Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Guilty pleasures: films I love that you hate

It’s bad enough to begin with. I’m a film historian. I always seem to be in the middle of watching a movie. Usually it’s something in black and white, in a foreign language, and strange. This makes it tough on people who live with me. Too often they have to wrassle the remote away and put on something comprehensible.

I have a contrarian sense of quality. I like the bizarre, the obscure, the overlooked. If it’s popular, I will often reflexively and stupidly line up against it. Some part of me I am sure is always spoiling for a fight with the larger culture (too many years as a critic).

You can see where this is headed. We’ve all been there — you see a movie you love, you praise it to the skies. You lobby for it. You get people to sit down and watch it with you. And there is silence.

And they start looking at you like you’re something the cat coughed up.

This has happened to me so many times that I started keeping track of these guilty pleasures. I just checked the list, and there are more than 300 of these bad boys on it. I can guarantee, if you stay away from these, you will be a happier person.

I’m not claiming that these are neglected masterpieces. I know they are problematic, to say the least. Now, once in a while the critical consensus will change about a film, so that a stinker I like becomes generally acceptable. However, to date this has only happened to me in regard to the original The In-Laws (1979).

A lot of them are films in a series. I was raised on old movies, and have a sneaking affection for Flash Gordon, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Francis the Talking Mule. I followed the adventures of Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, Karloff’s Mr. Wong and Peter Lorre’s Mr. Moto, and all the incarnations of Charlie Chan.

The “oriental” detective is just one of the many politically incorrect figures of that period. Many more classic films are ruined by sequences of blatant racism. In Babes in Arms (1939), Holiday Inn (1942), and James Whale’s Show Boat (1936), blackface numbers stand out, deeply disturbing to watch now. Hauling them into the light does good, but films like this do not constitute fodder for a fun watch party.

Some of the films on the list of the forbidden are so-bad-it’s-good — It Conquered the World (1954), The Tingler (1959), Attack from Space (1964), and some are cheesy Technicolor fantasies — Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961), Crack in the World (1965), and Fantastic Voyage (1966), in which Donald Pleasence is eaten by a white corpuscle.

New entries swell the list on a regular basis. John Carter (2012) is there, as is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017). It’s a sickness.

So here are 13 of the most traumatic film experiences you should avoid. If by chance you like any of these selections, then know that you are a weirdo, and my very dear friend.

Where Eagles Dare (dir. Brian G. Hutton, 1968)

Do you like Nazi kill counts? Then you are gonna love this one. Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood (a match not made in heaven) and company go on a secret WWII mission deep behind enemy lines to rescue an American general. That’s it. They do that and a bunch of other stuff, to at a level not seen until the casual bloodshed that permeates The Matrix. They just kill and kill and kill. This film is adapted from the work of formulaic adventure novelist Alistair MacLean (The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, etc.), for whom I have a weakness as well. It’s chaff, but it’s GOOD chaff.

Vampire Circus (dir. Robert Young, 1972)

It’s the only horror movie I know of that starts with what is a softcore porn scene. Oh, do I have your attention now? Yeah, it’s a hippy-drippy-trippy kind of horror film, in which a village suffers the vengeance of — a vampire, in the form of — a circus. There is a chuckling dwarf, a naked panther-lady, YOU know.

It will make you stop taking drugs.

Day of the Dolphin (dir. Mike Nichols, 1973)

“Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States.” ‘Nuff said. It’s what I consider to be a neat little sci-fi thriller. There’s one problem. The dolphins have learned to speak through their blowholes. In tiny little squeaky voices. This is evidently a barrier to the suspension of disbelief, as any normal person watching will start laughing at this point and won’t stop until all the credits have rolled. And who will address you in said “dolphin voice” for weeks afterward. Even though this project was helmed by the great Mike Nichols and starring George C. Scott, it has is disappointed many. I still watch it.

Murder by Death (dir. Robert Moore, 1976)

First, you have to know who Truman Capote was. And to find that amusing. Now we’ve lost 95 percent of the potential audience. Then you have to understand a gallery of movie-detective stereotypes and their mannerisms. I’m thinking this whodunit was made because Neil Simon wrote it; oh yes you also need to know who Neil Simon was. If none of these cues spark your interest . . . oh well. This was a prestige project; many honored actors appear in the film including, bizarrely, Alec Guinness as a blind butler. Biggest laugh: “I want my Dickie!”

Movie Movie (dir. Stanley Donen, 1978)

The great director Stanley Donen got together with the great comedy writer Larry Gelbart and crafted this gem. It’s a parody of Golden Age Hollywood — a double feature! “Dynamite Hands” is a gritty black-and-white boxing drama and “Baxter’s Beauties of 1933” is a gaudy Technicolor backstage musical. The ensemble, which includes George C. Scott, Eli Wallach, Art Carney, and many other old hands, are drop-dead funny. If you get the references. “That’s the second time you’ve made me drop my panties today!” This is the level of humor at which I dwell.

The Stunt Man (dir. Richard Rush, 1980)

I love movies about the making of movies, such as The Bad and the Beautiful and Day for Night. I love this movie ever since I saw it as a rough cut. From my perspective it’s funny, wry, and profound. To those who’ve endured it, it’s pointless, meandering, and pompous. Take your pick. With Peter O’Toole as director as Prospero.

Red Dawn (dir. John Milius, 1984)

“WOLVERINES!” If there ever was a conglomeration of teens from Pueblo that could kick the Russian army’s ass, this is it. There’s Patrick Swayze again! Charlie Sheen! C. THOMAS HOWELL! Jennifer Grey! And they even throw in Harry Dean Stanton, and Ben Johnson, and Powers Boothe. All are called on to fight the Commies who invade our homeland, and everybody gets a character beat. Many industrial barrels of whoop-ass are opened.

Dune (dir. David Lynch, 1984)

It’s wasn’t his fault! He did the best with what he had, and later extended cuts demonstrate to me at least that Lynch had a grasp on the material, however bizarrely that played out from a design standpoint. It’s a space epic that’s tough to pull off — we’ll have to see if a new adaptation does any better with this “cursed” material. “Mua’dib! The Spice is life!”

Road House (dir. Rowdy Herrington, 1986)

First of all, the director has the best name in film history. I want to make a film with him just so I could say I did. Then: it’s terminally earnest Patrick Swayze as the mythical Dalton, the Ultimate Bouncer. (Yes, those people who maintain order in nightclubs.) He slides into a rural town in Missouri, a specialist hired to reform a bar with a bad reputation. In doing so, he piques the ire of Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara), a picayune Capone whose mob-boss ways are a sharp contrast to the backwoods atmosphere in which we find ourselves.

Dalton is a peaceful warrior with a degree in philosophy from NYU. As such, he is called to knock the snot out of ruffians on a regular basis. He’s like a Zen monk with feathered hair. He romances the only professional woman in the county, a doctor he meets in the E.R. when he comes in for some stitchery. He famously remarks, in a display of good old mind over matter, “Pain don’t hurt.” The ridiculously over-the-top fight scenes are alone worth the price of admission, but tarry to revel in what passes for dialogue and characterization.

Joe Versus the Volcano (dir. John Patrick Shanley, 1990)

This comic fable is one of my favorite films of all time. They let John Patrick Shanley make it just like he wanted, and it’s wonderful. I swear to you it is. I watch it and I get all goopy and break down and cry and think about what a precious wonderful thing life is. In stark contrast to those around me.

Hudson Hawk (dir. Michael Lehmann, 1991)

What can I say.

Cannibal! The Musical (dir. Trey Parker, 1993)

OK, to supplement my non-existent comedy income I was waiting tables in Boulder. There, one of my fellow waitrons, who could score the best acid, mentioned that he was shooting a movie on the weekends with people from CU. It was a musical about Colorado cannibal Alfred Packer. I will ever regret not jumping at the chance to get involved. It was the first big project of Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park” fame. And it is hilarious. Those of this film’s cult and I can recite it verbatim. “Weep-wah, weep-wah, suro no hapo.”

Timecop (dir. Peter Hyams, 1994)

It’s Jean Claude Van Damme! He’s a cop! Wait — not just a cop but a TIME cop. A cop that travels though time. To catch bad guys to want to abuse time travel for fun and profit. So the statute of limitations goes out the window. Time-travel movies usually fall apart in terms of internal logic and this is no different. But it does give it a game try. Just turn off your mind, relax and float downstream . . .

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Formative Film 19: 'Star Wars'

Star Wars
Dir: George Lucas
Prod: Gary Kurtz, George Lucas, Rick McCallum
Scr: George Lucas
Phot: Gilbert Taylor
Ed: Richard Chew, Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas

Cooper Theatre
960 S. Colorado Blvd.
May, 1977

It was a harmonic convergence of factors — a great film seen in a great venue at precisely the right time of life.

The first time I saw Star Wars, I hated it.

Now wait, let me explain. How could I have been such a bonehead? Well, first and foremost, as a lifelong snob I have always looked askance at the mainstream and popular. My taste serves as an inverse barometer — if I don’t like it, it will be a big success. I have a great long list of popular movies that make me screech, and another of guilty pleasures that I love but that baffle the rest of mankind.

Star Wars became a blockbuster entirely by word of mouth. Critical reaction at the time was largely positive, but not ecstatic enough to justify what was happening, which was that people were seeing once, then again. And again. It was movie as thrill ride, and we were thrilled.

And if you were within striking distance of Denver, you had to see it at the Cooper.

The Cooper Theatre was a magnificent modernist temple of cinema. It opened in 1961, and was designed to show immense Cinerama and 70-millimeter masterpieces such as How the West Was Won and Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus. It sat 800 comfortably in a spacious burnt-orange auditorium; such was the culture in those days that smoking lounges — segregated, but significantly not sealed off spaces in the back of the house and even a “crying child” room to which parents with unruly young ones could retreat and still see and hear the film via glass partition and remote speakers.

It was the perfect space in which to experience Star Wars, fast-paced and full of special-effects wonders. The broad curvature of the screen encompassed our fields of vision, so much so that viewers in the front were engulfed and overwhelmed by the experience.

We didn’t go opening weekend. The friends that went came back astonished to the point of catalepsis, and determined to get us in the theater as well. So we all piled in whoever’s car and grafted ourselves to the end of the long line of ticket buyers.

We made it at last and sat down front. The initial viewing experience was overwhelming. Remember, animation and special effects hadn’t really improved since 2001: A Space Odyssey; the look of most of 1970s sci-fi was very cheesy, unconvincing, and frankly dystopian. Outer space in Star Wars looked great — Industrial Light & Magic, using newly minted computer-assisted and digital techniques, helped to craft an extremely dynamic and detailed imaginary universe. The elements weren’t there to push the plot forward — the plot was there to push the elements forward. Star Wars was intoxicated with its own vision.

Once the show was over the complaining began. I recognized a paste-up job when I saw one, what Pauline Kael referred to as “an assemblage of spare parts.” It’s a compendium of B-movie film clich├ęs, right down to the Saturday-matinee wipe transitions from scene to scene. Here were moments of swordplay right out of a swashbuckler, and dogfights shot and edited to mimic the aerial combat of WWII films. There was the feisty heroine and comic sidekicks (hello, Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress), the rakish ne’er-do-well along the lines of Gable, Flynn, or Holden, the men-on-a-mission ending. It was old-fashioned, a return to popular, escapist film entertainment.

I went back a week later, this time on a date, and this time I let go and just let myself get swept up in it. (It helped that we sat in the back this time.) This time, I dug it — the fantasy and adventure elements working together, the earnest energy, the bold-faced silliness, the video-game editing, all crowned with an essential optimism and a surfer-dude philosophy (“May the Force be with you”). Even the plainly derivative sequences were fascinating, a game of referential hide and seek to be played by the viewer. It was a nerd’s paradise.

We loved it, we saw it again and again. We memorized it. In fact, we wrote and performed an hour-long radio parody of it when we supposed to be doing our homework. Forty-some years later, we’re still watching.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The NFR Project: Buster Keaton's 'One Week'

Dir: Eddie Cline, Buster Keaton
Scr: Eddie Kline, Buster Keaton
Phot: Elgin Lessley
Premiere: Aug. 29, 1920
25 min.

Buster Keaton is not only my favorite silent-era comic, but he’s one of my favorite filmmakers, period. What puts him head and shoulders above more popular contemporaries such as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd is his unique and comprehensive eye. They perform in front of the camera; Keaton performs with the camera. Chaplin and Lloyd make faces, trade in sentiments; Keaton maintains a stoic impassivity, and inadvertently implements a philosophy.

Keaton was a natural clown. He was born to vaudevillians in 1895 and joined the act when he was 3 years old. The roughhouse comedic acrobatics he learned from his father were the foundation of his unique slapstick style. At the age of 21, he struck out on his own and decided to give the fledgling movies a try.

He apprenticed under, served as sidekick to, and became lifelong friends with, prominent film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Through the production of 14 short movie comedies with him over the course of two years, Keaton mastered the basics. By January of 1920, he got an offer from producer Joseph M. Schenk. His own studio, $1,000 a week, 25 percent of the net profits, and creative control. The Keaton Studio was open for business.

His first solo effort, The High Sign, displeased him and was held by him from release for some time. After completing an outside feature-performance project for Metro, The Saphead, Keaton got back to work. The result is his first released, completely original production — One Week.

Keaton was known as “The Great Stone Face,” a persona he developed that stood in stark contrast to the mobile features of Chaplin or the determined grin of Lloyd. Keaton’s frozen-featured equanimity makes him his films’ straight man. With never a raised eyebrow and only rarely a blink, his character absorbs the blows of random fate with a peaceful patience that begins to resemble optimism. Still waters run deep.

Certainly he personally could cope with, and overcome, the vagaries of chaos. He was a gifted mechanic and designer, who knew how to construct big gags and pull them off. Even in this first “real” film of his, it’s evident how developed his visual-spatial sense is. He knows what the camera can see and what it can’t see, and he decides to play with that, which means he ends up playing with the ideas underpinning cinema itself. His aim is purely practical. He wants to make up laugh. But his craftsmanship reveals a profoundly thoughtful sense of humor.

His outlook is cynical; everything that can go wrong will, hilariously, and the humor doesn’t always overcome the downbeat in his films. The world is not hostile to Keaton; it just doesn’t factor him in, and he must get along as best he can on his own. Life rewards and punishes in abundance and at random; social acceptance is arbitrary and fleeting. No wonder Keaton’s wry gloom attracted the attention of “serious” writers of the period from Federico Garcia Lorca to Samuel Beckett.

One Week moves in circles. Wheels within wheels. Buster’s cinematic universe has three ever-larger, intermeshing gears: the individual, the social, and the universal. The natural world stands over all. It is unfathomably complex, but it does operate in accordance with its own (mostly) immutable laws. Buster’s own plans and desires usually succeed, but only when he submits to and works with the larger, natural world. In between, fouling everything up, is the complicating human world — imperfect, blind to subtlety, averse to truth, wrong-headed.

In his later feature films, Buster arrives as a misfit and exits as a hero. He doesn’t change — he’s simply fallen into phase with what’s going on around him, and, like some white-faced Zen monk, manipulates the universe so that it sets him neatly down, unharmed, at the finish line. One Week doesn’t take this tack. It’s a catalog film, a situation dreamed up to provide a (here literal) framework for a series of gags, growing in scope and complexity to a culminating payoff.

The inspiration for One Week came from a 1919 Ford Motor Company documentary short, Home Made: A Story of Ready-Made House Building. The possibilities for what David Robinson called “an accelerating merry-go-round of catastrophes” suggested themselves easily. The title is a play on the structure of the film and refers to Three Weeks, a 1907 libidinous romance novel by Elinor Glyn that was the 50 Shades of Gray of its time.

The film opens with Buster and his new bride (Sybil Seeley) leaving the church. Guests pelt hem with rice and old shoes; Buster stops, stoops, considers a pair, and tucks it practically under his arm.

A car ride sets the plot in motion and serves as a little circular gag. Buster’s rival suitor unaccountably serves as their post-nuptial chauffeur — Keaton refers to him as “the villain” in remembrance, and probably needed to shoehorn him in as his film needed an antagonist. He hands them an envelope telling them they are being given a house and a lot on which to build it. The three characters then execute a jump from car to taxicab to motorcycle and back again, during which Buster gets his rival in Dutch with the cops.

They arrive on site. Someone is dumping crates off a truck. “Here’s your house!” he says. It’s a do-it-yourself house kit! The directions read, “To give your house a snappy appearance put it up according to the numbers on the boxes.” The rival obtains revenge by changing the crate numbers, and the fun begins.

The gags pile up. Buster saws off the beam he’s perched on, taking a tumble. Whole sections of the house are misplaced, or swing dangerously to and fro. When we step back to see the house in its entirety, it is indeed a surrealistic nightmare of misshapen windows, a canted roofline, and mismatching walls. A big, strong mover crushes Buster under the weight of a delivered piano (he later glances back at Buster, who hops in fright).

The trick house, though all “wrong,” is malleable (a porch railing becomes in an instant a ladder). Buster can heave the piano into the house through an easily removed piece of wall, but his attempt to raise it with a block and tackle simply “pulls” the floor above stretchily down, provoking a boomerang effect that catapults his hapless rival in the room above through the roof.

As the dates are torn off the calendar, we move through more mishaps. Buster falls through the roof into the bathroom. (Earlier, his bride drops the soap, and leans out of the tub to retrieve it — the cameraman politely puts his hand over the lens.) He opens a door and steps out into thin air, executing a two-story fall. Keaton was an enthusiastic if untrained stuntman — the fall

Finally, the day of the housewarming comes — Friday the 13th. A storm comes, and it turns out that house is so unstable that strong winds spin it like a top. As the guests are flung around the inside of the house, Buster tries over and over to get back over the threshold. Timing his jump, he leaps into the pirouetting building — and is flung out just as neatly.

The scale of jokes grows bigger and bigger. When the dawn comes, it also turns out that they built their home on the wrong lot and need to move it across the railroad tracks. Of course, the towing job breaks down just as they move into harm’s way. A whistle blows — smoke appears — a train approaches in the background! The two clutch each other and brace for impact — and the camera pans slyly right, showing us the train missing its mark, on an adjacent track. They sigh with relief when BAM! A train barreling the other way smashes the house to flinders.

Now we’ve come full circle, and the house is just a pile of lumber again. Buster hangs a For Sale sign on the debris, and the couple walks away, hand in hand. Keaton would make 16 more shorts and nine feature films. In One Week, he is already on top of his game.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘Within Our Gates.’


Eagan, Daniel. “One Week,” National Film Registry.

My Wonderful World of Slapstick
Buster Keaton and Charles Samuels
Da Capo Press

Rudi Blesh
New York: The Macmillan Company

Buster Keaton
David Robinson
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press

The Silent Clowns
Walter Kerr
New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase
Marion Meade
New York: HarperCollins Publishers

Keaton’s Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter
Gabriella Oldham
Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press

The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton
Robert Knopf
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat
Edward McPherson
New York: Newmarket Press