Monday, March 30, 2015

The Red Danube (MGM, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a rather odd movie two nights ago: The Red Danube, produced by MGM in 1949 and set mostly in Vienna during the Allied occupation after World War II, when Austria — like Germany — was divided into four zones, each run by one of the great powers that had ended up on the winning side in the war: the U.S., Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. The premise of the film, based on a novel called Vespers in Vienna by Bruce Marshall and adapted by Gina Kaus, Arthur Wimperis and an uncredited Carey Wilson, centers around the agreement between the occupying powers that any one of their citizens in another power’s occupying zone would be returned to their own zone on request — or rather, demand, since the intrigue of the film centers around Russian Col. Piniev (Louis Calhern, essentially playing seriously the sinister foreign leader he spoofed so memorably in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup) attempting to grab every Soviet citizen he can identify from the British zone and the growing awareness of the British commander, Col. Michael S. “Hooky” Nicobar (Walter Pidgeon, top-billed), that if he yields to these demands he’s essentially sentencing everyone he “repatriates” to a slave-labor camp or a one-way ticket to the gulag in Siberia. The film actually begins in Rome, where we’re quickly introduced to Nicobar (the risibility of the names Bruce Marshall gave these characters really gets tiresome after a while) and his two key staff members, ladies’ man Major John “Twinko” McPhimister (Peter Lawford at the height of his boyish good looks and charm) and secretary Audrey Quail (Angela Lansbury, wasted at MGM as she usually was after her early roles in Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray), and some grim bits of humor as all the Italians they meet try to convince them that they were really believers in democracy and secretly hated Mussolini all the time he was in power. Among them is an Italian countess (played by Audrey Young, later Mrs. Billy Wilder) who’s Twinko’s latest squeeze. The trio get transferred to Vienna (to a brief snatch of the inevitable “The Blue Danube” on the soundtrack — earlier in Rome we’d heard a not-bad jazz version of “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” in the background as Twinko romances his countess) and it’s not until 40 minutes into this 119-minute movie that anything like a plot emerges. Nicobar, much to his dismay, finds that the only billet available for himself and his staff to stay is a convent, run by a mother superior named Auxilia (Ethel Barrymore, who more than usual looks like one of her brothers in drag), and they get to do a lot of boring arguing not only about the war but also about God, whom Nicobar hasn’t believe in since World War I cost him not only his left arm (though undoubtedly Pidgeon’s real left arm was merely pinned behind him under his jacket, he’s reasonably convincing as an amputee — even though I couldn’t help but joke, “So that’s why he wanted to go to Altair-4! He thought the Krell technology would help him grow a new arm!”) but also the life of his son, an airman who was shot down over Germany just one day after he had written his dad saying that the experiences of the war had led him and the other members of his unit to convert to Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular.

What’s amazing is that, except for one scene in which Nicobar takes delivery of a group of old, sick, decrepit refugees on a train — they’re Soviet citizens but the Soviets have sent them back and dumped them on the British because they’re too weak to be useful as slave laborers — there isn’t any real attempt to dramatize why so many people who are technically Soviet nationals would so desperately want not to go back there. We’re told that a lot of the people involved are ethnic Germans, part of a pre-war enclave of Germans in Russia but technically citizens of the Soviet Union since they were born on Russian soil, and early on in the movie one of them, Professor Serge Bruloff (Konstantin Shayne), shoots himself rather than go back after extracting a promise from Nicobar to protect Bruloff’s wife, Helena Nagard (played by Konstantin Shayne’s real-life wife Tamara, who played Al Jolson’s mother in The Jolson Story) from deportation — though in the event Helena is deported, then returned on that train from hell. Apparently the filmmakers, including director George Sidney (who got quite a lot of plum assignments from the influence of his father, MGM executive L. K. Sidney, and usually was an uninteresting hack filmmaker but here, with Charlie Rosher as his cinematographer, actually gets in a few semi-noir compositions, with dark shadows and oblique angles, though the script was just too banal to allow for any moral complexities to go along with the visual fireworks), had been looking at Josef von Sternberg for inspiration, since there are similar (but much more moving) sequences in his films The Last Command and Shanghai Express. The main intrigue has to do with Maria Buhlen (Janet Leigh, before she learned how to act), a dancer in the chorus of the Vienna State Opera — their theatre had been bombed by the Allies in 1945 and at the time this movie was made still hadn’t been rebuilt (it wouldn’t reopen until 1955), but the opera itself was staging performances in whatever makeshift venues they could find — who turns out really to be former Moscow Ballet star Olga Alexandrova, hiding out in the chorus because she knows that if she’s ever returned to the Soviet Union she’ll be put on trial for “subversive activities” (a phrase that sits oddly on the lips of Russians when we’re used to hearing it from McCarthyite Americans in the same era!) and given some sort of Fate Worse than Death.

Twinko falls genuinely in love with Maria, a.k.a. Olga, and the combination of the power of their love and the dedication of Mother Auxilia to protecting her and the others who have come to the convent for sanctuary leads Nicobar first to lobby the United Nations to demand a change in the policy requiring the wartime allies to repatriate each other’s nationals, then to defy a direct order from his superior (identified in the character list only as “The General” and played by Batman’s butler, Alan Napier), demanding the immediate repatriation of Maria and ordering him to turn her over to Russian Col. Piniev. Nicobar’s resistance is futile, it turns out, because he’s immediately relieved of his command and arrested, and his replacement, Col. Humphrey “Blinker” Omicron (Francis L. Sullivan), turns Maria over to the Russians — only before they can take her she hurls herself out of a convenient window, thereby becoming the second person we’ve seen to commit suicide rather than go back to the U.S. The Red Danube is one of those frustrating bad movies with a good movie in it struggling to get to freedom against the Col. Pinievs in the MGM executive office shoe-horning it into the usual formulae; it reflects the influence of then-MGM production head Dore Schary — a New Deal liberal at a time when New Deal liberalism had become decidedly passé, with a penchant for inserting social commentary into films, which wouldn’t have been a problem except he did it so ham-handedly, with characters going on and on and on about their political, social, economic and religious beliefs. (One wag said when Schary was finally fired in 1956 that he had “sold MGM’s birthright for a pot of message.”) It doesn’t help that just after The Red Danube a British film crew went into the real occupied Vienna (The Red Danube’s final credit proclaims it was “Filmed in Hollywood, U.S.A.,” though there was quite obviously a lot of second-unit work in Rome and Vienna — including one intriguing side trip on which Nicobar, disgused as a general since he “inadvertently” took one’s coat, takes Mother Auxilia to Rome and we see a nice stock shot of the Pope addressing the multitudes in the courtyard of Vatican City) and made a masterpiece, The Third Man, whose plot was straightforward thriller with no political or religious connotations but which nonetheless did a far better job than The Red Danube of portraying an occupied city as a hotbed of amorality and greed. The Red Danube is that most frustrating sort of bad movie, one that had the seeds of a good movie in it but which fell so far short in the execution it’s little more than a ponderous two-hour bore.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (20th Century-Fox, TSG Entertainment, Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a title legendary in the annals of short-story writing because it was written by James Thurber and was an instant hit when it was first published in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939. The Wikipedia page on the story summarizes it thusly: “The short story deals with a vague and mild-mannered man who drives into Waterbury, Connecticut, with his wife for their regular weekly shopping and his wife's visit to the beauty parlor. During this time he has five heroic daydream episodes. The first is as a pilot of a U.S. Navy flying boat in a storm, then he is a magnificent surgeon performing a one-of-a-kind surgery, then as a deadly assassin testifying in a courtroom, and then as a Royal Air Force pilot volunteering for a daring, secret suicide mission to bomb an ammunition dump. As the story ends, Mitty imagines himself facing a firing squad, ‘inscrutable to the last.’” The story became legendary not only for its basic concept — a milquetoast middle-aged man with a nagging wife and a nothing job fulfills himself in his daydreams, in which he fantasizes himself as a great hero — but also for the onomatopoeic device Thurber used of having various machines in Mitty’s daydreams make the sound “ta-pocketa-pocketa” (or, in one case, “ta-pocketa-pocketa-queep” when the machine is about to break down before Mitty keeps it going by jamming his ballpoint pen into it). The story was a big enough hit to attract the attention of Hollywood — in this case, producer Sam Goldwyn, who bought the film rights and in 1947 turned it into a vehicle for Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo and Boris Karloff, but Goldwyn and the people he put on the project, director Norman Z. McLeod and writers Ken Englund, Everett Freeman and an uncredited Philip Rapp, made a basic change in the material: in their version Mitty (young and unmarried instead of middle-aged and hitched as in Thurber’s story) meets a “mystery woman” and gets involved in a real-life intrigue as wild and fantastic as anything he’s ever daydreamed about. The 2013 version of Mitty was a co-production between what was left of Goldwyn’s company by then and 20th-Century Fox, along with something called “TSG Entertainment,” after previous attempts to set up a modern remake at Paramount fell through. It starred Ben Stiller, who also directed, and was clearly an attempt on his part to do a quieter, more subtle sort of comedy and transform his image the way Will Ferrell had with the masterpiece Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and while hardly as good as Stranger Than Fiction it’s a nicely entertaining film even though it’s more wryly amusing than laugh-out-loud funny.

Like the 1947 version, the 2013 Mitty makes Walter Mitty an employee of a publishing house (Thurber didn’t specify exactly what Mitty did for a living except it was a white-collar job in an office and was excruciatingly boring), only while in 1947 Mitty worked as a proofreader for a pulp-fiction publisher, in 2013 he worked in the Time & Life building for Life magazine — and in the opening scenes an officious asshole named Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott with a gravity-defying hairdo) announces that Life has just been “acquired” — he doesn’t say by whom — and within a month will be publishing its last print edition, after which it will only be a Web site: “Life online.” Mitty works as a “negative assets manager,” which sounds like an accountant who chronicles how much money the enterprise is losing but turns out to mean “negative” as in photography — he literally keeps track of the negatives of all the photos Life has run or is considering. He’s had a long correspondence relationship with the legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn and, I suspect, deliberately given the same first name as the actor), who trusts him with his negatives more than he does anyone else in the enterprise even though the two have never met, and the plot gets underway when Mitty’s department receives a roll of developed but unprinted negatives from O’Connell, wherever he happens to be in the world, only the one O’Connell says is the best of the lot, the “quintessence” of his work (a word Ted Hendricks has never heard before and, when someone tries to explain to him what it means, he hilariously mangles it), number 25, is missing from the negative roll. Without authorization or a travel budget, Mitty sets out across the world to find O’Connell, with the help of the woman at Life with whom he’s in unrequited love, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), who helps him interpret mysterious clues O’Connell has left on a wrapper of Clementine cake (I’d never heard of it before but it’s apparently Mitty’s favorite sort of cake, regularly baked for him by his mom — played by Shirley MacLaine, of all people) that leads him to Greenland, Iceland (where Mitty and his guide drive through a huge smoke cloud sent up by a volcano in the process of erupting) and the Himalayas (where Mitty finally finds O’Connell taking a photo of the elusive snow leopard — or, rather, not taking it, since like a true Sean Penn character O’Connell decides not to spoil the moment by photographing it). O’Connell has also sent Mitty a wallet embossed with the motto Henry Luce wrote for Life magazine when he founded it in 1936: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of Life.” We get about an hour before anyone in the film does that O’Connell has concealed negative #25 in the wallet, but Mitty carries the damned thing around with him for half the world (including dunking it in the Pacific Ocean when he leaps from a helicopter into the water so he can be picked up by a ship O’Connell may be on … but isn’t) and then casually throws it away in his mom’s trash can — though mom saves the day by retrieving it from the trash (Mater ex machina) and the photo turns out to be one of Mitty himself.

Also in the cast is Tim Naughton (Jon Daly), who works the tech support line at the e-Harmony dating service where Mitty has posted a profile and paid the $500 fee but hasn’t been able to attract any “winks” — e-Harmony’s version of a “like” on Facebook, I guess (I haven’t had to use it and fortunately one of the nice things about Charles and I having been together as long as we have — nearly 20 years — is that neither of us have had to deal with the perils and frustrations of Internet dating) — while his own computer or e-Harmony’s software or whatever have blocked him from posting a “wink” on Cheryl’s. Tim and Mitty talk by phone all across the world, including all those remote places Mitty goes to search for O’Connell, yet Mitty’s cell phone continues to work for weeks on end even though he’s in locations without electrical power and therefore has no way to recharge it. (Mitty is fired from his job midway through the movie and he wasn’t making much to begin with, and writer Conrad never bothers to tell us how he finances his trip[1] any more than he bothers to tell us how Mitty keeps his phone charged — indeed, these plot holes were so blatant and annoying I was waiting for a Seven Keys to Baldpate-style payoff in which the entire movie would turn out to be just another one of Mitty’s daydreams.) Though I had some disaffections with it, all in all I liked The Secret Life of Walter Mitty — though it didn’t do justice to the original Thurber tale any more than the 1947 version had (but then I don’t think a mere movie could do justice to the story — the individual incidents Thurber described are all filmable but the totality of what he was writing about would fall apart if his story were filmed come scritto), on its own it was a lovely film, quietly and unobtrusively funny (a surprise from a film talent as notorious for pushing the bad-taste envelope as Ben Stiller), with a fascinating “take” on corporate America and an unexpected (maybe not that unexpected, given the anti-globalization satire Stiller and his collaborators worked into Zoolander) social comment about how people’s jobs are determined by machinations among giant corporations thousands of miles away and therefore just because you’re doing your job satisfactorily, or even superlatively, well today doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll still have it tomorrow. And for all Stiller’s reputation as a zany, envelope-pushing comedian, he’s quite restrained (and therefore, at least to me, more funny) here than usual, and both he and Kristen Wiig are more appropriate casting than Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo were 66 years earlier!

[1] — Actually, Charles reminded me that we’re shown shots of Mitty’s bankbook which indicates he has at least $3,000 saved up even after his trip to Greenland, so I guess we’re supposed to believe he was financing his trip with his savings. He also pointed out that Mitty’s mom described him as the “worker bee” and his sister Odessa (Kathryn Hahn), who’s pursuing a career as an actress, her “performance-art bee.”

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Brain Eaters (Corinthian/American International, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a movie we had recently downloaded from, though with some peculiar glitches — every so often the figures in the middle of the screen would get blurry and look like they were about to dissolve, then in a few seconds they would snap back to normal (the first time this happened was during the opening credits and at first I assumed it was a deliberate effect on the part of the original filmmakers, designed to make their movie “spacier,” but no-o-o-o-o). The film was The Brain Eaters, a 1958 release from Roger Corman’s Corinthian Productions via American International, though only one hour long, and directed by Bruno VeSota from an “original” script by Gordon Urquhart that turned out to be an uncredited semi-adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (Heinlein sued for plagiarism and the case was settled out of court). Actually the film is at least as much a ripoff of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and AIP’s other ripoff of Body Snatchers as it was of anything else. It takes place in the town of Riverdale, Illinois, where on their way to their engagement party Dr. Paul Kettering (Edwin Nelson) and his assistant and fiancée Alice Summers (Joanna Lee, who a year later appeared in Ed Wood’s messterpiece Plan Nine from Outer Space before she blessedly switched careers and became a successful writer of made-for-TV movies, including That Certain Summer, virtually the first serious treatment of homosexuality ever to make it onto American TV) discover a strange cone, 50 feet high, sticking out of the ground. It turns out to be made of a previously unknown metal impervious to all human weapons and disintegrating agents, and it contains parasites about a foot long with two white pincers in the front with which they can penetrate a human in the back of the neck and sap them of their own will, leaving them almost totally under the parasite’s control. I say “almost totally” because a few people try to fight back — including the mayor of the town, who when he realizes what’s happened to him tries to commit suicide with a gun he conveniently kept in his office, only the parasite won’t let him. As in It Conquered the World, the parasites don’t just attack random citizens; they specifically target people with some degree of political, military or scientific authority.

About midway through the film we get the big switcheroo, sort of; instead of being from outer space the craft and the parasite creatures inside it are from inside the earth — they evolved 250 million years ago during the Carboniferous Age (the one that formed all fossil fuels, narrator Robert Ball in the character of “Dan Walker” explains to us) and have now decided to take over and bring about an era of world peace and an end to violence, though like a lot of other would-be utopians from other worlds in Cold War-era science fiction they are using highly violent tactics to achieve their “nonviolent” ends. The Brain Eaters has got mostly bad press — in their books on bad movies Harry and Michael Medved said that any potential for fright was vitiated by the monster parasites looking like “fluffy bedroom slippers” (actually they were wind-up toys Edwin Nelson, who produced the movie as well as starring in it) and made fun of the ripped-off background music (mostly from Soviet-era Russian composers like Shostakovich and Prokofieff, though I clearly recognized the Prelude to Act III of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde during a scene in which Dr. Kettering explores the inside of the craft — “original” composer Tom Jonson was being savvier than his colleague, scenarist Urquhart, in only ripping off people who were in the public domain in the U.S.: in Wagner’s case because he’d been dead for 75 years and in Prokofieff’s and Shostakovich’s case because Lenin had renounced intellectual property laws and whatever copyrights existed in the Soviet Union weren’t recognized here) — but the person who posted it to was clearly pushing it not as a campy-bad movie but a worthy work in its own right: “This could be considered a rip off of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World, except for something you will only discover by watching it, and it is worth watching. [This was obviously a reference to the switch that the monsters are from inside the earth, not from outer space, which impressed Charles not at all: “It’s just Pellucidar instead of Mars!,” he joked.] This is a surprisingly good little drive-in sci fi flick considering the extreme limitations of its $30,000 budget.” I’d be more likely to say that about Tom Graeff’s fascinating Teenagers from Outer Space (also available from, which is a considerably better and more thoughtful movie than The Brain Eaters. 

Not that The Brain Eaters is bad as can be; director VeSota actually does a few things right, including shooting a lot of tilted-camera shots, showing the parasites themselves mostly in half-light (I get the impression he was influenced by the less-is-more aesthetic of Val Lewton in his “B”-horror masterpieces from the 1940’s) and even showing Joanna Lee’s takeover by the things from a parasite’s P.O.V. shot. Even Urquhart’s script, as tacky and silly as it is throughout — especially in the sequence when a former scientist who has been taken over by the creatures appears as their spokesperson, made up to look like the second coming of Christ, and he’s played by Leonard Nimoy, whose last name is spelled “Nemoy” in the credits — the only actor in this who went on to a successful career, in the very science-fiction genre in which he’d previously turned up in tacky productions like this and the late Republic serial Zombies of the Stratosphere, and they couldn’t even spell his name right! — rises to a genuine bit of tragic pathos at the end, when Dr. Kettering volunteers to hook electrical cables to the craft, thereby electrocuting all the parasites inside it, even though that also means incinerating his girlfriend, who’s just made the big speech (the equivalent of the pod psychiatrist’s speech in the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers) encouraging him to go over to the dark side and become a … well, whatever, and Kettering is briefly possessed himself before Senator Walter K. Powers (Cornelius O’Keefe, billed as “Jack Hill” and not the token white villain in innumerable Blaxploitation films in the 1970’s) shoots Kettering, triggering the electrocution. The Brain Eaters is pretty useless on its own but it’s significant not only for the movies that inspired it but the ones — one in particular — it inspired; in at least one scene Dr. Kettering and Alice are hiding out in a farmhouse and are being menaced by people who’ve been taken over by the parasites, and damned if it doesn’t look just like Night of the Living Dead 10 years early — and apparently George Romero has conceded the influence!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Reagan (Charlotte Street Films, HBO, BBC, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a quite remarkable documentary on PBS called simply Reagan, which was advertised on the KPBS Web site as if it were an in-house production (“Ronald Reagan has been heralded as one of the architects of the modern world and since his death many Americans have been working to cement his legacy. But some critics argue that the aftershocks of Reaganomics is still causing economies to crumble the world over and that the hubris of Reagan’s foreign policy continues to propel America into a cycle of overseas ventures. To such critics, Reagan is an ominous figure who did more harm than good. But who was Ronald Reagan, and how did he come to shape world politics in the way he did?”), but which turned out to be more interesting than that even though it shouldn’t be surprising, given who the filmmaker was, that it told much more of the “black legend” of Reagan than the “white legend.” The filmmaker was Eugene Jarecki, credited as both writer and director, whose previous credits include The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) — which I reviewed when it first came out and called “a liberal film” because it presented Kissinger as an aberration — and Why We Fight (2005), a history of post-World War II American militarism and imperialism which I called (again in a contemporary review) “a radical film” because it showed how continuous the U.S.’s desire to maintain an empire and dominate the world militarily had been no matter what political party was nominally in power. Reagan is a fascinating film because it attempts to be even-handed even though Jarecki’s view is clearly closer to “the ominous figure who did more harm than good” than the secular saint of Republican mythology, which ever since Reagan left the White House in early 1989 has recast him not only as “one of the architects of the modern world” (which he certainly was) but as an example of perfect dedication to conservative principles and unbending resistance to compromise — which he wasn’t. One reviewer compared Jarecki favorably to Michael Moore, essentially saying that Jarecki was one filmmaker who didn’t wear his prejudices on his sleeve or push them on us with the sort of sledgehammer force characteristic of Moore’s documentaries — and indeed Jarecki deserves credit for at least some attempt at balance: he has key architects and supporters of Reagan’s policies (notably Pat Buchanan, Grover Norquist and Arthur Laffer) giving the Reaganite side of some of the controversies surrounding his administration and its policies, though if anything they tend to come off more as buffoons than serious Right-wing intellectuals. One point Jarecki makes is that liberals and Leftists often underestimated not only Reagan’s political appeal but his intelligence; he was not, Jarecki argues, the amiable bumbler of Left-wing legend (I remember when it was announced that Reagan had Alzheimer’s disease, just about all my Leftist friends thought the same thing: “You mean they’re just figuring that out now?”).

The film offers the obligatory portrait of Reagan’s pre-political years, starting with his childhood in Dixon, Illinois (mentioning that he was the child of alcoholics, which in his case gave him even more of a sense of responsibility and a commitment and determination to succeed than he otherwise might have had — something I’m familiar with since my own father was like that as well); his early work as a lifeguard even though he was so heavily nearsighted he once joked he couldn’t recognize anyone, including his brother, from more than 12 feet away; his stint as a radio announcer (it did not mention that one of his jobs as such was to announce baseball games even though he wasn’t at them and his only source of information was a wire report he received with the outcome of each at-bat, from which he was supposed to spin a yarn that would give listeners the impression that they were at a live broadcast; once the wire connection went down and he had to improvise a ballgame for nearly an hour, then hurriedly synchronize his fictitious ballgame with the real one once the wire was restored); and his odd start in Hollywood — courtesy of an early girlfriend, Joy Hodges, who’d already been signed to a starlet contract at Warner Bros. and encouraged Reagan to test as well. Reagan got signed — interestingly there’s a clip here either of his screen test or a promo film Warners shot to introduce him, and he’s pronouncing his last name “RAY-gun” (as he did in his political career) rather than “REE-gun” (the usual way it was spoken during his acting days) — and built up a solid career, occasionally playing supporting roles in big films like Dark Victory and King’s Row but mostly playing leads in “B”-movies. Reagan’s nearsightedness kept him out of actual combat in World War II, but he contributed to the war effort by making propaganda films for the U.S. Army Signal Corps — including Winning Your Wings, in which he plays a hotshot pilot training for military service, which is introduced with front-and-back appearances by President Franklin Roosevelt and is therefore the only movie I can think of offhand that stars two real-life U.S. Presidents. Jarecki also mentions Reagan’s early days as a New Deal liberal (he notes that his father and his brother were both bailed out of financial straits by New Deal programs that got them jobs), and though there’s been quite a lot of dispute as to what caused his politics to shift so radically from Left to Right, Jarecki dates that from the same incident I do: the bitter jurisdictional battle from 1945 to 1947 between two unions over which would represent Hollywood’s set builders. One, the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), was controlled by the Mafia; the other, the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), was secretly controlled by the Communist Party USA — and Reagan, like the rest of liberal Hollywood, originally supported the CSU. Then he learned that the CSU was a Communist front and shocked his liberal friends by abruptly switching sides and backing IATSE on the theory that compared with the Communists, the Mafia were definitely the lesser of two evils.

Reagan’s utter loathing of Communism was his first entrée into the Right — well before he broke up with his first wife, Jane Wyman (to this day Reagan is the only divorcé who has ever served as U.S. President), illustrated here by a headline and a short bit of a news story from the time in which she’s quoted as blaming “politics” for their breakup, and met Nancy Davis and her (adoptive) father, Dr. Loyal Davis, who in some accounts is credited as the magus that moved Reagan Rightward. What drove Reagan into the arms of the Republican party and the radical Right appears to have been not only his fear of Communism (as Jarecki notes in his narration, Communism as practiced by the Soviet Union and, after 1949, China was an existential threat to the U.S., but it was also exploited by Republican politicians who wanted to reverse the New Deal by labeling any economic and social policies other than lassiez-faire capitalism as “socialist” and therefore beyond the ideological pale) but his love of order: though Jarecki doesn’t explicitly make this parallel, it’s striking to note the similarity between his jeremiads against student demonstrators at UC Berkeley as governor of California in 1969 and his determination to fire the striking air traffic controllers in the early days of his Presidency in 1981; in both cases he comes off as a stern parent lecturing children who have misbehaved and insisting that he’s going to show them who’s boss and punish them as severely as possible for their transgressions. The film elides over Reagan’s governorship (though Jarecki later mentions some actions Reagan took as president, including a tax hike that partially made up for the economy-destroying effects of his original tax cuts and signing the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill and proudly proclaiming its “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants as if that were a good thing, that run directly counter to Republican orthodoxy, he doesn’t mention that in 1967 Reagan signed into law the California Therapeutic Abortion Act, the most liberal abortion law in the U.S. at that time) and focuses quite a bit more attention on the periods of transition: the 1950’s, when as host of General Electric Theatre and spokesperson for the company (he was hired by GE’s CEO, Lowell Boulware, to travel to all its factories and give talks about Hollywood and general inspirational Americanism to boost the workers’ morale, but he increasingly filled his speeches with Right-wing politics and was finally fired in 1960 for doing so), his emergence in the 1964 Goldwater for President campaign as a more effective spokesperson for Goldwater’s policies than Goldwater himself, and his years in the political wilderness between leaving the California governorship in 1974 and winning the presidency in 1980.

Jarecki notes that Reagan ran unsuccessfully for President twice before winning the big prize (in 1968 and 1976), challenging the Reagan myth that he was a reluctant Cincinnatus called away from the Reagan Ranch to save the country from the depradations of the Democrats in general and Jimmy Carter in particular. (The footage of the 1980 campaign is especially interesting now that the Republicans are pretty obviously preparing to make 2016 a rerun of it — a Republican man on horseback riding in like the heroes of Reagan’s Westerns to save the country from a hapless Democrat who’s led the nation into economic doldrums and military weakness — and Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee has shown signs she intends to run as hard against Obama’s legacy as against George W. Bush’s, essentially presenting herself as her husband redux and “triangulating” herself as the rational choice between Right-wing crazies like Scott Walker and Ted Cruz and Left-wing crazies like Elizabeth Warren.) Needless to say, most of the show is devoted to Reagan’s presidency, and in particular to the embrace of so-called “supply-side economics” (the theory invented by the appropriately named Arthur Laffer — who comes off as a blithering idiot in Jarecki’s interview of him — that cutting taxes would stimulate so much new business activity that the government would actually raise more revenue), which in practice meant a massive redistribution of wealth and income from everyone else to the very rich; and the defense buildup (which actually had a Keynesian stimulus effect and was the prime cause of the end of Reagan’s recession in 1982 and the relatively good economic times that prevailed for the rest of his presidency and allowed him to win the sweeping electoral victory of 1984). Pat Buchanan noted that Reagan actually sent U.S. troops into harm’s way only three times in his presidency — in Lebanon in 1982, Grenada in 1983 and Libya in 1988 — he preferred to do most of his fighting through proxies like the mujahedin in Afghanistan and the contras in Nicaragua, channeling them aid whether it was technically legal or not. (One set of notes from Reagan’s defense secretary, Casper Weinberger, during a meeting on Iran-contra mentions that Reagan was warned he would be committing an impeachable offense if he approved the diversion of money from weapons sales to Iran to the contras, and Reagan said flat-out he didn’t care.) Oddly, the most interesting interviewee in the entire program is Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan, Jr. (who looks a lot like his dad but has a far craggier, more angular face than Reagan, Sr. had at his age), who’s clearly mixed — he has fond memories of his father personally but is quite mixed about his feelings towards Reagan’s politics.

What’s most interesting about Reagan is its clear statement about the difference between Reagan’s reputation and reality — it even begins with a radio interview from Reagan himself about how myths form around individuals and prevent us from seeing them clearly — and in the 2008 Presidential campaign it was fascinating to note how totally we’d become “Reagan’s America” that both major parties were citing his legacy, with Republicans seizing on his militant Right-wing rhetoric while Democrats (including Obama, who raised hackles on the Left by publicly praising Reagan for his ability to move his agenda) cited the pragmatic conservative he had actually been in office. Clearly Ronald Reagan is the most important figure in American politics in the second half of the 20th century (as Franklin Roosevelt was in the first half), and Reagan has largely succeeded in undoing the New Deal and the entire idea that government owes its less fortunate citizens help — the modern-day Republicans, who claim Reagan’s legacy and have pushed his politics even farther Right than Reagan did himself, now dominate both houses of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court and need only to win the presidency in 2016 (which seems quite likely given that since the passage of the 22nd Amendment limiting the President to two terms — a Republican initiative that proved remarkably short-sighted given that both Eisenhower and Reagan could easily have won third terms if they’d been allowed to run for them, though it’s arguable Clinton might have as well) to complete the “Reagan revolution” and wipe out organized labor, the social-service network, regulations on business, environmental protections and restraints on the U.S. military once and for all.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Hurricane (Samuel Goldwyn/United Artists, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I screened for our friend Garry a movie that’s one of his quirky favorites: The Hurricane, the original 1937 version of this South Seas adventure tale/disaster movie produced by Sam Goldwyn, directed by John Ford and written by Dudley Nichols (whose presence on this assignment practically defines “overqualified”) from an “adaptation” by Oliver H. P. Garrett of a popular potboiler novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, who had written the book Mutiny on the Bounty from which MGM had made its popular Academy Award-winning blockbuster with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable two years earlier. The Hurricane (which was remade by Swedish director Jan Troell in 1979 but without the definite article in its title that time) is one of those stories that treads on the thin edge of risibility, and sometimes goes over, but also at times is genuinely moving. It’s also an odd combination of Hollywood racism and Hollywood anti-racism; it starts out on an ocean liner in the middle of the South Seas, where a young woman tourist is looking at a sandbar in the middle of the Pacific and wondering just how the South Seas islands got their reputation for awesome beauty when the one she’s actually staring at looks like nothing in particular. The person she’s standing next to on board the ship, Dr. Kersaint (Thomas Mitchell, about the only member of the John Ford Stock Company who made it into this cast — though one other actor in it worked with him on at least two other, far more illustrious projects; more on that later), explains that what she’s looking at is all that remains of Manukura (that’s how it’s spelled on the official synopsis for this film, though when the big romantic theme by Alfred Newman was spun off into a pop song that was a mega-hit for Bing Crosby, the title was “Moon of Manakoora”), once the most beautiful South Seas island of all until … At this point Dr. Kersaint starts narrating a flashback that will take up most of the movie, about the star-crossed romance between two of the locals, Terangi (Jon Hall) and Marama (Dorothy Lamour). They’d known each other since they were kids and fell in love once they hit sexual maturity, and they’ve just been married by the local missionary, Father Paul (C. Aubrey Smith in a rather uncharacteristic role for him — one expects to see him as the staunch, imperious representative of the imperialist order, but instead he’s casually dressed and supportive of the natives even though he’s also there to convert them to Christianity), when Terangi’s job as first mate to Captain Nagle (Jerome Cowan in an unusually long and unusually sympathetic role for him, which is nice — he was a first-rate and ill-used actor who’s dispatched in the first reel of his most famous credit, the classic 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon) sends him to Tahiti.

There he gets into a bar fight with a character listed in the credits only as “Abusive Drunk” (William B. Davidson); the drunk threw some racist taunts at him and Terangi responded by punching him out and breaking his jaw. For this he’s sentenced to six months in prison, a sentence that grows to 16 years because he keeps trying to escape and keeps getting caught. But the real villain of the piece is the French governor of Manukura, DeLaage (Raymond Massey — I hadn’t realized just how extensively Goldwyn and Ford cast this movie against “type” until I started writing this; a man who had already played Sherlock Holmes on screen and three years later would play Abraham Lincoln is here an asshole villain who insists on upholding his sense of “honor” and “duty” to the French colonial system over simple justice), who insists on keeping Terangi in prison in Tahiti instead of pardoning him and allowing him to return home. DeLaage remains unmoved by the entreaties of Dr. Kersaint, Father Paul, Captain Nagle and even his own wife (Mary Astor — so this film features two actors who were in the cast of The Maltese Falcon four years later). The secondary villain is the sadistic commandant of the prison in Tahiti where Terangi is being held, who’s played by John Carradine in a virtual Xerox of his performance the year before as the sadistic commandant of the prison in Dry Tortugas off the Florida coast in Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island (a much better movie than The Hurricane) the year before, though Carradine’s best-known role for Ford would come two years after The Hurricane as Preacher Casey in The Grapes of Wrath. As in The Prisoner of Shark Island, Carradine does such a good job of portraying total evil in his treatment of poor Jon Hall he’s scarier here than in a lot of his out-and-out horror movies. Terangi eventually escapes eight years after his incarceration — during that time his wife Marama has born him a daughter, Tita (Ku’ulei de Clercq), whom he’s heard about but never actually seen — and he manages not only to survive the 600-mile journey from Tahiti back home to Manukura on a one-person “warrior canoe,” his provisions limited to the cans he stole from a store in Tahiti during his flight and whatever fish he can kill on the way (there’s a scene in which Jon Hall skin-dives into the water going after a shark, only it turns out he attracts a whole school of sharks, and in one of the few scenes that challenged John Ford’s creativity as a director he does some effective suspense editing before Terangi gets back on board the canoe, unharmed and with the carcass of a shark he can eat to sustain himself the rest of the way), but miraculously he does so with only a thin moustache on his upper lip and just the hint of a beard on his chin. (Of course, a male stranded for days on the open ocean without any way to shave would have grown a full beard along the way.)

Alas, his return to Manukura happens just as the big hurricane is starting — the one that will demolish the island of Manukura and kill most of its inhabitants, native and colonial alike, though the DeLaages will both survive, as will Dr. Kersaint (well, he has to live in order to narrate the story to the woman on board the cruise liner at the beginning and end of the film) as well as Terangi, Marama and their daughter, who escape to another island to which no one goes because there’s a tabu on it (the tabu and the sharks seem to indicate that someone involved in writing this film and/or the source novel had seen the Murnau/Flaherty Tabu from 1931 — and almost certainly Ford and cinematographer Bert Glennon had, because the visual look of The Hurricane is very similar to what co-directors F. W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty and cinematographer Floyd Crosby, father of rock musician David Crosby, had created in Tabu). The Hurricane was an elaborate production for 1937 and visually holds up strikingly well today; Bert Glennon was a protégé of Josef von Sternberg and his association with Ford included The Prisoner of Shark Island and appears to be at least partially responsible for Ford’s curious flirtation with Expressionist camerawork (which began with The Informer in 1935 and ended with The Long Voyage Home in 1940) before he retreated to a more straightforward “look” in his films. Glennon shot just about every exterior in The Hurricane with a red filter, a device possible only in black-and-white which turns the sky almost black, brings out differences of shade in the foliage instead of letting it all register as murky gray, and adds so much not only to the mood of foreboding in the story but to the overall visual eloquence one wonders why anyone ever thought the movies needed color. (Garry tells me he’s seen a colorized version of The Hurricane, which I would assume would be a total disaster; grafting color on Glennon’s spectacular red-filter effects which were designed for black-and-white would probably produce something so murky as to be almost completely unwatchable.) The Hurricane was an unusually well-documented movie production for the time; when it was new Life magazine published a spread on it that revealed Goldwyn’s special-effects person, James Basevi, spent $150,000 building an authentic Polynesian village with a 200-yard-long lagoon and $250,000 destroying it for the final scene (which ranks alongside the destruction of San Francisco in San Francisco, the burning of Chicago in In Old Chicago, the sandstorm in Suez, the burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind, and the earthquake in The Rains Came among a number of quite spectacular disaster sequences in late-1930’s movies). It also indicated that director Stuart Heisler (who was credited only as a film editor) took a second unit to Pago Pago in American Samoa for backgrounds, and some of the Pago Pago scenes involved billed cast members, even though most of the outdoor scenes in Manukura were shot at Hollywood’s all-purpose stand-in for the South Pacific, Catalina Island.

More recent documents, including biographies of Goldwyn and the notes on the film in the American Film Institute Catalog, indicate what Goldwyn went through trying to cast the movie, particularly in finding an actor of the almost ethereal beauty and childlike innocence needed for the role of Terangi. He considered several actors, including Errol Flynn (you’ve got to be kidding!), Mala (the real-life Inuit who’d played his own race in MGM’s 1933 film Eskimo and a Polynesian in Last of the Pagans, also from MGM, in 1935), John Payne and Frank Shields, before settling on his contract player Joel McCrea. McCrea protested that he’d look like an Irish cop in the role, and finally Goldwyn settled on a young actor named Charlie Locher, who supposedly was discovered working parking cars in a garage but had some previous credits to his name, most notably a featured role in the 1936 serial The Amazing Adventures of the Clutching Hand (a remake of 1915’s Pearl White vehicle The Exploits of Elaine). Locher’s name got changed to Jon Hall — apparently a moniker he picked for himself because he’d discovered he was a distant relative of James Norman Hall, co-author of the novel from which The Hurricane was adapted — and both he and Dorothy Lamour became big stars, but not for Goldwyn: Hall decamped to Universal while Lamour went back to her home studio, Paramount, from which Goldwyn had borrowed her and where she’s best known today as the third point of the romantic triangles involving Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in the famous Road comedies. According to A. Scott Berg’s biography of Goldwyn, co-writer Charles Nordhoff read Oliver H. P. Garrett’s original script and decided Garrett had overdone the oppression against Terangi — Nordhoff said that he and Hall had “made a mistake in not sufficiently emphasizing the fact that the native hero was not a victim of injustice, but a victim of circumstance” — though that’s belied not only by the overall tenor of the story but the specific incidents, including the open racism on the part of Terangi’s tormentor that leads him to lash out with his fists and the racial hatred and the French officials’ need to enforce white privilege that keeps him in prison. The Hurricane is a racist film in that it depicts the Polynesians as childlike, innocent, unacquainted with Western notions of propriety and private property (in the opening scene DeLaage comes down hard on a native who’s “stolen” a canoe, in a culture that probably had a much looser definition of “ownership” and a greater tolerance of collective possession than his or ours), but it’s also an anti-racist film in that it’s white Frenchmen who are the principal villains and the whites who are sympathetic characters are the ones pleading with officialdom, in the person of DeLaage, to free the technically guilty but morally innocent Terangi.

The Hurricane was also the second and last film John Ford made for Goldwyn (the first was an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s novel about medical ethics, Arrowsmith, in 1931 — a story so modern in its conflicts between honest science and the pharmaceutical industry’s agenda, and between actual doctors and the health-care industry, it could and should be remade today), and it’s become legendary how Goldwyn went to the Catalina location to tell Ford to shoot more luscious cheesecake close-ups of Dorothy Lamour and Ford responded by clenching his fist and pointing it at various sections of Goldwyn’s anatomy, each time suggesting he would move his camera (or his fist) even closer to Goldwyn’s face. Ironically, after that show of defiance against his producer, Ford complied; in both cheesecake and beefcake The Hurricane is an unusually sexy movie for 1937, at least partly because the Production Code Administration was looser towards displays of skin from native people (or actors playing them) in exotic locations like the South Seas than players representing ordinary urban or rural Americans. The Hurricane is a fascinating film because some of it is almost risible, while some of it is both visually and dramatically powerful; according to Goldwyn biographer A. Scott Berg, it was Ford’s idea to bring Dudley Nichols onto the project, and Nichols’ main contribution was not writing additional dialogue, but quite the opposite: cutting much of the verbiage in Garrett’s script so the movie played more like a silent film, with visuals rather than words telling its story — to great effect. The Hurricane is an oddball movie, both in its combination of romantic melodrama and disaster film (though at least it’s one of the rare disaster films that contains enough sympathetic characters we actually root for them and want to see them survive — some of the 1970’s disaster movies, most notably The Poseidon Adventure, had such repulsive characters we couldn’t want to see them start dying!) and its vivid contrast between silly dialogue and eloquent visuals — but it certainly holds up as worth seeing if not as one of the all-time classics of the era.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (Lions' Gate/Color Force, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

With no guarantee whether or when (due to Charles’ work schedule) we’d be having an evening together any time soon, I ran Charles The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, the awkwardly titled third film in the Hunger Games cycle based more or less on the first half of Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay. This business of stretching out a cycle of films based on a cycle of popular novels by making two films instead of one out of the final book was started by the producers of the Harry Potter films and it’s become a regrettably standard practice — Lions’ Gate films, which produced the Hunger Games movies and is also making the Divergent cycle (the second film of which, Insurgent, was just released this weekend), is splitting the final book of that Hunger Games wanna-be, Allegiant, into two films. Mockingjay, Part 1 is actually a well-made movie, though if I wanted to I could probably nit-pick it to death. It’s reasonably faithful to the book (or at least the first half of it), as one would expect given that Suzanne Collins herself is credited with the adaptation — though two other scribes, Peter Craig and Danny Strong, wrote the actual script (and Francis Lawrence repeated as director from the second film in the cycle, Catching Fire, thus putting this quintessentially feminist story largely in the hands of men), though some actions performed by one character in the book are given to another in the film, largely to fatten the part of Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), the fashionista and unlikely turncoat from the Capital who’s once again in charge of making over heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, authoritative as usual even though she seemed a bit bored by a script which gave her precious few opportunities for the kinds of action scenes she did so well in the previous films), this time into the “Mockingjay,” the symbol of the revolution the underground denizens of District 13 are leading against the Capital and the evil regime of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The Hunger Games, the complete cycle, is a fascinating look at the modern-day Zeitgeist and its success first on paper and now on film says a lot about why there’s so much discontent and alienation among modern American young people facing a considerably less materially abundant life than their parents and having to work much harder than their forebears did to get by. As I noted in these pages when I read the first book, it was such an indictment of the government/corporate state one could readily imagine it having been written by an Occupy member — but the cycle as a whole is about not only the exploitation of the current regime but the hopelessness of any attempt to change it.

There were works before The Hunger Games that were aimed at young people that expressed a similar sense of hopelessness — including Pete Townshend’s song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (with its classic final line, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss,” which I thought of quite frequently as I read Mockingjay, particularly the parts of it that haven’t been filmed yet) and Alexander Payne’s 1996 film Citizen Ruth, in which a drug-abusing woman, Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), gets pregnant and finds herself aggressively and unpleasantly manipulated by both pro-choice and pro-life activists who don’t give a shit about her as a person but only seek to exploit her for the sake of their “cause.” The moral of Citizen Ruth is basically to stay away from “activists” of all sorts, avoid political involvements and cope with whatever this cracked-up civilization throws you entirely as an individual, without help from anyone except your family members and those you love. This is very much the moral of The Hunger Games — especially Mockingjay — as well; throughout the book the innocent young protagonists, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are shown as victims of sinister political and social forces seeking only to use them for their own game — Katniss in the underground world of District 13 being forced to shoot tacky propaganda films in support of the revolution being led by District 13’s president, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, who though a woman is clearly cut from the same cloth as the Capital’s President Snow — though, oddly, the puritanical authoritarianism and sheer deadliness of the District 13 regime doesn’t come through quite as strongly in the film as it does in the book, where Katniss Everdeen’s culture shock as she finds herself in the underground world of a population she’d always believed, as the Capital had propagandized, had been completely wiped out as the price of a previous attempt at rebellion), while Peeta has been brainwashed and tortured by the Capital to make videos urging the people in the Districts not to rebel but to support the Capital in its attempts to restore order and control over Panem, the fictitious country (located in what is now the northeastern U.S., though the film’s location work was actually done in Georgia) in which the Hunger Games cycle takes place.[1] (Charles and I were morbidly amused that most of the actors pronounced the name “Pah-NEM,” with the accent on the second syllable, whereas we’d always assumed it should be “PAH-nem,” like the Latin word from which it was derived — the name came from Panem et Circenses, “bread and circuses,” the formula by which the emperors of ancient Rome said they would keep their power indefinitely, and Collins underscored the parallel by giving virtually everyone in the Capital the name of an historical ancient Roman.)

Given how abruptly the film ends — with Peeta attempting to strangle Katniss and being put in a deprogramming room in District 13 (the last shot of the movie is of him thrashing around in a bed, apparently responding either to the Capital’s programming or whatever the District 13 people are trying to deprogram him — in the latter part of the Mockingjay novel Peeta actually becomes a Gollum-like character whose loyalties are so scrambled it’s unclear what side he thinks he’s on, or wants to be on, at any given moment) — it’s clear that much of the anti-ideological ideology of the book is being saved for the last film in the sequence, but a close study of The Hunger Games and its success will offer a lot of insights into the question often asked these days: why, in a nation (and, for that matter, a world) in which the division of wealth and income is getting more and more unequal every day and people are told they must assume more and more of the risk of their lives because governments will no longer be there to protect them with such obsolete and quaint programs as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation and food stamps — and why, especially in the U.S., young people are being told they can’t succeed without a college education while the cost of a college education has become so astronomical most young people can’t get one without taking out so much in student loans (the only form of debt other than taxes not dischargeable in bankruptcy, by the way) they eventually end up as indentured servants to the corporate elite for the rest of their professional lives — is there so little organized resistance? (And what resistance there is comes more from the Right than the Left in the form of the Tea Party and the Libertarian Party, both of which are growing in influence as what’s left of the U.S. Left fades further into a kind of quarrelsome and self-absorbed irrelevance.)

Historian Steve Fraser recently published a book aimed at answering that exact question, The Age of Acquiescence, in which he tries to figure out why the original Gilded Age of the 1880’s and 1890’s (the one many Libertarians and Republicans are quite open about wanting to see us return to) aroused such mass protest movements — populism, socialism, anarchism, communism — while this one seems to be meekly accepted as a force of nature and an unchangeable fact of life. On his appearance last December on the sorely missed PBS program Moyers and Company (killed when veteran PBS anchor Bill Moyers could no longer get corporations and foundations to fund it, which itself says volumes about what any attempt to revive a Left in this country is up against), Fraser said, “We live in a kind of windowless room of a kind of capitalist society to which there can be no alternatives. A kind of techno-determinism which governs the way we view things. The market is the beginning and end of life so far as we have been instructed and the media have reiterated over and over again. I think that’s one big reason.” I haven’t read his book yet but I’ve seen that interview with him and read reviews of it in the Los Angeles Times and the New Yorker (the New Yorker critic paired it with two other books about inequality and essentially ridiculed Fraser for wanting to see more social outrage against the injustice of inequality), and what most surprises me about it is he doesn’t seem to be mentioning the most obvious reason there hasn’t been a mass Left movement against economic inequality: “the failure of socialism.” Whatever you may think about the nature of the regimes in the Soviet Union, Mao’s China and the other countries that called themselves “socialist,” the fact is that the Soviet Union and its bloc crumbled in a way that was brilliantly used as propaganda by the corporate Right to say that any attempt to set up an economy and a society that are not ruled by “The Market” will inevitably lead to tyranny and ultimately collapse under the weight of its own inefficiency and its suppression of the individual entrepreneurial drive that (in the corporate Right’s view — and never mind that really existing giant corporations do more to suppress the innovative entrepreneurial spirit than to nurture it!) is the true source not only of all social progress but of all economic value.

The Left long ago lost the ideological conflict in the U.S. and is losing it worldwide — the idolatry of “The Market” and the belief that whatever human outcomes it creates are foreordained and society and its people only get in trouble when they try to mess with it has become hardened into an orthodoxy, held with the kind of faith people once put in religion and the “divine right of kings” (and it’s indicative of how totally market ideology has triumphed that old-fashioned religion, not any secular movement, is today the biggest threat the worldwide capitalist order faces: that’s the real lesson of the popular success of al-Qaeda and ISIS — with the secular socialism of Nasser, Saddam Hussein and the Assads discredited, the young rebels of the Muslim world are turning to fundamentalist Islam as the only remaining credible alternative to the Western market system). The fable people, and especially Americans, are being told today about the end of the Cold War is that it marked the final triumph of capitalism over all alternatives; the Soviet Union collapsed and China survived only by remaking itself from a Communist dictatorship into a capitalist one, and using the repressive mechanism Mao created to enforce socialist equality instead to enforce capitalist inequality and essentially turn China into a giant sweatshop Western capitalist employers can exploit (at least until the Chinese workforce starts being underbid by even sleazier competitors like Viet Nam and Bangladesh). What all this has to do with The Hunger Games is that The Hunger Games — the entire cycle, not the Left-leaning first book in it — is yet another part of the capitalist propaganda campaign to discredit the very idea of alternatives to the market system; at the end Katniss and Peeta turn away from the people on both sides who tried to manipulate them, withdraw altogether from public life and end up in an oddly Voltairean ending literally cultivating their garden. That’s the message from the books and the films: don’t bother trying to change the economic, political and social order — the best case is you’ll fail and the worst case is you’ll just end up creating something even worse (“Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”) — just accept your world the way it’s been given to you and try your hardest to survive in it, and don’t expect any help from anyone but yourselves.

[1] — Indeed, it occurred to me, not only because District 13’s world was established underground after its above-ground civilization was utterly destroyed in a series of genocidal nuclear attacks by the Capital, but one of their principal advisors is man in a wheelchair — Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) — that Mockingjay could in a way be seen not only as a sequel to The Hunger Games and the second film in the cycle, Catching Fire, but a sequel to Dr. Strangelove as well. “We cannot allow ourselves a mineshaft gap!”

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Mars on TV (Compilation, 1963-2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

For more information on this regular event the third Friday of every month:

Gerry Williams’ “Mars Movie Night” last night consisted of four episodes of TV shows, three from the 1960’s and one a recent one. The vintage shows included the premiere episode of My Favorite Martian — starring Ray Walston as “Martin,” visitor from Mars, who gets stranded on Earth when his Jetsons-like spaceship crashes and he needs elements to repair it that haven’t been invented or discovered on Earth yet; and Bill Bixby as reporter Tim O’Hara, who in the opening episode gets summarily jailed by the U.S. Air Force for having written a story reporting the near-crash between the X-15 experimental aircraft (one of those planes that, like the X-1 that first broke the sound barrier, couldn’t take off on its own — it had to be launched from another plane, usually a B-29 or, later, B-52 bomber — but could attain altitutes and speeds greater than those possible with a plane powered by a jet instead of the X-series rockets) and an unidentified flying object that is, of course, Martin’s flying saucer. I liked My Favorite Martian when it was new mainly because of Walston’s dry wit — it was his bad luck to have just missed by about a decade or so the era in which an engaging character actor could make a comfortable living in Hollywood doing essentially the same schtick in many films for various studios, and maybe not taste the dizzying heights of stardom but at least work regularly and not have to deal with the always-threatened collapse of a star career. That’s still the element that is most entertaining about this show; Bill Bixby looks like a callow kid (one of the attendees joked that he’s seen students at San Diego State today who look older and more mature than Bixby does here), and this group of aging geeks couldn’t help but make jokes about Bixby’s most famous role (“Just don’t get him angry,” “It hasn’t been a banner day for him,” and the like). What really dates My Favorite Martian today is the appalling sexism; the only women in the dramatis personae are the mother and two daughters Bixby’s character is living with, one of whom is (sort of) his girlfriend, and the U.S. Air Force in this era is shows as entirely white and male — just one more indication of how badly the second-wave feminist movement was needed in the late 1960’s, even though a good deal of it got pretty silly.

I did not like Gilligan’s Island when it was new — like The Beverly Hillbillies, I loved the theme song but hated the actual show — and I don’t like it any more now; as I saw a close-shot of Jim Backus and Alan Hale I fantasized that they were thinking, “We made movies with Errol Flynn and James Dean, and now we’re reduced to this?” The episode Gerry showed was called “Smile, You’re on Mars Camera,” and it deals with a NASA probe that’s supposed to land on Mars and hits Gilligan’s island by mistake (no, they weren’t Jimmy Page’s and Robert Plant’s process servers!), whereupon they try to use the camera on board the spacecraft to try to signal their fellow Earthlings that they’re alive, well and on an otherwise uninhabited but still terrestrial island from which they’d like to be rescued. Through various complications that were considerably less funny than the writers thought they were, the Gilligan’s Island cast members end up covered with bird feathers, which leads the NASA scientists to conclude that the dominant life form on Mars is half-human, half-chicken. The director, amazingly, was Jack Arnold — “The Jack Arnold?” I couldn’t help but ask. “The Creature from the Black Lagoon Jack Arnold?” It was, indeed — ah, how the mighty had fallen!

The third show — and by far the best for sheer energy and thrills — was an hour-long segment of the short-lived sci-fi drama The Time Tunnel, about an experimental time-travel device that dumps the protagonists, Drs. Tony Newman (James Darren, yet another James Dean wanna-be) and Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert), willy-nilly into either the past or the future. This show was called “One-Way Ticket to the Moon” and our heroes got dumped into NASA’s M.E.M. (for Mars Excursion Module) spacecraft and end up jeopardizing the mission because the extra 375 pounds between them they’ve added to the payload risks the rocket either failing to reach escape velocity on the way up or running out of fuel on the way back. They also run into two saboteurs, one during their own time (1968) and one 10 years later on the mission to Mars (and given that we gave up manned flight past Earth orbit completely once the Apollo program ended in 1973, it’s hard to realize that the prediction of producer Irwin Allen and his writers that we’d be on our way to Mars just nine years after we got to the moon actually made a certain degree of sense); the one who bridges the time continuum is Beard (Jerome T. Callahan), who was there at the Tic-Toc installation in 1968 (just two years after the show had its brief one-year run) and again on the Mars mission, where he just wants to jettison the service module containing Our Heroes and leave them to die in space. The other one is Brandon (Ross Elliot), who gets killed by Beard at the end to preserve the secret identities of both of them. Though there were some pretty obvious scientific mistakes in the Time Tunnel episode — including one scene in which the baddie on the moon (where the astronauts have gone to refuel their spacecraft so it can make it to Mars after all) blows up the fuel dump where the remaining supplies are kept. If he could mix the rocket fuel itself with the liquefied oxygen that allows it to combust in space, he could do this with an electronic detonator — after all, it’s by mixing fuel and oxygen from separate tanks that a liquid-fueled rocket is able to propel itself in space — but once the available oxygen from the tank was consumed the explosion would burn out, not keep the remainder of the building aflame as would happen in earth’s atmosphere, and as we see here. But they didn’t dull the edge of what was a quite well plotted and (mostly) well staged story that made me think The Time Tunnel, which actually bored me when it was new, would be worth re-examining. Though it only lasted one season when it was new, at least judging from this episode it was intelligent, dramatic and thrilling, and it blessedly lacked the heavy camp content of producer Irwin Allen’s other, and far more successful, late-1960’s sci-fi show, Lost in Space. About the only thing I would fault The Time Tunnel for was its use of the old serial “cliffhanger” gimmick, in which the heroes are whirled at the end to the horrible disaster they’re going to have to escape from in the next episode — in this case the Emperor Mine in New York in 1910 (the one the Bee Gees did that weird little song about just before they went disco!), where they’re trapped in a mineshaft with 200 other people.

The last show was a recent episode of Castle, an intriguingly premised detective series in which the male lead is a crime-fiction writer who’s dating a female N.Y.P.D. detective and getting him to take her along on his cases. This episode, “The Wrong Stuff,” aired quite recently (February 23, 2015) and deals with two rival entrepreneurs, Viggo Jansen [read: Elon Musk] (David Clayton Rogers) and Sir Ian Rasher [read: Richard Branson] (Maxwell Caulfield), who are both bankrolling privately financed trips to Mars on the ground (which I’ve also heard seriously at science-fiction conventions) that, now that the public funding for human-piloted space travel between the planets has dried up, private money from the 0.001 percent is the only way we’ll ever get to Mars. Jansen recruited thousands of people from all over the world to apply for his Mars expedition — lead Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion, who quite frankly has aged very badly since this show went on the air seven years ago) shame-facedly admits that he applied for Jansen’s expedition, and later on his girlfriend, N.Y.P.D. detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), admits that she applied for Rasher’s. From the applicants Jansen picked a crew of five, headed by hot-shot pilot Tom Richwood (Yves Bright), only one day Richwood is found dead inside the elaborate Mars simulator Jansen had built up to train the crew for the mission. It’s an intriguing variant on the locked-room mystery since the simulator is locked from the inside and pumped full of noxious gases, unbreathable by humans, to mimic the Martian atmosphere — which means that when Beckett and Castle go inside to question the crew members, they have to wear spacesuits. They uncover a few red herrings, including Clint Granger (Matthew Marsden) — a pilot who was passed over for the mission while his wife was hired, and who responded by stealing Jansen’s secret plans for the Mars spaceship and selling them to Rasher. This plot required two go-betweens, Mikhail Dankov (Konstantin Lavysh) and George Reyes (David DeSantos), whose girlfriend was also hired for the mission and told him from inside the Mars simulator that she wanted a divorce because she’d fallen in love … with the crew’s other female member. Castle is one of those annoying crime shows peppered with campy asides, and the episode contains gag references to 2001 (particularly involving the talking super-computer Jansen has built into the simulator, though he describes it as “more SIRI than HAL”), Alien, Star Trek (surprisingly not Star Wars!), I, Robot (the super-computer does seem to have been programmed to observe Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and has a hissy-fit when it can’t reconcile the various commands it’s been programmed with both by Jansen and the hacker who rewrote its code to gain access to the simulator), but at the end writer Terri Miller reaches for her (at least with that spelling of the first name I’m presuming it’s “her,” and her page reveals she is indeed female) denouement from outside the sci-fi genre and rips off the central plot gimmick from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express: Richwood was killed by three of the four other crew members because they were already tired of his martinet attitude towards the mission after six months in the simulator and weren’t about to tolerate him for the rest of their lives on a strange and hostile planet. It was an O.K. episode, fun in a dorky way — like most of the Castle shows I’ve seen (mainly on TNT Network reruns rather than on ABC) it’s a decent crime thriller but suffers from the camp insertions modern-day audiences seem to like in crime shows but which drive me up the freaking wall.

At the request of the youngest member of the audience, between the Time Tunnel and Castle episodes Gerry showed one of the most intriguing items in his collection, a 1910 Thomas A. Edison four-minute short called A Trip to Mars in which a top-hatted professor invents a “reverse gravity” powder and floats up — without either spaceship or spacesuit to protect him against the vacuum of space — to the planet Mars, inhabited by a race of giants, one of which is so huge the explorer does a mountain climb up the guy’s nose and is later turned into a snowball by him, then hurled off the planet’s surface and back to Earth. It’s not much as a movie — obviously Edison and his filmmakers were going for the insouciant charm of Georges Méliès’ films in general and his A Trip to the Moon in particular, but they fell well short of their model — and it seems odd that seven years after the head of Edison’s filmmaking department, W. L. Dickson (who more than anyone else invented the job of the movie director), had made the cutting-edge (literally: its biggest innovation was its use of cross-cut editing to depict two actions taking place at the same time in different locations, a major part of what became standard cinematic grammar) The Great Train Robbery, Edison’s studio would turn out something as lame and cinematically primitive as this. A Trip to Mars survived not as a film but as a series of still photographs printed in three columns on a long spool of photographic paper, designed to be run in a player that automatically shifted to column two once column one was done, and to three once two was done. Gerry said the film was actually released this way, but quite a lot of movies made before 1912 (when the U.S. Congress finally amended the copyright law to allow films to be copyrighted) survive only as “paper prints,” since under pre-1912 law a film could not be copyrighted but the individual frames that made it up could be copyrighted if they were submitted as photographs printed sequentially on paper. The irony was that in 1912 photographic paper was far more durable than film, so many movies (including this one) that didn’t survive as actual films nonetheless were preserved on paper — though restoring them so they can be seen now involves a long, tedious and very elaborate process of rephotographing each frame and adjusting them to make sure they match so the final reconstructed film moves smoothly instead of flickering. But, as A Trip to Mars proves, just because a film is fascinating from an historical perspective doesn’t mean it’s still going to work as entertainment!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Gracie's Choice (Mike Robe Productions, Stephanie Germain Productions, Nova Scotia Film Industry Tax Credit, 2004)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie from the Lifetime backlog that proved to be astonishingly good: Gracie’s Choice, a 2004 production directed by Peter Werner (whose name is also on the laundry list of 11 “producers” even though I suspect he did the lion’s share of the actual production work) from a script by Joyce Eliason based on a nonfiction story in the Reader’s Digest by Rena Dictor Le Blanc. Gracie Thompson (Kristen Bell, an excellent actress cursed with a kewpie-doll face that was excellently suited for this part but probably handicapped her for other roles) is the eldest daughter of Rowena Lawson (Anne Heche, who after her spectacular breakup with Ellen De Generes and the crazy memoir she wrote, in which she insisted that aside from her fling with Ellen she’d been totally straight, which was believable, and that she had hallucinated being abducted by space aliens, seemed to get typecast in these sorts of demented roles). Rowena has had six kids, three girls and three boys, but each had a different father because Rowena has spent her life traveling around the country, living (or at least partnering with) one sleazy boyfriend after another and doing a wide variety of drugs. At the beginning she and her latest fuck de jour are cornered by police; they barely make it out and the boyfriend gives her the kiss-off, telling her she’s on her own. She escapes it that time and settles into another community, where she lasts long enough to get the kids enrolled in school, but when mom’s latest male pickup decides to try to rape Gracie, Gracie fights him off but sustains injuries that school officials notice and have to report to the authorities.

Mom ends up in jail and the kids end up in a youth facility, and when they’re finally released they’re taken in by their grandmother, religious fanatic Louela Lawson (Diane Ladd) — only it turns out that Louela can’t say no to her scapegrace daughter Rowena, so Rowena moves in with them (a big no-no under the terms of their release agreement) and Louela gives her the $520 per month in “caregiver money” she’s getting from the county wherever this is taking place. (Like most Lifetime movies, this was filmed in Canada and Canadian locations “played” U.S. ones, but instead of being made in the usual centers of Canadian film production, Vancouver and Montreal, this one was shot in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and “Nova Scotia Film Industry Tax Credit” even got listed as one of the companies that made it.) So Gracie determines to move the kids out of grandma’s house and literally raise them herself, funding this with her job as a waitress (she calls herself a “barista” but the establishment where she works looked more like a restaurant than a coffeehouse to me) and keeping her five brothers and sisters in line with a maniacal intensity. At high school she attracts a boyfriend, Tommy (Shedrack Anderson III), product of a mixed-race relationship (which explains his appearance — obviously of African descent but about Obama’s color) — it’s a measure of some degree of racial progress that she can be shown dating a Black guy and it isn’t a big deal in the plot — and he encourages her to apply for a college scholarship so they can be together and got to the same university, but she doesn’t want to because she doesn’t think she’ll have the time to do college work and raise five children. Then Rowena, the poster-child for parental irresponsibility, gets out of jail and wants to regain custody of the kids — I got the impression that by this time Gracie’s sisters have aged out of legal minority but the boys are still of the age where they legally need some sort of parent or guardian — and Gracie’s father, whom she hasn’t seen since she was two, turns up but only to ask her to sign a paper saying that he wasn’t the father of Rowena’s other kids and therefore isn’t obligated to pay the back child support Rowena is trying to get out of him. Gracie determines to go to court to terminate her mom’s parental rights over her brothers and adopt them herself, despite warnings from her pro bono attorney that this is going to be expensive (apparently all the kids’ fathers have to be contacted to see if they’re cool with losing their parental rights) and the breakup with Tommy it precipitates, since he gives her a them-or-me ultimatum and makes it clear that the only kids she wants to see Gracie raising are the ones he was hoping to have with her.

The film’s climax is in family court, with Rowena attempting to entice the kids back to her by promising them a fantasy life on a ranch in Wyoming once she sells grandma’s house (Louela has died and, during the scene of the funeral, the minister officiating at the service pronounces the “t” in “often”) and the boys, having heard their mom’s fairy tales way too often, decide they want their sister to raise them instead. The judge grants Gracie’s adoption petition and gives them five minutes to select a new family name so the rest of the world will realize they’re the biological relations they actually are — and, looking at one of the names on the sign in the courtroom lobby identifying the judges and court personnel, they pick “Weatherly” because of everything they’ve “weathered” over the years. Gracie’s Choice is a marvelous film, profoundly moving precisely because director Werner and writer Eliason tell the story simply and straightforwardly, refusing to “milk” something that was already sufficiently emotionally intense they didn’t need to push the buttons and go for the obvious tear-jerking. While I didn’t care for the brown-toned cinematography by Neil Roach — just why have dirty browns and greens become the default tonality for film after film, especially any film aspiring to seriousness? — I was gripped enough by the sensitivity of the direction, writing and acting (the final scene in court, in which Anne Heche loses it after she realizes her children have abandoned her, could have been an excuse for scenery-chewing but Werner restrains her, making her believable as a woman with a twisted sense of values but a sense of values nonetheless) that I cried at the end, and at the same time I felt exalted by Gracie’s incredible persistence and triumph over way more adversity than the average person her age (especially one who isn’t living in absolutely dire poverty) ever has to deal with. Gracie’s Choice, though over 10 years old, is the sort of diamond in the rough that keeps me watching Lifetime; I’d hoped it would be good but I hadn’t expected it to be this good!