Monday, July 30, 2018

Cheerleader Nightmare, a.k.a. Cheerleader Killer, a.k.a. Teen Drone Stalker (Reel One Entertainment/Lifetime, 2018)

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

I watched a Lifetime “premiere” movie at 8 p.m. last night that was actually surprisingly good. It was released under the title Cheerleader Nightmare but lists it as Teen Drone Stalker and gives Cheerleader Killer as an alternate title, and it’s so new that though lists a director (Danny J. Boyle, not to be confused with the Danny Boyle who made Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire) they don’t credit any writers and they list the cast members but don’t identify them with their roles. The leading characters are Sophie White (Taylor Murphy), a high-school girl with long blonde hair and a disinterest in participating in the Cleveland High School cheerleading squad even though her mom Paula (Melissa Ponzio) is the school’s cheerleading coach. (One of the interesting things about this movie is that it makes being a cheerleader seem like almost as hard work as being a football player; the teams exercise similarly.) Instead she’s pursuing photography, and her mom is saying that’s fine but she really needs an avocation that will teach her how to participate in a team rather than something she can do on her own. About the only acquaintances she’s made in her high school are her boyfriend, football team captain Tyler (Johnny Visotcky, who’s tall, rail-thin and has an oddly angular face reminiscent of the young John Carradine; he’s O.K.-looking but really isn’t physically credible as a football player); and Mikey (Jeremy Shada), her partner in the school’s AV lab where they have access to a red helicopter-like drone that can take photos of people around the campus and essentially spy on them. The moment we see Jeremy Shada, with his boyishly cute appearance, we immediately conclude that he’d be a far better match for Sophie than Tyler — especially since we also see Leah, head of the school’s cheerleading squad, making a play for Tyler with lines like, “The head cheerleader is supposed to go out with the captain of the football team — it’s like a law of nature!” We also learn that Tyler’s father is in prison for armed robbery and that he himself has a couple of minor infractions on his record, but he’s trying to put all that behind him and help the school win football games so he can get a scholarship and go to college. 

Things heat up when Leah mysteriously disappears after a wild party; later her body is found in the woods surrounding the community (the name of the school may be “Cleveland High” but the locale is a typical affluent suburban bedroom community, not a major city, and the long shots representing the houses are some of the most preposterously obvious model work ever passed off in a movie — as if the director had his 12-year-old son build them out of balsa wood) and the film basically becomes a whodunit. Sophie insists that Tyler couldn’t have done it because … well, even though he has a police record and he’s the son of a criminal, she’s in love with him and she trusts him. Instead, against the opposition of her mother who thinks that this will put her at risk, Sophie teams up with Mikey to investigate the crime herself (interestingly, no official police officers are ever seen in the film, though we hear a siren indicating their presence at the end). At first they suspect Riva (Raleigh Cain), who took over as head cheerleader after Leah’s death and always wanted the job — she even hung a doll with a noose around its neck in Leah’s locker and attached a note to it saying, “Your days are numbered” — but when Riva’s ankle bracelet turns up at the scene of the crime (a staircase at the party house where Leah was pushed to her death, following which her killer moved the body and dumped it in the woods) Sophie and Mikey realize that’s too pat a clue and someone stole Riva’s bracelet and planted it on the scene. Meanwhile, Sophie’s mom Paula is receiving condolences from Coach Parker (Sean McNabb), who runs the school football team, and where I thought this was going was that Coach Parker had a crush on the underage Leah and killed her when she resisted his advances.

Instead [spoiler alert!] Tyler turns out to be the killer after all — he and his friend Ryan (John-Paul Howard) are seen driving in Ryan’s truck plotting how to cover up the crime when Mikey spies on them with the drone. At one point Tyler and Ryan hijack the drone and use it to spy on Sophie, figuring that if they can’t pin the crime on Riva they’ll make Sophie the fall girl, but what they don’t realize is that Mikey has a master connection on his computer and all the video the drone records goes to an account on the “cloud” where Mikey can access it all. He had previously used this feature to document that Tyler and Leah were having an affair behind Sophie’s back — which understandably turns Sophie against Tyler, though she still can’t believe he’s a killer — and he recovers the data stolen from his personal computer, the video footage the drone shot at the party. It turns out that Tyler and Leah got into an argument — Leah wanted Tyler to commit to her and definitively break with Sophie, but Tyler took the typical bullheaded-male attitude of “No one’s going to tell me whom I can or can’t fuck,” and pushed her down a flight of stairs in a fit of anger, thereby killing her. The climax occurs at Sophie’s and Paula’s home — mom, upset that Sophie ignored her demands not to socialize with anyone unsupervised and kept investigating the case, counterproductively confiscates Sophie’s cell phone and thereby nearly misses the warning Mikey sent containing footage he’s shot with the drone of Tyler and Ryan plotting how to cover up the murder. She finally gets the message while Tyler is in their home; he came ostensibly to apologize to Sophie and see if she wanted to resume their relationship, but really to kill both Sophie and Paula if they insisted on doing something stupid like turning him in to the police. Tyler corners Sophie at the top of a flight of stairs and threatens to push her down them, but she manages to escape long enough that Paula can hit him in the back of the head with a frying pan, knocking him out and rendering him unconscious until the sound of sirens and the sight of flashing lights lets them and us know that the police have finally arrived.

Cheerleader Nightmare is actually one of Lifetime’s best recent movies; not only does director Boyle have a flair for suspense but the writers, whoever they are, have created genuinely interesting and conflicted characters who act, for good or ill, from recognizable human motives. It’s a quite chilling movie and one that keeps the viewer’s interest, and it’s also quite ably acted — especially by Taylor Murphy in the lead, who plays the role matter-of-factly and with quiet determination; and Johnny Visotcky as the killer, who wisely avoids portraying him as a psycho — even though the hint that he’s a criminal because he’s inherited it from his dad rubs me the wrong way. All in all, Cheerleader Nightmare is a quite capable piece of work and one of those diamonds in the rough that keep people like me watching Lifetime movies! It’s also an interesting exploration of just how much modern technology has made everyone’s — especially everyone who’s a teenager in a relatively affluent community, and therefore comfortable with and having full access to the technology — life an open book; you can’t have a clandestine affair anymore with all the security cameras and that damned drone (which practically becomes its own character in the film) spying on you all the time.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Last Woman on Earth (Filmgroup/American International, 1960)

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

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi film screening in Golden Hill ( was of two movies that made an obvious double bill because of the similarity of their titles: Last Woman on Earth (1960) and The Last Man on Earth (1964). Last Woman on Earth was produced and directed by Roger Corman for American International Pictures in association with his own company, Filmgroup (one word, though an Allied Artists TV reissue spelled it as “Film Group”), and was based on a script by Robert Towne — who was also in it, more on that later. Towne went on to a distinguished career as a writer and a less distinguished one as a director — his best known credit was probably the screenplay for Chinatown (though he wrote an at least partially happy ending and director Roman Polanski changed it to a nihilistic one, much to Towne’s disgust), and he’s one of the many talents both in front of and behind the camera who went from a Corman apprenticeship to a major career. Last Woman on Earth was apparently a project Corman threw together because he was already organizing a location trip to Puerto Rico to shoot Creature from the Haunted Sea and he wanted to get the most bang for his buck while there by making a second film — the way he would allow Francis Ford Coppola to shoot his first film, Dementia 13, with the same cast and crew as his own production The Young Racers; and why he would squeeze two days’ extra work out of Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson by finishing the 1963 version of The Raven early so he could make another film with them, The Terror. 

 It helped that Towne’s plot features only three on-screen (live) human characters: New York financier Harold Gern (Anthony Carbone), his wife Evelyn (Betsy Jones Moreland) and his tax attorney Martin Joyce. The performance of the actor playing Joyce is credited to “Edward Wain,” but that was actually a pseudonym for … Robert Towne. It seems that he hadn’t yet finished the film by the time Corman and his crew were set to leave for Puerto Rico, so Corman had to bring him along so he could finish the script on the spot. Rather than pay for two people to come to Puerto Rico, Corman decided to save plane fare and living expenses for one by drafting Towne to play the part himself. Like Blake Edwards in Frank Wisbar’s 1940’s “B” Strangler of the Swamp, Towne’s performance proves that his real talent lay in writing, not acting. It also is an early indication of the flaw that would sink a lot of Towne’s later major productions: a gift for pseudo-profundity which led him to write things that pretend to intellectual sophistication but really don’t achieve it. One suspects that Corman told Towne, “Write me an Ingmar Bergman script — only make sure I can slap an exploitation title on it so I can sell it to the drive-ins.” 

What Towne came up with was a profoundly uninteresting romantic triangle between Harold, Evelyn and Martin that turns into a post-apocalyptic movie when, vacationing on Puerto Rico while Harold’s latest IRS investigation gets sorted out, Harold takes Evelyn and Martin deep-sea diving with SCUBA gear — and while they’re underwater a sudden interruption in Earth’s oxygen supply takes place, just long enough to wipe out all other humans and land-based animal life. They come to life but keep breathing through their diving masks until they realize that whatever happened to the air that annihilated the rest of humanity is over and they can once again breathe safely — and the rest of the plot deals with Harold’s attempts to lord it over the other two and insist that Evelyn doesn’t have sex with Martin even though she’s been clearly restive in her trophy-wife status and genuinely attracted to him. The main problem with this film is that the three people are relentlessly uninteresting and we really don’t like any of them. We also don’t understand why Evelyn would want to commit adultery with Martin other than proximity and Robert Towne the writer’s scriptorial fiat to give Robert Towne the actor a chance to make it on screen with a hot babe. At the end Harold and Martin start fighting over Evelyn, who’s waiting in a deserted church for one of these men to take her and run off with her — we get the impression by then that she really doesn’t care which one — they have a fight scene that mostly takes place in the water before Harold is finally fatally injured and Martin and Evelyn face an uncertain future as a would-be Adam and Eve.

It’s possible Corman could have improved this film greatly if he’d been willing to pay salary, expenses and travel for an actual actor to play Martin, and it’s pretty clear whom that should have been: the young Jack Nicholson, who was under contract to Corman at the time and could have brought an explosive romantic and sexual intensity to the character that clearly eluded the writer playing him. One other interesting thing about Last Woman on Earth is it was shot in color — I think this is the first time Corman shot a film in color — though the extant public-domain videos all stem from a badly faded 16 mm print in which the dominant colors are yellow and brown. (This was also largely what happened to the American International production we’d screened the night before, Queen of Blood — was there a dark corner of the AIP vaults where the climactic conditions were just right to fade films in this particular way?) With three uninteresting people enacting hackneyed situations and totally missing the potential for an end-of-the-world film (I kept thinking these three couldn’t possibly have been the only people SCUBA diving at the time the world briefly lost its oxygen supply, and Last Woman on Earth would have been a far more interesting — and, alas, expensive — movie to make if we’d met some of them), and the extant print looking quite murky and dull (though at least it does full justice to Betsy Jones Moreland’s red hair!), Last Woman on Earth is yet another bad film in which one senses a good film struggling inside it to get out.

The Last Man on Earth (Associated Producers International, Produzioni La Regina, © 1963, released 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Review copyrighted © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Last Man on Earth is something else again: the first of at least three film versions of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, a 1954 post-apocalyptic science fiction novel in which the entire human race is hit by an unstoppable plague which first kills its victims and then, if their bodies aren’t burned first, turns them into vampire-like creatures. The movie rights were bought by Hammer Studios in 1957 and they attempted to make a version with Fritz Lang as director (now that would have been an impressive coup!) and one of a number of fine British actors (Stanley Baker, Paul Massie, Laurence Harvey and Kieron Moore) in the leading role of Robert Neville — called Robert Morgan in this version — the sole survivor of the plague who’s carrying on a one-man war against the vampires. But Hammer placed the film in turnaround and their original U.S. distributor, Robert Lippert, picked it up and decided to make the movie as a U.S.-Italian co-production, filming it in Italy with two directors, Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona. He also hired Matheson to write the script, but then put so many other writers on it — including William Leicester, Furio Monetti and director Ragona — that Matheson had his name taken off the film and replaced by the pseudonym “Logan Swanson.” To play Robert Morgan, Lippert hired Vincent Price, and though Matheson thought he was miscast (and Price’s presence is a bit problematical if only because in 1963, when this film was made, he was far more identified with old-style Gothic horror than science fiction), Price responded to the rare challenge of a script that not only made sense but gave him a rich, multidimensional characterization in a serious story he didn’t have to camp up to make entertaining. 

During his long reign as King of Horror Price mostly got silly scripts and got through them basically by winking at the audience, as if to say, “I don’t take this crap seriously, and there’s no reason why you should, either” —but occasionally he got a good script that gave him some real cinematic meat and allowed him to show off what a fine, rangy actor he could be: this film, Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death, Michael Reeves’ The Conqueror Worm a.k.a. Witchfinder General. I still regret that the finest performance Vincent Price ever gave is totally lost — his one-man show as Oscar Wilde, Diversions and Delights, which fortunately enough I was able to see on stage in San Francisco in 1977 but, to the best of my knowledge, was never recorded or filmed. (It was also one of the few times Price got to play an actual historical person; others included his role as Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith in the 1940 biopic Brigham Young and the real-life “witchfinder general” Matthew Hopkins in The Conqueror Worm.) Despite the multiple writers and directors — usually a bad sign for any movie — The Last Man on Earth turned out to be an excellent movie, with Price burning off the screen and avoiding most of his horror-schtick trademarks (though there are a couple of sequences when we hear Price’s famous extended laugh, and they seem a bit out of place) in a movie that, though obviously made on the cheap, benefits from real locations (albeit in Italy, though the film is supposed to take place in the U.S.) and is effectively staged and edited by the directors. 

The plot features Price as a vampire hunter who uses the same armamentarium Van Helsing used against Dracula in the story that basically wrote the rules for the classic Gothic vampire genre — the vampires are repelled by mirrors (because they cast no reflection in them) and garlic, and they can be killed by driving wooden stakes through their hearts. He goes about doing this during daylight because the vampires are only active at night, and at night he has to barricade himself inside his home because a gang of vampires regularly attempt to break in and kill him each night. (The sequences of Price erecting the barricades inside his home to ward off the vampires are strongly reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead, made four years later, and Night of the Living Dead director George Romero conceded that this film had influenced him.) Then we get a flashback to Morgan’s life pre-plague, in which we meet his wife Virginia (Emma Danieli) — whom he calls “Vergy” for some reason — and their daughter Kathy (Christi Courtland). Morgan works as a biomedical researcher at a lab owned by Dr. Mercer (Umberto Rau), and his principal assistant and best friend is Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart). Kathy gets the plague and Vergy calls a doctor, who notifies the authorities; they take Kathy’s dead body away for burning in a giant pit. Meanwhile Morgan and his fellow researchers are stumped by the plague — they can’t even decide whether the organism causing it is a bacterium (which could be seen by an ordinary light microscope) or a virus — and Cortman reports to Morgan that he’s heard stories of plague victims who’ve been buried (as opposed to burned) coming back to life as vampires. “That’s all those are, stories!” says the rationalist Morgan — and in a nice bit of irony it turns out that Cortman himself died, became a vampire, and is the leader of the vampire clan trying to break into Morgan’s home and kill him before he kills them. Then Morgan spots a dog running across a field and chases it, glad that there’s something alive and normal-looking still around — only by the time he catches the dog and it comes home with him it, too, expires from the plague. Then he meets a young woman, Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia), who tells him that there are others who have figured out a way to make a drug from natural plant sources that will not cure them of the plague but will allow them to control it, live relatively normally and avoid becoming vampires. 

Unfortunately, Morgan has become a “legend” among these people because, in his one-person war against the vampires, he’s killed some of them as well and they’re sending out a posse to exterminate him before he kills any more. Morgan discovers the source of his own immunity to the plague — exposure to the bite of a bat years before that inoculated him with a natural vaccine — and finds that by combining his blood with Ruth’s serum he can make a drug that will cure her. He does so, but in the meantime he’s tracked down by the fellow survivors and he’s killed by metal harpoons thrown by them while standing on the altar of an abandoned church and screaming at them that both the vampires and the survivors are freaks and he’s the only real human left. There have been at least two major remakes of The Last Man on Earth: a 1971 version with Charlton Heston called The Omega Man and a 2007 film with Will Smith that used Matheson’s original title, I Am Legend. Also listed on is a 1967 short called Soy Legenda and a 2007 Asylum Studios knockoff called I Am Omega released to compete with the Will Smith version. I can’t compare how The Last Man on Earth stacks up against these since I’ve never seen the Will Smith version, I haven’t seen The Omega Man since I caught it in a theatre when it was new (though I remember joking to my mom that she had said during the 1950’s and 1960’s that Charlton Heston seemed to be making the entire history of the world on film, since he was cast in so many historical spectaculars, and when he started doing science-fiction in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s — the first two Planet of the Apes movies, The Omega Man and Soylent Green — I joked that he was extending his history of the world into the future), and I’ve never read Matheson’s novel — but on its own merits The Last Man on Earth, despite its relatively crude production values and the problems with Vincent Price as a “type,” is an excellent film that gave Price an acting challenge to which he rose magnificently. And the story’s premise is so haunting and powerful it’s no wonder so many filmmakers have returned to it since!

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Queen of Blood (Cinema West Productions, American International Pictures, 1966)

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

Last night’s Mars movie night ( — held on the fourth Friday of the month instead of the usual third Friday to avoid competing with Comic-Con — consisted of two mid-1960’s cheapies, Queen of Blood and The War of the Planets, though the screening’s Web site advertised the latter with its alternate title The Deadly Diaphonoids. Both were pretty dreadful movies, but both were also in the frustrating category of bad movies with potentially good movies inside them struggling to get out. Queen of Blood apparently began live in 1963 as a Soviet sci-fi film called Mechte navstrechu, which means A Dream Come True, though sources differ as to whether Queen of Blood was a remake of the Soviet film or just plundered a lot of its stock footage for a different story. It was also shown in a dreadful print, with bizarre color values that gave a yellow cast to virtually everything — though the accidental psychedelic effects of the deterioration of the film’s color scheme may have actually made it more entertaining than a correctly color-balanced version would have been. The story consists of the U.S.’s first manned mission to Mars — the year is 1990 and humans first landed on the moon 20 years earlier (that part they got right!) and since then they have been industriously colonizing it to prepare for a mission to Mars. Only they get a distress signal from a spacecraft from a planet in another solar system, which has crash-landed on Mars and is asking for their crew to be rescued by Earthlings. 

Rather than land on Earth themselves, they send a drone containing a recording with this information, and accordingly the international space program headed by Dr. Farraday (Basil Rathbone, billed second and lending a well-appreciated bit of gravitas to the proceedings) decides to launch their Mars rocket six months ahead of schedule to pick up the aliens and bring them back to Earth. The Earth rocket to Mars contains a small crew, including astronauts Laurie James (Jeri Meredith), who’s understandably put out that her fellow astronaut and boyfriend Allan Brenner (John Saxon, top-billed) isn’t coming until the next Mars flight, scheduled for a week hence, and Paul Grant (Dennis Hopper, who looks like he wants to go to Mars because he’s heard you can score some really killer hallucinogens there), and they land not on Mars itself but on the Martian moon of Phobos. The shuttlecraft (or whatever they called it) that carried Grant and a fellow crew member to Phobos to effect the rescue can only carry two people, so Grant’s co-pilot agrees to stay on Phobos for the next week and Grant brings back the alien (Florence Marly in a quite clingy and very revealing all-red jumpsuit) to the main ship. They set off back for Earth, only — remember the title? — the alien turns out to be a vampire, sucking the blood out of the body of one of the crew members (she doesn’t bother with little puncture wounds on the neck; she goes straight for the arm and rips open the appropriate vein). The survivors reason (if you can call it that) that on her home planet they feed on some lower form of animal — “It’s not that different from eating a rare steak,” one of them says (who knew Queen of Blood would be propaganda for veganism?) — and they give her all their supply of blood plasma in hopes of keeping her alive for the trip back to Earth without losing any more people. 

Alas, they run out of plasma and she puts the bite on Dennis Hopper (one wonders how stoned she got from drinking his blood!) and nearly takes out John Saxon, only his girlfriend pulls her off of him in time and scratches her back in the process, causing such an immediate loss of her own blood that she dies. The film has one of those annoying trick endings in which the surviving crew members discover that the vampire queen has left a lot of pulsating red bulbs all around their spaceship which represents their species’ eggs — it seems they reproduce like insects do — and the astronauts want the entire ship fumigated before it’s reused, but Dr. Farraday, taking the same attitude towards vampires from outer space as Robert Cornthwaite’s scientist character did in the original The Thing, overrules them and takes the basket of eggs out to preserve it as a “The End” title comes up. Queen of Blood is a wretched movie but also an oddly haunting one; Florence Marly (whom director Curtis Harrington fought the studio to cast; they wanted someone younger and more nubile, but Marly is sexy enough and her wordless acting, especially in close-ups signaling her literal bloodlust for the human crew members, is fine) pulls off the central character beautifully and the rest of the acting is certainly more than passable for “B” filmmaking. The use of all that Soviet footage makes this look like it had a considerably larger budget than it did, and it’s a decently made film that could have been quite good with more incisive writing (Harrington was the screenwriter as well as director) and tougher suspense cutting.

The War of the Planets, a.k.a. The Deadly Diaphonoids (Mercury Film International, Southern Cross Feature Film Company, MGM, 1966)

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

The next film on the program was a 1966 release from MGM — yes, they were the original distributor; this wasn’t an American International release MGM picked up when they acquired Orion, which had acquired AIP — of an Italian production made by two companies called Mercury and Southern Cross. It was shown from a Warner Archive DVD as The War of the Planets, though apparently it also went out under the title The Deadly Diaphonoids. It’s sort of a space-opera ripoff of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which the deadly Diaphonoids are clouds and flashes of light with the ability to take over human beings and turn them into suspended-animation zombies muttering about being “part of the whole” and other such collectivist notions. The film opens with shots of a Ferris wheel-like space station (and it’s disappointing to see a Ferris-wheel space station in an MGM film and not hear “The Blue Danube” on the soundtrack!), one of four in Earth orbit, that’s attacked by the deadly Diaphonoids just as they’re having a New Year’s party during which four dancers do a routine in mid-space (one Archie Savage is credited as choreographer!) that looks like what might have happened if Busby Berkeley had been allowed (or able) to stage a dance under weightlessness. The star is Tony Russel (who apparently was a real American actor then living and working in Italy — many of the other Anglo-sounding names in the cast and crew credits were pseudonyms for Italians, including the director, our old friend “Anthony Dawson,” who was really Antonio Margheriti), playing commander Mike Halstead — who, when he isn’t scrapping with a commanding officer who’s also his endlessly critical father, leads the attempt to find just why these four space stations mysteriously disappeared and what happened to their crews. 

It turns out that they were kidnapped by Diaphs, a non-corporeal life form that grew up on another planet and sustained themselves by taking over the resident high primates and masterminding their evolution into humanoids — sort of like the spores in Walter Miller’s marvelous novella Dark Benediction, though in the list of stories using this plot gimmick Dark Benediction would be at the top and The War of the Planets at the bottom. Only some sort of catastrophe on their home world wiped out the species that was hosting the Diaphs, so they went out into space looking for another suitable host and found it in the Earthlings running the space station. There are interminable scenes of the astronauts on Halstead’s crew invading the station the Diaphs and their human hosts have taken over, and the stiff-upper-lip acting of the crew members at the beginning of the film turns into screaming overacting as the story winds on and it gets harder and harder to tell who’s a Diaphonoid-controlled human and who’s the real fully human deal. This was apparently a follow-up to a previous “Dawson” movie called The Wild, Wild Planet with also featured Tony Russel(l — sometimes he spelled his name with just one “l,” sometimes with the regulation two) and Franco Nero in a supporting role (just before Nero had his breakthrough into U.S. stardom as Lancelot in the film version of the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe musical Camelot) and spawned (an all too accurate verb!) a third in the series called War Between the Planets — as well as a fourth called Snow Devils, and as I wrote in my blog post about The Wild, Wild Planet, “The idea that there are three other movies out there of such mind-numbing awfulness as this one beggars the mind.” 

At least the print of The War of the Planets we were watching was a quality transfer with normal-looking colors and enough picture clarity it was easy to tell what was going on (which was not always the case with Queen of Blood, though as I noted above the picture deterioration of Queen of Blood gave the film an engaging patina of accidental psychedelic trippiness); it was just that what was going on was profoundly uninteresting and one missed the brilliance and verve with which director Don Siegel and writer Daniel Mainwaring told this story in the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (still by far the best film of Jack Finney’s original story and one of the two best films in the mind-capture genre, alongside John Carpenter’s 1991 They Live), especially since the Siegel-Mainwaring version takes place not on space stations but in a perfectly ordinary suburban mid-1950’s American community, which just makes it that much more terrifying.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Killer Diller (All-American News, 1948)

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

The film was Killer Diller, produced by something called “All-American News” and with a copyright date of 1948, though it’s possible it could have been filmed a year or two earlier. It was a “race” musical with an all-Black cast, headlined by Nat “King” Cole and his trio — even though all Cole gets to do in it is play three songs (two vocal novelties and one instrumental); on the rare occasions he got speaking parts in films like Istanbul and China Gate he proved he could act, but usually he was one of those Black performers who got shoehorned in to do a number or two in a film in which he otherwise did not appear. The film came from the Mill Creek Entertainment box of 50 public-domain musicals and was advertised as a revue film, though it did have a plotlet of sorts: Dumdone (George Wiltshire), the manager of the “Lincoln Theatre” (the one exterior shot we get of it is of the real Apollo Theatre with “Apollo” painted out and “Lincoln” painted in) in Harlem, gets a call that the magician who’s supposed to perform as part of his current vaudeville show (apparently vaudeville was still a live item in the Black community in 1947 even though by then it was virtually nonexistent in the white world) isn’t going to be able to come. He sends for a replacement magician, and the one who arrives is played by old Black vaudevillian Dusty Fletcher, who when this film was made was having his 15 minutes of fame as the author of a novelty called “Open the Door, Richard!” The piece had been dredged up by Jack McVea’s combo, who had a surprise hit on it in 1946, and Fletcher got to do his own record in 1947 for National, the company founded by Herb Abrahamson just before he became one of the three original partners in Atlantic. (Atlantic’s other two founders, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, became multi-millionaires when Atlantic was sold to Warner Bros. in 1969; Abrahamson didn’t because he’d been forced to sell his Atlantic stock in 1957 to finance an expensive divorce settlement.) 

Some dialogue at the start (the script is by Hal Seeger) references “Richard” and doors opening (or not), but the big gag is that Dumdone has just presented his girlfriend Lola (Nellie Hill) with a $1,000 pearl necklace when Fletcher recruits her to be his assistant in a cabinet trick — only when he opens the cabinets (after a spectacular lightning flash) both Lola and the necklace are gone. A group of Black policemen obviously patterned on Mack Sennett’s original Keystone Kops from 35 years earlier try to catch Fletcher — who, thanks to the magic of filmmaking, is able to appear and disappear at will in his opening scene — and they get lost inside the cabinets, though they soon reappear. There are some nice novelty scenes, including one in which the Kops end up falling on top of each other at the bottom of a staircase. “Let’s try that again,” says their commander — and then director Josh Binney reverses the film and shows them going up the staircase backwards, then re-reverses the film and shows us the same scene (with the same incompetent ending) we’d just seen. Meanwhile, despite the loss of his girlfriend and the antics of his magician and the cops who are chasing him, Dumdone decides that “the show must go on” and he presents the Lincoln Theatre’s vaudeville revue. This begins with Andy Kirk’s band (he’d been a bandleader since the late 1920’s in Kansas City and at one point had had one of the top bands in the country; by 1948 he was on the downgrade and he quit the business to take a job managing the Hotel Theresa in Harlem — where Fidel Castro stayed in 1960 when he came to New York to address the United Nations — though he would sometimes reorganize bands for one-shot gigs) doing a wild instrumental called “Gator Serenade” that’s basically a duel between tenor saxophonists Ray Abrams (whom I’d heard of; he was in Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1949) and someone named (I think) “Shirley Green” (a guy). The number reveals that Kirk was keeping abreast of the times; the horn sections are playing bebop riffs and the sax soloists are nascent rhythm-and-blues. 

The next performer is a Black singer named Beverly White who sort of talk-sings her way through a couple of songs, one called “I Don’t Want to Get Married” (as you might guess, the reason she doesn’t want to get married is she wants to be able to stay out all night and “party” without a husband questioning her about where she’s been — one particularly engaging line is about how if she had a husband he’d cheat on her, so she might as well do the same!) and the other an updated version of the old novelty “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” If nothing else, White’s act shows that rap is not at all new: Black performers had been doing this kind of half-singing, half-talking at least since Bert Williams (a bit of whose most famous song, “Nobody,” gets sung by Butterfly McQueen, of all people — she’s in the film as Dumdore’s secretary and a comic romantic partner for Fletcher — which, as Charles noted, put this entire cast one degree of separation from Clark Gable, Leslie Howard and Vivien Leigh!). After that comes the comedy dance team of Patterson and Jackson, who do routines on the songs “I Believe” (recorded in 1947 by Mel Tormé with Artie Shaw for Musicraft but done here considerably faster and in a much more raucous style) and “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Then we get a marvelous comedy routine by Jackie “Moms” Mabley, one of those incredibly talented performers who were enormous stars in the Black community but whom most whites had never heard of (I remember in the 1960’s she made several albums for Chess Records, one of which was called The Best of Moms and Pigmeat — the latter being Pigmeat Markham, another old Black vaudevillian who got his 15 minutes in the late 1960’s, when Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In decided to appropriate his old “Here Comes the Judge” routine), who does a comedy routine about her first flight on an airliner (when told by a flight attendand to “drop her jaws,” she misunderstands and gets thrown off the plane in Baltimore) and a novelty, similar to the two talk-sung songs Beverly White did earlier, called “Don’t Sit on My Bed.” (One of the great unmade movies would have been a biopic of Mabley with Whoopi Goldberg — who ripped off virtually her whole act from Mabley — playing her.) 

After that came two quite spectacular young male dancers, James and Steve Clark, billed as “The Clark Brothers” and doing two hot dance routines; obviously they’d ripped off their act from the Nicholas Brothers but they’re quite athletic and almost as exciting to watch as their models. Afterwards Nat “King” Cole comes on with his trio — he identifies the bassist as Johnny Miller but it’s not clear who the guitar player is (probably Oscar Moore) — to do a novelty song called “Ooh! Kickeroonie” which Cole apparently wrote himself; it includes a great piano solo from Cole that shows off what a first-rate jazz pianist he was and how much of a loss, as well as a gain, it was when Cole started showcasing himself exclusively as a singer instead of a piano player. Cole’s other numbers are a bittersweet novelty called “Now He Tells Me” and a hot instrumental called “Breezy and the Bass” that once again shows off what a great jazz performer Cole was and how good the other two guys in the trio were — though by 1948, when this film was released, Cole was already having crossover hits like Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song,” eden ahbez’s “Nature Boy” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” in which he was backed by large string orchestras and was pretty obviously going after the audience for white crooners. After that came a group called (if I heard the announcement correctly) The Congeroos, who do spectacular acrobatic dancing sort of like the Clark Brothers except there are four of them and two are women. Around this time director Binney and writer Seeger suddenly remember that this film is supposed to have a plot, so in the middle of the show they cut to the Black Keystone Kops chasing Dusty Fletcher across the rooftop of the theatre — “Ya remember the magician? Ya remember the cops?,” as Anna Russell might have said — and when Fletcher misses his cue to go on and perform the magic trick with the cabinets, Dumdone tells Mabley to go out there and improvise something. There’s an astonishing scene in which Mabley puts a cap on over her hair, then a wig on over the cap, then another cap over the wig, before she walks onstage and finds her attempts to perform are being upstaged by Markham and the cops chasing him across the theatre stage. 

Andy Kirk gets three final numbers, one of which is listed on the film’s page as Count Basie’s “Basie Boogie” but sounded as much or more like an instrumental version of Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia” to me, and one of which sounded like Stan Kenton’s early record “Reed Rapture.” If I’m right, this would be a rare example from the period of a Black orchestra covering a white band’s hit instead of the other way around (though it had happened before, including Count Basie’s engaging 1939 cover of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade”), though instead of just using the sax section and orchestra Kirk does it as a full-band feature with a lovely trumpet solo I suspect is by bebopper Theodore “Fats” Navarro. Navarro was one of bop’s all too many heroin casualties (he died in his 20’s in 1950) but he’s known to have played in Kirk’s band, the solo certainly sounds like him, and if so this would probably be the only extant film of him. Kirk’s other two numbers feature an electric guitarist — he, a bassist and Kirk’s piano player stand off to the side of the band as if he were trying to create his own home-grown version of the King Cole Trio (though the solo we hear from the pianist — a rollicking boogie — makes it clear, as the rather murky photography does not, that the pianist is not Cole) — and when the guitar player is front and center we get an indication of the mix of styles, including the dying sound of the big bands and the rise of rhythm and blues, that would ultimately generate rock ’n’ roll. A final sequence wraps up the plot (as if we cared!): Dumdore’s fiancée Lola (ya remember Dumdore’s fiancée Lola?) finally reappears, but sans pearls: a previously unseen character called “Voodoo Man” (were we supposed to believe he was the indisposed magician Dusty Fletcher was supposed to replace?) had stolen them, and when he shows up and tries to sell the necklace the cops jump on him and finally, for the first time all movie, do something right. The film ends with a gag scene in which Dusty Fletcher and Butterfly McQueen talk about the rings that unite them — and which actually belong to a pair of handcuffs. They knock on the door of someone who’s supposed to be able to uncuff them, and a sign reading “The End” spills out. Killer Diller isn’t much of a movie, but it’s great fun even though some of the acts are almost too high-tension and relentless — the relative “cool” of Cole’s and Mabley’s performances are a relief from all that loud, bombastic late-era swing music and the excellent but awfully in-your-face dancing — it’s not only a document of what Black vaudeville looked like in the late 1940’s and in particular a lovely glimpse of how Nat “King” Cole performed for his own people even while he was making his music more sedate and middle-of-the-road to sell to whites!

Monday, July 23, 2018

A Father's Nightmare (Sepia Films/Lifetime, 2018)

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

I watched one of the better Lifetime movies I’ve seen lately, A Father’s Nightmare — billed on its page as a direct sequel to A Mother’s Nightmare (though I don’t have a report on that one and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it; the sequence also includes A Sister’s Nightmare and the one of the bunch I have seen, A Daughter’s Nightmare, in which the titular protagonist realizes that her stepbrother is crazy and is slowly poisoning her mom) — which turned out to be a pretty typical young-college-student-gets-lured-down-the-primrose-path-by-her-crazy-roommate Lifetime story but done with unusual style by director Vic Sarin (though given his last name I couldn’t help but joke, “Ah, it was directed by a poisonous gas!”) and writer Shelley Gillen, who’s been involved in some of the previous Nightmares. The father is Matt Carmichael (the reasonably hunky Joel Gretsch) and the nightmare he’s dealing with is that after he’s spent months trying to raise his teenage daughter Lisa (Kaitlyn Bernard) as a single father following the death of Lisa’s mom after a long battle with cancer, Lisa is moping around the house and is reluctant to accept the gymnastics scholarship offer from Southwestern Washington University (yes, this is a Lifetime movie that’s set in Washington state so it can easily be “played” by British Columbia, Canada) even though it’s quite generous: a free ride as long as she keeps up both her gymnastics performance and her academic grades. The casting directors for this film deserve credit for picking a girl to play Lisa who looks credible as a gymnast — small, doll-like figure and small breasts — though I suspect Kaitlyn Bernard had a double when the script called for actual gymnastics performances since all the exercises she performs perfectly are shown in long-shot. Alas, Lisa falls into the clutches of Vanessa (Jessica Lowndes), who in an opening prologue is shown being released from a mental institution for the criminally insane, where she was incarcerated for killing two people and nearly murdering a third, though her doctors have pronounced her “cured” and therefore send her into the world, albeit with understandable misgivings. Vanessa bribes Jim (Tom Stevens, a baby-faced hunk with a bod to die for and the only other significant male character besides Lisa’s father), the student whose work-study job includes making roommate assignments, to put Lisa with her instead of her high-school friend and fellow gymnast Katie (Ellery Sprayberry), and once she gets Lisa in her clutches she does a number on her resembling the way Boris Karloff treated Susanna Foster in the 1944 Universal film The Climax, an intriguing reversal of Svengali in which Karloff played a sinister hypnotist out not to raise a talentless girl to opera stardom but to sabotage the career of a genuinely great singer. 

Vanessa gives Lisa “dish” on how the other girls on the fiercely competitive gymnastics team really feel about her and gets Lisa to break off her former friendship with Katie. When the anxieties from Vanessa’s gossip start getting to Lisa and affecting her performance on the mat, Vanessa starts giving her drugs which she’s obtaining illegally from Jim — and within a couple of acts Lisa is on the roller-coaster, needing drugs to stay awake and other drugs to fall asleep (and missing English classes — Vanessa offers to cover for her but the teacher catches on, realizes they’ve submitted identical papers and flunks both of them for cheating). Meanwhile we’ve seen dad get increasingly worried about his daughter’s downward spiral and his own helplessness in pulling her from Vanessa’s orbit, and he’s getting advice from Lisa’s high-school gymnastics coach Laney (Lucia Walters, the obligatory African-American voice of reason in the dramatis personae, even though the body language she throws off in Matt’s presence makes it seem like she would want to be the next Mrs. Carmichael). Matt is also seeing an older woman whose significance in the story doesn’t become clear until the very end, when Lisa has been turned in by Katie — who saw her using drugs in the locker room — and ordered to report for a drug test the next morning. Vanessa gives her vodka — unbeknownst to Lisa but beknownst to us, she’s spiked it with pills — and talks the drunken, stoned Lisa into writing a letter to her father that will sound like a suicide note. The next morning Vanessa takes Lisa out to a wooded area near the campus and puts her on a tightrope, tying a noose around her neck and tying the other end to one of the trees from which the tightrope is suspended, so if Lisa falls off the tightrope she will hang. Fortunately, Matt, Laney and the police arrive just in time to rescue Lisa and arrest Vanessa, and Vanessa finally blurts out the truth about her motive: she’s actually Lisa’s half-sister. Vanessa — or “Amanda,” as her actual mom named her — was the product of an affair Matt Carmichael had before his marriage with a ballerina who went crazy and committed suicide when Matt dumped her. 

That, at least, is what the woman’s mother, who took in Amanda afterwards and changed her name to Vanessa, told her; in fact Amanda/Vanessa’s real mother survived her suicide attempt and Matt has been visiting her regularly in a mental institution — she’s the mystery woman we’ve seen him with in several previous scenes. Matt tells Amanda/Vanessa that, contrary to what her grandmother told her, he’d never given up hope of finding his other daughter someday, but Vanessa’s trauma over her alleged abandonment by both parents led her to single out students (including her previous victim, a male named Chris) with athletic ability, seduce them (figuratively or, in Chris’s case, literally), get them on drugs and ultimately persuade them to kill themselves. A Father’s Nightmare is the stuff from which most Lifetime movies are made but it’s done with an unusual sense of style; Vanessa’s villainy is kept within real-world believability and Jessica Lowndes plays her in a matter-of-fact way that makes her more sinister than a more openly florid “psycho” performance would have. The burning looks Lowndes gives as Vanessa hypnotizes Lisa into doing poorly on the gymnastics floor are marvelously subtle pieces of acting, and director Sarin (who’s also his own cinematographer) puts just enough of a shadow on her face to give us the point that she a) has a hypnotic power over Lisa and b) is up to no good without wrenching us away from realism. At the end Lisa is rescued, she’s allowed to continue at school with no ongoing black marks against her, pill-dealer Jim is arrested and Vanessa is shown cowering in a corner of a mental hospital, eagerly accepting a letter we presume is from Matt. A Father’s Nightmare is better-than-average Lifetime fare, told with a quiet understatement by director Sarin and writer Gillen that completely avoids the over-the-top plotting and acting that have wrecked too many otherwise potentially interesting Lifetime movies, and we even get a nice soft-core porn scene between Tom Stevens and Jessica Lowndes in which we’re given a good view of one of his nipples.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts: “A Tribute to Vienna in 3/4 Time” (CBS-TV, aired December 25, 1967)

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

TCM showed at least some of the Leonard Bernstein “Young People’s Concerts” last night and I was able to catch two of them, both from the later stages of the series: “A Toast to Vienna in ¾ Time” from December 25, 1967 (and the fact that they “dumped” this show onto the air on Christmas day is indicative that the American broadcasting industry was already getting restive about the unofficial bargain they had made with the federal government to offer at least some smidgens of high-cultural programming to pay the public back for the huge piles of money they made selling commercials on out-and-out crap shows) and “Quiz Concert: How Musical Are You?” (originally aired May 26, 1968). I remember watching quite a few of the “Young People’s Concerts” when I was in fact a young person just developing my “ear” for classical music — though I’ve often told people my affection for both classical music and jazz comes more than anything else from having heard my mother play records of them throughout my childhood. I’m convinced the reason most young people don’t develop a taste for those sorts of music is simply that they never get to hear them as music, alongside all the other musics out there — and it doesn’t help that classical music is often presented as a sort of aural medicine (“Listen to this, it’s good for you”) and encumbered by elaborate “explanations” of what’s going on moment by moment in a piece that just make listening seem like too much work to be enjoyable. 

Bernstein aimed his “Young People’s Concerts” at this problem and figured he could get kids to like classical music by presenting it in a folksy way, with charming bits of narration that would encompass some of that “music appreciation” stuff but would also present himself as a foxy old grandpa showing off to the kids some old toys from the attic they could have just as much fun with as they could with the new stuff out of the boxes under the Christmas trees. The salute to Vienna was an engaging program and Bernstein built it around an interesting conceit: since Vienna’s most famous contribution to the world’s music is probably the waltz, he would construct his entire program around works written in ¾ time, starting with Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “Wiener Blut” (he did not mention, surprisingly to me, that the title translates to “Vienna Blood”!) and going into two works by Mozart, an arrangement of an Austrian “Ländler” (the ¾ folk dance from which the waltz emerged) and a far more sophisticated ¾ work, the “Minuet” third movement from Mozart’s final symphony, the “Jupiter.” (Already in this movement, and indeed throughout the “Jupiter,” we can hear Mozart pushing against the limits of the Classical style; Romanticism in general, and Beethoven in particular, are struggling to be born out of that symphony.) After Bernstein made his point about Mozart he then talked about Beethoven, who turned the minuet that was the customary third movement of a symphony before him into a scherzo (which, as he pointed out, derives from the Italian word for “joke”), speeding it up big-time and making it a jolly little interlude between the slow movement and the big finale. His sample was the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which sounds a bit odd out of context but is still one of the most beautiful works in the Beethoven canon. 

After that he introduced his soloists, opera singers Walter Berry and Christa Ludwig, and mentioned that they were a married couple in real life (they were then, though they got divorced later) before having them do three songs from Gustav Mahler’s song cycle based on an old German children’s book of poems called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”). Mahler was virtually an inescapable piece of this concert’s content because he was one of the few people who’d worked as a regular conductor of both the Vienna Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic, and since both those orchestras had been formed in 1842 Bernstein was offering the concert at least in part as a 125th birthday celebration to them. He was also inescapable because Bernstein was one of the two conductors (Georg Solti was the other) who were instrumental in spearheading the revival of interest in Mahler in the 1960’s, and it seemed obvious Bernstein’s interest in Mahler stemmed from the fact that they were both composer-conductors of Jewish origin. I’ve never developed a taste for Mahler (and when John Culshaw confessed in his memoir Putting the Record Straight that he didn’t either, I thought, “Aha! Another one! It’s not just me! One of the greatest classical record producers of all time couldn’t stand him either!”) — there are times when he’ll write something that seems profound enough to qualify him as one of the greatest composers of all time and then he’ll blow it with a thoroughly banal tune, though some of those tunes are quotes from old Austrian folk songs and perhaps if I knew them I’d get the same pleasurable jolt I get when I hear Charles Ives, whom I love, quote “Yankee Doodle” or some other similarly familiar piece of American patriotic flotsam. Berry and Ludwig acquitted themselves decently enough given the banality and triviality of what they were singing (and, oddly, the CBS producers did not supply subtitles for the songs so we had only Bernstein’s preliminary descriptions to clue us in as to what Berry and Ludwig were singing about).

Bernstein’s final selection on the Vienna tribute concert was a piece with an interesting history: the “Waltz Sequence” from Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier, which premiered in Dresden in 1911. Strauss later arranged two suites from the opera’s music so it could be performed instrumentally, but the “Waltz Sequence” Bernstein conducted was one created by … Leonard Bernstein himself for the New York Philharmonic in 1944. At the time Artur Rodzinski was the Philharmonic’s principal conductor and Bernstein was his assistant; Rodzinski took credit for the arrangement but it was apparently actually Bernstein’s work. In 1971 Bernstein continued his association with Der Rosenkavalier by recording it complete in Vienna, with the Vienna Philharmonic and Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry in his cast. The Rosenkavalier music was exactly the sort of piece needed to bring out the best in Bernstein as conductor at the time: superficially simple, really complex, with lots of interlocking melodic lines and a sense of swing and lilt he captured perfectly — though given my Mahler allergy I couldn’t help but wish he’d had Ludwig and Berry singing music from Rosenkavalier instead of those silly songs from a German kids’ book instead!

Leonard Bernstein’s Young People's Concerts: “Quiz Concert: How Musical Are You?” (CBS-TV, aired May 26, 1968)

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

Last night Turner Classic Movies ran some of the Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts — I don’t know how many of them they scheduled since, now that I can no longer record shows for later viewing, I don’t keep up with their schedule the way I used to when I could notice that an obscure movie was on at 4 a.m. and set my VCR or DVD recorder to record it (now the only way I could regain the capacity to record shows for later viewing is to pay even more money on an already outrageously high cable bill!), but I turned it on shortly after 8 and caught the tail end of a concert I remembered seeing on its first go-round about modes — the alternative scales used in ancient Greek music. One can generate one of seven modes by starting with any white key on the piano and playing the next seven white-key notes in sequence, but for some reason the only scales that became standard in classical music were the Ionic (major) that begins and ends with C, and the Aeolian (minor) that begins and ends with D. The point of the program was that starting at the end of the 19th century composers like Debussy began exploring some of the other modes, including the Dorian, Lydian and Mixolydian, and to demonstrate that Bernstein began and ended his program with performances of “Fêtes,” the second of the three Nocturnes for orchestra Debussy composed and premiered in 1900. Debussy is one of my favorite composers anyway and the spectacle of Bernstein performing this music at the height of his powers as a conductor (when he left the New York Philharmonic in 1969 his talents began to go downhill, and by the time he left Columbia Records for Deutsche Grammophon he had begun the tendency a lot of long-lived conductors get into: their tempi get slower as they age until in their later recordings the music just begins to creep along and one wonders how their singers and musicians, especially the ones who have to breathe through their instruments to make them sound, can sustain these ultra-slow tempi without running out of breath) was welcome.

The shows I got to see complete — in color, which was something of a surprise because when they first aired our family only had black-and-white TV’s — were the December 25, 1967 “Tribute to Vienna in ¾ Time” and the May 26, 1968 episode oddly called “Quiz Concert: How Musical Are You?” In this one Bernstein was challenging his young audience to show how well they understood classical music through a variety of questions — some of them tricks — including asking them to identify the composer (name and nationality), period, style and form of particular pieces of music. I lucked out on the first piece he played; since he announced that he would perform it complete and it was only four minutes long, I immediately guessed it would be the overture from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro — and I was right. That gave me not only the composer’s name but also his nationality (Austrian), the date (the 1780’s) and the style (so-called “Classical” — the fact that “classical” is used for the entire genre of music composed for symphony orchestras, chamber groups or soloists,  usually on piano or violin, while “Classical” — capitalized — is used for a specific period within the entire “classical” continuum, namely the latter half of the 18th century, has confused a lot of people over the years), though Bernstein stumped me when he pointed out that the overture to The Marriage of Figaro is in a quasi-sonata form but without the usual development section in which the themes originally stated in the exposition are changed and varied on before the first section returns as what’s called the recapitulation. Bernstein also did some odd things to the music when he replayed sections of it, sometimes trying to conduct it in three beats when it’s clearly written in two, and the parts I liked were when he inserted a saxophone into Mozart’s reed section (it sounded wrong, but delightfully so, and I’m sure someone somewhere has arranged this piece for a saxophone ensemble) and when he added some jangly percussion instruments into the coda (which, as I joked to Charles — who returned home from work about this time — is how Mozart would have written it if The Marriage of Figaro took place in Turkey, since that sort of percussion spelled “Turkish” to the Viennese audience of the time and Mozart amply used it in the two operas he wrote that do take place in Turkey, The Abduction from the Seraglio and the unfinished Zaïde). Bernstein then played a piece that stumped me completely: it sounded like a 19th century German pastiche of early Romantic style but turned out to be the opening movement of Prokofieff’s “Classical” Symphony. 

Then Bernstein gave the orchestra a rest and sat at a Baldwin piano for some more questions, this time true-or-false ones dealing at least partly with which is or isn’t a major or minor scale (he played one that sounded like standard major but turned out to be the Mixolydian mode), what was or wasn’t a waltz (he fooled me with one excerpt when he played Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” which is a waltz come scritto, but Bernstein had deliberately played it in 2/4 time) and one on which I noticed that he was wrong: after playing a couple of themes that had been used on TV shows or commercials (including the opening theme of the NBC Huntley-Brinkley Report news show, which was really the start of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony), he played the four-note motif from the 1950’s TV series Dragnet and said it had been written especially for the program. It wasn’t; it was originally part of Miklós Rósza’s score for a 1947 Universal-International prison movie called Brute Force, directed by Jules Dassin and starring Burt Lancaster, and throughout the run of Dragnet Rósza got on-screen credit for the theme even though Walter Schuman wrote the original music for the show. (One interesting bit of evidence of Bernstein’s attempt to establish himself as “cool” to his younger viewers by showing them that he liked the kind of music they did was when one of his excerpts was singing the first two lines of the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life” to illustrate that you could write a sad song in a major key.) Then Bernstein played 10 examples of musical devices on the piano and I got all but the first and the last of them — I identified a trill as a tremolo and bitonality as counterpoint (the others were an interval, a chord, an arpeggio, a crescendo, a diminuendo, an octave, a chromatic scale and a glissando) — and for his final piece he brought the orchestra back. This time he played the final movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol and hailed the piece as a successful evocation of a Spanish mood by a non-Spanish composer — an evaluation I don’t agree with: I like the piece but there’s still enough Russian in it I jokingly call it “Sangria and borscht.” What he wanted his quiz audience to do this time was identify the passages in the score in which Rimsky-Korsakov wrote unaccompanied cadenzas for certain instruments, and I got most of them except for the opening, which wasn’t just drums but he wanted you to notice the brass ensembles backed by the drums. Then he replayed the movement, including the parts he’d skipped the first time around, and added at the end that his last question was going to be, “Did you like it?” 

I did, though there are some interesting observations to be made about the Young People’s Concerts after not seeing them in over 50 years. First, it’s astonishing to see an orchestra made up entirely of white men; when we see a symphony concert on PBS these days (the only place you can see a symphony orchestra on American television — as I noted at the start of these remarks, the commercial TV networks were only too glad to give up any obligation to show anything even remotely “cultured” and they supported the creation of PBS largely because it meant they would no longer be expected to — “We don’t need to show symphonies, operas or great plays anymore. PBS can do that!”) there are generally quite a few women and people of color in the orchestral ranks. It’s surprising that just 50 years ago a major and representative American symphony orchestra was all white and all male — and this despite the fact that their conductor was a well-known political liberal with a major personal commitment to supporting civil rights. It’s also fascinating to watch the audience at the concert, which consisted mostly of actual children and teenagers (any older faces in the crowd were almost certainly their parents or family members); some of them looked genuinely interested in it but most of them looked bored and a few of them were nodding off. It’s worth noting that at least back then the tradition of dressing for a symphony concert still obtained: the kids — regardless of their level of interest in the proceedings — were impeccably dressed in ways virtually no one their age ever would be today. The Young People’s Concerts were an important personal milestone for me in that they helped build my love and understanding of classical music, and I’m grateful to them and to Leonard Bernstein for hosting them along with his usual producer/director, Roger Englander (whom I joked got the job over François Français!), for getting and keeping them on the air for over a decade.

Dark Passage (Warner Bros., 1947)

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

In between the two Young People’s Concerts I watched completely I stayed on TCM for a “Noir Alley” presentation of the 1947 film Dark Passage, written and directed by Delmer Daves based on a novel by David Goodis that had been serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and thereby caught the attention of film studios even before it was available to the public as an actual book. Goodis had a quirky career; he published a “serious” novel in 1939 called Retreat from Oblivion which didn’t sell, and this led him to write for various pulp magazines, often under pseudonyms. He got his big break in 1946 when the Saturday Evening Post accepted his second novel, Dark Passage, for serialization, he was acclaimed as the “new Dashiell Hammett” (while the original one was still alive but too incapacitated by alcoholism to do much of anything) and Warner Bros. not only paid Goodis $25,000 for the movie rights (a pretty impressive sum for an unknown writer) but hired him as a screenwriter and gave him assignments like Pride of the Marines — a quite good, tough melodrama starring John Garfield as a Marine who’s blinded in combat — and The Unforgiven, a quasi-remake of W. Somerset Maugham’s play The Letter that moved the action from a South Seas plantation to urban L.A. Dark Passage got filmed by Delmer Daves, who wrote the script based on Goodis’s novel and took out much of the stream-of-consciousness commentary from the lead character, escaped convict Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart). Daves also made a daring decision to solve one of the problems presented by the plot, in which Parry undergoes a plastic surgery operation that radically alters his appearance. Instead of slathering makeup on Bogart so he would look different in the first half of the film than he did in the second — or, an alternative that doesn’t seem to have occurred to anybody at the time, casting a second actor as Bogart pre-surgery but having Bogart dub his voice — Daves decided to shoot most of the first half of the movie from Bogart’s point of view, which meant that we never saw his face until his bandages came off and his “new” face was revealed as Bogart’s familiar one. Accounts differ about whether Jack Warner did or didn’t know about Daves’ plan in advance — the TCM host said he did and tried to squash it, but was talked into it when Daves’ good friend, actor Robert Montgomery, starred in and directed an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake in which the entire movie was shown from Philip Marlowe’s point of view and Montgomery’s face never appeared except briefly when he was shown in a mirror. An “Trivia” contributor says that Daves never told Jack Warner he was shooting the film that way until the shoot was half finished, when it would have cost way too much money to reshoot the sequences to show Bogart’s face.  

Dark Passage is probably the least well regarded of the four films Bogart and his fourth and last wife, Lauren Bacall, made together, probably because Daves hardly has the kind of legendary reputation of the directors who made the other three — Howard Hawks (To Have and Have Not, 1944; and The Big Sleep, 1946) and John Huston (Key Largo, 1948) — and Daves’ script doesn’t give Bacall the kind of insolent, wisecracking character Hawks’ writers, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, had given her in her previous films with Bogart. (According to people who knew them, they were constantly wisecracking off-screen as well.) The film opens with Vincent Parry escaping from San Quentin, where he’s serving a life sentence for murdering his wife, by hiding in a barrel and hurling himself off a truck. He ends up in a creek and climbs out of it, walks to the nearest road and hitches a ride. Unfortunately, the person who picks him up is a petty crook named Baker (Clifton Young, who turns in a performance similar to the ones Dan Duryea had been playing in his noirs for Fritz Lang: Ministry of Fear, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street) who starts asking questions about him and is clearly up to no good — though we won’t find out how creepy this guy really is until much later in the film. Then he’s picked up by the heroine, amateur painter Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), whose late father left her an inheritance of $200,000 which allows her to live in a quite lovely San Francisco townhouse apartment and not have to work for a living, though she volunteers to teach painting four days a week at a settlement house for homeless kids. She hides him out in the back of her station wagon, under her painting supplies, and successfully gets him through a police roadblock at the Golden Gate Bridge. She allows him to stay in her apartment, only she’s got a semi-serious boyfriend, Bob (Bruce Bennett), and he in turn has an ex, Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead, in perhaps the closest any of her “normal” roles came to the sheer venom and spite of her most famous character, the mother-in-law literally from hell in the 1960’s TV series Bewitched), whom Vincent immediately recognizes by voice when she shows up to the apartment when Irene is out and he’s hiding out in Irene’s upstairs bedroom. 

The shock that Irene knows Madge, who was the principal witness against him at his trial — Madge led the cops, prosecutors and ultimately the jury to think Vincent killed his wife out of unrequited love for her — leads him to flee her place. He ends up in a cab driven by a seedy but sympathetic cab driver named Sam (well, he’s a sidekick in a Humphrey Bogart movie — what else would he be named?), who steers him to a down-and-out plastic surgeon named Dr. Walter Coley, who agrees for $200 to remodel Vincent’s face from its original appearance (represented in the movie by a still photo of actor Frank Wilcox) to make him look like Humphrey Bogart. (There’s a glitch in the dialogue because Wilcox’s photo looks so grizzled he appears 10 years younger than Bogart, but the dialogue tells us the operation will make Bogart look older.) The operation is accompanied by a montage sequence in which Vincent hears, again and again, Dr. Coley say that if he wanted to he could make him look like a bulldog or a monkey (reminiscent of the 1935 film The Raven, with Boris Karloff as a criminal whom plastic surgeon Bela Lugosi operates on, only instead of making him look better he double-crosses Karloff and makes him even uglier) which literally drove me out of the theatre when I first saw this movie (at a San Francisco revival house, with my mother, in the early 1970’s) and had me queasy in the theatre’s restroom for a while. Told that he will need a week or so to recuperate and during that time he won’t be able to eat solid food or talk, Vincent goes to the home of his friend, trumpet player George Fellsinger (Rory Mallinson), only he finds George dead, his head bashed in by his own trumpet, and Vincent picks it up, thereby getting his fingerprints all over it and giving the cops a second murder to suspect him of — which will lead to an automatic death sentence if he’s re-caught and convicted. With nowhere else to go, Vincent returns to the waiting arms of Irene, who agrees to hide him out for the recuperation period and tells him her interest in his case was because her father was also unjustly convicted of murdering his wife, and died in prison. 

Alas, Vincent doesn’t have much better luck evading the law with his new face than he did with his old one; a cop “makes” him and corners him in a diner when he innocently pretends to be interested in horse racing at Bay Meadows and the diner’s proprietor tells him the season there ended a month earlier. Then he’s tracked down by Baker, the petty crook who picked him up during his escape and who demands $60,000 from Irene to leave Vincent alone, otherwise he’ll call the cops and get the $5,000 reward on him. The two have a confrontation with the Golden Gate Bridge looming over them, and Baker falls to his death onto the rocks by the beach — thereby leaving Vincent with a third corpse he’ll be accused of killing — though Baker’s information leads Vincent to confront Madge, whom he now realizes killed his wife and murdered George as well in order to frame him because, once she realized she’d never have him, she wanted to make sure no one else did either. Vincent writes a confession for Madge to sign, she refuses, the two confront each other and Madge hurls herself out of her apartment window, thereby committing suicide and depriving Vincent of the one witness who can exonerate him. (The TCM host said that because the Production Code frowned on criminals escaping justice by taking their own lives, Delmer Daves had to fudge the scene to make it look like it could have been an accident, but I’ve always read it as a suicide. He faked it by having her curtains billow up as she fell out the window — itself a visual quote from the scene at the end of The Maltese Falcon in which similarly billowing curtains indicate that Wilmer, played by Elisha Cook, Jr., has made his escape.) The only thing Vincent can still do is use the information Baker gave him to go to Benton, Arizona, where he can acquire false ID papers that will allow him to travel to South America, and he hides out in a small (and real) Peruvian village called Piura (apparently it’s a favorite destination for surfers, and we get a nice stock shot of a big wave so we believe it would be), where eventually Irene Jansen joins him (and Lauren Bacall gets to appear glamorous for the first time in the entire movie).  

Dark Passage is an unusual movie, in some ways the closest Bogart ever came to making an Alfred Hitchcock movie; Daves was clearly influenced by the Master not only in the overall architecture of the plot but in such details as the strongly etched minor characters and the feeling of despair he puts his central character through as every person who could conceivably exonerate him meets a gruesome end. It’s also quite unusual — especially in the Production Code era — for us to be told the central character is innocent but for him never to be able to gain a legal exoneration; instead the “happy ending” is that he and his girlfriend will have to live out the rest of their lives as fugitives from justice in a foreign country. Daves also keeps the action claustrophobic; with very few opportunities for the chiaroscuro nighttime exteriors that usually define film noir, and with so much of the film taking place in Lauren Bacall’s apartment, he finds some quite inventive camera angles and keeps the “look” of the film very closed-in and oblique. One quirk of Dark Passage is that it was not only set in San Francisco but largely shot there, and though Bogart had previously made The Maltese Falcon, a successful (artistically and commercially) murder mystery set in San Francisco, without ever setting foot anywhere near there (a couple of establishing shots of the San Francisco Ferry Building taken by a second unit are the only scenes in The Maltese Falcon shot in the city), this one took advantage of some spectacular locations and, like Hitchcock in Vertigo 11 years later, Daves makes a great deal out of the verticality of San Francisco, its tall buildings, multiple hills, and fabled cable cars. Bogart and Bacall loved getting out of Hollywood to make this movie — the studio put them up at the Mark Hopkins Hotel and they, who had been working steadily since their relationship began on the set of To Have and Have Not, welcomed it as a studio-funded honeymoon even though every time Bogart emerged from the hotel, the predictable happened: fans crowded around him to get a glimpse of him.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The U.S. vs. John Lennon (Lionsgate, VH-1 Rock Docs, Authorized Pictures, Paramount, Viacom, 2006)

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

On Wednesday night Charles and I watched an interesting documentary from Lionsgate in association with the VH-1 cable channel, The U.S. vs. John Lennon, made in 2006 and focusing on one of the most fraught two years of the nearly 11 that elapsed between the breakup of the Beatles and Lennon’s tragic murder in December 1980. Much of the material got covered again four years later in a PBS American Masters documentary called LennonNYC, which was shown in association with a dramatic film called Lennon Naked that told a very “black” version of the prior life of Lennon, especially the two years between the Beatles’ breakup and his move to the U.S. at the end of 1971. John Lennon’s post-Beatles legacy is one of the least understood aspects of the Beatles saga, at least in part because there was so little of it — he retired from music at the end of 1974 when his old EMI recording contract had been finished and didn’t return until 1980, the year he made his public re-emergence with the Double Fantasy album and was killed three weeks after its release. Though Lennon as a solo artist made three of the best rock records of the 1970’s — Plastic Ono Band, Imagine and Walls and Bridges — he also went on an alcohol-fueled destructive path in 1973-74 he called his “Lost Weekend” when he abandoned New York to live in L.A., and he abandoned Yoko Ono to have an affair with his secretary, May Pang, whom Yoko had ironically dispatched to L.A. with him in hopes of keeping him honest and together.

The version of the story told in The U.S. vs. John Lennon pretty much ignores the darker sides of the tale and focuses, as its title suggests, on the efforts of the U.S. government in general and Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover in particular to have Lennon deported in 1972 to prevent him from doing a nationwide concert tour to get young people to register to vote and turn out en masse to defeat Nixon. The story as told here begins in December 1971, when John Sinclair, a white radical activist from Detroit who organized something called the White Panther Party, got himself on the predictable police shit lists and was ultimately entrapped, arrested and given a 20-year sentence for giving two marijuana cigarettes to a female undercover police officer. (I’ve told young people today that once during my lifetime it was possible to draw a 20-year prison sentence for two joints, and they don’t believe me.) Sinclair’s friends organized a benefit concert to raise money for his appeals, which turned into an all-day rock festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and they managed to be the right people at the right time: in search of a superstar headliner for their show, they asked John Lennon just as Lennon was wondering how he could get in touch with the American Left and start doing favors for them. Lennon not only agreed to play the Ann Arbor Sinclair benefit (with Yoko Ono and the New York-based band Elephants’ Memory, which had already acquired a reputation as a go-to group for Leftist event organizers looking for a band), he wrote a song for the occasion called “John Sinclair” and played it, intriguingly, bottle-neck style on one of the steel National guitars many of the country blues musicians of the 1930’s had used. Within two days an appeals court heard Sinclair’s case and did indeed set him free, and this apparently gave Lennon a wildly inflated idea of his own power to affect political events in the U.S. In late 1971, the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had been ratified, lowering the voting age across the U.S. to 18, and a lot of political activists on both sides of the ideological divide were thinking that this would swing American politics to the Left since the most visible young people already involved in politics were the political demonstrators and protesters who were turning out en masse for actions against the Viet Nam war and in support of civil rights for people of color and women. Richard Nixon and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, were worried about that and went ballistic when John Lennon announced that he personally was going to lead a concert tour with voter registars “working the crowds” and hopefully enlisting thousands of new voters to vote against him.

They fought back by dredging up a 1968 marijuana conviction against Lennon and Ono from back home in England — by a particularly dedicated cop who wasn’t averse to planting drugs on rock stars and other celebrities who didn’t have them on hand when he busted them — and using it as a pretext to have Lennon deported as an “undesirable alien” who had overstayed the temporary visa he had got to support Yoko’s custody battle over Kyoko Cox, her daughter by a previous husband. Wisely, Lennon avoided any of the prominent Left-wing “movement lawyers” like William Kunstler who would have turned his immigration case into a political cause célèbre; instead he hired a man named Leon Wildes who was an immigration law specialist who took the case literally having no idea who John Lennon was. In a 2016 National Public Radio (NPR) interview (, Wildes’ son Michael recalled the night his dad told the family who his new clients were: “He said, ‘A singer by the name of Jack Lemon and his wife Yoko Moto,’ My mom looked at him like he wasn’t well. ‘Are you talking about the Beatles and John Lennon?’ My father said, ‘Yeah!’” Wildes was able to file a series of delaying appeals and keep Lennon and Ono in the U.S. through 1972. Later, through a series of Freedom of Information Act requests, Wildes learned that a secret federal policy called “deferred action” existed by which the government could decide not to prosecute certain undocumented or poorly documented immigrants. It had usually been used for ex-Mafiosi who had entered the U.S. illegally and worked with the Mob until they were caught, then turned state’s evidence and therefore U.S. prosecutors needed them in cases involving their former associates. According to Michael Wildes’ NPR article, Lennon’s case was the first time the existence of “deferred prosecution” was revealed, and it was the tool Leon Wildes used to get a final court ruling in late 1974 (significantly, after the Watergate scandal had forced Nixon out of the Presidency) and a green card establishing Lennon as a legal resident alien in 1976. (Lennon would almost certainly have naturalized as an American citizen if he’d lived longer; he was just two months away from his eligibility for naturalization when he was killed.) 

In one interview on Tom Snyder’s late-night TV show, included in The U.S. vs. John Lennon and also quoted in Michael Wildes’ article, Lennon explained that the reason he wanted to live in the U.S. was it was the country where rock ’n’ roll had originated: “I like to be here because this is where the music came from. This is what influenced my whole life and got me where I am today.” In other interviews at the time, he compared New York City to Rome during the Roman Empire, Florence during the Renaissance and Paris in the 1920’s — the place that was drawing artists from all around the world who wanted to be in the cultural hotbed of the time — and there’s one clip in The U.S. vs. John Lennon in which he said in New York he felt treated seriously as an Artist while in Britain he felt like a spoiled boy the British audience and showbiz industry had indulged too long and now needed to take him down a few pegs. John Lennon had always wanted to be taken seriously by the arts community — it was what had drawn him to his boyhood friend Stu Sutcliffe when they both met at the Liverpool College of the Arts, where Sutcliffe was an “A” student and Lennon a “C” student, and though he ultimately drafted Sutcliffe to play bass with the Beatles (until Sutcliffe gave it up and passed the bass to Paul McCartney, who’d previously been the band’s third guitar player) Lennon was far more in awe of Sutcliffe’s talents as an artist than Sutcliffe had been of Lennon’s as a musician. What drew him to Yoko Ono was that she was someone who was a big fish in the small pond of New York’s conceptual art world and that she was someone who could be both his lover and his intellectual buddy; as Lennon once put it with his typical bluntness, “She was the first intellectual I’d met I could fuck” — meaning that all the other intellectuals he’d met had been male and therefore off-limits to the strictly hetero Lennon. Though Yoko was a big fish in a very small pond while John was a huge fish in a huge pond, he was in far more awe of her and her level of success than she was of him and his. Most of the avant-garde experiments Lennon engaged in during the later years of the Beatles (including  putting the musique concrête sound montage “Revolution #9” on the White Album) and his solo years were aspects of art to which Yoko had introduced him.

There’s an interesting clip in The U.S. vs. John Lennon of a press conference in which John and Yoko announced the formation of their own country, “Nutopia,” which you could become a citizen of just by declaring yourself one, and every Nutopian would be an ambassador of the country. In 1973 Lennon included an alleged song called “The Nutopian International Anthem” on his album Mind Games, but its duration was listed on the record label as 0:00 — which isn’t so strange when you realize that before she met John Lennon, Yoko had been a good friend of John Cage, whose most famous piece, 4:33, consists of a pianist sitting at a piano for the titular four minutes and 33 seconds without playing it. (Cage decreed that the piece be divided into three movements, and David Tudor, the pianist who premiered it, indicated the movement divisions by closing the lid over the piano keys and then opening it again.) The U.S. vs. John Lennon depicts a somewhat whitewashed version of him — it doesn’t tell the story that appeared in the PBS documentary LennonNYC that John’s reaction to the TV announcement of Richard Nixon’s re-election as President in 1972 was to take a woman into his bedroom and fuck her, making so much noise in the process that Yoko, in the next room, was sure to hear it (and the other guests tried to drown it out by playing a Bob Dylan record fortissimo), which was the beginning of the way Lennon’s life spiraled out of control for the next year and a half until he finally came to his senses, reconciled with Yoko, moved back in to their home in the Dakota building in New York and eventually fathered their son Sean (after Yoko had had three miscarriages during their relationship) and dropped out of the music business for five years to become a stay-at-home dad. The show doesn’t really demonstrate how much John Lennon withdrew from radical politics even before he withdrew from music; after the critical and commercial failure of his ultra-political 1972 album Some Time in New York City he got the sense that Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and the other Leftists who had recruited him to their political enterprise had exploited him. While Mind Games contained some mildly political songs, he avoided socially conscious material almost completely on Walls and Bridges and totally on the comeback albums Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey (the last not released until April 1984, over three years after his death). I remember a minor to-do when Yoko released a list of the couple’s recent contributions to charity in the late 1970’s and among the items was a donation to buy bulletproof vests for New York’s police officers. 

The U.S. vs. John Lennon was made in a period in which a Republican President who had been elected without winning the popular vote was mounting a campaign against civil liberties under the ground of “fighting terrorism,” and naturally some of the people directors David Leaf (who’s also worked on documentaries on the Beach Boys and their mercurial leader, Brian Wilson) and John Scheinfeld interviewed couldn’t help but make comments about the similarities between what artists like John Lennon were going through under Richard Nixon and what cultural people were going through under George W. Bush — and every time people like Angela Davis (subject of one of the political songs on Lennon’s Some Time in New York City) and Gore Vidal made comments on how the Bush II administration was bringing back some of the worst practices of Nixon’s and going even farther, one wanted to take them aside and say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” One of the most effective aspects of The U.S. vs. John Lennon was the use of clips of old, jowly white men in suits to represent the “other side” and prattle on about their definition of “patriotism” and how it was bound up with “faith” — it’s as a contrast to this quasi-official association of the U.S. government (especially when it’s dominated, as during Nixon, Bush II and Trump, by the Right) not just with religion in general but politically, socially and culturally conservative Christianity in particular that the film actually opens with the controversy over Lennon’s “We’re more popular than Jesus now” comment (to an interviewer he was having an affair with, British journalist Maureen Cleave) in 1966 and the Nazi-esque burnings of Beatles records and merchandise organized by radio stations, mostly in the South, in protest against it. (What most people don’t realize is that that comment would literally come back to haunt John Lennon and get him killed: Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, was not a “deranged fan,” he was a Fundamentalist Christian who had never forgiven Lennon for the “more popular than Jesus” remark or for writing a song with the words, “Imagine no religion,” and had once been part of a prayer group that openly prayed, “Imagine, imagine John Lennon dead.”) 

Seen today, in which the Trump administration and its handmaidens in Congress and on the Supreme Court have taken a repressive agenda even father than Bush II did, which was considerably farther than Nixon did — and the U.S. has continued to divide along political, ideological, racial and cultural lines (with the Right pulling ahead in the first two and the Left in the last two — America is slowly losing its white majority and cultural changes like the quasi-legal availability of marijuana, marriage equality for same-sex couples and at least some level of access for pregnant women to safe and legal abortion, things that were barely conceivable in the 1960’s, have happened) in many of the same depressingly similar ways shown as history in this film, The U.S. vs. John Lennon takes on chilling resonances and also shows that once upon a time, during the lifetime of people living today, it was possible for celebrities to be openly radical and express themselves in their art as well as in interviews and other public fora without the kind of punishment the Dixie Chicks experienced during the Bush administration, losing their radio exposure and much of their audience overnight for saying that as Texans, they were ashamed of Bush. Today the only rock stars who write and record political material are those, like Neil Young and Steve Earle, old enough to be at the end of their celebrity runs and therefore beyond the career suicide it would be for a performer of John Lennon’s age in the early 1970’s (his early 30’s) or younger today to do the same thing. And it’s also depressing to watch this film and realize that some of the people in it depicted as counter-cultural avatars have moved Rightward themselves — like Geraldo Rivera, a friend of John Lennon’s in the 1970’s and now a Fox News commentator and big-time apologist for Trump.