Sunday, May 31, 2015

Seed Money: The Chuck Holmes Story (Michael Stabile, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The feature film in the 10 p.m. time slot was Seed Money: The Chuck Holmes Story, a documentary about the pioneering Gay pornographer and founder of Falcon Studios, Chuck Holmes, framed with footage showing protesters (most of them Lesbians) picketing the opening of the “Charles E. Holmes Campus of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center” and protesting that the board of the Center had named their newest building after a pornographer — albeit a pornographer who had given them a hell of a lot of money. The film was directed by Michael Stabile, who turned up at the end for a question-and-answer session that focused mainly on the difficulty of obtaining material for the film — by the time they started work on it Chuck Holmes was dead (he tested “HIV positive” in the late 1980’s and held up until 2000, and his exit was probably hastened by his high consumption of recreational drugs in the 1980’s and experimental and highly dubious AIDS “treatments” in the 1990’s), his associate and director Matt Sterling was also dead, and at least two of the people from whom Stabile and his crew got major interviews — including Vaughn Kincey, a major figure in the early days of Falcon and one of Holmes’ closest associates — died while the film was still in post-production. The film was a fascinating slice of Gay history even though the story of Chuck Holmes and Falcon Studios is somewhat less than the metaphor for Gay life in general and Gay sexuality in particular Stabile was presenting it as: the standard history of the Queer movement is that it all began with the Stonewall Inn riots of June 1969 in New York City (I’ve made it a particular cause of mine to debunk that, to the point of putting Harry Hay on the cover of Zenger’s #1 just to make the point that there was an active Gay movement in the U.S. 19 years before Stonewall), that the 1970’s were an explosion of Gay sexuality (particularly Gay male sexuality) and a rejection of conventional values of monogamy and fidelity among many Gay men — maybe not all, or even most, Gay men, but a significant portion of them and the ones that tended to be most “out,” most open in the community and in particular most open about their sexuality. The master narrative of today’s Queer movement is that we’re just like straight people except that we’re attracted to members of our own sex instead of the other, but in the 1970’s that couldn’t have been further from the truth; the Gay lifestyle was presented as a conscious rejection of straight models of relationship, commitment and fidelity (though the hippie movement had offered young heterosexuals a similar rejection of conventional morality in general and monogamy in particular).

Stabile and his crew basically present the early Gay porn as a sort of unwitting documentary of those heady early days of Gay liberation — though, then as now, the scenarios enacted in porn films (straight or Gay) look very little like the ways people, even the least monogamous among them, actually come together and have sex. What’s most interesting about the Gay porn of the 1970’s (at least to me) is that it was filmed before the conventions of the form had hardened (pardon the pun) into clichés and there was still room for genuinely inventive and creative directors like Wakefield Poole and Peter Berlin to shoot movies whose sex scenes reflected what turned them on rather than what a marketing department thought the paying customers would want to see. If anything, Chuck Holmes and Falcon Studios were key players in the move away from a creative auteur vision of Gay porn to a more industrial model; they marketed their early films the way everyone else did — as 8 mm reels of film, about 10 minutes, which were also cut up and shown as “loops” on coin-operated players (and if you didn’t have an 8 mm projector Falcon, like its competitors in both the straight and Gay markets, would offer to sell you one) — until the advent of the VCR enabled them not only to copy films more cheaply and thereby sell them to a mass market (though seeing the early “Falcon Video Pak” ads and noting how expensive the tapes were — $89.95 and up in 1980’s dollars — I wondered how many of them they actually sold, and to whom) but also to make longer films. Chuck Holmes’ breakthrough into feature-length production came about with a film called The Other Side of Aspen, which according to Stabile’s account happened pretty much by accident: Holmes was an amateur skier, he wanted to take a vacation to Aspen, and he thought of bringing along a couple of performers and a skeleton crew to shoot a couple of scenes so he could write the trip off as a business expense. When he brought back the footage, his staff encouraged him to add more scenes — including an introductory one showing the participants in the Aspen footage preparing to go on their own vacation to “the other side of Aspen” — and increase the film to feature length. What Chuck Holmes did with Falcon was not only run the company in a businesslike manner (though that started to fall apart in the 1980’s as he got heavily involved in sex parties and recreational drugs, and only the shock of learning he was “HIV positive” brought him back to his senses, led him to clean up his act and rebuild Falcon as a going concern) but put out a standardized product.

His models (the term used in the industry for porn participants — it’s revealing that they don’t call them “actors,” and as porn star Michael Brandon told me when I interviewed him for Zenger’s, “I’m not paid to act — I’m paid to fuck!”) were all carefully cultivated: slender, boyish, blond (if their hair wasn’t naturally blond, they were told to bleach it), and above all smooth-chested (one former Falcon model remembered that he was ordered to keep his chest shaven at all times even though he was only called for three shoots per year, and in the late 1970’s, with the hairy-chested “Castro clone” look the “in” one in San Francisco, Holmes’ clean-shaven edict got in the way of his ability to find people willing to have sex with him off-screen) and with squeaky-clean feet. (Holmes himself said that the reason he got into making his own Gay porn in the first place was that when he first came out, the models in the crude reels then available had dirty feet, a big turn-off for him.) Though it isn’t mentioned in the movie, Stabile said during the Q&A that the Falcon models were also surprisingly short — Holmes and his casting people apparently reasoning that the shorter the man, the bigger his dick would look by comparison. Holmes was also big into sex scenes that took place outdoors, in spectacularly beautiful locations, and he was a good enough businessman that he realized the key to success was turning out a standardized product so anyone who ordered a Falcon video would know what they were getting. One of Stabile’s most interesting filmmaking decisions was how he handled the effect of AIDS on Gay porn, documenting how Falcon was the last holdout against allowing their models to use condoms (instead they promoted non-oxynol 9 lubricant until the AIDS mainstream decided it actually made HIV “transmission” easier, not harder — ironically Falcon’s models were actually shown inserting non-oxynol 9 into their own or each other’s asses) until the models themselves started dying en masse and the few that were left insisted on wearing condoms during shoots. (One thing the Gay porn industry never did was eroticize safer sex; while AIDS prevention educators were trying to convince people to make putting on the condom an integral part of their foreplay, porn producers who did show condom use on-screen simply had the condoms magically appear. Even Michael Brandon, who as a matter of principle refused to do a bareback fuck scene, told me he thought the director’s call to “cut for condom” and its magical appearance on his cock, without any depiction of how it got there, was ridiculous.)

Another point the film made was that the AIDS epidemic greatly increased the market for Gay porn; with many Gay men so scared of AIDS they stopped having sex altogether, porn became an outlet for sublimation not only among people in rural areas who’d have a hard time finding a partner for actual sex but people in San Francisco and other “Gay Meccas” scared shitless of doing the real down-’n’-dirty and jacking off to porn as the next best thing. Alas, when the film reaches the 1990’s it pretty much abandons any depiction of the creative history of Gay porn and its cultural importance, and instead shifts its focus to Chuck Holmes’ attempt to buy himself respectability by donating large sums to Gay-rights causes — it dates his transition from entrepreneur to philanthropist from his participation in the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Rights (note that Transgender people weren’t yet included in the laundry list — that came later even though Trans people have been part of our struggle from the get-go), and in one of the few scenes in the movie actually depicting Chuck Holmes himself, he says he’d always been apolitical and this was the first time he had actually marched for a cause. Chuck Holmes gave a lot of money to the Human Rights Campaign and to individual politicians like Carole Midgen and Mark Leno in San Francisco (both of whom are depicted here), and he generally didn’t have a problem getting organizations to take his money but did get some turn-downs from individual candidates — the filmmakers depict this as a mystery both to Holmes and to themselves but it’s really not hard to figure it out: an organization that doesn’t have to go before voters could take money from a pornographer but a candidate would have to worry that a donation from someone like Chuck Holmes would end up prominently featured on a last-minute hit-piece mailing or TV ad after the other candidate’s opposition-research team dug his name out of campaign-donor disclosure lists and put two and two together about where that money had come from. It’s not clear from this movie What Made Chuck Run — his friends and associates (none of whom seem to have been romantically or sexually involved with him — he seems to have totally compartmentalized his life so the people he slept with had no connection with the people he did business with or socialized with non-sexually) describe him as hurt when politicians turned down his money, and they show pictures of his house and yacht that indicate he indulged the sybaritic lifestyle available to the rich in the U.S. pretty much to the max permitted by his resources, but in a film nominally about him he remains a pretty maddening cipher. He doesn’t seem ever to have given a filmed interview about himself and his career, nor was there a Widower Holmes available to explain him. 

Seed Money — I like the clever pun of the title — is an interesting film, though some of the clips from Holmes’ productions included here reminded me all too vividly of what I didn’t like about Gay porn back then, including the carefully maintained tan lines on the performers (another Holmes trademark that became standard, his way of saying these were healthy, athletic people who lived a good deal of their lives outdoors) and the overall bleached-blond look — and there’s at least one implied criticism of Holmes in what’s otherwise a pretty hagiographic look at him in which his policy towards using African-American models is detailed: he said he wouldn’t put a Black person in his movies unless there was a reason in the plot for the person to be Black, and he would never cast a Black man as a bottom in a scene — it always had to be the Black man topping the white one, fulfilling the racialist (and arguably racist) stereotype of the super-hung Black guy ripping apart the white boy’s ass and leaving him terminally unsatisfied with anything less from then on. Holmes also was impatient with long expository scenes and extended depictions of foreplay, though compared to what passes for porn today — in which the models are shown in medias res without even any attempt to establish these folks as human beings and explain why they would be having sex with each other — his films seem almost respectful in making at least a passing gesture towards letting us know who these people are and what attracts them to each other before we see them have at it. Michael Stabile explained during the Q&A that Falcon Studios has been sold several times since Holmes’ death, and a lot of the archives from the Holmes years were either thrown away or salvaged from dumpsters at the last minute — though the current owners of the company cooperated with the project and allowed Stabile to go through what’s left as well as to include enough clips from the Falcon movies so we get the idea of what they were like and what sort of fantasy they were selling. It might have been a more fascinating movie if it had had a postlude about what’s happened to the Gay porn industry since — the advent of the Internet, which has made distribution of porn even easier than it was on VHS tapes or DVD’s but has also made it considerably easier to pirate porn and no doubt has been a big hit to the bottom lines of the producers; and also the advent of digital video, which has made it easy for almost anyone to shoot their own porn and upload it to the Internet, and has largely returned porn to the aesthetic level Holmes was trying to raise it above: crudely filmed depictions of uncharismatic amateurs in single scenes about the length of the old loops.

Hole (Tony Radevski, 2014) & Midnight (T. R. Wilkinson, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Seed Money was preceded by two other films that in a way were actually more interesting and took the other side of the question of whether sex becomes more or less compelling the more the people having sex with each other know about each other and particularly their lives outside the bedroom — or the restroom, since the first one, Hole, was a five-minute animated short taking place in a public restroom with a glory hole. We see the face of one man and the cock of another through the hole, only instead of going down on his unseen partner he starts talking to him, and the irony of writer-director Tony Radevski’s script is that the more the two men find out about each other — including the fact that the other guy is married (to a woman) and glory holes are the outlet he’s reduced to for his Gay desires — the less they want to have sex with each other, and they ultimately don’t. The film was made in Australia, and the accents do get a bit thick and hard to understand (though I suspect at least part of that is the mediocre sound system of the Observatory North Park Theatre, where the showing took place), but overall it’s a charmer. The other short preceding Seed Money was Midnight, a 2015 production by T. R. Wilkinson, in which a young Gay couple, Aiden (Anderson Goncalves) and Shane (Sean Paul Lockhart), are having an intimate evening together celebrating Shane’s birthday. Aiden presents him with a box that contains a certificate he’s printed out offering Shane “anything you want” for his birthday — and what Shane wants is a month during which they’ll invite other people to their home for multiple-partner sex. What starts out as a three-way blossoms (if you can call it that) into five-ways and ultimately a 12-man orgy that leaves cum stains all over their nice furniture; their living room looks like they had the Mother of All Frat Parties there and Shane, as part of the deal, insists that he will clean it up even though that propels him out of his and Aiden’s bed at a time Aiden just wants to cuddle and re-establish their relationship as just the two of them. Alas, Shane is so taken with the idea of other sex partners besides Aiden that even after the month is up he keeps cruising and hooking up with other guys, and Aiden starts to suspect. His boss, Nina (Elizabeth Dennehy), gives him some time off to find whether Shane is really cheating on him — she points out that he’s useless to her at work as long as he’s still eating his heart out about Shane and his fidelity, or lack thereof — and he traces Shane to the apartment of a heavy-set man who looked familiar when the film’s writer-director, T. R. Wilkinson, came out for the post-film Q&A. Though he wears a beard in the film and was clean-shaven for his personal appearance, the part was recognizably played by Wilkinson himself — and though we don’t get to see Wilkinson’s dick (obviously he was avoiding anything that would put this film in the porn pigeonhole), we get the idea that Shane is going down on him. Aiden, who previously told Shane that he accepted him as a partner even though “you hate sports, you smoke and you’re a Democrat” (and Aiden is depicted as so prissy you think of him, “You would be a Republican!”), gives him an ultimatum: either stop the tricking or move out. Midnight — the time of Aiden’s deadline — rolls around, and Wilkinson maintains the suspense (will he stay or will he go?) until the actual stroke of 12 a.m. on their digital clock, and we see Shane leaving Aiden’s place, pulling one of those suitcases with wheels on it, bound for heaven knows where.

Midnight is a fascinating film, basically a domestic tragedy with elements of farce (the laughs are primarily in the depiction of the principal couple’s group encounters with other men), and it’s an indication of how good it is that Wilkinson himself keeps you in suspense about where he stands on the question of monogamy and whether it’s an appropriate expectation in a relationship between two Gay men. At a time when the whole question of multiple-partner lifestyles has become a big bozo-no-no in the Queer community — the ruling assumption has been that, however horrific the AIDS crisis was, the silver lining in its dark cloud was it taught us a terrible lesson not to have more than one partner at our time and to manage our sexuality more like straight people do (or at least like straight people are expected to, whether or not they in fact do it), thereby moving us from the 1970’s when the demand was the freedom to have as much sex as possible, with as many partners and as few strings as possible; to today, when the big official demand of the Queer community is to be able to marry our partners and — at least it’s assumed in the social discourse — play by the same rules as the heterosexual world, including the expectation of monogamy. While the other people who asked questions during the Q&A focused on Seed Money, my question was about Midnight — thinking about my own experiences, I thanked Wilkinson for making a movie that expressed my own dilemma about commitment vs. variety in my sexuality and asked what had inspired him to make it. He said his own view of the issues involved in the film had changed while he was in production with it — about a year ago, with most of the film completed but some shooting and virtually all the editing still left to do (both he and Stabile mentioned that in independent filmmaking you work until you run out of money, then spend time scrounging some more so you can continue, and proceed in fits and starts until you either finish the project or you don’t), he entered into a relationship that is “open” and that that’s working out just fine (so far) for both him and his partner. Wilkinson said he believes any sort of relationship can work as long as the two principal partners are open with each other and honest about just what they want and in particular whether they want it “open” or “closed” — which is what I’ve also heard from Eric Marcus and other authors of books about Gay relationships I’ve interviewed — but his film is more complicated than that; Aiden is depicted as annoyingly prissy and a bit of a pill, but it’s still tragic when Shane leaves him at the end and the viewer (this viewer, anyway) is left with the impression that, despite their differences, neither of them is going to be as happy without each other as they were with each other.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Frontline: “Obama at War” (WGBH/PBS, May 26, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Tuesday night, May 26, PBS showed a Frontline documentary called “Obama at War,” the title itself being an oxymoron of sorts because the portrait they painted of President Obama was basically that of a wimp who doesn’t want to get the U.S. involved in any more wars over the Middle East, particularly having troops on the ground in places like Syria that don’t have that much discernible importance to the U.S.’s national interest. The title was a calculated bit of irony, obviously evoking the name of Bob Woodward’s first book about the George W. Bush administration, Bush at War, and the extent to which “national security” issues and particularly the hysterical response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks came to define the second Bush presidency (and incidentally almost certainly saved him from the one-term fate that befell his father). Obama, as is well known, won the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008 to a large degree because he was, and apparently always had been, against Bush II’s ridiculous and counterproductive invasion of Iraq in 2003, whereas his principal rival for the nomination, Hillary Clinton, had been a sitting Senator when the war was being debated and had voted for the resolution authorizing Bush to make the attack. Though the collapse of the U.S. economy probably had more to do with Obama’s ultimate victory in the 2008 general election than his stand on foreign policy in general and Iraq in particular (John McCain was actually catching up to him until the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008 reversed the trends in the polls almost overnight and gave Obama his victory margin), Obama still took office with the self-image of someone who gets his country out of wars, not into them — and even when he has escalated he’s tried to do so “on the cheap,” getting other countries to contribute. Indeed, under Obama the U.S.’s principal tactic against real or alleged terrorists has become the air strike with drones, which has the obvious political advantage of not putting any U.S. servicemembers directly at risk — though given how much more sloppily the drones have been targeted than the hype surrounding them suggests (including wiping out an entire wedding party in Pakistan) it seems highly likely there will be “collateral damage” from them as terror organizations find new recruits among the surviving relatives of civilians killed by drone strikes and engage them to mount terrorist attacks against Americans, either her or (more likely) abroad.

What was most amazing about “Obama at War” is that, despite all the hype from the Right that regards PBS as just another part of the “liberal media Establishment” they regularly denounce, the attitude the show takes towards the Obama administration almost exactly lines up with the Republican propaganda line denouncing Obama as a dangerous wimp whose actions, or rather non-actions — failing to keep a U.S. military presence on the ground in Iraq and failing to intervene on behalf of the so-called “moderate rebels” in Syria (whose existence was actually a collective fantasy on the part of the U.S. military-industrial establishment — there are basically two sides in the Syrian civil war, the Bashir al-Assad government and the fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, including but not limited to ISIS, and to the extent that there are fighters who aren’t aligned with either of those camps, there are so few of them they are basically irrelevant; indeed, the show itself notes that the so-called “moderate rebels” are abandoning the struggle altogether, I suspect because they know that they are likely to be executed either by the al-Assad government if it survives or by ISIS if it takes over, and they figure quitting altogether is the best hope they have to live through the outcome, whichever of those it is) — basically created ISIS and allowed it to survive, thrive and take over cities like Mosul and Ramadi the U.S. already laid down a lot of blood and treasure to capture in the first place in the 2003-2011 war. One of the most interesting exchanges in the program was this one, regarding the pull-back from Obama’s “red-line” position that he’d launch air strikes against the Assad government if it used chemical weapons against its citizens to the position that he’d accept a proposal from the government of Russia (i.e., president Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister) to broker a peace deal in which the Syrian government would turn over its chemical weapons stockpile in exchange for not being attacked by the Americans:

DEREK CHOLLET, Asst. Sec. of Defense, 2012-15: It was the right decision. Had we conducted the military campaign that had been planned, we would not have taken out a high percentage of his chemical weapons. The credible threat of force brought about an opening for diplomacy to come in, which then led to something that no one thought was possible.

AMR AL-AZM, Syrian Opposition: No. I think it was a terrible, terrible error on the part of this administration. I mean, it’s not just a red line. This is the president of the United States, this is the White House, and a tinpot dictator challenges that and gets away with it? Who’s going to believe you next time?

Yet at the same time, the show acknowledged towards its end that there aren’t really any good options on how to deal with ISIS. The irony is that ISIS has gripped the world of Sunni Islam like the proverbial prairie fire, catching the imagination of hundreds of thousands of potential recruits. I’ve noted the irony of President Obama saying recently that as part of his strategy against ISIS he wants to recruit and help train a new Iraqi army, which will fight … the last Iraqi army the U.S. trained, whose Sunni members have deserted en masse and joined ISIS, giving the guerrilla group (and ISIS is really much more a guerrilla group than an al-Qaeda style terror organization — indeed, it was precisely over the issue of whether the way to bring about the revival of the Islamic caliphate was to stage spectacular 9/11-style attacks in foreign countries or to take and hold territory in Muslim-majority states that ISIS broke from al-Qaeda in the first place) the backbone of its fighting power just as its success in holding oil-producing regions of Iraq has given it its financial clout. There doesn’t seem to be any good way for the U.S. to counter ISIS; trying to create puppet states in the region to limit its influence (as the U.S. did with Iran from 1953 to 1979 and with Iraq from 2003 to 2011) hasn’t worked; drone strikes have created havoc but haven’t harmed ISIS long-term because their “bench” is strong enough they can easily replace anyone we kill; and while I suspect the fooforaw about ISIS allegedly using social media to recruit terrorists worldwide is largely propaganda bunk, it’s true they’ve been able to turn up people in surprising locations even though most of the people who are claiming allegiance to ISIS and citing it as a motivation for terrorist idiocies like the attempted attack on an anti-Muslim rally in Garland, Texas probably have no more to do with ISIS than I do. ISIS is going to be a headache for the U.S. for years, and is probably going to get a lot stronger before it gets weaker (and the example of Iran, where a Fundamentalist Islamic government has kept a stranglehold on power for 36 years and shows no signs of letting up despite an increasingly restive population, many of whom — particularly their younger people — want to break free of Islamic restrictions and be part of the same world as the relatively cosmopolitan West, doesn’t encourage the thought that ISIS’s excesses, especially where it actually rules, will provoke a successful revolution against it) — and neither claiming that Obama hasn’t been “tough” enough (I’m convinced the next President, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or a Republican, will put U.S. troops in the ground in yet another ill-starred campaign in the Middle East, this one with the avowed purpose of defeating ISIS) nor continually blaming the Bush administration for the mess (yes, they made the mess, but it’s still the responsibility of America’s future leaders to clean it up) is going to be much help.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Babes in Arms (MGM, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was Babes in Arms, an old favorite of mine from 1939 and the first musical Arthur Freed produced on his own at MGM (on The Wizard of Oz he had been Mervyn LeRoy’s assistant), and though it wasn’t the first film Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland had been in together it was the one that set the clichés for the ones to come. The film was based on a 1937 stage musical by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart — though the title song and “Where or When?” are the only songs from the original actually performed in the film — and the plot centers around vaudeville star Joe Moran (Charles Winninger), his wife and onstage partner Florrie (Grace Hayes) and their two kids, son Mickey (Mickey Rooney, top-billed) and daughter Molly (Betty Jaynes). The film begins with the elder Morans playing the Palace theatre — well, Joe playing it anyway; he struts about the stage playing Bob Carleton’s jazz standard “Ja-Da” on trombone and apologizes for Florrie’s regrettable but temporary absence from their act because she’s off giving birth to Mickey. The fact that Rooney’s character enters the world during his dad’s performance is supposed to indicate that he’s born and destined for the stage and couldn’t possibly grow up to be anything else.

Flash-forward to a young Mickey Moran tap-dancing as part of his parents’ act (a clip from Rooney’s earlier MGM film Broadway to Hollywood from 1933 — the ultimate “doubles” movie since it not only features both Rooney, star of the 1943 Girl Crazy, and Eddie Quillan, who had played the part in the earlier version from 1932, they play the same role in Broadway to Hollywood as well: Rooney’s character grows up to be Quillan) and then to a montage showing the death of vaudeville at the hands of talking pictures and also audience boredom with the same old routines — one character even kids the Morans by saying their act is so old, if they miss a line the audience can prompt them. (This was true of a lot of vaudevillians; the ones who did successfully make the transition to other forms of entertainment were the ones like George Burns who were inventive enough to keep creating new material based on his familiar characterization. Alas, not many were.) Before their part of show business crumbled around them, the vaudevillians had actually managed to make a stable life for themselves, settling in the upstate New York town of Seaport and staying there for the 12 weeks of every year they could afford to lay off. Now, with fewer places to work, families like the Morans and the Bartons — another vaudeville couple whose daughter Patsy is Judy Garland’s role — are running up bills all over town and having to struggle. Joe Moran hits on the idea of gathering up the remaining vaudeville entertainers and having them go out together on tour, but because they have to keep down expenses they can’t take their kids along the way they used to when they were flush. So the kids decide to mount a show of their own, which Mickey Moran will write, direct and star in while Patsy Barton will be the female lead. Their hope is to bring the major Broadway producers down to Seaport to witness what they have wrought, so they’ll get an offer to bring Babes in Arms to Broadway and make enough money to pay off their parents’ debts. Only they have to work fast because the town busybody, Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton, re-creating her “Miss Gulch” persona from the Kansas scenes of The Wizard of Oz), wants the town judge (Guy Kibbee) to pull all the vaudevillians’ kids from their homes and put them in the state work school — and when she snarls at the poor man, “I want all those actors’ kids in the state work school, where they belong,” one half-expects her to add, “And their little dogs, too!”

Complications ensue in the appearance of Baby Rosalie (June Preisser), burned-out child movie star who’s looking for a comeback vehicle as an adolescent — judging from the titles of her fictitious films writers Jack McGowan and Kay Van Riper were obviously intending her as a parody of Shirley Temple (and not coincidentally, 1939 was the year Shirley Temple fell off her perch on top of the list of Hollywood’s top moneymakers, replaced by — you guessed it — Mickey Rooney) — and who agrees to bankroll the show if she, not Patsy, gets to play the female lead. (Though most of the sophisticated songs Rodgers and Hart wrote for the stage version — “My Funny Valentine”, “I Wish I Were in Love Again”, “Way Out West”, and “Johnny One Note” — were left out of the film altogether, “The Lady Is a Tramp” survived instrumentally as a theme symbolizing Rosalie’s prima donna bitchiness.) Rosalie makes a play for Mickey, Patsy is left to sulk in the background and sing a version of the 1932 song “I Cried for You” (co-written by the film’s producer, Arthur Freed) with a talking bridge similar to the one in the “Dear Mr. Gable” rearrangement of “You Made Me Love You” she performed in Broadway Melody of 1938 (and as in that film, the acoustics change noticeably when she finishes the talking bridge and resumes singing — evidently, Judy once again pre-recorded the sung portion but delivered the spoken lines “live” as the cameras were turning), then tears off on a bus to join her parents on their tour in Schenectady, where she finds out they’re bombing. Fortunately, the old-time troupers talk her into returning to Mickey’s show — and a good thing, too, because on opening night Rosalie’s father shows up and angrily pulls her out of the show, Patsy goes on in her place and everything looks headed for a happy ending when a catastrophic hurricane sweeps the East Coast and drenches Mickey’s outdoor theatre in terrific rain. (There really was a huge hurricane on the East Coast in 1938, so the writers were being topical with their plot.)

Fortunately, a deus ex machina arrives in the form of another ex-vaudevillian who saw the light in time and became a Broadway producer; he agrees to put Mickey’s show on the Main Stem and for good measure hires his dad Joe to coach its performers. Babes in Arms was the original follow-up to The Wizard of Oz — a movie that actually flopped commercially on its first release; it was one of those films that attracted audiences but cost so much to make it still didn’t turn a profit even though a lot of people paid to see it — and though considerably cheaper Babes in Arms actually out-grossed Oz and it was the film that made Judy Garland a star — even though she’s oddly ill-used in it: she gets to sing a bit of “Where or When” (interrupting a rehearsal by the stentorian Betty Jaynes and her real-life husband, Douglas MacPhail, whom MGM were hoping to build into the next Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy), she makes an appearance in drag as a minstrel in yet another one of Hollywood’s mind-numbing tributes to minstrelsy that clog up a lot of otherwise good movies (they would do the minstrel schtick again in Babes on Broadway, a 1940 follow-up that really wasn’t a sequel to Babes in Arms even though the title made it look like one), she gets “I Cried for You,” she gets some brief appearances in other big ensemble numbers — including the bizarre routine director Busby Berkeley (just after his switch from Warners to MGM and already starting to chafe under MGM’s ukase that his numbers could be big, but not so big that they took attention away from their star performers) worked up for the title song, in which the vaudevillians’ kids look like they’re staging a protest rally that ends in a bonfire.

She’s also featured in the final production number, a Popular Front song by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg called “God’s Country” (requisitioned from a stage musical called Hooray for What! that had convinced Arthur Freed that Arlen and Harburg would be the right people to write the songs for The Wizard of Oz), celebrating the wonders of American democracy, where “every man is his own dictator” and “we’ve got no Duce, we’ve got no Führer/But we’ve got Garbo and Norma Shearer” (and Judy does her best to convince the listener that “Führer” and “Shearer” actually rhyme). The number includes a bizarre segment in which Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland impersonate Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, which according to was removed from the film after FDR’s death in 1945, long thought lost and only restored when a 16 mm print containing it surfaced in the 1990’s. Babes in Arms is a comfortable musical, at its best when Judy is singing — she and Betty Jaynes also do an “Opera vs. Swing” number closely paralleling the one Judy and Deanna Durbin did in their 1936 short Every Sunday, including a nice parody of the big “Figaro” aria from The Barber of Seville written by Judy’s long-term confidante and coach Roger Edens and sung by her in one of her early, and reasonably close, simulacra of swing. (In a lot of her early appearances — including her first commercial record, “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and “Swing, Mr. Charlie” with Bob Crosby’s band for Decca in 1936 — Judy was presented as a swing singer, which she really wasn’t. Her phrasing was too squarely on the beat for her to sing jazz, and Artie Shaw — who was dating her platonically while Billie Holiday was singing with his band — recalled that Judy was ferociously jealous of Billie and wished she could sing like her.) One can see why 1939 audiences liked it and felt more comfortable with it than they had with The Wizard of Oz, especially since it not only gave Rooney a showcase for the overacting his fans expected from him, but by casting Charles Winninger as his dad it made overacting seem like a genetically acquired trait!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Grace of Monaco (Stone Angels, YRF Entertainment, Umedia, Weinstein Company, Lifetime, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a more-or-less “original” movie on Lifetime, one that had a singularly star-crossed journey on its way to an audience: Grace of Monaco, a 2011 theatrical film which never got shown theatrically, at least in the U.S., because director Olivier Dahan and producer Harvey Weinstein got into an artistic hissy-fit about it and Dahan refused to allow the film to be released in Weinstein’s cut. The title suggests a biopic about Grace Kelly (Nicole Kidman — ironically, a far better and more sophisticated actress than the real one she was playing!) and her abandonment of Hollywood stardom for a real-life Cinderella story, marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco (Tim Roth) — whom she rather disconcertingly calls by the nickname “Ray” — and settling in there for a life that seemed to consist of nothing else than waving from palace windows, making public appearances at grand balls and bearing him two children, Princess Caroline (Candela Cottis) and Prince Albert (Roméo Mestanza). The film actually focuses on only about a year or so in Grace’s life, 1961, when Alfred Hitchcock (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) arrived in the principality bearing a script for the film Marnie to offer it to Grace as a comeback role. (The copy of the script we see bears the name of Jay Presson Allen as the screenwriter, but that’s an error; the version of Marnie Grace Kelly Grimaldi got offered was an earlier one adapted by Evan Hunter, and Allen came on board only after Grace turned it down and Hitchcock tapped ‘Tippi’ Hedren for the role.) Grace Kelly’s potential return to the screen was ballyhooed worldwide, but it never took place; the version I’d heard before this movie — the one in John Russell Taylor’s biography of Hitchcock — was that someone in Monaco read Winston Graham’s novel Marnie, on which the film was based, and decided it was inappropriate for the wife of the reigning monarch of Monaco to make a movie in which she would play a kleptomaniac who was frigid with men until her husband and a therapist (two separate characters in the novel but combined into one for the film) figured out how to cure her. So he launched a public referendum, the citizens of Monaco voted overwhelmingly against Grace Kelly’s return to the screen in such a role, and though the referendum was non-binding she acceded to the people’s wishes and never again sought an acting career.

The version told by Arash Amel in the script for Grace of Monaco is considerably darker and more convoluted than that, and the real villain of the piece is French president Charles de Gaulle (André Penvem). It seems that de Gaulle, already in the middle of public controversy over the French army’s attempt to keep Algeria a French colony (de Gaulle got dumped on by French anti-imperialists by trying to keep Algeria by force and then, when he agreed to its independence, got dumped on and nearly assassinated — an event that’s a key plot point in Amel’s script — by Right-wingers who didn’t want to see France lose yet another of its overseas colonies), decided to go after Monaco because a lot of French companies were dissolving their French corporations and reincorporating in Monaco since it had neither a personal nor a business income tax. (The more things change … ) At least according to this script — not being particularly “up” on recent Monegasque history, I have no idea whether this was true — de Gaulle served notice on the Monaco government that they must not only impose personal and business income taxes but turn over all the revenue from them to France, or else France would impose economic sanctions on Monaco (which, given that virtually everything Monaco needed came to it via France, would quickly cripple their economy) and mass French troops on the border for a takeover. Our Heroine is naturally aghast about this, but the French propagandists use the fact that she’s considering playing a kleptomaniac for Alfred Hitchcock as one of the reasons they claim Monaco is being governed by irresponsible people and the French need to take over for the Monegasques’ own good. Grace of Monaco has a promising opening — Hitchcock arrives to deliver Grace the script for Marnie and her lady-in-waiting gives him a long and pompous list of protocols he is to follow when they meet, only as soon as he enters her room she says, “Hitch!,” greeting the director of her three greatest films as the old and dear friend he in fact was and showing a total lack of formality — and the first half-hour or so is marvelously entertaining, but the dizzying array of plots and counter-plots, leading to the disgrace of Rainier’s sister Antoinette (Geraldine Somerville), and the long scenes between Grace and her confidant, Father Francis Tucker (Frank Langella), who appears to have been the priest who married her and Rainier, eventually become quite boring.

Grace realizes that the only way she can save Monaco’s independence — earlier she’d attempted to goose up Rainier’s morale by pointing out to him that both Louis XIV and Napoleon had tried to conquer Monaco, and she wasn’t about to let de Gaulle succeed where they had failed— is to go through with the Monaco Red Cross’s annual charity ball, even though earlier on she’d tried to get the Red Cross to abandon the ball and instead come up with more funding for an appallingly dirty and ill-kept children’s hospital. Accordingly she hosts the ball, invites de Gaulle to attend, and in his presence makes a stirring speech defending Monaco’s independence, which eventually gets de Gaulle to back off his threats. The movie is also remarkable for including Aristotle Onassis (Robert Lindsay) and Maria Callas (Paz Vega — beautifully made up to look uncannily like the real one) in the dramatis personae — Onassis was Monaco’s biggest private investor until he and the Grimaldis had a bitter falling-out and he pulled his interests out of there — though all Paz Vega gets to do is perform at the big ball, lip-synching to the recording of “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi made by the real Callas in 1954. Grace of Monaco had an ill-starred development and release history, winning a position on the 2011 “Blacklist” (a recent phenomenon in which an organization gives prizes for the best unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood in hopes some enterprising producer will buy and make them) and being completed and shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. Harvey Weinstein bought distribution rights but then wanted director Olivier Dahan to re-edit the film for a 2013 U.S. release. When Weinstein and Dahan couldn’t agree on a version of the film to release, Weinstein gave up any hope of a theatrical release and dumped it on Lifetime instead, where it was heavily promoted (after all, it isn’t every day that Lifetime gets to show a movie with an “A”-list star like Kidman in a role that, despite the longueurs in Amel’s screenplay, is a virtual tour de force for her) but came off as merely a somewhat better version of their usual sludge.

Monday, May 25, 2015

National Memorial Day Concert (PBS, May 24, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the latest telecast of the National Memorial Day Concert on PBS, and having watched these extravaganzae regularly for many years I have the impression that about 20 or even 10 years ago they were genuinely concerts —performances of music by the National Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Jack Eberly now that the founder of the concerts, Erich Kunzel, has passed on) with various guest stars, mostly popular singers, performing vaguely patriotic songs — and the ceremonial tributes to the men and (increasingly) women of the U.S. military, including the Ken Burns-ish segments in which relatively prominent actors read statements purporting to be from real servicemembers discussing how they got wounded in combat, were seasoning. It’s possible my recollections are wrong and I’m conflating this with the Fourth of July concerts from the same locale (the outside of the Washington Capitol) also telecast each year by PBS, but it seemed like this time it was the memorials and tributes that were the main business of the show and the musical selections almost an afterthought. One wrinkle this year was that instead of focusing on the stories of servicemembers who died in combat, the show chose to fix on people who were wounded and became seriously disabled from combat injuries but survived. At least that’s partly the result of improvements in battlefield medicine, which has got better at keeping wounded soldiers alive but at the cost of preserving them in an injured state that requires heavy-duty care (and has been one of the factors busting the budget of the Veterans’ Administration, which is supposed to provide vets state-of-the-art care and, at least in my impression, genuinely does so once you can get in: the trick is to get in). Anyway, a monument paying tribute to wounded veterans has just opened up and it’s being accompanied by a major push to raise money and recruit volunteers for long-term care for people like Sgt. Roni Camargo, who was turned into a quadriplegic by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq — or was it a grenade in Afghanistan? The sob stories did tend to blend together after a while — though what came through most strongly in Sgt. Camargo’s story was the incredible devotion and commitment of his wife Gabrielle, who was at his bedside almost as soon as he returned home and has been there as his principal caregiver ever since. (Given how I’ve made my living for the last 30 years — albeit never with someone needing so much help as Sgt. Camargo, who needs to be on a ventilator for four hours a day and was scared shitless the first time he breathed without it post-injury the way a less severely injured person might worry about whether they could walk again even if their physical wounds had healed — I couldn’t help but be impressed with the beauty and depth of her commitment to him.)

The show probably revolves too much around the “regulars” who do it every year — hosts Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise (who, you’ll recall, played a servicemember who lost his legs in combat in Forrest Gump) and “inspirational” speaker General Colin Powell (remember when it was he, not Barack Obama, whom people thought would be the first African-American U.S. President?) — though it was legitimately powerful and the writers did do a good job seamlessly integrating the few songs into the narratives. The most powerful moment was when Laurence Fishburne’s tribute to Sgt. Ted Strong, who lost both his legs and one arm and finally, after years of struggle and practice, re-learned how to walk on prosthetic limbs, was followed by Gloria Estefan singing a slow, moving song called “Coming Out of the Dark.” It was a song, she later explained, she wrote after her own life-threatening injuries when her tour bus crashed, but it fit the mood beautifully and showed how sensitive a singer she can actually be when she has the right chance (and the right material). There was also a performance of “I Will Always Love You” by someone named (I think) Tessan Chin, who won the most recent round of NBC’s “reality” competition The Voice but who really doesn’t sound like that sort of contest winner: instead of belting the song out the way Céline Dion did in the Titanic soundtrack, she made it softer, more somber and, at least to me, more moving. (In the how-the-mighty-have-fallen category the latest winner of American Idol, Nick Frutioni, was also featured but far less prominently; he was just trotted out to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the opening.) Aside from Estefan (who returned to sing “God Bless America” just before the medley of military marches that closed the program — which couldn’t help remind me of the incensed Right-wing commentator who, after a naturalized U.S. citizen sang the song at a public concert, wrote incensed, “What makes an immigrant think he has the right to sing ‘God Bless America?,’” to which the response that immediately occurred to me was, “Well, for one thing, an immigrant wrote it”), the best singer featured was soprano Katherine Jenkins, who sang a lovely “Sanctus” and later returned for “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — showcasing a powerful voice even though her pronunciation made her sound like an honors graduate at the Joan Sutherland School of Diction.

The Memorial Day Concert is one of those occasions for the sappiest sort of patriotism, yet it also occurred to me that as much as I loathe what the military actually does (and coupled with that is an equal loathing for the fact that we need one — maybe not the one we have now, poking its collective nose into other countries’ internal struggles and trying to lord it over the world since mass killing is the one thing the U.S. still does better than any other country on earth), it’s an oddly counter-Zeitgeist institution in a weird way. For all the extent to which “rugged individualism” has become the ruling ideology not only of the U.S. but, increasingly, the world — for all the degree to which we’re told by the corporations and their servants who actually run things that we’re all here on our own, that other people are not to be trusted and the very idea of coming together for a common purpose is at odds with basic human nature — the military remains one of the most powerful counter-examples: an institution set up from the get-go to bring people together, despite their differences in background and personal philosophy, and train them to pursue a common goal and put the interests of the institution as a whole against their desires as individuals. It’s fascinatingly ironic that the strongest supporters of the U.S. military are the members of the political Right — the tendency that otherwise rejects the whole idea that humans either should or even can come together for a broader purpose than their own individual gain — while its biggest opponents are Leftists who otherwise entertain the hope that society could someday be ordered in a way where people in civilian life do what the members of the military are trained and expected to do every day: to sacrifice their own interests for the common good of the whole. And it just adds to the irony that the purpose of a military — the goal for which they come together and subsume their own individual interests for the institution and for each other — is to kill members of another country’s military that are doing the same thing.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Kidnapped: The Hannah Anderson Story (Hybrid Entertainment/Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the “world premiere” movie on Lifetime, a true-life based thriller called Kidnapped: The Hannah Anderson Story which turned out to be quite good, a nail-biter which offered some new and unusual twists on Lifetime’s usual “pussy-in-peril” genre. Since 16-year-old Hannah Anderson (Jessica Amlee) was living in San Diego with her mother Tina (Trilby Glover) and eight-year-old brother Ethan (Gavin Collins), the story got a certain amount of “play” locally, though I’m not a big enough fan of either tabloid journalism (in print or on TV) or social media to have experienced the “play” it got there. The film was written by Peter Sullivan (who also directed), Hans Wasserburger and Jeffrey Schenck, and impressively it begins after Hannah is kidnapped — not by the sinister stranger generations of fictions like this one has taught us to fear, but by a neighbor and family friend, James DiMaggio (Scott Sullivan). The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI have worked together to track down DiMaggio and finally caught up with him in a remote forest in Idaho — DiMaggio having taken Hannah from her home in the rustic San Diego suburb of Lakeside first to Nevada and then Idaho — and an FBI sniper has taken DiMaggio down and allowed Hannah to be rescued. Hannah’s parents had divorced well before this occurred and she was living in Lakeside with her mom and brother, while dad Brett (Brian Anderson) had relocated to Tennessee with a new partner but, with Hannah’s release, has come slamming back into her life, putting so intense a level of control over her actions and movements she would have been forgiven for thinking she’d been kidnapped all over again. The main reason he’s become so hyper-controlling is that her story has become a tabloid media sensation, and he wants her neither to leave the house nor to go online for fear she’ll be entrapped in the media frenzy and will give an ill-thought-out interview that will get her on record as saying something embarrassing and/or easily twisted. Of course, in the absence from any comments from Hannah or her surviving family — for her mom and brother are both dead, killed by DiMaggio, who tied them up, put them in the garage, beat them to death with a golf club and then torched the house where they and Hannah had been living before holding a gun to her head and forcing her to leave with him — the gap is filled by wild speculations, including calling Hannah “the Lakeside Lolita” and saying she was having a consensual affair with DiMaggio and that’s why she agreed to run off with him after (in one especially sordid variant) helping him off her mom and brother.

The first half-hour of Kidnapped is a wickedly funny satire of the feeding frenzy that surrounds any celebrity, including one of the “instant” ones created by the media mob after someone just happens to have some association with something terrible that makes their life a “news” event. Media outlets who send reporters out to stage these attacks on people often defend them by saying their targets are celebrities who have “chosen” this lifestyle, or at least have learned to accept (or, in their minds, should have learned to accept), being hounded by the press 24/7 as one of the prices of money and fame — but that’s B.S.: they treat people who haven’t sought celebrity exactly the same way. Out of sheer frustration at the way she’s being reported when a school friend of Hannah’s finally shows her what they’re saying about her online, Hannah responds on one of the Hannah Anderson message boards with a few posts of her own — which, of course, only excites further media attention when the people running that board realize they’re talking to the real one. Eventually Hannah, out of sheer frustration over the way she’s being lied about, insists that her dad allow her to accept the invitation of The Today Show to do an interview, and the bulk of the film consists of the story of her abduction and captivity at DiMaggio’s hands as she tells it on Today — including a few “cheats,” behind-the-scenes footage of the police and FBI efforts to locate her (which succeed more through sheer luck than anything else — during their travails in the wilderness she and DiMaggio are stumbled upon by a party of four people, two men and two women, on horseback, and one of the men not only looks like he just rode out of a Western movie but is actually a retired sheriff who pieces together the whole thing and reports Hannah’s and her kidnapper’s location to the FBI) which she couldn’t have been a witness to first-hand. The one person who’s posted a review to so far, “wes-connors” (I presume that’s just Netspeak for “Wes Connors”), criticized the film for putting the end at the beginning and therefore vitiating any will-she-make-it-or-won’t-she? suspense — but I quite liked this the way it was and particularly liked the implied social critique — “This is the way the media guessed it … this is the way you out there, with your sick minds, imagined it … now this is the way it really was.”

Indeed, this was one of the best things I’ve seen on Lifetime in quite some time, well scripted, well directed and well acted — Jessica Amlee hit just the right note of dramatic perkiness in her pre-abduction scenes with her mom and brother and turned in a performance of enough depth and power to suggest she (unlike all too many Lifetime heroines before her) will actually learn something and grow as a person from her ordeal. And Scott Patterson matches her as DiMaggio; though one brief scene involving the law officers indicates that his dad committed a similar crime and killed himself when he was cornered (which just adds to the urgency with which the authorities are seeking DiMaggio, Jr.), for the most part he seems just right as a man being driven by appetites he can barely understand, let alone control — he just seems like your average next-door neighbor who went off the deep end when a little girl he’d known all her life suddenly blossomed into a sexually mature woman and he got such a bad case of the hots for her he was willing to do anything to get into her pants, no matter how evil, crazy or both. The fact that real-life kids are probably far more in danger of being kidnapped, molested or both from people they know (like Danielle Van Dam’s killer, David Westerfield) than from the largely mythical strangers in raincoats both kids and their parents are taught to fear is at the heart of this film (and the real-life incident that inspired it) and one of the best lessons it offers, though it’s mainly a surprisingly high-class piece of entertainment that makes Hannah’s struggles — both during her kidnapping and with the public media thereafter — all too real and allow us to identify with them.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

That Night in Rio (20th Century-Fox, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was yet another 20th Century-Fox musical from the Alice Faye boxed set, That Night in Rio, which also starred Don Ameche (who named it his favorite of his own films — which surprised me; I thought it would have been The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, a film that was such a hit that for a while “ameche” entered the language as a slang term for “telephone”) and Carmen Miranda (in her second U.S. film and her first actually made in Hollywood). It was also a followup to Down Argentine Way — in which Faye had had to give up the lead to Betty Grable (the film made Grable an instant star after over a decade during which she’d hung around Hollywood desperately hoping for a big break) — in the sequence of musicals set in South America which Fox, RKO and Disney made to help boost President Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” to help our neighbors on the rest of the American continents (and, not incidentally, to keep them aligned with us if and when we got into World War II because many of the South American countries had important resources for maintaining military machines the Axis powers would dearly have loved to get their hands on to keep their war effort going, and FDR was anxious to keep those resources out of enemy hands and, if at all possible, get them for us instead).

That Night in Rio would be followed by Weekend in Havana (a film I wish the Faye boxed set had included instead of yet another pressing of The Gang’s All Here, which I bought on its own as well as part of the Miranda box), in which, instead of Grable replacing Faye as in Down Argentine Way, Faye replaced Grable. Carmen Miranda was in all three, though at least in this one she got to play her genuine white-Brazilian nationality (she was actually born in Portugal but her family emigrated to Brazil when she was three) even though the songs she sang were pretty silly novelties like “Chica-Chica-Boom-Chic,” “I-Yi-Yi-I Like You Very Much” and “Cai Cai” — the first two by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, the film’s overall songwriters, and the third an actual Brazilian song by Roberto Martins and Pedro Barrios with an English lyric by John Latouche. (When Miranda, flush with her U.S. successes with Streets of Paris on the Broadway stage and Down Argentine Way on film, returned in what she thought would be triumph to the stage of the Urca Casino in Rio and sang her big U.S. hit “South American Way,” she was booed by the Brazilians, who saw the song as a putrid U.S. knockoff of their national music.) The 1990’s documentary on Miranda, Bananas Is My Business, showed how Miranda saw her work in the U.S. as a kind of cultural emissary to build understanding of Latin American culture, and to that end she had a stipulation in her Fox contract that she would sing at least one song in Portuguese in each film (here she actually did three, though many of them were just portions of big numbers in which another performer or two were brought on to sing the same song in English). The documentary also noted that the way Carmen Miranda’s characters spoke — alternately in broken-English and rapid-fire Portuguese the way Lupe Velez played the “Mexican Spitfire” largely in rapid-fire Spanish — was the way she had spoken when she first arrived in the U.S.; she eventually learned to speak English perfectly but, like Jack Benny’s violin playing, Carmen Miranda couldn’t speak perfect English in public without blowing her carefully cultivated image.

Here she’s cast as a character named “Carmen,” co-star and girlfriend of U.S. nightclub performer Larry Martin (Don Ameche), who holds forth in a Rio nightclub and whose act consists of, among other things, an impersonation of one of Rio’s richest men, the fabulously wealthy investment broker Baron Duarte (also Don Ameche). Baron Duarte has an American wife (Alice Faye) — at least we assume she’s American because she’s not made up to look Latina, she’s kept in all her usual blonde glory and she speaks in American-accented rather than Latin-accented English — and he also owns an airline that has just lost its contract to deliver air mail in Brazil. Without that contract the company will be ruined and Baron Duarte will lose all his money. Duarte disappears on a last-minute trip to Buenos Aires (returning to the Argentinian setting of the previous film in the series) to try to get a bank loan to keep his company going until he can renegotiate the mail contract and get some revenue again, only in order to keep up his daily personal appearance at the Rio stock exchange and his appointment to be the guest of honor at a reception for the ambassador (Georges Renavent) — we’re never told what country he’s the ambassador of — Duarte’s business associates Penna (S. Z. Sakall, charming and cuddly as usual) and Salles (Curt Bois) pay Larry to impersonate him. Larry pulls off the reception but at the stock exchange he waves back and forth, not realizing these are buying signals, with the result that instead of owning 51 percent of an airline that’s about to go out of business, he now owns 100 percent. All of this is to ensure that Duarte’s hated rival Machado (J. Carrol Naish) doesn’t experience the satisfaction of throwing him out of business, but needless to say it also sparks a round of jealousy as Mrs. Duarte suddenly finds her husband — or Larry, or whoever — a considerably more attentive lover than she’s used to, while Carmen ends up with yet more reasons to be flamboyantly jealous of Larry.

That Night in Rio began as a 1934 play called The Red Cat which the (pre-20th Century) Fox company bankrolled for the movie rights; it only lasted 34 performances but Fox filmed it anyway as Folies-Bergère, Maurice Chevalier’s last U.S. movie for 20 years (he was still a major star in America but his wife, the French singer Mistinguett, was homesick and no longer wanted to live anywhere but in Paris). In 1951 they’d take this plot out of mothballs a third time and give it to Danny Kaye for a film called On the Riviera; I have never seen Folies-Bergère and I haven’t seen On the Riviera for decades, though I remember it as more fun than That Night in Rio, which is dazzlingly fun when it’s actually in the nightclub where Larry and Carmen perform but surprisingly dull during the long “comedy” scenes that separate the numbers. The film takes off and flies when Carmen Miranda is center stage — in a movie in which all the other performers (even such accomplished scenery-chewers as J. Carrol Naish and Leonid Kinskey, who repeats his Down Argentine Way role as a lounge-lizard gigolo after the blonde American heroine) seem oddly understated, her all out charge-the-camera-full-speed-ahead energy is welcome and easily the best thing about the film. Otherwise the best things about it are the glorious three-strip Technicolor (these Fox musicals are one set of films that come off considerably better on commercial DVD’s than home recordings or normal TV showings; the Fox transfers, ballyhooed as major restorations, are almost eye-strainingly vivid in their reproductions of the spectacular, sometimes garish hues of three-strip in the 1940’s, though as Charles noted Carmen Miranda managed to call attention to herself in the final number by not wearing anything blue but instead appearing in a green-and-red costume that would have done just as well in the more primitive two-strip process) and the energy of Warren’s songs. Alice Faye gets a couple of her usual foghorn laments, including the title song, and Don Ameche has the interesting challenge of singing in two voices (as the Baron he both speaks and sings in a lower register and at a slower pace than he does as Larry, which is why I suspect he was Larry rather than the Baron when he was doing the reprise of “Chica-Chica-Boom-Chic” that was cut from the film originally but is presented here as a “deleted scene” bonus), but it’s Carmen Miranda, her group (the Bando da Lua, a samba ensemble she insisted on importing to the U.S. and using in all her films) and the luscious photography of them by cinematographers Ray Rennahan and Leon Shamroy (including some interesting red-filter effects on the Bando’s samba drums, presaging Shamroy’s infamous experiments with color filters on South Pacific 17 years later) that make That Night in Rio watchable.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

FRONTLINE: “Secrets, Politics and Lies” (WBGH/PBS, aired May 24, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved 

The program was a PBS Frontline episode called “Secrets, Politics and Torture,” ostensibly about the CIA’s program of putting alleged terrorist detainees through what was euphemistically called “EIT’s” (short for “enhanced interrogation techniques”) but which were clearly torture: waterboarding, sleep deprivation for days on end, forcing them to go naked, locking them in coffin-sized (or even smaller!) boxes, forcing enemas on them and all sorts of highly imaginative and sadistic practices that, as one writer put it, seemed to have less to do with information-gathering than revenge: with Osama bin Laden and the other major perpetrators of 9/11 still at large, the U.S. military and especially the CIA took out their anger and desire for revenge on the poor unfortunates whom they had been able to catch. The program presents the issue in the context of the Congressional investigation of 2011-2014 and the internal review one of Obama’s appointees as CIA director, Leon Panetta, ordered — both of which came to the conclusion that the “EIT” practices did amount to torture — versus the opinions of virtually all Senate Republicans as well as the makers of the film Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, that EIT’s not only didn’t count as torture but were instrumental in the most successful campaigns of the “war on terror,” including the ambushing and killing of bin Laden himself. Having read John Rizzo’s book on his career as a CIA attorney, I wasn’t surprised to see him turn up as one of the apologists for the EIT program — or to see him repeat one of the most chilling anecdotes in his book, in which he shows a list of the EIT’s to Senator John McCain and McCain looks at it and says, “It’s all torture.” (The fact that McCain was the only prominent Republican to oppose the EIT program led me to the rather bitter joke that the only way to get a Republican to admit that torture is wrong is to torture him.) The most interesting part of the program was actually early on, dealing with the capture of Abu Zubaydah, an al-Qaeda member (though, it turned out, a considerably less important one than we thought when we captured him) and his interrogation first by the FBI — who assigned Ali Soufan to question him because Soufan was a Muslim, of Arab descent, and could quote the Koran and build a rapport with Zubaydah. Soufan succeeded well enough that he got Zubaydah to identify Khalid Shaikh Muhammad (or “KSM” as he was referred to for short by American authorities) as the organizer and operations chief for the 9/11 attacks at a time nobody else in the American government knew who he was. Then the CIA took him over and started waterboarding and — let’s use the correct term — torturing him, and he clammed up. The person the CIA put in charge of Zubaydah’s “enhanced” interrogation was identified in the Senate report by the pseudonym “Grayson Swigert” but was really James Mitchell, a psychologist who had been instrumental in developing the U.S. Army’s SERE (“Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape”) program aimed at training American servicemembers how to handle the experience of being tortured while held captive by enemies who did that sort of thing. (It was apparently started in response to the Korean War and the so-called “brainwashing” of U.S. and United Nations prisoners by the Communist Chinese.)

Mitchell decided to reverse-engineer SERE so instead of training American servicemembers to resist torture, it would train CIA agents to torture detainees — and when Khalid Shaikh Muhammad was finally captured, he was waterboarded over 180 times and proceeded, according to classic intelligence training, to give his interrogators fanciful tales of the sort he could tell they wanted to hear, including a bizarre story that al-Qaeda was training Black recruits in Montana (of all places) to stage further terror attacks against the U.S. As far-fetched as this might seem in reality, the FBI mounted a major offensive to find and arrest these Black Montanan al-Qaeda recruits and spent weeks on the case before finally realizing (and acknowledging) that there were no such people: KSM had been lying. That’s the real problem with interrogation under torture: not only that it’s immoral, wrong and contrary to America’s professed values (John McCain has said on more than one occasion that one of the things that kept him going while the North Viet Namese were torturing him was the thought, “My country would never do this to anybody”) but it doesn’t freaking work. A person you’re interrogating under torture will tell you whatever he thinks will get you to stop torturing him — and when the torturers are people who are pushing an agenda whether or not it has anything to do with facts (like the U.S. search for people who knew where Saddam Hussein was hiding his weapons of mass destruction — which, of course, did not exist), it will be relatively easy for the torture victim to figure out what his torturers want to hear and give it to them. (The CIA interrogators claimed they were able to tell when KSM was lying and when he was telling the truth, but they obviously weren’t if they were willing to “buy” the Montana story and transmit it to the FBI for legal action.) The most depressing aspect of the program is the extent to which the whole question of torture has become yet another example of the partisan split, with Democrats insisting that EIT’s constituted torture and Republicans saying they didn’t, and with Democrats (including Dianne Feinstein, hardly a beau ideal of liberalism) fighting to have both Leon Panetta’s internal CIA report and the 6,000-page full Senate report declassified and publicly released, while the Republicans are equally determined to keep both of them classified forever and return all the purloined (by Democratic staff members to the original investigation) copies of Panetta’s report to the CIA so they can be deep-sixed forever.

At the end of the program Peter Baker, who has covered the issue as a reporter for the New York Times, rather ruefully says, “The fight right now is for history. There’s no more investigations that are going to happen. There’s no more legal consequences that we know of at this point. And there’s no policy debate. Why did it happen? Was it the right thing? Was it the wrong thing? And how should we look at it in generations to come?” I think Baker is wrong in claiming that there’s “no policy debate” on the issue; by whitewashing the CIA in particular and the torture (so-called “EIT’s”) in general, the Republicans are making it quite clear that if they regain the Presidency in 2016 you can expect that the U.S. will start torturing people again, especially given the rise of ISIS a.k.a. ISIL a.k.a. Islamic State a.k.a. Daesh (the initials of its Arabic name and close enough to an Arabic insult that Arabic speakers who don’t like them pronounce it with a sneer). We can expect, if the next President is a Republican (and probably if the next President is Hillary Clinton as well), to hear the same excuses — that we don’t have time for classical counterintelligence rapport-building, that terrorist attacks will take place on our soil if we don’t use EIT’s to find out about them, and that EIT’s are effective — just as President Obama defended the NSA’s spying program by citing the case of an alleged terrorist who had supposedly been identified and brought to justice through it, when it turned out eventually that the person had left behind such an obvious trail to his terror-supporting activities the feds would have had no trouble getting a fully Fourth Amendment-compliant warrant for a specific search on him. Obama did end the torture program, but it seems all too likely, whichever way the 2016 Presidential election turns out (i.e., whether it’s Hillary or a Republican), the U.S. will start torturing again and the tortured (pardon the pun) justifications for it in legal memoranda and the meager (or, worse, outright deceptive) results of “enhanced interrogation” will once again be with us.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Bombs Away: LBJ, Goldwater and the 1964 Campaign That Changed It All (Community Idea Stations, University of Virginia Center for Politics, American Public Television, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The PBS program was a film saddled with the awkward title Bombs Away: LBJ, Goldwater and the 1964 Campaign That Changed It All, and it was basically a depiction of the 1964 Presidential election between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater (and Goldwater’s victory in the Republican nominating contest over Nelson Rockefeller and his attempt at a last-minute replacement, Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, whom Rockefeller backed after he realized that his divorce of his wife and marriage to a much younger woman, Happy Murphy — also a divorcée — had fatally blown his own chances for the presidency) from an unusual point of view: the rise in importance and sophistication of TV advertising. TV had been a latecomer to the field of electoral campaigning; 1948 was the first year national political conventions were televised but it was not until 1952 that Presidential candidates started to pay for commercial spots, notably the famous “We Like Ike … Ike for President” spot from 1952 (misidentified here as coming from Ike’s re-election campaign in 1956) for which he got “A”-list talent to help him: the jingle was composed by Irving Berlin and the animation was done by Walt Disney Studios (the only time Walt Disney was personally involved in commercial work) and an equally insistent, and similarly styled, campaign ad for Kennedy in 1960 that seemed to be aimed at building name recognition and nothing else.

What director Paul Tait Roberts misses in his study of the evolution of campaign ads is that they were affected by the same revolution in advertising in the 1960’s as everything else; after some embarrassing struggles to find an ad agency that would handle their account (in 1956 the ad industry was so solidly Republican it wasn’t until late in the campaign that the Democrats finally found an agency — a small one called Norman, Craig & Kummel — that would accept them as customers, a pro-Republican bias Vance Packard exposed in his 1958 best-seller The Hidden Persuaders), in 1964 the Democrats landed Doyle Dane Bernbach, an up-and-coming firm whose principal, Dave Bernbach, had concocted the famous “Think Small” ads for Volkswagen. Bernbach was a pioneer in the use of humor, particularly dry wit, in advertising, and also in his Volkswagen ads he went against the grain of typical automobile ads — which emphasized bigger, faster and flashier cars — and actually made the Volkswagen’s compact size and unassuming design major and effective selling points. (Doyle Dane Bernbach was hired by the Democrats for the 1968 campaign as well, but the divisive primary battle and horrible national convention in Chicago had upset or scared off so many donors that the Democrats simply couldn’t afford the campaign the agency had planned, so they were let go and a smaller agency hired to do the ad campaign the Democrats could afford.) The focus of the show was the infamous “daisy” ad, a spot for Lyndon Johnson that featured a young girl pulling petals off a daisy, trying (and failing) to keep track of how many she had pulled, and then her count-up of the number of petals blended on the soundtrack into the countdown of a missile launch and, when the countdown reached zero, the image cut to a stock shot of a nuclear explosion and the soundtrack contained the voice of President Johnson doing a sound bite about the risks of nuclear war. The “daisy” ad only had about one or two (the record is unclear) commercial airings, but like later campaign ads (including the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” attacks on John Kerry in 2004, also included here) it became a news story and the spot was broadcast again and again, often in its entirety, on “news” programs — so it got the kind of exposure a campaign most cherishes: the kind they don’t have to pay for.

Director Roberts and his producers even unearthed the actress who played the little girl, Monique Corzilius, and did an interview with her in which she recalled that her parents were placing her in a lot of commercials in the early 1960’s — normal ones for products like Spaghetti-O’s — and they saw the “daisy” commercial as just another employment opportunity for their daughter. The show attempted, if anything, to cover too much in one hour — not just the increasing sophistication of political ads after 1964 but also how the 1964 election, though on the surface a huge defeat for the Republican Party and the conservative movement that Barry Goldwater represented, was a turning point in the country’s history and the birth of the Right-wing coalition that became the dominant political force in the next Presidential election and has remained so to this day. Needless to say, director Roberts couldn’t resist bringing forth Pat Buchanan as an interviewee, and as he did in the film The Day the ’60’s Died (about the Kent State massacres) he couldn’t resist sounding a note of triumphalism — the Right-wing “movement conservatives” tend not only to be sore losers but even sorer winners — that the Goldwater campaign’s success in winning the Republican nomination had turned the party into an ideologically coherent conservative force and ended the whole concept of the “liberal Republican” (though the “liberal Republican” had been in retreat at least since 1912, when William Howard Taft held on to the GOP nomination against the effort of Theodore Roosevelt to regain the presidency, first via the Republican party and then, when that failed, through his own Progressive Party) and the stranglehold the Eastern Seaboard’s business establishment had had on the Republican nomination. This last was a reflection of the paranoid view expressed before the Goldwater campaign by writers like Phyllis Schlafly (who, amazingly, is still around, still spouting off nonsensical Right-wing propaganda garbage), who in her book A Choice, Not an Echo said the Republicans had been talked again and again into nominating Northern or Northern-backed moderates like Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, and that only by picking a true conservative from a Western state could the GOP set themselves up for a landslide victory.

A lot of people were fooled by the fact that the immediate result of Goldwater’s nomination was a landslide defeat — indeed, one of the biggest things so-called “movement conservatism” (which isn’t really “conservative” at all — it’s actually a Right-wing revolutionary movement aimed at eliminating all the reforms of the 20th century and returning us to the Gilded Age of unregulated capitalism in the 1880’s, though some of its loonier adherents today want to take the U.S. even farther back, to the 1820’s, when only people with enough money to own land were allowed to vote) has had going for it is the continual underestimation of it by its adversaries. What’s really most fascinating about Bombs Away is how clear it becomes while watching the movie, and in particular watching the film clips contained in it, that the battle lines over race and culture that have driven (and divided) American politics ever since were largely formed in 1964, particularly over the Civil Rights Act (which Johnson proudly pushed through Congress and signed into law) as well as the nuclear issue. By voting against the Civil Rights Act — and, though this isn’t mentioned in the program, giving as his reason that it was wrong for the government to discriminate on the basis of race but also wrong for the government to require private businesses not to discriminate (an argument we’ve heard more recently from Republican Senator and Presidential candidate Rand Paul) — Goldwater managed to carry five Deep South states for the Republican Party. In 1968 Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond would work out the Republicans’ “Southern Strategy,” and though it was probably formulated more as an ad hoc response to George Wallace’s third-party challenge that year than a long-term strategy, it completed the two major parties’ reversal of their historical positions on civil rights: the “Party of Lincoln” reinvented itself as the party of bitter-end reaction and racism, while the party of the Confederacy before the Civil War and the Ku Klux Klan afterwards became the party of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and of African-American enfranchisement and empowerment.

One interesting aspect of Bombs Away is that it shows that as early as 1964 Republican image-makers were seeing the seeds of disaster in Lyndon Johnson’s triumph and plotting the ways they would use race and culture to undermine and ultimately shatter the New Deal coalition. In 1964 Goldwater’s ad people prepared a film called Choice, excerpts from which are included here, which juxtaposed images of a runaway Lincoln Continental (with an unseen driver that was supposed to be Lyndon Johnson — though undoubtedly there was also a subliminal link since a Lincoln Continental was the car John F. Kennedy was killed in) being driven recklessly; scenes of urban decay and squalor, and the drug culture (what they could find of it that early), ostensibly representing the Democrats; with images of good white (literally and figuratively) “God-fearing” Christian Americans who represented the Republicans. The film was awfully crude and the filmmakers had the disadvantage of making it well before the later 1960’s gave Right-wingers far more powerful (and more ubiquitous) images they could use to discredit the counterculture and associate the political Left in general and the Democratic Party in particular with it, but though Choice wasn’t actually aired as a paid TV film (back when the networks would still sell campaigns a half-hour block of time to run an infomercial), apparently because Goldwater himself denounced it as racist, it was shown at Goldwater house parties — in an era when showing a film at home was considerably harder than it is now: instead of just being sent a DVD and playing it on a normal TV, in 1964 if you wanted to run a film at home you had to get it as a bulky, cumbersome 16 mm print, rent a projector and also rent a screen (unless you had a white sheet or a blank space of white wall to show it on) — and it apparently had the desired effect of mobilizing Goldwater’s volunteers and supporters to work harder for his campaign.

The film also shows an excerpt from Ronald Reagan’s half-hour infomercial, with the similar but softer title A Time for Choosing, and Pat Buchanan reflects that there was a sense among his fellow “movement conservatives” that Reagan had made the case for Goldwater far more effectively than Goldwater had himself and the torch of political leadership was passing from the crusty old politician who said whatever he thought, damn the consequences, to the smooth-talking entertainer who could take the Right-wing principles and sell them even to voters who would be hurt economically if they went into effect. It was the combined power of race and culture that swung the white working class (especially the males within it) definitively from the Democrats to the Republicans and converted the 61 to 39 percent margin by which Johnson and the Democrats won in 1964 to the combined 57 percent for Right-wing candidates Richard Nixon and George Wallace, versus 43 percent for Hubert Humphrey, that obtained in 1968 and showed off the Right-wing “Reagan realignment” (as it’s commonly, though inaccurately, called) 12 years before Reagan was himself elected President. It’s impossible for an old-line Leftist like me to watch a show like this and not be depressed by how what in 1964 sounded like the ravings of a Right-wing crazy (Johnson’s people parodied Goldwater’s campaign slogan, “In your heart you know he’s right,” as “In your guts you know he’s nuts”) have become mainstream and even orthodox political opinion today — it seems almost science-fictional today that an incumbent President could not only declare a “War on Poverty” but actually express the serious hope that poverty would be banished from the U.S. forever (“We had a War on Poverty, and poverty won,” Ronald Reagan airily quipped, and that’s become the established view in U.S. public opinion, and today even the Democrats focus on reviving the middle class and couldn’t care less about the genuinely poor).

Even on the nuclear issue, it was fascinating to watch this show while reading Dr. Helen Caldicott’s autobiography A Desperate Passion and realize that in 1964 a President of the United States was saying the same things about nuclear war — that it was an unacceptable health hazard that would destroy the human race — Dr. Caldicott would be denounced as a dangerous radical for saying just a decade later. The point director Roberts and the University of Virginia Center for Politics, which co-produced this movie, seemed to be making is that the increasing importance of TV advertising in campaigns, not only to promote your own candidate but to demonize the opponent and create a negative image of him (or her) before their campaign has the opportunity to create a positive one, has made campaigning vastly more expensive, which in turn has moved all American politics to the Right as both major parties have had to rely on donations from the 1 percent to finance their campaigns — with the result that the Republicans have become an ideologically consistent far-Right party (to the extent that differences exist between so-called “moderate” and “conservative” Republicans, it’s merely over how fast to undo the reforms of the Progressive era, the New Deal and the Great Society; get rid of all laws regulating business and protecting workers and the environment; and return women and people of color to second-class status, not whether to do those things) while the Democrats are still mired in trying to be a “consensus” party, anxious to differentiate themselves from the Republicans but not be so different that corporate and wealthy-individual donors stop contributing to them — with the result that the big Republican Presidential victories since 1964 have come from voters seeing that the Republicans at least have principles, while the Democrats seem to stand for nothing. The Democrats who’ve won the presidency since Johnson — Carter, Clinton, Obama — have basically eked out narrow wins only because the Republicans screwed up so badly (with the Watergate scandal that elected Carter and the recessions that elected Clinton and Obama) enough voters in the Right-wing coalition (especially in the South) temporarily turned against them and voted, as the late political scientist V. O. Key said, “retrospectively and negatively” — i.e., voted against what hadn’t worked in the past rather than what might work in the future.