Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Highwaymen (Sony/PBS, 1990, restored and reissued 2015)

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

Last night I watched one of the PBS pledge-break specials that proved to be unexpectedly interesting: The Highwaymen, a 1990 filmed concert from the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island featuring what the local KPBS hucksters endlessly referred to as “the first country-music supergroup.” In alphabetical order, they were Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson (whose reputation was really closer to folk and rock than country, but we’ll let that pass — he fit in just fine) and Willie Nelson. The local hucksters went on and on and on about how you could never assemble a group like this again, which in one sense was true — Cash and Jennings are both dead — though one could probably either reunite Kristofferson and Nelson with two other people of similar stature (well, maybe not the stature of Cash and Jennings, but pretty damned close — I would think Garth Brooks would be a no-brainer for inclusion in a modern-day Highwaymen 2 and probably either Brad Paisley or Blake Shelton for slot four) or pick four all-stars of modern-day country for a totally fresh version. Be that as it may, the original Highwaymen were certainly a phenomenon; like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope with the Road movies, they maintained their individual careers but also united for the Highwaymen projects, producing three albums: Highwayman (note the singular title; as their Wikipedia page explains, “Formed in 1985, the group did not have an official name when they released their first album on Columbia Records. The album, entitled Highwayman, was credited to ‘Nelson, Jennings, Cash, Kristofferson.’ The single ‘Highwayman,’ a Jimmy Webb cover, became a #1 country hit” — sort of like the Three Tenors, whose debut album in 1990 was simply called Carreras, Domingo, Pavarotti in Concert while their second one, in 1994, featured “The 3 Tenors,” with an elaborate animation of a giant numeral “3,” on the credits of their video as well as the cover of their CD) in 1985, Highwaymen 2 in 1990 (this was the one they were promoting when they gave the concert reproduced on PBS, and they performed the single from it, “Silver Stallion”) and The Road Goes On Forever in 1995. Given the vagaries of record contracts, the first two were on Columbia (of the four Highwaymen, all but Jennings were Columbia artists at the time) and the last on Liberty, which by then had been pretty much ghettoized as EMI’s country label.

The 1990 Long Island concert by the Highwaymen is a nice souvenir of the time not only when Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings were still alive but Kris Kristofferson had a serviceable (or more than that) voice — sometime in the next few years Kristofferson’s voice shredded almost completely but here he’s still in excellent form — and Willie Nelson singing in that remarkably intimate-sounding voice that made him probably the most successful country artist to “cross over” to mainstream pop since Cash. (Nelson’s pop breakthrough was with the 1975 album Red-Headed Stranger — ironically, a vividly uncompromising concept album about the life of an outlaw cowboy — which launched him on a successful career on Columbia after he’d bombed out on Liberty, RCA Victor and Atlantic, for whom he made Phases and Stages, his release just before Red-Headed Stranger and a masterpiece that got lost in the shuffle when Atlantic abruptly closed their country division just as it was being released. Three years later Dolly Parton would abruptly break out of the country ghetto with “Heartbreaker” and a series of pop singles whose only real concessions to country were Parton’s reputation and the twang in her voice.) The Highwaymen concerts — if this one is representative — were quite good showcases both for the individual talents of the country superstars represented and surprisingly effective blends. The show (at least the part of it we got to see on TV — as usual in these pledge-break shows we were incessantly reminded that what we were watching was only a portion of what was filmed and we’d have to give a three-figure contribution to KPBS to get a DVD and/or a CD with the whole thing) opened with the “Highwayman” single, with each of the four taking turns singing lead — first Nelson, then Kristofferson, then Jennings and finally Cash — and then became a duet between Jennings and Nelson on “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and a solo for Cash on his 1963 hit (actually written by his wife, June Carter Cash, with songwriter Merle Kilgore) “Ring of Fire.” Cash did beautifully on this one even though I was a bit (well, more than a bit, actually) disappointed that the famous mariachi trumpets on the original (June Carter recalled that Cash woke her in the middle of the night after one of the recording sessions and said he’d had a dream about having mariachi trumpets on the record, so he called in a mariachi band the next day and added them) were reproduced on a synthesizer. Then they did a version of Kristofferson’s song “Me and Bobby McGee,” which was definitively recorded by Janis Joplin for her last album, Pearl, in 1970 (supposedly she and Kristofferson had a brief affair and she decided to record the song to help him, but by the time her version was released his career was already launched and she was dead) and was here performed by Kristofferson, Jennings and Cash, in that order, with Nelson remaining silent vocally but contributing a lovely guitar solo.

After that there was a pledge break, following which Cash tore into “Folsom Prison Blues” (my friend Leo, who once actually taught a writing class in prison, was especially impressed by the song and even more impressed when I told him that in 1968, 13 years after the original record, Cash did a live album in Folsom Prison, highlighted the song and, instead of just doing his regular concert set, cherry-picked his repertoire so all the songs he played for the prisoners would be about subjects they could relate to: prison and crime), following which Kristofferson came on for his other two star-making songs, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (the real launch of his career; supposedly he chartered a helicopter and landed it on Johnny Cash’s front lawn to present him with the song and ask him to record it, which Cash did; often in country music your career is jump-started when you can get an established artist to record a song of yours, as Willie Nelson did when he got Patsy Cline to record his “Crazy”), on which Cash joined him on lead vocal midway through; and “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Then Willie Nelson soloed on “Always on My Mind” (one of his biggest hits but not one of his better songs — ol’ Willie is great when he writes songs about relationships on the rocks but not so good when he tries to write a straightforward love song about a couple who are actually happy together), following which he and Cash duetted on one of Cash’s earliest Columbia hits, “I Still Miss Someone” (though I still like Cash’s original version and Joan Baez’s cover better). Then they trotted out (no pun intended) “Silver Stallion,” the “plug” song from Highwaymen 2, and it was a quite beautiful and nostalgic country ballad even though Nelson had written better ones for Red-Headed Stranger. Then they spotted a pledge break, and after it came one of the most intriguing songs on the program, “Are You Sure Hank Done It That Way?,” an engaging song about a struggling young country artist going through the traumas of playing on the road and doing crappy gigs at which no one in particular is listening to him, and plaintively asking his manager, “Are you sure Hank Williams done it that way?” (The Highwaymen, like many other country artists, cited Hank Williams as virtually the patron saint of country music; the Highwaymen song Columbia chose for inclusion on the Essential Johnny Cash compilation, regrettably not perfored here, was called “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town.”) For this one Jennings didn’t sing but did play the second guitar solo — and he was surprisingly good.

Then Johnny Cash did one of his trademark songs (and a key piece in his achieving crossover status, breaking out of the country ghetto and becoming an American pop icon), “A Boy Named Sue,” including an hilarious moment in which he used his voice to imitate the “bleep” on the original single release. Then came what was in some ways the best song of the show: “Why Me, Lord?,” a gospel song on which Kristofferson sang lead and the rest joined in classic gospel-quartette fashion, proving once again that virtually the entire American musical tradition — blues, ragtime, jazz, rock, soul and country — comes from African-American spirituals, hymns and gospel music. (I remember seeing one special about Dolly Parton that proclaimed that she started singing in church, and I yelled at the TV, “Of course she did! So did Elvis! It wasn’t just Black singers who started in church!”) Then Jennings sang lead and the others sang backup on his big hit of the time, “Luckenbach, Texas” (the town itself is described on Wikipedia as “an unincorporated community thirteen miles [19 km] from Fredericksburg in southeastern Gillespie CountyTexasUnited States, part of the Texas Hill Country,” but probably nobody outside Texas had heard of it until Jennings immortalized it in song) and Nelson, Cash and Jennings joined forces for a searing version of Cash’s early Sun hit “Big River” (a song Cash wrote after a TV Guide writer said, “Johnny Cash has the big river blues in his voice”), following which there was another pledge break and then the grand finale, Nelson leading the other three in his song “On the Road Again” (another lesser entry in the Nelson canon but one that became a big pop hit). The Highwaymen is a welcome documentation of a bygone era in country music, when there was still a distinctive “country” sound apart from the style that dominates country music (especially its male artists) today, the kind of thing we called “Southern rock” when the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd played it in the 1970’s — and when country artists had distinctive styles and artistic profiles instead of blending into a sort of generic image of tight jeans and big hats the way they do now. It was welcome to see this on PBS even though the damnable begging they continually have to do gets in the way of their self-proclaimed mission to preserve parts of American culture no longer welcome on commercial TV.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Unwanted Guest (Marvista Entertainment/Lifetime, 2016)

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

Last night’s Lifetime “world premiere” TV-movie turned out to be unexpectedly interesting even though it was pretty much another chip off the old Lifetime log — Unwanted Guest, a 2016 production from MarVista Entertainment (I’m not sure whether the “v” in the middle is supposed to be capitalized; I’ve seen it both ways and the name on their actual logo is all caps), co-produced, written and directed by Fred Olen Ray, who apparently has enough of a “rep” he’s done similar productions that have had at least some semblance of a theatrical release. The film opens at a college campus in the L.A. area — we know it’s L.A. because we see a Los Angeles Fire Department paramedic vehicle on the scene — where just before break (which break is not made especially clear, though I think it was supposed to be Christmas or the end of the year or whatever the current politically correct euphemism is) a student trips down a flight of stairs to his death. Roommates Christine Roberts (Valentina Novakovic) and Amy Thomas (Kate Mansi) are broken up about the death, and when Amy complains to Christine that her parents are out of the country and therefore she was planning to spend the break in their dorm room, Christine impulsively, like many a stupid Lifetime heroine before her, invites Amy to spend the break at her place with her mom Anna (Beth Littleford) and her stepfather, Charles Benton (the surprisingly hot Ted King — when director Ray showed him shirtless and flashing a pair of nice nipples I fell in lust with him immediately and waited for a soft-core porn scene which, alas, never materialized). Amy, who arrives at the Benton manse (a typical 1-percenters’ dwelling since Charles is a sensationally successful copyright attorney — at one point in the proceedings the plot comes to a dead stop so Charles and his staff can have a conference about the horrors of digital copying and the need to pass laws holding Internet service providers and Web site owners responsible for any “unauthorized” material on their sites — no comment except that I think the advent of digital copying has rendered traditional copyright unenforceable and useless, and the basis of copyright law should acknowledge that it’s impossible to keep people from copying material and shift to making sure they pay for reuse) as a mousy little thing wearing glasses and with her hair tied back, quickly loosens up, starts wearing contacts (of course Dorothy Parker’s famous lines, “Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses,” get quoted, though writer Ray garbles them) and lets her hair flow freely, turning herself into a delectable piece of young womanhood that sets her sights on seducing Charles. She sets her sights on quite a few other things as well; on her first night at the Bentons’ Amy steals a bottle of dad’s wine and shares it with Christine — only Christine’s glass is drugged with a chemical tranquilizer that hasn’t been manufactured since the 1950’s but is easily synthesized from readily available ingredients if you know enough about chemistry, which Amy does because she was a pre-med student and was one of the three students at her university who had a key to the school’s chem lab.

Later, ostensibly helping Christine’s mom Anna cook for a major dinner party Charles is throwing for three of his business associates — plus his law partner Ken, an even more drop-dead gorgeous guy who immediately takes a shine to Amy and starts hitting on her — in fact she kicks out the step-stool on which Anna is standing to get a heavy Dutch oven and Anna falls and breaks her legs in two places. By now we’ve long since realized that that guy back on the campus didn’t just fall to his death accidentally — Amy tripped him after drugging him with the same stuff she’d later use on Christine (and on Anna, slipping it into her juice drinks), and we learn about it from the police who are investigating the murder and trying to locate Amy. For a while during this movie I was expecting and hoping that Fred Olen Ray would insert an explanation for What Made Amy Run — but later on I liked that he didn’t; aside from Amy going after Charles (either out of lust, gold-digging hope that she could get a rich husband by displacing and disposing of the other women in his life — his current wife and her daughter — or a mix of both) it’s not entirely clear what she wants or why she’s killing or severely injuring all these people to get it. Like Shakespeare’s Iago, Amy becomes a more powerful villainess precisely because we’re not let in on the secrets of her motivations. Ultimately, having rendered both Anna and Christine hors de combat, Amy finally does get Charles to have sex with her — though, darnit, director Ray plays the old coy Production Code-era did-they-or-didn’t-they routine on us and did not give us the soft-core porn scene between Ted King and Kate Mansi I’d been expecting, hoping for and even drooling over the prospect of, and it’s only at the end, when Charles tells Amy he “made a mistake,” that it’s definitively nailed down that they did have sex. Amy also impersonates the other characters on the phone; she poses as Anna and cancels a business lunch date Anna (a wanna-be realtor — or is that RealtorTM? — who’s occasionally showing properties but hasn’t actually sold one in months) had been counting on; she also poses as Christine and tells the police when they call that Amy has already left; later, when Ken tells Charles in Amy’s presence that he told the police Amy was still staying at the Bentons’, Amy gets revenge by cutting the brake lines of Ken’s car (a really cool 1960’s Corvette Sting Ray) so he loses control of it on a mountain road and dies.

It all ends with Charles, clueless as to why Anna and Christine both keep getting sicker but anxious to call in a professional live-in nurse rather than trust Amy to take care of them, telling Amy that she’ll have to leave. Unfortunately, he stupidly does this in his kitchen while Amy is holding a kitchen knife, and while she doesn’t stab him with it she gets awfully close to doing so until — surprise! — Anna, despite having a leg broken in two places and being in excruciating pain when Amy’s drug cocktails aren’t knocking her out, drags herself into the kitchen, sneaks up behind Amy and injects her with a poison Amy had previously prepared to knock off Anna and make it look like an accidental overdose of her pain meds. Unwanted Guest is a title so obscure it isn’t yet listed on at all — I had to glean the information from the above from other Web sites that ran pre-broadcast articles on it — and yet it’s one of the better examples of the typical Lifetime psycho thriller. The story is well constructed and makes sense, Amy is a powerfully ambiguous character (as, indeed, are the other three principals) and the actors rise to the challenges of Ray’s script and create multidimensional characterizations. Ted King is especially good as the man who’s being given the full-court press by a professional seductress — his close-ups eloquently reveal his character’s conflict over lust vs. loyalty, and we “get” that his brain and his dick are struggling for control of his consciousness — and Kate Mansi is appropriate as the bad girl, playing with the right weird combination of surface perkiness and deep evil. (It’s not her fault that a thousand other young actresses have played this same part in one Lifetime movie after another, and after a while they start to blend together.) The other two women have little to do but play victims, though Valentina Novakovic is appropriate towards the end as she realizes the elaborateness with which her supposed “friend” has deceived her. Unwanted Guest is very much to the Lifetime formula, but within it Ray managed to create a work of genuine suspense and moral complexity — only Christine Conradt among Lifetime’s usual writers matches him in the ability to create multidimensional characters even within the limits of this set of clichés (and if she’d written this no doubt she would have called it The Perfect Guest!) — the sort of entertainment we hope for from Lifetime and all too often get thrown a much less well digested blend of their usual clichés instead.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

NOVA: “Invisible Universe Revealed” (PBS, 2015)

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

Last night I watched a NOVA episode called “Invisible Universe Revealed” that told the entire history of the Hubble space telescope, from its origins as a NASA proposal in the 1960’s — it was advanced by a woman astronomer named Nancy Roman, who got a job with NASA after she couldn’t get a tenure-track teaching job because it was 1959 and she was a woman (it’s amazing that that kind of shit was still going on in my lifetime!) — and targeted by Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin, who was first elected in 1957 to fill Joseph McCarthy’s seat after McCarthy died) as one of the wasteful government projects he thought should be canceled. The appropriation nonetheless went through in 1977 and the Hubble duly got launched in 1990 — and promptly became a national laughingstock because its elaborate array of cameras and mirrors produced only blurry images that were scientifically useless. It turned out one of the mirrors had been ground about two micrometers too flat, and a crew of astronauts from the space shuttle had to install an array of new mirrors that looked like a shower head (and they were designed by a man who actually got the idea for the corrective mirror from a shower head!). Hubble has been serviced in space five times in all, though after the last mission in 2009 the space shuttle was decommissioned so it will eventually fall to earth and vaporize like any other satellite (though there’s a plan by NASA to brake it in space so at least the mirrors can be salvaged).

The most interesting aspect of the Hubble was that it actually did advance our knowledge of the universe, not only that it’s expanding but the rate of its expansion is actually increasing (earlier astronomers had thought it would slow down due to the force of gravity), and that every galaxy contains a black hole at its core that basically provides the gravitational “glue” that holds it together. The Hubble (named for Edwin Hubble, the 1920’s astronomer who first realized that there were other galaxies in space — before that all scientists, including Albert Einstein, had simply assumed our Milky Way galaxy was the only one) also discovered the mysterious and still not understood force called “dark energy.” The Hubble’s images are absolutely fascinating aesthetically and also have proven scientifically important — they’ve given us our first views of the formation of stars, and incidentally confirmed the modern theories of star formation that hold (among other things) that all stars have solar systems — planets are an inevitable result of the way stars are formed — which means that if every star has planets, the odds that there is life elsewhere in the universe are vastly increased. The PBS show on the Hubble was first aired in April 2015 and is a good deal better than the rather tacky DVD on the Hubble I’d seen earlier, 15 Years of Discovery (it’s been 26 years of discovery so far and, even though the demise of the shuttle program means it can no longer be serviced in space, it’s still up there, still taking stunning pictures of star formations, planetary nebulae — which are the detritus of dying stars — and the Cepheid variable stars and supernovas that proved the existence of other galaxies and the expansion of the universe in the first place).

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The General (Buster Keaton Productions/United Artists, 1926)

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

I dashed out of the hall to catch the #7 bus to Balboa Park to meet Charles at the Organ Pavilion for the showing of the film The General (Buster Keaton’s 1926 masterpiece, co-directed by him and Clyde Bruckman but with Keaton undoubtedly the auteur as well as the star) with live organ-music accompaniment by Dennis James. Charles had told me he would sit near the front, but as things turned out he’d had to camp out in the third section back — and he’d got a lot of incredulous looks when he told people he was saving the seat next to him for someone else. Fortunately we were able to find each other — he was standing up in the crowd and I spotted him (smart man, especially considering our generally dismal track record for finding each other in public places) — and I joined him about 10 minutes before the event began. Dennis James turned out to be a screaming queen — once he opened his mouth to introduce his pre-movie concert program there was no doubt about his sexual orientation! He played a neat little program, including an undistinguished Sousa-esque march (Charles croaked out, “It’s … ,” when he finished the piece and I got the joke instantly — Monty Python’s Flying Circus), an arrangement of “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” a piece called “Hurry #2” by one W. T. Simon which he also used throughout his accompaniment for the film (apparently it was a short piece from one of the books of music sold during the silent-film era with pieces suitable for various screen situations, and he picked this one because it was indicated as useful for accompanying chase sequences involving trains) and F. W. Measham’s march “American Patrol” (which was in effect his second Glenn Miller cover of the evening, since Miller recorded an arrangement of “American Patrol” even before he went into the service himself).

By now The General is pretty much beyond criticism, but seeing it in this context — not only with a live musical accompaniment but also with a large audience (comedy always works better with an audience to laugh with you — which is why virtually all TV sitcoms feature recorded laughter, either added later from a laugh track or supplied during filming by a live studio audience). The print they had was a 16 mm. re-release by a company called Essex (and, like the current video of Young at Heart, it was edited to eliminate any references to the original producer, Joseph M. Schenck, or releasing company, United Artists) with some nitrate blotches (notably on the famous sequence in which the Union train collapses into the river after it attempts to cross the Rock River bridge after Keaton has fired it) and no color tints (the tints are included on my video and do add to the movie, even though The General was certainly not as radically tinted as, say, the 1916 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the 1925 The Lost World). It was also surprising from the opening credits that Keaton’s usual cinematographer, Elgin Lessley, wasn’t with him on this one (did he decide to take a pass on the rough location conditions in Oregon?), though his usual art director, Fred Gabourie, was (and certainly the photography by J. Devereaux Jennings and Bert Haines, using a rich, deep-focus look obviously copied from Matthew Brady’s famous photos of the Civil War itself, was nothing to complain about) — and there’s no doubt but that this is one of Keaton’s two masterpieces (Sherlock, Jr. is the other one), a mixture of comedy and violence that was at least 40 years ahead of its time. (When I first saw it in the 1970’s I remember being particularly struck by the horrifying payoff to Keaton’s running gag of having his sword blade detach itself from its handle — the blade goes flying through the air and kills a Union sniper that has been wiping out a Confederate gun crew — and I thought at the time, “So Bonnie and Clyde was supposed to be so innovative in its combination of comedy and violence — and here was Buster Keaton doing it 40 years before!”) With his hair grown out to be historically authentic, Keaton was never more beautiful physically — and the incredible attention he paid to detail in making this movie (down to choosing his location in Oregon because it was the only place he could find a railroad that still ran on the narrow-gauge track used during the Civil War) and his artful use of a true story as a framework for his film only add to the entertainment value (something Chaplin, who threw out almost all the location footage he shot for The Gold Rush, never really learned). And one thing I hadn’t realized until I finally got to see The Navigator, Keaton’s film from two years earlier, was that the great gag in The General in which he attempts to fire a cannon at the Union train and the cannon works itself out of adjustment and points itself directly at him was copied almost exactly from the earlier film — with only one key difference (which made the gag a lot funnier!): instead of a toy cannon, this time it was a full-sized one! — 8/4/98


The film shown last night at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion’s annual silent-film showing was an acknowledged comedy masterpiece, Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), based on a real incident of the Civil War in which a Union raider named James J. Andrews led a unit across Southern lines to hijack a locomotive, The General, and use it to sabotage the tracks and blow up bridges so the South couldn’t resupply their army that was facing the Union forces at Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Southerners hijacked a locomotive of their own, The Texas, and gave chase, ultimately tracking down and capturing the Union raiders, eight of whom (including Andrews) were hanged, while the others were taken prisoner and ultimately freed in a prisoner exchange. The film casts Keaton — with his hair grown out and probably the handsomest he ever appeared in a movie — as “Johnnie Gray” (the everyman-of-the-South symbolism of the name is obvious), engineer on the Western and Atlantic Rail Road, who (as a title explains to us) has two loves. One is his locomotive, The General, and the other is … at that point we see Johnnie posting a photo of a woman on the dashboard of his engine. The woman is “Annabelle Lee” (an equally obvious everywoman-of-the-South name), played by Marion Mack — whom I’ve previously been unimpressed by but this time around struck me as one of Keaton’s most effective leading ladies, at least partly because he (Keaton not only starred in the film, he produced it and co-directed with Clyde Bruckman) got a performance out of her that’s so understated I got the impression he wanted her to be a female “great stone face” version of himself.

That’s a good thing because, even though the writers’ (Keaton, Bruckman, Al Boasberg — later the creator of the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera — and Charles Henry Smith) conception of her character veered from spunky (at one point she ties wire between two trees lining the track, creating a trap for the oncoming Union locomotive that’s chasing them) to stupid (when she throws a stick into the train’s fire, thinking that will actually help, and Johnnie ridicules her by putting in an even smaller piece of wood) — under Keaton’s direction she was at least spared the cooing winsomeness that afflicted all too many silent-comedy heroines. We first see Keaton paying court to Annabelle Lee on the porch of her home — he elaborately knocks on her door without realizing that she’s actually on the porch, right behind him, and it’s an indication of Keaton’s restraint that when he finally realizes this and does his double-take, he doesn’t bat his eyes and grin at the camera the way Chaplin would have. Instead he keeps his “great stone face” on and registers his joy with just a few eye blinks and the little swallowing gesture he did with his mouth that made him look like a horse that had just been given a lump of sugar. He’s in the living room of the Lee home when her brother (Frank Barnes) announces that Fort Sumter has just been fired on, and her father (Charles Henry Smith) says, “Then the war is on.” The brother announces his immediate intention to enlist in the Confederate army, and Johnnie is determined to enlist, too — only the man in charge of the recruitment office decides he’ll be more valuable to the Southern cause as an engineer than as a soldier in the ranks. Unfortunately, no one bothers to tell Johnnie this, though later he tries to enlist again, this time giving his name as “William Brown” and his occupation as “bartender.” He’s caught, and caught again when he tries to steal the recruitment papers from someone who was enlisted, so he’s immediately damned by the Lee family as a traitor to the South and Annabelle says she won’t speak to him again until he’s in uniform.

Then the film flashes forward a year and shows us the Union soldiers plotting the raid, and afterwards they seize The General while it’s on a normal passenger run and its passengers and crew have stopped for dinner — only Annabelle had returned to the baggage car to fetch something, so the Union raiders end up taking her hostage. Johnnie notices while he’s washing his hands at the train stop that his locomotive is moving away without him, so he gives chase — first on foot, then in a hand car (which Keaton has trouble pushing to get it to work) and finally in another locomotive, The Texas. Johnnie is supposed to be pulling a train with Southern soldiers, but he accidentally uncouples the car containing them so he’s going off to chase the Northerners alone. Along the way most of the gags stem from the Northerners’ attempt to throw debris on the track to derail him, and his quite daring (in real life: there were quite a few gags for which Keaton was genuinely risking life and limb — even the seemingly innocuous scene when he sits on the cross-tie that drives his locomotive and it goes up and down with him on it could have killed him if the engine had moved unexpectedly) tactics to clear the tracks so he can pursue. The most famous gag was when he steals a cannon from a siding, aims it at the Union train — only Keaton’s foot gets caught on the holder attaching the cannon car and he ends up with a fully loaded cannon pointed right at him, about to go off. Keaton had done this gag just two years before with a miniature cannon in his 1924 film The Navigator, but it’s both grimmer and funnier with a full-sized one! Johnnie ends up at the Union headquarters at Chattanooga, where he reunites with Annabelle and frees her from Union captivity. He also hides under a table where the Union generals (one of whom is played by Keaton’s father Joe) are plotting to rendezvous their army with a supply train for a surprise attack on the Confederates at Marietta, Georgia, and in the second half of the film Johnnie re-steals The General and uses it to race back to the Southern lines and let them know of the Union plans. Key to the Northern strategy is getting their supply train over the Red Rock Bridge, and in the film’s most spectacular scene Johnnie and Annabelle set fire to the bridge just in time for The Texas, being driven by the Union men who are chasing them, to collapse as the bridge weakens under their weight. Though Keaton had his great special-effects man, Fred Gabourie, on this film (he’s listed as “technical director” since the term “special effects” hadn’t been coined yet), and Gabourie was such a master of model work that shots he created for the 1924 silent film The Sea Hawk were reused as stock in Errol Flynn’s star-making vehicle Captain Blood and the Flynn quasi-remake of The Sea Hawk itself, Keaton decreed that there would be no model work and no effects shots.

He took himself and his company to Oregon because there was the only place he could find a working railroad that still used the narrow-gauge track used during the Civil War, and he went way over budget on the film — lists a total cost of $750,000 but Donald Moews’ Keaton biography said he spent over a million on it, the most expensive comedy film made to that time (his producer, Joseph M. Schenck, had budgeted it for $400,000) — thanks largely to his almost Stroheim-esque mania for realism. Keaton was shooting at a time when there were still a few people left who had living memories of the Civil War, and between that and Keaton’s overall love of trains (he knew how to drive a locomotive and it was one of his most frequent pastimes; he also had a large collection of model trains and used one for one of the funniest gags in his short The Electric House) this was obviously a personal project for him and one on which he kicked out the jams. Keaton clearly spent a lot of money not only on the trains but also on all the authentic props, including cannons and rifles as well as uniforms, and hiring the Oregon National Guard to play the soldiers (on both sides; he’d have them dressed in Confederate grey and charge, then change into Union blue and charge over the same ground, then cut the two together to look like two armies were chasing each other). The locomotive that crashes through the burning Red Rock Bridge (the fire was real and Keaton and his cast and crew had to break off shooting briefly to put it out) was real and remained at the bottom of the Oregon river for nearly two decades until it was salvaged for scrap metal during World War II. For his pains The General became the first Keaton film that flopped at the box office — though at least part of that was due to Joseph Schenck’s having just assumed the presidency of United Artists, which meant that instead of being released through MGM as Keaton’s previous features had been, this came out as a United Artists release and therefore it was available to fewer theatres than Keaton’s MGM releases. Also, the film’s rapid-fire alternation between comedy and violence probably threw 1926 audiences as well as critics; the New York Herald-Tribune reviewer wrote, “Some of the gags are in gruesomely bad taste,” and it’s not hard to figure out which ones they mean. When I first saw The General in the early 1970’s I remember thinking that the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde had been hailed as a ground-breaking masterpiece for its rapid alternations between comedy and violence — and here Keaton had been doing it four decades earlier! The scene I was particularly thinking of ­— and I suspect one of the ones that aroused the Herald-Tribune critic’s ire — was one in which the running gag of Keaton’s sword blade coming off when he tries to draw it has its payoff when the blade flies through the air and impales and kills a Union sniper who’s been picking off the Confederate artillerymen.

The General is one of Keaton’s two best films (his audacious dream fantasy Sherlock, Jr. from 1924 is the other) and an indication, along with Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush from a year earlier and the Harry Langdon-Frank Capra film The Strong Man, also a 1926 production, of what heights silent comedy had reached at the tail end of the silent era. Yes, the pro-Southern orientation of the story is politically problematic — in the 1950’s Keaton told an interviewer that he had to play a Southerner because the obligatory happy ending required that he end the film on the winning side, and though the North won the overall war the South had won the particular battle he was filming — I noticed Charles quietly applauding whenever the Union forces on screen scored a victory even though we were “supposed” to be rooting for the boys in grey. Keaton returned to the Civil War as a subject when he did gags for the 1948 Red Skelton film A Southern Yankee (for which he worked out a great scene in which Skelton wears a uniform that’s blue on one side, grey on the other, and when the blue side faces the Union troops and the grey side faces the Confederates both sides salute him — only he turns around, and this time the blue side faces the Confederates, the grey side faces the Unionists, and both sides shoot at him), and the original story was filmed by Walt Disney in 1962 as The Great Locomotive Chase (with real-life Southerner Fess Parker playing Keaton’s role) — but The General is the film people remember even though it’s not the start-to-finish laugh-fest many of Keaton’s films (especially his shorts) were. Instead it’s a character-driven war movie whose laughs come from situations and comic action scenes that arise naturally from the story — Keaton having realized early on in his feature-film career that he had to pay a lot more attention to story development and consistency, and avoid the cartoon-like gags he’d done in his shorts — while the physical “look” of the film (J. Devereaux Jennings and Bert Haines were his cinematographers) is absolutely consistent with the photographic record we have of the Civil War; at times it looks as if the pictures of Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner have come to life before our eyes. It’s no surprise that Keaton and Raymond Rohauer chose The General as the film with which they would re-introduce him to the public in the late 1950’s; it was a ground-breaking film that, like the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Vertigo and many other films that flopped at their original release and later became acknowledged classics, needed time to catch up to it. — 8/23/16

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Kingston Trio (PBS)

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

Last night I watched a PBS tribute to the Kingston Trio which turned out to be a concert special by the Trio’s current lineup. The original Kingston Trio consisted of Dave Guard, Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds, though Guard and Shane broke up the band after 10 years of substantial success (and they launched in San Francisco at the Purple Onion, not in L.A. as the narration of this show had it) and Guard left, Shane took over ownership of the name, and John Stewart — later a solo folk artist in his own right (though his one major hit, “Gold,” probably sold mainly because of Stevie Nicks’ presence on second vocal) replaced Guard. I haven’t been able to nail down definitively when this show was made — the only Web sources I can find were for a 1982 special, also on PBS, but the Trio had a different lineup then (it was the Shane-Reynolds-Stewart one) and also the guest stars were different (Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, Roger Gambill, George Grove and Tom Smothers of the Smothers Brothers). Today’s Kingston Trio consists of Grove, Bill Zorn, Rick Daugherty and Paul Gabrielson — which of course really makes them the Kingston Quartet, though unlike their original bass player (who was front and center with the other two), Gabrielson hides in the back. The guests this time around were Sana Christian (whom I’d never heard of before but who’s a quite good country singer, sounding much like Linda Ronstadt when she sang country — and out of all the various forms of music Ronstadt sang over her career, I always liked her best as a country singer), Trini Lopez (who joined the Kingstons on “La Bamba), the Limeliters, Henry Diltz (who these days is best known as a photographer but was a member of the Modern Folk Quartet, a faux-folk group Phil Spector put together in the early 1960’s and named after the Modern Jazz Quartet; their main importance was in launching the career of Harry Nilsson) and Al Jardine of the Beach Boys.

Jardine came in for what could have been one of the best moments of the program and instead turned out to be one of its worst; the Kingstons started singing their version of “Sloop John B.” and Jardine came out and “corrected” them, steering them towards a neither-fish-nor-fowl rendition that didn’t sound like the Kingston Trio’s version and didn’t sound like the Beach Boys’ version (though there was a drummer hidden in the wings to give it a more rock and less folk sound) but was an unhappy amalgam of the two. There were two people on stage with direct connections to the original group: Josh Reynolds, Nick Reynolds’ son, came out to sing the lead on “M.T.A.” originally sung by his dad; and Bob Shane himself, who like Artie Shaw in his later years is usually a non-performer who sends the group out but stays home and gets his cut from them — they even joked that for  years Shane toured to build up the name of the group, and now he sits home and profits from it — but this time around came out and joined in on a few of the songs. The reason Shane no longer participates actively in the group’s performances (except on special occasions like this) became obvious when he did come out — and it was obvious that there were two pieces of plastic wrapped around his head: his glasses and his breathing tube. He was carrying a portable canister of oxygen and breathing through that, though his voice — albeit ragged with the passage of time — didn’t seem to be affected by whatever medical disorder requires him to breathe pure oxygen instead of normal air. He sang lead on “Tom Dooley” and soloed on “Scotch and Soda,” an odd Kingston Trio original because it’s closer to jazz or lounge music than folk — one could readily imagine it done by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan (and though most people don’t know this, Sinatra actually had one of the biggest hits of his career with a Kingston Trio cover: “It Was a Very Good Year”). Guard — who in his dotage has grown his hair long the way Lyndon Johnson did — sang “Scotch and Soda” beautifully and actually put his worn vocal quality to good use projecting the tear-in-my-scotch-and-soda lyric. One other guest star was Barry McGuire, who claimed that he and Mamas and the Papas founder John Phillips co-wrote the Kingston Trio hit “Greenback Dollar” (though the Wikipedia page on the Kingston Trio said it was Hoyt Axton — whose career got a weird boost from his mom having co-written “Heartbreak Hotel,[1]” which Axton covered on his own first solo album, Hoyt Axton Explodes!, on Vee-Jay), which McGuire performed with them.

The Kingston Trio’s music remains folk-lite, sometimes heavier than that (they had the first hit on Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” which has a complicated history — it was originally a poem by Russian author Boris Shtokolov which Seeger set to music; later Marlene Dietrich commissioned a German translation so she could perform it on her German tours and make her former countrymen acutely aware of what she thought of her native land’s militaristic history; and when Joan Baez recorded it she covered Dietrich’s German version!) — “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was the climax of the concert (and the Trio also recorded “Blowin’ in the Wind,” though that seems more like Capitol wanting a version that would compete with Bob Dylan’s original on Columbia and Peter, Paul and Mary’s hit on Warner Bros.). Most of the Kingston Trio’s repertoire on last night’s program was familiar — “Tijuana Jail,” “Chilly Winds” (with a beautiful vocal countermelody by Christian), the novelty “Rev. Mr. Black” that interpolates “You Got to Walk That Lonesome Valley,” “Raspberries, Strawberries and Good Wine,” “Scarlet Ribbons” (weighed down by Bob Shane, Al Jardine and the Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmidt on guest vocals — Harry Belafonte’s version remains unsurpassable to me), and “The Sinking of the ‘Reuben James’.” There was one song I wouldn’t have identified as Kingston Trio material: the haunting country ballad “Long Black Veil,” written in 1959 bu Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin — the announcement identified Wilkin as the first woman ever admitted to the Country Music Hall of Fame (ahead of Sara and Maybelle Carter or Patsy Montana? That seems unbelievable!) — and first recorded by Lefty Frizzell (a dramatic departure from his usual honky-tonk style), though I know it mostly from the versions by Joan Baez (even though she sang a lyric obviously intended for a man without any changes) and Johnny Cash (who covered it on his Live at Folsom Prison album — an odd sort of live concept album in which, instead of just coming in and doing his regular concert set, he cherry-picked his repertoire and focused on songs about crime and prison). The Kingstons were hardly in the same league as Cash and Baez — they took the song too fast and lost the plaintive quality (it’s a song, after all, about a man who agrees to plead guilty to murder and be executed because he can’t bear to tell the truth — that he was having sex with his best friend’s wife when the crime was committed) — but it was still an interesting byway on a quite pleasant and engaging music program.

[1] — Actually Mae Boren Axton was the sole composer of “Heartbreak Hotel,” though she put her friend Tommy Durden’s name on the song as co-writer because he agreed to make the demo record that convinced Elvis Presley to record it as his first major-label release — and thanks to Col. Parker’s ironclad insistence on taking cut-in credits on virtually everything Elvis recorded, Elvis’s name got listed as a “co-writer” as well.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Warner Bros., Atlas Entertainment, Cruel & Unusual Films, Ratpac Entertainment, DC Comics, 2016)

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

The film I wanted to watch last night was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (the lower-case “v” in the title, instead of “vs.” or just “v.” with a period, was supposed to evoke the nomenclature of court cases — though the court pleadings and opinions I’ve seen use “v.” with the period), directed by Zach Snyder from a script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer and a 2 ½-hour long movie (though there’s an “Extended Edition” that’s a full three hours, which would be too much of an indigestible thing) that, though it has its moments, for the most part is a lumbering behemoth of a movie that epitomizes much of what’s gone wrong with the superhero genre in films. I come to a movie like this not having read either a Superman or Batman comic (except for reissues of the older ones) since my own teen years in the 1960’s, and I have fond memories of the mythos surrounding both characters and the DC Universe as they stood then but haven’t really kept up with later developments except through watching the movies. Batman v Superman is more or less a sequel to Man of Steel (2013), which was scripted by Goyer and Christopher Nolan (who has a vague credit on this one among the usual laundry list of “producers”) and also directed by Snyder. When Charles and I watched Man of Steel together I called it “one of the most disappointing movies either of us had seen in quite some time!” — and it’s a measure of its unmemorability that last night Charles couldn’t recall whether or not he’d seen it — though it comes off as at least a minor masterpiece compared to Batman v Superman. Young(ish) British actor Henry Cavill (a lesser light in Woody Allen’s masterpiece Whatever Works) returns as Superman, and Batman is played by Ben Affleck — a weird bit of casting, especially since a decade ago he played, not a superhero himself, but an actor who’d played one in the marvelous Hollywoodland (an historical fantasy about the last days of actor George Reeves, who played Superman on the 1950’s TV series and found it disqualified him from being considered for more substantial roles — he had a minor part in From Here to Eternity but was cut out of the film when audience members at preview screenings recognized him, cried out, “That’s Superman!,” and started laughing) — though he’s O.K. in a surprisingly small part that, like Nolan’s own Batman films (especially the last, The Dark Knight Rises), gave him considerably more screen time as Bruce Wayne than in the Batsuit. (Lewis Wilson and Michael Keaton remain my favorite big-screen Batmen, and the films they were in — the 1943 Columbia serial directed by Lambert Hillyer, and the 1989 feature by Tim Burton that kick-started the modern-day Batman franchise and also featured Jack Nicholson as the best-ever Joker — remain, at least in my mind, the best Batmovies of all.)

There are two big problems with Batman v Superman, and they’re worth noting since they afflict a lot of the superhero movies being made today: first is a “plot,” if you can call it that, which flits from incident to incident and story to story in a way that’s supposed to be powerfully ambiguous but just ends up being confusing. The second is the continuing attempt to use the superhero mythologies to tell some great, enduring “truths” about human nature in general and its penchant for violence, as well as its desire to worship someone or something greater than ourselves, in particular. One thing the film does do well is show just how many innocent people get hurt when superheroes duke it out for control of major urban areas like Superman’s “Metropolis” and Batman’s “Gotham” (the latter was obviously supposed to be New York City but the former is a bit more obscure — Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster lived in Cleveland when they worked out the character, so it’s likely that was their model even though it’s not that big a city and the “Metropolis” in the movie is actually Jersey City, so it could be spotted just across the river from New York); according to one “Trivia” poster Batman kills 30 people during the course of the film. In the brief original phase of the Bat-legend, creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger showed him as a vigilante with an ambiguous relationship to Gotham’s official law enforcement, often murdering criminals himself instead of turning them over to the authorities, but that version of the character lasted only three years (1937 to 1940) before they softened him up, introduced Robin the Boy Wonder (who hasn’t been seen on the big screen since the last of the four 1980’s-1990’s Batman movies, Batman and Robin, the one with George Clooney even more miscast than Affleck as Batman and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze) and gave him the same aversion to killing in the name of “justice” Siegel and Shuster had built into the character of Superman. Then in the 1980’s the comics started getting darker, Robin ceased to appear as a character, and the so-called “Dark Knight” version of the Batman mythos was created by Alan Moore and Frank Miller. According to contributors far more up on the modern-day evolution of the Batcycle than I will ever be, good chunks of the plot line of the Dark Knight comics (or “graphic novels,” the term of art for a comic long enough to be an entire book) found their way into the script for Batman v Superman.

The film certainly qualifies for the much-abused term “all-star cast,” since among the dramatis personae are not only Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill but Jeremy Irons as Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred (and, curiously, this time he’s just a butler rather than a scientific genius in his own right the way Morgan Freeman was in the Nolan cycle, and he never appears on screen with anyone other than Affleck), Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Superman’s adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent, Amy Adams as Lois Lane (she doesn’t get nearly enough screen time but she’s superbly spunky in the best Noel Neill tradition), Holly Hunter in a great turn as U.S. Senator Finch (alas, she gets blown up one-third of the way through the film by a terrorist attack during a Senate hearing at which Superman has agreed to testify), and the man who really makes this movie and gives it whatever entertainment value it has, Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. At first I was fooled by a bit of dialogue that referenced Luthor’s father growing up in East Germany and thought that Eisenberg, playing Luthor as a young high-tech CEO with a full head of hair, was supposed to be, not the original Luthor, but his son and heir — but it was clear by the end of the movie that he was the real deal, especially when at the end of the movie he’s put into an insane asylum and all that lovely hair gets shaved off by the staff, turning Eisenberg into the bald Luthor we all know and love to hate from the comics. Eisenberg’s performance here is an odd cross between Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow in the last stand-alone Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, and a parody of Eisenberg’s own performance as Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Babbling away at a mile a minute and saying things that seem to contradict themselves even before they’re quite out of his mouth — at a high-class fundraiser for literacy he’s supposed to give a speech and comes up with, “Books are knowledge and knowledge is power, and I am … no. Um, no. What am I? What was I saying? The bittersweet pain among men is having knowledge with no power because … because that is paradoxical, and, um … thank you for coming” — Luthor as shown here comes off not as the dour revenge-driven monomaniac he was in the comics but as Donald Trump on crystal with a cuter (but still pretty anarchic) hairdo. Eisenberg is the one actor in this movie who really gets to create a character we can identify with — he may be a bad guy (though in this sort of story the villains are usually more interesting than the heroes anyway), but he’s also witty, charming, discombobulated and vain but also oddly self-deprecating (one thing that definitely differentiates him from Trump!).

He’s a breath of fresh air in a movie that otherwise seems to be presenting as dour a vision of the world as its creators could imagine — instead of creating superheroes and holding them up as visions of what normal people could be and what they should aspire to be, the modern comic-book writers and the people who film these sorts of stories keep trying to make their “heroes” as conflicted and darkly driven as their villains, to bad effect. Indeed Batman v Superman presents such a dark vision of the world one could readily imagine its writers doing Trump’s speeches — one of the chief criticisms of Trump at (and immediately after) the Democratic convention was that he’d managed to create such an apocalyptic picture of America that one was startled to wake up the next morning and find the sun was still shining and the birds were still singing. Not much sun shines in Batman v Superman — most of it takes place at night and even the few daylight exteriors are cloudy — and no birds sing, though in one sequence when Superman rescues Lois Lane after Luthor pushes her off the top of his “LexCorp” building there’s just a hint of the sheer joy of the “flying date” Superman and Lois went on in the first Superman film with Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. I wonder if this is a Zeitgeist issue — if Zach Snyder and his writers are responding to the same dark forces in the American psyche that are fueling the rise of Trump, who essentially presented himself as Superman at the Republican convention, telling Americans that they live in a deeply broken country — and, for that matter, a deeply broken world — and declaring, “I alone can fix it.” (That’s one reason I liked the Senator Finch character: the script had her actually wonder if, on balance, a character like Superman is good for the world — though that plot line gets taken out when she blows up.) Also one annoying aspect of this movie is that much of it assumes a familiarity with the most recent graphic-novel incarnations of the characters, to the point where important beings in the DC Universe like Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) get introduced with virtually no clue for the non-cognoscenti as to just who they are.

Even Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who’s given an important role in the ending as a “bio-enhanced” human who has been alive and young-looking at least since 1918 (there’s a photo of her ostensibly on the front during World War I) that’s supposed to set her up for future Justice League of America movies as well as a stand-alone Wonder Woman film set for next year, is never referred to by that title (only by her alternate identity as “Diana Pierce”), and while there’s a hint of romantic (or at least sexual) interest between her and Affleck’s Bruce Wayne, they don’t make it anywhere near the bedroom. The closest we get to a love scene here is when Clark Kent shows up at Lois Lane’s apartment while she’s taking a bath — though at least I give writers Goyer and Terrio credit for acknowledging that Lois knows Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same instead of asking us to believe that this otherwise intelligent woman hasn’t figured that out long ago — and the biggest emotional wrench is a scene copied from the most controversial Superman comic ever, in which the character actually “died.” There’s a confusing fight to the finish between Batman, Superman (whom Luthor has got to kill Batman by kidnapping Superman’s adoptive mom Martha Kent and holding her hostage — though the writers never really explain why Batman wants to kill Superman, to the point of bringing Luthor’s Kryptonite-equipped weapons into battle, and they stop fighting each other only when they realize that both had mothers named Martha, which gives them an emotional connection), and a monster Luthor created from captured Kryptonian technology. The monster looks like that ugly creature Sea World’s latest ads have dredged up as the main attraction to get people to go there, and once he’s created it in a blood-soaked tank out of the corpse of General Zod, the renegade Kryptonian who escaped his planet’s destruction and was the principal villain of Man of Steel, Luthor introduces it to Superman as “an ancient Kryptonian deformity; blood of my blood, born to destroy you! … Your doomsday.” It wasn’t until I read the “trivia” posts that I realized that “Doomsday” was supposed to be the creature’s name! The film ends with a double funeral for Superman and Clark Kent (presumably “Kent’s” coffin is empty) and a double story in the Gotham City Times, announcing the death of Superman on the front page and a minor story inside that Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent was killed covering the big fight, and we see Lois Lane scoop up a handful of dirt and throw it on Superman’s coffin — and then the coffin begins to move and the dirt agitates and starts coming off the top of the coffin. Charles was hoping for a post-credits sequence showing more of just how Superman resurrects himself, but I said, “This is DC, not Marvel.”

Batman v Superman is that most frustrating sort of bad movie, the bad movie that could have been good or even great, and its box-office failure sparked a lot of hand-wringing at Warner Bros. about how and why Disney has been able practically to mint money off their Marvel franchises while Warners has had poor to mediocre results with the DC characters. Their conclusion had been that Disney (reflecting company traditions dating back to when Walt Disney the person was still alive and running the place himself) keeps a tight rein on the Marvel films’ directors, suppressing their personal styles to make sure all the Marvel films mesh with each other, while DC has let individual filmmakers have too much control over their “takes” on the mythic characters. Ordinarily I like it when studios allow directors to make their films essentially their own way, but the Warners bean-counters may have a point — even though when Snyder’s Watchmen was a huge flop they decided that the problem with it was it was R-rated and they would never make an R-rated superhero movie again. That wasn’t the problem with Watchmen (it and Man of Steel are the only other Snyder films I’ve seen); one problem was that Snyder is the sort of director who never lets a minor detail like plot coherence get in the way of creating a striking image — a bad filmmaking habit that’s only exacerbated when your characters originated in comic books, which are all about creating striking images. The other problem is that today’s superhero movies are just too damned serious; while I’m not expecting anyone making a film with the DC characters today to go whole-hog into the campiness of the 1960’s Batman TV series, it would be nice if they brought an awareness of the absurdity of the entire concept of the comic-book superhero to their projects and were able to work that in (as Tim Burton did masterfully in his two Batman movies) while still delivering the action goods. There are nice things to say about Batman v Superman, like the 104 credited stunt doubles (which indicates that Snyder was staging a lot of the action with real humans instead of relying on CGI for everything), but overall it’s just another draggy superhero movie that’s too long and too self-important for its own good.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Nazi Games: Berlin 1936 (taglicht media, PBS Distribution, pre tv, ORF, ZDF, 2016)

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

I watched three documentaries PBS put on their schedule on Tuesday, August 3 as part of the lead-in to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, which begin this Friday with the big opening ceremonies. First up was The Nazi Games: Berlin 1936, a co-production of something called “taglicht media” with “pre TV” and the Austrian TV networks ORF and ZDF — which explains why so many of the interviews included were in German (with voiceover translations), though the interviewees themselves were cosmopolitan enough they probably knew enough English to be interviewed in it. The basic thesis of the program was that it was the 1936 Berlin Olympics which set the template for every modern Olympic Games since: the construction of monumental stadia and other venues for the Games to take place in (one commentator said the International Olympic Committee expects host cities to build permanent structures, not merely temporary facilities, whether or not the cities can afford them or will have any use for them once the Games are over), the elaborate pageantry — it was apparently the organizers of the Nazi Games that first thought of the idea of having an Olympic torch start out in Greece and be carried by relay runners to the site of the current Games, which has been done in every Olympics ever since — and the whole exploitation of the Olympics for political propagandist purposes. One thing I hadn’t known before watching this was that the winning bid for Berlin as the host city of the 1936 Olympics had been made as far back as 1930 — well before the Nazis gained power — and indeed the two heads of the German committee that wrote and presented the bid to the IOC were both Jewish (and, to forestall one of the many threatened boycotts of the Games, the Nazis were forced to leave them in place as part of the organizing committee until the Games were over). When Hitler took power his first instinct was to cancel the Olympics and tell the IOC to have them somewhere else — Hitler was suspicious of anything international and his only interest in sports was as a way to give young German men physical training that could later be used to make them soldiers for the war he intended to start as soon as he’d rebuilt enough of the German military to make it realistic.

But he (likely advised in this direction by his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels) quickly realized that the Olympics provided him a heaven-sent propaganda opportunity to present Nazi Germany to the world as he wanted the world to see it, peace-loving and tolerant. He issued decrees that there would be no racial or religious persecution of foreign athletes coming to Berlin for the Games (and there wasn’t), and that Jews would have an equal chance to compete for spots on the German team (which they didn’t; he grudgingly let on one Jewish athlete, a woman diver who was blonde, blue-eyed and didn’t look particularly “Jewish”). In the filmmakers’ presentation, the real villain is Avery Brundage, a well-heeled American and postwar head of the IOC, who saw his chance to gain power in the Olympic movement by fiercely defending the Berlin Olympics against threats of boycotts; a number of Jewish organizations and non-Jewish allies tried to organize boycotts, and at one point got the U.S. Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) within a hair’s-breath of withdrawing its sanction for the Games. Brundage worked his way around that by saying that the U.S. Olympic Committee, which he headed, would sanction the athletes itself if the AAU refused to, but that wasn’t necessary; he got the vote he wanted from the AAU and the U.S. team went to Berlin — as did those of 46 other nations, the largest representation of any modern Olympics to that time. The film discusses not only the boycott threats (including the sad fate of three Austrian swimmers who decided on their own not to participate — and who got hammered by the Austrian authorities even while the country was still nominally independent: the Austrian athletic guilds imposed a lifetime ban on them so they could never swim in competition) but also the hazards of the breakneck construction pace Hitler insisted on to make sure every facility would be ready for the start of the Games, including the collapse of a tunnel near the Brandenburg Gate (because it was built too close to the surface), which killed four workers — who were declared Heroes of the State and given what amounted to a military funeral, with their swastika flag-draped coffins on display before thousands of people.

The Games themselves went pretty much the way Hitler wanted them to — he wanted Germany to win the most medals to show the racial superiority of his “Aryan” people — and while the United States led the medal count early due to their dominance in track and field (including the fabled feats of Black American sprinter Jesse Owens — who got a lot of footage in Leni Riefenstahl’s great documentary of the Games, Olympia, mainly because for all her support of the Nazis she wasn’t particularly interested in their racial B.S. and she was fascinated by Black male bodies, as she proved after the war when, blacklisted from the German film industry, she started making anthropological trips to Africa and shooting highly sexualized photos of the native men), the Germans caught up and eventually surpassed the U.S. when the events they were especially good at — the ones with military applications, like horse riding, fencing and rowing — came up later in the Games. The makers of The Nazi Games (whose names I couldn’t find online — PBS used to offer quite a lot of printed documentation on their shows but now their Web presence seems directed almost exclusively to “streaming” versions of the shows themselves) obviously borrowed a lot of Riefenstahl’s Olympia footage, including the famous shot of the dirigible Hindenburg (a year before its fabled destruction in an accident at Lakehurst, New Jersey) looming over the Olympic stadium as Hitler and others in the Nazi bigwigs’ box waited for the Games to begin. Most of the rest was probably from the Deutsche Woschenschau, the “German Weekly Newsreel,” the official Nazi production which was considerably more creatively photographed and edited than its U.S. equivalents.

The filmmakers also cut in footage from more recent Olympics to show how the pageantry and spectacle invented by the Nazis for their Games have been reproduced again and again, and indeed expanded on by later Games organizers — and they also make the point that the IOC has generally not only been willing to deal with authoritarian governments but has preferred to because a dictatorship is more likely than a republic to be able to build the giant structures the IOC demands and displace as many people out of the way as needed, both to make room for the stadia, Olympic villages, training facilities and whatnot and to get “undesirable” people off the streets for the duration of the event. When the narration mentions how the Nazis swept the streets of Berlin of over 600 “Roma” and “Sinti” (i.e., Gypsy) people and put them in concentration camps (later the Gypsies would be among the principal populations singled out for elimination in the Holocaust, along with Jews, Communists, Queers and people with disabilities), I couldn’t help but make the parallel with the recent actions of the city government of San Diego to sweep the downtown streets clear of homeless people — including planting so-called “rock gardens” under overpasses where homeless people had been sleeping and threatening to arrest anyone who ran food lines for them — for the same reason the Nazis did it in Berlin in 1936: so out-of-town visitors wouldn’t see any “undesirable” people clogging up the streets when they came to watch the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Petco Park. Oddly, the narration in the actual documentary didn’t use the term “Potemkin village” to describe how the Nazis cleaned up their act and made Berlin look clean, spanking new and like a mecca of peace and tolerance for the foreign visitors to the Games (which were also the first ones broadcast to the U.S. “live” — unlike the organizers of the Los Angeles Games in 1932 they did not charge foreign stations rights fees — and also the first ones ever televised, though the only way you could watch the games on TV was in exclusive “TV cottages” which at one point were more crowded and harder to get tickets to than the actual live venues where the games were being played), though the Web site on the program did.

It also oddly did not mention that the 1936 Winter Olympics were also held in Germany (in the Northern German resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where Richard Strauss owned a villa that he had told Kaiser Wilhelm had been paid for from the royalties from his controversial opera Salomé), or that 20th Century-Fox used both the 1936 Winter and Summer Olympics as backdrops for movies (the Winter Games for One in a Million, screen debut of Sonja Henie, who won gold medals for figure skating in the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Games; and the Summer Olympics for Charlie Chan at the Olympics, which featured Keye Luke in his usual role as Number One Son of Charlie Chan but also made him a member of the U.S. swim team — and the young Keye Luke looked quite hot in a bathing suit and nothing else), though it did mention that largely due to Brundage’s maneuvering (Brundage got onto the International Olympic Committee at long last when one of the German Jews who had originally proposed Berlin as the site of the 1936 Games was pushed out by Hitler after the Games were over and he felt he could show his true face again), the 1940 Winter Olympics were moved from Japan (which was already at war with China in the 1930’s, well before the rest of World War II began) to Germany — though in the event they weren’t held because of the war and the Olympics didn’t resume until 1948. The show also made clear that Brundage wasn’t just a Nazi fellow-traveler; he agreed with a lot of their ideology and in particular their anti-Semitism (though there’s no evidence he actually wanted to see them all killed; remember that anti-Jewish prejudices were quite common among the U.S. and European upper classes until the revelation of the Holocaust after the war made anti-Semitism look sick and decidedly unfashionable), and every time anyone spoke out against the Berlin Olympics and called for a boycott, Brundage smeared them as tools of the Communists and the Jews. Brundage eventually became head of the entire Olympic movement until he fell from power in 1968, another year of political and social ferment that affected the Games big-time.

American Experience: The Boys of ’36 (WGBH/PBS, 2016)

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

Yesterday I watched three PBS specials about the Olympics — all telling historical stories about Olympics past and obviously programmed now to take advantage of the upcoming Olympics present: The Nazi Games: Berlin 1936 (described above), The Boys of ’36 and a vest-pocket half-hour documentary from a local PBS station in Sacramento, Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story. It seemed odd that after The Nazi Games PBS would show an episode of American Experience portraying the Berlin Olympics as the goal in a quite commonplace up-from-nowhere inspirational sports story, but that’s what they did, focusing on the University of Washington and the unlikely eight-man rowing crew they put together in the mid-1930’s, mostly from the sons of loggers and industrial workers who were literally working their way through college and were looked down upon by the kids of the 1-percenters at the big Eastern universities that had dominated American participation in the sport. The Boys of ’36 was a true story, but as Charles once said to me about the film Shine, it’s a true story they made a movie about because it fits so neatly into the clichés of fiction film. Among the characters in the story were Joe Rantz, a logger’s son from Spokane (also the home town of Bing Crosby) who was literally abandoned by his family and forced to live on his own in the wild, feeding himself by shooting game and doing odd jobs for what little spending money he had. (He was essentially a real-life male version of Cinderella; his mom died when he was little and the woman his dad married after that hated him and favored her own kids by her previous husband.) Also there was Don Hume, the crew’s “stroke” — the lead rower who sets the pace for the others — who was key to their come-from-behind victories but was laid up with a high fever in Berlin; the team’s imperious coach, Al Ulbrickson, was about to replace him for the big race but the other crew members refused to row without him; and Bobby Moch (pronounced “Mock”), the coxswain (the little guy at the end of the boat with a megaphone calling out to the others to stroke), who had come from one of the other University of Washington teams and had made fun of the more déclassé rowers until he was assigned to their boat. There are a few wrinkles in the story that weren’t mentioned on the show, like the way the Washington boys were nearly aced out of the Olympics because they couldn’t raise the money to get there; according to an online article by Michael Socolow I read about the team at :

Immediately following the Huskies’ victory in the Olympic trials, the team was informed by the U.S. Olympic Committee that it needed to come up with $5,000 to pay its way to Berlin. Seeing an opening, Henry Penn Burke—chairman of the Olympic Rowing Committee and a University of Pennsylvania alum—offered to send his beloved Quakers in place of the Huskies. The sports editors of Seattle’s top two newspapers, outraged on behalf of the local heroes, enlisted newsboys to solicit donations while hawking papers. With American Legion posts and Chambers of Commerce throughout the state chipping in, enough money was collected in three days to send the team to Berlin. As a consequence of the funding drive, remembered Gordon Adam, who rowed in the three-seat, “people in the city felt that they were stockholders in the operation.”

The team members, most of whom had never been out of Washington state until they started rowing in U.S. competitions (including the Olympics trials meet in Poughkeepsie, New York — during which they decided to use their free day to see if they could crash the home of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and see him — and in these days of hyper-security it’s amazing that they not only got onto the grounds of FDR’s home but knocked on his front door; the President wasn’t there but one of his sons answered and they spent hours with the younger Roosevelt, who bonded with them because he was a rower himself), ended up in Berlin and their race was the last on the day’s program. All the previous rowing events had been swept by the Germans, who (like the Soviets after World War II) were “amateurs” only in name; they were professionally trained and, though they ostensibly had private-sector jobs or were in the German military, they were essentially work-furloughed to train for and participate in the Olympics. The U.S. and British crews were “mysteriously” assigned the worst positions on the lake — on the outside lanes with the most interference from the wind — even though they had turned in the best qualifying times. Nonetheless, using the same come-from-behind strategy they had perfected in their U.S. victories — they would pace themselves, hang back in the earlier part of the race and then go full-bore to the finish, passing the other boats they’d let slip past them earlier (which itself puts them squarely in the standard template used by Hollywood in sports stories, on the ground that a come-from-behind victory is always more dramatically moving and exciting than one in which the team we’re supposed to be rooting for gets out in front early and stays there) — the U.S. won the eight-man crew event and scored a triumph sportscaster Grantland Rice called the “high spot” of the U.S. participation in the Berlin Games.

Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story (KVIE-TV, 2016)

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

After that KPBS showed a half-hour documentary on Tommy Kono, a Japanese-American weightlifter who discovered the sport when he was interned at the Tule Lake camp in 1942 in that hysterical over-reaction the U.S. government engaged in, basically declaring virtually all Japanese-Americans in Hawai’i and the West Coast enemy aliens, driving them from their homes, forcing them to sell all their belongings (including, in some cases, thriving businesses) at fire-sale prices and moving them to camps in out-of-the-way locales Edward G. Robinson, by way of explaining why all the Japanese villains in U.S. World War II movies were played by Chinese actors, called “America’s version of Dachau” (and Robinson, a Romanian Jew who no doubt would have been a Holocaust victim if he’d stayed in his native land, was not the sort of person to make Nazi comparisons lightly). As hellacious as the internment was, it ironically had a good effect on Kono; before the internment his family had lived in Hawai’i and then in Sacramento, California, and Kono had had a chronic case of asthma which went away in the superior climate of Tule Lake. He started developing an interest in athletics in the camp, playing not only baseball but basketball as well (even though his short, wiry frame was not the stuff of which basketball players are usually made), and when the Kono family were finally released in November 1945 — two months after the Japanese surrender formally ended World War II — he focused on weight-lifting as his chosen sport. He bought a set of weights from a friend who was replacing his old set with a new one, and turned the Kono family garage into a workout room. War interfered with his life again in 1950, when he was drafted by the U.S. army and was about to be sent to Korea as a cook when someone in the army noticed his weight-lifting potential and essentially furloughed him so he could train for the 1952 Olympics, where he won gold in the welterweight class. He moved up to a heavier weight class and won in 1956, and he also entered bodybuilding contests and won Mr. World once and Mr. Universe three times. In 1959 he participated in an exhibition in Vienna, Austria and a boy named Arnold Schwarzenegger was in the audience and was so impressed he decided to make bodybuilding his career. Hence the title of the documentary; years later, when Schwarzenegger was governor of California and Kono was living in retirement in Sacramento, Kono was often asked if he knew Schwarzenegger — and he would reply, “No. Arnold knows me.” The photos of Kono (both footage of his remarkable achievements and stills) make it not only amazing that someone so slightly framed (women are sometimes referred to as having “hourglass figures” but Kono is one of the few men who had one) could become so accomplished a bodybuilder he could lift four times his own weight regularly, they also take us back to a day when someone could win Mr. Universe and still look credible as a male human being (and a quite attractive one, too) instead of becoming so muscular they ended up looking like a relief map of a mountain range.