Wednesday, March 31, 2010

2012 (Columbia/Sony, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

We eventually watched the movie 2012, a large-scale disaster movie directed and co-written (with Harald Kloser) by Roland Emmerich, who’s probably the only film director in history who’s made cinematic apocalypses his market niche the way Cecil B. DeMille did with historical spectaculars and Alfred Hitchcock did with suspense thrillers. 2012 was supposedly inspired by the prophecy of the Mayan “long count” calendar that the world will end in December of that year, but almost nothing is done with the supposedly central premise; instead the film opens in space, with a straight-line alignment of several celestial bodies (as an MST3K-style joke I started humming the opening bars of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and then said, “Oops, wrong movie”) that supposedly cause the most gargantuan solar flares in the sun’s recorded history, which in turn triggers neutrinos in the earth’s core to mutate, thereby eating away the earth’s entire surface and generating major earthquakes and tsunamis all over the world, signaling the utter (though, we learn at the end of the movie, only temporary) destruction of the earth’s surface and therefore its ability to support life.

This is, of course, scientifically preposterous — but that doesn’t really matter any more than it matters, when you’re watching a porn film, why these characters are having sex with each other. Emmerich was quoted in USA Today as saying that 2012 would be his last cinematic apocalypse (which is hard to believe) and therefore he wanted to throw everything he could think of into it, from the vividly depicted destruction of historic landmarks (the Washington Monument, the Sistine Chapel and the Christ of the Andes statue — he was going to do the Ka’aba, the famous stone in Mecca that’s the final destination of the Muslim hajj, but co-writer Kloser didn’t want himself and Emmerich to end up on the wrong end of some Muslim cleric’s death sentence and so the Ka’aba is depicted but remains intact). As usual with Emmerich’s films, the most impressive and oddly beautiful parts are the scenes of death and destruction, starting with an early sequence in which a Southern California supermarket is literally split in half by one of the first quakes and ending with some of the same awesome shots of skyscrapers literally tumbling to the ground in waves — reminiscent of the shots in Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) that eerily foreshadowed the destruction of the two towers of the New York World Trade Center in the 9/11 attacks five years later.

Typically, the destruction porn way overshadows the intrigues of the human characters, including Danny Glover as U.S. President Thomas Wilson (he doesn’t look at all like Obama but, given how long this film was probably in development, Emmerich deserves credit for correctly forecasting that the U.S. would have an African-American president during the three years — 2009 to 2012 — over which his film takes place — and the name is based on the given name of a real-life U.S. President, Thomas Woodrow Wilson); Thandie Newton as his daughter, Laura; Chiwetel Ejiofor (in a part that, unlike most of the ones he’s played previously, does not allow him to go shirtless, darnit) as scientist Adrian Helmsley, who along with an (East) Indian colleague correctly prophesies the coming disaster and thereby sets the plot in motion; and another set of characters (white) representing the hoi polloi: Jackson Curtis (John Cusack, top-billed), a science-fiction writer who wrote a book called Farewell Atlantis that prefigured the plot of the movie but only sold a few hundred copies; his estranged wife Kate (Amanda Peet); their kids, Noah (Liam James) and Lilly (Morgan Lily); and her new boyfriend Gordon Silberman (Tom McCarthy in an appealingly nerdy performance).

They steal a plane and attempt to escape — in one of Emmerich’s most spectacular scenes they drive to the airport, commandeer the plane and take off in it just in time as the freeways and runways buckle and collapse just behind them — and when they realize they need a bigger plane to flee successfully, luck (or the authorial fiat of Emmerich and Kloser) puts one at their disposal, owned by Russian tycoon Yuri Karpov (Zlatko Buric) and also carrying his mistress, Tamara (Beatrice Rosen); his pilot (and, it’s hinted, her boyfriend) Sasha (Johann Urb, easily the hottest-looking guy in the movie); and a priceless collection of classic cars he was flying in to be displayed at the Las Vegas auto show; Yuri was also in Vegas to see his son fight for the heavyweight championship. At base the film is a clever reworking of When Worlds Collide (1951) — itself slated for a big-budget remake in, you guessed it, 2012 — it may be an internal meltdown of the earth rather than its impending collision with two planets that is triggering the catastrophe that will end all life on earth as we know it, but the response of the authorities has been the same: to build a series of craft that will allow a remnant of earth’s population to survive the apocalypse and rebuild.

The craft are supposed to launch from a mountain redoubt in China — though they’re not scheduled to fly into space; instead they are, in every sense of the word, “arks,” which will keep alive every known species of life and rest on the seas until earth’s surface returns to normal and there is once again stable dry land humans can inhabit. Emmerich and Kloser even copy the famous climactic scene from When Worlds Collide in which the super-tycoon tries to force his way onto the ark (actually there are at least nine of them, and he had a ticket for one but it is damaged and nonfunctional, so he tries to crash his way onto another one) and is left out just as the gates to it close in front of him. At least they don’t copy the annoying conceit of When Worlds Collide, in which the 40 people who were going to restore the human race on the new planet Zyra (the first of two on a collision course with Earth; it’s established that Zyra will take the place of Earth in its orbit around the sun while the second planet, Bellus, will hit Earth straight-on and destroy it) were all white.

There are a few bits of quasi-liberal ideology in 2012, in which the hints that the disaster could have been averted if the human race had responded sooner echoes the debate about global warming (which was the pretext for the earth’s destruction in one of Emmerich’s previous apocalypse movies, The Day After Tomorrow), and there’s an intriguing subplot between Helmsley (whose father is named Harry, after the hotelier whose fortune Leona famously married, in one of Emmerich’s and Kloser’s weirder in-jokes) and Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt, who bears an odd and entirely appropriate resemblance to Newt Gingrich), who takes control of what’s left of the U.S. government after President Wilson decides to stay in Washington, D.C. and die rather than take the seat allotted to him on the ark. Anheuser has been in charge of who does and doesn’t get on the ark, and Helmsley has a good liberal’s hissy-fit about the fact that the Chinese workers who actually built the arks won’t be allowed on them; he’s also upset that Anheuser has taken money from various fat-cats for tickets to the arks — and given how rapidly Rightward the American Zeitgeist is switching these days I’m surprised Emmerich and Kloser didn’t give Anheuser (their quasi-fascist would have a German name!) an Ayn Randian speech to the effect that he’s skewing the ark population towards successful people because the revival of the human race is going to depend on people who’ve shown the entrepreneurial spirit rather than a whole bunch of proletarian losers.

2012 is good fun, with a welcome awareness of its own campiness (some of the scenes are out-and-out funny, and I suspect Emmerich and Kloser, cognizant of their genre’s tendency towards silliness, meant them to be) and the kinds of awesomely beautiful shots of death and destruction that leave you entertained if also torn by one’s knowledge that these pretty pictures represent the mass deaths of millions of people. It’s the sort of movie that you can only enjoy if you keep reminding yourself, “It’s only a movie,” and while When Worlds Collide is the ur-inspiration it also owes something to virtually every previous cinematic apocalypse, from the little-known (and quite remarkable) 1933 film Deluge to On the Beach, Dr. Strangelove, 2001 and the earlier works in Emmerich’s world-ending oeuvre — but it’s still good entertainment even though, at 2 hours and 38 minutes, it’s about half an hour too long for its own good.

Racket Girls (Arena Productions/Screen Classics, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our film was a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a 1951 film called Racket Girls, distributed by a company spectacularly misnamed (at least as far as this movie was concerned!) Screen Classics, though it was produced by an outfit called Arena Productions, headed by George Weiss — whom Ed Wood buffs will remember as the producer of Wood’s first feature, Glen or Glenda? Knowing nothing of Racket Girls except its title, its approximate vintage (it was made in 1951, two years before Glen or Glenda?) and the fact that the folks at Mystery Science Theatre 3000 regarded it as bad enough to fit the format of their show, I was expecting either a movie about a gang of female criminals (possibly working on behalf of male racketeers, possibly running a racket of their own) or a gang of female juvenile delinquents.

Instead it began with a shot of two women in a wrestling match in a ring — and it seems as if Weiss and his director, Robert C. Dertano, acquired a large stash of stock footage of women’s wrestling matches and decided to build a movie around it. What Dertano — who also wrote the script, though he was credited just as director — ultimately came up with as a framing story was the tale of gangster Umberto Scalli (Timothy Farrell, who would later play a psychiatrist in Glen or Glenda? and a gangster — again — in Wood’s second feature, Jail Bait), who promotes women’s wrestling matches (and insists that the sport is clean and honest — yeah, right) to cover up his other activities running a bookie wire. (The synopsis claims he’s also involved in prostitution and drugs, but these are only hinted at, with the usual Production Code euphemisms, in the actual film; in one of the few scenes that achieves any degree of poignancy or dramatic interest, a woman pleads with Scalli to keep her supplied with pills — but it’s not clear from the way this scene is presented that he’s a drug dealer or is simply providing his wrestlers illicit medications to keep them going in the ring.)

The main storyline — if one can call it that — concerns real-life wrestler “Peaches” Page (playing herself) concerned because Scalli has just bought her contract and she doesn’t know what he wants to do with it or what seamy things he’s going to force her into with the threat of destroying her career if she doesn’t comply. At the end, of course, the police — who through the rest of this film seemed nonexistent — finally track down Scalli, there’s a shootout and he dies. The most amazing thing about Racket Girls is the revelation that working with Ed Wood was actually an aesthetic step upward for George Weiss — Glen or Glenda? is a dreadful movie by any normal artistic standard and yet it’s also a brilliantly obsessive one, mainly because Wood threw so much of his own life into it, and for all its ineptitude it seems to have a raison d’être that eludes Racket Girls.

One watches Racket Girls alternately dispirited by the sheer pointlessness of it all (one wonders which is less interesting, the wrestling scenes or the rest) as well as in a state of utter bafflement as to who Weiss thought his audience was going to be. At times it seems to have been made for the nascent Lesbian community — it’s hard to imagine straight men (even straight men whose tastes ran towards beefy, muscular women) getting turned on by the pointlessness of it all, but one can readily imagine femme Lesbians (in an era in which not only was there far less of a Queer community in either gender than there is now, but among Queers and especially among Lesbians the butch-femme role modeling was far more common, and more strict, than it is now) getting turned on by all the crotch and ass shots Dertano (who in addition to being his own writer was his own editor as well) insisted on including. The Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew dropped a few jokes about Elvis (no doubt riffing on the claim in Albert Goldman’s Elvis bio that he liked to watch so-called “cat films,” staged fights between hefty women similar to the wrestling scenes in this film) and in one outrageous gag invoked the League of Women Voters for what was probably their funniest line — but otherwise they seemed as flummoxed at the sheer pointlessness of this cinematic drivel as the rest of us.

The Legacy of Proposition 13 (KPBS, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One was a typically dorky KPBS documentary called The Legacy of Proposition 13, which had some fascinating videos from back in the 1970’s that showed just how unbroken the appeal of the extreme Right has been from that day to this, including an original TV ad for Proposition 13 arguing that if the measure passed, California legislators would no longer be able to treat themselves, on the taxpayers’ dime, to all-expenses-paid junkets in exotic locales — there was even a flippant tag line over a stock shot of the Eiffel Tower as the narrator said, “But if you think lawmakers deserve to go to Paris, just vote no.” It’s fascinating how the appeals of the hard Right have remained the same from the birth of the modern Right as a response to the New Deal (and to the Soviet Union and the promise of socialism generally) in the 1930’s — all that’s changed, really, is the steadily growing percentage of the American public that buys into their world view that government services are things that benefit others which they’re obliged to pay for.

The show focused on three elderly couples, all of whom bought homes in San Diego County as non-elderly people in the 1970’s; one couple voted for Proposition 13 and still supports it (and for the one rational reason anybody had for doing so: the insanity of California real estate speculation, which had driven the market price of housing in California to the point where people could no longer afford to pay property taxes based on what their houses were “worth” on the market rather than what they themselves had paid for them — Proposition 13 got on the ballot and passed in the first place because a lot of homeowners were having to fork over real taxes based on paper “profits” they hadn’t realized and weren’t going to, and it remained popular because except for two “corrections” — one in the early 1990’s and one that is going on now — California real estate values have continued to skyrocket and therefore working-class and middle-income homeowners still need the protection it provides); one couple (apparently none of these people, at least on this question, voted differently from their spouses) supported it then but oppose it now, and one opposed it then and still does.

The last couple really summed it up when they said that people are divided between “yoyos” and “wits” — “YOYO” standing for “you’re on your own” and “WIT” for “we’re all in this together” — and the triumph of the American Right has been to win a majority of Americans, especially on economic issues, to the “yoyo” side. Certainly virtually all of talk radio is an unabashed celebration of yoyoism; this morning I just heard a scared caller to Mark somebody (a British-accented shill substituting for Rush Limbaugh) try to argue that Germany had a better solution to the problem of financing health care than the U.S. (and interestingly Germany’s health care plan is a network of private, not-for-profit “sickness funds” that insure everybody without regard to employment status, which it’s occurred to me might be a viable alternative in the U.S. to both the current for-profit system and single-payer — which was behind an idea I had during the controversy that perhaps instead of borrowing money for ongoing, massive subsidies to the health insurance industry to expand their coverage, we should be borrowing money for a one-shot buy-out of the entire sector and reorganizing the existing health insurance companies as nonprofits).

Mark Whosits said that the average life expectancy in Germany is 45 (according to the CIA’s Factbook it’s really 76 for men and 82 for women, comparable to the U.S.’s 77 for men and 80 for women; on the Wikipedia site (sourced by the United Nations as well as the CIA, by the way),, Germany is ranked 23rd and the U.S. 38th; interestingly, the U.S. territories of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico both have higher rankings than the U.S. itself!) and that in the U.S. “300 million people choose for themselves what arrangements they are going to make for their health care” — which is, of course, preposterous. Maybe if the government had given everyone a voucher to purchase health insurance (i.e., if the health insurance bill had used the voucher principle the Right wants to apply to education), you could more or less make that statement — but as it is now, some people are provided health care through their employers (which means they’re stuck with whatever plan their employer offers, with no room for input in that decision unless they’re part of the rapidly dwindling percentage of the workforce represented by a union, in which case they have no room for input in whatever health coverage their employer and their union negotiate for on their behalf), a few people (the oldest and the poorest) get single-payer (Medicare and Medicaid, respectively) and a lot of folks are simply rationed out of the system financially — if they’re unemployed, chronically poor but not poor enough for Medicaid, or either work for a small business or own one and can’t afford the rapidly climbing premiums for individual coverage.

What’s most depressing about the current political situation in the U.S. is how powerful the Right-wing myths are (and how many Americans have been brainwashed into believing them by the classic propaganda strategy of repetition) to the point where they are utterly resistant to any fact-based assault: the idea of a society of rugged individualists in which we can all progress as far as our native talents and willingness to work hard and sacrifice can take us has such a vise grip on the American people that they continue to think, act, vote and protest as if that were true — and as if any attempt to use government to provide for the general welfare beyond the basics of national defense and criminal justice were an incursion on it that must be fought tooth and nail — which is the real message behind the rapid meltdown of Obama’s presidency and the possibility of the Republicans retaking Congress this year and the presidency in 2012 on the power of the ideological offensive of the “tea parties.”

The Kidnapping (Larry Levinson/Lifetime, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Kidnapping, a 2007 suspense thriller that seemed to be a knockoff of the 1962 theatrical movie Experiment in Terror — in which a psycho harasses a female bank employee and demands that she embezzle a large amount of money and give it to him or he’ll kill her and rape her younger sister. This time around the principal victim is Rachel McKenzie (Amy Carlson), who’s in line to be promoted to head of security at her bank following the sudden death of her predecessor in that position. Instead of a sister it’s a daughter, Hannah (Darcy Rose Byrnes), whom she has to worry about, and the titular kidnapping is of the daughter. The kidnappers are corrupt cops Glen (Judd Nelson, past his prime but still surprisingly good-looking and authoritative in the role) and Cash (Thomas Ian Griffith), who got into a sideline to supplement their income (it’s not at all clear where this is supposed to be taking place; some of the city streetscapes look like New York but there’s also a stock shot of the famous central plaza at L.A. International Airport) and it’s now snowballed into quite nasty sorts of crime, including murder.

The person they murdered was Raymond Cardoza (Gary Bisig), who had once been a colleague of theirs in both above-board police work and the criminal stuff they were doing, only he got diagnosed with terminal cancer and wanted to get right with God or something by repenting and turning his former co-conspirators in. To do this he has hidden something in a safe-deposit box in the bank where Rachel works — they don’t know precisely what and neither do we — and when he refuses to turn over to them the access codes for the box so they can get at whatever it is, Glen kills Cardoza and then decides to get the box opened by kidnapping the new bank security chief’s daughter and making the ransom the access codes for the box. Rachel, not knowing Cardoza is dead, goes to his house with the intent of asking him for the codes; she finds his body and she also finds a young man walking a ferocious German shepherd dog (called “Tiger” but played, according to, by a dog named “Sadie” — a Transgender dog movie in the other direction than the Lassie films?) Rachel is spotted by this person and for the rest of the movie she can’t confide in the police, not only because the kidnappers have told her not to but because the cops — the non-corrupt ones — suspect her of killing Cardoza and being in on the bad guys’ plot.

The adult woman friend of Rachel’s who was kidnapped along with the daughter (she was baby-sitting her at the time) is killed trying to escape, and another friend of Rachel’s tries to follow the crooks and gets Rachel’s daughter’s life threatened for her pains — but she leads the cops into the right direction and to the item that’s going to bring down the gang, a computer memory card containing a video of the two bad cops gunning someone down execution-style, Rachel meets the crooks and gives them the card, which they burn — she’s backed up the video to her own laptop, but it’s nearly destroyed by a police officer who’s part of the crooked scheme and has been reporting the honest cops’ every move to the corrupt ones — and eventually they find the crooks’ hideout, but not before Rachel has pulled a gun on Glen (a gun that the crooks had there for their own use) and, just when he’s finished taunting her about how she doesn’t have the guts to pull the trigger, she does just that, drilling him and eliminating him for good with one surprisingly well-aimed shot to what Bette Davis would have called “where his heart ought to have been.” The Kidnapping may not sound like much in summary, but it’s a first-rate suspense thriller, maybe a bit familiar but overcoming that with taught, intense direction by Arthur Allan Seidelman and a well-constructed script by Steven H. Berman.

San Francisco International (Universal, 1970)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Charles got home we ran a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a 1970 Universal TV-movie called San Francisco International — as in “Airport,” a pilot for a TV mini-series that was shown in rotation with three other Universal shows (McCloud — the biggest hit of the bunch — Night Gallery and The Psychiatrist) in the 1970-71 season under the umbrella title Four in One. The star is Pernell Roberts, still a bit away from his star-making (O.K., semi-star making) role as Trapper John in the TV version of M*A*S*H, here playing airport security chief Jim Conrad, who in the opening scene is shown flying into the airport on a plane and announcing to the passengers — all of whom are U.S. Senators, Congressmembers and their staff — that there has been a problem with the landing gear and the landing is likely to be rough. The V.I.P.’s brace themselves for the impact of a crash landing — and then we cut outside the plane, to a stock shot of an airliner on an approach run, and its landing gear look in perfect working order to us and we wonder if director John Llewellyn Moxey (I hadn’t realized I’d watched two movies in a row with three-named directors!) has goofed big-time in the continuity. Just when it looks as if all the assembled V.I.P.’s are about to crap in their pants (the MST3K crew’s jokes here were far more scatological than funny), Conrad tells everyone that there was no emergency, that this was just a drill which he ordered to impress upon his Congressional guests the need for bigger budgets to assure airport and airplane safety.

In the manner of the Airport movies (also Universal productions), there are all manner of oddball plot lines going on in and around the airport, including Tab Hunter as a member of a criminal gang who disguises himself as a priest and holds a woman hostage at gunpoint; David Hartman as a pilot whose wife is kidnapped by the gang Hunter is a part of and ordered, as her ransom, to hold back his latest flight for an hour so the baddies can steal $3 million (why the success of their plot is dependent on the flight being delayed is such a peripheral issue that, if writers William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter actually provided an explanation, I missed it); Van Johnson and Nancy Malone as a divorcing couple whose son (Ted Eccles — kids usually don’t do much for me but he’s by far the cutest male in the film!) steals a small red plane and takes it aloft; and a few other intrigues I lost track of.

The film is actually a pretty professional piece of work — it’s far better than most of the movies MST3K mocked, not that that’s saying much for it (at least it doesn’t look like someone just had a lot of stock footage of planes taking off and landing at San Francisco International Airport and decided to build a movie around it, the way Racket Girls seemed to be built around someone’s cache of women’s wrestling footage) — and the MST3K jokes were actually pretty limp (aside from the almost too obvious puns on Tab Hunter’s first name, which were at least amusing). Their best contributions this time out were in the interstital segments, in which we got to see the characters of Dr. Clayton Forrester and TV Frank with their shirts off (not that that was much to write home about!) and there were some funny skits featuring the disembodied head from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, a worse movie in overall quality than San Francisco International but also a good deal more fun.

San Francisco International had the usual hallmarks of Universal’s made-for-TV production at the time: a potentially interesting plot lines (several potentially interesting plot lines, actually, which was part of the problem) made less entertaining than they could have been by competent but dull acting (you know your movie is in trouble when Tab Hunter comes the closest of anyone in your cast to creating a multidimensional character!), efficient but uninspired direction, good but totally unatmospheric cinematography by Andrew Jackson (who presumably did not fight the bloody British in the town of New Orleans) and an overall air of people who were good professionals all but were also watching the clock each shooting day, awaiting the hour they could knock it off and go home …

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Rethink Afghanistan (Brave New Films, 2009)

First U-U Church Screens “Rethink Afghanistan”

Three Veterans for Peace Second Hard-Hitting Message of Film


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: Jack Doxie and Jim Brown

The three members of San Diego’s chapter of Veterans for Peace who spoke at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church March 18 after the church showed Robert Greenwald’s hard-hitting anti-war movie Rethink Afghanistan may have been talking about the earlier wars in which they had served, but their meaning was unmistakable. “In Viet Nam, they had a campaign for us to work with the villagers, to try to win their hearts and minds,” said Jim Brown. “We’d do that during the day — and then at night we’d shoot at them. It’s crazy to send in an army, whose job is to kill, and expect them to help build a country. Troops don’t go out there to do good. They’re there to maintain order and kill people.”

Brown’s remarks made a mockery of “nation-building,” “counter-insurgency,” “counter-terrorism” and all the noble-sounding lies with which the American people are brainwashed by their government and media to support one war of naked conquest and aggression after another. So did Rethink Afghanistan, a 62-minute DVD from Greenwald’s Brave New Films that meticulously demolished all the various justifications that have been offered by two consecutive Presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and many other politicians and opinion makers for the U.S.’s continuing and escalating military involvement in Afghanistan — including the idea that by intervening in Afghanistan we are fighting al-Qaeda and making the U.S. safer from terrorism.

Greenwald made his film in 2009, releasing it as Obama was considering whether to grant the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, his request for 40,000 additional troops for the war effort. Obama eventually authorized 30,000 but said they would be withdrawn within a year and a half. The movie features interviews with a wide variety of sources, and not all of them the usual suspects from the Left either. Among Greenwald’s interviewees are former CIA field operative Robert Baer — who bluntly calls the idea that the U.S. is fighting terrorism in Afghanistan “bullshit” — and former CIA station chief Robert Grenier, as well as former Taliban official Ursala Rahmani and Mohammed Osman Tariq, former commander in the mujahedin — the so-called “freedom fighters” the CIA recruited to fight the secular, socialist, Soviet-supported Afghan government in the 1970’s and who eventually morphed into the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Rethink Afghanistan focuses much of its attention on a truly dangerous country sandwiched between Afghanistan and India: Pakistan. “It’s not as if Pakistan is standing idle; 120,000 troops have been dispatched to the Afghan border,” says CNN correspondent Stan Grant in a clip shown in the film. “The [Pakistani] government says more than 1,000 soldiers [were] killed in the fighting. But the United States and others still question whether the Pakistan Military and Intelligence Service are playing a double game, [with] elements secretly supporting the Taliban to block a potential India-Afghanistan alliance.”

The sources quoted in Greenwald’s film — including Steve Coll, president and CEO of the New America Foundation; and Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives — note that the one country Pakistan considers an “existential threat” is India, against which they have fought two wars over the disputed province of Kashmir. “The Pakistan army fears that India sees Afghanistan as a way to encircle Pakistan, to come in through the back door, to promote instability,” Coll says in the film. Other sources note that Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the country in the region the U.S. should be worried about: it has a weak central government, a strong movement promoting militant Islam, and fully developed nuclear weapons. Should Pakistan fall into the hands of militant Islamist military officers or its own version of the Taliban, these sources warn, they could make nuclear weapons available to terrorists for an attack on the U.S. that would make 9/11 look like a mugging in the park by comparison.

Other topics covered in Rethink Afghanistan include the endemic corruption in the current Afghan government, the way U.S.-based contractors and their Afghan subcontractors are siphoning off vast amounts of money intended as reconstruction aid, and the sheer cost of the war to the U.S. itself. Linda J. Bilmes, co-author of The $3 Trillion War, estimates the cost of maintaining the U.S. forces in Iraq as $500,000 per troop per year — and for Afghanistan that figure is still higher, $775,000, mainly because it’s much harder to get supplies into Afghanistan’s landlocked, mountainous territory than into Iraq, which has ports and is virtually all flat desert. By contrast, Blimes says, the inflation-adjusted cost of the U.S. involvement in World War II was $50,000 per troop per year.

“Right now, the United States, through fiscal year 2009, will have committed and/or spent more than $185 billion on the U.S. war in Afghanistan,” says Jo Comerford, executive director of the National Priorities Project. Comerford devised an intriguing way to look at the cost of the war by breaking it down per U.S. state, calculating that Alabama has contributed $1.695 billion to the war effort — enough to pay for full health coverage for all Alabamans, plus 200,000 other Americans, for one year. In New York, the cost will have been $17 billion — enough for “nearly two million Head Start placements.” Arizona’s share of the tab for the war is $2.5 billion — enough to cover half the 20 percent of Arizonans who don’t currently have health insurance.

One of the more powerful sections of Rethink Afghanistan is the one about women. Many otherwise progressive Americans were encouraged to support the war by the horror stories of how Afghan women were treated under the Taliban. But according to the film, life for women in Afghanistan was hell before the Taliban took over — and it still is. One anonymous representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) reports at least 23 rapes in just two months in northern Afghanistan and “a lot of violence against women in west Afghanistan.” The film shows girls who have had acid thrown in their faces for the “crime” of going to school, and Kabul in Winter author Ann Jones quotes Afghan Supreme Court Chief Justice Faisal Ahmad Shinwari — a hard-core Islamist personally appointed by supposedly secular president Hamid Karzai — as saying that Afghan women have two “equal rights”: to obey their husbands, and to pray (but not inside a mosque, since that space is reserved for men).

“The situation for women today in the Pashtun areas is actually worse than it was during the Taliban time, and the reason is because under the Taliban women were kept in burkas and in their homes, away from education,” says Wall Street Journal Washington correspondent Anand Gopal. “Today, the same situation persists — they’re kept in burkas, in homes, away from education — but on top of that, they’re also living in a war zone. And women disproportionately suffer, from the effects of a war. The majority of civilian casualties have been women. Women that I talk to in these areas often say that they actually wish the Taliban were back in power, because even though their lives were a prison then, at least they were kept free from bombs or from house raids. … Women also suffer in war zones because when their husbands are killed, they can’t work in any traditional jobs, so often they have to turn to prostitution. Otherwise they can’t work at all.”

Perhaps the most heart-rending section of the film is the one in which Greenwald and his translators interview Afghans trapped in an IDP (internally displaced persons) refugee camp in Kabul because their homes and farms have been destroyed by U.S. air raids. “If it wasn’t for the war, I would want to go back,” one unidentified man tells them. “If there was freedom, I would want to go back. Why am I here? Now there is war and bombardment. I can’t go back. Before I was a farmer, but I can’t go back. I was growing wheat and poppy and corn, melons. I was taking care of the children. But right now I can’t do anything. Look, they are barefoot in this cold weather. … One of my daughters is dead, and they will die too. This child, I can sell her but nobody would buy her. What can I do? … I have nothing. I am poor. I don’t have any blankets or shawls. I don’t have any clothes. There is no food that I can put in her mouth. … I know nobody wants to sell their daughter, but I have to. She is innocent, but I am poor.” Then a title reveals that the girl he was talking about trying to sell, just to get her out of the refugee camp and into the hands of people who could afford to take care of her, has since died.

Greenwald follows this heartbreaking sequence with a devastating demolition of the whole idea that we’re fighting in Afghanistan to protect Americans against future attacks by al-Qaeda. “Both wars have made the Middle East and the world much more dangerous for Americans and for any American presence overseas,” says Graham Fuller, former CIA station chief in Kabul and former vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council. “Terrorism has increased worldwide in the past seven years,” adds Carl Conetta, “and we’ve spent a tremendous amount of treasure and blood to achieve a result of increased terrorism.”

Finally, the film’s “Solutions” segment focuses on non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) which are actually building schools, providing jobs and offering health care to Afghans. The film depicts the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee ( English/Education/index.html), which operates schools for Afghan girls and distributes food for 50,000 students; Jobs for Afghans (, which seeks to provide just that — jobs for Afghans — so they can survive without joining the Taliban just for the $8 per day stipend the Taliban pays its fighters; and Emergency in Afghanistan (, which has built three hospitals and 30 clinics. All their care is provided free of charge, explains Emergency in Afghanistan medical director Dr. Marco Garatti, “because we believe that a state, a decent state, should take care of its own citizens” — an ironic thing to hear at the end of the acrimonious Congressional debate on health insurance reform, which if nothing else made clear how many in Congress and the American public don’t agree that the state has a responsibility to safeguard its citizens’ health.

The three Veterans for Peace representatives who led the post-film discussion at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church March 18 — Viet Nam veteran Jim Brown, Korean War veteran Jack Doxie and Gil Field, a Viet Nam-era veteran but one who avoided combat by volunteering for the U.S. Coast Guard — made brief opening statements and then threw the meeting open to questions. “After serving in Viet Nam, it was obvious to me just from being on the ground that we were pulling the triggers as Americans — and the people we were shooting lived there,” said Brown. “We coerced the government into giving us ‘permission’ and stayed there as long as we could make people money. Our leaders will send us off to war anywhere in the world to take what we want. We could have all the raw materials we needed if we paid for them and hired local people, and built them schools and hospitals, and this would cost far less than what we spend on combat.”

“Well over 50 years ago, I was in combat in Korea — and we still have troops in Korea,” Doxie said. “They sent us to Korea in a World War II-era transport ship that was probably built in eight days, and it took us 16 days to meet the enemy. The thought came to me that if I had to go 16 days to meet the enemy, then perhaps this was not my enemy. … It’s amazing that we can’t learn our lesson. We persist in trying to resolve issues through violence. In a very unjustifiable way, we show our might. I’d like our country to have a bias towards negotiating instead of fighting. Just weeks before we invaded Iraq, the whole world realized we were wrong. Two million people in London, one million in Rome and hundreds of thousands elsewhere asked us not to do what we did. Where would we be now if we had gone to the United Nations instead of going to war?”

“By sheer luck of birth, I was born in 1948, finished college in 1970 and immediately applied to the Coast Guard in New York City,” said Field. “I served admirably on a small island in New York harbor. … So much of the background of the Veterans for Peace is determined by our ages and backgrounds. People three years younger didn’t go at all. People four to five years older had to go. It’s amazing how our government uses situations as they occur to create excuses to go to war.”

The questions covered a wide range of topics, moving far back in history from Afghanistan and Iraq not only to the wars Doxie and Brown served in but even farther — questioning whether the U.S. even had a right to fight World War II, Some audience members raised the argument made by pacifists at the time — that the U.S. and the other victors in World War I created the Nazi threat by imposing a harsh peace on Germany in 1919 and thereby wrecking its economy and creating the political situation that allowed Hitler to come to power. “Is there any such thing as a ‘good war’?” Brown said. “Was World War II something we should have been in?”

Definitely not, said Doxie. “Seventy to 80 percent of the U.S. people did not want the war,” he noted. “Franklin Roosevelt won his third term by saying he wouldn’t send soldiers into war. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because the U.S. had a plan to embargo Japan and keep them from getting oil and rubber. When you poke a smaller adversary in the eye with a brush, they’re going to react. The Japanese may not have been justified [in attacking Pearl Harbor], but we were the ones who dropped the A-bombs on civilian targets in Japan.”

An audience member raised the controversial claim — still hotly debated among historians — that President Roosevelt knew about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance and allowed it to happen because he knew the only way he could unify the country in support of a war it didn’t want was to frame it as a response to foreign aggression. The same person also claimed that the 9/11 attacks were not carried out by Osama bin Laden but were either known in advance or actively perpetrated by the U.S. government — and Doxie hinted that he agreed. “It looked like a controlled demolition,” Doxie said, “not something that happened from outside.”

Brown also expressed his cynicism — largely shared by most of the audience — that President Obama has any intention of pursuing a policy in Afghanistan or Iraq that differs in the slightest from President Bush’s. “We’re supposed to be out of Iraq by 2011, but I haven’t seen anyone pulled out,” Brown said. “I’ve heard he’s being politically expedient for the powers that be in America, and will pull the troops out by the end of his term, but I don’t believe that. That’s what they said in Viet Nam, too.”

“Obama said he was going to escalate in Afghanistan in his campaign,” said Peace and Freedom Party organizer Roger Batchelder. “Even in the peace movement, we labor under delusions, including the idea that America is not an empire. We are an empire. The other myth is that the Democratic Party is the party of the little person and the party of peace. World War II could have been stopped if Americans like Prescott Bush [father and grandfather of the two Presidents Bush] and Henry Ford hadn’t helped Hitler. We have a ruling class that gives to both parties, and Wall Street gave more money to Obama than to McCain. FDR interned the Japanese and Truman used A-bombs against civilians twice, and also started the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam. It’s all about the money. The richest 1 percent gives money to both parties.”

And despite the promises Obama has made to withdraw the extra 30,000 troops in Afghanistan within a year and a half, Doxie warned that the U.S. commitment there is likely to last far longer than that. “General McChrystal has said that if everything in Afghanistan goes exactly right, the way he wants it to, we have a minimum of 10 more years there — on top of the nine years we’ve already been there. And of course it won’t go exactly according to plan. It never does.”

Echoing a point made by some of the speakers in the movie that al-Qaeda no longer has, seeks or needs a permanent base in Afghanistan, Field added, “And the enemy is no longer even there.”

City of Missing Girls (Select Attractions, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” was City of Missing Girls, a 1941 independent production billed as by “Select Attractions, Inc.” and directed by exploitation hack Elmer Clifton (Pearl White’s leading man in the 1914 Perils of Pauline) from a story by himself and a script by Oliver Drake and George Rosener. The premise was a potentially good one, if rather stale (even then): assistant district attorney James Horton (John Archer) and his girlfriend, reporter Nora Page (Astrid Allwyn, usually a blonde villainess, here as a dark-haired good girl and surprisingly effective) set out to investigate the Crescent Talent School, which is luring stage- and screen-struck young women with promises of stardom, only the lucky ones get careers as showgirls at the nightclub owned by sinister impresario King Peterson (Philip Van Zandt, turning in one of those performances I like — superficially charming but a slimeball below the surface), while the unlucky ones get shipped out of town for fates Messrs. Clifton, Drake and Rosener are maddeningly ambiguous about. We get the impression that they’re being sold to a white slave racket and ending up as prostitutes, but even at the low level Select Attractions, Inc. occupied on the studio food chain in 1941 they were still hyper-concerned about the Production Code and the writers here were nowhere near as good at hinting at evils that dared not speak their names as their confreres at the major studios.

The plot kicks off when one of the Crescent students, Thalia Arnold (and naming her “Thalia” — defined on Wikipedia as “a rustic goddess, one of the three Graces, and the Muse of comedy and idyllic poetry” — is by far the most creative touch in this film’s script!), is found dead after being in the missing persons’ file for a week. Homicide captain McVeigh (H. B, Warner, in a marvelous bit of off-type casting even though, when he protests that he’s lived in the city where this takes place all his life, it’s hard not to expect him to add, “Well, at least since I came back to life in Jerusalem after being crucified for man’s sins”) works with Morton on the case, and after a few brief shots of an urban skyline (probably stock, though one scene of the camera panning up the side of a skyscraper looked like it was done with a model) the film resolutely spends most of its time indoors, cutting between two locations we quickly get incredibly tired of — Morton’s office and the office of the crooks — with an occasional shot of the interior of Peterson’s nightclub just for an tiny bit of relief.

This is one of those movies that cried out for the Warner Bros. approach — fast-paced, relentless, with thundering music (we don’t even get a number supposedly representing Peterson’s floor show) and actors delivering rapid-fire performances, also enough of the backlot to do some exterior scenes and spare us the claustrophobia we start to feel after a while of scene after scene of people talking in a room, all filmed from a stationary camera at a discreet distance. Eventually the plot lurches to a resolution in which Nora decides to disguise herself as an aspiring actress and enroll in the Crescent school to find out what’s really happening to its students — only she’s “outed” almost immediately and only a police raid led by H. B. Warner (a pity he couldn’t just turn the crooks’ guns into plowshares!) saves Our Heroine from the Fate Worse Than Death. Just before this happens, however, Nora sees that her own father, Joseph Thompson (Boyd Irwin) — and why, if she’s described as unmarried, do she and her dad have different last names? — is part of the gang, and there’s a shocked recognition scene between them before he gets gunned down by the gangsters just before the cops arrive.

The big problem with City of Missing Girls is that it’s simply boring; recommended it as one of the films you should consider if you liked The Sinister Urge (along with two genuine masterpieces by major directors, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, as well as the 1999 Steven Soderbergh film The Limey), but Clifton’s direction is so boring and plodding he makes Ed Wood seem like a master of suspense by comparison. About the only good thing City of Missing Girls has to offer is the eccentric casting of Warner and Allwyn; reviewer “picfixer” called Warner “unfortunately miscast,” but I loved his playing against “type” here and he’s certainly at least as believable as a veteran cop as Barry Fitzgerald was in The Naked City. “Picfixer” also had nasty things to say about John Archer, but I found him well suited to his role, playing it something like Ralph Bellamy in one of his infrequent outings as action hero instead of loser in the battle of the sexes.

But the actors — including 19-year-old Gale Storm (still using the more normal “Gail” spelling of her first name), in a brief role as one of the school’s pigeons — are left at sea by the repetitive dullness of the script and the snail’s pace of Clifton’s direction, and ultimately City of Missing Girls emerges as just what reviewer “dbborroughs” said about it: a film just good enough to keep you awake but not so good that you stay genuinely interested in it — “it’s a film of the twilight between asleep and awake.” I suspect that Select Attractions and its owners, producers Max Alexander and George Merrick, filmed this at the Hal Roach studio, if only because two people involved had long associations with Roach — character actor Walter Long (best known for his villain roles in some of the Laurel and Hardy movies, but here cast as a cop) and musical director Marvin Hatley — though the score here, which alternates between orchestral bits that sound like stock scores and radio-style organ flourishes, certainly couldn’t have tapped Hatley’s imagination anywhere near as much as the famous theme, “Dance of the Cuckoos,” he wrote for Laurel and Hardy!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Sinister Urge (Headliner Productions, 1960)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I was hoping to get at least two — possibly three — of the movies from the Sinister Cinema box in, starting with Ed Wood’s last non-pornographic commercial feature, The Sinister Urge (1960). Unlike some of the other Wood titles, which have been kicked around and have ended up pretty much under the control of Wade Williams (my collection of them is on Rhino Home Video from the Williams editions), The Sinister Urge was made by Headliner Productions and licensed by them exclusively to Sinister Cinema for video release. This means that Sinister had access to better master material than usual, and the film itself is surprising because — like Wood’s immediately preceding film, Night of the Ghouls — it’s a quite competent, professional piece of work, no better than most low-budget exploitation films of the day but also no worse.

There are a few of the oddly syntaxed lines of dialogue Wood indulged in (including a weird scene in the police station where a good deal of the exposition takes place in which they start the scene talking about staking out a pizza parlor and end it talking about staking out an ice-cream place — later these are revealed to be two separate locations but at the time we’re left wondering if they dispense both from the same place) and some obvious technical crudities (notably the mike that comes into view at the top of the screen and visibly follows the actors until Wood blessedly cuts to a different angle where it was properly off camera), along with the mediocre-to-nonexistent acting skills of the cast: Jean Fontaine as the villainess, Gloria Henderson, mastermind of a pornography racket whose “enforcer,” Dirk Williams (played by 19-year-old Dino Fantini with one of the most amazingly gravity-defying male hairdos ever filmed), goes out of control and starts restaging the scenes in Gloria’s porn photos with her models, who always seem to frequent the duck pond at Griffith Park where he can locate them easily and kill them without anyone else noticing. Wood’s attitude towards porn (at least in this script — for the remaining 18 years of his life he would make as much of a living as he made at all from writing porn novels!) would do Catherine MacKinnon proud — the lead character, police lieutenant Matt Carson (played by former Republic serial villain Kenne Duncan), explains to his sidekick that porn is more deadly than drug addiction because “some people pick up these pictures and can’t resist trying it.”

What’s most interesting about The Sinister Urge is how much Wood’s directorial skills had actually increased from the dog days of Bride of the Monster and Plan Nine from Outer Space: the film is well lit (the fact that most of it takes place in daylight helps), there aren’t any jarring breaks between “day” and “night” scenes, the action is competently staged and even Wood’s notorious cut-ins of stock footage are handled far more smoothly than in his previous films. Two major sequences (at the pizza and ice-cream parlors) came from his unfinished J.D. epic, Rock and Roll Hell a.k.a. Hellborn, started in 1956 (the black-on-black robbery sequence in Wood’s previous Headliner film, The Violent Years, was also a clip from this never-completed film), but they’re cut so smoothly into the action that only the fact that they have no particular relation to the overall plot of The Sinister Urge gives away that they were stock from another project. (There’s a bit of dialogue that ties the fight at the pizza parlor into the porn racket, but it’s done with both the speakers off camera.)

For all its crudity Wood’s direction has a singular vitality — it’s striking that the worst Wood-associated movies we’ve seen have been The Violent Years and Orgy of the Dead, both of which he only wrote and others directed — and one can well understand his jealousy that his film career stopped while other directors of equal or less talent went on to become contractees at studios like American International and make at least decent livings! There’s also a charming sequence in the office of Johnny Ryde (Carl Anthony), the director of Gloria’s porn productions (who, in a case of Wood’s art anticipating his life, goes on self-pity jags during which he laments how he could have made good movies if he hadn’t got sidetracked into porn), in which he and Gloria interview a young aspiring Hollywood hopeful — and the walls are adorned with lobby cards for The Violent Years, Jail Bait, Bride of the Monster and Plan Nine from Outer Space.

The problem with The Sinister Urge isn’t Wood’s direction but his script — which has way too many separate plot strands to be wrapped up in 75 minutes, as well as one typically Woodsian scene in which the cops decide to try to entrap Dirk by sending a policeman in drag into the park (all of a sudden this is a “personal” Ed Wood movie, even though the sequence is there just to use a stock clip of someone fighting a man in drag and knocking his wig off which Wood had filmed for a previous project) — and the usually lousy quality of the acting. Rudolph Grey’s book Nightmare of Ecstasy claims that most of the supporting cast came from an acting school run by one Harry Keatan, who is in the film as Jaffe, the porn cinematographer — and if his own schticky performance (at one point he loses the Swedish accent he’s had through the whole previous part of the film, the actor he’s playing with actually asks him, “Where’s your accent?” — to which he improvises an explanation; and this being such a low-budget film Wood couldn’t afford a retake and had to use the scene in the final cut!) is any indication of how he was teaching his pupils it’s no wonder none of his graduates ever became stars. — 8/26/02


I showed one that I’d planned to run the other night but screwed up and played one of the other items on the disc instead — the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 incarnation of Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s The Sinister Urge, a key transitional film in Wood’s career because it was his last above-ground directorial effort and it was about pornography — indeed, it took a typical hard-line anti-porn stance as befit the exploitation picture tradition it came out of, which allowed certain filmmakers to dramatize seedy sides of life as long as the depictions were couched in viciously moralistic denunciations of them — prefiguring Wood’s subsequent career as a pornographer himself through various cheap novels as well as at least two more films, Take It Out in Trade (1969) and Necromania (1972).

The Sinister Urge has a certain tragic art-prefigures-life air about it in the character of Johnny Ryde (Carl Anthony, who’d played a policeman in Plan Nine from Outer Space and had only one post-Wood credit, a 1982 film by Lloyd Davis alternately called Raw Force and Kung Fu Cannibals), who recalls his past as a director making truly great films and his fall from grace to a point where he had to shoot porn to survive — a plot device that not only anticipates Wood’s own subsequent fall into porn but also the premise of a highly regarded cult film from from 1974, Inserts, written and directed by John Byrum and starring Richard Dreyfuss as a hot-shot silent director who falls from grace in the early years of sound and supports himself making porn in the big Sunset Boulevard-style mansion he bought when he was a success.

But the main intrigue in The Sinister Urge centers around the character of Dirk Williams (Dino Fantini, a compact 19-year-old with a gravity-defying hairdo and a commendable ability to portray the classic switchblade-wielding J.D. “type”), a go-fer at the porn studio who goes sufficiently off the rails that he kidnaps girls (including ones who’ve worked there as models), takes them to Griffith Park and kills them, staging the crime scenes to look like pornographic poses. At least that’s what’s supposed to be happening, but neither Wood as director nor Fantini as star are good enough to convince us that he’s going through all that trouble; all we actually see is Fantini descending on his victims, knife in hand, and having a surprising amount of trouble subduing them before he kills them and leaves their bodies where they fall.

Charles and I had previously watched The Sinister Urge “straight” (courtesy of a Sinister Cinema VHS tape) and had been more or less impressed — yes, it has some of the hallmarks of an Ed Wood film, including elliptically loopy dialogue, mismatched stock footage, continuity problems (in one scene the police officers who respond to one of the murder calls drive off in a Ford and arrive in a Dodge) and generally lousy acting — Harry Keatan, who plays the cameraman at the porn studio and plays him as an obnoxious Jewish stereotype, also ran an acting school where a lot of the other cast members were trained, and as I pointed out when we saw this one before, if Keatan’s own performance was any indication of how he taught his students, it’s not surprising none of them became stars. (Let’s see: at the top of the list of acting teachers displaying their own chops in films there’s Lee Strasberg in The Godfather, Part II — and at the bottom there’s Harry Keatan in The Sinister Urge.)

But it also is relatively coherent and occasionally even exciting, and it benefits from two quite good performances — from Jean Fontaine (I wonder if anyone saw her name on this film and ended up disappointed when they bought a ticket and saw it wasn’t Joan Fontaine) as Gloria Henderson, straw boss of the porn racket (though there are two sinister-looking guys from “The Syndicate” to whom she answers), whose gravel voice and hard-assed demeanor are just right for the role; and Dino Fantini, who like Arch Hall, Jr. in The Sadist isn’t a conventionally good actor but manages to make the psycho believable — the scene in which he opens his switchblade, puts the blade to his lips and kisses it isn’t exactly the freshest or most subtle imaginable bit of symbolism, but it’s a lot more sophisticated than Wood’s films usually got.

There’s also a curious scene in which we step from the well-worn paths of low-budget exploitation into Wood’s personal world — the two cops attempting to find the porn-inspired psycho killer, Lt. Matt Carson (Kenne “Horsecock” Duncan, making his final film after a career that stretched back to the silent days and included several villain performances in Republic serials — “Horsecock” would seem a more likely nickname for a male porn star but Rudolph Grey, whose book Nightmare of Ecstasy on Wood is the definitive source on him and was the basis for Tim Burton’s Wood biopic, swears he was called that off-screen and came by the name honestly) and Sgt. Randy Stone (James “Duke” Moore), decide to have a decoy hang out in the park and try to entrap the killer. Only they decide the assignment is too dangerous for a policewoman, so instead they get a male officer (Clayton Peca) in drag — and he duly encounters the killer, and they have a fight scene in which Dirk knocks off his wig and flees the scene in disgust that his would-be victim turned out to be a guy. One can tell why real-life cross-dresser Wood wanted a scene like this in his film, though frankly Clayton Peca’s drag is so risibly obvious one wishes Wood had played the role himself.

The film also includes a sequence — set up with one more laughably discontinuous moment in which the cops say that a pizza parlor is a front for the distribution of the porn, only it turns into an ice-cream parlor and then back to a pizza place in the dialogue (though presumably one business could have been dispensing both) — and there’s a gang fight (not especially well staged, but then Wood was never exactly a master of action) Wood actually lifted from an unfinished project he’d had to abandon four years earlier, a Rebel Without a Cause-inspired juvenile delinquency film alternately called Hellborn and Rock and Roll Hell. (Another sequence from this — a murky and impossibly underexposed scene of armed robbers fleeing the scene of their crime in a car — turned up in Wood’s immediately previous film, Night of the Ghouls.)

The Sinister Urge was probably a not-bad exit for Ed Wood as “straight” director; like Night of the Ghouls, it showed that by this point in his career Wood had pushed his directorial skills to their limit and achieved mediocrity, and while it may not be as dementedly silly as Glen or Glenda?, Bride of the Monster or Plan Nine from Outer Space, The Sinister Urge is a mostly competent piece of low-budget filmmaking whose biggest limitation is less the strangulation-level budget or Wood’s quirks than the fact that enough of the Production Code was still in place — and was a factor even for someone as low-down on the Hollywood food chain as Wood’s producer, Roy Reid of Headliner Productions — that they could make a film that mentioned porn but not one that got all that explicit showing it. Indeed, the funniest joke the MST3K crew came up with on this film was to comment (accurately) that a woman who’s supposedly modeling for porn pics is actually wearing more clothes than she had on when she showed up at the filmmakers’ office (where the walls were emblazoned with posters for previous Wood projects — Jail Bait, Bride of the Monster and the Wood-scripted, William Morgan-directed The Violent Years). — 3/27/10

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Starfighters (Will Zenz Productions, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had intended to trot out the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 archive disc that contained their “take” on Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s last non-porn directorial effort, The Sinister Urge (an interesting transition because it’s about porn — or “the art-photo racket,” as it was euphemistically called in the ads for the film — and a movie Charles and I had watched “straight” previously and of which I’d said that, along with the immediately previous Wood film Night of the Ghouls, Wood had stretched his directorial talents to their limit and achieved mediocrity), but instead I miscounted the files on the disc and we ended up watching the MST3K “take” on a 1964 non-epic about the U.S. Air Force, The Starfighters, produced, directed and written by one William Zens.

Apparently Mr. Zens got a cache of official Air Force footage of the F-104 Starfighter aircraft in action over George Air Force Base in Victorville, California and decided to make an entire movie out of it — and he recruited a young former fighter pilot turned actor (once again, exclusively a courtesy term) named Robert Dornan to star … well, at least to be the top-billed living performer, since the planes playing the title characters are in fact the stars. Zens seemed utterly fascinated with the whole idea of air-to-air refueling, since he recycles shots of the Starfighters being resupplied with jet fuel (sometimes the same footage) over and over again — and quite naturally the MST3K crew found the temptation to make sexual jokes about this irresistible even though the connection was made a lot more subtly and powerfully by Stanley Kubrick, who began his masterpiece Dr. Strangelove with some stock footage of air-to-air refueling while his soundtrack played a lush, romantic MOR instrumental version of “Try a Little Tenderness.” (The same stock shots Kubrick used also turned up in one of the worst films of all time, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.)

What’s more, the air-to-air refueling in Dr. Strangelove involved bombers, where it made sense because part of the U.S. nuclear deterrent was to keep B-52’s up in the air for long periods of time so they could be sent into the Soviet Union to bomb targets there at a moment’s notice in case the alert went out that World War III had started; the sequences of air-to-air refueling of fighters in The Starfighters are undoubtedly authentic, but they still baffled me because the only advantage to air-to-air refueling is it increases the time a plane can stay in the air, and that didn’t seem like it would be important given the relatively short (in both time and range) missions fighter pilots customarily fly. Between the long shots of air-to-air refueling and the shots of fighters flying in strict formation and occasionally doing dive-bombing runs (interestingly, there are no sequences of practice dogfights as there were in Top Gun, a movie that compared to The Starfighters looks like a deathless masterpiece), The Starfighters essentially comes off as aviation porn, with the “plot,” such as it is, existing merely to set up the seemingly endless stock shots of Starfighters in action (more or less).

The plot, such as it is, consists of three new pilots, Lt. John Wilkowski (Robert Dornan), Lt. York (Steve Early) and Lt. Lyons (Robert Winston), who arrive at George Air Force Base to learn to fly the F-104 and do so. The only situations that even approach dramatic issues are the efforts of Wilkowski’s Congressmember father (Carl Rogers) — and yes, there is a certain irony in future Congressmember Dornan playing the son of an influential Congressmember who, as Dornan would later be himself, is a fanatical supporter of the defense budget in general and Air Force bombers in particular — to get Wilkowski fils transferred out of the fighter wing and into heavy bombers (the elder Wilkowski flew B-24 Liberators in World War II and he thinks that’s the only part of the Air Force with real cachet), and a rather weird one involving sex. Lt. Lyons brings a wife, Betty (Joan Lougee), to the base and lives in married servicemembers’ housing — she comes in wearing a platinum wing and the MST3K crew joked that it made her look like Carol Channing (it did, too!) — and Betty offers to fix Lt. Wilkowski up with a girl she knows, Mary Davidson (Shirley Olmstead), though all any of these people seem to do that even remotely resembles dating is to go to a restaurant near the base represented by a set that looks like bits of leather crudely tacked onto plywood. (I couldn’t help but wonder what Lt. York, the forgotten member of our pilot trio, was supposed to do for sex; maybe there was to have been a sequel in which he got drummed out of the Air Force for being Gay.)

The Starfighters is such a singularly useless movie one has a hard time imagining why Will Zenz made it or who he thought the audience was going to be — it made it to #7 on’s list of the 100 worst movies of all time and it’s so relentlessly boring even an commentator who thought the F-104 was cool said the movie was disappointing because there were a lot of capabilities the plane had that didn’t get mentioned. The sorriest aspect of the film was the “poopysuits” the pilots wore on their practice flights over Death Valley in the last reel — the name’s scatological connotations were of course irresistible to the MST3K crew, though on it was explained that a “poopysuit” was simply a heavily insulated flight suit worn when the pilots were going to fly in cold weather (which still doesn’t explain why they needed them in Death Valley, of all places), and I had assumed that poopysuits were garments, like astronauts’ space suits, that had reservoirs for the wearers’ urine and excrement so they could fly for long periods of time without worrying about when and where they were going to use the bathroom.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

New Moon (Summit Entertainment, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

New Moon turned out to be an utterly astonishing movie, not so much because it’s that great a film aesthetically — it’s rich and moving but I’ve had better times at the movies, including some current movies (can you say Avatar? — but because it systematically broke all the supposed rules for how to make a movie aimed at the youth audience and it still became a mega-hit and made tons of money for its makers, including the plucky independent studio Summit Entertainment that backed it when no one else would and made a huge profit. The orthodoxy is that young audiences today have been so conditioned by the rapid-fire images of music videos and the quickness with which you can move from story to story on the Internet that they not only don’t want but actually get bored by a plot that has too much narrative coherence, and that the way to hold their interest is to make the film’s internal rhythms very fast and jerky, do a lot of quick jump-cuts from one scene to another, and adopt a “cool” attitude towards your characters, not only avoiding but deliberately frustrating any attempt by anyone in the audience to care too deeply about the characters, their emotions and their dilemmas.

New Moon is shot (by director Chris Weitz, who also did the film of Bill Pullman’s The Golden Compass but complained that that movie was completely recut by the studio, Warner Bros.’ New Line division, after he finished it, whereas Summit trusted his judgment and vision and released New Moon substantially the way he had made it; Weitz replaced Catherine Hardwicke, who did the first Twilight film but had a schedule conflict that kept her from doing this one) much like a 1940’s movie, at a slow, rich and almost stately pace, with long tracking and dolly shots (at times in modern movies one gets the impression that the camera dolly is as obsolete and quaint as the theatre organ!) that draw us into the action instead of keeping us at a dizzying, attention-taxing remove from it; and the script (by Melissa Rosenberg, based on the second novel in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight cycle) keeps the characters’ emotional dilemmas front and center, leaving us achingly wrenched by them and genuinely caring how things come out and wanting to see at least the nice characters get their hearts’ desires.

It’s also a very carefully “planted” story, full of hints — like the high-school English class heroine Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is taking, in which they’re studying Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which foreshadows the similarities (apparently Meyer’s doing in the original novel, since she’s commented herself that she was using Romeo and Juliet as a model) between the ultimate fates of Bella and her boyfriends, vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and [spoiler alert!] werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), and the events of Shakespeare’s plot. At 130 minutes (eight minutes longer than the first Twilight) New Moon is a bit too long for its own good — though people who’ve read the books have nonetheless complained about details left out of the films (just as fans of The Lord of the Rings did) — but I’m not going to do much complaining about a film that lets us take our time to get to know the characters and feel for them, and also gives us a chance to contemplate the beauty of the natural scenery in which these events are taking place (one surprise about both Twilight films — despite their titles — is that their directors and cinematographers, Elliot Davis in the first film and Javier Aguirresarobe here, have managed to make the films believable both as vampire stories and as Gothic tales even though most of the action takes place in daylight and/or outdoors) and the ironic contrast between it and the ugliness of some of the events depicted.

Not that New Moon is a scare-fest — it and its prequel are probably the least scary vampire films ever made (the Underworld movies, which also combined vampires and werewolves and based their plots around a multi-generational rivalry between them, managed to work within the genre conventions of modern-day horror and still transcend them; the Twilight films are working in a completely different territory, more supernaturally frustrated romances than horror or genre pieces) — and some of the plotting is pretty preposterous. Worried that the townspeople of Forks, Washington have figured out that they’re vampires, the extended Cullen family leaves town and Edward dumps Bella after having told her before that he would never let her down; in the interim, she takes up with Jacob, whom she (and we) remembers as the cute long-haired kid from the Native American reservation school she (and we) briefly met in episode one— only he suddenly lets out his muscles (the real Taylor Lautner worked out extensively to bulk up for the part because he was worried they’d recast the role with someone else if he didn’t become muscular enough to embody the later incarnation of his character), cuts his hair short and gets wolf tattoos on his arm and chest, and it turns out this is a symbol that his genetic conditioning has won out and he’s joined four of the other local Indians as part of a werewolf pack, albeit ones who are sworn only to hunt down vampires, not humans. (This plot gimmick sounds so much like the premise of the Underworld movies — even though the parts of those set in the modern world were urban, not rural — one wonders if Stephenie Meyer was, shall we say, influenced by them.)

Then Jacob, too, dumps Bella and protests that he too is part of a supernatural cult to which his loyalties transcend any feelings he could have for a normal human being. (At this point I joked that one of Bella’s girlfriends from school would have a new boyfriend for her: “He’s seven feet tall, his skin is greenish-grey, he’s got a big scar down his forehead, two metal plugs on either side of his neck and he speaks only in grunts and groans — but after the vampire and the werewolf, hey, Bella, he’s just your type!”) In their last confrontation, Jacob intercepts a phone call Edward has put in to Bella — he does more than intercept it, he crushes the cell phone with his bare hand — and Bella gets a vision of Edward (she gets several of them, all while she’s doing adrenalin-boosting things like motorcycle riding or cliff diving) flying off to Italy to the Volturi, a cadre of vampires who seem like a sort of bloodsuckers’ Vatican, the ultimate governing authority for the cult, to ask them to kill him because, being a vampire, he can only be killed in certain ways and cannot actually commit suicide. Instantly making the parallel to the ending of Romeo and Juliet — Juliet fakes her death at the instigation of Friar Laurence as part of the friar’s plot to get her and Romeo out of the clutches of their families and together where they belong; Romeo discovers Juliet’s “dead” body and kills himself for real; and Juliet also commits suicide after she comes to and sees Romeo dead — Bella and Cullen’s foster-sister fly to Italy to visit the Voltari and stop Edward from getting them to kill him (which he plans to do during a festival celebrating the medieval church’s successful exorcism of vampires from that village), driving to the site in a (stolen) yellow Ferrari and confronting Edward in the nick of time.

Much of New Moon treads on the thin edge of silliness, but it’s a testament to the basic effect of the story — particularly Meyer’s art in combining the angst-ridden teen romance genre with the doomed vampire tale (sired by Curt Siodmak — whose script for the 1943 film Son of Dracula is the earliest example I can think of off-hand of a vampire tale that contains the plot device of a normal mortal actively seeking vampire-hood and accepting the down side of having constantly to murder people for their blood for the upside of immortality — and developed further by Anne Rice and Underworld creators Len Wiseman and Kevin Grevioux) in which a normal human is tempted to the Dark Side of vampire-dom — here, because she’s in love with a vampire and the only way she can stay the same age as he is to become a vampire herself and thereby freeze her physical age at its current point. (This isn’t too far removed from the ending of the 1944 German film Baron Munchhausen, though that movie resolves the plot dilemma in the opposite direction: the hero gives up his immortality and accepts aging and death so he can be similarly situated with his girlfriend and at least have the length of a normal human lifespan to be happy with her.)

Bella gets the Cullen family (who have returned en masse to Forks) to vote on whether she should be allowed to become a vampire; Edward and one other family member vote against it but the ayes have it; then she’s confronted with a warning from Jacob that if the Cullens put the bite on her — even if she agrees to it — that will violate the treaty between vampires and werewolves and the Cullens will be fair game for him and his wolf pack — and then Edward says he’ll convert Bella but on only one condition. She asks what it is, and he says, “Marry me” — and then the film fades to black and the credits come up, the kind of open-ended finish one might expect from a story that’s part of an extended cycle but also a quite impressive breaking of the usual rule that a story like this has to be resolved in an all-stops-out fight-to-the-finish confrontation instead of an ending that concentrates on the characters and their emotions rather than on physical conflict.

There are all sorts of felicitious touches throughout New Moon, including a visual quote from the scene in Dracula in which Dwight Frye accidentally cuts his finger and Bela Lugosi, who up until then has been keeping himself more or less under control, totally freaks out with hunger and lust at the sight of a human’s blood — and even the music breaks all the rules of what’s supposed to be the soundtrack for a 21st century youth movie. Instead of loud, obnoxious, self-consciously “Gothic” metal or relentless pop, the music in New Moon is sophisticated contemporary stuff of the type once known as “indie” or “alternative” — the best-known bands are Death Cab for Cutie, the Black Metal Motorcycle Club and Thom Yorke (the Radiohead front man, heard here as a solo artist); most of the other musicians heard here are pretty obscure and a lot of the music is surprisingly quiet, driven by acoustic rather than electric instruments, and obliquely commenting on the characters’ moral and emotional dilemmas: it’s obvious that the songs and performers for this film were picked because they helped create the filmmakers’ desired mood, not just to put “names” on a CD cover to sell copies of a soundtrack album!

That’s just one manifestation of what I like best about New Moon: that it’s the movie the filmmakers wanted to make, intense, emotional material presented without commercial compromise, without any audience concessions that might have watered down the vision — and their movie was nonetheless a runaway commercial hit, proof (matched in 2009’s movies only by Avatar) that artistry and audience appeal are not always at odds and sometimes one can reinforce the other.

Desirable (Warners, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually squeezed in a 68-minute Warners programmer from 1934 called Desirable, shown on TCM on March 15 as part of an extended birthday tribute to George Brent — though in the event he was billed second to the virtually forgotten Jean Muir. This was a rare example of the Warners “women’s picture” — the studio was never as comfortable making these sorts of movies as they were the gangster films and other macho melodramas that are better known today — and one might think that without one of their strong female stars (Barbara Stanwyck, Ruth Chatterton, Kay Francis and — later — Bette Davis) this wouldn’t be worth watching. In fact it’s an appealing little melodrama even though its plot is awfully predictable (and its central premise — a youngish man falls in love with a middle-aged stage star, then falls in love with the stage star’s daughter and ultimately jilts mom for the daughter — was done even more provocatively the next year in the Fox musical Music Is Magic) and Brent is as inert as usual.

The plot deals with the great actress Helen Walbridge (Verree Teasdale), who in the opening sequence is shown having built up her latest tear-jerker to a smash hit of such proportions that only standing room is available for the next two months. Director Archie L. Mayo then tracks his cameras into the theatre where Helen is giving her performance — though we don’t see her or the stage; the cameras stay focused on the audience as they slyly take out handkerchiefs and daub their eyes with them while Verree Teasdale recites a string of some of the ghastliest lines ever recorded on a film soundtrack to represent her character’s decision to commit suicide just after the curtain falls. (Screenwriter Mary McCall, Jr. must have had her tongue firmly in her cheek the afternoon she sat in her office in the Warners’ writing department and typed out these deliberately God-awful lines.) Helen has attracted the usual complement of wanna-be sugar daddies, including one considerably younger and hunkier than the rest: advertising agency owner Stuart “Mac” McAllister (George Brent) — though between her performance schedule and whatever else she’s doing with her time, she puts off his dinner invitations for weeks and finally books a date with him two weeks in advance. He takes time away from his ad business to mount a barrage of phone calls to the restaurant to ensure the most satisfactory menu he can imagine — only she bolts from the date at 8 p.m. because she has only an hour to make it to the theatre by curtain time.

Nonetheless, she gives him a subsequent invitation and bids him wait for her in her apartment — where he’s surprised, to say the least, to run into Helen’s daughter, 19-year-old Lois Johnson (Jean Muir), who’s returned home unexpectedly because her boarding school was closed due to a quarantine. We get the gimmick immediately — Helen, whose stock in trade is young ingénue roles, is hiding the girl away in boarding school because of the potential adverse effect on her career if it becomes known that she’s old enough to have a 19-year-old daughter. Mac takes Lois on a series of sightseeing trips around New York and proximity does its usual work (at least in the movies) and the two start falling in love. Unable to get rid of Lois — she refuses either to return to boarding school or stay with the out-of-town aunt Helen has asked to take her — Helen decides to book Lois on a round of social engagements that will keep her so busy she’ll have no time to date Mac, and eventually Lois attracts another boyfriend, society boy Russell Gray (Charles Starrett, who took a run at mainstream stardom in the 1930’s, missed the brass ring but had a long and relatively successful career as a leading man in “B” Westerns for Columbia in the 1940’s) — only she’s appalled by the pretensions of Russell’s relatives and friends, who reject her because her father was a proletarian, and she and Mac unsurprisingly end up together at the end.

It’s not exactly the freshest premise for a movie, but it’s well done here and has some surprisingly effective scenes, including one in which Mac and Helen are seen together getting out of a cab from a point of view inside the lobby of the hotel they’re about to enter — and director Mayo keeps their voices off the soundtrack and shoots the sequence like a silent film. It also benefits from the striking resemblance between Verree Teasdale and Jean Muir — for once actors cast as parent and child actually look enough like each other that you can believe it — though, according to, Teasdale was actually only eight years older than Muir. It’s not as good a movie as it could have been — like a lot of other “women’s pictures” of the period, it tends to sag as it progresses and McCall trots out the usual clichés to bring it to a resolution — and one could readily imagine a stronger set of actors in the leads (how about Kay Francis as the mother, Barbara Stanwyck as the daughter and … well, Warners wasn’t exactly awash in debonair leading men at the time, which may be how Brent got cast in so many films for which he was adequate but other people, including Cary Grant, would have been far better), but Desirable is a nice little movie with a certain charm and appeal.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Kitten with a Whip (Universal, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually watched the 1964 film Kitten with a Whip, one of the legendary bad movies of all time and an inexplicable role choice for Ann-Margret after her blockbuster hits of 1963, Bye, Bye Birdie and Viva Las Vegas (the former an Elvis-inspired tale of what happens when a major rock star gets drafted, and the latter a vehicle to pair Ann-Margret with the real Elvis). She plays a 17-year-old J.D. named Jody Dvorak, who escapes from a women’s reformatory after having set fire to the place and badly burned one of the guards, then hides out in the home of a respectable something-or-other (I don’t think we’re told exactly how he makes his living now) who’s considering a run for U.S. Senator from California. The character, David Stratton, is played by John Forsythe, and when he discovers her — she’s slipped into his home while he was briefly out and his wife was out of town, and cuddled in an upstairs bedroom with a teddy bear in a scene that’s obviously supposed to make us think of her as a latter-day Goldilocks — he naturally wants to call the police. She threatens him by saying that if he does so, she’ll tell the cops he invited her for lascivious purposes and thereby ruin his political career — a plot development which after Teddy Kennedy and Chappaquiddick, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Elliot Spitzer and his “escorts” and now the bizarre quadrangle of John Edwards, his cancer-stricken wife, his girlfriend and the aide Edwards told to say was the father of the baby he’d sired with the girlfriend, plays differently and far more seriously than it no doubt did in 1964 (when the political-media code of omertà that kept JFK’s affairs from the American people during his lifetime still applied).

Kitten with a Whip was described on the side as bad enough that instead of watching the “straight” version I’d recorded off TCM last Friday, I figured the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version on the archive discs (from 1994, after Mike Nelson took over from Joel Hodgson as the host) would be more fun — though Kitten with a Whip, while definitely a bad movie, turned out to have enough points of interest it might not be an altogether unpleasant experience to watch it au naturel. It’s basically one of those fish-out-of-water movies pairing a bunch of J.D.’s (Ann-Margret and three of her friends, a woman and two men, who enter the action midway through and force David to drive them across the border into Mexico) with a “straight,” upstanding citizen, and if it’s less fun than it should have been given the subject matter and the potential of Ann-Margret’s performance, that’s the fault of Douglas Heyes, who both wrote the script (from a novel by one H. William Miller) and directed.

Like Laird Doyle in the 1935 film Dangerous (with Bette Davis) and Martin Mooney in the 1941 Paper Bullets, a.k.a. Gangs, Inc. (with Joan Woodbury, though more famous for having the then-unknown Alan Ladd as second male lead), Heyes has written a script that requires his leading actress to change motivations and emotional states at the drop of a hat, but without grounding them in much of anything that would allow his star to blend all these disparate scenes into anything resembling a coherent characterization of a credible human being. commentator Kenneth Anderson blamed much of the wretchedness of this movie on Ann-Margret, saying she was “so kinetically awful that she virtually invents a whole new kind of awfulness” and, as if that weren’t nasty enough, that her performance is “like one given by a person who’s never seen acting before.” I think he’s being wretchedly unfair; Ann-Margret is actually struggling powerfully with an incoherently written role and giving her all in every scene, doing her best to bring to life a character that in the hands of more sensitive and creative filmmakers (like the director and screenwriter of Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray and Stewart Stern) could have been not only powerful but even moving.

Certainly she’s a damned sight more impressive than her co-star; unlike Alan Ladd in the similarly plotted (though in that one the leader of the gang that terrorizes the middle-aged, middle class hero is a man) but far superior 13 West Street, John Forsythe goes through this movie with so impassive a mien, with utterly no clue as to whether he’s having any emotional reaction at all to events which are not only wrecking his chances for a long-sought political career but threatening his life, that the MST3K crew’s most devastating comments on this film targeted Forsythe in just that particular: “I must remain bland,” they have him saying. “Blandness at all costs.” By any conventional standard Kitten with a Whip (a title that’s never explained in the film; the “whip” Ann-Margret is wielding over John Forsythe is purely metaphorical — a pity, since if she’d been packing a real whip this film would have been sleazier but also more fun!) is a perfectly dreadful movie — but it’s also haunting enough, full of implications of a much better film that could have been made on the premise (indeed, still could be; in the modern version the man could be a Clinton-style politician who’s already run through a lot of “bimbo eruptions” and is now being teased unmercifully by a girl who, unlike his previous paramours, is underage and therefore that much more dangerous — and a modern version would probably give us more backstory into how the girl got that way; there’s a perfunctory hint when she describes being molested by her stepfather, which in 1964 was probably a galvanic shock to movie audiences but these days we’d be surprised if a girl Ann-Margret’s age in a film like this didn’t blame her wildness on a molesting authority figure!) — and it’s interesting to watch Ann-Margret’s acting here if only because she’s trying for an edgy combination of sexuality and innocence (feigned, in this context) that marks her a lineal descendant of Marilyn Monroe.

The secret to Monroe’s stardom was that she accidentally hit on a combination of naïve vulnerability and blatant sensuality that provided a powerful combination of sex and innocence that made every woman in the audience want to protect her and every man want to fuck her. Ann-Margret, like Jayne Mansfield before her, deliberately sought to copy that combination of sex and innocence that had made Marilyn first a star and then a legend — and she pulled it off in Bye, Bye Birdie, hurling herself at the camera and shaking her boobs in the famous opening scene (she’s copying Elvis’s moves, appropriately enough since an Elvis-like singer is a key player in the plot, but they look totally different on a woman) while exaggerating the lyrics of the title (“Boye-boye, Burt-hee!”) to the point where they sound less like English and more like an orgasmic moan — all the while introducing a movie in which the plot will have her forsake the glamorous globe-trotting rocker for the dull boy next door in her little small town. With a more sophisticated writer than Douglas Heyes, Kitten with a Whip could have provided a similar vehicle for her to play the sex/innocence combo in the person of a “bad girl” — that early scene with her snuggled up in bed with a teddy bear suggests that she’s a person in which pre-pubescent girlhood, adolescence and adult womanhood are going at it hammer and tongs in a three-way conflict that’s tearing her apart — and with a stronger leading man than John Forsythe, one better able to portray the conflict between his reputation, respectability, political future and marriage vows on one side and overpowering temptation and lust on the other, the basic premise of Kitten with a Whip could have been the root of a positively chilling melodrama instead of a film that’s abysmally silly but — unlike a lot of the other MST3K “targets” — at least not boring.