Saturday, May 11, 2013

GENERATIONAL DISTURBANCES: A MALCONTENT WITH A MOVIE TICKET

The Magic Christian    


    Because I never cared for the films of Blake Edwards (too obvious and far too pro status quo for my tastes), I never got around to enjoying the Pink Panther movies and as a consequence I dismissed a lot of the work of Peter Sellers. That does not mean that I lacked appreciation for the actor's best works, such as Dr. Strangelove and Being There. What it does mean is that I often questioned Mr. Sellers' judgment. That's all. So when it came time for me to reevaluate the film The Magic Christian, I didn't know quite what to think. On the one hand, starring Sellers and Ringo Starr, with cameos by Raquel Welsh, Roman Polanski, and Richard Attenborough, with a script by the brilliant satirist Terry Southern, with contributions by some of the guys who would soon become Monty Python, and with a soundtrack by Badfinger,the bloody thing could hardly seem to miss. And yet for some reason I recollected not caring much for it when I first saw it as a wee bit of a lad upon its initial release way back in December 1969.
   Rest assured, my cocoon worshipers and friends of many-colored nomads, time has only improved the quality of the humor which constructs The Magic Christian, a film with the revealing tagline "The Magic Christian is: antiestablishmentarian, antibellum, antitrust, antiseptic, antibiotic, antisocial & antipasto."
    The storyline really doesn't matter all that much, as you may have guessed. The premise, however, is that Guy Grand, played by Sellers, asserts that anyone can be bought for a price. Okay. Money sucks, especially if you've a lot of it and have the safe perspective of being insulated. But, wait! Isn't that Ringo playing a bum sleeping in the grass? Why, yes, I believe it is, and that suggests that the Beatles drummer really was, as everyone said in those days, the best actor of the bunch. He actually was a mighty fine study of a fellow, and no one should ever take that accomplishment away from him, other than to add that despite Caveman, Ringo actually is a first rate thespian in his own right and needn't be compared to other musicians for his credentials.
    The only reason to watch the 92-minute feature film these days, it stands to argue, is that Starr and Sellers work so well together that it is almost possible to believe that the two real life hipsters were indeed related, if not to one another, then to someone, for certain. The actual skits that loosely construct the film haven't aged particularly well, and the plot, as I say, is a tired one now, as it was forty-odd years back, although fans of Python will probably find something there to amuse themselves and rightly so.
    Aside from the comedic brilliance of the two main stars, the other reason to lap up this film like milk on a doorstep (if one were a cat, that is) is because of the truth of the tagline. I can't speak to the anti-pasta sentiments, but it certainly was and remains everything else on that list of words and even to this very day in this very new year resounds with disrespect for the stalest elements of the pablum and pap that the 1970s would stomp the guts out of, such as the nauseating mainstream musicals, of which My Fair Lady was perhaps the most abominable example. The perversity of mediocrity and their merchants did not die easily, of course, and so we would soon enough find ourselves swallowed up in the reactionary swill of Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, Grease and all the other spoiled cream that the squares imagined the 1960s were really about. The Magic Christian is simply a fish slammed against the face of people leaving the theatre asking (as many did when presented with genuine brilliance, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey), "What the bleeding hell is this movie about?" The very framework of a motion picture having a beginning, middle and end, in the Aristotelian sense of plot and progress, was one which movie-makers did not presume to universally accept. You could not make The Magic Christian today any more than you could make 2001, specifically because Guy Grand was correct: people do have their price and can be seduced into selling out. That, it seems, is the precise reason why I hope that someone will try.

The Boys in the Band


   The estimable William Friedkin directed and Mart Crowley wrote the screenplay for The Boys in the Band, the first overtly gay film with a budget in the seven figures. The film starts out funny and uncomfortable, just like the party it is superficially staged around. The plot turns bitter once a nasty telephone game is introduced to the birthday shenanigans and honesty gets put on the chopping block. Anyone threatened by the campy artifice enacted by some gay men will become positively apoplectic from watching these wild characters and other viewers may find themselves just as jarred as the character Michael is when the party is punctuated by the presumably straight Alan, a friend from college. The dialogue, or the chatter, or the bright badinage, is often brilliant and anyone who cringes just because of the sexual orientation of the people in the film is denying himself/herself one hell of a good ride through the uncanny realism of a culture that has not changed all that much since its release in 1970.
    And that's pretty interesting because, as with the previous film--The Magic Christian--and for a completely different set of reasons, this film wouldn't stand much of a chance of being made today, although people would love it if it were. You see, the film is smart, something which is not true of all Friedkin product, the credit for which going to screenwriter Crowley. No, you couldn't make this film now because of studio fear that people wouldn't want to see it or that psycho-zealots would boycott or from their own terror at the prospects of being linked to such a film. This film in fact is so gay that most religious zealots would refuse to boycott it just because they would fear being linked, if only in opposition. This is not La Cage aux Folles. This is an angry movie that uses humor as a whip.
    The only problem with the film or the off Broadway play from which the entire cast was drawn is in the self-deprecating nature of the dialogue. When I was in college, a lot of my friends were gay, or said they were gay, or wished they were gay, and so I found myself at the occasional party when I was one of very few straights and was often treated as if I fit in, which was actually a compliment to me, so I didn't mind. Well, one thing and another and alcohol would pour and people would become more loose in their speech and I would hear people referring to themselves or to one another as bitch, faggot, queen, and the like. At first I was surprised to hear lines like "Oh, you've had worse things than that in your mouth," delivered from one man to another. Hell, you get used to it, I suppose, just as I did when I was hanging out with African-Americans who referred to themselves and one another in similarly disparaging manners. In The Boys in the Band, the sub-dermal self-loathing (masquerading as parody of straight stereotypes but a little too close and constant for that to be all it is) balls its fists and punches you repeatedly in the stomach, over and over, as if to say, "Hey! You get it? I'm pissed!"
    We get it, we get it, take it easy, everything's okay.
    Everything, that is, until you read the Facebook entry of a cretinous friend of a friend of mine who taunts the posthumous life of one of the teenage boys who offed himself rather than endure the constant tortures and taunts of his presumably post-enlightened classmates. I strongly considered giving up this imbecile's name just so anyone so inclined could ring him up and give back a little of what he and his slithering ilk dish out, but then I realized that anyone undeveloped enough to think that saying "Splash!" somehow negates an opponent's argument isn't worth the trouble. I will, however, suggest that you watch this film on YouTube and then consider ordering a copy that you can send to your most despicably bigoted colleague. Think of it as film as guerrilla warfare, something sorely missed in modern cinema.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue


    One seldom associates director Sam Peckinpah with the notion of subtlety, much less subtlety of the light variety, and yet that is precisely what we get in this occasionally beautiful film about the inevitable demise of Luddites and the damnation of invention.
    It is not overstating the matter when discussing the attributes of The Ballad of Cable Hogue to argue that with the understated talents of lead Jason Robards and visual stunner Stella Stevens, this film, while something of an artistic failure, is among the most ambitious and heartwarming failures in the western genre. In fact, I like to think that the best aspects of this charming film are Robards/Hogue's internal struggle between revenge and the more Christian aspects of his personality; the cosmic beauty of Stevens as Hildy, a woman whose body itself is every bit as fascinating as the western skies; the blowing away of the lizard in the opening moments (which is the only truly violent scene in the film); and the introduction of the horseless carriages near the end of the film, cars which look so strange when rolling across the cheap and eager landscape. All of those elements are important to the fun of the film, but Peckinpah refused to have his movie be just another period piece that made subtle commentary of the transformation from horses to automobiles. He insured the longevity of his film with cinematic techniques rarely if ever seen in the western film: super-imposing of close-ups over wide screen shots, double split screen images, the use of the human body as landscape, fast motion sequences. These and other techniques were becoming virtually de riguer in motion pictures by 1970. But no one had applied them to the horse opera and certainly not to the morality tale horse opera.
    The songs that bookend and punctuate the movie weren't much to begin with and they have aged like spoiled eggs. But that's the worst thing one can say about this film. It may not have inspired anyone--except possibly Sergio Leone, who by this point had already recognized what a terrific talent Jason Robards was from Once Upon a Time in the West. Those it did inspire sat in the movie houses with their mouths agape at the success of the bum prospector and the fetching prostitute with a heart of gold.
    If my sniveling retelling of the plot reeks of cliche, these elements weren't cliche at the time of the film's release in 1970. The sexism in the movie is real, be forewarned. It is also puerile, stupid and didn't reinforce bad behavior in anyone, except possibly in the retelling of the only line I will ruin by repeating it here. Cable Hogue demands payment to a preacher who keeps popping up in the movie. The payment is for dinner. Protesting, Hildy the hooker tells Hogue that he never charged her for dinner. Hogue agrees, saying, "That's because you never charged me."
    You would have to go back to middle period John Ford work to find a western this appealing to the senses. Art, desert and horses didn't come together in the same movies all that often (Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and possibly Once Upon a Time in the West, depending on who you ask). Unlike Leone and very much like Ford, Peckinpah made his touches of art--at least in this gem of a failure--light as morning desert air. And that's appropriate. After all, if you can taste the air, it ceases to be refreshing.


Brewster McCloud


    Imagine a movie smarter than its audience. What kind of film would that be? If by smarter we mean that the technical aspects are part of an industrial trade foreign to most viewers, then nearly all motion pictures are smarter than nearly all motion picture watchers. On the other hand, if by smarter we mean that a grasp of the subject matter or content is beyond the reach of the people who buy their tickets, then I would conclude that the cinema in question is a filmed lecture delivered by Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking. What I suspect we really mean when we say that a film is over the head of its audience is that the powers of imagination have exceeded that to which the common moviegoer is accustomed. The film is, to coin a phrase, out of the viewer's comfort zone.
    Stanley Kubrick, for all his genius, did not make movies over the heads of his audience for the simple reason that his films invariably had some character with whom the audience was inclined or coerced into identifying. For all his esoterica, Woody Allen has always been a man of the people, albeit, one with a richer reading list but one who still values the audience response, at least when he does not curl his lips against it, neither approach having the luxury of being supercilious. You could argue that some foreign filmmakers were artful beyond the routine pale, but once again, whether one means Truffaut, Godard, Kurosawa, or Bunuel, the intent to challenge the audience remains a priority over deliberately alienating the paying (or pirating) public.
    In order for any film to lay legitimate claim to being beyond the general perception levels, the assertion must be based in a coalescing of the director and writer's imaginations. What the film is about, what happens in it, the motivations of the characters, their dreads and desires, the way the film looks in a darkened theatre, the sounds the audience will scarcely recall yet will have nonetheless experienced, the primordial cave pictures that continue to mesmerize the masses--Dammit, it isn't easy being Robert Altman, as he would be the first to tell you if he hadn't passed away at precisely the proper time.
    Brewster McCloud, the film that is the subject of today's analytic dissection, teems and spills over with imagination, from the repetition of the movie's title during the opening credits sequence to the naming names close-out at the end and everywhere in between, this film radiates the power of its creator's mind and since that mind did belong to one Robert Altman then that fact in and of itself should and would be enough to at the very least get our attention if not send half the glee club out to take courses in genuflecting and the odd and occasional curtsy.
    But if you balk at enjoying a film solely on the basis of the reputation of its director, the good news of the day is that Brewster McCloud--neglected in its own time--is one of those films about which it is infinitely appropriate to quip, "Mighty fine film, indeed, that one." The cast was pulled from most of the same director's crew on M*A*S*H, minus Gould and Sutherland, meaning that, yes, we do get the sensational Sally Kellerman and yes we do get the unbelievably comic Rene Auberjonois as the bird-man narrator.
    Bird-man, do I say? Indeed, I do say. The film is about flying. Whether the vignette pertains to the Stacey Keach character who is a nasty relative of Wilbur and Orville or to sex as a metaphor, flying is the subject and Bud Cort (Boone from M*A*S*H) aims to learn. This is really just a great science fiction film, if you must know, and even though I don't think it was ever recognized as such, the plot could just as easily have come from Philip K. Dick or even Leigh Brackett.
    There were probably more stupid movies released in 1970 than any other year to that point in the history of film. There were also more unheralded classics, such as the three we've already peeked at this new year (The Magic Christian, The Boys in the Band, and The Ballad of Cable Hogue, in case you've forgotten). Brewster McCloud (even the character's name works) falls into that category as well. Altman moves the scenes around his characters to the extent that sometimes it appears that the people are standing still and the camera is doing all the acting. Even there this is no accident. Even there this is brilliance at work and woe unto the sad fool who fails to learn to fly right along with the owlish Brewster, a character who fails to draw in the audience, which is probably why the movie tanked on release. People prefer characterization over story-line and technique. I suppose that is proper enough. We should, however, remember that film as a thing, as a craft, is a visual medium and as such it has a responsibility that supersedes the banality of a theatrical plot and rich, subtle characterization. A good film tells a story. A great film brings the audience in and lets them discover the story. This is a great film.



The Confession


   This is the history: The Confession (1970, Costa-Gavras) is the true story of Artur London, a loyal Communist who served with the International Brigade in Spain and with the Communist anti-Nazi underground in France, and who suffered a long term in a Nazi concentration camp. In 1949, Mr. London returned to his native Czechoslovakia from France to become Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the Communist Government of President Klement Gottwald. Two years later, along with thirteen other leading Czech Communists (eleven of whom were Jewish), Mr. London was arrested for treason and espionage and found guilty in what became known as the Slansky trial. This trial, named for the secretary general of the Czech Communist Party, who was also a defendant, was one of the last major wheezes of the Stalinist purges that began with the Moscow trials in the 1930s. All of the Slansky defendants were found guilty and all but three, including Mr. London, were executed. Mr. London lived not only to see the defendants rehabilitated and to write his book but also to return to Czechoslovakia on the day in August, 1968, when Soviet troops invaded his country to end the short Czech spring.
   Yep, that is the history. Yet as we see in this beautiful and horrifying film, truth is a lie. Only a lie can set you free. Or so it was in the post-Stalinist trials and purges that swept through the Soviet bloc throughout the years of Khrushchev and his reign of impotence. London, played with such dignity by Yves Montand, is broken down one layer at a time, forced to admit to objective facts while insisting that subjective truths also matter.

Q. You associated with the traitor Smith in 1949?
A. Yes, but I did not know he was a traitor until 1952.
Q. Are you denying that Smith was a traitor?
A. No. I am--
Q. We will deal with the subjective elements later. First, you must memorize your confession. Doctor, bring in the sunlamps. We must prepare this man for trial.

   What happened in Czechoslovakia is one of the reasons that some people have abandoned politics altogether. Economics is dependent upon politics for its implementation. Politics is religion and religion is madness. Faith guarantees the freedom of the bull whip. You may go to sleep. What is your number? Louder! Assume the position. Guards! Only your confession can save you. Do you believe what your wife says in this letter? Has this man been bathed in twenty-one months?
   The Confession is not Costa-Gavras' most popular film. That would probably be Amen, Missing, or Z, any of which are powerful testaments against authoritarian forces. However, The Confession remains vital in the way it makes no compromise to an uninformed, uninvolved public. One needn't be a student of post-WWII  Soviet or Eastern European history in order to get this. One need not have memorized every word of Orwell's novel to find a similarity in the absurd processes used to extract falsehoods that everyone from the interrogators to the members of the tribunal to the general public understood to be falsehoods.
   The goal here is not to lead people to a rejection of politics based in apathy. It is rather to tell Artur London's story with some degree of accuracy and to convey the permeating sense of dread that flooded those awful times just as they did, it must be admitted, at other times in our collective history, whether in the days following the attacks of September 11, 2001, or in the days following the revelations of Abu Ghraib. Costa-Gavras does not flinch. The psychologically overlapping flashbacks that let us in on London's "rehabilitation" spoils nothing. On the contrary, the more we learn of his ultimate fate, the more horrified we are at what happens to him in the process of getting there. The colors are bleak, the staging stark, and the acting unbearable in its verisimilitude, or at least its relation to what we are unable to dispute as true. A rose dipped in liquid nitrogen remains a rose, at least right up until it shatters like glass. This film is the liquid nitrogen. Our sensibilities are the rose.

Zabriskie Point


   Michelangelo Antonioni made so many outstanding films, it's a pity Zabriskie Point isn't one of them. Before we get too far into this conversation, I should admit that many people love this film and those who do will probably dislike me very much for saying that it dry heaves Saltines. The good news is that as with a lot of movies that don't quite accomplish all to which they aspire, Zabriskie Point is an occasionally enjoyable failure and it still stands heads and eyebrows above the underwhelming majority of stupid love stories popular in that year of 1970, including the most popular turd-licker love story of all time, Love Story.
   The first clue that this movie may not be Antonioni's master work is the soundtrack. The opening credits terrified me by announcing music from The Grateful Dead as well as from Pink Floyd, two reasons to leave the theatre if you have anything at all pressing to do. On the other hand, a lot of people find drugged-out hippie music to be exactly what they want after a long day of committing home foreclosures and initiating hostile takeovers, so perhaps I should try to keep an open mind.
   I will admit the cinematography is superb, possibly the best aspect (ratio) of the film, especially if you favor fly-along shots of airplanes approaching the top of 1952 Buicks, which I do and so should everyone. The photography is so good that I am not bothered in the least that the movie has no conventional plot. Conventional plots are so. . .well. . . conventional. After all, were it not for the photography in this movie, we would have no choice but to rely on the meager story-line, wherein we find that George cannot be a revolutionary because he is an assassin instead (probably--we never know this for certain), just as mercenaries cannot be fascists. Both assassins and mercenaries work best alone, rendering whatever political persuasion they may favor to be largely beside the point. Because he cannot be a revolutionary, he buys a gun and maybe shoots a police officer. What he does do is steal a small plane and take off after Daria, one of the best reasons to shoplift an airplane that I have ever seen. (In fact, it is the third most popular all-time reason. Number One is: Go to Cuba. Number two is: Leave Cuba. Number three is: Take off after Daria.)
    Daria is pretty and George is handsome and politics is so. . .well. . .political. Student activism permeates the first half of Zabriskie Point, to the extent that the discussions in which the globs of young folk engage seem all too real for their inability to persuade. One of the most frustrating aspects of 1960s radicalism was the occasional dip into party ideology and this film misses not one cliche, even if the lines are delivered as tired gospel.
    "How you get there depends on where you're at." So reads the movie's theatrical tagline. Whaddya want? Good grammar or good movies? Either one would be fine.
   The final uplifting feature of this movie is, ironically, that it is actually about something, whereas so many love stories are about love, which is probably the most uninteresting type of film. Zabriskie Point uses love as a metaphor for flying, and vice versa, what with 1970 being a great year for metaphors of this type, Brewster McCloud using sex in the same exact way, only funnier.
   It's up to you. Either you favor Roger Waters and Jerry Garcia making mood music for moderns or you have better things to do, such as thinking. But those airplane shots will still reimburse you for the cost of the DVD or download.

Gimme Shelter


   The Rolling Stones energized an otherwise druggy and dragging San Francisco night, turning the smell of beer and vomit into a rapturous excuse to forget about the cans of hops that rained down from the sky, courtesy of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, and instead to ponder the exploding cascade of fuzz guitar machines gunning the bass player's layers of flaming jelly as "Street Fighting Man" closed out the show at the Altamont Raceway in early December 1969.
   David and Albert Maysles brought about a dozen cameras (and a young George Lucas) to film the tail end of the Rolling Stones U.S. tour, an event which captured the group shortly after the death of original member Brian Jones as well as at a time when their collective reputations were being plastered as cosmic-demonic.
   In a study reported in the February 26, 1998 issue of Nature (Vol. 391, pp. 871-874), researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science conducted a highly controlled experiment demonstrating how a beam of electrons is affected by the act of being observed. The experiment revealed that the greater the amount of "watching," the greater the observer's influence on what actually takes place.
   This effect may have played a role in the Maysles Brothers' film Gimme Shelter. Heaven knows we wouldn't still be talking about the movie after all these years if Meredith Hunter hadn't had a gun and if the "security" of bikers hadn't stabbed him to death right on camera. Sure, Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane got off a great line at the Angels' expense ("I'd like to mention that the Hells Angels just punched our lead singer and knocked him out for a little while. I'd like to thank them for that."), just as did some well-intentioned woman who was collecting money for the defense of the Black Panther Party when she quipped in all seriousness, "After all, they're just Negroes."
    Ultimately, the fact of the film being made added to the horror of Hunter being killed, even though his intentions may have been to snuff Jagger right on camera. I'm suggesting, without intentional humor, that the presence of the cameras on the electrons in attendance may have contributed to the events that the cameras captured. To quote from Nature: "Strange as it may sound, interference can only occur when no one is watching. Once an observer begins to watch the particles going through the openings, the picture changes dramatically: if a particle can be seen going through one opening, then it's clear it didn't go through another. In other words, when under observation, electrons are being 'forced' to behave like particles and not like waves. Thus the mere act of observation affects the experimental findings."  Werner Heisenberg formalized the notion that observation affects outcome way back in 1927. Who were the Maysles to prove him wrong?
   I can't imagine any of this being an issue upon the film's release in 1970. At that time the group was the most exciting thing going, even if the presence of Tina Turner was simply to masturbate the microphone or if the Flying Burrito Brothers were not captured to decent effect or if Grace Slick proved herself to be an emotional fascist once and for all by becoming an apologist for the bikers.
    It's still a great film, despite all the baggage it's been forced to carry over the decades (end of the sixties, end of the innocence, end of "American Pie" song, etc). Jagger looks good critiquing himself as he and the band review the early cuts of the film. The whole process prompted me to ask myself if I would have still enjoyed the movie if I didn't know anything about the group or Melvin Belli or any of that. It's sort of a bullshit proposition, I guess, but I'd like to think I would still love it if for no other reason than the importance of the idea of needing a security force to protect the band from the public that they themselves had energized into becoming a threat.
   Oh yeah. The music was nice.

And now?

   I think we've established 1970 as a watershed year for what was then a very new type of cinema, one which inverted the old notions of propriety and even morality. Violence hurt, by definition. There could be nothing gained by making it appear to feel good, unless it was in an early Roger Corman flick such as Bloody Mama, starring Shelly Winters, Robert DeNiro and Bruce Dern. Corman took all the grace, humanity and even humor from Bonnie and Clyde and regurgitated a ballet of perversion that brought a different kind of culture to the kids in cars at drive-ins up and down the countryside. Bob Rafelson put together a first rate cast that included Jack Nicholson and Karen Black, used the songs of Tammy Wynette as a backdrop and sent his aimless characters crashing into one another with an honesty so sharp that Five Easy Pieces slashed more wicked than a horror film. And of course, then as now, Mike Nichols could be counted on to pander to the tastes of establishment types who wanted to watch a film and walk out into the sunshine with the sense that they were in on the joke, so something such as Catch-22 was right up their hookahs.
    If violence hurt, then sex felt good, at least to those who either dreamed of it or got it on their own terms. A young and adventurous Hitchcock fan named Brian DePamla, fresh off the underground success of Greetings two years earlier gave Bob DeNiro yet another early credit with Hi, Mom!, a voyeuristic comedy, just as an aging Luis Bunuel placed the marvelous Fernando Rey against the also marvelous Catherine Deneuve in Tristana, possibly the best foreign film of the year, inverting the promise of socialism with the rationalizations of romance.
    Other notable and excellent films of that glorious and trans-formative year (that is, those we haven't addressed earlier) were Little Big Man, M*A*S*H, The Music Lovers, El Topo, The Wild Child, Getting Straight, and See You at Mao. The latter film was directed by Jean-Luc Godard, whom I have idolized ever since I first fell asleep during his brilliant Sympathy for the Devil. The second time I watched it I laughed so hard the neighbors called the police. I've been afraid to watch it a third time, but there's always a chance.

Eat the Document


    The film of Bob Dylan's 1966 tour of Britain is not a remake of Don't Look Back, the brilliant and beautiful movie of the English 1965 tour. Just writing those words causes me to suspect you may be wondering about the value of analyzing a remarkably bad film from 1971-72. There actually is a point and we will get to it in short order. Meanwhile, your patience is appreciated.
   One thing must be admitted: The film features Dylan at his best looking and at one of the peaks of his artistic talent. This is the period of his three greatest recordings (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde) and his most artistically successful work. The concert tour took place shortly before Bobby wrecked his motorcycle, an event which laid him up for a spell and kept him off the stage, although not away from music. Somehow or other he got it in his head that it would be nice to edit the film himself, a statement of fact causing more than one person to wonder what horrors were contained in the outtakes. 

         Because Dylan did have an astute awareness of the power of film--having grown up on Elvis movies and having been a grown-up at the time of A Hard Day's Night--he knew just enough, as they say, to be dangerous. The film takes about ten minutes to move beyond scenes from a van of the English countryside, scenes which probably meant a lot to the farmers and shepherds but not to anyone else.     
    This is quite simply one of the sloppiest, most literally unfocused films ever involving a major star.
   And yet. . .
   We get to see and hear four-fifths of the group that would soon become The Band. We get to see and hear Dylan sing a proud and intimate duet with Johnny Cash. We get to endure a tedious yet occasionally interesting car ride with Dylan and John Lennon, both of whom appear to be smashed, although John clearly handles the condition better. But most importantly we get to lay back shaking in awe of two live versions of "Ballad of a Thin Man," the second of which is so vituperative you'd swear the singer had swallowed a bayonet. For the duration of that performance, it is possible to forgive Bob Dylan anything, including the remainder of the movie, which has a running time of 54 minutes but which is nevertheless otherwise interminable.
    Some genius at ABC-TV had encouraged the film's production, thinking the network might turn a handy dollar or two on the free-spending youth market. I am certainly not the first person to wonder if the entire cinematic enterprise were intended to be so bad that ABC would reject it--as they in fact did. The best arguments against that theory are (a) Dylan did choose to release the bugger, and (b) artists are driven more by ego than by any other thing. It's entirely possible Bob thought this film was a major statement. After all, he did write the book Tarantula.
    Some of the lessons of the 1960s spoke to the dangers of over-indulgence, in one sense meaning that the human form is not invincible, as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Keith Moon, among others, can attest. In another sense, though, an over-abundance of self-indulgence can be nearly as lethal as a speed ball overdose. This film and its many cousins of that period are visual records of just how deadly dull ego-centrism can be when it's given no guidance whatsoever, unless chemicals count.
    A lot of people called the 1966 concerts "The Judas tour," referring to an audience member who shouted that epithet at the stage. Dylan shouts back, "Aw, it's not that bad." Except for the aforementioned song, it actually is.

Cold Turkey


   The creative surge which defined the 1960s spilled over onto the tabletop of foreign and domestic celluloid, one consequence being that the youth culture and all its undisciplined dollars came to properly recognize television as being a prime tool of the Enemy. Television was that thing used by Aaron Spelling to puke up "The Mod Squad," an attempt to co-opt the sincerity of youth rebellion. Television was a series of refusing-to-die westerns such as "Gunsmoke," "Cimarron Strip" and "Bonanza," none of which dared move beyond the cliches of good versus evil. Television was cop shows, medical dramas and situation comedies that either purposefully avoided social relevance or exploited significance for its own vile ends. So, yes, by 1971, television was clearly the domain of the square, the cube, the straight, the unenlightened, the hard hat, the tranquilized housewife, and strictly for those over the age of thirty.
    Enter Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear, two wise acres who aimed to change all that. They knew that the television box was inherently capable of doing good. After all, "The Dick van Dyke Show" had been good. "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits" had been good. Good was not out of the question. What was missing was sincerity and relevance.
    Bam! 1970. "Til Death Do Us Part" was piloted before an ABC-TV audience. The Archie Justice (later renamed Bunker) character played to perfection by Carroll O'Connor stormed onto the stage as a confirmed bigot. The liberal son-in-law was, in real life, the son of the man behind "The Dick van Dyke Show." Sally Struthers had a nice set and Jean Stapleton was a legitimate actress. And with stories about black people moving in next door, the racial make-up of Jesus, and a homosexual ex-fullback, one could hardly get more relevant.
    ABC passed on the show. CBS picked it up the following year and "All in the Family" became the biggest kid on the block, first among the middle-agers and soon enough by young liberals and old conservatives, as well as the other way around. The name Norman Lear became one of the few behind the camera names to break into the public consciousness.
     And then a funny thing happened. Time magazine named Archie Bunker its "Man of the Year." That fact put upon the program and its endless spin-offs the mark of left-handed respectability, something that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were about to do to the new crop of movies influenced by the creativity of the 1960s.
    The second funny thing that happened was the release of a Norman Lear movie called Cold Turkey. At a time when very nice people such as Pauline Kael were pronouncing backlash movies like Dirty Harry fascist masterpieces, it was actually the liberal Norman Lear who inadvertently ruined everything with this charming little picture.
    The movie's premise was clever enough. An evil tobacco company, looking to enhance its public relations, offers a small Iowa town $25 million for all of its citizens (all 4006 of them) to quit smoking for thirty days. The tobacco company doesn't expect to have to pay off, of course, so their benevolence shouldn't have to cost them anything. The reason the local parson--Dick van Dyke--wants the town to win is so he can get transferred out of what he perceives to be a dying town. The town council wants to win the money so it can build new hospitals, schools and shopping malls, the intent being to lure military contractors to their rustic village. Hypocrisy is the name of the game on all levels and Lear quite correctly perceived that a savvy youth would be hip to the idea of exposing the core hypocrisy inherent in the American class system. The only problem. . .
   The only problem was the actors. Without exception, each and every actor in the film was one associated with the generation presumed by youth to be responsible for all the hypocrisy in the first place. Bob Newhart, Jean Stapleton, Bob and Ray and the rest of the cast--among the nicest people one could hope to meet and certainly excellent comedic actors, one and all--were not going to lure Bobby and Rose to the drive-in to watch a movie. And of course, the old folks didn't go see too many movies in 1971, what with musicals changing into things like Cabaret and everything else so fuckin' dirty and damnably violent.
    So the movie bombed, leaving a crater the size of Hollywood, dragging half the talent in America down with it. Jesus, if a naturally hilarious plot and ready-made talent in the hands of the biggest name in television couldn't make the transition to movies--
   A ha! That was the problem. The transition to movies very seldom works, as the people who made the first Star Trek movie can attest. TV is obvious while motion pictures are subtle. TV has a live spontaneity while movies are polished and refined, however crude the topic. TV has low budgets while movies cost millions. And certain actors, such as the cast of Cold Turkey, are thought of as TV actors and the people at home don't want the two worlds to intermingle.
   None of this means that the movie is anything less than wonderful. While certain bits of the comedy are predictable, most of it is still hilarious and the internal ambiance of the town is so exact and accurate it's scary. What it does mean is that the confusion over audience identification doomed the picture while the attempt at making the jump to the big screen not only failed to elevate television, it cast aspersions on movies in general.
   I'm not saying Cold Turkey ended the adventurous nature of motion pictures in the 1970s. It would take the aforementioned Lucas and Spielberg to do that. What it did do was put a sizable chink in the armor worn by a creative army of Hollywood and overseas talent. Watching the film today, the humor is still ripe, you still hate the tobacco company, you still hate the clergy and the town council, you still marvel at the genius of Bob and Ray. It's an easy film to digest because there's nothing at all unsettling in the way it is presented. It is that worst of all old style films: safe.

   However, whoever had the idea of using Randy Newman's "He Gives Us All His Love" during the opening credits was a genius.

Get Carter


   There are those who will tell you that Get Carter ranks as one of the worst films ever made, by which they mean the 1971 Mike Hodges original rather than the 2000 Sylvester Stallone remake, in which case, if those folks who say it were talking about the latter they might actually have a point. The original, however, is very much something else again and should not be missed, even if the story-line does leave the novice wondering what the bleeding hell is going on.
   What is going on is that Michael Caine proves himself to be one of the world's finest actors. If one of the reasons you go to movies is to witness great acting, then you've been disappointed of late. But if that is one of the reasons, Get Carter will win you over immediately. Notice how Caine casts his glance at the telephone when the other party has hung up. Notice how he stares at one woman while seducing another over the phone. Notice the title of the book he's reading on the train reinforces our misperception of his character's real occupation.
   It's a brilliant film that several folks thought was immoral and they thought this primarily because of the convincing performance Caine delivers. If Caine had sucked in it the way Stallone did in the remake, no one would have cared that a bad guy appeared to be getting glorified. In other words, forget Alfie and even forget Dressed to Kill. Get Carter instead. You won't like it, but you will love it.
    Why will you love it and how can I know? Aside from exploiting the audience's preconceived notions that Jack Carter is a P.I.--which he isn't--the film makes great use of low angle shots from what feels like beneath the floor and even gives a sense of the English town of Newcastle grit that I'm willing to bet didn't make it into the Chamber of Commerce brochures. Oh, yes, and Britt Ekland appears in the film as Anna, Carter's niece  She's quite young and either vulnerable or tough as nails--it's hard to say which.
    There's a part of me that hopes this film is your first exposure to Mr. Caine, unlikely as that may be. If it is, everything else you see him in will be measured against this performance, one of his very best, which is to say, one of the best of anyone.

Little Murders


    You may know the name Jules Feiffer from his comics, his books, or his script for the film Carnal Knowledge. It would be appropriate that you know him for these things and so I hope you do, although it is for a play he wrote and the movie it later became that I wish to draw your attention, the name of that being none other than Little Murders, a title you may not find all that captivating but one which I trust you will recall because it refers to one of the great motion pictures of the early 1970s and it is unquestionably one of the prime reasons this blog has been dedicated of late to making mention of this wonderful period of film making.
   You can take your Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and even your Samuel Beckett and I will still stand by Jules Feiffer as the preeminent absurdist playwright of our era based on the power of Little Murders, a power which the passage of time has only served to intensify. Released in 1971 and based on the 1967 play of the same name, this movie knocks you down from the first frame and never lets up. From a recurring obscene phone caller to the eloquent brutality of lines delivered by Elliott Gould, Marcia Rudd and Vincent Gardena, from the silent commentary direction of Alan Arkin to the stammering soliloquy of the same Arkin, as well as a thoroughly brain-busting performance by Donald Sutherland as a minister, this movie is absurd for reasons other than for the sake of absurdity, which is usually good enough. The insanity of our own existences has left us unable to perceive their ridiculous essences and so this motion picture would have had to create Jules Feiffer if he hadn't created it first.
    Elliott Gould was the only actor from the original Broadway play to make the transition to the film and watching him here shows the wisdom of that decision. He enriches every line--even the ones that seem to be throwaways, like "I'm not a good debater," with amazing strength that draws in the audience's empathetic tendencies, especially when Marcia Rudd tells him she married him so she could change him and mold him.
    I realize that certain schizophrenics out there more married to exactness than creativity will take issue with me calling this film absurdist. I don't care. Those who do take such issue are probably accustomed to being wrong. Little Murders is absurdist specifically because it takes the internal logic of human beings and exposes that for the emotionally-based cowardice that it usually is fronting for. I guarantee you this: After watching this movie, you will experience the world in which you most likely vegetate in an entirely different way. About how many of today's films can you say that? Imagine getting changed--or even excited--by Avatar or Sherlock fucking Holmes! That is why all blockbusters and/or star-infested films are de facto bullshit scum slime, including several that I actually enjoy. They do not try to change you, they do not want to change you, and they indeed do not change you. I want to emerge from the cinema a screaming psychopath, a raving beast who for the first time in his stinking miserable pot-piss of a life actually sees things for the way they are. Fuck movies! Any imbecile can make a fucking film. When you make something that alters the way we look at everything else, then, my sons and daughters, you have genuinely accomplished something worth talking about. Jules Feiffer did that with Carnal Knowledge (and despite Mike Nichols). He did it with Little Murders with the help of Alan Arkin. Buy it, download it, steal it. I don't care how you acquire it. Just do it. You can thank me later.


A New Leaf


   One of the things I've intended to do with the website known as Philropost is to write about the brilliant person known as Elaine May. People of a certain age may have first become aware of her tremendous talents when she was paired with another future writer-director, a fellow named Mike Nichols. Back then the comedy-duo were known as Nichols and May. Rather than tell jokes, they performed sketches of life's more awkward moments. They were amazing.
   Since her "solo" career began in the mid-1960s, she has worked as an actor, a writer and a director, some of her finer credits being having written the screenplay for the remake of Heaven Can Wait, her work on the script for Reds, and her writing for The Birdcage and Primary Colors. Her low point, and it was pretty low, was her involvement in Ishtar, about which the less said the better.
   One of the best things she ever did--and one that people sometimes forget--is her writing and acting credit on a fantastic little gem of a film that came out in 1971. The film, A New Leaf, starred herself and Walter Matthau. Matthau plays Henry, a pseudo-aristocrat who has squandered his wealth.     May plays Henrietta, a smart and clumsy woman who has more wealth than she can spare and a great deal of bookish interests which she yearns to share. The genius of the movie--aside from the stark and gorgeous acting of the two leads--is how Elaine wrote the scenes so that the inner workings of both leads' characters seep out so slowly that we hardly realize it has happened.
   What with Henry's despicable personal history, his horrible haircut and his ugly double-breasted suits, he is primed to be roundly despised by the audience. The only reason he is not is because he comes to Henrietta's psychological defense even as he is planning to manipulate her into a marriage that will presumably rescue him from his financial woes. May plays the struggling klutz with brains to absolute perfection just as Matthau plays the worthwhile cad. The denouement works but doesn't annoy or surprise (as often happens in screen comedies) because it is thoroughly uncontrived. Everyone in this film is stellar, including a young Doris Roberts, a woman who acted in many of the early-seventies smashes we've been discussing lately.
   This story and the filmed visualization of it will stay with you for several days, tugging at you to want to watch it again, and that's a good reason to request the bloody thing to be issued on DVD. I've no idea how such a request is to be made, but I urge those of you who do know such matters to get on it right away. Elaine May is a national treasure, as much a bedrock of American comedy as Lily Tomlin and her acting blows the wind out of the sails of far lesser performers such as the truly vile Sarah Silverman. If you need a point of reverence, the genuine comedy of a show like "30 Rock" would be unimaginable without Elaine May having prepared the stages for it.

Willard


     These days they'd dress the story up so that the nerdy kid came across the way of Napoleon Dynamite (I'm still waiting for Moron TV to get sued by Elvis Costello for stealing the name) so that he was the butt of the joke rather than the cause of the conflict. But these were the good days, the days when bourgeois falsity in the form of employers and parents and co-workers got righteously slammed and slammed for good. They were the establishmentarians and the misfits had the responsibility of bringing the bastards down, which is how we ended up with the outstanding Brian DePalma film Carrie, a film that Willard does not much resemble. So even though the movie about the young man with a friend named Ben who is a rat was marketed as a revenge-seeking horror film, that fact does not really excuse the making of a sequel (Ben), much less a remake of the original in 2003.
    Look, the sound isn't very good, Bruce Davison is only slightly above average in the acting department, and Sondra Locke (the best thing in the film) went on to be in a bunch of Eastwood movies, plus the damned flick just wasn't all that scary. It even occasionally came across as if it were being directed by a bunch of effete English snobs, but it didn't even have that saving grace. Creepy? Yes. Scary? No. Hey, I like watching Ernest Borgnine being eaten by rodents as much as the next guy, but the sight does not exactly frighten me, y' know?

Duel


    If it's a scary 1971 movie that you want, try Duel. Starring Dennis Weaver (McCloud, Gunsmoke), this is one of the most mesmerizingly intense experiences you are likely to endure and you will love it from start to finish.
    Chances are you've heard a bit about Steven Spielberg's first directorial effort. You may have even heard that it was great. It was beyond great. And the story is as simple as mud. Dennis Weaver is driving across country while on the job and some crazy-ass truck driver decides to do him in, pitting semi against Plymouth Valiant. There's really nothing more to it than that, which is kind of like saying Romeo and Juliet is just a damned love story. Weaver turns in the performance of a life time here and Spielberg was seldom better--and after Jaws he never was better. The sense of being on the road, of being behind the wheel, of having a deranged giant mated to your destruction--these elements are captured, conveyed and transmogrified on the screen with such steadily increasing terror that you might not even notice the clever subtleties, such as the hash marks on the bumper of the 18-wheeler. This movie is Hitchcock on a lifeboat, this movie is John Ford on the prairie, this is Walter Huston in the mountains. This is life and death, the way movies were supposed to be and I guarantee you that you'll think twice before cutting off a semi again.
    What both this film and Willard share is an enormous distrust for the powers that be, just as things used to be and one day will be again, just as soon as Costello really does sue those MTV monsters. In Willard's case, it's his mom, his boss, his co-workers, the girl he likes--everything is subject to either going away or betraying him, just as his father's company was stolen out from under him. In the case of Dennis Weaver, the enemy is Goliath of the Philistines, a mindless driver who intends to destroy him simply because he exists. This isn't karma bullshit. In other words, the doom isn't facing Weaver because he cheats on his wife or steals from his company. The doom comes after him because that is what doom does, just like a war on the loose. 

Bad Company


    When I first saw Robert Benton's Bad Company way back in 1972, I was simultaneously mesmerized and offended. I was mesmerized by the story of a group of young males on the lam from Civil War-era conscription and by the sawed-off shimmer of Jeff Bridges' character Jake. What offended me then was the casual aspect of the barbarism as, for instance, when the group of young men and boys shoots a wild rabbit for food or when they slaver for a taste of poontang. Of course, I was quite young at the time and I suppose I was easily abused. These days the fight scenes and casual criminality wouldn't startle a five-year-old and I'm actually a little embarrassed by the prudish aspects of my own earlier response.
    What has not changed is the open-eyed wonder of Bridges' acting, especially as it plays off against his foil, Drew, played by the underrated Barry Brown. One of the things that can draw in an audience to choose to identify with a less-than-heroic screen character is for the actor to reveal the rapid transition of the character's thoughts and feelings. Bridges own youthfulness in this regard is an asset. He doesn't mug for the camera and makes no effort to sweeten the performance or the role. His influence over the character of Drew, our narrator, builds with a clumsy determination until it explodes with the last three words of the film, words that stayed in my memory since that evening forty years earlier.
   I have read that some people think Bad Company is a western. This fallacious conclusion is no doubt reached because the story takes place in 1863, because the characters are heading west, and because some of the young actors in the film are familiar from actual westerns of the period. But this motion picture is almost disparaged by that label. It's more of an old-style morality play, with the Civil War as metaphor for Vietnam and the deluge of racism and profanity nothing more than simple victors in a fight for survival.
   The movie merits a cultural footnote for serving as the inspiration for the name of the rock group lead by Paul Rodgers. 

Boxcar Bertha


    Here is the final paragraph of the review Roger Ebert wrote in 1972 after viewing the American International Picture Boxcar Bertha. "[Director Martin] Scorsese remains one of the bright young hopes of American movies. His brilliant first film won the 1968 Chicago Film Festival as I Call First and later played as Who's That Knocking at My Door? He was an assistant editor and director of Woodstock, and now, many frustrated projects later, here is his first conventional feature. He is good with actors, good with his camera and determined to take the grade-zilch exploitation film and bend it to his own vision. Within the limits of the film's possibilities, he has succeeded."
   Well, hey, well, hey. Yummy kudos from Roger Ebert. When the Big Ebe calls you out as a rising star, you can best believe your time has come, my friend. Of course, it helps to have Roger and Julie Corman backing you with finance and a nonsense story about getting the rights to radical labor struggler Bertha Thompson's story through the closed door of a bag o' fleas hotel, even though the story had already been written by anarchist physician Ben Reitman. It also really helps to have an unknown but interesting David Carradine and an unknown but fascinating Barbara Hershey starring in your film. But mostly it helps to be a young Martin Scorsese.
    Corman was the mastermind behind AIP's most interesting crime-violence films, of which Bloody Mama was perhaps one of the more inspired. Even though RC may have made shoot-outs and death scenes art fodder for the drive-in set, it was MS who made it into Art and it happened with Bertha.
This film radiates the way the street scenes in Taxi Driver did, with the neon signs dripping their colors all over the Great Depression train rides. The film includes a couple of racy sex scenes between Hershey as Bertha and Carradine as Big Bill Shelly, yet there is a degree of tenderness and even sensitivity to these scenes that was unlike anything in the traditionally exploitative American International canon.
   In the film, a young Bertha loses her father to the bullying greed of a capitalist exploiter. No one comes right out and tells us that this is the impetus for her life of crime, and indeed little mention is made of the event of her dad's passing. Big Bill and his African American friend Vox team up with Bertha and Rake (the world's worst gambler) to punish the railroad owner (played by father John Carradine), Bill constantly reminding all his robbery victims that he is not a criminal; he's a union organizer.
   The story itself is highly fictionalized and probably even based on a compound of characters, but that matters very little. Scorsese gets the details exactly right, with even the music serving to carry along the camera from one adventure to the next. 
    I will tell you that even now, forty years after its initial release, the last ten minutes of the film are hard to take sitting down. All the same, the film does what few other movies--very few--had then managed with any degree of success. Boxcar Bertha aims reasoned reaction to the idea that the guys in white hats are necessarily the good guys. Of course, the early 1970s drive-in audience that flocked to AIP's movies already understood that and understood it well. Any high school greaser who'd ever been bullied by his principal, any rocker who'd been ridiculed by his relatives, any protester who'd been clubbed by the police, any girl who'd been pawed by her teachers, any black people who'd ever walked out their front doors--in short, everyone who was lined up to slurp down a bottle of Coke and a flask of rum at the Star-View Drive-In knew the self-righteous twinkle in the eye of the man holding the whip and each of us wanted not so much revenge as expiation and validation.
   Look for the director making a cameo near the end of Bertha's scene in the bordello.
   This remains a good story, well told. 

The Harder They Come


    Some artistic accomplishments maintain their social relevance long after their moment of recognition fades into the brown mist. Placing a young man from a simple world in the midst of the corrupt urban civilization with which he aspires to achieve parity signals that a filmmaker knows how to apply history to social awareness. Such is the case with the film The Harder They Come.
   Here is an excerpt from the Jamaican Observer, October 21, 2007:

During the 1940s, when black Jamaicans were, for the most part, living in abject poverty and squalid conditions, and the colonial master ruled with an iron fist, gunmen were a rarity. But out of those social conditions rose the first and perhaps the most infamous of the long list of fugitives who have wreaked havoc on the country. His name was Vincent 'Ivanhoe' Martin, popularly known as 'Rhygin', dubbed by the press as 'The Two-Gun Killer'.
   The character played and sung by Jimmy Cliff is the 1972 contemporary Ivan Martin, a violent rudeboy who sure can sing and write some great reggae. That term? Nice, isn't it? A rudeboy was a guy or gal in Jamaica, inspired by the furtive thrill of delinquency, influenced by the stylistic accouterments of juke joints, soul music and gangster movies, and seriously hooked on primarily ska or even rock steady, or if it makes it easier for you to grok, reggae music, which evolved from the one and gave birth to the other. 
   In any event!
   So Ivan is now in what we presume to be Kingston, a town where he just can't catch a break. All his possessions are swiped minutes after he gets off the bus, he tries to connect with the preacher's concubine only to have a run-in with the man of God and one of his stooges, and to make matters worse, the Leslie Kong-style record company owner dude records his title-track song and tells him he'll give him twenty dollars for the rights, suggesting that the DJs only play what he tells them to play and without his good word the record will go nowhere, baby. (Actually, this statement is unfair to Kong, who may not have exactly been a sweetheart of a guy but who to this day remains the most recognizable name in the 1970s reggae business and for good reason. The association this film has with Kong, a Chinese Jamaican, is one linked to Jimmy Cliff having been recorded by Kong in the early 1960s and to the fact that the producer in the film is also Chinese Jamaican, although in the film the producer is not Kong but most likely one of his sound men.) After he chops up the stooge and settles with the music man, Ivan turns to dealing grass to get what's his, choosing not to wait for that pie up in the sky.
    One of the tragic aspects of The Harder They Come is that Jimmy Cliff as Ivan sings the hell out of the title song, ironic components intact, as well as "Many Rivers to Cross" and "You Can Get It If You Really Want," a fact not lost upon we viewers as we sympathize with his awareness that he is entitled to the fame and fortune he so furiously desires. (The rest of the film soundtrack is also excellent, especially the songs by Toots and the Maytals. They do "Pressure Drop" off and on throughout the film.) But we know he is doomed, as does he, until he turns to violent crime. Frustrated by getting ratted out by his drug buddy Jose, he offs the dude's woman and some cops, starts stealing cars for his getaways, and generally throws around his weight, even taking the step of having some excellent gangster photographs snapped and sent to the editor of a newspaper. Everyone he meets, except his girlfriend and his grandmother, are completely corrupt: the preacher, the newspaper editor, the photographer, the policemen, the entertainment people. In such a world, only an honest man can be an outlaw.
   The real Ivanhoe Martin of the 1930s and 40s came to a bloody end, but before he did, he wrote a letter to the Jamaican Times newspaper: "I have an arsenal of 29 shots and I am satisfied that I have made history for the criminal element in Jamaica. Don't think that I am going to kill myself because this will only serve to spoil my great record. But I hope that Detective Scott will train his men some more. I am going to show the police force what is lacking and what I can do."
   So many things could have derailed the artistic achievement of this film, but the primary potential for disaster would have been for writer-director Perry Henzell to attempt commentary. On the morality of Ivan's behavior Henzell is thankfully silent. There is an almost documentary quality to the film, although the scenes of Cliff riding his bicycle against the backdrop of the water are too poignant for that style of photography. The only scene where Henzell slips into glorification is one where that tone is inevitable, and that is where Ivan decides to have the photos made of himself posing like John Dillinger, something the original Ivanhoe did and far too tempting an idea for a fine filmmaker to resist. But, yes, otherwise Henzell lets the camera and mics do the talking and we find ourselves horrified at some of Ivan's cruelty, despite sympathizing with his hardships and desires. This type of emotional involvement is exactly what great 1970s film-making was about, or at least it was a big part of what it was about, as people the world over raised their voices to demand answers to the serious questions about the value of morality in a world where legitimate governments murdered their own people, where police forces stood behind broken badges, where mothers and fathers celebrated the destruction of their own children. "When policemen break the law," Billy Jack said, "Then there isn't any law." Tom Laughlin's character was no rudie and he certainly would not have condoned Ivan's behavior. But he would have understood it. By the ending credits of The Harder They Come, we do as well. 

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

    From an article by Dr. Alan F. Philips, from the Project of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation:

On October 24, 1973, when the U.N. sponsored cease fire intended to end the Arab-Israeli war was in force, further fighting stared between Egyptian and Israeli troops in the Sinai desert. U.S. intelligence reports and other sources suggested that the U.S.S.R. was planning to intervene to protect the Egyptians. President Nixon was in the throes of Watergate episode and not available for a conference, so Kissinger and other U.S. officials ordered DEFCON 3 [Defense Readiness Condition (DEFCON 5 is the peacetime state; DEFCON 1 is a maximum war readiness).] . The consequent movements of aircraft and troops were of course observed by Soviet intelligence. The purpose of the alert was not to prepare for war, but to warn the U.S.S.R. not to intervene in the Sinai. However, if the following accident had not been promptly corrected then the Soviet command might have had a more dangerous interpretation. On October 25, while DEFCON 3 was in force, mechanics were repairing one of the Klaxons at Kinchole Air Force Base, Michigan, and accidentally activated the whole base alarm system. B-52 crews rushed to their aircraft and started the engines. The duty officer recognized the alarm was false and recalled the crews before any took off.
   That paragraph neatly sums up the feeling of what things were like in 1973 far better than the Andrea Killen book 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America, although the latter does have its value, despite the hyperbolic title. The United States, the Soviet Union, Israel, Egypt and Syria were all about to blow one another away, each for different reasons, while just a few months earlier, in June of that year, audiences across America were treated to a Bostonian version of the same thing, albeit, on a microcosmic scale. 
    Peter Yates directed The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a film in which Robert Mitchum as the title character could have represented, say Israel, while the gun dealing Jackie Brown might have been Syria, with Egypt played with masterful skill by the always dependable and disturbed Peter Boyle, and the role of the ATF cop, naturally, filled by the USA. The way the characters in this movie move Coyle around the table is excessively heartless, calculated and ultimately without purpose, just as in real life. Now I am not suggesting that Yates gave any thought whatsoever to the geopolitical symbolism I'm assigning to his film. After all, the novel upon which the movie was based was published in 1970 and the events described in the opening block quote had not happened at the time of this motion picture's release. What I am suggesting is that events do sometimes breathe together to create what I'll reluctantly call a zeitgeist, one which in both the instance of the film and the Middle East found everyone making deals with their enemies and using one another in the final analysis for no other practical purpose than to assure his destruction. 
   Eddie Coyle got popped for heisting a delivery truck for Dillon, the Boyle character. Facing the offer of a long prison term for which he has no use, Coyle decides to rat out a gun dealer--and easily the coolest guy in the film--in exchange for a complimentary phone call from the ATF guy. The deal goes down and so does the gun dealer, but the court wants Eddie to turn professional, full-time snitch. Eddie recognizes this is a death sentence, but he gives in anyway, turning over some friends who have been pulling some very clever bank robberies in the area (so clever that they were stolen for use in a subsequent film called Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry). It turns out the ATF guys don't need Eddie for this after all, but the robbers assume Eddie is the snitch and order Dillon to snuff him. Dillon, of course, is already working for the ATF guy and the mob, so we aren't sure what he'll do until he actually does it.
    The truth is that the geopolitical implications, the personal betrayals and the long hard drop of the highly sympathetic Coyle would not merit holding this film in the public consciousness were it not for the acting skills of the participants, particularly Mitchum. Lesser talents, such as John Wayne and Sylvester Stallone owe most of their "trademark" moves from Mitchum and the latter in particular should admit the debt. I would even go so far as to say that I'd be willing to bet that the other actors in this movie learned something about understating their deliveries from Bob. In any other context, a line like, "April fool, motherfuckers," would sound ridiculous. Here, it makes you want to cry as you see how each layer of development is just one more layer of Eddie Coyle going down.
    Eddie has played the cards he's been dealt. He hasn't played them as well as they could have been played, true, but he has played them as well as he knew how. We learned his story right away when he explains to the gun dealer that some bad guys smashed his hand in a drawer. "The worst part is you know he's gonna kick that drawer shut. You know it's gonna hurt and it hurts you before it even happens." And God damn Sam, the gun dealer actually thinks about this. He reacts with sudden sympathy. The feeling is quick and gets replaced with other emotions, but it's there and we see it.
These people are fascinating, the story holds your attention throughout, somebody even brought Mo Greene in from Vegas to rob the banks, and even the car wrecks are understated so that there isn't one gratuitous instant in the entire film. When you watch The Friends of Eddie Coyle, you may think of one nation or another, you may think of your old neighborhood, or you may simply imagine the tired horror of Eddie's life. The point is that you will be thinking and feeling at the same time. How many movies lately have had that going for them?

Sisters


    Many people have bought into the idea that Brian DePalma is a comedic film-maker. New Yorker film critic extraordinaire Pauline Kael started this rumor in writing about--of all things--DePalma's film Carrie. While I agree that the man's motion pictures have their humorous touches, I can't help thinking that speaking of DePalma as a comedic movie-maker is like claiming Charlie Chaplin as a great tragedian. It might be technically correct, but it so misses the point that whoever says it loses a certain credibility, at least with people such as myself, unaccustomed to literal-ism in any form as we are. I'll grant the opposing side the humor in the first five minutes of Blow Out, the parody of Antonioni in Greetings, the fast motion tuxedo scene in Carrie, the murder clean-up segment in Sisters and even the title of Hi, Mom!    But DePalma, like his influences, is not primarily any one kind of a film-maker at all, unless frequently brilliant is a new classification.
    As the above concessionary examples indicate, Brian DePalma is capable of making audiences laugh, although he typically evokes this visceral response in the midst of some wicked camera work alongside a mess of other emotional complexities.        Sisters, released in 1973 and generally considered his breakout film, exploits influences from Tod Browning to Alfred Hitchcock (and it is a long journey from Freaks to Rear Window) while announcing the new director as the master of the split-screen scene. The difficulty in doing the split-screen technique is in resolving the dissonance created in the viewer's mind once the viewer is reminded by what he sees on the screen that this is a motion picture. Flashy technical tricks such as revolving shots, long continuous follow-throughs, multiple-perspective imagery and that type of thing generally announces to the audience: Hey! This is a movie! Good luck suspending your disbelief! But the sophistication DePalma brings to Sisters--a sophistication which the passage of almost forty years has done nothing to diminish--instead declares that we are in the presence of a master and had best behave ourselves if we want to get out alive.
    Even DePalma's superior use of visual techniques
could be challenged as purely self-serving were it not that they add unspoken commentary to the story. Sisters, the story of Danielle and Dominique, severed Siamese twins, utilizes all of the aforementioned techniques, as well as a scene with English subtitles for a French-spoken sequence where the speaker(s) is off-camera and the dual role is segregated into regular font and italics.
    The director's recurring themes are well established in this film. We have the presumed freakish nature of the asylum, the lack of personality in the early victim, multiple personalities in the villains, hard-boiled policemen, human neuroses, multi-dimensional voyerism, and, yes, satire. Sisters is so rife with satire that the film comes close to becoming a self-parody. Early on, we watch a scene where a man is in a room. A woman enters. She appears to be blind. Unaware that the man is in the room, she begins to disrobe. The camera reveals the set-up to be a TV game show where the contestants must predict the man's behavior, just as the theatrical viewing audience does throughout the film that is in process. This type of varicolored psychological work-out makes the large cinema screen a monster in and of itself, a hyperactive iguana that slams its images into us because we are taught from the opening instants that we cannot trust the things we see, just as Jennifer Salt cannot trust what she sees Margot Kidder do. (The rumor is that DePamla, who was a neighbor of roommates Kidder and Salt, gave the women a copy of the script as a Christmas present.)
    None of this should be taken to suggest that the morality of the film will parallel that of the viewer. Indeed, there are touches of very vile attitudes in many of DePalma's films, and Sisters is no exception. What are we to make, after all, of the presentation of police as rational cynics, of women as sexualized victims, of people with mental problems as evolutionarily lower than the rest of humanity, of "freaks" being fit for the ridicule they receive? I have never known quite what to make of these things, probably because I have never thought of myself as fitting into any of those categories and chances are I have a lot of gall defending people who don't need me to speak up for them. But if the answer to my question is as simple as saying the director is trying to lull us into hating the victim, how then do we explain the scene near the end of Sisters of the photographers taking pictures of the twins? The scene is staged to the sympathy of the conjoined girls and to the revulsion of the circus-attendees, so whose side are we to be on? Is the film-maker presenting all the different points of view or is he himself simply noncommittal?
   It is possible that DePalma never resolved these questions for himself or that he may have tired of asking them over and over. In later years he turned his formidable talents toward thrillers such as Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito's Way, Redacted (all of which having much to recommend about them, each in its own way being something more than mere "entertainment"), as well as the soon-to-be-released Passion. He makes movies, they do well, and we move on. But I hope I may be forgiven for missing the conflicting moralities of his pre-Scarface work, when he took the sensibilities and budget of an American International picture and imbued those same movies with the awareness of a genuine auteur and the presence of a giant laughing iguana on speed. 

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song


    I miss the days of the so-called blaxploitation movies because dammit some of those movies were first rate experimental films with hard-working casts and crazed directors who had axes to grind. Some people say that Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) wasn't actually self-exploitive because more than any primarily African-American-oriented film it did not pander to white stereotypes and in fact took on the white establishment from beginning to end. That's perfectly fine with me. Matter of fact, there's an even better reason to think of Sweetback outside that particular category: It can't be strict blaxploitation because it came out a full year before The Godfather and a big part of the black film movement was a reaction to a line in Coppola's film where Don Zaluchi, referring to the idea of the Mafia getting in the drug business, says, "In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloreds. They're animals anyway, so let them lose their souls." But with the financial and extreme artistic success of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (top grossing indie film of 1972) and the commercial popularity of Shaft, also from 1971, the retroactively amusing concept of amplifying certain aspects of a successful film and running those aspects into the ground caught fire, giving us a lot of genuine blaxploitation flicks, some of which were serious fun and some of which were just tripe.
   Sweetback itself remains an amazing work that is nearly all to the credit of Melvin Van Peebles, who starred in, directed, produced, did the stunts and wrote the mother. In the movie, Sweetback is a hung stud with remarkable sexual prowess. When a Black Panther gets offed, the cops ask the whorehouse pimp if they can temporarily blame the deed on Sweet. Beetle the pimp agrees. The cops pick up another brother on the way to the station. The brother, Mu-Mu, gives the cops lip and Sweet breaks loose all hell. We get riots and the Hells Angels led by a long-haired lady, corrupt piggies and a swim across the Mexican border. We also get great lines such as a preacher concerned with the popos finding Sweetback. He says, "Man, you're hotter than little sister's twat." We also get some first rate propaganda against cops, most of which sort of writes itself. We even get the real life Melvin VP catching the clap from the "unsimulated" sex acts performed in the film. Well, hey, it was the age of realism. Speaking of which, Sweetback even impressed the fans of art films with its lighting and with the way the characters would break through the fourth wall by speaking directly about their own roles right into the camera.
    The following year saw the release of another truly great blaxploitation film, Superfly. In this dynamite film, Ron O'Neal stars as Youngblood Priest (damn, whadda great name!), a coke dealer and karate expert who just wants to get out of the one business and has to use his fighting skills and brains to make it happen. See, it was kind of getting through to people in a big way at that time that hard drugs were just another tool used by the Man to keep us down and that trips like soda and smack were just another type of shackle. Even though I just wrote those words in a jive manner common to that period, the sentiment is real, folks, and the makers of films like these--and some of their young, white counterparts, such as Coppola--understood in ways that the glorifiers of hooch never would.
   If you think I'm wrong about the anti-Mafia sentiment of these films, just consider some of the other hits of this period. In Hit Man, Bernie Casey (yep, the football player) kills a mobster for ruining his sister. In Across 110th Street (a true classic), Yaphet Kotto tries to save some brothers from getting killed for robbing the mob. And in Slaughter, Jim Brown takes on the crime syndicate.    A lot of the films carried an anti-dope aroma, but none more so than Coffy, which starred a frequently undressed and active Pam Grier, yet another karate expert with an overdosed relative to avenge.
    One of the most innovative aspects of these and other blaxploitation films of the era was the soundtrack. A good score can carry a film along and even enhance it. In some of these, the soundtrack did more than that. In some cases, the songs made commentary on the film itself. In others, it make the film bearable. Sweetback featured a then-unknown group called Earth, Wind and Fire. Superfly had the incredible Curtis Mayfield. And Trouble Man, which would not have otherwise been worth spit, had sweet Marvin Gaye.
   If it's genuine exploitation you want, it was there. Black Mama, White Mama (again with Pam Grier) was a female version of The Defiant Ones. Blacula's referent is obvious, as is Black Caesar and Blackenstein.
   One of the most fascinating films of this glorious period, however, was blacklisted for years. It was called The Spook Who Sat by the Door.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door


    In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit going into this that I am a fan of the late director Ivan Dixon. I liked him as an actor in the otherwise uninteresting TV series "Hogan's Heroes" and I liked him playing alongside Sidney Poitier in the film of A Raisin in the Sun. I knew he had turned director after leaving Hogan and company, and if you're a fan of the TV show "The Rockford Files," you'll see his name pop up on some of that series' better episodes.
    Before The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Ivan Dixon directed the troubled Trouble Man, a great soundtrack with a lame movie accompanying it. But then, in 1973, the flood gates and blood gates spilled open and Dixon directed the film of a lifetime, one of the most disturbing and important films of anyone's career--and United Artists, the distributors of the film, yanked it from theaters and refused to release it on DVD until 2004.
    Let's see if we can guess why. Based on the Sam Greenlee novel, the story is that of an African-American named Dan Freeman, played with understated elegance by Lawrence Cook, who becomes the first black man to crack the color barrier at the Central Intelligence Agency. Aware that he is being used as a token, he blends in without rocking the boat, only to find himself assigned to the copy room. He stays there for five years until he informs the Director of Central Intelligence that he will be resigning quietly to go into social work back in Chicago. Hyper-paranoid, the Agency has been surveying his activities all along and they have found him to be no threat whatsoever, one of the reasons they agreed to take him on in the first place.
    To this point, the movie is no more dangerous than your average 1970s situation comedy. To this point, you may find the lily white character development predictable. To this point, you may be pardoned if you have a good case of the yawns.
And then Dixon smacks you across the face and stomps out your guts.
    I'm not going to give away the twist, although you can find out easily enough online. I will tell you that no matter how many period piece blaxploitation films you may have seen, you are not prepared for what happens in this movie. However, when you do watch the film, if you haven't done so already, I guarantee you that you'll be very uncomfortable with the ultra-specific details revealed about the nature of unrest. You may even wonder if this movie is still dangerous all these years later.
    I hope it is dangerous. If a film cannot carry over the tension on the screen out onto your own personal sidewalk, then what the hell good is it? Don't get me wrong. This movie does not detail how a home mechanic can construct a hydrogen bomb. For that, there are many web sites. No, what this film reveals is far more dangerous and important than that. This film is about ideas brought into action. This film is a plan, a blue print, a schemata.
    As such, I must admit that the editing leaves a bit to be desired. No, it isn't sloppy in the way of some films of the period. On the contrary, one gets the sense right away that this movie has production values far in excess of most films marketed to the black audience, the legitimacy those values give in turn adding to the fear factor. No, the editing issues I have here are with the pacing, which could have been sharper and a bit more urgent. But that's sort of like trying to impose plot constraints onto the writings of Hegel. It's theoretically possible, yet hard to imagine.
    Harder to imagine still is that any American film company went along with releasing this movie. If somebody puts out a piece of shit that calls for the overthrow of the capitalist system, nobody gets alarmed because the lousy quality of the movie takes the edge off. If Woody Allen releases Bananas, which is indeed about that very subject, no one gets terribly upset because it's a comedy, and a good one at that. But let Ivan Dixon create a movie that confronts the power structure in this country--which is all I'm going to reveal here--and Bokan (the production company, which only has this one film to its credit) gets to make the movie even though the distributor--United Artists--gets to pull it before it has a chance to find an audience.
Here's my theory: Somebody at UA said to his friends: "Hey, this'll just be another Super Fly or Trouble Man. You know, some shit about dope setting you free and getting out from under The Man. Haw har haha! Them darkies is so predictable." And that turned out to be incorrect.
What is correct is that the FBI suppressed the film and the only reason it's available today is because Dixon kept a copy of the negatives of the film himself. That leads us to a contemporary documentary that I hope you will see. The film is called Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of The Spook Who Sat by the Door.
   Why should you see this documentary? Well, from what I hear, you've been upset over SOPA and frantic over PIPL because of their potential for censorship--and rightly so. Given that, I think you deserve to be aware of an important part of American and world history where the agencies charged with providing national security violate that mandate every time they "protect" us from the truth.

American Graffiti


    American Graffiti is the film that made the reputation of George Lucas. The film's narrative style of sliding from one scene into the next with recurring images and concepts loosely uniting the vignetted story of one night in Modesto--one night before the world of the teenager seeps into that of the adult--has never been done better. The film also went a long way towards dispelling the idiotic notion that the kids of pre-JFK assassination American were naive and simple-mindedly idealistic when what they really wanted were the same things kids have always wanted: the get messed up, to get laid, and to drive around cruising all night. Oh, and some of us wanted to stay alive. If that's idealistic, then go fuck a tree.
    What's really most memorable about the movie is the thoroughly brilliant soundtrack selection, some of the tunes being total crap and the majority being perfectly suited for the 1962 night the film purports to recreate. This is a soundtrack in the most essential sense of the term because the music does not merely accompany the movie; it is interwoven into the movie, which is the only way to endure a bit of dross like "16 Candles" right alongside a genuine treasure such as "Little Runaway."
So it's a beautiful film, it gets the details exactly right, it's edited so that we never get tired of the characters or their interactions, the music is great, and the tragic elements are not only explicit, they are even implied. Oh, and the acting was incredible, featuring as it did the best work ever of Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, as well as some first-rate work by Harrison Ford and Richard Dreyfus. So what's not to love?
   The film was in many ways a turning point. By 1971, two years before this film's release, everyone in Hollywood with any awareness at all recognized that the three big up and coming dudes in movie work were Francis Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas. Just as a new band of actors had taken over the entertainment industry and just as new ways of financing and distributing films was coming down, so was the new style of director. Lucas took three-quarters of a million dollars of Coppola's money and made a film that grossed more than 115 million. That's a hell of a return. That type of return doesn't happen today, despite all the Avatars, Batmen, and Harry Palmed Pottery flicks. So, again, what's the problem?
   Lucas used the money from American Graffiti to help finance Star Wars, which a lot of people have liked, even though this writer has stubbornly made a point of never having watched either the original or any of the follow-up product. But, hey, science fiction benefited from Lucas and that's a good thing, yes?
    Well, yes, of course. My only problem with any of this stuff is that here's George Lucas, a talented guy by any standards, one with tremendous vision and a dedication to making films that change people's lives. And how did he go about this? He went about this by taking the best inspiration from the experimental and daring directors of his time and commercializing those elements while adding fresh ideas of his own and channeling the whole thing through a prism that insisted that MOVIES THAT THREATEN TO ROCK THE SOCIAL SYSTEM SHOULD NOT BE MADE. Lucas has said that he was tired of movies that made Americans feel guilty. Okay. There's certainly no national guilt in Graffiti, no more than in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Escapism has its place and there's nothing specifically inappropriate about it, as any fan of "Seinfeld" will tell you. However, within the context of what was going on around him, it would have been downright inspirational if both Lucas and Spielberg had directed their indisputable brilliance into something a tad more worthy than CARS, for God's sake!
  What I'm actually saying here is a little unfair since I've always insisted that it is wrong to criticize an artist for failing to do something that he didn't set out to do. At the same time, I feel completely justified in criticizing Lucas for what he set out to do. His movies suffer, when they suffer at all, from being safe. There is nothing controversial about American Graffiti. Hell, even a curmudgeon such as myself praises the fucking thing, even though it's less social relevant than a film Pauline Kael properly referred to as a "fascist masterpiece," that film being Dirty Harry, a movie that at least had the courage of its convictions, twisted convictions that they were. Eastwood's character co-opted the anti-hero, gave him a badge and made him the strong man amid a sea of twinkies. Lucas took a time-piece where American kids were being fattened up for the slaughter and made it no more significant than a drag race.
   Where were you in '62? was the movie's tagline. Me, I was four years old. But here's what was really happening.

  • The Navy SEALS came into existence.
  • Fidel Castro is kicked out of the Catholic church.
  • A military coup rocks the Dominican Republic.
  • Francis Gary Powers is released from Russia.
  • The first K-Mart store opens, as does the first Wal-Mart.
  • Project Mercury orbits the earth.
  • Eichmann is hanged.
  • Three men escape from Alcatraz.
  • The SDS formulate the Port Huron Statement.
  • Mandatory school prayer is properly banned.
  • Marilyn Monroe dies.
  • James Meredith becomes the first black student to enter the University of Mississippi. 
  • We have the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Linus Pauling wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
   These things are all pretty important, important enough that even a messed-up kid with triple hormones cruising around in his hot rod in Modesto might even be aware of some of them. The deepest thought these kids have is whether or not surf music will catch on.
   In the final analysis, Lucas' film remains more quaint than the period of time he sought to encapsulate. 

Scarecrow

   With all the well-deserved brouhaha about the auteur director in the early 1970s, some of the people often overlooked in the cinematic process of this period are those to whom a previous generation turned for their inspiration: the players. This occasional oversight is endemic, of course, because it was with the enlightenment of this period that the classical attributes of an actor pulled back in favor of the ability to be interesting instead. Two distinctions in particular came to a head, one becoming quite clear, the other remarkably blurred.
Perhaps the clearest distinction in the enlightenment that Hollywood believed had engulfed the ticketed audience was that between actors and movie stars.    The distinction that with some grace thankfully blurred was between actors and actresses.
   As in previous years, all poodles were dogs, yet not all dogs were poodles. A movie star was no longer by necessity considered to be an actor, although the overlap did still occur. But if it were classic good looks that were sought, audiences quickly learned to adjust their dials as to exactly what was beautiful. And what was interesting is what became the new standard: Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson, Paul Sorveno, Stacey Keach, Dustin Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Alan Arkin, Peter Boyle, Elliott Gould, John Cazale, Ned Beatty, Roscoe Lee Browne, Gene Hackman, Bernie Casey, Jack Lemmon, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen and John Belushi could all hold their own against the pretty boy actors such as Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Melvin Van Peebles, Jeff Bridges, William Devane and Warren Beatty, to name the first ones to come to mind. Even these latter pretty-boys held an interest beyond their good looks because they did and said things that film stars of an earlier time did not, except maybe Robert Mitchum, who had the respectability of getting busted for grass.
    Just as fascinating was the blur between men and women, one which resulted, at least for a while, in both genders being thought of as actors. This didn't happened because of a political movement. This happened because the women involved worked very, very hard to achieve parity. The political movement may have given this hard work a name. The hard work is what accomplished it.
   Some of the greatest women actors who made their initial dance into the whirlwind of brilliance in the 1970s were Jane Fonda (Klute), Liza Minnelli (Cabaret), Mia Bendixsen (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), Faye Dunaway (Network), Sally Field (Norma Rae), Ali MacGraw (The Getaway), Julie Christie (Shampoo), Diana Ross (Lady Sings the Blues), Diahann Carroll, Margaux Hemingway, Jill Clayburgh, Goldie Hawn, Isabelle Adjani, Brooke Shields (Pretty Baby), Shelley Duvall (Brewtser McCloud), Linda Blair, Glenda Jackson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jodie Foster (Taxi Driver), Tatum O'Neal (Paper Moon), Pam Grier (Coffy), Meryl Streep, Gena Rowlands, Lily Tomlin (The Late Show), Candice Bergen, Ellen Burstyn, Senta Bergerm Jenny Agutter, Karen Black (Five Easy Pieces), Dyan Cannon, Carole Kane (The Last Detail), Susan Sarandon, Jacqueline Bisset, Diane Keaton (The Godfather) and, yes, at long last, Eileen Brennan.
   Mother of God, you talk about hard working! Eileen Brennan is the hardest working woman in show business and has been such since her short-lived stint on TV's "Laugh-In" back in 1968. Some of you will recognize her from the recruitment film Private Benjamin (she played Captain Lewis), while others may know her work as Zandra from the TV series "Will and Grace." I guarantee you know her from somewhere, be it The Sting, Reckless,Texasville, Rented Lips, Sticky Fingers, or the more than one hundred television appearances she has made.
   One of her best performances was a brief one in a 1973 film called Scarecrow. As was common in those days, she played an attractive, feisty woman of some complexity and, as was also common, she played against a pair of guys who overshadowed her only because their talent was so magnificent, certainly due to no lack of ability on the part of Brennan herself. She simply made the error of being a great actor in a film with a pair of young geniuses, in this case Al Pacino and Gene Hackman. Chances are you are less familiar with Scarecrow than you are with Eileen. I hope that by the end of this piece, you will be motivated to watch for both.
    Scarecrow is the story of two men who are down but not quite out. Max, played by Hackman, is fresh out of the joint on a six year stretch. Lionel (Pacino) is fresh out of the Navy where he spent the last five years. The world has changed in their absence and because of that Max has developed a plan to which he is determined not to waver. Lionel, on the other hand, wants to make people laugh. He is a good-natured clown and watching the man prove that is one of the treats of this movie, as is Hackman's character's eventual transformation. This movie is about the beauty of the road, the horrible price exacted by vengeance, the stupidity and absolute necessity of being tough, and it is also an opportunity to watch some of the most exciting actors of all time strut their stuff. Eileen Brennan is only on camera here for a few brief minutes. I guarantee you won't forget her. 

Hitler: The Last Ten Days

    If you took the Velvet Underground, mixed them with the Marquis de Sade, laced them with Lord Byron, stirred in some Idi Amin, blended it up with the more closeted aspects of 19th century English bourgeois sophistication and added the party cast from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, you still would not approximate the extreme decadence of Adolf Hitler and company during their last hurrah in the infamous bunker just before the Third Reich was crushed by the Allies. Strangled up inside due to massive doses of amphetamines and hose cement, the Fuhrer and his party of Captain Hoffman, General Krebs, Hanna Reitsch, Eva Braun, Josef Goebbels, Martin Bormann and the others all coalesced in a suicide party of degenerate, absurd, psychotic, racist, delusional, cruel and jolly activities that sharply contrasted with the holocaust and world war raging on above them.
    The 1973 film, Hitler: The Last Ten Days, is about this time in the bunker with Adolf, although we are given the occasional relief from the claustrophobic enclave with brief shots of the masses shouting "Zeig Heil!" and with the uninterred bodies of the Reich's millions of victims and as such it would seem that this was an important movie to be made as well as to view.
Unfortunately, that is not the case.
   Alec Guinness gives us an Adolf Hitler with all the deranged intensity we've come to expect and Simon Ward does fine as Captain Hoffman, the man whose notes became the book that became the Ennio De Concini screenplay. Diane Cilenta (aka Mrs. Sean Connery) scares the hell out of us as Hanna Reitsch and Doris Kunstmann as Eva Braun is satisfactorily pathetic. We get a strong sense of the humored confusion these people exercise as Hitler barks out one psychotic order after another and at one point even admits that he knew Germany was defeated two years before it actually happened. No, the acting is fine, the staging is adequate, the claustrophobia works, the horror of the evil comes across as intended.
   The problem with De Concini's movie--he also directed--is that there is no character development and hence the decomposition of those characters becomes ultimately meaningless.
   I'm going to just sit here patiently until you come up with what's bothering you about that last sentence. Take your time.
   Aha! It was Hitler! you scream. We all know about him so there wasn't any need for character development and besides the movie was almost two hours long as it was.
   Actually this film was sorely in need of character development because whether or not one possesses the historical knowledge to grasp the complexities of these people, because this really is a movie and because the audience cannot help but be aware of that--as opposed to something that is happening in "real time," stock footage of Hitler's victims is somehow inadequate to forming an appreciation for the magnitude of the man's degeneracy.
    Here was a man who took corporate backing, who came to power under the auspices of democracy, and who was nothing more or less than a failed artist of moderate intelligence, and he made himself into the most profligate mass murderer of all time. Here was a man who embraced cruelty for its own sake, a man many thought of as a messiah, and a man whose name is synonymous with evil, and his devolution during the last ten days of his life has no historic context whatsoever because we are given no motivation for the actions of the Soviets and the Americans, just as we cannot understand the lust Hitler's admirers had for him.
    Whether through the use of flashbacks, dream sequences or masturbatory fantasies, this film needs some means of establishing who these people were so that we can properly despise them for what they have become. After all, if "I am he as you are he as you are me" really is true--as I believe it is--then the so-called defeat of the Axis forces by the Allies led inevitably to the transmogrifying of the Allies into the Axis, a theme frequent readers of Philropost have endured ad infinitum. It therefore behooves us all to understand the nature of this evil in order to diagnose and remove it from our own systems, both personal and public.
    What this movie does get right, however, is our sense of disgust at the unimaginable hypocrisy of these German bastards. We very much get it when, near the end, Hitler marries Braun and the cleric who performs the cloistered ceremony is required by German law to ask Hitler if his ancestry is pure and if he has contracted any social diseases. Here is a bunker full of people who dismissed as bourgeois--as in "petty" bourgeois--notions of marriage and other middle class conventions giving into those demands once it is apparent to even the dumbest among them that the end is near. In other words, certain aspects of this film are very effective despite the entirety of the movie being a failure due to the lack of dimensions to the characters. And that's too bad because this is exactly the kind of subject the our contemporary society--with its plethora of parasites ranging from Gingrich to Koch to Romney to Paul and the fetus-worshiping Santorum all vying to be the next Adolf in the sense of luring corporate backers and then taking them over--needs to learn about so we can fathom the present stench of evil the Newts and Mitts spew forth. Hitler: The Last Ten Days should have been that film. That it was not opens the opportunity for you to make your own. 

F for Fake

    In 1969, a young writer named Clifford Irving wrote a book published by McGraw-Hill entitled Fake: The Story of Elmyr de Hory: The Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. The story was phenomenal, recounting the life and times of the man with sixty names who supposedly could reproduce paintings by anyone--and do it before lunch. While monumentally versatile, his specialties included Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani and Renoir. A story goes that he presented Picasso with a forged painting and asked the artist if he remembered painting it. "Oh, yes. I wondered whatever happened to that!" His work was so good he could even fool the subject of his falsification.
    The following year, Clifford Irving, who had written Elmyr's biography, contacted his publishers to let them see handwritten letters from Howard Hughes that authorized Irving to assist with the rich recluse's autobiography. A team of handwriting experts in the hire of the publisher declared the letters genuine. The writing process began and in January 1971 the book was released, startling the public with stories about a man with nine inch fingernails and hair to the floor.
    What happened next came as something more than a mere shock. A man purporting to be Hughes contacted some friends in the news media and on live TV decried the book to be a pack of lies, the letters of authorization to be forgeries and his association with Mr. Irving to be nonexistent.
But that could not be, screamed the lawyers for McGraw-Hill. They had deposited three-quarters of a million dollars into a Swiss bank account under the name H. R. Hughes as payment to the subject for release of his story. What the publisher did not know at the time was that Edith Irving--wife of said story forger--had opened a bank account in Switzerland under the name H. R. Hughes. Whoops.
    Enter Orson Welles, a man who got his own start in radio with a faked resume, one which got him into a position with John Houseman to co-create the Mercury Theater, a company in whose employ he did involve himself in the creation of a radio broadcast of another Mr. Well's works, this one called "War of the Worlds," transplanted as it was in this broadcast to the jungles of the state of New Jersey. Orson Welles, the man who would go on to star in and direct Citizen Kane--that Orson Wells--the Orson Welles of The Third Man and F for Fake, among hundreds more--in 1974 released a movie about Clifford Irving writing a book about Elmyr. In other words, we had the third greatest charlatan of modern times filming a movie about a man who, as the second greatest charlatan, wrote a book about the all-time greatest charlatan. The mathematical possibilities alone were staggering. With Welles brilliance with a camera and a brain, the possibilities for fun were indeed endless.
   I feel a bit uncomfortable using the word "greatest" so much in one sentence because, as a much brighter man than I--I think it was the Chamber of Commerce--once said, "Art is not a competition." Of course, having given that matter a bit of thought, I see that art is very much a competition in the sense that artists consume platitudes and flattery the way a fat man with a red nose consumes wine: thirstily.


Five Easy Pieces

    Bob Rafelson's beautiful Five Easy Pieces holds up as well as any picture released in 1970. What there is of a story is timeless, I suppose, but again we find that the new breed had a way of doing things that simply shattered previous preconceptions about how the world works. This movie was not Liz and Dick with Paul thrown into the mix just to complicate matters. On the contrary, this was Jack Nicholson as Bobby Dupea, a gifted pianist who rejects the ultimately insubstantial upper-class life that afforded him the means to become aware enough to shun that very lifestyle. Instead, he takes up with a waitress--we always love a waitress, don't we, guys?--named Rayette, played famously by Karen Black, one of the most self-aware actors of the Seventies. Bobby wanders from oil rig to oil rig, bowling alley to bedroom, swagger to swoon, all in search of the nothingness that refused to elude him back home. Informed that his father is fading fast, he returns home, first without bringing Rayette into the main house and along the way encountering some folks who are so human it hurts. Helena Kallianiotes and Toni Basil (later of "Mickey" fame) are a pair of coupled lesbians looking to move to Alaska where things are clean. Along the way, Bobby, Rayette and these two stop into a restaurant.
    Bobby Dupea's predicament rings true, not just to folks who have had trouble getting what they want in a truck stop diner, but with a country too stupid to make things easy on itself.

President: What is it you want, son?
Student: I want us the hell out of Vietnam.
President: Sorry, son. I can't do that.
Student: Why not?
President: It would make us look weak. Then every tyrant in the world would try to invade us.
Student: Okay. Here's what you do. You pull out all the troops and you tell the rest of the world that the reason you're doing that is so you can drop a nuclear bomb on the country without endangering any Americans.
President: I like your thinking, but--
Student: Then you just never quite get around to dropping it.
   A young Carole Eastman, writing under the name Adrien Joyce, worked with Rafelson on the screenplay. This was an excellent pairing and has as much to do with the artistic success as the acting. Eastman wrote the script in such a way as to liberate the actors rather than tie them down. With so much talent around her, she understood--as did Rafelson, who knew Nicholson from Head--that the best thing to do was to focus on behavior rather than story. Putting people ahead of plot is risky unless the people are exceptionally interesting and played by actors who understand how to free themselves up inside so as to capture the essence of the character without worrying too much about nuance. Nicholson and Black dance through this film as if they instinctively understand that their gifts have been liberated by a benevolent system and the interaction between the two slaps at the heart again and again. 
    But let's not kid ourselves. This is Jack Nicholson's show from start to finish. Stuck in traffic, barking back at a dog, banging Sally Struthers, besting Ralph Waite at pig pong, being taken in by Catherine (Susan Anspach), or defending Rayette against the aggression of intellectualism--Wouldn't you love to hear Pat Benatar sing "Stop using your brain as a weapon"?--Nicholson mesmerizes even as we sense his final descent, a scene you will not like but which you will recognize as entirely appropriate.

A Boy and His Dog

    I'm glad we know what the post-apocalyptic planet will resemble. Lots of desert, not much in the way of greenery, bunkers galore, gasoline hording, low-sperm counts, dune buggies, tanks, mass weaponry, guys with remarkably stupid haircuts and a need for fashion consultants: these are the hallmarks of the post-nuclear world as portrayed in most macho-based writers' and film-makers' world-visions. Oh, and how dare I forget the most common item linking them all? Everyone will either be hiding or traveling. Yep, there's no escaping that. Those in hiding will be the weak, the despondent, the cowardly, the disillusioned. . . the women. And those on the prowl will be the idealists, the vanguard, the conquistadors, the bold. . . the men.
    Well, not me, brother. Come the last days, you'll find me holed up with a small cadre of like-minded folks, smiling into the abyss (which no doubt will be smiling back at us), reading all the trashy mystery novels and grooving on a stack of tacky blues riffs we can cull from the electronic wasteland of late-sixties garage rock, plus a smattering of free jazz. What'll we do for food?     Hey, I've already started stocking up on Coca-cola which, as science has recently revealed, contains all the nutrients a glowing subculture needs to thrive.
   Prompting this musing revelry about that future time when the camps of good and bad form out of the radioactive seeds of oblivion is my second viewing of the film A Boy and His Dog, based on the award-winning novella by Harlan Ellison. The version I watched again last night was sparked by news that 2012--this very year in which we roast--will see the release of a remake of that film. Ho-hum.
   The original 1975 picture starred a mighty young Don Johnson (who it must be admitted did one fine job considering he was playing second banana to a dog) and a brief appearance by Jason Robards, whose interest in being in such a movie can only be imagined--maybe he owed somebody money. The film tells the story of Vic and Blood, a boy and his dog in the year 2024. They are telepathic with one another. Vic, who Blood calls Albert, finds food and Blood sniffs out women, revealing another presumed unpleasant reality with which we will inevitably find ourselves: come the apocalypse, all pretense of enlightened manhood will be shattered. Left to our natural devices, we will only think of women as objects of derision, beings fit only to fuck and forget, creatures bestowing utilitarian value that motivates us to hunt and gather while they piss, plot and scheme. You see, in this world, a woman is just a man with a vagina and a uterus. They are just as evil and self-centered as we are and in fact maybe more so because as professional victims they have learned the lesson of the internment camp survivor which is to be an even bigger bastard than the captor.
    Okay, that's about all the disgusting puke words I can stomach.
   In the interests of full disclosure, I need to admit that I am a fan of the writer Harlan Ellison. I am a fan, however, and not an apologist. Mr. Ellison has written some of the finest speculative fiction and short stories of the last fifty-odd years, including "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," "Jeffty is Five," "Along the Scenic Route," "The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World" and thousands more. Mr. Ellison is a professional writer. He is not some hack. He thinks about what he does and he instills uncommon passion and compassion into every sentence. Perhaps back in 1969 he genuinely believed that there would be men like Vic scavenging for nookie without moral guidance. For that matter, he may have been correct. What bothers me about his novella and what bothers me far more about the film inspired by it is the assumption that women will become either tools of themselves or objects of capture rather than independent beings or at least cohorts in the struggle for survival. What also bothers me is that this film is sort of a comedy.
   If I sound a bit uncomfortable lecturing Harlan Ellison on plotting a story, that is because I am VERY uncomfortable. But after watching this movie a second time and finding myself smirking at the images of the dictator played by Robards and the absurdist aspects of the second half of the film, I stopped to read a scathing review by science fiction writer and feminist Joanna Russ, a woman of great talent who related how she was encouraged by two men she knew to go see the film, which she did. By the end of her analysis she was suggesting that Ellison might enjoy watching Triumph of the Will. I laughed out loud when I read that, even though the parallel is not quite exact. Triumph of the Will, while an ode to fascist swill, is at least well done. A Boy and His Dog cannot take that degree of credit. A lot of themes are begun and discarded before they can be adequately developed, from voyeurism to commodity fetishism. But what is really there is cheap nihilism and goddammit if I'm going to be subjected to nihilism I want it to be expensive!
    Seriously, my main objection to the film remains the one I had when I viewed it as a hormonal teenager: If I were a woman sitting next to a man in a drive-in or theater and the man seemed to be enjoying this movie, I would become extremely concerned for my eventual safety and in fact would take steps to dissuade the cad. Understand something: This is not A Clockwork Orange or even The Getaway, where the misogyny of the director is defused by the presence of his general sense of misanthropy. For Kubrick and Peckinpah, women are no worse than men; they are merely as bad. And while those women are certainly objectified, they are at least given the courtesy of some type of personality, even if it may be an unpleasant one. A Boy and His Dog cares nothing for the personalities of its victims, something which I'm pretty sure is the definition of gratuitous violence.
    The best thing to be said for the movie is that Tim McIntyre, as the unseen voice of Blood, steals the show.

3 Women
    If one function of film is to inform our dreams, then fairness requires dreams to fulfill our movies. The 1977 Robert Altman film 3 Women succeeds.
   Altman has a dream and on his way to the airport stops at 20th Century to see Alan Ladd Jr., who green-lights the project in time for the director to catch his flight. After all, this was Robert Altman and Fox did owe a debt of gratitude to cinema and certainly it didn't matter much that there was no script at this point. Who needed a script when the ending was still unformed?
   Has anyone ever told you that your dreams did not make sense or that they were not logical? You'd probably laugh at anyone who dared say such a thing because what you'd been discussing was ephemera, intangible, a series of images which the brain has conjured out of all the senses presented to it, reconstructed in a way that does not rely upon logic for its value. 3 Women, just like our dreams, does have a kind of logic, but it isn't the kind in which we move through in our awakened periods, although, as with our dreams, it often accentuates the most intriguing aspects of what we call our own personal reality.
    If we are regular movie-goers in 1977, we recognize Sissy Spacek from the previous year's Carrie, a film heavy with dream sequences. From the instant we set eyes upon her character Pinky, we suspect that something is not quite right with the young lady, that something about her does not quite fit, and that just possibly we should not trust what we see. Today she begins her first day of work helping old folks at a physical therapy facility in what feels like an area east of Los Angeles, out in the desert. That she is much younger than those for whom she is responsible is no coincidence since Pinky acknowledges nothing about her own parents, as becomes quite clear later in the film. The spa surroundings are the kind of places where cowboy films of Wyatt Earp have been shot right alongside miniature golf courses.
   Pinky meets Mildred, played by Shelley Duvall. We recognize Ms. Duvall from any number of earlier Altman creations and we notice right away that she too fails to fit in with the people around her, whether they are her coworkers or her neighbors. Millie is assigned to show Pinky the ropes, probably because the boss suspects they will get along, or else as punishment for both of them being just a bit unusual. Indeed, Millie spends a good bit of the movie having conversations with people who do very little to acknowledge her existence. Adding to their sense of unease, neither Milly nor Pinky have much in the way of a background and this is deliberate. When a character enters our dream, we do not have time to evaluate that person's history. Instead we make quick and disjointed impressions of the person and that is all we can do with the characters in this movie. Maybe Millie is a weird duck and maybe the weirdness is really everyone else.
   Also working in the spa are two female twins, neither of whom contributes much to the narrative other than being so aloof that we simply dislike them in general and even feel a small sense of relief when one of the coworkers tells Pinky, "We don't like the twins."
    Far and away the most disjointed character in the movie is Willie Hart, played to near silent perfection by Janice Rule. Willie creates sand paintings on swimming pools and elsewhere and she is with child until the last few minutes of the film. She is married to a retired stunt man who used to work in cowboy pictures.
   For all intents and purposes, these three women could all be different aspects of one another and when it turns out that Pinky's "real" name is Mildred, we are not terribly surprised, although we are properly disturbed, just as we are troubled by the rhyme of the name Willie. These three women have suffered damages and they continue to suffer them, on and on until the women seem to merge into a single unit, be it a nuclear family, a Manson Family, or a single person with three personas.
To say more about the story would be to risk divulging the narrow and winding plot. However, it pulls on me to say that dream-work in this picture is very much impressionistic, in the artistic sense of the word, a facet that is not uncommon in much of Altman's work. The Long Goodbye was rife with extended sequences that not only felt dreamy but which even drifted away from the Raymond Chandler novel enough to be their own reaction to having read the book. Even given the soft and deadly punch from the brilliant, instinctive acting of the three principals in this motion picture, the real performance remains the movie itself, at once loping along with all the time in the world just as it abruptly shifts to tense alignments that rustle the pulse. If you were to only view one Robert Altman film, it should be Nashville. If you have the luxury of two, the second must be 3 Women

The Tenant

    Roman Polanski directed, wrote and/or starred in some of the most enjoyable films of the last sixty years, including Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, Tess, Frantic, The Ninth Gate, The Pianist, and The Ghost Writer. Apartment life, demonology and stress are among his recurring themes. Often his films stand out for their playfulness, in the sense that a big toe on a small foot is playful. In his 1976 movie The Tenant, his playfulness doubles back on itself and ends up kicking the audience into mesmerizing terror.
    Polanksi remains uncredited in the starring role of Trelkovsky, a Polish work-visa emigre living in Paris. While we never quite learn Trelkovsky's job, we see that it attracts a boorish bunch, including one lout who takes pleasure in playing bad music at all hours simply to annoy the sick woman who lives upstairs. And speaking of noise, the Egyptologist Simone Choule, the previous tenant in Trelkovsky's digs, must have made quite the crescendo as she fell from the apartment window and crashed through glass onto the sidewalk below. Even as Trelkovsky moves in, he begins a strange consumption with the story of Simone, despite not knowing her. He visits her in the hospital primarily to make sure that she will in fact die from her injuries in order that he may secure her apartment for himself. At the hospital he meets Stella, a friend of Simone. He tells her he knows Simone because that feels more proper than admitting he is ghoulishly waiting out her demise. He and Stella experience a quick and recurring fling, through which we learn that Simone was either a lesbian or, more likely, a man who dressed and lived as a woman.
   Immediately the people the new tenant meets begin trying to fit him into the mold already established by Simone, including bringing him the same drink in the cafe, converting him to her brand of cigarettes, and even giving him a kiss from an intoxicated admirer who shows up to court Simone the day after she has died.
    To reveal more of the story would be to risk spoiling it and this movie has some serious surprises, including an ending that will make a point of messing you up.
    Although many people consider The Tenant to be a grand artistic success, there is nothing about the direction or cinematography in this film that jumps up and grabs or slithers out and gnaws at us. The best reason to watch the film again after all this time is because Polanski proves himself possessed of considerable theatrical charm, as well as being an actor capable of tremendous understated humor and thoroughly convincing nervousness. In one memorable scene in his freshly-rented apartment, Polanksi discovers a neighbor from upstairs complaining to him about the noise his boorish guests are making. The actor's character responds by blending magnanimous charm and paranoia into his reaction. He wants to maintain the good will of his coworkers and yet is desperate to avoid annoying the landlord. About a million screwed up ways exist to poorly communicate this unease.     Polanksi selects the one appropriate style.
    Another acting phenomenon in The Tenant is Shelley Winters, a woman who by this time had already won and earned two Academy Awards for Acting, the first in 1960 for The Diary of Anne Frank and the second in 1966 for A Patch of Blue, a woman who made significant contributions to Lolita, The Night of the Hunter, A Place in the Sun, and I Am a Camera, a woman who had, over the years, been reduced to playing a villain in the TV show "Batman," to starring in the Roger Corman film Bloody Mama --in the former she played Ma Parker and in the latter Ma Barker--to a great performance in a shit movie called The Poseidon Adventure. Shelley Winters takes the role of the concierge and makes it into the ambiguously sinister role of a lifetime. Is she a scheming, plotting, ambitious bitch or simply a tired, unfeeling crone with a fondness for the gruesome elements of life? This was her last truly great performance and she played it as if every second counted, which of course it does.
    The film is not perfect. For instance, the title character's paranoia comes from an unexamined place, one which some clues materialize to inform, but none of which hang all that well together. To an extent, the motivation for the paranoia doesn't matter because we are all so caught up in the behavior of the actors on the screen. But again, it is the ambiguity that helps propel us ass over teakettle right alongside Polanski as he causes us to wonder if he might be the man the people in his office speak about from a newspaper article, if he might indeed have a connection to Simone that spills over into one of lifestyle (which might well explain his paranoia, given the crowd he attracts), or if people actually are messing with him about the noises coming from his apartment or if instead he is making those noises and he just doesn't remember doing it. Even the presumed flaws in the film project a strong sense of suspense that lingers beyond the swinging doors of the theatre.
   And besides, Bruce Lee makes an appearance. 

Bed and Board

    Everyone else is an expert on director Francois Truffaut. All I know from the point of view of an expert is that what was once light may one day be weighty. In other words, there is more than one way to defy gravity.
    Everyone else memorized the script from The 400 Blows, the first new wave French film, the movie that introduced the world to Antoine Doinel, the Truffaut-like character who carries on through Stolen Kisses and into Bed and Board, wrapping up in Love on the Run. Everyone, in short, knew the whole story before I ever thought about it and that may put me at a disadvantage when dealing with one of the world's best directors. On the other hand, if ignorance is really bliss, why don't I care about not finding my umbrella? Hell, I didn't even know who Francois Truffaut was until I saw him acting as the scientist in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Of course, that was back in 1977.
    Unlike everyone else in the world, I like a good movie, a designation based on the criteria of innovative and either pleasing or distressing cinematography, the existence of a storyline that I cannot figure out right away or else no storyline at all, characterization that intrigues or alienates, and either brilliant acting or something so weird that I might not even describe it as acting.
    With those criteria in play, at least approximately, then Bed and Board is a first-rate film, one that features Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud) evolving from teenage games of thievery and hide-the-snake into young adulthood, marriage and the demands of social responsibility, none of which include a fling with an attractive Asian woman. Either this interests you or it doesn't. What interests me in this movie is the beauty of the camera-work. Maybe a favorite moment would be near the opening when Christine (Claude Jade) is filmed at leg-level, insisting that everyone address her as "Madame," to acknowledge her matrimony. Maybe a favorite is the night blue of the in-laws' house. Most likely, however, it is the shot of Christine indicating to Antoine that she has learned of his affair. He didn't see that one coming and neither did anybody else.
    Bed and Board stands alone satisfactorily and sheds some nice insight into the autobio of the director. But unless you are a film student or want to bed someone who is, you might do better to download Jules et Jim instead. 



Claire's Knee

    From the instant we see Jermone, the middle-aged diplomat, we feel certain he will get himself into trouble. Indeed, we meet him in the arms of Aurora, an Italian novelist spending her time as a half-assed housekeeper for some bourgeois multiple-divorced woman with two teenage daughters, Laura and Claire. (Just reading back over that description, I discover that the premise already sounds like a tawdry porno flick with pretensions of art.)
    There is nothing phony or convoluted, much less pornographic, about Claire's Knee. This is, in fact, one of the most touchingly unsentimental films I have ever had the pleasure of watching. Granted, Jean-Claude Brialy, as Jerome, over-intellectualizes the vicissitudes of love, as does Aurora Cornu, who plays the novelist, as does Beatrice Romand, the actor who plays sixteen-year-old Laura, daughter of Madame Walter (Michele Montel). Hell, the only person in the entire movie who simply accepts things and plays any importance at all on the magic of experience is the attractive older teenage daughter Claire. Despite the physical beauty of Laurence de Monaghan in the role of the owner of the knee in question throughout much of this movie, she is ultimately interesting only for her simpleness, her acceptance of everything she is told, and her discovery of an ability she does not fully understand when it comes to controlling men.
   Even though director and writer Eric Rohmer indulges bourgeois luxuries such as motor-boating on the most beautiful lake I've ever seen in a film, Lake Acceny, which floats between France and Switzerland, you can forgive him damned near anything because of the way he structures the dialogue so that talking actually narrates the film, normally a fatal flaw but here a remarkable achievement.
   So, as I said, we expect Jerome to get into trouble. He admits to being engaged to a mysterious Lucinde, a woman we only meet via a photograph he casually flaunts (Wonder if she's real?), and yet is quite flirty with Aurora, the dominatrix-style author who is not content to experiment with the lives of her fictional characters but even has to play her games with her closest friends, an elitist diversion and an intriguing one. When she observes that Laura has a crush on Jerome, she tells him to pursue it. He claims he will do it only for the intellectual satisfaction but we may be forgiven for suspecting that what he is actually pursuing is a validation that he can still turn heads at age thirty-five. Although the playfulness of Jerome and Laura makes us initially uncomfortable, things never get amorous between them and we cannot help but admit that they do get on well together.
    Whereas Laura's intelligence transforms otherwise modest features into mysterious beauties, Claire has no personal depth at all, other than her intellectual vulnerability. Evidently, being longed for by the smart daughter is somehow insufficient; Jerome the professional diplomat needs the ability to make a conquest of Claire without actually acting on it. And that--at long last--is why this is a supremely moral movie. Oh, yes, we saw something a bit similar in American Beauty where Lester Burnham/Kevin Spacey gets the young girl and then pulls away instead of consummating.
   I have not chosen the term "moral" without cause. Claire's Knee is fifth in a series of "six moral tales" Rohmer created over a span of ten years. I'll admit straight up I've not seen any of the other five (which, for the benefit of purists, are The Bakery Girl of Monceau, Suzanne's Career, The Collector, My Night at Maud's, and Chloe in the Afternoon), and it is possible I never will simply because I'd hate to be wrong about the director's intention here. I think he actually is Aurora in the sense of moving characters around just to see how they behave, perhaps tipping his own hand by tempting them to behave well rather than badly. Yet there is nothing even remotely quaint in the presentation. We are pulling for Jerome to stay strong, not so much because we like him, although eventually that becomes easier than in the beginning, but rather because we don't want Lucinde--who we never meet--to be betrayed! Lucinde! The woman with the severe haircut, the fiance who may not even exist!
   Ah, it's a bloody great film and I can't urge you enough to see it. Hey, Gene Siskel (remember him?) and Roger Ebert had it near the top of their own lists for 1970. That doesn't mean you have to do the same. Just watch the first ten minutes, though, and you'll be hooked.

King: A Filmed Record. . . Montgomery to Memphis

   Watching King: A Filmed Record. . . Montgomery to Memphis shakes the shell of the time machine, splintering all we know from all we believe, throwing levers and kicking dials until the space craft of our minds moans in silent voids of loneliness at just how strong and brave a figure walked among us not all that many years ago. History tells us that life equates to struggle, be it a struggle to oppress or a struggle to break free of oppression. It is on the latter side of that equation that the angels sit, staring on in horror at the taking of so resilient a life as that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
   Those familiar with the reasons behind the propriety of a national holiday celebrating the life of this man likely have heard or seen the Eugene "Bull" Connor stories about fire hoses and barking German shepherds, of clubs upside the head and jail cells cold and crowded. What may be most disturbing as it unfolds is that animosity King faced in Chicago in 1966. The writer Richard Wright talked about how Chicago was a hundred times more racist than any southern town because the south had to institutionalize their racism whereas in Chicago the evil buried itself into the skin of the people there. When you see the angry and scared whites with their Nazis memorabilia, you will believe Wright, just as you believe King.
   Directed by Sidney Lumet and Joseph Mankiewicz, King is composed of newsreel narration that begins in December 1955 and winds up in April 1968. A lot of period celebrities who lent their names and images to the civil rights movement narrate brief passages, at least in the full-length version of the film, the 180+ minute edition now available on DVD. But ultimately, this documentary comments upon itself, just as it testifies about all of us, black and white, good and bad, smart and stupid. Broken down into forty-five second sound bites for MLK Day telecasts, the significance of the message gets lost, leading young folks to perhaps question about what all the fuss was being raised. Look upon the windows with their signs. Look into the halls where restrooms segregated by race as well as by gender. Look into the eyes of Bull Connor as he tells the white citizens council that the police will take care of the problems for them. Most of all, stare at the face and feel the words of Martin Luther King Jr--not MLK; please, let's not further trivialize the man in our haste to be hasty--as he preaches that God has taken him to the mountain top and shown him the Promised Land. He may well have seen it. If anyone ever has, Martin would have been that man. The rest of us must endure the terrestrial elements, pedestrian and pointless as they often feel. Yet, now and again, we draw inspiration from one far better than the best of us. . . and we at last breathe together.

The Landlord

   Beau Bridges moves into Pearl Bailey's neighborhood in this 1970 movie by Hal Ashby, the director's first foray into film.
   The idea of this often moving film is that we have a rich white guy named Elgar who thinks it would be fun to renovate the ghetto apartment building he just purchased and to transform it into a swinging pad for his own bad self, what with mom becoming something of a drag and don't even get me started about dad. He moves in and discovers that he rather likes these black individuals. They possess a sense of reality that his material word so obviously lacks.
I suppose this wouldn't be that much of a story were it not for the innovative way in which he transforms Kristin Hunter's novel. It's all about education in The Landlord and Ashby runs us through Ender's early schooling as well as the teaching of a Park Slope "professor." There's no sugar-coating here, no pretenses to enlightenment that isn't earned. Liberal guilt gets smacked around just as much as conservative hatred does and not everybody in the African American community is made out to be a saint. This is a real movie with real people and a real soundtrack courtesy of Al Kooper.
   What I think is most fascinating is that Elgar falls for two women in the movie, both of whom are black, both of whom are outside his socio-economic range, and both of whom his mother is certain to dislike. Both women are beautiful and when one of the two becomes pregnant, Elgar comes close to getting his head crushed by an angry and potentially quite dangerous lover played by Lou Gossett. Miscegenation is a big concept in The Landlord, with a group of men at a party lecturing Elgar on how white men have gone out of their way to dilute the gene pool. 
    It really doesn't matter how comfortable a person thinks he is with the idea of race relations. Until you are sitting in a parked car at midnight outside a convenience store waiting until a group of guys decide to step out of your way so you don't run over them, wondering if they are just standing there to torment you--until your girlfriend squeezes your knee and begs you to get her the hell out of there--then you don't really know what your feelings about other people actually are. The Landlord is just like that. No matter how hip you think you are, no matter how enlightened and free, the fact is this movie will challenge you.
    Oh, and it's very funny. If that matters.


A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

    By now most of us are familiar with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novel A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. You may not know that in 1970 a film adaptation of the book was released. Directed by Caspar Wrede and shot in northern Norway, the film was banned in Finland until 1993 for fear on the part of the Finnish government that the movie would hurt relations between Russia and Finland, this film sticks quite closely to the author's fictionalization of his own time as a prisoner in a Stalin-era Soviet gulag.
   The movie is not much fun.
   It is, however, excellent propaganda.
   I avoided reading the book for years and avoided even more strenuously viewing the film, not because I didn't believe the author's narrative, but rather because I did believe it and suspected that if anything he might he downplayed certain matters. I resisted the book and film because I already understood that these two things would cause me to hate totalitarian systems even more than I already hate them and yet somehow that never stopped me from reading about the Nazis or watching movies about the Holocaust. So what exactly was my problem?
   I'm on the left. There is no sense denying that.
What bothered me was being reminded that my pro-government, pro-bureaucracy, pro-collectivist proclivities could turn into the type of nightmare Wrede so magnificently conveys in the film. The things I believe in are not supposed to turn into bad dreams. And yet they unquestionably do, just about every day.
   Mitt Romney was on camera a couple weeks ago, getting fresh with an Occupy supporter about how if the supporter didn't like things in the United States he was free to go live somewhere else and let us know how he liked it elsewhere. That made me mad and I fired off a letter to Romney that suggested he himself might enjoy spending this summer in an internment camp in Cuba. I have yet to hear back.
    But I meant what I said, which is more than the presidential candidate can claim. The old saw about "love it or leave it" still burns, just as he knew it would, which is why he said it, which is why I responded, which is why I watched this film.
The reason utopias turn into dystopias is because dreams make lousy realities. When the Soviets declare that the sun is at its peak at 1pm rather than noon, Ivan wonders if the commissars can actually make that happen. Whenever any of my leftist friends (or myself) demand the overthrow of the capitalist economic system, we need to be prepared to defend the people involved in that overthrow from the smirking evil that lies behind the misery any economic system is capable of instilling, be it social democratic, communist, libertarian, or what have you, because once the real life nightmare takes hold, it does not allow you to wake up. The people in One Day in the Life do not look forward to the sunrise. One of them even looks forward to blizzards to avoid having to go out into the weather. In the film, if the temperature drops below forty degrees below zero, they do not have to go out. A man climbs the pole to see the temperature, reporting that it says only twenty-seven below. the other replies, "They's never but up a thermometer that told the truth."
    Or you may recall the first sentence of Orwell's most famous novel, the one that begins with the clock striking thirteen. It's part of an old joke. What time is it when the clock strikes thirteen? It is time to get a new clock. Just make sure the new clock doesn't make a habit of striking fourteen.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

    Dario Argento first drew cinematic attention to himself as one of the writers on Sergio Leone's film Once Upon a Time in the West. Today's movie, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, should not be judged by the standard of that ultimate spaghetti western. On the contrary, what is fair is to judge it in relation to both its influences and its influence, and even more importantly, to judge it as to whether or not it's a good film on its own merits.
The last question comes first: Yes. It stood up then and it continues to do so. In fact, it does more than stand. It runs. Tony Musante demonstrates some genuine talent, if not a typical lack of warmth, in his performance as Sam Dalmas, an American writer temporarily living in Rome with his girlfriend, the beautiful Julia, played with considerable melodrama by Suzy Kendall, a woman I at first mistook for Susan George. Julia's purpose in this film is to stand in a for the concept of the doe-eyed potential victim, a not unheard of role in 1970s suspense-horror dramas. She does as much with that part as that part allow, as, to be fair, does Musante with his portrayal of a man who witnesses a crime while standing between two sets of glass doors. He can see in at the crime being committed, yet he can neither escape nor assist. He is trapped and is even seen being trapped, just as the film projectionist in the movie theaters watched the audiences trapped in their seats while viewing this movie. The difference? The movie-goer doesn't want to leave.
   Argento builds the suspense layer by layer. Sam knows that what he has seen--the stabbing of a woman in an art gallery by a man who escapes detection--is real, and yet he cannot quite parse out the significance of the action in a way that will be helpful to the police. He faces pressure to solve the crime from not only law enforcement but from the killer as well, the identity of whom we are given multiple clues, most of them false in the way of Alfred Hitchcock.
    Speaking of whom, Argento occasionally is called the Italian Hitchcock because of certain alleged similarities in the use of misdirection and knee-level camera angles, as well as his tendency to allow the plot to establish the characters rather revealing those details through contrived conventions. But if it's possible that two different people could independently develop the radio and two other people could independently develop the telephone, then it seems possible that Argento and Hitchcock may have inspired one another far less than is commonly argued.
   What also seems possible is that director Brian DePalma, who is often accused of going beyond homage and into the realm of thievery when it comes to his relationship with Hitchcock, actually owes a bit more to Dario Argento in general and this film in particular.
   Trapped, mesmerized voyeurism, murder by shining blade in confined quarters, a sense of dispassion regarding the victims, a man being helpless in defense of a female victim, constant misdirection as to guilt, psychologically-based motives, the use of the camera backing up as actors charge a staircase, the presence of a manipulative police force: these are elements of Dressed to Kill, Body Double, and Blow Out, just for starters. It may be granted that DePalma does more with these elements than Argento, but that argument doesn't really hold water. Neither director works particularly hard at providing the viewer with something that will carry on after the experience itself. That's okay. We've come to expect the under-expected. DePalma adds more intrigue through his use of sexual inducement, although cinematic mores have as much to do with that as artistic license. The real force of either director's work is largely to engage the viewer without doing much more than taunting him for the duration of the film, whereas someone like Hitchcock--say Hitchcock himself, for instance, and in the only instance--endeavored in several films to leave the viewer feeling things after he or she left the movie. Notorious is probably the best example of this, another being Rope, and another being Rear Window.
   All in all, The Bird is a fascinating show of multiple levels of psychological perversion worth experiencing as much for the onscreen value as for its modest historical stature.



Slap Shot

    Sports movies can be great or they can be total bombs. Virtually anything qualifies as a sport nowadays so there's all kinds of opportunities. Disgusting as they were, I can think of two cockfighting movies, the first one being done by the Thomas Edison company (The Cock Fight--1894). In a more socially acceptable orientation, baseball has been well represented by the original The Bad News Bears and the first half of Bull Durham. Basketball has brought us Hoop Dreams, White Men Can't Jump and Hoosiers, the latter film's charms being lost on this writer, what with its only virtue being that you keep expecting the plot to take a surprising turn and--surprise!--it never does. Football has given us Heaven Can Wait and (again) the original The Longest Yard. Even boxing has managed to cough up the excellent Raging Bull and a string of Rocky movies. Pool/billiards brings us a new movie every twenty years or so, the last halfway decent one being The Color of Money. Track and field did Chariots of Fire. But how many great hockey movies do you know?
    You might be startled. There've been at least three of the Mighty Ducks films, each one half as compelling as its predecessor. You can go back as far as 1937 and dig a young John Wayne in Idol of the Crowds. There was the genuinely horrible Youngblood with Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze. Mystery Alaska was nice. But you have not truly had a fun time at a sports movie unless you have watched the 1977 George Roy Hill puck-gem Slap Shot.
   Paul Newman stars as Reggie Dunlop, the player-coach of the Charlestown Chiefs, a third rate team in a fourth rate town that is on the brink of losing ten thousand factory jobs due to a plant closure. Coming up behind Dunlop is Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), a young pretty boy who doesn't mind scamming his fellow players but doesn't want to scam himself. Braden and his wife Lily (Lindsay Crouse) see themselves as the only class acts in the town, but they're young so we forgive them. Reggie learns that the Chiefs are probably going to fold at the end of this season, so he fools a local media hack into fabricating a story that the team is being bought by a bunch of farts in Florida. To drum up more enthusiasm for the team, Reggie goads his team into turning goon. The three newest members of the squad, the Hanson Brothers, are happy to oblige.
   The movie is profane, vulgar, violent, occasionally obvious and definitely obscene. It is also inspired, hilarious, and brutally pure. Newman handles the comedy here better than anywhere in his life, his situation actually does draw us in, and the devotion and commitment of the Hanson Brothers (David Hanson plus Jeff and Steve Carlson, who really looked like that) is genuinely moving.
    For a sports movie to work, it has to transcend its genre, just as a great western must do, or a great war movie, or even a great comedy. Slap Shot is sports, western, war, and comedic. If you've never been to a hockey match, this movie will get you as close as possible.


The Baader-Meinhof Complex

   I believe it was in 1981 that I first met some people who identified themselves as members of the Red Brigade. This small group of people were not directly connected with the Italian paramilitary organization that had kidnapped Aldo Moro. They were, however, sympathetic to the militant left wing internationalist cause and one fine afternoon at Marshall University these fifteen folks decided to call attention to themselves by holding up a long banner outside the student union. I was quite friendly with a couple of these young people and even though their approach to revolution was far too accepting of violent means of actions than my own, I nevertheless felt bad for them when the far larger crowd of students responded to the brief speech by one young protester by chatting "Bullshit!" and then by singing "America the Beautiful." The looks on the faces of those kids who were shouted down still haunts me because that look said that they knew they were not in their element, that they had no hope of converting anyone, and that their dreams of amounting to something useful in the war against oppression had been dashed to bits, at least for the afternoon. Early this week, in the ugly month of January 2013, a young woman, probably a member of Code Pink (although I don't know that for certain), interrupted the confirmation hearings of nominee for Secretary of State, John Kerry. She shouted that she was tired of her friends in the Middle East being killed. Authorities carted her away with haste.
   The following evening on "The Rachel Maddow Show," the host of the program mentioned in passing that in Washington DC, nobody pays much attention to protesters. She then went on to imply that Kerry was a good guy because he did make mention of protesters.
   Ms. Maddow appeared to affect a glib tone in her remarks, a glibness that very much unsettles me. I am disturbed, not so much by her opinion but by my own hunch that she is unfortunately correct.
When we do not listen to protesters--even those with whom we have fundamental disagreements--we contribute to terrorism against ourselves. People in positions of power tend to use that power to promote bad things, such as the war against the Vietnamese people, the control over the Iranian people through the use of a Shah, the mining of Latin American harbors, the financing of the Taliban as a hedge against Soviet aggression. When people voice their objections to these and other things, we have a social responsibility to work out our own cognitive biases and get down to whether or not the angry whelps might just have a point, however clumsily that point might be offered, particularly when that point acts against the powerful and in favor of the weak.
   When we reject peaceful protest out of hand, we are pissing off certain people. There are, rest assured, lots and lots of power freaks on the left as well as the right, and when we demonstrate that peaceful assembly is ineffectual and automatically ignore it, we are fanning the flames of hatred of people who are quite happy to use violence as a justification for their own "greater" causes.
The RAF, or Red Army Faction, is the topic of tonight's movie, The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008). The phenomenon referenced in the film's title refers to a tendency to discover some new thing and to suddenly perceive that new thing everywhere while also assuming that it is not only new to you but new to everyone else as well. This happens a lot in politics. Some kid finds a copy of Das Kapital, somehow manages to read it, and decides that he's the first person to recognize the truth in his own lifetime. Simultaneously, he observes for the first time that capitalism does indeed victimize vast segments of society and that since its demise is a logical position in future history, it only stands to reason that an elite group (such as one which contains himself) must fight to bring about that revolution. It's also an effective way to push other people around.
   The Baader-Meinhof Complex takes place in Germany from roughly 1967 through the late 1980s. Ulrike Meinof was a journalist disillusioned by the misogyny in her lover's political behavior. As she sympathetically reported on the German RAF, she met up with Andreas Baader and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin. The film portrays Meinhof as a well-intentioned dupe and Baader as something of a thrill-seeking sociopath. I have no idea what these folks were personally. I will tell you that most of the actions conveyed in this remarkable movie really happened and the explanation the film offers (to the extent that it offers one; there's nothing overt in commentary) is that ego-maniacal, self-aggrandizing leaders often adapt the mask of urban guerrilla for no other purpose than to emulate the little tin gods they claim to despise.
   The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a film with more genuine excitement, more historical relevance than any documentary you'll ever watch, probably because it is not a documentary, although it has more specificity than any movie I've ever seen. This near epic shows the connections between the European left and the various Arab causes, anti-antisemitism being one suggested villain here. While the intellects of the participants portrayed here are often limited, there is nothing stunted in the recent history this fast action movie conveys. More to the point, it shows the dangers in failing to pay attention to the criticisms offered by young people against a staid social system. We ignore the arguments of the Occupy Movement at our own risk. When the G-8 conferences are met with traditional public defiance, we better start thinking about what those kids are saying. Today's protester can inadvertently launch tomorrow's terrorist attack. Or are we all so certain of the propriety of our our national (and international) actions that we can only wither or vomit at the suggestion that just maybe our perfections contain rust?

Illustrious Corpses

   Cadaveri Eccellenti refers to a surrealist game allegedly created by Andre Breton wherein several players contribute their own imaginative twists to a portion of a drawing without seeing what the other players are up to. Illustrious Corpses (1976), which is the literal translation from the Italian (or, as the movie posters proclaimed, Cadavres Exquis), is a fascinating thriller that hangs together through the understated glue of its protagonist, Inspector Amerigo Rogas (Lino Ventura), as well as the wild plot, those two forces joining to give us one of the most exciting slow-boilers in a very long time.
Directed by Francesco Rosi, Illustrious Corpses begins with an Italian judge named Vargas walking toward us through a long corridor, on all sides of which appear human cadavers. Since when we first meet Vargas we have no way of knowing that he is a judge, we haven't any way of explaining or understanding the significance of these corpses. Is this man a horrible mass murderer who has retained the bodies of his many victims? Or is he a retired law enforcement official who is revisiting the scene of a ghastly crime? Once we learn that Vargas is not only a judge but a former prosecutor, we wonder if these bodies are some sort of symbolic reference to the men he has sentenced. Then again, maybe the scene is there merely to jolt us.
   Inspector Rogas is an instantly likable sort of pragmatist who wants to figure out where the judge's assassination fits into a larger pattern of murders. His bosses, on the other hand, say that they want him to hang the crime on the communist party. When more judges are murdered, Rogas digs a bit and learns that there are three cases these judges collaborated that suggest certain suspects. One of these suspects, a Mr. Cres, appears to have been innocent. The bosses are outraged that Rogas can't follow a simple directive to figure out a way to blame the opposition party. Trudging forward as a good cop will, Rogas finally gets a meeting with the Supreme Court President (Max von Sydow) to warn him that this innocent Mr. Cres may plan to kill him. The Judge intuits that Rogas is implying judicial error. "There is no such thing as judicial error," he asserts in total seriousness. His argument is that seeing as how the justices uphold, affirm and dictate the law, they are as incapable of error as the Pope.
   There are all sorts of additional directions taken and misdirections given, including one misdirection that turns out to be the farthest thing from erroneous. Rogas becomes convinced that the killer or killers is out to snuff him for getting too close to the truth. Since we are certain that Rogas does not know the truth, we suspect his suspicions are just paranoia. Indeed they are, but it is his own paranoia that leads his superiors to kill him.
   I see that the way I've described the plot makes it sound as if this film were a comedy. It is not. As a matter of fact, this is a brilliantly serious movie that has informed the work of a lot of modern day directors whom you will likely recognize (is that Oliver Stone in the front row?)
   The only thing to watch out for is something apparently unavoidable at present. This fine Italian film is dubbed into English rather than provided English subtitles. The dubs are occasionally entirely inappropriate and the "vocal overacting" really detracts from the otherwise brilliant twists and turns of this movie.
   Oh, and Fernando Rey is in this movie! That should make you want to see it on that basis alone. I will tell you that he plays the Security Minister. I must also tell you that I have no idea whether he is a good guy or bad guy. I have simply decided he is a villain, with no real proof. Maybe I can get a job with the Italian police. After all, the truth may not set you free but it sure does pay well.


Dirty Money

   The last time we saw French actor Alain Delon, he was playing the title sociopath in the movie Scorpio. In that movie his villainy played opposite Burt Lancaster's heroic character. This time out he stars as a cop named Eduard Coleman in the Jean-Pierre Melvin-directed movie Un Flic, or A Cop, or Dirty Money (1972). His villainy in this movie contrasts with Richard Crenna, who plays Simon, the owner of a nightclub that features transvestites and who plans and commits major robberies in his off hours. Simon and Superintendent Coleman share three things: a mutual friendship, an icy nature, and the affections of Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), a woman who must decide which of her two paramours to betray--and when.
   Friendship--or at least relationships--is what this movie is really about. That's a big part of what makes Un Flic so timeless, a fact that not so much speaks well for the movie as it does ill for the time.
Coleman is systematic. He has been doing what he does long enough to be able to do it without a semblance of emotion. His criminal friend, Simon, works out his robberies with cool precision. Melville cues us into the why of this from the first frame: "The only feelings mankind has ever inspired in policemen are those of indifference and derision." That statement, spoken by Superintendent Coleman, is not cynicism. It is philosophy. Indeed, it is the world he lives in and the world he has created. Like any other social disease, his philosophy is contagious. All of his assistants know to leave him alone, other than to hand him the phone when it rings and then get out of the way.
   There is a little more humanity--very little--in Simon's world, mostly because of the spectacular support characterization performed by Michael Conrad, who as Louis Costa, the getaway driver and second in command, evokes more social awareness and superficial decency than all the others combined. He also carries himself--as he always did--with tremendous presence.
   Simon, on the other hand, wears his coolness in an entirely different suit. Whereas Coleman is systematic, Simon is methodical. To that end, if you ever need to employ someone to steal a briefcase full of drugs from a gangster aboard a moving train, Simon is the guy to call. Like Coleman, he fancies himself a realist and when the time comes to croak a member of his own gang to prevent that man from telling what he knows to the police, he has no reservations enlisting Cathy to do the job for him.
Cathy is a strange duck. She seems to be playing both sides against the middle but we don't get any overt explanation for why she does so, although it's possible she hopes that her ultimate betrayal with either land her a bond with the frostiest man on earth or else will shake loose some humanity from one of them.
   Actually, the most human character in the movie is the transvestite, a guy made up so perfectly that for the first half of the film I just assumed he was a woman. I wish I could tell you this character's name or who played him, but it won't come to me.    Anyway, we genuinely care about this person because's she's so obviously in love with Coleman and feels just terrible when the information she shares about a drug deal with Suitcase Matthew goes sour because of the robbery Simon and crew commit. When Coleman roughs her up, it really hurts.
   Everyone conventional here has a job to do. Only the transvestite--being the real outlaw--has any warmth. The other characters are sympathetic only because of their lack of humanity.
   Influence is not nearly as important as contribution. All the same, Melville has been as much a French New Wave influence as Godard and Truffaut. Artistically, he may not quite hold those men's jock straps. Stylistically, he is certainly their equal. Just ask Quentin Tarantino.


The Bad News Bears

   Quick, what two things do all of the following movies have in common? A League of Their Own, Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out, Pride of the Yankees, Bull Durham, Bang the Drum Slowly and The Natural. Answer? They are all excellent baseball movies and none of them are half as good as The Bad News Bears (1976).
    Bill Lancaster wrote the screenplay. He was Burt Lancaster's kid. He claimed he based the Walter Matthau character of Morris Buttermaker on his father. He also claimed he based the Tatum O'Neal character of Amanda on himself.
   Directed by Michael Ritchie (The Candidate), this movie uses the theme of the American pastime as a way of saying something about sportsmanship, about the cost of winning, about the amazing fun of the game, and about affirmative action.
   Beg pardon? Did I say affirmative action? Why, if that were true, then elements of this would be political. Dear. How unseemly.
   Unseemly it is. In The Bad News Bears, we get caught up with a bunch of Southern California misfits of the mid-seventies, meaning an African American, a couple Hispanics, a pair of runts, at least three nerds, a Jew or two, a fat kid, a delinquent, and a girl. Oh, and there's the manager, a grumpy old man with a bit of a problem with his drinking. These kids have nothing in common with one another other than their outsider status in middle class SoCal and their adoration of the game and of one another, although the latter matter gets strained some of the time as Buttermaker yearns to win and forgets what the game is really all about. Meanwhile the local power structure grumbles about a lawsuit that forced the league to form a seventeenth team when sixteen teams were presumably good enough. The problem? The good L.A. suburbanites didn't want to let blacks, Latinos, Jews, girls or delinquents play the game in their league. Presumably the nerds and fatties would exclude themselves. Anyway, a class action suit ensued, the defendants lost, and the team was formed. Director Ritchie doesn't club us over the head with any of these details but neither does he shy away from them.
   By now most of you know the story. The team struggles in the early stages of the season until Buttermaker brings in his old friend, the eleven-year-old Amanda, as well as Kelly the motorcycle rider who smokes and has the reputation as the best athlete in town. The team recovers, makes it all the way from last place to the championship game, and during the last inning, the manager puts in his worst players, all of whom know they aren't very good, but Buttermaker has by this point regained his perspective and knows the game is about everybody having a chance. If this had been some stupid movie, the Bears would have won the championship. They do not. But they celebrate as if they did win. And that's fantastic. Imagine a World Series between the Yankees and The Mets. Let's say the Yankees win the seventh game by two runs. The Mets figure, to hell with that. Let's crack the champagne! Can you imagine the uproar in the "winning" team's clubhouse? Can you imagine how much fun it would be to hang with the "losers"?
Matthau is amazing, far more complex than his typical replay of Oscar Madison. This was only Tatum's second movie and already she moved with the confidence of a veteran. And Vic Morrow as the overwrought manager of the opposing team plays the bad guy with more sensitivity than any "bad guy" I can remember. Oh, and we even get Brandon Cruz of "Courtship of Eddie's Father" fame as Morrow' kid, doing a maneuver in the final game that makes you want to stand and cheer. Then again, the whole movie will have you pounding the table, throwing your hot dogs in the air and laughing like a monkey. This is bliss.


Sometimes a Great Notion

   My immediate knee-jerk reaction was that this was somehow a right wing response to the progressive actions of the latter half of the preceding decade because the major male characters in the film stood against the lumber workers union. That I was wrong just goes to show you where reactive thinking will get you. It wasn't far into Sometimes a Great Notion (1971) that I realized that something else was happening here. Yes, Henry, Hank and Joe Ben Stamper run an independent lumber company that has "contracts to fill, eggs to hatch, cats to kill." They also stand every bit as opposed to the large corporations that are swallowing up the bulk of the industry that has been very good to the Stamper family. But the focus of this Paul Newman-directed gem of a film is not what the Stampers are against but rather what they are for. As Henry (Fonda) Stampers says it, going on is all there is.
     What he means by that amazing statement is that we do what we do. There is a value in getting up in the morning, wolfing down a breakfast that isn't there for taste but for sustenance, booting on your footwear, taking the pick-up out to the forest and swinging that ax. The first step is creation, the second step is confiscation, and the third step is making something that momma can use to wipe the baby's butt. The Stampers play a crucial role in this peculiar triumvirate and just as we are trying to figure out what that role is, along comes the Prodigal Son, Leland (Michael Sarrazin), fresh out of college and with a head full of ideas that are driving him insane, not to mention a head full of hair. "It grows," he explains.
   For my money, the most fascinating character in the movie is Joe Ben (Richard Jaeckel), far and away the most good-natured human being ever to stroll across this mortal coil. He may not recognize his half-brother Leland when the latter returns home, but he loves him all the same and treats him with none of the routine family criticism that half-brother Hank and father Henry do. Even when the world's largest log pins Joe Ben under water and it looks as if he's doomed, the brother just keeps on laughing, saying how daddy Henry would freak out if he saw Hank giving him mouth to mouth resuscitation.
    The scenes with the men on the job are among the most amazing and disturbing you're likely to witness. I say amazing because the majesty of the trees the Stampers cut down dwarf the independence of the hard-working family. I say disturbing because we kind of hate it that these glorious staffs reaching up to God get knocked down by mere human beings. As director, Newman doesn't beat us over the head with this dichotomy. He presents it and allows it to take our breaths away without cheap commentary.
   Speaking of Newman, his acting here is a match for his directorial skills and vice versa. Indeed, beneath both hats he gives new meaning to the notion of "understated." And that's appropriate because the wild roughness of the daily lives of this family would have been tarnished with melodramatic editorializing.
    None of this should indicate that Sometimes a Great Notion is a perfect movie. It is not. The women exist largely as tabula rasa. Viv Stamper (Lee Remick) is there only to make us wonder what the hell she might be thinking. The other women characters are even less defined and while I suspect that novelist Ken Kesey and director Newman might have argued that the women's transparency was a reflection of the reality of this story, I don't buy it. Women in a working family contribute a lot more than just scenery and dreams of what might have been. "Don't go out," Viv says to Hank. "Let's get going," counters daddy Henry. There's never a doubt as to who will win that argument.
   The biggest problem with the movie, however, is one of counter-motivation. We never get much of an idea as to why the union men are striking--only that doing so has crippled the town's economy. If we'd had a sense as to their reason for holding back--other than to make payments on a Chevrolet--the sense of tragedy that subtly erupts as a result of the Stampers refusal would have been more emotionally powerful. What we get instead is Willard, the town movie theater owner, telling Hank that if the Stampers don't join the strike that he will kill himself. "Good luck," replies Hank. Horrified, Willard demands an explanation. Hank, confused by this, replies that he couldn't think of anything more appropriate to say. It's better than bon voyage, he reckons.



Billy Jack
    Here is how I began an article about the use of art as propaganda. I started writing the article ten years ago and published it sometime last year.

    In 1971 a group of film students wrote, directed, produced and acted in a movie called Billy Jack. The film, which starred Tom Laughlin and Dolores Taylor, was dependent for approval first upon the pre-existing politics of the viewer and second upon that viewer's decision about the acceptable means of achieving political change. Naive and simplistic, Billy Jack was also brash, daring, and quite accurate in its message that pacifists exist at the mercy of emotional heathens. And emotional heathens have a history of being unmerciful.


Billy: You worked with King. Where is he?
Jean: Dead.
Billy: And where are Jack and Bobby Kennedy?
Jean: Dead.
Billy: Not dead. They had their brains blown out.
     The significance of this movie should not be underestimated. Not many films released in the USA have suggested that the Allies lost World War II or that the government's government is none too benignly fascist or that it is not only appropriate but even urgent to defend the country against that government. The film makes the choices simple. The man v. man conflicts are (a) oppressed native Americans versus reactionary WASPs, (b) communal dwellers versus urban despot, (c) youth versus aged, (d) poor versus rich, (e) free versus neurotic, and (f) good versus evil. At the time, those who enjoyed the film saw it as an inspirational work that gave hope to those opposed to the status quo. Today, such a film would be considered inspired propaganda, even by those who agree with its central themes, just as today such once revolutionary philosophies have been co-opted and perverted by right wing separatists who find safe havens in Idaho and Montana.
    While I stand by every word of that, I feel the need to add a few items and one of the perks of this blog (perks for me, at any rate) is that I can add or subtract at my leisure, all in the pursuit of providing you, Constant Reader, with the best I have to offer.
I never got around to mentioning in all twenty-thousand words of that article [Shooting Oswald] why the writer, director and star of that film, Tom Laughlin, deserves to be held in the high esteem that he is among those of us--mostly those of us of a certain age, admittedly--who credit the man with shaking us up in that most sacred of temples, the movie theater. There we were, sitting in our respective sanctuaries, glued to our seats as we watched the character of Billy Jack suggest to us that our own programming was a bunch of shit. You see, we had been led to believe that we pretty much had to take it: the war in Southeast Asia, the deaths at Kent State, the corruption of our political system, the inherent contradictions of our economic system, the abuse of our children, race hate, greed, on so on. Certainly some riots had exploded and not all those explosions had been peaceful. But for the most part we had convinced ourselves that we didn't fight back. Well, the character Billy Jack fought back. The difference was that he didn't take a stand for himself. He took a stand for others, specifically for the kids at "The Freedom School." He was not going to stand passively/pacifistic-ally by and let Jean and the children be abused.
    Even though smart critics such as Roger Ebert (who actually had many good things to say about Billy Jack) raised the point that the film forced viewers to choose between "bad fascists and good fascists), that argument is mostly ridiculous, at least as far as film criticism is concerned. The choice is a hard political reality within the world constructed in that film and to the extent that the film reconstructed the world outside the theater. "It's a little one-sided," says one of the councilmen in the movie, giving his reaction to a skit put on during the film. Howard Hesseman, as one of the players, responds that "Kids see things one-sided." He's correct. The difference is that here the kids point of view is given voice, and by "kid" I mean children, women, Native Americans, and anybody else who has less power than the mayor of your town.
Tom Laughlin may or may not make a long-awaited sequel as part of his Billy Jack franchise (the other movies being The Born Losers, The Trial of Billy Jack and the unreleased Billy Jack Goes to Washington). His health is a possible factor and, let's face it, the role of politics in the movie industry is just as real today as ever, and there's even the suggestion that Laughlin's occasional vitriol against the motion picture industry has done nothing to endear him to certain investors. Still, Billy Jack and Jean, if it is released, stands a good chance of being the life-changer that it's namesake was so many years ago. Either way, we owe a debt of thanks to Tom--and to his wife Delores Taylor (since 1954!)--for showing us one way to stay strong against the emotional as well as psychic erosion of our morality.

Dodes'Ka-Den
    Akira Kurosawa grew so depressed at the commercial and critical failure of his 1970 film Dodes'ka-den that he slit himself thirty times with a razor. The movie is nothing to kill yourself over. On the contrary, the colors of this motion picture--the first color picture the director ever made--make life more than worth living. Of course, colors come in all kinds of hues and Kurosawa colors his garbage dump with some fascinating characters: a businessman with terrible tic and a wife thin on manners but who stands by her husband; a mentally challenged boy who drives an imaginary trolley car; a man and his son who build a mansion out of their own imaginations; a despondent old man who looks like he could kick the shit if he had half a mind; another old man wise beyond his many years; a pair of drunks who aggravate their wives so much that the two women swap husbands; and none of these or any of the other characters in this beautiful film let their stories get in the way of the plot, an element that is nonexistent here and rightly so. Ultimately the movie is about adaptation and forgiveness. You cannot earn one without enduring the other.
    Filmed and printed in 35 mm, Dodes'ka-den uses light and separation techniques so advanced at the time that other filmmakers still have not caught up. High Definition, Blue-Ray, (chuckle) 3-D: these are for fools. However Kurosawa did it (I know a little about lighting and I have no clue how the director pulled this off), the real beauty is in how we come to care for these fascinating and deprived people. Even a despicable and drunken "uncle" who does something pretty rotten gains our sympathy, if not quite our compassion.
    The comic elements to the movie are real and touching, as when the kid who drives the invisible trolley nearly runs over a painter and his easel or when the same boy prays that Buddha will make his mother smarter. There is also real tragedy here: a starving boy contracts diarrhea, a raped and pregnant girl murders her only ally, a man objects when his genuinely abusive wife is criticized by his friends. Throughout the movie, the director slaps us in the face with the colors and figure definitions that insist that both the joys and travails of a ghetto life are every bit as real as the people staggering through them.

Panic in Needle Park
    A decade ago everyone who meandered through my life over a fourteen-month period lived on painkillers: Vicodin, oxycodone, morphine, Darvocet, Tramadol, you name it. Unable to sleep, they would load up on benzo jellies or anything in the lam or pam family. In the morning they'd do a line of soda or some crushed up psych meds and repeat the waltz. Christ, what an awful way to live, I thought. And I was right. The Panic in Needle Park (1971) shows us pain. Admittedly, if heroin wasn't fun, no one would ever do it. I have been told it is the psycho-physical equivalent of napalming yourself. I guess napalm must be fun, too, or no one would ever have used it. 
    A lot of people take painkillers even now. I prefer to think of these things as "painkillers" rather than referring to them by their clinical or street names because I think it's important to remember that the reason people take them is to alleviate pain. Sometimes that pain manifests in a physiological manner. Sometimes the pain shows itself to be neurological. It really doesn't matter, I suppose, because if you are the person suffering then you want it to stop. When it turns out the pain not only goes away but is replaced by a decided sense of pleasure, well, it can be asking a lot to encourage someone to resist it.
    In Panic, director Jerry Schatzberg gives us no particular list of reasons why these characters--Bobby, Helen, Chico, Irene, and others--have taken on the lives of junkies. Because Bobby (played in pure beauty by Al Pacino) has a burglar brother, the suggestion seems to be that it runs in families, or maybe it's just something white people do to try to identify with African-Americans. The Joan Didion script comes off just that disengaged, although Pacino and the late Kiel Martin (as Chico) do appear to be having the times of their lives, at least until the addictions become overly pricey and the greed of the fix takes hold. It's at that point that the struggling artist Helen, portrayed by Kitty Winn (who regular viewers of anything 1970s-oriented will recognize from being under-utilized in all manner of work, despite her winning the Cannes festival for her role here), turns to prostitution to feed her habit, just as Bobby turns to making big scores that will free the two of them from this rotten existence, except that it never quite does, it never quite does. The cop keeps telling Helen that she will sooner or later rat out her boyfriend because that is what junkies do and we see it coming and the real shame is that neither the screenwriter nor director give us any real reason to care. Only the acting saves this film--well, that and a very brief appearance by Paul Sorvino, which is worth watching for.
    But the movie does bring up an interesting point. I mean, does everybody eventually rat out their friends and do the friends learn to take that abuse in stride? This movie screams that the drugs ear us down so far that even a betrayal that lands a lover in stir for six months--that is, if the lover in turn rats out the person above him on the dope ladder--is just business as usual, perhaps not a welcome behavior but certainly not an unforgivable offense, either.
With so much emphasis on the techniques of shooting up, fading out, nodding off and stringing along, none of which have any glamour whatsoever, The Panic in Needle Park loses whatever good will it may have hoped to garner. If the subject is important enough to warrant this very serious film, then aren't the people affected by it--or their on-screen representatives--worth developing as individuals? The only thing we see are people helping one another score, or a woman freaking out because Bobby almost dies from an overdose while she's expecting company, or just how debased life is here in New York City.
    My first thought about a soundtrack that this film could have sorely used might have included the Velvet Underground's "Heroin." That my memory reconnected that in this day of merging time zones and infinity of perception, a better mix would be The Brains' original "Money Changes Everything," especially with its lines: "And you say, well who can you trust? I'll tell you it's just no one else's money."


Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why is EVerybody Talkin' About Him)?

    Harry Nilsson wheeled his way in and out of life with such tender rapidity it's a wonder his poor body and soul withstood things as long as they did. With a voice that echoed as much Tin Pan Alley as Abbey Road, this insecure man lulled us out of our somnambulism with many a fine tune, the first big one being the Fred Neil-penned "Everybody's Talkin'," the hit from the filmMidnight Cowboy, a song that beat out both Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell because of its appropriateness for the movie as well as stark, simple skill at capturing a sentiment beneath the mouth of a jar and kissing it through the glass.
    The movie Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? was released a couple years back and one of the downright dirty shames of this new thing called the twenty-first century is that it didn't sell more tickets than it did, as if Harry was just some flash in the grease who didn't warrant an entire documentary film about him, an idea I for one reject because (a) I've always loved his songs, and (b) because making a documentary this good is something one does not have the ability to do just every day. For one person the point of reference may be that he wrote the song "One," a huge hit for something called Three Dog Night. For another person it may be his album of songs written by Randy Newman. For most people it is probably the thoroughly enjoyable Nilsson Schmilsson record, an album from which no less than three Top Forty singles were culled, an album produced by Richard "The Lion-Hearted" Perry, when the singer's voice was at or near the top of its incredible precipice of talent. Whether one loved the Number One smash "Without You" (written by two guys from Badfinger, whose own version was great but still not as great as Harry's), or the silly and brilliant "Coconut," or the not-as-simple-as-it-seems rocker "Jump into the Fire," Nilsson Schmilsson had a little something for no one and a lot of something for everyone else.
    As a kid back in the times when being a kid counted for something, my own first exposure to the man came from hearing him sing the theme from the mediocre TV show "The Courtship of Eddie's Father." Mere days later I was treated to the soundtrack from a kid's animated film called The Point, to this day one of the most enlightened exercises a kid can encounter, and I grooved in total sullen silliness first to "Me and My Arrow" and then to the rest of the album.
    No one had ever sung quite like that before. It sounded like what you might get if you'd crossed Paul McCartney with Frank Sinatra and put the voice in the throat of playwright Arthur Miller.
    John Scheinfeld has been making good documentaries since the early 1990s (The Unknown Marx Brothers, The Unknown Peter Sellers, The U.S. vs. John Lennon). Now he has made a great one. Who is Harry Nilsson? takes you by the lapels from the instant Dustin Hoffman walks out on the stage to make the announcement of the passing of this human being and continues to shake you until we get to the L.A. earthquake that occurred the day of Nilsson's funeral. Memories are shared by Micky Dolenz, Van Dyke Parks, Brian Wilson, Richard Perry, Eric Idle, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Harry's wives and kids, The Smothers Brothers, Robin Williams, and throngs more, and even if the name of this singer-songwriter means absolutely nothing to you, I would still encourage you to see this movie if for no other reason than to get some sense as to how artistically successful a music documentary can be when the subject is not necessarily a household name, however much it should be. For those with only a passing familiarity, you will be dipped in the lifetime of a man whose music you will find will add cosmic joys and sorrows to your days and nights, and to those of you who, like myself, waited in record stores for the release of the next product (Pussycats, for instance, with Lennon producing, or a song that should've been a hit and couldn't have been, such as "Jesus Christ You're Tall"), this movie may actually bring you to the edge of despair over just how much was lost that stupid day in January 1994 when we lost a great American hero.


This Film is Not Yet Rated
    The Motion Picture Association of America has had a ratings system in place since 1966. Back then the ratings were G, M, R and X, with the M being the precursor to the PG and R actually having the age 16 as the cut-off point.This Film is Not Yet Rated, the 2006 documentary by Kirby Dick, objects to the rating systems on grounds of censorship, homophobia, ambiguity, and favoritism against independents and in support of the majors. Anyone predisposed to view this movie would be inclined to agree with the director's point of view, except for the members of the Ratings Board themselves, the folks who gave this movie an NC-17 rating, they claimed, due to sexual content and certainly not because the movie actually releases the heretofore secret names of members of the Ratings Board and Appeals Board. Because Dick's inventiveness in the tact taken in this film is quite clever and ironic and because his anti-censorship attitude bodes well with those who favor this kind of thing (and I will include myself in this group, just as you probably include yourself), it pains me a lot that I am personally compelled to point out that Kirby either disingenuously or for some other reason ignores the uses to which the censorship ratings have allowed the studios to release films that were certain to make money specifically because of these ratings.
   Granted, traditionally an X or NC-17 rating has been a dead knell for a motion picture. This is no longer the case and it was not the case for any significant period of time, at least as long as the purpose of the objectionable material was prurient rather than artistic. So, for example, a piece of unmitigated detritus such as Showgirls, which bombed at the box, ends up (pardon the expression) being one of MGM's bestselling movies on DVD. You have likely noticed that the studios actually plan releases based to some extent on ratings. If it is Christmastime, most new movies will have a rating of G, PG, or PG-13 because the kiddie market is out of school and into the theaters. The same thing goes in the summertime. The spring and fall are the big seasons for R-rated pictures because, presumably, that is when the grown-ups are out and about and looking for some excitement.
    I am not minimizing the impact the idiotic ratings system has on the commercial viability of a film. A lot of great or at least good movies have been originally burdened with NC-17 to their own detriment because most major theater chains won't run the movies which means the studios won't fight for them or allocate movie to promote them, all of which means that the people involved in making the films suffer a kind of contemporary blacklisting unless they can be persuaded to re-cut the film to arbitrary specifications. The extent to which the MPAA serves as arbiters of public morality for a film industry not particularly well-celebrated for its dealings with either the public or morality is one that deserves a film as fine as this. However, to ignore the conservative uses of the liberal reform (the MPAA is indeed the definition of liberalism) instead of spending time focusing on the not-too-interesting aspects of hiring private investigators to locate and identify the board members is one damned shame too many.
    This Movie is Not Yet Rated, ironically, does not go far enough.
    All the same, it is good to meet some of the people affected by the rating system, a list that includes Kimberly Peirce, Jon Lewis, Wayne Kramer and John Waters. The personal anecdotes go a long way toward making the director's point that male homosexuality, for instance, makes the MPAA quite uncomfortable, especially when filmed by an independent studio, or that missionary or girl on top are often the only acceptable heterosexual positions and that anything else is perceived as pornographic, particularly if pubic hair belonging to someone other than Sharon Stone is shown. Certain other aspects of the ratings which I will not give away here--because you really should see this film and about that I want to be quite clear--reinforce the hypocrisy of the entire system.
    The other problem, aside from ignoring the uses to which hard-R's, X's and NC-17's have been used to increase revenues, is the limited time spent comparing violence to sex. Most astute film-goers have observed that changes in MPAA mores regarding violence have "evolved" more rapidly than the norms regarding sexuality. Kirby Dick spends a little time on this but doesn't quite get to the point of why this might be. Maybe that's another movie.
    All in all, This Film works well if you happen to be a product of the MTV generation that has few clues as to the historical context into which contemporary censorship falls. For the rest of us, it's a nice refresher course.


The Coca-Cola Kid
     When you think of Australia, what comes to mind? Fosters beer? Kangaroos? Tiny bears with claws? Mel "Mad Max" Gibson? Steve Irwin? Crocodile Dundee? The Outback Steakhouse?
Here in Anderson Valley, we think about Coca-Cola. The time was when this old coot named T. George McDowell brewed his own cola right over yonder. Yep, it was the only place in all of Australia where those Marines from Atlanta had yet to penetrate with their red and white delivery trucks. That soda came out here in all kinds of different flavors. Every bottle bore the resemblance of T. George himself. That was fine with us. After all, he owned the town. He was like a little version of Henry Ford. Well, you know, if Henry Ford had been in the cola business. Or if he'd been Australian.
   So one day sometime in the summer of 1985, things changed. Yep, this guy named Becker came to Sidney, looking for trouble. He was from the Coca-Cola corporate offices, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. He said he wanted to save the day. The boys in Sidney didn't know what the hell to think. Frank, the man in charge in the Sidney office, he says to Becker, "I like a man who arrives before his papers." Becker says to fire the projectionist wearing the Pepsi t-shirt. So you see right off what kind of a guy this Becker was. Shoot, the valets at the hotel all thought he was with the CIA.
He put his sites right on Anderson Valley. Since 1915 old T. George had been making his own cola. He didn't want that Coke boy sniffing around these parts here. He sent the Lone Ranger to chase him off. Becker dragged the Ranger home by the back of his jeep. That was kind of what we called impressive. T. George took him on a tour of his facility. Nice place, Becker admits. 15,000 bottles a month, boasts T. George.
   Now what was nice about this situation was that T. George, he wasn't anybody's idea of a saint. Oh, hell no, he wasn't. And the Coca-Cola Kid, he kind of represented everything us locals hated about the Yanks. You know, he was brash, impatient, too focused and just plain mesmerized by himself. He was the kind of guy you just knew stood in front of one of those full-length mirrors, digging himself. But T. George, as I say, was no angel. Hell, he'd married a Yank way back when, brought her to Anderson Valley, which she never quite took to, you see. Fact is she killed herself, but not before giving birth to Terri, the hot little number in this here story. Terri was divorced from some vodka-making degenerate. They had a cute little girl together. Terri was secretly involved with this guy from the band Crowded House, guy name of Tim Finn. Tim went on to write and perform a Coca-Cola commercial jingle that was the catchiest damned thing you ever heard. I think it was called "Got You by the Throat." It definitely had that "Australian sound" that Becker kept yammering about. "Is that the sound you were looking for, Mr. Becker?" asked Tim Finn. "Why, I don't know, Philip," replied Becker, calling Tim by a different name. "You tell me." I'll tell you. It was a fine tune. You won't forget it soon, either.
    The cool thing is that this war that broke out between Becker and T. George didn't have any automatic heroes. The truth is that there were those of us who thought maybe Terri egged on that war as a way of getting Becker and her father to destroy themselves, what with all of her real guy friends being gay and all. Terri's motivation is the real mystery. Was she a flake? Was she a shrew? All I ever knew was that people said she looked good on a bed of feathers against a black Australian sky, the moonlight shining through that dark hair of hers.
The battle itself struck us all as kinda weird, too. You had the Coke armies all decked out like Santa Claus. You had the Local Soda damsels dressed like St. Paulie girls and shaking poms. I'd call the thing surreal if I only knew the meaning of the word.
   But getting back to cases of cola, the intriguing thing about Becker and T. George was that both of them was basically not instantly recognized as being lovable. Like if you was to cast Becker in a movie, you'd make Eric Roberts play him. As for T. George McDowell, you'd find some old guy who looked like the pappy of Grizzly Adams, except kind of scrawny and kind of smart.
    I decline to reveal what happened here in Anderson Valley. I won't say what happened to Becker, either. I will tell you that both he and T. George are out of the soda business.
    Probably if they ever do make a movie about this, some people would call it a romantic comedy. But I'll bet you there'll be some smart Alec guy who reads some deeper meanings into it. Who knows? Those deeper meanings might even be legitimate.
Here are a couple other things you should know. The movie, if there ever was one, would be based on a string of short stories by a writer named Frank Moorhouse. The collection would be called The Americans, Baby. It would be cool if Eric Roberts was reading that book in the actual movie. It would also be kind of nice if nobody associated with the film bothered to get Coke's permission to mention their products, show their beverages, or display their signs. Coke probably would mistake the movie as being pro-Coca-Cola when in fact the politics of the matter would be nonexistent.


Incident at Oglala
   During the winter of 1972-73, hundreds of Oglala Sioux commemorated the massacre at Wounded Knee by staging the second siege at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Adding to the pre-existing militancy of the Oglala Sioux was the behavior of a tribal leader picked for them by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This leader, Dick Wilson, was a law and order enthusiast who was determined to keep the peace no matter who got hurt. Into this political fray marched the American Indian Movement, the members of which had a few years earlier led an occupation of the island of Alcatraz and in 1972 had initiated the takeover of the BIA offices in Washington. At Pine Ridge, the Oglala Sioux invited AIM to join them.
   In retaliation, the FBI, federal marshals, state troopers, BIA police, and the U.S. military occupied the reservation, demanding that AIM surrender. The Native Americans responded that they wanted public hearings on the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, a probe of the BIA, and criminal indictments brought against Wilson. The Nixon government made a counter offer: the freedom fighters at Pine Ridge could lay down their weapons and surrender and nobody would get hurt. When this proved unacceptable, Nixon ordered his troops to withdraw, knowing that without confrontation, the media would soon depart.
    Leonard Peltier, in 1977, was improperly and inexcusably convicted of the shooting deaths of two FBI agents, Ronald Williams and Jack Coler. 
Peltier is not a saint, at least not yet. That is only because he is still alive, despite the United States government's best attempts in securing his ruination. He was extradited from Canada with perjured affidavits. Witnesses were bought and intimidated into testifying against him, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations has mounted an unending campaign to coerce a number of U.S. presidents into denying him clemency.
   Okay. With that out of the way, we enter the 1992 documentary film Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story, a movie in part financed and certainly narrated by Robert Redford. You know that when Bob comes to the defense of someone, that someone has to be a deserving sort of guy. I'm being sarcastic, but in this case, Redford's support could hardly hurt matters.
   Except--
   The most persuasive parts of this documentary come from Peltier himself during prison interviews and from attorney William Kunstler, regrettably deceased.
    If someone wanted to make a persuasive case for Leonard's release--which most recently was scheduled for 2040; his next parole hearing doesn't come around until 2024--it might be good to place the incidents occurring between 1972 and 1977 in something of an historic context and then argue that even if Leonard did shoot the two agents--which no one can reasonably concede at this point, but we're just supposing here--then a fine defense of that action would be the one that was offered for the original two defendants in this investigation, Robert Ribideau and Dino Butler, that being the defense of self-protection. Peltier has admitted that he returned fire at the two agents, although he maintains that he was not responsible for the close-range head shots that actually killed the two men.
Was Nat Turner a murderer? Was John Brown? Or were they men who saw and felt the institutionalized hatred and racism against a holy people and decided to become instruments in the hands of God? If the latter, that kind of deeply held belief is one reason I'm an agnostic. But I believe Turner and Brown believed it.
    Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story is a story that deserves, at a minimum, an updating, one that places the events stipulated by both prosecution and defense into an accurate historical context. The Redford project is not that movie for the same reason that any number of documentaries have tried and failed: it does not aim high enough. It is much easier to admire a cinematic failure for being too ambitious than for not being ambitious enough.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
   Most motion pictures that involve extended dreams are not particularly entertaining. In fact, many are quite annoying. I can think of only three that ring true: The Wizard of Oz, 3 Women, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. This last film, directed by Luis Bunuel, is a true gem, easily on a par with the other two. Six middle-class twits try to eat a meal. That's the entire premise. The emphasis, of course, is on the word try. If Freud was correct about dreams being in part wish-fulfillment, then this is the movie that makes his point for him, as long as you are willing to concede that wishes are devised to be frustrated. The Discreet Charm posits three couples who haven't one scruple among them, each trying to give into various urges, whether making love with a friend's wife, killing one's father, mating with one's mother, or getting a decent leg of lamb in these days of violent insurrections. 
For years writers wrote and speakers spoke about the influences upon the first cast of the creators and performers of the TV show "Saturday Night Live." Much appropriate credit was given to The Bonzo Dog Band, Monty Python's Flying Circus, and Second City, but anyone who enjoyed the interactions of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd will instantly recognize the inspiration this Bunuel picture imbued their comedy with, if you'll pardon my ending the clause with a preposition. The influence may not be direct and it may not have been conscious. It is nonetheless real.
   And that is a very good thing because this is the type of comedy that has very much been missing in contemporary society. One of the disappointing aspects to much of modern humor is the way it has (a) shifted much of its focus from satirizing hypocrisy into ridiculing the weakest members of society, and (b) it's attempts at substituting mimicry for wit. Impressions of Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney do nothing to point up the absurdity of their pronouncements. The world views of these and other current leaders remain as pliable and easy to purchase as were those of three generations ago. The Discreet Charm is timeless. It is timeless because of its emphasis on the reality of dream content, even to the extent of having one character's dream pop up in that of another character, or of a group of hungry diners finding themselves together on a theater stage being served a meal they will never finish, or a young man who interrupts three women at a cafe that only serves water, the young man having the temerity to interrupt the trio to tell them about a dream he has had, a dream the three women are quite happy to hear out.
    The imaginative elements of this movie are sufficient to have earned the Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture of 1972. Taking matters gloriously farther, the visual elements radiate in the mind long after the final credits, especially the recurring vision of the six primary members of the stable class strolling down the highway on foot, intent on going nowhere.

John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band
   How easy it remains to mock the things that hurt us the most.
   John Lennon Plastic Ono Band remains one of those recordings that is so easy to forget because the feelings it evokes get pushed back into the crevices of our awareness, the tender, quivering spots on our brains where all the pain and fear hide. Then one day we are sitting alone at a computer, or television, or book, and from an open window come the death knell bells of "Mother." Never was so simple a song done with such naked conviction, such artful agony, that all these years later we can rediscover ourselves crying along as we marvel at the reach of that vocal, twitch at the repeating edge of the piano notes, moan at the pulse at the bass as it bleeds onto our desk.
    A child is born, he cries out at the pain of birth, and he notices in his total awareness that he has been abandoned. "Mother, you had me, but I never had you." Then "Father, you left me, but I never left you." And the revelation: "I couldn't walk and I tried to run."
    With that song the dream that was The Beatles began to dissolve. By the time of the low-fidelity "My Mummy's Dead," the dream retains nothing but the force of exhaustion. The fade out of the guitar suggesting that you have been somewhere with this singer, somewhere important, wonder where, who is this man who sings for my nightmares?
   Plastic Ono Band is an album. It is not a movie. Someone at VH-1 decided it would make a nice fifty-three minutes for one of their "Classic Album" segments. That person was correct.
    If the subject of this album matters to you, chances are good that nothing "revealed" by the biopic will be informational. Of course, that is also true of the recording itself, yet some of us return to that time and again. And so this very gentle short film is well worth seeing once, twice, however many times, not because it aids in our unending collecting of post-Beatles trivializations but quite properly because it helps break down the emotional equivalents for us in ways that only people who were there at the time have the capacity to do.
One of the most annoying aspects of any type of look back is always some teenage expert rambling on about what Duane Allman was really like or how Cobain understood Schubert or some such nonsense. This film features the people who were there, those who, if not directly responsible, certainly played a role in getting it together, be it Jaan Wenner recalling from his "Lennon Remembers" interviews (which are sampled liberally here), or bassist Klaus Voorman plucking out musical lines as if he'd developed them day before yesterday rather than back in 1970, or Ringo Starr, who is actually quite loquacious here, even discussing intelligently about drum fills and about his friendship with John.
    As I mentioned at the outset, anything as honest as this album sets itself up for some nasty satire. The National Lampoon did one hell of a funny version of this album all in one song.

   In order for anything this savage to retain its humor, you can bet the original has to be real art and that is absolutely correct. I have two parrots, Gilligan and Blue, both of whom go completely insane every time any of the songs from Plastic come on. They don't give a shit about Madonna or Britney or anybody else, but put the needle to the record by Lennon and the bastards call out as if their tails were on fire.
   So, yes, you should watch this fine movie because it will motivate you to glorify the present so that the past does not dry up, to toy with a Bono-ism. Quite contrary to the idea that the past is dead, this film helps us realize the past is no more than one or two breaths back in the memory, breaths to which we owe the future.

The Ruling Class
    Because that despicable Andrew Breitbart is finally dead, I thought this would be an appropriate time to talk about Milton Rokeach. I imagine that everyone has their own personal favorite psychologist. For some folks it's Freud or Jung, Adler or Reich, Milgram or Zimbardo. For me it's always been Milton Rokeach. I'll tell you why.
My belief is that anything that reveals to us information about the truth of our specific natures is a good thing, even if we are not necessarily ready to accept it. We have defense mechanisms aplenty to protect us from awful realities and when those machines malfunction or become overloaded, we get sick. We may suffer from any of the maladies listed in the DSM-IV or V and in all likelihood won't get better until we're good and ready. As most shrinks know, forty percent of the time people get better regardless of the method of treatment, so most of the research ends up existing for its own sake, which is perfectly fine by me. I like knowing things and unless we get into the type of concentration camp experiments popularized by Nazis and NASA, then I see nothing wrong in manipulating circumstances if doing so shows people something useful about their own true nature. When Stanley Milgram showed that the majority of people prefer to follow orders even when those orders presumably violate their own belief systems, I felt that it was good that people come to recognize that about themselves and if some of them couldn't bear to see things the way they were, then take a grown-up pill and adjust. I feel exactly the same way about the Zimbardo experiment where the "guards" discovered what their role did to them once they came into contact with the "prisoners."
    And that brings us to Rokeach. In the late 1950s he brought together three men, each of whom believed himself to be Jesus Christ. Figuring that their understanding of Themselves would require Them to admit that three people cannot inhabit the same exact space, he brought Them all together at the Ypsilanti State Hospital. His expectation was that They would realize that someone among Them had to be wrong and further that the odds were that the wrong person would be the individual having this cognition.
    To no one's surprise except that of Rokeach, nothing of the sort transpired for Leon, Joseph and Clyde.
    In the 1984 edition of his book, Rokeach wrote: "I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives."
    Perhaps not. But that was not actually what he was doing. What he was doing, consciously or otherwise, was showing all of us to one another and more importantly to ourselves. Let me give you another example that may make things clearer. I used to know a guy named Chris who told everyone that he had been with the CIA. This is a fairly common delusion among psychiatric patients and in Chris's case the theory was that he had developed this delusion to explain away the self-inflicted gun shot wound to his face. Now, Chris had to know on some intellectual level that he could not really have been a CIA agent, if for no other reason than that being one would preclude him from discussing that fact. Rather than attempting to disabuse him of this belief and rather than to humor this delusion with condescending remarks, I chose to interact with him as I saw him rather than as he saw himself. I saw him as a bright young man who had been temporarily bent beneath the weight of some pretty horrible experiences but who was getting stronger and perhaps as someone who would come to value things outside himself once again.
    Today Chris owns his own landscaping business, has a girlfriend, and drives a Subaru.
    He still harbors the belief that he used to be a secret agent. He recognizes that the rest of us are unwilling to take his word for this and so he does not make much mention of it.
    There is probably a reason why certain people with schizophrenia adopt the persona of Christ or CIA agents or Napoleon. I suspect it is the same reason that motivates some people who believe in past lives to think they were Cleopatra or Marc Anthony rather than the guy who milked the donkeys. If someone doesn't respect himself, the least he can do is trade up. If one simply must be delusional, one might as well go for the glory.
In the motion picture The Ruling Class, Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney (the 14th Earl of Gurney), played by Peter O'Toole, believes himself to be Jesus Christ, the God of the New Testament, the God of Love. His father, a member of the House of Lords, commits suicide in a particularly embarrassing manner and the rite of esteem falls to Jack, a man who is actually quite good at being JC, as he prefers to be called. About midway into this funny and disturbing film, the psychiatrist in charge of Jack's recovery introduces him to a man suffering the delusion of believing himself to be the Old Testament God. Whenever Jack's self-perceptions are challenged, he reverts to crawling up onto the living room cross. The Old Testament God won't let him get away with that.
This is a fascinating movie for at least one hundred reasons and I have only touched upon the identity crisis. Anyone made uncomfortable by Luis Bunuel's depiction of the upper middle class in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie will become positively apoplectic with the brilliant script by Peter Barnes (taken from his stage play) and even though director Peter Medak is not as adept as he would later become (his most recent work includes episodes of "Breaking Bad" and "Cold Case"), his skills are more than sufficient to get the job done here. The real force of this film, after all, is the script and the talent of the actors, particularly O'Toole, who reportedly got quite bombed with the writer and demanded that the play become a film.
Audience manipulation gets its own fair share of exposure in The Ruling Class. Barnes isn't quite Terry Southern here, and Medak isn't Stanley Kubrick, but whenever Jack's delusion gets challenged, the audience cringes just a bit, in part because of his character's frailty, but in larger part because compared to the rest of his family, Jack is quite a good guy. Advocating love above all else, Jack is direct while the others are sly, he is open where they are deceitful, and he is loving (at least self-loving) where they are greedy beyond repair.
After seeing this movie, you may still not love Milton Rokeach, who after all was not an Englishman and therefore warrants some suspicion, at least according to this movie. However, you will love O'Toole even more than you already do. You may also discover something about yourself, as I did, when you evaluate your feelings about what ultimately happens to certain members of the family that attempts to manipulate Jack.
   What has any of this to do with Andrew Breitbart? Well, for one thing, he thought himself a good man and in reality he was as evil as Jack the Ripper.


The Executioner's Song
   Here is a little secret that filmmakers know: Every movie contains a moral center. The moral center is the person or thing to whom the audience looks for the established and proper psychological response to what is happening. In an essentially simple police drama, for instance, the officer of the law represents the moral center while the unrepentant criminal gives the moral center something to be offended by. In slightly more complex configurations, the criminal may indeed be the moral center, as in The Story of Robin Hood, where it is the Sheriff of Nottingham, the keeper of order, who portrays evil while Robin Hood, the thief, is the person we look to for reassurance. Far more complex is the use of the anti-hero, as one finds in the character of Alex in A Clockwork Orange, where the hoodlum narrates the tale and posits his behavior as morally superior to those of the manipulative society at large. A similar device is used by Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers, where the serial killers Mickey and Mallory Knox are ultimately shown to be better than the society that celebrates their criminality. On some occasions, the moral center is simply ridiculous, or may be satirized, or may only be developed throughout the motion picture. Tragedies, comedies, historical works, even documentaries utilize this moral center. Sometimes the camera itself should be credited with the role.
    In the important movie The Executioner's Song (1982), Christine Lahti works her brains out to be that moral center for us. As Brenda Nicol, a cousin to the man who would reverse ten years of societal abstinence from the horrors of capital punishment in the United States, Lahti strains with every scene to be that thing that producer-director Lawrence Schiller tries valiantly to resist: giving this film the energy to lift itself up out of the gutter. Tommy Lee Jones, as convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, does his damnedest to foil the core--that is, after all, his job. He does not in any way disappoint. A mere two years after appearing as Doolittle in Coal Miner's Daughter, Jones recreated himself with a conviction, so to speak, that would have taken lesser men lifetimes to master.
     Jones avoids going for cheap sentiment. We feel no particular sympathy for Gilmore and that's appropriate. We feel no particular sympathy for his two murder victims and--depending on where the film leads--that might get away with being appropriate. So let's turn to Gilmore's acquaintances. Surely there will be some sympathy worked out there. We meet the frequently naked and fascinating Rosanna Arquette, who plays the love interest, a nineteen year-old confusion case stacked against Gilmore's naive misanthropy. But, no, she doesn't give us any moral compunctions one way or the other, one minute loving the killer and the next schtupping guys while he rots in jail. Even when she tries to kill herself so that she may join Gary in the afterlife--at Gilmore's urging--we feel an exhausted sense of pity, but not a flicker of sympathy.
    Okay, then it must be Eli Wallach, that lovable and totally dependable old stand-by who plays Uncle Vern. Surely his world view will give us something to grip! Nope. Not a thing. One minute he's calmly warning Gary to keep his hands off the granddaughter and the next he's saying, "Oh well, the kid could never mend shoes worth a damn."
Without doubt the moral center or core, to the extent that Schiller allows it to exist at all, comes from Christine Lahti. But the director, who seems to have learned his trade from working Quinn Martin productions in the lazy days of police dramas, cannot be bothered to jazz up the Norman Mailer screenplay because, gosh oh whiz, Mailer did after all win the Pulitzer Prize for the novel (which was a lot more interesting) and no one could dare stand up to The Man Himself, now could they? Well, it's clear that Schiller couldn't. Time after time we keep expecting Gilmore to make us cringe or weep or maybe even laugh. Time after time we are disappointed, the only relief being when Lahti finally casts some tired judgment on her cousin and calls him a shithead, which he apparently was.
Gilmore, convicted of two murders, was sentenced to death. He opted to face a firing squad. His attorney appealed the sentence and Gilmore dismissed him. The ACLU appealed the sentence.     At last the Supreme Court ruled that Gilmore had the right to be executed according to due process. He was shot to death on January 17, 1977. That execution was the first in U.S. history since Luis Monge was killed in June 1967.
    As of January 1, 2012, 1277 convicted murderers have been put to death in this country. Three of those have been by firing squad. Those three were in Utah. Gilmore was the first.
    477 of those executions have been in Texas.
There were no executions at all in 1978. Then in 1984 the government killed twenty-one prisoners. By 1993 the number of executions had risen to thirty-eight, perhaps demonstrating that both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations like the taste of blood. By 1997 we were up to seventy-four executions. Gilmore's corneas were transplanted into two different people following the execution.
    The above information might have been the moral core of a film about Gilmore. It was not.
    Schiller does his best to restrain Lahti from reflecting, much less inspiring, societal values here. To the extent that she managed to defy those attempts sings hosannas to her own talents as an actor.


Film Socialisme
    Why would anyone view this movie? As it happens, lots of fine reasons are happy to present themselves, including the incredible Kurosawa-like colors, the inexplicable humor and absurdity, the presence of singer Patti Smith, the freedom of expression that feels like an ocean in the center of Nebraska, and the attempt to keep track of the number of deliberate cinematic errors. The latter issue in particular cracks me up and here's why: The errors only appear to be errors. I've read where director Jean-Luc Godard was trying to say something about the limitations of video. As a member of the viewing audience, I'm not certain I care all that much about the motives of the director.     What I care about is what the film suggests on a subjective level. What Film Socialisme suggests is less limitations than possibilities. For instance, there are a couple scenes that appear in the cruise ship disco that give the appearance of having been shot with the video feature of a cell phone, with the sound being volume distorted and the visuals being grossly overexposed, both presumably technical deficiencies--except it works because the freaky colors and crumbled sounds evoke the feeling of being there better than all the expensive lenses and filters and digital transfers ever could do.
    And sound is a crucial element of this movie. An off-screen conversation plays through the left speaker while an on-screen monologue relays through the right, and all of this comes into balance with the ocean roar blaring beneath the hull in perfectly leveled stereo. The effect is that the viewer's senses are treated as if he or she is right there on the ship.
    A few words should be mentioned about the dialogue and the subtitles. First, French is not the only language spoken in this movie. For instance, I especially enjoyed the scene where the woman says goodbye in Russian ("Dasvidania") and the old man replies "Heil Hitler." Second, the subtitles are incomplete on purpose. That's part of the fun. If you take the thing too seriously, you'll become frustrated fast. The idea is that you are on a cruise ship (this one, by the way, sunk in the Mediterranean in January of this year) and part of what happens is that you only catch certain disparate snatches of speech. Technical inadequacies are just a part of life.
    This is the most fun you'll likely have at the movies this or any other year. Joe Bob won't like it, but I say check it out.


The Visitors
    Chris Kazan, son of Elia, wrote the screenplay for The Visitors, a film his father directed. The movie stars a young James Woods as a Vietnam War veteran who testified at the court martial of two of his friends, Mike and Tony. The film begins on the day the two friends get out of Leavenworth for raping a civilian Vietnamese woman while on a mission. Mike, played with eerie intensity by Steve Railsback, wants revenge. Tony, played by Chico Martinez, claims he doesn't hold a grudge, but we may be forgiven for not believing him.
    Bill (Woods) finds himself surrounded by enemies. He lives with his girlfriend in a house own by her father. The father is a hateful old bastard who writes western novels, when he isn't busy taking vengeance on the neighbors by the behavior of their dogs. The old man despises Bill for not having killed anyone in Vietnam, for not having married his daughter, and for simply having been born. Funny enough, the old man gets along well with Mike and Tony.
    There is a painful segment where the old man's dog Max gets attacked by a neighbor dog, in the process losing one of its legs. The old man curses, "What am I gonna do with a three-legged dog?"
For all intents and purposes, Bill is a three-legged dog. He tries to carry on as if nothing is wrong despite the ominous looks that Mike and Tony give him, despite the leering looks they give his girlfriend Martha (Patricia Joyce), and despite the old man liking them much more than he does the poor dog.
    The Visitors is a very unpleasant movie in much the same way that The Deer Hunter was unpleasant. No moral value gets placed on the behavior of anyone in these films. Things simply happen, no judgment gets cast--in fact, Mike screams at Martha because he assumes she has the temerity of judging him--and people move on, silently changed, but only after they commit some crazed act. The message, to the extent that there is one, is that the filmmaker was bitter, which I'm sure Kazan was.     Hated by Hollywood for years, the director may have thought he was regaining relevance with this film. While he should be given credit for hosting James Wood and Steve Railsback, no one else in the film is much of anything except dull, which is a pretty sad indictment on the lives of real people.    Relevance hardly makes up for a script that unfortunately lacks the courage to say something sincere about atrocities.


Across 110th Street
    Across 110th Street wastes no time getting our faces dirty. "Them Aye-talians are just no damn good," mumbles Lou Reed with righteous passivity. And righteous is right on.
    Anthony Quinn and Yaphet Kotto: I mean, you can hardly go wrong with these two doing up kind of a 1972 version of In The Heat of The Night, except that Kotto could actually act whereas Sidney was always so refined. Sweet Sweetback may have been the first blaxploitation gangster dude and Mister Tibbs may have been the first major black copper, but Across 110th was probably the first movie to anticipate the incredible racism that permeates the thin blue line between the Italians and the African-Americans, an element in hoodlum movies only since The Godfather, released that same year.
     But The Godfather didn't have Huggie Bear getting crucified. The Godfather didn't have Quinn the Eskimo knocking half the future cast of "Hill Street Blues" across the squad room. The Godfather didn't have Tony Franciosa getting shot in the teeth like he deserved it.
    Director Barry Shear opened a door or two with his work on Wild in the Streets, but spent most of his time on crappy TV shows like "McMillan and Wife," "Alias Smith and Jones," and "Ironside." Across 110th Street starts out just as stupid as those programs, but soon transcends the form through the time-honored use of cinematic violence, in this case well-captured as the first movie use of the 35 millimeter Arriflex, a handy dandy hand-held camera that would soon be all the rage. While how Shear got the chance to make an actual movie is beyond my kin to fathom, it is good that he did because as blaxploitation flicks go--and the Bobby Womack tracks are a big part of the fun, although Womack was no Curtis Mayfield--this one is right up there with Shaft, Superfly, and Shorty the Pimp, meaning it sho ain't Baaaadasssss Song, but it definitely rocks the caz when the wops kick down the door to the nightclub only to find Huggie doing his women with their money, which don't really matter none no how since it was one of Huggie's babes that dropped the rat on the po boy, don'tcha see? Seriously, the race hate in this film is so thick you kind of wonder how much of it was really the writing and acting and how much of it was Quinn just with a mad-on. After all, the actor's money helped finance the damned thing.
   So, yeah, it's gritty as ground glass in a gangster salad, that's fo sho. But it's also done with a certain fatalistic angst that whispers that we might do well to remember that junk and dope make the world go round. You want a better society? Put down the pipe and let a gangster work for a living.


Paul McCartney Really is Dead:
 The Last Testament of George Harrison
    Just when you think that the idea of conspiracies being used to discredit proper analysis can't get any more hysterical, someone named Joel Gilbert comes along and releases Paul McCartney Really is Dead: The Last Testament of George Harrison.    The first reek of this rather grim jest emerged from the crypts back in October 1969 when a listener contacted a Detroit Disc Jockey, informing him of all sorts of odd "clues" about the death of Beatle Paul nearly three years earlier. Because that was a time when a lot of decent people had some legitimate concerns about the nature of their own reality, the story was deemed to have legs, as it were, and became the subject of all sorts of speculation. After all, the argument went, if THEY could lie about the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, then surely THEY could be lying about McCartney. In a flash, all sorts of evidence sprang up, from album cover symbolism to straight-forward lyrics to hidden meanings to backward masking on the vinyl LPs. Finally, Paul McCartney stepped out of his Scottish farm house and denied that he was dead, that he had ever been dead, or that being dead anytime soon was on his list of immediate plans.
    Then in 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed.
    Then in 1999, George Harrison was stabbed.
    Then in 2001, George Harrison died.
    Then in 2005, a company called Highway 61 Entertainment and headed by a guy named Joel Gilbert, reportedly received a package containing two audio cassettes with a narration claiming to be from one Mr. George Harrison. Gilbert--or someone purporting to be Gilbert--appears briefly at the beginning of this documentary to state that he has been unable to successfully authenticate the voice on the tapes as being that of Beatle George. The rest of the film is the narration accompanied by a mix of some fairly common and a bit of rare footage, most of it familiar to Beatles fans, although the story that comes out is as wild as anything we've heard lately, I must admit.
    Naturally I've heard all of this before. Chances are you have as well. Gary Patterson published a neat book a few years back called The Walrus was Paul, all about this great hoax and the clues that substantiated it. This film, however, takes things to an absurd extreme, in the process, it pains me to admit, evoking a few guilty laughs along the way. For instance? Well, when the MI5 guy, Maxwell, takes George, John and Ringo to the scene of the tragedy, he points to Paul's decapitated body and says, "Looks like a walrus, don't he?" to which a horrified and furious Lennon responds, "I am the walrus!"
    The narrating Harrison further claims that all of Lennon's post-Beatles activities were intended to prove that Lennon was insane and hence should not be held responsible for leaving all those ghastly clues all over the bloody albums.
    Similarly we learn that the Paul impostor, William Campbell, was taken by the three real Beatles to India under the pretext of seeking enlightenment, the REAL reason being that they hoped to channel the dead soul of McCartney through the body of Campbell, or "Faul" as he became known.
    Likewise, it turns out that photographer Linda Eastman blackmailed Faul into marrying her once she discovered that he was a fake. Indeed, the reason for Lennon's assassination was that he had dared defy Maxwell by threatening to finally reveal the truth to that galaxy of fans.
    It's all quite ridiculous and not a little ghoulish, especially when you notice that the narrator--who sounds more like someone doing a parody of a Beatle voice than any actual member of the group--gets the chronology for many of these events wrong. Still, it's kind of quaint listening to the backwards stuff, like "Turn me on, deadman," although I for one refuse to believe that Harrison had originally planned to name "Taxman" "Taxidermist," as this movie claims.
    All in all, it's a stupid concept for a documentary and if I had actually paid anything to watch it you can bet I would have felt ripped off, although not entirely disappointed. After all, Gilbert is the guy who claims to have discovered the real live Elvis and who is certain that Bob Dylan's famous motorcycle accident was staged to allow the singer to go through drug rehab.
    Mythology has its place, even in pop music. It might have been more clever, however, to have staged an original hoax rather than to dig up this old tripe after so many years.
    Oh, by the way: the license plate on the VW on the Abbey Road album that reads 28IF--indicating that McCartney would have been twenty-eight years old if had he lived--is fallacious. Paul would have been twenty-nine. Sorry.



Pret a Porter
    Even the duds that director Robert Altman created have a lot going for them, so it must be admitted from the outset that Ready to Wear (1994) fails to be all bad. Because of the enormity of the excellent cast, one gets the initial impression that this fashioned show of a fashion show may be a Nineties version of Nashville. And in a way it is. I mean, we have all kinds of famous clothing designers displaying their wares or wears, we have a reporter (played by Kim Bassinger) who steals every scene and who we just know will crumble in the end, we have Cher who, as the Elliott Gould of the 1990s, makes an appearance for the purposes of gentle sarcasm, and we have a loosely strung-together story-line that isn't particularly the point.
   So what's the problem?
   The damned thing isn't very interesting. That's the only problem with this movie.
   The film begins strong enough, with a French title, Pret-a-Porter and the words "A Robert Altman Film" in Russian letters at the beginning. We get to see Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren. We get Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts. We get Forest Whitaker. Sadly, that is all we get. The ending is so contrived that even if it was supposed to insult us by being obvious in advance it still doesn't work because by the time we get there we no longer have any reason to care.
    It has been claimed by more erudite writers than myself that Altman had a tendency to alternate successes with failures and that even his failures were worth watching. That is almost true.
    The biggest problem with this film is the script. Altman and Barbara Shulgasser simply don't know what to do with their most potentially interesting characters. The fashion guru who dies early on has zero personality, even though most of the people in the movie claim he was a rotten person. It might have been nice to have understood why this was so. Tracey Ullman, Linda Hunt and Sally Kellerman, as the editors of fashion magazines, come off as vastly more dull than even those occupations would suggest. And the character of the in-demand photographer, Milo, played by Stephen Rea, is simply stupid, even his snideness not worth the bother.
    The talents of all the actors mentioned above are thoroughly wasted here unless it is somehow supposed to be interesting that Anne Eisenhower (Julia Roberts) is fascinating because she gets amorous when she drinks alcohol, or that Joe Flynn, a sportswriter played by Tim Robbins, is intriguing because his luggage gets stolen and he can't do much about it because his French is so bad.
    No, this is a colossal mess of a film, one that by its very existence besmirches the well-earned reputation of all those involved as being the brilliant directors, writers and actors that they certainly are. Genius is maligned here.


Two in the Wave
    Two in the Wave (2010) sings the song of friendship gone adrift. The two friends, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, were the front line of what has become known as the French New Wave in Cinema beginning around late 1957 and ending, if it ever did, around 1973 when Godard and Truffaut exchanged some frank and unpleasant letters calling one another out for various betrayals of talent.
    The dissolution of a working partnership (the best example of which is Breathless, which was co-written by the two men, these cinematic Lennon and McCartney) feels bitter even now as we watch Emmanuel Laurent's documentary draw us in on the revolutionary aesthetics of two men who began as film critics and ended up the lenses of their generation.
    Here is what the film's own website has to say about the two prominent figures:
Jean-Luc Godard was born in 1930, Fran├žois Truffaut two years later, and they met for the love of the cinema. They wrote in the same magazines, the Cahiers du cinema and Arts. When the cadet became filmmaker, with The 400 Blows, which triumphed at Cannes in 1959, he helped his protege to go to the achievement, offering him his scenario already entitled Breathless. Throughout the 1960s, they shook the elbows.


    That blurb is accurate. But it does not convey just how much fun you may have as you connect with either or both or neither of these monumental characters. Truffaut was always burning for the story, the story, yes, give me biography or autobiography, merci! Godard, contrariwise, saw himself as a man of the people, a man of the street, and with the Paris riots of May 1968, Godard recognized the role of art in politics. 
    As their friendship/partnership strains under the weight of this difference of emphasis, they compete for the attention of actors, for awards, for analysis, for everything, in the process making some wonderful movies and a certain share of slop.
    You do not have to be a film aficionado to enjoy this motion picture. You do not necessarily need to know who the two men are. It is enough, I suspect, to care about the mutual engagement these two geniuses experienced: a love of movies.

The Fury
    Following the tremendous artistic, critical and commercial success of Carrie, the film director Brian DePalma adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name, the world's greatest Hitchcock imitator released a movie with some of the same themes and some of the same cast members as his earlier gem of a movie. He called it The Fury. Based on the novel and adapted screenplay by John Farris, this movie might have been more interesting if it had been entitled The Furry, because at least then we horror aficionados could have anticipated a movie about deranged bunny rabbits. Of course, that would have stood a chance of actually being funny, which is a tad more than can be said for this disaster film, by which I make no references to Irwin Allen.
    Starring Kirk Douglas and Amy Irving, The Fury begins strong enough, with a bunch of rich folks lounging on a Mediterranean beach about to be attacked by unfriendly Arabs in full bisht and chmagh. Kirk Douglas plays Peter, a super spy intelligence guy whose son, Robin, possesses a super telekinetic ability and psychometric powers. Robin, portrayed by Andrew Stevens, gets kidnapped by the nasty John Cassavetes-character, Ben Childers, and so Douglas must find a female with the same psi-powers as his son to help locate him before the evil government witch doctors destroy the world and all that jazz. If this sounds a bit like The Firestarter, you're on the right track but in the wrong train. This movie isn't even that good, if by good you mean supplying an even semi-plausible story-line or providing much in the way of believable acting, other than that done by Douglas.
The good news here is that DePalma does not disappoint when it comes to capturing genuine beauty and on this point I attempt no humor. Kirk Douglas is beautiful. You would have to go back to Spartacus to find him looking any better than this. Amy Irving, likewise, truly radiates a rather startling set of good looks, something I have to admit I had never noticed about her. Matter of fact, I'd often wondered what it was about her that had mesmerized so many people since I had always found her rather plain. In The Fury she does not have that hideous fuzzy hair she had in Carrie and elsewhere. Joyce Easton, who plays her mother, is likewise something of a knockout. Carrie Snodgress starts out looking quite terrible, but by the time we discover that Kirk Douglas loves her, she is looking fine indeed.
    But the flattering photography is not merely limited to the humanoids in this film. The cities themselves--the filming was 99% in Chicago and 1% Caesarai, Israel--scream out their gorgeoisty, as do the internal architectural structures. Shopping malls begin a DePalma tradition with this film, becoming a recurring source of maze-like majesty.
And that brings us to the rather sad part of this "Experiment in terror and suspense." Deliberately or not--and the director is such a craftsman and perfectionist that I can't imagine he'd leave anything to chance--this movie also offers up an unfortunate string of simpleminded stereotypes far below the abilities of such an "auteur." For instance? Well, there's the early Arab attack on the happy people on the coast of the "Mid East," as the film calls it. Later in the film, Robin, the psi-power guy, throws a shit fit and causes an amusement park ride called the Paratrooper to come unhinged and fling a car of Arabs off the ride and into a restaurant lounge, clearly some serendipitous revenge. There's also an almost strict Freudian tendency in DePalma's films to lay the blame for almost all the bad stuff at the feet of the maternal parent. In Carrie, it was the mother who had brought the curse upon her daughter and likewise had driven the young girl half insane. In The Fury, the excessively bourgeois Mrs. Bellaver, with her severe haircut and unwillingness to make mention of a father for Irving's character Gillian, is so busy with her job that she can only pretend to care about what happens to her only child. Whatever one may think of DePalma's relative talents as a director, it must be admitted that by the late 1970s, he and quite a few other wild talents in the horror movie world were exploiting a backlash against strong, independent women, all of whom are either at risk of getting chopped up or are guilty of abandoning their progeny. We like and identify immediately with the wife-less Peter, yet pull back a bit from Dr. Ellen Lindstrom, Kristen the schoolyard bitch, and all the other females in the film except Hester, whom we like and so can be fairly certain will die in a nasty way, which she does.
    I have an unfortunate tendency to spew vituperative criticism of people whose work I actually admire. I have almost always enjoyed any DePalma film I've ever seen (this being one exception, Scarface being another, although for completely different reasons, and Snake Eyes being perhaps the very bottom of the barrel), Blow Out being my all-time personal favorite horror movie. Perhaps we come to expect more from people whose talents we revere.
    Incidentally, one of the other hidden pleasures of The Fury--and there are more than a few, admittedly--is the viewing of certain small roles by recognizable actors such as Darryl Hannah and Gordon Jump. There's even an unsubstantiated rumor that James Belushi plays an uncredited beach bum here, although you need a lot of patience to find him.

The Blank Generation
    There are two movies with similar titles and separated by four years. One is Blank Generation, which was released in 1980. The film we will talk about today is The Blank Generation, which came out in 1976. The former is a work of fiction. The latter is a work of art.
   The Blank Generation was filmed in silent 16 mm black and white at New York City's CBGB's night club, mostly in 1975. The film captures live performances by Patti Smith, Richard Hell, The Talking Heads, Blondie, Johnny Thunders, the Ramones, and other new wave heavies of the period. The directors, Ivan Kral (of Patti Smith Group) and Amos Poe (video producer and music documentarian), dubbed studio recordings and demo tracks deliberately out of sync with the hodgepodge and looped sequences of the artists on stage, back stage, and running up and down the sidewalk.
    What makes this an art film, and a pretty good one at that, is how well Poe and Kral convey the essence of so many completely different performers without sacrificing the feel of the performances themselves. Some of these singers admittedly were great, like Patti, the Ramones, and The Talking Heads. But they had damn little in common with one another except for this venue. The idea that anyone would think to call both Joey Ramone and David Byrne "new wave artists" still causes shivers among purists, despite the fact that this film demands that such was very much the case.
    The other unifier here is the image. However much these groups may have been attempting to mock various aspects of consumerism or technical proficiency, the fact remains that leather jackets, torn t-shirts and tight pants, while not quite de rigeur, clearly held sway over most other accouterments, even in the case of Blondie, where Deborah Harry was expected to vamp it up amidst the more casually dressed boys in the band.
    This film is relatively brief, coming in at just under fifty-five minutes, or twice the length of a Ramones album. That isn't too much time to invest in a film that really does rock and for all the wrong reasons. The main reason is because of someone we have not mentioned yet, and that someone is Wayne County, whose song "Rock n Roll Enema" very much steals the show. Now known as Jayne County, the former Wayne Rogers made her mark as rock's first transsexual or cross-gender performer, a gal whose biggest hit album was Are You Man Enough to be a Woman?, a disc certainly worth tracking down, and not only because it's occasionally funny or even hysterical, but mostly because the damned thing is just good old hard rocking raw-edged serrated spine-snap. 

   The Blank Generation whops us upside the head with its dedication to a do-it-yourself attitude that would scare the dickens out of the people who these days think DYI means "build your own home." These folks, one and all, risked everything for what really should have been, in most cases, far less fame than they actually enjoyed (after all, how many Blondie albums do you really need?).

Going Places
    I very much wanted to at least like Bertrand Blier's 1974 film Going Places, or Les Valseuses, if you prefer. I wanted to like the movie because it stars Gerard Depardieu and Miou-Miou, the latter a quite marvelous actor who has been in any number of fine French films, some of which even permitted her to remain moderately clothed. I also liked Jeanne Moreau and I rather foolishly had hoped her character would add a touch of maturity to this exercise in revolutionary behavior.
    That just goes to show you what an idiot I can be.
    The movie starts out flashing its counter-cultural credentials all over the place as the two young men, Pierrot and Jean Claude--Patrick DeWaeare and Depardieu--burst into the frame in a stolen shopping cart while pursuing a not altogether beautiful woman whom they hope to rob. The two young men charm the audience immediately, just as they make us recoil ever so slightly as they toy with this woman whom they decide to call Ursula. You see, Jean-Claude and Pierrot are apolitical nihilists. They are the ultimate extreme of a perfect misunderstanding of the influence the 1960s spread out over the following decade. They do not work, neither do they toil. They do not love, although they do conquer. They do not purchase, and yet they consume, at least for the moment. And while they do these things, silly music plays across the soundtrack, suggesting that the boys' inner charm is just a smile away.
    Indeed, these two men do not exude repugnant behavior or attitudes. They are virtually amoral in their drive to avoid boredom. They are, in their way, the prototypes of punk. Except--
    Johnny Rotten, to the best of my knowledge, never paid a woman to breast-feed Sid Vicious on a train while the woman rode along on her way to meet her military husband.
    I'm not going to give away every item in this film that leaves me uneasy. However, I will say that the acting is universally outstanding and if what these hedonistic nihilists did all the time wasn't so socially counterproductive--not all anarchists are nihilists but all nihilists are anarchists, if you catch my drift--this film would stand out as the landmark it clearly yearned to be. The problem is that most of the people Jean-Claude and Pierrot confront are not the cause of the boredom. For instance, when Jean-Claude confronts the security man in the department store, the employee snarks off some sly remarks and Jean-Claude retorts in kind. Fine. But then again his plan is to buy suits with stolen money. Indeed, all of the targets in this film are middle or lower-middle class, and our guys ridicule one man as "Proletariat!" while addressing others as "Comrade!"
    Technically, this film lacks any major flaws, unless you want to include a bit of potential irony that was either implied or allowed to slip away, I'm not quite certain which. Here is what I mean: The boys steal a barber/pimp's Citroen DS sports car after one of them gets shot in a testicle. The shooting victim is so outraged that he talks a friend into loosening one of the car's front wheels so that, once the vehicle is recovered, the wheel will come off and the driver will get hurt or killed.
So far so good. After a great deal of sex, the boys learn that the car has been sold to an insurance salesman. Nearly an hour later into the film, we find our presumed heroes driving down the highway in this same car, a car they have stolen three times. We expect the wheel to come off.
    We expect a lot of things in this movie. Most of them never happen.
    This film was supposed to knock down doors and build castles among the enlightened. What it does instead is simply trick a few ought-to-know-better critics into believing it actually had something to say.


Godard in America
    In some ways people may find it difficult to sympathize with the political views of an artist, even though that artist's ideological aspirations seldom seem to ripple the social current, at least minus a few initial snickers. When a half-decent actor such as Ronald Reagan or his son Arnold Schwarzenegger elect to rule the country of California, the populace collectively shrugs and says to itself that, all in all, the world could do worse. But just let the Dixie Chicks or Pierre Perret or even Rio Reiser make a disparaging comment about the right of leaders to invoke the privileges of war and look out helter skelter.
    Granted, this repulsion of ideology tends to only puke up at the left or, in a few cases, at the right, when the work of the reactionary signals just how horribly amateurish it is, and here I am thinking of things like The Ground Floor production of The Tea Party Movie (2009), an unmitigated piece of subhuman detritus, if such a thing ever existed. The objections take on an overtone of intolerance gone berserk, with such non sequiturs offered as, "Shut up and sing."
   Things have not always been quite so lame. The time was when a nice man named Ralph Thanhauser decided it would be a Nietzsche-is-Peachy idea to document the coming to America of cinema gods Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, or in short, the Dziga Vertov Group that had been formed in Paris in 1968, a fascinating cooperative bent on making political films. And indeed they did, nine of them in all. The topic, more or less, of Godard in America (1970), is that Godard and Gorin came to the states to gain financing for a movie they planned about Palestine. The issue of the Israeli presence in the Middle East gets equated with workers struggles everywhere and Godard even mentions in the film that the beauty of Chinese communism is that instead of having one thousand books that you must read to approximate the truth, with Mao you only need one. He was evidently serious.
    A story is told that Jean-Luc met with Elliott Gould to discuss the possibility of the Frenchman directing my all-time favorite film (or certainly one of my favorites), Little Murders. Even though I suspect the result would have been a vastly different movie, it is possible to recognize touches of Godard in the final product issued by director Alan Arkin. So the idea of making a film drawing parallels between Chinese peasants and the members of the Palestine Liberation Organization isn't that absurd in context.
    Very well. We have skirted this issue over half a page of type and seem to be no closer to getting to the point, not a little unlike a certain French director whose name has appeared in this essay a time or two. The point actually being made here--if one must be made--is that there is no particular reason to care that Godard shared philosophical ground with the Chinese communists, certainly no more than it should concern us that the director was heavily influenced by Sartre and Camus, or by his own admittedly bourgeois upbringing, one that he claims paled when compared to the bourgeois culture of Hollywood. It doesn't matter if the man comes out in favor of rotten beef. What matters is whether he can make his meanings to mean something through his craft and art. Godard's work is very conceptually-based and audiences must be ready for something a bit more engaging than car chases and explosions. In the forty-four minute documentary Godard in America, it is hard to resist the cleverness and passion that the director brings to his storyboards, just as it is exciting to watch him lecture on the importance of sound in movies, versus, say, images.
    Does it please me that a Marxist filmmaker makes modern movies? Of course. Does it delight me that such an intellectual fellow should be something of an icon for such a long time? Yes, indeed. Do either of these things actually make much difference in the enjoyment of the films? Not a bit. It is a fact that the propaganda effect to which movies or statues or hazelnut pies are put remains, in my mind at least, a given. The only differences are that some artists fool themselves into thinking they are above such politicking while a larger number fool the rest of us into thinking they respect us too much to attempt this kind of manipulation. One cannot escape it. Joy to the man or woman who comes out and says, in so many words, "The experiences of my life up to this moment are what have influenced the predisposition I have taken with what you are about to perceive. Good luck."
A person can despise the Nazis and have glorious dreams of machine-gunning Hitler in the movie theater and still admit the success Reni Riefenstahl experienced with Triumph of the Will. Godard in America is neither Triumph nor triumph. It is, however, a fascinating look at a man who was in the throes of pissing off nearly everyone who liked him in order to keep his art in sync with his philosophical principles. You know, just the way the Dixie Chicks did.


Salem's Lot
    The scariest novel Stephen King has written is Salem's Lot. I did not say it was the best. I said it was the scariest. That's probably a subjective thing, but I'll stand by it because around the time I read that book I had to walk home from work at night through a creepy and deserted part of town and I will tell you that even as the hardest-nosed skeptic against anything even vaguely metaphysical who ever doodled in math class, I was occasionally quite uncomfortable. I attribute my fear to Salem's Lot. Thanks, Steve. So imagine my disappointment at the two movies that have been made out of this book. The first, by Tobe Hooper--of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame--was the real disappointment since by the time the 2004 remake came along I no longer gave much of a damn. But why anyone would have cast David Soul from "Starsky and Hutch" in the role of Ben Mears is beyond the reaches of my trembling imagination, just as I still reel from the idea of casting Lance Kerwin from "James at Fifteen" in the role of the boy. The problem with both these actors is that they are more stiff than Billy Joel at a communion. Still, the movie did feature the brilliant James Mason as the vampire's helper, as well as the nearly brilliant Fred Willard as Crockett, the real estate agent, so going into it there was some reason for hope.
    Things begin well enough with Mears and the boy in the present time roaming through unpronounceable regions of Mexico, on the lam from what we imagine are the pursuing spirits of pissed off vampires. That fades away and we revert to two years earlier, which is where the story really begins, with Ben Mears, budding novelist, returning home after far too many years away. The camera work in the opening segment is great, especially the way Hooper puts the camera right down in the weeds as we look at James Mason descending from the evil Marsten House, just about the place where a young Ben Mears would have been all those years ago. I mention this as just one example of Hooper's skill as a way of highlighting the fact that in terms of technique, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this film, except maybe the vampire itself, who, based on his appearance, would not have frightened a teenage girl scout, much less the people of that town. Likewise, the sound is excellent, resonating just under the action when necessary and just over it during drive segments.
    Part of the craft that Tobe Hooper brings to this movie--and to Chainsaw, easily the most terrifying movie ever made--is an occasional disregard for getting in and out of scenes easily or with finesse. Sometimes we go from a daytime conversation in the rooming house where Mears is staying to an exterior scene at night with Mears standing alongside his jeep, with no concern at all for continuity. What makes this artful instead of clumsy is that Hooper simultaneously weaves the cast of characters in and out of the scenes with what I can only think to describe as a sneakiness that actually adds to the suspense. The use of headlights for nighttime exterior lighting is also a clever move. Hooper even adds an element to the movie that was missing from the novel: a tepid suspicion by the townsfolk of the writer.
    "I like you, Ben. Modern aggressive partially liberated states her feelings," says the woman.     "Does that make you uncomfortable?"
    "No," says the writer. "It makes me feel good."
    There's no telling how that little exchange would have disturbed the Phyllis Schaftley contingent of the audience.
    Stephen King traditionally treats women in his books as if he actually likes them rather than desires to use them specifically to resolve his Oedipal tensions. It is the same with Tobe Hooper. The neat trick he manages to pull off in this film is a trick often missing from film adaptations of King product: he actually pulls off the sometimes insurmountable task of character development. Here the Ben Mears character is actually the weakest of the lot, so to speak, but the women, by golly, they get to be the most interesting people in the whole production. Susan Norton, the love interest, actually blossoms throughout, moving from strength to strength. (Her mother is likewise an interesting sort, just this side of being an overprotective pest, but not quite.) And Susan breaks free of her mother just as she breaks free of her ex-boyfriend, even as she attempts to leave behind what she feels are the limitations of her little town. This is not unusual in a horror film. What is unusual and what adds to the plus column in an evaluation of Salem's Lot, is that when Susan becomes a victim in this movie, it is not in retribution for her independence. On the contrary, the audience pulls for her to survive specifically because of her personal strength.
    In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that everyone with whom I've ever discussed this movie has liked it much more than have I. Forewarned, if you can get beyond the Made-For-Television acting of two of the three lead characters, you may find that Hooper's treatment of the rural landscape, with its browns and yellows, and his attention to detail being so precise that even the crickets natter on cue, then you may find this quite the spine tingler.
    A few closing points compel me. First, this is one of the most pro-human vampire tales of all time. There's no attempt to paint the vampires as misunderstood. They are tragic, yes, but not to be dismissed as lovable. Second, the treatment of women in this horror movie is a million times better than the way modern lawmakers treat real life women, just as things were back in 1979 when this movie came out. And third, James Kerwin only branched out into theatrical films two other times, one of which was 1995's rather hideous Outbreak. Nuff said?


Glengarry Glen Ross
    The addition of the Blake character to the script of the original play by David Mamet substantially alters the thrust of the movie Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Audiences enjoy the Alec Baldwin role of Blake, as the guy sent by Mitch and Murray to come in and shake things up a bit in the sales room of the hokey real estate office. The character intensifies the motivation of desperate Shelley "The Machine" Levene (Jack Lemmon) and compounds the frustration of conniving Moss and confused Aaronow (Ed Harris and Alan Arkin). His impact on the coldly pragmatic and petty Williamson (Kevin Spacey), the office manager, is negligible, as it is on Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), the top producer and favored son in the shop. However, Blake changed forever the way the script would be experienced by audiences because the original Mamet script would never have been used as a training tool for salespeople in the way the movie has been. That such a brilliant appeal to the sensitivities of a system rigged against not only the customers but against the employees as well should turn out to be embraced by those employees says more about the sorry condition of the American workplace than it does about this movie, which is patently brilliant from start to finish.
    I have attended championship boxing matches and viewed televised UFC competitions that were less masculine than the tenor of this film. Indeed, Tyson biting off part of Holyfield's ear rings rather soft compared to the penis-thumping and simultaneous emasculations that make up the day-to-day lives of these salesmen. "You think this is abuse?" screams Blake into the back of the head of Aaronow. "You cocksucker! If you think this is abuse, how are you going to handle abuse on a sit?" Later he points out that "It takes [brass balls] to sell real estate."
    Audiences laugh at what they perceive to be the over-the-top outrage of the bully Blake, just as audiences chuckle nervously at the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. Marines in the crowds at the latter film knew better than to laugh. They'd experienced precisely the "abuse" the drilling instructor was dishing out, just as anyone who has survived his time selling time shares, alarm systems, home-based businesses or light bulbs has endured the emotional raping these men get as a send-off on their work day evenings.
    The system is rigged, as Levene points out. How is a man supposed to rise above a certain level if he never gets the premium leads, the Glengarry leads? Ah, but those leads are only for closers. To give the good leads to a poor performer would be to waste them. The only way to rise above and get up to where the oxygen is kept, of course, is to cheat. And cheat they do. There are blocks of ten to fifteen minute segments in this film where absolutely nothing anyone says bears any resemblance to the truth. This carries on so adeptly that after a while we find ourselves actually pulling for these men--who after all, maintain the moral center of the film--and even hurt for the fate of the man who commits a crime that may, for a few seconds, imperil the entire office.
    Glengarry Glen Ross is a school for actors. Each "star" plays many roles within roles throughout this motion picture and anyone of a certain age or older will be able to recognize someone he loves and hates.


Hoffa
    They tell me I'll be one hundred next February. Hey, who am I to say how old I am? It's only my life, right? Bitter? You wanna know if I'm bitter? They wanna know, huh? Hell no, I'm not bitter. I'm talking here about the movie. Maybe you saw it. This little big guy directed it, whatever that means. Calls himself DeVito. That's okay with me. You know why? Why is because the name of the movie is Hoffa. That's right. Just like me.
    You're saying, I'll bet, that I took my own sweet time getting around to talking about a movie that came out almost twenty years back. Wrong, my friend. Where I am, we get everything at least twenty years behind the times, so the fact that this came to me only a little over nineteen years later is the same as me seeing it on opening night. Walk it off, you don't like it, see?
    Is there any truth to it? I gotta say no. Now, do not get me wrong. The writer guy, David Mamet, he's one hell of a scribe, boy, let me tell you. Hey, I laughed out loud when that Bobby Cairo character shoved that piece up against the wop's head and marched into the gangster's VIP room. That's right. I damned near pissed myself when that fucker highway cop dickhead pulled Cairo over for doing ninety on the expressway. Funny? Fuck right, it was funny. Did either thing ever happen? Shit, no. Does it matter? Not a goddamned bit. Why not? I'll tell you, sugar plum. The thing is, you see, it could have happened. Here's what I know about the truth and I think that you should write this down, buddy, because the guy who played me in that movie, that Nicholson character, he was in another movie about the same time where he was yelling that some young punk couldn't handle the truth. You know what I say? I say the truth ain't something that gets handled. The truth is just something that kind of just is. See, by the time I was growing up, we had that World War II thing, so I'll use that as a for instance. Supposing some writer guy says that he was at Pearl Harbor with the Americans when the Japs bombed the shit out of everybody and, hey, he says it didn't bother him much. Even if the facts of that story turned out to be right, it still ain't true because it's something nobody could connect with, like on an emotional level, you see what I'm saying? Other hand, some other writer, he wasn't in Poland during the war, but that don't stop him. He says he was there when they rolled back the walls and peeled them poor Jews out of the boxes and this writer says it changed the way he felt about humanity forever. Even if the guy was making it up, it's still true because a decent guy can understand what he's talking about. Well, that's a long way around the point of saying why I liked the movie about me: it told the truth even if they did fudge some of the details.
    One thing nobody ever said to my face--I'm giving you an example here--was nobody ever called me short. Okay, look, I stood five feet five inches and unless you're some naked bow and arrow boy in the outback of Australia, that's usually taken as kind of small. But by God I stood with giants in real life and I stand with them in this here movie. This DeVito guy, kind of short himself, he loaded the picture with all these impressive overhead shots of fights and bombs and shit, most of which I can't say I remember happening quite that way but it don't matter because what we're really talking about is the spirit of the labor movement. Nothing I've ever seen gets any bigger than that, my friend.
It's ants at a picnic is what it is. You got this great big meal being served by the black tie bastards who stole the food right out of some old lady's kitchen. When the ants come around marching up to get their share, what do the black tie people do? They scream about how unfair it is that what they stole gets eaten by those ants. Fuck them black tie sons of bitches. They ain't got no right to that food and they damned well know it.
    The only real problem I had with the movie is how it didn't quite speak to the point of how that cocksucker Chuck Colson fucked over the labor movement. See, these gangster politicians--I ain't naming names, but you know who I'm talking about--they don't mind somebody asking real nice and polite for a share of the pie. But when my men and boys and I slam our fists on the table and say we're taking that pie because that old lady the black ties stole it from is our mother--well, hey, that gets people killed, my friend. And the labor movement today doesn't want to get its hands dirty. The damned thing just makes me want to cry to watch it. You got people asking for written permission to go on a march. Fuck that shit. You need a note, you ain't striking for anything. You're defeated before you line up. Hoffa, this movie, it just kind of pays no attention to the big changes that happened after the fucking Kennedys and Nixon locked me up. But, hey, my mother, God bless her, she always said, you lay down in mud, you wake up with pigs. That's the biggest regret I have. Sure, I entangled myself with criminals. Shit, it's no secret that's why what happened to me July 30, 1975 actually happened. I screwed around with the wrong crowd. But I did what I thought I had to do. Maybe it was wrong. I don't think so, but maybe it was. All I know is I never shirked my responsibilities to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. If it meant taking a glass bottle up against my head, that's what I done. If it meant pulling a gun on a cop, I was there. If it meant getting control back of my union--of our union--well, my friend, nobody lives forever, am I right?
    So now I can sleep a little easier. I'd seen the shit movie with Robert Blake playing me like I was some fucking Kennedy-killer back in the seventies. Like shit I was. I seen people saying I linked up with Trafficante and Giancana and them boys and it was all a load of dung. All the same, I did know some bad guys and some of those bad guys was thought of as very good guys by the American people when it was in the interests of the American people to think so. Like I say, truth has to connect on an emotional level, am I right?
   So go see this thing. I hear you all got computers or something these days. Shit, you don't know who makes half of what you buy. Time was, my friend, when your computer would have traveled to a store on a union truck. Nowadays it comes from fucking China.


Winter Soldier
The Weather Underground
    We begin with an excerpt from the opening paragraph of an article published in the March 11, 2012 edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "Moving from house to house, a U.S. Army sergeant opened fire Sunday on Afghan villagers as they slept, killing 16 people — mostly women and children — in an attack that reignited fury at the U.S. presence following a wave of deadly protests over Americans burning Qurans."
    Eight days later an article appeared in Slate that began: "Lynndie England, the former U.S. solider made infamous in 2004 for a photo of her giving two thumbs-up at Abu Ghraib, isn't sorry for how she and her fellow soldiers abused prisoners there. 'Their lives are better,' she [said] in an interview for a story published Monday. 'They got the better end of the deal. They weren't innocent. They're trying to kill us, and you want me to apologize to them?'"
    In February 1971, 125 Vietnam Veterans came to a Howard Johnsons in Detroit to give testimony about the atrocities they had either witnessed or participated in while stationed in Vietnam.
It was called the Winter Soldier Project and this filmed documentary of the event will give you nightmares, just as the events described gave the soldiers involved nightmares for years. Unlike the despicable, sanctimonious and rationalizing Ms. England, these men were not proud of their behavior. On the contrary, while not attempting to justify themselves, these men ravage our hearts with stories of how their leaders conditioned and brainwashed them into becoming professional torturers, rapists and mass murderers. The movie is the farthest thing from dispassionate and yet its only commentary comes by way of the occasional gasps, moans and tears from the members of the press and public who had gathered to hear the testimony. To quote from the website for the film: "Though the event was attended by press and television news crews, almost nothing was reported to the American public. Yet, this unprecedented forum marked a turning point in the anti-war movement. It was a pivotal moment in the lives of young vets from around the country who participated, including the young John Kerry. The Winter Soldier Investigation changed him and his comrades forever. Their courage in testifying, their desire to prevent further atrocities and to regain their own humanity, provide a dramatic intensity that makes seeing Winter Soldier (1972) an unforgettable experience."
    The beauty--and that is the proper word--of this film radiates in the balance the filmmakers establish between the self-loathing and sudden liberation of the men testifying against themselves and the actual victims of these horrors. The men are shown in black and white. The victims in living color. This balance does not exist today, of course. Today the accused killer of the sixteen Afghans receives media coverage while his alleged victims remain nameless entities, simply today's version of gooks, slopes, krauts, Japs and coloreds.
    My father served in World War II. He was in what was at the time called the Army-Air Force. Until his dying day he could not quite understand what was supposedly different about the Vietnam experience. My dad spent most of the war in the Pacific and saw more than his share of brutality, most of it random and anonymous. But because he did not undergo conditioning geared to brutalize himself and dehumanize the enemies, he could not conceive that such a thing had happened to a younger generation. And yet it did happen. My father joined up after the attack at Pearl Harbor. That attack was all the motivation he needed--well, that and the fear that he would get drafted into the infantry--to leave the home he had not strayed more than fifty miles from in his life to that point in order to defeat the curse of fascism. But in Vietnam, the closest thing to a provocation had been the nonsense of the Gulf of Tonkin incident which, even at the time, most people didn't believe and which, it turned out, never actually happened. So brutality and dehumanization became essential in a war that was about (a) enriching Brown & Root (later absorbed by Halliburton), Bell Helicopter and General Dynamics, and (b) body counts. Body counts? Sir, yes, sir. The Vietnamese government estimated in 1995 that four million civilians died in that twenty-year war. The Hanoi government revealed on April 3 of that year that the true civilian casualties of the Vietnam War were 2,000,000 in the north, 2,000,000 in the south. Military casualties were 1.1 million killed and 600,000 wounded in 21 years of war. 58,212 Americans died.
    I cannot recommend Winter Soldier too highly. It will rip you apart. It will also help you make sense of our second film, The Weather Underground. Directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, two men who give the movie an aroma/perfume of PBS, TWU tries very hard to establish the context in which Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, Bill Ayers and others struggled to bring the war home to America through the use of provocation and violence. That context, of course, was the war being waged against a people ten thousand miles away, one which good and solid American people may have felt was getting just a little too damned much media coverage, the kind of stuff that, you know, radicalized the youth of the day.
    The young Dohrn comes across quite bloodthirsty in the early footage and a teenage Rudd appears just as obnoxious as his reputation suggested. The thirty to one hundred members of what was originally called The Weathermen--the result of a 1969 split within Students for a Democratic Society--broke windows, robbed banks and placed bombs. Mostly, however, they drew the attention of the FBI, an organization prone to violating the law in the name of upholding it. The Weather Underground also did a good job of getting itself killed, as when on March 6, 1970, Terry Robbins, Diana Oughton and Teddy Gold died when a bomb the group had been constructing in a Greenwich Village townhouse blew them to kingdom come. Kathy Boudin, one of two survivors in the group, went on to participate in the Brinks robbery. She was finally released from prison in 2003. There is absolutely no mention whatsoever of Boudin in this documentary.
    I will say that without the context of Winter Soldier, or at least a memory of and emotional connection to the atrocities of the war in Vietnam, it is hard to develop much sympathies for this group of people who, in all sincerity, were trying to show Americans what it felt or at least looked like to have combat in the streets. What the film does not admit--and what ultimately dooms it to artistic failure--is the youthful exuberance and downright energy of being a kid in Sixties America. These were smart, mostly college-educated young folks to whom the old days of the bridge over the river Kwai may have been an abstraction but to whom the contemporary sight of their brothers coming home in boxes was a reality, as was the nightly news reports of villages strafed, civilians slaughtered, and senselessness shared.
    We still do not see that these days. We do not see the news reports of coffins beneath draped flags. We do not see the cemeteries. We do see stupid video games that glorify murder in combat.
Vietnam did not have "embedded" reporters. Iraq did. Afghanistan does. And yet chances are we know less about what has happened there than the average sixteen-year-old knew about Vietnam a generation or two ago. Maybe that is why there has yet to be a Weather Underground II.


Pi
    Made for only thirty thousand dollars, Pi (1998) takes on some mighty big issues, such as the notion that mathematics can reveal the patterns of life, that a 216-digit number reveals the true name of God, and that even a genius needs a vacation once in a while. Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) seeks what he wants and risks losing what he needs. To that end, this is the same old appliance, a fight for math and science, meaning we've seen the ideas before; that is, we've seen them if we've ever watched any horror movies made prior to the 1970s. Maybe that's why director Darren Aronofsky shot the picture in black and white. That decision certainly did not come with sensuality in mind because the filmmaker eschews such sensations at every turn. And that is ultimately why I have to reject Pi, however much I would have loved to love it, baby.
The stale electronic music contributes a certain emotional vacuity. The performance of Mark Margolis as the wise and retired Sol accomplishes the same. This film is so devoid of anything approximating soul that when a villainous Wall Street type played by Pamela Hart comes rushing in to rob Max of his mind, we sort of hope she'll at least be good enough to fuck him in return. Ah, but no such luck.
    I know for a fact that certain wonderful people of my acquaintance swear by this movie, in part because it plays to their intellect and in part because it strokes their paranoia. The movie earns its few good points for both these achievements. But if you're going to steal and update the work of French new wave movie-makers, the least you could do is try to imbue your characters with enough subtlety to be something other than purely annoying. Even the ending, which regrettably we can see coming far in advance, remains a cheat because the genius only gets happiness after brutally harming himself. The suggestion that smart people are too stupid to see the variations for the decimal points may be true, but I'll take my doses of morality from Dr. Suess rather than these guys.


South of the Border
    Given a bit of time, the proper alignment of circumstances, and the rigorous application of tenacity, the dispersed components of truth manifest themselves while oceans of aridity and disillusionment freeze in that instant of doubt. The connections among events, some real, others imagined, coalesce along the border and between breaths there emerges a blip, a flicker, a flash of recognition of a fist pounding the air as men and women gaze, as old people cry, as children utter nervous giggles. In that moment of incredulity, the universe explodes.
    The universe laughs until its kidneys explode.
    Have you ever noticed how ridiculous most politicians appear when they attempt to identify themselves with working people? Whether it is Michael Dukakis riding in an army tank, George H. W. Bush trying to buy something without cash, Mitt Romney arguing that he knows Detroit because his wife drives two Cadillacs, or Abraham Lincoln manufacturing much of his working-class childhood, the stench of the bovine defecation chokes us until we pass out from laughing. Yet, there is a scene in the Oliver Stone documentary South of the Border (2009) where president Hugo Chavez visits the community where he grew up. He hops on a bicycle in a staged attempt to amuse the crowd and the bicycle virtually snaps in half under his considerable weight. Can you imagine how a modern day American politico would handle this? The camera crews would be locked up, the crowd of onlookers quarantined, and the photographic equipment would be confiscated and destroyed. The Venezuelan leader handled things a bit differently. He laughed at himself, right on camera. He laughed and said that he would have to buy the kid who owned it a new bike. The moment was natural because it was true and because it was true it was beautiful.
    To an extent, something that psychologists call the observer-expectancy effect may be happening here. After all, Chavez is no dummy and the presence of a renegade filmmaker such as Mr. Stone may have prompted some of the glad-handing scenes. Still, this monumental film of inspired counter-propaganda shines a rarefied light onto the fascinating Hugo Chavez and his presidency.
President Chavez, you see, is fighting against the effects of colonialism.
    The last time the government of the United States identified anything explicitly as colonialism was when we still had the thirteen original colonies. From the time of the American Revolution onward, we have owned and operated much like our own former European masters, seeing the people of other countries as an ungrateful lot who have to be protected from their own worst impulses. Flash forward to South America, to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, to Evo Morales in Bolivia, to Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Argentina, to Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, Lula de Silva in Brazil, Rafeal Correa in Ecuador. These folks recognize the one-time colonial status of their countries because they know their history, they know the stories of Simon Bolivar, and they know, as did he, how to think in centuries. These folks are the formerly disaffected. They are women, the soldiers, the bishops, the metal workers, the trade unionists. They are the people who have suffered and who have grown from their suffering.
    Oliver Stone spent time with each of the leaders mentioned above and his interviews with them, and with Raoul Castro of Cuba, are the superficial focal point of his fascinating documentary. History, however, is the real star of the show. It is a history that began with the dream of a united Latin America speaking with one voice in favor of its people and against the Europeans and their descendants.
    The President of the United States, Barack Obama, came to that office at a most monumental time in world history. With leftist and populist movements celebrating their victories throughout South America, with nations paying off their debts to the International Monetary Fund and thereby freeing themselves to act in accordance with the best interests of the people of their countries rather than in the interests of financiers, and with a massively unpopular outgoing series of imperialist foreign policies from a previous administration, the proper alignment of circumstances appeared to be set in place.
    For a long time I wondered why the ruling class in the United States--by which I mean the media, the banks, the oil companies--were so united in their opposition to Obama. After all, wasn't he simply a dark-skinned member of their own old boys club? Perhaps he was. But the attacks against Obama in this country stem from his refusal to endorse centuries of colonial efforts against the people of Latin America. Chavez himself told Stone that he hopes Obama will be another [Franklin] Roosevelt. He meant that statement in terms of U.S. domestic policy, but the reality is that Obama's policies regarding Latin America are closer to those of FDR than any president since World War II. Venezuela has oil, a lot of it. And when the oil companies in that country became nationalized, just as the sugar cane fields did in Cuba decades ago, that fact is upsetting to those who profit from the exploitation of natural resources. Nationalization is the opposite of privatization. And it is the latter practice that diverts wealth into the hands of a few, leaving billions of empty stomachs grumbling for crumbs. If that sounds hyperbolic, I apologize. You see, this film has that kind of an effect on me, in large part because, watching South of the Border, one is again reminded of the corruption of most of the global media empires. CNN does not have your best interests at heart. Certainly Fox does not. The less regressive (as opposed to the word of the moment "progressive") Current TV and MSNBC occasionally do but that's only because of the renegade work of the teams of Maddow and (formerly) Olbermann. And so this film demands that we think about the issues it raises. Stone himself argues in favor of the possibility of a "benign capitalism," rather than the overtly predatory version currently in place. Naturally, the movie does not explore what he thinks the components of such a system would be. That's because, in the final analysis, some type of leftward socialism is coming and he knows it. Obama is not a socialist. However, even that Harvard graduate is smart enough to recognize the wisdom of an old man, long dead, who said, "When a man senses the winds of change blowing, if he is wise he builds a windmill and not a wind block."

Soldier Blue
    Today's film, Soldier Blue (1970), absorbed its cinematic influences from John Ford, William Hart, and John Sturges. Its morality, however, emerges directly from the spirit of the preceding decade, one which challenged the pre-existing order, sometimes offering that challenge with a peace sign in the face, other times with a closed fist. Co-mingling these influences can serve as satire, homage, or simple artistic choice. On the levels of which this movie fails, the most stark is that the audience will be unable to answer that particular set of questions. All the old elements present themselves: an Indian attack on a confused cavalry, a woman rescued from the clutches of the Cheyenne, music that cues the proper emotional response from the audience, wide opened spaces that take the breath from even the black-hatted villain.
    And yet where the movie does work, it works well. Those small victories begin with the casting of Candice Bergen as the female lead, Cresta Lee. I can think of no one else who could have played the role of the woman freed from her presumed captivity with the native Americans. Cresta is at once angry, sentimental, cynical, lascivious and ornery. By the end of the film's first fifteen minutes, during which most of the bad actors are happily killed off, Bergen proves herself brilliant at initiating the role reversal that will captivate us for the rest of the film. Her foil is Honus Gent, played well by Peter Strauss. His character is slightly deluded, prudish, loyal, merciful, and fastidious. This gender role reversal is tough to play straight and audiences lulled into accepting the traditional accouterments of a John Ford western (which director Ralph Nelson clearly emulates) probably won't know whether to laugh or be suspicious. And while certain comic flourishes pop up from time to time, Soldier Blue is a tragedy, plain and simple. It was also considered ultra-violent in those days and near the end you may even agree. While this movie doesn't warrant much more commentary than this, if I were Ebert I'd give it at least one up-turned thumb just because Strauss has such great hair and because Bergen conveys a set of emotional strengths at a time when she was only twenty-four years old that actors twice her age would have murdered to possess. But even a nice bit of theme music sung by Buffy Sainte-Marie still can't quite save this movie from being relegated to the "made for TV" dustbins of the period. Still, if you want to see the framework for a class where promising young actors are pitted against old-and-in-the-way hacks, this'll be right up your totem pole.


Harold and Maude
    The old theatre maxim declares that "Acting is reacting." In the development of one's skill, this remains a vital bit of advice. In the movie Harold and Maude (1971), we witness something a bit more organic than synthetic, a bit more natural than contrived. For that reason, some critics didn't care much for the performance of Bud Cort as Harold and gave only backhanded praise to Ruth Gordon as Maude. Here's an example. When Maude meets Harold, she asks him if he sings and dances. He replies that he does not, speaking the words as if it were not entirely crazy that someone would ask him that. Maude watches his mouth as he replies and then says that she didn't think he did. Harold's reaction to this is something we are denied because at that moment Maude roars off in a stolen VW bug.
   The psychology of being an audience member or viewer is that we get conditioned to expect certain reactions in advance and director Hal Ashby (whom we last discussed in The Landlord) denies us this preconceived satisfaction. The actions and reactions remain unaffected. This can cause things to drag a bit, particularly if we fall into another expectation, this time by believing the movie to be a comedy, which apparently a lot of people did.
    Harold and Maude are a bit obsessed with funerals, you see, although for very different reasons. Harold is roughly eighteen and lives at home with his mother, a wealthy narcissist who knows all the trendy psychological terminology of the day. The psychiatric foundation is essential in her life because Harold commits no less than four suicide stunts in the first twenty minutes of the film. His mother's tired indifference to these actions initially push us around until we realize that she has been enduring this behavior for some time. And so our nervous giggling turns to a more cerebral curiosity of just what it is that makes poor Harold so unhappy. After all, he has money, he has boyish good looks, he has an excellent wardrobe.
    He also has no father, although he does have a one-armed, kill-crazy military uncle who attempts to draft the boy into the service to make a man of him. He has a series of uninteresting female callers who want to get to know him better. And he has all the Cat Stevens records money can buy. What more does a growing boy need?
    What this boy needs is a humanist, anarchistic scofflaw, an eco-friendly woman approaching her eightieth birthday by living in a box car, sculpting erotic forms, stealing cars and going to funerals.     Her name, of course, is Maude.
    To give the critics their due, Ashby does misdirect us with the occasional visual blip of hysterical humor, as when the uncle salutes with his missing arm and when Harold's mom finds that the third of three computer-selected dates has killed herself during their first meeting (Mother: "Oh, Harold. That was your last date.") And yet the fact remains that life contains all sorts of laughter and crying, wit and sorrow, daisies and tombstones (which the cinematographer juxtaposes with some brilliance). But the real clue that Ashby is deadly serious in his transformation of writer-producer Colin Higgins' script comes as, for just one second, we are clued in that Maude is a survivor of the Holocaust. I'm not going to tell you the specific clue because it is the kind of thing you need to observe for yourself. Indeed, it is possible that you will be too young and underexposed (as Harold may be) to recognize it as a clue at all.
    Ultimately, I suspect what the critics objected to most about this movie was the idea of a love affair between a man-child and an old woman. But the experience of getting to understand Maude is what changes Harold for the better, however painful that change may have been.
    Now, I have to admit at this point that the songs Cat Stevens sings throughout this film, at least to my ears, give the movie something of a preachy tone and that is unfortunate because being preached at is one of the major drags of being a young person in any age. That brings us to the other area in which I do agree with the people who had problems with this work. We really get no particular insight into what it is that bothers Harold so much. Apparently Harold's persona exists so that we can throw our own memories of teenage horror (recent or ancient) onto the screen and hope that something sticks. Or, we can simply take it for granted that what Ashby and Higgins rail against is the sterility of the upper class. After all, Harold lives in something of a castle and Maude's digs are infinitely more modest. But that explanation doesn't really satisfy, however preconditioned we may be to expect it. Well, maybe it's the self-absorbed mother or the unspoken absence of a father in these materialistic times. Maybe it's the glorification of killing or the contrived happiness shoved down our throats. It's a good question and we don't really get much of an answer.
    All the same, it feels good to see Ruth Gordon breathing life into every frame of this film, just as it feels weird watching Bud Cort's subdued performance. And even a bad movie by Ashby is better than no Ashby at all. This movie is not bad. It simply falls short of being great. Just like life.


Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
    No matter how much you think you know about the case charging unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor brought against Roman Polanski, this amazing film will surprise you.
    The film, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008) was directed by Marina Zenovich and does not suffer the same torturous exploitation as many HBO documentaries, probably because HBO had almost nothing to do with the movie. The credit for this movie's excellence goes to Zenovich, Antidote Films and the BBC. Credit must also go to former deputy District Attorney Roger Gunson and defense attorney Douglas Dalton, two men who emerged from the manipulated quagmire of Judge Rittenband's proceedings to share their feelings about a miscarriage of justice, not only for Polanski, but for the victim, Samantha Geimer, nee Gailey.
   Obviously, if I tell you everything here, your interest in seeing the documentary may be diminished and that would be a shame because this fascinating film won for editing at Sundance, won at the National Board of Review, won twice at the Emmys, and was nominated several other times. Certainly it deserved every honor it has received. However, I think it is fair to admit that Zenovich weaves extremely rare file footage with interviews from most of the participants, including an extraordinarily pissed-off Philip Vannatter, whom you may recall from the witness stand in the televised trial of O. J. Simpson. This tapestry becomes more and more fascinating the longer we examine it.
    Here are some points that are not in dispute:
    Roman Polanski did have sexual intercourse with a thirteen year old girl at the home of actor Jack Nicholson in 1977. That was a crime. It was also wrong.
    The prosecutor, Roger Gunson, was selected, the joke around town went, because he was the only man in the D.A.'s office at that time who had not had sex with an under-age girl. Today Gunson gives every appearance of being a thoughtful man who does not much cherish his time in the D.A.'s office.
The defense attorney, Doug Dalton, at all times put the interests of his client in the forefront of his efforts.
    The trial judge, Laurence Rittenband, was experienced in high-profile Hollywood litigation and intended from the outset to control the media presentation of the proceedings.
    The probation department recommended Polanski be given straight probation. This was one of several options available to the judge as part of the director's plea bargain arrangements. Instead, the judge sentenced him to ninety days observation at Chino State, where he would be evaluated by staff to determine a judicious outcome.
    A court-appointed psychiatrist had already determined that Polanski was not a mentally ill sex offender.
    Polanski was released by Chino after forty-two days. Their recommendation was probation.
Concerned that whichever way he ruled the press would skewer him, Judge Rittenband instructed the defense attorney to appear in court to argue for probation, while he also ordered the prosecutor to demand a harsher sentence.
    Roman Polanski left the United States for France prior to sentencing because he was unwilling to accept the possibility that a crazy judge might sentence him to as much as fifty years in prison.

    To tell more about the legal proceedings would be to give away too much.

    Outside the courtroom, however, Zenovich hits on some interesting details, not least of which being the art of Mr. Polanski. And that is where one expects her to get into trouble. And yet she does not. At no point does Zenovich attempt to mitigate her subject's behavior. Polanski escaped the Nazis at the age of five, attended film school, made his first feature at a young age, was introduced to the actress Sharon Tate, and was putting the finishing touches on a film in Europe when he got the phone call of the murder of his wife and four others at the hands of the Charles Manson family.
    She also quite wisely casts attention on the way Europe has chosen to experience the director of such films as Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion, Macbeth, Chinatown, The Tenant, Tess, The Ninth Gate, The Pianist, The Ghost Writer, and others.
    But the real thrust of this exciting documentary is in the legal proceedings themselves. Zenovich, on the website for the film, makes this statement: 


Samantha Geimer and her attorney appeared on Larry King Live [in 2003] where she publicly forgave Polanski. Her lawyer said something that night, which started my five-year odyssey. He said, ‘What happened that day, both to Polanski and to some extent the American judicial system, I really think it was a shameful day.’ What was he talking about? I knew that Polanski fled the country but I couldn’t imagine how or why Geimer’s lawyer thought that Polanski had been wronged. I was intrigued. I realized that the only way I was going to get to the truth was to talk to the people who were there. I soon discovered that 30 years on, this long misunderstood case still stirred extremely strong feelings. Having spoken to most of those involved, I discovered that Polanski fleeing the country has totally eclipsed what happened during the judicial proceedings. I also realized the case was tragic for everyone involved. Polanski remains in France, unable to return to the U.S. or countries that have an extradition treaty with the U.S. for unlawful sexual intercourse. Samantha Geimer will forever be known as ‘the girl who had sex with Roman Polanski.’ Both the prosecution and defense have expressed remorse regarding the way the case unfolded.

American: The Bill Hicks Story
   The idea of something or someone being the greatest is ridiculous. You read The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald and you say to yourself, "My God, that is the greatest book ever written!" Then you read another book, maybe something by Dostoevsky, and it blows your mind, so you say, "Wait! I was wrong! Notes From Underground is really the greatest book of all time!" Or perhaps it's a painting. You stand before Picasso's Guernica and you can't even move as the tears run down your face and in your mind you are saying, "This! This is the greatest painting of all time!" And then your kid comes home from first grade with some retarded little finger painting exercise he did, something that took him all of five minutes to create. You shoot a glance over at his cherubic face, seeing that he wants you to guess what this thing is. And you say to yourself, "The kid's no fucking Picasso, that's for sure."
   I don't believe in relativity, in the sense that people use the word when they say, "It's all relative." I say, "What's all relative?" They look at me kind of funny because everyone else has always just nodded and agreed with them. They say, "Well, you know. It." "Oh," I say, giving them the nod they were so obviously expecting. "You mean our perceptions as we interpret them in relation to other presumably sentient beings upon this tiny mud ball of a planet in the sense that two people staring at an apple cannot possibly be experiencing that apple in the same exact way?" And they say, "Uh, well, sure. That's right."
   So I have never much cared for this notion that any one thing in any one classification--a book, a movie, a building, a car--can be the objectively greatest thing of its type because up until just a few minutes ago I bought into the spectacular notion that these morons were right when they said that everything is relative. Relative to the moment, relative to the person, relative to the situation.
Well, relevate this.
    The greatest comedian I have ever seen is Bill Hicks.
   Wait, wait, wait! I know already what you're going to say. You're saying something like, "Naw, Phil, you must be crazy. First of all, we've never heard of anybody with a name like that and besides, how can you say such a thing? I mean, there was poor old George Carlin who died a few years back. There's Lily Tomlin, John Belushi, Richard Pryor, Elayne Boosler, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl! Dude, you don't know what you're talking about!"
    Actually I do know what I'm talking about. I know because I just finished watching American: The Bill Hicks Story (2009). I've seen it, you haven't, so come back when you've watched it a few times and then we can talk.
   What's that? You can't watch it right now because you're reading this review? Sir or madam, you have some fucked up priorities. But, okay. I'll tell you what. I'll do my best to write today's review in the style of the comedy of the late Mr. Hicks. That way--wait for it!--you'll get the idea without having to trouble yourself with all the messy aggravation of turning off the porn on TV and Netflix doesn't have the really good dirty shit anyway, but heck, now you've been there without even leaving the farm.
    I think perhaps I have butchered Bill's style enough for one day. Still, I stand by what I said in the rant above. He was the greatest comedian this country has produced, at least in my lifetime so far. He did his first performance in a comedy club in Houston when he was fifteen-years-old and never looked back, except in anger. He was no Sam Kinison, screaming for its own sake, or cutey boy Robin Williams being quick-witted to get laid. He was no clown, no fool, no panderer. What he was was the rust on the blade of an serrated switchblade knife.
    What we've come to expect with documentaries about artists is interviews with people who knew the person, some old pictures, maybe a bit of old film footage of the genius at work and a bunch of sad-eyed ladies of the lowlands moaning about what a monumental loss that person's passing has been. We've come to expect cynical, sentimental drivel from people like Elvis's bodyguards or John Lennon's chauffeur or Kurt Cobain's drug dealer. "Yep, he was a helluva guy. Let me tell you something about him that'll disillusion the shit out of you." This movie is none of those things.
    Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas use the old footage, the still photographs, the funny stories, but they use them in a way that actually gives the audience a sense of what it must have been like to have known Bill Hicks from a hundred different perspectives. His friends and family serve as narrators while the still pictures get cut and placed into moving images that add to our appreciation for the spirit from which Hicks emerged.
   That spirit, of course, was the suburbs. Bill, like many a kid before him, wanted out. A need drove him to be funny. A need drove him to rebel. And a need drove him to accuse.
   I've been hearing so much bullshit lately from people who have not bothered to think in something like the last twenty or thirty years and I'll just bet you've had those same kinds of people coming at you with their pent up nonsense because they've found you, brother, they've got you, sister, and now that they have you, they're damned sure going to make certain you understand where exactly the fuck they are coming from. Never mind that in their own sick, demented worlds time has no value and the biggest concern they can imagine is whether or not "Dancing with the Stars" or "American Idol" will be on tonight and oh God I hope Steven Tyler doesn't fart while he's trying to seduce Gladys Knight again this week. 
   Okay, okay, I'll stop. But I want you to understand the reason I bring such passion and vulgarity to this particular session today. The reason why is that I stopped getting belly-laugh kicks out of life around the time that Reagan took control of the United States. Call me an alarmist, but what with all the union-busting, delaying of the release of hostages, attempts at building an invisible shield over our country to deflect the anti-ballistic missiles launched by the evil empire, and my idiot grandmother in awe of the man because, as she put it, "He's so handsome," a good bit of the jollies just up and marched out of my life.
    Then I endured that vile cocksucker that came after Reagan. Then I endured that rabid scumbag that came after that cocksucker who came after Reagan. Then I endured that sniveling, smirking piece of rodential feces that came after Clinton. Then I endured that corporate shill that came after Bush Junior. So I haven't exactly had any good reasons to laugh out loud lately.
   Now I do. And so do you.
   The bad news is that Bill is dead. Stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer. Cancer cancer. It killed him. He's dead. And yet I think he enjoyed his life. I hope he did. I hope that his spirit somewhere is surfing off the coast of the imaginary hell where he screams out Ozzy tunes and he's looking down on us with that knowing set of eyes. He'll be nodding. And he'll say, "Don't sweat it, man. It's all relative."
In the meantime, friends, enjoy every sandwich.

Helter Skelter
   It's not quite like yesterday, but I can still remember with considerable clarity the night of April 1, 1976. The first half of the television movie "Helter Skelter" was being aired. VCRs and DVDs did not exist in people's homes in those days, so I filmed the TV set with my 35mm home movie camera. The finished product didn't turn out particularly well, although it was good enough for my purposes.
    You see, I had a fascination with this case, one that only diminished slightly in the ensuing years. But we'll get to that a bit later. The reason I filmed the movie was so I could do a scene-by-scene analysis of it for my senior English class. I had a paper due under the general heading of process and development, meaning I was to write a paper about how some particular thing had come into existence and how it had then developed into something else. Because the teacher, whose last name I will not use here but whose first name was Virginia, had rejected my first proposal for a paper, on the grounds that the development of acne was not quite what she was looking for, I figured I'd do something else to freak her out. I picked that movie. Good Lord, I had no idea with whom I was messing, and I do not mean Charlie Manson.
It turned out that Virginia had spent much of the summer of 1969 living in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles, not far at all from what was at that time 10050 Cielo Drive. Had I put actual effort into trying to find one subject that would send the teacher into frantic fits, I couldn't have done a better job. So let's be clear. I did not like this English teacher at all. I thought then and I think now that she was a mean-spirited, underfed woman who believed herself the victim of a cruel world because she had been relocated from the land of the hoi polloi and sunshine to the windblown acreage of central Ohio. She thought herself a supreme intellectual and a worthy critic of the presumably limited imaginations of those students she had the misfortune of instructing.
    So, no, I did not like this Virginia woman.
    I did not, however, know that she had been a neighbor of the Polanski family or that she had spent time under psychiatric care because of the fear the Tate murders had caused her. I really did not know this.
    I selected my subject, as I say, because I thought it would mildly annoy her and because it was a topic about which I was a minor-level expert.
   I filmed the movie's first half the night of April 1. I was duly impressed. The Vincent Bugliosi/Curt Gentry book had been one scary ride and I had been anxious to seen how things would play out on film. The next night I filmed the second half. Not quite as scary as the first, I thought, but still pretty intense.
    The third night I sat down and played the damned thing back, once I picked up the developed copy at the photography studio. The quality was quite poor but I had enough clarity to plot out what was basically a storyboard of what had been on the screen. By the time the morning rolled around, I had over one hundred pages of notes and drawings, along with an opening and summation. While I had originally planned to shock Virginia with the subject matter, I ended up quite proud of myself for the effort I had spent doing this. I was fairly certain that she would approach it with grudging interest and I would certainly receive a fine grade for the course.
   In the words of Puck the dancing fairy, "Oh what fools these mortals be."
    She read no more than the first page. Her quivering hand reached out to me. She said, "This is unacceptable. You need to select a more traditional topic."
    Well, that's the way it goes. My reaction got me suspended from school for three days, which is the only time I was ever in any real trouble in high school.
    The exercise was good for me, all the same. It was way back then that I first began to understand that I had what I guess you could call a love affair with the movies. I loved the way one scene was constructed so that it would lead naturally into the next. I loved the fact that movies are typically filmed out of sequence. And I loved the ability of a group of people under the supervision of a director to put together a product that people could view in their own homes or in the theatre and be affected by it.
   I think it goes without saying that I have watched the original "Helter Skelter" movie a few times over the following years, most recently just a few minutes ago. Compared to the remake, which came out in 2004, I suppose this seems rather tame. And yet the original served a purpose and still does. It has a degree of authenticity lacking in any of the follow-ups. For instance, director Tom Gries was able to use the actual LaBianca house for the murders of the second night. Likewise, the vehicle used by the "family" in the film was the actual Johnny Swartz Ford used by the real killers. Beyond that, however, Steve Railsback, who played Manson, and whom we last saw in The Visitors, did a good job playing a mass murderer for a TV audience. Granted, the camera didn't take us into the Tate house during the actual recreations of the killings, as it did during the remake, but the implied horror was even more intense if not more so because of the suggestion, repeated a few times near the conclusion, that these killers might soon be getting out on parole.
   Some questions remain, even after all these years. First is the exact number of people murdered by Manson and his followers. It now appears we will not know the answer to this and that is a damned shame. In her jailhouse "admission" to Ronnie Howard, Susan Atkins stated that there were eleven murders committed by the family that the police would never solve. This admission took place within the context of a conversation regarding the murders of Gary Hinman and the seven Tate-LaBianca killings and so the logical inference is that she was not including those eight people in her head count. One of the eleven was probably Donald "Shorty" Shea, a laborer at Spahn Ranch. By pouring over old police records, trial transcripts, magazine articles, online sources and books, I have come up with a total of about twenty-two possibles, not including Tate-LaBianca. I believe many of these victims are known to the police who simply lack evidence to charge and prosecute. A search of the area surrounding Barker Ranch in Death Valley as recently as three years ago did not turn up any physical remains.
   A second question that remains is: Who's eyeglasses were those left at the Tate murder scene? A follow-up question is: How did they get there? We know that the glasses did not belong to any of the victims and we know they did not belong to the killers. The logical inference is that they were left behind as a false clue. But by whom? Susan Atkins did not mention them in any of her admissions in Sybil Brand detention, nor during her grand jury testimony or during her testimony during the guilt phase of her own trial. Writer Ed Sanders has speculated that Manson himself placed the glasses inside the house after the killings. This would require him to have gone to the Tate house after the killers he sent returned to Spahn Ranch that August night, something that prosecutor Bugliosi thinks is unlikely because of the natural fear Manson would have had at putting himself at risk by entering the house at all. Susan Atkins knew whose glasses they were, but apparently no one in authority ever got around to asking her before she died.
    The third question is: Why did they pick the LaBianca house? The house where Sharon Tate and four others were murdered was chosen for several reasons, chiefly being that Manson had a grudge against a former tenant there, Tex Watson knew the home's layout, and these victims were successful in areas where Manson himself had aspired and failed. But why go after the LaBiancas? Granted, Charlie and others in the Family had been in the house next door on several occasions, but nothing else has ever been presented that would shine light on why the husband and wife, Leno and Rosemary, were slaughtered by these people, other than a totally random attempt to start the race war known as Helter Skelter. Random just doesn't make it. There has to have been another reason.
     Charles Manson, Charles Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten: one or more of these prisoners of the state of California must know the answers to these questions. And while it would be absurd to expect any of them to acknowledge or admit to participation in still other murders (Claudia Delaney, Marina Habe, Mark Watts, Doreen Gaul, Karl Stubbs, Darwin Scott, Jane Doe 59, and others), some of them must be able to exchange what they know for special consideration, giving the fact that, except for Van Houten, it now seems highly unlikely that any of them--or Robert Beausoleil and Bruce Davis, for that matter--will be released in this life time. That leads us to the final question that I have:
    Will any of the convicted murders of Sharon Tate and the others ever be released?
    I think not. Again, with the possible exception of Van Houten, who was along and a willing participant in the events of the second night, there is very little chance that any of the others will see freedom. Even if they were granted parole, no California governor with dreams of reelection would ever sign the executive release orders.
And so the story goes on. Steve "Clem" Grogan was released years ago. Squeaky Fromme is out. Most of the men and women, now quite gray and hunched, are settling into old age, hoping to put the past behind them, just as the families of the victims try to do the same. And yet, until the above questions are answered, I doubt we can actually take any comfort in telling ourselves that the events of August 1969 are completely over.
   The original "Helter Skelter" movie is a good place to start your own curious mind to wandering. Just don't expect to get any sleep for a few nights.