janet questions whether Alison really needs the heart medication and whether something more holistic would work better for her.

Then Alison is involved in an auto accident and the shock injures her brain and allows authentic memories of her past to penetrate her current consciousness, albeit in fragmentary and confused form. Steve tells her that she never had another husband but that the two of them had had a daughter and the daughter had accidentally set the fire in which both she and Alison’s parents died. Alison remains suspicious and she sees another doctor, Jennifer Prasad (Iris Paluly), who examines her and tells her a) she never had a heart condition, b) she’s positive for psychotropic drugs, and c) the so-called “heart medication” her husband has been giving her is actually a version of an anti-schizophrenia drug which someone has made in a basement lab and reformulated to heighten its memory-loss effects. Dr. Prasad also X-rays her and finds that she had a lesion in her brain before the accident and the accident had jogged it loose, thereby restoring at least bits of her memory. When Alison confronts her husband and asks why he’s been drugging her with something to make her forget her past, he tells her that as a result of the fire she went crazy and was about to be institutionalized when he figured out a way to eliminate the memories that were driving her crazy, including giving her a D.I.Y. lobotomy (hence the lesion Dr. Prasad’s X-rays uncovered) and making up the drugs in an amateur lab he set up in a storage locker that also contained press clippings of the fire and a copy of the recommendation for her institutionalization.

Alison, still suspicious, hires Kruegher (Michael Woods), the private detective who handled Janet’s divorce (and who’s shown as a scruffy, overweight, Columbo-like figure just to disillusion anyone in the Lifetime audience whose idea of a private detective was a romantic vision of Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe), to tail her husband and also research her own past. Steven offers Kruegher a $10,000 bribe to give him a glowing report, and Kreugher takes the check and uses it to run a fingerprint check — which reveals that Steven is really Dr. Tony Lancaster, who was arrested for selling morphine illegally and then died in an auto accident in the company of a woman named Anna Towne. It turns out that Dr. Lancaster had an obsessive case of the hots for Mrs. Towne, so he kidnapped her away from her husband and daughter, drugged her, deliberately crashed his car so the authorities would assume they had run away together and had died in the crash, then set up shop in another town, lobotomized her, married her and kept her on drugs to keep her from recovering the memory of who she really was and that she already had a family.

There’s a typical over-the-top action sequence at the end in which Dr. Lancaster murders Kreugher with Kreugher’s own gun, only to be killed himself when Anna stabs him with a pitchfork and he falls to his death out of a second-floor window at their ranch home in the country. As far-fetched (to say the least!) as this plot is, writer Paul A. Birkett deserves credit for an interesting and inventive variation on the Gaslight trope, and though C. Kim Miles’ cinematography is pretty typical past-is-brown stuff, director John Terlesky stages it with a real flair for suspense and a welcome avoidance of the “flanging” effects and other computer-generated frou-frou with which a lot of Lifetime directors ruin otherwise perfectly good movies. About the only thing that’s missing is a hot soft-core porn sequence, and this is enough of a nail-biter (as well as one that really allows us to identify with Alison/Anna and her plight) I don’t really mind the loss.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Happens in Vegas (20th Century-Fox, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was What Happens in Vegas, an advertising slogan that’s been used as a film title at least twice, once in 2005 and once, this time, in 2008 for a romantic comedy that hews surprisingly close to the 1930’s screwball style even though it’s marked as a modern product by the plethora of sex and bathroom gags (mostly, at least, genuinely funny sex and bathroom gags) and an absence of the sophistication with which a story like this would have been done in the 1930’s precisely because they couldn’t do openly sexual humor under the Production Code.

The story revolves around a quickie Vegas marriage entered into by Jack Fuller (Ashton Kutcher, who’s cute enough I’d find him watchable in anything even though I doubt if he’ll be doing a movie as good as the director’s cut of The Butterfly Effect for some time to come), who’s on the rebound from being fired from his father’s construction company for never finishing a job; and Joy McNally (Cameron Diaz, top-billed), a hot-shot stockbroker in New York who’s on the rebound from being dumped by her even more affluent fiancé, Mason (Jason Sudeikis), who bought her a $30,000 diamond engagement ring and then decided she wasn’t good enough for him. Anyway, our two rebound babies have a hard night of partying and end up married to each other, and just before they return to New York (where they both live and where, contrary to the impression you’d get from the title, most of this film happens) Joy loans Jack a quarter and he uses it to play a super-slot machine that earns him a $3 million jackpot. (It was interesting to be watching this just after having seen the Vegas-set episode of the 1973 TV series Banacek and noting how the Strip had changed in the last 35 years.)

The two sue each other for the money and the case comes before Judge Whopper (a surprisingly queeny Dennis Miller) — his name and that of Joy’s boss, Banger (a welcome Dennis Farina; nice to know there is life after his unceremonious and quite undeserved dumping from Law and Order!), are all too accurate reflections of writer Dana Fox’s sense of humor — who chews them out, saying that it’s straight people like them, not Gays, who are undermining the institution of marriage. He sentences them to live together for six months and make an honest attempt to make their marriage work — quite a trick because they’re shown as despicably hating each other — under the supervision of a marriage counselor/psychiatrist, Dr. Twitchell (Queen Latifah, once again playing an island of sanity in a movie in which it seems like all the white people are crazy).

They play a series of raunchy practical jokes on each other that to me recalled the marvelous 1933 comedy Rafter Romance, which used a different premise for getting the two hatebirds under the same roof (in that film they were Depression babies whose landlady forced them to share a space, he during the day and she during the night, because they owed her so much rent and that would at least cut their tabs in half; in that one the woman was Ginger Rogers, a far more personable and charming actress than Cameron Diaz — and the man was Norman Foster, a far less appealing male lead than Ashton Kutcher!) but otherwise seemed strikingly similar in the way it developed the antagonism between them which we know, of course — far before they do — will eventually blossom into love.

What Happens in Vegas seemed to borrow tropes from a lot of older movies, from relatively obscure ones (I found a hint of the 1930 Warners semi-musical Dancing Sweeties in the idea of a couple suddenly marrying without thinking it through and forced to live together under auspices that will turn decidedly unfriendly if they see any sign of disagreement between the two!) to more well-known ones, but it’s a charming film nonetheless and at least moderately funny even though most of the situations are so shopworn you can tell what’s coming at least a reel or two in advance. Of course, I couldn’t help but wonder what this would have looked like if it had been a 1930’s movie, with Cary Grant and Carole Lombard as the leads, Ben Hecht doing the screenplay and Ernst Lubitsch directing (though Lubitsch would probably have wanted to relocate the story to Europe, setting the main part in Vienna and having them do their quickie marriage and win their jackpot in Monte Carlo!) — but What Happens in Vegas is a nice, amusing movie and the leads are well suited to their roles.

Wicked (Flipped Out Productions, 1998)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I spent most of the earlier part of the morning watching Wicked, a 1998 movie (apparently a movie-movie, though I was watching it on a recording from the Lifetime channel) starring Julia Stiles as Ellie Christianson, older of the two daughters of Ben (William R. Moses, one of the blankly sort-of handsome sandy-haired lanky guys Lifetime usually casts as its male leads) and Karen (Chelsea Field) Christianson. They live in Casa del Norte, a gated community that turns out to be such a hotbed of sexual experimentation and moral busy-bodiness that Peyton Place looks like a convent by comparison. Ben is having an affair with the family’s blonde maid, Lena Anderson (Louise Myrback) — who looks like she could be Ellie’s older sister even though she doesn’t have one — while his wife is sleeping with (or at least getting fucked by) Lawson Smith (Patrick Muldoon, a much hotter guy than William R. Moses), who as the film opens is getting dumped by his wife, who’s leaving him and taking the kids with him because he’s so irresponsible economically. (When they leave they do so in a yellow moving van labeled “Ryker” — obviously the Ryder company didn’t want their product placed in such a kinky movie.)

The synopsis on the Lifetime Web site suggested a good-bad movie in which Ellie takes over her mom’s role after her mom’s death and even gets her dad to have sex with her — and that plot thread is indeed there, but there’s a lot of other stuff as well. About a third of the way through mom doesn’t just die, she’s murdered by a carefully unshown person beating her to death with a ceramic Greek “tragedy” mask, after her window is shattered by a golf ball — which implicates Lawson because all he seems to do all day (besides have affairs) is practice golfing. Ellie not only makes it to bed with her dad, she also starts bossing her younger sister Inger (Vanessa Zima) around just like mom used to, and when dad ultimately rejects her and marries Lena (who’s established as a legal immigrant whose work visa is about to expire, so no matter how it looks to the rest of the community she has to marry him in a hurry so she can legally stay in the U.S.) she has a hissy-fit, getting drunk at the wedding, passing out, spending the night in a sand bar at the local golf course and getting herself picked up by Lawson, who allows her to go in another direction that her mom went before her.

The filmmakers, director Michael Steinberg (who relentlessly overdirects this movie, doing a lot of dizzying panning that’s supposed to represent Ellie’s point of view and being utterly unable to build up any suspense because he’s constantly interrupting sequences with flashy camera angles and inexplicably wrenching edits) and writer Eric Weiss (I was amused that the screenplay for this was written by a guy with the same “real” name, except for the omission of the “h” at the end of “Eric,” as Houdini!), can’t seem themselves to decide which direction they want to take the story in — and the ending is really frustrating; the local police officer, Detective Boland (an aged, bloated Michael Parks), catches Ellie and Lawson together with blood on them and shoots Lawson dead — without any attempt to stop him or take him alive (as if one of the services this gated community offers is summary execution of any criminal caught in the act, without any bothersome ideas about due process getting in the way).

Ellie is also dead when the detective checks out the scene after shooting Lawson, and it’s left ambiguous whether Lawson killed Ellie because she wouldn’t run away with him (as he earlier may have killed Ellie’s mom because she wouldn’t run away with him) or whether Ellie was the real murderer of her mom (implied by the presence of the murder weapon and her mom’s wedding ring in Ellie’s orange suitcase, the one she was periodically packing and threatening to leave with) and was herself killed by her sister Inger, who in the film’s last ambiguous closeup is shown holding the “comedy” mask — the matched one from the set whose “tragedy” mask was used to kill her mom — and gazing hatefully at her new stepmother, as if she’s going to repeat the cycle and herself kill her (step)mother and seduce her father.

There was an intriguing film clip representing a movie Ellie is watching on TV — a blonde woman driving in a car through a ferocious rainstorm — that at first I thought was from Hitchcock’s Psycho (which would have been appropriate, since that film is also about a person who kills his mother and takes her place), but the site reports that the blonde woman is actually Candace Hilligoss and the film is Carnival of Souls — though Steinberg would have been well advised to take Hitchcock’s relative restraint as a model for his own directorial style instead of putting us through so many bizarre pans and other camera effects that just took away from the kinky pleasures of the story he was trying to tell — and frankly Eric Weiss would have been better off if, instead of having the mother be murdered, she’d just died (of cancer or some other long-term disease), with Ellie having gradually taken over her mom’s role as mom weakened and then offered herself to her dad as a substitute after mom died.

Sybil (LIfetime, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I settled into our room and I ran him the movie Sybil which I’d recently recorded off the Lifetime channel. I had read the book Sybil in the 1970’s and seen the TV-movie (the 1976 production starring Joanne Woodward as psychiatrist Dr. Cornelia Wilbur and Sally Field as Sibyl), or at least the first half of it, back then, but I hadn’t encountered the story since and when I saw this on Lifetime’s schedule I thought it would be interesting to see it again. Surprise! What Lifetime showed turned out to be not the 1976 Sibyl but a 2007 remake with Jessica Lange as Dr. Wilbur and someone named Tammy Blanchard as Sibyl, which began with a title announcing that Sybil Dorset(t) — the entry on this version lists Sybil’s last name with just one “t” but her mother’s last name with two — was actually a pseudonym cooked up by the 1973 book’s author, Flora Rheta Schreiber, to cover up her identity and protect her (though I also couldn’t help but wonder if Schreiber was deliberately picking that name as an analogy to the multi-voiced prophetess Sybil in Greek mythology).

Her real name was Shirley Ardell Mason and she died of breast cancer in Lexington, Kentucky at age 75 on February 26, 1998 after living there for years as a recluse, teaching art students in her home but otherwise having little or no interaction with humanity. It might have been trippy if the makers of this version, Norman Stephens Productions, had cast Sally Field as the psychiatrist — that would have continued the daisy chain that the makers of the first Sybil had started by casting Woodward, who’d played a multiple personality herself in her Academy Award-winning turn in the 1957 film The Three Faces of Eve — but at least Lange had played a mental patient in the Frances Farmer biopic Frances and therefore she could do a similar progression to Woodward’s from playing patient to playing therapist.

Alas, while the 1976 Sybil was a two-part TV-movie scheduled over four hours, this one was only a two-hour single-parter — and the story really seemed rushed in the shorter time frame — and the cause wasn’t helped by Blanchard’s performance, which was perfectly competent where Field’s had been incandescent. (Blanchard is a quite decent actress but I haven’t seen her land any major movies lately or win any Academy Awards and thank the Academy voters for really, really liking her.) At least Lange was quite good as the therapist, especially in the scenes in which she gets to assert herself as a woman and answer the sexist cracks made by a rival male doctor who referred Sibyl to her in the first place and thought Sibyl was a garden-variety hysteric and Dr. Wilbur was implanting in her the delusion that she had all these alternative personalities.

Also standing out in the cast is JoBeth Williams as Sibyl’s mother Hattie, a schizophrenic herself (the one commonality in patients with multiple personality disorder — or, as it’s been renamed, “dissociative identity disorder” — seems to be being raised by parents who are thoroughly bonkers themselves) and one who could have given Joan Crawford lessons in the parenting-from-hell department; the film shows her beating Sybil for breaking a valuable crystal dish (breaking glass becomes so much of a motif in the film that Sybil breaks Dr. Wilbur’s windows often enough that one suspects the doctor’s glazier gives her a quantity discount, and in one attempt at a date with a boy named Ramon [Fab Filippo] he gives her a beautiful crystal unicorn which Sybil gratefully accepts and then one of the other personalities smashes to the ground), giving her ice-water enemas, chaining her to table and piano legs and beating her if she lost bladder or bowel control, and raping her with buttonhooks and other household items.

The book made it clear — which this film does not — that mom’s stated reason for doing the last of those was, “Men are going to be sticking things into you all your life. You need to get used to it.” People who do this sort of thing usually don’t have fulfilling sex lives, but there was nothing wrong or abnormal in the sexual part of Sybil’s parents’ relationship — just one of the many ambiguities in this tale, about whose veracity psychologists are still arguing even though both Sybil and Dr. Wilbur died in the 1990’s. The rest of the 2007 Sybil transmuted this fascinating story into a typical Lifetime disease-of-the-week tale, photographed in murky past-is-brown cliché by Donald M. Morgan, and written and directed with cool efficiency by John Pielmeier and Joseph Sargent, respectively.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Human Duplicators (Hugo Grimaldi/Woolner Bros., 1965)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Anyway, once we got back Charles and I ran a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a 1965 sci-fi messterpiece called The Human Duplicators, a sort of bastard offspring from a mating of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Robot Monster that even cast Robot Monster’s star — if you can call him that — George Nader (inevitably referred to as “Ralph Nader” by an poster), once again playing the fearless human star confronting the wicked alien (Richard Kiel in between Eegah! and James Bond villain-dom) who’s been sent by the dictator of another planet to make Earth the latest colony in its empire (an interesting movie to be seeing just after hearing Robert Jensen’s critique of the American empire!) by kidnapping selected Earthlings, making “duplicates” of them in a machine that looked like a cross between a Star Trek transporter and a walk-in hot-water heater, and then sending out the duplicates and letting them loose on the world as homicidal maniacs.

Just how that was supposed to accomplish the conquest of Earth was one of the many points on which Arthur C. Pierce’s script was maddeningly vague — at least the aliens’ plots in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its best successor, They Live, made sense — but then I’m still having a hard time trying to figure out how Osama bin Laden thought the 9/11 attacks were supposed to help accomplish the Muslim reconquest of all the formerly Islamic lands from India to Spain, either. There have been MST3K “targets” that were so inept in conception as well as execution (can you say Monster-a-Go-Go or The Wild, Wild World of Batwoman?) they couldn’t have helped but be bad movies, and then there are ones like The Human Duplicators that could at least have been halfway decent with some attention paid to credible characterizations, believable plotting and some measure of action.

As things turn out, almost nothing actually happens in The Human Duplicators — the alien agent, Dr. Kolos (“and Diet Kolos,” the MST3K crew joked), comes to the home of human scientist Prof. Vaughn Dornheimer (George Macready — what a comedown after being in great movies like Gilda and Paths of Glory!) and ensconces himself in Dornheimer’s basement laboratory while simultaneously getting a King Kong-style crush on Dornheimer’s blind daughter Lisa (Dolores Faith). Also in the mix are two other actors who made better — or at least less embarrassing — movies, including Richard Arlen (billed as “National Intelligence” — I’m not making this up, you know! — and recognizable only in one early scene) and Hugh Beaumont (as Nader’s immediate supervisor — naturally the MST3K crew joked incessantly about his most famous role as the father in Leave It to Beaver; well, a job as dad in a family sitcom is probably good training for supervising George Nader, actually), but the whole thing really creeps along, unaided by a numbingly dull script by Pierce and direction to match by Hugo Grimaldi (a black-sheep member of the royal family of Monaco who had to find another way to make a living? It would be nice to think so!), who also produced the film for a studio called the Woolner Brothers.

About the only genuinely creative visual element in this movie is the opening title, which is first shown as a mirror image in yellow letters before it transforms and opposite appears the title correctly oriented and printed in red. It’s all downhill from there, from the model spaceship that (as one MST3K’er joked) looks like it was folded from origami paper to the three diamond-shaped screens by which Richard Kiel communicates with the aliens back home (which show solarized images in different color schemes, sort of like one of Warhol’s silkscreened multiple portraits) and the utter inability of Dolores Faith to convince us her character is blind (let’s see, there’s Virginia Cherrill in City Lights and Jamie Foxx in Ray … and then clear on the other level of credibility there’s Dolores Faith in The Human Duplicators). I suspect that, at least in the later Joel Hodgson years, the MST3K people were specifically looking for movies whose badness expressed themselves largely as boredom; certainly that was the case here!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Universal’s “Magnificent Obsessions”: 1935 & 1954

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I grabbed the chance to run us the 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession, starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor in the roles far more famously played in the 1954 remake by Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, and directed by Universal’s 1930’s tear-jerker specialist, John M. Stahl. The script was by Victor Heerman and his wife, Sarah Y. Mason, with a rewrite by George O’Neil, based on a 1929 novel by minister-turned-writer Lloyd C. Douglas, whose enduring fame (such as it is) comes from the movies based on this and another one of his inspirational best-sellers, The Robe.

Magnificent Obsession
is a crazy tear-jerker about an almost saintly doctor, Dr. Hudson (never seen in the actual story), who’s endowed the Brightwood Hospital in upstate New York (“played” by Lake Arrowhead in California). At the start of the story, having been widowed some time before, he’s made a second marriage to Helen Hudson (Irene Dunne), who as the film opens is returning from an ocean voyage to Europe and is understandably eager to be reunited with her husband. Alas, when she gets to the hospital — in the company of Joyce Hudson (Betty Furness), Hudson’s adult daughter by his first wife — she’s shocked to find that her husband is dead; he had a swimming accident and fell in the lake, and though he was alive when he was pulled out he died because a lung resuscitator he’d invented was over at the other end of the lake, being used to save the life of the wastrel playboy Robert Merrick (Robert Taylor), who’d fallen in as part of a drunken party he was having with several girlfriends.

To make things even more complicated, Merrick falls for Helen Hudson at first sight — and, naturally, she loathes the sight of him because, while he didn’t outright kill her husband, he’s at least morally responsible for his death. Anxious to atone, Merrick is told by the sculptor Randolph (Ralph Morgan in an unusually sensitive performance — he was probably relieved at the opportunity to make a movie in which he didn’t play a murderer!) about “an infinite source of great power” that involves what would now be called “random acts of kindness,” doing things for other people without expecting either reward or recognition in return — one of the rules is that the help must be kept absolutely secret. Randolph, not surprisingly given that he’s a character in a novel by a Christian minister, identifies Jesus Christ as the founder of this sort of charity. Merrick tries to carry out the program but in a blatantly insincere way — he gives a high-denomination bill (Stahl’s setup and John Mescall’s camera don’t get us close enough to tell how high) to a homeless person and figures the universe has rewarded him when Helen Hudson shows up and opportunely gets car trouble.

Merrick takes her for a drive, ostensibly home, but when he tries to park out in the middle of nowhere she catches on to his game, insists she’ll walk home, gets out of the car — and just then a passing car in the other direction strikes her and knocks her to the ground. She survives but the back of her skull is fractured and her optical nerve is crushed, rendering her blind. Undaunted by the fact that he’s already caused enough trouble for this family and he really should leave them alone, Merrick continues to cruise Helen, taking advantage of the fact that she can no longer see to pose as a mysterious “Dr. Robert” and get close to her, supplying her with Braille-printed books and at one point taking her to Paris to meet with Europe’s greatest surgeons in hopes that one of them will be able to figure out how to operate on her to restore her sight. When none can, he resolves to go to medical school himself — in the later movie he does so in the U.S. but in this version he stays in Europe for his training (it’s established that when he went to college he took pre-med courses but ultimately decided not to pursue his training) — and in the climax he develops an operation and, after a momentary attack of nerves (from which he’s roused by the sight of Randolph looking into the O.R. through a window — I’m not making this up, you know!) he settles into his groove, operates on his girlfriend and saves her sight. The End.

The 1935 Magnificent Obsession was known to exist but was virtually unseeable (especially by comparison with the almost ubiquitous later version!) until its recent release by the Criterion Collection in a two-DVD package with the remake. Therefore, especially in this context, it’s impossible to judge this movie in isolation or avoid the obvious comparisons. Douglas Sirk’s direction in the remake is highly stylized, with heavily symbolic use of color by cinematographer Russell Metty and ample amounts of mood lighting and artistic framing. By contrast, John Stahl’s direction on the original is surprisingly straightforward; despite having a marvelously atmospheric cinematographer in Mescall (whose vivid chiaroscuro work on James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein and Show Boat helped those movies immeasurably), Stahl has almost every scene take place in full light and keeps going for the most obvious, bread-and-butter camera angles.

The Paris idyll between the (sort-of) lovers is by far the best-looking sequence in the film, full of mysterious half-lights and Universal’s marvelous mittel-Europan sets that only underscores the surprising lack of visual distinction in the rest of the movie. Even odder is the almost complete absence of background music — at times this looks more like a 1931 movie than one from 1935 — aside from the Romeo and Juliet overture by Tchaikovsky heard over the opening credits and a few bits of source music — though Universal had Franz Waxman on their staff and, judging from his music for Rebecca five years later, he would have been more than qualified to write a score for this film that would have immeasurably improved its emotional impact.

One curious aspect of the severity of Stahl’s style — the straightforward photography and absence of a background score — is it does force us to contemplate the moral issues behind the story a good deal more than the stylized Sirk version does; Ralph Morgan’s character sounds more like a lay minister whereas Otto Kruger, playing the same role in the Sirk, comes off more as a precursor of the 1960’s counter-culture, dropping out of the “success” treadmill to pursue his artistic ambitions. The acting is about a wash; Irene Dunne was probably intrinsically more talented than Jane Wyman but Stahl lets her get away with way too much overacting in the big moments; and Robert Taylor has to cope with a conception of his character that made him a good deal more insufferable at the beginning and more unbelievably saintly at the end (Hudson actually does a better job at striking just enough of a note of gravitas that the character’s transformation seems at least a bit more believable) — though frankly neither Taylor nor Hudson were the best imaginable actors for this role at their respective times and I can’t help wishing it had been Fredric March in the 1935 version and Montgomery Clift in the remake.

It also doesn’t help that Heerman, Mason and O’Neil both begin and end their script embarrassingly quickly — the Sirk version gets off to a much more powerful start in that we actually get to see the dual accidents that kick off the story, and whereas I faulted the Sirk version for not showing the point-of-view shot at the end of Merrick being the first thing Helen sees when she actually does regain her sight (an inexplicable omission from an otherwise marvelously stylishly directed film!), the Stahl version doesn’t even give us that much — Merrick visits Helen in her hospital room and notices her sight is recovering enough so that she can distinguish light from dark, he promises her that the rest of her sight will soon come back — and the the film fades out and the end title (a 1940’s-style Universal credit — just as the version of the studio logo was the “New Universal” one from 1937-1946 instead of the airplane logo which would have been on the film originally, suggesting that the source of Criterion’s print was a late-1930’s or early-1940’s reissue) comes up.

Charles made the point that it’s hard to compare the films because much of the difference between them is simply that between the standard Hollywood moviemaking style of the 1930’s and that of the 1950’s (and there isn’t a complicating issue like the one between the Stahl and Sirk versions of Imitation of Life, in which Sirk’s version is again more stylish visually and a good deal better acted, but suffers from eliminating the “Aunt Jemima” story thread and using a white actress, Susan Kohner, as the light-skinned African-American “passing” for white where Stahl had used a Black one, Fredi Washington); the 1935 Magnificent Obsession emerges as a real curio, a quite capable attempt to dramatize a story that’s so frankly unbelievable on its face it really takes all the stylization Sirk threw at it in the remake even to be faintly credible on screen.


The 1954 Magnificent Obsession — a star-maker for both Sirk and his male lead, Rock Hudson [in their third of eight films together — the others were Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1), Taza, Son of Cochise (2), Captain Lightfoot (4), All That Heaven Allows (5), Written on the Wind (6), Battle Hymn (7) and The Tarnished Angels (8)] — is something else again, a grandiose melodrama with religious trappings based on a 1929 novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, a former minister who also wrote a more explicitly Biblical book called The Robe.

The piece had been filmed earlier by director John C. Stahl for the Laemmles’ Universal in 1935, with Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne in the leads played in Sirk’s version by Hudson and Jane Wyman. According to Sirk, Wyman brought the project to Universal producer Ross Hunter by suggesting she’d be willing to make a film there if they would remake this property for her; according to American Movie Classics host Bob Dorian, the piece was originally planned by Hunter as a vehicle for Loretta Young, to be directed by Joseph Pevney — only Young turned it down and Pevney dropped out of the project. (Given that the entire plot turns on anonymous altruism as a direct route to “contact with a source of infinite power” — i.e., God — one could readily imagine why a hard-core Roman Catholic like Loretta Young would turn down a movie that dramatized the Protestant belief that one can reach God directly without going through the priests and the Church hierarchy.)

Anyway, Sirk got involved in the project after Jane Wyman agreed to star; he tried to read the book and couldn’t get through it (“It is the most confused book you can imagine, it is so abstract in many respects that I didn’t see a picture in it,” Sirk told Halliday), then read a script outline based on the Victor Heerman/Sarah Y. Mason adaptation for Stahl’s film (Sirk said he never actually screened the earlier version), “wandered around the house in a deep depression for a couple of days, and then, thinking it over, I realized that maybe Jane Wyman was right and this goddamned awful story could be a success. And it was; it topped the receipts of the old Stahl picture by more than ten times; it was Universal’s most successful enterprise for years.” Indeed, it was such a success that two years later Universal brought back stars (Wyman, Hudson and Agnes Moorehead), director (Sirk) and cinematographer (Russell Metty) for a follow-up, All That Heaven Allows, which is a far more coherent and believable story but does not have the — pardon the inevitable pun — obsessive quality that gives Magnificent Obsession the grip it’s had on its makers, its audiences and (at least in later generations — at the time it was released it was the sort of film critics savaged but ticket buyers flocked to see anyway) intellectual film writers ever since.

Magnificent Obsession is such an over-the-top piece of melodramatic storytelling that even Jon Halliday, with his agenda of building up Sirk’s reputation as a truly great director, calls it “an appalling weepie, remarkable for Sirk’s stunning direction.” The story deals with Robert Merrick (Hudson), heir to an auto-company fortune, who once attended medical school but decided it would take too long to become a doctor and offer too little psychological satisfaction. Instead he became an irresponsible playboy, interested mainly in setting speed records. When we first meet him he and one of his many disposable girlfriends are in his hydroplane on an increasingly choppy lake attempting to break the world’s water speed record; after putting her ashore he makes another record run, only to crash his boat and severely injure himself. He’s brought back to life by a heart respirator borrowed from a nearby hospital, but when its inventor, Dr. Wayne Phillips, coincidentally suffers a heart attack of his own the respirator isn’t available because it’s being used on Merrick, so the saintly (almost literally!) Dr. Phillips dies and, quite naturally, his widow Helen (Wyman) blames Merrick for her husband’s death — as does Joyce (Barbara Rush, in a quite good and authoritative performance), his daughter (by a previous wife; it’s established early on that Helen was a second wife and they’d only been married a few months when Dr. Phillips died).

As if that wasn’t enough to stir the melodramatic pot, Merrick starts hanging around Helen, either to win her absolution or to get into her pants (or both), and at one point he gets into her cab, she gets out to get away from him — and at that moment a passing car hits her and leaves her with a brain tumor that renders her permanently blind. This propels Merrick on a new career track; he returns to medical school and also secretly helps Helen financially as well as romancing her (since she can’t see him she doesn’t know who her new lover really is — though one would think she would have recognized his voice well before she does — and Joyce, who sees him with her stepmother, briefly threatens to “out” him but has a change of heart and decides to help him keep his secret); he also sneaks her the money to go to Switzerland where the world’s leading experts on her condition examine her, and though they conclude it’s hopeless finally, when she’s about to die from the tumor, Merrick, now a credentialed surgeon, flies out to New Mexico, performs the operation, saves her life, restores her eyesight and they presumably live happily ever after.

As excessive and over-the-top as this story is (though it’s a celebration of altruism rather than a denunciation of it — that mysterious dialogue about “mak[ing] contact with an infinite power” turns out to refer to the late Dr. Phillips’ practice of secretly giving away his money, swearing his recipients never to reveal the identity of their benefactor, and brushing away their attempts to repay him by saying “it’s all used up” — indicating his desire to give away money until he has none left, which is how his widow finds out after his death that he left her absolutely nothing but the house they lived in, and the interlocutor who explains all this to Merrick — and to us — is one of the most interesting and loosely tied-in characters in the entire story: Randolph [Otto Kruger], an artist Dr. Phillips helped and in later reels almost literally the personification of God on Earth — it has the same quasi-operatic intensity of an Ayn Rand novel), Magnificent Obsession has one welcome attribute: though it may deal with them in a manipulative and ham-handed way it does deal with big philosophical issues (as ex-minister Lloyd C. Douglas clearly intended it to when he wrote the source novel two decades earlier!): why are we here and what does God expect of us?

The haunting quality of the script (however silly it verges on being, and sometimes goes over) conveys a surprisingly radical view of the Christian ethos for a big-budget Hollywood spectacular shot in 1953 and released in 1954: the Christ that artist Randolph evokes as a precedent for Dr. Phillips’ behavior is certainly not the safe, “Establishment” Christ worshiped in mainline Protestantism in mid-20th Century America, nor the success-oriented, go-getter Christ of Bruce Barton’s (in)famous book The Man Nobody Knows. Robert Merrick is a hateful character in the opening reels not just because he’s a playboy but because he has more money than he knows what to do with and he hasn’t accepted the idea of his fortune as a sacred trust with which he’s supposed to help others rather than himself — a conception one would more readily expect in a 1960’s movie than in a 1950’s one, and proof once again that there were quite a few 1950’s artists (many of them very popular with audiences) who were far more cynical of the values of “success” and conformism than the modern-day idolaters of the 1950’s as America’s Golden Decade!

Magnificent Obsession manages the fascinating feat of presenting its outlandish material honestly and not condescending to it (at least not in Sirk’s direction and in the performances he got out of his cast — screenwriter Robert Blees, working from Wells Root’s adaptation of the earlier Heerman-Mason script, was far less sensitive to the subversive implications of the tale than Sirk was; and Frank Skinner, who composed the musical score with some major help from Chopin, sometimes sailed over the top and back again with his Chopin-based arrangements for full string orchestra, piano soloist and wordless chorus!). As Halliday put it right after his admission that this story was “an appalling weepie,” “Numerous demonstrations of lighting, camerawork, music — in short, style — redeem an otherwise atrocious tale.” Certainly this movie wouldn’t still be shown if Joseph Pevney (whose early-1950’s films at Universal-International show a certain command of noir visual style but nothing of the peculiar intensity of Sirk’s!) had directed it with Loretta Young as star!

Sirk’s direction isn’t perfect — I can’t imagine how, in a plot that turns so much on sight (and the lack of same), he missed the opportunity to film at least part of the climax from Helen’s point of view (the sight of Rock Hudson’s face emerging before her from the darkness in which she’s spent most of the film would have been a perfect capstone to a surprisingly moving story) — but he gets superb performances out of his women (Wyman, Moorehead surprisingly sympathetic as her confidante — a role she’d repeat in All That Heaven Allows at a time when every other director in Hollywood cast her only as a bitch) and (as they would later in All That Heaven Allows) Sirk and cinematographer Metty create absolutely astonishing, painterly scenes, so richly colored and so evocative of the story they tell that modern directors and cinematographers should be forced to watch this film before they unleash another dull, dirty-looking past-is-brown drama on us. One quirk of Sirk’s direction is that his experience in German films (even under Hitler) and American noirs taught him the value of these dark, chiaroscuro scenes — and, unlike a lot of other noir directors, he saw the value of an occasional noir visual even in telling a decidedly different kind of story.

And the visual richness is matched by a richness of theme — the “punch line” of this film, if it can be called that, being that having been responsible for the death of the saintly Dr. Phillips, Merrick atones by literally taking his place — as the doctor in charge of the Brightwood clinic; as the secret philanthropist; and, of course, as Helen’s husband. Sirk himself compared the story to Euripides’ play Alcestis (in which the title character is a Greek queen who offers her own life in exchange for that of her husband, killed in war: “The husband hesitates. If he accepts he is ruined. If he doesn’t he is dead. It is an impossible situation”), and it’s fascinating to note the parallels not only to acknowledged “great” literature but to other films. Charles noted the similarity to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in the concept of a super-rich man atoning for his sins by giving his money away — and I thought of two films released shortly after Lloyd C. Douglas published his novel, both of which also quite closely associate secret philanthropy and physical disability: John Adolfi’s The Man Who Played God (another film that, at least to me, transcends its origins as a tear-jerker and becomes quite intense and moving) and Charles Chaplin’s City Lights.

In The Man Who Played God it is the secret philanthropist, not one of his recipients, who is disabled (and the disability is deafness, not blindness), but we are clearly meant to see the protagonist’s change from healthy egomania to disabled altruism as a sign of moral progress. In City Lights, of course, the blind girl’s benefactor is Chaplin’s penniless “tramp,” and he has got the money to fund her operation by stealing (and serving a prison term), so the big last-reel revelation once she sees him for the first time is not that he’s super-rich but that he’s super-poor (and his benefactor was an alcoholic who befriended and helped him when he was drunk and gave him the cold shoulder when sober — an interesting variation on the duality of Robert Merrick’s character!) — but certainly all three films have in common a fascinating interchange of perception and philanthropy, of real and false identity (Halliday, in one of his questions to Sirk, drew the “internal balance between the blindness of Jane Wyman and the false identity of Hudson, so the film has a structure, with contrasting characters, which heightens the impact”), of love and responsibility, of sensual pleasure and spirituality — a remarkably sophisticated conception of humans and their place in the universe for works intended “merely” as entertainment! — 5/5/03


I watched the 1954 version of Magnificent Obsession, which remains one of the great frustration films of all time because it’s better than it has any right to be given the bizarre silliness of the story. The director, Douglas Sirk, was clearly as ambivalent about it as anyone else; asled by Jon Halliday how he could treat a story like that, he said, “You have to do your utmost to hate it — and to love it. … If I had had to stage Magnificent Obsession as a play I wouldn’t have survived. It is a combination of kitsch, and craziness, and trashiness. But craziness is very important, and it saves trashy stuff like Magnificent Obsession. This is the dialectic — there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.”

As silly as the story is (a 1929 novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, author of The Robe, that had already been filmed by Universal in 1935, with John M. Stahl as director, Victor Heerman and his wife Sarah Y. Mason as screenwriters and Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor as stars — the American Film Institute Catalog reports this as “print viewed,” which means it still exists, but to the best of my knowledge — or John’s — it’s never been shown on TV or revived) — playboy and auto-company heir Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) causes the death of philanthropic doctor Warren Phillips (who’s never actually seen in the film, giving him a sort of god-like quality that no doubt only accentuated Douglas’s clear intent at making him a Christ-like figure in his modern-day religious parable) by tying up the one resuscitator available when he has a motorboat accident; then causes Phillips’ widow Helen (Jane Wyman) to go blind when she flees a taxi where he’s making a pass at her and gets herself run over by a car coming down the road on the other side; to make amends for his actions he picks up his abandoned plans to go to medical school, secretly pays for her care with the world’s top-flight experts on her condition; and finally operates on her himself and restores her eyesight, all under the guru-like guidance of Randolph (Otto Kruger, in a sympathetic role for a change), a successful painter whom the late Dr. Phillips had helped and told of a “source of infinite power” that could be tapped as long as one helped out others without asking for repayment or allowing one’s help to be revealed — Magnificent Obsession fully lives up to the title: there is a quite literally obsessive quality to this plot line that Sirk and his writer (Robert Blees, adapting the Heerman-Mason script for the 1935 film rather than working directly from the novel) and especially his cinematographer, Russell Metty, vividly capture and evoke from a group of competent if not especially great actors.

According to Sirk, the idea of doing Magnificent Obsession came originally from Jane Wyman. Universal, desperate for stars, was anxious to get her to work for them and, after she turned down a succession of scripts they offered her, they asked her what she’d be willing to do and she suggested this remake. (Though I’ve never seen the 1935 film, the AFI Catalog’s plot synopsis suggests the two are very close plot-wise.) Sirk said he tried to read the novel, couldn’t, did accept the story based on a synopsis of the earlier film and insisted on Rock Hudson for the male lead because he was trying to build Hudson into a star and he figured the role would be a star-making part for him (which it was, as the 1935 original had been for Robert Taylor).

What strikes one about the 1954 Magnificent Obsession now is its triumph of style over content; in setup after setup, Sirk and Metty achieve the burnished look of Old Masters’ paintings (especially noteworthy are the twilight scenes in Jane Wyman’s hotel room in Switzerland, where she has gone for consultations with the world’s most eminent specialists in brain lesions, which are so perfectly composed and lit they look like Rembrandt could have painted them ); and the richness of themes Sirk and Blees built into this story. Sirk compared the piece to Euripides’ Alcestis — the classic Greek tragedy in which a woman offers her own life in exchange for her recently deceased husband’s — and it’s clear that the parallel informed his direction and shaped the story towards one in which Merrick actually assumes the identity and unfinished business of the late Dr. Phillips in all respects (as a doctor, as a philanthropist and, eventually, as Helen’s love object). There are plenty of other aspects that add richness to the tale, including the marvelous irony that when she still has her eyesight Helen rejects Merrick but, once she’s blind, he can work his way into her affections — as if being literally blinded opens her inner sight (in Greek mythology blind characters like the seer Tiresias were generally thought of as having unusual powers of perception that visual sight would only have interfered with) to his essential goodness even before he is aware of it himself.

There are glitches in this film — we’re told the story opens in 1948 but the cars we see in the opening sequence are clearly those of 1953 (when the film was shot — for some reason it was held back from release for almost a year after production) — and perhaps a certain bit of opportunism in Jane Wyman’s insistence on playing it (I couldn’t help thinking that her eagerness to play a blind woman on screen may have stemmed from her having won an Academy Award for playing a deaf-mute in Johnny Belinda five years earlier) — and I still can’t imagine how a director so otherwise sensitive as Sirk could have missed the seemingly obligatory point-of-view shot of Merrick as Helen regains her sight and he is the first thing she sees, but otherwise Magnificent Obsession is a peculiarly great film, ably summed up by Jon Halliday as “an appalling weepie, remarkable for Sirk’s stunning direction. Numerous demonstrations of lighting, camerawork, music — in short, style — redeem an otherwise atrocious tale.”

At the same time Magnificent Obsession is also noteworthy for its cynical attitude towards success and its worship; a plot line about a rich man who gives all his money away and goes to his death believing he has profited by the deal in terms of the things that really matter was certainly nervier in 1954 than it had been in the middle of the Depression, and even the explicit identification of Dr. Phillips’ ideals with those of Jesus Christ seems amazingly radical for the time — this is not the “success-oriented” Christ of Bruce Barton and Norman Vincent Peale but the Christ of Martin Luther King and the liberation theologians to follow. In a sense, Magnificent Obsession is a New Age film at a time when the New Age wasn’t cool (though as Charles pointed out the ideals later known as “New Age” are at least 160 years old, and certainly works expressing similar philosophies would have been available to Lloyd C. Douglas when he wrote the source novel), and it seems surprising that such a fundamentally anti-materialist film (albeit one whose visual look is drenched in the characters’ comfortable materialistic world — unlike the similarly plotted Depression-era The Man Who Played God, no one here is in visible want) would have been made in such a seemingly materialistic, success-oriented decade as the 1950’s — and it’s even more surprising that the film would have been such an enormous hit! — 6/28/04

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Company She Keeps (RKO, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Company She Keeps is a 1950 film noir of sorts from RKO which begins with “bad girl” Mildred Lynch (Jane Greer) going before a parole board two years into her five-year (indeterminate) sentence for receiving stolen property and cashing bad checks — crimes she blames on the boyfriends she was seeing at the time. The four women members of the parole board outvote the one man (who thinks Mildred is using her sexual wiles to get him to let her out) and give her her “ticket of leave” — that rather old-fashioned phrase is actually used in the film’s dialogue (the writer is Ketti Frings), but warn her that technically she’s still in prison and has to stay in the boarding house where they arranged for her to live, work at the job they set up for her (as a nurse’s aide in a hospital), abstain from alcohol and avoid serious entanglements with men.

Taking the name “Diane Stuart,” she tries her best to conceal her identity as a parolee but is “outed” by one of her co-workers, hard-as-nails Tilly Thompson (Fay Baker). Diane’s parole officer is Joan Wilburn (Lizabeth Scott, top-billed), and the two women clash immediately. Their relationship goes from bad to worse when Diane gets a crush on Joan’s boyfriend, newspaper columnist Larry Collins (Dennis O’Keefe, older and puffier than he was in his days as a comedian in the mid-1940’s), and worse still when Larry reciprocates Diane’s attentions, goes on some rather quirky dates with her (their first night out together he takes her to a midget car racing — RKO had just done a short on midget car racing so they had a lot of stock footage of it — and later they go to a planetarium, which prompted Charles to joke, “At least no one gets shot”) and ultimately asks her to marry him — which requires the approval of the parole officer who just happens to be her rival for Larry’s affections.

It’s one of those movies that’s quite entertaining and engaging as it stands but could have been even better — what it needed was a screenplay that delved deeper into the quirky issues raised by the story, a more sensitive and truly noir director than John Cromwell (Anthony Mann would probably have been a good choice then), and above all a stronger actress in the role of the parole officer. Lizabeth Scott’s long-term stardom is one of those inexplicable mysteries Hollywood throws up — how did someone with such limited talent as an actress get to be a star for so long and do major films with legendary performers like Humphrey Bogart and Elvis Presley? — and the film really suffers from the lack of an actress strong enough to be the steel to Jane Greer’s flint (someone like Joan Crawford or, my favorite from the period and a star who seemingly could have improved almost any film, Barbara Stanwyck).

As it is, what rings truest about the film is the inner conflict Greer enacts so well — her tough-as-nails attitude, forged in her years as an itinerant criminal after her family threw her out when she was 11 and then honed to almost diamond hardness by her years in prison, vs. her sufficient intelligence and sensitivity to realize that the hardness that was essential for her survival in prison is actually hurting her chances for success “outside.” The best scenes in the movie are the two in which Diane née Mildred is tempted to go back to a life of crime — when she’s about to go on her first date with Larry and wants a coat, and is tempted to shoplift one; and at the end, when she’s petitioned a judge to restore her civil rights and the judge, despite Joan’s pleadings, seems to be against her; she grabs a chance to flee the building and only when she runs into Larry outside (he gets into the same cab) does she let him talk her into returning and facing the judge’s decision, whatever it is — and the film is “stolen” out from under Lizabeth Scott’s tiny nose by Greer and also by Fay Baker, whose unrepentant crook (she’s using her hospital job to steal drugs and give them to her boyfriend for sale on the street) not only makes a nice contrast to the one who’s trying to reform but also creates the kind of sparks in her conflicts with the heroine that the antagonism between Diane and Joan does not.

It’s not all that clear just what attracts Larry to Diane and why he gives up good old respectable Joan for this ill-fated woman from prison — once again, better writing and direction could have done much to clear this up and made this a deeper, richer film than the one we have, in which the bitterness a person in Joan’s position must have felt about losing a man to one of her charges is soft-pedaled (Lizabeth Scott probably couldn’t have played it anyway) and the three inexplicably seem to end up as friends, with Joan risking her own job to go to bat for Diane. One striking bit of cross-promotion between Howard Hughes’ enterprises occurs in this film: the Hughes-owned RKO produced it and, in a scene at an airport, the plane we see is clearly marked with the logo and insignia of another Hughes property (at the time), TWA.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Occupation 101 (Abdallah and Sufyan Omeish, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Occupation 101 turned out to be quite a movie; directed by Abdallah and Sufyan Omeish (I presume they’re brothers) and written by them and Alison Weir — she did the narration (both writing and delivering it), it’s a relentless portrayal of Israel’s oppression of Palestine dating from the inception of the “Jewish state” in 1948 and even earlier, and makes it clearer than most presentations on this topic that in more ways than one, Israel is yet another bit of collateral damage from the Holocaust; not only did the world community’s position on Zionism shift from anti to pro just after World War II when the victor nations (the U.S. and Britain in particular), realizing how little they’d done to prevent the Holocaust, gave the Zionists international sanction to launch their state, but even before that the pressure of Nazi persecution led a lot of European Jews to flee to the Holy Land and shift the population balance of Palestine from only 3 percent Jews at the turn of the last century to about one-third at the end of World War II. (Ironically, all these Jews ended up going to Palestine at least partly because the U.S. and the Western European countries they would have preferred to relocate to wouldn’t let them in.)

The film taught me one fact about Israel’s occupation of Palestine I hadn’t known before: it highlighted the size of the Palestinian Christian community and noted that they’re lumped in with the Palestinian Muslims and treated just as savagely by the Israeli occupiers — which made it even more ironic that the evangelical Christian movement in the U.S. has embraced Israel’s cause, and in particular the demand of the Israeli far-Right that Israel annex all of the West Bank and Gaza because the fulfillment of the eschatological predictions of the Book of Revelation (at least the way the evangelical community’s consensus reads it) demand, among other things, that the Jews rule all of historic Judea and Samaria so the battle of Armageddon can occur (at which time the Jews will be given an on-the-spot choice — immediate conversion to Christianity or eternal consignment to the flames of Hell — with friends like these, the Jews don’t need enemies!).

Aside from that, Occupation 101 — which begins with footage of the Nazi occupations and then flashes forward to the British in India, the apartheid regime in South Africa and then Israel in Palestine, all set to a relentless rock beat that turns occupation footage into a weird music video (at this point I was thinking maybe the film should have been called Palestoyisqatsi) — presents a story familiar to anyone who’s researched the issue from alternative sources of the Israeli Jews’ relentless pursuit of religio-ethnic cleansing in the Holy Land from their initial occupation of it in the late 1940’s, which kick-started into high gear with Israel’s sweeping triumph in the 1967 Six-Day War and now leaves Israel in effective control of about 90 percent of historic Palestine.

The film features a long list of commentators, many of them Israelis themselves — this isn’t the first movie to note that the Israeli mass media (especially the newspaper Ha’aretz) are more free to offer criticisms of Israel and its occupation policies than the U.S. media, which hew to a strongly pro-Israel line — exposing the Israeli abuses and arguing that what Israel is after is to make the existence of the Palestinians so unpleasant long-term that they simply leave. Indeed, on this point the film may not be radical enough; in Israel’s recent attack on Gaza, even the option of flight was denied to the Gazans under siege because Egypt, the only other country that borders Gaza, accommodated Israel and the U.S. and sealed its border so the Gazans couldn’t leave and badly needed food, medicine and other supplies couldn’t get in.

Quite frankly, the Israelis seem to be interested not in getting the Palestinians to leave but in starving them slowly and achieving the kind of slow-motion “genocide by hunger” the government of Stalin wreaked on the Ukrainians in the early 1930’s — and one could certainly argue the possibility that the Israelis are perfectly aware of a point made in the film, that the more you terrorize people by subjecting them to long-term occupation the likelier they are to lose all faith in life itself and become terrorists, and are counting on that outcome so they can use the Palestinians’ suicide bombings and rocket attacks on Israel as an excuse to wipe them out and thereby apply a “final solution to the Palestinian problem.” After the film I made the point that, while calling the occupation of Palestine a “second Holocaust” (with Jews as perpetrators instead of principal victims this time) is a bit extreme — Israel hasn’t actually set up death camps to kill the Palestinians en masse the way the Nazis did to kill the Jews — Israel has uncannily reconstructed the same array of oppressive measures the Christian governments of Western Europe routinely imposed on their Jewish populations from the Middle Ages until the 18th and 19th centuries: locking them in ghettoes (one shot in the film even shows a spray-painted graffito on the “separation wall” by which Israel has bisected Palestine that reads, “Ghetto,” obviously the work of a Palestinian who has made this historical parallel), depriving them of work and income, forcing them to carry internal passports and have their movements monitored and arbitrarily restricted through checkpoints.

There’s no particular ground for hope in this situation — the makers of this movie are obviously hoping for an international outcry against Israel that will parallel the one against apartheid South Africa and lead to the fall of the Zionist state and its replacement by a secular, democratic, multi-religious Palestine (the “one-state solution”), but as of now Israel has the major cards on its side — notably a state-of-the-art military and the 100 percent backing of the world’s greatest military power ever, the United States — and, ironically, it seems as if the Palestinians’ best hope is if they can hold out as a people long enough for the U.S. to fall victim to its own economic weakness and the American empire to pass from the scene the way the Roman, British, German and Russian empires did.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Zoo (Think Film, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles Zoo, the 2007 documentary (actually quasi-documentary, since many of the sequences in it are re-created, some of them with the actual participants, some with actors) about “zoophiles” — people who like having sex with animals — and in particular the incident in King County, Washington in 2005 in which an aerospace engineer at Boeing died as a result of a perforated colon from having anal-receptive sex with a horse. The film was quite controversial on its initial release — no surprise there — and sparked quite a lot of debate as to the morals and ethics of zoophilia and in particular whether animals can truly “consent” to a sexual experience and, if they can’t, is zoophilia inherently rape. (Lawrence Russell answered that question the way a zoophile might in the 1971 book Perversions, published by Greenleaf Press — the porn house Edward D. Wood, Jr. wrote for the last 15 years of his life: “While a dog cannot be taken to be a consenting adult, dogs usually have rather drastic methods of showing their dislike for something.”)

Zoo reminded me of those dreadfully earnest documentaries made in the late 1960’s about Gay people — the same shroud of secrecy surrounding the people and their actions, the same accounts of the shame they faced internally when they realized in what direction fate had steered their sexual desires, and the same uneasy attempt by the filmmakers to seem “responsible” and avoid direct titillation while at the same time taking advantage of the disquieting (to say the least) nature of their subject. Zoo is a powerful film but also a frustrating one; we get very little sense of what makes the zoophiles “run,” and in their efforts to downplay the obvious opportunities to shock and titillate the audience, director Robinson Devor and his co-writer, Charles Mudede, go in the other direction and make their movie surprisingly dull.

Zoo features marvelous cinematography by Sean Kirby — he takes full advantage of “magic hour” (twilight) to make the naturally awesome Pacific Northwest scenery positively glow — and an eloquent musical score by Paul Matthew Moore that seamlessly taps into the “Neptune — The Mystic” movement from Gustav Holst’s The Planets (at times it’s hard to tell where Holst leaves off and Moore begins, or vice versa). Devor seems genuinely fascinated by the zoophiles and anxious to get to understand them, but about all he can do in that regard is show us the utter normality of every other aspects of their lives — even the zoophile sex party he shows seems like any other weekend gathering of old friends, down to the host saying that sometimes he invites all those people and nothing (or at least nothing zoosexual) happens. To the extent to which we get to see the zoophiles themselves, they seem either loners with a neurotic distaste for the company of humans or people envious of animals for not having the “civilized” world to worry about.

The part of the film that most rang true for me was when one of the zoophiles said it was a relief to be in physical contact with an animal precisely because it allows you to shed the burden of humanness — to turn off the sentient faculties and essentially become an animal yourself for the duration. I remembered hearing that from the man I interviewed for Zenger’s about “horse-play,” which in his view meant people doing role-play as horses rather than having sex with them (and, indeed, many of the people taking on the human roles in these horse-play scenarios recoil with horror at the thought of actual sex with their horse-partners precisely because it carries the psychological taint of bestiality) — that the appeal of it (and of the more common dog-play) was precisely in transcending your human-ness and becoming just another animal, operating solely on sensation and instinct rather than letting the intellect get in the way.

Zoo was a hard movie to watch, in more ways than one; even as relatively un-prudish a person as me is pretty lost by the appeal of zoophilia (I don’t object to it on moral grounds; I just don’t see why anybody would want to do it — though maybe it would be more comprehensible if I’d grown up in a rural area and animals other than family pets had been a routine part of my life), and Devor is so matter-of-fact in his presentation of it that the movie holds your attention only by the sheer outrageousness of the subject matter and in spite of the director’s attempts to play it down.

Tristan + Isolde (20th Century-Fox, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I didn’t have a chance earlier to write about the movie Charles and I screened Saturday night as a Valentine’s Day special: Tristan + Isolde (that’s how the title is spelled on both the DVD box and the actual credits, apparently in imitation of the Romeo + Juliet nomenclature of the 1996 Baz Luhrmann modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s play, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo and Claire Danes as Juliet), a 2006 production by director Kevin Reynolds — the boyhood friend of Kevin Costner whose relationship was strained when they made Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and then totally destroyed by the traumas of Waterworld — though both Ridley Scott and his brother Tony are among the crowd of credited producers and Ridley actually planned to make this in the 1970’s before abandoning it and doing Alien instead (a wise move for the future of his career!).

Part of the attraction of this movie was the casting of James Franco as Tristan, and for me the temptation to show this the night after we’d watched him in a modern-dress stoner role in Pineapple Express was irresistible. What I wouldn’t have guessed was that the modern-dress drug comedy would be a lot more entertaining than this mediocre period piece! Tristan + Isolde isn’t a bad movie; it’s just not a particularly good one, and given that it’s up against two magnificent tellings of the story in other media — Gottfried von Strassburg’s prose poem and Richard Wagner’s opera — the mediocrity of the version Reynolds and his writer, Dean Georgaris, simply isn’t good enough. Reynolds and Georgaris altered the story almost unrecognizably, using little of either Gottfried or Wagner but some of the proper names and the basic situation — Prince Tristan of Cornwall, adoptive son of King Marke, brings back Irish princess Isolde to be Marke’s bride as part of a peace treaty between England and Ireland but falls in love with her himself.

The big element they left out was the love potion that sparks their affair; Gottfried, stuck with the medieval writer’s obligation to remain faithful to his source (an earlier version of the legend by someone named Thomas) — the new writer was allowed to add detail to the older version but not to add or change plot points — was stuck with the idea that Tristan and Isolde had had no romantic interest in each other until they drank the potion, which left him at a loss to explain why Isolde saved Tristan’s life after he had killed her fiancé, Morold, in battle. Wagner, not stuck with the same rules, hinted that Isolde was romantically (or at least sexually) interested in Tristan pre-potion; Georgaris took that hint and ran with it, not only showing Isolde as having the hots for Tristan but them actually consummating their affair as soon as he was healed enough to be able to have sex.

This has one fringe benefit, at least for straight female and Gay male viewers — it offers more and better views of James Franco “in the flesh” than any other film of his I’ve seen — but not only does it soften the blow when they finally do become adulterers, it wrecks the balance of the plot so carefully crafted by Gottfried and followed by Wagner, especially since in this version Isolde is aware from the beginning who Tristan is (in both Gottfried and Wagner he inverts his first name and calls himself “Tantris” when he’s under Isolde’s care, aware that if she knew who he really was she’d kill him) and therefore there isn’t the visceral thrill or suspense of what’s going to happen to him when she “outs” him. Georgaris not only leaves out the love potion — the armamentarium of herbs Isolde’s mother teaches her to use is strictly medicinal, not supernatural — he omits all the fantasy elements of the story, much to its detriment. Without the potion, and the obsessiveness it adds to the story (especially in Wagner’s death-soaked version, in which Tristan and Isolde are undecided moment-by-moment whether what they most want is sex or death), Tristan + Isolde turns into a very ordinary romantic triangle in which the attempts of Tristan and Isolde to find places they can have sex safely takes on an unintended (at least I hope it was unintended) air of farce.

To make it even worse, Georgaris decides to wrap his story around a political theme, beginning with a sequence of printed titles expressing that the various British tribes are living under the oppressive rule of the Irish empire, with Ireland’s warrior-king Donnchadh (David Patrick O’Hara) keeping control of the next-door island by pitting its tribes against each other and extracting tribute (money and livestock) from them all. I’m not exactly a hard-core Irish nationalist, but given the 1,000 years during which it was Britain that occupied and oppressed Ireland, I got the same sort of clammy feeling from this plot point I’d probably have if I ever watched one of those Nazi propaganda movies detailing the horrible oppression and discrimination Germans supposedly suffered under Polish, Czech or Jewish occupation.

James Franco is part of the problem with this movie; he’s hot-looking and a quite capable actor (I still say I’d have liked the Spider-Man movies better if it had been Franco as Spider-Man and Tobey Maguire as his friend-turned-adversary instead of the other way around!) but, like the late Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale (one of the movies, along with Braveheart, evoked in the promotional copy on the DVD box for this), Franco is simply too modern an actor to seem credible in a medieval role (which is true of most of the cast at well; at times watching Tristan + Isolde seems like watching video of a Renaissance Faire) — just as he’s good-looking and charismatic enough to be credible as Tristan the lover but simply isn’t butch enough to be credible as Tristan the warrior. At least he’s better than his Isolde, Sophia Myles, who can barely act at all.

Another aspect of this movie that really rubbed me the wrong way is Anne Dudley’s musical score; it’s true that she has the unfair burden of the inevitable comparisons with Wagner, but the mess of Irish folk-dance music to represent the principals at peace, pounding percussion to represent them at war, and treacly piano-and-strings stuff that would seem right at home in a Lifetime TV-movie to represent the titular lovers probably would sound terrible even if we didn’t have Wagner’s masterpiece to compare it to. (It’s a pity this movie didn’t get a composer who could have done for it what Gottfried Hüppert did for Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen: create a score that sounded appropriately “Wagnerian” without actually lifting any of Wagner’s themes or motifs.)

It also doesn’t help that Artur Reinhart’s cinematography is thoroughly in the past-is-brown mold, and makes the scene look so dirty and squalid Charles and I found ourselves thinking of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and even quoting some of its lines — or that Reynolds' direction is pretty dull in the action scenes, lacking the peculiar intensity of the violence-porn of Mel Gibson's staging of Braveheart. I came away from Tristan + Isolde oddly wishing that Warners would have done a version in the 1930’s, with Errol Flynn as Tristan (he would have had no trouble being credible as both lover and warrior!), Olivia de Havilland as Isolde, Claude Rains as Marke, Michael Curtiz directing and Erich Wolfgang Korngold composing.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Pineapple Express (Columbia, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie I ran Charles last night was Pineapple Express, another accidental acquisition for my DVD collection (it was a Columbia House “director’s selection” that I must not have been on line at the right time to tell them not to send me) but which turned out to be a lot of fun. It’s a comedy from the Judd Apatow stable — a set of films I’d avoided until now because I’d heard they were mostly straight male-bonding films with a doggedly sexist streak and the kinds of offensive potty and puke gags that have put me off most recent “comedies,” but this one, though there was a puke gag in it, was genuinely funny at least often enough to be entertaining.

It’s a spoof of marijuana and drug-soaked crime thrillers that begins with an eccentric sequence set in 1937 (and shot in black-and-white) in which the U.S. government is testing exotic grades of pot on servicemembers, and when one of the test subjects tells the researchers in no uncertain terms how the stuff makes him feel about his superior officers (let’s just say here that it reinforces his already low opinion of them), the Army brass running the tests chant out in unison the word, “ILLEGAL!,” thereby signaling their intention to ban the substance and seal up their test facility so no one can ever get at this high-grade stuff again.

Flash-forward to the present, and we meet our principals: Dale Denton (Apatow regular Seth Rogen, who co-wrote the story with Apatow and executive producer Evan Goldberg and co-wrote the script with Goldberg), who makes a grungy but decent living as a process server and has his pot and his high-school (but already 18, we’re solemnly informed so the filmmakers don’t get the underage-sex Thought Police on their backs) girlfriend Angie (Amber Heard). Just what this nice-looking blonde with a retinue of genuinely hot fellow students surrounding her sees in an overweight stoner schlub like Dale is unfathomable, but hey, it’s only a movie, and a Judd Apatow movie at that, so we take it for granted.

Dale is supposed to meet Angie’s parents for dinner when he stops off at the home of his drug dealer, Saul Silver (James Franco in a genuine change-of-pace role; aside from being by far the most attractive male in the film, he’s a good foil for Rogen, essentially Abbott to his Costello), where he’s introduced to a high-grade sort of weed called Pineapple Express which supposedly no other dealer in L.A. (this is one film both shot in L.A. and set there) has — only the supply of Pineapple Express is supposed to be controlled by kingpin Ted Jones (Gary Cole) and his corrupt-cop girlfriend, Carol (Rosie Perez).

While driving with Saul, Dale sees Ted and Carol do a home invasion and gun someone down — the someone turns out to be part of a Chinese drug cartel who’d been trying to horn in on Ted’s business — and realize they’re in mortal danger, especially since while fleeing the scene (and crashing into two parked cars trying to get out of his own parking space) Dale threw down a roach containing Pineapple Express into the street and Ted picked it up, toked on it, realized what it was and guessed that his secret was out. From then the film is a pretty non-stop action sequence, as Ted sends two hit men — hunky African-American Matheson (Craig Robinson) and henpecked Jew Budlofsky (Kevin Corrigan), whose sole priority is to get the killings they’ve been hired to do over and done with quickly enough so he can make it back to his wife for dinner — to kill Dale and Saul, and they succeed in torturing Red (Danny R. McBride), the go-between in the drug sales chain between Ted and Saul, to find out Dale’s and Saul’s whereabouts.

There’s a great slapstick sequence involving a car chase Mack Sennett would have been proud of — in a modern wrinkle on the old gags, Saul is hit by Dale’s car and ends up spilling Slurpee all over its windshield, making it impossible to see where he’s driving; when Dale suggests Saul kick a hole in the windshield, Saul does so but his foot gets stuck in it, he’s uncomfortable and he still can’t see. The bits of slapstick are the funniest parts of the movie; much of the rest is sufficiently dark it qualifies as black comedy, and the film ends in a nicely staged action climax at the abandoned U.S. pot farm from the 1937 framing sequence, which had been taken over by Ted, who apparently used their surviving stock of seeds to grow his Pineapple Express and various other exotic flavors of grass.

Director David Gordon Green does a deft job of combining the brutal drug-war elements of the Apatow-Rogen-Goldberg script with the gags — the ending sequence could have been appallingly brutal (especially since the script calls for Dale to get part of his ear shot off by one of Ted’s assassins) but instead it’s kept relatively light and our focus remains on Our (Anti-)Heroes and whether and how they will survive the ordeal. I still don’t think movie comedies today even come close to the (relatively) innocent merriment of either the best silent comedies or the screwball and slapstick classics from the 1930’s — though Stranger than Fiction and Kabluey made me laugh and Kabluey came the closest of any film made in the past 20 years or so to recapturing the infectious spirit of silent comedy as well as the otherwise lost art of building gag upon gag upon gag into an irresistibly infectious sequence — and Pineapple Express often seems like a retread of a Cheech and Chong movie (indeed, one could readily imagine them doing virtually the same story in the 1970’s), but on its own terms it’s engaging and often laugh-out-loud funny.