Monday, December 3, 2018

Garth Brooks Live at Notre Dame Stadium (CBS-TV, aired December 2, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s main feature was a CBS-TV concert special featuring Garth Brooks playing live at Notre Dame stadium on the college campus in South Bend, Indiana — apparently the first time a musical event has ever taken place there. Brooks had promoted this show with an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show last week, an interesting interview (even though he just talked and was not featured as a musical guest as well, which was a bit disappointing) in which he said he originally wanted to be a professional athlete but he was so untalented in that regard the only sport he could play in college was javelin. Instead he discovered music when he would do amateur nights at nightclubs and found he was getting more popular and better liked, and realized he could have a career out of this so he could make a living without working a normal job. Garth Brooks erupted on the country-music world in 1991 and for the next three years, recording for what was left of the old Liberty Records label, he zoomed to the top of the country charts and each new record was an automatic #1. Then he derailed his own career with an album called The Chase, whose featured single was a song called “We Shall Be Free” — which included such intimidating lines as, “When we’re free to love anyone we choose.” Brooks’ core audience read that line correctly as a plea for acceptance of homosexuality in general and same-sex marriage in particular, and though he didn’t take as abrupt a tumble down the country charts as the Dixie Chicks did when they said publicly at a concert in London that they were embarrassed to be from the same state as George W. Bush, it did hurt him commercially.

Brooks made a number of interesting career moves, including recording an album and doing a TV show under the alternate persona of “Chris Gaines” — an androgynous rocker along the lines of Bowie and Prince — and then, like John Lennon in the late 1970’s, he dropped out altogether and spent the next 16 years not releasing any new material and performing only rarely so he could concentrate on raising his kids. (He had his kids with his first wife, Sandy Mahl, whom he married in 1986 and divorced in 2001. In 2005 he married country singer Trisha Yearwood, a star in her own right, and they’re still together — literally, because she was with him on stage at Notre Dame as one of his backup singers.) In 2014 Brooks triumphantly returned to the stage in a giant tour which was billed as, “Featuring Special Guest Star Trisha Yearwood,” which inevitably led me to joke, “He must have worked really hard to get her to be his opening act.” (Actually, it seems possible to me that Yearwood told him, “Darling, you’ve been out of circulation for 16 years while I’ve been working regularly — maybe you should be opening for me!”) According to the narration on last night’s telecast as well as Brooks’ Wikipedia page, he’s now the best-selling solo recording artist of all time (having broken the mark set by the previous record-holder, Elvis Presley, which seems to me hard to believe), and the concert was less a presentation of Brooks’ music than a celebration of his repertoire and its importance in his fans’ lives. Brooks played 16 songs during the show, including some oddball covers — Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” and a medley of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude” prefaced and ended by a snatch of a song with the tag line, “Sometimes You Have to Die to Live Again”) — and during many of his own songs his audience was singing along (which sometimes made it hard for someone like me who likes Garth Brooks but is not especially familiar with his oeuvre to figure out just what the lyrics were — also there was an odd echo on Brooks’ vocal mike which pushed him towards unintelligibility even when he was singing sans audience participation).

Brooks’ Wikipedia page says, “His integration of rock and roll elements into the country genre has earned him immense popularity in the United States,” though Brooks hasn’t gone as far into the rock sound as a lot of other modern “country” singers who have followed in his wake. I’ve commented on previous country music awards shows that much of modern “country” actually sounds more like the sub-genre that emerged in the 1970’s from groups like the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd and which then was called “Southern rock” than anything by Hank Williams or Johnny Cash. At least Brooks has retained violin and pedal steel guitar in his band — most of the modern-day Southern rockers who call themselves “country” have eschewed these once-paradigmatic country instruments — and his music overall is an appealing mixture of country and rock elements, while most of his lyrics are pure country. Though he avoids the bathos endemic to the country-pop style of the 1950’s and 1960’s (which led to the joke, “What do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your house back, your job back, your car back and your wife back, and you sober up” — to which Charles added, “Yeah, and your mother and your dog come back to life”), his songs still fit the basic country lyric pattern of drinking, necking on deserted roads, and partying until the sun comes up. I was disappointed that of my three favorite Garth Brooks songs — “We Shall Be Free,” “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association” and “Friends in Low Places” — he sang only the last of those on last night’s telecast (and judging not only from the reaction it got but from the number of people in the crowd who held signs with the words “Friends in Low Places,” it appears to be Garth Brooks’ “Satisfaction”), but overall I enjoyed the show. I was amused that Trisha Yearwood was on stage throughout as one of Brooks’ backup singers — she was in the middle of a row that included a dreadlocked Black guy (who supplied the scream that joins the two parts of “Hey Jude” because Brooks couldn’t do that as Paul McCartney did on the Beatles’ original) on one side and a tall, striking-looking biker chick who seemed to have just stepped out of a 1960’s Russ Meyer movie on the other — the tall, striking-looking biker chick seemed to have a particularly strong voice and I’d like to hear her do an album sometime!

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Deep (EMI, Casablanca, Columbia, 1977)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie I’d stumbled on in my backlog of DVD’s: The Deep, a 1977 production of Columbia Pictures in association with two now-defunct record companies, EMI and Casablanca (the latter got that name from the coincidence of its president being named Neil Bogart, though he was no relation to the Casablanca star, and its biggest acts were Donna Summer and KISS). The Deep began life as a novel by Peter Benchley, who had just had a huge success with his book Jaws — and with the film of Jaws finally surpassing Gone With the Wind as the highest-grossing movie of all time, it’s no surprise that there was a fierce bidding war for the movie rights to The Deep and the rights were won by Peter Guber, who had just stepped down as Columbia studio head to become an independent producer for the company. The Deep was conceived at the height of the hype surrounding the “Bermuda Triangle,” the location in the Caribbean where an unusually high number of ships had sunk and planes had crashed, and books were written claiming there was some supernatural element involved (while other books were written attempting to debunk those). Peter Benchley obviously had that in mind when he set The Deep on and just off the coast of Bermuda, since the intrigue revolves around the preposterous assumption that three ships sank just off Bermuda, two early 18th century sailing vessels and a World War II submarine, and they all happened to land just on top of each other underwater. A young American (we presume) couple, David Sanders (Nick Nolte, five years after People magazine named him “The Sexiest Man Alive” and with his looks still relatively intact) and Gail Berke (Jacqueline Bisset, who in the opening scene is shown diving underwater wearing just a white T-shirt, black swim trunks and SCUBA gear; the way the shirt clings to her while wet made it clear she wasn’t wearing a bra, and you could see so much of her nipples, her aureoles and the luscious mounds of flesh connecting these to her body that posters of her that way became iconic items on the dorm walls of young straight college boys the way posters of Racquel Welch in her ultra-revealing prehistoric bikini in One Million Years, B.C. had a decade earlier), are diving for buried treasure off the Bermuda coast when they stumble on the three conjoined wrecks: a Spanish flagship from 1714, a French freighter that sailed with the Spanish fleet as part of what would later be called a convoy but which itself sank a year later, and a World War II submarine. The French freighter contained a special collection of jewels made for King Philip of Spain (which one? The most famous one, Philip II, reigned in the late 1500’s and sent the Spanish Armada to England) to impress Elizabeth Farnese, the Duchess of Parma, whom he wanted to marry, but like the Maltese falcon the treasure never reached Spain. 

The sub has its own treasure: thousands of ampules of medical-grade morphine which could easily be refined into pure heroin, and which is what the drug cartel headed by Henri Cloche (Louis Gossett, Jr.) is after — though they’re the sort of freewheeling criminal enterprise that will deal in anything as long as it will make them money and so they’re attracted to the idea of Spanish gold even though all they will do with the Duchess of Parma’s treasure is melt it down and sell it as ordinary gold, pearls and whatnot. To recover the treasure and establish its provenance David and Gail call on Romer Treece (Robert Shaw, whose presence in the cast as the old-salt owner of a decaying but still serviceable boat brings this movie even closer to Jaws), who’s written several books on the sunken Spanish treasures around Bermuda and owns a copy of the Havana Manifest, supposedly a listing of all the ships that sailed to and from Spain in the era of the conquistadores. There are a lot of things annoying about The Deep, among them the fact that though it was made in 1977 (and is therefore older than Citizen Kane and Casablanca were when I first saw them) it seems like a modern movie: O.K. action sequences and boring plot exposition scenes between them. It doesn’t help that, even though Peter Benchley co-wrote the script with Tracy Keenan Wynn, the plot really doesn’t make sense — we’re lurched around from menace to menace with little or no provocation — and it also doesn’t help that the director, Peter Yates, is a competent filmmaker but hardly in Steven Spielberg’s league fur suspense or thrills. There are also nods to Benchley’s previous success in the appearance of a giant white sea creature (we’re told it’s an unusually large moray eel) that menaces the characters, or the attempt of Cloche and his men (one really off-putting aspect of this film is its racism: all the good guys are white and all the bad guys — except Adam Coffin [Eli Wallach], one of Treece’s associates who sells him out — are Black) to kill Our Heroes by throwing bloody meat into the water as chum to attract, you guessed it, sharks. 

I remember seeing it when it first came out at a press screening (I was working for a magazine that ordinarily would have been too small to get free movie tickets, but a major firm doing publicity for movies in San Francisco had its office and its screening room in the same building as our office, so we got in) and remembering nothing about it but how hot Jacqueline Bisset looked in her clingy T-shirt underwater. Now I can see why: aside from some quite beautiful underwater photography the film really has little or nothing to offer — it’s not actively bad but it’s not very good either. Robert Shaw’s overacting has been criticized, but a) after Jaws this was how audiences expected Shaw to act, especially in a story by Peter Benchley; and b) his overacting at least helps to make up for the non-acting of Nolte and Bisset, who seem to be doing nothing more than hurling their hot bods at the camera and letting their physiques do their acting for them. It also doesn’t help that Nolte is afflicted with one of those horrible pageboy haircuts and matching moustaches that were all the rage in 1977, or that Bisset sometimes speaks in an American accent, sometimes in a British one and sometimes in a mishmash of the two that renders much of her dialogue virtually unintelligible. Add to that a DVD so old it offered only a 4:3 pan-and-scan aspect ratio version of the film, and an image quality so below what we expect from DVD’s of more recent films that early on Charles was saying it looked like an archive.org download, and The Deep emerges (or should I say submerges?) as a viewing experience that isn’t exactly unpleasant (although the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew could have had a blast with this film!) but isn’t all that memorable or entertaining either.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Christmas in Rockefeller Center (NBC-TV, aired November 28, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago, while Charles was at work, I watched the first musical Christmas special of the year, NBC’s Christmas in Rockefeller Center. (The conjunction I would have expected there was “at,” but they went with “in.”) The fact that it isn’t even December yet and the networks are already trotting out the stars to sing Christmas songs is itself a sign of the time and an indication of how little respite we get from all the holidays, which more or less flow into each other like a raging stream. The show was two hours long — most of the previous Christmas in Rockefeller Center shows have been just one hour — and featured a varied cast of musical acts actually surprisingly sounding quite a bit more similar than one would think given how many genres were represented. The best singing all night was done — no surprise — by Tony Bennett and Diana Krall, who just issued a duet album  and who were represented here by “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song.” Bennett’s voice (at age 91!) is hardly what it was when he made his breakthrough records in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but it’s still a surprisingly musical instrument — and he’s weathered the years better than the much younger Krall, whose voice has lost the flexibility it had on her early Verve recordings of jazz material. (I did resent when the show’s announcers claimed Bennett as a New Yorker; he was born in the same city I was, the one celebrated in the biggest hit he ever had: San Francisco.) What surprised me is how much the swing style of Bennett and Krall carried over to some of the other performers, including Brett Eldredge and Martina McBride, who are usually considered country singers. Part of that may be that the singers who didn’t bring touring bands of their own were backed by the Radio City Music Hall ensemble, an old-style big swing band, but it was amazing to hear Eldredge follow Tony Bennett (he did “Sleigh Ride” right after the Bennett/Krall “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and an original called “Glow” right after the Bennett/Krall “The Christmas Song”) and swing almost as hard.

The show began with John Legend doing a nice but bland song called “What Christmas Means to Me” — Legend’s voice is pretty but dull (if I really wanted to dismiss him I’d call him the Lionel Richie of our time) and it’s hard to believe that he’s achieved the quadrifecta of show-biz awards: Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy. He sounded better later on doing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” on which he sang and played piano, though Judy Garland remains untouchable in this song. Pentatonix, the a cappella group that annoys me with their continued use of drum-machine sounds (at first I thought they were “cheating” on the a cappella concept by using a real drum machine, but later I learned it was just one or more of the Pentatonickers supplying those percussion effects vocally), did “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas” towards the beginning of the show and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” towards the end, and they were O.K. but I still want them to lose the drum machine even if that means they’d have to change their name to Quadratonix. A young country diva named Kellie Pickler did an O.K. version of “Santa Baby” that compared to Eartha Kitt’s about the way Britney Spears compares to Madonna, but later she did “Joy to the World” with a Black gospel choir behind her and acquitted herself a good deal better. Rocker Rob Thomas did an original of his called “A New York Christmas” which he apparently wrote right after 9/11 as an inspirational anthem to lift up the city’s spirits. Martina McBride did “Winter Wonderland” more or less along the lines of Aretha Franklin’s bizarre early-1960’s version for Columbia, and later covered the Andy Williams “Happy Holidays/It’s the Holiday Season” medley in nice style — she didn’t swing quite as hard as her “country” colleague Brett Eldredge but she still got into the jazz spirit. A young Black would-be R&B diva named Ella Mai (I found myself oddly resenting that she’s copped two-thirds of the name of the great 1940’s singer Ella Mae Morse, a white woman who could legitimately claim to have been the first white female rocker) did the Motown song “This Christmas” and “Silent Night,” and would be good if she’d stop overdoing the “soul” effects — it seems she can’t sing a sustained high note without “worrying” and ornamenting it to death.

The show also featured an excerpt from the New York City Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker as an obvious promo for Disney’s new movie The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (what is this, The Tales of Hoffmann meets The Lord of the Rings?) and a truly atrocious act from America’s Got Talent winner Darci Lynne, who turned out to be a ventriloquist whose dummy, “Petunia,” is a giant stuffed rabbit. (I’m not making this up, you know!) Her appearance confirmed my nickname for the America’s Got Talent show: America’s Got a Lot of People Willing to Make Themselves Look Ridiculous to Get on Television. The big feature at the end was a guest appearance by Diana Ross, whose face looks like she’s had a lot of “work” done and whose hair looks like someone just cooked a plate of jet-black spaghetti noodles and hasn’t put the sauce on yet (so that’s where Michael Jackson got that look!). She did a medley of “Somewhere at Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” “Jingle Bells” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and followed that with a nostalgic original called “When I Think of Home.” I’ve never thought that much of Diana Ross’s voice, especially post-Supremes — “rougher” woman singers like Aretha Franklin and her just as great “Queen of Soul” predecessor, Dinah Washington, are more my taste in Black soul divas — but it’s held  up surprisingly well and, all the diva bitchiness about her private life that’s been reported over the years, she’s still a class act.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Beyond the Lights (Black Entertainment Television, Relativity Media, Homegrown Pictures, 20th Century-Fox, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran us a movie last night that was one of the very best recent films Charles and I have seen lately: Beyond the Lights, whose generic title (it was originally supposed to be called Blackbird, after the depressing Nina Simone song that provides the inspiration for its central character, but a number of other movies coming out just then were also called Blackbird and so it got changed) masks a brilliant film, written and directed by Black woman director Gina Prince-Bythewood. In some ways its basic situation is reminiscent of The Bodyguard — aspiring superstar Noni Rae (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who deserves a huge career despite her mouthful of a name[1]) attempts suicide following a performance at the Billboard music awards and is saved by the police officer assigned to provide her security that night, Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker); they fall in love but have an uncertain relationship due to the clashes between their relative positions in the social order — but Prince-Bythewood provides far more complex, rounded characters than Bodyguard writer Lawrence Kasdan did, and as a director she’s far above Mick Jackson’s league. (Jackson is one of quite a number of recent directors of whom I’ve joked, “He thinks he’s Alfred Hitchcock … and isn’t.”) The film begins in London’s impoverished Brixton district in 1999, when Noni (played as a child by India Jean-Jacques) enters a local talent contest singing an a cappella version of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” and places second to a white girl who tap-dances. Noni’s mother Macy Jean (Minnie Driver, playing the role with the same grim determination as she played the mother of a disabled kid in the recent, and regrettably short-lived, ABC-TV series Speechless) makes Noni throw away the trophy she won that night, saying, “Do you want to be a runner-up, or do you want to be a winner?” Then Prince-Bythewood gives us a poignant shot of a wing off the trophy, broken off and laying in the street, before she cuts to the present (or at least the 2014 present, when this film was made). 

Though she hasn’t released an album of her own yet, Noni has already become a star thanks to her guest appearance on three rap songs by a white British rapper named Kid Culprit (played by a real white British rapper who calls himself “Machine Gun Kelly,” after the 1930’s gangster — you see why I think most rap is immoral and evil? — though he’s billed in the credits of this film with his real name, Richard Colson Baker), but she’s resentful that instead of showcasing her voice, the songs she’s recorded and especially the videos she’s shot for them have basically turned her into a sex object. We see one of these, for a song called “Masterpiece” (on which, as she does through most of the film, Gugu Mbatha-Raw does her own singing), which consists mostly of her wearing a bare-minimum skin-tight outfit, spreading her legs and virtually assaulting the camera with her crotch — one gets the impression she’s about to use its lens as a dildo. The sex-objectification of Noni has been done with the full approval of her mom — in a beautiful piece of dialogue Noni confesses that she was hoping her mom would say no to the latest piece of sexual exploitation her record company and her co-star wanted to put her through (including Kid Culprit and her drifting into a real-life affair which Noni describes thusly: “We texted, we hit it, and we texted about hitting it”), which mom never did because she was apparently perfectly O.K. with her daughter being merchandised as essentially an animated sex doll. Things come to a head when after her latest public performance she goes to the hotel where she and her mom are staying in Beverly Hills, climbs onto the balcony, perches herself over the rail and prepares to jump — and she actually does lose control, only Kaz is there to save her and pull her back to safety. Kaz is given a reward check from Noni’s label to lie and say Noni’s fall and near-death was an “accident,” and the two maintain contact as much as possible given the protective cocoon her mom and her label’s business people have built around her. (At one point Kaz goes to one of Noni’s gigs hoping to be let in backstage to see her, and he’s told by a security guard to “go back there with the rest of the groupies.”) 

Much of what makes this film interesting is that Prince-Bythewood’s script is constructed so both leads are living lives largely controlled by ambitious parents who want to live out their own dreams vicariously through their kids. Kaz’s father is referred to only as “Captain Nicol” and he, like his son, is a police officer, but he’s lining up Kaz to run for a local political office as the stepping stone to him becoming the second African-American U.S. President (a point Prince-Bythewood makes economically by showing us the interior of Kaz’s apartment, which prominently features a book called Obama), and he’s scared that an affair with a pop star who’s getting a lot of bad press in the tabloids for attempting suicide is going to distract him from his political ambitions and also cost him the support of African-American ministers whose help he needs to win elective office in a Black district. Noni’s label executives threaten to drop her and cancel the release of her upcoming solo CD if she can’t convince people that she didn’t actually try to kill herself, and they give her an ultimatum that her career as a singer will be made or broken by her upcoming performance at the Black Entertainment Television (BET) awards show. (BET was one of the co-producers of this film.) Only she decides to announce to Kid Culprit that she’s breaking up with him just before they’re about to go on, and he responds by sabotaging their performance and denouncing her on stage in front of millions of TV viewers — and Kaz, there at Noni’s invitation, punches him out. The two lovebirds flee to Mexico after their fiasco of a performance and hide out in an obscure resort town, where they live a brief idyll until one night they got out to a karaoke bar and he tries to sing. He has a decent but strictly amateur voice, and he’s bombing with the crowd when she decides to help him out and takes the stage for an a cappella rendition of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird.” 

Alas, they’re “outed” when someone in the audience realizes who it is (even though she’s taken out her purple hair extensions in an attempt to remain incognito), films it on their smartphone and uploads it to social media with the caption, “AMAZING! Noni sings Nina Simone’s ‘Blackbird.’” Noni’s mom comes down to get her, a posse of reporters shows up at the door of the cabin Noni and Kaz were sharing, and the video becomes so sensationally successful the record company tries to rehire her — only Noni’s mom realizes they already officially sent her notice terminating the contract, and if they want Noni to re-sign they’re going to have to shred the copies they’ve already pressed of her CD and reprint it with a couple of Noni’s own songs added. The pressures on Noni become so great she fires her mom as her manager after her mom slaps her during an argument (both the beginning and ending of this film reminded me of the later stages of Gypsy, with Gypsy Rose Lee turning on her monumentally controlling mother and firing her just before she reaches her career height) and she agrees to perform in her native Britain for the first time since her mom took her out of the country to make her a star in the U.S., where she sings, not Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” but a new song of her own on the same theme but a more optimistic one that says this blackbird is ready and able to soar on her own. She also introduces Kaz on stage after he’s overcome his fear of flying (he’d never been on a plane until an earlier sequence in which she chartered one, blindfolded him so he wouldn’t know what was happening, and virtually raped him aboard the plane) to join her for her British gig. The ending seemed a bit too sappy and rom-commy to me (I had thought Prince-Bythewood was going for a bittersweet finale in which the two lovebirds have liberated each other from their parents’ expectations but realize they can’t make their own relationship work), but overall Beyond the Lights had me enthralled in ways modern movies rarely do. 

Charles made the observation that in some ways it seemed like a 1930’s movie; though the sex scenes between the leads are far more explicit than they could have been under the Production Code, they’re still suggestive rather than raw: we don’t get to see Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker pound away at each other, and we see very little bare flesh. Indeed, there were a number of 1930’s movies which used this same basic plot line — spoiled star meets proletarian boyfriend and gets taken down several pegs (Bombshell with Jean Harlow, 1933; In Person with Ginger Rogers, 1935; Go West, Young Man with Mae West, 1936) — though Gina Prince-Bythewood (whose career since making this film has been mostly in TV, alas; she deserves more and better feature-film opportunities!) uses the greater sexual honesty allowed to today’s filmmakers without abusing it as so many other filmmakers have done. According to imdb.com’s “Trivia” page on Beyond the Lights, the project was originally developed at Sony Pictures Entertainment but they decided to pass on it because they didn’t think Gugu Mbatha-Raw was strong enough for the lead — what was wrong with those people? She’s absolutely magnificent in the role, carrying off the emotional minefield Prince-Bythewood wrote for the character and nailing every one of Noni’s conflicting desires and drives. Beyond the Lights makes me want to track down Prince-Bythewood’s other films (as Black Panther did for Ryan Coogler — it’s interesting that the two best modern movies I’ve seen all year both involved Black writer-directors and mostly Black casts!) and hopes she gets more chances to do work of this amazing quality.


[1] — According to imdb.com, Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s real name is Gugulethu Sophia Mbatha and she’s the mixed-race daughter of Black South African doctor Patrick Mbatha and white British nurse Anne Raw. So she, like her character here, is mixed-race.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Tropic Thunder (DreamWorks, Paramount, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked out a movie from the DVD backlog called Tropic Thunder, a curious spoof of war movies whose auteur was Ben Stiller: he not only starred but also directed, co-wrote the script (with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen) and had one of the multifarious producer credits that have grown on modern movies like kudzu. The film takes place in 1999 and deals with a film crew on location in Quang Tri, Viet Nam reproducing an event described thusly in the movie’s opening titles: “In the Winter of 1969, an elite force of the U.S. Army was sent on a top secret assignment in Southeast Viet Nam. The objective: rescue Sgt. Four Leaf Tayback from a heavily guarded NVA Prison Camp. The mission was considered to be near-suicide. Of the ten men sent, four returned. Of those four, three wrote books about what happened. Of those three, two were published. And of those two, only one got a movie deal. This is the story of the men who attempted to make that movie.” The men who attempt to make that movie include several actors with clashing agendas but similar prima donna attitudes: Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), a serious actor with five Academy Awards and a penchant for totally losing himself in his characters, who’s undergone a controversial “skin pigmentation change” to play a Black character; Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), who’s become an action star with a series of films called Scorched which detail what would happen if the earth stopped rotating on its axis but took a career nosedive when he made a film called Simple Jack, a sort of Forrest Gump meets Dr. Doolittle about a mentally retarded (oops, “learning disabled”) farm kid who talks to animals, which bombed both critically and commercially; Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), who’s coming off a series of films called Fatso Fart about a family of oversized people, all played by Portnoy; Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a Black rap star whose big hit is about women’s genitalia (“I Love Tha Pussy”) but who’s really a deeply closeted Gay man (though we don’t learn that about him until the movie is really over) and who’s naturally resentful that though he’s in the film, its most significant Black character is being played by a white actor; and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), who’s young, hungry and enough of a beginner he takes his job seriously and doesn’t indulge in the antics of his bigger-named co-stars.

Tropic Thunder does a lot of meta-movie tricks: after the usual program of trailers to genuine movies we’ve come to expect to preface a DVD, the first thing we see when we hit “Play” is … more trailers, these for the fictional films the actor-characters of the film we’re about to see have made. (There’s a nice one for Satan’s Alley, a medieval costume drama in which the fictional Kurt Lazarus and the real Tobey Maguire co-star as monks who have a forbidden affair with each other: an in-joke reference to the film Wonder Boys, in which Robert Downey, Jr. and Tobey Maguire were shown as Gay lovers … well, as one-night stand partners, anyway.) All the actors are working for a crazy British director named Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) who’s managed to fall one month behind schedule after only five days of shooting, and who blows the film’s big scene when Speedman and Lazarus get in an argument over which of them should cry during a big scene, and as a result Cockburn (whose last name is pronounced the way it’s spelled — the actual pronunciation is “Coburn” but obviously a group of comedians whose stock in trade has been dirty jokes couldn’t resist pronouncing the name to put the word “cock” in it) doesn’t have the cameras running for the big combat scene involving three aircraft dropping bombs and lighting up half the Viet Namese jungle and setting the other half on fire. The film’s producer, Les Grossman (Tom Cruise, virtually unrecognizable with a shaved head and glasses that, except for his goatee beard, make him look like President Merkin Muffley in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove), says he’s going to fire Cockburn if he doesn’t gain control of the actors, and as a result Cockburn hits on a strategy: he’ll wire the entire jungle with digital cameras and film the movies with the actors not knowing, and thinking they’re in real danger.

Only Cockburn gets killed almost immediately — he’s beheaded and the actors come on his severed head and at first think it’s a prop (one of them gets his blood on his fingers and licks it, thinking it’ll be maple syrup) — and the actors find themselves lost in the jungle and facing a real enemy. At first I thought they were pulling the old Harry Langdon Soldier Man gag of having the actors run into a company of real Viet Cong who were stationed in such a remote part of the jungle they didn’t get the word that the Viet Nam War was over, but it turns out they have drifted out of Viet Nam into the nearby country of Laos and stumbled on a drug cartel called the Flaming Dragon, whose head is a 12-year-old boy and who manufacture one-eighth of the world’s entire supply of heroin. The Flaming Dragon fighters are convinced the actors are really agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration out to get them in the jungle and destroy their operation, and they fire back with everything they have — real bullets against the actors’ prop guns. The film consists of the actors and the Flaming Dragon going up against each other, and scenes in which Speedman (deliberately made up to look like the relatively young Sylvester Stallone from Rambo) and Portnoy are captured by the Flaming Dragon and Speedman is forced to put on his Smiling Jack costume and re-enact scenes from the film, since the Flaming Dragon members appear to be the only people in the world who liked the film.

At one point the Flaming Dragon demands a $50 million ransom for Speedman’s return, which they later raise to $100 million — and in the film’s funniest and most viciously satirical scene, Les Grossman, to the horror of Speedman’s agent Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey, also virtually unrecognizable), does a dollars-and-cents calculation and figure that between the life insurance policy they have on Speedman and all the money they can make on reissuing his films as a memorial tribute, he’s literally worth more dead than alive — and they bribe Peck into going along with not ransoming the actor by offering Peck his own private jet. The actors finally escape the Flaming Dragon after Portnoy, a drug addict who had concealed his supply in jellybeans and who was tempted to snort the Dragons’ entire heroin production in one go, figures out how to get the Dragon guards to sleep for 16 hours by shoving their faces into the pile of heroin — and this gives the actors the chance to escape via the helicopter their special effects team head has provided for them, though Speedman briefly says he wants to stay with the Dragons because he’s found real meaning in his life with them and even adopted one of them as his son — only when his “adoptee” tries to stab him in the neck with a pen knife, Speedman realizes what’s up and gets the hell away in the nick of time. The final sequence takes place at the Academy Awards ceremony, where Speedman wins the award for Best Actor for Tropic Blunder, a movie made about the fiasco of filming Tropic Thunder which, in a Seven Keys to Baldpate-style metafictional ending, is the film we have actually just seen. After Tropic Thunder was over, Charles said, “I don’t know if I liked it or not” — which was my feeling exactly: I’m tempted to put it in the good-movie-that-could-have-been-better category — it occurs to me that instead of killing off Cockburn so early, they should have kept him alive in a secret jungle redoubt, where he’s monitoring the output of the cameras with which he’s wired the jungle and maintaining an almost god-like detachment as he sits in front of the monitor screens and edits the movie in real time.

Charles described it as a meeting of the making-of-Apocalypse-Now documentary Hearts of Darkness with The Hunger Games, and that’s largely accurate (though my idea for the film and Cockburn’s role in it would have made it even more Hunger Games-esque than the film we have) and I suspect his I-don’t-know-if-I-liked-it reaction came from the same source as mine: the film is so relentless in its violence (even though Cockburn is the only person we actually see killed) and shot so much like a serious war movie that through much of it you don’t know whether you should be laughing. When the lame fart jokes (it’s practically a law that you can’t make a comedy these days without lame fart jokes — something for which I suspect the blame rests with Mel Brooks, who did a tasteless but also screamingly funny fart scene in Blazing Saddles which seems to have regrettably inspired the next two generations of “comedy” filmmakers) and the other snippy lines of supposed wit appear, they almost seem more like comedy relief in a “serious” war movie (just as Buster Keaton’s Doughboys seemed to lose any sense of balance and become a surprisingly grim look at war for something that was supposed to be a comedy). It’s a weird movie that is perched oddly on the boundary between comedy and drama, though it does avoid one trap a lot of war movies have fallen into: the troops (and/or the actors playing them) aren’t given sappy love-interest stories to play in between battles. Tropic Thunder is also the sort of movie that references so many other movies Charles and I both lost count, and as an edgy war comedy I think I liked Hot Shots! Part Deux better (I’ve never seen Part Un) if only because it had elements of political satire and it benefited from Richard Crenna repeating his role from the original Rambo — but it’s considerably better than most so-called “comedies” today and its satirical observations on the movie business and the whole cult of celebrity ring vividly true.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

RKO 281 (HBO Films, WGBH-TV, Scott Free Productions, 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a couple of movies for Thanksgiving, and one of them was profoundly interesting even though it was an O.K. movie that was essentially picking off the bones of a classic: RKO 281, a 1999 made-for-TV production about the making of RKO’s 281st production, Orson Welles’ auteur masterpiece Citizen Kane. The central intrigue of RKO 281 was the well-known fight between Welles and William Randolph Hearst, whose life provided much (though not all) of the raw material Welles and his screenwriting collaborator, Herman J. Mankiewicz, used for their film. RKO 281, directed by Benjamin Ross from a script by John Logan partially inspired by a PBS documentary by Richard Ben Cramer and Thomas Lennon, provided essentially a print-the-legend version of the Hearst-Welles clash, and like so many movies claiming their origins in a true story, it’s a good movie as it stands but could have been considerably better if more of the real story had been used. The basic outline is familiar: in 1941 George Schaefer, an executive with little or now movie experience, had been put in as production chief at RKO Radio Pictures — the job was vacant because its previous occupant, Pandro S. Berman, had followed the lead of an earlier RKO head, David O. Selznick, and become a unit producer at MGM (it’s indicative of the low prestige of RKO that two major movie producers thought it would be more prestigious and lucrative to work as a subaltern at MGM than as the head of RKO). Schaefer’s idea for rehabilitating RKO’s reputation was about a decade or so ahead of its time: contract with independent producers and provide them partial financing in exchange for distribution rights to their films, so RKO would get product for its theatres without having to cover the full costs of making their films. RKO already had a distribution contract with Walt Disney (with whom they’d made a ton of money as distributor for his pioneering cartoon feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937) and Schaefer signed a similar deal with Sam Goldwyn which likewise was a money-maker for RKO for the next decade.

But Schaefer also signed independent production deals with Pare Lorentz, a documentary filmmaker who’d made the half-hour shorts The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River for the federal government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) — though his contract was cancelled without his proposed RKO movie, Name, Age and Occupation, being made (decades later he published his script for it) — and with Orson Welles, who had become a major celebrity largely through his radio work in general and one radio show in particular, his October 30, 1938 broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds that dramatized Wells’ tale of a Martian invasion of Earth by covering it as if it were a real event which was interrupting normal radio broadcasts. The show started a panic among listeners who thought the event was real — though recent researchers have said just how many people believed the show was real and did things like attempt to flee the oncoming Martian invaders has been overstated big-time — and made Welles not just a boy wonder of Broadway but a national figure. Not surprisingly, Schaefer signed Welles in the belief that The War of the Worlds would be his first film (though the movie rights were held by Paramount, which had bought them for Cecil B. DeMille in the 1920’s, though they didn’t actually make the film until 1953), but Welles had other ideas. He though of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, an atmospheric tale of Africa under imperialist rule and a crazy Col. Kurtz who rules over the natives as a god, and conceived of shooting the whole thing as a point-of-view experiment in which the camera would play Marlow, the traveler who comes on Kurtz’ compound and ultimately destroys him. RKO not surprisingly turned him down, and Welles cycled through a number of ideas before he and Herman Mankiewicz, who had drunk and insulted himself out of all the major studios (he famously wisecracked himself out of a job with Columbia when Harry Cohn, the studio’s head, said he judged movies on the basis of how much his butt squirmed in his seat when he watched them, and Mankiewicz snapped back, “Imagine — the whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass!”), settled down on a project originally called American

American dealt with the life of a super-powerful newspaper publisher and was based largely on Mankiewicz’ memories of hanging out with William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies at their various redoubts, including the famous Hearst Castle at San Simeon as well as another beachfront resort called Wyntoon (though Davies, Hearst’s protégée and long-time mistress, hated Wyntoon so much she called it “Spitoon”), until Hearst’s revulsion at Mankiewicz’ alcoholism got himself thrown out of the royal presence. Welles is shown in RKO 281 as an insufferable egomaniac with pretensions of genius who seems to be out to offend Hearst just for the hell of it — there’s a scene in the film in which Welles is declaiming about the beauties of bullfighting and Hearst, who’s hosting the dinner party at which this is happening, is appalled at the cruelty behind the spectacle and says it’s wrong to torture animals for sport (today the consensus view, at least outside the Hispanic world, has very much swung around to Hearst’s position!), and Mankiewicz later accuses Welles of wanting to make a movie trashing Hearst just because “he insulted you at a dinner party.” RKO 281 delivers some nice shots of the production of Citizen Kane (though none of the other actors in it are profiled or even named, except for a passing reference to “Agnes” — Agnes Moorehead, who played Charles Foster Kane’s mother) but the main business is the conflict between Welles (Liev Schreiber, who’s good but not great in the role) and Hearst (James Cromwell), as well as their respective seconds, Mankiewicz (John Malkovich) and Davies (Melanie Griffith, who turns in a wonderful performance even though she doesn’t stutter as the real Davies did). According to John Logan’s script for RKO 281, Hearst tried to suppress Citizen Kane because he was so appalled at the way the script depicted and trashed his life, including some of his most private secrets (one legend that’s at least hinted at in RKO 281 was that Hearst was appalled at the use of his nickname for Davies’ private parts, “Rosebud,” as the motif for Citizen Kane), and he thought it was wrong and unfair for filmmakers to dredge up his past as raw material for a movie. 

The sources I’ve read suggest that Hearst was less upset at what Kane did to his reputation — he figured he was so rich and powerful, and so well known as a public figure, he wouldn’t suffer from it — but from the way it depicted Marion Davies as the pathetic (in both senses), untalented Susan Alexander. Marion Davies was actually a quite capable actress in light comedies, only Hearst insisted on casting her in elaborate period pieces and expecting her to be a serious actress (ironically, Davies’ best film, the 1928 MGM production Show People, casts her as an actress who becomes a star in comedies and then falls when she attempts dramas), and when Hearst tried to hire Frances Marion, Mary Pickford’s favorite writer, to write for Davies, he told Frances Marion, “I’m prepared to spend at least $1 million on each of Marion’s films.” Frances fired back, “That’s just the trouble! She’s a great comedienne, and you’re smothering her in production values” — and everyone else in Hollywood thought, “Thank goodness Frances Marion had the guts to tell him that! None of the rest of us dared!” Davies didn’t make an effective transition to sound, partly because of her stutter (though it wasn’t noticeable when she was singing or speaking memorized dialogue) and partly because when sound came in she, like a lot of other major female silent stars (including Gloria Swanson and Corinne Griffith), was hitting her early 30’s, a dangerous time for women stars even now. But she was considerably more than the no-talent bitch a lot of people who’ve never seen a complete Marion Davies film start-to-finish assume from Dorothy Comingore’s riveting performance as Susan Alexander Kane. The biggest problem with RKO 281 is it portrays Orson Welles as a political naïf who takes on one of America’s major capitalists heedless of the power the man has for retribution. In fact, Welles was well aware of the power of Hearst and other media tycoons, and indeed that was one of the reasons he made a film about one: as he explained in a fascinating statement he released in January 1941 but was never published in full until Frank Brady included it in his 1980’s biography of Welles:

I wished him to be an American, since I wanted to make him an American President. Deciding against this, I could find no other position in public life beside that of a newspaper publisher in which a man of enormous wealth exercises what might be called real power in a democracy. It is possible to show how a powerful industrialist is potent in certain phases of government. It is possible to show how he can be good or bad according to the viewpoint of whoever is discussing him, but no industrialist can ever achieve in a democratic government the kind of general and catholic power with which I wanted to invest my particular character. The only solution seemed to place my man in charge of some important channel of communication — radio or newspaper. It was essential for the plot of the story that my character [Kane] live to a great age, but be dead at the commencement of the narrative. This immediately precluded radio. There was no other solution except to make Kane a newspaper publisher — the owner of a great chain of newspapers. It was needful that Kane himself represent new ideas in his field. The history of the newspaper business obviously demanded that Kane be what is generally referred to as a yellow journalist.

In fact, I’ve noted in these pages before that both of Welles’ most famous works — the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast and Citizen Kane — are about the media, and in particular how our perceptions of what’s going on in the world are shaped by the ways we are told about them and the personal agendas of media owners. (In that he was essentially making Marshall McLuhan’s media critique two decades before McLuhan did.) RKO 281 naturally emphasizes the sleazier aspects of Hearst’s response to Citizen Kane, including threatening the studios to reveal secrets of the major stars’ sex lives (there are shots of a few still photos purportedly of major male stars of the period having Gay sex with each other which look like the crudely staged underground porn shots of the period) and running anti-Semitic denunciations of the studios’ Jewish heads, and it includes the offer Louis B. Mayer made to George Schaefer to pay RKO the full production cost of Citizen Kane in return for destroying the negative and all prints. RKO 281 includes a scene of Welles making a Capra-esque plea to the RKO board to turn down this offer, saying that if they agreed to let the other studios suppress the film they were acting like Hitler and the Nazis on the march through Europe. What it doesn’t show was that Welles was a savvy enough publicist that he mounted a major P.R. campaign of his own, giving private screenings of the film to just about every sympathetic journalist he could think of who worked for a company other than Hearst’s, and he got what he was hoping for — articles hailing that there was a great movie out there and lamenting that the readers might never get a chance to see it. As playwright John O’Hara wrote in Newsweek:

It is with exceeding regret that your faithful bystander reports that he has just seen a picture which he thinks must be the best picture he ever saw.

With no less regret he reports that he has just seen the best actor in the history of acting.

Name of picture: Citizen Kane.

Name of actor: Orson Welles.

Reason for regret: You, my dears, may never get to see this picture. … A few obsequious and/or bulbous middle-aged ladies[1] think that the picture ought not to be shown, owing to the fact that the picture is rumored to have something to do with a certain publisher, who for the first time in his life, or maybe the last, shall be nameless. That the nameless publisher might be astute enough to realize that for the first time in his rowdy life he had been made a human being did not worry the loyal ladies. Sycophancy of that kind, like curtseying, is deliberate. The ladies merely wait for a chance to show that they can still do it, even if it means cracking a femur. This time I think they might have cracked off more than they can chew. I hope.

According to imdb.com, RKO 281 was originally intended as a big-budget movie for theatrical release with Edward Norton as Welles, Marlon Brando as Hearst, Dustin Hoffman as Mankiewicz and Madonna as Davies. Then the budget got cut and the film became a “B”-list — or at least an “A-minus” list — film for HBO. Frankly, I think all four of the principals who actually appear in RKO 281 are better than the bigger “names” would have been — though Orson Welles remains a virtually impossible role to cast with anyone else. (I think the best Welles I’ve seen is Vincent D’Onofrio in his cameo appearance in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.) RKO 281 is actually a quite good movie, though the real-life time line is jumbled — writer Logan has Hearst undergo a financial crisis that causes him to call off his campaign against Citizen Kane, and shows Davies helping him out by selling some of the jewels he’d given her (that really happened, but in 1937, not 1941 — and, ironically, the event is depicted in Citizen Kane as occurring in 1929, in the immediate wake of the stock market crash) — and the facts of the story, particularly Welles’ fascinating P.R. campaign to get his movie released (which had the effect of turning around the RKO “suits”’ attitude towards it on the ground that the public controversy surrounding the movie might get people to want to see it and make it a hit —which, alas, it didn’t), might have made an even more interesting story than the one we get here.



[1] — The “ladies” were Hearst’s Hollywood columnist, Louella Parsons, and syndicated columnist Hedda Hopper, who pretended to be bitter rivals but were really close friends. It was Hopper who leaked to Parsons word that Citizen Kane was a movie à clef about William Randolph Hearst, and Parsons who in turn informed Hearst that the film was about him.

Club Paradise (Monogram, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, after RKO 281 Charles and I watched a far less interesting film: Club Paradise, a 1945 Monogram production that was originally released under the title Sensation Hunters. In 1933 the first iteration of Monogram had released a film called Sensation Humters that proved to be one of the unsung masterpieces of the so-called “pre-Code” era of loose Production Code enforcement and an important precursor of film noir. In 1948 Monogram released the 1945 Sensation Hunters to TV under its original title, but two years later they changed its name to Club Paradise when they put the 1933 Sensation Hunters in their TV release package as well. I briefly had my hopes up that the 1945 Sensation Hunters was a remake of the marvelous 1933 original, but it turned out Monogram used nothing from the first Sensation Hunters but the title. The 1945 Club Paradise, nèe Sensation Hunters, starts out with its best scene — a darkly lit noir exterior shot in which a shadowy figure enters a building and we hear two gunshots on the soundtrack but don’t see who shot whom — and the rest of it is a surprisingly dull extended flashback (a gimmick used by Lifetime a lot in their recent productions, and it didn’t play any better in 1945 than it does now) about nice girl Julie Rogers (Dorothy Merrick), her boyfriend Ray Lawson (the obnoxious Eddie Quillan) — an aspiring trumpet player in a nightclub small even by Monogram standards, whose ambition is to take his band to a more prestigious spot and become the next Harry James — along with a sister and brother-in-law who are staying with her insanely strict father Mark (Byron Foulger).

Ray saves $80 towards the $320 he needs to buy a new book for his band with which he can hopefully score a better job, but he ends up gambling away his nut at an illegal casino which is raided. He and Julie are arrested and told by the night-court judge, “$30 or 30 days.” The broke Ray has to serve the 30 days; Julie is bailed out by her dad but he throws her out and says he never wants to see her again. A desperate Julie moves into the Paradise Club, a nightclub with living quarters upstairs — it seems the performers live there the way nurses lived in hospitals in the 1930’s movies about them — and eventually the hard-bitten club owner Mae (Isabel Jewell, stealing the film) gives her a job in the club’s chorus line. Alas, Julie meets and falls in love with no-good rotter Danny Burke (Robert Lowery, top-billed) and sticks by him even after he disappears for long stretches, runs through a pile of money he borrowed from a loan shark who of course turns up at the Paradise Club and demands it … or else, and after he romances just about every other reasonably attractive female in the cast. There’s a scene in which one of the Paradise Club choristers is in desperate need of medical attention after an infection turned into an emergency — it’s obviously a botched abortion but with the Production Code in full force in 1945 that could only be obliquely hinted at — and the generous Julie helps her out.

There are also a couple of songs, one sung by Mae in an early sequence and one by Julie towards the end, but the voice sounds so similar I suspect Monogram could only stretch the budget to hire one singer to double for both. Ray returns to the action and turns out to have got his band together, hired his “killer” arranger and landed a spot at the Continental Club — a more prestigious spot than the Paradise (and Monogram deserves credit for creating three nightclubs that look sufficiently different from each other we can believe what we’re told about where each is on the nightclub food chain) — only he wants Julie to sing with his band and hopefully become his girlfriend again. Instead she catches Danny in a lie as he’s about to run off with another woman, and shoots him. The End. Club Paradise had potential but it got pretty much squandered with by-the-numbers acting (except for Jewell), two screenwriters (Dennis Cooper and John Faxon) on cliché autopilot, and O.K. but uninspired direction from Christy Cabanne, the last and least illustrious of D. W. Griffith’s four assistants on The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance who became directors themselves. (The others were Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning and Raoul Walsh.) One imdb.com reviewer compared it to Nightmare Alley, a major-studio (20th Century-Fox) production with a major star (Tyrone Power) made in 1947, two years later, though the Power film it was obviously copying is Rose of Washington Square, made in 1939 and so obviously derivative of the Fanny Brice story (with Alice Faye as the “Brice” character) that Brice sued and won an out-of-court settlement — and though Rose of Washington Square is hardly a great movie, it’s a much better one than this and is more effective at convincing us why that nice young woman clings so tightly to that no-good man!

Monday, November 19, 2018

Betrayal: The Plot to Steal the White House (Partisan Films/MS-NBC, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up on MS-NBC for a show called Betrayal: The Plot to Steal the White House, a special hosted by Rachel Maddow that was not about the allegations of the Trump campaign colluding with Russia to rig the 2016 election in his favor and make sure he won. Instead it’s about the long-rumored intervention of Richard Nixon’s Presidential campaign to sabotage the Paris peace talks to end the Viet Nam war in 1968 so Lyndon Johnson couldn’t have his “October surprise” and be able to declare an end to the war and enable his vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, to succeed him. The alleged go-between was Anna Chennault, widow of General Claire Chennault (who had led the “Flying Tigers” using U.S. planes and equipment to bomb the Japanese positions in China in World War II well before the U.S. formally entered the war) and a major activist in the so-called “China Lobby” that for decades kept the U.S. from recognizing or having normal relations with the Communist government that took over China in 1949. Chennault apparently had enough “pull” with both the South Viet Namese ambassador in Washington, Bao Diem, and with South Viet Namese president Nguyen Van Thieu to get South Viet Nam to stay out of the Paris peace talks (which had actually begun in February 1968 but with only the U.S. and the North Viet Namese government as parties — the U.S. was demanding that South Viet Nam be included and the North Viet Namese were demanding that the Viet Cong, which depending on which sources you believe was either a guerrilla army financed and supported by the North or an independent resistance movement — most likely it was a little bit of both — also be included) until after the election on the ground that they could get a better deal from Nixon than they could from Johnson or Humphrey. 

Maddow blessedly left the parallels between the allegations against Nixon and those against Trump unstated until the very end of the program, and she doesn’t get into the irony that by helping Nixon get elected President Anna Chennault ended up with the policy outcome she least wanted: Nixon and his Realpolitik national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, successfully arranged an overture to the Communist Chinese government in Beijing that led to U.S. recognition, normal trade relations and the ultimate outsourcing of much of America’s industrial production to China (one of the big issues on which Donald Trump would campaign for and win the presidency 50 years later). The reason this is coming out now is that, even though there have been rumors that this happened since 1968, Lyndon Johnson sealed all the documents about it in an envelope and deposited it in the Johnson Presidential Library with instructions that it not be opened until 50 years later … which is now. Maddow also claims that it was to get that sealed envelope that Nixon’s “Plumbers” planned their raid on the Brookings Institution in the mistaken belief that the envelope resided there — they didn’t and the Brookings Institution was never the subject of a Plumbers burglary, but famously the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee were — and to add irony on top of irony, Anna Chennault held her famous lobbying parties from her own home in the residential wing of Watergate!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

It Came from Outer Space (Universal-International, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi screening in Golden Hill (http://sdvsf.org/) consisted of two quite good movies from Universal-International’s science-fiction unit from the 1950’s, headed by William Alland (who got his start in the business as an actor, playing the reporter Thompson in Citizen Kane) and which featured its share of silly giant-arthropod movies like Tarantula, The Deadly Mantis and The Leech Woman but also generated some quite exciting and thoughtful films, many of them with Jack Arnold as his director. The two they showed last night were actually quite accomplished movies that rank among the best 1950’s U.S. sci-fi films, It Came from Outer Space (1953) and This Island Earth (1955). I’ve written about This Island Earth recently enough that I don’t feel a need to repeat myself — suffice it to say that it’s a beautiful movie and I’d love to see it remade with a suitably sensitive director and a writer able to combine the best elements from Raymond F. Jones’ source novel (which I read about a year ago and was startled to find was out-and-out Cold War propaganda without any of the moral ambiguity of the Franklin Coen-Edward G. O’Callaghan script for the movie) and the original film. It’s also amazing that this classic isn’t officially available from Universal Home Video and the screening proprietor had to make do with a private-label release. 

It Came from Outer Space — which is available officially, including at least one disc that contains the original 3-D version of the film (though we couldn’t watch it that way because the glasses that came with it work only with a TV or monitor screen, not a projected image) — is a 1953 production based on a story by Ray Bradbury, and though Harry Essex is the credited screenwriter an imdb.com “Trivia” poster said that most of the scenes, including the dialogue, came from Bradbury’s original treatment. I can readily believe that: the dialogue has a beautiful literary construction and much of it sounds like Bradbury reads. The film has a quiet, dignified strength to it and a subtlety that suggests Messrs. Alland, Arnold and Essex had seen the Val Lewton contemporary horror movies and decided to apply his less-is-more aesthetic to science-fiction. The original design for the film featured an ugly bug-eyed alien to be played by Edwin Parker — the all-purpose Universal stunt man who doubled for Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. in their later films for the studio and then got cast (and credited) as on-screen monsters in the 1950’s — though, wisely, Alland and Arnold decided not to use it (and instead the costume got recycled for This Island Earth!). Instead they suggested the alien’s presence with a shadowy, gelatinous mass that appears at times during the film and some intriguing alien’s P.O.V. shots that were literally filmed through a soap bubble (and had to be kept short because the bubble burst quickly). The principal human character in It Came from Outer Space is John Putnam (Richard Carlson), an amateur astronomer who’s moved to the (fictional) town of Sand Rock, Arizona so he can study the stars to his heart’s content and write articles about them, which seems to be the way he makes his living. He’s got a girlfriend, local schoolteacher Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) — in the opening scene we see them together at Putnam’s home and we get the impression they’re married, but they aren’t and Putnam has a rival for her affections, local sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake, who puts everyone in this movie one degree of separation from the Marx Brothers — Drake played the male romantic lead in the Marxes’ 1946 film A Night in Casablanca), who lectures her about skipping her classes when Putnam has told her to stay home and recover from the shock of what they’ve just seen. 

It seems that one night she and Putnam were out in the desert with a typical comic-relief character when they saw a fiery object hurtling through the skies and landing, digging a crater by the sheer force of its impact as it fell. Putnam descends into the newly dug crater and sees that the “meteor” is actually a spaceship and there appears to be a living being on it, but since he didn’t let the other two people in his party go down to see it (nor did he think to bring a camera and photograph it), they think he’s nuts and all that the thing was was a giant meteor. That’s what Putnam’s scientific mentor, university professor Dr. Snell (George Eldredge), thinks too when Putnam summons him to the site, but soon ordinary people in Sand Rock, including telephone linemen George (Russell Johnson) and Frank (Joe Sawyer), start disappearing and being replaced by emotionless duplicates (three years before the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers and two years before Jack Finney published his source novel for that story). It turns out that the spaceship’s inhabitants are kidnapping various Sand Rockians and assuming their identities because their actual appearance would be too repulsive for humans to stand, but the original people are unharmed and will be released as soon as the aliens do … whatever. Sheriff Warren, who says he inherited the job on the death of his father (sort of like J. A. Jance’s Arizona sheriff Joanne Brady inherited the job when her husband was killed in the line of duty), notes that a number of stores in Sand Rock are being burglarized but the only items being stolen are electrical equipment, including a large amount of copper wire. Eventually it turns out that the aliens are neither out to conquer the world nor to befriend it and bring it peace; they couldn’t care less about us one way or the other and all they’re doing is collecting enough stuff to repair their spacecraft so they, like E.T. in a later Universal classic, can go home. The aliens fix the spaceship, they leave, the people they’d kidnapped (including Ellen, much to Putnam’s relief — though out of all the kidnap victims, she’s the only one who dressed differently as herself and an alien replica — for some reason the replica Ellen was just wearing a white dress that showed as much of her breasts as they could get away with in 1953 while the real Ellen was dressed in a severe dress suit) are released unharmed, and the film ends with a warning from Putnam that we undoubtedly haven’t seen the last of beings from space. 

It Came from Outer Space is distinguished by the quiet dignity and strength of the writing (thank you, Ray Bradbury!) and the equally somber quality of Arnold’s direction: the Arizona desert, with its alien-looking Joshua trees, were Arnold’s favorite location (even in movies like his noir thriller The Tattooed Stranger that had no science-fictional element), and Clifford Stine’s cinematography is beautifully contrasty and almost noir, a far cry from the plain photography most science-fiction films (especially ones in black-and-white) got in the 1950’s. Charles noted that even though we were watching a 2-D print-down of a 3-D movie, the print preserved much of the dimensionality, with excellent depth of field and a clarity rare in 2-D print-downs of 3-D films. The film also has an unusually extreme stereo sound mix (which probably worked better in the 3-D version, which I’d like to see sometime), with car-horn honks and other sound effects coming from extreme angles to the right or left. The acting is functional rather than brilliant, though Carlson’s taciturnicity works for his character (as it would the next year in what was probably the most popular Alland-Arnold film, The Creature from the Black Lagoon). Though no composer is credited (just Joseph Gershenson, the overall head of Universal’s music department) and therefore it’s likely the music was just assembled from stock tracks, the music works for the film (aside from a typical 1950’s science-fiction overuse of the theremin) and I was struck that the opening theme when the spacecraft lands was a virtual note-for-note rip-off of the opening of Stravinsky’s The Firebird! It Came from Outer Space is a lovely movie that somewhat got lost in the shuffle of 1950’s science-fiction cheapies but it’s one of the strongest of them (as is This Island Earth), and it’s also one of the most successful efforts to bring Ray Bradbury’s sensibility to the screen despite the dorky title (it’s certainly better, and more in keeping with Bradbury’s style, than the fun but tacky The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms!).

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Astronaut (Universal Television, 1972)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The two films at last night’s Mars movie screening in Golden Hill (http://marsmovieguide.com/) were both made in the 1970’s and were products of the conspiracy theorizing fashionable at the time, which seems to have started with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the totally impossible “explanation” that the U.S. government put forth that it was all the work of Lee Harvey Oswald, a lousy shot with a lousier rifle in a sixth-floor window shooting at a motorcade that was moving away from him. Both these films were based on the common assumption of a lot of people back then that the U.S. had never really landed people on the moon — that the whole thing had been faked in a movie studio by professional filmmakers (at least one version of the conspiracy even named the professional filmmakers who had allegedly faked it: Stanley Kubrick and his crew from 2001: A Space Odyssey, working on that film’s leftover sets) and the dastardly conspiracy was just waiting to be unraveled by an intrepid reporter, detective or free-lance do-gooder (or troublemaker, depending on your point of view) with sufficient luck and determination to figure it out and avoid being assassinated himself for his pains. The first one was The Astronaut (a title that surprisingly has only one other listing on imdb.com), a 1972 production of the TV-movie division of Universal (you can tell from the very dull block-lettered design of the credits) directed by Robert Michael Lewis from a script by Charles Kuenstle, Robert Biheller and Gerald Di Pego. 

The conceit of this film is that the U.S. actually sent up superstar astronaut Col. Brice Randolph (Monte Markham, who apparently was in a lot of made-for-TV movies at the time but whom I remembered only as the star of the disastrous and short-lived 1970’s attempt to reboot the Perry Mason TV series) to Mars and he got to the planet’s surface while his colleague Higgins (James Sikking) stayed in the part of the spacecraft that merely orbited Mars without landing on it. Only some toxin in the Martian atmosphere — either biological or chemical, nobody in the movie (or the people writing it) ever decided — seeped through Randolph’s spacesuit and killed him. Kurt Anderson (Jackie Cooper, top-billed), the head of the U.S. space program, fears that revelation that the first human on Mars died will lead a budget-conscious President and Congress to zero out the whole space program, so he puts into action a plan he and the real Randolph cooked up before the flight in case anything went wrong: they would recruit a double, Eddie Reese (also Monte Markham), to impersonate him and fake a successful return of the spacecraft to earth from which Reese would return and take over Randolph’s identity. Reese learns Randolph’s voice and the key elements of his past via tapes Randolph made for that purpose before he left, and goes through a high-tech version of plastic surgery to alter his already strong resemblance to Randolph to virtual identity. The one person he doesn’t fool is Randolph’s wife, Gail (Susan Clark), who was expecting the real Randolph’s child when he blasted off; though she can’t tell the difference physically, she realizes the new “Randolph” is considerably tenderer and more considerate than the old one. She finally confronts him and the man who’s moved into her life (and her bed, though the assumption seems to be that that far along in her pregnancy he wouldn’t be having sex with her) admits that he is not Randolph. 

The two find that they are being essentially held prisoner because the people running the U.S. space program fear they’ll escape and tell the world the truth — they’re not even allowed to leave their home, though at one point Reese wangles them a special pass so they can go to a nightclub and dance (the band at the club advertises “Music of the ’50’s” but the song we actually hear is “I’ll Remember April,” written by Don Raye and Gene De Paul in 1942 for the Universal Abbott and Costello movie Ride ’Em, Cowboy and similarly used in 1955 as the song nightclub patrons are dancing to when the Gill-Man turns up in the sequel Revenge of the Creature), only they have to flee in a hurry when a patron recognizes Reese as “Randolph” and he and Gail realize they’re going to blow their cover if they don’t leave immediately. As the film progresses Eddie and Gail realize they’re falling in love with each other for real — Eddie is so much nicer and more considerate than that stuffed-shirt husband of hers who conveniently died on Mars — and they make plans to run away together even though they’ll do heaven knows what. (I suspect the writers ripped off this plot line from the 1937 screwball classic Nothing Sacred, in which the woman at the center of a newspaper hoax and the reporter who cooked it up have to hide out from the world forever.) Only a deus ex machina emerges when the Soviet Union (ya remember the Soviet Union?) launches their own manned mission to Mars and Kurt Anderson (ya remember Kurt Anderson?) has a crisis of conscience: let the Soviet cosmonauts land on Mars and get killed by the same whatsit that knocked off the real Randolph, or admit the truth before the Soviet spacecraft lands and thereby spare their cosmonauts at the risk of a major political embarrassment and the possible end of the U.S. space program? Fortunately for all concerned, Kurt does the right thing and goes public with the truth.  

The Astronaut is that frustrating sort of movie that has a compelling central premise but deserved better execution: it doesn’t help that not only Randolph and Reese but a lot of the males in the film look similar to each other, and the tackiness of the production on a Universal TV budget occasionally takes its toll on the film, but it gets considerably better when Susan Clark appears and turns in a whirlwind of a performance as the wife. For a while she and Markham as Reese have such bitter arguments this almost looks like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the science-fiction version, but eventually they reconcile and Clark adroitly nails the transformation of her attitude from hatred to love as well as her frustration in this ridiculous situation in which her husband has been replaced by an impostor but she finds she likes the impostor a lot better than she liked the original. (This was a gimmick used in quite a few previous movies about impersonations — like the 1942 MGM “B” Nazi Agent in which good anti-Nazi refugee Conrad Veidt replaces evil Nazi agent Conrad Veidt and his cover is blown when the bad Nazi’s dog, who always hated the bad Veidt, snuggles up to the good Veidt and lets Veidt pet him, or the 1948 Bette Davis melodrama A Stolen Life, in which the predatory Davis steals Glenn Ford from the good Davis, then drowns in a boating accident that was caused by her trying to kill the good Davis, who emerges and takes the bad Davis’s place as Ford’s wife — but it still works.) The Astronaut is an indication of how capable Universal’s TV-movie division was in the early 1970’s, even though the basic premise would seem to have been good enough to merit a feature film with a decent budget and bigger names than Monte Markham and Susan Clark in the leads!

Capricorn One (Associated General Films, ITC Films, 1977)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Indeed, the basic premise of The Astronaut got a bigger-budgeted feature film in 1977 when writer-director Peter Hyams got the green light from Sir Lew Grade’s ITC corporation (best known for screwing the Beatles out of the copyrights to their own songs and bankrolling the original Muppet Show on TV) to produce Capricorn One. Hyams apparently got the idea from watching the Apollo 13 moon landing in 1969 and thinking, “There was one event of really enormous importance that had almost no witnesses. And the only verification we have … came from a TV camera.” In one respect Hyams’ script mirrored The Astronaut — both involved NASA (given a different name in The Astronaut but using its real name in Capricorn One) faking a Mars expedition and using the tricks of filmmaking to do it — but in The Astronaut the real astronaut was dead and the plot was to make him seem still alive, while in Capricorn One the astronauts are alive but the plot is to make them appear dead. The film begins with the U.S. about to launch Capricorn One, the first human-piloted mission to Mars, only just before the rocket carrying the spacecraft is about to lift off the head of the space program, Dr. James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) whisks the three astronauts — mission commander Charles Brubaker, Sr. (James Brolin), universally nicknamed “Bru”; Peter Willis (Sam Waterston); and John Walker (O. J. Simpson, cast at the insistence of the “suits” in Grade’s operation instead of Robert Hooks, the talented and experienced Black actor Hyams really wanted — and at least one imdb.com reviewer suspects that Simpson’s current disrepute is what has kept this movie from being better known and available on DVD or Blu-Ray) — out of the space capsule and onto the secret, ostensibly abandoned Jackson Air Force Base in Texas (it’s really in Mississippi, as several imdb.com “Goofs” posters noted, and the travel time to it is considerably quicker in the movie that an actual journey by car from Cape Canaveral, Florida to Texas would be), where they re-enact a Mars landing on an impromptu soundstage with a red backdrop and sandy red soil on the studio floor. Kelloway tells them that the reason for this is that the scientists in charge of the Mars voyage have discovered that, because the private contractor they hired to build the ship’s life-support system cut corners to pad their profits, the system is substandard and wouldn’t keep them alive for longer than three months. (This was four years after Simpson appeared in The Towering Inferno, another movie in which a contractor’s profit-driven cost-cutting led to a disaster.) 

The plan is that the astronauts will re-emerge, ostensibly rescued from the Capricorn One spacecraft when it supposedly drifted off course and landed 200 miles away from where the ship was supposed to pick it up, only when they bring the actually empty Capricorn One through the earth’s atmosphere the heat shield falls off it, the spacecraft disintegrates and the astronauts presumably die. (Hyams stages this in a scene obviously copped from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: the medical indicators supposedly indicating the astronauts’ vital signs literally “flatline” and the machines thereby register their deaths. In 1984, seven years after making this film, Hyams would direct a sequel to 2001, 2010: The Year We Make Contact.) The astronauts themselves, realizing that NASA will have to kill them to make sure their plot is not exposed, attempt to flee by stealing a general-aviation jet plane conveniently parked at the base — but the plane has so little fuel in it they have to crash-land in the desert and they rather stupidly decide to split up to see who can get out of the desert and encounter civilization first. O. J. Simpson’s character virtually disappears, Sam Waterston’s is tracked down and killed by crews flying two mysterious dark unmarked helicopters — though in the close-ups we see they’re olive-green, in the long shots they looked black and made me think this might be the origin of all the conspiracy theories about the U.N. supposedly flying “black helicopters” around for various nefarious persons), but Brubaker survives encounters with a rattlesnake (which he kills and cuts open for food and moisture) and a scorpion and finally interfaces with crusading reporter — not another crusading reporter — Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould, top-billed — so this film features both Barbra Streisand’s ex-husband, Gould, and her current one, Brolin), who’s about to be fired by his assignment editor (we’re told he works for a TV outlet but we don’t see any movie or video cameras anywhere) because he keeps coming up with loony-tunes ideas for “scoops” instead of covering the bread-and-butter stories they want him to do. 

Caulfield gets suspicious when one of his sources at NASA, a man at Mission Control who noticed anomalies between the readings he was getting on his computer and the ones that would have been expected if the astronauts really were flying to Mars and back, disappears, and in a scene Hyams pretty obviously cribbed from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, when Caulfield visits his friend’s home, the person living there is a woman, the apartment is completely different and she has documentation, including several months’ worth of magazines she ostensibly subscribed to, to prove it. Then Caulfield interviews Brubaker’s wife Kay (Brenda Vaccaro) and notices an anomaly in her husband’s recorded communications with her: he said when he returned he was going to take his family to Yosemite “like we did last year,” but the previous year they didn’t go to Yosemite: they went to a deserted Western ghost town where a movie crew was shooting a film and Bru took home movies of the film crew at work. Caulfield goes out to the ghost town and finds himself shot at, then federal agents come to his home and arrest him for possession of cocaine (which they planted), and he’s bailed out by fellow reporter Judy Drinkwater (Karen Black), whom he’s been after for years both professionally and sexually. Caulfield traces Bru to the deserted Johnson Air Force Base and hires a local crop-duster pilot, Albain (Telly Savalas in a schticky performance that makes his ridiculous work on the old TV series Kojak seem understated by comparison), to fly over and see if they can find Bru. They find the two sinister olive-green helicopters sent by NASA to kill Bru and anyone else who can expose the plot, and though they’ve more-or-less rescued Bru he has to hang preposterously to the plane’s wing because the cockpit has room for only two people. The helicopter pilots try to force down the plane by striking its wings with their landing skids, but Albain fights back by releasing his crop-dusting chemicals, causing the helicopter pilots to lose visibility and conveniently crash into a nearby cliff. 

The finale takes place at a memorial service to the Capricorn One crew, to which Mrs. Brubaker has been invited, but Caulfield shows up with the real and very much alive Brubaker and … we don’t get the big confrontation scene we’ve been expecting all movie because instead of bothering to write one, Hyams (who as I like to say about incompetent writer-directors, is also the writer and therefore has no one to blame but himself) has Caulfield and Brubaker approach the ceremony in mid-progress (interrupting a speech by a typically otiose gasbag President of the United States) and the crowd sees that Brubaker is still alive. But we don’t get any audible reactions because Hyams drowns his soundtrack in sappy “inspirational” music by Jerry Goldsmith and stretches out the approach of the two men by filming it in slow motion. Like The Astronaut, Capricorn One gives the impression of being a better idea for a movie than the one that actually got made, and there are plenty of Hyams’ annoying directorial trademarks that marred the 2010 movie as well (though in fairness to him about 2010, no one — probably not even Kubrick himself — could have made a viable sequel to 2001). The biggest problem with this movie is the abrupt cuts from the investigative-reporter clichés with Elliott Gould to the survivalist clichés with James Brolin —just when we’re finally interested by one of Hyams’ plot strands we’re suddenly yanked away from it and thrown into the other — and it also doesn’t help that Elliott Gould as an investigative reporter is as unbelievable a casting decision as Elliott Gould as the worst-ever Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s horrible desecration of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. There isn’t even a strongly etched female character here like the one Susan Clark played in The Astronaut, and though this plot line would have presented its own set of problems, Capricorn One could have been more dramatically interesting if Caulfield and Mrs. Brubaker had started to fall in love with each other, only to have to squelch those feelings in a hurry once her husband turned out still to be alive.  

Capricorn One was clearly a product of the same world-weary and conspiracy-minded post-Watergate Zeitgeist (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are even mentioned in the dialogue) as such other, more interesting 1970’s movies as The Parallax View, and Hyams seems to be alluding to Jimmy Carter when he has the characters complain that the country is getting nothing but bad news and the President isn’t giving them any reason to hope. The idea that there is some “deep” truth kept carefully hidden from us has become an accepted belief on both extremes of the political spectrum: the Right posits a “deep state” comprised of government bureaucrats and the academics they supposedly take their orders from out to keep the heroic, brilliant President Trump from accomplishing his agenda to drive them out of power and “make America great again,” while much of the Left’s writing about Trump seems to posit the existence of a “deep ruling class” above the ruling class we know about, one that extends worldwide and profits, literally and figuratively, on a massive scale far greater than the capitalist establishment we’re allowed to know about. And while Ronald Reagan saw the Right’s way to political dominance as one in which they would take the optimistic high road and proclaim “morning in America” after the “malaise” of the Carter years (a word Carter himself never used, by the way), Donald Trump’s has been to proclaim the “American carnage” that “only I can fix” and to make clear his utter disinterest in doing anything to help the Americans who didn’t vote for him. Capricorn One has an optimistic ending — “This time, at least, the good guys win” — but in some ways it’s part of the trend away from the utopian science fiction of the 1950’s to the dystopian stuff like The Hunger Games and Divergent that dominates today, in which the world is run by sinister secret conspiracies that you might temporarily derail but can never ultimately defeat.