Monday, January 15, 2018

I Am Elizabeth Smart (Lifetime, 2017)

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

Last night Lifetime did a rerun of a film they “premiered” last November, I Am Elizabeth Smart, based on the June 5, 2002 kidnapping of nice 15-year-old Mormon girl Elizabeth Smart from her Salt Lake City home by Brian David Mitchell, self-styled Mormon prophet who called himself “Emmanuel” and told Smart that God had told him to take her as his second “wife.” He already had a first wife, Wanda Ileen Barzee, who had left a job as a music teacher in Boston that she loved to marry and follow him, and the literature on the case disagrees as to whether she was a co-conspirator or a victim or maybe some of both. Smart was held captive by Mitchell and Barzee for nine months, during which time they mostly lived in the mountains around Utah until Mitchell decided in late November 2002 to move them to San Diego for the winter (he may have been crazy but he wasn’t stupid!), during which time he left Smart and Barzee in the mountains (which don’t look like San Diego scenery — I think the filmmakers, director Sarah Walker and writer Victoria “Tory” Walker — this is Sarah’s only credit on imdb.com and Tory’s only other credit is for the silly TV series Psych — did all their location work in Utah) for a week with only two days’ worth of food. When he came back he told them he’d been in prison and that’s why he hadn’t come back sooner. I’ll give the Walkers (imdb.com doesn’t have bios on either of them, so I don’t know whether or not they’re related to each other) credit for a lot of things, including an appropriately creepy atmosphere and a good feel for the sense of disorientation Elizabeth Smart must have felt to be yanked away from her home and family and forced to live with a man who raped her every night (and sometimes during the day as well), terrorized her, kept her literally locked up via metal-and-plastic ropes and padlocks he used to tie her to trees, and continually threatened that he had a group of several hundred followers (he didn’t) who would kill all her relatives if she tried to escape.

The Elizabeth Smart story was also the subject of a CBS-TV movie aired in November 2003, just months after she was finally rescued by cops in Utah — courtesy of Smart herself, who when Mitchell decided San Diego had got too “hot” for him managed, by invoking the tenets of what Tory Walker’s script called Mitchell’s “made-up religion,” to convince him to go back to Utah instead of moving to the East Coast. The earlier production was called The Elizabeth Smart Story and the principal consultants and sources were her parents, Ed and Lois Smart. When I saw it back then I noted, “Where the film most totally disappointed was in its utter refusal to consider issues of faith and their impact on the case — and I suspect the reason [writer] Nancey Silvers dodged this part of the story in her script was because (as they made it clear their recent interview on Larry King Live) the Smarts remain utterly faithful, dyed-in-the-wool Mormons who credit their God with their daughter’s survival from her nine-month ordeal[1] and utterly refuse to consider any suggestion that Elizabeth Smart’s abduction had anything to do with the dark side of Mormonism and its history.” That was true of I Am Elizabeth Smart as well, which took on a really didactic air because this time the filmmakers’ principal source was Elizabeth Smart herself, who is listed as one of the film’s five producers and who also appears in it doing a voice-over narration and appearing as herself in front of a blank screen in scenes that bring the action to a dead stop while she explains what was happening to her and how she felt at that point of her story. These insertions have at least one good aspect: they show how well Alana Boden was cast as Elizabeth Smart in the film’s dramatic portions — the two women look fully credible as the same person as different ages — but they also make the film seem awfully preachy. It sometimes comes across as if Elizabeth Smart participated in this production because she wanted to settle scores with various people who’ve written about her ordeal, in particular ones who’ve accused her of having the “Stockholm syndrome” and genuinely falling in love with Mitchell. In one of the inserts she denies point-blank that she ever had the “Stockholm syndrome” and never felt anything towards Mitchell besides loathing and fear. 

A quite interesting movie could have been made about Elizabeth Smart’s readjustment to normal life after her rescue; according to the Wikipedia page on her she returned to the mainstream Mormon church and also became an activist for laws to protect children from similar abductions and abuse, including lobbying Congress to pass the bill creating the AMBER Alert system. She also went on a Mormon mission to Paris in 2009, returning only to testify against Brian David Mitchell at his trial (he got two life sentences and Wanda Barzee got 15 years — actually seven since the time she’d already served was counted — because she cut a plea deal and turned state’s evidence against him), and while there she met a Scottish Mormon named Matthew Gilmour. They married in 2012 and have two children, a daughter in 2015 and a son in 2017. Just how she got into a normal life after her ordeal, and especially a normal sex life after being repeatedly raped by a crazy kidnapper while still in her teens, might have made for a more interesting movie than this odd piece of score-settling on Smart’s part, in which over and over again she tells us that no one can possibly understand the experience she went through unless it’s actually happened to them. I Am Elizabeth Smart was shown with a lot of interstital segments not only featuring Elizabeth Smart herself but also Alana Boden and the actors who played the other two principals, Skeet Ulrich as Mitchell (who, as he did in The Elizabeth Smart Story as well, comes off as a combination of Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden — one wonders in both films why, in the post-9/11 atmosphere, he could get away with traveling in a long robe with two veiled women without the three of them being arrested as Muslim terrorists) — he complained, much the way Heath Ledger did when he was filming The Dark Knight and playing the Joker, that it was the first time in his career he’d had to enact someone without any good qualities at all — and Deirdre Lovejoy as Barzee. I felt sorry for her because Barzee was easily the most complicated character in the story — when I watched The Elizabeth Smart Story I called her “the mother of all co-dependents” and a less didactically oriented script, with less involvement from the subject, might have actually given Lovejoy more to work with in creating a character and getting us to feel sorry for the woman while at the same time understanding that what she did was wrong. As it is, the only times Lovejoy got to shine were the rare instances in which Tory Walker depicted her arguing with Mitchell and questioning whether a man into drinking and porn was really the Second Coming of Christ. 

There are some nice ironies in I Am Elizabeth Smart, including a scene relatively early on in her captivity in which Mitchell forces Smart to drink wine — even though she’s not only just 15 years old but had taken the usual Mormon pledge never to consume alcohol — and of course she hates it but later realizes that drinking at least makes her captive existence slightly less miserable. For the most part, though, this is a pretty white-bread treatment of a story that potentially offers a lot more complexity than we’ve been allowed to see in depictions controlled either by Elizabeth Smart’s parents or by the woman herself. And what still amazes me about the story — as it did back when it was happening — is that nothing in Elizabeth Smart’s ordeal caused either her or her family to have so much as one jot of doubt about their Mormon faith even though Brian David Mitchell’s religion wasn’t as “made-up” as Smart describes it in her narration: it was a dark extrapolation of some of the nastier sides of Mormonism as practiced, especially in the early days before the church officially gave up polygamy in 1890 because the U.S. government was about to send in an army and occupy Utah if they hadn’t. One could argue that the beliefs of Mitchell, or of Rulon and Warren Jeffs, or any number of other oddball self-styled “Fundamentalist Mormon” groups (including some, like Ervil LeBaron’s cult, the one Pete Earley described in his book Prophet of Death and another Jon Krakauer depicted in Under the Banner of Heaven, whose leaders descended to murder) are just as legitimate derivations of the teachings of Joseph Smith, Jr. than the white-bread mainstream Mormon Church headquartered in Salt Lake City. Maybe it’s my own questioning nature and my agnosticism that leads me to be skeptical of any religion’s claim to divine authority — I’ve long believed that if there is a God, His (or Her) nature is so far beyond our ability to comprehend that no one religion is likely to know more about it than any other — but I suspect I not only wonder why Elizabeth Smart’s experience didn’t lead her or her family to question the basic tenets of Mormonism but wish it had made them question them!



[1] — This is one of the big things about religious people that drives us atheists crazy: their insistence on crediting God with all the good things that happen in their lives and simultaneous refusal to blame him or even hold him responsible for the bad things that happen to them.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Deadly Delusion (Formula Films, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2017)

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

Last night I watched a worse-than-usual Lifetime movie called Deadly Delusion, though it was filmed under the working title The Lease. The gimmick this time around is that the heroine, Julia McNeil (Haylie Duff, who had a nice turn as the villainess in Napoleon Dynamite but since then seems to have been relegated mostly to TV work), has an unspecified mental illness that supposedly causes her to hallucinate and see people who aren’t there. She and her husband Shane (Mike Faiola), who’s so attractive I immediately assumed he was part of a plot to drive her crazy à la Gaslight since the usual iconography of Lifetime movies, with only very rare exceptions, is that any genuinely hunky guy in the cast is going to turn out to be the villain, have just moved out to Los Angeles where she has connections as a photographer and he has some unspecified job as an executive with a film company. (We see him at a film shoot hanging on as a director shoots a scene with two actors, a man and a woman, in a classic Ford Thunderbird — the car isn’t going anywhere but it’s posed in front of a green screen, so when the film is completed some stock footage of road travel can be put behind them and make it look as if the car is moving.) Among the perks they’ve got from this employment is a lease on a killer house, free shipping to bring Shane’s motorcycle out to L.A. and a blue Ferrari that’s Julia’s to use whenever she likes. Julia also has a long-distance relationship with her therapist, Dr. Leary (Teri Polo), who keeps switching her medications and telling her she’s going to get better but who, until the very end of the film, never appears as a live character — all we see of her is an image on Skype, through which she conducts her “sessions” with Julia. 

The moment we met her and she was a totally different physical “type” from Julia — a short-haired blonde instead of a stringy long-haired brunette, dressed in tailored pantsuits instead of the casual shirts and jeans that seem to be Julia’s entire wardrobe — I immediately concluded that she and Shane were having an affair and were in a plot to drive Julia to commit suicide so they could be together, but the truth turns out to be more complicated and far-fetched than that. Instead of the Gaslight ripoff I was expecting, it turns out to be a ripoff of Paul Bartel’s little-known but marvelous 1966 short The Secret Cinema, in which the conceit is that a woman is being put through various trials and tribulations by people she thinks are just friends, bosses, lovers and whatnot, but who are really actors hired to make her life miserable so that a film director and camera crew can secretly film her and edit the results into a 24-part series that has become a sensation — unbeknownst to Our Heroine, who until she stumbles into a theatre that is showing the latest episode is totally unaware that she’s the star of a secret movie that’s supposed to end with her death. (At the end the director tells his latest assistant, a woman, that he has big plans for her, and when she says, “Do I get to direct?,” he says he has something else in mind — to make her the star of his next “Secret Cinema” production.) Bartel’s short seems to have been one of those movies that’s been highly influential even though few people have actually seen it; the makers of The Truman Show and other movies about people who aren’t aware that their lives are being secretly filmed were clearly influenced by it, and the rise of the Internet has made the concept more believable because, while it would be hard to conceal a theatrically released movie from its “secret” star, it’s easy to imagine that there would be people all over the world (in this one we meet customers from Montenegro, Dubai and Miami Beach) willing to pay large sums of money to a proprietor of a “dark Web” site who promised them they’d get to see a woman die. As the film progresses Julia realizes that the realty office from which she and Shane leased the house is just a front for something more sinister, and that their security installation has her whole house wired for cameras so she can be telecast wherever she is and whatever she’s doing in the house, including making love with Shane (a nice bit of the soft-core porn that used to be far more abundant in Lifetime movies than it is now, alas). 

She suspects Robert Turner (Louis Mandylor), the smarmy realtor who got them the lease in the first place, of arranging the surveillance, and her friend Annie (Melissa Mars) of being Shane’s paramour, but the plot finally turns out to be far more extensive than even she has dreamed: the realtor is in on it and so is a character identified on imdb.com only as “The Director” (Stephen Brown), whom we first met on the set of the movie Shane visited with the two actors in the T-Bird in front of a green screen but who’s also the director of the secret Dark Web streaming series that’s supposed to end with Julia being killed by a professional hit man who’s supposed to break into her home and assassinate her live — and whom she’d previously seen years before, just before her parents died of carbon monoxide poisoning in their home (she barely escaped and the deaths were ruled accidental, but writer Jake Cashill is definitely hinting that the Big Bad Conspiracy offed them, too). Using a gun Annie gave her, Julia shoots her would-be assassin, only Shane takes the gun away from her and it turns out he’s part of the plot, too (I knew it!); he boasts that he’s been in several of the group’s previous productions under different names and identities — and at the end Julia gets the gun back (or finds another one, it’s not all that clear) and shoots and kills Shane. She’s then put in a psychiatric hospital for a month and, as she’s being released, she’s met not only by her therapist Dr. Leary but also by a nice-looking young man who offers to drive her back to her original home town — and the final close-up is of a sinister smile on Dr. Leary’s face, indicating that she too is in on the plot and the nice young man is her Plan B and is there to disarm, seduce and romance Julia into another life-threatening relationship so the Conspiracy can deliver Julia’s death, as promised to their customers. I don’t like thrillers with such nihilistic endings and the whole idea that Our Heroine could be victimized by such an extensive criminal enterprise encompassing virtually everyone she knows is more than a bit hard to swallow, but what really does in Deadly Delusion is the sense that we’ve seen it all before — even the nihilism and the refusal of the filmmakers, writer Cashill and director Nadeem Soumah (who, like a lot of his predecessors on Lifetime movies, has a real flair for Gothic atmosphere and suspense but is at the mercy of a silly script), to give us anyone in the dramatis personae we can actually like is all too common in modern-day filmmaking.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Big Easy (Kings Road Entertainment/Columbia Pictures, 1986)

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

Last night Charles and I watched the other movie on the 30-year-old VHS tape I’d just transferred to DVD from the long-ago days when John Gabrish and I had HBO: The Big Easy, the 1986 film that is almost unclassifiable: a drama about endemic police corruption in New Orleans that’s also a comedy and a sex film. It’s contributed its name to the common lexicon, not only as a nickname for New Orleans but as a term for any environment for which a certain level of corruption has become just the accepted order of the day, and anyone who tries to blow the whistle on it is going to be in bi-i-i-i-ig trouble. (One can see this in the Trump administration today, in which two of the people he’s currently maddest at, attorney general Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III — I like to use his full name because he’s a living Confederate war memorial — and former campaign manager and strategy chair Steve Bannon, have angered him because of the one bit of conscience they’ve shown: Sessions in recusing himself from the investigation of alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign and Bannon in calling the June 2016 “Miss V from Moscow” meeting between Russian attorney Natalya Veselnitskaya and Trump’s son, son-in-law and then-campaign manager “treasonous.”) 

The plot deals with a series of murders that rocks New Orleans’ drug trade and seemingly involves Mafiosi (or “wiseguys,” as they’re called by the cops who want to make sure no one thinks that New Orleans actually has a branch of the Mafia), Mexican smugglers, Black gangsters (the great soul singer Solomon Burke has a marvelous cameo as the head of the Black gangs in New Orleans, “Daddy Mention”), and — it’s hinted throughout the movie but not firmly established until about halfway through, corrupt cops. The lead characters are police lieutenant Remy McSwain (a young and surprisingly sexy Dennis Quaid — he later made Great Balls of Fire!, a biopic of Jerry Lee Lewis, but judging from his looks here a biopic of Elvis would have been better casting), a cop who gets his share of the proceeds from the institutionalized corruption but is also genuinely concerned about putting at least some of the bad guys — the ones that can’t bribe or sabotage their way out of the charges against them — away. He’s confronted by an assistant district attorney named Anne Osborne (Ellen Barkin) who’s been brought in by the feds to investigate New Orleans’ police corruption, and gets an office in the same station house McSwain operates from. Remy tries to neutralize the threat Anne poses to him by seducing her, and he persuades her to go out on a date with him at Tipitina’s (the famous — and real — New Orleans restaurant named after Professor Longhair’s great song, which is actually heard on the soundtrack — the performance is credited to “Professor Longhair” but the songwriting credit is to his real name, Henry Roeland Byrd), where the waiter solemnly informs him — much to Anne’s disgust — that “your money is no good here” (i.e, that one of the perks of being on the NOPD is being comped at places like that). Anne insists that if Remy doesn’t fork over money for their meal and drinks, she will — and ultimately he does so. 

Then he gets a call to see a strip club owner about collecting for the “Widows’ and Orphans’ Fund” — the 1930’s-ish cover for the outright bribes owners of legally chancy businesses like strip clubs pay the NOPD to stay open. The owner pleads with Remy to make it easy on him by giving him only one officer he needs to pay bribes to in order to stay open, instead of being hit on by cops from various squads. Remy agrees to be the one person who’ll take his bribe money and receives an envelope with eight $50 bills in it — only it’s a trap: Anne Osborne (whom we’ve previously seen him giving head to, though they were interrupted by a phone call about a triple murder before they could actually complete the sex act) and a Federal agent are there, they arrest Remy and put him on trial. They tell him they have a videotape of him accepting the bribe and then, when he realized he was being caught in a sting, throwing the bills out so the bar patrons would grab them and eating the envelope they had come in, thereby destroying the evidence. When he’s put on trial he testifies and Anne, who’s handling the prosecution herself, announces that the next day the state will show a videotape that shows Remy accepting the bribe and then destroying evidence by eating the envelope. What’s a casually corrupt but basically decent officer to do? In the next scene we see Remy, wearing a preposterous makeup — including a bushy-haired wig and a false moustache — that ought to have got at least a nomination for Worst Movie Disguises of All Time. He buys a super-powerful magnet and throws it through the window of a bank, and at first it’s not clear what he’s up to but eventually it turns out he did it so the magnet would end up in the police evidence room, and one of his confederates on the force puts it next to the videotape, erasing it. (One wonders why Anne didn’t have a backup copy made.) 

The next day, in court, Anne has to admit that something has gone wrong, their key piece of evidence has been destroyed, and therefore she has no alternative but to move that the case be dismissed, so Remy gets reinstated to the police force and returns to investigating the spate of drug-related murders that have been plaguing his district. (The judge in the courtroom sequence is not only named “Jim Garrison” but is played by the real Jim Garrison, who in 1967 started an investigation into the conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy; he ultimately indicted Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessperson who in his private life was into S/M, and lost the case when the jury decided they’d proven to their satisfaction that a conspiracy existed but not that Shaw was part of it. Garrison survived his 1969 re-election bid but was then defeated in 1973 by Harry Connick, Sr., whose son Harry Connick, Jr. would become a popular singer of jazz songs and standards — and would briefly play an assistant district attorney on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.) But the experience has chastened Remy enough that he decides he no longer wants any part of the proceeds from the “Widows’ and Orphans’ Fund” — “The widows and orphans can do without me,” he laconically says — and when his brother Bobby (Tom O’Brien, who doesn’t have Quaid’s beautiful face but has a hotter bod which we get to see a lot of shirtless — yum) is shot by the bad guys (just like in a 1930’s movie, though in the 1930’s it was as likely to be a reluctant female witness’s sister who got shot and convinced the survivor to talk as it was to be the brother of a dirty cop), and this convinces Remy that the killers are cops — especially when he recognizes the car the shooter gets away in as one of the impounded cars cops use on undercover assignments. 

Remy’s new-found conscience is complicated by the fact that virtually his entire family has been New Orleans cops (they ironically refer to one cousin who became a firefighter instead as “the black sheep of the family”) — and, like him before he was nearly convicted and his brother was nearly killed, they were basically decent cops but helped themselves to their share of the dirty money. It turns out that the mastermind of the plot to steal 28 kilos of Mexican heroin and kill everyone else with any claim to it — the Mexicans who smuggled it into “The Big Easy” in the first place, the Mafia and the Blacks — is veteran NOPD officer Jack Kellom (Ned Beatty), who was about to retire and marry Remy’s widowed mother (Grace Zabriskie) but wanted more money to live the rest of his life than what was available on his NOPD pension. His main enforcers were two other cops on Remy’s squad, Detective André DeSoto (John Goodman — and yes, seeing the man whose most famous credit is as Roseanne Barr’s hapless husband on her legendary sitcom playing a black-hearted villain is a shocker) and Ed Dodge (Ebbe Roe Smith), who when he isn’t killing people is so obstreperously fiddling around with his bad toupée (did he get it from the same store where Remy got the bushy-haired wig he wore in his disguise?), and there’s an exciting final shootout on a boat between the two killer cops on one side and Remy and Anne, who in the tradition of post-Princess Leia movie heroines actually gets to wield a gun and show she knows what to do with it, which ends with an explosion that blows up the bad guys and the drugs. 

The film ends with a charming sequence of Remy and Anne, just married, dancing to a zydeco song (though the British cut includes the scene of Remy proposing to her between the explosion and the ending) as the final credits roll over them. In fact, zydeco and other bits of New Orleans funk punctuate virtually the entire movie; though Brad Fiedel gets a credit for scoring the film about the only time conventional movie background music is heard is towards the start of the shootout at the end. The rest of it is accompanied by the good-time R&B of the “second wave” of New Orleans musicians, the ones who occupied Cosimo Matassa’s studio and formed his band (one of the three greatest studio groups of the era, along with the Funk Brothers that backed the Motown artists in Detroit and the Wrecking Crew from L.A. — Fats Domino made all his records at Cosimo’s studio with this great band, which makes sense because he was a New Orleanian; but Little Richard also insisted on making his records there even though he was from Macon, Georgia and his record label, Specialty, was based in L.A. — and the way these players were able to adapt and back both Domino’s fat, rolling piano chords and Richard’s jabbing triplets was a testament to their skill and versatility), and the local zydeco musicians who came into prominence after that. Among the zydeco players we see are Terrence Simien and the Mallet Playboys, who play the house band at Tipitina’s, as well as another group that play a party at the McSwaim home to which Remy has Anne literally kidnapped while she’s jogging — and which she leaves in a cab, indignant at her treatment by Remy and his clan.  

The Big Easy could easily have been a neo-noir exercise in grimness and darkness, but that seemed to have been the farthest thing from the minds of director Jim McBride and his co-writers, Daniel Petrie, Jr. (son of the director of some almost painfully earnest social-problem films in the 1960’s — Petrie, Sr.’s best credit is the adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which seemed to get dragged out during my high-school days every time there was racial tension, but which is a movie I quite like if only because it gave Sidney Poitier a rare opportunity to play an unsympathetic character, and he rose to the challenge magnificently) and Jack Baran, couldn’t have been less interested in neo-noir. Instead they were going after the look and feel of The Thin Man and the other movies of the 1930’s (including a particular favorite of mine, Stephen Roberts’ The Ex-Mrs. Bradford from 1936, in which Thin Man star William Powell and Jean Arthur play a divorced couple who investigate a murder together and reconcile as a result), which played for comedy even though they involved murder and other nasty sorts of crime. The Big Easy is an easygoing thriller, dark when it needs to be but mostly a rollicking action piece with an overlay of sexual politics; the sort of dark humor on which this film was based is summed up in the names of the two boats in the final sequence, the Faux Pas (French for “mistake”) and La Mordida (Mexican slang for the routine corruption their country’s cops routinely expect from illegal enterprises in exchange for leaving them alone). According to imdb.com, McBride’s use of fast-paced dialogue was inspired by the films of Howard Hawks — and there’s a lot of Hawks influence here, not only in the mix of crime thriller and screwball comedy but in the character of Anne Osborne, who’s just as butch as Remy and willing at any point to take him on “man to man.”  

The Big Easy was a film I liked when it was new and I still do; it’s one of those movies that manages to take advantage of the greater sexual freedom of the post-Code era (it was rated R) while still keeping some of the sophisticated thrill movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s had to have to imply what the directors and writers dared not come out and say. The Big Easy is also remarkable for its bright, highly saturated colors — the overall atmosphere “sells” New Orleans as a really fun place to visit, which is probably why the New Orleans Film Commission green-lighted it for a tax subsidy and permission to film at some of the city’s iconic locations and didn’t seem to look askance at the way it depicted the Big Easy as a den of corruption (though, according to imdb.com, several Film Commission members were indicted in a kickback scandal shortly after the film was finished — talk about life imitating art!) — and its morally complicated characters; like Richard Widmark’s role in Don Siegel’s 1968 thriller Madigan (the far superior prototype for Eddie Murphy’s ghastly vehicle Beverly Hills Cop — or, as John Gabrisn and I called it, Beverly Hills Crap), Remy is “on the take” in small ways but that doesn’t stop him from genuinely caring about seeing that a rough sort of justice is done on the streets of New Orleans and the bad guys he can get successfully arrested and prosecuted are taken off them. Dennis Quaid plays this character brilliantly, and Ellen Barkin meets him all the way, especially in the way she’s torn between her physical attraction to Remy, her genuine respect for him as a cop and her hatred of the system that has at least partially corrupted him. Characterizations this sophisticated are a rarity in any movie and quite welcome whenever they appear!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Goosebumps (Columbia Pictures, Sony Animation, Expedition Films, LStar Capital, 2015)

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

Charles and I watched one of the most delightful recent movies I’ve seen lately: Goosebumps, a 2015 production directed by Rob Letterman based on a story by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the duo who wrote the film Ed Wood) worked into a screenplay by Darren Lemke. Goosebumps began as a seemingly endless series of young-adult horror novels by Robert Lawrence Stine, who signed them with his initials — R. L. Stine — and who cranked out so many of them (25 in the Goosebumps series, plus 42 in the Give Yourself Goosebumps series and eight more in a series called Give Yourself Goosebumps Special Edition — and that’s only a fraction of his total output) they ironically posed a problem for potential movie adapters: which Goosebumps story do you film? The solution Messrs. Alexander, Karaszewski, Lemke and Letterman hit on was to make it metafictional, work R. L. Stine into the story as a key character (played by Jack Black) and create a fictional device that would allow them to use all of the monster characters from the Goosebumps novels — or at least all the ones they wanted — in the film. A widow named Gale (Amy Ryan) moves herself and her son Zach (Dylan Minnette, one of those actors who isn’t drop-dead gorgeous but is cute and easy on the eyes) to the small town of Madison, Delaware. She’s got a job as assistant principal of Madison High School and she insists on driving her high-school-age son to school his first day and even using her car’s automatic door locks to ensure he can’t leave the car before she does. (Eventually she relents and gives him one minute on his own — which she counts down.) Gale has a crazy sister, Lorraine (Jillian Bell), depicted as an aging hippie who didn’t get the memo that the 1960’s were over, who also turns up in town. for its first half-hour or so Goosebumps looks like a pretty standard-issue alienated high-school student movie and one might wonder what its connection was to a series of cheap young-adult horror novels (which, at the series’ height in the 1990’s, were so ubiquitous you could barely get into a supermarket check-out line without tripping over a display of them). It turns out that Gale and Zach have a mysterious next-door neighbor who has surrounded his house with a fence and issues Zach a strong warning that he is never to cross the fence, and especially that his not to attempt to see or date his daughter Hannah (a nicely wistful performance by Odeya Rush) … or else.

The neighbor is, of course, Goosebumps author R. L. Stine, and the gimmick that kicks off the movie is that the monsters depicted in the Goosebumps books are real, and only by putting locks on his bound original manuscripts and keeping them in his home has Stine kept the monsters from escaping and wreaking havoc on Madison (and, presumably, the rest of the world after that). Of course, the inevitable happens: Zach and Champ (Ryan Lee) — the name is short for “Champion” and of course is the object of derision from other students (“Who has a name like ‘Champ’?” one of them asks — though I can think of at least one prominent person named Champ: Champ Clark, who in 1912 was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and Woodrow Wilson’s principal rival for the Democratic nomination for President that year — Charles guessed that Champ’s first name was short for “Champlain” but it was really an abbreviation of his middle name: his full name was James Beauchamp Clark) — sneak into Stine’s home, grab one of the manuscripts from his shelf and open it. Immediately the monster trapped inside it, the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena (the fact that the existence of the abominable snowman is attributed to snowless Pasadena is an example of the camp spirit behind Stine’s books), escapes and knocks all the other books to the floor, opening one and releasing a particularly nasty ventriloquist’s dummy who becomes the film’s principal villain. He releases all the other monsters from their books and burns the manuscripts so they can’t be trapped in them again, and for the film’s remaining hour the monsters — including such ripoffs from 1950’s films as a blob and a giant-sized praying mantis, as well as a series of malevolent little china elves and various other picturesque menaces — rampage through Madison while Our Heroes figure out how to stop them. It seems the only way the rampage will end is if they can prevail on R. L. Stine to write a new Goosebumps book in which they all die, whereupon they will instantly be summoned back into the manuscript and get locked up in it again.

At first Zach offers to set Stine up on a computer, but Stine protests that the magic will work only if he writes his new novel on the same old Smith-Corona typewriter on which he wrote originally — which is in a display case at Madison High School. Stine eventually more or less finishes the book — though Zach has to type the last few pages to Stine’s dictation after one of the monsters breaks Stine’s fingers — and the climax takes place on a Ferris wheel in an abandoned amusement park (abandoned before it was even finished because the developers ran out of money, though the place is still lit so someone is paying its electric bill). The Ferris wheel was set up early in the action when, on one of their early dates, Hannah had Zach climb up it and sit in a car high above the city even though the only way they can get down is to climb back down the way they came up. (The director and writers have a panicked Zach ask, “How are we going to get back down?” Then director Letterman does a jump-cut to them both walking normally on the ground again, without showing us how they did get down.) In the climax, the Ferris wheel goes off its moorings and starts revolving through town with its reluctant passengers still aboard, and it ends after Stine finishes the manuscript and the monsters get sucked back into it (“That book should be buried under a ton of concrete!” said Charles, to which I replied, “What? And blow the possibility of a sequel?”) with R. L. Stine hired by Madison High School as a substitute English teacher. In a nice in-joke he greets “Mr. Black, the new drama teacher” in the school’s hallway — Stine is played by Jack Black and Mr. Black, in a cameo, by the real R. L. Stine — before showing up in class and beginning his lecture: “There are three elements to every story: the beginning, the middle, and … the twist.” Our screenwriters then duly deliver the twist when Stine’s typewriter starts typing, apparently by itself, and a voice announces that there is one Goosebumps monster, the Invisible Boy, who’s still alive because Stine forgot to write him into the last novel.

There’s also a marvelous plot device in which it turns out that Hannah doesn’t really exist — Stine wrote her and thereby conjured her into existence because without someone to love, he was lonely — and Zach has a crisis of conscience at the last minute because closing the book on the monsters will mean closing the book on his girlfriend and making her cease to exist as well — until, in yet another twist (the ending has more twists than a Red Vine!), Stine reveals that he wrote Hannah in a separate book and therefore brings her to life again. Goosebumps is an absolutely marvelous film, to my mind the most literate and genuinely funny horror-comedy since the original Ghostbusters (also a Columbia production, but made before Sony bought the company), to which it owes quite a lot — as it does to The Blob and Night of the Living Dead (Charles noted the deliberate parallel of having a Black man barricade the door when the monsters attack the high school in the middle of a big student dance). Combining horror and comedy would seem like a genre-bending natural, but there have been awfully few great ones: The Bride of Frankenstein from 1935 (and the spoof of it, Young Frankenstein, from 1974), the Bob Hope-Paulette Goddard Ghost Breakers from 1940, maybe a few of the Abbott and Costello “monster” films, the original Ghostbusters … and now Goosebumps, which is essentially the Stranger than Fiction concept applied to spoofing horror and, while not quite on the level of Stranger than Fiction (when I reviewed that movie for imdb.com my headline read, “Who would have thought Will Ferrell would be in a masterpiece?”), Goosebumps is screamingly funny and the monsters, realized mostly with CGI (Sony Animation is listed as a co-producing company with Columbia Pictures), are kept campily scary rather than truly frightening — which is how this film got a PG rating instead of the PG-13 most horror films aimed at the teenage audience get.

Monday, January 8, 2018

75th Annual Golden Globe Awards (Hollywood Foreign Press Association, NBC-TV, aired January 7, 2018)

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

We got home at 3:40 p.m., well in time for the advertised 4 p.m. start time for the Golden Globe Awards (thank goodness the Internet revolution has moved at least some of the awards show telecasts are finally being aired on the West Coast in real time, instead of on tape-delays that only remind us that the East Coast-centric media establishment always wants to make us West Coasters suck hind tit), though that was just the start of the interminable pre-awards show. The Golden Globes were the first major Hollywood awards telecast to take place after “the moment,” the welcome awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in Hollywood and the media that has produced some really bizarre results. Thanks to the efforts of online campaigns like #MeToo and Time’s Up (the latter was giving out pins for the male attendees to wear to show their solidarity with women speaking up against their own victimization by powerful men, and the campaign’s organizers ran out of them), women are finally getting the pervasiveness of the problem exposed — and as the example of Kevin Spacey and the recent telecast on Lifetime of the TV movie A Tale of Two Coreys (in which Corey Feldman and Corey Haim are depicted as rape victims and their descent into major drug habits are shown as delayed PTSD responses to having been molested by the men in the industry who were supposed to be protecting them), this isn’t a problem just women have to deal with. The anti-harassment groups called for everyone to wear black to the ceremony, and virtually all the attendees did — which gave the proceedings the appearance of a funeral, even if some of the women had costume jewelry studding their black gowns.

The high point of the evening for me was the Cecil B. DeMille Award to Oprah Winfrey, who gave a long and occasionally rambling speech but one which framed the whole issue of sexual harassment in a broader context of equality and respect for human rights. There were far fewer jabs at President Trump this year than last — maybe out of a consciousness that Hollywood has to get its own house in order before they start throwing political stones at the Right again — and most of the ones that were implied the message rather than actually stating it the way Meryl Streep did the year before. There was probably an implied statement from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in their choices for the two Best Picture winners: the Drama winner (announced by Barbra Streisand, who mentioned that she won the Golden Globe for Best Director in 1984 — and there hasn’t been a woman winner since, though the Globes at least deserve credit for giving a woman Best Director a quarter-century before the Oscars did!) was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, based on a true story about a mother (played by Frances McDormand in one of her few projects not also involving her husband, Joel Coen) in the titular small town who took out three giant billboard ads criticizing the local sheriff and law enforcement in general for not working hard enough to find the man who raped and murdered her daughter; and the Comedy or Musical winner was Lady Bird, written and directed by a woman (Greta Gerwig) about a teenager in Sacramento in the early 2000’s who yearns for a career in the creative arts and a better and more cosmopolitan life than that offered to a girl from “the wrong side of the tracks” in that environment. (Alas, Gerwig wasn’t even nominated for best director: all the nominees were men, and white men at that.) The Golden Globes can be frustrating in that not only have Charles and I not seen any of these movies (I think it’s been over a year since we went to a traditional movie theatre at all), but many of them are still in limited release and therefore we couldn’t see them even if we wanted to, while a lot of the nominated TV shows aren’t on traditional broadcast or cable outlets but on “streaming” services like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime, which we don’t subscribe to (we’re spending way too much money on television as it is!) and are based on both a technology and a business model that totally appall me — the business model being, “We’ll make you pay through the nose for one or two shows of real quality, and to get them you have to take the rest of our garbage.”

The Lost Boys (Warner Bros., 1987)

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

After the Golden Globes I ran a movie I’d dubbed to DVD from an old VHS tape I made 30 years ago, The Lost Boys — which I was curious about because I’d just watched the Lifetime TV-movie A Tale of Two Coreys, the Coreys being Corey Feldman and Corey Haim, who met and formed their “bromance” while making this 1987 film and remained close friends until Haim’s death in 2010. There were other reasons to re-investigate The Lost Boys over three decades after it was made, including the fact that when it was filmed the whole idea of a teenage-vampire movie was a novelty, whereas now it’s become almost too familiar. I had very little memory of The Lost Boys — my recollection was that I put it on the same tape as the film The Big Easy, and my then-partner John Gabrish liked The Lost Boys better and I liked The Big Easy better — but it turned out to be a pretty good film which like a lot of horror films from Hollywood’s classic era got considerably better once the filmmakers (director Joel Schumacher, who was a lot better here than he was in the Batman and Jurassic Park franchises he came close to wrecking, and writers Jan Fischer, James Jermias and Jeffrey Boam — did you have to have a first name beginning with “J” to direct or write this film?) admitted already that the vampires existed. The plot deals with a mother, Lucy (Dianne Wiest), who’s just been through a painful and financially impoverishing divorce in Phoenix, Arizona and who moves to “Santa Carla,” California (really Santa Cruz — much of the film was shot on location at Santa Cruz’s famous boardwalk) with her two sons Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim). She stays there with her father (Barnard Hughes), who rather acidly tells her she’s the first woman he’s known who emerged worse off financially from a divorce, and her sons spend a lot of time hanging around the boardwalk, which is depicted as a sort of living freak show.

The point is made by the inclusion of the Doors’ song “People Are Strange” — though in a cover by Echo and the Bunnymen rather than the Doors’ own performance (though actual Door Ray Manzarek produced the recording and, I suspect, played his original prepared-piano part on it) — and among the strangest people there are a coven of teenage vampires, apparently led by blond-haired David (Kiefer Sutherland) but with a single vampire-in-charge whom they all report to and who will all die if the alpha vampire is killed. Michael gets sucked — so to speak — into the vampire cult when he meets Star (Jamie Gertz), a sort of apprentice vampire because she’s already drunk vampire blood but hasn’t yet “made her bones,” vampire-wise, by killing someone for their blood. She’s attracted to Michael but thinks the only way she can get him is to vampirize him, which she does by inviting him to a party David gives at their hideout (which Charles said he recognized as the set for the Sid and Marty Krofft film Sigmund the Sea Monster, though re-dressed with a large picture of Jim Morrison and a poster from the film The Breakfast Club — the movie does sort of come off as the answer to the question, “What if John Hughes had made a vampire movie?”) and getting him to drink from a bottle he thinks just contains wine but really has some of David’s blood in it. So Michael becomes a vampire pledge and spends his days sleeping, or trying to with his mom continually waking him up and trying to get him to live a normal life — sort of like the way the real Corey Feldman lived once he got into drugs, staying up all night partying and showing up for work too tired to remember his lines (at times The Lost Boys comes off as a weird combination anti-drug movie and coming-out movie). Meanwhile, Mom is dating Max (Edward Herrmann), owner of the local video store (that really dates this movie!), despite the suspicions of Michael’s brother Sam (ya remember Michael’s brother Sam) that he’s really the head vampire. Sam teams up with Edgar and Allan Frog (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander), who hang out a lot at the local comic-book store and give Sam two vampire comic books (despite Sam’s protestations that “I really don’t like horror comics”) that serve in this movie what those old, graying books of vampire lore did in classic Hollywood’s vampire movies (as well as such European films as Murnau’s Nosferatu and Dreyer’s Vampyr): they give the good guys the instructions they need to defeat the vampires and bring the vampire-pledges, Michael and Star, back to normal humanity.

The two most charismatic performances in the movie were delivered by Jason Patric as Michael — who really does a good job showing his character’s being torn between his normal existence and the promise of immortality and romance being offered by the vampire alternative, despite the downside of having continually to kill people for their blood (a duality first presented on screen, I think, by Louise Allbritton in her marvelous performance in the 1943 Son of Dracula) — and Kiefer Sutherland as David, malevolent but also exciting. Of course, Max turns out to be the lead vampire after all — he passed the “vampire tests” Sam rigged up for him at their home but only because one piece of vampire lore relatively unique to this movie holds that a vampire can “pass” as normal in a home to which he has been invited — and his destruction at the end of the film dispatches the rest of the cult as well, and also destroys the lead family’s plumbing as great spurts of blood back up through their pipes. The Lost Boys is very much a movie of its time — there aren’t any “good vampires” to balance the bad vampires the way there’ve been in the Twilight cycle and its imitators — though it also holds up pretty well, and i found myself liking it better now than I did when it was new even though neither of the two Coreys comes off that well: Feldman’s role is too small to matter much and Haim becomes an annoying ninny, the 1980’s equivalent of a damsel in distress in a 1940’s horror film. Like the two actors who played him at different ages in A Tale of Two Coreys, Haim was a pretty-boy twink in his teens who grew up to be a quite handsome, buff, butch adult; a pity that, like John Coltrane, he was done in by the long-term damage to his body done by his years of drug abuse even though he was clean and sober at the end.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Tale of Two Coreys (Hybrid LLC, Philco, Mayor Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

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

Ultimately last night I watched the Lifetime movie A Tale of Two Coreys, yet another tiresome story of promising Hollywood careers derailed by drug use. The promising Hollywood careers that got derailed were those of young actors Corey Feldman and Corey Haim, who met while appearing in the film The Lost Boys (a film about teenage vampires directed by Joel Schumacher in 1987 — I had an old VHS tape of it and The Big Easy which I recorded when my then-partner John Gabrish and I had cable TV with HBO, and I remember that at the time he liked The Lost Boys better and I liked The Big Easy better), became bosom buddies and were frequently bracketed in teen-idol magazines as “The Two Coreys.” The Lifetime movie about then was directed by Steven Huffaker from a script by an even larger writing committee than usual: the story is credited to Feldman himself along with Tejal Desai, Jeffrey Schenck. Peter Sullivan and Henry Wassenburger, and Schenck, Sullivan, Wassenburger and Jessica Dube are credited with the screenplay (and on screen the writers’ names are linked with ampersands rather than the word “and,” meaning that they all worked on the script together instead of taking it over relay-style one from the other). It’s narrated in flashbacks by both Feldman, who’s still alive and sat for an interview that was taped and aired after the movie; and Haim, who died from pneumonia in 2010 after a lifelong struggle with drug abuse. 

The producers (14 are listed) and casting directors Dean E. Frank and Donald Paul Penrick double-cast the parts of Feldman and Haim, with Elijah Marcano and Justin Ellings playing Feldman and Haim (in that order) as teenagers and Scott Bosely and Casey Leach playing them as adults. Elijah Marcano is a hauntingly beautiful young man who doesn’t look either like the real Corey Feldman in his teens — quite frankly, his ethereal baby face and long brown hair would have made him better casting for a biopic of David Cassidy than of Corey Feldman — and he also doesn’t look like he’d grow up to be the nice-bodied but rather hatchet-faced Scott Bosely. Justin Ellings looks like a mouth-watering morsel of boy-meat for Gay men into twinks — which actually fits a key story point of the film, as we’ll see later — and he doesn’t look like he’ll grow up to look like his adult counterpart, Casey Leach, though for my money Leach was by far the sexiest of the four: tall, blond, muscular, butch and also quite strikingly reminiscent of the surviving film of the older Corey Haim. For the most part A Tale of Two Coreys is a pretty-standard issue “Behnd the Music” story of a promising young talent (in this case, two promising young talents) wrecking their careers by partying, clubbing, screwing, drinking and, most destructively, drugging. 

But there are two distinguishing characteristics that set A Tale of Two Coreys apart from most efforts in the salvation-from-drugs genre whose conventions were set relatively early (in 1821 by the British writer Thomas de Quincey in his book Confessions of an English Opium-Eater). One is how vividly it demonstrates that child actors are really commodities, controlled both by their bosses and their parents; in one chilling scene, Feldman comes home after three classmates bullied and badly beat him when he bragged to them about landing a major movie role — and his mom sees the bruises on his face and, rather than say anything supportive, chews him out for having got into a fight that bruised his highly valuable face and risked him getting replaced in that big role. Both Feldman and Haim came from broken homes; Feldman’s parents divorced before he started his career and Haim’s broke up while he was just taking off as a young actor — and Feldman’s dad was an aspiring rock musician and his son’s manager until Feldman abruptly fired him after realizing his dad was just taking his money and pushing him off into quick-buck projects that would bring in short-term income but be bad for his long-term career. The breaking point came when Feldman’s good friend Michael Jackson (no, I’m not making this up!), to whom he’d been introduced by Steven Spielberg on the set of The Goonies, told him it was stupid for Feldman to appear on the quiz show The Hollywood Squares because “that’s something you do at the end of your career,” but dad remained firm that Feldman do that show and not even Michael Jackson himself, dressed in the costume he wore on the cover of Bad and played by Brandon Howard (who looks “blacker” than the real Jackson did at that point but gets the famously whispery speaking voice down pat), can talk Feldman père out of pushing his son onto a humiliating gig. (It’s somewhat ironic that the movie presents Michael Jackson and Carrie Fisher as voices of reason to the young protagonists when Jackson died a drug-related death and Fisher’s mysterious death remains unexplained and, given her history, could well have involved drugs as well.) 

The other unusual part of this film — and one which makes it particularly relevant in the so-called “moment” in which America in general and Hollywood in particular are becoming more aware of, and more sensitive to, charges of sexual harassment and the heads of once-powerful people are rolling as they get ousted from their jobs and positions of power following revelations of their records of sexual misconduct over the years — is the allegation that both Feldman and Haim were raped early in their careers, before they were over the age of consent, by the people who were supposedly on the sets of their films to chaperone and protect them. Indeed, though the story is only obliquely hinted at in the movie itself, Feldman is more explicit about it in his post-film interview (and his 2013 memoir, punningly titled Coreography), saying that both straight and Gay pedophilia is the real dark secret of Hollywood. Though he’s still too scared of the man who raped him to mention his name — he says the man is still a power player in the industry and could literally have him killed, which is why, he told his interviewer, he has at least one bodyguard (and usually more than one) on duty all the time, including at home when he sleeps — he describes himself as “a man on a mission” to expose the rampant pedophilia in Hollywood and drive its perpetrators from power. Given that memoirs of classic Hollywood have exposed such legendary names from the past as David O. Selznick, Arthur Freed and John Huston as pedophiles — Selznick and Freed were named by none other than Shirley Temple in her 1988 memoir Child Star, in which she wrote that both of them chased her around their desks when she had past her peak as a child star and was attempting a comeback as a teenager (and was still below the age of consent) and Huston by a woman who claimed that her father was the “Black Dahlia” killer and that he not only molested her himself but passed her along to his powerful Hollywood friends, including Huston — I can readily believe everything Feldman is saying; his description of how the powerful pedophiles in Hollywood throw grand parties at their estate, invite lots of kids, offer them games, snacks and, eventually, booze and then have their wicked ways with them may sound like something novelist Jonathan Kellerman would make up, but I have no doubt it happens. 

I’m also not sure how much of this actually has to do with sex; just as feminists like Susan Brownmiller in the late 1970’s argued that rape was a form of assault and its purpose for the rapist was not sexual gratification but the expression of power and domination over women in general and their victim in particular, so it seems to me that a group of jaded people who are literally in the business of selling hot young bodies to the public would essentially establish their “ownership” over the possessors of those bodies by violating them. Both the film and Feldman’s post-film interview make clear that not only is the “casting couch” alive and well, but young men are as likely to be the victims of it as young women — even if, as I suspect, it’s not just Gay men like Bryan Singer and Kevin Spacey that are doing the exploiting, but people who self-identify as heterosexual, Bisexual or without a particular sexual orientation at all. (One of Feldman’s abusers in the film says chillingly that he isn’t Gay and doesn’t consider himself Bi, either: “I just like both women and men.”) Though on its face A Tale of Two Coreys is a pretty standard tale of drugs-and-redemption for Feldman and drugs-and-death for Haim, the sexual overlays and the whole critique of how the entertainment industry commodifies its victims mark it as a quite relevant work for today’s headlines as well as a personal tragedy for Feldman, whose career ambitions as he explained them at the end of the interview — to be in one of the Godfather movies and to work with Al Pacino — seem rather forlorn reaches for the higher things he was too locked into being first a bankable young-adult commodity and then a “bad boy” and reality-TV star ever to hope to achieve.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Armistead and I: Tales of Two Cities

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

On New Year’s Day 2018, KPBS, the local San Diego outlet for public broadcasting, showed a couple of programs from 9 p.m. to midnight. One — the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s concert, featuring the music of the Strauss family and other light fare —was the sort of thing you expect to see around the New Year’s holiday. The other wasn’t: it was a film by Jennifer Kroot (she’s credited on imdb.com only as director but the actual credits list her as writer as well) called The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, a documentary about the life of the San Francisco-based Gay writer who created the long-running serial Tales of the City, first published in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper and then in a book, which begat another book, which ultimately became six books in all ending in 1989, plus a couple of follow-ups Maupin wrote years later.
I don’t know why I wanted to watch this. I’d never been a fan of Armistead Maupin. I’d never even read him, though I’d seen the 1993 mini-series of Tales of the City on PBS — parts of it, anyway. Indeed, my husband Charles told me several times in the early minutes of The Untold Tales that if I wanted to watch something else, he wouldn’t mind me either switching the channel or putting on a movie on DVD. “This is an important slice of Gay culture and history,” I told him, and the show stayed on and we watched it until the end. It was a weird experience, mainly because it flashed me back to my own adolescence and early adulthood in San Francisco and my coming to grips with my own sexuality, including the time I was attending San Francisco State University and simultaneously dating two of my fellow students — a woman and a man — and ultimately living with the woman for nearly five years before I finally decided it was time to come out as Gay.
What I didn’t realize about Armistead Maupin was that not only was he a Southern boy. He was born in Washington, D.C. but raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. His family was Southern in their orientation and even had a genuine Confederate war hero in their lineage: Lawrence O’Bryan Branch, a Confederate general killed in the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. (This was an especially noteworthy battle because it was the North’s first major victory, and it gave President Lincoln the political and military credibility he felt he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.) What’s more, Maupin got his first job in media at a TV station in Raleigh managed by none other than future U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, a deeply and viciously homo-hating man who once told Maupin that a homosexual was “the worst thing you could possibly be.”
Maupin grew up a hardline Right-winger and so intensely committed to the U.S. military that he volunteered for the Navy, served three tours (one of them in combat in Viet Nam) and only reluctantly left. In Kroot’s documentary, he ruefully admits that all the cute guys he could ogle there were one of the reasons he wanted to serve, though in the pre-“don’t ask, don’t tell” era when Queers were automatically banned from the U.S. military and there were periodic witch hunts to ferret them out, discharge them and give them “bad paper” that would make it virtually impossible for them to get civilian jobs later, he knew the rule was “look but don’t touch.”
He didn’t find his way out of either his political or his sexual closet until 1971, when he got a job with the Associated Press in their bureau in San Francisco. Though Kroot didn’t tell when or how Maupin came to grips with being Gay, his Wikipedia page says he knew he was Gay from childhood but didn’t have sex with a man until age 26 and didn’t definitively come out until age 30. In 1974 he began writing a serial about urban live in San Francisco for a weekly newspaper called the Pacific Sun, based in Marin County, just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge. The Pacific Sun hired Maupin when they were attempting to expand into San Francisco itself, and when that folded he managed to place the serial with the biggest and most prestigious newspaper in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Chronicle.
Tales of the City — a title invented by his editor at the Chronicle since the Pacific Sun owned its previous name, The Serial — raised eyebrows at the Chronicle because newspapers generally didn’t publish fiction. They had once, and in Untold Tales Maupin at least twice compares himself to Charles Dickens because Dickens’ books, too, were first published chapter by chapter in newspapers as serials. The installments created a sensation, mainly because they dealt frankly with the fact that there were a lot of Queer people in San Francisco, and the Chronicle’s Gay and Lesbian readers embraced the series because it gave them a chance to read about people like themselves. The stories’ central character is Mary Ann Singleton, a naïve young woman who moves from Cleveland to San Francisco, takes an apartment in a building run by an eccentric landlady named Anna Madrigal, and falls in decidedly unrequited love with a young Gay man named Michael “Mouse” Tolliver.
The stories got attention from Chronicle readers, who fought what would now be called “flame wars” in the paper’s letters-to-the-editor column. Some denounced Maupin’s story as utterly unsuited for a family newspapers, while others defended the series. In 1978 a New York publisher sounded Maupin out about publishing the serial episodes as a novel, and Maupin agreed. Tales of the City became a best-seller and Maupin wrote five more books in the cycle. It ended in 1989 with Sure of You, a decision Maupin says in the film he reached because he had made Michael Tolliver HIV positive and he didn’t want the cycle to end with a morbid death scene like virtually all previous fiction about Queer people. As people with HIV diagnoses began living longer and AIDS receded from being an automatic death sentence to what the medical business calls “a chronic, manageable disease,” Maupin resumed writing about Michael Tolliver in 2007 with a book called Michael Tolliver Lives, with him narrating the story this time instead of it being told in third-person.
One of the things that kept Maupin’s series popular and relevant was his inclusion of real-life characters, events and issues facing the Queer community. Oddly, Jennifer Kroot includes a segment in her film about the effect of AIDS on Queers in general and the San Francisco community in particular before her depiction of Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” anti-Queer campaign in 1977 — four years before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) first identified AIDS as a diagnosable medical condition. Maupin was one of the first fiction writers to address AIDS — in the fourth installment in the Tales cycle, Babycakes, published in 1983, at a time when a lot of people in the Queer community were hoping the epidemic would burn itself out and go away.
He was also one of the first to depict a Transgender character. He had had it in mind that Anna Madrigal, the landlady and on-site manager of the building where most of the characters live, would be a Transwoman and be revealed as such at the end of the first Tales of the City book. Realizing that he knew very little about actual Trans people, he sought out a Transwoman and interviewed her. When he asked her why she had gone through gender reassignment, he was stunned by her answer: “Because I wanted to be able to talk to women.” At a time when there was a good deal of anti-Trans prejudice in the Queer community — much of it from self-proclaimed feminists who thought Transwomen were embracing the attributes of “femininity” many Lesbians were consciously rejecting in the 1970’s — Maupin was once again a trailblazer in depicting a Trans character realistically and sympathetically.
Maupin mostly used the real names of actual people he incorporated into his story, but made an exception for a major movie star he called “_____ _____,” but who was obviously Rock Hudson — whom Maupin had tricked with a few times in the 1970’s, including one three-way with Hudson’s partner. When Hudson fell seriously ill in 1985 and his publicists put out various cover stories to try to keep people from figuring out he had AIDS, Maupin publicly stated that he knew Hudson and had personal knowledge that he was Gay, thereby “outing” him after decades of rumors and getting dumped on by a lot of Queer people who thought no one should ever be brought out of the closet against their will.
One of the most heartbreaking stories about the impact of AIDS in Kroot’s film comes from Maupin’s long-time friend, Chinese-American author Amy Tan. She first met Maupin when he came to do a book signing at a bookstore Tan’s family owned. It had a lot of Queer employees, attracted Queer customers and stocked books about Queers and their lives. As the AIDS epidemic progressed, Tan recalled, her employees started dying. Her customers started dying, too, and eventually so many of her “regulars” passed away that the bookstore lost business and was forced to close.
Kroot pretty much races through Maupin’s post-Tales of the City years. She does discuss two long-term relationships he was in, including one with a man named Terry from whom he had what Maupin calls a “cocktail divorce.” After the 1996 International AIDS Conference in Vancouver — held during a long period when it was impossible to hold the conference in the U.S. because Maupin’s former mentor, Jesse Helms, had pushed a bill through Congress banning entry visas for people who tested HIV positive — new therapies involving multiple drugs were introduced and people with AIDS or HIV diagnoses started living longer. This had the odd result that people like Maupin in so-called “sero-discordant” relationships — he’s remained negative but he says in the film that all his serious partners have been positive — found their partners wanted to leave now that they no longer felt they needed someone to support them through an imminent decline and death.
Maupin’s current partner — his husband, actually, though Kroot doesn’t mention that they are legally married — is Christopher Turner, a much younger former model and photographer who created the DaddyHunt.com Web site for younger Gay men interested in meeting and dating older ones. Maupin remembered looking at the site but not dating anyone from it; later he met Turner on the street and told him, “Didn’t I see you on DaddyHunt.com?” Turner then acknowledged that he’d created DaddyHunt.com because he’d wanted to meet older men. The two began dating and married in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada on February 18, 2007.
One good thing about Kroot’s film is that, though she made it with the intent of getting it on PBS, it doesn’t shy away from the sad history of Maupin’s work on the network. Tales of the City was made into a miniseries on PBS in 1993, with the young, then little-known Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton and Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal — both of them are interviewed extensively in Untold Tales — and it was sensationally successful. It brought many PBS stations the best prime-time ratings they’d ever had, and in San Francisco Tales pulled in more viewers than the commercial networks.
Then disaster struck: the Republican Party gained control of both houses of the U.S. Congress and Maupin’s mentor turned nemesis, U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, made Tales Exhibit A in his case for why the government should cancel all funding for PBS. The network caved and backed out of their deal to make another miniseries out of the second book in the cycle — and Linney, in Kroot’s films, vividly recalls her disappointment that she would not get to play the character again.

Maupin’s San Francisco — and Mine

I was born in San Francisco in 1953, making me nine years younger than Armistead Maupin. (By ironic coincidence, my husband Charles is nine years younger than I.) In 1960 my mother and stepfather (my dad and my mom had broken up when I was 1 ½ and I have no living memories of them as a couple) moved to Marin County and bought a home. I grew up in Marin County and suffered through some of my mother’s social experiments — including moving us to the so-called “gilded ghetto” of Marin City, where most of the county’s African-Americans lived — after she and my stepfather broke up in 1965.
Then in 1974 I moved to the East Bay to attend UC Berkeley, where I dropped out after two quarters. I stayed there until 1978, when I moved into a dorm at San Francisco State (where I’d started attending in 1977 less out of any burning career goal and more just to check “college graduation” off my list of life tasks) and then found a small studio apartment on Larkin Street, where my girlfriend and I lived until we moved to San Diego in January 1980.
There were a number of reasons we did that. She was from Southern California and felt more comfortable there than in San Francisco. I was already noticing my “roving eye” roving towards the men in our neighborhood, and I naïvely believed it would be easier for me to resist temptation and keep my straight relationship going if I got away from the large, politically influential and socially inescapable Queer community in San Francisco. Also the November 1978 murders of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had to some extent soured me on the city of my birth. The fact that I had commonalities with both Milk and his killer, Supervisor Dan White — I’m Irish-American like White and Queer like Milk — made the post-assassination political state of San Francisco even weirder and less welcoming to me.
Needless to say, the hope that I could keep my straight relationship together in San Diego and not be tempted to stray back to my Gay side didn’t work — though I didn’t finally come out to my girlfriend until December 1982. (We remain close friends to this day.) I was certainly a late bloomer sexually — I didn’t have my first sexual experience with a woman until early 1973 (she was on the rebound from her breakup with a mutual friend who also turned out to be Gay; today we’re back in touch and are friends on Facebook) and didn’t have my first with a man until late 1977.
I was coming out of the student bookstore at San Francisco State when I was approached by a man who sidled up to me and said, in a voice I’m sure he thought was sexy, “I’d like to blow you away.” Never having consciously thought of myself as Gay — though I can look back at my life and realize there were certain boys in my life on whom I clearly had what I can now recognize were crushes — I was freaked out by this, though I let him give me his phone number. That night, I tossed and turned virtually all night, worried about the whole thing, until I finally told myself, “You’re going to call that guy and you’re going to make a date with him.” The next morning I did, leaving him a message which he returned at an almost cosmically right moment — I was in my room listening to an LP of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1938 recordings of the Act I Prelude and Act III Good Friday Spell from Parsifal, and he called right in the pause between the Prelude and the Good Friday Spell.
I had my first Gay experience in the back of his car, on a weekend morning in the San Francisco State parking lot. We dated for a while until I met my girlfriend, also at school, and that, I thought, was the end of that. But as a Bay Area resident in the late 1970’s, when Tales of the City appeared as a miniseries on PBS, I recognized many of the settings — and many of the kinds of people depicted, too. In fact, I found much of the series hard to watch because, as I explained to my then-roommate, “I didn’t like these people that much in real life — why would I want to watch a movie about them?” I wonder what I’d think about Tales of the City if I revisited it now as an historical document.
I know that the books about life as a Gay man I did read in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, like John Rechy’s The Sexual Outlaw and Larry Kramer’s Faggots, probably kept me in the closet longer than I otherwise might have lasted because they made life as a Gay man seem like a relentless hunt for sex on the most superficial level. I’ve written before apropos of the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus books that if its author, John Gray, wanted to test his theory that men and women approach sex differently, with women demanding that it have a romantic and emotional context and men more interested in the sheer physical sensation, he should have done what scientists call “isolate the variable” and looked at how people behave sexually when they don’t have to worry about the needs, desires and feelings of the other gender: totally Gay men and totally Lesbian women.
Certainly my own experiences as a Gay man — including being “out” for the past 35 years and having been through both “open” and “closed” relationships — lend credence to the idea that men can readily detach the physical pleasure of sex from any emotional or relational context. It also helps, of course, that Gay men can’t either get pregnant themselves or make their partners pregnant. When I was with my girlfriend I would frequently lose my hard-on during the laborious process of her putting in her diaphragm, which she had to use because she was allergic to pills and scared of IUD’s. When I came out I joked to her that I was finally practicing a form of birth control that was guaranteed 100 percent effective.
I can’t read a book or watch a movie about San Francisco in the late 1970’s without having twinges of nostalgia. I remember an establishing shot in Peter Berlin’s remarkable 1970’s Gay porn film That Boy that took us past the Wherehouse Records outlet in San Francisco, where I could remember buying the boxed set of Bruno Walter’s recordings of the complete Beethoven symphonies as well as quite a few avant-garde jazz items by people like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.
When I watched — or tried to watch — the PBS miniseries adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City in 1993 I had a lot of those nostalgic twinges and said a sad requiem for the city I had once lived in, and the sort of community it had started groping towards before the Moscone/Milk murders, the rise of AIDS, and later the takeover of San Francisco by the dot-commers (briefly alluded to in Untold Tales when Maupin tells Kroot that he still loves San Francisco and refuses to protest things like the “Google bus” that spirits tech employees from their homes in San Francisco to their jobs in Silicon Valley) ended that set of possibilities.
San Diego is my home now and probably will be until the day I die — unless the relentless gentrifiers price me out of it and force Charles and I to relocate to a more isolated, more conservative but cheaper area for our final years. It’s not a place that exalts me the way the Bay Area used to, but it doesn’t disappoint me the way the Bay Area did either. But as the song says, I did leave my heart in San Francisco — or at least a piece of it — and cultural artifacts like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City bring it back to me in weird and not altogether pleasant ways.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

2018 Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Eve Concert (Vienna Philharmonic, ORTF, PBS, 2018)

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

On Monday, January 1 KPBS, the Public Broadcasting Service’s San Diego outlet, rang in the New Year with a predictable feature and a decidedly unpredictable one. The unpredictable one — which I’ll be writing about later because though I was never a fan of its subject, the time (late 1970’s) and place (San Francisco) where he made his mark is personal to me because I was living there then and just coming to grips with my sexuality — was a documentary on the Independent Lens series called The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin. The predictable one was the American telecast of the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s concert, which apparently actually starts at midnight so it can take place entirely within the new year (according to Wikipedia, they actually play the same program three days in a row — December 30 and 31, and January 1 — but it’s the last of the three that is internationally televised). 

The tradition was started in 1939 by conductor Clemens Krauss, and it was apparently greenlighted by Baldur von Schirach, one of the creeps on Adolf Hitler’s staff whom he made Gauleiter (“regional leader”) of Austria after he took it over in 1938. Like a lot of what goes on artistically in Vienna, the concert has become quite bound by tradition — indeed I remember that when PBS first started broadcasting them in the 1980’s Walter Cronkite was the MC and he kept going on and on and on about “traditional” this and “traditional” that it seemed to be awfully hidebound for what was supposedly a group of serious classical musicians letting their hair down and having fun. Of course, the concert’s greatest tradition is that it primarily features music by the Strauss family — father Johann Strauss, Sr.; his sons Johann, Jr. (by far the most famous member and the one we think of when we say “Strauss waltz”), Josef and Eduard; and his grandson Johann Strauss III, who to confuse the issue was not Johann, Jr.’s son but Eduard’s! I’m not sure whether we got to see the whole concert — I suspect not — because in previous years we’ve been able to download the entire concert from private sources, including extensive silent footage of Viennese landmarks the telecast’s producers, the Austrian broadcasting company ORTF, shoot so the editors in various countries can use it as B-roll. Now ORTF, the Vienna Philharmonic and their record label, Sony Classical, have put the concert on such tight copyright control — it is a major international cash cow for the orchestra and Sony, after all — that recordings of it are available for advance-order sale on arkivmusic.com even before the concert has taken place. 

What we got this year was 11 numbers, nine on the printed program plus the inevitable two encores — the “Blue Danube” waltz (here accompanied by aerial photographs of the actual Danube River — I remember being disappointed to read in the 1970’s that the Danube, far from being beautiful or blue, was then the most polluted river in Europe; fortunately it’s been cleaned up since then) and Johann Strauss, Sr.’s “Radetzky March,” to which the audience claps along in strict time and the conductor sometimes turns away from the orchestra and conducts the audience instead. (One year Charles turned to me as the audience was clapping in near-perfect unison and said, “How come we got all the white people who can’t clap?”) The “Blue Danube” is always presented the same way; the orchestra plays a few bars, the conductor stops them and says, in German, “The Vienna Philharmonic wants to wish you a … ” — and then the orchestra says, in unison, “Prosit Neujahr,” which is German for “Happy New Year.” Over the years the concert programs expanded to include light music by people other than the Strausses, including last night’s opener, the overture to Franz von Suppé’s operetta Boccaccio (it’s fun but there are other Suppé overtures, including Poet and Peasant and Light Cavalry, which are better) and the “Stephanie” gavotte by Alphonse Czibulka (don’t hold me to that spelling). This year’s conductor was Riccardo Muti, who’s aged a great deal since he established his reputation as a young firebrand at La Scala in Milan in the 1970’s; he conducted the concert for the first time in 1993 and did so again in 1997, 2000 and 2004. 

PBS’s choice for an on-screen host was rather dubious; in years past it was Walter Cronkite and then Julie Andrews (whose most famous film, The Sound of Music, took place in Austria — but in Salzburg, not Vienna!), but this year it was the offensively booming Hugh Bonneville, an actor who joked about how the magnificent palace settings might make you think you were watching a PBS pledge-break marathon of Downton Abbey, a popular British series that is probably Bonneville’s best-known vehicle (though if you look him up on imdb.com the first credit that comes up is for another show, Notting Hill). I’ve never watched Downton Abbey — I have about zero interest in shows glorifying the British aristocracy and either patronizing or ignoring the British 99 percenters who keep them in business — and if Hugh Bonneville’s announcements on the New Year’s concert are any indication, I haven’t missed much. He reminds me of the stories I’ve heard about how in the early days of sound filmmaking actors who had been trained on the stage boomed out their lines at fortissimo volume, as if they were still straining to make sure they were heard in the back rows, and they had to learn that acting before a camera and a microphone demanded a different, more naturalistic style of line delivery than acting before a live audience, especially a large one. Bonneville’s booming style made this show considerably less fun than it could have been, but the music was still excellent, and if the show seemed all too lovingly to use all that B-roll of the preposterously decorated palaces in which the Austro-Hungarian monarchs lived before the Great War (as World War I was called before there was a World War II) ended the empire and dispersed the royal family. 

At least the musical selections involved some of the lesser-known works of the “Waltz King” as well as such standards like “Tales from the Vienna Woods” (containing the beautiful solos for zither that are usually omitted in modern arrangements — and I had always thought the zither was strictly a plucked instrument but this show got its cameras close enough that you could tell it has a miniature keyboard as well), “Roses from the South” and the inevitable “Blue Danube,” including the “Myrtle Blossoms” waltz, the “Magic Bullets” quick polka (composed by Johann Strauss Söhn to commemorate one of the Austro-Hungarian ruling family’s many hunting trips — one family member kept a meticulous record of just how many animals he killed and one of those palaces has a solid wall of trophy heads), a “Festive March” that was simply attributed to “Johann Strauss” but which I suspect might be the work of the father rather than the son, and what was probably the most interesting piece on the program, a quadrille based on themes from Verdi’s opera Un Ballo in Maschera (which Muti recorded as a complete opera in London in 1975 with Plácido Domingo and Martina Arroyo — there are also live versions from 1972 and 1974 in Florence and 2001 at La Scala in Milan). There was also a charming piece by Josef Strauss (a composer a lot of critics think was more innovative and advanced than his far more famous brother), a polka called “Letters to the Editor” that was written in honor of Crown Prince Rudolf, the heir of the long-time Emperor Franz Josef, who was a reformer who would frequently write letters to the editors of Austrian papers urging that the empire lighten up and change to a style of government more suited to the 20th century. 

The Strauss oeuvre can be conducted as great music (especially in the records by Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy and Herbert von Karajan — Karajan led the New Year’s concert just once, in 1987, but he recorded what’s probably the most famous version of anything by Johann Strauss, Jr., the concert version of the “Blue Danube” heard in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey); in Muti’s hands it wasn’t as grand or sweeping as it can be but it was great fun, with Muti’s quick, snappy, Toscaninian approach suiting the music well enough even if it got the Vienna Philharmonic just a bit out of its comfort zone (which is probably why Muti wasn’t invited to conduct this concert until he’d already been a star for over 20 years!). Incidentally the listing for the advance-order CD on arkivmusic.com offers six pieces that were played before what we got to hear on the telecast — “Einzugsmarsch” and “Brautschau” from Johann Strauss, Jr.’s operetta The Gypsy Baron, “Wiener Fresken” by Josef Strauss, “Leichtes Blut” and “Marien-Walzer” by Johann Strauss, Jr. and a gallop by Johann, Jr. based on themes from Rossini’s William Tell — which ought to be interesting listening! (The CD does not include the final “Blue Danube” and “Radetzky March” traditional encores.)