Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Counterculture commandos: war films from an anti-war decade

A Mad magazine-style poster for "Kelly's Heroes" by Mad's own Mort Drucker -- satire and caricature rule the day.

"The surest way to become a pacifist is to join the infantry." -- Bill Mauldin

The recent death of actor/director Brian G. Hutton, who made two of the most ridiculously overwrought war films of all time back-to-back – “Where Eagles Dare” (1969) and “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970) – prompted me to think about the curious topic of war films made during the height of popular anti-war sentiment. What made them so popular?

It seems to take about 20 years before traumatic historical events become treated by popular culture in America. In the 1960’s, bloodthirsty boys my age were inundated with stories and products that glorified armed combat, specifically that of World War II. We had G.I. Joes; we read comic books such as “Sgt. Rock” and “Star Spangled War Stories” and “Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos” and avidly followed the adventures of The Unknown Soldier, The Haunted Tank, The Losers, and Enemy Ace. On TV, we watched “Combat!”, “The Rat Patrol,” and “Twelve O’clock High.”

As a result, we were always playing war, on dangerous missions against tool sheds, water towers, building sites, and our little sisters. With meticulous planning, split-second timing, and ruthless execution, we disabled imaginary convoys, blew up tanks, massacred enemy columns, cut supply lines, and annoyed our little sisters. That is except when I, the youngest and weakest of my peer group, was forced to play the German – the beginning of my lifetime interest in playing villains, psychos, and otherworldly creatures. We were struggling to understand what society expected from us as men (our fathers modeled manliness mainly by working, drinking, smoking, and fixing stuff), and of what moral action consisted.

We were looking to commit morally justifiable mayhem, basically. Maybe that's what our veteran fathers were trying to teach us, too.

Mainstream American cinema’s take on the war genre has flipped-flopped considerably. A glimpse of America’s pastoral, pacifist, anti-interventionist stance can be seen in movies such as Griffith’s “Intolerance” and Barker, Ince, and West’s “Civilization,” both from 1916. Both films get it both ways – we see graphic violence and destruction, which is later denounced. In fact, “Civilization” was seen as a supporting factor in convincing the public to support Woodrow Wilson’s narrow reelection of that year, under the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” Of course, America’s entry into World War I five months later meant that “Civilization” was pulled immediately from distribution, as we moved into killing mode. It has since been lost to time, save for screenings by film scholars.

While Hollywood supported the war effort in 1917 and 1918, the mood after armistice rapidly turned sour. A more cynical and devastated Europe was quicker to condemn the bloodshed -- Abel Gance’s “J’Accuse” of 1919 was immensely popular. Reports from disillusioned American participants, beginning with John Dos Passos’ 1921 novel “Three Soldiers” and Anderson and Stallings’s play “What Price Glory?” of 1924 (Stallings started as an enthusiastic volunteer, and subsequently lost both his legs due to combat), helped to turn the U.S. mood back into an isolationist one. A steady stream of “war is hell” World War I sagas resulted – G.W. Pabst’s “Westfront 1918,” James Whale’s “Journey’s End,” Milestone’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and Howard Hawks’ “The Dawn Patrol,” all from 1930, suffice as examples.

As America moved toward participation in World War II, however, the pendulum swung back again. For a time, the major studios were reluctant to vilify fascism, worried about alienating the huge German market for U.S. films. However, reading the political wind, films supporting intervention and glorifying war began to be released. “Sergeant York,” again by Howard Hawks, with its emphatic anti-pacifist message, was the highest-grossing film of 1941 and won Gary Cooper an Oscar.

Then as always, movies were schooling us on how to think as a nation. The sociological subtext of the stereotypical World War II-era combat film was remarkably similar. In them, a coalition of various representative types (the naïve kid, the guy from Brooklyn, the drawling southerner, the Hispanic, and, towards the very end of the war, the black soldier – all wisecracking and nominally anti-authoritarian, of course) is forged into a cohesive, effective unit and led into battle by a square-jawed, right-thinking WASP male.

Role model Errol Flynn (standing) in "Objective, Burma!" (1945)
This propagandistic idealism was usually contrasted to the slaughterhouse principles of our grim, humorless, ethnically cleansed German opponents. Nazis made the best villains. They were articulate, monomaniacal, blatantly sadistic, and seemed to have all consciously chosen an identical inhuman ethos. A preponderance of war films of that era were set in Europe, the better to emphasize the ideological basis of the struggle.

Ironically, the racism espoused by the on-screen Nazis was imitated almost exactly by American films when it came to Japanese enemies. Over and over, in live-action and animated films of the period, “Japs” are characterized as grinning, bucktoothed, lisping monsters, subhuman, often equated with apes, insects, worms, vampires, and other creatures. This kind of thinking, and the institutionalized theft from and incarceration of Japanese-Americans that went hand-in-hand with it, would take decades to subside and be healed.

Sorry. This horrible type of racist imagery was common in America during WWII.

Almost the minute World War II ends, the mood changes again. Starting with novels such as “The Naked and the Dead” and “From Here to Eternity,” the questioning of the nature, dynamics, and results obtained by the American system, even when shaped to fight fascism, began.

In addition to Samuel Fuller’s consistently misanthropic tone in films such as “Fixed Bayonets!” and “The Steel Helmet,” and Stanley Kubrick’s persistent anti-war messages in “Fear and Desire,” “Paths of Glory,” “Dr. Strangelove,” et al, other movies asked questions, too. Aldrich’s “Attack!” (1956), Lean’s “Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), Milestone/Peck’s “Pork Chop Hill” (1959), Hiller’s “The Americanization of Emily” (1964), and Wise’s “The Sand Pebbles” (1966) all proclaimed that not only was war hell, but that it was an insane and insupportable premise. Even actors such as Frank Sinatra and Cornell Wilde made pacifist statements as directors – in “None But the Brave” (1965) and “Beach Red” (1967), respectively. [Note: I am deliberately excluding the thin but persistent thread of explicitly anti-war films such as Mann’s “Men in War” (1957), Perry’s “Ladybug Ladybug” (1963), Seaton’s “The Hook” (1963), and Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun” (1971)].

Another thread of development was the “professionals only/men on a mission” subgenre. Born of the heist subgenre, foregrounded by the international success of Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” (1954), it was spearheaded in America by Howard Hawks in his “Rio Bravo”/”El Dorado”/”Rio Lobo” trilogy that began in 1959, and reinforced by the massive output of similar material by British author Alistair MacLean, whose narrative world is much more closely related to the Cold War vibe of cross and double-cross, shifting identities and allegiances, than the traditional war saga. The film adaptation of “The Guns of Navarone” (Thompson, 1961) became a defining template.

Additionally, as character-actor types began to supplant leading-men types, it became more normative for misfits and anti-heroes to act as film protagonists. Steve McQueen, an emblematic outsider-rebel, saves his squad in Don Siegel’s “Hell is for Heroes” (1962) precisely because he obeys no one and respects nothing.

The conflation of these three streams – a blanket cynicism, a rejection of the power of team playing and fellow-feeling, and the elevation of the misfit – all came together in Aldrich’s “The Dirty Dozen,” an immense hit from the day it was released – June 15, 1967, almost the chronological midpoint of the Summer of Love.

In it, an OSS major (Lee Marvin, who moved in his career from stock villain to emblematic nonconformist tough guy) is tasked with recruiting a bunch of military convicts, whipping them into shape as a fighting team, and leading them behind enemy lines to assassinate members of the German high command. Driven not by love of country but only the hope of pardon if they survive the mission, the “dirty dozen” are a “twisted, anti-social bunch of psychopathic deformities.” (The only cinematically reassuring presence in the entire film is Richard Jaeckel. He was seemingly contractually obligated to appear in every war film made over a quarter-century, from “Guadalcanal Diary” in 1943 through “The Devil’s Brigade” in 1968.)

The prime villain of the piece is not any given Nazi, but an American equivalent – the sadistic, bullying Col. Breed (Robert Ryan at his usual evil best). And, in the end, the suicide squad doesn’t fight other soldiers on the battlefield; it eliminates officers and women in a gasoline-soaked, grenade-barraged bunker. The Dozen are perfect for the job because killing is a job for lunatics – and in war, the most organized, well-equipped, and efficient lunatics win. (Marvin, a veteran of the Pacific front, was so disgusted by the unreality of the film that he refused other kinds of war-film roles for years -- save his turn in Fuller's relentlessly honest "The Big Red One" in 1980 --  not reprising his role as Reisman until 1985, when infamous "palimony" demands forced him to film a sequel.)

In “Where Eagles Dare” in 1969, Brian Hutton directs from an Alistair MacLean script (MacLean wrote the screenplay over a six-week period, having the template down pat by this time in his career). The uniting of two highly unlikely co-stars, the suavely sarcastic Richard Burton and the taciturn, inexpressive Clint Eastwood, was purely a marketing decision. The insanely convoluted plot, taut with uncertainty, is right out of the Cold War handbook. It throws in a couple of toothsome females (Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt, the latter a Hammer horror scream queen), perfectly nasty Nazis such as Derren Nesbitt and Anton Diffring, and good old Michael Hordern as a friendly admiral.

And lots and lots and lots of killing. There is an informal count about 100 Nazis killed on screen – the highest ratio of any World War II or Clint Eastwood film made to date. The deaths are not graphic, and occur so frequently and in such large numbers that they are unreal, cartoonish. Of course, our heroes come through with nary a scratch. The dispensability of so many performers becomes gruesomely funny after a while. And sad. In a film about a war that was supposedly fought to preserve the sanctity of human life, human life has no value whatsoever.

A year later, “Kelly’s Heroes” throws all pretense of verisimilitude out the window. Screenwriter Troy Kennedy-Martin (creator of the beloved British cop show “Z-Cars” and “The Italian Job”) goes at the war-film clichés with gusto, and a side of fries. Eastwood is back again as the hero, accompanied by a gaggle of Hollywood’s finest character actors: Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Stuart Margolin, and Harry Dean Stanton. All are out to bust through enemy lines and steal millions of dollars in Nazi gold.

What ensues is a mishmash of satire, action film, and parody. Kelly enlists the aid of a band of hippie tankers . . . yes, you heard me . . . led by the emblematic portrayer of film hippies at the time, Donald Sutherland, as Sgt. – wait for it – Oddball. (Gavin MacLeod plays his second-in-command, the generator of “negative waves,” Moriarty.) Kelly’s “heroes” are lauded by their commander, General Colt (Carroll O’Connor), who is clueless as to their true intentions. A completely contemporary pop song in thrown in to boot (The Mike Curb Congregation's rendition of "Burning Bridges" became a hit).

Once again, a bloodbath prefaces the final showdown, and Germans tumble like tin soldiers kicked over in a child’s sandbox. To top it all off, a surviving German tank commander played by Karl-Otto Alberty (who bears a hilarious resemblance to Marlon Brando as Lt. Diestl in Dmytryk's 1958 “The Young Lions”) squares off against Kelly, Oddball, and Big Joe (Savalas) in a clear sendup of Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” right down to Lalo Schifrin's expert parody of Enio Morricone's spaghetti-Western soundtrack.

War is no longer an important concept nor a harsh necessity – it’s organized theft that differs from crime only in scale and sanction. It's a come-on, a joke, a farce. And the war film has finally become just a purveyor of the pornography of violence, the American Totentanz -- a great way for the emotionally retarded to get their Hate Boners on and stroke them to the sight of faceless goons, twitching, bloodlessly falling. It leads to the philosophical bloodbath of "The Matrix," the torture porn of "Saw" and "Hostel," and the goofy splatter of Tarentino.

Two other war films of that year sealed the genre’s fate for some time – Altman’s wildly popular “M*A*S*H” and Nichols’s adaptation of “Catch-22,” much less successful but vastly more unsettling today, due in large part for me to its cinematography that is calculated deliberately to give the film a look like Norman Rockwell on acid. Nobody could take heroics seriously anymore.

A single exception also made that year pointed the way toward the future of the American war film. Schaffner’s “Patton,” with its exceptional script by Francis Ford Coppola, allowed all the contradictions inherent in the genre to exist together, without devolving into either mindless sloganeering or black comedy. It would take almost a decade before America could start looking at itself, for better and worse, through that cinematic prism again.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Why should you go to the Boulder Outdoor Cinema?


How about actually having some fun for a change? OK, try this:

For five bucks, you can sit under the stars, in your own chair sofa or bed, hanging with a bunch of like-minded folks, chomping on your own snacks or fare from food trucks or stuff from the collapsible snack bar, hear good music, win a prize in a trivia contest, and see a movie projected on the side of a balloon.

Sounds good, right?

Jeanine Fritz and Liz Marsh would like you to stop by. They own the Boulder Outdoor Cinema (BOC), still going strong and providing lots of good times for viewers of all ages (depending on which films you go to – “Princess Bride,” family fare. “American Hustle,” not so much). Now in its 20th season, it sports a new screen is becoming a nexus for socializing and creative weirdness in Boulder. Good! (I won’t lie, they’re my friends, I’ve emceed shows there, and I want you to go.)

The author (right) and friend at BOC 2013. Did I mention filmgoers dress up in costumes too?
The Saturday shows start at 7:30 p.m. with an hour of music from a local band, followed by the movie at dusk in the parking lot behind the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, 1750 13th St. Three weeks of the eight-week schedule remain, including “Princess Bride” on Aug. 18, “American Hustle” on Aug. 23, and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” on Aug. 30.

BOC’s new inflatable, portable screen is already allowing the company to stage shows at other venues – including a special screening of “Back to the Future” at dusk on Friday, Aug. 17 at the Valmont Bike Park, between Airport Rd. and 55th St. on Valmont (sponsored by Gebhardt BMW – now, go buy a car from them).

I got Jeanine on the phone and interrogated her. It took some time – both the owners work full-time, and nailing down even a little phone time with one of them was arduous. However, it was worth it, ‘cause she cracks me up.

“The goal of getting the new screen was threefold,” she said. “One: to make it look nicer – the old screen was 20 years old! Second, we get a better, brighter image. Third, we are finally mobile – we can do private gigs! We’re protecting the future of the Outdoor Cinema.”

Jeanine (left) and Liz checking out their fabulous new inflatable movie screen!
According to Jeanine, “The new screen folds up like a big Chipotle burrito (writer’s note: not a deliberate plug, but maybe they’ll notice!), about the size of a Nissan Leaf (writer’s note: ditto). It’s kinda heavy.”

The ability to respond and adapt is keeping BOC going. Last winter, a series of screenings indoors at the Bohemian Biergarten did well, and Liz and Jeanine emblemize qualities that keep the shows fun and interesting – they are transparent, inclusive, and interactive. Check out their website here; you can always follow them on Facebook and Twitter, email them at, or call them at 1-855-BOC-YEAH! (1-855-262-9324).

In fact, BOC is one of the few arts organizations that makes it choices based directly on audience input. “We listen to people all year long. They are always saying, ‘Oh, you should show this,’ and we write it all down. We add our own, and we eventually end up with a master list of about 200 titles. We knock out the ones nobody’s ever heard of (writer’s note: this explains why they have never shown “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” or “Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?”, or a Fassbinder marathon, DARN IT). Then we contact the licensing companies, and by this time the list has been knocked down to about 80.

“Then we sit down and think – which ones are going to bring the biggest crowds? BUT – we also like to mix it up. Let’s face it, nobody out side of us is going to come for eight weeks in a row. We like to mix the flavors and the genres, kids’ and adult stuff.”

Some movies do make their way on to the BOC schedule year in and year out. Fan favorites to date: “Holy Grail” and “Princess Bride” are neck and neck right now, Jeanine said. She did book a quirky little independent film that had just been released one year, and nearly 1,000 people flocked to see “Napoleon Dynamite.”

My stupidest question was the most nagging, so I asked it first. What time do the movies start? When is “dusk,” actually?

“8:32,” Jeanine responded. “8:28. Or . . . somewhere in there.” This debate has been going on for years. Dave Riepe, long-time cinematic fixture in the area and still running his Space Farmer Productions, started BOC in 1995; Jeanine started working there four years later. By 2004, she was managing it; she took over in 2010. Liz came on board the next year (the two of them met in film school) and everything’s gone perfectly ever since. Except for the rain. More on that later.

“We tried starting the film at exactly 8:30, but you’ve really got to finesse it so that the image is good, so we just improvise,” she stated with an ineffable, mysterious tone that reminded me of a Tibetan lama, or someone with the sang froid of an expert guesstimator. The BOC ladies have wisely created a pre-show with music from local bands such as Jeff Brinkman, El Bando, and Chimney Choir, along with a rousingly silly trivia contest with prizes from various sponsors.

Of course, the crowd is what makes the show. Fortunately, hardy Boulderites like doing stuff in the outdoors, and BOC appeals to the idiosyncratic elements in town. Viewers are encouraged to bring their own chairs, and couches have made it to the show – and even, last week, a bed, which became the emcee’s podium before the show.

Audience members have always been able to bring their own snacks. Beginning last year, food trucks have started to work the event, so that now from week to week there are options such Cheese Louise, a gourmet grilled-cheese sandwich emporium on wheels, as well as Verde, Boulder Bike Blenders, Bon Appetite, and Suburban Wiener. More traditional fare – popcorn, candy, etc., -- is available from BOC’s own concession stand.

Fan safety and security is provided for. The only real drawback to a night at the BOC is the occasional downpour, although I have been at screenings that went bravely on despite some precipitation. Patrons are encouraging to bring blankets, jackets, and rain gear – and Jeanine has gone through wet crowds before, handing out nifty garbage-bag ponchos.

All this for only a $5 suggested donation. NOW: just because it’s a suggested donation doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay it. Or pay a buck. Or a penny. You cheapskate. BOC is NOT subsidized by the city, or any kind of arts funding. This is how they stay alive. So you should pay at least $10 each. Or more.

A new addition to the fun is a wacky startup that sounds very interesting. Davey P. Gravey’s Tiny Cinema will be set up at the BOC location on Saturday night for its grand opening! It’s a mobile movie theater forged out of a horse trailer. It features four seats, an 8mm projector, and a screen to match. Davey performs live accompaniment to the silent movies being shown behind the screen, playing the electric ukulele with his fingers while he plays the synthesizer with his toes. Hmmm. Gotta check it out.

The mysterious and innovative Davey P. Gravey.
Other strange things happen there. Per Jeanine, business deals have been made at the BOC (yes, real, legitimate business deals, not what you’re thinking). No births or deaths have occurred during a BOC show, but two years ago, a marriage proposal took place after a show, in front of everyone. (She said yes. I have no stats on how they’re doing now, or how long marriages based on proposals made after a movie last.)

So there you have it. Despite the trend of watching movies alone on postage-stamps-sized screens, I still hold for the experience of public, communal interaction with art and entertainment anytime. And, at the Outdoor Cinema, you can get up, move around, chat quietly, go foraging. The kids can wrassle a little bit. It’s fun, it’s affordable, it’s communal, it’s spontaneous. Need I say more?


Monday, August 11, 2014

FORMATIVE FILM III: The Pleasure of Terror -- 'Creature Features'


An autobiography in film; some personal milestones and revelations, for better and/or worse, in relation to movies I’ve seen.

"Horror means something revolting. Anybody can show you a pailful of innards. But the object of the roles I played is not to turn your stomach -- but merely to make your hair stand on end."
– Boris Karloff

I’m so lucky. My horror comes in black and white.

“The Exorcist” opened on Dec. 26, 1973, and turned me off horror for a long, long time. I couldn’t handle it. But up until that moment, horror had me firmly in its grip.

I am lucky in many ways when it comes to film. I was born right in the middle of the great Maerican foreign-film influx and rise of the art house; I saw all the work of the vastly creative and independent mavericks of the Silver Age of American cinema as it came out; I even caught the tail end of the dying road-show epic cycle. Thanks again to the always-on television in our home, and our parents’ lack of curiosity about what we were watching and how much (see Formative Features Part II), we got to grow up fast. A seemingly endless stream of old movies flowed, from morning ‘til what became known as the signoff -- when the stream of electronic entertainment would actually stop for a few hours.

The experience of horror as entertainment began for me in 2nd grade, when I grabbed Ray Bradbury’s “’S’ is for Space” off the school library shelf, because I vainly found my name on a book cover . . . and because it had a groovy illustration of a schematic astronaut falling into the heart of a galaxy on its cover.
After that, it was straight on into the endless mystery and horror story collections issued under Hitchcock’s name, and a standing appointment with “The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits,” “One Step Beyond,” “Thriller,” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

There were other mainsprings for me. One was the monthly copy of Forrest J. Ackerman’s enthusiastic, profusely illustrated, and badly edited “Famous Monsters of Filmland” we would run down to the drugstore for every month.
Another was the broadcasts of John Dunning, whose old-time radio shows across a spectrum of local stations taught me my power to scare the crap out of myself by suggestion only, listening in the self-imposed dark avidly to “The Inner Sanctum,” “Suspense,” “Escape,” “The Mysterious Traveler,” “The Whistler,” “Lights Out,” “The Hermit’s Cave,” “Murder at Midnight,” “The Strange Dr. Weird,” “Quiet Please,” “The Witch’s Tale,” “The Sealed Book,” “Nightmare,” “Macabre,” “Dark Fantasy,” The Hall of Fantasy,” “Beyond Darkness,” “The Weird Circle,” and so on – a cornucopia of fright that whetted my appetite.

And the most vital was “Creature Features” on Denver’s KWGN-TV, Channel 2. Every Saturday night, we would swaddle ourselves, snack-surrounded, on the basement floor in front of the clunky old cabinet television with the channel knob, pre-remote, that clicked heavily and with painful stiffness from station to station. Dipping potato chips in grape soda (try it) we would feast on “The Wolf Man,” “The Man They Could Not Hang,” “The Mummy’s Tomb” . . .

The content and format of “Creature Features” was derived from its parent station, the regional powerhouse WGN in Chicago. This was simply one title applied to what is commonly referred to today as the “Shock Theater” package, 52 Universal films (one for each week) distributed by Screen Gems, a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures for TV broadcast in October of 1957. This magical package of Golden Age horror was seen by an entire generation in more than 100 cities across the country. One year later, Son of Shock added 20 more essential films to the mix.

On Channel 2, it was punctuated by the regular and lengthy thrumming of local commercials (Sunrise Housing, Lloyd’s Furs). Sometimes they gave us something else as a chaser – we also had access to RKO and AIP horror films, some of Hammer catalog, some of the Toho and Daiei kaiju features, and a healthy side dish of pretty much all the nuclear-monster and invasion-from-outer-space-premised films from the 1950s and ‘80s.

Unlike many other local stations, we had no horror host or hostess. After several years, we picked up the super-lo-fi WGN intro, set to Henry Mancini’s theme from “Experiment in Terror,” voiced by a slowed-down voiceover from WGN's Marty McNeeley:

I loved the life-unaffirming atmosphere of the horror film. Even if virtue triumphed, there was an unstated but pervasive sense that this was but one successful battle of many. Even after the wise-cracking reporter chases the spooks away, something’s . . . still . . . around. In an age when we were all supposed to be happy, and love everyone, and look on the bright side, it was such a relief to dwell with the basement perspective that things were not that great, actually, and you could be in danger, and you might be suffering from a curse, or be a monster. That would explain a lot. It seemed to me that the Northern European vibe of bitterness, resignation, and an atavistic acceptance of weirdness in everyday life crept into these films.

In reality, a close inspection of the early horror film mise en scene shows that gloom and stylized backgrounds are not only more brooding, but a lot cheaper and faster to light and shoot, always a plus in the studio system. They would soon figure out that the same plot would suffice, over and over again, as well.
"Son of Frankenstein" -- minimalist Expressionism?
And, as so many older people always seem to claim, it was different back then. There were severe restrictions on what could be shown or discussed, even in such a debased genre as horror. While the restrictions blocked many perspectives and innovations, it also forced people to think creatively, to give rise to forbidden topics in viewers’ minds without stating them directly, and to terrify through suggestion and implication. You have complete freedom now, but no matching completeness of merit.

Then there was the extreme emotion. In an emotionally repressed family in an emotionally repressed town in the middle of an emotionally repressed continent, how welcome to get all toasty in front of the roaring flame of melodramatic howls, leers, diatribes, assaults, screams, momentary pauses for somber, eloquent regret, then back to the mayhem. All the most flamboyantly eccentric performers would get their time on screen, including Tod Browning’s Freaks and Rondo Hatton.

And the protagonists were usually played by well-spoken Englishmen. Since there has never been a strong tradition of classical acting in America, and we can barely summon the attention to parse Shakespeare every now and again, I sometimes think that in place of Olivier, Richardson, and Gielgud, we had Karloff, Rathbone, Price, Raines, Atwill, Daniell, Gray, Gough, Lee, Cushing.

Vincent Price once said, "I don't play monsters. I play men besieged by fate and out for revenge." He keys into the elevated, tragic element in horror, as the others referenced above were able to do. (It is instructive to see that, during and after playing the makeup-slathered creatures that made his reputation, Karloff largely portrayed mad scientists out for revenge, in movies such as "The Invisible Ray," "The Man Who Changed His Mind," "The Man They Cold Not Hang," "Black Friday," and "Before I Hang.") The rrrrippingly precise and upscale diction of these performers could elevate the most heinous old wheeze -- about not delving into what God did not intend us to, or how the others at the academy/hospital/university were the ones that were insane, and soon all would find out the truth, all of them -- into sublime and profound poetry. Horror was classy.

Most important was this bizarre world’s impertinent belief in itself. The bulk of the Universal horror films were shot on their “Little Europe” backlot standing set; you can recognize the surroundings easily from film to film – and in the Basil Rathbone-Sherlock Holmes series from the same time as well. These vaguely Eastern European, superstitious, kinda ign’rent, dirndl- and lederhosen-clad, beer-swilling, pipe-smoking, folk-dancing potential victims are cheery as hell, and don’t seem to remember much from one film to the next. Somehow they just aren’t up to MOVING THE HELL AWAY FROM WHERE ALL THE MONSTERS ARE. But believable and lovable, they shoulder on.

All films of the fantastic require an especially spirited suspension of disbelief, and it all starts with the performers. With a seriousness of manner found at a toddler’s tea party, the monsters, mad scientists, unbelievers, police officers, butlers, doctors, sidekicks, couples in distress, gypsies, servants, peasants, hunters, and hermits all believe implicitly in everything that crops up along the way. There is no shadow of questioning of any revelation, theory, proposition, or reasoning throughout the entire series, from starring role to smallest walk-on. Gradually, the primary roles were smoothed into archetypes, then hammered into clichés.

In the final analysis, it’s this playful gravity that makes this work so compelling. The ludicrousness of the stories, the cheapness of the settings, the unconvincing special effects, could all ironically enhance the experience, its very provisional qualities unhinging. In my essay on the 1936 film adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s “She,” I discussed the possibility of an inverse proportion between scenic believability and the power of a fantasy narrative – as though the tawdry elements of dime-store productions contained “ the tattered, inconsistent, and unfinished constructs of the sleeping mind.

How else could I still be so dialed in to such hokey, haunting moments. The corpses suspended  in vitrines in “The Black Cat,” while Karloff intones, “Are we not both the living dead?”;
his gropes toward sunlight in “Frankenstein”;
the agony of Larry Talbot;
Ernest Thesiger’s bitchy Dr. Pretorius in “Bride of Frankenstein”;
Carl Denham yelling, “Scream, Ann, scream for your life!”;
Dr. Moreau dragged into the House of Pain;
Beverly Garland fighting alien creatures . . .

Horror programming sometimes spread through the rest of the TV schedule. The early Hammer horror films, in grisly, shocking color, filled the screen. Likewise, the Corman Poes enthroned Vincent Price in the pantheon. And the random gems: “The Amazing Colossal Man,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” “The Monolith Monsters,” “Crack in the World,” “The Tingler.” Even “The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant.” Even “Reptilicus.” 

The welcome mat was always out. Until “The Exorcist.”

I am completely and utterly squeamish and so missed the horror-film developments of the last 40 years, until my sheer lack of knowledge led me to knuckle down and bone up on the more recent, distasteful material. The age of body horror opened, and broadened and deepened, cutting a swift channel to the mainstream. Herschell Gordon Lewis, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, George Romero, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, Stuart Gordon, Clive Barker, Shinya Tsukamoto, Brian Yuzna, early Peter Jackson, Frank Henenlotter. The trio of Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci, and the giallo genre in general, were all lost to me for decades until I could push past the gore and nightmare of distortion, of lack of control, implicit in body horror. This transgressive impulse has lodged in the splatter film, the deathless-killer cycles, in torture porn. I am just not hip enough.

“I am Poe, he thought. I am all that is left of Edgar Allan Poe, and I am all that is left of Ambrose Bierce and all that is left of a man named Lovecraft. I am a gray night bat with sharp teeth, and I am a square black monolith monster. I am Osiris and Bal and Set. I am the Necronomicon, the Book of the Dead. I am the house of Usher, falling into flame. I am the Red Death. I am the man mortared into the catacomb with a cask of Amontillado . . . I am a coffin lid, a sheet with eyes, a foot-step on a black stairwell. I am Dunsany and Machen and I am the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I am the Monkey’s Paw and I am the Phantom Rickshaw. I am the Cat and the Canary, The Gorilla, the Bat. I am the ghost of Hamlet’s father on the castle wall.”
– Ray Bradbury, “Pillar of Fire”

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

'Lucy': Cosmic thoughts, chaotic plots

2014, 89 mins.
Dir: Luc Besson
Scr: Luc Besson
Phot: Thierry Arbogast

Not science fiction, philosophical fiction.

Luc Besson’s new film “Lucy,” though briefly popular in the typical summer onslaught of moviedom’s flashing lights and loud noises, has been derided far and wide as both ponderous and empty-headed – an improbable violence-fest guised in gaudy conceptual rags. The thriller stars Scarlett Johansson as a typical young woman at loose ends who gets roped into being a drug mule, inadvertently ingesting some of it. This being Luc Besson, the drug in question is an evolutionary booster, a chromosome-shaking megadose of cosmic consciousness. Which of course puts Lucy on a collision course with an army of armed drug traffickers, keeping the theorizing to a minimum.

The idea isn’t new. “Lucy” bears marked resemblances to earlier films such as “Charly,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Limitless,” “Watchmen,” “Tree of Life,” “Transcendence,” and many other films in which “there are some secrets we are not meant to probe.”

Or are we? Besson has a hungry and expansive imagination, closer to artists such as Moebius, earlier epic German fantasists such as Lang and Murnau, and contemporaries such as Jeunet and Caro (“Delicatessen,” “The City of Lost Children,” “Amelie,” “Micmacs”). Besson enthusiastically flings all manner of ideas into his screenplays, and from “The Last Combat” through “Nikita,” “Leon,” and “The Fifth Element,” he has consistently tethered big ideas to expertly crafted, fast-paced adventures, almost always quests for redemption.

“Lucy” works for me precisely because of its conceptual arrogance. That the film’s first image is of dividing cell both sets up and subvert the viewer’s expectations. You were looking for an adventure film, perhaps? It seems you are getting a biology lecture.

And you are. Morgan Freeman is on hand to provide his fatherly, explanatory anchor, just as Choi Min-sik (Park Chan-wook’s original, inimitable Oldboy) fills the role of the feral, predatory kingpin Mr. Jang, who will serve as the uninvolved counterpoint whose superviolent machinations give us a reason to keep watching.

Insert shots of the hunt-or-be-hunted nature of animal life, reconstructed moments with the heroine’s namesake, the Olduvai ancestress whose bones branded her in the public mind as the first true hominid, and CGI-rich visualizations of the universe and the Big Bang pepper the narrative. Besson’s usual cinematographer Thierry Arbogast has a field day with the breadth of images and effects that need to be corralled together to make the movie work.

And it does. Luckily, Johansson takes on a role originally intended for Angelina Jolie, whose pneumatic sang froid might make her seem too invincible. True, Lucy is basically one with the universe and can make just about anything happen by the halfway mark of the film’s running time. What keeps us in the game isn’t merely the what’s-going-to-happen-next impulse, but the transformation of Lucy from a bimbo, really, to an all-knowing godlike being. Her detachment from human things continues as her intelligence ratchets up (we are given big percentage sign graphics to show us how much of her brain she’s accessing at the moment), but Johansson retains enough curiosity and concern for mankind to keep her engaged with those around her.

Besson, as usual, and in common with another grandiose action master, James Cameron, goes with a strong female protagonist. The decades of strong, relatively undemonstrative heroes – Bogart, Gabin, Mifune, Mitchum, Wayne, Tracy – led unfortunately into the ‘80s dominance of the extroverted, wisecrack-happy alpha male – Schwarzenegger, Stallone, early Willis, and virtually every inhabitant of the “Expendables” franchise.

The move toward female action stars, initiated by Blaxploitation films and epitomized by Pam Grier, gradually leached over into the mainstream in films such as “Alien,” giving birth to empowered badasses such as Trinity, Clarice Starling, and . . . Marge Gunderson. These characters are finally capable of being vulnerable without being helpless, and emotionally articulate without being a plot device. With a female protagonist, something is actually going ON inside that head, and the better filmmakers keep that in sight.

“Lucy” ups the ante. Not content with simply seeing what happens when someone is given the power to transcend space and time, Besson asks why, and what should be done with the opportunity. He and we get to have our cake and eat it too – we can revel in the kinetic destruction and speculate on cosmic possibilities at the same time. If it seems too simultaneously high-end and low-end, maybe it’s just that our brains need a little stretching.