Monday, February 29, 2016

88th Annual Academy Awards (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences/ABC-TV, February 28, 2016)

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

Last night’s 88th annual Academy Awards was one of the dullest, most lumbering awards shows it’s ever been my displeasure to sit through, which made me astonished that the Los Angeles Times actually gave it good reviews. On the front page of this morning’s paper were two articles on the ceremony, over a joint headline reading “Spotlight on Harsh Truths,” while under it one of the pieces, by John Rothenberg, subheaded “Biting Comments on Race Dominate the Awards Show,” and the other piece, by Times TV critic Mary McNamara, had a subhead that called it “A Show That Did More than Hand Out Gold Statues.” Certainly it would have been inappropriate for the Academy Awards show to ignore completely the controversy over the fact that for the second year in a row all the acting nominees in both lead and supporting categories — 20 people in all — were white and the #OscarsSoWhite movement that has sprung up with the intent of integrating both the Academy’s list of nominees and its membership. Instead they went whole-hog in the other direction, using a Black host, Chris Rock (whose work I am totally unfamiliar with so I can’t tell whether he’s always this lame or just got really victimized by the quality — or lack of same — of his writing) to tell dull and snotty jokes about Blacks and the Academy all night. (Earlier the Times had noted that it’s not just Blacks who draw the short straw in the Academy and the movie business generally; there was a previous front-page article on how virtually no Latinos are being cast for anything these days, not even in the silly servant roles that used to be sinecures for them.) The Academy and the show’s producers were so scared about the thing running overtime that for just about every winner there was a long crawl expressing all the people they wanted to thank but wouldn’t have time to mention in their actual acceptance speech —though just about all the winners tried to crowd as many names as possible into the speeches themselves — and both Charles and I would have rather heard longer speeches from the Oscar recipients and fewer lame jokes about Blacks and their acceptance, or lack thereof, as part of the Academy and the Hollywood community as a whole

As for the awards themselves, the Best Picture award was won by Spotlight, a film about the investigative journalists at the Boston Globe who broke the story about how not only were several Roman Catholic priests serial molesters of children but the church was actively working to cover it up, often moving the abusive priests around from parish to parish, saving the institutional image of the Church at the expense of the fresh new crop of victims the molesting priests would have access to in each new city. Spotlight was definitely on my list of movies I wanted to see — how many big-budget, big-studio films have there been since All the President’s Men in which journalists were the good guys? — but it only won one award besides Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay for Tim McCarthy and Josh Singer. Alejandro Inárritu won Best Director for the second year in a row (offhand I can’t think of another time that happened) for The Revenant, which won two other awards: Emmanuel Lubeski for Best Cinematography and Leonardo di Caprio for Best Actor. In a night full of gaseous political rhetoric (just because I agree with most of it doesn’t necessarily mean I want to listen to it, especially all night!) di Caprio used his speech not only to warn of the dangers of human-caused climate change but to tie them in with his movie. He said that though The Revenant takes place in 18th century New England, they had to shoot it at the tip of South America because that was one of the few places left in the whole world where there was enough snow to meet the needs of their production. The big winner of the night was Mad Max: Fury Road, which seemed to have been put on the Best Picture list of 10 more to give token inclusion to a crowd-pleasing blockbuster than because it had any real chance of winning, but it cleaned up so well in the back awards — Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Costume Design, Production Design, and Makeup and Hairstyling — it won more awards than any other single movie and for a while I was wondering if it was going to sweep à la The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, or (even worse) that god-awful Lionel Richie album which won the 1985 Grammy for Album of the Year over two deathless masterpieces, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Prince’s Purple Rain. 

The other acting awards went to an assortment of different films: Best Actress went to Brie Larson (if she ever turns in an overwrought performance some smart-aleck critic is sure to call her “Ham and Cheese”!) for her role as the sex slave imprisoned in a shack in Room, a film I really want to see partly because I read (and richly enjoyed) the source novel by Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the script) — a story of a sex slave told from the point of view of the six-year-old son she had with her captor, who has literally never known any life outside the room until they escape in the middle of the story — and partly because I want to see how the director handled the challenge of making an interesting movie set so totally within a confined space. Supporting Actor went to Mark Rylance (whom I’ve long been a fan of, at least partly for non-artistic reasons: as I’ve pointed out in these pages before, I first saw him in a British Last Tango in Paris knockoff called Intimacy, in which he went full-frontal and showed a long and blessedly uncut cock; he’s well-hung enough and a talented enough actor — I thought his performance in Intimacy was way better than Brando’s in Last Tango, but then I’m decidedly a non-fan of Mumblin’ Marlon — I’ll forgive him for being a believer in the Earl of Oxford-wrote-Shakespeare idiocy), and Supporting Actress went to Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl (so the woman who ends up with a Transwoman won out over the woman who ends up with a Lesbian in Carol! And I was a bit put out by the euphemism whereby twice during the ceremony the term “gender-reassignment surgery” was replaced with “gender-confirmation surgery,” which may be superficially more Trans-sympathetic but also might be read as a slap in the face to all the Transgender people who choose to live in the identity of the gender they identify with but not to have their bodies surgically remodeled to “confirm” it).

The Best Documentary Feature award went to a film about Amy Winehouse over a film about Nina Simone — I don’t think I need to belabor the point about which of those two women had the more significant career; Nina Simone, for all her eccentricities, was a powerful, commanding artist who made major work over three decades, while Amy Winehouse was a drug-soaked weakling who sounded like a has-been even before she was an ever-was; as I sang, in bitter parody of her biggest hit, when I heard the utterly unsurprising news of her drug-fueled demise, “She said she wouldn’t go to rehab, and now she’s dead, dead, dead!” Surprise, the Best Documentary Short winner was not the film about the Holocaust — when my late roommate/home-care client John Primavera and I were working out our rules of Oscar prognostication, one of the rules I suggested to him was if a documentary category contains a film about the Holocaust, it will always win because all the Jews in the Academy will vote for it — but A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgetfulness, a film about so-called “honor killings” of rape victims by their families in Pakistan, whose director, Sharmain Obaid-Chinoy, said she had shown the film to the Prime Minister of Pakistan and got him to sign a law banning such “honor killings.” Charles was irked at the awards show producers’ decision to play outro music while she was still talking, since she had just said she’d had the rare experience of making a movie that not only exposed an injustice but actually contributed to ending it (or at least making it illegal, which alas is not always the same thing). If you want to establish an idea that “movies matter,” it’s hard to get much better than a head of state saying, “I signed a bill because you persuaded me with your film that I should.”

Ennio Morricone won Best Score for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight — and, much to the surprise of both Charles and I, delivered his speech in Italian, which his assistant interpreted into English (which makes me wonder how he and Tarantino communicated through their collaboration — did they do it long-distance, did the assistant interpret for them, or does Tarantino know enough of the language of his forebears to be able to talk to Morricone unaided? Or does Morricone know enough English to communicate with the director of an English-language movie but not enough to feel comfortable making a public speech to an English-speaking audience?), and Best Song went to Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes for their song “Spectre,” from the latest James Bond movie of that title. Smith, who rubbed his Gayness in everybody’s face when he accepted his Grammy awards (I loved his dedication of his award-winning album to the man he’d just broken up with before he wrote and recorded it: “He broke my heart, but he helped me win four Grammy awards!”), did it again last night, announcing that he’s sure he’s the first openly Gay man to win an Oscar. (I had thought Tony Kushner had won it for writing Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, but he was only nominated.) That one really rankled me because, as good a song as it was (and as powerfully as Smith performed it), Lady Gaga’s nominated song “’Til It Happens to You” from a movie about the sexual abuse of women whose title I haven’t been able to run down on line was a far better, more powerful song, and Gaga’s staging of it — with a backdrop of people (mostly women but at least one man) who’d been victims of sexual violence joining in on the choruses and wearing tattoos on their arms expressing their determination to survive the experience — was by far the show’s most honestly powerful moment and, as much as I like Sam Smith, the gap between him and Lady Gaga as talents is about as enormous as … well, the gap between Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone.

The Big Short, another movie I want to see mainly because I read the book it was based on, won Best Adapted Screenplay for Charles Randolph and Andy McKay (who adapted it from a nonfiction book by Moneyball author Michael Lewis — and one wonders if the film reproduces Lewis’s cynical comment that the financial schemers who make a killing shorting the housing market in the run-up to the 2008 crash would have lost their shirts if the government had actually intervened to protect the underwater home buyers, but they didn’t really have to worry about that happening given that the government has become mainly a wish-fulfillment machine for the 1 percent), but the film didn’t win anything else — and the big shutout of the night was Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which probably because it was the highest-grossing (by far!) movie of 2015 didn’t win any awards — the Academy voters probably reasoned it was already so super-successful it didn’t deserve any help, not even the Special Effects award, which went to something called Ex Machina almost no one’s even heard of, much less seen! I noticed that I’ve written about the Oscars in years before and said that the current awards are a testament to the fragmentation of the movie audience — it’s probably going to be a long time, if ever, before we see a movie sweep the awards the way Titanic or Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King did, and that’s largely because Hollywood has lost the art of making movies like Gone With the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia that are both entertaining, crowd-pleasing blockbusters and artistically great films.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Martian (20th Century-Fox, TSG Entertainment, Scott Free Productions, 2015)

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

Charles and I finally got to watch The Martian, a major science-fiction from from 2015 starring Matt Damon as Mark Watney, crew member on the Ares III mission to Mars (and in this version of history the Mars missions are being run by NASA, not private companies as Eyton Kollin had advocated in the Mars panel at the ConDor science-fiction convention Charles and I have been attending this weekend) who gets left behind, sort of like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone, when the other members of the crew evacuate themselves and their spaceship when a Martian storm is about to topple it over. The Martian began life as a serial novel by Andy Weir, published chapter by chapter on the Internet, and while the movie isn’t a serial the serial-style plot construction is very obvious. The whole thing intercuts between Mark surviving on Mars and making it through whatever plot complications Weir and the screenwriter, Drew Goddard, can pick up, and the folks back at NASA, headed by Teddy Sanders (a seedy-looking Jeff Daniels) and Vincent Kapoor (originally written as an East Indian but rewritten to be African-American after the Indian actor they originally wanted had a prior commitment in Bollywood, and played by Chiwetel Eijofor — who’s stuck in a suit and tie through the whole movie so we never get to see him shirtless, darnit), debating whether or not to try to rescue Mark, whether to tell the crew members who left him for dead on Mars that he’s still alive (they’re making the 20-month journey back to Earth), and how to rescue him if they decide they want to.

Ultimately after a series of complications — Watney, a botanist by trade, figures out a way to grow potatoes on Mars (leading to a lot of potatoes-on-Mars jokes I wasn’t getting until we saw this film), only another storm blows open his hydroponic dome and the Martian cold freezes his plants, so he can eat the potatoes he’s grown (with his own and the other astronauts’ shit as his fertilizer — this is shown in almost repulsive detail, complete with the earplugs Mark puts in his nostrils to control the odor) but can’t grow anymore; the unmanned probe they launch to get him more supplies blows up in space and they have to enlist the aid of the Chinese space program; his food runs out and his rations get ever smaller; and finally he has to launch himself into space and cut open his spacesuit to propel himself when the Ares III finally returns to Mars to pick him up — Watney is finally rescued and returned home. The Martian got rave reviews from both critics and fans, but I regard it as a very good movie but one that just misses greatness. The plot is well-constructed — in fact a bit too well-constructed — and in the end no one actually dies; it’s the sort of film Frank Capra might have made if he’d done a science-fiction movie (and Capra actually started on the film Marooned, only to get fired while the movie was still in pre-production; Marooned is still quite Capra-esque and there are strong parallels between it and The Martian even though the doomed astronauts in Marooned are only in Earth orbit, not on Mars). It kept my interest and I liked the film overall (and was gratified that in general the women gave stronger performances than the men — whether Hillary Clinton wins the presidency or not, movies like this indicate that Americans are willing to accept women as authority figures at least in fiction, if not in fact!), but there was a spark of greatness I missed.

Matt Damon is part of the problem; he’s superficially “right” for the part but he’s always struck me as someone, like Elizabeth Taylor and Julia Roberts, too much in love with his own good looks, too willing to turn to the camera, stare at it and ask it, “Here I am! Ain’t I beautiful?” (Paul Newman did that in some of his early films, but as he grew as an actor he got over it.) I remember when I watched The Brothers Grimm I noted from one of the “trivia” posters that Johnny Depp had originally been up for Damon’s role in that, and I said in my blog post I thought The Brothers Grimm would have been better with Depp in Damon’s part. So would The Martian, though the actor it really needed was Sean Penn about a decade ago; Damon simply doesn’t have enough of an “edge” as a performer to convince us that he’s a man on the thin edge of starvation and understandably upset that an organization with enough of a high-tech infrastructure to get him to Mars can’t figure out a way to get him back or even keep him alive while there. I quite liked The Martian; it was directed by Ridley Scott, who’s very good at this sort of sci-fi actioner (remember Alien? Blade Runner?), and he found a location in Jordan that’s an almost perfect stand-in for Mars, or at least the popular imagination of what Mars looks like. (An earlier Mars movie, 2000’s Red Planet, was filmed at the same location.) Ironically, the studio work, including all the interiors, was done in Hungary, at the studio Alexander Korda established there initially before he relocated to England, and one poster noted that the buildings that serve as the exteriors for the headquarters of NASA and its Chinese counterpart are only a few blocks away from each other in Budapest.

The Martian is a quality movie, it’s refreshingly serious (in fact a bit too serious; about the only comic relief is Watney’s disgust that the only music he has to listen to is 1970’s disco, courtesy of the captain of the Ares III, who brought no other recordings — and it’s a relief to us when David Bowie’s “Starman” is heard in one sequence and we actually get to hear a good song from the 1970’s! And it’s not a memorial to Bowie since he was still alive when this film was released to theatres) and obviously aimed at adults (indeed Watney’s succession of F-bombs itself becomes one of the film’s few jokes). It’s just one of those frustratingly good movies that could have been even better; as I said of Ship of Fools, it aspires to greatness and achieves goodness.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Frontline: “Chasing Heroin” (WGBH/PBS-TV, aired February 23, 2016)

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

My “feature” last night was a two-hour Frontline special, “Chasing Heroin,” based on an epidemic of heroin abuse that has grown to such proportions it has even made the Presidential campaign (it’s been mentioned in the Republican and Democratic Presidential debates, from which this show features clips of Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie — remember them? — and Hillary Clinton discussing it). Written, produced and directed by Marcela Gaviria, and narrated in the usual comforting tones of Will Lyman (PBS’s go-to narrator when he isn’t doing BMW commercials), “Chasing Heroin” is a peculiarly schizoid show. The first half is a relatively conventional exposé documentary about how Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the inventor of Oxycontin (its root drug, oxycodone, is not new but they patented a time-release version that they claimed would make it more difficult to become addicted), marketed the drug with a big-time campaign that told doctors they were undermedicating people with severe cancers and other diseases that caused chronic pain. A large part of that was due to the U.S.’s “War on Drugs” mentality and the belief that even people who were terminally ill shouldn’t be put on opioid pain medications for fear that they would become addicts. So under the lash of Purdue’s ad campaign (including a video filmed with a doctor who’s since had second thoughts), prescriptions for Oxycontin, Vicodin and other easily abused painkillers went up. Then people started noticing that folks were offing themselves on these drugs, and even when they weren’t O.D.’ing they were buying or selling pills on an illegal black market and “doctor-shopping” (seeing more than one physician at once) to get more of these drugs, while some doctors were setting up “pain mills” in which prescribing opioids had become their main business and source of income. So, partly because as expensive as pharmaceutical drugs are in the U.S. they cost even more when you have to get them illegally; partly because the Mexican drug cartels were looking for new markets and finding them in the nice white suburbanites who had become addicted to opioid pills; and partly because the “hard stuff” was actually cheaper and had lost much of its stigma, many people who’d become opioid addicts through pain pills turned instead to illegal but easily obtainable heroin.

The result was that heroin has leaped out of the communities of color that are the first people most Americans think of as being vulnerable to illegal drugs (never mind that in the real world whites are just as likely per capita, if not more so, to become drug abusers) and not only into white communities, but white suburban communities whose members (the ones who weren’t using, anyway) had long thought of their towns as safe havens from all the evils of the inner city, including drugs. The second half of the show dealt with a pioneering program in Seattle (our friend Garry Hobbs, who lives there, watched the first hour and 15 minutes of the program with us and recognized a lot of the locations; he also noticed that he’s personally seen discarded needles in areas where none existed just two years ago) called LEAD (which stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), whose mantra is harm reduction. Specifically, under LEAD the cops involve social workers who not only assist addicts in finding treatment programs and other kinds of help (including housing, since a lot of drug users end up on the streets) but are willing to work with them even if they’re still using, knowing that you can’t expect a heroin addict to quit cold turkey until they actually are admitted to treatment and can detox and go through withdrawal with professional help. What’s more, the treatment can include methadone, suboxone, buprenorphine or some other opioid substitute drug — the cops and staff of LEAD aren’t insisting that people live a totally drug-free life — even though methadone treatments are hard to come by because there’s been a lot of NIMBY’ism towards where they’re located, which means a lot of people on methadone have to start their day by driving (or having someone drive them) three or four hours just to get to the treatment center. (Federal law prohibits doctors from simply prescribing methadone for use at home; if you’re on it, you have to get it at a licensed clinic so professional staff can see you’re taking it and not abusing it or taking it off premises to sell it — which may be why it’s generally dispensed as a liquid, much like those old vending machines that sold soda by dropping a paper cup into place and then automatically pouring soda into it.)

We follow three people in the LEAD program: Johnny Bousquet, who used to be a successful music producer in Seattle until he got hooked first on pills and then heroin following his breakup with his wife (and his addiction has meant he hasn’t been allowed to see their kids in years), ultimately ending up on the streets; Cari Creasia, a heavy-set, black-haired suburban wife and mother who got hooked on pills, eventually started using heroin, and ended up in a filthy drug den where she and 20 other people slept in a small house and lived in squalor; and Kristina Block, a 20-year-old who’s been on heroin for about three years, makes $1,000 a week (which is considerably better than I’m doing these days!) stealing and turning tricks, and of course shoots virtually all of it into her arms, since one of the cruelest effects of heroin is you totally lose all interest in anything else, including food. (That’s the main reason heroin users generally — though not always — become incredibly thin: both the drug itself and the constant struggle to make enough money to score kill off any normal appetites, not only for food but sex as well. The Andy Warhol-Paul Morrissey film Trash dramatized this quite well in its opening scene of the addict couple, played by Joe Dallessandro and Holly Woodlawn, at home alone and interested in nothing else but their next score.) Eventually the LEAD officials get Johnny into treatment — after a 40-mile journey to a facility in which he’s been promised a bed, only to be turned down once he arrives because there’s no room (“at the inn,” I couldn’t help but joke) — only he relapses after he’s apparently got clean, not on heroin but on methamphetamine (an even worse drug from what I’ve heard of it, including users I’ve known), and gets kicked out of the sober living facility he was in just when it looked like he was getting on his feet and starting to play music again (his room at the sober living facility contained a guitar and an electronic keyboard). Cari gets busted for small-time dealing (a lot of users, like Amway distributors, sell in order to finance their own supplies) just a few days before her scheduled “graduation” from drug court, so her release is delayed four months. At the end Kristina tells the LEAD people she’s finally ready for treatment — though if nothing else the show has demonstrated that “treatment” is hardly the panacea it’s often depicted as in the media; people are constantly getting “treated” and then going back to drugs, and it seems that once you become addicted there will be a tug-of-war between you and the substance for the rest of your life, whether that’s drug-shortened or not.

The film offers a mixed view of 12-step programs, saying they work for some people but not for others (I remember reading once that for alcoholics — not drug addicts, though the numbers may be similar — AA had only a 25 percent success rate, and the only reason the program is held in such high repute is every alternative method does even worse), and to me the most chilling scene was an interview with researcher Dr. Nora Volkow, who claims that vulnerability to opioid addiction is 50 percent genetically determined. “Fifty percent of our vulnerability to become addicted is genetically determined,” Dr. Volkow says. “And the other 50 percent relates to multiple factors, including the age at which you start taking the drugs or the alcohol. The younger you are, the greater the likelihood that you will become addicted.” Dr. Volkow also claims that drugs — not only opioids but other commonly abused substances, like cocaine — literally change the shape of your brain: “All of these drugs will with repeated administration erode the function of the frontal cortex. The easiest metaphor is driving a car without brakes. You may very well want to stop. If you don’t have brakes, you will not be able to do it.” She even showed colored X-rays of brains, comparing those of drug abusers with those of non-using controls, and the grim sight of certain parts of the brain literally lighting up more in users than non-users was chilling to me: if your likelihood of becoming addiction is largely genetically determined and the drugs physically alter your brain to make it harder to function without them, the future of people who get hooked is grim indeed. The one thing I was hoping for on this show and didn’t see was any ideas on anti-drug education, on how to get people never to use opioids or other addictive substances in the first place — as much as she was ridiculed at the time (and as hard as it would be for the already addicted to follow her advice), Nancy Reagan seems to have been on the right track when she advised people, “Just say no!” (Then again, maybe that’s easy for me to say because I’ve been saying “no” to potentially addictive substances all my life: I gave up drinking alcohol in 1978, I’ve never smoked tobacco, and my whole experience with illegal drugs is having tried marijuana as a teenager twice and feeling nothing except intense nausea. I’m sure that was a physiological reaction because to this day I get queasy when I’m around marijuana smoke.)

I’m becoming convinced that we won’t conquer the illegal drug problem until we start conquering the legal drug problem — and one thing I would strongly favor is reinstating the ban on advertising prescription drugs directly to consumers. I was amused when after the Super Bowl there were people complaining about the commercial for a new drug designed to reduce the constipation frequently associated with use of prescription opioids (though one person I know said that when he was prescribed opioids for pain, the constipating effects of the opioids and the diarrhea-producing effects of his anti-HIV medications canceled each other out and rendered his bowel function normal for the first time in years), and some of the anti-drug types had their usual hissy-fits to the effect that the CBS network should be using the Super Bowl to advertise the dangers of prescription opiates rather than to hawk a product to control their unpleasant but not life-threatening side effects. What amused me about that is I’d been watching that commercial on various programs for weeks — it’s only when it was put on during the Super Bowl that enough people saw it to engender a negative public reaction, just as one could argue that all the current attention towards the heroin epidemic is a function of its spreading to white people. Just as I was grimly amused when, after Ebola has been endemic in Africa for decades, it was suddenly hailed as “the greatest health threat on earth!” once two white people got it, so the unconscious (and sometimes conscious) racism which seems to affect everything we say or do about each other has led to the sudden “discovery” of heroin as a major social problem now that white people — and nice white suburbanites instead of countercultural or Bohemian white people, at that — are getting addicted and dying from it.

We’re Still Here: Johnny Cash’s “Bitter Tears” Revisited (Gigantic Films, 2015)

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

After “Chasing Heroin” KPBS showed a quirky 2015 film called — to give it its full title — We’re Still Here: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, though the KPBS Web site listed it only as Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears. Bitter Tears was a concept album Cash made for Columbia, his long-time record label, in 1964, part of his “Americana” series, that contained eight songs about America’s historic mistreatment, verging on genocide, of its Native population. (The album’s full title was Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.) The inspiration of the film was a re-recording of the Bitter Tears material in 2014 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original album, called Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, featuring modern alternative-country artists like Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, the Milk Carton Kids, Steve Earle, Nancy Blake, Kris Kristofferson (who has every reason to be grateful to Johnny Cash because Cash’s recording of Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” launched Kristofferson’s own career), Rhiannon Giddens (an utterly fascinating singer who, like Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix, is part African-American and part Native American, and who added a new verse to the song “The Vanishing Race” by Cash and Johnny Horton to indicate that America’s Native people haven’t “vanished” — despite our best efforts to get rid of them — but are still very much here, alive and part of our culture) and Norman Blake, the only person who played on Cash’s Bitter Tears album who was still alive in 2014. For some reason KPBS’s Web site on this show said Cash’s album was “lost” — which might make you think it was either never completed or never released, or if it had been released has been out of print for years — yet it’s currently available on CD ( lists it and I’m sure many other online retailers do too) and, contrary to the hype, it was a success at the time.

Cash was discouraged enough at radio programmers for refusing to play the album’s single — “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” a shattering account of the Native American among the six Marines who raised the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in what became one of the most iconic photos of World War II, only to find when he got home that he was still the victim of anti-Native discrimination; he responded by drinking himself into an early grave — that he took out a full-page ad in Billboard magazine in the form of an open letter to his record label and the radio stations asking, “Where are your guts?” Yet “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” got played on enough stations and sold enough copies that it reached #3 on the Billboard country charts, and the album as a whole reached #2. For a film that was only an hour long, the movie did an awful lot of rambling, touching on the controversy over Bitter Tears and Cash’s response to it (though she didn’t participate in the re-recordings, Cash’s daughter Rosanne, a country-music star in her own right, was interviewed extensively), showing footage of the re-recordings and offering background on Cash’s unseen collaborator, Native American singer-songwriter Peter LaFarge, who wrote “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” and four of the other songs on the album. (Bitter Tears featured eight songs — relatively short for a 1960’s LP — of which LaFarge wrote five, Cash wrote two, and the last was a collaboration between Cash and Johnny Horton.) In some ways, Bitter Tears can be compared to Tim McCoy’s remarkable and awesome film from 1932, End of the Trail, in which McCoy, a long-time star of “B” Westerns who had also participated in an oral history project in the Dakotas in the 1920’s, interviewing survivors of the battle of the Little Big Horn (on the Native side, the side that had survivors), made a film that not only sympathized with the Native struggle to keep their land but presented the whole sorry history of the U.S. government’s dealings with them, including all the solemn treaties the U.S. had made with Native tribes and then broken, often barely after the ink on them had dried. Both End of the Trail and Bitter Tears are remarkable works by white people who identified with the Native Americans and their rights, and while McCoy’s film doesn’t seem to have aroused any particular controversy, Bitter Tears did — it was at a time when the country-music industry, centered around Nashville, Tennessee, was essentially circling the wagons and establishing itself as the last redoubt of old-time American values in music while other forms, particularly folk music (and, later in the 1960’s, rock), were embracing progressive values in general and civil rights in particular.

Cash actually said that part of his inspiration for Bitter Tears was seeing the African-American civil rights struggle render the centuries of oppression of Black people visible to white Americans who hadn’t thought about it before, and he felt it was time to do the same for the oppression of Native Americans as well. (It reminded me of the interview I read in the 1970’s with film director Don Siegel, who in 1960 made Flaming Star, a quite good pro-Native Western with Elvis Presley as a half-white, half-Native hero; Siegel recalled that people were coming up to him and asking if he’d made a film about the oppression of Native Americans as a metaphor for the oppression of Black Americans, and he’d say, “No, I made a film about the oppression of Native Americans because I wanted to make a point about the oppression of Native Americans.”) Apparently at the time Cash made Bitter Tears he thought he might be part-Native himself, though later he did genealogical research on himself and found all his traceable ancestors had been Scotch, Irish or German. One thing that really shocked me was that the opening song on the album, “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow,” wasn’t about a broken treaty from the 19th century but one that had been broken as late as 1961 under the administration of President John F. Kennedy, which authorized construction of a dam in upstate New York even though that would flood the reservation of the Senecas, one of the Six Nations in the Iroquois Confederation, whose treaty guaranteeing them that land in perpetuity had been signed 175 years earlier by President George Washington and his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. (The documentary included footage of the Senecas’ homes and farms being bulldozed or burned to make room for the dam, as well as a news clipping announcing that since the construction of the dam the land formerly occupied by the Senecas had become a major tourist attraction.) I can’t watch shows about the U.S.’s genocidal treatment of its Native population without recalling Adolf Hitler’s comment when Edward R. Murrow interviewed him: “I don’t know why you Americans make such a fuss about the Jews. I’m only doing to the Jews what you did to the Indians.” And he was doing it for the same reason, Lebensraum — to clear the land of a supposedly “inferior” population so there would be more room for a self-proclaimed “Master Race.”

Monday, February 22, 2016

Verdi: Otello (“Live” at the Metropolitan Opera, N.Y.C., October 17, 2015)

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

The Metropolitan Opera’s October 17, 2015 performance of Verdi’s Otello, first presented to movie theatres as part of their “Live in HD” series and rebroadcast on KPBS yesterday at noon, was an estimable production of what I would regard as the finest opera Verdi ever wrote — indeed, arguably the finest opera ever written by an Italian composer. My favorite Italian opera by a composer who wasn’t Verdi or Puccini is Mefistofele by Arrigo Boïto, who also wrote the libretti for Otello and Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, both having agreed that if they were to collaborate, they would seek their story sources from Shakespeare. (My next-favorite Italian opera by someone other than Verdi or Puccini is Bellini’s Norma.) Verdi came out of retirement to compose Otello and Falstaff, and Otello premiered at La Scala in Milan in 1887 — not coincidentally, four years after the death of Wagner. Eduard Hanslick, the Viennese music critic Wagner viciously caricatured in Die Meistersinger, felt compelled to defend Verdi against the charge of Wagnerian influence, saying that Verdi “owed nothing to the composer of Tristan und Isolde” — which was true, but ignored how the influence of Wagner’s earlier operas, particularly Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, can be felt in Verdi’s later work. (Tannhäuser and Lohengrin are the only Wagner operas Verdi owned scores of, and Lohengrin was the only one he ever saw performed — though he must at least seen a copy of Tristan, since he’s on record as praising it.)

Because Verdi’s career was so long — his first opera, Oberto, was written in 1837 and premiered in 1839, and his last, Falstaff, was premiered (also at La Scala) in 1893 — he grew and changed along with the operatic form itself, from the conventionalities of bel canto with its strict divisions between recitative and aria, its emphasis on vocal display, and its treatment of opera largely as a showcase for star singers, to the newer, more flexible way of writing operas that, if it didn’t altogether dissolve the difference between recitative and aria (even Wagner didn’t eliminate that difference completely; as John Culshaw pointed out, Wagner’s mature operas have “recitative” passages where Wagner quiets the orchestra and allows what the singers are saying to be heard distinctly, and “aria” passages in which he unleashes his orchestra at full blast and the voices become part of the overall texture because what’s important is the emotion being conveyed, not the actual words), certainly smoothed it out. When Otello came out it was hailed as Verdi’s masterwork, yet another milestone in operatic history from the composer who had already significantly advanced the form with the 1851 work Rigoletto and had continued to push the envelope of what was both possible and practical on the operatic stage. Since then a number of critics have tried to re-evaluate Verdi’s oeuvre and rate the middle-period hits — Rigoletto, Trovatore, Traviata — higher than the last works, but for me Otello remains Verdi’s masterpiece, a work informed by the changes in music in general and opera in particular throughout the 19th century but also pushing the envelope. Done properly, Otello is a rush of energy; though Boïto’s libretto smoothed out the complexities and ambiguities of the play, what remained is a taut, vividly told story of a man torn between love and war, between the guileless heroine Desdemona and the cunning, manipulative Iago (Boïto, who’d called his opera based on Goethe’s Faust Mefistofele, wanted Verdi to call his Otello opera Iago), and Iago’s manipulation of Otello into suspecting, then believing, that his wife has been unfaithful and finally killing her (and then himself when he realizes she was guiltless). Verdi and Boïto tell this story in music and words that rush through the catastrophe, always going for the ironic disjunct between Otello the brilliant, savvy commander and Otello the uncertain lover. Otello is one of the greatest operas ever written, and properly performed (or at least conducted as well as it was by Arturo Toscanini, who as an orchestral cellist had participated in the 1887 premiere, and who recorded the work in 1947 and tore through it with spirit and aplomb despite a weak cast) it’s an energy rush as well as an intensely moving tragedy.

The Met mostly did it honor with this production; the staging by Bartlett Sher was somewhat ambiguous as to when it takes place (judging from the costumes by Catherine Zuber, particularly the uniforms on the men, it seems to have been relocated to the 19th century) but at least it didn’t intermix eras and periods the way so many “Regietheater” (literally “director’s theatre,” in which modern-day directors simply ignore the original story and text and use the piece as an excuse to put on stage bizarre and contradictory images that often don’t make sense) productions do these days. The way slabs of scenery are shoved around (often by women costumed to match the opera’s period) to form the outsides of buildings and thereby change the setting in mid-act is occasionally risible but more or less works — there isn’t anything in the settings of Otello as silly as the house on the merry-go-round that afflicted the Met’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta (in which the heroine is supposed to be blind, and I couldn’t resist joking, “No, she’s not blind — just dizzy from the way you keep turning her house around on that damned turntable!”) — and for once in a modern opera production we’re seeing things that help project the work effectively instead of fighting with it. The conductor is Yannick Nézet-Séguin, whom I’ve previously criticized as slow and lacking energy, but though he isn’t Toscanini he does move the opera effectively and sounds the score well. The cast is a bit more problematical: all three of the principals have Slavic names — tenor Aleksandrs (that’s how it’s spelled on the Met’s Web site) Antonenko as Otello, soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona and bass-baritone Zeljko Lucic as Iago — and though they sing Italian opera idiomatically enough, they aren’t always the best voices you could imagine in these parts. Antonenko has just the right trumpet-like tone — the so-called squillo (“ring”) for which opera singers are often praised — but on occasion he overdoes it and becomes shrill, and when I heard the two other tenors in the piece, Dimitri Pittas as Cassio and Chad Shelton as Roderigo (the guy Desdemona jilted to marry Otello, and who has never forgiven her for it), I wondered if either of them might have made a better Otello than Antonenko. (Carlo Cossutta did rise from singing Cassio in a 1962 Covent Garden production under Georg Solti to recording Otello, again with Solti conducting, in 1978.)

Antonenko did — or, rather, didn’t — do one thing that put me off of his performance more than any limitations in his singing per se: he did not do anything to make himself look Black. Yes, I know that in the original short story by Italian author Geraldi Cinthio on which Shakespeare based the play, “Otello Moro” is simply the character’s name — and it was the English translator of the version Shakespeare read who read “Moro” as “Moor” and therefore created the plot point that Ot[h]ello was Black — but Shakespeare did make that an integral part of his drama (Othello even opens one of his speeches, “Hap’ly, for I am Black”), and for Verdi, who revered Shakespeare, that would have been a sacred, unalterable part of the story. I made fun of Plácido Domingo (one of the three greatest Otellos, along with Lauritz Melchior — the absolute best, even though we only have about 15 minutes of excerpts to judge him by — and Jon Vickers) for putting on some light-brown makeup that made it look like he’d just come out of a really good tanning salon, but at least he tried (though my dream of what an operatic Otello should look like is what Laurence Olivier did when he acted the play in 1964, complete with dark black face makeup, a nappy black wig and even holders in his nose to push out his nostrils and make them look more African; as my mother said at the time, no one seeing him in that production without knowing who he was could have guessed he was white in real life); Antonenko didn’t even try, and if Ot[h]ello isn’t Black a good deal of the complexity of the story, particularly the sense of alienation that makes him not quite trusted by the Venetian officials even though they need his skills as a general, disappears.

Zeljko Lucic’s Iago was rather curious; he doesn’t chew the scenery (even in the big aria “Credo in un Dio crudel,” where Boïto’s text and the jagged music Verdi set to it practically demand overacting — when Otello premiered there were rumors Boïto had actually composed the “Credo” himself, and it is similar to Mefistofele’s big aria “Son lo spirito che nega,” but it’s less likely for Boïto to have written the “Credo” than for Verdi to realize the verses Boïto had written demanded that sort of setting); instead he plays the part sort of like Conrad Veidt as the Nazi in Casablanca, a functionary who regards doing evil as his duty and doesn’t get any big immoral thrill out of it. The best of the three principals was Sonya Yoncheva; though she didn’t sound that much like Maria Callas, her voice had some of that kind of weight and peculiar “bottled” quality, and whereas Desdemona, in both the play and the opera, all too often comes off as literally too good to be true, Yoncheva brought enough vocal weight and dramatic sense to the role that we didn’t get the impression with her, as we sometimes do, that she’s marking time through the first three acts just waiting to get to her big scena — the “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” — she does in Act IV just before Otello comes into their bedroom and kills her. (Renata Tebaldi had just the right voice for Desdemona, and it’s only a pity that to hear her you have to endure the horrible Mario Del Monaco as Otello in both her recordings of the role.) I’d love to hear Yoncheva as Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s first Shakespearean opera — the timbre of her voice seems more appropriate for a Shakespearean villainess than a Shakespearean heroine — but she’s still quite good here.

Overall, despite some deficiencies, this Otello does full justice to both Shakespeare and Verdi, and watching it was a wrenching experience; I found myself crying at the “Mandolinata” (the heart-rendingly beautiful tribute to Desdemona sung by the Cypriot townspeople, which evokes Otello’s line, “If she be false, then heaven mocks itself!”) and shaken by the ending. This is the sort of production a repertory opera company like the Met should be doing: one that legitimately projects a classic text and looks for its inspiration in what the original composer and librettist (as well as the writer for their story source!) intended rather than some conceit of the director’s (though I’ll admit I’ve liked some modern-dress opera productions, including the marvelous Met Rigoletto in which Michael Mayer moved the action to 1960’s Las Vegas and made the Duke Frank Sinatra and his courtiers the Rat Pack — that one worked because there was a legitimate parallel between the moral corruption of the Mantuan court of the original and the moral corruption of Las Vegas, soaked in alcohol, drugs and Mafia money); it’s the sort of show that’s a good introduction to Otello as well as one that will give pleasure to someone like me who knows the opera well (including having seen it, with Domingo in the title role, in San Francisco in 1978).

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Wrong Car (Moody Independent, Marvista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

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

First up on Lifetime’s schedule yesterday, at 6 p.m., was The Wrong Car, an item in Lifetime’s latest cycle — “The Wrong _____,” as opposed to “The Perfect _____,” “The _____ S/he Met Online,” or “_____ at 17.” It was shot under the working title Black Car — a cleverer name because it was a pun on both the literal and colloquial meanings of the word “black” — but someone either at the production companies, Moody Independent and Marvista Entertainment, or at Lifetime itself wanted the phrase “The Wrong … ” to be in the title to key it in with others in the cycle, including the ones I recently watched and reviewed, The Wrong Roommate and Wrong Swipe (the working title for Wrong Swipe was simply Swipe, and from the title I had expected the movie to be about someone who used a credit or debit card in the wrong place and got their identity stolen, not someone who tried out a computer-dating service called Swipe and attracted a stalker). The Wrong Car was an auteur work given that it was written, directed and edited by the same person, John Stimpson, and for its first third it’s actually a quite good suspense thriller revolving (almost inevitably) around the Uber ride-sharing service — or “NetCar,” as Stimpson calls it.

The central character is Trudy O’Donnell (Danielle Savre), a law student who’s taking a class in criminology from a teacher named Dr. Bell (Jeremiah Kissel) — was Stimpson deliberately copying the name from Dr. James Bell, the medical lecturer at Edinburgh University in the 1880’s who was one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s teachers and supposedly the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes? She also had a bad breakup with a boyfriend two years earlier but only briefly mentions it, nor do we see him. In the opening scene she gets a ride home from a NetCar being driven by Charles (Kevin G. Cox), an O.K.-looking but rather nerdish guy who wants to date her, but she’s not interested in him that way and politely turns him down. On a later evening she lets her roommate Gretchen Healey (Francia Raisa) talk her into going to a club; Gretchen drove her there but Trudy decides to bail in mid-evening and hails a NetCar … only this NetCar driver turns out to be a phony: he’s a serial rapist who poses as a NetCar driver, picks up hot-looking women outside clubs, gives them water from a bottle he’s injected with the “date-rape drug” Rohypnol (one can imagine the direct-to-consumer ads for this stuff, with Bill Cosby in Dr. Huxtable drag as its spokesperson), then takes them to a motel whose desk clerk, Roger (Rhet Kidd), is in on the plot, and rapes them while they’re too stoned to resist. This happens to Trudy, who wakes up in the motel with only the dimmest notion of how she got there, and her memories of the evening, such as they are, are fragmentary and feature an apparent hallucination involving a guy looking like Chucky hovering over the proceedings. She goes through a humiliating five-hour rape exam at the hands of the police, who confirm that she was drugged but are unable to match the DNA of the semen inside her to anything in a law-enforcement database (they find bits of latex, indicating that the rapist wore a condom but it broke), and they give her a supply of the morning-after pill and a referral to an HIV testing service. (It’s indicative of the degree to which HIV and AIDS still have a hold on the public imagination that they don’t think of advising her to get screened for classic STD’s.)

Trudy’s case is assigned to a young African-American detective named Jackson (Christina Elmore) — we’re not told her first name — but Trudy gets frustrated at the slow pace of Jackson’s investigation and decides to take matters into her own hands. She asks her classroom friend Charles for information on NetCar and uses it to sign on as a driver herself in hopes of tracing and catching her rapist. Among her first NetCar clients is an investment broker named Donovan (Jackson Davis — any relation to Jefferson?), whom we’re immediately suspicious of because he’s nice-looking and in Lifetime’s iconography nice-looking men are almost always villains. About one-third of the way through the movie Trudy picks up as NetCar fares Carlos (Walley Walkker) and Juan (Jesse Gabbard), two Latino gangbangers who are originally planning to go to a strip club (they boast that they don’t need strip clubs to find sex partners themselves but one of them has a sister who works there), then put their guns in Trudy’s face and demand first that she give them a five-star customer rating, then pick up a wounded comrade at the other end of town and take him to a secret doctor who will patch him up and extract the bullet without reporting it to the police. It’s at this point that The Wrong Car changes from a pretty good suspense tale to a particularly rancid piece of Lifetime cheese, as virtually nothing in the rest of Stimpson’s script makes a lick of sense. It’s just one weird plot twist after another, as Trudy enlists her roommate Gretchen to join her in her nightly surveillance, they follow the black SUV that picked Trudy up for her rape on the streets and follow it to the motel, where the driver gets out — and it’s Donovan, holding an out-of-it woman and half-carrying, half-dragging her into the room. Trudy calls Detective Jackson, and Jackson sends out a car — only when the officer (Chris Neville) arrives, Donovan is in the room but the woman isn’t. (Anyone who’s ever seen a Marx Brothers movie could figure out how that happened: he’s rented two rooms, with adjoining doors, and got the woman hidden in the other room before letting the officer in.)

Eventually Trudy decides to enlist Gretchen as a decoy, having her hang out in front of the club where Trudy herself was picked up, and Donovan duly picks her up and feeds her the drugged water — only Gretchen has an identical but uncontaminated bottle of water in her purse and she substitutes the clean bottle for Donovan’s dirty one. (How did she and Trudy know what brand of water Donovan buys?) Donovan drives Gretchen to the motel and registers (though the desk clerk warns him this is the last time he’ll accept Donovan’s $500 bribe to cooperate), Trudy watches from her car as Donovan takes her into the room (the one thing she doesn’t think to do is use her smartphone to photograph him; given that the police have been skeptical, to say the least, of her claim that Donovan is the rapist, one would think she would want to document it), and writer-director-editor Stimpson has yet another surprise up his sleeve: there are two men in the room to rape Gretchen, Donovan and the guy in the Chucky mask, who when it’s pulled off his face by a vengeful Trudy turns out to be … her milquetoast classmate Charles, who’s actually Donovan’s brother as well as his partner in crime. There’s a typical end-of-Lifetime-movie struggle in the room before Det. Jackson arrives to take both Donovan and Charles into custody. The Wrong Car could have been a quite good little vest-pocket suspense thriller if Stimpson hadn’t piled unbelievable plot twist on top of unbelievable plot twist — down to having Carlos and Juan, who decided they “owed” Trudy a favor after their ride from hell with her, showing up at the motel for the final confrontation and being her “muscle.” Stimpson has real flair as a director, both in creating atmosphere and getting good performances out of his leads (Danielle Sayre is utterly convincing as the avenging angel out not only to catch her own rapist but get the guy off the street before he victimizes anyone else, and I also quite liked Rhet Kidd as the sleazy desk clerk), but maybe he’ll be better off if he sticks to directing movies based on scripts he hasn’t written!

Pregnant at 17 (NB Thrilling Films, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

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

After The Wrong Car Lifetime showed one of their “world premieres,” Pregnant at 17, written by Christine Conradt (usually a good sign; though Conradt’s scripts often descend into barely believable melodrama, at least she occasionally gives her characters some complexity and dimension, and her recent directorial debut with the Lifetime movie The Bride He Met Online, despite its formulaic and stupid title, was quite engaging) and directed by one of her frequent collaborators, Curtis James Crawford. For some reason the synopsis describes a quite different plot from the one we get: “When Sonia finds out her husband of 10 years is having an affair, she decides to get to know the young woman, Chelsea, he’s fallen in love with. Chelsea, a free spirit who believes in polyamory, brings a happiness and fulfillment to Sonia that she’s never experienced before — especially since her miscarriage which left her depressed and hopeless. The three form a polyamorous relationship until an unexpected turn of events sends all of their lives into a tailspin.” The fact that the synopsis is credited to one of the producing companies, Reel One Entertainment, just adds to the mystery of why it has so little in common with the actual film — though if they had shot the story they described, Pregnant at 17 would be not only far kinkier than the one we have but probably more entertaining as well.

The synopsis is right about the 10-year married couple, Jeff (Roark Critchlow) and Sonia (Josie Bissett, top-billed) Clefton, who are veterinarians who co-run an animal clinic and are well off; and about the miscarriage Sonia had 10 years earlier, which has put a chill on the marriage and her demeanor generally. They’re also right about Chelsea Sheridans (Zoé de Grand Maison — why is her last name “of the big house”?), the 17-year-old girl (though she’s told Jeff she’s 22 and he met her in a bar — we’re told everyone thinks she’s older than she is but even so no bartender who wanted to keep his job would serve her without carding her, so she must have faked an I.D.) who not only has an affair with Jeff but gets pregnant by him. Jeff offers Sonia the usual lame excuses for his long nights away from home — he’s always attending seminars or lectures or mixers or whatnot — until the night when Chelsea texts Jeff at home, Jeff calls her and they make a date for that night after Sonia has already gone to bed and overhears Jeff talking to her in the bathroom. (He’s so stupid about concealing his affair one wonders why Sonia hasn’t found out about it long ago; she tells her friend, a woman divorce attorney, that she’s suspected he’s having an affair, but if he’s being that blitheringly obvious about it she’d have found out the details long before.) Meanwhile, Chelsea, who works as a barista at a gelato place (and who has a sympathetic, motherly boss who has emotionally taken the place of her own mother, who’s dead) and is being raised by her dad Dom (Conrad Pla) — only he leaves her alone a lot when he goes out-of-town for long gigs as a fisherman (during the film he takes off for two weeks to join a crab boat, and Chelsea freaks out at the prospect that he may lose an arm doing that). Nonetheless, she’s decorous and sexually reserved enough so that when she starts collapsing at work and puking a lot, that motherly boss asks if she’s pregnant, and she takes a home test and finds out she is, there’s no doubt that Jeff is the father because he’s the only guy with whom she’s been having sex.

On their next date — the one she was arranging on that call Jeff took in the bathroom, and Sonia overheard — Chelsea breaks Jeff the double whammy: not only is she pregnant by him, she’s only 17 and therefore he’s guilty of statutory rape. Jeff responds coldly, breaking off the affair and coming home to find that Sonia has decided to divorce him and is demanding he move out. He also couldn’t be less interested in Chelsea’s baby-to-be even though he’s its dad; in the coldest scene in the movie he solemnly informs Sonia that the reason he’s being such a dick (in both senses) is he’s following his lawyer’s advice, and though we never meet his lawyer he’s apparently advised Jeff to coldly and calculatedly write off both the women in his life, quit the veterinary clinic and relocate elsewhere. Meanwhile, Sonia decides to track down the woman her husband was cheating on her with — only when they meet (in the maternity wing of a women’s clothing store), they decide they like each other and bond instantly. Where I thought this was going was along the lines of the 1941 classic The Great Lie — a similar triangle with George Brent, Bette Davis and Mary Astor (and a “doubles” movie since Davis and Astor both starred in versions of The Maltese Falcon) in which Astor temporarily seduces Brent away from Davis, they marry, they’re together long enough for Astor to get pregnant by him but then the marriage is annulled, and when Davis finds out Astor is about to have Brent’s baby the two hatch a plot to hide out in the desert for the requisite nine months until Astor’s baby is born and Davis can emerge and establish the baby as hers. I had visions of Sonia and Chelsea bonding over the baby and Chelsea hiding out so Sonia can claim that she had the baby, and that after her previous miscarriage she and Jeff lucked out the second time around. Alas, the ending Conradt wrote is less credible than either the polyamorous one Reel One Entertainment’s synopsis writer dreamed up or the Great Lie-influenced one I had in mind; instead, just before a commercial break a disconsolate Jeff is wandering out in the middle of the street and gets hit by an SUV (“Christine! You should be ashamed of yourself, pulling an old cliché like that!” I yelled at the screen at that point), which hospitalizes him and renders him non compos mentis for much of the subsequent action.

There’s also a subplot that turns out to supply the film’s climax: two years earlier, high-school student Chelsea witnessed her friend Mikey’s (Shawn Lawrence) convenience store getting robbed, ID’d the robber as schoolmate Greg Foster (Rogan Christopher), talked to the police and ultimately testified against him at trial. She’s remained in touch with Mikey and is also dating Adam Wilson (Jake Manley), Mikey’s grandson and the requisite age-peer boyfriend for Chelsea to move on to after circumstances break up her and Jeff. But neither Greg nor his sister Laren (Corina Bizim) have forgiven Chelsea for sending him to prison, and when he’s released on parole after serving just two years of a five-year sentence, Greg is out for revenge — which he gets by invading the home of Sonia while Chelsea is staying there and kidnapping both women, forcing Sonia to give him all the money and valuables from her safety-deposit box, then driving the women to the country (Greg takes Sonia while sister Laren, fully in on the plot, takes Chelsea), where he plans to force them to dig their own graves and then shoot them. Laren is horrified — she signed on to her brother’s plot only on his assurance it would not involve murder — and in the end Sonia and Chelsea manage to overpower and attack Greg and Laren with the tools at hand, and Chelsea grabs one of the guns and shoots Greg dead just when he’s about to strangle Sonia. The film ends with Sonia definitively divorced but nonetheless determined to adopt Chelsea’s baby — a girl they’ve named Annette, after Sonia’s mother — and the three girls in a rather unconventional but hardly polyamorous relationship. Pregnant at 17 is well done overall but suffers from Conradt’s addiction to creating “thrilling” scenes whether they either advance the plot or make sense, or not. Chelsea is a fascinating character, well played by the big-house woman, and both she and Sonia are considerably more multi-dimensional than the Lifetime norm (and the actresses playing them rise to the challenge), but the film as a whole sinks into the picturesque unbelievability of many of Conradt’s scripts even though the bond between Sonia and Chelsea is fascinating and deserved to be showcased in a better movie.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

American Masters: B. B. King (PBS, 2016)

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

Last night’s “feature” was a show KPBS aired between 11 p.m. and midnight — a woefully late time slot that I’m now stuck with given the change in our cable-TV service that makes my DVD recorders totally inoperative and means I can watch a show exactly when it airs, and at no other time (unless I want to try the ordeal of viewing it online — which, judging from past experience, means about two seconds of signal followed by five minutes of “buffering,” whatever that means, ad nauseam until I get fed up with the experience and quit) — an American Masters episode on B. B. King, directed by Jon Brewer (I can’t find an online listing for the rest of the cast and crew, either on PBS’s Web site or, though the PBS site said the program first aired February 12, 2016). King’s was one of the biggest deaths in the musical world last year, though since he was 89 and had long since become old, rich and famous playing the blues (quite remarkable given the usual trajectory of a blues musician’s career; even more than jazz or rock, blues is littered with musicians who died young, often of tuberculosis or some other relatively treatable condition they didn’t have the money to get medical attention for until it was too late, and even the ones who survived to an old age generally developed reputations only among the cognoscenti and died in obscurity and penury).

Since the show was only an hour long, there were certain things they couldn’t do — like actually show B. B. King play a whole song, start to finish — and others they chose not to (like King’s recording contracts — in one sequence label scans from his early records on Jim Bulleit’s Bullet label and the Bihari brothers’ R.P.M. are shown, but there’s no account of King’s history as a recording artist: he signed with the Bihari brothers, founders of the L.A.-based Modern Records, released mostly on their Kent label and would have stayed there indefinitely until the Biharis decided to release all their LP’s on a super-budget label called Crown; in 1961 King jumped to ABC Records, which at first marketed him only as a singer, covering songs like Jesse Belvin’s “Guess Who,” but eventually realized what they had as a singer and guitarist and, after the crossover success of his 1964 album Live at the Regal, started an entirely new imprint, Bluesway Records, to record him and the other blues artists they were attracting in the wake of King’s success, including such veterans of the 1940’s and 1950’s rhythm-and-blues scene as T-Bone Walker and the amazing Roy Brown; since then ABC has been absorbed by MCA and since spun off as Universal Music, but King remained under contract to them and continued to record until he died). But what they did do was tell B. B. King’s life story mostly in interviews with King himself (from various points in his career, as you can tell from the changes in his appearance as he got visibly older and heavier, and also because some of the clips are in black-and-white and some are in color) as well as musicians who either worked with him or were influenced by him: Rolling Stones Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman; John Mayall; Eric Clapton; Bonnie Raitt; Dr. John; Ringo Starr (who recorded with King on the quite lovely 1971 album B. B. King in London, with MCA capitalizing on a fad Chess Records had begun with the Fathers and Sons album in 1969 by pairing Black blues musicians with the white players they had influenced) and record producer Bill Szymczyk, who’s best known for his work with the Eagles but did King’s albums even before he hooked up with the Eagles and was behind the boards for King’s all-time biggest hit, “The Thrill Is Gone” from his 1969 album Completely Well.

What comes off most strongly in this documentary is King’s incredible modesty; he recalls his journey from plantation life with his family in Indianola, Mississippi (one of his albums was called Indianola Mississippi Seeds and the cover was a half of a watermelon, equipped with a fretboard and strings to make it look like a guitar, plugged into an amp) to Memphis, Tennessee (as our friend Garry Hobbs pointed out, Elvis Presley also began in Mississippi and moved to Memphis, but Elvis was brought to Memphis by his family when he was still a kid while King emigrated there as a young adult), where he was overwhelmed by the blues talent he heard. Among the biggest influences on King was his cousin Bukka White (the first name was short for “Booker” and the full name on his birth certificate was Booker T. Washington White), who was a master at slide guitar and tried to teach it to King. King admits that he never learned slide, but in order to simulate slide guitar he developed the killer finger vibrato style he called “twanging” and which became his trademark. Clapton and quite a few of the other interviewees are quoted as saying you can recognize B. B. King just by hearing one note, and it’s the heavy “twanging” vibrato he used when he fretted that made him so instantly recognizable. King also admitted he couldn’t strum chords — there’s a sequence from U2’s film Rattle and Hum showing Bono teaching King the song they’d written for him, “When Love Comes to Town,” and trying to teach him the chords. “I don’t know from chords,” King said, and proceeded to play a beautiful “twanging” solo on the song (maybe he couldn’t have played rhythm guitar to save his life, but he could pick up the changes by ear and improvise on them) and sing an impassioned vocal — and he said the experience of recording an album with Clapton was great except for Clapton’s attempt to get him to play acoustic guitar. (Like a later musician, Jimi Hendrix, King’s style was dependent on the sustaining quality of the electric guitar.) The show mentioned some of the quirkier influences on King as well as the more expected ones; in addition to T-Bone Walker (who came up in Oklahoma City and studied jazz guitar with the young Charlie Christian, then decided that playing blues would pay better than playing jazz, and developed a lot of the stage fireworks, including playing with the guitar behind his back and picking the strings with his teeth, that Jimi Hendrix, who saw Walker when he was in bands that opened for him on the chitlin’ circuit, later copied and which became his trademarks) there was Django Reinhardt, the French-Belgian Gypsy guitarist from the 1930’s and 1940’s who, along with Eddie Lang and Charlie Christian, was one of the founding fathers of jazz guitar but whose incredible style also influenced people like King and Willie Nelson who weren’t jazz artists.

Over and over again in the interview clips King adopts an aw-shucks, I’m-not-that-great attitude that’s quite a lot more appealing than the braggadocio all too many musicians fall into — and King’s music reflects that part of his personality; instead of being assertive and ballsy the way Howlin’ Wolf was, King’s music slyly sneaks up on you. You can listen to him and hear a quite good singer backing himself up with a decent but unspectacular-sounding guitar — he wasn’t a virtuoso the way Walker and Hendrix were — and then he’ll hurl out a vocal line or play a phrase on the guitar that spins you around and makes you ask, “What the hell was that?” B. B. King is the sort of artist you mourn but aren’t necessarily that sad to see go — he had a very long life and achieved pretty much all he wanted to, though as this show dramatizes the price of becoming old, rich and famous singing the blues was almost constant touring. His marriages broke up because he was literally never home — one year he actually played 365 days! — and he rather laconically said that the life of a touring musician was not conducive to having a wife and family. (That’s why a lot of the best musicians in the 1950’s and 1960’s went into studio work; maybe no one would ever hear of them again because they’d be anonymous, but at least they got to live in one place and come home once in a while to their spouses and children.) The American Masters episode on King was a pleasant surprise — though a full two hours that actually ran long enough to show him play some songs complete, start to finish, might have been better — and director Brewer, who worked with the B. B. King museum in Indianola and apparently had the full cooperation of King himself during the last two years of his life, adopted a low-keyed approach just right for the low-keyed but still impassioned art of his subject.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Stromboli (Berit Films/RKO, 1950)

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

Last night I reached through my old recordings from Turner Classic Movies and dug out the 1950 film Stromboli, one of those legendary movies I’d heard about for years but had never actually seen. According to Garson Kanin’s memoir Hollywood, it began in the late 1940’s, when Ingrid Bergman was one of the biggest movie stars in the world but was feeling dissatisfied with the direction of her career. Kanin suggested to her that she seek out the director Roberto Rossellini, an Italian filmmaker who had pioneered the so-called “neo-realist” style in the film Rome, Open City, a 1945 production actually filmed in Rome as the war was winding down, and featuring a professional actress, Anna Magnani, in the lead but with most of the other parts played by nonprofessionals acting roles similar to their real lives. Rome, Open City was a surprise worldwide hit and Rossellini made two more movies about the aftermath of World War II in a similar style, Paisan (1946) and Germany, Year Zero (1947), becoming a favorite among intellectual critics who thought most American and European movies entirely too slick, glossy and unconnected to real life. Bergman had seen Open City and been excited by it, and encouraged by Kanin and some of his other friends — Kanin recalls telling her that Rossellini was “a real director, not a Hollywood hack” (which seems decidedly unfair to the directors of her U.S. hits, including Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor, Victor Fleming, Leo McCarey, Sam Wood and her Casablanca director, the underrated Michael Curtiz) — she tried to find him. He wasn’t easy to find because in Europe the studio system, such as it had ever existed, hadn’t survived the one-two punch of the Depression and World War II, and Rossellini, like most European filmmakers, worked for catch-as-catch-can producers rather than established companies. But her letter to Rossellini offering to be in his next movie did reach him at Lux Film, an Italian studio where he did post-production on some of his films, and he eagerly accepted the offer, thinking that working with an established Hollywood star would bring him prestige and boost the popularity of his next project.

What he had in mind was doing a film about a woman caught up in what was then called a “displaced persons’ camp” and which would now be called a refugee camp — so many modern-day displaced people are in such camps in Turkey and Jordan fleeing the violence and civil war in Syria this part of Stromboli seems timely today — who, just to get out of the camp, marries a crude fisherman and leaves with him to live on the island of Stromboli, off the coast of Sicily. The biggest natural feature on Stromboli, in the film and in real life, is a volcano that seems always to be emitting smoke and steam when it isn’t actively erupting (search “Stromboli” on and the first things that come up are films taken from space of the volcano Stromboli’s 2002 eruption, released by NASA); aside from that, it’s a primitive environment in which the people —the ones who haven’t left, which is most of the population — eke out a living growing barley and fishing. Ingrid Bergman plays Karin Björnsen — when I first heard her last name on the soundtrack I thought for a moment she was portraying her real Swedish nationality for once, but we’re told she’s a Lithuanian who got caught up in World War II; later she explains that she was living in a Nazi-occupied company and fell in love with one of the German officers, for which she was shunned (a fascinating inversion of her Casablanca role as the wife of an anti-Nazi freedom fighter) — whose application to emigrate from the refugee camp to Argentina is denied (there’s a grimly amusing sequence of the four officials in charge of emigration, each speaking a different language, debating the fates of the people applying to them for permission to resettle somewhere). She’s been cruised by Antonio (Mario Vitale), one of the soldiers guarding the camp — their attempts to kiss each other through a barbed-wire fence grimly symbolize the forces not only keeping them apart but blocking her off from any normal life — and in sheer desperation she agrees to marry him and live with him on Stromboli, where he was born and grew up.

Once she gets there about 12 minutes into a 106-minute film, Stromboli turns into a stunningly photographed and staged but dramatically pretty ordinary fish-out-of-water tale, as Karin finds herself shunned by just about everybody there. Most of the people don’t speak any English (Bergman acts most of her part with the same Swedish-accented English she used in her American films) and the ones that do tell her things like, “You’re not modest.” Even the local priest (Renzo Cesana) who married her and Antonio ultimately cuts her off — the script, by Rossellini himself with “collaborators” Sergio Amidei, Gian Paolo Callegari, Renzo Cesana and Art Cohn (the last-named I presume was there to supply the English dialogue; he would later die in the same plane crash that claimed the life of Mike Todd, with whom he was working on a film of Don Quixote that was to have starred Elizabeth Taylor as Dulcinea), doesn’t explain why but strongly hints that he has started to respond to her as a woman and therefore doesn’t want to see her for fear she would tempt him to break his vows — and when he isn’t going off on fishing trips with some of the locals (and being cheated out of his fair share of the proceeds from selling the fish in the market town of Messina — we’re told this is a comedown for Antonio because before the war and the last eruption of the volcano he actually owned his own boat), Antonio is getting jealous of Karin and beating her. Ultimately the volcano erupts — I think it was Anton Chekhov who once said that one of the basic rules of dramatic construction was that if you established a pistol in Act I, someone had to use it in Act III; and Rossellini and his collaborators no doubt were following that rule when they established the Stromboli volcano in Act I and had it erupt in Act III — and the eruption leaves Karin running around the island, desperate to escape her miserable life and her battering husband, though at the end the film leaves us uncertain as to whether she stays or goes.

Stromboli is an example of what the critic Dwight Macdonald called “the Bad Good Movie,” the opposite of “the Good Bad Movies” that would make up most of the fare offered (and mocked) on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. It’s obviously an attempt to make a film of real dramatic and artistic quality, but it just as obviously goes wrong even though watching it, it’s not altogether clear what’s wrong with it. One thing the critics at the time noticed about it was how badly Ingrid Bergman fits in with the neo-realist style — reviewers who’d liked Rossellini’s previous films turned against him on this one and said he had no business working with a Hollywood star — not only does she look too good to be believable as a piece of human flotsam who’s been dragged through the war and ended up first in a refugee camp and then on a primitive island, her acting style, though naturalistic by U.S. movie standards and credible for the character, clashes badly with the non-professionals with which Rossellini filled out his cast. Bergman ended up falling in love with Rossellini, starting an affair with him and ultimately bearing his child (Isabella Rossellini), which given that she was still married to Dr. Petter Lindstrom, the husband she’d brought with her from Sweden to the U.S., sparked a nationwide scandal that resulted in Bergman being blacklisted from the American screen for six years. It got so ridiculous that she and Rossellini were actually denounced on the floor of Congress by U.S. Senator Edwin C. Johnson, who said, “The degenerate Rossellini has deceived the American people with an idiotic story of a volcano and a pregnant woman. We must protect ourselves against such scourges.” (In the film Karin gets pregnant with Antonio’s child, but our only clue that that’s happened is the way she’s rubbing her belly during her final scenes.)

Though Bergman was falling in love with her director, her attitude towards her co-star couldn’t have been more different; Mario Vitale had never acted before in his life — though on-screen he comes off as surprisingly charismatic, a cross between Mario Lanza and Montgomery Clift — and Bergman despaired of the whole experience as Rossellini called for take after take after take of their scenes together to try to get a semblance of a performance out of him. The most interesting parts of Stromboli are the semi-documentary portions — notably the early scenes in the refugee camp (filmed at the real one in Farfá, Italy that Bergman’s character is supposed to be interned in), the scenes of the island itself — including the black rocks, spewed forth by the volcano during its periodic interruptions, that strew its beaches — and above all the scenes in which Vitale and his fellow fisherman put out to sea in rowboats and actually catch fish. The fishing scenes are shot in much the same overdramatic manner as British documentarian John Grierson used in his first film, Drifters (1929) — when I saw that movie with Charles we agreed that Grierson must have had an orgasm watching Battleship Potemkin and decided to shoot his fishing film the same way, and one wanted to take him aside and tell him, “Look, the sailors in Eisenstein’s film were making a revolution; your guys are just catching herring!” — complete with relentlessly overdramatic music by the director’s brother, Renzo Rossellini (one aspect of Rossellini’s film that was all too much like the Hollywood conventions of the time was the overwrought, over-loud, over-obvious and overused music) — but the fishing scenes, particularly the last one in which the fishermen are trying to keep the large tuna they’ve caught from either escaping back to sea or flopping around in the ship’s hold and dying before they can get them to market, are far and away the most exciting and entertaining ones in the movie.

Stromboli was a box-office flop — Bergman’s former producer David O. Selznick wrote a memo at the time saying he thought her career could have weathered the scandal if Stromboli had been a better movie, but even without the scandal and the denunciations from the U.S. Senate Bergman would have been in trouble because her two immediately previous films, Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc and Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn, had also been flops. It didn’t help her career that with one exception — a 1954 film of Arthur Honegger’s oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake, made in France with Jean Cocteau directing — Rossellini didn’t let Bergman make films for any other director for the next six years, though at least in their future projects he compromised enough to give her professional actors like Alexander Knox and George Sanders as her leading men. Eventually Bergman got tired of making films in the Rossellini manner (though their marriage lasted until 1962) and accepted a rather gingerly and tenuously made offer from 20th Century-Fox to star in Anatole Litvak’s Anastasia (1956), about the Paris street woman in the 1920’s who was picked up by a crooked Russian expatriate (Yul Brynner) and passed off as the Grand Duchess Anastasia, one of the five children of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra. The Tsar’s kids were slaughtered in 1918 by the Communists who had taken over Russia, but there were rumors for years that Anastasia had somehow escaped — and this movie was built around that legend, with Helen Hayes cast as Nicholas II’s mother, the person the schemers have to convince in order to admit the supposed Anastasia to the Tsar’s family and, more importantly, his fortune. Helen Hayes was known as such a hard-core Roman Catholic that her willingness to act in a film with Bergman was considered proof positive that Bergman had repented and could be readmitted to American movie houses and their audiences, and Anastasia was a smash hit and won Bergman her second Academy Award.