Tuesday, February 26, 2019

91st Annual Academy Awards (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences/ABC-TV, aired February 24, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the 91st annual Academy Awards show on the night of Sunday, February 24. It was a pretty lumbering affair, though it was slotted for three hours and ran only 20 minutes over — and it began with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler making the sorts of stupid jokes I was hoping we could avoid from the “hostless” format. (The Grammy Awards scored by getting a host, Alicia Keys, who isn’t a comedian and doesn’t pretend to be: instead she’s a superb musical artist in her own right and her comments were respectful and communicated her love of music. The Oscars need a host that can communicate a deep love of film with a similar sense of respect.) The show was pretty indicative of what’s happened to the Academy Awards and to the film industry in general, in particular since there was no one blockbuster movie that swept the awards. Indeed, one of the biggest problem the Academy Awards has is that the movie industry has pretty much forgotten how to make a film that is a big commercial blockbuster and a movie of quality and emotional complexity — the sorts of movies like Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King that used to dominate the awards. Instead the awards were split between a dizzying array of movies, including Bohemian Rhapsody (which won Best Actor for Rami Malek’s portrayal of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury — the show even began with a medley of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” performed by the three surviving Queensters, including Brian May — the forgotten Queen member because he lived, even though he wrote half the band’s songs, including some of their biggest hits — with Adam Lambert fronting the band and singing the leads, I suspect because like Mercury he’s Queer), Black Panther (the movie I thought should have swept the awards — it’s exactly the sort of big commercial blockbuster that’s also a film of quality and complexity I wrote above that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make), Roma (which won both Best Director and Best Cinematographer for Alfonso Cuarón), BlackkKlansman (which won Spike Lee his first competitive Oscar as co-screenwriter and provoked from him the most predictably anti-Trump comments of the night — aside from his, most of the political comments were thinly veiled rather than forthright, a lot of talk about how bridges are better than walls and creativity comes in all colors, but there was enough of it to indicate that the filmmaking community, and the creative communities in general, are in the Other America rather than Trump’s America) and the Best Picture winner, Green Book.

I was really hoping the Best Picture would go to Black Panther — even though, in one of the most shameful snubs of an awards ceremony that’s produced more than its fair share of them (like 2001: A Space Odyssey not even being nominated for Best Picture!), director Ryan Coogler was not nominated for his masterly achievement. Instead of giving the award to a film about a self-sufficient community of Black people made by a Black director and with a virtually all-Black cast (when its only white actors in principal roles, Martin Freeman and a non-CGI’d Andy Serkis, both realized they’d been in the Lord of the Rings cycle they joked that they were the “Tolkien white cast members”), they gave it to yet another civil-rights movie made by a white director and three white screenwriters about the put-upon Black character saved, and used as a convenient instrument of redemption by, the white lead. I was also amused by the fate of A Star Is Born 4.0 — like 2.0 (George Cukor’s with Judy Garland and James Mason from 1954) and 3.0 (the one from 1976 which Barbra Streisand produced and starred in, and took over from its nominal director, Frank Pierson), it won the Academy Award for Best Song but its leading actress, Lady Gaga, was snubbed in favor of Olivia Colman for her portrayal of Queen Anne in The Favourite. I noticed the irony that both Colman and the Best Actor, Rami Malek, won for playing Bisexuals — “British Bisexuals,” Charles added — and I was predictably annoyed that Malek in his acceptance speech referred to Freddie Mercury as “Gay” instead of Bi. (I haven’t seen the film, so I hold open the possibility that the real screw-up came from the movie’s writers — they may have left out any reference to Mercury’s straight side.) I also was disappointed in the performance of the A Star Is Born Best Song, “Shallow” — the Oscars presented it as a duet between Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, her co-star in the film (and also its writer and director!), but I liked the song better on the Grammy Awards where Gaga performed it solo. (The difference between Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga was the difference between a talented actor pretending to be a singer and an actual first-rate singer.)

The 91st annual Academy Awards were beset by such pre-show controversies as the departure of the originally scheduled host, Kevin Hart, after he refused to apologize for anti-Queer tweets he had sent out years ago (just one more example of Left-wing McCarthyism — as was the virtual disappearance of Bohemian Rhapsody’s original director, Bryan Singer, who’s been made an “unperson” after allegations against him of sexually harassing young men) and the brief attempt to relegate four awards, including the one for cinematography (which, as Charles pointed out, is the one major craft involved in filmmaking that, unlike acting, directing and writing, along with set design, makeup and costume design, has no analogue in live theatre), to the commercial breaks in order to speed up the show and get it in within the three-hour time slot ABC had allocated. It was an O.K. awards show as the genre goes, but some of the post-mortems reflect that awards shows in general are becoming less important both in terms of viewership (though this year’s Oscars did come back a bit from the all-time viewership low of last year’s show) and added income for the winning films. The Los Angeles Times post-mortem noted that a lot of the winning movies have already completed their theatrical runs and, with fewer people buying DVD’s and more people “streaming” instead (and most streaming services are paid for by subscription, which makes it virtually impossible to allocate revenues to a specific film), an Academy Award simply isn’t as big a commercial boost to a film as it used to be.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Who’s Stalking Me? (Showbox/Mediaplex, Studio 71, Feifer Worldwide, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched last night’s Lifetime “premiere,” an interesting but incredibly frustrating movie called Who’s Stalking Me? which takes place in the Los Angeles suburb of Los Feliz and deals with a woman, Amanda Rinna (Chelsea Ricketts) — at least I think that’s her last name since it was only spoken once, in passing, by one of the other characters — who in the opening scene is on the phone to her best friend Jeannie (Cara Santana) when her house is broken into and she’s assaulted by a man dressed in black and wearing a black ski mask. She throws a camera at him — she’s in advertising and her home includes a photo studio where she does shoots for her clients’ ads — and it flashes as it lands. Amanda runs her boutique advertising agency with a business partner, Liam (Bryan Lillis), whom she used to date but has since broken up with as a lover while keeping him as a partner. The attack by the mysterious masked man is broken up by a police detective, James Dawson (Michael Welch), who’s a head shorter than Liam and has sandy-brown instead of black hair but is otherwise much the same physical “type.” Both men dress in khaki slacks — though Welch fills his a lot better: he flashes a giant basket and a nice ass that were making me fall in lust with him — which means it’s not all that easy for the first 20 minutes or so to tell them apart. This film was one of Michael Feifer’s productions (he produced, directed and co-wrote with John Burd), which meant it has a lot of loose ends even for a Lifetime movie. Once he’s broken up the attack on Amanda, Dawson hangs around her a lot, throwing that big basket at us on screen and making it clear to Amanda, Jeannie and us that he has the hots for Amanda and is just waiting to clear the case so he can start dating her and hopefully make it to the bedroom. He also casually mentions to her that at least six other women have reported being similarly victimized by home invaders in black outfits and ski masks.

Since the intruder broke the lock on Amanda’s door, Dawson volunteers to install a new home security system for her — only, like an awful lot of Lifetime villains in this heavily surveilled age, he takes the opportunity to bug her home with both spy cameras and hidden microphones so he can keep tabs of everything she does. Meanwhile Dawson’s partner, Valencia (Nicole Ochoa, a talented actress I wish we’d have got to see more of), gets asphyxiated when someone locks her in her car and fills it with carbon monoxide to make it look like she killed herself. Just why this happens is something of a mystery since Feifer and Burd never bother to explain whodunit or why — but then even Raymond Chandler forgot to attribute one of the murders in The Big Sleep, so at least he’s in good company on that one — but later Amanda’s friend Jeannie is the victim of another home invasion attack by Mr. Black Ski-Mask. The main suspense issue is which of the two men in Amanda’s life — Dawson or Liam — is stalking her: is it the spurned ex-lover or the cop who’s unhealthily obsessed with her? Both Jeannie and Amanda herself complain about Detective Dawson’s attentions to his supervisor, Captain Marcus (an African-American woman with close-cropped, bleached-blonde hair — memo to Black women: unless you’re Beyoncé you’re not going to look good with blonde hair! — played by Harry Belafonte’s daughter Shari, and yes, the family resemblance is strong), but he’s one of her best detectives and without more evidence there’s nothing she can do about him. In the end [spoiler alert!] it turns out both Dawson and Liam are villains: Dawson had an unhealthy obsession with Amanda and bugged her house, as well as framing one of Loz Feliz’s usual suspects, Reese (Brock Burnett), for the crime — Dawson first arrests Reese and then, when he gets out after a judge throws out the case against him, Dawson gives him Amanda’s gun, then shoots him — and later Dawson shoots Liam and frames Amanda for the crime by using that gun, which he’d urged her to buy in the first place and then stole from her.

Also Amanda and Liam land a potentially star-making account from a woman named Carlson (Caia Coley), only at the party Amanda throws to celebrate someone spikes Carlson’s drink with strawberry juice, since she’s announced early on that she’s deathly allergic to strawberries. (She sends someone out to her car to get her EpiPen — if she was that allergic, wouldn’t she have carried it on her person?) The finale occurs on a rooftop during another party, in which Amanda and Liam are celebrating not only the Carlson account but the resumption of their personal relationship — only Captain Marcus crashes the party and announces that the picture Amanda’s camera accidentally took of her attacker when she threw it at him revealed, after it was digitally enhanced at the police lab, that Liam, not Dawson, was the mystery ski-masked attacker. So in the end Amanda has a successful business but is left alone since both the men in her life were psychos — a typical Michael Feifer twist I could have done without; with author Cynthia Diamond’s words ringing in my ears that a romance needs to end with the heroine happy ever after, or at least happy for now, with one of the men in the story, the nihilistic ending of this one bothered me even more than it might have otherwise, though it’s all too typical of Michael Feifer’s twist-in-the-knife style of storytelling. Who’s Stalking Me? is frustrating because the basic plot premise had the potential for an interesting and unsettling thriller — a better writer (Christine Conradt, maybe?) might have made more of Amanda’s who-can-I-trust dilemma, and she would have come up with some sort of motivation for both the weirdos in her life whereas Feifer and Burd couldn’t have cared less What Made Dawson and Liam Run.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Hidden Family Secrets (Stargazer Films USA, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a Lifetime movie which they billed as a “premiere” even though the copyright date on imdb.com is 2018: Hidden Family Secrets, shot under the working title (and listed on imdb.com as) My Daughter’s Missing. For once an altered title for a Lifetime movie was actually an improvement, since the drama does indeed focus on the “hidden family secrets” of the Taylors. When the film begins the Taylors are dad Scott (Cuyle Carvin), mom Melanie (Diora Baird, top-billed) and their 17-year-old daughter Gabby (Abbie Gayle). We see them motorboating on a lake while they’re using their vacation cabin (gee, not another Lifetime movie in which the protagonists have a vacation cabin!), with mom driving, Gabby in the passenger seat and dad standing up in the rear of the boat. Only Gabby pleads with her mom to be allowed to drive the boat, and once mom lets her Gabby accidentally pushes the throttle all the way to full, and the force of the acceleration knocks dad overboard. We see a bloodstain on the side of the boat, indicating that in the fall Scott’s head hit the side of the boat and caused an injury that presumably knocked him unconscious and led to his death by drowning — at least that’s as best as I could put together what supposedly happened from the hints in Mark Sanderson’s script. There are a lot of directions in which he could have taken this — at first I was thinking that Sanderson was heading for the same cliché stash Michael Feifer probed in the similarly titled His Secret Family — dad was leading a double life and faked his own death so he could dump one of his wives and live openly with the other — but no-o-o-o-o, the shore patrol at the lake drag up a corpse and, though we only see it wrapped in black, we’re obviously supposed to believe dad’s body has been recovered and definitively identified. We then get a typical Lifetime chyron after the opening credits, “Six Months Later,” and six months later her father’s death has sent Gabby into the Mother of All Blue Funks, plunging her grade point average, making her skip classes, causing her to dump her boyfriend Jason Keating (Andrew Matthew Welsh, a cute twink if you like that sort of thing) and draw frowning-face emojis all over everything. Meanwhile, mom is hosting her brother Steve (the quite hunky Jordan James Smith) as a houseguest and, though their relationship blessedly stops short of Die Walküre territory, in all other respects he’s become a sort of substitute husband, nursing his sister through her own grief as well as her anxiety over Gabby’s inability to let go of hers.

Gabby is getting mysterious text messages from someone identified only as “H.T.,” and so my next wrong guess as to which set of Lifetime clichés Sanderson would use to power his story was that “H.T.” was an older man living remotely in the woods who wanted to molest Gabby and was exploiting her ongoing grief to lure her. Instead “H.T.” turns out to be Helen Taylor, mother of the late Scott Taylor, whom Melanie read out of their lives when she married Scott because she feared Helen was mentally ill and would pose a threat to them. Helen meets Gabby at the lakeside cabin (actually she meets her in town and drives her up there) and then lures her to her home, which is the one in which Scott grew up (his dad died when Scott was 12 and Helen raised him as a single parent thereafter) and she’s kept his old bedroom as a virtual shrine to him. There’s at least a hint that Helen, like the old women in Val Lewton’s vest-pocket masterpiece The Curse of the Cat People, is going to give Gabby the love and support her own mom isn’t — we’ve seen mom directly (and counterproductively) confronting Gabby about her behavior — but no-o-o-o-o-o, it would be too much to hope that a Lifetime writer and director (Sam Irvin) would have gone for the subtlety of Lewton and his team. Instead we quickly find out that Helen Taylor is a psycho, first when she “accidentally” drops Gabby’s cell phone in the lake so Gabby can’t call home and tell mom where she is, then claims her own cell phone’s battery has run out, and then pulls the wires on her landline’s headset so it doesn’t work either. We’re even more convinced that grandma is crazy when we see a shot of her medicine cabinet and it’s filled with a lineup of about six or seven neatly arranged (and identically sized) prescription bottles, presumably containing psychotropics, and it’s clinched when Helen offers Gabby lunch but spikes both the mayonnaise on her sandwich and her iced tea with some sort of white fluid that contains a knockout drug. (Yet one more reason to “hold the mayo”!) The rest of the movie is typical Lifetime stuff, as mom and Steve mount an increasingly frantic search for Gabby’s whereabouts, finally realize she’s with her crazy grandmother and track them down first to the cabin and then to grandma’s house (they just barely miss them both times!), and finally to mom’s own home, where grandma plans to drug Gabby and plunge her in the bathtub so mom, too, will know what it’s like to lose a child by drowning.

Hidden Family Secrets might have been an even stronger movie if Sanderson had made Steve Scott’s brother instead of Melanie’s — then he could have realized the sexual tension implicit in the movie we have (I imagine director Irwin tried to remind Jordan James Smith and Diora Baird that they were supposed to be playing brother and sister and therefore shouldn’t look like they were drooling over each other, but finally gave up) and given Melanie powerful guilt feelings over being attracted to her former brother-in-law — but it’s implicit in the plot we have that the late Scott be Helen’s only child so we believe his death would propel her from controllable mental illness to full-fledged psychopathology. Irwin’s quiet direction, avoiding the over-the-top excesses Sanderson’s script could have lent themselves to and probably would have in the hands of some other Lifetime director, and the subtle, enigmatic performance of Blanche Baker as Helen, a far cry from the eye-rolling, nostril-flaring Bette Davis reduz performances we’ve seen in other women playing Lifetime psychos, raise this somewhat above the Lifetime norm, but it’s still yet another detour into melodrama in a story that could have been more powerful if it had been just about a daughter grieving over the dead father she feels responsible for killing, and an estranged relative whose misguided but sincere attempts to support her only traumatize her further.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (American International, 1965)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi screening (http://sdvsf.org/) consisted of two films in a blessedly short-lived cycle from American International Pictures in the mid-1960’s featuring Vincent Price as mad scientist Dr. Goldfoot (his name an obvious pun on the James Bond villain Auric Goldfinger), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) and Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966). These films — imdb.com lists an intervening Goldfoot movie, The Wild, Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot, but it was apparently only a TV promo short for Bikini Machine (though it included some musical numbers cut from the final version of Bikini Machine) rather than a separate film in the cycle. Dr. Goldfoot is a mad scientist who’s invented a machine that can stamp out endless copies of bikini-clad women (hence the title), whom he sends out to seduce rich men, get them to turn over their whole fortunes to his robot femmes fatales, and then get rid of them. Only when he sends his latest robot, #11 (Susan Hart), to seduce, marry, financially drain and abandon (or worse) executive and playboy Todd Armstrong (Dwayne Hickman), she mistakenly goes after penniless schlub Craig Gamble (Frankie Avalon) in a cafeteria after the woman he took there on a dinner date walks out on him for being so cheap. Dr. Goldfoot and his spectacularly incompetent assistant Igor (Jack Mullaney) watch them on a monitor screen and send an order to #11, who’s adopting the persona of a Southern belle named Diane (complete with cornball accent to establish “Southernicity”), to knock it off and go after the guy with money instead. She precedes to discomfit Craig by going all moral on him and walking out on him with some “Well, I never … !” dialogue. Craig is also the least competent secret agent of the Security Intelligence Command (SIC — and yes, there are a lot of stupid puns on that name), who’s on the job only because his uncle, D. J. Pevney (Fred Clark), is the head of SIC’s San Francisco office. 

Craig is so smitten with “Diane” he determines to find her and traces her to Goldfoot’s operation, which is hidden in plain sight as a funeral parlor (well, where else would you expect a Vincent Price character to hide out, especially in a movie that’s intended to be a campy spoof?) and consists of a lot of secret panels, corridors, dungeon cells and even the pit and the pendulum from Price’s previous “serious” AIP vehicle of that name, on which Price straps Hickman in a screamingly funny spoof of a scene he’d played seriously just four years before. I hadn’t expected much from this movie, to say the least, but I was pleasantly surprised when the first thing I heard on the soundtrack was the unmistakable voice of Diana Ross chirping out the film’s silly theme song: “Dr. Goldfoot and his bikini machine, Dr. Goldfoot, the wildest thing that you’d ever seen, There once was a man with a machine, Dr. Goldfoot and his bikini machine, Whenever he needed a girl on the scene, Dr. Goldfoot and his bikini machine, He’d push a button and just like nothing a girl would appear, A queen — my dear, The cutest girl in the whole wide world and she’d behave, just like a slave. Wooo!” Yes, with their usually infallible instinct for what would appeal to the teenage market they were aiming most of their films at, AIP hired the Supremes to do the theme song, and while it’s likely not one of the credits Ross is proudest of today (if you played it for her now she’d probably be incredulous and say, “I did that?”) she acquits herself perfectly well with it. There was another huge superstar, this one from another era, who I’m almost certain was involved in this movie. I began to like Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine a lot better when I realized it contained some excellently designed and screamingly funny slapstick-comedy sequences — and then I remembered that when this film was made Buster Keaton still had a year to live and had been working at AIP playing character bits and also designing gags for the other performers in films like Sergeant Deadhead, another Frankie Avalon vehicle. 

Though Keaton isn’t credited, either on the film itself or on imdb.com, as I watched it I became more and more convinced he was involved in the project and had worked out all those brilliant physical gags — including a spectacular final chase scene in San Francisco that’s the best thing in the movie and features all sorts of Keaton self-borrowings, including the front of a San Francisco streetcar with a crashed motorcycle on its nose. And Buster Keaton isn’t the only person involved in this movie (assuming I’m right and he was indeed involved) with connections to classic Hollywood: the director is Norman Taurog, who had made Jackie Cooper’s star-making film Skippy in 1931, had directed Judy Garland (he was her choice to replace Busby Berkeley on the 1943 film Girl Crazy) and had also helmed some of the early-1950’s films of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis — and the cinematographer, Sam Leavitt, had also worked with Garland (he had shot the 1954 A Star Is Born, second of the four versions of this venerable tale). Keaton’s contributions (assuming I’m right and the gags are indeed his work), along with the good-natured campiness of Vincent Price’s performance (he knows we’re not going to take “Dr. Goldfoot” seriously as a figure of evil, so he doesn’t try to be anything more than a great actor dumbing himself down to play lowbrow comedy), elevate Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine above the level of most of AIP’s output at the time despite the silliness of the script by Elwood Ullman (a scribe with more impressive credits than this!) and Robert Kaufman, based on an “original” story by “James Hartford,” who was really AIP co-CEO, James H. Nicholson. 

Vincent Price said later it would have been more fun if they’d left in the songs — it was originally intended as a mash-up of AIP’s horror and beach-party movie cycles and it’s got plenty of references to previous films, including the Bond series — and I also found myself wishing that the writers had got more genuine wit into it, particularly in the sequence showing Todd Armstrong grimly signing away his entire fortune to the robot bimbo in exchange for the remotest hint of sex between them. (Could she even have sex? A later — and considerably lamer — movie involving a sexy robot, Galaxina, said that that capability was available but it was an option that cost extra.) But it’s still a funny movie and a nice piece of eye candy to fill 90 minutes of your time. And while it references a lot of pre-existing movies it also anticipates some — there are two scenes that seemed to me to be probing the territory The Rocky Horror Picture Show explored a decade later: the scene in which, left on his own to create robot #12, Igor screws up and ends up with a creation (Alberta Nelson) that is physically female but comes out in a grey knitted pantsuit instead of the regulation gold bikini and speaks with a gravelly male voice; and the one in which Harvey Lembeck, one of the four guests from the “Beach Party” cycle who did cameo appearances here (along with Annette Funicello, Deborah Walley and Aron Kincaid, promoting their own next film, The Girl in the Glass Bikini (released as The Girl in the Invisible Bikini — though Annette wasn’t in it and, in yet another of AIP’s attempts to combine a beach party movie with comedy and horror, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone were — and Buster Keaton was supposed to be, but his death in February 1966 spared him that final blow), turns up sitting on his motorcycle in a cell in Dr. Goldfoot’s dungeon. One almost expects him to ride out and sing “Hot Patootie!”

Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (American International, Italian International, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, the second and last film in the Dr. Goldfoot cycle, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, was exactly the sort of insipid, downright annoying time-waster I had feared Bikini Machine would be! It seems (from several imdb.com “Trivia” posters) that Bikini Machine had been only a modest success in the U.S. but a smash hit in Italy, so AIP cut a deal for a sequel to be co-produced by an Italian company, Italian International — remember what I’ve always said about especially bad movies coming from studios with the word “International” in their names? This one comes from two studios with “International” in their names! In the end there were two scripts, two crews, and largely two casts. The two co-producing studios simply mashed together their projects: the American sequel to Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and the Italians something called Le spie vengono dal semifreddo, which literally translates as “The Spy Who Came In from the Semi-Cold” (so the Italians were parodying John le Carré as well as James Bond here), though “semifreddo” is also apparently an Italian custard dessert. The Italian script was a sequel to something called Goldginger (and you don’t need two guesses to figure out what popular mid-1960’s spy thriller they were making fun of!) starring two of the lamest so-called “comedians” ever to appear on film, Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia. Of course Franco and Ciccio (they play their own first names on screen) are selected by a computer screw-up at the Rome headquarters of the Security Intelligence Command (SIC) to go after the mysterious assailant who is blowing up all the commanders of NATO by sending them “girl bombs,” robots with explosives wired to proximity fuses inside them so as soon as the generals they’ve seduced try to embrace them, they blow up and take the generals out with them. Of course Dr. Goldfoot is the secret villain in charge of this campaign, and in a prologue sequence that includes clips from Bikini Machine he’s described as a sinister super-maniac who’s trying for the second time to conquer the world — a glitch in the continuity between the two films since in Bikini Machine he was not trying to conquer the world. He was simply trying to rip off a bunch of rich men and add to his own fortune, so it was simple greed instead of megalomania that was motivating him. 

U.S. SIC agent — actually ex-agent since he’s been cashiered from the service — Bill Dexter (Fabian) comes to Europe to go after Dr. Goldfoot and has an uncertain collaboration with those two relentlessly unfunny Italian “comedians” in doing so. Dr. Goldfoot himself is saddled with an all too serious, all too competent Chinese assistant, Hard Job (Moa Tahi) — the name an obvious pun on “Odd Job” in Goldfinger — and Vincent Price, who in the previous film got into the campy spirit of things, in this one just seems bored, as if AIP had gone to the well with stupid scripts like this for him once too often. (One person at the screening said he’d read an interview with Price in which he’d called Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs the worst movie he’d ever made, which given the sheer amount of crap he got cast in is a pretty extreme critique.) The film just drones on and on and on, stacking relentlessly unfunny scene on top of relentlessly unterrifying and unsuspenseful scene until it reaches the end of its 82-minute running time. There’s a chase scene at the end in which the good guys try to track down the bad guys by flying a balloon, with a little battery-powered house fan they’ve brought on board to give themselves some thrust, and it’s even intercut with a few silent-film style titles even though the people who made this movie had an idea that all you had to do to re-create silent comedy was speed up the film so that people ran around unnaturally quickly. (When one of Dr. Goldfoot’s non-bomb equipped robots dies in this film, they run around the room in fast-motion and disintegrate into pieces, leaving Fabian to utter one of the few genuinely witty lines in the film: “That’s not Rosanna. That’s a jigsaw puzzle.”) 

If my suspicions are right that Buster Keaton worked out the big physical-comedy scenes in Bikini Machine, the difference between the two films is the difference between someone who was one of the two great geniuses of silent comedy and a bunch of incompetents who knew nothing about it, and that’s not the only difference between the two films. In Bikini Machine the male lead is Frankie Avalon; in Girl Bombs it’s Fabian, who’s marginally better looking but even more totally incompetent as an actor. In Bikini Machine the stupid theme song is at least sung by a great group, the Supremes; in Girl Bombs it’s sung by something called “The Sloopy’s,” who shouldn’t have hung on. In Bikini Machine Vincent Price at least appeared to be having fun; in Girl Bombs there’s only one scene in which he comes to life: when he confronts the last surviving NATO general, who bears such a remarkable resemblance to him that he’s also played by Vincent Price. (Goldfoot wants to impersonate the general so he can commandeer a U.S. bomber and drop a “super-hydrogen bomb” on Moscow so the U.S. and the Soviet Union will annihilate each other in World War III and Goldfoot and his backers, the Chinese, will be left to rule the rest of the world that’s left.) I feel sorry for Vincent Price’s reputation not only because he was a great actor who kept getting cast in crap, but because his very best performance — his one-man 1977 show Diversions and Delights, in which he played Oscar Wilde — was apparently never recorded or filmed, so it exists only in the memories of people like me who were fortunate enough to see it live.

And Price wasn’t the only person involved with Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs who had far greater talents than this putrid waste of celluloid tapped: the film’s director was Mario Bava, who’d established a reputation as a major horror director with his 1960 film Black Sunday — probably the best-ever black-and-white re-creation of the atmospherics of the great Universal horror films of the 1930’s — and his 1964 horror anthology Black Sabbath, in which Boris Karloff narrated all three stories and starred in the last as a Wurdalak, an Eastern European vampire who preys on the members of his own family. (Despite Karloff’s long association with horror films, this is the only time he played a vampire — and I’ve long wanted to see this film double-billed with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, in which Bela Lugosi played Frankenstein’s monster: the two greatest horror actors of the early sound era each playing the role that made the other a star.) After the screening, the proprietor said of Bava, “He must have done it for the money,” and I said, “You have to wonder what had happened to his career that he needed to do it for the money.” There are items on the “Trivia” section of Girl Bombs’ imdb.com page that claim Bava tried to get out of the job of making this movie but was forced by his contract to make it, and he only worked on the Italian version and had nothing to do with editing or post-production on the one we got, but that still doesn’t explain why the movie is directed incredibly flatly, with none of the cinematic atmosphere Bava was noted for in his “serious” horror films. Taken together, the two Dr. Goldfoot movies were a cinematic roller-coaster: Bikini Machine turned out to be surprisingly entertaining despite a silly script and an exploitation title, while Girl Bombs was every bit as bad as I’d expected Bikini Machine to be — in fact, probably worse.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

American Experience:“The War of the Worlds” (PBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013, 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I watched an unexpectedly interesting American Experience episode on PBS: “War of the Worlds,” a show about the famous Orson Welles broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938 and the resulting panic that ensued. This chilling program started with a man, Judge A. G. Kennedy of Union, South Carolina, shown as part of a series of interviews done shortly after the show aired saying that all future broadcasts of that type should be banned and Orson Welles should be criminally prosecuted for what he had done to the American people: “I think suit should be filed against him and the Columbia Broadcasting System for their wrongdoing. Welles’ performance on the radio Sunday evening was a clear demonstration of his inhuman instincts and his fiendish joy in causing distress and suffering all over the country. He is a carbuncle on the rump of degenerate theatrical performers and he should make amends for his consummate act of asininity.” Another interviewee, Notre Dame philosophy professor Daniel O’Grady, said something even more chilling: “Those who were deceived by a dramatic re-enactment would, in an ideal society, be sterilized and disenfranchised. Such damn fools. It shakes one’s faith in democracy to think that such hysteria and panic can affect those who are supposed to vote intelligently next week.” (Yet more proof, if you needed any, that the attitudes behind what’s now known as the Tea Party are nothing new!) 

Indeed, much of the show’s most interesting content consisted of these interviews — all shot in black-and-white in the same room, with the interviewees sitting on the same couch (not all at once, mind you!), being asked questions by the same unseen reporter. (According to the PBS Web site, these “interview” sequences were actually reconstructions, with modern-day actors playing the original interviewees, but that wasn’t made at all clear in the documentary itself.) The show dealt with Welles’ background with the Federal Theatre Project and the Mercury Theatre, the private company he opened after the Federal Theatre Project pulled the plug on his production of Marc Blitzstein’s proletarian opera The Cradle Will Rock! (which was recorded by members of the original cast — at least in abridged form — and came off as a very badly dated souvenir of what 1930’s Leftists thought was an appropriate way to reach the masses by creating “culture” for them; while they generated a folk-singing tradition that survives to this day, most of the attempts at planting the Leftist message into more sophisticated musical and dramatic forms than those offered by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were dismal failures, artistically and commercially) and which astonished New York audiences with a modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that related the play’s story to dictators like Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin then bestriding Europe like colossi. (Earlier, for the Federal Theatre Project, instructed to do something with an all-Black cast so African-American actors would have employment, Welles had done his famous “Black Macbeth” that, in order to have the play continue to make sense with an all-Black cast, moved the setting from Scotland to Haiti and changed the three witches into voodoo houngans and mambas.) 

Welles had worked extensively in radio, making money to support his theatre company (this business of taking commercial jobs he didn’t want to finance the personal projects he did want would continue throughout his career!), and had been the second — and best — actor to play The Shadow (with frequent collaborator Agnes Moorehead as his Margot Lane). In 1938 he landed a sustaining program (i.e., one paid for by the broadcast network itself rather than funded by a sponsor) on CBS called The Mercury Theatre on the Air, and debuted the show with an amazing adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that to my mind is the best dramatization of Stoker’s oft-filmed property ever, surpassing all the film versions. The wicked wit of Welles’ (and others’) writing, the forceful performance of Welles as Dracula (the real Dracula was a warlord, not a nobleman, and that’s how Welles played him), and the equally sinister and beautiful work of Moorehead as Mina Harker (in the show’s best scene they do a bizarre parody of the Christian communion ritual as Dracula tells Mina that she will become “flesh of my flesh … blood of my blood!”) establish this as a far more sophisticated work than any of the Dracula movies (including Tod Browning’s horribly overrated one with Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye, who are great but sabotaged by a somnolent script, surprisingly sloppy direction, a weak supporting cast — especially the women — and virtually no sense of Gothic atmosphere or dramatic pace) and make one wish that the young Welles had got to do a Dracula film of his own. 

Welles went on his merry way working out a play to adapt every week — sometimes he drew on novels, and he generally looked for stories told in the first person so he could narrate them in character (the working title of his show had actually been First Person Singular), and for a special Hallowe’en show he lighted on The War of the Worlds. Inspired by the way the networks had cut in on regular broadcast programming to air H. V. Kaltenborn’s special commentaries on the 1938 negotiations between Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain in Munich, Welles decided to tell his near-namesake’s story as if reporters from a radio network’s news division were cutting into ordinary band broadcasts — and though he largely abandoned this strategy in the second half of the broadcast, which focused on Professor Richard Pierson (Welles’ character) trying to figure out how humanity could mount a last-ditch stand against the Martians and their all-powerful heat-ray machines and then reporting (as per Wells’ original) that the Martians had been vanquished by Earth’s germs, which gave them fatal diseases to which the Martians’ immune systems owed no resistance, by then the damage had been done and quite a few people, especially those who switched from another station during the middle of the broadcast and thereby missed the standard Mercury Theatre on the Air introduction and theme music identifying this as a radio dramatization, had been fooled into thinking there was a real invasion and tricked into doing panicky things like packing their bags, heading into their cars and driving off heaven knows where, often creating traffic jams as hundreds of people in communities (especially the ones the script by Welles and Howard Koch had named as actual targets of Martian attacks) all tried to flee at once. 

One of the most interesting interviews was with a man, Seymour Charles Haden of Sunland, California, who said that he hadn’t been fooled, but, “Well, my wife, she came in, my wife, just wringing her hands and wailing away, her eyeballs about to pop out onto her lap going, ‘What is it? What is it? What can it be? Is it the Germans?’ Well, she hadn’t heard that word ‘Martians’, but I had.” Indeed, one of the most interesting explanations for the panic offered by this show (written by A. Brad Schwartz and Michelle Ferrari, directed by Cathleen O’Connell and narrated by Oliver Platt) was that listeners misheard the word “Martians” as “Germans,” and with all the news coverage of Hitler they were scared enough to believe the Nazis and the German war machine might indeed have launched a surprise attack on the U.S. with weapons technology far in advance of anything we had. The show went into some more familiar ground — noting that the competing show on NBC, the Chase and Sanborn Hour with radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, was far more popular than the Mercury Theatre on the Air but a lot of people doing the 1930’s equivalent of channel-surfing might have turned away from the operetta number by Nelson Eddy that interrupted the comedy and come upon a particularly climactic moment in the show that added to the impression of verisimitude. Also bear in mind that a lot of people who tuned in late wouldn’t have heard the Mercury Theatre on the Air intro and wouldn’t necessarily have even known where they were on the radio dial — which answered the questions a lot of people (including Orson Welles himself in his apologetic press conference given a day after the broadcast — not the same night, as Frank Brady’s biography had it) have asked ever since: namely, why didn’t people catch on to the fact that this was in Orson Welles’ regular time slot and therefore what they were hearing was likely to be a fictional story dramatized for radio? 

As I noted when I wrote about the broadcast itself, the two most famous works Welles ever created — this broadcast and the 1941 film Citizen Kane — both deal with the media and how the way stories are covered (and, more so in Kane than in The War of the Worlds, the personal agendas of media owners) by news outlets shape what we think we know about the world we live in and the political, social, economic and cultural forces shaping it. In a way Orson Welles was an antecedent of Marshall McLuhan and much of media criticism since — and it’s not surprising from the overall tenor of Kane that his politics were distinctly Left. The War of the Worlds didn’t start out with the intent of doing a media critique — at the end of the actual broadcast Welles said it was “just the Mercury Theatre’s equivalent of putting on a sheet, hiding behind a bush, jumping out and saying, ‘Boo!’ … So goodbye everybody, and remember, please, for the next day or so the terrible lesson you learned tonight: that grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian — It’s Hallowe’en” — but in later years Welles embraced it as such. Heard today, the 1938 War of the Worlds remains a fascinating program, superior to the 1953 and 2005 film versions of Wells’ novel (one fact unmentioned on this documentary was that H. G. Wells himself publicly attacked the program as a distortion and exploitation of his novel!) though, as Welles told Peter Bogdanovich, he regarded it as not one of his better radio efforts (and indeed, for both depth and sheer fright, the much less legendary Welles Dracula holds up a good deal better), but as this program noted the threats of legislation and lawsuits pretty much fizzled and Welles actually benefited commercially from the affair. His show got a sponsor, Campbell’s Soup (its name was therefore changed to Campbell’s Playhouse), and he became so notorious RKO Radio Pictures signed him to a three-film contract as writer, producer, director and star, in which capacities he made one of the greatest films of all time and sealed his professional doom by going after one of the richest and most powerful members of the .01 percent of the time, William Randolph Hearst … but that’s another oft-told tale. — 11/5/13


Last night’s Mars Movie Night programs (http://marsmovieguide.com/) consisted of a couple of shows the proprietor streamed off various online channels instead of showing them from DVD’s or Blu-Rays: an American Experience episode from PBS on the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and the 1953 Hollywood filmization of the same novel. I’d seen the American Experience program before and even written about it for the moviemagg blog at https://moviemagg.blogspot.com/2013/11/american-experience-war-of-worlds-pbs.html, and this time around I found myself resenting the elaborate reconstructions of interviews conducted for the famous 1940 sociological study of the panic surrounding this broadcast, published by and credited to the sociologist Dr. Hadley Cantril (who a decade and a half later was one of the expert witnesses called by the NAACP during Brown v. Board of Education to establish the detrimental effects of racial segregation and discrimination on its victims). The basic story is well known: in October 30, 1938 Orson Welles had been broadcasting his Mercury Theatre on the Air radio program on CBS as a so-called “sustaining” show — i.e., it was paid for by the network and carried no commercials, though the hope was that eventually they’d be able to sell it to a sponsor and thereby get paid for it — for three months. He had two story properties in mind for his October 30, 1938 program: Richard Doddridge Blackmore’s Lorna Doone and Herbert George Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Orson Welles decided that The War of the Worlds would make an appropriate choice for a program the night before Hallowe’en, and he worked with writer Howard Koch on the script (Koch later claimed sole credit but Welles said he had been a contributor but had not written the whole thing, much the same argument he ended up having with Pauline Kael over the extent of Herman Mankiewicz’s contributions to the script of Welles’ film Citizen Kane). According to this program, Welles and Koch originally did a “straight” radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds and recorded it with the cast as an audition piece. Welles heard the recording, declared it “dull as dishwater,” and 2 ½ days before the broadcast got the idea of presenting H. G. Wells’ fictional Martian invasion as a series of cut-in interruptions, with announcers supposedly interrupting banal dance-band broadcasts by bandleaders “Bobby Millette” and “Ramon Raquello” with breaking news reports of the “Martian invasion” as told in Wells’ novel. 

Wells got the idea from a script Archibald MacLeish had written for a CBS broadcast a year before called Air Raid — in which a fictional bombing attack on a major city was told as if it were being covered as a news event on radio in real time — and also from CBS foreign-policy correspondent H. V. Kaltenborn’s cut-ins on the 1938 crisis of Hitler’s threatened invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Munich negotiations by which British prime minister Neville Chamberlain essentially handed Czechoslovakia over to the Nazis and claimed that his agreement with Hitler was “a piece of paper which guarantees peace in our time.” (Kaltenborn was enough of a star in the U.S. at the time that the next year Frank Capra cast him as himself in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, playing one of the radio journalists covering James Stewart’s fictional filibuster. Orson Welles had earlier used him on the Mercury Theatre on the Air as the narrator of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which Welles had done live on stage in modern dress in 1937 and transferred to his radio show the next year.) I’ve long noted that the two most famous works Orson Welles was ever involved with, this War of the Worlds broadcast and Citizen Kane, both are about the mass media and their power over the human imagination — and also how what we believe we know about our world is determined by the agendas of the professional communicators telling us these stories and the ways in which we are told. In The War of the Worlds, Welles got more than he bargained for in terms of media critique: many people — especially those who tuned in while the broadcast was in progress and thereby missed the opening announcements that this was a radio drama and not an actual newscast — actually thought the Martians were invading the Earth and had set up their beachhead at the town of Grovers’ Mill, New Jersey (picked, according to this program, by Howard Koch when he ran his finger over a map of New Jersey with his eyes closed and, when he opened them, his finger was pointing at Grovers’ Mill — which today is a tourist attraction for people who want to see Ground Zero of an “invasion” that never actually happened). This documentary also makes the point that even people who did not believe the Earth was being invaded by Martians thought the attack was real and was being launched by Nazi Germany with high-tech weapons no one had heretofore known they had. 

Frank Brady’s biography of Orson Welles noted that the first intimation CBS got that some people out there were reacting to the broadcast as if it were a real news report came from a phone call that ran to the control room of the studio where it was being broadcast — and an exasperated technician, worried that the call would distract him from his duties to the live show, barked out, “Of course it isn’t real,” and hung up. Soon the CBS switchboards were lighting up all over the place and one of the executives decided they needed to interrupt the broadcast to announce that it was a dramatization. Welles, according to this documentary, held off on reading that announcement on the air for 10 minutes, until the show reached its philosophical turning point in which Welles, in character as Professor Pierson, described the scenes he’d witnessed of human civilization collapsed and the earth itself being stripped bare by its new conquerors. There’s some evidence that the extent of the panic was exaggerated by the newspapers that covered it — many publishers still saw radio as a rival medium and feared it would render them extinct, and so a lot of them were only too glad to play up an incident that made the whole concept of radio look bad — and it led for calls for tighter government regulation of radio, which fortunately went nowhere even though what it did do was encourage CBS and the other networks to put up a “voluntary” ban on the further use of the simulated-newscast gimmick on fictional radio shows. I remember seeing in the early 1970’s a documentary called 1985, which purported to be a news program from that year showing how the environment had been destroyed because we had not taken appropriate action over a decade earlier to protect it — and they repeated the disclaimers that this was not an actual news broadcast but a simulation of one from more than a decade hence so often that the program got leached out of all possible vitality. — 2/16/19

The War of the Worlds (Paramount, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 1953 War of the Worlds movie is a bit of an anticlimax after the documentary on Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast — I’ve seen quite a few War of the Worlds adaptations and also read H. G. Wells’ novel, which is a lot richer and more poetic than most of the movies even though, like a lot of Wells’ novels, it also tends to sink under the weight of its didacticism. This one began as a pet project of Cecil B. DeMille, who had Paramount buy him the movie rights in 1925. Alas, DeMille left Paramount at that time to form his own studio, Producers’ Distributing Corporation (PDC), and The War of the Worlds stayed on the studio shelf until the early 1950’s. In the 1940’s Paramount had hired a young Hungarian émigré named George Pal to do a series of “Puppetoons,” one-reel color shorts with puppets, and in 1950 Pal developed an idea for a feature film about a trip to the moon based on the writings of Robert A. Heinlein. He offered the project to Paramount first — and they turned it down. He got it made at the cheap Eagle-Lion studio, called it Destination Moon, and it was a smash hit. Indeed, when he opened it in New York it played at a theatre just two blocks from the major headquarters of Paramount, so every day the company “suits” got to see people lined up for blocks to see the movie they’d turned down. 

So they wooed Pal back to Paramount to make his next science-fiction movie, When Worlds Collide — ironically, also a project they had originally bought for DeMille (in 1932, after his own studio flopped and Paramount hired him back to make The Sign of the Cross). That too was a hit, and for his next project Pal picked The War of the Worlds off the Paramount shelves and developed it with Byron Haskin, formerly co-head (with Don Siegel) of Warner Bros.’ montage department, as director and Barré Lyndon as writer. For the principal role of Dr. Clayton Forrester, the scientist who stumbles onto the Martian invasion and ends up coordinating the civilian end of humanity’s response to it, Pal and Paramount cast Gene Barry, who’d previously made only one other film — The Atomic City (1952), in which he was a nuclear scientist who successfully fought the efforts of spies from the usual sinister unnamed (but obviously the Soviet Union) power to steal America’s nuclear secrets. Barry played the role of the scientist saving humanity from the Martians in the same stoic, deadpan way he’d played the similar role in The Atomic City. They also gave him a girlfriend (of sorts), Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson, delivering the usual non-performance in a nothing damsel-in-distress role), with whom he ends up fleeing in the aftermath of the Martian invasion.  

The War of the Worlds is probably the best version of this oft-adapted story, though that’s damning it with faint praise; none of the movies seem to have captured the sense of desperation Wells wrote into the novel, and I suspect that had Orson Welles filmed the story (as RKO production chief George Schaefer fully expected him to when he signed him to his movie contract in 1940 — but Welles’ attitude about The War of the Worlds at that point was been-there, done-that and he wanted to do something else, first Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and then Citizen Kane) we’d have had an unbeatably good movie that preserved the richness of Wells’ novel — just as I rue the non-existence of a Welles film of Dracula since his Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast of that (the first show of the series) is a masterpiece, deeper and richer than any of the Dracula movies. As it is, the 1953 The War of the Worlds is a good action-adventure film, containing at least some of the despair of much of Wells’ book but more interested in scaring the audience (at which it’s quite good) than making them think. Last night’s screening was from a new “4K” source (though we didn’t actually get to see it in 4K because the video projection equipment isn’t equipped for it) in which the people who did the digital transfer erased the notorious wires that originally suspended the models of Martian flying craft when the scenes showing them were shot. (One imdb.com “Trivia” item on the film points out that it was originally filmed in three-strip Technicolor, which created a highly saturated color image but at the loss of fine detail, so the wires washed out originally in the chemistry of the process and particularly the dye-transfer fusion of the three separate color negatives into one color positive image. The wires showed up when the film was reprinted and reissued in single-strip Eastmancolor.) 

I didn’t realize the difference (but then this is the biggest screen I’ve ever seen this film on — all my previous encounters with it were on TV, and old-fashioned cathode-ray TV at that) but I did appreciate that this came from the era in which color films were colorful and cinematographers weren’t afraid to use the entire visible spectrum instead of shoehorning everything into the dank greens and dirty browns that dominate the color schemes of most movies made today. I also liked the fact that the film showed very little of the actual Martians — just a couple of quick glimpses of one as it menaces Gene Barry and Ann Robinson outside the wreckage of a farmhouse where they attempted to hide — and, though the Martians in this film are malevolent, their design influenced Steven Spielberg and his effects person, Carol Rambaldi, in the design of E.T. in that 1982 classic. (I’ll admit it: it’s fashionable to write off E.T. as oversentimental sludge, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a great film, a beautiful modern-dress fairy tale.) The Martian in The War of the Worlds was played by Charles Gemora, who usually played apes — he was as relentlessly cast trans-specifically as Andy Serkis is today (after the screening I joked with the proprietor that I had been startled to see Serkis in Black Panther playing a role that didn’t have a non-human appearance grafted onto him with CGI!) — and he apparently also had to design the Martian costume, of which he made two since the first looked too big on screen. 

My comment after the screening was that I was glad H. G. Wells had been dead for seven years when it was made because he would have hated the ending: the famously agnostic Wells would have loathed the bit of dialogue Ann Robinson got when someone says they estimate the Martians will have destroyed the world in six days, and she replies, “Exactly as long as it took God to create it.” He’d have hated even more the way Barré Lyndon turned his ending — the Martian invasion is stopped when the Martians die en masse from exposure to earth bacteria and viruses to which they have no immunity — into a sort of divine intervention: as the film’s narrator (Sir Cedric Hardwicke, a fine actor but one who doesn’t do this sort of thing with quite the panache Orson Welles did), explains at the end, “After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth.” Like a lot of otherwise good science-fiction films of the early 1950’s, including The Day the Earth Stood Still and This Island Earth, this version of The War of the Worlds is marred by this Cold War-enforced religiosity — it was the era in which our Cold War enemy was defined not just as “Communism” but as “Godless Communism,” “In God We Trust” was slapped onto all our money and the Pledge of Allegiance was defaced with the words “under God,” which has engendered in me a lifetime of bitterness that unless I believe in God, and specifically the Abrahamic “sky god” of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I cannot be a full-fledged citizen of the United States.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Dictator’s Playbook: Idi Amin (Crown Productions, Twin Cities Public Television, PBS, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I watched the latest episode in the PBS series The Dictator’s Playbook, a set of six “Dictator of the Week” shows (as Charles referred to them) presented not only as historical tales but cautionary reminders of how dictators seize and consolidate power and at least veiled warnings to the people south of the border (the production company that made these shows is based in Canada) about how democracies fall and dictators take them over. This time the Dictator of the Week is Idi Amin, and surprisingly the show doesn’t tell the most famous story about him — the hijacking of an Israeli airliner which was forced to land in Uganda and the daring Israeli commando raid that freed the hostages — nor does it tell stories I remember from the Idi Amin years (1971 to 1979) like the one in which he installed a 20-something woman with no experience in foreign policy as his foreign minister, and then, when she was out of the country, fired her because “she made love with a man in a toilet.” (It was lucky she was out of the country — as was Milton Obote, the more or less democratically elected president who elevated Idi Amin to power as head of Uganda’s military, only to be toppled in a coup while he was out of the country attending a meeting of British Commonwealth heads of state in Singapore.) I remember writing a lyric in the 1970’s for a rock song about Idi Amin which I wanted to do in Beach Boys style; with a backing vocal that went, “Da da, da da, Idi Amin, oooh oooh oooh, da da, da da, Idi Amin,” my idea was to have a nasal-voiced Mike Love-esque singer sing:

I’m cruisin’ into Entebbe Airport
To see a guy called Idi Amin.
Some people told me that his last name is “Dada”
And that’s where I’m gonna begin.
’Cause like those artists in Paris in the ’20’s
Who took the world on with a smile and grin,
He transcends the limits of human decency.
Oh, does Idi Amin.

The Dictator’s Playbook show traced Idi Amin back to his roots in the British colonial army, which like the Gurkhas in India was a group of indigenous locals who were hired to police the colonial regime of Britain. The rule was that Blacks in the colonial army could rise to the rank of sergeant major, but anything higher than that was reserved for whites. Idi Amin distinguished himself with the brutality with which he fought when the Ugandan colonial army was sent to neighboring Kenya, also a British colony then, to suppress the Mau Mau uprising in 1952. But he was stuck in the lower ranks until the British decided in 1960 to cut all its African colonies adrift and make them “independent” (in quotes because the nominally “independent” Third World countries were still highly dependent on the world economy, and that was still run by whites from the U.S. and the former colonial powers of Europe). Amin hooked up with Milton Obote, who won Uganda’s first presidential election in 1962, and the two of them — Obote as head of state and Amin as head of the army — ran a surprisingly successful kleptocracy and amassed personal fortunes for themselves from the land they expropriated from white settlers. They also brutally suppressed an internal resistance movement from the Buganda tribe, who had their own monarch; when the Bugandans rebelled and tried to install their king as ruler of all Uganda, Amin did his usual mass-murder thing, scared the rebels into submission and forced the king to flee the country. 

All went well between Obote and Amin until Obote realized that Amin was building a personal base of support and power among the military’s officer corps that could become a threat to Obote’s continued rule — so Obote, something like Lenin on his deathbed trying to fire Stalin from his government but not having the strength to do so, left for the 1970 congress of the British Commonwealth of Nations in Singapore and left behind a letter instructing the loyalists in the government to fire Amin — only the plan backfired. The letter was intercepted by one of Amin’s people in Obote’s government, and Amin took advantage of Obote’s absence to stage a coup and seize power, originally announcing that he was going to rule only as a caretaker until new elections could be held that would restore Uganda’s democracy, then thinking better of it and making himself dictator for life. (As George Orwell put it, “One does not establish the dictatorship to safeguard the revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”) The producers of The Dictator’s Playbook seem consciously to have selected their rogue’s gallery (Mussolini, Franco, Kim Il Sung, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega and Amin) not only as historically important and interesting figures in their own right but also as cautionary tales for their viewers south of the U.S.-Canada border (the one we’re not going to build a Wall across), warnings to watch out for during the Trump regime to indicate how he’s following the dictator’s playbook.

In Amin’s case the most obvious similarities to Trump are his extravagant theatricality — not only did he stage the huge parades and rallies that are part of every dictator’s repertoire, the evidence that he has the “will of the people” behind him in ways far more committed and profound than the temporary grant of power from an, ugh, election — he went out of his way to cultivate a larger-than-life image. It helped that, like Trump, Idi Amin was a large man — I remember being startled when I saw the documentary film When We Were Kings and seeing the footage of the Congo’s long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko because he was a little man wearing a uniform that seemed a size or two too big for him, and then I realized that Idi Amin (along with Paul Robeson’s performance in the 1933 film of Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones) had conditioned my expectation of what a Black dictator would look like. Idi Amin even claimed personal superpowers; when American TV producers announced a film of the Entebbe raid and cast Black comedian Godfrey Cambridge as Amin — and Cambridge suffered a heart attack and died just before he was to shoot his big scene — Amin literally claimed that he had put a curse on Cambridge and willed his death. (I remember being personally affected by Cambridge’s death because I’d always thought he would have been the perfect actor to play Charlie Parker in a biopic — and, by coincidence, the actual biopics of Charlie Parker and Idi Amin did star the same actor, Forest Whitaker, who won the Academy Award for playing Amin he should have won for playing Parker 18 years earlier.) Amin also anticipated Trump in his practice of sending insulting telegrams to other world leaders — if Twitter had existed in his time he no doubt would have used it as much as Trump does — including one famous one in which he telegrammed Queen Elizabeth II to tell her “not to get her knickers up” over something he’d done, which shocked the world that this parvenu had dared put in writing a mention of the British monarch’s underpants. 

And most importantly, Amin, like Trump and most other dictators and dictator wanna-bes, looked for a social scapegoat he could seize on and blame all his country’s problems on — and he found it in the South Asians who had settled in Uganda during British colonial rule and ran most of the country’s business sector. He ordered a mass expulsion of them in what comes off in this documentary as something of a cross between the American internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and what Trump promised to do with the entire undocumented Mexican-American population during his campaign — the Ugandan South Asians were given 90 days to get their affairs in order and sell their businesses for whatever they could get for them and then deported en masse — with the result that Uganda’s economy almost totally collapsed. Finally, in 1978, Amin overreached and ordered his army to attack the neighboring African country of Tanzania — and Tanzania’s president, Julius Nyerere (whom Amin had mentioned in a famous TV interview denying any bad blood between them and saying, “If he was a woman, I’d marry him” — not all that different from Trump’s protestations of “love” for such fellow authoritarian thugs as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un), ordered a counterattack that quickly overwhelmed the Ugandan army (Amin’s personal forces were good at torturing his countrymen and maintaining him in power against any potential domestic opposition, but they melted pretty quickly in the face of a larger and more disciplined force from another country), occupied Uganda, forced Amin into exile (he fled to Saudi Arabia, which accepted him because he was part of Uganda’s Muslim minority; they put him up in a lavish villa, allowed him to marry at least two more wives, and enabled him to escape accountability for the crimes of his rule and die a peaceful, natural death in 2003) and re-installed Milton Obote as president. 

The documentary concludes rather sadly, arguing that Uganda has never recovered from the eight years of Amin’s misrule and every Ugandan leader since (including Yoweni Museveni, who briefly became a darling among Westerners in general and AIDS activists in particular because his aggressive embrace of the AIDS orthodoxy was a convenient counterweight to South African president Thabo Mbeki’s public questioning of it) has used dictatorial tactics to stay in power. The concept of “the dictator’s playbook” — the idea that, no matter what their proclaimed ideology or the way they attained power (by winning a democratic election and then subverting democracy, taking over in a military coup or, like Stalin, succeeding a previous dictator and ramping up the level of repression and brutality), dictators follow a pretty similar pattern of repression, suppressing dissent (including putting opposition media out of business), maintaining a secret police force and using open violence and brutality not only to target potential alternative leaders but scare the entire population into going along, all to keep the power (and the ill-gotten riches that stem from it) in their own hands as long as possible. The February 15, 2019 Los Angeles Times even contains an article, “Is Trump Channeling His Inner Marcos?,” by former Times reporter William C. Rempel, that compares Trump to Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos (who’d be a worthy subject, along with Slobodan Milosevic, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and several others I can think of, for a season two of The Dictator’s Playbook) and even uses the phrase “the dictator’s playbook.”

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The East Is Red (August 1 Film Studio, Peking Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio, 1965)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on a fascinating film for our last night’s “feature,” The East Is Red, a filmed record of a giant propaganda spectacle put on in 1965 by the Communist government of China, telling the story of the turmoil China went through from the fall of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911 to the final takeover of the Communists in 1949. Charles had downloaded this from archive.org as part of his sudden interest in all things Chinese (he’s using an online program to teach himself the language, and while he was more interested in speaking than writing it he has learned at least two characters used in this film, “Red” and “Mountain”), and while it’s hardly at the level of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (a movie with a similar political and propagandist agenda even though it comes from the other ideological “side,” the Right instead of the Left), it’s an overwhelming spectacle even though, aside from North Korea, it’s hard to imagine any other country producing this sort of thing now. The East Is Red begins with an overture filmed in a theatre — the huge complement of singers and musicians needed to perform it left very few seats available for any sort of audience — and I was amused to see an entire section of er-hus (the four-string Chinese violin, which sounds like a scratchier version of its Western counterpart and which the player holds, not under their neck, but in their lap, bowing it like a cello) as well as a section of Western violins. In fact, the entire orchestra and chorus needed to perform this is so gargantuan even Richard Wagner, had he had a chance to see it, would probably have said, “Aren’t you overdoing this a little bit?” 

The East Is Red tells the story of the Chinese Revolution in six episodes and drops a lot of Chinese historical allusions to events like the “Autumn Harvest Uprising” that were probably well known to the Chinese audience (most of whom would have been going to school and hearing this same propagandistic version of their nation’s history) but were lost on me. What holds up best about this show is the sheer power and skill of the dancing and the mass choreography; there are sequences that are reminiscent of American musicals (including an early scene of Chinese laborers loading silk crates onto a ship that makes it look as if director Ping Yang had seen the similar sequence of “Ol’ Man River” in the 1936 James Whale film of Show Boat, and a later one of a chorus line holding and manipulating giant sunflowers that reminded me of the big banana sequence in Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here and one scene of native girls posed in a ring that had me waiting for King Kong to appear) but for the most part this is a pretty home-grown spectacle. One admires the precision with which these masses of singers and dancers perform (and wonders how much they had to rehearse to get this good) even though the overall sameness of the spectacle gets wearying after a while. One wishes that director Yang and the show’s other creators had been able to do a better job of dramatizing the villains so there’d be some respite from all the scenes of heroic peasants, workers, prisoners, near-slaves and whatnot rising up and rebelling. There are a couple of shots towards the end that pull back from the proscenium and remind us that this is, at least supposedly, a stage production being filmed in real time (though I suspect most of it was shot in a movie studio since, like the Busby Berkeley numbers that were their inspiration, many of these scenes just cover too much ground to be believable as stage productions, especially in the big but not that huge theatre we see them performing in), but for the most part this is an enormous historical pageant that’s absolutely amazing but also gets a bit boring after a while. The production of The East Is Red is credited to the August 1 Film Studio and the Peking Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio (the English subtitles used the older spelling of Mao’s name, “Mao Tsetung,” instead of the current “Mao Zedong”) and no individuals are listed on the titles — Ping Yang’s directorial credit comes from the film’s imdb.com page, not the actual credits. It’s also subtitled in Chinese, as if Yang and his colleagues were afraid that even the Chinese audience wouldn’t be able to tell what was being sung or spoken without help. 

Though the whole point of the spectacle was to glorify the collective spirit (though, in the manner of a lot of Communist regimes — not only Mao’s but also the Soviet Union under Stalin and North Korea under its succession of Kims — there’s also a conscious effort to build a cult of personality around the Great Leader; unlike Hitler in Triumph of the Will, Mao doesn’t actually appear on screen, though there’s an actor playing the young Mao who looks sorta-kinda like him), there are at least two voices, a tenor who sings a solo at the end of the sequence representing the Long March and a soprano who kicks off the sequence about the Japanese occupation of most of China during World War II, who clearly had the chops to have sung Western-style opera if they’d been allowed to. Charles wondered how much this movie reflects the pre-revolutionary traditions of Chinese opera — my understanding is that when they took over the Communists had closed all the Chinese opera houses as part of their general campaign against all previous artistic traditions in China, though it’s possible they called back the artists they’d rendered unemployed and brought them back for hagiographic spectacles like this, drawing on the historical traditions of Chinese opera for a very different artistic as well as political purpose. One of the imdb.com reviewers also pointed out that this film was made just before Mao declared the Cultural Revolution in 1966, and Charles wondered how many people in this film were ultimately denounced as counter-revolutionary and purged or sent to the countryside to do farm labor. The East Is Red is a fascinating slice of cultural as well as political propaganda, and I’m not sure there’s anything else out there even remotely like it aside from Triumph of the Will and whatever propaganda spectacles the North Koreans (led by Trump’s good buddy, the murderous thug Kim Jong Un) are churning out these days.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

61st Annual Grammy Awards (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, CBS-TV, aired February 10, 2019)


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the 61st annual Grammy Awards two nights ago, a musical spectacular I make a point of watching every year, and there had been the usual controversies swirling around it even before it happened. Some major artists who were invited to perform, including Ariana Grande and Kendrick Lamar (though I regard Kendrick Lamar’s “music” as total shit, even more obnoxious than the common run of most rap, and especially annoying in that his records are so overproduced you can’t even make out what he’s saying — and one would think in rap, which has embraced only words and rhythm and thrown out melody, harmony and all the other traditional aspects of music, the sine qua non would be that at least you should be able to hear the words!), declined. That meant I didn’t have to endure either one of Lamar’s repulsive production numbers in the show itself or the reviewers afterwards inexplicably hailing it as the greatest thing on the program, whereas my reaction to Lamar’s uncool extravaganzae in 2016 and 2018 was just to hold my nose and wait for them to be over. (The 2016 one was especially sickening because it was slotted right after a remote telecast from New York of the Hamilton cast on Broadway doing that show’s opening number, and just as Lin-Manuel Miranda and his crew had convinced me that rap can be beautiful and even moving, and express a higher artistic purpose, on came Kendrick Lamar to remind me of the garbage rap usually is.)
Ariana Grande — who I must confess I wasn’t all that interested in until her concert in Manchester was attacked by a terrorist bomber who killed 23 people, and she responded with real class by scheduling another concert in Manchester, a benefit for the families of the victims, and not only was it telecast internationally but she ended it with a beautiful rendition of “Over the Rainbow” — clashed with Grammy telecast producer Ken Ehrlich because he wanted her to perform a song off her last album, the one that was in Grammy contention, and she wanted to sing something from her new album, which is being released this week. The show that did air began with a hugely overproduced version of a song called “My Heart Is In Havana” (at least I think that’s what the title was: most of the songs weren’t announced) by a cast of “B”-listers including J Bolian (no period after the initial), Camila Cabello, Arturo Sandoval (the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie discovered in Havana in the early 1980’s and sponsored his immigration), Ricky Martin (the most famous person in this cast, at least to me, though his 15 minutes expired years ago) and a rapper called Young Thug (whenever anyone asks me why I don’t like rap, one of the reasons I give is the extensive glamorization of crime that runs through most of the genre and leads to performers taking street names like “Young Thug,” as if being a young thug is something to be proud of). It was a loud, obnoxious, messy and way overproduced number and a bad omen for what was to come — though I did like the extra in the number who was holding a newspaper that said on its big headline, “Build Bridges, Not Walls.”
There wasn’t much of the overt politicizing that we’ve seen on other awards shows, but there was enough to indicate that the music community — or at least that part of it that gets nominated for Grammy Awards — is part of the half of America that rejects Trump and everything he stands for. The point was also made by the surprising appearance of Michelle Obama on stage next to host Alicia Keys — and I liked the fact that an actual musician was hosting the Grammys instead of a comedian peppering the ceremony with bad jokes — though the former First Lady wasn’t introduced. She was just standing on stage in a black leather pantsuit (not the way we’re used to seeing her dressed) and looking like yet another Black soul diva up for an award, and Keys’ costumes were even sillier. Just about everything she wore showed as much of her breasts as they could get away with on network television and looked like a “wardrobe malfunction” waiting to happen.
Next up on the entertainment program — Ken Ehrlich has gone so far in reinventing the Grammys as a musical variety show (with all too little variety — just about all the music last night was in the dance-pop genre that has become the default popular music of today; there were a couple of rappers but none of the brief acknowledgments of classical and jazz that used to turn up on previous Grammy shows) that only nine awards were actually presented during the program — was a song by Shawn Mendes, the Canadian singer of Portuguese ancestry who’s apparently (at least according to Charles, who’s read quite a few tweets about him from young Queer men) become something of a sex symbol in the Gay male community even though he’s either not Gay or not “out.” (Troye Sivan, who is both Gay and “out” and is a similar “type,” both physically and musically, to Mendes would seem a better candidate for this sort of adulation among young Gay men.) I thought the song was called “Help Me” but according to its Wikipedia page its real title is “In My Blood,” and it was genuinely moving for the first chorus — in which Mendes simply sang and played piano — but became just another slice of power-pop once he brought in a band for the rest of the song, albeit with an unusually sensitive lyric that chronicles Mendes’ own struggles with anxiety.
Next up was “Rainbow” by Kacey Musgraves, a country artist who would go on to win Album of the Year; I liked the song but it was pretty much your standard smiling-through-adversity number and didn’t sound really special to me. Things got better, though, with the next number by Janelle Monáe from an album called Dirty Computer; the song she was performing appeared to be called “That’s Just the Way You Make Me Feel” and from the rather jerky motions she and her chorus line did to it — as well as her opening the song playing electric guitar as well as singing, though she quickly ditched the instrument — it seemed like she was trying to reinvent herself as a female version of Prince. Then someone called Past Malone came out with the Red Hot Chili Peppers — whose lead singer, Anthony Kiedis, is getting to be just a bit too old for the shirtless bit — doing something it was hard to tell whether it was one song, two or three; the titles I scribbled down as my guesses as to what the songs were called were “Don’t Count on Me to Explain” and “Dark Necessities.”
Things started looking up with the next segment, an awesome tribute to Dolly Parton with an all-star country cast featuring Maren Morris (a great singer who’d be the perfect choice to play Janis Joplin in a biopic if anyone would cast her in it while she’s still young enough for the role), Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry (whose voice was surprisingly soulful), Kacey Musgraves and the band Little Big Town. The medley focused on Parton’s late-1970’s crossover hits — “Here You Come Again,” “Jolene” and “Nine to Five” — though it also included a song that appeared to be called “Look at Mother Nature On the Run in the 21st Century” and a new song called “My Red Shoes” that’s sort of a follow-up to Parton’s mega-hit “Coat of Many Colors” — once again she’s flashing back to an impoverished childhood when she was teased for something she wore that wasn’t shiny or new. This number reached exalted status when the singers were joined onstage by … Dolly Parton herself. Most of these medleys feature the honoree sitting in the audience looking nervous while others cavort on stage to her songs. Not this one: Dolly came out onstage, and from the moment she walked out there, opened her mouth and revealed a voice that’s held up spectacularly well, she took over and never let go. It was an exalting moment — I dashed to my computer during the next commercial break and posted to Facebook how much I’d liked it.
Fortunately, the next number was not the anticlimax it could have been: it was the modern-day R&B singer H.E.R. Her real name is Gabriella “Gabi” Wilson, she’s part Black and part Filipina, she’s from the San Francisco Bay Area (as am I!) and she released her first single at age 14 in 2014 under her real name before adopting H.E.R. as a stage name. It’s supposedly an acronym for “Having Everything Revealed,” but it’s pronounced simply “Her.” By any name she’s a quite remarkable singer, a descendant of Odetta, Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman among Black women singers with deep contralto voices and powerful deliveries; her song was “Caught Between Your Love and a Hard Place” and reflects a dilemma often faced by women these days and frequently dramatized in their songs: stay with a man and accept being diminished and not allowed to be yourself in the relationship, or be single and accept loneliness as the price of independence and freedom. The song was a bit overarranged and it was hard to make out some of the lyrics, but it didn’t matter because what you could hear of the words, and H.E.R.’s impassioned delivery of them, were powerful and emotionally moving.
The next performer was rapper Cardi B — her name looks like a weight-loss plan involving both diet and exercise — making little impression on me, which given how much I actively dislike most rap (if Big Brother ever puts me into Room 101 he could do worse than feed me an incessant playlist of rap “songs”) is actually an improvement. After that came the host herself, Alicia Keys, doing a medley of songs she said she wished she could have written herself — starting with an instrumental version of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” then segueing into “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” “I Want You to Forget Me,” “Unforgettable” (fortunately she resisted the temptation to have Nat “King” Cole’s and Natalie Cole’s voices spliced in to change the song from a “ghost duet” to a “ghost trio”), “I Can Use Somebody,” “My Feelings,” “That Thing,” and closing with a song she actually did write, the surprisingly somber “New York.” (Most songs about New York are openly celebratory — Bernstein’s “New York, New York,” Kander and Ebb’s “Theme from New York, New York,” Billy Joel’s “New  York State of Mind” — so Keys’ was a surprise, though it worked beautifully when she performed it at the end of the benefit for Hurricane Sandy relief in December 2012.)
Then it was time for another country segment, Dan and Shea doing a duet on a song called “Tequila” — not the classic early-1960’s instrumental by the Champs but a vocal number which is pretty typical of the drowning-my-sorrows-in-alcohol sub-genre of country music but at least has the novelty of the substance being something more outré than the usual beer or whiskey. The next showcase was a tribute to Diana Ross on her 75th birthday, looking  utterly stunning — though she trotted her nine-year-old grandson out to introduce her and one wonders why she made the poor kid wear his hair in a big Afro that made him resemble Michael Jackson at his age (remember that Jackson’s first album was called Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5). She did two of the sappiest songs she ever did as a solo artist, “The Best Years of My Life” and “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” but her voice was as spectacular as ever (between her and Parton this show was a great advertisement for properly trained septuagenarian singers) and so were her looks.
Next up was Lady Gaga doing a solo version of her song “Shallow,” co-written with Bradley Cooper for their film together, the umpteenth remake of A Star Is Born (it’s actually the fourth version — fifth if you count the predecessor, 1932’s What Price Hollywood? with Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman; the other “official” A Star Is Borns are the 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and the 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, though imdb.com lists three others: a 1960 Korean film, a Filipino version from 1973 — shot in Tagalog — and a 2010 music documentary from Hungary), and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song (an honor the big songs from the Garland and Streisand versions — “The Man That Got Away” and “Evergreen,” respectively — both won). Gaga’s voice showed off her soul chops and her remarkable ability to sing virtually anything — if she’s announced as Brünnhilde in a new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen I won’t dismiss it out of hand — and if anything the song sounded better as a solo than it did with Cooper’s non-voice croaking out a duet part.  Then came another medley with Travis Scott, Philip Begley and Earlyne Wright doing three songs that weren’t familiar to me — my guesses at the titles were “Trouble,” “Flight Path” and “The Party Never Ends.”
Then came what became the most controversial number on the show, a 75th anniversary tribute to Motown Records which began with Motown veteran Smokey Robinson and Alicia Keys warbling a bit of his old hit “Tracks of My Tears,” but went downhill from there. It was billed as a number involving Robinson, Black neo-soul singer Ne-Yo (his name keeps fooling me — I expect him to be a rapper, but he isn’t, thank goodness) and Jennifer Lopez, Instead Ne-Yo got crowded out of the picture and it turned into a pyrotechnic feature for Lopez, one of those annoying personalities I can’t stand (I’ve seen her on TV twice performing her preposterous song “Jenny on the Block,” which attempts despite all evidence to convince us that despite her riches and fame she’s still the plain ol’ girl from the streets of the barrio where she grew up). She’s a good, if aggressively acrobatic, dancer, though her movements had little to do with the tight precision choreography of the original Motown acts (taught them by the man Motown founder Berry Gordy — still alive and in the audience for this — hired for that purpose, the great Black tap dancer “Honi” Coles) and the song choices — “Tracks of My Tears,” “Dancing in the Streets,” “Please, Mr. Postman,” “Money (That’s What I Want)” (interesting that the Grammys’ Motown tribute featured two songs in a row that the Beatles covered), “Do You Love Me?,” “Save It, Baby,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “War,” “I’m Taking Love” and “For You” — were good except they ignored a lot of Motown’s legacy and in particular omitted completely probably the two most creative artists who ever worked for the label, Stevie Wonder and the late Marvin Gaye.
Part of the controversy centered around the way the tribute to Motown was built around a non-Black artist — though at least Lopez is a person of color and Robinson made the rather lame statement in her defense that “Motown made music for everybody” — but what really put me off about the number was the sheer over-the-topness of it, with Lopez flipping herself around in space and more fireworks going off behind her than were probably set off by everybody who did fireworks on the last Fourth of July. Fortunately, the show got better and finished strong: the next performer was Brandi Carlile (she doesn’t use the silent “s” that’s usually part of that name — maybe she decided it was redundant, the way Barbra Streisand was originally named with the normal spelling of “Barbara” but decided the middle “a” was redundant), who along with H.E.R. turned in the most wrenching performance of the evening by a current artist. Her song was called “The Joke,” and it was similarly themed to H.E.R.’s number: a woman declares her determination to leave a man who constantly belittled her and does so with her head held high and tells him that the joke’s on him now. It’s a great message and fortunately Carlile wrote a great song around it — and in this era of collaborative songwriting I give her a lot of points for writing “The Joke” and the rest of the album it’s on, By the Way, I Forgive You, all by herself.
Afterwards a new Black R&B duo, Chloe x Halle (that’s how it’s officially spelled!), did a duet on the old Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway hit “Where Is the Love?” that was quite impassioned and just as good as the original — though the song takes on a quite different affect when performed by two women instead of a man and a woman — it seems odd that Donny Hathaway’s daughter Lalah wasn’t invited to perform her late dad’s big hit (or anything else on the program — maybe they should have given her the Motown tribute — even though she’s a recording artist in her own right and she was nominated in the R&B categories). After that came one of the highlights of the program, St. Vincent and Dua Lipa — those are both individuals, not groups — looking so much alike they could have done the mirror scene from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup — doing a medley of two songs apparently called “Bright Seduction” and “One Kiss Is All It Takes.” Dua Lipa won for Best New Artist, and while I’d rather have seen that award go to H.E.R. (but then H.E.R. has been recording since 2014 and so calling her a “new artist” is a bit of Grammy Newspeak) or Chloe x Halle, she’s clearly a formidable talent and I look forward to hearing more from her.
The closing number was an inevitable tribute to the late Aretha Franklin and was done the way the Motown tribute should have been: three Black singers with Aretha-esque voices, Yolanda Adams, Andra Day and Fantasia, and just one song, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” a superb performance that showed off both Aretha’s gospel roots (the song was written for her by Carole King and her then-husband Gerry Goffin, and in an interview just after Aretha’s death King recalled that as soon as Goffin came home with the news that they had been hired to write a song for Aretha Franklin the first thing King did was go to her piano and start hammering out gospel chords) and the way her style has been extended into the future. The show ended with the announcements of Record (i.e., one song — what they used to call a “single”) and Album of the Year: the Record of the Year was “This Is America,” a politically themed rap number by Black TV comedian Donald Glover (no relation to Danny, as far as I know) performing under the name “Childish Gambino” (and once again, a rap artist shows the basically anti-social and pro-crime nature of the form by taking a stage name from one of the five New York-based crime families that historically ruled the U.S. Mafia), and the Album of the Year was Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.
That was a bit disappointing — if the Grammy voters had wanted to give the big award to a country album it should have been Brandi Carlile’s! — but it’s not a bad choice, and while for years the Los Angeles Times has been bitching that the Grammys have never given Album of the Year to a rap record, that’s just fine by me! The Grammy Awards were a rather lumbering spectacle — even with Ken Ehrlich cutting the number of awards actually given out during the telecast to just nine, the show overstayed its official 2 ½-hour running time by 13 minutes and seemed to go on forever — but there were enough exalting performances both by veterans (Dolly Parton and Diana Ross) and relative newbies (particularly Brandi Carlile and H.E.R.) to make this show “special” and one of the best Grammy programs in recent years. If nothing else, the 2019 Grammy Awards show documented how much women have taken over the top of today’s music scene both creatively and commercially: not only did a woman win Album of the Year but women dominated the musical program as well as the awards themselves. Maybe the U.S. isn’t ready for a woman President, but it is ready for powerful women’s voices to sing to us and make us feel their music and their inspirations!