Wednesday, February 28, 2018

MS-13: PBS Program Shows Two Sides of Notorious Gang


Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

At 10 p.m. on Tuesday, February 13 I switched from the Winter Olympics to watch a PBS documentary on the Frontline series, narrated in the usually comforting tones of Will Lyman (whose other job is narrating BMW commercials, of all things), who’s done literally hundreds of Frontline videos and whose voice, like Walter Cronkite’s, conveys an air of folksiness and lordly authority at the same time. The show was called The Gang Crackdown and it dealt with the MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha Trece, or “Salvadoran Gang 13”) gang, its hold over several American communities — particularly Long Island, New York, where the show was focused — and the attempts of the Trump administration to combat it by deporting virtually all undocumented Salvadoran immigrants who came in as “unaccompanied youths” against whom a claim of gang affiliation can be made, however tenuous.
The show was a bit disappointing in that it lacked much context about MS-13, including the fact that it was actually formed in the U.S. (in Los Angeles in the 1980’s) and it was then imported into El Salvador as the U.S. caught and deported some of its members. According to the Wikipedia page on MS-13, “Originally the gang's main purpose was to protect Salvadoran immigrants from other, more established gangs of Los Angeles, who were predominantly composed of Mexicans and African-Americans. Many Mara Salvatrucha gang members from the Los Angeles area have been deported after being arrested. For example, Jose Abrego, a high-ranking member, was deported four times. As a result of these deportations, members of MS-13 have recruited more members in their home countries. The Los Angeles Times contends that deportation policies have contributed to the size and influence of the gang both in the United States and in Central America.”
But, as a debunking article posted on, “What Is MS-13?” by Bethania Palma (, from most of the coverage of MS-13 you wouldn’t know that it was originally founded in L.A. and then exported to El Salvador and other Central American countries, not the other way around. Palma published her article largely due to the mention President Donald Trump made of MS-13 in his January 30 State of the Union address, in which he made it sound like MS-13 was his justification for taking a hard line against Latin American immigrants in general and Salvadorans in particular:

Here tonight are two fathers and two mothers: Evelyn Rodriguez, Freddy Cuevas, Elizabeth Alvarado, and Robert Mickens. Their two teenage daughters — Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens — were close friends on Long Island. But in September 2016, on the eve of Nisa’s 16th birthday, neither of them came home. These two precious girls were brutally murdered while walking together in their hometown. Six members of the savage gang MS-13 have been charged with Kayla and Nisa’s murders. Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors — and wound up in Kayla and Nisa’s high school.
Evelyn, Elizabeth, Freddy, and Robert: Tonight, everyone in this chamber is praying for you. Everyone in America is grieving for you. And 320 million hearts are breaking for you. We cannot imagine the depth of your sorrow, but we can make sure that other families never have to endure this pain.
Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other criminals, to break into our country. We have proposed new legislation that will fix our immigration laws, and support our ICE and Border Patrol Agents, so that this cannot ever happen again.

President Trump’s lurid account of MS-13 in general and two particularly loathsome murders in which the gang is alleged to have taken part is also reflected in the first part of the PBS documentary, which essentially portrays MS-13 as a band of lawless thugs whose only interests are murder and recruiting new members. One of the show’s interviewees, retired detective John Oliva of the Suffolk County Police Department, said, “I’m going to describe them as the most violent gang that we have here on Long Island. They’re killing teenagers. They’re killing our children. It’s just pure violence, and that’s what they thrive on.”
The first half of the PBS program, The Gang Crackdown, is a portrait of MS-13 in general and its “cliques” (the gang’s subdivisions) on Long Island in particular that presents them as such depraved thugs the viewer is led to believe that any action to stop them, however detrimental or offensive to civil liberties or due process, is justified. The narration by Marcela Gaviria, who wrote, produced and directed the program, describes MS-13’s presence in Long Island as having begun “in 2014, when an influx of nearly 9,000 minors, mostly from Central America, started flooding in.” These are called “unaccompanied youth” in immigration-speak, and while some — including a young man identified in the program only as “Junior,” who features prominently in the film’s second half — were joining parents or relatives already in the U.S., others were simply fleeing the war and violence endemic in El Salvador ever since the civil war of the early 1980’s.
One of Gaviria’s interviewees, Michelle Brane of the Women’s Refugee Commission, explained, “What we were seeing [was] a drastic increase in violence in Central America. We were seeing that gangs had really taken over entire neighborhoods. Children were being threatened and forcibly recruited into gangs under the threat of death to themselves or their families.”
Huntington High School in Huntington, New York is one of the schools the new arrivals went to for an education. One of them, the show explained, was Junior, who had come to the U.S. by train to live with his father, George, who’d been in Long Island for a decade. He had emigrated in 2016, at age 14, largely to avoid being recruited into a gang in his native Honduras. In a series of subtitled interviews, Junior describes being scared by the train, overjoyed to see again the father who’d left when Junior was just three — and intimidated when he found that the same gangs he’d fled Honduras to avoid had their hooks into the student body at Huntington High.
“I was scared when they would talk to me about the gangs, and would ask me if I wanted to be one of them,” Junior recalled. “And I would tell them no.”
“The recruitment starts right out at the school,” retired Suffolk County detective Oliva added. “They’ll approach you [and say], ‘Hey, we’re part of the gang.’ A lot of these kids, especially the undocumented ones that came into this country … came here with really no friends … and they were very easily absorbed by these guys. It was almost like they were being given a feeling that they have a family now.”
The show followed another young immigrant, Jésus Lopez from El Salvador, who arrived in Huntington in 2014 — two years before Junior — and also found that the gangs he’d fled his home country to escape were very much present in the U.S. “I started studying in September [2014], after I got in. I started studying at Huntington High School. I didn’t adapt quickly, but I liked it because I was learning things. I got good grades.” He also got an after-school job at a local restaurant, where his co-workers liked him and were impressed by his dedication. “I would go to cook, then go to school, cook, and go to school,” Lopez said. “I was just working so I could send money back to my parents.”
Julia Saltman, one of Lopez’s co-workers at the restaurant, said Lopez and other immigrants told her “they were being hassled at school. If MS wants to find you and wants to start trouble, it’s difficult to avoid. It just terrified them.”
Just what MS-13 wanted new members like Jésus Lopez and Junior to do remained a mystery in the PBS program, which never explained the economics of the gang. It presented them basically as amoral criminal thugs with no concern about anything, including making money from their activities. This is pretty much the standard picture of them; the Wikipedia page on MS-13 claims, “They are notorious for their violence and a subcultural moral code based on merciless retribution.” The Wikipedia page said that they were recruited as security people, enforcers and hit men for the Mexico-based Sinaloa drug cartel because of their cruelty.
Various reports have linked MS-13 to immigrant smuggling and human trafficking, as well as spreading terror among would-be immigrants from Guatemala and other Central American countries on Mexico’s southern border. According to Stephen Dudley, co-director of a think tank called InsightCrime that studies organized crime in the Americas:

They are often painted as an international drug smuggling or human trafficking organization. We get no indication they are deeply involved in anything other than pretty systematic extortion in Central America and other places they’re operational. They’re very much a hand-to-mouth criminal organization — this is not the Sinaloa cartel. …
We found no evidence to indicate the gang itself was paying for anybody to actually come to the U.S. This for us was the key indicator. Of course there’s communication [among members about migration] but these decisions to pick up and leave are very intimate family decisions that we think are determined by the closest inner circle of these individuals. The gang is a very intimate group to be sure but they are not the final determinants of this.
Nor did we find any evidence that they are so sophisticated that they’re finding loopholes in the U.S. system to replenish depleted cells that are in the U.S. They’re finding ways to take advantage of the movement of people that happens organically, through the already-established migrant paths to the places where there are populations of the same nationality really, regardless of whether or not there are any gang members there. It’s a huge leap to say that there is a plan afoot on the part of the gang to move people.
We also found that the gang itself is a very loosely knit organization, especially at the top. There is no single ruling council that controls every piece of the gang. The gang members themselves are more loyal to their particular cliques than they are to the actual gang in most instances.

“What has grabbed recent headlines for the now decades-old gang was a spate of gruesome murders on the East Coast and evidence that some factions of MS-13 are trying to accomplish some of the things they are being accused of doing — if unsuccessfully,” Palma wrote in her Snopes article — for which Dudley of InsightCrime and University of Southern California associate professor of anthropology Thomas Ward were principal sources. Dudley told Palma:

They have tried to establish better means of communication between their different factions, the major factions being West Coast, East Coast and El Salvador. To some extent there is more movement of money and weapons.
There are tendencies that are worrying for sure, and probably the most worrying aspect is their ability to take advantage of the vulnerability of large numbers of youth and incorporate many of them into their ranks and involve them in really macabre criminal acts in places like Maryland, Long Island and the Boston area. But the standard answer of increasing enforcement and vilifying entire communities — with 40 years of experience behind us, we can say that is not going to lead to the end of this gang.

Wald argues that by sensationalizing MS-13 and making them seem like, in the title of a previous (2005) National Geographic special about them, the “World’s Most Dangerous Gang,” politicians like President Trump may actually be helping MS-13 recruit. “The president doesn’t realize it, but he’s doing a disservice to the public [and] a service to the gang because it elevates their reputation,” Wald told Palma. “All gang members and all gangs want to be known as notorious. By mentioning them as this horrendous group of people who are like terrorists, he’s elevating their status. It fuels the flames of crime and violence because it attracts youth who are rebellious and are seeking to belong to some group that will accept them.”

Protecting the Innocent

The second half of the PBS Frontline special on MS-13, “The Gang Crackdown,” does a virtual 180° from the first half. Where the show began by highlighting the savagery of MS-13’s murders in Long Island, mostly of fellow teenage Salvadoran migrants, the second half strongly critiques law enforcement in general and the Trump administration in particular for behaving as if police action against the gang and deportations of its members are going to be enough to solve the problem. Timothy Sini, police commissioner for Suffolk County, Long Island from 2015 to 2017, is shown on the “Gang Crackdown” program saying that “we have promised to eradicate MS-13 from our streets”
Sergio Argueta, an activist with a community anti-gang group called S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth (, replied on the show, saying, “This idea that you’re going to launch this repressive attack and you’re going to annihilate this gang — violence meeting violence is not going to solve the issue.”
In March 2017, Suffolk County law enforcement officers arrested four MS-13 members for the murders of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, the two young victims President Trump had mentioned in the State of the Union speech. One month later, on April 11, police found the bodies of four young immigrant men — Mike Lopez, Justin Llivicura, Jefferson Villalobos and Jorge Tigre — in what they described as a “killing field.” The young men had been hacked to death with machetes, a preferred murder method for MS-13, and police believed that girlfriends of MS-13 members had lured them into the woods where they were killed with promises of sex.
Given the history of bad relations between Suffolk County law enforcement and the immigrant communities — “By the simple fact that you are undocumented, they treat you very poorly; there is a lot of arrogance, a lot of racism” one unidentified woman who appeared to be victim Mike Lopez’s mother told Frontline — the boys’ parents and friends of their families organized their own search parties when the boys went missing. “I was worried because Mike always answered my messages,” the woman said. “He always talked to me. He always answered. And that night, he never answered.”
President Trump’s public statements on MS-13 and the Long Island killings showed two of his least attractive qualities: his tendency to demonize entire groups of people and his belief that the way to stop bullies and thugs is to bully them and be thug-like in treating them. He canceled the entire program for helping Salvadoran refugees settle in the U.S. and repeatedly threatened that his answer for dealing with MS-13 was to deport them. In one tweet, Trump said, “The weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama Admin. allowed bad MS-13 gangs to form in cities across [the] U.S. We are removing them fast!”
Trump also openly endorsed police brutality as an appropriate way to deal with MS-13. He picked Long Island as the site of his July 28, 2017 speech advocating that police take a hard line against arrestees and suspects. “When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over?” Trump said, miming the physical motion of an officer shielding a suspect’s head to keep it from bumping against the squad car. “Like, don’t hit their head, and they just killed somebody — don’t hit their head,” Trump continued. “I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”
Apparently Trump picked Long Island as the locale for this speech because he believed the Suffolk County Police Department’s experiences with MS-13 would prime them to accept his thug-like advice for how police officers should behave. If so, he was mistaken. Just hours after Trump’s speech, the department responded with an e-mail which read, “The Suffolk County Police Department has strict rules and procedures relating to the handling of prisoners, and violations of those rules and procedures are treated extremely seriously. As a department, we do not and will not tolerate ‘rough[ing]’ up prisoners.”
Though both President Trump and attorney general Jeff Sessions turned down Frontline’s request for interviews for “The Gang Crackdown,” deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein was interviewed — and anyone on the liberal or progressive Left who regards Rosenstein as a hero for his resistance to Trump’s attempts to meddle into the investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 U.S. elections will be sobered by his remarks on the Frontline “Gang Crackdown” program. He gave a full-throated party-line defense of Trump’s law enforcement policies in general and his reliance on deportation as a key front-line weapon against MS-13 in particular:

The reason MS-13 has been our priority this year is because of the unprecedented growth of the gang, and the extraordinary depravity we see in some of the criminal activity it commits. But in terms of the overall objectives of the administration, our goal is to keep out the criminals in the first place. In fact, the majority of the MS-13 members that we prosecute are illegal aliens, and a large proportion of them are unaccompanied minors. And people here unlawfully and [who] pose a danger to American citizens are removed as quickly as possible.

The Crackdown in Practice

The final segment of the Frontline MS-13 documentary “The Gang Crackdown” focuses on the cases of the two young immigrants profiled earlier in the show, “Junior” and Jésus Lopez to show how Suffolk County’s and the feds’ emphasis on apprehension, immigration and a “zero tolerance” policy towards actual or suspected gang-affiliated young men works in practice. It begins with the narrator explaining that in late 2016 local law enforcement in Long Island started focusing on middle schools and high schools, scrutinizing new students to see if they had gang-related clothing or other supposed markers of membership or affiliation.
One anonymous school resource officer — a sworn police officer embedded in a school in part to ferret out suspected gang members —showed Frontline a photo of an old-style MS-13 member with the heavy tattooing and body art that used to be typical of the gang. Then, he explained, “You really don’t see this guy anymore. … It’s going to be the kid in the skinny jeans and the polo shirt and maybe the Chicago Bulls cap.” The reason for the latter is that the bull is a symbol for MS-13 and a lot of members supposedly started wearing gear from the Chicago Bulls basketball team as a way of proclaiming their gang affiliation while seeming to be innocuous sports fans.
Mariana Gil, assistant principal of Bellport Middle School in Long Island, told Frontline that local police visit her school and others in the area to educate school staff about what to look for that might indicate a student has ties to MS-13. “They put on a presentation,” she explained. “They show images of bandanas, or bull’s horns. And they tell us that those are the items that if we see the students wearing or drawing, that we should be on the alert because it’s related to a gang.”
School officials responded to the law-enforcement presentation by calling hundreds of students to principals’ offices, questioning them and often suspending them on flimsy evidence. Some students were harassed and told that they had written “503” in their notebooks. It’s the area code for El Salvador, and it’s a set of numbers police in Long Island apparently regard as a sign of MS-13 affiliation. “Duh, that’s the area code of where they’re from,” said Sergio Argueta of S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth.
Jésus Lopez was one of the students identified early on as an MS-13 affiliate. “The school had sent a paper that said I had written MS-13 on my hand, but I knew it wasn’t true,” he told Frontline. “I had only written the name of my girlfriend on my hand. I didn’t write MS-13.” This sent him into a Kafka-esque situation where the mere existence of a school report that he’d written MS-13 on his hand — with no photograph or other documentation that it wasn’t just the name of a girlfriend — became “truth.” He had no opportunity to defend himself against the allegation; it just stood and was accepted as fact throughout the process.
Junior also got caught up in the Huntington High dragnet. His father George was startled when in March 2017 he received a call from the school to come to campus because his son was in trouble. George’s employer told Frontline, “They said, ‘Look, we want to keep this kind of simple. He’s been accused of making signs of MS-13. Just sign the paper. And we’re going to suspend Junior, and if he wants to come back to school, he can come back to school next year, 2018.’ And George, he signed the paper. And as soon as he signed the paper, it was just a snowball going downhill.”
In late June 2017 — just before President Trump gave his big speech in Long Island urging law enforcement not to worry about injuring people in the course of arresting them — Lopez was apprehended at the restaurant where he worked. “A truck was waiting for him in the back of the restaurant, and when he walked out of work, they picked him up,” recalled his co-worker Julia Saltman. “They took them out so fast.” Concerned that Lopez would be deported, Saltman hired him an attorney — and the attorney, Adam Tavares, told Frontline that the only information the government gave him to support its charges against Lopez was a two-page memo that misidentified his name as “Polanco.”
Neither school officials nor Suffolk County law enforcement would officially describe the criteria they use to determine whether a student is MS-13, an MS-13 wanna-be or merely someone wearing gang colors, Chicago Bulls paraphernalia or the area code of El Salvador without knowing that’s going to get them accused of being part of MS-13. “We don’t publicly disclose the criteria because if we did, when our officers and detectives are attempting to generate intelligence, MS-13 would be one step ahead of us,” former Suffolk County police commissioner Sini said.
But Sini readily acknowledged that he and his department used deportation or the threat of deportation — including extended detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — to go after people they suspect of MS-13 affiliation but haven’t committed any crime:

For example, if we have intelligence that they are a gang member, that’s not necessarily a crime, right? Certainly, being a gang member is not a crime, and the intel that we may have may not indicate a significant state crime. We may have something small on them, but nothing that’s going to keep them in jail. So if we perceive someone as a public safety threat, we utilize all of our tools, which include immigration tools. So we’ll partner with the Department of Homeland Security to target them for detention and removal.

Junior got caught up in a law-enforcement attack on MS-13 called “Operation Matador” — an attempt to turn MS-13’s bull symbol against it by invoking the person who kills the bull in a bullfight — when Suffolk County police got a series of so-called “gang memos” circulated by ICE, many based on information from embedded cops in the schools (“school resource officers”). Frontline obtained copies of several of these “gang memos,” one of which identified Junior as an active MS-13 member. Junior denied it, telling Frontline, “I’m not a gang member. I’m a church-going young man … I don’t even have a criminal record.”
But neither he nor his father and legal guardian, George, would get a chance to contest the “gang memo” in court. Four days after the “gang memo” identifying Junior was drafted, he was followed on his way to church by four black vehicles. Later, George’s employer recalled, “I got a phone call from George and he said that they took Junior. They said, ‘We’re taking the boy. We’re government.’”
Like Julia Saltman with Jésus Lopez, George hired an immigration attorney to represent Junior. The attorney, Dawn Pipek Guidone, was shocked that the government shipped Junior to a detention facility in Shenandoah, Virginia, without any notice either to his father or to her, his official legal counsel. Eventually Guidone helped George and his employer reached out to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which was putting together a class-action lawsuit challenging the legality of the crackdown.
“During the summertime [of 2017], I remember our office would get calls almost every Friday or so beginning around June or July where we’d hear from a family saying, ‘Our kid was just taken from us. We don’t know where he is,’” NYCLU attorney Phil Desgranges told Frontline. “And so then we’re calling around, trying to figure out would the immigration attorney know, and the immigration attorney has no idea, as well. And that seemed to be a pattern that happened, you know, weekend after weekend.”
The NYCLU took on Junior’s case and eventually located him. “In Virginia, he was kept in solitary confinement, you know, where all he had in his cell was a bed, a toilet, and no window,” Desgranges said. “It was a really traumatizing experience for him. This is a kid who had never been arrested, never been charged with a crime. There’s no allegation that he committed a crime. But nonetheless, he’s been in detention for four months.”
Junior himself told Frontline, “You can never see the sun or the moon [in detention]. I was desperate. In my desperation, I made a lot of mistakes. I tried to kill myself. I took my shirt off and made a rope. And I put it around my neck, and I started to kill myself. The only thing I thought about was that my dad loves me, and I love him, too. They were trying to revive me and I didn’t respond because I was already dying. After that, they put me on restriction, with no clothes. They took everything away from me. I was suffering through the cold for a week. Here I cut my vein. I stuck in a piece of glass and a lot of blood came out. Here, too. Desperation had taken over me, sadness, solitude, and that’s why I made this mistake.”
The NYCLU was finally able to get Junior transferred from Virginia to a less restrictive facility in New York, and eventually they got him a hearing before a judge — the first sign of due process in his months-long ordeal. Junior’s attorney, Dawn Pipek Guidone, told the judge in the case, “We were served with the memo, very unsubstantiated information, wearing certain colors to school, allegations of throwing gang signs. The allegations are completely general in nature. They don’t indicate anything other than association with gang members, but they provide no identification of these individuals.”
Guidone objected to the use of the gang memo as evidence, and asked the judge to release Junior immediately. The judge said he couldn’t. “What you’re talking about is something I have no authority over,” he said. “Unless I’m mistaken, I can’t order him released from Children’s Village. That is not within the scope of my authority.”
In August 2017, attorney Julia Harumi Mass with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in California filed a class-action lawsuit to release 34 people who had been detained by ICE as suspected gang members without due process. Junior was one of the plaintiffs in her case. Three months later, she won a court order stating that ICE would have to go through judicial hearings on each detainee and let a judge rule on whether the gang allegations were valid or not — and they would have to release the ones against whom there was insufficient evidence or no evidence at all.
Once the hearings started, 28 of the ACLU’s 34 clients — including Junior — were ordered released. But the court ruling in favor of the ACLU applied only to minors, not legal adults. Because he was 18, Lopez stayed in custody until December, when he was deported. “Honestly, it’s really terrible because there are bad criminals here, but they’re treated better than us,” Lopez told Frontline in an interview at the New Jersey detention facility, where he was held until he was deported. “Sometimes they bring us to court with our hands and feet cuffed, whereas they bring the others in with just their hands cuffed to their stomach. So they treat us worse than these big criminals.”
Lopez told Frontline his big fear is that as a deportee back in El Salvador he’ll be suspected of gang ties by rival gangsters, and be murdered. “I’m very scared I’ll get back, and they’ll think I’m a gang member. They can look for me at my house. They can assassinate me. I don’t want to end up like a lot of people who are deported who later end up dead in the streets.”
Frontline’s “The Gang Crackdown” episode ended with some chilling statistics and yet another hard-line statement by President Trump against MS-13. According to the program, 44 of the over 400 people taken into custody under “Operation Matador” have been deported. Suffolk County authorities, working with ICE, have launched a new operation, “Raging Bull,” and made 218 arrests since the murders of Misa Nickens and Kayla Cuevas. “Gang members took advantage of glaring loophole in our laws to enter the country as illegal unaccompanied alien minors,” President Trump says in the clip from his January 30 State of the Union speech that ends the program. “Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.”

There’s an old saying that “when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” When the full resources of the federal government are turned on a vicious, reprehensible criminal organization like MS-13, the blades of grass that get trampled are the innocent victims of MS-13’s depradations and brutalities — and the innocent immigrants trying to work themselves up and live the American dream, who get accused of gang affiliations and are deported on the flimsiest of evidence. President Trump didn’t start the Right-wing ideology on crime — that any attack on suspected “criminals,” whether or not they’ve actually done anything illegal, is warranted and those pesky guarantees of “due process” in the Fourth and Fifth Amendments just get in the way of law enforcement — but, as with so much of the rest of the ideology of the American Right, he’s put his own spin of bigotry, hatred and brutality on it.

Monday, February 26, 2018

2018 Winter Olympics Closing Ceremony (International Olympic Committee/NBC-TV, aired February 25, 2018)

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

I was working on the journal until almost 8 p.m. and then I knocked off, made dinner (a pork chop, some flavored rice and salad) and watched the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics from Peyongchang, South Korea. The ceremony wasn’t in the league with either the opening or closing ceremonies I can recall from Lillehammer, Norway — still the most elaborate and engaging Winter Olympics ceremonies I can think of — and with the official passing of the Olympic flag from the mayor of Peyongchang, Korea to the mayor of Beijing, China, where the 2022 Winter Olympics will be held, while the intervening Summer Olympics of 2020 will be in Tokyo, Japan, I began to wonder if I’ll ever live to see an Olympics that aren’t in Asia. The closing ceremony was basically a light show on the big round stage and various groups of performers cavorting on it in formations that looked like a cross between a Busby Berkeley production number and a Beyoncé video, though it was unexpectedly interesting because it revealed that there’s a lot more interesting music being played in Korea than the anodyne “K-Pop” style that is becoming a worldwide sensation.

I particularly liked the songs that combined traditional Korean instruments (including a stringed instrument that looks like a Japanese koto but is played not by plucking the strings directly but hitting them with wooden sticks, like a dulcimer) with modern Western sounds and beats, and wondered where you can hear more of this style. The big K-Pop sensation “C. L.” performed a song about “bad girls,” and she suffered from the problems that afflict a lot of dance-music artists: the “lyrics” were just a barked-out repetition of a few phrases, and the “melody,” to the extent the song had one, seemed to have come from a Lady Gaga record but without Gaga’s sense of song structure: one of the things I like about Lady Gaga is that she actually writes songs with definite beginnings, middles and endings instead of just barking out a few words over a dance beat and calling that a “song.” Naturally I couldn’t hear a song about “bad girls” without instantly making the comparison to Donna Summer, who despite locking herself into a popular but superficial style that didn’t really do justice to her voice (that’s why I always liked the slow introductions to songs like “On the Radio” and her cover of “MacArthur Park,” because without the tempo speeding up for danceability and the drum machines strait-jacketing her into a strict rhythm pattern, she showed that she could phrase like a great standards or jazz singer — one wishes that Summer had recorded some standards the way Gaga has) managed to make the “bad girls” concept considerably more appealing — and she and her songwriters/producers, Giorgio Moroder and the late Pete Bellotte, also had a sense of song structure one misses in most of the dance artists of today (Lady Gaga excepted).

There was also a number from Exo, the Korean boy band that showed up on the last Grammy Awards — earlier, when a surprisingly homely 11-year-old kid sang the Korean national anthem (or was it the Olympic anthem? I got confused at the plethora of performers thrown at me during this event, most of whom I’d never heard of previously), I wondered what he was going to look like when he got older and where the truly attractive Korean men are. They’re in Exo and other boy bands; the members of Exo (there are seven of them) are genuinely hot and considerably more butch than their opposite numbers in U.S. boy bands, and their music is lightweight but appealing and free from the affectations that have marred a lot of Westerners in the same niche (can you say “One Direction”?). The fact that they’re all killer dancers and move on stage to their own music with a simple, unaffected directness also helps, though I’m unlikely to join the estimated 1.5 million people in the world who’ve already bought their current (and fourth!) CD. The ceremonies were most impressive when they were at their most anonymous, however: the ensembles moved through the ring with a dedication and precision that makes me think someone in South Korea wanted to prove to their brethren north of the DMZ, “Hey, we can do precision parades just as well as you can!” Indeed, the bald Black guy who was NBC’s principal host for the games said that one of the most welcome developments of this year’s Olympics was how South Korean President Moon Jae-in took advantage of the proximity of the games to North Korea (Peyongchang is only 50 miles from the border) to use them as a start of overtures to North Korea. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Moon Jae-in is basically saying to Kim Jong Un, “Hey, let’s settle this like grownups and ignore that crazy orange-haired guy in Washington, D.C.”

A.P. Bio: “Teacher Jail” (Broadway Video, Sethmaker Shoemeyers Productions, NBC-TV, aired 2/25/18)

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

After the Winter Olympics closing ceremonies last night NBC showed what I assumed was the first episode of a new series called A.P. Bio — that’s short for “Advanced Placement Biology” — but turned out to be the second, the first (“Catfish”) having debuted last February 1. NBC is pushing this so-called “comedy” hard as part of their renewed attempt to make Thursdays their big “comedy night” on the network (including the reboot of Will and Grace, which I never liked even though it was supposed to be a ground-breaking advance for the depiction of Queers on network TV; frankly the early-1980’s show Brothers, which ended up in a limited run on a premium channel after the networks passed on it was considerably better!), and to promote this show they were putting on the second episode, “Teacher Jail,” right after the end of the Olympics. The best thing I could say about A.P. Bio was that it wasn’t as lame as it could have been: I was watching it partly to see if it would be as dreadful as most modern-day TV “comedies” (the marvelous Speechless on ABC definitely excepted) and also in hopes of seeing some genuinely cute young guys in the cast. The latter was an almost complete disappointment: the series lead, Glenn Howerton (playing Jack, a teacher who ends up in “teacher jail” after he’s censured for leaving his class unattended to get himself a snack from the break room), is hardly drop-dead gorgeous but is certainly easy on the eyes; and Patton Oswalt as his nemesis, Principal Durbin, is appropriately homely (and as comic school disciplinarians go is a far cry from the amazing Ben “Bueller … Bueller … Bueller” Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) but oddly manages to flash a quite nice basket under those horrible slacks he keeps wearing.

But that’s about it for beefcake in this show: the students themselves, at least the males, are the homeliest guys the producers’ casting people could find, though I rather liked red-headed Victor (Jacob Houston) if for no other reason that he’s depicted as a saxophone player — though he’s not imitating Pres, Bird or Trane but, of all people, Raphael Ravenscroft, who played the famous lick on Gerry Rafferty’s hit “Baker Street.” (Gerry Rafferty in general is a guilty pleasure of mine: I loved “Baker Street” when it was new if only because it was one of the few 1978 Number Ones that wasn’t disco.) The gimmick is that while he’s in “teacher jail” — a trailer at the back of the high-school campus where he teaches — Jack teams up with a fellow teacher who’s supposedly there for compulsively tickling his female colleagues, which plays quite a bit differently in the middle of “The Moment” of Hollywood’s concern about sexual harassment than the writers, Miles O’Brien and Rob Klein, thought it would when they made it up. In the end the “tickler” proves to be in “teacher jail” for an offense far worse than tickling — as Principal Durbin put it, he “dated” one of the dummies used for CPR training (and having gone through CPR training myself the idea of someone having sex with one of the dummies doesn’t seem that outlandish — or that funny) — and Jack gives up his appeal, in which he’s represented by teachers’ union spokesperson Stef (Linda Lewis), who’s still mad at Principal Durbin because 25 years ago, when they were both students at this high school, she got aced out of the presidency of the glee club by Durbin even though, as she proceeds to demonstrate, she had by far the better voice: she lets out a big soul whoop and, after saying the comparison is unfair, Durbin fires back, “And you flatted,” in what was quite frankly the funniest line of the show.

A.P. Bio isn’t aggressively awful like so many TV sitcoms these days (can you say The Big Bang Theory?), and there are moments when I actually laughed, but one odd thing about this show is that it’s absurdly overexposed. No, I don’t mean the amount of promotion NBC is giving it (though there’s that, too): cinematographer Blake McClure overlights everything, making this show look like a badly faded, washed-out home movie. I’m sure he intended it to look this way, but whatever artistic purpose series creator O’Brien (given the coincidence of him having the same last name as the torturer in George Orwell’s 1984, I have visions of sending him to Room 101 and making him watch episodes of his show over and over again) and cinematographer McClure may have had in mind eludes me. There’s also an ending more grim (though in an appealing way) than funny: after Durbin’s assistant Helen Henry DeMarcus (Paula Bell, a genuinely funny comedienne who deserves a better showcase than this) has taken over the class herself, turning it into a monomaniacal lecture with demonstrations (on herself) of human female reproductive anatomy (does every alleged “comedy” these days have to contain sex jokes — and lame, unamusing sex jokes at that?), the students recruit their own substitute and find their ideal teacher in Mr. Vining (Taran Killiam), who starts a lecture about the wonders of biology that sounds like Carl Sagan come back to life and gets as far as the first amino acids (“You may want to write that down,” he says) before … Jack comes back, released from “teacher jail,” and takes over to the students’ obvious displeasure. A.P. Bio is O.K. TV but nothing to write home about; a situation that could be screamingly funny instead turns flat and dull, though if there was little to make me laugh in this half-hour show there was almost nothing that made me groan, either, and that makes it one of the (relatively) better half-hour “comedies” on TV today.

Monday, February 19, 2018

NOVA: “Great Escape at Dunkirk” (PBS, 2018)

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

I watched an episode of the PBS NOVA series called “Great Escape at Dunkirk,” obviously timed to coincide with the release of two, count ’em, two dramatic films about the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour (and both were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, while Darkest Hour also won Gary Oldman a Best Actor nomination for playing Winston Churchill). Like a lot of NOVA’s World War II specials, it tries to “contemporize” the story by showing modern archaeologists digging for relics of the operation, including a Spitfire plane that flew fighter support over Dunkirk but then crashed in England, killing its pilot, when he lost control in a cloudy sky. But the real “meat” of the show was the authentic footage of the Dunkirk battle itself and the interviews with the now-elderly survivors — though NOVA’s director, John Hayes Fisher, put so little faith in his audience’s ability to understand their sometimes thick accents that they were subtitled even though they were obviously speaking English. (Some previous PBS shows on World War II have featured interviews with survivors who fought on the Axis side, and either subtitled or voice-overed them, but this one didn’t.) “Great Escape at Dunkirk” vividly dramatized just how shaky both the military and political situations in Britain in 1940 were; Winston Churchill had just been appointed Prime Minister by the British Parliament, but Neville Chamberlain’s foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, was still in the Cabinet and with each new reversal in the military situation he was advising Churchill to contact the German government and sue for peace. Churchill, of course, said nothing doing; he avoided a public confrontation with Halifax for fear it would bring down his government and end his Prime Ministership just a month or so after it started.

Churchill ordered the British army to stand and fight at Dunkirk as long as possible — the Chamberlain government had sent a British Expeditionary Force of 400,000 men to fight alongside a French army estimated at 2.5 million — and they had expected the German advance into France to move through Belgium because they thought the actual border between Germany and southern France to be impenetrable to tanks. They were wrong; the Germans, using the weapons that as of 1940 had worked to provide them Blitzkrieg successes against every other country they’d invaded — Stuka dive-bombers and Panzer tank corps — feinted an attack through Belgium but really mounted their main drive at the border with France, got through the supposedly “impenetrable” terrain and made swift work of the French army. It got to the point where the British and French forces were pushed out of all the rest of France to that tiny beachhead at Dunkirk, and the Germans not only had more effective land forces, they also controlled the air, so the Allies who attempted to mount a resistance were out in the open manning artillery weapons and were therefore sitting ducks for the Stukas. Inexplicably, the Nazi advance halted for several days just before what appeared to be the final push, apparently because the German commanders were worried about the length of their supply lines and the possibility that they might run out of ammunition and food, and this gave the British time to coordinate the fabled evacuation that turned a military rout into a strategic retreat. (Later in the war Adolf Hitler’s refusal to allow the German forces to stage strategic retreats — “Where the German soldier stands, there he stays!” Hitler said, to the horror of his generals — helped turn military defeats into total routs and sped Germany’s defeat in the overall war.) By all conventional standards, Dunkirk was a defeat — and a humiliating one — for the British forces, who even as they were being evacuated over the English Channel were still vulnerable to German sea mines and air attacks (one of the most interesting segments of this show indicates how the British figured out how to defend their ships against the Germans’ magnetic mines, which could blow up a ship that sailed nearby without actually having to hit it; the British developed a way to turn their entire ships into giant magnets with reverse polarity to the German mines, so the ships repelled instead of attracting the mines).

One of the modern-day excavations was of a British ship with over 600 people aboard which sank from a German mine — the one person who escaped was a servicemember who’d been standing on the top deck smoking a cigarette; everyone else died because the ship’s captain had ordered them all to stay below decks to weight down the ship so it would sail lower in the water, and so when the mine blew up the ship they had absolutely no hope of getting out alive. The show also noted that the workhorse fighter of the Royal Air Force at the start of the war, the Hawker Hurricane, was built with the old-fashioned airframe of wood covered with “doped” fabric, while the Supermarine Spitfire, which was introduced during the Dunkirk battle, was all-metal and especially lightweight because, instead of constructing a fuselage that could support itself as all previous aircraft designers had done, the Spitfire’s creator, R. J. Mitchell, built structural support into the wings as well — creating the fastest and, even more importantly, most maneuverable fighter plane to that time. (Being a buff of the film Spitfire, a.k.a. The First of the Few — Leslie Howard’s last project, in which he directed as well as starring as Mitchell in a marvelous and moving biopic in which Howard the director got a far more incisive performance out of Howard the actor than most of his previous directors had — I got rankled when Fisher and his narrator, Eric Meyers, attributed the design to “Supermarine.” “He had a name! It was Mitchell!” I yelled at the TV.) The show pointed out that a lot of the British soldiers were bitter because they were under attack by Stukas, supported by Messerschmidt ME-109 fighters (whose swept-back wings made it easier than it had been in previous planes for pilots to see what they were shooting at), while they saw no signs of the RAF — the RAF was actually in action, but back attacking the advancing German columns in southeastern France, though they were outnumbered and the German pilots also had more experience.

The overall message of the show was that Dunkirk was a military defeat which Churchill and his propagandists were able to turn into a political victory, giving the British people enough confidence that they could come back from defeat and not only continue to fight but actually win the war — though Churchill, as he acknowledged in his memoirs of World War II, was well aware that the only salvation for Britain was to get the U.S. into the war on his side. He even mentions the long-standing correspondence he had with President Franklin Roosevelt, which both men signed as “Former Naval Person” because in World War I Churchill had been First Lord of the Admiralty and Roosevelt the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, in which Churchill pleaded for U.S. involvement and Roosevelt said he agreed that the U.S. should fight against Germany in World War II but he had enormous political difficulties in getting the U.S. people and the U.S. Congress on his side. (Ironically, the British determination to fight on in World War II in hopes of attracting support from the U.S. was not that different from what the U.S. had done in the American Revolution — keeping the struggle going until the nascent United States could attract the support of Britain’s rival superpower in the late 1700’s, France.)

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Twonky (Arch Oboler Productions, 1950, released 1953)

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

I’d seen the science-fiction collection The Best of Henry Kuttner with an interesting feeling that I’d heard of the name before somewhere — and it wasn’t until I picked up the book and looked at its contents that I realized where I’d heard of Henry Kuttner: one of the 17 stories represented was called “The Twonky.” I’d first heard of “The Twonky” in 1990, in an issue of Filmfax magazine that contained a long article about the making of the movie version of it in 1950, written, produced and directed by Arch Oboler from Kuttner’s 1942 short story. What I hadn’t fully realized was that Oboler had taken a serious science-fiction story and turned it into a comedy (much the way Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern did with Peter Bryant’s serious novel about World War III, Red Alert, 14 years later to come up with Dr. Strangelove). Kuttner’s version of “The Twonky” begins in the Mideastern Radio factory, where an outer-space alien takes human form, infiltrates Mideastern’s workforce and produces a “twonky” in the guise of an ordinary console radio-phonograph. This particular model gets sold to college professor Kerry Westerfield, who finds the Twonky first doing ordinary household chores — helping him light his cigarettes and washing dishes for him — then deciding how much he will be allowed to drink (it lets him have one cup of coffee but won’t permit him a second), what he will be allowed to read (it lets him read Chaucer and Millay, but not detective novels, histories, Alice in Wonderland or anything to do with individualism as a philosophy) and even what music he may listen to (it allows him Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë, but denies him Halvorsen’s Entrance of the Boyars — a piece I don’t know — and Ravel’s Bolero). Eventually it starts blocking out parts of his mind — anything relating (once again) to individualism as a philosophy — and finally it kills both him and his wife when they try to destroy it. Though the Twonky is a mechanical device, while the seed-pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers are organic, the premises of the stories are basically the same: an invader from outer space attempts to dominate human consciousness as a prelude to invasion and domination of the Earth.

Later I got out my videotape of the film version of The Twonky and ran it with Charles at his place. The comparisons were interesting; the first half of the film is actually a fairly close adaptation of Kuttner’s story, while the second half veers off into silly humor that nonetheless remains surprisingly entertaining. Oboler updated the story technologically — his Twonky is built into an Admiral free-standing TV set instead of a radio-phonograph, and somehow Oboler found (or built) a TV whose very appearance, with its all-white cabinet, four bow legs and no bulge in the back for the picture tube (antedating the modern-day “flat” TV’s by about 20 years), is comical. (Admiral may have been doing product-placement in this film — a practice that was just beginning when it was made — because the refrigerator in the central character’s kitchen is also an Admiral.) Oboler abbreviates the character’s name — Kerry Westerfield becomes simply Kerry West (just as well, I guess, given the low fidelity in the sound recording that sometimes made it difficult to understand the dialogue) — and changes his sidekick from the school’s psychology professor to a losing football coach who dabbles in psychology on the side. (He also rechristens Kerry’s wife Carolyn — Kuttner called her Martha.) I recall the Filmfax article claimed that the actors who were making The Twonky had no idea (until they saw the cut film) that Oboler had intended all along to change it into a comedy — a story I frankly find hard to believe, especially since he cast Hans Conried in the lead, and Conried’s overwrought overacting would clearly have been inappropriate in anything but a comic version of Kuttner’s sinister story. And Oboler did add some touches that reinforced Kuttner’s Body Snatchers-esque point — instead of killing those humans who try to harm it, Oboler’s Twonky merely hypnotizes them so they stagger away, as if drunk, and mumble, “I have no complaints.” Also, Oboler’s Twonky is considerably more low-brow in its tastes than Kuttner’s — while it won’t let Professor West read history or philosophy, it will allow him a cheap romantic potboiler called Passion Through the Ages; and it rejects Mozart records in favor of marching music.

Charles, who hadn’t read the story, thought The Twonky was just a silly movie — bad, though not so overwhelmingly bad that it deserved the fate it apparently aroused the first (and, apparently, only) time it was ever publicly shown: the entire audience walked out, except for a six-year-old kid who couldn’t leave because his parents had dropped him off at the theatre and weren’t coming to pick him up again until the movie ended. (There was one unmistakably Ed Woodian use of repeated footage — at the end, when Conried is trying to get away from the Twonky by abandoning his own car and getting into a car being driven by an Englishwoman who is driving on the left side of the road because she refuses to recognize that in the U.S. you’re supposed to drive on the right side — and the speedometer on her car looks identical to the one on Conried’s own, down to the exact same odometer reading!) I remember seeing it in December 1992 (recording it off the TNT network) with Garry Hobbs, who actually liked the film (as did I) — not that it’s a great movie, but it has a peculiar charm, and I remember writing in my journal at the time that the reason it flopped when it first came out was simply that too few people were familiar with the conventions of the science-fiction genre to get the jokes of a movie that was parodying them — and I still like it, even though I can’t help but suspect that Kuttner’s original story would have made a stronger film if it hadn’t been parodied, and if it had had a more subtle director than Arch Oboler (like Don Siegel, who did the first version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a quiet understatement — at least until the climax — that is exactly right for this type of material).

In fact, reading the Kuttner book — I made it through three of the 17 stories contained in it, including the ones Ray Bradbury named in the preface as his favorites, “The Twonky” and “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” — it was clear that understatement was precisely his greatest strength as a writer. He could toss off sentences like, “Once, when he couldn’t locate some tungsten, he hastily built a small gadget and made it” (the punch line being that tungsten is an element, and therefore “unmakable” without elaborate atom-smashing equipment), “Joe went over into a corner, felt around in the air, nodded with satisfaction and seated himself on nothing, three feet above the floor. Then he vanished,” or, “He went across the hall and stopped in the doorway, motionless and staring. The radio was washing the dishes,” in a matter-of-fact way that suggested there was nothing at all unusual about the events being described. Kuttner may not only have anticipated the concept of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he also may have been the first science-fiction writer to describe virtual reality (as the “Escape Machines” in the story “Two-Handed Engine,” whose plot — in which humankind’s machines intervene to restore a sense of conscience to a world in which the human race has lost it — seems more relevant in the Gingrich era than it probably did in 1955 when he wrote it), and he seems to have been ahead of his contemporaries in describing both the beneficial and the malevolent effects of computers. It would surprise me indeed if none of Kuttner’s other stories have been filmed — “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” (in which Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” turns out to be a mathematical formula for interdimensional travel, understandable as such only by children five and younger whose perceptions haven’t yet been molded into the shape of Euclidean logic) would seem to be a perfect story for Steven Spielberg. — 12/14/95


Last night’s screenings at the Vintage Sci-Fi event in Golden Hill ( consisted of two early-1950’s movies, both featuring Hans Conried, an eccentric actor who was the sort of performer who couldn’t ask another character to pass him the salt without it sounding like a melodramatic invitation to torture or mayhem. The first was a film I had actually supplied, dubbed from an old VHS tape of mine that also contained a 1992 Tony Brown’s Journal challenging the idea that HIV caused AIDS and the 1942 film Dead Men Tell, the last in the 20th Century-Fox Charlie Chan series with Sidney Toler (who bought the rights to the character from the widow of original author Earl Derr Biggers and shopped them around to various studios, but after Fox lost interest no other major studio signed on and Toler got stuck making his later Chan films at Monogram). It was called The Twonky and started life as a marvelously dark 1942 short story by Henry Kuttner (though, as with a lot of his stories, his wife, C. L. Moore, might have collaborated, and the original publication was credited to “Lewis Padgett,” a pseudonym apparently used by both members of the couple, jointly and severally) in which an alien named “Unthahorsten” infiltrates a Midwestern factory that produces radio-phonographs and, purely out of boredom, decides to insert a “Twonky,” a mind-control device from his home planet, into one of them. 

The Twonky-containing radio set ends up in the home of a professor named Kerry Westerfield and causes him all sorts of problems; at first its interventions in his home life are beneficent, lighting his cigarettes and washing his dishes (Kuttner was such a master of understatement that he could matter-of-factly toss off a sentence like “The radio was washing the dishes” without any obvious indication that there was anything remarkable about it), but then it starts deciding what books he can read, what music he can listen to, and what he can write in the lectures he gives his students. Radio writer Arch Oboler, who had just broken into film production and direction with a 1949 movie called Five — referring to the number of survivors in the world after a nuclear war and in fact the first post-nuclear apocalypse movie — which was a smash hit. So he took his backers’ money and invested it in a film adaptation of Kuttner’s story that changed it into a comedy. Since he was filming in 1950 (though the movie didn’t get released until 1953, and then only in a limited run — according to Filmfax magazine, its first public screening was such a disaster the whole audience walked out except for a six-year-old kid who couldn’t leave because his parents had dropped him at the theatre and weren’t coming to pick him up until the movie was over) he changed the household appliance occupied by the Twonky from a radio-phonograph into a TV set, and he got a white bow-legged model from Admiral whose appearance was hilarious in and of itself. He also shortened the name of the lead character from Kerry Westerfield to Kerry West and got Hans Conried to play him, and Conried responded with a feast of overacting as his life gets more and more miserable with the Twonky exerting control. 

Kuttner was clearly an early libertarian — in his story “The Iron Standard” a group of astronauts from Earth land on Venus, which has a fully functioning socialist economy, and bring it down with their entrepreneurial capitalist machinations; when I first read it I told Charles it was the sort of thing Ayn Rand could have written if she’d ever shown any sign of subtlety or wit — and the social message of “The Twonky” is that individualism is good and any outside authority that tells us how to live, think or entertain ourselves is bad. A little of that survives in the movie, but the film is basically an excuse for Oboler to satirize the conventions of science fiction — though, as I pointed out on one of my previous screenings of The Twonky, one problem is that in the early 1950’s the conventions of science-fiction weren’t that well known outside the limited, geeky circles of science-fiction fandom. Today the conventions of Star Trek and Star Wars are so well known that even someone who’s never seen a Star Trek TV episode or a Star Wars movie can “get” a parody of them; in the early 1950’s it was harder to find people who knew enough about science fiction to laugh at a film satirizing its genre conventions. The Twonky (the movie) is a fun film as it stands, with some marvelously barbed lines, notably the one in which Kerry West’s Black maid, Maybelle (Bennie Washington), congratulates him on finally getting with it and buying a TV set, then boasts, “Yours is only 16 inches! Mine is 20!” It’s also got a great character of a collection agent (played by Joan Blondell’s sister Gloria) who zeroes in on married men with outstanding debts and poses as a floozy so they’ll pay up to get rid of her before their wives come home. But it doesn’t even remotely do justice to Kuttner’s (and maybe Moore’s) magnificent tale, which deserves to be remade as a film the way the Kuttners wrote it. — 1/18/18

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (Stanley Kramer Productions, Columbia, 1953)

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

Our next Hans Conried vehicle, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, is a bit more famous, and certainly is a better movie — it was produced by Stanley Kramer’s independent company for Columbia in 1953 (Columbia signed Kramer after the explosive success of his early United Artists films Champion and Home of the Brave in 1949, but the dismal box-office records of this and other flops he made at Columbia caused them to cut him loose … just before he made the “psychological Western” High Noon at United Artists, and it was another blockbuster hit!), directed by Roy Rowland and written by a man who was born Theodor Seuss Geisel but achieved worldwide fame as children’s author “Dr. Seuss.” I was a bit surprised that his credit billed him as “Dr. Seuss,” since in 1953 I’d assumed he was still using the name “Ted Geisel,” and it’s listed as the only live-action film made of anything by Dr. Seuss during his (or Geisel’s) lifetime. It was apparently inspired by a piano teacher from hell Geisel had as a kid, who rapped him across the knuckles with a pencil when he mis-fingered a passage. In the film the kid is Bartholomew “Bart” Collins (Tommy Rettig, a favored child actor in the early 1950’s), whose mom Heloise (Mary Healy) is a widow doing her best to raise him as a single parent. The one thing she’s done to him he doesn’t like is to make him study piano under the imperious teacher Dr. Conrad Terwilliker (Hans Conried), author of the “Happy Fingers Method,” which basically teaches kids to play piano by having them learn a song of stupefying banality called “Ten Happy Fingers” which they’re forced to sing as they play. (The songs for the film — there are enough of them it qualifies as a musical — were written by Marlene Dietrich’s favorite songwriter Frederick Hollander, with lyrics by Seuss/Geisel — Marlene Dietrich and Dr. Seuss, one degree of separation!) In the opening scene we see Bart Collins dancing among objects that look like alien plants, only just before the opening credits he wakes up and we see he’s only been dreaming after having falling asleep during a boring practice session. Terwilliker turns on him and viciously screams that the next day Bart and all Terwilliker’s other pupils are going to give a grand concert, and he’s not going to let the whole affair be ruined by one stupid kid who doesn’t want to practice. The next time Bart has to play the piano he falls asleep again and has an extended dream which forms the bulk of the picture; in it, Dr. Terwilliger runs a prison camp at which boys are taken against their will and forced to give up any objects they might actually have fun with and practice for the upcoming concert at which all 500 of Dr. T.’s pupils will perform that horrible song at once on a huge piano whose keyboard seemingly extends to infinity. (One wonders if Dr. Seuss got the idea for this from the huge piano art director Herman Rosse built for the 1930 film King of Jazz, in which nine pianists are shown plunking away and supposedly playing “Rhapsody in Blue.”)

In the prison he sees his mom, hypnotized to be Dr. T.’s second-in-command and also his fiancée, though Bart — proving that they didn’t break the mold after they made Deanna Durbin — wants his next father to be August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes, top-billed), the honest if somewhat naïve plumber who in the real-life framing sequence was repairing a sink in the Collins home and sighing with unrequited love for Mrs. Collins. In the dream sequence he’s at the Terwilliker compound installing 500 sinks, one for each of the pupils scheduled to play at T.’s super-concert, only what he doesn’t know — but we and Bart both do — is that Dr. T. plans to torture and execute him after the job is done. T. is also playing the nice but dumb plumber not in U.S. currency but in “pastoolas,” which couldn’t help but remind me of “doublezoons,” the fictitious currency surrealist writer Boris Vian invented for his novel Mood Indigo, though Vian carefully avoided including any information that might give us any idea of how much a doublezoon was worth in any actually existing currency, while Seuss explains that August’s fee of 20,000 pastoolas per sink is only $20. (“Find me a better job, and I’ll take it,” he ruefully tells Bart.) The plot is full of hair’s-breath escapes as Bart tries to escape the prison camp, which is essentially The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meets The Wizard of Oz (there’s a lot in common between Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch and Conried’s Dr. T., and he has a goon squad much like the Winkies in the 1939 Oz movie), including leaping off the top of a tall ladder to nowhere and surviving because he turns his T-shirt into a parachute (though later when he’s stuck on an equally free-hanging ledge he doesn’t think of doing the same trick again). There’s also a marvelous ballet sequence involving all musical instruments that aren’t pianos — earlier, when Bart had complained to Dr. T. in the framing sequence that “maybe the piano isn’t my instrument,” he thundered, “What other instrument is there?” (I was hoping for a sequence something like the one in the 1939 film Non-Stop New York, in which a child-prodigy violinist runs away from his parents and his manager and turns up hanging out with jazz musicians and carrying a saxophone. That would have been a bit dated in 1953, though five years later we could have expected the kid to be an aspiring rock-’n’-roller picking up an electric guitar!) Instead there’s a vision of hell in which the other instruments and their players are doomed to dance eternally; one rather kvetchy “Goofs” commentator sniffed, “Throughout the whole of the instrumental scene, with the various performers, there are so many continuity, revealing and a/v mismatch goofs that it would be impossible to record them all” — to which I responded, “It’s supposed to be a DREAM, you moron!

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T had something in common with The Twonky besides Hans Conried being in both; its first previews went wretchedly, and Columbia forced Kramer and director Roy Rowland (whose best films are quite a bit different from this — the MGM noirs Scene of the Crime, 1949, and Rogue Cop, 1954) to reshoot much of it, cutting out all the bits of social commentary (including a reference to gas chambers in Dr. T.’s torture dungeon, obviously inspired by Dr. Seuss’s fierce opposition to the Nazis well before most Americans knew or cared what horrible things they were doing to Germany) and replacing a lot of the songs. That only made the film an even bigger money-loser, though it’s acquired something of a cult in recent years because it’s the only attempt to do a live-action film of anything by Dr. Seuss during his lifetime. At that, I wondered at times during the film if it might have worked better as an animated feature, with only the real-world framing sequences in live action; animation would probably have softened the rather edgy material and put the film more into what we think of as the world of Dr. Seuss. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. has enough of a cult reputation that punk-rock singer Jello Biafra once named it as his all-time favorite movie (maybe he responded to Bart Collins’ rebellion against what Dr. T. and Bart’s own mom considered “good music”), and it’s certainly dazzling visually, while its plot lapses and surrealistic elements can be attributed to it depicting a dream. Also it’s interesting to note that Stanley Kramer originally wanted Danny Kaye to play Dr. T. (he’d have been good but wouldn’t have been able to tap the almost otherworldly evil of Conried’s performance) and Bing Crosby as August (he’d have sung better than Peter Lind Hayes, but he was too old for the part and wouldn’t have been as good for it as a personality), and that Peter Lind Hayes, who had got his start in movies in Warner Bros. shorts in the 1930’s opposite his real-life mother, Grace Hayes, playing his mother on screen, this time appeared as the wanna-be boyfriend of Mary Healy, his real-life wife at the time.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (Futurama Entertainment, Vernon-Seneca Films, 1965)

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

The first film shown at last night’s Mars movie night ( was a true oddity from 1965 called Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster ( lists the title as Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster, but that’s just an overly literal reading of a badly lettered title card) produced by Futurama Entertainment Corp. (“‘Entertainment’ — that’s a matter of opinion,” I couldn’t help but joke as the final credits rolled) and Vernon-Seneca Films, directed by Robert Gaffney from a story by George Garrett. Apparently the original screenwriters — Garrett, R. H. W. Dillard and John Rodenbeck, the last two uncredited — intended the film as an out-and-out comedy — and a deliberately funny version would have been considerably better than the one we have — but the producers wanted a “serious” horror/sci-fi film. They got something that was funny, all right, but purely by unintention, a mess of ill-matched footage that makes Plan Nine from Outer Space look like a deathless masterpiece by comparison. After some blurry stock scenes that purportedly represent an alien spacecraft in orbit around Earth, we cut to a plywood set supposedly representing the ship’s interior and a curious gnome-like creature with big, pointy ears talking to a woman who appears to be in command of the operation. The gnome-like creature is the appropriately named “Nadir” (as in “low point”) and is played by Lou Cutell — I couldn’t help but joke, “At the top of the list of science-fiction film characters with pointy ears is Mr. Spock in Star Trek, and at the bottom is this guy” — while the commander is listed as “Princess Marcuzan” in the closing credits but is never addressed by anything more than “The Princess.” She’s also played by Marilyn Hanold, who can’t act but at least is marginally enough better than the rest of the cast that we don’t think she flunked out of drama school on her first day. She, Nadir and their crew are preparing a secret plan that involves kidnapping Earth women and mating with them because a nuclear war back on their home planet — which the official synopsis says is Mars but that’s nowhere stated in the movie itself — killed off all their own women. When the Princess announced that the war killed off all their women, the one woman in our audience asked, “Then what are you?” — though it’s possible we were supposed to assume she’d already gone through her species’ version of menopause. The same woman in the audience laughed when I joked, when the Princess confronted one of the blonde, bikini’ed Earth girls they’d kidnapped, the victim would say, “You don’t fool me! You’re Harvey Weinstein in drag!” 

Meanwhile, NASA is planning its first manned mission to Mars — well, sort-of  “manned”; they’ve built a one-man spaceship and to fly it, scientists Dr. Adam Steele (James Karen) and Karen Grant (Nancy Marshall) have bio-engineered a creature from bits and pieces of recently deceased humans but controlled by an electronic brain inside — and the scene in which they cut their creature open (he’s malfunctioned and frozen up at a press conference introducing him, which director Gaffney represents by an oddball freeze-frame) and it looks like somebody left a computer circuit board in the middle of the merchandise at a meat market, is the grossest in the film. They call their creature “Frank Saunders” — as in “Frankenstein,” get it? — and duly shoot him off in his rocket to Mars, only the people in the spaceship that’s orbiting Earth from wherever decide it’s a human counterattack and shoot it down. It lands over Puerto Rico (as if the island didn’t have enough problems!) and the Princess and Dr. Nadir send out three goons from their spaceship who wear metallic spacesuits and hold ray guns that look like hand-held vacuum cleaners to hunt down the intruder — who in the process of crash-landing has badly burned half of his face and lost all his morals, since he spends most of his time cornering people on the beach and killing them at random. The pity is that Robert Reilly, who plays Saunders, was a quite handsome and striking-looking man in his opening scene and it’s a pity that thereafter we see him only with a lot of crud stuck on half his face to make him appear “monstrous.” While all this is going on Drs. Steele and Grant do a lot of riding around Puerto Rico (or actually Cocoa Beach, Florida, where the film was shot) on a Vespa motor scooter (one wonders if Vespa got product-placement money — or if they offered the filmmakers a bribe not to include their product in the film?) listening to a pop-rock song called “To Have and To Hold” by a group called the Distant Cousins, produced by Bob Crewe (who was best known as a principal songwriter for the Four Seasons: he wasn’t a performing member but he and Bob Gaudio, who was, wrote most of their hits). It’s not all that great, but the film’s other song, “That’s the Way It’s Got to Be” by The Poets (another Crewe-produced group), is a nice little piece of proto-psychedelic rock and the film brightens up considerably when it appears on the soundtrack. 

Alas, that’s about the only good thing you can say about Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster: it’s the sort of movie in which the stock footage has better production values than the new shooting, and there’s a reason why you’ve never heard of anyone in it. In fact, I found it so dull I literally fell asleep halfway through it and have no idea how it turned out — though I’m sure the ending had something to do with Mull, one of those tacky monsters endemic to bad 1950’s and 1960’s sci-fi films whose costume looks like it was made of carpet samples and who was on board the alien spacecraft as a sort of enforcer and hit person (or thing), confronting Frank Saunders on a beach somewhere (just about every exterior in this film takes place either on a beach — James Karen and Nancy Marshall even get to copy the famous seashore embrace of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity — or on a road leading to a beach) and having it out with him in a final confrontation reviewer “Space_Mafune” called “disappointing.” As an out-and-out spoof Frankenstein mission cMeets the Space Monster might have been genuinely entertaining — one of the gags from the comic version that never made it into the film was that Frank Saunders’ legs had come from a recently deceased tap dancer, so he’d have broken uncontrollably into a tap dance every time he heard the song “Sweet Georgia Brown” — as it was it was just another dumb thing that probably got shown mostly at drive-ins to teenage couples who were too busy necking (or more) to notice how bad the movie was!

Mission Mars (Red Ram Productions, Sagittarius Productions, 1968)

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

The second film shown at last night’s Mars Movie Screening was a much better — but still not very good — movie, Mission Mars, made in 1968 by Red Ram Productions and Sagittarius Productions (their logos looked an awful lot like those of porn studios and some of the cast members were billed with names that sounded like porn aliases, too), directed by Nicholas Webster from a story by Aubrey Wisberg (a recognized screenwriter with some not-bad credits on his résumé) and a script by Michael St. Clair. At least it had the advantage of actors you’ve actually heard of, like Darren McGavin and Nick Adams, who play two of the three scheduled crew members on a spaceship scheduled to fly from Earth to Mars over a nine-month period. McGavin is actually excellent within the extreme limitations of his character, mission commander Col. Mike Blaiswick: in the opening scene we’re shown him in bed with his wife Edith (a not-bad performance by Heather Hewitt, though her character is the typical Astronaut’s Stepford Wife) and, though clearly considerably older than she, he’s hot enough one can readily understand their continued attraction. Nick Grant (Nick Adams) is also married, though his wife Alice (Shirley Parker) whines about how he’s never home because he’s always searching for some new place, new frontier, new horizon to explore. (Adams is considerably more bloated than he was when he appeared in films with James Dean, but he speaks his lines in the mumbling monotone he picked up from Dean and in fact learned to do so well that when George Stevens, director of Giant, realized during his editing, well after Dean’s death, that Dean’s recording of his final speech was unusable, he had Adams dub it in.) Mission Mars has one howlingly funny lapse of continuity — supposedly Mike has got Edith pregnant just before he takes off on his nine-month mission, but when he actually gets to Mars she looks exactly the same and there’s no indication that she’s actually had the baby, which one would ordinarily expect to have happened in nine months! 

Other than that, it’s an O.K. but rather dull film that overexplains the science behind everything (a flaw in Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster as well — at the opening of Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster Dr. Nadir tells the Princess, “We continue to hear modulated hydrogen frequency signal of 21 centimeters, Princess,” to which she replies, “What does that mean?” — our question exactly!) and in which very little happens until the astronauts actually reach Mars. There they encounter a weird little thing that looks like a cross between a Giacometti sculpture and E.T. which turns out to be a solar panel hooked up to a ray gun, so it can fire an intense beam of sun-derived energy at anything and thereby do things like melt holes in metal. The big Martian whatsit we see, though, is a round ball textured to look like a moon that parks itself next to the U.S. spaceship and makes it impossible for Our Astronauts — there are three, Blaiswick, Grant and Duncan (George De Vries, who frankly did more for me aesthetically than his two better-known co-stars until he got fried by the Martians’ mobile solar panel midway through the Mars sequence) — to fire their rockets and launch the trip back home to Earth as their Mission Control people back home asked them to. There’s also an earlier Mars probe launched by the Soviet Union (ya remember the Soviet Union?) which also had three astronauts on board; the crew finds two of them dead in mid-space, perpetually orbiting Mars, and the third one they locate on the surface, think is dead but take his body anyway with the intent of giving him/her/it/whatever a decent burial back home.

Eventually — a very long “eventually” — it turns out that the big ball wants one of them to stay behind and enter it, and with Duncan having already been fried by the Martian solar-energy machine it’s Nick who decides that as a man who’s always wanted to go to the next unexplored place for the next exciting adventure, he’ll enter the spacecraft and go to wherever with the aliens, while Mike unthaws the frozen Soviet cosmonaut and impresses him into service as his co-pilot for the trip home. Mission Mars is a bad movie, wretchedly written and (aside from McGavin) acted with virtually zero authority or skill, yet it’s one of those bad movies in which one detects the basic ingredients of a good movie fighting to try to get out of it. It was made in 1968 and features two more O.K. rock songs, only one of which (“No More Tears” by a group called — I kid you not — “The Forum Quorum”) is listed on, and it was in color — though the color was probably not that great to begin with and the film has faded into the dusky greens and dirty browns that are the 21st Century cinematographers’ vision of just about everything. The color helps, and so does a well-thought script — indeed, a bit too well-thought script that violates the basic rule of science fiction: don’t explain the technology. As Gene Roddenberry put it in his prospectus for Star Trek, “Joe Friday doesn’t explain how his .38 revolver works before he fires it at the bad guy, so Captain Kirk shouldn’t explain how his phaser works, either.”

True Lies (Lightstorm Entertainment, 20th Century-Fox, 1994)

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

February 6’s “feature” was a movie I picked out under somewhat false pretenses, but it turned out to be a total delight anyway: True Lies, a 1994 film directed by James Cameron from a script he wrote based on a previous screenplay by Claude Zati, Simon Michaël and Didier Kaminka for a French film called La Totale! For some reason I had thought True Lies was based on a story by Philip K. Dick, which apparently it wasn’t, but though it was an espionage comedy-thrller rather than a science-fiction film it had some very Dickian plot elements, notably the confusion of identities and the ironies emerging therefrom. The film opens at an exclusive party in Switzerland for members of the 0.001 percent, including Arab oil shieks, European bankers and super-villainess Juno Skinner (Tia Carrere), who poses as a dealer in antiquities from the Persian Empire of antiquity but is really the point person for a gang of international Middle Eastern terrorists, the Crimson Jihad, led by Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik). The party is crashed by a mysterious figure in a black diving outfit, who cuts through the ice of a frozen-over lake near the estate where it’s being held; he gets out, takes off his diving helmet, then takes off the hood of the wet suit he was wearing under it, and only after he’s peeled off both layers do we recognize him as the film’s male lead, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold, whom Cameron had previously worked with quite effectively in the first two Terminator movies, is playing Steve Rehnquist, international spy who’s there to trace the terrorist group and find out who their contact is, but he wastes time romancing Juno (“Care to tango?” he asks her) and is set upon by a virtual army of the host’s security guards on snowmobiles, skis and other conveyances. 

The fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger is able to fend off a small army of people armed with machine guns while his only firearm is a small automatic pistol marks the tone of this movie as one which will exploit the movie conventions — like “Nobody can kill the star” — and at the same time it will make fun of them. After his heroic escape in a truck being driven (badly, since he has a hard time keeping it on the road in icy conditions) by sidekick Albert Gibson (Tom Arnold, who made this film in the wake of his bitter divorce from Roseanne Barr and proves that they didn’t break the mold after they made Frank McHugh), Arnold returns home and we find out that his “real” identity is computer salesman Harry Tasker. In this guise he has a wife, Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis, superb in a deadpan way that reminded me of Carol Burnett) and a daughter, Dana (Eliza Dushku), and though he’s been married to Helen for 17 years he’s somehow been able to conceal his real past completely. Indeed, he’s done such a good job concealing who he really is that his wife, bored by his long absences, has drifted into an as-yet-unconsummated affair with a used-car salesman named Simon (a marvelously droll turn by Bill Paxton), who’s wooed her by falsely claiming to be an international spy. (Helen’s boredom with her husband, who’s really a spy, and its leading her to an affair with someone who says he’s a spy but really isn’t, is the most Dickian element in this film.) A jealous Harry commandeers the resources of his employers, the super-secret Omega Project (their logo looks something like the real CIA’s but proclaims them as “Our Last Line of Defense”), to spy on his wife and stake out her lover, and there’s a great scene in which Simon the used-car salesman tries to sell Harry a bright red 1950’s Corvette that becomes a symbol of Simon’s wanna-be masculinity — and in the film’s one dubious gag (though it’s also quite funny) Harry and Albert trace Simon, confront him and get him so scared he literally pees in his pants. 

Eventually Harry has Helen arrested and put in a room where he talks to her in a computer-distorted voice and says she’ll be prosecuted unless he does a job for her, which is to infiltrate a suite at a fancy hotel disguised as a prostitute and plant a bug on its telephone. She’s told she won’t actually have to have sex with the client because “he just likes to watch,” and of course the mystery “client” is Harry himself — but the Crimson Jihad’s fighters crash the scene and take Helen prisoner. The finale takes place at the terror group’s hideout on one of the Florida Keys (recalling not only Key Largo but the isolated Caribbean island setting of the first James Bond film, Dr. No), where they’ve armed a nuclear warhead to go off and blow up the island as a warning to the U.S. that they have three other warheads and can aim each at a major U.S. city if their demand for a total U.S. military pull-out from the Middle East isn’t met. (As Charles once joked about the Unabomber, they seem to be attempting to achieve a desirable political outcome through unspeakably evil means.) Harry rescues Helen, but in the meantime the Crimson Jihad has kidnapped their daughter Dana (it’s indicative of the tone this movie takes and the sheer speed with which Cameron stages it that we don’t ask questions like, “How the hell did they know where Dana was?”) and is holding her hostage, and in the end she winds up precariously balanced on a construction crane high over Miami as Aziz tries to recover the key to turn on his nukes, Dana threatens to throw it in the ocean, and Harry attempts to rescue her by commandeering a U.S. Marine Corps Harrier jet — a plane capable of vertical takeoffs and landings (and which ran so much over budget it was one of the biggest scandals in the history of U.S. defense contracting) — and flying it directly under her and telling her to jump onto it. She does, but Aziz ends up on the plane as well and there’s an exciting, bizarre and hilarious fight scene on the supersonic aircraft, the ultimate parody of all those scenes in old Westerns in which the hero and villain fought it out on top of a moving train. 

Through much of True Lies it seemed as if James Cameron were channeling Preston Sturges — if Sturges had lived long enough to make a Bond film it might have come out something like this — and there’s also a certain Keatonesque quality both to the gags themselves and to Schwarzenegger’s deadpan performance. Out of all his directors, James Cameron seems to have been the one who was best at getting Schwarzenegger’s limitations as an actor to work for him; in the two Terminator movies he was literally playing a robot, and here he seems like a more muscular version of Buster Keaton’s “Great Stone Face” as he maneuvers his way through various preposterous situations that test his resourcefulness big-time. Schwarzenegger also made True Lies at an in-between point in his physical transformation from the hot stud of the Conan movies to the grotesque figure he cut when the steroids or whatever he was using to maintain his muscle mass caught up with him, turning his head boxy and making him look like a relief map of the Himalayas — though muscleman buffs will be disappointed that he never appears topless in this film. True Lies got good reviews when it was new — mostly along the lines of, “Even if you don’t like Arnold Schwarzenegger, you’ll like this” — and in James Cameron’s woefully scanty filmography ( lists 24 directorial credits for him but only eight are for theatrically released features) True Lies falls between Terminator 2 and Titanic and reveals something about Cameron you wouldn’t know from most of his movies: he actually has a sense of humor.