Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Westinghouse Studio One: “John Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln” (CBS-TV, J. Walter Thompson, aired live

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

The James Dean boxed set entry Charles and I did watch last night was John Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln, broadcast live on May 26, 1952 and based on a play John Drinkwater, a British actor, had written for himself in the 1920’s. Instead of attempting to do a bio-play of Lincoln’s entire life, Drinkwater just cherry-picked a few of the most famous anecdotes from the Lincoln biographies and put them on the stage. I knew about this play because Dorothy Parker had reviewed its original production, and I presume the play ran considerably longer than the 52 minutes allotted to it on TV. (The version on the James Dean boxed set was missing the original commercials; my guess is it was prepared for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, which produced commercial-free copies of U.S. radio and TV shows for the entertainment of U.S. servicemembers stationed abroad.) The show was adapted by David Shaw, who no doubt had to further cherry-pick Drinkwater’s play to get it down to TV length but otherwise did a reasonably good job — even Drinkwater’s original, if Parker’s review is to be believed, wouldn’t have made that much sense if you didn’t already know the story ­— and, astonishingly for a Lincoln story, the top-billed actor was a woman, Judith Evelyn (one of those charmingly “reversible” names), who was cast as Mary Todd, Lincoln’s ambitious wife.

What makes this show a bit unusual for Lincolniana on film is that it’s one of the most sympathetic portrayals of her I’ve seen; much of the consensus in Lincoln literature portrays her as an ambitious ball-buster on the edge of dementia (and since she did go crazy after Lincoln’s death — their son Robert had to sign her into a mental institution — that’s at least a defensible position), and apparently both the negative portrayal of Mary in a lot of the Lincoln literature and the raising of the short-lived and mysterious Ann Rutledge to the status of the real love of Lincoln’s life came from the fact that the first biography of Lincoln was written in the 1880’s by his former law partner, William Herndon, who never could stand Mary and let the world know it. This Mary is certainly ambitious both for herself and her husband — she’s shown pushing him to run for President over his initial reluctance — and we know that’s true because there’s a famous anecdote (not included here, though it could have been) of the night Lincoln received the official committee of the Republican convention that was sent to notify him formally that he’d won the nomination. “There is a woman upstairs who will be far more interested in this information than I am,” Lincoln told them. Lincoln is played by Robert Pastene, who’s a bit short for the role (though at least the TV producers didn’t put him in six-inch elevator shoes the way D. W. Griffith did to Walter Huston for his 1930 Lincoln biopic) and whose attempt to do the reportedly high-lying Lincoln voice makes him sound like he’s gargling, but he’s otherwise quite impressive in the role and manages to convey the mixture of steely resolve and sometimes crippling depression the historical record of the real Lincoln tells us he had. The film cuts from the scene in 1860 when two politicians are trying to talk Lincoln into running for President (and one of them makes the mistake of smoking in Lincoln’s parlor — apparently Mary Todd Lincoln was an anti-smoking activist about a century before that became “in”) to one early on in his presidency in which Fort Sumter is being besieged and a delegate named Jennings (Noel Leslie) is sent to meet with Secretary of State William Seward (Charles Eggleston) to see if the southern states can broker a deal with Lincoln to be allowed to keep slavery in return for not seceding.

The show depicts Lincoln (who in the script has a hissy-fit that Jennings went to see Seward instead of coming to Lincoln himself) as dead set against making any deal with the states attempting to secede that would involve guaranteeing their “right” to allow slavery — a position diametrically opposed to that of the real Lincoln, who in 1861 before he formally took office sent his favorite back-channel negotiator, Senator Reverdy Johnson of Maryland (one of the so-called “border states” which had slavery but didn’t secede), to offer the future Confederate states a so-called “unamendable amendment” to the Constitution which would forever guarantee slavery in the states that already had it in exchange for their pledge to stay in the Union and not expand slavery anywhere else. Then there’s a montage of Civil War battle sequences, from Fort Sumter to Manassas/Bull Run (the catastrophic Union defeat that let the North in for the fact that it was going to be a considerably longer war than anyone there had thought), a few other campaigns, leading up to Shiloh and then Antietam, the September 17, 1862 Union victory that gave Lincoln (the real one) the win on the battlefield he needed to give the Emancipation Proclamation both military and political credibility. The script actually has Lincoln saying to his Cabinet the famous lines he wrote to editor Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862 — “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that” — which progressive historians like the late Howard Zinn have quoted to argue that Lincoln really didn’t give a damn about slavery one way or the other. I read that letter as a classic piece of “disinformation” on Lincoln’s part; at the time he wrote it he already had a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in his desk drawer at the White House and was only waiting for enough of a Union victory to give him the excuse to issue it. Indeed, I looked up the letter online at http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/greeley.htm and noted that in its final paragraph, Lincoln wrote, “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”

Lincoln’s hand on emancipation had also been forced by the first (1856) Republican Presidential nominee, John C. Frémont, who as military governor of Missouri (a slaveholding state that hadn’t seceded, though Lincoln was convinced enough that it would he appointed Frémont to govern it and make sure it didn’t) had issued his own emancipation proclamation. Contrary to actual historical fact, David Shaw’s script for this show makes it seem as if the Emancipation Proclamation freed all U.S. slaves, which it didn’t; it applied only to the states in rebellion against the Union authority and not in the slaveholding border states Lincoln was anxious to keep in the Union because losing them would have been devastating to the North’s military position. It’s not terribly surprising that here, as in the opening scene set in 1860, that Lincoln is being depicted as a far more uncompromising opponent of slavery than he was — and the next big scene is a confrontation between Lincoln and an unnamed member of his Cabinet he’s determined to fire. Shaw’s script doesn’t detail who this person was or why Lincoln wanted to get rid of him, but my guess is that it’s Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s first Secretary of War and the rival Republican Presidential candidate in 1860 with whom Lincoln cut a deal and promised him Secretary of War in exchange for Cameron’s delegates to the Republican convention. Unfortunately, once he was Secretary of War Cameron proved both incompetent and corrupt, and the Union army got few of the supplies the North’s taxpayers were paying for, so Lincoln forced him out and replaced him with Edwin Stanton, who did such a great job of keeping the Union armed forces supplied and fighting there were a lot of people back then who thought he had been the key person in winning the Civil War (one reason why so many Republican Congressmembers were up in arms when Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, tried to fire Stanton in 1868)

The 52-minute show is nearly over before we finally get to see James Dean (ya remember James Dean?), who’s cast as William Scott, a Union soldier who’s just been court-martialed and is scheduled to be shot for having fallen asleep while on guard duty at the Union’s garrison at Appomattox. The scene is prefaced with a lot of excited talk amongst the Union’s generals, including Ulysses S. Grant (unidentified on imdb.com, oddly), that the war is about over anyway, and Lincoln visits the camp and wonders why there needs to be more killing, especially with the war just about over. Needless to say, he spares Scott’s life and sends him back to his regiment — though it reminded of my grim joke that if you believe the movies about him, Lincoln did nothing for the last few days of his life except sign pardons (the film The Littlest Rebel, the Shirley Temple vehicle in which she plays a Confederate girl and does the famous staircase dance with her family’s slave, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, went so far as to have Lincoln sign the pardon for James Dunn, playing Temple’s father, as he was reaching for his hat and coat to go to Ford’s Theatre on the fateful night of April 14, 1865!) — only to find, irony of ironies, that Scott was killed in battle the next day just before the war ended. The final scene shows Lincoln and his wife Mary ready to leave for Ford’s Theatre, only before they go Lincoln asks her to read him the famous “we are such stuff as dreams are made of” speech from (what was then thought) Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, a considerably better play than the one they were going to see. (When Ford’s Theatre was restored, the first piece put on there was the actual play Lincoln was there to see, a British farce called Our American Cousin, and it was so terrible the reviewers to a person essentially wrote, “Lincoln got himself shot so he could see this?”)

According to an imdb.com commentator, Drinkwater’s original play depicted the actual assassination, but this show didn’t; instead it ended with a close-up of the edition of The Tempest Mary was reading from, though instead of pronouncing the trademark line correctly the second time around Judith Evelyn said, “We are such dreams as dreams are made of” — one of the occupational hazards of live TV: if you made a mistake millions of people heard it and there was no way to take it back or do a retake! Overall, John Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln was a quite capable piece of work, decently cast with the sorts of actors available to New York TV producers, even though it suffers from the same flaw as virtually all films about Lincoln: too reverent towards him, uninclined to make him a figure of real dramatic complexity. I’ve already said apropos of the recent film Lincoln and the others Charles and I watched around the same time — oldies like the Griffith Abraham Lincoln and John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island (about Dr. Samuel Mudd, who at least according to the film was accused and convicted by a military tribunal of being part of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln because in his flight from the crime, John Wilkes Booth came by Dr. Mudd’s home and Mudd set the leg Booth had broken in his dramatic leap from Lincoln’s box after he shot him) and Young Mr. Lincoln — that Lincoln is probably the second hardest part in the world for an actor to play (next to Jesus Christ) and for many of the same reasons: Lincoln has been so deified in American mainstream historiography it’s virtually impossible for a writer to bring him to multidimensional life or an actor to play him that way. And as for James Dean, he’s perfectly competent — interestingly, he mumbles less than he did later — but nothing special; oddly, as silly as the whole production is, probably the best performance he’s given so far in our trek through the boxed set is in one of the silliest movies, as the Apostle John in that strange 1951 religious film Hill Number One that Charles described the first time we saw it as “an infomercial for rosary beads.” (It was, too.)

Monday, May 30, 2016

National Memorial Day Concert (PBS, May 29, 2016)

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

Charles and I watched the National Memorial Day Concert on the lawn of the Capitol mall in Washington, D.C. (the first time I’d seen this show under the new “all-digital” regime of Cox Communications that does not allow me to record to videotape or DVD and therefore forces me either to watch everything in real time as it airs or spend a lot of extra money on a cable bill my husband already thinks is too high for what we’re getting), which was considerably better than usual. In previous years I’ve complained that the music-to-talk ratio on these events was skewed way too much towards talk instead of music; this time the two were in alignment. The main musical guests were the Beach Boys, or what’s left of them by now — Mike Love was clearly present and leading the group, and I think Al Jardine was there but I don’t think it had any of the other surviving original members (and after their 50th anniversary tour that produced a two-CD live album that was actually quite good, and included all the survivors from the 1960’s editions of the group, Love and Brian Wilson had another one of their public feuds). Still, they were in good form and they actually got to play a mini-set instead of just being trotted out for one song. They played “Good Vibrations” (with the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jack Everly — who took over the Washington, D.C.-based orchestra’s pop concerts when Erich Kunzel passed — coming in on the final bars), “California Girls,” “Sloop John B.” (accompanied by some odd footage of U.S. servicemembers surfing at China Beach in Viet Nam in 1968 — how Apocalypse Now!), “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.”

That was, predictably, the high point of the program; the promos also featured the opera singer Renée Fleming but she only got to do one number, the old Quaker hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing?” The one time I’d heard this song before was on the 1962 KPFA LP that featured Pete Seeger singing it, and his sincerity and straightforwardness made the song seem quite beautiful — even though I’ve been told by Charles and other long-time Quakers that this song gets sung at so many of their services (“meetings,” they call them) they’re bored with it and jokingly call it “How Can I Keep from Snoring?” Fleming’s version was surprisingly dull except for some parts where she got to sing wordlessly and do some coloratura ornamentation — there are probably some folk songs and pop hymns that would have inspired her more than this one. It began with the latest (and last!) American Idol winner, Trent Herman — a nice-looking white guy with a stentorian voice — doing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and negotiating that killer of a melody better than some more highly-regarded singers have done — and went on to Katharine McPhee, a statuesque white blonde with a big voice that sounds something like Adele’s (I can just imagine the call to Central Casting on that one: “Find us an American Adele!”), doing a medley of “America, the Beautiful” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Charles had expressed the wish before the show that it would mention the origins of the Memorial Day holiday as “Decoration Day” after the Civil War (and if the programmers had really been adventurous they would have had Everly and the National Symphony play the “Decoration Day” movement from Charles Ives’ Holidays symphony!), and to some extent they did.

Among the talking segments were actor Esai Morales narrating a segment about the founding of Arlington National Cemetery — which was done in 1868 because so many of the Civil War dead had been buried more or less where they had fallen, their graves marked either with crude wooden stakes (in the contemporary photo shown to accompany the segment they look oddly like human bones) or nothing at all, and the government at the time decided the fallen Civil War veterans deserved a proper cemetery. The segment continued with actress S. Epatha Merkerson (whose name I’d always thought was pronounced with both “a”’s short — which made “Epatha” sound like “Ipecac” — but she was announced here with the first “a” long) reading the story of Paula Davis, whose son Justin had always wanted to be an Army Ranger and who was killed in Afghanistan, following which country star Trace Adkins sang a bizarre but oddly moving song called “Arlington,” in which he takes the point of view of a young man who got killed in a war and is proud that he got to join his veteran grandfather in the national cemetery. “I made it to Arlington,” he boasts — Charles thought the song was so spooky he asked if Stephen King had written the lyrics, but I was haunted and moved by the piece and its strangeness didn’t bother me. After that there was a sequence about Viet Nam in which war footage was accompanied by the National Symphony playing Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” (which has become the quasi-official soundtrack for the Viet Nam war since Oliver Stone used it so hauntingly in his film Platoon) and the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria” (only instrumentally, which was a pity — it would have made a better song for Renée Fleming than “How Can I Keep from Singing?”) as Gary Sinise narrated the story of Jack Farley, who served in combat in Viet Nam, lost his right leg there (though there was a slip-up in that the photo that accompanied part of the narration showed a view from behind of a man in military uniform missing his left leg) and had to struggle with multiple operations to get at least some mobility back, and complains that they still can’t give him a prosthetic leg that actually fits. The segment closed with the National Symphony playing, not a masterpiece, but a mediocre selection called “Honor” by the Room Man, film composer Hans Zimmer (“Zimmer” means “room” in German) — that’s the Memorial Day concert for you: I hoped for Charles Ives and got Hans Zimmer!

Then they trotted out Colin Powell — interestingly introduced as “General” rather than “Secretary of State” (he’s been in the news again lately because the State Department inspector-general’s report on Hillary Clinton’s e-mails mentioned that Powell also kept some of his State Department e-mails on a private server, but drew the distinction that Hillary Clinton was the only Secretary of State who’s served during the e-mail era who kept all her e-mails on a private server and never set up an official .gov account at all) — for an anodyne speech about how it’s important to listen to veterans’ stories in order to help them heal. Fortunately the Beach Boys followed him and, as I noted above, got to do five whole songs instead of just being trotted out for one or two numbers. After that came the most fascinating narration of the night: Gary Sinise telling the story of the Allies’ disastrous campaign at Anzio Beach in Italy in early 1944 (they landed in January and established a beachhead almost immediately, then were pinned down for four months by German machine gunners and planes before they finally broke out) and in particular the story of Alton “Nappy” Knappenburger, who had a Browning automatic rifle and in one horrific day of combat managed to use it to take out some of the German machine gunners — he was thinking only of saving his own life but he ended up killing 60 Germans and winning the Congressional Medal of Honor. This time the accompaniment Jack Everly chose was the beautiful “Largo” movement from Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony (it’s probably only coincidental that this was the favorite piece of music of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the famous theme, later abstracted as a pseudo-spiritual called “Goin’ Home,” was played at his funeral), and the segment led to one of the buglers from the U.S. Army Trumpet Corps playing “Taps.” Renée Fleming came on after that, and then it was time to introduce the commanders of the various branches of the U.S. military (including the National Guard) as their branches’ theme songs were played. (You didn’t know the National Guard had a theme song? Me neither.)

The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph F. Dumford, made a short speech and then came the final song of the evening, Broadway singer Alfie Boe (I couldn’t help joke, “What’s it all about, Alfie Boe?,” before I realized he’s probably been getting that all his life) singing Bob Dylan’s song “Forever Young.” Of course I couldn’t resist the comment that for anyone (like me) who grew up in the 1960’s, the idea of anyone at a patriotic concert singing something by someone as resolutely anti-war as Bob Dylan would have been mind-boggling — and Charles couldn’t resist one of his snippy jokes about Bob Dylan’s voice (or alleged lack thereof), saying that his version was probably just two or three notes. “Let’s just say that Alfie Boe is singing all the notes Dylan wrote, if not the ones he actually sang,” I said — and Boe managed to turn the song into a surprisingly effective power ballad. After that the concert wrapped up with the whole cast and chorus joining in on Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” The National Memorial Day Concert is one of those events that jumbles up an acknowledgment of veterans and a thank-you for the sacrifices they’ve made with all too much justification for what they’ve actually done — one can appreciate the service veterans have made and the way at least some of the U.S.’s wars have genuinely been at least in part to “preserve our freedom,” as the militarists claim, yet one can also do a lot of questioning of what we’ve actually had these poor men (and women, now — one of the most startling images in the show was of a woman in combat in one of the U.S.’s most recent wars) do and just what we’ve asked them to sacrifice for. At the same time the footage and photographs of actual combat underscore once again how horrible war is — is there anyone out there who still believes war is a noble enterprise? War and the military may be necessary evils, but they’re evil nonetheless and the only reason they need to exist is the unscrupulousness of some people, movements and nations in the world who only want to conquer and destroy. One can appreciate the sacrifices made by  veterans (and get incensed when they get screwed over by their own government, particularly by agencies like the Veterans’ Administration that are supposed to help them) without endorsing either the overall concept of war or the specific wars they served in!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Our Brand Is Crisis (Participant, Smokehouse, Warner Bros., 2015)

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

The film was Our Brand Is Crisis, a production of George Clooney’s company (he was supposed to star in it, too, but at the last minute he dropped out and Billy Bob Thornton replaced him) inspired by a 2002 Presidential campaign in Bolivia in which former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada mounted a comeback and hired James Carville’s company to run his campaign — and another American political consultant was hired by Lozada’s principal opponent. The campaign was filmed by Rachel Boynton for a 2005 documentary, also called Our Brand Is Crisis, and screenwriter Peter Straughan thought it would make a good premise for a feature film, though the script languished in the Hollywood slush pile for years until it made the so-called “Blacklist,” a poll of the best unproduced screenplays out there, in 2008. Finally, seven years later, it got turned into a film which went nowhere at the box office but was actually a pretty engaging movie even though it was that most frustrating of all films, a good movie that could have been considerably better. The director, David Gordon Green (his first feature work), made a major casting switch; he turned the lead consultant from a man into a woman, partly so Sandra Bullock could play her but also to create a romantic antagonism between the two rival American consultants for the different candidates.

She is “Calamity” Jane Bodine — so nicknamed because of the series of disasters that seems to follow her around — and her career is at a low ebb because she’s lost the last four elections in a row ever since rival consultant Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, with his head shaved to more closely resemble James Carville) got under her skin during a mayoral campaign in which both were representing opposing candidates, Candy pulled a dirty trick at the last minute and his man won. We’re never told if Candy and Bodine ever actually made it to the bedroom together — though he clearly wants to and so does she, though she’s also quite obviously afraid of their attraction — in one of the weirder lines of dialogue he tells her towards the end of the film, “I’m going to be spending a lot of time pleasuring myself and thinking of you.” “That’s very flattering,” she dead-pans in response. She signs on to the campaign of Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida, who judging from his name seems more Brazilian than Bolivian), a conservative ex-president who when he was in office before turned the police loose on anti-government demonstrators, resulting in many deaths. He’s looked on quite suspiciously by the Bolivian workers and peasants, who have their own candidate, Victor Rivera (Louis Arcella), a progressive populist who promises to reform the Bolivian constitution and keep the International Monetary Fund (IMF) out of Bolivia. The Bolivians seem far more hip than Americans to what the IMF actually does when they come into a country; in exchange for loans to help the country out of a debt, they demand that the government institute so-called “structural adjustment” programs that include “austerity” cuts to government budgets — especially social programs — as well as privatizing state-owned industries and deregulating the economy generally, so multinational corporations can invest there and pay tiny wages and few or no taxes.

With Bodine on Castillo’s side and Candy on Rivera’s, the campaign turns into (among other things) a personal rivalry between the two — it reaches its low point when Castillo’s and Rivera’s buses find themselves on the same narrow, winding mountain road in Bolivia and Jane insists that Castillo’s driver overtake and pass Rivera’s bus, and as it passes Jane drops her pants and moons Candy. (Sandra Bullock was asked the inevitable question — yours or a stunt ass? — and insisted she did the scene herself, though the film does credit 18 stunt people.) The title comes from the fact that Jane soon realizes that in order to get Castillo elected she must dash the hopes of Bolivians that a president like Rivera can do anything to make their lives better, and instead sell them on the idea that Bolivia faces an existential crisis and only a president with experience in the job can pull the country out of it. Given what producer Clooney has been in recent headlines for — not only supporting Hillary Clinton for president over genuine populist Bernie Sanders (thereby aligning himself similarly to Sandra Bullock’s character in his movie) but sponsoring a fundraiser and charging $353,000 for dinner seats at Bill and Hillary Clinton’s table — I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Our Brand Is Crisis and the current U.S. Presidential election: like Pedro Castillo, Hillary Clinton is hated by a large number of Americans, and she’s so well known a public figure there’s almost no way her campaign can “redefine” her and get more Americans to like her. So, like Jane Bodine in the movie, Clinton has to get the American people deathly afraid for their future and so fearful that they’ll reject both Left-wing populist Sanders and Right-wing populist Donald Trump and vote for a status quo candidate instead. Aside from that, Our Brand Is Crisis is an interesting, engaging feature film that makes me want to see the documentary it was “inspired” by — though the elements of a political campaign, Jane’s fish-out-of-water status in Bolivia (she spends the first two reels or so sucking on oxygen and vomiting because she’s not used to the thin atmosphere at Bolivia’s high elevation) and the romantic (or at least sexual) antagonism between Jane and Pat don’t quite jell as well as screenwriter Straughan obviously thought (or hoped) they would.

What it is strongest about is how irrelevant not only the voters but the politicians themselves become in the seemingly endless rivalries between consultants — at one point, as they’re preparing for a debate, Castillo gets tired of Jane telling him exactly what he is supposed to say and what he’s not supposed to say, and stressing that he needs to “stay on message” (as this skill is called) and bend every question he’s asked to say what he wants to say whether it’s responsive or not, and he starts chewing her out and saying that she’s working for him, not the other way around. “No, nobody hired me,” Jane replies. “I cannot be hired. Unless you mean in the uh, you know, the technical sense, then yes, I probably was hired.” There’s also a sort of grim fascination in the dirty tricks Jane and Pat think up to play on each other’s candidates, including accusations of extramarital affairs (Castillo, it turns out, has a long-time mistress, but his wife, separated from him and living in the U.S., understands and approves), cult membership (Candy digs up a photo of Castillo visiting his son in L.A. and appearing in the robes of the cult his son is part of, and uses it to suggest that Castillo is part of the cult whose beliefs include that its higher-level members can fly, sort of like Scientology) and Nazi sympathies. As they’re sitting together before the candidates’ debate, Jane has a paperback copy of Goethe’s Faust open and claims to have read therein, “It may be possible to hold power based on guns; but it is far better and more gratifying to win the heart of the nation.” Candy, of course, immediately rips off the line and has Rivera use it in the debate — only it turns out the original quote wasn’t from Goethe, but from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Eventually Castillo squeezes out a minor victory with just 25 percent of the vote — apparently Bolivia doesn’t have a runoff so you can win the presidency in a multi-candidate field with that little actual support — and no sooner does he take office that he secretly starts negotiating with IMF representatives despite his pledge during the campaign that he’d only invite the IMF in if the Bolivian people voted for it in a referendum. 

his disillusions his long-time supporter Eddie Camacho (Reynaldo Pacheco), who in a lot of ways is the most interesting character in the movie: he’s a kid from the Bolivian slums and virtually all his relatives and friends, including his brothers, think Castillo is a rich people’s stooge, but Eddie supports Castillo and is willing to film Rivera’s rallies for Castillo’s opposition research team because years before, when Eddie was just a baby, Castillo held him and presented him to the crowd during one of his previous campaigns. Only at the very end of the film Eddie witnesses Castillo talking to the IMF, leaks the info to his anti-Castillo brothers, and this gets out and starts a protest movement which Castillo tries to quell by having the police assault the crowds with tear gas. Jane watches this from the SUV that is carrying her to the Bolivian airport for her next assignment and, just when I was thinking, “Oh, no, they’re not going to have her go Bogart on us and regain her old ideals,” they have her go Bogart on us and regain her old ideals. She walks out of the truck and the next time we see her, she’s being interviewed in her new capacity with something called the “Latin American Solidarity Network,” defending Latin American people against corrupt politicians like Pedro Castillo and the Americans that help elect them. Our Brand Is Crisis isn’t that great a film — Bullock is a better actress than Julia Roberts but she plays this part pretty much the same way Roberts would have, and the character conflicts are about as flat as a piece of cardboard — but it’s haunting even though the moral dilemma facing political consultants and their uncertain relationships with the candidates has been done before in movies like The Candidate with Robert Redford, Bulworth with Warren Beatty (from which this film quotes several lines of dialogue) and probably the closest antecedent, Power, a film with Richard Gere as a consultant who was running several campaigns at once and representing candidates with different — sometimes diametrically opposed — ideologies and views on the issues. Still, Our Brand Is Crisis is a fascinating film to watch, especially in the middle of a U.S. Presidential election that is pitting an old-line moderate Establishment hack against populist challengers from both Left and Right!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Marriage of Lies (Marvista Entertainment, Cartel Pictures, Lifetime, 2016)

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

Marriage of Lies, last Saturday’s Lifetime “world premiere,” turned out to be a surprisingly good suspense thriller, helped by the fact that it contains no openly violent scenes until the very end, one that puts its heroine into a Kafka-like peril that’s frightening but plausible and keeps us identifying with her throughout. The heroine is Rachel Wilson (April Bowlby), who seems to be living a nice life in a small town with her husband Tye (Brody Hutzler) and their daughter Ella (Faith Graham). Then Tye suddenly disappears one morning and Rachel spends the next two days rather desultorily looking for him, including stopping by the high school where he’s a teacher and athletic coach and trying to get information out of the students in his classes, including one young woman who definitely has a crush on him. Two days after he disappears, Rachel reports him to the police as missing, and the investigation spirals out of control as the police — Detective Roper (Zachary Garred) in particular (he’s the partner of Gus [Corin Nemec], an older, more Clint Eastwood-esque cop who’s more skeptical of the obvious conclusion that Rachel did something to her husband) — decide that Tye must have met with foul play and Rachel must be the guilty party. The people in this small town — who, like those in virtually all movie small towns, make it a point of getting into each other’s business and gossiping about each other — decide Rachel is guilty even before the cops do, though one has to wonder throughout this whole movie, “Guilty of what?” (Apparently Presumed Guilty was the film’s working title, and it might have been a better one for it.) There’s no trace of what happened to Tye, no hint that he’s either living or dead — certainly there’s no body, and no one has any idea what might have happened to the body if Rachel (or someone else) murdered him. Rachel finds herself beset by her next-door neighbor from hell, town gossip DeeDee (Marcia Ann Burrs), as well as a freelance videographer who (like most of these “types” in movies) wears a Walter Winchell-style hat and seems to be modeling himself after the great gossip columnist of old, and whose schtick is to ambush Rachel and shove his camera in her face, demanding that she tell “the truth” about whatever is going on when she has no idea of what is going on. Rachel’s only confidante is her long-time friend Jessica (Virginia Williams), who works at the local bar and who eagerly joins in the search for Tye, alive or dead. Once she realizes that the cops suspect her of either knocking off her husband or arranging her disappearance, Rachel hires an attorney, Dylan (Ryan Bittle, an unusually hunky actor for a Lifetime good guy), with whom she has an off-balance relationship because she’s not convinced he thinks she’s innocent and he tells her that doesn’t matter; his job is to represent her interests whether she did anything criminal or not.

As the story progresses we learn more about Rachel that makes it understandable why so many people in town are suspicious of her; it seems that four years earlier she got pregnant for a second time, but miscarried and thereby denied Tye the son he had always wanted, and the trauma of this had led to Rachel being hospitalized for several months (with Tye being forced to take care of her) and then put on anti-depressants, which she mixes with alcohol in defiance of the warning labels. The police also suspect her because when she approached them she seemed too calm, not emotional enough — which leads to a nice speech in which Rachel asks them how she was supposed to react: screaming and flailing her arms about? (We get the feeling Rachel is the sort of person whose response to any problem is to be taciturn and seemingly emotionless.) The townies turn against her and she finds herself stalked not only by that Winchell-redux freelancer with a video camera but the mainstream media as well, who stake out her house and shove their cameras in her face looking for “comments,” and at one point the cops are interrogating her, she says, “My lawyer is on his way,” but they keep right on asking her questions until he does show up and tells her not to talk any further. Eventually the cops put her under arrest (though they never say for what) and, while she apparently bails herself out, she’s still under suspicion of murder and seemingly headed for a trial. I had the feeling writer Brian D. Young (imdb.com lists Matt Hamilton as a “contributing writer,” whatever that means, but Young’s was the only writer’s name I noticed on the credits) was going to pull the gimmick of Cornell Woolrich in Phantom Lady and Black Angel of having the person ostensibly helping the central character solve the crime be the criminal him/herself, and that’s just what happened: it turns out Tye is alive and is being hidden out by Jessica, with whom he’s been having an affair for years. He’s also been having an affair for years with the woman realtor who sold him and Rachel the house they’ve been living in, and though Tye supposedly confessed all years before, the realtor left her card behind at their house and nosy neighbor DeeDee picked it up and, even before Tye disappeared, asked Rachel if they were planning to sell the house. What’s more, the realtor is pregnant with Tye’s baby; she’s four months along and they’ve already done the test and found out it’s going to be a boy.

Eventually Rachel realizes Jessica and Tye are in cahoots when she watches Ella on her surveillance camera (she’s got her daughter’s room bugged!) and realizes that Tye has come in when Ella tells her she had a “dream” that she saw her dad — only that wasn’t a dream; it was Tye and Jessica cooing over Ella and Jessica telling her that pretty soon she will be theirs and Rachel will be out of the picture. But because the video doesn’t show Tye — Rachel has only Ella’s word that he was indeed there — it’s not enough proof to get the police off her case. She traces Tye to a cabin by the lake they own, though Tye told her he sold it to pay her medical bills, where he’s had Jessica tie him up so it will look like Rachel kidnapped him and Jessica rescued him and killed Rachel in self-defense. (At least that’s what I think was supposed to have happened; the writing and Danny J. Boyle’s direction got a bit unclear at this point.) Instead Jessica has a moment of conscience and can’t go through with it, so Tye “escapes” from his (prop) bonds, shoots her and then turns the gun on Rachel, only they struggle, Rachel grabs the gun and holds it on Tye until the cops (alerted by Rachel’s attorney) arrive, the older cop grabs the gun from Rachel’s hand, they arrest Tye, Jessica survives and exonerates Rachel, and the film ends with Rachel driving away from the house, with a “For Sale by Owner” sign on its lawn, and with both Ella and hot young attorney Dylan in tow. Though the plot stretches credibility at points — the script even has the older cop say, “All this trouble to get rid of your wife? Hadn’t you ever heard of divorce?” — Marriage of Lies is a nicely done thriller, lacking the melodramatic excesses of a lot of Lifetime productions, holding audience interest and making us care about Rachel even though a lot of the time she seems like her own worst enemy, with her indifferent attitude and cavalier approach to her meds. (At the end she realizes she doesn’t need the psych drugs anymore and flushes her last supply down the toilet.) Marriage of Lies isn’t a great movie — it doesn’t even reach the quality level of some of the Lifetime social-comment movies like For the Life of a Child or Restless Virgins — but on its own terms it’s well made and well worth watching; the direction is finely honed and refreshingly gimmick-free, and the acting, particularly April Bowlby’s all-important performance as Rachel, is solidly professional and genuinely moving throughout.

Great Composers: Richard Wagner (BBC/WNET/PBS, 1997)

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

I continued my Richard Wagner 203rd birthday party last night with a screening of an episode on Wagner from a BBC-TV series Great Composers, made in 1997 and aired here on PBS. The downloaded print I was watching suffered from the absence of any identification of who the talking heads were — though one I recognized was conductor Daniel Barenboim, who like a lot of the other great Wagner interpreters is Jewish and has had to come to grips with Wagner’s notorious anti-Semitism even while loving his music enough to want to conduct it often. One I didn’t recognize was the physicist Stephen Hawking talking about what Wagner’s music means to him and how sometimes we have to separate the greatness of the art from the loathsomeness of the person who created it. (This issue recently came up in connection with Woody Allen’s son Ronan Farrow publishing yet another screed against him for molesting Ronan’s sister Dylan on the eve of the Cannes Film Festival premiere of Allen’s latest film; it’s the subject of an article in the current Time by an author who makes no bones about thinking Allen is guilty as charged.) The documentary was an hour long, directed by Kriss Rumaniss and narrated by Kenneth Branagh, and it begins and ends with discussions of Wagner’s attitude towards Jews — including the story recounted in his wife Cosima’s diaries that towards the end of his life Wagner greeted the news that 400 Jews had perished in a fire in a synagogue by saying, “It would be nice if they’d all burned” — which of course got seized on by the critics who regard Wagner as the ancestor of Hitler and the Nazis and the man who originally thought up the Holocaust that they attempted to carry out. In between the film is a pretty straightforward presentation of Wagner’s life and career, with a few factual bobbles (the narration names Das Liebesverbot as Wagner’s first opera and Die Feen as his second — it was really the other way around) and some rather dubious interpretations, as well as a few stories I’d never heard before and at least one that seems incredible (in the sense of “unbelievable”) to me. The show begins with a few talking heads (unidentified, though as I noted above Daniel Barenboim was unmistakable and obviously put there because they wanted someone who’s a major Wagner fan, a well-known conductor of Wagner’s music and a Jew — indeed, he was the first person to conduct Wagner in Israel and got quite a lot of criticism for that, some of it from people who were forcibly exposed to Wagner’s music while they were inmates at Auschwitz and understandably didn’t want to be reminded of it; Barenboim had to make sure his Wagner concert was a special event of the Israel Philharmonic and no subscribers would end up with tickets to it unless they bought them separately) debating Wagner’s anti-Semitism and whether or not it invalidates his music.

Then it segued into the basic biography, including Wagner’s birth date (May 22, 1813) and place (Leipzig in Saxony, which after World War II ended up in East Germany), as well as the controversy over which of the two men in his mother Johanna’s life — her first husband, Carl Wagner; or her second, Ludwig Geyer — was Wagner’s biological father. The bare facts are that Wilhelm Richard Wagner (as he was christened) was the ninth and last child born to Johanna while Carl was still alive; Geyer was living as a boarder at their house and married Johanna after Carl Wagner died of typhus six months after Richard was born. The question was whether Johanna Wagner and Ludwig Geyer were having an affair while Carl Wagner was still alive, and whether Geyer was in fact Wagner’s father (which, given Richard’s long history of extramarital affairs, would indicate that he was one apple that didn’t fall far from the tree!). For the first 15 years of his life he was known as “Richard Geyer,” until he insisted on adopting the name Wagner — a story which drew me closer to him because it happened to me, too: when I was growing up and until I was well into grade school I was known as “Mark Folger,” after my stepfather, and it was only when I realized (at about age nine) that the mysterious “Daddy George” who came to take me to his home for occasional weekend visits was actually my father that I insisted on using his name, “Conlan,” as my official name from then on. The show presented the controversy over Wagner’s parentage as part of his anti-Semitism, mainly because a lot of people in early 19th century Germany would have assumed that “Geyer” was a Jewish name (though in fact Ludwig Geyer came from a long line of Protestants, many of them lay staffers in Lutheran churches); what it didn’t mention is that “Geyer” is also the German word for “vulture,” and much of the anti-Semitic propaganda that circulated in Germany and Austria throughout Wagner’s childhood depicted Jews as vultures, feeding off the carcasses of civilizations they had helped to destroy. What also fascinates me about the Wagner/Geyer controversy is how it worked its way into quite a few of his music dramas: many of Wagner’s heroes — Siegmund, Siegfried, Tristan, Parsifal — literally grow up not knowing who they are, much less who their parents are or where they are from, and Die Walkïre, Siegfried and Parsifal all have hugely important scenes in which the male protagonists realize their true heritage and reclaim their real names, just as (at least in his own mind) Wagner had done himself. The show debunks Wagner’s claim that he was completely self-taught as a composer; it identifies at least two people who gave him lessons, Christian Gottlieb Müller (whom he studied with in his late teens and had to stop seeing when he ran out of money to pay him, another lifelong pattern for Wagner) and Theodor Weinlig. Wagner had originally wanted to be a playwright and at 13 started writing a play called Leubald und Adelaide — in which he killed off so many characters he had to bring some of them back as ghosts just to have a last act — and then he saw Beethoven’s Fidelio with the dramatic soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient as Leonore, and he came back determined to turn his play into an opera.

In 1833 Wagner started work on an opera called Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), which he left unfinished (though I believe the parts he did complete survive and have even been recorded), and then began Die Feen (The Fairies), his first completed work, a big German opera in the style of Carl Maria von Weber, who next to Beethoven became the most important influence on Wagner’s style. Wagner got a few minor jobs in opera houses — many of them due to the influence of his uncle Albert Wagner, a bass singer (Richard Wagner composed an “insertion aria” for Oroveso, the bass character in Bellini’s Norma, to give his uncle more to do in the piece; in the 1970’s Boston Opera director Sarah Caldwell mounted the first modern production of Norma to include Wagner’s aria) — and married an actress named Minna Planer. His second opera, Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and a comic opera in the style of Rossini (and yes, Wagner trying to imitate Rossini is as ghastly as it sounds), premiered in Magdeburg, where Wagner was working, in 1836 and was a total flop. (The Wikipedia page on Wagner says Das Liebesverbot closed after its first performance; other sources I’ve seen said it got three performances.) Wagner then got his first job as Kapellmeister — principal conductor and administrator of an opera house — in Riga, Latvia (which was then part of the German Confederation, later got absorbed by Russia, and finally became independent after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991) — where he wrote Rienzi, a big grand opera based on a novel by Henry Bulwer-Lytton (a British author best known today for The Last Days of Pompeii and for writing the introductory line, “It was a dark and stormy night … ”), a story about 14th Century Rome which features a character named Adriano played by a woman in drag (Wagner’s only “trouser role”) and a tenor hero, Cola Rienzi, who’s ultimately undone by the little people that surround him at the Roman court. Ironically, Wagner’s Rienzi was the biggest hit of his career — during his lifetime it was more popular than anything he wrote afterwards, though Wagner himself denounced it as imitative of the German-Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer (who was born “Louis-Ferdinand Beer” and changed his name as he moved from Germany to Italy and ultimately France). Wagner ran out of money in Riga and had to flee to escape his creditors, and according to this show he’d already had the idea for his next opera, The Flying Dutchman, in mind when he left — though the usual legend is that he conceived of Dutchman when the ship taking him and Minna out of Riga to London (where he stayed only briefly before moving to Paris, which was considered the operatic capital of Europe at the time) ran into a storm. Wagner spent three years in Paris, eking out a living making arrangements of tunes from other composers’ operas and (a fact unmentioned in this documentary) writing reviews of musical events in Paris for a newspaper back home in Dresden. These articles were collected in the 1970’s in a marvelous book called Wagner Writes from Paris, and they show Wagner to have been a genuinely witty critic (most of Wagner’s later writings are singularly devoid of humor) with an ear for talent.

His piece on Berlioz is particularly fascinating because Wagner calls him “a man of genius,” says his great virtue is “he does not write for money,” and also claims that Berlioz probably wishes he’d been born in Germany — I doubted that until I read Berlioz’ own autobiography, in which one of the many bitter passages laments that he was cursed to have been born in a nation as unappreciative of the arts as France. He also reviews the premiere of Berlioz’ “dramatic symphony” based on Romeo and Juliet and wishes Berlioz had sought the aid of Cherubini, an Italian composer who’d settled in France and whom Berlioz hated, to edit and shorten the score; while the idea of Wagner, of all people, criticizing someone else’s piece for being too long is bizarre, Berlioz did make significant cuts in Roméo et Juliette between the premiere Wagner reviewed in 1839 and the published version from 1847. But the most important premonition of Wagner’s career in his essay on Berlioz is his boast that the only times you can hear Berlioz’ music is in the concerts Berlioz himself produces, conducting his own scores for an audience he has carefully built up over the years — an obvious precursor and role model for Wagner’s eventual dream theatre at Bayreuth. The show tells an anecdote about Wagner in Paris I’d never heard before — and which frankly I have a hard time believing; he said that among his assignments in Paris was to arrange arias from operas by the French composer Jacques Fromental Hálevy, and one night he was with Hálevy and the composer’s friends at a party at which Wagner was at a loss because they were conversing in French and he knew no language besides German. Hálevy tried to bring Wagner into the conversation by speaking to him in German, and when Wagner asked how Hálevy had come to be able to speak German, Hálevy said, “All us Jews speak German.” The film makes it seem like Wagner was shocked — shocked! — to find that Hálevy was Jewish, but that wasn’t exactly a big surprise; after all, Hálevy’s biggest hit was La Juive, a propaganda piece against anti-Semitism and a work Wagner admired and hailed as a masterpiece. Indeed, when he wrote his notorious essay Judaism in Music in 1850 he carefully left Hálevy out of his condemnations of Jewish composers (just as he left Bellini, whom he admired, out of his condemnations of Italian composers); indeed, the only two Jewish composers singled out in that work are Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer. Anyway, Wagner got out of Paris in 1842 when Rienzi was accepted for production at the opera house in Dresden, in Wagner’s native German state of Saxony, and Wagner got the prestigious job as Kapellmeister of the Dresden opera. There he wrote his next two operas, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, which drew their plots from German historical legends and dealt with the themes that would occupy Wagner for the rest of his career: love, sex, renunciation and redemption.

The show details Wagner’s participation in the rebellion against the Saxon king in 1848 — actually part of a whole series of revolutions against royal authorities in most of continental Europe which ended, like the recent (and quite similar) “Arab Spring,” either in chaos or in governments even more repressive than the ones the revolutionaries had sought to displace. Wagner had to flee Saxony in 1848 after the revolution failed — the show briefly mentions his friendship with the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (who was apparently admired by a lot of artists, though he befriended Wagner largely because music was the only art form he was interested in; there’s a story that Bakunin came up to Wagner after he’d conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Dresden and told him that in the coming conflagration, that music must be spared even if it cost them both their lives); it does not mention that Lohengrin had still not been performed when Wagner fled and it ultimately reached the stage in Weimar, where Franz Liszt, an admirer of Wagner, put it on in 1850 even though he only had an orchestra of 35 and a chorus of 12. (Today an opera company with such limited resources wouldn’t go anywhere near Lohengrin or anything else by Wagner; they’d produce works by Mozart and other composers whose pieces would work with forces that small.) Wagner lived mostly in Switzerland for the next 16 years, and after the debacle of the Dresden revolution he didn’t compose at all for five years; instead he sketched out a text for a stand-alone opera called Siegfried’s Death, based on the ancient German epic poem the Nibelungenlied. Then he decided it needed a prologue to give Siegfried’s backstory, which Wagner at first called The Young Siegfried; then he decided that needed a prologue to tell  how Siegfried came into the world in the first place, and after that he wrote an introductory prologue to the whole story telling how the gods, dwarfs and giants battled each other for the Rhinegold, a lump of gold in the Rhine river which would give absolute power to anyone who forged a ring out of it and agreed to renounce love.

These texts, written by Wagner in reverse order, became the basis for his most massive work, the four-part, 15-hour cycle The Ring of the Nibelung — the Nibelung being Alberich, king of the dwarfs, who, rejected by the Rhinemaidens, stole their gold, made the ring, renounced love and attempted to run the world, only to be tricked by Wotan, chief of the gods, who stole the ring and then gave it to the giants Fasolt and Fafner as partial payment for the castle they had built for him, Valhalla. The three main parts of the Ring deal with Wotan’s attempt to get the ring back by descending to earth, having an affair with a mortal and siring Siegmund and Sieglinde, who after being separated at birth (or nearly so) finally found each other on a dark and stormy night and have an incestuous relationship. Siegmund and Sieglinde’s husband Hunding have a duel which ends up with both of them dead — Wotan originally planned to intervene on Siegmund’s side but was talked into supporting Hunding instead by his own wife Fricka, who saw it as her duty to protect marriage and punish incest — but Brünnhilde, Wotan’s favorite among the Valkyries (nine women fathered by Wotan with Erda, the earth goddess, who grew up to ride flying horses and pick up dead heroes from earth to staff the armed forces of Valhalla), intervenes on Siegmund’s side, catches hell from Wotan and is put on a rock surrounded by fire, through which only a hero without fear can cross and claim her as his bride. The hero, of course, is Siegfried, Siegmund’s and Sieglinde’s son (in the original Nibelungenlied Siegfried is the descendant of an incestuous couple but not the immediate offspring of one), who kills Fafner (who turned himself into a dragon to protect his treasure), reclaims the ring and then in the fourth part of the cycle, Götterdämmerung, ends up in the land of the Gibichungs, where he’s given a potion that makes him fall in love with King Gunther’s sister Gutrune (Kriemhild in the original Nibelungenlied). Gunther and Gutrune have a half-brother, Hagen, who’s the son of Alberich, the dwarf king from episode one, and Hagen, Gunther and a jealous Brünnhilde (who was not Siegfried’s lover in the original story) plot to kill Siegfried. They do, but Brünnhilde mounts her horse and sings a 20-minute scene which was supposed to sum up the whole story and its philosophical meaning — and which Wagner rewrote the text for at least seven times. Wagner began composing the Ring operas in 1853 and spent the next six years completing the first, Das Rheingold, and the second, Die Walküre, but broke off during the second act of Siegfried because he was getting tired of “piling one silent score on top of another” and instead wanted to come up with a one-off work that could be performed by a normal opera house and would make him some money.

Instead he wrote Tristan und Isolde, yet another tale of forbidden love, renunciation, redemption and glorious death, which began with a dissonant chord that put off just about everybody who heard it originally because Wagner stacked one dissonant chord on top of another for 4 ½ hours and didn’t resolve it until the very end of the opera — a trick later copied by film composers, including Bernard Herrmann in Vertigo (though Berlioz had actually done something similar in the opening to the “Romeo Alone” movement from his Roméo et Juliette dramatic symphony, whose premiere, you’ll recall, Wagner had reviewed). Along the way Wagner won the patronage of a German merchant named Otto Wesendonck who had retired to Switzerland; he also won the affections of Otto’s much younger wife Mathilde. Wagner got into trouble over that relationship and even more trouble over his next serious coupling: with Cosima Liszt von Bülow, daughter of Franz Liszt and wife of the conductor Hans von Bülow, who led the premiere of Tristan when, after six years in the wilderness, Wagner’s supposedly “practical” opera finally hit the stage in Munich. Cosima’s first child by Wagner, Isolde, was born while she was still married to Bülow and threatened to derail Wagner’s latest and most significant patronage relationship with King Ludwig II of Bavaria in southern Germany. Ludwig had grown up surrounded by the German myths and legends that had inspired Wagner and provided the plots for his operas; he was also a Gay man, and according to his published journals one of his hopes in subsidizing Wagner was that sufficient exposure to the music of the strongly heterosexual Wagner would turn Ludwig himself straight. (It didn’t work.) Oddly, the Great Composers program doesn’t mention Ludwig’s sexual orientation or the controversies Wagner still got himself into, from his ham-handed attempts to influence Ludwig in the actual government of Bavaria to the scandal over his relationship with Cosima (whom Wagner eventually married after she divorced Bülow and his first wife Minna died) to the republication, rewritten to be even nastier, of Judaism in Music in 1869. Apparently this was the result of a jealous hissy-fit on Wagner’s part because Ludwig had started an affair with Josef Kainz, director of the Munich National Theatre, and Wagner worried that Ludwig would withdraw his financial support for his projects and give the money to Kainz instead. (Kainz would later retire to Vienna and, in the late 19th and early 20th century, would give acting lessons to select pupils, including the young Erich von Stroheim, later legendary in both good and bad senses as a filmmaker very much like Wagner in his imperious attitude, his belief in his own genius, his penchant for long running times and his utter disregard for his backers’ finances.)

The program deals with Wagner’s plan for a theatre for which he wanted to raze half of downtown Munich — that was too expensive even for Ludwig, but he gave Wagner a grant to find a small town in Bavaria that would be suitable for a theatre and also to build a home for himself and Cosima there. Wagner ended up in Bayreuth, where he was interested in using the Margrave theatre, built in the 1700’s, because it had the largest stage of any opera house in the world — but it turned out that stage opened up to an auditorium that seated only 100. Instead Wagner built his own theatre, equipping it with the elaborate machines needed for the special effects of his productions (much of this show depicts the “wow” factor of the effects Wagner wrote into his scripts) and putting a cowl over the orchestra so it would be invisible (and also so the singers would have a fighting chance to be heard over Wagner’s huge orchestras). Wagner also stipulated, for the first time in theatrical history, that the auditorium be kept in total or near-total darkness during the performances — he wanted his spectators to watch the stage, not each other — and there was no curtain or other mechanical device to let people in their seats know that the performance was about to start. Instead, it just started. Wagner premiered the Ring there in 1876 after a worldwide tour in which he played excerpts at various concerts to get people to contribute to help build Bayreuth and pay for the first production — “his Kickstarter campaign,” Charles once joked when I mentioned this to him — and even with the money he raised as well as what Ludwig was giving him, he ran short financially and there wasn’t another Bayreuth festival until 1882, when Wagner premiered his last opera, Parsifal, there. Indeed, one story not mentioned on this TV show was that Wagner wanted Parsifal to be performed nowhere else; at Ludwig’s insistence he agreed to one performance at the Munich State Opera, but only on condition that Ludwig be the sole member of the audience — though by that time Ludwig was such a recluse he didn’t have a problem with that. (After Wagner’s death in 1883 Ludwig was deposed by other members of the royal family and court, and in 1886 he rowed himself out to the middle of a lake and sang music from Lohengrin, then threw himself overboard and committed suicide by drowning.)

The Great Composers episode tells most of this story, including Wagner’s death in Venice (where he’d gone for his health) in 1883 at age 69, and his subsequent influence on the musical world. It names Mahler, Schönberg and Debussy as composers influenced by him — true in the first two (and ironic because Mahler and Schönberg were both Jewish, though they left the religion and Schönberg only returned to Judaism in 1933 as a public statement of solidarity with German Jews being oppressed by the Nazis), though Debussy’s relationship with Wagner was a lot more complicated than this show makes it sound. It was a bizarre love-hate relationship in which Debussy called Wagner “a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn,” and yet Debussy briefly considered composing his own opera based on the Tristan legend (though he was going to base it on the French version by Joseph Bédier rather than Gottfried von Strassburg’s German version which Wagner had used) and, when he finally wrote an opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, premiered in 1902, it was a very Wagnerian story line (Mélisande is a girl lost in the woods who’s taken in by local landowner Golaud, who marries her; she and Golaud’s brother Pelléas fall in love; Golaud kills Pelléas in a jealous hissy-fit; and Mélisande dies in childbirth as Arkel, father of Golaud and Pelléas, ends the opera with the line, “And now it is the turn of the poor little one,” presumably to be as miserable as the rest of his family) which Debussy set in a very un-Wagnerian way. Instead of the orchestra blaring away and sometimes drowning out the singers at crucial moments — which was how Wagner put into practice his idea that it was the role of music in his Gesamtkunstwerk (“union of all the arts”) to convey the emotional weight of the story while the words told the physical plot and gave the intellectual content — Debussy’s Pelléas is quiet, conversational, with the voices in the lead role and the orchestra only softly, subtly commenting on what the voices are saying. (That’s one reason why Pelléas is that rare opera that works better in translation than in the original, as I discovered when I bought Mark Elder’s Chandos recording in English — the piece came alive in a way it can do in French only if you’re a native French speaker or at least extremely fluent in the language.) The commentary also mentioned Stravinsky as a deliberately anti-Wagnerian composer — which he was and he wasn’t; certainly Stravinsky’s denials that music could express anything other than itself were the antithesis of Wagner’s attempt to combine it with words to give it emotional weight, and while Stravinsky composed a few attempts at opera he was more comfortable in the wordless world of ballet — and yet Stravinsky’s most famous works, the early ballets The Firebird, Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring, are “Wagnerian” in that they are dramatizations of the myths and legends of his native country.

Some of the most interesting parts of this show are the demonstrations of Wagner’s purely musical innovations — like the prelude to Lohengrin, written (for the most part) exclusively for violins; those stackings of dissonant chord on top of dissonant chord that pervade Tristan; the subtle orchestral colors of the Parsifal prelude (where Wagner used the traditional Lutheran hymn “Dresden Amen” — though I think much of his criticism of Mendelssohn unfair, the difference between the way Mendelssohn used the “Dresden Amen” in his “Reformation” Symphony and the way Wagner used it in Parsifal is the difference between talent and genius). The film also trots out the most blatant bit of anti-Jewish stereotyping in Wagner’s operas, the caricature of Sixtus Beckmesser in Wagner’s mature comedy Die Meistersinger (though that wasn’t a spoof of Jews in general but of one Jew in particular, the Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick, who like a lot of other people in the German-speaking world in the late 19th century worked out their hatred of Wagner by proclaiming Brahms the real “composer of the future” — indeed for a long time it seemed obligatory that if you liked Wagner you had to hate Brahms, and vice versa, and this lasted until the early 20th century with the emergence of conductor Felix Weingartner, who had known both Wagner and Brahms and conducted them equally well; when Hans von Bülow’s wife dumped him for Wagner his revenge was to stop conducting Wagner and start conducting Brahms) and Mime in Siegfried (that one even gets to a hard-core Wagnerian like me), and the talking heads seem themselves torn over whether the greatness of Wagner’s music justifies the ugliness of his prejudices. (For me, I regard Wagner’s anti-Semitism much the way I regard Thomas Jefferson’s being a slaveowner: the great flaw of a great man.)

The Wagner documentary takes an intriguing turn towards the end when director Rusmanis suddenly cuts to an image of King Kong — the original poster art for the 1933 film — illustrating the point that most of the film music composers in classic-era (1930’s and 1940’s) Hollywood grew out of Wagner’s tradition and copied him, not only his ample orchestrations but in particular the so-called Leitmotif (“leading motive”) technique. Surprisingly, though this was an important part of Wagner’s practice it was relatively unmentioned in all his extensive theorizing about what he was doing; the term Leitmotif wasn’t coined until 1895 — 12 years after Wagner’s death — the term Wagner himself had used was “motives of presentiment and reminiscence.” What it meant was associating each person, place, event and situation in a story with a short musical theme, brief enough to be used for symphonic-style development but recognizable enough that the audience would be reminded of where they had heard that music before and thereby make the connections the composer wanted them to make. I remember being a bit put-out a few years ago when I read an interview with a modern film composer who boasted that he didn’t use Leitmotifs — it seemed he was arbitrarily denying himself a technique which classic film composers like Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Bernard Herrmann had used for the same reason Wagner did: it’s a superb way of organizing a score that’s supposed to accompany a drama and play out over a long period of time. I have no hesitation in calling Wagner my all-time favorite composer — no one else’s music speaks so intensely to me or gives me a similar impression of being in another world — and while an honest biography of Wagner is going to make him out an egomaniacal creep, eagerly helping himself to his friends’ money, possessions and women and justifying it all on the ground that the world owed him a living (and a comfortable, luxurious living at that) so he could create his art, he did create 10 operatic masterpieces and revolutionize the world of classical music as no one had done since Beethoven and no one has done since.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Visit to a Small Planet (Hal Wallis Productions/Paramount, 1960)

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

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi film screening was a Jerry Lewis double bill of Visit to a Small Planet (Paramount, 1960) and Way … Way Out (20th Century-Fox, 1966). You didn’t know Lewis had made two science-fiction spoofs? Neither had I. Visit to a Small Planet began life as a TV script by Gore Vidal for the Goodyear Playhouse anthology program in 1955, with Cyril Ritchard in the lead role of Kreton, an alien from an unnamed planet at the far end of the Milky Way who visits Earth on what he thinks is the eve of the Civil War but is really the contemporary South, on the eve of a Civil War-themed costume party. Kreton hangs out on Earth for a while and makes a few acidly satirical observations about our planet and its inhabitants before high-tailing it from whence he came, after issuing a curtain line that’s about the only thing I remember from the time I saw the piece staged as a play by my junior-high drama department: “I’m coming back to the Civil War, and this time I’m gonna make sure the South wins!” A kinescope of the original TV show exists in the vaults at UCLA’s film preservation unit but, like so many of the treasures they’ve restored there, they’re sitting on it like Fafner on Alberich’s hoard and not letting the rest of the world see it either theatrically or on DVD. Vidal later expanded his TV script into a play that opened on Broadway in 1957, again with Ritchard as Kreton, and ran for two years. Its success naturally attracted the interest of film producers, and the movie rights were snapped up by Hal Wallis, formerly studio head at Warner Bros. and then independent producer releasing through (and filming at) Paramount. Wallis continued to make prestige pictures through Paramount but he also signed lower-brow talents including Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Elvis Presley. He also perfected a device called “cross-collateralization,” whereby he could pair a production with his low-brow talents with a high-end movie aimed at the sophisticated audience and the Academy, and directly use the profits from a Martin and Lewis or an Elvis movie to finance a major prestige film.

Visit to a Small Planet was made towards the tail end of Lewis’s association with Wallis and Paramount, and Vidal was predictably unhappy that his mordant, satirical play was grabbed and remodeled (by writers Edmund Beloin and Harry Garson, no doubt with some major assistance from Lewis himself) into a dumb Jerry Lewis slapstick vehicle. Jerry Lewis is one of those alleged comedians, like the Three Stooges, whom I found hilarious when my age was still in the single (or very low double) digits — I remember being taken to the Sequoia Theatre in Mill Valley in the early 1960’s for a double bill of Rock-a-Bye Baby (in which Lewis gets stuck with triplets by their mom, 1940’s blonde bombshell Marilyn Maxwell in a short-lived attempt at a 1958 comeback) and Don’t Give Up the Ship (Lewis more or less in command of a Navy vessel with the unattractive and unamusing name U.S.S. Kornblatt, which under his watch sinks — all that’s salvaged is its bell). I thought it was hilarious as a kid but about a decade later, when Don’t Give Up the Ship turned up on TV, I watched part of it and was bored silly. That’s pretty much been my reaction to Jerry Lewis since — that and my typical outrage when his biographers and critical fans pull “first-itis” on him and credit him with innovations other people pioneered — I’m still mad at a Los Angeles Times article that credited Lewis’s 1960 film The Errand Boy with being the first comedy that used an elevator crane so the camera could follow the action on different floors of the set (it was actually Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman, 32 years earlier). The biggest thing that puts me off of Lewis is the deliberately infantile persona he created — itself something that had been done way better by the previous two generations of film comedians, including the awesome Harry Langdon in the 1920’s and Laurel and Hardy in the late 1920’s and 1930’s. I can’t stand that hideous whiny voice in which Lewis delivered his dialogue to indicate his character was supposed to be an immature child-man, and the gags he worked up for that character also grate on me — he simply didn’t have Langdon’s or Laurel’s subtlety in balancing an infantile persona with an adult body.

Visit to a Small Planet has its points; John Williams’ performance as Kreton’s teacher back home (who monitors him on TV when he cuts class and sneaks to Earth in a flying saucer) is marvelously acidulous and carries over some of the spirit of the original play; and Fred Clark as Kreton’s unwilling host, TV personality Roger Putnam Spelding (who, in what passed for irony on Beloin’s and Garson’s part, has just filmed a show declaiming once and for all that there are no flying saucers coming to Earth and bearing aliens from outer space), also delivers a treasurable comic performance. (It’s nice to see Williams and Clark reunited from the 1956 comedy The Solid Gold Cadillac, though that was a considerably better film than Visit to a Small Planet.) There are some good gags in Visit, including one in which Kreton, not used to alcoholic beverages, responds to drinking one by walking up and down the walls and ceiling of Spelding’s living room the way Keaton did in the submarine at the end of The Navigator (1924) and Fred Astaire did in his solo dance in Royal Wedding (1951) — and, though Lewis probably filmed his action the way Keaton and Astaire had (a revolving room set and a camera bolted to it so he was always on the ground but looked like he was defying gravity), he and his effects person, the great John P. Fulton (the man who’d figured out how to make Claude Rains disappear in The Invisible Man in 1933), go Keaton and Astaire one better by having Fred Clark stay on the set’s apparent floor even while Lewis goes up the walls and ultimately stands on the ceiling. There are also some nice moments when Kreton, who explains that his own planet gave up love millennia ago, spies on Spelding’s daughter Ellen (Joan Blackman, a fine actress whose casting here practically defines “overqualified”) and her boyfriend Conrad (Earl Holliman) as they try to neck, first in Spelding’s home and then in a car.

And Visit has one genuinely great scene: Ellen takes Kreton to a Beatnik coffeehouse called “The Hungry Brain” (probably a parody of the genuine Hungry I bar in San Francisco, whose sign was actually a painting of an eye), where he hears a jazz singer (Barbara Lawson) deliver what appears to us (and to her) like just another scat-sung song but which has Kreton in tears as he explains to Ellen that it’s really a tragic story about a woman having been abandoned by a man, who comes back into her life only to beat her up. Then Kreton plays the bongos by remote control and does a dance with Lawson that’s surprisingly well done and the most entertaining part of the film. (The jazz band seen in the film has some surprisingly major talents, including Frank Socolow on sax — there are actually two saxophonists, one playing alto and one playing what looks like a bass sax, an instrument I thought had left jazz when Adrian Rollini abandoned it and took up vibes in the mid-1930’s — Don Bagley on bass, Jack Costanzo on percussion and an uncredited but recognizable Buddy Rich on drums; there’s also a trumpet player who’s shown playing open horn, but what we hear on the soundtrack is muted.) But most of Visit is just dull, with Lewis really trying hard to make us laugh and giving us only a few isolated chuckles. Lewis had been a major comedy star throughout the 1950’s, largely by appealing to children and teenagers, and he was able to take the breakup of his partnership with Dean Martin in stride — Visit was directed by Norman Taurog, who had done a number of the Martin and Lewis movies as well and recalled that the experience was not all that different from his work with real children like Jackie Cooper in the early 1930’s — and continue as a major box-office attraction until his film career started to fall apart in the 1960’s and he ultimately had to fall back on his main gig outside of moviemaking: hosting the annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethons.

One thing I hadn’t realized about Visit to a Small Planet before is that virtually the entire Mork and Mindy TV series, starring Robin Williams and Pam Dawber and the vehicle that “broke” Williams to a mass audience, is a ripoff of it — though Williams was a considerably subtler comedian than Lewis and he made quite a lot more of the central premise of a fish-out-of-water space alien bamboozled by Earth’s customs. Indeed, I couldn’t help wishing there had been a 1980’s remake that had stuck closer to Vidal’s original script and had cast Williams as Kreton — he could have pulled off both Vidal’s satire and the slapstick antics of the Lewis version (better than Lewis, who this late in the game was pretty obviously being doubled in a lot of his pratfalls). There’s a third version of Visit to a Small Planet listed on imdb.com, one made for German TV in 1971 and probably closer to Vidal’s original than this one, since the only other writer credited is Eric Burger, and he’s listed only as “translator” of Vidal’s script into German. That one was directed by Wolfgang Liebeneiner, who’d made some of the biggest-budgeted Nazi propaganda films (including a two-part biopic of Bismarck as well as I Accuse, a pro-euthanasia movie that was inoffensive in itself — today’s right-to-die crowd would probably be O.K. with it if it weren’t for its dubious provenance — but which was probably greenlighted by Joseph Goebbels to prepare people for the Nazis’ campaign to exterminate Jews and others they considered “undesirable,” including people with disabilities) but managed a long career in postwar Germany (though he didn’t make his first postwar film until 1949) and didn’t seem to have suffered from his Nazi associations the way Leni Riefenstahl did.

Way … Way Out (Coldwater, Way Out Company, 20th Century-Fox, 1966)

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

Way … Way Out was made in 1966, six years after Visit to a Small Planet and a virtual eternity in terms of Hollywood’s morals in general and its attitude towards sex in particular. This time Lewis produced the film himself (though he did not insist on directing it as well) through a collapsible company called “Way Out Films” in association with 20th Century-Fox, and he shot it in CinemaScope (the original CinemaScope logo, complete with Alfred Newman’s fanfare, is visible at the start of the film). The director is Gordon Douglas (who’d helmed the one teaming of Frank Sinatra and Doris Day in Young at Heart in 1954) and the writers were William Bowers and László Vadnay, and what they came up with was basically a sex farce set on the moon. The film is set at what the opening narrator, Col. John “Shorty” Powers (who was probably a real person since he’s credited by name as himself), calls “near the turn of the century — not the last century, the next century.” This led me to assume it took place in 1999, though imdb.com says 1989. The gimmick is that the U.S. and the Soviet Union (remember the Soviet Union?) have adjoining stations on the moon from which they look down at earth’s cloud formations and try to forecast the weather — only, while the Soviets have sent up a man and a woman for their space station, the U.S. sent up two guys, Hoffman (Dennis Weaver) and Schmidlapp (Howard Morris), who have been at each other’s throats for virtually the entire year they’ve been up there together.

Hoffman has more or less retained the ability to speak but Schmidlapp has become virtually catatonic in his (hetero)sexual frustration; all he does all day is draw dirty pictures of women, get drunk and beat the shit out of Hoffman, in one scene actually tying him up as well. Schmidlapp has also got the entire U.S. government to the brink of crisis with the Soviets because he put the make on the woman in the Soviet weather crew, Anna Soblova (Anita Ekberg, almost unrecognizable in a black wig); the Soviets even take this to the United Nations and accuse Schmidlapp of what would now be called sexual harassment, while the U.S. officials defend him by saying Anna probably initiated the sexual invitation herself (which tallies with how we see her behave when she’s finally introduced as a character). So the person in charge of U.S. Lunar Control for NASA, Harold Quonset (Robert Morley, an odd choice not only because he was British but because, given that his most famous previous roles were Louis XVI and Oscar Wilde, he hardly seems the “type” to play a NASA bureaucrat — yet he’s easily the most delightful actor in the film), hits on the idea of recruiting a male weather person and a female astronomer, getting them to fall in love and get married, and sending them up to the moon weather station as a team. Only the pair he’s originally picked, Ted (the young James Brolin) and Peggy (the young Linda Harrison), break up during their three-week honeymoon and end up loathing each other. So the desperate Quonset recruits Pete Mattemore (Jerry Lewis), reluctant astronaut who’s been in the space program 11 years but has found excuse after excuse to avoid actually going up — we first see him coming out of the giant centrifuge in which NASA whirled around would-be astronauts to give them a taste of the ultra-high gravity (up to 12 or even 15 times normal) and the crushing pain they would feel as their rocket blasted them up to escape velocity — and give him a choice of three qualified women scientists to romance and marry in the next three days, since the launch has to be scheduled while the moon is at its closest to the earth.

One of them is already married, and even in a movie like this that was pushing at the envelope of what was left of the Production Code the filmmakers weren’t about to go there. One of them, Esther Davenport (Bobo Lewis), is horse-faced and quite short, and needless to say there are a lot of sexist jokes about her less-than-glamorous figure (including one in which Pete asks Quonset, “Would you marry a girl who looked like that?,” and Quonset replies sadly, “I did”). The third one is blonde bombshell Eileen Forbes (Connie Stevens), though I found her less than appealing, partly because she had a grating voice and partly because her whole affect seemed to be an attempt to pump life into the dumb-blonde stereotype Marilyn Monroe had done so well but which by 1966 seemed awfully dated. Pete’s attempt to woo her into marriage and joint space flight goes awry on their first dinner date, when they’re interrupted by Stella Mary (Margaret Teele), Pete’s previous girlfriend, who confronts them and quietly pours an entire champagne bottle over Pete’s head while Pete sits there, stone-faced and unresponsive (a bit of comedic subtlety all too rare in Lewis’s work!). Fortunately Esther, who’s dying to go into space, hits on the Noël Coward Design for Living idea: they’ll get married and present themselves to the world as a couple but they won’t have sex. The two go through a rush wedding as the elevator is taking them up the gantry into their spaceship — the minister keeps wanting to read the entire wedding service and Quonset keeps cutting him short — and the newlyweds are finally launched onto the moon rocket, where in a typical role reversal for a movie of this era Eileen is actually hot to trot and it’s the exhausted Pete who falls asleep on her in bed. They’re awakened by the two Russian crew members, Anna and Igor Valkleinokov (Dick Shawn, who adds a lot to this movie even though his presence couldn’t help but make me wonder if Lewis soaked his backers for 25,000 percent of what it actually cost … ), who want them to come to a party … right then.

Igor gets Pete plastered on vodka (actually a powder to which you add water to reconstitute it as a drink, though where they get the water on the moon is left unexplained), and there’s a nice gag scene in which Pete, asked to make up another batch of the stuff, gets the instructions mixed up and swallows the vodka powder, then drinks a water chaser, and ends up super-drunk and with the funnel he’s supposed to use to get the water into the bottle stuck in his mouth. The movie gets pretty dull after that, as Lewis and his writers quickly run out of variations on the one sex joke — each of the male characters is either pursuing or fighting off each of the female characters — until it lumbers to a climax in which Anna tells Igor that she’s pregnant (this is supposed to represent the difference between American and Soviet morals: the U.S. couple are married but aren’t having sex, while the Soviets aren’t married and are having sex). It turns out this is just a lie she’s told Igor to get him to marry her and commit already, but in the meantime there’s been a lot of back-and-forth discussions between Pete and Eileen on the moon and Quonset, the NASA bureaucracy and ultimately the President and his Cabinet to the effect that we can’t let the Russians beat us again by having the first Earthling baby born in space, so Pete and Eileen are given the green light to give up their enforced celibacy and bear a U.S. child on the moon. There’s a nice parallel gag that ties in with the film’s opening — a countdown sequence that leads into the movie’s theme song, “Way … Way Out,” written by Lalo Schifrin (music) and Hal Winn (lyrics) and performed by Jerry Lewis’s son Gary with his band, The Playboys; at the end the song is repeated and the countdown leads (or is supposed to lead, since director Douglas averts his cameras so we don’t see the actual coupling) to the first time Pete and Eileen finally get to have sex. (Woody Allen pulled a similar framing gag in his film Bananas four years later, in which the opening is Howard Cosell narrating a revolution in a South American country and the closing is Cosell doing a play-by-play of Allen and his new wife, Louise Lasser, on their wedding night.)

I’ll say one thing for Way … Way Out: by 1966 Jerry Lewis had abandoned his infantile persona and that grating voice he used to go with it, and he’s playing a more suave version of the character — Lewis’s critical supporters date the change from his film The Nutty Professor, made three years earlier and a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde knockoff in which Lewis changes from a nerdy professor to a lounge lizard some critics have argued he copied from his ex-partner Dean Martin — but whatever the motivation, at least he’s considerably less annoying than he was in his earlier movies as the scratchy-voiced simpleton. Unfortunately he’s also considerably less amusing; perhaps now that he was old enough to be the father of a teenage rock star he realized he not only couldn’t but shouldn’t jump around and do big pratfalls like he had in his earlier films, but his attempts to “sophisticate” his character only made him dull. Way … Way Out is one of those infuriating films that’s neither really good nor really bad — not funny enough to be entertaining in the way Lewis and his crew clearly intended and not awful enough to be funny as camp — it just unreels through its 97-minute running time (12 minutes longer than Visit to a Small Planet) and numbs the audience (this member of it, anyway) during all those long stretches where nothing particularly interesting is happening. One point Charles made about it after it was over was that it was an indication of the 14 years that separated Red Planet Mars (which we’d seen in the same venue the night before) from Way … Way Out was that in 1952 the only way to do the Cold War on screen in a U.S. film was to make it an ultra-serious propagandist piece in which We Are the Good Guys and They Are the Bad Guys. By 1966 it was possible to spoof the Cold War — to make fun in particular of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union wanting to be or do the first this-or-that — though that shouldn’t have been such a big surprise since Way … Way Out was made two years after Dr. Strangelove, a far better movie and a far bitterer satire on the Cold War and its pretensions, and one that holds up vividly even though both the Cold War and the Soviet Union itself are part of history now!