Saturday, September 29, 2018

Fargo (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Working Title Films, 20th Century-Fox, MGM, 1996)

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

The other day I had picked up seven movies from the bargain counter at Big Lots, including some films I’d never seen before but were sufficiently important parts of America’s cultural landscape I felt I should — and number one on that list was Fargo, the well-regarded 1996 semi-thriller by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (Joel got sole directorial credit — though Ethan did some uncredited work on the direction, according to — and they’re both credited with the script) dealing with a phony “kidnapping” staged by car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) against his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) to get his hands on some of his father-in-law’s money. (There’s an interesting family resemblance to the film version of Sorry, Wrong Number and in particular to Burt Lancaster’s role as a weakling who married the daughter of a rich man, went to work for his father-in-law, hated it and plotted a crime against his wife to get his hands on her family’s money.) To do this, he hires two professional criminals, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), whom he’s met through Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reavis), a Native American who works for Jerry’s car dealership as a mechanic, and the first intimation that we have that this crime is going to go wretchedly wrong due to the incompetence of the people involved is in the opening scene, in which Jerry shows up for his meeting with the crooks at 8:30 — an hour later than they were expecting him — since he got his signals crossed on the time. Jerry is desperate for money for reasons he doesn’t explain but we can easily guess at, and the film cuts effectively between his depressingly ordinary suburban life with Jean and their son Scotty (Tony Denman), his fraught business relationship with his father-in-law and boss Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell in his first film in 20 years) and Wade’s attorney, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), and the interchange between the crooks — particularly the garrulous Carl and the virtually taciturn Gaear (whose character reminded me of the old radio routine in which Gary Cooper answered every question with, “Yup,” and when asked if he was ever going to say anything but “Yup” replied, “Nope”). About the only thing they have in common is an insatiable urge for sex; in an early scene they hire two prostitutes and have sex with them simultaneously — I found it revealing that in both scenes in which Carl is shown having sex, his female partner is on top — and when they’ve finally got their rocks off the crooks show up at Jerry’s home, kidnap Jean (she makes it easy for them by trying to hide out in the shower, and they grab her from the curtain and pull her out, whereupon she stumbles and falls down the stairs — an interesting inversion of the shower-murder scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho) and make off with her.

Only a state trooper (James Gaulke) shows up and pulls Carl over for not having dealer tags attached to his car (an Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera Jerry provided him from his inventory) while the tied-up Jean is still wrapped in the shower curtain in the back seat. Carl says, “I’ll take care of this,” only he bungles it so much the cop gets more and more suspicious, and Gaear pulls out a gun and shoots him dead, leaving the trooper’s body in the snow and driving off alone (though Carl returns to the action later and we don’t find out how he got back to civilization). Though the film is called Fargo after the town in North Dakota, virtually all of it takes place in and around Brainerd, Minnesota, where a statue outside the town boundary proudly proclaims it “Home of Paul Bunyan!”, and all the Scandinavian names attest to Minnesota’s status as having the world’s largest concentration of Swedish-descended people outside Sweden itself. (At least one of the actors, Peter Stormare as Gaear, is genuinely Swedish and he utters the Swedish for “fucking cunt!” after he shoots one of his victims.) Carl and Gaear kill at least three people that the cops know about (plus one, a parking-lot attendant in Minneapolis, that they never seem to find), and this attracts the attention of the film’s one competent character, Brainerd police investigator Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand in her star-making role; she’s also Mrs. Joel Coen and has been since 1984). Marge lives a boring suburban existence with her retired husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch), and though they seem to do nothing together but lie in bed, watch boring television and eat, seven months previously they must have completed the sex act because Marge is visibly pregnant. (According to, she wore a “pregnant belly” filled with bird seed, which was so heavy she didn’t have to act like a seven-month-old fetus in her womb was slowing her down; the weight of the costume slowed her and made her look appropriately sluggish on screen. The real McDormand has never been pregnant; the one son she and Joel Coen have was a Paraguayan orphan they adopted in 1994.)

Eventually the sheer number of bodies — including Wade Gustafson’s, who insisted on delivering the ransom money himself instead of trusting his ditz son-in-law to do it and got murdered for his pains after Carl saw him and said, “Who the fuck are you?” — leads Marge to the right direction, and she catches Gaear just after he’s killed Carl and is trying to dispose of his body by grinding him up in a woodchipper (much the way Laurence Harvey in Alfred Hitchcock’s TV show “Arthur” — one of the episodes Hitchcock directed himself — kills his wife and gets rid of her body by putting it into the grinder he uses to grind meat for the chickens he raises; he gets away with the crime but one of Hitchcock’s droll little epilogues explains that he got his comeuppance anyway because the chickens developed such a taste for human flesh they ended up eating him: I cited this show to argue that Hitchcock intended The Birds as a virtual sequel to Psycho in which actual birds take their revenge against the human race for Norman Bates’ murder of the bird-like Marion Crane in Psycho) and he’s also apparently killed Jean, though since she’s come near death twice before and survived (once when she fell down the stairs in the shower curtain and once when blood dripped on her covering when Gaear shot the trooper) we’re not all that sure if she’s alive or dead at the end. (One wonders, if she’s dead, what’s going to happen to her hapless son Scotty.) The film ends with the rather embarrassing arrest of Jerry Lundegaard in bed in a T-shirt and underpants (usually the police at least would let the poor guy put on some pants first!); case closed, and Marge can go ahead and have her baby.

I’d been so put off by the Coen brothers’ film Barton Fink (at least partly because I watched it on VHS and the video box described it as a “comedy” — Charles and I watched it together with our friend Cat and Charles wondered why I called the film a “comedy” when he, the only one of us who’d seen it before, knew it was a macabre tale that featured a severed head in a satchel) I’d pretty much avoided the rest of their output, but Fargo turned out to be a quite good film, a straightforward crime story with some loopy aspects and a surprisingly convincing depiction of proletarian people. Though both the Coens themselves and the actors insisted that the film was shot totally to a written script and none of the dialogue was improvised, the Coens wrote lines so banal and so repetitive it sounds like the characters are having real conversations instead of the neatly-turned exchanges of most films. Charles noted the similarities to Hitchcock and I picked up on how the Coens’ writing made the movie sound more like a 1970’s than a 1990’s film, and there are some clever in-jokes throughout — including one in the closing credits in which the actor playing one of the dead bodies is credited with a sideways version of that weird hieroglyphic the late singer and musician Prince briefly claimed was his new name. (This appears to be a reference to Prince being from Minnesota, as are the Coens, which is also where the film is set.)

They also allege in the opening credits that the film is “based on a true story” — which it isn’t, though the Coens patched in some details from various real-life crimes — and while watching the film I had assumed that the reference to two brothers named Hauptmann, Norm Gunderson’s principal rivals in an upcoming painting contest, was an in-joke because Charles Lindbergh’s baby son was kidnapped and killed in 1932 by a man named Bruno Richard Hauptmann. It wasn’t; according to, there are two real painters named Hauptmann in the northern Midwest who are friends of the Coen brothers and who, like the fictional Hauptmanns in the film, specialize in painting ducks. I remember that Charles and I were watching the Academy Awards the year Fargo won two awards — to the Coen brothers for best original screenplay and Frances McDormand for best actress in a leading role — and in his acceptance speech Joel Coen thanked his producers “for supporting untraditional casting decisions.” Charles said, “Just how does putting your wife in your movie count as an ‘untraditional casting decision’?” — to which I replied, “No, the translation is, ‘I’d like to thank my producers for letting me put my wife in my movie instead of saying, “We need a ‘name’ actress for the role. Who the hell has ever heard of Frances McDormand?”’” (Ironically, though she’s quite good here I’ve tended to like McDormand better in movies her husband hasn’t directed, including Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys and Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon.)

Friday, September 28, 2018

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit: “Man Up” and “Man Down” (Wolf Productions, Universal Television, NBC-TV, aired September 27, 2018)

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

Our “feature” last night was the two-part opening episode of the 20th season of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (if the show stays on through the current season it will tie the record for longest run of a scripted TV show, set by the Western Gunsmoke and tied by the original Law and Order), “Man Up” and “Man Down,” which starts with a hunting trip in upstate New York in which 15-year-old Sam Conway (Bryce Romero in a chilling and riveting performance that should mark him for a major career as he grows up) has an attack of conscience and refuses to shoot a jackrabbit. His brother Brian (Richard Meehan) and their father (oddly unidentified on even though he becomes the principal focus of the second episode) chew him out for being a wuss. Then the scene cuts to a hospital in which SVU detectives are talking about calling Child Protective Services because Sam has been found with anal bleeding and tearing indicating that he has been raped — and his mom Molly reports that she caught her husband raping their son as part of a twisted desire to “make a man of him.” Assistant district attorney Peter Stone, Jr. (Philip Winchester, who in the final courtroom sequence seems to be having a staring contest with the actor playing Conway père to see which one can out-macho the other — he’s one of the most repulsive screen presences Dick Wolf and his operation have ever come up with and Raúl Esparza’s departure in favor of this guy is one of his most bone-headed casting decisions ever) takes the case to trial and wins approval from the court for Molly to testify against her husband despite the usual spousal privilege — only he loses the case when Sam himself refuses to identify his dad as an assailant. The Conways seem to be one big happy family again, only Sam is nursing a grievance that ends up with him bringing dad’s hunting rifle to school and shooting people (“I didn’t see that coming,” Charles said), killing two fellow students and wounding six. The first part of the show was called “Man Up,” after what Sam’s dad wanted him to do, and the second is called “Man Down” as Stone negotiates a guilty plea for Sam but then decides to prosecute his dad for criminally negligent homicide on the ground that his treatment of his son drove him to commit the school shooting. Stone’s cross-examination of Sam reveals the following:

Peter Stone: What happened after you couldn’t shoot the rabbit?
Sam Conway: My dad yelled at me. He called me names.
Peter Stone: What did he call you?
Sam Conway: He called me a fag and a pussy. Said until further notice I wasn’t his son, I was a girl. He called me Samantha, threw one of Mom’s dresses at me, told me to wear it.
Peter Stone: Did he hit you?
Sam Conway: No. He said he should’ve, but he’d never hit a girl.

Stone isn’t allowed to bring up Conway’s rape of his son in court because Conway has already been acquitted of it (thanks to Sam lying and covering up for him), but he nonetheless goads Sam into losing it on the stand:

Peter Stone: The moment before you shot your classmates, what was going through your head? Can you speak up, Sam?
Sam Conway: Be a man! This voice in my head kept saying, “Be a man, be a man!”
[jumps up from the stand, screaming at his father]

While there was no way they could have planned this, it was amazing and fascinating that this Law and Order: Special Victims Unit program aired on the same day as the hearing at which Christine Blasey Ford told her tale of sexual abuse at the hands of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh — a man who judging from his own presentation as well as her account came in with a sense of entitlement, as if his status as a prep-school boy and future member of the 1 percent entitled him to get drunk at parties and force himself on women — though the show didn’t directly comment on the Trump administration or its policies, it was in some ways an exposé of the whole sick cult of machismo and the idea that males show they are “real men” by killing and ruthlessly purging themselves of any level of compassion or empathy. (As I’ve noted before, Donald Trump not only has no empathy, he thinks that’s a good thing: Trump clearly regards empathy and compassion as qualities of the “weak,” and he’s very much in love with the cult of killing — as witness his public praise for Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and the Chinese leaders who ordered the Tienanmen Square massacre in 1989, even though Trump failed the ultimate macho test by ducking out of the Viet Nam-era draft and thereby not going to war himself.) There are a few direct political comments in this show, including Detective Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) asking Lieutenant Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), “Okay, just explain why Roe v. Wade is sacrosanct and the 2nd Amendment can be thrown out.” “Because one kills,” Benson replies, to which Rollins says, “In Georgia, they both do. What would be worse? To have your child killed or have your child be the one who kills?” (Clarence Darrow made a similar point in his defense of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold in 1924 for the thrill-killing of their classmate Bobby Franks, acknowledging the loss Franks’ parents would feel but saying the grief of Loeb’s and Leopold’s parents would be even worse.) 

Even the soap-opera complications Michael Chernuchin, the current SVU show runner, inserted into this script — Rollins is pregnant with her second child (by a boyfriend who in an early scene was pleading with her to return to him, following which she sees him in a bar with another woman) and she’s wondering whether she should have an abortion, and at the end Benson’s adoptive child Noah (Ryan Buggle, which sounds like the name of a Harry Potter character) openly defies her and hits her — for once reinforced the show’s theme of parental responsibility and just what do you do when your child defies expectations instead of just sitting there as tear-jerkers. This SVU was one of their best programs and quite defied the usual expectations of a show opener — there’s very little action (the school shooting itself isn’t shown, though the cops are seen surrounding the school and Sam is taken down by one of the SVU detectives on screen) and the overall mood from director Alex Chapple (a long-time Law and Order hand) is slow and somber, not thrilling and exciting. While I’m surprised the show has survived this long without Christopher Meloni (his overall charisma and the byplay between him and Hargitay were a large part of the appeal during his 12 seasons as a cast member), it’s nice to see this show in good shape and still reflecting the national debate over how we treat sex crimes as well as issues of sexual roles and living up to societal and parental expectations.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Conrad and Michelle: If Words Could Kill (PeaceOut Productions, Sony, Lifetime, 2018)

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

My TV “feature” last night was Lifetime’s premiere showing of a film called Conrad and Michelle: If Words Could Kill, which was based on a true story and therefore had a lot more interest — and a lot more complexity and ambiguity — than most of Lifetime’s fare. The basic facts are that in 2012, a couple of teenagers from Massachusetts named Conrad Roy III (Austin P. McKenzie, who also appeared as himself in interstital segments urging young people contemplating suicide to call for help and giving them national suicide-prevention numbers — he said you could text “CONRAD” to 741741 and get referrals to therapists and counselors) and Michelle Carter (Bella Thorne) met when their families were both on vacation in Florida. They dated briefly when they got home, but for a year after that carried on a relationship exclusively by phone calls and texts even though they lived only 35 miles away from each other. The script by writer-director Stephen Tolkin attributes this mainly to Michelle’s reluctance to let Conrad have sex with her, and his finding a more, shall we say, accommodating girlfriend named Lisa Myerson (Nicolette Goetz). Nonetheless, Conrad and Michelle kept their relationship going via text messages, in a number of which Conrad expressed his frequent bouts with depression and his wish to commit suicide. At first Michelle said the right things — that he should realize life was worth living, that he had wonderful prospects ahead of him (not only college but a place in his dad’s marine salvage business — at 18 Conrad had already got a license to captain his own tugboat), that he would make some girl very happy and be a good husband and father, and if he were suffering from depression he should seek clinical help — but after a while her messages turned darker and took on a tone of if-you’re-going-to-kill-yourself-then-do-it-already. It’s not all that clear, either in Tolkin’s script or in real life, what changed Michelle’s attitude from helper to enabler, but it is clear that Michelle had her own issues: she’s described in the script as both anorexic and bulimic (indeed, she drives some of her female friends away when she tries to get them to help her police her diet and they get bored when she keeps asking their advice as to what and how much she should eat when and then ignores it), and though this isn’t in Tolkin’s script she also apparently had a history of cutting herself from age nine. In some ways Tolkin portrays the relationship between Conrad and Michelle as a folie à deux, two broken people coming together and indulging each other’s brokenness rather than helping each other overcome it — at one point Conrad and Michelle even compares them to Romeo and Juliet, which Michelle recoils from because that would mean she would have to kill herself, too.

The real-life basis of the story means that Tolkin can’t wrap up the characters into little moral boxes the way he could have in a story of his invention; he’s not all that clear about What Makes Conrad Run (frankly, his script makes Michelle seem even crazier than Conrad is!), though he manages to portray Conrad as outwardly totally normal, a fun-loving kid who’s become a bit discombobulated by his parents’ divorce but still has good relationships with both of them, and likes to horseplay with his two sisters and do perfectly normal, fun “kid things” when he isn’t exploring his dark side and telling Michelle via text that he still wants to die. The show also takes a fascinating attitude towards religion, expressing that one of the reasons Michelle isn’t bothered by Conrad’s suicidal ideation is that she’s bought into the whole Judeo-Christian notion of heaven and she literally believes that even if Conrad kills himself in this world, he’ll instantly be beamed up to heaven and become an angel in the next one, where he’ll wait for Michelle to die too so they can be reunited. Conrad makes a series of unsuccessful suicide attempts — he finally fixes that the way he shall die is he’ll buy a generator, lock himself in his pickup truck (this is set in one of those affluent suburban communities where all the kids have their own cars), seal the windows and start the generator, thereby asphyxiating himself with carbon monoxide without running the truck’s own engine, which might get noticed and lead someone to rescue him. He’s literally on the phone to Michelle as he does this, and their final conversation — in which Conrad opens the door to the truck and Michelle urges him to get back in — is the subject of a police investigation. In the best tradition of Dick Wolf’s writers on Law and Order, the police arrest Michelle in the most embarrassingly public way imaginable — right when she’s officiating a baseball fundraiser called “Homers for Conrad” to use his memory to raise money for suicide prevention — and she’s put on trial for manslaughter and faces a potential sentence of 20 years. Michelle waives a jury trial and her case is heard by Judge Lawrence Moniz (Alpha Trivette), who ironically is the only performer in the film who speaks with a discernible Massachusetts accent. Judge Moniz convicts Michelle but sentences her to just 2 ½ years, suspending most of it on the condition that she endure supervised probation. 

A more recent dispatch on the case from a local Massachusetts TV station,, indicates that the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is joining an agency called the Youth Advocacy Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services to appeal the conviction as a violation of Michelle Carter’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech that could potentially have a chilling effect on other people dealing with friends who are threatening suicide. They also cite Michelle Carter’s original attorney’s claim that she was suffering from “involuntary intoxication” from the anti-depressant medications she was on to deal with her own mental issues — dramatized in Tolkin’s script in a scene in which the prosecutor gets the psychologist who’s the defense’s mental-health expert that “involuntary intoxication” is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fourth edition (commonly referred to as “DSM-IV”), which is the psychology industry’s standard text of just what constitutes a mental illness.[1] (The very existence of the DSM and the fact that members of the American Psychiatric Association vote on what should be included as a mental illness and what shouldn’t shows the overall wooliness of the whole concept of mental illness and how difficult it is to define, even though some mental conditions, like schizophrenia, have the uniformity of symptoms characteristic of physical illnesses as well; the ur-example for me as a Gay man is that the first two editions of the DSM defined homosexuality as a mental illness until the original Queer activists lobbied the American Psychiatric Association and got them to vote to remove it!) Conrad and Michelle: If Words Could Kill is one of the most finely honed films I’ve seen on Lifetime, and as I noted earlier the roughness and ambiguity of a true story seems to have brought out the best in Stephen Tolkin: we come away from this film with little awareness of What Made Conrad Run or what made him so determined to knock himself off, though Austin McKenzie’s acting is chillingly effective in presenting the character as a seemingly normal teenage boy and convincing us that his family and friends (other than Michelle) have no idea he’s really suicidal. (One bit of irony I liked is that Conrad kills himself while wearing one of the “Boston Strong” T-shirts put out after the 2013 terror bombing of the Boston Marathon to express the city’s resilience and determination to survive.) 

It’s nice, for once, to see a movie on Lifetime that doesn’t tie the characters into little knots and make it obvious who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys.” One can identify with Michelle (especially given the almost bland affect with which Bella Thorne plays her) in her frustration and confusion over how to handle the suicidal ideation of her friend — especially since we know she’s contemplated suicide herself: there’s one chilling scene in which she ties a noose (from instructions she got on the Internet, which seems to have quite a few pages explaining to would-be suicides just how to kill themselves in the most effective and least painful ways) and puts it around her neck before she thinks better of it and steps down from the chair from which she was going to hang herself. It’s a movie that’s difficult to watch because we ask ourselves what we would do in Michelle’s situation — and her dilemma is oddly different because as a religious believer she doesn’t believe Conrad is “really” going to die forever even if he kills himself in this world (the dilemma would be quite a bit different for me, a non-believer who doesn’t think there is a life after death in this world), and though the self-destructive man in my life (my late partner, John Gabrish) was doing himself in through alcohol rather than intentional suicide, some of the same issues got raised: how do you deal with someone you love who’s determined to destroy himself and resists all your efforts to get them to stop? At the same time the real tragedy of Conrad and Michelle: If Words Could Kill is that our wish and hope for them would have been that they could have mutually supported each other to get over their mental issues instead of reinforcing each other’s sicknesses: they were two profoundly sick people who could have helped each other get better but instead just made each other worse and led one to an early grave and the other to a manslaughter conviction.

[1]It’s just been replaced by an updated fifth edition, the “DSM-V.”

Sunday, September 23, 2018

“The Prisoner”: Four Episodes (Independent Television Service, Everyman Productions,1967)

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

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi movie program ( was four of the 17 extant episodes of the British TV series The Prisoner, shot in the summer of 1967 and a cult item ever since. The Prisoner was produced by Britain’s Independent Television Service (ITS), the commercial channel that was authorized by the Conservative government of Britain in 1955 to compete with the BBC, and it was a follow-up to an earlier series they had done called Secret Agent. The star of both shows, Patrick McGoohan, had been third on the short list of candidates to star in the original James Bond movie — first was Sean Connery, who got the part, and second was Roger Moore, who got to play Bond in later films — and when he missed out on the brass ring of 007 ITS hired him to play a Bond knockoff, “John Drake,” in Secret Agent. The show was a hit both in Britain and in the U.S., where a theme song by Johnny Rivers was added — “Secret agent man! Secret agent man! They’ve given you a number, and taken away your name” — which itself became a major hit. The Prisoner may or may not have been intended as a follow-up to Secret Agent — McGoohan is playing the same sort of role and the show begins with him driving up the streets of London in his Lotus 7 (a super-cool car even though it’s decidedly down-budget from Bond’s Aston Martin!) to the headquarters of Britain’s spy agency, where he hands in his written resignation — whereupon it’s filed in a room with an automatic filing system. The next time we see McGoohan he’s in a room, getting ready to rest after filing his resignation, only a white gas starts pouring out of the air vents which immobilizes him and renders him unconscious. When he comes to he’s in a beach resort community called “The Village” which turns out to be a high-tech prison. In this version he’s literally been given a number and had his name taken away — all he’s known by is “Number Six” — and he finds out that all access to the outside world is cut off. The Village has both cars (taxis, since none of the residents are allowed to drive for themselves) and phones, but they only connect within the compound, not outside. The Village has a store that sells maps, among other things, but they only show the Village itself, not the outside world, so Number 6 literally has no idea where on Earth he is. 

He’s told by Number Two, the authority figure who runs the place (and is himself supervised by a mysterious “Number One,” whom we never see — I suspect that, like Samuel Beckett’s Godot and “The Man” in Don Siegel’s film The Lineup, Number One is a religious skeptic’s metaphor for God), that he’s there because there is valuable information locked in his head and the people who run the Village want it. It’s deliberately kept ambiguous just which side in the Cold War the people who run the Village are on: whether they’re Brits or Americans anxious to pump Number Six’s secrets out of him to make sure they never get to the enemy, or they are the enemy seeking the secret information to use against “our” side. Also one of the nicer touches is the deliberately archaic appearance of the Village’s residents and its buildings: the whole place looks like a British beach resort c. 1910 and there are such anachronisms as a marching band playing turn-of-the-last-century band favorites (including a piece in episode one that sounds like one of Mozart’s adaptations of Ländler, the traditional Austrian dance that became the basis for the waltz) and elaborate costumes for the residents that evoke the fashions of the 1910’s. (Number Six is even forced to give up the modern jacket he wore on the outside and put on a retro one instead.) Interestingly, the emblem of the Village is a high-wheel bicycle: there’s a full-sized model of one in Number Two’s office and each resident is supposed to wear a badge with the high-wheel logo and their number (though Number Six, of course, refuses). Patrick McGoohan was credited as an “executive producer” on the series but according to sources at the time (and since) he was disappointed that as the series progressed he was given fewer of the challenging scripts he had expected when he signed on to the project and the producers and writers steered it into more conventional action-adventure — but oddly enough, of the four episodes shown last night, I quite liked the last one, “Hammer Into Anvil,” the best. The showing last night began with the premiere episode, “Arrival,” which gives the exposition of how Number 6 got into the Village in the first place — reportedly the rough cut was two hours long and it had to be scissored down to 50 minutes for airing (though I suspect the original cut was quite good on its own and could have made an excellent and effective stand-alone movie) — and of course the premise of each episode was how Number Six tried to escape and how the seemingly all-powerful masters of the Village foiled him. 

The second episode, “The Chimes of Big Ben,” depicts Number Six entering a Village art contest and thereby getting the tools he needs to build a boat — though he disguises it as three abstract sculptures — and escape in the company of Number Eight, a.k.a. Nadia Rokovsky (Nadia Grey), though in the end — after an ordeal reminiscent of the Velvet Underground song “The Gift,” after being shipped in a packing crate to London via Denmark, it turns out they’re back in the Village and Number Eight was a Village plant, set to entrap Number Six in an escape attempt in hopes that its failure would freak him out and get him to cough up the mysterious “information” the denizens of the Village want from him. In the third episode, “The Schizoid Man,” the people running the Village decide to freak out Number Six by sending in a seemingly identical double, “Number 12,” in order to destroy his sense of identity so they can break him down and get the information. The only visible differences are that Number 12 has a moustache, is left-handed whereas the real Number Six was right-handed, and wears a white jacket with a black embroidered collar instead of Number Six’s black jacket with a white embroidered collar. The special effects in these scenes are quite well done for a TV budget, and the sight of Patrick McGoohan fighting Patrick McGoohan is surprisingly convincing even though, like Curtis Bernhardt having Bette Davis fight Bette Davis in A Stolen Life, the scene was done with frequent cutaways between the real McGoohan and his stunt person, Frank Maher, doubling him in the scenes in which one of the men had his back to the camera. Even the episode’s ending is a knockoff of A Stolen Life: the good McGoohan kills the bad McGoohan and tries to impersonate him to be flown off the island, but we know he’s going to give himself away somehow and the only question is how — he mentions having recently seen a woman who in fact has been dead for a year — and he boards a helicopter, presumably flying him back to London, but is told to wear a blindfold, and of course when the helicopter lands and the blindfold is removed he’s back in the Village. 

The fourth episode, “Hammer Into Anvil,” was by far the best of the ones shown last night; in it, Number Six decides to torment a new Number Two by acting deliberately crazy, going to the Village store and carefully comparing six records of Bizet’s L’Arlesienne (which, as one “trivia” poster noted, is an appropriate piece of music because it was the score for a play in which an unscrupulous woman, whom we’re never shown on stage, drives a man crazy) to note nonexistent differences between them; inserting an ad in the Village newspaper, the Tally Ho, with a (garbled) quote from Don Quixote; and flying a captured pigeon back to the Village’s central office with a note containing a set of numbers representing a coded message — only the message turns out to be the familiar nursery rhyme, “Patty-cake, patty-cake, baker man, bake me a cake as fast as you can.” (I suspect the writer, Roger Woddis, was deliberately alluding to the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies, in which Hope and Crosby recited this rhyme just as they were about to punch out the villains.) In the end Number Two reports himself as having breached the security of the Village — he’s convinced that Number Six is really D-6, security officer for X-O 4, presumably the agency that runs the Village — and though he’s still a prisoner, Number Six can count at least one minor victory. The episode title comes from a quote by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “You must either conquer and rule or serve and lose, suffer or triumph, be the anvil or the hammer” (“Du mußt steigen oder sinken/Du mußt herrschen und gewinnen,/Oder dienen und verlieren,/Leiden oder triumphieren,/Amboß oder Hammer sein”), though as an “trivia” poster noted, in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell noted, “In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about” — as indeed happens in this story. “Hammer Into Anvil” is also by far the most creatively scored episode of these four; instead of just using stock cues from the ITS music library (along with a main theme by Ron Grainer, who also composed the main theme for Doctor Who), this time musical director Andrew Elms artfully created an original score based on themes from L’Arlesienne

 The Prisoner suffers from two mistakes — they changed the actor playing Number Two in virtually every episode (it would have been much better, I think, if they’d made Number Two a series regular played by the same actor each time and carefully built up an ongoing antagonism between him and Number Six), and they made “The Rover,” the contraption by which the Village administration enforces its discipline, a giant balloon which depending on its programming can either drag a recalcitrant inmate back to the Village or simply kill him or her by smothering them. Though much of the retro appearance of the Village is appealingly campy — early on I joked that we were watching Dante’s Inferno as staged by Monty Python — the Rover balloon just looks stupid. The Prisoner has some interesting antecedents — the clashes between Number Six and Number Two can’t help but recall the confrontation scenes between Winston Smith and O’Brien in the third part of 1984, and Orwell’s legendary dystopia is also evoked by the continuous 24/7 electronic surveillance to which the Village’s inhabitants are subjected. Indeed, one contraption in Number Two’s headquarters actually looks like a camera boom and functions the same way. It also has some interesting descendants: when I watched “Arrival” I was reminded of The Maze Runner — which also begins with a central character suddenly and unwillingly plucked out of the existence he’s known and thrown into a secret world whose unfamiliar rules totally disorient him — and couldn’t help but wonder if James Dashner, author of the books on which the Maze Runner films were based, actually copied this gimmick from The Prisoner. Overall, I quite liked The Prisoner — at least these four episodes — though there was also a sense that too little was being done with the concept and this could have been an even better show than it was.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Mars: Episodes 4-6 (Imagine Entertainment, Zak Productions, National Geographic, 2016)

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

I saw the last three episodes of the National Geographic Mars series from 2016 (there’s apparently a seventh episode from the first-season that’s basically a making-of featurette, and a second season will start on the National Geographic cable channel in November) at the Mars movie screenings in Golden Hill, The series overall has been interesting but hardly as compelling either as drama or as documentary as it could have been, at least in part because of the ponderous direction by Everardo Gout which makes each episode seem twice as long as its stated 46-minute running time. To recap, the show is a fictional story about the first manned (personned?) mission to Mars in 2033, where a crew of seven led at first by Ben Sawyer (Ben Cotton), the sort of tall, handsome, jut-jawed and incredibly butch Anglo-American Captain Kirk type one usually get as the captain of a space mission in a science-fiction film or TV series, then by Hana Seung (Jihae), the Chinese female assistant commander who takes over after Sawyer dies at the end of episode two (a surprising deviation from the usual stereotypes by writers Ben Young Mason and Justin Wilkes, though he comes back in some flashbacks in episode six), establishes a base camp on Mars even though, as one of the characters puts it, “Mars has fought us back every step of the way.”

By the time episode four, “Power,” rolls along, it’s 2037 and a second spaceship has arrived from Earth to bolster the colony and make it self-sustaining. The script tells us that 50 additional people have arrived but the only ones who really become important characters we get to know are married couple Paul and Leslie Richardson (John Light and Cosima Shaw), who are included because he’s the world’s greatest botanist and he’s therefore in charge of nurturing the specially engineered strains of wheat (actually I couldn’t tell onscreen what plant it was supposed to be and I’m relying on the official synopsis to tell me it was wheat) that are supposed to be able to grow on Mars and feed the subsequent human settlers. Alas, in episode four, “Power,” the colony is beset by a Martian dust storm — Martian dust storms, as the documentary portions of the show explain, can last for months, can cover the entire planet’s surface (which is why sometimes astronomers using telescopes can see geographic features on Mars and sometimes they can’t and the entire planet becomes just a blurry red dot in the sky) — which renders the solar panels they’ve put up on the Martian surface unusable. Meanwhile, a dumb decision on the part of the mission controllers on Earth — led by Hana Seung’s twin sister Joon (also played by Jihae) — to speed up the nuclear power plant that’s their only other source of energy leads to it conking out and going offline, so the colonists are forced to rely on battery power and Hana has to ration electricity use so tightly that Paul can’t run the hydroponic lights on which he was depending to keep his plants alive.

The power shortage finally ends in episode five, “Darkest Days,” when two of the crew members, including hunky bald-headed Black man Robert Foucault (Sammi Rotibi), go outside the station onto the surface of the planet, and Robert finds the frayed cables that were injured in the dust storm and/or burned out from the overload, fixes them and restores full power to the colony — but in the meantime Paul Richardson has become totally freaked out because all but two tiny plants have died on him. He starts hallucinating that the outside door to the Mars station — which, if it’s ever opened, will mean all the oxygen inside will be sucked out and everyone in the station will instantly die — is the door leading outside his garden home back in England. In what I found to be the most beautiful part of the whole series even though some of the other viewers at the screening took it to task as a major plot hole — why would they have an unlocked door opening out when its opening would mean certain death for everyone in the installation? — we see his point-of-view shot of the doorway at his home as he starts to open it and Hana Seung realizes that no one is going to be able to get to him in time to stop him, so the only thing that she can do is seal off the botany lab from the rest of the compound, meaning Paul will die and so will what’s left of his plants but the rest of the crew will survive. This duly happens and sets the stage for the final episode, “Crossroads,” in which the international agency that brought together various governments and private entrepreneurs to finance and administer the Mars mission is ready to pull the plug on it now that so many people have died on Mars — the official synopsis of “Darkest Days” said seven people died in the incident with Paul, but it seemed to me that Paul was the only person who perished when Hana sealed the room and the other six casualties were the people who’d died in earlier parts of the mission (we see a tombstone for Ben Sawyer and get a flashback of him and Hana jogging together on Earth before they left) — until a sort of deus ex machina occurs when an expedition from the central camp stumbles on something that looks like an animate Tinker Toy that is supposed to establish that they’ve discovered the first sign of indigenous life on Mars.

In some ways “Crossroads” was the most interesting episode from the documentary point of view, since it provided one of the better explanations I’ve seen for why the U.S. space exploration program so abruptly ended after the final Apollo moon flight in 1972. The show featured archival clips of Wernher von Braun and argued that he’d dreamed of a human mission to Mars since his days as a kleiner Kind in his native Germany; he’d signed on to the Nazi rocket program at Peenemünde and then with NASA after World War II (just after he published a German-language book about going to Mars containing mathematical formulae for how the rocket would be propelled and what trajectory it would need) in hopes of going to Mars and he “over-engineered” the Saturn-5 moon rocket because he wanted it to be capable of going to Mars as well as the moon. While it didn’t explore my own theory of why the U.S. abandoned space exploration after the end of the Apollo moon program — that the Soviets had already thrown in the towel and given up a manned moon program after having beaten us to the first-man-in-space title, and therefore there was no longer any way continuing space exploration would be seen as a victory in the Cold War since we no longer had Soviet competition — it did suggest that the near-disaster of the Apollo 13 mission (an event near and dear to the hearts of two of the co-producers of this series, Apollo 13 producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer) did a lot to turn people against space travel by pointing out how dangerous it could be. While all three Apollo 13 astronauts got back safely, it was touch-and-go there for quite a while (an event eloquently dramatized in Howard’s and Grazer’s Apollo 13 movie) and that might have turned a lot of people off to space travel by highlighting the potential dangers of it. Also, as an early line of dialogue in Apollo 13 while the mission is still proceeding as planned noted, the media were no longer interested in covering space flights by 1971 because “you’ve made going to the moon seem about as exciting as going to Pittsburgh.”

I suspect, though, that the final collapse of the U.S. human space exploration program was a by-product of Watergate and the overall loss of trust the U.S. people had for any major government projects — particularly once the American Right realized that the best way for them to recover from Watergate and Nixon’s fall was to trash the whole institution of government and say it wasn’t just a failure of Nixon, the Republicans or the political Right but all large government undertakings. The crises of the early 1970’s reinforced both the Right and the Left critiques of space exploration — the Left’s that it was a grandiose waste of money and resources that could better be used to alleviate poverty on Earth, and the Right’s that it was a pointless waste of taxpayer money and, according to sacred Libertarian principles, if exploring space were worth doing, the private sector would do it and make a profit off it. The pivotal decision point was in 1973, when given the choice by NASA of whether to continue human exploration and mount a mission to Mars or authorize the space shuttle program — which essentially turned into a giant flying truck to put satellites in orbit more cheaply than mounting each one on its own rocket — he opted for the shuttle. (It’s also possible that part of the decision was Nixon’s egotism; just as President Trump has gone out of his way to undo just about all President Obama’s accomplishments, it’s possible Nixon saw human space flight as too associated with the man who defeated him in 1960, John F. Kennedy, for it to be a legacy he would want to perpetuate.)

I found myself irritated, as I had been in the earlier episodes, at the extent to which this series heralded Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk as the Howard Roark, Hank Rearden or John Galt of space (for those who don’t recognize those names, they’re the super-capitalist heroes of Ayn Rand’s books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged), the super-innovator and entrepreneur who will take up the baton the U.S. government dropped in 1973 and get us to Mars — the big climax of the documentary portion of Mars’ sixth episode is the successful test of Musk’s reusable rocket in December 2015 (after a previous version spectacularly blew up in space in June 2015). The film reiterates and apparently endorses Musk’s claim that the key to a successful human program to Mars is perfecting the reusable rocket so the enterprise doesn’t have to keep building single-use launch vehicles every time the colony needs to be resupplied. I think Elon Musk is one of the biggest capitalist scumbags currently alive and he’s going to have a hard time keeping his various enterprises in business and avoiding going to prison for stock fraud in his attempts to pump up the price of Tesla stock by claiming he was going to buy out the shareholders and take the company totally private with money from the Saudi Arabian Royal Wealth Fund (which gave Musk a big fuck-you by recently making a major investment in another small electric-car start-up), and if the future of human space exploration is dependent on that slimeball, there isn’t a future in human space exploration.

There was also an interesting aspect of the film which pointed out that one key variable in a human space mission is the psychological health and well-being of the crew, both individually and as a unit. The filmmakers pointed out that if you’re on Earth and you’re with a person you don’t get along with, you simply move away from them and avoid interacting with them. When you’re locked together with that person in an object the size of an average bathroom, and it’s going to take months or even years for you to get where you’re going, you can’t get away from anyone else on the trip you don’t like. The show depicted “Mars 500,” a Russian attempt (with co-participation by Europe and China, though their involvement isn’t mentioned in the film) to simulate a human Mars mission with six astronauts, and noted that by the end of the 1 ½-year-long simulation only two of the six participants were fully mentally healthy. As the Wikipedia page on Mars 500 states, “In January 2013, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that four of the six crew members had considerable problems sleeping, and some avoided exercise and would hide away from the others, in behavior compared to animal hibernation.[12] Also, circadian rhythm of autonomic nervous system activity was dampened during confinement.” (“Circadian rhythm” means the normal sense of a difference between day and night that conditions human beings on Earth to get tired and go to sleep at about the same time each night.) The film wrapped up with the optimistic ending — the authority on Earth is about to close down the Mars mission and send one final spacecraft to pick up the survivors and bring them back to Earth, but once indigenous life is discovered on Mars the authority reversed itself and decided to keep the Mars mission going — and an interesting segment on the ways the dreams of the future expressed in science fiction have shown the way to real-life developments. If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine much of a future for human space exploration because the dominant theme in today’s science fiction is dystopia: the Hunger Games, Divergent and Maze Runner cycles and all the writings by people who’ve tried to imitate them and latch on to their success signals a broad-based cynicism about whether human beings are any good at all and whether human life will even be able to survive on Earth, let alone spread anywhere else!

Friday, September 21, 2018

GoodFellas (Irwin Winkler/Warner Bros., 1990)

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

The film was GoodFellas, the rather stupidly titled 1990 gangster epic directed by Martin Scorsese and written by him and Nicholas Pileggi based on a non-fiction book Pileggi had written called Wiseguy. Wiseguy told the real-life story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), whom we meet in 1955 at age 15 and who tells us, first off, that the only thing he ever wanted to be was a gangster. He wanted to be a gangster not only because they had money, wore fancy clothes and drove big, expensive cars but because he felt being in the Mob would give him a feeling of belonging, of being part of something bigger than himself. Of course he knew that crime in general and murder in particular — both killing other people and constantly having to look over his shoulder to avoid being killed himself — were part of the deal, but the way Scorsese and Pileggi portray him he’s more amoral than immoral. Along the way he hooks up with two other crooks, Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro, top-billed) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), and the three rise in the ranks of organized crime under the sponsorship of local mobster Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino).

I’d never seen GoodFellas before and I don’t think Charles had, either — both of us had been put off by the film’s reputation for wall-to-wall violence (and I had the complicating factor that my then-roommate and home-care client was of Italian ancestry and regarded movies like the Godfather films and GoodFellas to be group libels against his entire ethnicity — and when I pointed out that their directors, Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, were Italian-Americans themselves, he practically declared them traitors to the race) — but GoodFellas turned out to be far less violent than its reputation. There’s certainly some serious bloodletting in the movie, but only as much as we need to realize that as lovable as these people seem to be sometimes, they’re also cold-blooded killers and thieves. GoodFellas was acclaimed as an instant classic almost as soon as it was first released in 1990 (and we were watching it on a DVD that came to a dead stop in the middle of the film — I realized that Warner Bros. had split this 2 ½-hour film over two sides of a DVD — obviously this was the first DVD release since modern discs can easily accommodate a movie this long on just one side) but I found it good but not great. The main problem with it is that it’s simply boring: after a while the various antics of the Terrible Trio seem to look pretty much the same — they plan a robbery or a drug deal or a murder, execute it, then go back to their wives and significant others (as in the classic gangster films of the 1930’s, monogamy is not part of the deal, and some of the weirdest parts of the movie show the jealousy of Hill’s wife Karen, played beautifully by Lorraine Bracco, over his various paramours: the sheer ordinariness and banality of Henry Hill’s marital conflicts becomes an odd counterpoint to the nasty shit he has to pull to make a living) and lead what appear on the surface to be normal suburban lives until the next caper.

We’re told that the gang pulls off a robbery of the Lufthansa terminal at Kennedy Airport but we don’t see a frame of the crime actually going down — in a previous era’s movies like The Asphalt Jungle, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Killing the details of how the super-robbery was executed were the prime focus — its only dramatic purpose is to stick the various gang members with a $6 million pile of cash they can’t spend until they fence it (for a considerably lesser sum of money) and can safely distribute it once it’s been laundered. The tensions of sitting on an enormous pile of cash they can’t spend, and in particular how the other gang members rebel against Conway’s insistence that they can’t touch the loot at all until some unspecified time in the future, tears apart the gang and leads to the murder of Tommy, the most openly psychopathic of the three principals. Tommy is actually lured to his killing site by the promise of being “made” as an official member of the Mafia — Conway and Hill both lament that they can never be “made men” themselves because they’re Irish (Hill’s mother was Sicilian but half-breeds don’t count — only the Mafiosi are really out to entrap Tommy and kill him because he killed a “made man” several reels before without asking the requisite permission from the Mafia family he belonged to first. Indeed, in one of the film’s most chilling scenes Tommy picks on a young guy who’s working as a waiter in one of their underground poker games and shoots him in the foot, and when that doesn’t relieve his anger shoots the poor kid several times in the chest, killing him and leaving the other gangsters present the unpleasant and unnerving task of disposing of the body. (Quite a lot of the film includes black humor about this necessary but yucky task facing people who kill other people for a living; in one grimly amusing scene, the three leads have to dig up a body they previously buried because a big condo building is about to be built on the lot and they have to move the corpse so it isn’t accidentally discovered when the foundation is laid — and Conway and Tommy take the task in stride but Henry Hill gets sick at the smell of the decomposing body and heaves at the gravesite.)

GoodFellas (I have no idea why the official title was listed with a capital in the middle as if it were a computer program — at least in the poster art: in the opening credits themselves the title is in all caps and lists it as Goodfellas, capitalized normally) is clearly the work of major filmmakers, and the direction and acting are impeccable (whatever you think of Scorsese, he knows the Mafia as a subject forwards and backwards — and has since his film-student days at New York University, where he made a half-hour short called It’s Not Just You, Murray!, which like GoodFellas and several of Scorsese’s other films is a Mafia story taking place over decades). It’s just a rich but not especially satisfying meal, lacking the philosophical weight of the first two Godfathers (at least as I remember them, since I haven’t seen either since they were new) and with a not particularly interesting protagonist — had Henry Hill had more self-doubt he would have been a considerably more interesting character: instead he’s just a rather dull man who finds fulfillment in a life of crime and then, when he’s finally busted (largely because he drifts into drug dealership and then into drug use — like a number of other Scorsese protagonists, including Leonardo di Caprio’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street, he’s undone when drug addiction makes him sloppy), he decides to rat out his former friends in the Mob and ends up driving a bulldozer as his job after the feds have relocated him into witness protection (though one of the where-are-they-now end titles say he attempted to get another drug deal going in 1987, two years after he testified against Conway and Cicero, and got arrested in his new federally provided identity) and lamenting that his new career just doesn’t have the dash or fulfillment of his old one.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey (Creative Film Center, Warner Bros., 1984)

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

Last night Charles and I watched a movie that reminded me of how much I’ve missed without the ability to do advance recordings of TV shows, which has largely cut me off from the legacy of classic (and often not-so-classic but still quite interesting) films on the Turner Classic Movies channel: George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey, a 1984 documentary produced, written and directed by Stevens’ son, George Stevens, Jr. It helped that it was made recently enough that the filmmakers got serious interviews but long enough ago that many of the people who worked with Stevens — Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, producer Pandro S. Berman and others — were still alive and available to be interviewed. There are basically two stories about the career of George Stevens: the “white legend” that after a series of commercially successful and entertaining but not especially profound movies, his service in World War II (where he commanded the camera crews that recorded the D-Day invasion of Normandy as it was happening) and in particular his presence when the Dachau concentration camp was liberated. Some of the gruesome images of bodies piled up like cordwood are shown — oddly, in color from George Stevens’ own home movies rather than the official footage in black-and-white, which tends to make them just a bit less gruesome though still disgusting — and the “white legend” of Stevens’ career is that his wartime experiences in general and photographing the opening of Dachau in particular made him into a serious filmmaker anxious to use his medium and his talents to tell moving, serious stories about the human condition. The “black legend” is that the experience of photographing World War II and being on the scene when the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed to the outside world for the first time caused Stevens to turn his back on the sort of light-hearted comedy he did best and make a series of increasingly leaden, pretentious films that aspired to Great Art and achieved only bathos.

Oddly, while I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Stevens’ pre-war films — including his first feature, Bachelor Bait, a 1934 RKO movie about a dating service that took some unlikely material and did quite a lot with it, as well as the acknowledged classics like Alice Adams, Swing Time, A Damsel in Distress, Gunga Din and Woman of the Year (the first Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy movie and one for which Hepburn specifically asked for Stevens — though other sources indicate she only asked for Stevens because her favorite director and lifelong friend George Cukor was otherwise employed at the time) as well as The More the Merrier, which somehow has eluded me even though it has a first-rate reputation and one of the scenes in it — in which hero Joel McCrea and heroine Jean Arthur are talking government shop-talk while making out just this side sort of actual Production Code-verboten sex on screen — is shown here and was specifically praised by Stevens’ contemporary Frank Capra both in his autobiography and his interview here — I’ve generally been less sympathetic to the “serious” films he made after World War II. A Place in the Sun seems to me to be a McCarthy-era exercise in turning a socially conscious story, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, into a big-time soap opera (the scene excerpted here, in which Montgomery Clift goes to a fancy party and Elizabeth Taylor cruises him big-time, seemed in this context to be a remake of the party scene in Alice Adams with the genders reversed — Clift as Katharine Hepburn and Taylor as Fred MacMurray). I remember watching Shane with Charles and liking it, though more for Alan Ladd’s understated performance (he deserved an Academy Award but got screwed out of it because it was his last film under his Paramount contract, and the “suits” at Paramount were so incensed that he signed with Warner Bros. instead of renewing with them they ordered Paramount’s employees in the Academy not to vote for him) than Stevens’ overwrought direction; and Giant is all too accurately described by reviewer as “merely a ponderous soap opera,” though I would add to that, “except for the 30 minutes of this 3 ½-hour film in which James Dean is on screen.”

Fortunately, Stevens fils decided to represent Giant by its best scene; Jett Rink (James Dean) has just discovered oil on the little patch of ground on the big Reata ranch he inherited from the sister of ranch owner Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson). As I described it in my notes on Giant after Charles and I watched it together, “Once he hits his gusher Dean becomes an apparition, coated head-to-toe in oil, visually linked not only with oil as a symbol of sudden wealth but also oil as a symbol of primordial nature. In the film’s most intensely dramatic scene, he goes forth to the big house at Reata, dripping with oil, plants his black hand on the column holding up the awning over the virginal white front porch of Reata, then confronts Hudson (who is wearing a white suit that matches the exterior of his house) and punches him out while two of Hudson’s friends hold him back from retaliating. It’s a marvelous moment, and it’s linked to East of Eden not only dramatically but thematically as well; Jett Rink hopes that by becoming rich he will win the affection, or at least respect, of his surrogate father, Bick Benedict.” I haven’t seen any of the three films Stevens made after Giant: The Diary of Anne Frank (represented here by some noir-ish clips of the streets of occupied Amsterdam and some effective use of sound to depict the omnipresence of the Nazi occupiers and the vulnerability of the Franks in their attic), The Greatest Story Ever Told (Stevens’ mega-flop on the life of Jesus — for all its tackiness and demented silliness, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent The King of Kings remains my favorite Jesus biopic — and it didn’t help that Stevens’ stated intent in making The Greatest Story Ever Told was to create a version of the life of Jesus both believers and skeptics would like — lots of luck with that, as later filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Darren Aronofsky have discovered with their attempts at post-modern Biblicals), and The Only Game in Town (with Warren Beatty as a Vegas card dealer and Elizabeth Taylor, in her later zaftig incarnation, as a showgirl with whom he has an affair — Stevens, Jr. doesn’t mention this film at all even though it was Stevens, Sr.’s last — he interviewed Beatty but only to get out of him a marvelous anecdote that Beatty, as producer as well as star of Bonnie and Clyde, wanted the gunshots boosted in volume because he liked the way Stevens had done that in Shane, and when the film was shown in London the shots didn’t ring out the way he wanted them to because the projectionist was deliberately turning the volume down; when Beatty questioned him about this, the projectionist said, “I’m saving you from bad sound editing. This is the worst-mixed picture I’ve shown since Shane”).

George Stevens: A Filmmakers’ Journey suffers from some especially bad cases of “first-itis,” my name for the tendency of biographers in all media to assert that the people they’re biographing were the first to do something even though there were plenty of other people doing it before. Stevens fils gives Stevens père for the approach to comedy of Laurel and Hardy, and in particular the deliberate pace of the Laurel and Hardy films compared to the frenetic pace of previous comedies, without mentioning that Stevens was only the cinematographer on the early Laurel and Hardy films and it was their director, Leo McCarey, who worked that out (and even before Laurel and Hardy there was Charlie Chaplin, whom Laurel had understudied in the music halls and vaudeville and who was the first comedian to slow down his stories to delineate character as well as get the audience to laugh). We also get extraordinary interviews from Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire’s longtime choreographer, Hermes Pan, saying that the big “Never Gonna Dance” number from Stevens’ Astaire-Rogers film Swing Time was the first time the team had staged a seduction scene on the dance floor — when Mark Sandrich had done that with “Night and Day” from The Gay Divorcée two years earlier. (Aside from being my namesake, Sandrich was an underrated director largely because he died in the 1940’s and therefore didn’t live long enough to be interviewed by serious film writers.) Nonetheless, George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey is a compelling documentary, yet more evidence that they really don’t make ’em like they used to: the films of the 1930’s and 1940’s could be naïve and frankly unrealistic in their depiction of human life, but they could also be subtle and brilliant in a way that the Production Code restrictions oddly encouraged — since they couldn’t show people openly expressing their sexuality, talented directors like Stevens, Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, Billy Wilder and Orson Welles figured out ways to get the message across with subtlety and sophistication. It’s also worth mentioning that the film explores Stevens’ courageous resistance to Cecil B. DeMille’s McCarthyite attempt to expel Joseph L. Mankiewicz from the presidency of the Screen Directors’ Guild in 1950 — Stevens stepped down from the Guild’s board to protest DeMille’s secretive tactics, though when this episode is told today it’s usually John Ford who emerges as the hero. (DeMille would go after Mankiewicz in 1950, the year Mankiewicz made his best film, All About Eve!)

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Freedom Riders (American Experience Films, WGBH-TV, PBS, 2011)

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

Last night’s library movie was Freedom Riders, a PBS American Experience documentary produced by Boston’s public TV station WGBH — dates the film from 2010 but the copyright date on the closing credits was 2011 and obviously the film was being targeted for the 50th anniversary of the actual events. In 1961 James Farmer, director of the African-American civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), decided on a bold gesture to establish the credentials of his group and place it on an equal footing with the NAACP and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He hit on the idea of challenging racial segregation in the Deep South by sending groups of both Black and white people to take bus rides through several Southern states. At the time, Black and white passengers were still separated on Southern buses despite two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Morgan v. Virginia in 1946 (eight years before Brown v. Board of Education!) and Boynton v. Virginia in 1960, that held that segregation on buses traveling between states (and therefore covered by the federal Constitution’s commerce clause) was unconstitutional. With their typical resourcefulness and sliminess, white Southerners got around this by designating separate waiting rooms in the bus depots and marking them for “intrastate passengers,” but insisting that Black passengers sit in the separate waiting rooms and use the separate water fountains, rest rooms and diners and food counters regardless of whether or not they were traveling between states. The initial Freedom Ride was supposed to start on May 4, 1961 in Washington, D.C. and end in New Orleans on May 17 — a date picked because it was the seventh anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The riders were expecting resistance from the local authorities — one of the most interesting clips director Stanley Jordan included in his film showed the resistance training the Freedom Rider volunteers went through to learn how to react nonviolently to verbal and physical provocations from racist whites.

What they weren’t expecting was the sort of mass mob violence they got from hundreds of white Southerners anxious to protect “the Southern way of life. There were only isolated attacks on the Freedom Riders in North and South Carolina — notably someone sneaked behind the young Black activist John Lewis in Rock Hill, South Carolina and hit him in the head with a crate (Lewis, now an elder statesman of the civil rights movement as well as a long-time U.S. Congressmember, appears quite a lot in the film; he’s also the sole surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, though a number of the musical performers at the post-march rally, notably Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, survive) — but all hell broke loose when the buses (there were two, one Greyhound and one Trailways) arrived in Alabama. The violently racist Birmingham, Alabama police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor (who’s shown in this film in archival clips, spouting racist drivel with such venom modern-day viewers would be forgiven if they thought he was an actor playing a caricature of the Southern racist pig) plotted with police sergeant Tom Cook and Cook’s fellow Ku Klux Klan members to launch an initial attack on the buses in Anniston, Alabama and then stage the main event in Birmingham. The “law enforcement” authorities promised the Klansmen that the mob they arranged to attack the buses would have 15 minutes to do whatever they wanted before the police moved in. Gary Thomas Rowe, an informant the FBI had planted in the Alabama Klan, reported this to the FBI’s national headquarters but FBI director J. Edgar Hoover did nothing to stop the attack. The mob in Anniston surrounded the Greyhound bus station to prevent the bus from leaving, and also KKK members slashed its tires, so when it finally did leave Anniston it was stranded along the highway when the tires blew out. Then someone threw a firebomb into the bus, it burned and the Riders were lucky to escape with their lives. (The photo of the burned-out bus was circulated by news media worldwide.) A local civil-rights activist in Anniston, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, organized a rescue to get the injured Freedom Riders out of the hospital before a white mob could attack them there.

The Trailways bus made it to Anniston safely but was attacked there by eight Klansmen who beat up the Freedom Riders. Things got worse in Birmingham, where 400 Klansmen and white rioters attacked 21 Freedom Riders with iron pipes, baseball bats and bicycle chains. James Peck, the white man who was co-leading the action, was beaten so severely he needed more than 50 stitches in his head and the white hospital refused to treat him — so the Black hospital did. The white attackers also set up a line around the Birmingham bus station and did not allow the Freedom Riders to leave — until attorney general Robert Kennedy, realizing that the U.S. was looking bad in the eyes of the world because of the violence being visited on the Freedom Riders just as his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was about to attend his first summit with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, sent an emissary, staff member John Siegenthaler, to try to negotiate a truce between the Alabama state authorities and the federal government to allow the Ride to continue and the buses to leave Alabama. Siegenthaler ran into Alabama’s ferociously racist governor, John Patterson, who had begun as a crusading district attorney closing town the vice dens in Phenix City, an Alabama town across the state line from Fort Benning, Georgia and had been depicted as a decent guy and a friend to Blacks in the 1955 film The Phenix City Story (in which Richard Kiley played him). The real Patterson was a vicious racist, and ironically one of the candidates he beat in the 1958 Alabama gubernatorial election was George Wallace, then a protégé of former Alabama Governor “Big Jim” Folsom and, like Folsom, a relative moderate on racial issues. When Patterson beat him, Wallace told friends, “He out-niggered me, and I’m never going to be out-niggered again,” and four years later Wallace ran to succeed Patterson as an ardent racist … and won. Patterson told Siegenthaler right out that he couldn’t guarantee the safety of the Freedom Riders — only he was double-crossed by the state commissioner of public safety, who flat-out told both Patterson and Siegenthaler that he could protect the Riders if only Patterson would let him. Patterson reluctantly promised protection to the Riders on the route to Alabama’s state capitol, Montgomery, after Greyhound had had to send a replacement driver because the first one had refused to drive a bus containing Freedom Riders for fear of his own safety. (Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa, Robert Kennedy’s arch-foe, at one point intervened on the side of the racists by saying no Teamsters member would drive a bus with Freedom Riders on it.)

There was another savage attack on the Riders at Montgomery, and this time the racists were smarter than they had been before: realizing that media coverage of the event was going worldwide and making them look bad, this time they targeted the journalists and attacked them first, particularly going after people with still cameras and the movie cameras and parabolic microphones TV stations then used to make news footage. Then they attacked the buses and their riders, and that night the Riders retreated to the African-American First Baptist Church pastured by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s right-hand man, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, where 1,500 mostly Black people attended a night event that was a mix of church service and civil-rights rally — while 3,000 whites surrounded the church and threatened to burn it down. King himself spoke at the event and was criticized by some of the younger Black leaders for refusing to join the Freedom Rides himself — which Nelson’s narration suggests was the beginning of the split that tore the civil rights movement apart five years later with the emergence of so-called “Black Power” activism and a younger group of African-Americans who rejected coalitions with liberal whites and insisted that only Blacks themselves should participate in their own liberation struggle. Only by calling in U.S. marshals was Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department able to get the Riders safely out of Alabama and into Mississippi — whose governor, Ross Barnett, was just as racist as Patterson but also a much better strategist. He was able to convince the Mississippi Klan and the sorts of free-lance whites who had attacked the Riders in other states to stand down, avoid attacks on the Riders and let him solve the problem — which he did by having the Riders arrested on whatever charges local authorities could cook up, including violating the segregation laws, and sent to the notorious Parchman state prison, described by Mississippi native William Faulkner and hundreds of blues lyric writers as a hell on earth. James Farmer, back in New York after he’d been forced to leave the Freedom Ride early on because of a death in his family, decided to send more Freedom Riders to Mississippi, get them arrested and pack Parchman until the state authorities couldn’t run it anymore and would have to let the Freedom Riders go. More Freedom Rides were organized and the actions continued until November, 1961 when the U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) adopted an administrative rule prohibiting segregation on all interstate bus travel — and while the Southerners had ignored or worked around similar rulings, including two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, before, this time, with the whole world watching, they complied.

One of the less well known aspects of the civil rights movement was how its African-American leaders were aware of how much they were embarrassing the U.S. in the eyes of the rest of the world — particularly the Third World countries with populations of color who had just won independence from white colonial overlords — and how much they were giving the Communists of the Soviet Union and China a propaganda point to convince leaders in the newly independent Third World states that they represented freedom and liberation, while the U.S. represented continuing racial oppression. Stanley Jordan makes this point in Freedom Riders via a Czech newsreel of 1961 containing footage of the Freedom Riders being beaten by racist mobs and making it clear — far clearer than any U.S. newscasters would have dared in an era in which “objectivity” ruled the airwaves and the Fairness Doctrine precluded any TV news outlet from being as outright propagandistic for one political point of view as Fox News (or, to a much lesser extent, MS-NBC) is today. Obviously the Communist overlords of the media in Czechoslovakia were using the Freedom Rider footage to tell their people, “You think the U.S. is so great? Here’s what they do to their own Black people — and to white people who stand up for equal rights.” The San Diego Public Library had shown Freedom Riders before at the old Central Library location on 8th and “E” around the time it was made (indeed, they previewed a number of PBS films before they aired locally, and sometimes showed movies the local PBS station, KPBS, had decided not to show at all) and ran it again in part because John Lewis’s memoir had been the 2018 choice for the “One Book, One San Diego” program — a library-sponsored effort to spawn public discussions of an issue by promoting a book about it and getting as many San Diegans as possible to read it — and they brought in a speaker named Rebecca Romani, a film professor at San Diego State and Palomar College and a guest blogger about film for KPBS, to introduce it and lead a question-and-answer session afterwards — and I could probably have monopolized the post-film discussion because though I was only seven years old when the first Freedom Rides happened, my mother was a heavy-duty activist in the civil rights movement and so I was unusually aware of what was going on.

I also have enough of an historical mind to have savored the ironies of much of the situation, including the sequence of the movie in which one of the interviewees is shown saying, “Some day we may even have a Black President” — who knew, in the two-steps-forward-one-step-back way in which history in general and U.S. history in particular moves, that one day we would have a Black president (a half-Black president, anyway — one member of the library audience mentioned that in 1961, both the year the Freedom Rides took place and the year Barack Obama was born, Obama’s parents’ marriage would have been illegal in 16 states), or that when he left office he’d be followed by a white racist whose father was a Ku Klux Klan member. (Fred Trump, Donald’s father, was one of seven Klan members arrested at a New York City rally in 1927; it’s mentioned in several online sources, including It may seem clear to us watching in relatively liberal California in 2018 that the Freedom Riders were right and the racists who attacked them were wrong — and I would certainly agree that it’s utterly absurd to think that any one race, or for that matter any one gender, has a monopoly on human intelligence, or human stupidity — but in a way the racists had their own twisted brand of idealism and were doing this out of a sincere belief in white superiority and the need to defend it by isolating Blacks into separate waiting rooms, restrooms, public parks, public schools and all other walks of life, “separate but equal” in theory and separate and highly unequal in practice. (This fascinated me when I recently watched another PBS presentation, a 2012 American Masters show about Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, which mentioned that one of the big things Mitchell did with the money she made from writing the best-selling novel of all time was to endow the historically Black Morehouse College with scholarships, especially for medical students, and also to build a state-of-the-art hospital for Blacks in her home town of Atlanta, Georgia. In a way Mitchell was a racial liberal, but it’s also clear that by giving money to build a Black hospital and to train Black doctors to staff it, she was a “liberal” only in the sense that she wanted to realize the promise of “separate but equal” without actually integrating Blacks with whites.)

Throughout the movie I kept thinking of white Southern writer William Faulkner’s famous quote, “The past isn’t dead — it’s not even past.” We nice white liberals like to think of racial equality in the U.S. as a check mark we’ve ticked off — “been there, done that, move on” — when in fact the spirit of racism rears its ugly head again and again in this country. It did so in 1968, when Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond cooked up the “Southern Strategy” and essentially flipped the two major U.S. political parties’ positions on civil rights; taking advantage of the fact that the Democrats, once the party of slavery, segregation and the Klan, had pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, so the Republicans could now achieve political dominance by reinventing themselves as the party of racism and cultural repression. Originally worked out merely as an ad hoc response to the threat of George Wallace’s independent U.S. Presidential campaign in 1968, this proved so successful long-term that they not only turned the South in a generation or so from solid Democratic to almost as solid Republican, they also finally broke the New Deal coalition that had kept the Democrats in power from 1932 to 1968 by using the racial and cultural prejudices of white working-class voters in the Northeast and Midwest (and to a slightly lesser extent in the West as well) to move them from Democratic to Republican. I’ve been writing in my analyses of the Trump campaign and presidency on the Zenger’s Newsmagazine blog,, that Trump’s victory in 2016 was just the final triumph of a long Right-wing campaign that included not only the Southern Strategy but also the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which allowed an entire parallel Right-wing media universe to come into existence so people could read, watch and listen to only Right-wing political news and commentary, and therefore be exposed to that world-view and hear no other — or, when they did hear another point of view, they would dismiss it as the work of the “liberal media,” the “dark state” or whatever name by which Right-wing propagandists denote the infernal conspiracy that is keeping them and their vision of truth and right from absolute political, economic and cultural authority.

The nationwide opprobrium that the violence against the Freedom Riders sparked, given the flat, “objective” way the media covered it, would not happen today — devotees of the Right-wing media would watch the footage and say it was either being taken out of context (“Those anti-racist meanies threw the first punches — our guys were just defending themselves!”) or being outright faked in the movie studios of “liberal Hollywood.” Obviously the spirit of the KKK and the other attackers on the Freedom Riders was alive and well in Charlottesville, Virginia over a year ago, and the President sent a nod-and-wink message to them when he said “there were good people on both sides” and added two days later, “You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that. But I’ll say that right now.” Trump is appealing to the same people who watched the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention on TV, in which the Chicago police attacked peaceful protesters and polls showed that 70 percent of Americans supported the police — he has literally said that violence and mass poverty will be the results if the Republicans lose control of the U.S. Congress in this year’s elections — we see the film of the racists in 1961 attacking the Freedom Riders and like to think that history is safely past, when it’s not only not dead, it’s not even past — indeed, it’s running the country right now and it’s only through a lot of effort, quite probably including the same kind of willingness to put people’s lives and bodies on the line the original Freedom Riders of 1961 showed, that we can avoid the wholesale reversal in civil rights and a return to the outright racism (and sexism, homophobia and hatred of non-conformity in general) with which this country was run from the 1880’s to the 1950’s until the Black (and white) activists behind Brown v. Board of Education, the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins of 1960 and the Freedom Rides rose up and (at least for a time) successfully challenged it.

Monday, September 17, 2018

No One Would Tell (Pink Buffalo Films, Reunion Pacific Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

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

I watched last night’s Lifetime “premiere” movie, a not-bad “problem drama” called No One Would Tell about a high-school junior, Sarah Collins (Matryea Scarrwener, the sort of name that in old Hollywood got changed), whose mom Laura has raised her as a single parent — though I don’t recall if writer Caitlin D. Fryers ever provided an explanation for how she became a single parent, whether she divorced Laura’s dad or he died — and since the end of her relationship with Sarah’s father ended (however that was) has been in and out of a series of dysfunctional relationships of her own. Sarah falls head over heels in love with attractive, charismatic, popular senior Rob Tennison (Callan Potter) and the two start to date, only shortly thereafter he reveals his dark side, getting angry with her over something trivial and giving her the same sort of back-handed slap to the face, knocking her over, that Patrick Bergin gave Julia Roberts in the grandmother of all modern-day domestic-abuse movies, Sleeping with the Enemy. Then, like all movie batterers (and all too many of the real-life ones as well!), he immediately proclaims that he’s sorry, he’s really in love with her and he’ll never hit her again or even think of doing so. Of course, that’s so much B.S.; the next altercation between them occurs at a school dance when Rob accuses Sarah of flirting with another guy, and this time it’s witnessed by other students, notably Sarah’s friend Nikki Farrow (Chanelle Peloso), who comes over to the Collins home so often she’s practically a third member of the family. It’s also witnessed by Gus (Ricky He), an Asian-American student who’s on the school’s wrestling team with Rob and Zack Carter (Trezzo Mahoro), a Black kid who’s a good friend of Rob’s.

Sarah breaks it off with Rob and threatens to report him — at one point she’s ready to go with Nikki to tell the coach of the school wrestling team about Rob’s abusive ways, but then gets cold feet after she gets a stare from Rob’s new blonde bimbo girlfriend and realizes that no one at the school would believe the popular Rob is an abuser and she’d be the one who’d get dumped on. It all ends when Rob tricks Sarah into taking one last car ride with him, telling her he’ll take her home, but instead he takes her to a deserted cabin in the mountains (why do so many Lifetime movies these days end at deserted cabins in the mountains?) and Zack, who was there supposedly chaperoning but really had drunk himself into a stupor over his own romantic breakup, was only sporadically conscious and aware of what was going on. Just why Rob took Sarah there and was hoping to accomplish isn’t clear, but he pleads for Sarah to return to him, she says no, and he sneaks up behind her and strangles her with his forearm. The way director Gail Harvey (yet another promising Lifetime director who deserves a shot at better scripts) stages it, we’re obviously supposed to get the idea that Rob didn’t mean to kill her, but he did, and he wraps Sarah’s body in a blue tarp and dumps it in the lake, where police divers find it after the other people in the story piece together what happened and Zack remembers enough of what went on to lead Sarah’s mom, Nikki and the cops to the lakeshore cabin. The film is framed by interrogations of the various survivors about what happened — Sarah is already dead at the start of the film (we don’t know that for sure but we suspect since we don’t see her as one of the people being questioned) — in what I suspect may be a borrowing of the gimmick from Big Little Lies, which is also told in flashbacks from police interrogations, where from the start of the book we know something dire happened but it’s only until the end that we realize what (and since Big Little Lies writer Liane Moriarty made the abuser, not his victim, the one who died her story is a lot more satisfying).

The ending takes place in a courtroom where Rob is being tried for Sarah’s murder — since he’s a juvenile it’s a relatively informal proceeding and there’s only a judge, not a jury — and the judge is Mira Sorvino in a guest turn, first announcing that she’s finding Rob guilty and then delivering a lecture not only to the characters but to the audience as well. She mentions that during the period from 2001 to 2012 twice as many women (nearly 12,000) were killed by their relationship partners as died in the U.S.’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the film ends with a title giving contact numbers for two organizations against domestic violence to which people can report incidents of it involving themselves or others. This is a laudable goal but the film itself is all too didactic, decently acted — Callan Potter is thoroughly believable as Rob, an otherwise decent guy with a mean streak and an ability to keep his sang-froid even when he’s doing despicable things like beating his girlfriend and ultimately killing her. And Matreya Scarrwener, despite that impossible name, is equally good as Sarah even though one could wish Fryers’ script gave her more of a clue as to just what keeps her in thrall to the asshole — the film does suggest that she’s vulnerable to a destructive relationship because her mom hasn’t exactly provided her a role model in her own pathetic flings with one man after another (none of whom do we actually meet) and also that she’s intimidated by Rob’s BMOC popularity (though the film Speak did a much better job of dramatizing the no-one-would-believe-you-about-me dilemma the bad guy puts the good girl in), but Sarah is one of those maddening Lifetime heroines whom it’s hard to maintain sympathy for because she’s just so stupid. When she meekly takes Rob’s first slap, forgives him on the spot and declares her undying love, one can only think, “What’s the matter with you, girl? Apparently you haven’t been watching enough Lifetime movies!”