Friday, January 26, 2018

Trooper Hook (1957) and Jungle Fever (1991)

** spoilers below, especially for Trooper Hook **

Some time ago I was in a store and flipped through 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, by David Gelernter.  His distinction between now and then (pre-1960?) stays with me: then, Americans respected authority, not just the power to punish but the words of those in authority.  And we looked forward with hope, rather than backward with regret.

Snipes and Sciorra defying friends, Hollywood, the IRS
Trooper Hook (1957) is a minor-key cavalry Western, from a story by Jack Schaefer (author of the novels Shane and Monte Walsh), and directed by Charles Marquis Warren, the Western specialist who drove Gunsmoke, Rawhide and The Virginian.  Joel McCrea plays a good man at a dirty job, defending the frontier against the Apache, who respectfully call him "Face of Stone."  McCrea's character has been hardened, too, by the Civil War.  The character's name (Clovis Hook) playfully evokes the devil.

In this journey-Western, Hook escorts Cora Sutliff (Barbara Stanwyck) to her husband, after her captivity as squaw of Apache chief Nanchez.  Hook defends Cora against bigotry, intensified by the presence of her mixed son.  The film is politically correct for the day; likable Earl Holliman plays a cowboy in love with a half-Latina.  Of course, the film assumes Cora wants to return to her husband (John Dehner).

Fred Sutliff is built into a villain for rejecting the would-be stepson, leading to deus ex machina, with both he and Nanchez falling to gunplay, leaving Hook to marry Cora.  Fred's feelings are actually understandable, given he's only just learned of the boy's existence.  By pretending otherwise, the movie winks at audiences: the parable of tolerance is half-sincere.  Despite such flaws, the film glows with the optimism and faith of postwar Americans.

We have reason to exaggerate our differences from those of mid-century.  Consider supporting character Charlie Travers (Edward Andrews): eager to protect newfound wealth, he goes to pieces as Nanchez and braves bear down on the party.  After failing to bribe Cora into trading the son for peace, Travers tries to defect, hurting his chances by promising Nanchez "all the whiskey you can drink" (the Indian shoots him).  Travers is comparable to many white people today, so eager to make their way accusing each other of racism.

Until recently, films of interracial romance tended to be like Trooper Hook, comfortably displaced into the past (The Searchers, Far From Heaven) or the future (Supernova, The Time Machine).  A noted exception: Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991).  Though tougher-minded than Trooper Hook, it's become vaguely innocent.

The film is set in a hyper-ethnic New York City: Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra play, respectively, characters from Harlem and Bensonhurst.  Compare 2018, where blended couples are relatively common -- not only in cosmopolitan cities -- even as we criminalize the phrase "jungle fever."  Humans need tribal identities and the contingent territory, but in an integrating society, words, fashion and other customs serve as territory, therefore disputed.

The simple morality of Trooper Hook is long replaced by turf battles and relativism.  Spike Lee plays a teacher, an implicit capitulation.  Lee's films defy the American assumption of a better future: in Do the Right Thing he wears the jersey of a team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, that ceased to exist the year Trooper Hook was released.

The 1950s weren't as sanitized as sometimes assumed, and Trooper Hook includes a modest version of Quint's shark monologue in Jaws.  Hook tells Cora about surviving for weeks in Andersonville prison, pretending to be a dog so a canine-loving (and mad) prisoner would share food.  The analogue in Jungle Fever isn't a recounting, it's the apocalyptic set piece at the so-called Taj Mahal.  Stevie Wonder is ironic soundtrack as we tour a rambling crack den, where the Snipes character looks for his addict brother (Samuel L. Jackson).

Thus, the films illustrate Gelernter's distinction.  In Jungle Fever, the community is half-in-ruins, and hell a lifestyle with plummeting returns.  In Trooper Hook, hell is endured in service to a good cause, on the way to eventual reward.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Trigger Effect (1996) 2 of 4

** this post contains increasingly severe spoilers **

What if an extended blackout hit North America?  Would friendships survive?  Use of force?  What would you do?

The Trigger Effect is surprisingly glossy for its low profile (perhaps given a nip/tuck for Netflix play).  The surprise evaporates, knowing it was the directing debut of writer David Koepp, better known for (co-) writing the ginormous likes of Death Becomes HerJurassic Park and Mission: Impossible.
our lives need some excitement ...
Kyle MacLachlan and Elisabeth Shue are married with youngsters, as they juggle upper-middle annoyances: home renovations, a kid with an earache, a loud conversation behind them at the movies.  The latter, the dynamic opener, illustrates the boxed-in male: when the wife shushes, the stranger curses.  If hubby gets into it he risks the enjoyment/safety of bystanders; if he retreats (as here), he's a pussy.  Later he tries the wild side, stealing the kid's med (fleeing the world's most intimidating pharmacist), emboldening himself for armed standoffs.

Koepp's working relationship with Steven Spielberg makes sense: each is a master of craft without having much to say.  Flirting with both multi-strand and apocalypse, The Trigger Effect is like a formative, risk-averse Crash (2004) or The Walking Dead.  There's a vagueness to pre-9/11 political thrillers, but from the blunt-force 21st century, this movie seems coy and unfinished.
The script occasionally fails the plausibility test, all-important in high-concept.  Example: homeowner (MacLachlan) watches a prowler from cover, then turns his back.  Dialogue (unnecessarily) references the Indian Point power plant (outside NYC), underlining the sunny California locations, less than ideal for the indie-dramatic variant of Koepp's War of the Worlds.
Still, it's a mostly smart film, with characters recognizable amid anomaly.  Male friends buy a shotgun, but between ambivalence and a few drinks, it ends up at the bottom of the in-ground pool.  Shue's character increasingly flirts with Dermot Mulroney as the friend/carpenter; they kiss, only to mutually pull back.  Too bad the entire movie pulls back. 

The film is a '90s elaboration on the 1960 Twilight Zone "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street."  Thus there are black characters, namely the theater talkers, one of whom (Richard T. Jones) is fated for a more serious altercation with MacLachlan.  (Note: I cover this aspect while horrified by the ID politics of 2018, created partly by media criticism.)
The race factor remains unspoken.  It's a valid choice -- until aforesaid prowler is shot dead.  Like the neighborhood, the intruder is white; he's also slight, and known to be armed only with a knife.  The (white) neighbor shooting from a distance seems unlikely: now it's the movie avoiding race.    
Finally, I wished for resonant dialogue predicting future grid-interruptions.  Maybe Koepp leaves this implied, too, but the film ends up anticlimactic: there was a blackout, they survived with hurt feelings, sadder-but-wiser.