Monday, June 29, 2009

The Carey Treatment (Geoffrey Productions/MGM, 1972)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran our “feature” for the evening, The Carey Treatment, an interesting and entertaining if not especially great medical thriller from MGM in 1972. The director was Blake Edwards (this was from TCM’s recent tribute to Edwards during their “great directors” month, shown right after Experiment in Terror, which for all its flaws was a better movie than The Carey Treatment), and curiously both the author of the book on which it was based and the screenwriter were credited with pseudonyms: the book, A Case of Need (a considerably more interesting title!), was actually written by Michael Crichton but the author was designated here as “Jeffery Hudson” (did he publish the book under the “Hudson” name or was that the studio’s idea?), and the film script was done by Harriet Frank, Jr. as “James P. Bonner.”

The plot deals with rambunctious rebel doctor Peter Carey (James Coburn), who’s just come from his native Northern California to take a job as a pathologist in a hospital in Boston, and he runs into a political hornet’s nest including the hospital’s chief administrator, J. T. Randall (Dan O’Herlihy), who’s fiercely protective of his turf; his son Joshua (Alex Dreier), a doctor on staff; Sanderson (Regis Toomey), the retiring pathologist Carey has been hired to replace; Angela Holder (Skye Aubrey), a voluptuous young nurse; Andrew Murphy (John Fink), the awfully boyish-looking chief surgeon; and David Tao (James Hong), a young Asian doctor who Carey befriends. The police invade the hospital searching for someone on the inside stealing medical-grade morphine and making it available to street dealers; an orderly flees the cops and gets busted and fired because he had illegal drugs on him — not morphine but marijuana, and acquired on the street for his personal use — and then everyone gets into hotter water when Randall’s 15-year-old daughter Evelyn (Elizabeth Allen) is found dead, her front cut up as if from a botched attempt at abortion. Dr. Tao is the immediate suspect, and he’s arrested and spends almost the whole movie in jail awaiting trial — it turns out he had done illegal abortions, but only for cost, but he hadn’t done Evelyn’s and, indeed, Evelyn hadn’t actually been pregnant at all — she’d suffered from a rare pituitary disorder that made her look and feel pregnant without actually being so, though that’s explained only in passing and not until the final reel.

What could have been a quite compelling medical thriller is weakened by the superhero delineation of Carey’s character — the filmmakers were obviously inspired by the fact that James Coburn was best known at the time for the Flint movies, which were on the cusp between serious James Bond knockoffs and spoofs, and here he’s drawn as a Bond-like action figure with an M.D. instead of a license to kill, able to melt just about any woman’s heart just by looking at her (though he has a steady girlfriend — hospital dietitian Georgia Hightower, played by Jennifer O’Neill during her brief post-Summer of ’42 heyday — whom he moved in with on his first or second day there!) including Hudson, Evelyn (before she gets knocked off instead of knocked up — bad pun), Evelyn’s roommate and friend Lydia (Jennifer Edwards) — who, in the film’s weirdest scene, is the victim of Carey’s intimidation; in order to get information out of her he gets her to accept a ride from him and then deliberately drives fast and almost out of control to scare her into talking about Evelyn and their shared past — and Holder, who turns out [spoiler alert!] to have murdered Evelyn with that illegal “abortion” at the behest, and with the assistant, of Evelyn’s boyfriend Roger Hudson (Michael Blodgett, pudgy and not all that appealing but blond and hot in a certain dorky way — one can easily see what about him would turn on teenage girls), who was also a hospital orderly and the one who was stealing the morphine (ya remember the stolen morphine?), to which he had got Holder addicted, which was why she was willing to do his dirty work. The Carey Treatment is a satisfying movie, with some appealing scenes — notably a weirdly homoerotic one in which Carey poses as a massage patient to get a chance to talk to Hudson and there’s the sense of both love (or at least lust) and danger as Hudson works him over and threatens to dispatch him then and there by pinching him at some especially sensitive point — though when the scene ends it reverts to silliness: after we’ve been told how young and superbly conditioned Hudson is, he gets beaten up by a guy twice his age.

The film benefits from surprisingly progressive politics — Michael Crichton was still reality-based in 1972 and the lines about defending a woman’s “personal autonomy” to have an abortion if she feels she needs one are hardly what we’d expect from an author who eventually became a Right-wing crank — though it also suffers from the compulsion of its makers to make it as “relevant” as possible, crowding more social issues into the story than it can support and also using a bouncy jazz score by Roy Budd similar to the way Oliver Nelson and others were scoring the Universal TV-movies at the time (the film reminded both Charles and I of the Banacek episodes we’d been watching recently, though as far as I’m concerned the 1970’s George Peppard is way ahead of the 1970’s James Coburn in the sexiness department!). In a rather odd way, The Carey Treatment seems more dated than many films from the 1930’s — including the medical drama Life Begins from Warners in 1932, which however contrived it might have been had an intense emotional impact The Carey Treatment lacked — and it was a jolt in the opening scene to see James Coburn standing in the middle of a hospital lobby lighting and smoking a cigarette, with neither he nor anybody else on the staff finding that the least bit odd.

A Teacher’s Crime (Capital Productions/Lifetime, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran one of the Lifetime TV-movies I’d recorded over the weekend: A Teacher’s Crime, directed by Robert Malenfant (whose name almost seems to invite a bad pun!) from a script by Christine Conradt and Corbin Mezner. The title, the promotion and especially the tag line (“Her first mistake ... was getting close to him”) were calculated to make it seem like this was going to be yet another one of those Mary Kay LeTourneau-inspired stories about a 30-something sexually frustrated schoolteacher who gets it on with a horny barely-pubescent boy in one of her classes and ends up imprisoned and disgraced — which would have been a much nicer slice of good clean dirty fun than the film we actually got.

The lead character is a 30-something (or maybe 20-something, since the actress who plays her, Ashley Jones, is 33 in real life and quite sexy — perhaps a bit too sexy for the role she’s playing here) teacher named Carrie McMillian Ryans, who’s reaching out to an intelligent but troubled teen in her class named Jeremy Rander (Erik Knudsen, whose hair is a bit wavy but who otherwise looks like he’s going to grow up to be the kind of tall, lanky, sandy-haired, anonymously handsome but not particularly sexy “type” Lifetime likes in its leading men). Rander is a whiz at history and is particularly interested in the military, since his dad was a career soldier who was killed fighting in Bosnia (you remember, Clinton’s stupid “liberal” war as opposed to Bush’s stupid “conservative” war in Iraq and Obama’s stupid “progressive” war in Afghanistan) and his mom committed suicide the day after she got the news.

The deaths of his parents left him stuck with his uncle Bill (Chris Mulkey), who essentially pulled an all-male version of the plot of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters on him: he enlisted Jeremy’s help in a series of cons that kept them going financially. Now they’re settled in Philadelphia, where Bill is running a used-car lot that deals in stolen cars, provided him by Evan (Tom Rack) on behalf of a mysterious organized-crime boss named Collins (whom we never see, and though we hear his voice on the phone the entry on this film doesn’t list who the voice actor was). Bill wants to make a major score so he can have the seed capital to cut Collins out of the loop and buy cars directly from Miguel (also unlisted in the cast list), the crook who actually steals them. He’s fastened on Carrie because her father, David McMillian (Art Hindle), just made millions selling his auto-parts company (this film was made in 2008 and already that plot point seems horrendously dated!) and he hatches a plot to get his hands on the McMillian millions by telling Jeremy to go after Carrie and make it appear as if they’re having an affair — and make it look good enough that Bill can secretly take photos and blackmail Carrie with them.

Just to ensure the success of his plot, Bill follows David to his summer house where he’s gone to fish and pushes him down a long flight of stairs, killing him in a way that looks like an accident, so instead of David trying to talk Carrie out of paying the blackmail demand she’ll be on her own and thereby will pay off rather than risk losing not only her career but also custody of her daughter Lacey (Veronique-Natale Szalankiewicz) — whose father Dean (James Gallanders), from whom Carrie is separated but not divorced, is in cahoots with Bill to get sole custody, since Bill had even arranged for the breakup of Dean’s and Carrie’s marriage by instructing his girlfriend, bartender Shannon (Sonya Salomaa), to seduce Dean away from Carrie and get him to move in with her, an arrangement that pisses off Lacey because she can’t stand the drinking, smoking and arguing Shannon and her sleazy friends do whenever she’s required to spend the weekend with her dad.

As you can tell from the above synopsis, the main problem with A Teacher’s Crime is the sheer amount of melodrama and credibility-bending happenstance Conradt and Mezner have loaded into their script — what were they doing, auditioning for Law and Order? — which the hapless actors do the best they can with. Ashley Jones seems to be miscast as a teacher — she’s so sexy one wonders why all the (straight) boys in her class don’t have crushes on her — and the actor playing her husband looks more like Jeremy’s big brother than anything (ironically making it believable that she and Jeremy could have been having an affair), but Chris Mulkey delivers a nice portrait of low-level evil and, despite the over-the-topness of much of their script, at least Conradt and Mezner resisted the temptation to put their central character in a life-or-death crisis at the end.

Instead, the police get Jeremy to weasel a confession out of his uncle on a wiretapped phone, then go to arrest him … and it turns out Evan, his organized-crime connection, has already been there and killed him at Collins’ order because he was trying to double-cross the Mob and go into the stolen-car business himself … A Teacher’s Crime’s deceptive title still rankles somewhat, but it’s a pretty good thriller even though nowhere near the level of Cries in the Dark, whose title was deceptive only in that the film itself turned out to be better than you’d have thought from what it was called!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Angel Face (RKO, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the movie Angel Face, a 1952 attempt at film noir from RKO (Howard Hughes is listed as the producer), directed by Otto Preminger from a story by Chester Erskine and a script by Frank S. Nugent, Oscar Millard (who four years later would write the Hughes disaster The Conqueror, directed by Dick Powell and starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan) and an uncredited Ben Hecht. Reportedly this is one of those movies RKO boss Hughes shoved in the face of its female star, Jean Simmons, as punishment because she wouldn’t have sex with him (she met and married MGM hunk Stewart Granger instead, and Hughes actually paid for their wedding but still never forgave Simmons); she plays Diane Tremayne, psychopathic daughter of rich retiree Charles Tremayne (Herbert Marshall, getting long-in-the-tooth even for father roles but still bringing a sense of dignity to his performance sorely lacking in the rest of the movie).

The film opens with Charles’ wife Catherine (Barbara O’Neil) nearly dying when the gas jet in the gas fireplace in her room is turned on without the fireplace being lit. The key that turns it on and off is found kicked under the logs, and she’d have suffocated if Charles hadn’t noticed the gas smell, come in, found the gas jet on without its key and turned it off with the identical key from the fireplace in his own room. The Los Angeles Fire Department sends an ambulance and part of the ambulance crew is driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum, even more somnolent than usual — as if he realized the movie was a worthless piece of shit and decided almost literally to sleep through it), and Jessup finds himself attracted to Charles’ (but not Catherine’s) daughter Diane and also to her snazzy modified Jaguar XK 140 sports car. Jessup was an up-and-coming race driver until his career was aborted by World War II, and she offers him a chance to drive the car in a race after he modifies it any way he likes. He’s planning to open a garage specializing in racing cars and that would be good promotion for it; he’s also dating another woman, Mary Wilton (Mona Freeman), whom Diane sees and offers her $1,000 to give to Frank for his shop — but all Mary notices is that this woman spent the night with her husband-to-be and Frank lied about it; he says that after his ambulance call at the Tremaynes’ he was so tired “I just hit the sack,” and she — knowing he was out with Diane because Diane told her — fires back, “I’ll bet you hit the sack!,” a surprisingly direct allusion to sex for a 1952 movie and a line quite likely the personal work of Howard Hughes.

It doesn’t take us long to realize that Diane Tremayne is actually a psychopathic bitch — though she conceals that fact with a “classy” demeanor instead of snarling through the femme fatale role like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Ann Savage in Detour — and that she attempted to murder her stepmother. Midway through the film, using knowledge about cars Frank has innocently given her, Diane sabotages the car her father and stepmother drive, killing both of them. Both Diane and Frank are put on trial for murder, and unlike a lot of crime thrillers the courtroom scenes not only don’t flag the film’s energy level but actually enliven it — thanks largely to the kinky casting of the attorneys: the prosecutor is Jim Backus and the defense lawyer is Leon Ames. Once they’re acquitted, Diane offers to dictate a statement to her attorney that she killed her dad and stepmom but Frank had nothing to do with it — she can’t be touched legally, as he explains to her, but she says she doesn’t want the stigma of a murder hanging over his head as he goes back to Mary and gets on with his life. In the final scene, Frank waits for a cab that will take him to the train station where he plans to leave for Mexico — and Diane offers him a ride to the station in that snazzy Jaguar and then [spoiler alert!] shoves both the car and her motivations into reverse, backing it down a cliff where the final fate of its inhabitants remains technically unknown but it does so many turnovers in mid-air on the way down that it’s pretty clear from the ending that they both die.

Angel Face is a frustrating film, one of those bad movies that could have been good; with a more sensitive director than Otto Preminger (let’s face it, there are rocks with more sensitivity than Otto Preminger!) and one more adept at the visual atmospherics of film noir, this film could have been a great noir and Jean Simmons’ classy version of the femme fatale might have come across as vivid and insightful ambiguity instead of merely an indifferent performance by an actress who clearly didn’t care about this trashy film. (By far Simmons’ best moment is when the script obliges her to recite a bit of Shakespeare — and we’re reminded all too well that four years before she made this piece of cheese she had played Ophelia in Olivier’s Hamlet.) As it is, Angel Face just rambles aimlessly through scene after misplayed scene, shot in standard full-lit Hollywood style (that’s Preminger for you; he had absolutely no sense of visual atmospherics, ever, and his best films are Anatomy of a Murder and Advise and Consent, stories that didn’t suffer from that lack — I’m not counting Laura because most of that film’s visual richness came from Rouben Mamoulian, whom Preminger replaced as director in mid-shoot), until an ending that if anything makes the preceding hour-and-a-half seem even trashier than it did before.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Escape in the Fog (Columbia, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was Escape in the Fog, which sounded like it was going to be a good melodrama; an early “B” assignment for director Budd Boetticher (still using his full name, Oscar Boetticher, Jr.) at Columbia and starring Otto Kruger and Nina Foch in a script by Aubrey Wisberg. Indeed, it began magnificently with an opening shot of the San Francisco Bay Bridge in the fog; we then see Eileen Carr (Nina Foch) walking along the bridge’s walkway and a police officer accosting her to see if she’s there to commit suicide. (The Bay Bridge never had a walkway and never became known as a site for suicide; scenarist Wisberg probably had it confused with the Golden Gate Bridge.) Then she sees a car pull up with two men attempting to murder a third, and she screams — and then she suddenly wakes up in a hospital bed: the entire previous sequence has been her dream.

She was in the hospital (the place is actually called an “inn” but it seems like some sort of nursing home) because she was a servicewoman (the film was made in early 1945 when the U.S. was still fighting World War II) and the ship she was on was sunk — and she’s been suffering from what the script refers to as “shock” and which would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder. She’s visited by Barry Malcolm (William Wright), a tall actor with a thin moustache who was part of her dream even though she’d never met him before. Alas, from this quite interesting beginning the film degenerates into a standard-issue espionage melodrama, with Paul Devon (Otto Kruger) — who also featured prominently in Eileen’s dream even though she’d never met him before — as the leader of a spy ring which is trying to get its hands on an envelope containing some top-secret documents (we’re never told what they are or why they’re so important, though as Alfred Hitchcock repeatedly explained we never really care what the spies are after anyway).

There’s a charming plot device — anticipating the 1960 film of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine — in which one of the conspirators works in a shop that does clock and watch repairs and has an endless succession of ticking clocks all going at once, all making noise (when I saw The Time Machine on its first TV showing in the early 1960’s I was traumatized by that sound, and ever since then I have been unable to sleep anywhere within earshot of a ticking clock; all the timepieces in my various bedrooms have had to be silent ones) — but for the most part Escape in the Fog is just another movie, surprisingly flatly photographed and dully directed by the usually interesting Boetticher (it’s quite a comedown from his previous Columbia “B,” the Boston Blackie series entry One Mysterious Night, which had a much better writer, Paul Yawitz), though Aubrey Wisberg is far more to blame for the film’s failure than Boetticher.

This script makes about as much sense as the plot of Mighty Jack, and like that Japanese disaster of a spy movie this one suffers from Wisberg’s conceit that just about all the dramatis personae other than the stalwart hero seem to be participating in the villains’ plot in one way or another. Nina Foch is interesting but came off considerably stronger in some of her other Columbia “B”’s, including My Name Is Julia Ross (creatively directed by Joseph H. Lewis even though the plot is basically a ripoff of the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”), I Love a Mystery and Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous. The rest of the cast — aside from Kruger’s good but well-worn villainy — leaves a lot to be desired, especially William Wright, who’s a decent-looking but singularly boring actor (he dragged down Reveille with Beverly a bit, too, but with Ann Miller as the star and all the guest appearances by major swing and pop musicians and singers of the period, including Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Wright did far less harm to that film than he did here) — and ultimately the dull direction and almost incomprehensible plotting make Escape in the Fog just another “B” that almost totally fails to get any dramatic interest in the theme of premonition stated in that marvelous opening.

Cries in the Dark (Fast/Dark Protocol/Lifetime, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a Lifetime TV-movie I recorded a couple of weeks ago that turned out to be quite good, despite its appallingly generic title, Cries in the Dark. It opens with one of those gooder-than-good Lifetime suburban openings that leaves us utterly convinced something dire is going to happen to all these people, even though we can’t be sure precisely what: Elle (pronounced “el”) Cornwell (Camille Sullivan) is in her final month of pregnancy and expecting her daughter (she’s had the sonogram or whatever they call it done so she won’t be in suspense as to her newborn’s gender) any day now. She runs a real-estate office in partnership with her husband Scott (Adam Harrington, the sort of tall, lanky, sandy-haired, blue-eyed, not bad-looking but not drop-dead gorgeous guy Lifetime seems to like in its leading men) who’s put her off because of his workaholism and also his occasional dalliances with other women — nothing serious, just one-night stands with people he’s picked up in bars, but still … They’re also close to Elle’s sister, policewoman Carrie Macklin (Eva La Rue Callahan, top-billed), who one morning jokingly “stops” Elle’s car and tells her, “You have the right to remain pregnant.”

One night the three of them are scheduled to have dinner together at Scott’s and Elle’s home — Carrie is asked by the local police chief (Anthony Harrison) to stop at a motel where recently released sex offender Glenn Davis (Diego Diablo Del Mar) is staying because, even though he hasn’t done anything they know of, they want to let him know that the cops are keeping an eye on him, but she passes that off to her partner, Darrell Wynn (Adrian Holmes, a really hot African-American who’s by far the most attractive male in this film — memo to Dick Wolf: if Christopher Meloni doesn’t re-up for the next season of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, please hire Adrian Holmes as his replacement!) and instead goes to her sister’s dinner party, only Scott gets a call to run an errand for work and Carrie also leaves early for reasons screenwriter Kraig Wenman doesn’t do a good job explaining (if he supplied any, I missed them), leaving Elle home alone … and when Scott returns from his errand Elle is gone, the sliding glass door to their patio is cracked open, and the kettle on their stove is boiling.

Carrie takes a leading role in the investigation of Elle’s disappearance despite the chief’s concern that her obvious conflict of interest is going to compromise the case if anybody is arrested and needs to be prosecuted, so he takes Carrie’s gun away and makes Darrell the lead investigator of whatever it was happened — which turns out to be murder after Elle’s body is found. At first, the police naturally suspect Glenn Davis — who had stopped by Elle’s office and, under the guise of being interested in a house, made a pass at her — but he turns out to have an alibi: the night of Elle’s disappearance and murder he was stalking another woman at a town 32 miles away. Then Carrie deduces from the condition of Elle’s body — it was sliced open at the womb — that the baby may still be alive and Elle’s killer may have been motivated by the desire for a child of her own and, being unable to have one naturally, she targeted a woman in the last days of pregnancy and kidnapped her, surgically removed her baby (it’s established that she worked as a dental hygenist so she knew something about medicine) and passed the child off as her own. It turns out that the murderess is someone Elle knew from her hospital visits: a pregnant woman (at least she looked pregnant — Wenman’s script leaves it as a loose end just how she pulled off that disguise) who befriended Elle and said she was expecting a baby of her own but wouldn’t say who the father was because he was a married man. This woman, Rosa Allen (Gina Chiarelli), abandons the trailer she’s been living in and moves in with her own father — and it turns out that she was one of Scott Cornwell’s one-night tricks, and she formed an obsession on him that she was going to take his wife’s place as well as claiming their baby as her own. The cops trace her, ironically, when she sends a love letter to Scott — and she ends up showing up at Scott’s home with baby in tow, demanding that he flee with her and pulling a gun on him when he refuses and calls the police instead.

Cries in the Dark is a remarkably good Lifetime movie; director Paul Schneider has a real flair for suspense and thrills, and Wenman’s script, though saddled with a few loose ends he never bothers to tie up, makes sense and is particularly remarkable for not taking the easy ways out: there are plenty of bits in this film where he could have plugged in a handy cliché and he decided to be more creative than that. The acting is also finely honed, though of all the characters only the three women really live and breathe as complex, individualized people — even more than usual for Lifetime, the men are dramatic ciphers — and I liked the unmistakable anti-cheating message for the film even though its producers are clearly playing the same game the major Hollywood studios played during the Production Code era: showing really kinky or extra-marital sexual relationships and offering them as examples of how not to behave even while giving the audience an erotic charge from depicting the perverse (though this time there aren’t any soft-core porn scenes — a pity; I found myself wishing Wenman had done more than hint of Darrell’s sexual interest in Carrie and actually showed them going at it!).

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mighty Jack (Tsurubaya Productions/Sandy Frank Productions, 1968/1987)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I played Charles his newly downloaded disc of the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 incarnation of the 1968 Japanese movie Mighty Jack. It turned out to be a spy movie, a thoroughly inept James Bond knock-off (the villain even has a furry white lap-cat he’s always stroking!) in which the President (of what country we’re not quite sure) organizes a strike force called “Mighty Jack” to defeat the designs of a sinister organization called “Q,” which of course is interested in world domination. Charles noted that this film was made by the same crew that did the Ultra-Man TV shows and also featured a lot of the same actors — though, alas, the male members of the cast were dressed in business suits instead of the hot orange jumpsuits they wore as the “Science Patrol” in Ultra-Man (and which were tight enough to show off their baskets — who said Asian men weren’t well hung?).

In some ways the production values of Mighty Jack were a bit better than those of Ultra-Man — the craft the Mighty Jack crew members (scenarists Shinichi Sekizawa and Eizaburo Shiba seem never quite to have decided whether “Mighty Jack” referred to the team or the contraption they traveled in) use to move around the world to combat Q’s agents, which can both fly and operate underwater as a submarine, is a more convincing prop than the dime-store gadgets they flew in Ultra-Man, and the colors are spectacular and quite pretty (a refreshing change from all the dirty-brown movies we get these days) — and there aren’t any tacky-looking monsters, though quite frankly this movie is so relentlessly confusing that tacky-looking monsters would actually have helped!

About all we know for sure is that “Q” has kidnapped a scientist named Atari (were they after the software for Pong?) in a nicely inventive way — they threw a fishing net around his car and lifted it up with a helicopter, then flew back to their base with the car dangling in the net 2,000 feet off the ground — and the members of Mighty Jack are trying to get him back and at the same time trying to figure out who in their operation is leaking their secrets to “Q” — and suspicion fastens first on the German-accented (at least in this dubbed version — there’s no love lost between the former World War II allies in this story!) son of one of the administrators, then the administrator himself — and by the time this thing grinds to a halt we neither know nor care who’s the “Q” agent in their midst, nor do we have anything more than the vaguest idea of what’s been happening on screen for the last hour and a half. Supposedly Mighty Jack was actually a TV series in Japan and this film was assembled from three or four of its half-hour episodes, spliced together into a semblance (not much of a semblance, at that) of story continuity — which explains why entire plot threads just disappear in mid-air and also why the action scenes are even more repetitious than usual, as well as singularly ineptly staged by director Kazuho Mitsuta, who frankly wasn’t going to have kept Akira Kurosawa awake nights worrying about the competition.

Mighty Jack was prepared for American release by the infamous Sandy Frank, which meant terrible dubbing of English-language lines so dementedly silly it was sometimes hard to tell which bits of dialogue were from the actual soundtrack and which were the MST3K crew’s mockeries of it — which, predictably, focused largely on the movie’s utter incomprehensibility. There were a few cute gags — in one sequence of a man strumming a 12-string guitar in a nightclub (don’t ask) one of the MST3K crew joked, “Ah, Django Reinhardt! No, too many fingers.” (They were wrong; it was Django’s left hand, not his right, that was injured; and he kept all his fingers, though two were paralyzed and useless for fretting, though he could still form bar chords with them.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

California Mail (Warners, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran California Mail, a 1936 “B” Western from Warner Bros., who had obviously noted the burgeoning popularity of the “Singing Westerns” with Gene Autry at Republic and decided to do a singing Western of their own. They picked Dick Foran as their star — he had a nice tenor voice, probably “better” than Autry’s but less distinctive — though they only gave him two songs, one (“Ridin’ the Mail”) used early on while he’s doing just that as a member of the Pony Express, and another (“Love Begins at Evening”) which he sings at a dance where he’s courting his girlfriend. Foran plays Bill Harkins, a Pony Express rider who realizes that the days of the Pony Express are numbered (the service only lasted two years in real life!) and in future mail will be brought to the West in stagecoaches.

Accordingly he buys a stagecoach and puts in a bid for the mail contract, and since there are two other bids and the three are close in terms of the numbers, the post office (not a private stagecoach company, as mis-stated in the American Film Institute Catalog’s synopsis) decides to sponsor a stagecoach race along the most treacherous part of the mail run. One of the competing bidders, Ferguson (Fred Barnes), is harmless; the others, brothers Roy (Ed Cobb) and Burt (Milton Kibbee) Banton, are quite dangerous. Not only are they willing to do anything to win the contract — including sawing through the wheels of Harkins’ stagecoach to sabotage it so it crashes on the run — but once they win the contract they work with a gang of bandits led by Fred Wyatt (Bob Woodward) to rob their own stagecoaches, thereby getting both legal and illegal sources of income. (One member of the gang, “Bud,” is played by future Frankenstein monster Glenn Strange — his first name has only one “n” here and he’s a gangly Ray Bolger type, hardly the sort of actor one would expect to step into Boris Karloff’s asphalter’s boots except for his great height, obviously why he got that part.) After trying and failing to murder Harkins at least twice, they set him up to take the fall for a murder actually committed by Wyatt — and to make it even more complicated, the murder victim is Dan Tolliver (James Farley), father of Mary Tolliver (Linda Perry), the woman Bill and Roy have been fighting over all movie (including starting a big saloon brawl over her).

There’s absolutely nothing distinctive about California Mail — it’s one of those movies where the credited writers, Roy Chanslor and Harold Buckley, seem more to have compiled their script from lists of clichés rather than thinking up anything original — except maybe the role of “Smoke” the Wonder Horse, listed in the credits as playing himself (and billed third!), who’s actually more heroic than the human lead: he kills Wyatt and captures Roy, in both cases by knocking them down and kicking them. Watching “Smoke” in action it’s clear that this is the studio that made Rin Tin Tin a star; they seemed to be trying to duplicate that success with another species of animal. California Mail is a bit of a “cheat” in that Foran is billed as a “Singing Cowboy” but after the movie is 15 minutes old (of a total one-hour running time) he sings no more — but he’s personable and either he’s good at taking falls or his stunt double looked more like him than usual, though it’s a bit difficult to take him seriously in this movie if you’ve seen the Abbott and Costello vehicle Ride ’Em, Cowboy from six years later, in which Foran plays an actor posing as a singing cowboy (in which he got to introduce the Don Raye/Gene de Paul standard “I’ll Remember April,” a far better song than any he got to sing here!) when he’s really a totally hapless tenderfoot.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Food, Inc. (Magnolia Pictures, 2008/2009)

If You Eat, You Need to See Food, Inc.


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Robert Kenner (director), Barbara Kowalcyk, Joel Salatin, Eric Schlosser. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

One of the most abused terms in movie reviewing is “must-see.” It usually means nothing more than that the film the critic is writing about is especially funny, exciting or spectacular. But director Robert Kenner’s new documentary Food, Inc. is truly a “must-see” movie for every American who eats. It’s basically a horror tale — not in the gross-out sense (David Brancaccio, host of the PBS-TV series NOW, joked when he interviewed Kenner on the show that “there are people who are gonna think, ‘Oh, we’re gonna be sitting in a slaughterhouse for the next 90 minutes’” — which you won’t be) but in the sense that Kenner joked he had thought of calling the film Invasion of the Food Snatchers.

The “food snatchers,” according to Kenner, are giant multinational corporations who over the past 50 years have not only taken near-complete control of the U.S. food industry (and are pushing towards controlling it worldwide) but have reorganized it according to industrial methods of production. While they still merchandise their food with old-fashioned imagery of family farmers growing it with love and care under sunny skies, the reality is that today’s “farm” looks more like a factory than the pastoral scenes on the food packages. Scenes shot with hidden cameras — the giant corporations that own your food system don’t want you to know how they operate — show dead chickens and cows being strung up on giant conveyor belts and sliced by assembly-line workers, many of them undocumented immigrants (they come cheap and can’t complain about low wages and dangerous conditions for fear of being deported) whose bosses consider them as disposable as the meat animals themselves.

What’s more, the food these gargantuan factories produce is increasingly standardized, artificial, tasteless and even dangerous. According to Kenner, that has its roots in the fast-food revolution sparked by the McDonald brothers and continued by Ray Kroc after he bought them out of the company that still bears their name. McDonald’s built an empire of cheap restaurants, first by applying industrial methods to food service — including a squirting machine (you see it in action in the film) that put just the “right” amount of ketchup on the burger — and making restaurant cooking so low-skilled anyone could do it, which means they could pay people minimum wage and accept a high turnover of workers. Then, as the company expanded nationwide, McDonald’s management insisted that a McDonald’s hamburger must taste the same no matter where it was sold — Downey, California (where the first McDonald’s was built), New York, Miami or Shanghai — and that meant that the meat processors who sold it to them had to ensure that McDonald’s would get a uniform product or McDonald’s would simply not buy from them anymore.

Some of Kenner’s most grotesque footage shows how the meat from thousands of cows gets ground up and turned into a giant vat of raw ground beef. Defenders of industrialized food often claim that it’s safer than the products of genuine family farms because its production can be controlled more carefully — but, as Food, Inc. points out, it’s actually more dangerous because one sick cow’s meat can contaminate hundreds of tons of ground beef and spread across the country through the power of a fast-food chain. Bacteria like the deadly E. coli are not only killing hamburger eaters but, through the runoff from the farms where those cows are grown and the factories where they’re killed and their meat is processed, they’ve contaminated spinach and other vegetable products even though in nature E. coli doesn’t infect plants.

One of the heroes of Food, Inc., Barbara Kowalcyk, learned about E. coli the hard way. She and her family were coming home from a vacation when they stopped into a fast-food place and ordered three hamburgers. Her 2 1/2-year old son Kevin got sick and was dead within two weeks, and it was only after he died that doctors learned from an autopsy that E. coli had killed him. Kowalcyk responded by becoming a two-person lobbying campaign with her mother, Patricia Buck, going to Congress to get them to pass “Kevin’s Law.” This was a bill that would give back to inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture the power to close down a meat-packing plant that repeatedly produced E. coli-tainted meat. In a country where the politicians actually gave a damn about the people they supposedly represent, this would have been a no-brainer — but Kowalcyk and Buck, who started their effort in 2002 (one year after Kevin’s death), still haven’t been able to get “Kevin’s Law” through Congress.

The overwhelming power of the food industry is a running theme of this film. Not only does the industry have the power to poison people and the political clout to ensure that they never have to worry about being punished for it, they’re extending their control over the food supply in other ways as well. One key section of the film tells the story of Monsanto, a giant corporation that used to make things like DDT and Agent Orange (the defoliant the U.S. used in the Viet Nam war which killed or sickened a lot of its own troops) and got into food when it invented a weed killer called RoundUp. The problem with RoundUp was that it killed not only the weeds but a lot of the crops as well. To “solve” this, Monsanto hooked up with some scientists that had developed a way of genetically modifying soybeans so they could withstand RoundUp.

But Monsanto’s “RoundUp Ready” soybeans came with an elaborate command-and-control agenda attached. To use them, you had to sign a contract not only that the only herbicide you would use would be RoundUp (a C.Y.A. Monsanto put into the deal to make sure there’d be a captive market for their product even after its patent on RoundUp expired) but that you would buy a whole new batch of seeds each year for that year’s planting. Saving seeds from one year’s crop for the next year’s planting — something farmers have been doing since agriculture was invented — was now illegal. What’s more, because Monsanto’s modifications to the soybean gene were themselves patentable, Monsanto has claimed — and won in every case — that even if you didn’t buy their seeds and didn’t want their genetic modifications in your crop, if your soybeans contained their genetic modifications because pollen from a field that was planted with Monsanto seeds crossed over into your field, you were therefore in violation of their patent and they could sue you and claim ownership of your crop.

One of the most fascinating characters in Food, Inc. is Moe Parr, who ran a seed-cleaning operation to wash the debris off harvested seeds so they can be saved and planted the next year. Monsanto declared him a public enemy and sought to put him out of business by litigation — and after finding out it would cost over a million dollars to defend himself, he settled with Monsanto and got out of the seed business altogether. Monsanto’s aggressive defense of its seed patents is reminiscent of the Mafia in a 1930’s gangster movie; they stake out farmers whom they suspect of saving seeds, hire detectives and pay handsome bounties to farmers to turn each other in. As a result, Parr and others who tried to resist Monsanto’s total takeover of U.S. soybean farming found that people who’d been their friends for 50 years would no longer talk to them. What’s more, Monsanto has asked the U.S. courts to declare the very existence of seed-cleaning illegal as an infringement on their patents.

Food, Inc. details a lot of other ways the giant corporations have taken over the food business and suppressed any opposition or even discussion. One of the most sinister is so-called “food-libel laws,” state laws that make it illegal — and, in some cases, a felony — to disparage corporate food products in public. Most Americans first heard of these laws when a cattle raisers’ association in Texas sued Oprah Winfrey because in 1996 she’d done a show with some people talking about the unhealthy ways beef cattle were raised, and she’d blurted out on air that after hearing them she’d never want to eat a hamburger again. She was forced into a years-long legal battle, which she turned into a public-education campaign; when she had to travel to Texas for the trial, she did her show there and kept commenting on the issue. Oprah, who’s probably the world’s richest woman of African descent, could afford the multi-million dollar cost of this legal battle; almost nobody else could.

Another tactic of the multinational corporations that control your food supply is relentless opposition to labeling laws. One would think even the most diehard lassiez-faire Libertarian would at least endorse a requirement that the people trying to sell you something at least tell you what’s in it. After all, Adam Smith, who was to capitalism what Karl Marx was to socialism, said in the 18th century that one of the essentials for a free market was that buyers and sellers must be honest with each other about the real nature of the merchandise. But the food corporations, aware that a lot of people would choose not to buy their products if they knew what was in them and the horrible conditions under which they are produced, have fought tooth and nail for the right not to tell them. Thus, when genetically modified ingredients were introduced into processed foods, European consumers got warning labels and Americans didn’t — and U.S. food companies invoked the World Trade Organization’s secret tribunals to have the European labeling laws thrown out as a restraint on “free trade.”

The main clout the food companies have to write the laws the way they want them, drive out competition and keep consumers in the dark as to exactly what they’re eating comes not only from their campaign contributions to politicians but also the so-called “revolving door” by which most of the officials who supposedly “regulate” the food supply come directly from the companies they’re allegedly regulating. Either that or they come from law firms used by the food companies — like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In the 1970’s Thomas worked at a law firm and handled cases involving Monsanto; in 1991 he wrote the majority opinion in the case that gave Monsanto the clout to have even accidental contamination of a crop by their modified soybean genes declared a patent infringement — the precedent Monsanto has used to put Moe Parr out of business and take over virtually all soybean cultivation in the U.S.

Though there are a few omissions — like the potentially catastrophic effects of growing only one variety of crop, which could lead to the disappearance of an entire food source and the starvation of billions if a pest evolves with a particular taste for it — Food, Inc. is surprisingly comprehensive for a 94-minute documentary. The film vividly shows how the food industry has essentially turned every farmer in America into a sharecropper, forced to grow a certain way, pay exorbitant prices for their equipment and supplies, live their lives in permanent debt and go along with the secrecy imposed on them by the industry or lose their livelihood altogether. It also depicts how food itself has become increasingly processed, divorced from its roots in nature, in ways that are making us fatter and less healthy — thanks largely to government policies that subsidize artificial foods and jack up the price of natural vegetables and produce — and it shows how the lower your income, the fewer choices you’ll have and the less healthy your food will be.

Like a lot of other documentaries in its genre, Food, Inc. is quite a bit better at telling us how awful everything is than it is at giving us ways we can fight back. Much of it is based on the research of two people who are extensively interviewed in the film, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser (who’s also listed as a co-producer) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan, and the filmmakers’ “what you can do” advice is pretty much what you’d expect: cut down on meat consumption, stop drinking sodas and other sweetened beverages, shop at farmers’ markets if there’s one close to you, and buy organic. But Robert Kenner is too good a director to ignore what’s happening to the label “organic” as more and more “organic” food producers are being acquired by the same multinationals that control the rest of our food supply.

Though Kenner doesn’t stress the point, his film contains a fascinating debate (of sorts, since they never appear together) between two organic food producers. Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms comments with evident embarrassment on old videotapes showing him as a young idealist criticizing capitalism, and boasts that he was able to build the third largest yogurt producer in the country and ultimately sell out to an Italian food conglomerate that allowed him to keep running it. He boasts that not only did he get his yogurt into Wal-Mart — which, in an otherwise relentlessly anti-corporate movie, is depicted surprisingly positively — but that, thanks to consumer pressure, Wal-Mart has withdrawn all milk containing recombinant bovine growth hormone and therefore, for once, the clout of a major multinational has actually made the food supply healthier. By contrast, Joel Salatin of Polyfield Farms in Virginia says in so many words that marketing his free-range, grass-fed livestock to Wal-Mart would be like selling his soul.

Food, Inc. is a film that’s going to provoke reactions, and not always the ones the filmmakers intended. Kenner shows footage of how chickens are killed on Salatin’s farm — they’re put head-first into a funnel, their necks are wrung and their throats are slit — and clearly means us to read that as the healthier alternative to the way it’s done at an industrial chicken processing plant. But the audience at the June 18 preview screening at Landmark Hillcrest in San Diego got equally grossed out by both scenes. Still, very little of Food, Inc. is even potentially disgusting, and much of it is surprisingly moving, especially the depiction of the people who’ve been victimized by the “food snatchers” and how they’re fighting back. If you give a damn about what you put in your mouth, you have to see this movie.


Facts from Food, Inc.

Source: The Food, Inc. press kit.

In the 1970’s, the top five beef packers controlled about 25% of the market. Today, the top four control more than 80% of the market.

In the 1970’s, there were thousands of slaughterhouses producing the majority of beef sold. Today, we have only 13.

In 1998, the USDA implemented microbial testing for salmonella and E. coli 0157h7 so that if a plant repeatedly failed these tests, the USDA could shut down the plant. After being taken to court by the meat and poultry associations, the USDA no longer has that power — and a grass-roots lobbying campaign started in 2002 to get Congress to restore it has so far failed.

In 1972, the FDA conducted 50,000 food safety inspections. In 2006, the FDA conducted only 9,164.

During the Bush administration, the head of the FDA was the former executive vice-president of the National Food Processors Association.

During the Bush administration, the chief of staff at the USDA was the former chief lobbyist for the beef industry in Washington.

Prior to renaming itself an agribusiness company, Monsanto was a chemical company that produced, among other things, DDT and Agent Orange.

In 1996 when it introduced RoundUp Ready Soybeans, Monsanto controlled only 2% of the U.S. soybean market. Now, over 90% of soybeans in the U.S. contain Monsanto’s patented gene.

Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas was an attorney at Monsanto from 1976 to 1979. After his appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion in a 1991 case that helped Monsanto enforce its seed patents.

The average chicken farmer invests over $500,000 and makes only $18,000 a year.

32,000 hogs a day are killed in Smithfield Hog Processing Plant in Tar Heel, N.C, which is the largest slaughterhouse in the world.

The average American eats over 200 lbs. of meat a year.

30% of the farmland in the U.S. is used for planting corn.

The modern supermarket now has, on average, 47,000 products, the majority of which is being produced by only a handful of food companies.

70% of processed foods have some genetically modified ingredient.

SB63 Consumer Right to Know measure requiring all food derived from cloned animals to be labeled as such passed the California state legislature before being vetoed in 2007 by Governor Schwarzenegger, who said that he couldn’t sign a bill that pre-empted federal law.

Corn products include: ketchup, cheese, Twinkies, batteries, peanut butter, Cheez-Its, salad dressings, Coke, jelly, Sweet & Low, syrup, juice, Kool-Aid, charcoal, diapers, Motrin, meat and fast food.

Corn, which is the main ingredient in animal feed, is also used as a food additive. Those products commonly include: Cellulose, Xylitol, Maltodextrin, Ethylene, Gluten, Fibersol-2, Citrus Cloud Emulsion, Inosital, Fructose, Calcium Stearate, Saccharin, Sucrose, Sorbital, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Citric Acid, Di-glycerides, Semolina, Sorbic Acid, Alpha Tocopherol, Ethyl Lactate, Polydextrose, Xanthan Gum, White Vinegar, Ethel Acetate, Fumaric Acid, Ascorbic Acid, Baking Powder, Zein, Vanilla Extract, Margarine, and Starch.

1 in 3 Americans born after 2000 will contract early onset diabetes; among minorities, the rate will be 1 in 2.

E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks have become more frequent in America, whether it be from spinach or jalapeños. In 2007, there were 73,000 people sickened from the E. coli bacterium.

Organics is the fastest growing food segment, increasing 20% annually.

Behind Green Lights (20th Century-Fox, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Behind Green Lights — I’m not sure why it’s called that, though since it takes place mostly in and around a police station maybe in 1946, when it was made, the lights outside a police station were green. It’s a 64-minute thriller from 20th Century-Fox that’s an example of what I like to call film gris — a basically ordinary crime film that’s trying to gussie itself up with a few chiaroscuro lighting techniques and oblique camera angles to pass itself off as film noir — though the story is a compelling one and in better hands it might have been an interesting film. Even as it stands, it’s entertaining and mostly makes sense.

Directed by Otto Brower from a script by W. Scott Darling (clearly moving up in the cinematic world from his days writing the Mr. Wong series at Monogram!) and Charles G. Booth, Behind Green Lights begins with a scene in which sleazy private detective Walter Bard (Bernard Nedell) is attempting to blackmail Janet Bradley (Carole Landis, top-billed), daughter of the reform candidate for mayor who’s attempting to sweep out of office the current administration, with which the police department is aligned. (As in Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and James M. Cain’s Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, we get the impression that the “reformers” are as corrupt as the people they’re trying to displace.) Bard is shot and his body is loaded into his car and dumped in front of the police station, and the head of that particular precinct, Lt. Sam Carson (William Gargan), and newly assigned police reporter Johnny Williams (Richard Crane), who’s from a paper supportive of the current city government and skeptical of the “reformers,” team up to solve the crime.

There are a lot of incidents in this movie, including all too much rather forced “comic relief” — including a scene in which a crook needing a quick hiding place dumps Bard’s body in a closet inside the police station’s press room (there’s a lot of Front Page-ish byplay between the reporters, and even a Bensinger-like character named Daniel Boone Wintergreen, played by character actor Charles Arnt) and hides himself on the gurney that was supposed to take it to the morgue; he therefore gets out of the police station, and when the morgue attendants get ready to unload Bard’s corpse, of course they find it isn’t there. As if that wasn’t enough misplaced humor for you, Johnny Williams finds Bard’s body in the closet and thinks he’s got the scoop of his career — only when he tries to call it in both Wintergreen and a flower seller (Mabel Paige) interrupt him.

The problem with this film that keeps it from achieving noir is the lack of really interesting characterizations, and the problem that keeps it from being more than a standard-issue thriller is that there are way too many plot incidents and too little is made out of any of them. The extent to which the crime is interconnected with the city’s upcoming election and the political struggle between its factions would have made a quite compelling plot theme if Darling and Booth had followed up on it; as it is, though, they mention it a few times in passing but otherwise pretty much forget about it. What saves this film is the cool major-studio professionalism with which it’s executed — and also the performance of William Gargan; heavy-set and no longer suitable for leading-man types, he’s actually quite good as the dedicated, coolly efficient lead cop who ultimately [spoiler alert!] fastens onto a peripheral character, Dr. Hastings (William Forrest, Jr.) as the killer — though Darling and Booth aren’t especially forthcoming about his motive. Behind Green Lights is one of those frustrating good-movies-that-could-have-been-better; certainly the premise could have inspired a far greater film than this, yet like Gargan’s character it’s coolly efficient and a nice 64-minute time-killer.

He Laughed Last (Columbia, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles our “feature,” a 1956 film called He Laughed Last that represented the last of Frankie Laine’s “B” starring vehicles for Columbia — and one of the weakest; I haven’t seen them all but the two we watched before this, On the Sunny Side of the Street and Bring Your Smile Along, were both stronger. The film opens with a bang — literally; a gangland assassination shot in as close to classic film noir style as director Blake Edwards (his second film in that capacity after a brief career as an actor and a longer but still pretty undistinguished one as a writer) and cinematographer Henry Freulich could get in late Technicolor — before the titles come up and the transition from the dark murder sequence to a light, uptempo piece of music that comes up as we see the name of the film spelled out in bullet holes is just the first of many jars we’re going to have to put up if we watch this film.

The basic problem with He Laughed Last is its creators, Edwards and Richard Quine (his directorial mentor and co-author of the screenplay), never quite decide whether they wanted it to be a gangster movie, a musical or a soap opera. It starts in 1935 with Laine playing “Gino Lupo” (the last name means “wolf” and it’s a surprise to see Frankie Laine, true name Frank Lo Vecchio, playing a character with the sort of openly Italian name he himself changed for his showbiz career), owner, manager and principal entertainer at a dying nightclub called the “Happy Club.” An old friend, a reporter, comes by the club to interview Gino and get the real story on the death of 1920’s gangster “Big Dan” Hennessy (Alan Reed), and the story flashes back to the 1920’s, when the “Happy Club” was a happening place and “Big Dan” was its owner until rival gangsters had him eliminated. “Big Dan” was trying to seduce the club’s star, Rosemary “Rosie” LeBeau (Lucy Marlow), with expensive gifts, but though she took his presents she saved her affections for a police officer who’s trying to bust the gangs.

The movie just sort of meanders through a lot of scenes that don’t seem to mean much, and it doesn’t help that though the film was shot in Technicolor towards the end of its glory days, the extant print has faded to a deep brown tone that makes it look more like a color film of today than one from the 1950’s. There are some good musical numbers but not enough of them — Laine sings the song “Save Your Sorrows ’Til Tomorrow” in the club (he sings it well but Peggy Lee did it better; her wry, ironic style suited this song more than Laine’s dogged earnestness); Lucy Marlow does “Strike Me Pink” with five ostrich feathers behind her that turn out to be being held by chorus girls (it’s a dorky number but also an entertainingly clever one); and the high point of the film is Laine’s performances of “Danny Boy.” He sings two, one a cappella at “Big Dan”’s funeral (backed by four of his gangster associates doing barber-shop harmony behind him) and one towards the end as he reminisces about those exciting days of the 1920’s and Rosie, her husband the cop and their four kids ask to hear it.

Laine, not a particularly good-looking or charismatic personality when he wasn’t singing (though he was way too big a movie star by 1956 to be caught dead in a flimsy production like this, the film really calls for Frank Sinatra, not Frankie Laine!), sings “Danny Boy” (especially in the unaccompanied version) with real power, conviction and soul that makes the song the best thing in the movie. It’s easy to understand why Laine became such a big star and why his career at the top was so (relatively) short; like Al Jolson before him and Elvis Presley after him, Laine channeled African-American singing styles to a white audience (when he’d just hit it big with the 1947 record “That’s My Desire” — a song he’d learned from the record Black boogie-woogie singer-pianist Hadda Brooks had made the year before — he named Bessie Smith as the biggest influence on his style, and certainly one can hear a lot more of Bessie in him than one can in Billie Holiday!), but though he was clearly an influence on the early white rockers (Elvis copied the sorts of dramatic register shifts Laine did in songs like “Jezebel” and Buddy Holly actually covered “That’s My Desire”), their success pretty much rendered Laine irrelevant — and though he lived quite a long time and worked almost until the end, he didn’t get the chance to re-invent himself as a jazz singer the way Rosemary Clooney did on her later records for Concord Jazz.

The irony is that there were plenty of Warner Bros. movies in the 1930’s — including one I thought of as a parallel while we were watching He Laughed Last, the first Torchy Blane film Smart Blonde — that did a better job combining the gangster, musical and soap-opera genres and got the mix right whereas here it went terribly awry (and Edwards would one day make a great musical with gangster and soap elements, Victor/Victoria, which for all its gender-bending elements and frank acceptance of homosexuality wasn’t all that different in mood from this — though the veteran Edwards of 1982 was able to blend the elements far more effectively than the journeyman Edwards of 1956).

Friday, June 19, 2009

Teenage Caveman (Malibu Productions/American International, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching a movie, though a considerably less exalted one than Food, Inc.: I had intended to run the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a film called Mighty Jack — wondering whether that would be a science-fiction space opera or a juvenile delinquency film (it turns out from its listing that it’s really a spy movie spliced together from several episodes of a Japanese TV series) but it was missing from the disc Charles downloaded and instead what came up was a film called Teenage Caveman (its page lists the title as Teenage Cave Man — three words — but the main title on the print we were watching shows it as two), a 1958 American International production directed by Roger Corman from a script by R. Wright Campbell.

Some years ago I actually watched and made a VHS recording of this movie, which for all its risible aspects — including the perfectly coiffed and pomaded hair on the central character and his absolutely smooth-shaven face — actually moved me and, I think, ends up on that short list of films (like Rocketship X-M, This Island Earth, Revenge of the Creature, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and The Space Children) that MST3K ought to have left alone. For much of its running time it appears to have been an uncredited adaptation of Ayn Rand’s 1937 novella Anthem, with its individualistic hero, “The Symbol Maker’s Teenage Son” — nobody in this movie actually has a name — rebelling against the strictly enforced rules of his “clan” that prevent them from hunting and gathering beyond a strictly prescribed area on their side of the river.

This character — played by Robert Vaughn, best known as Napoleon Solo in the hit mid-1960’s TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (and looking here like Napoleon Solo was searching for THRUSH agents among a group of particularly dedicated caveman-life re-enactors) — and his father, “The Symbol Maker” (Leslie Bradley), are responsible for ensuring the success of the “clan”’s hunts by drawing pictures of the animals they’re hunting on the cave walls. The plot turns around Our Hero’s continued insistence that there is life beyond the river and abundant hunting grounds to sustain them — and in his own explorations there he meets dinosaurs (mostly shots recycled from Hal Roach’s 1940 production One Million B.C. — when the Roach studio fell on hard times this proved a major source of stock dinosaur footage for independent producers that wanted it but didn’t have the money to stage it themselves) and a couple of beings that look like char-broiled versions of American International’s usual ambulatory monsters (though he’s not credited, it’s Paul Blaisdell’s all-purpose AIP monster suit redressed) — until the final twist, in which one of the monsters dies and the other, also in his death throes, gives Robert Vaughn a copy of a book.

Yes, a book — a picture book called The Atomic Age — and as he’s dying the monster, who’s actually a human who lived through the nuclear apocalypse because he was wearing an anti-radiation suit that only gave him the appearance of a monster, explains that humankind developed an elaborate civilization and then blew itself up with nuclear weapons, leaving only a few scattered remnants of humanity who quickly regressed to a caveman lifestyle. The radiation from all those atomic blasts also caused mutations that brought the dinosaurs back to life after they had long since died out. Thus a film that started out as a Randian rant about the power of the individual and the need to stand up against the collective (though Charles argued that the film also proclaimed the superiority of first-hand experience over tradition and ideology, which didn’t seem to him to be an especially Randian notion) ended up as a progressive warning about the dangers of nuclear war, quite possibly inspired by Albert Einstein’s famous comment that he didn’t know what weapons World War III would be fought with, “but I can tell you what weapons World War IV will be fought with — stone axes and spears!

The duality in this movie’s politics reflected Robert Corman’s own ideological schizophrenia, his ability to make a Right-wing propagandist piece like It Conquered the World and then a progressive civil-rights drama like The Intruder, and certainly the fact that this film has a political message — however muddled it might be — sets it far above the norm for MST3K’s targets. (The surprise ending also seems to me to anticipate the one added to Planet of the Apes — it wasn’t in the original novel — 10 years later.) It’s also worth noting that Corman shot the film under the title Prehistoric Earth and hated AIP’s title change so much that later in life, when he was asked about it, said, “I never directed a movie called Teenage Caveman.” MST3K did a pretty good job parodying and ridiculing a film that really didn’t deserve their parody and ridicule, throwing in the inevitable Man from U.N.C.L.E. references (including at least two calls to “open Channel D,” the radio frequency by which U.N.C.L.E. agents communicated with their home base) as well as quite a few references to popular songs.

Along with Teenage Caveman the MST3K crew included a couple of shorts which fit their format a good deal better , a 1950’s short from Castle Films called Aquatic Wizardry about people training to be water skiers (most of them reasonably attractive young women who looked like they were auditioning for an Esther Williams chorus line), and a piece that looked like it was from the 1930’s, with an outrageously inappropriate piece of intro music that sounded better suited to a Hal Roach comedy, about a man (actually two men, but one of them was an Indian wearing a skirt and was so demeaned in both the footage and the narration that compared to this the treatment of Tonto in The Lone Ranger was a model of racial sensitivity) named Ross trapping live animals in the Florida Everglades — a piece so outrageously boorish that not only did the MST3K crew joke, “Where is PETA when you need them?,” but afterwards they did an outrageously funny spoof of it with Joel Hodgson cast as a hunter who seeks to trap the human “hero” of that movie with the same blatantly inhumane techniques he was using on the animals.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

“Whatever Works”: Woody Allen’s Homecoming


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

When Pedro Almodóvar released his film Bad Education in 2004, I headlined my review, “Almodóvar Comes Home” because instead of spending his talents on stories involving women (as George Cukor and other Gay male filmmakers had done in the past), he had returned to his roots and made a sexually and socially edgy tale in which the protagonists were Gay, Bisexual or “Gay for pay” men. Woody Allen’s new movie, Whatever Works, has a similar — and similarly welcome — sense of “homecoming” about it. Allen has “come home” literally; after a series of movies both shot and set in Europe, mainly because European financiers are more likely than American ones to back films that aren’t based on comic books, don’t star superheroes and don’t feature spectacular action scenes, Whatever Works is both set on Allen’s home turf, New York City, and was shot there.

Allen has also “come home” thematically. Like his masterpieces from the 1970’s and 1980’s (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters), Whatever Works is a film about the impermanence of human relationships, the ease with which people fall both in and out of love and the ways they simultaneously strive for happiness and sabotage that quest. His protagonist, Boris Yellnikoff (played by Seinfeld creator Larry David), is a bitter old curmudgeon, a retired nuclear physicist whose first marriage ended when his wife announced she was leaving him and he responded by hurling himself out the window of their beautiful moderne apartment. Now he’s reduced to living in a hovel and spending his time grousing with his old Jewish friends — did I tell you he’s Jewish? He’s a Woody Allen lead, isn’t he? — freely expressing his contempt for the rest of humanity. He’s got such a low opinion of the intelligence of just about everyone else that “inchworms” and “cretins” are the kindest things he calls his fellow humans, and when a woman complains that instead of teaching her son to play chess (seemingly his only source of income) he hit him on the head with the chessboard, he patiently explains that he didn’t; he just upended the board and poured the pieces over the little moron’s head.

Love comes into Boris’s loveless life anyway when he takes in a runaway, Melodie St. Ann Celestine (played with just the right degree of guilelessness by Evan Rachel Wood, who outdoes Reese Witherspoon at Reese’s own act). Even for a movie couple, they’re a mismatch made in hell; she’s blonde, she’s not Jewish, she’s an airhead, she’s one-third his age and she’s a runaway from a dysfunctional Southern family. Her parents, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) and John (a well-weathered Ed Begley, Jr.), broke up when John ran off with Marietta’s best friend — though that doesn’t stop them from coming, separately, to New York with the intent of bringing her back home. That doesn’t stop Boris from squiring Melodie around the city, showing her all the tourist attractions he’s so carefully avoided seeing in all his years there, and ultimately their companionship blooms into love and (then) marriage.

From then the plot is a bizarre series of reversals and character transformations that stretch, but fortunately don’t break, the bounds of credibility. One of the characters comes out as Queer, and as he did in Radio Days Allen tells this strand of his plot quietly, calmly, with dignity and an awareness rare in filmmakers generally that same-sex love really isn’t any different from opposite-sex love and it isn’t worth getting ourselves in a snit about. Like Hannah and Her Sisters, the film ends with an uneasy but hopeful coming-together of the various characters that provides a satisfying resolution to the story even as it leaves us making a sequel in our own heads and wondering how these people will continue to separate and recombine in the future.

Allen’s direction is utterly sure-footed. There’s nothing of the hesitation that has sometimes creeped into his filmmaking when he’s wondered why he was working abroad or in another genre or with stars he was told were popular whether they were right for his film or not. He gets marvelous performances from all his cast members, top to bottom, in a film that’s simultaneously an ensemble piece and a tour de force for Larry David. Reportedly Whatever Works was an old script Allen had written decades ago for Zero Mostel, who died in 1977, but only dug out of his files recently. It’s probably just as well he didn’t make it then; not only does this film strike me as a piece that, like Brian Wilson’s album Smile, it took a young man to conceive and an older, more experienced man to make, but Mostel would have been way too overbearing in the lead and you’d have wanted to strangle him after about 15 minutes. (The one film Mostel is remembered for, The Producers, worked because he was playing a character as offensively overbearing as he was.)

Watching Whatever Works, I wondered how the film might have been different if Woody Allen had played the lead himself. He’s certainly old enough for it by now, he’s got the same Jewishkeit as Larry David, and as an on-screen nerd before the word “nerd” even existed Allen would have been more believable as a retired nuclear physicist. But while Allen would have done the curmudgeonliness of the character as well as David, I think he would have had trouble with the lovability that’s supposed to lie underneath it. Boris Yellnikoff (no doubt Allen deliberately intended the pun on the word “yell” in his last name) is really a warm-hearted soul under all the misanthropic bluster, and David digs into the surface of the character and gives us both sides. In a film filled with typically Allenesque ironies, one of the biggest ironies of Whatever Works is entirely off-screen: the way a man best known for creating a hit TV series that was billed as “a show about nothing” is so adept at playing the lead in a film about something.

Perhaps no director since the great Ernst Lubitsch has built his films so much around “touches” — little bits of off-the-wall business that at once advance the action, offer us dramatic insights and simultaneously remind us that it’s only a movie — as Woody Allen. Whatever Works is full of them, from the name of the rock band Melodie goes to see with Perry (John Gallagher, Jr.) on her first New York date with someone her own age — “Anal Sphincter” — to the Hannah and Her Sisters-esque contrast between her and Boris’s musical tastes as a metaphor for their differences as people. Boris’s theme song is “If I Could Be with You One Hour Tonight,” presented in a 1950’s mood-music version credited to Jackie Gleason — the star TV comedian had a recording contract with Capitol, but his records weren’t comedy albums but easy-listening compilations, many (like this one) featuring the warm trumpet sound of jazz musician Bobby Hackett. Though the song’s yearning lyrics (“If I could be with you I’d love you long/If I could be with you I’d love you oh so strong”) aren’t heard in the film, Hackett “sings” them so eloquently with his horn that the record takes on the symbolic meaning Allen wants it to: as a metaphor for the ideal of romantic love his characters hold in their hearts even though they’re often sabotaging their quests for it.

Another one of the “touches” in Whatever Works is the way Larry David — like two of the comedians Allen idolized when he was growing up, Groucho Marx and Bob Hope — periodically turns to the camera and addresses the audience directly. Here the man who made The Purple Rose of Cairo (an inversion of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr.: in Keaton’s film a movie projectionist dreamed his way into the film he was showing; in Purple Rose a movie character stepped off the screen into the “real” world) at once titillates and frustrates our expectations of what a movie should be and casts us as voyeurs, eavesdropping on the lives and actions of his characters. It’s a device Allen uses cleverly and with restraint — he could easily have overdone it and left us with the impression we were being harangued by Larry David’s character, but he didn’t — that adds piquancy to the film much like the ironic titles that commented on the action in Hannah and Her Sisters.

Is there anything not to like about Whatever Works? A few things: the cinematography by Harris Savides is way too dark and grungy — it’s one of those movies in which so much of everything is brown, one wonders if they’re going to use so little of the spectrum why don’t they just film it in black-and-white (as Allen actually did in Manhattan and Stardust Memories). And, at least for my taste, John Gallagher, Jr. disappears way too quickly and the actor whose character takes over his story function, Henry Cavill, is hardly as interesting either as a body or a personality. But for the most part, Whatever Works is a marvelous movie, quiet, low-keyed, moving, thematically and emotionally rich, genuinely entertaining instead of intellectually arid, and — most important of all — very, very funny. Even if you haven’t seen a Woody Allen movie in years, you owe it to yourself to see this one. Welcome home, Woody Allen.

Whatever Works opens Friday, June 26 at the Landmark Cinemas Hillcrest, 3965 Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. Please call (619) 819-0236 for showtimes and other information.

The Bourne Identity (Alan Shayne Productions, 1988)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I looked for a recent (more or less) DVD and found it in The Bourne Identity — not the 2003 theatrical film starring Matt Damon but an earlier TV miniseries from 1988 with Richard Chamberlain as Bourne, exciting thriller direction by Roger Young and a script by Carol Sobieski that reportedly (I couldn’t tell because I’ve neither read the book nor seen the Damon version) sticks closer to the original novel by Robert Ludlum than the more recent theatrical film. The Bourne Identity stars Richard Chamberlain (“back then it was legally required that Richard Chamberlain be in every mini-series!” Charles joked) as a mysterious man who, when we’re introduced to him, is being fired upon by gunmen whom he can’t get away from because they’re all on a boat sailing off the coast of southern France. He falls off the boat and ultimately floats to the surface, barely alive, where he’s discovered by Geoffrey Washburn (Denholm Elliott), an alcoholic doctor who lost his license when his drunken malpractice killed a patient.

Washburn takes all the bullets out of his body and also extracts, from an implant under the stranger’s skin, a piece of microfilm that contains the name of a Swiss bank and the number for one of its secret accounts. Once he recovers, the stranger travels to Zürich (for an American film, it’s surprising to see the umlaut where it belongs!) to access the account and see if he can discover who and what he is — and for the first half of this surprisingly compelling movie the plot seems like Ian Fleming meets Franz Kafka. He shows up at the Carillon du Lac hotel (for a while I misheard the soundtrack and thought they were saying “Carrion du Lac,” which would have been considerably kinkier), where he pretends to have a sprained hand and therefore unable to fill out the registration, so the hotel clerk, who recognizes him, obligingly writes down the name “J. Bourne” and he finally has at least the shard of an identity. He also finds out that just about everyone he meets in the movie is out to kill him, and that he’s able to keep himself alive because the one skill he has — which he preserves by instinct even though he still only has the haziest idea of who and what he is — is to shoot people.

Eventually he gets embroiled with a Canadian economics professor, Marie St. Jacques (Jaclyn Smith), and he takes her hostage when his enemies ambush him in the hall where she’s supposed to give a lecture about international trade. From there the action of the movie moves to Paris and then New York (where a passing shot of the two World Trade Center towers evokes a twinge of emotion), as he discovers that his first name is Jason and fears that he’s really Carlos the terrorist. Carlos — also known as “Carlos the Jackal,” after the assassin in Frederick Forsyth’s book The Day of the Jackal — was a real-life mercenary who was born in Venezuela in 1949 (his original name was Ilich Ramirez Sánchez) and, like Ludlum’s fictional version of him, was considered a terrorist of almost superhuman powers until he was finally apprehended in Sudan in 1994 and extradited to France, where he’s now serving a life sentence for murder. In the movie, Carlos has just assassinated the U.S. ambassador to France and Bourne wonders whether he is Carlos, but in the end he turns out to be David Webb, the son of a close friend of CIA bigwig David Abbott (Donald Moffat), who tapped him for a secret assignment: assuming the identity of a psychopathic ex-agent the CIA had dispatched, he was supposed to travel around the world and take out America’s enemies, posing as a hit man doing this work free-lance, and copy Carlos’s M.O. so closely that the real Carlos would get pissed, come out of hiding, go after Webb/Bourne and thereby enable the CIA either to capture or kill him.

The Bourne Identity isn’t a great movie, and it suffers from the miscasting of both Chamberlain (he’s too nice an actor to be credible as a man of mystery — which is not to suggest that Matt Damon was likely any better!) and, even worse, Smith (one would expect that her previous stint as one of Charlie’s original angels would have suited her better for a thriller role than the panicked pouting she falls back on through most of this film), but it’s a well-constructed story (even though it starts to drag in part two, after most of Bourne’s secrets are revealed, and instead of a collaboration between Ian Fleming and Franz Kafka it starts seeming like one between Fleming and Marcel Proust!) and director Young shows a flair for suspense and action far beyond some more prestigious feature-film directors working with more important stars! Interestingly, this film ends with a major shoot-out in which Bourne kills Carlos — definitely a departure from Ludlum’s books, which kept Carlos alive through two sequels and rematched him and Bourne in book three, The Bourne Supremacy — and the feature-film series based on all three of Ludlum’s Bourne novels omits Carlos as a character altogether.

American Experience: The Living Weapon (PBS, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched two films on a DVD I’d recorded in the wee hours from KPBS, including an American Experience episode called “The Living Weapon” about the U.S. biological weapons research program, which existed secretly and tested biological agents (sometimes with “simulants” — harmless, or at least hopefully harmless, bacteria that would spread similarly to lethal or pathogenic ones — and sometimes with the real thing; the guinea pigs for the latter were usually Seventh Day Adventists whose religion forbade them to bear weapons but not to serve in a non-combat role; they were also forbidden to smoke or drink and therefore were generally healthier than most servicemembers, which made them good subjects for bioweapon research for isolate-the-variable reasons; if they got sick the scientists could be reasonably confident that it was the agents they were exposing them to that were making them sick).

The program started in 1942 at the request of the British government, who were concerned that the Germans might drop biological agents (particularly anthrax) on British cities as an offensive weapon, and they wanted anthrax stockpiles of their own and turned to the U.S. because we could produce them in far more massive quantities than they could. That’s when the biological weapons research center at Fort Detrick, Maryland was founded — and interestingly, the first head of it was Ira Sullivan, head of the biology department at the University of Wisconsin, who was recruited and took the job despite his Quaker background and the overall distaste for war with which that had left him. Later the program’s chairs decided they needed a place to expose servicemembers to biological agents “in the field,” and so they set up the infamous “proving ground” at Dugway, Utah (in one instance flying their Seventh Day Adventist volunteers out to Utah, exposing them and then flying them back for observation just a day later!) — and the program hummed along until it got involved in the agitation around the Viet Nam war, in which the U.S. government used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon (for the first time since World War I) and also spread the defoliant Agent Orange — which turned out to be at least as dangerous to our servicemembers as anyone else.

After a major accident at Dugway in which an agent they were testing blew away in the wind and killed 6,000 sheep on nearby ranches, in 1969 President Nixon bowed to public pressure and halted the bioweapons program by executive order (imagine that — a Republican President actually doing something humane!). I’m surprised the show didn’t point out the obvious practical objection to biological weapons (as differentiated from the moral ones), namely that a bacterium or virus doesn’t know friend from foe and under field conditions, with winds blowing this way and that, it’s hard to ensure that a biological battlefield weapon kills the other guys and leaves your forces alone. (That was a problem with chemical weapons, too, which is why the first Geneva Convention, signed in 1925, banned them — though the U.S., scofflaw nation as it’s consistently been on such matters, didn’t actually ratify this treaty until 1975!)

Other than that, this was a nicely done show; it was amazing just how much film footage of the bioweapons tests still exists, and it also made the point that, like the scientists who invented the atomic bomb during World War II, the ones in the bioweapons program justified their work on the basis that we were dealing with a particularly evil, unscrupulous enemy that was probably developing bioweapons themselves and wouldn’t have qualms about using them — though, ironically, at least as far as the Germans were concerned we needn’t have worried; for all the evil things he did, Adolf Hitler had been so traumatized by being on the receiving end of a gas attack in World War I (it left him incapacitated for several weeks, during which time the war ended) that he forbade German forces from using chemical or biological weapons.

This was not the case in Japan, however, where a scientist named Ishii not only pushed a bioweapons program but tested it on Chinese in Japanese-occupied territory — and got a free pass from any war crimes trial because the U.S. bioweapons researchers wanted his data. It’s fascinating how Nazism remains “the gift that keeps on giving,” that because the Nazis were (generally) so unscrupulous we felt we had to sink to their level, and ever since then we’ve been justifying it by reference to a steady succession of “existential” enemies: the Soviet Union and now “terrorists.” At the same time, as I’ve pointed out here earlier, the whole idea that it was 20th century war that blurred the distinction between combatants and civilians is nonsense; armies have been targeting civilians as long as nation-states have existed and fought each other — in ancient times with sieges and catapults; in the 19th century with long-range cannon; and in the 20th century with bombing planes and, later, rockets. The idea that war can be somehow “professionalized” and the civilian population insulated from it is, and has always been, utter nonsense, preached by those who want to make war seem more antiseptic and “clean” than it is or can ever be.

America at a Crossroads/The Mosque in Morgantown

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The other film I watched this morning was an episode of an occasional series called America at a Crossroads, and it was called “The Mosque in Morgantown” and dealt with the conflict at the Islamic Center of Morgantown, Virginia, which achieve national notoriety even though the small college town only has about 500 Muslims in it, and most of them are students or teachers at the local university. The central character is Asra Nomani, who gets upset at her local mosque because women are not allowed to worship in the same hall as men — a separate balcony is set up for them — and she regards this as unfair discrimination and against the best principles of her religion. Nomani’s background is highly unconventional — she studied journalism at the local university and left Morgantown to work for the Wall Street Journal, where she was assigned to cover the war in Afghanistan and its spillover into Pakistan at the same time as another Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl — whose murder by Pakistani Islamists naturally horrified her and made her less inclined to accept the most conservative interpretations of Islam.

In Pakistan she had an affair and got pregnant, and decided to return to Morgantown because she thought it would be a good place to raise her son as a single mother — only by having a baby out of wedlock she had violated Islamic teachings, and she scandalized the local congregation still further when she went to the front door of the mosque and demanded to be let in (women are only supposed to enter via the back door) and to be allowed to pray on the same floor as the men. This show could easily have turned into a heroine-and-villains tale — noble woman heroically resisting the men in charge of her religion and their sexist strictures about women’s proper behavior (at least one of the mosque officials justifies the policy of segregation by saying that in the prostrate position in which Muslims pray, women’s asses would be sticking up and this would inflame the lusts of men if they were allowed to pray in the same space at the same time!) — but director Brittany Huckabee had a broader agenda in mind, encompassing the women in the Morgantown mosque who have no trouble with and even support the segregation, and she’s fair to both sides in the argument.

The controversy inflames itself as both sides dig in and attitudes harden — at one point the men running the mosque are actually preaching sermons and publishing prayers for Allah to strike Nomani with some unspecified but undoubtedly dire punishment — while Nomani goes on a book tour to promote her memoir, Standing Alone in Mecca (the title is a reflection on the fact that when she went on the hajj she was able to worship in the same room, and at the same time, as men; and why should a mosque in America be pissier about the subject that Islam HQ back where the religion was founded?) and gets herself covered by CNN and ABC. At the same time the film is a subtle but unmistakable indictment of the religious mentality in general, particularly the conservatives’ argument that the Quran was delivered complete and entire by God through the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad and therefore it is unalterable — versus the modernizers’ argument that the Quran, like any other book of moral teachings, needs to be read in historical context and its lessons applied to the modern world. Obviously this kind of conflict is hardly unique to Islam — it’s essentially the battle in our own majority culture between evangelical and mainline Christianity — and Nomani is clearly aware of this tradition since her ultimate protest is to write a 99-point critique of the mosque’s teachings and fasten it to their door in deliberate evocation of Martin Luther’s similar protest against the Roman Catholic hierarchy of his day.

The Mosque in Morgantown is a fascinating movie, made so especially by Huckabee’s refusal to paint the struggle in black-and-white terms — and it’s a bit of point-making that should be required viewing for people in this country who are continually calling on the Muslim world to “moderate” itself (sometimes while they themselves subscribe to the more Fundamentalist varieties of Christianity!) and vastly underestimating the difficulties involved — and the protest of some of the conservatives in the movie against their being equated with the 9/11 terrorists and Daniel Pearl’s murderers rings true (truer, quite frankly, than the whining of anti-abortion activists in the official “pro-life” movement about the murder of Dr. George Tiller when the viciousness of their rhetoric not only can have the effect of encouraging the more demented members of their movement to murder abortion providers but, I think, is designed to do that!).