Monday, November 18, 2019

underseen for Halloween 2019, Part 3: The Doctor and the Devils (1985)

(spoilers throughout)

           Roger Ebert called The Doctor and the Devils “unredeemed, dreary, boring, gloomy dreck.”  It is gloomy.  It's also mournfully distinctive, for this writer, and beautifully produced, both painterly and disgusting.  The last helps earn the horror tag, though it’s as much a period dramatization.  It's a based-on-truth Frankenstein movie.     
 from Shout! Factory
Despite the billing, the focus is the working class.  In early-19th century Britain, outdated mores forced a black market in fresh cadavers (for medical research), when the enterprising Fallon (Jonathan Pryce) and Broom (Stephen Rea) take up shovels.  Before it's done, at least one is a serial-killer avant la lettre.  Their patron is Dr. Thomas Rock (Timothy Dalton), a progressive surgeon secure in his own virtue.  Rounding the eclectic cast are Julian Sands (who’d become a minor horror star) as a naif who falls for a bleak-minded whore (played by ‘60s model Twiggy), with Patrick Stewart as Rock’s fuming rival.
The milieu may evoke Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (and Michael Radford’s), though the Orwellian hell is government surveillance, which could've helped here.  Also, we may recall Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and true-crime biopics like In Cold Blood.  As were the The Body-Snatcher (1945) and The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), The Doctor and the Devils was inspired by the real Burke and Hare, suppliers to one Dr. Knox.  (Fiction can’t improve on the names.)  
Mostly, this film gets mixed reviews.  On Slant, Chuck Bowen ends a mostly positive review thus:

The Doctor and the Devils shares Rock’s problem: decrying the state of humanity while displaying precious little of its own.   
the Fox release

DVD Savant Glenn Erickson charges Freddie Francis with indifference:

there's no indication of a director doing anything more than illustrating a script. … this picture just plays out in a flat line. It's handsome and intelligent, but it doesn't grab us.

Well, it’s a hothouse flower.  Still, degrees of success shouldn’t prevent wonder at what's attempted: it's a rare film that disclaims Manichaeism, portraying modernity as an exploitation matrix.  (It seems hard to deny; I've written of our moral entanglement, as in this essay on The Sopranos.)  
The film's pedigree is impressive, and instructive.  Poet Dylan Thomas's screenplay was a pre-Black List item, unproduced for 30 years.  Producer Mel Brooks reportedly wanted major changes, but director Francis lobbied for a faithful adaptation, leading to revisions by Ronald Harwood.  
Harwood, best known for The Dresser, also wrote a series of plays and films about 20th century celebrities in relation to Nazi Germany, including The Pianist.  The Doctor and the Devils contains intimations of genocide, as do The Elephant Man and The Fly, other Mel Brooks productions.  (Of course, Mr. Brooks is Jewish.  He served in the U.S. military during World War II, later daring to make The Producers.)
             As Jim Knipfel describes on den of geek, several narrative films stay reasonably close to Burke and Hare.  Accuracy aside, and even with a tacked-on reprieve for the Twiggy character, The Doctor and the Devils is the least pandering version.  The others carefully delineate characters from viewers, as in casting the doctor: in The Flesh and the Fiends it's Peter Cushing, already known as Dr. Frankenstein, and it's uber-unnerving Henry Daniell in The Body-Snatcher (in an insipid subplot, Daniell initially refuses a disabled girl a needed operation).  Thriller "The Innocent Bystanders" (1962) is disgraceful, as it exaggerates a story that's terrible to begin with.  In each of these, one of the killers is made a (literal) moron, and a prominent victim, a beautiful woman.   
The Doctor and the Devils skips the doctor's noble, half-false confession (another trope), leaving him haunted by memories and conscience.  And if Dr. Rock was willfully ignorant of the origins of same-day deliveries, are we so different?  
The three films reviewed in these Halloween 2019 posts are prophetic works, and have been knocked about: It’s Alive was dumped by Warner Brothers, but Larry Cohen persevered, and it became a hit three years after initial release.  Both Vampire Circus and The Doctor and the Devils suffered late cuts.  The critics hedge, e.g., Danny Peary condemns It’s Alive for a “shameful premise.”  According to Peter Nichols, “Vampire Circus isn’t so much a good film as a good bad film” (whatever that means). 
However different in style — having the aspect of Fellini-gazing horror, grindhouse sick-joke, and PBS adaptation — the films share a moral perspective.  They lack villains, excepting the vampires (who only do-what-vampires-do), and heroes, vessels for the innocence of viewers.  If they overreach — if The Doctor and the Devils is self-serious, Vampire Circus, a bit overfed, and if Larry Cohen made a motion picture about an action figure — prophets also self-sabotage.  He wants to protect his culture, almost as much as he wants to damn it.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

underseen for Halloween 2019, Part 2: the It's Alive trilogy (1973-86)

ballyhoo: "one thing wrong ... It's Alive"
(Spoilers throughout.)

               20th century history seemed to destabilize, with new technologies, mass migrations, and a range of time-limited phenomena from rock n’ roll to genocide.  Industrialization, effectively, made us test subjects.  The fluctuations called for nervous parody. 
Larry Cohen, the late exploitation auteur, typically used high-concept as a stalking horse, building a provocative film around some scary-funny threat (e.g., revived Aztec god Q, addictive dessert The Stuff).  Recalling the shock of a baby’s tantrum, Cohen invented a movie-monster for the cocooning, post-Vietnam U.S.: homicidal infants.  Cradled in a Bernard Herrmann score, the blunt-headed metaphor remains morbidly funny (for some of us) half-a-century later.
The first and best of a trilogy, It’s Alive (1973) is the singular fertility narrative of Frank and Lorene Davis (the first-names evoke horror history).  Suburban and white, they’re habituated to television, prescription pills and cow’s milk — a motif, as when the Carnation man becomes prey — and live in California, where trends start.  Americans believe in “progress," and the new parents seem fairly indifferent to causes.  The smartly satiric horror film ends dropping-the-mic: “Another one’s been born in Seattle.” 
toughest job in the world ...

While acknowledging the comic angle, It’s Alive centers on John P. Ryan’s titanic performance as Frank Davis, as he's betrayed by friends and fate.  Still, he can’t erase his issue.  His Job-like travails deliver twin themes for the franchise: Americans have become fatalistic; the parent-child bond is nearly unbreakable.  The themes mutually reinforce, e.g., repeated speculation the mutants have superior resistance to pollution, similar to the children in These Are the Damned.
The series is less interested in the babies than in society’s reactions.  As in Night of the Living Dead, most characters are comically quick-to-adjust.  As writer-director of the trilogy, Cohen favors canted-angle shots of figures darting here and there: the “normal” characters are as flighty and reflexive as the babies.  If the sequels are less nimble than the original, and repetitive, that might also be the point. 
It Lives Again (1978) posits a hidden colony, for humane study.  Despite help from new dad Frederic Forrest, the rogue pediatricians are themselves too geriatric to manage their charges.  Meantime, the genetic shuffling seems to multiply, e.g., a birthday party where tykes crawl under low branches, and the birthday-girl looks like a  boy.  The location is a memorably cinematic hillside, symbol of the scramble for supremacy.

           The babies are unnerving (models designed by Rick Baker), but the filmmakers never solved movement.  Granted, the babies do more in the third film, but in the commentaries, Cohen cites Val Lewton, in saying both sequels showed too much.  Tone was a challenge, too: the premise is inherently funny, but Cohen wanted monster movies, first, so each suspenseful scene has to be (a little) funny, and vice versa.  He masters tone for the first two, but the third unravels, perhaps from anxiety over the series' misanthropic overtones.   
In the larkish It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1986), a new regime gives the babies an island to themselves.  Of course, these are babies, and the reparation is folly (compare A Clockwork Orange).  This time, the tragic dad is Steven Jarvis (Michael Moriarty, pre-Law and Order), a struggling actor with an antic sense of humor.  He takes to grandly introducing himself as “father of the monster.” 
Disillusioned with community — the movie begins in church, courtroom and '80s comedy club — Jarvis signs on for an expedition to the baby-island (Hawaii locations).  It’s Alive III becomes a stoner comedy, as Jarvis loses any interest in the social contract: imagine Apocalypse Now if Willard (Martin Sheen) and the photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) were one person. 
It’s Alive III isn’t the inspired lunacy of Cohen and Moriarty’s Q, but has its charms, as the latter sings sea shanties, threatens to defect, and muses on the babies’ telepathic potential.  The story defaults to an ending from midcentury space-invasions: an everyday element as deus ex machina.  Still, the viewer is free to imagine a next generation with stronger resistance.
           Nature gave "Larry's kids" a biting chance, whether or not in response to our behavior.  Pollution, abortion, and medication usage are only a few of the troubling associations.  Easier to miss: clawed and fanged babies are kin to Wolverine, Freddy Krueger, Ninja Turtles foe Shredder, and now, "baby sharks."  Like superheroes as a class, such forearmed characters may allude to narcissism, which seems increasingly common, even adaptive.  (If Americans dislike narcissists, why elect them president?)
            Larry Cohen died in March, aged 82.  In assembling an impressive (if spotty) body of work, he had the disarming knack for seeming less subversive than he was.  He's been deceptively influential, witness the Cohenesque likes of Gremlins, They Live, The Addiction, even Velvet Buzzsaw.  He also pioneered movie franchising, in devising Return of the Magnificent SevenHell Up in Harlem (sequel to his Black Caesar), and the Maniac Cop series.
            Like those films, the It's Alive trilogy helped validate small-budget, self-referential sequels, like the “dead” series of George Romero and Sam Raimi.  In having scientists study the mutants, the sequels are comparable to Children of the DamnedDay of the Dead and Terminator Salvation.  Finally, as in various franchises, notably the contemporaneous Planet of the Apes cycle, we're shown key engagements in what may be a global revolution. 

Sunday, October 27, 2019

underseen for Halloween, 2019: Vampire Circus (1972)

These Halloween posts accumulate more hits than the others combined (my thanks to all who've read).  It seems to have provided inspiration, resulting in enough text for (a planned) three posts, the last for All Soul's.    
On usage: "underseen" can be contested, of course, but these titles merit attention amid a wealth of choices.  

Spoilers throughout.

Vampire Circus (1972)

he may know a way out ...
While more of an art film, and closer to didactic than Hammer’s usual line, Vampire Circus is typically sumptuous in evoking an indeterminate past.  It has a liquid quality, like stepping into a river.  It seduces the viewer, as Count Mitterhaus seduces Anna, and Emil, Rosa.

 “a hundred delights!  the Circus of Nights!” 

Vampire Circus caps the horrific-circus/carnival trend of midcentury: Shadow of a Doubt, Nightmare Alley, Circus of Horrors.  In being seasonal, on the edge of town, the Dark Carnival stands for a liminal threat, possibly genocide.  Of its title ruin, dialogue in Carnival of Souls says, "The law has placed it off-limits."  This pavilion is contrasted with what is "safe," "reasonable" and "seemly."  Shtettel (the spelling varies), the town in Vampire Circus, is Yiddish for “town.” 

Another trope, with similar meaning, has survivors crossing paths with perpetrators, as in The Seventh Victim, Seven Men from Now, The Last House on the Left and Eden Lake.  Here, both terms apply to both groups, humans and vampires. 

Vampire Circus is tough on Anglo-Americans, its trigger-sin crouched in our blind spot.  The townsfolk can be deceitful and waspish, but their damning trait is division.  They’ve had time: after the execution of bloodsucker Mitterhaus, 15 years pass before vengeance -- modernity descends -- as half the town decides vampires don’t exist. 

“We make our own luck.”

Early rationalists, Dr. Kersh and schoolteacher Mueller scoff at the notion of vampires.  The teacher is an intellectual feather: after losing his family and killing Mitterhaus, he reverts to scientism, but still can say of the circus folk, “they are death.”  Later, he redeems himself, by believing in what he can’t understand. 

Divisions between men tend to leave a divided population.  Inevitably, an opposing residence becomes hostile territory, as couples and families assume entitlement to (toxic) privacy.  Parents become unaccountable, then suspect.  Thus, the revolutionary insight of Vampire Circus: estrangement from traditional religion as a cause of sexual frustration.

The town’s young adults also assume a type of rabies to be the only plague.  (Indeed, rabies may be the origin of vampire lore: science and folklore interrelate, despite attempts at segregation.)  Only as the skeptics recover faith (intellectual humility) can the town defend itself.  The humility should be in the context of a supernatural: it's too easy to own ignorance if never actually wrong.  

“it’s not life, just distortions …”

the protean Serena
Filmed narratives about demonic encroachment don't necessarily specify demons, e.g., Circle of Fear "Earth, Air, Fire and Water," Twin Peaks.  The horror films of John Carpenter assume a force of pure evil, malignant to humanity.  In both Prince of Darkness and Vampires, the Catholic Church is uneasy ally of the protagonists.  Carpenter is an atheist, but his movies at least flirt with the idea of the Church as hedge against something even worse.  

Like Twin Peaks, Shtettel seems to have no church, and everyone’s lying to someone.  After her son is snatched from danger, the mayor’s wife kisses the rescuer, humiliating her husband.  A splinter group negotiates passage from the barricaded town, and is killed.  Dora, Mueller’s surviving daughter, is safely “in the city,” but journeys home unannounced and unescorted.  Rosa’s mother keeps her daughter’s secret, the affair with Emil.  

Two boys sneak to the circus after hours, joining those snared by the hall of mirrors.  (If funhouse reflections are a door to evil, it questions my daily, four-hour gaze.)  These vampires are magicians and shapechangers, with an (unremarked) immunity to sunlight, and implied psychic powers (the film gets choppy late, reportedly from budget cuts).   

Kersh slips the barricade but, unlike Ivy in The Village, gets revelation.  Now, unanimous belief in vampires gives the townsmen a fighting chance: "Without a vision [no plurality] the people perish."  Shtettel has the advantage of a common heritage, including a recent (cultural) memory of faith.  Still, those attempting “a new kind of nation” should gird for failure.  

“If your wife’s in there, maybe she wanted to go.”  

The film's beginning is both mythic and horrifying: Anna Mueller's fall isn’t frightening, but we know the horrible has happened.  Though soon interrupted, her debauch leaves no doubt why she'd bring her daughter for slaughter.  Here, evil is thrilling and erotic; this isn’t soft-serve Schindler’s List or 12 Years a Slave.

The ending, which is too busy, reveals the circus-leader to be a disguised Anna, even as she saves Dora.  Despite this partial redemption, Anna made the town a target, by placing personal desire above commitments to (original) family and tribe.   

Some films are social-critically present to the point of (evidently) crippling the careers of filmmakers, including Freaks, Sweet Smell of Success, Peeping Tom, Dirty Little Billy, Ganja and Hess and The Sopranos.  The pattern may help to explain the obscurity of the Vampire Circus duo, director Robert Young and screenwriter Judson Kinberg.  Their film attempts to collapse the walls between art and entertainment, sensation and narrative, the erotic and the dramatic.   

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Deadly Messages (1985 TV-movie), 2.5 of 4

Kathleen Beller has haunted me since 1980, when I saw the PBS film of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter."  (She plays the title character, left.)  Only recently, I recognized my avoidance of her other work.  Of course, I'd cherished the memory.

Beller's credits show an impressive run: for a decade, she was TV-movie royalty.  Granted, Deadly Messages is considered middle-of-the-pack (nor is it helped by the marginal dupe currently on YouTube).  It's a pleasantly wry DePalma pastiche, evoking Body Double especially.

The gaslighting subgenre is both timely and venerable, reaching back at least to the eponymous film (1940, and the Hollywood remake of 1944), Hitchcock's Rebecca, What Lies Beneath and others (and The Others).  In this form, the viewer guesses along with the female protagonist about who (if anyone) is menacing her, and why.  Here, the title alludes to a Ouija board which may or may not have supernatural powers.  The twisty ending comes somewhat abruptly, as it vaguely offers a sequel or series.

Thomas M. Sipos pans Deadly Messages as illogical, e.g., detective Dennis Franz discredits Beller's murder report only because she can't present a corpse.  This critique ignores the movie being an expressionist female nightmare, especially common in the era (The Stepford Wives, Demon Seed and many TV-movies, notably John Carpenter's Someone's Watching Me!).  Note that in Deadly Messages, the men all seem to resemble each other (variously ethnic-urban, proletarian).  Fraught as ever, Beller asks understanding, as she wonders about trusting any of them. 

in the 1981 TV-movie, No Place to Hide
The oddest thing about Deadly Messages is the way Beller is presented, almost as if to conceal her figure.  Was she hiding a pregnancy?  The choice may (also) reflect career anxiety.  Hers had depended on ingenues in hothouse romances, even in a feminist era.  By 1985, America had besmirched this baby-madonna with two years on the prime-time soap, Dynasty; there was no returning to the virginal victims of assault (as in Deadly Messages, and 1978's career-defining Are You in the House Alone?), stalking (No Place to Hide), or dying young (Mary White, Promises in the Dark).  Post-Deadly Messages, Beller made short-lived series and a few obscure features, before retirement in the early '90s.

In the fog that is fannish admiration, I imagined an exotic fate for Kathleen Beller, as in the decamp to Europe, or hie-to-a-nunnery like Dolores Hart.  Coincidentally, her last film, Legacy (1993, 55 minutes), was produced by the Mormon church, for internal use.  The actual bio is both appropriate and heartening: she married musician Thomas Dolby in 1988, they have three children.  (Dolby's 1982 hit "She Blinded Me with Science" is a gentle spoof of just such tales as Rappaccini's Daughter.)  Beller's IMDb page teases the cultist with a 2016 horror short, her first credit in 22 years.

Note: for various reasons, this blog does not include comments.
However, I very much appreciate your reading.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Pharaoh's Army (1995) 3 stars of 4

Here's a modest, neglected gem, evoking the historical films of John Sayles as it dramatizes a minor, telling incident from the U.S. Civil War.  It's rather stately (excuse the pun), but worth seeing, as U.S. history and for the ravishing beauty of the Appalachian forest (thus evoking the Jesse James subgenre, including The Long Riders and The Return of Frank James).  It's the best-known film of Southerner Robby Henson (he wrote-directed 2002's The Badge, with Billy Bob Thornton and Patricia Arquette).

Pharaoh's Army: war violates the Southern interior
Advancing through Kentucky hollows, Captain John Abston (Chris Cooper) leads his Union troop on the farm of Sarah Anders (Patricia Clarkson) and son.  With Sarah's husband away fighting for the South, the Yankees help themselves to livestock and provisions.

One of the-boys-in-blue has a fateful fall from a hayloft.  His recuperation means an extended break for the rest, who have yet to "see the elephant" (or in today's military slang, "get some").  Rodie, restless Northerner who's lost a brother to the war, will accuse Abston of cowardice and "just wanting a poke."  The latter can only be true (Patricia Clarkson), but Abston's no coward, just old enough to know war is a mess left by sleeping Senators and not worth getting shot over.

Appalachia was border country (West Virginia exists because the Virginia mountains went Union).  Brother-against-brother was nowhere more common than in Kentucky and Tennessee, where bitter loyalties alternated town to town, man to man.  Here, Kris Kristofferson is a South-leaning neighbor who, hearing of the Union incursion, sends his slave to snipe.  Completing a sketched culture clash, the Yankees mock the patrician not doing his own fighting; Kristofferson ignores them (he also speaks the title phrase, referring to the Union Army).  The intransigents acquainted, tragedy unfolds, as regional rivalry leaps generations.

In addition to the excellent cast and cinematic setting, the film has a mournful (and presumably authentic) score.  Among recent films peripheral to the Civil War, Pharaoh's Army is superior to the rather stilted The World Made Straight (2015), and nearly as attractive as the large-canvas Seraphim Falls (2006).

A late, Leftist article-of-faith insists America's Civil War was fought over slavery, after all.  Some desire a flattering national history, but the truth hurts: the War Between the States decided regional dominance of a growing imperium.  Slavery was the flashpoint, at most.

If slavery caused the war, surely, it begins with John Brown's martyrdom (as he intended), not waiting 1½ years for Fort Sumter.  (Even today, Brown's the hero of radicals, not Americans per se.)  Most white Northerners did not care about slavery (any more than the recruits of 2001 could find Afghanistan on a map), as they assumed blacks inherently inferior.  Having a moral investment in African-Americans, surely, they didn't abandon them 12 years later, as7th Cav mass-suicide rationalized a culturally-bonding, consensus slaughter, and as Reconstruction reconfigured to Jim Crow reign of terror.

The progressive British, having banned slavery in 1834, were nevertheless poised to support the Confederacy, given reasonable encouragement, especially at (northern battles) Gettysburg or Antietem.  (To my way of thinking, the South couldn't afford to win either, thus at Antietem, a runner lost Lee's-orders-'round-3-cigars, i.e., "hey, here's a gift!")  Such a bellwether would only have meant immediate mobilization for the North's full, vastly superior population, and General Lee has an (even earlier) date at Appomatox Courthouse.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

2012 addendum: Romney's no-show

In this post of April 2018, I suggested John McCain's rash choice of Sarah Palin signaled ambivalence to the prospect of defeating Barack Obama.  If McCain had become president, his greatest victory would've been credited, by some, to racism.  He would've governed with the Illinois senator and Great Black Hope ("The Chosen One," per t-shirt) over his shoulder.  If that sounds manageable, our 2019 is also dire.
Mitt and Ann Romney, 2012

If Senator McCain was torn in 2008, what of Governor Romney in 2012?  There's no narrative film about the Romney campaign (so far), no Game Change on HBO; any self-sabotage would likely be less spectacular.

That said: TV Guide's issue of Nov. 12, 2012 devotes a half-page (page 8) to "Mitt Romney's Pop-Culture Picks," a themed tradition for the periodical.  Problem: Election Day was November 6, before this issue reached most readers.  (President Obama's rec’s appeared in the Nov. 5 issue).

An editor's note explains:

Romney's campaign representatives missed our pre-election deadline

Still primarily print-on-paper, TV Guide appeals to aging, less educated readers, which makes it seem irrelevant — until we recall 2016.  The TV Guide brand reportedly sold for $1 in 2008, but by 2012, was called a comeback story with about 2 million subscribers.

Romney's lateness seems unfortunate, given responses which are surprisingly humanizing (of one regularly compared to a mannequin).  In addition to predictable fare (sports, JustifiedNCIS), he claims the left-leaning sitcoms 30 Rock and Modern Family, the latter being his and wife Ann's "favorite show to watch together."  As a non-partisan -- and if it matters, viewer of 30 Rock seasons 1-4 -- I remain favorably surprised.

Following on the McCain piece, an earlier version of this post cited the Obama mystique.  Finally, I remembered Mitt, the 2014 documentary.  After viewing, I’m flipping (in Mitt, Romney repeatedly contests his reputation as a “flip-flopping” Mormon).   

Admittedly, there’s nothing in Mitt to support my original thesis, although Republican voters may’ve shown ambivalence by nominating a place-holder.  Somehow, after 93 minutes, I don’t like Romney any more than before, despite the film’s obvious bias: like Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, Mitt is friendly to its subject.  Both John Kerry and Mitt Romney are driven, wealthy and rather dull, but whereas Kerry has inspiring achievements on his resume, Romney's record is merely impressive (he's a wealthy businessman).

Nevertheless, Mitt alleviated my tunnel vision, in recalling his worst gaffe.  Implicitly, the film tries to re-frame his slam of the "47% of Americans” receiving government assistance.  That won’t happen, as there’s nothing revelatory here, whereas "47%" describes the speaker.  So does "I like to fire people" (capitalism as moral framework).  So does "binders full of women" (people as commodity).

After the 47% gaffe, Romney claimed concern for "all the people," which is belied by his rhetoric, dominated by the usual cries for relief from taxes and regulations.  Like many conservatives, Romney is preoccupied with entrepreneurs.  Wealthy conservatives need to believe the working and middle class can become wealthy.       

A punitive perspective on American life grows from the guilt and puritanism in the national character.  Such an attitude is best understood in a religious context, with the American religion most evident not in churches, but in sacred texts, for example, The Wizard of Oz:

If you did not wear spectacles the brightness and glory of the Emerald City would blind you.  They are locked on, for Oz so ordered it when the City was first built … all of the spectacles … had green glasses in them.

To survive in the U.S., we wear glasses the color of money, even though the entire city, even the sunlight, is already green.  Superheroes, many of them essentially orphans like Dorothy Gale, reveal connecting mythology: Superman's glasses allow his concealment of identity.  The Green Lantern uses the namesake artifact, such that its light will be seen. In They Live (1996), custom spectacles reveal alien capitalists.  The far future of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine includes the Palace of Green Porcelain.  Each narrative suggests the mystical renewing of American culture.

It’s easy to forget the pointed sadism of the first Oz book.  The Wicked Witch of the West describes her prey:

one is of tin, and one of straw, one is a girl and another a lion.  None of them is fit to work, so you may tear them into small pieces. 

In the U.S., work means not being torn to pieces.  Don’t be like freeloading crows:

another crow flew at him, and the Scarecrow twisted its neck also.  There were forty crows, and forty times the Scarecrow twisted a neck, until at last all were lying dead beside him.  

Another foundational text: the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, further hymns to self-sufficiency and pioneer spirit.  Wilder and her daughter and editor, Rose Wilder Lane, would today be called libertarians.  As recounted by Vivian Gornick (The New Republic, Dec., 2017), they were enraged by the New Deal:

“The more I see,” Rose declared in a letter, “the more I’m reluctantly concluding that this country’s simply yellow.  Our people are behaving like arrant cowards.  And it’s absurd.”  She saw nothing “fundamentally wrong.”  At the very time Rose was writing this, in the early 1930s, 13 million workers lost their jobs, leaving nearly one-quarter of the country unemployed. 

For these two women, forged in a Great Plains crucible, New Deal farm bills were the work of the devil.  Compare Mitt Romney’s evocations of inundation, as he realizes he’ll lose in 2012:

I don’t think this is a time for soothing … I can’t believe that he’s (Obama’s) an aberration in the country.  I believe we’re following the same path as every other great nation, which is we’re following greater government money, tax the rich people, promise more stuff to everybody, borrow until you go over a cliff.  … I think we have a very high risk of reaching that tipping point in the next five years.    

Nowhere does Romney specify why the 20-teens will be the breaking point for those in our queue of weak creditors.   

I started this post by comparing McCain and Romney, but there’s a difference in their challenges to Obama: in 2012, we'd had an African-American president.  Another difference between the losing candidates: McCain had a notorious temper and sharp tongue, as when he damned anti-Kissinger protesters as "lowlife scum."  Everyone knew when McCain was angry (so did he).  In his even temper, Mitt Romney is more like Ronald Reagan or, for that matter, Barack Obama. 

I still believe Romney's lateness with the TV Guide response, seemingly trivial, is significant.  Based on the above, however, his motivation was not any particular ambivalence about defeating Obama.  Like Hillary Clinton, candidate Romney sought the support of the right kind of voters. 

Call us 47% or deplorable, we are too many to lightly dismiss.  Prick us, we bleed.  Many of us work, whether or not (well) compensated.  We'll keep an annual commitment on the first Tuesday after the first Monday.    

Note: for various reasons, this blog does not include comments.  
However, I very much appreciate your reading.  

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Joe Biden tries to photobomb history

President Barack Obama governed not to lose.  It's a virtue, to supporters: Obama's job was proving an African-American could lead the United States (and as such, the planet).  How to prove what shouldn't need proving?  By being judicious, avoiding large mistakes; by compensating with an occasional gamble (bin Laden); and of course, by avoiding even the perception of favoritism to Americans of color.  Mission accomplished (too well, some say).  

In choosing President Obama's worst mistake, then, we'd give varied answers: the bailouts, Fast and Furious, the health care site debacle.  With inevitable exceptions, however, Obama was masterful at tone-setting, dignified to a fault (while inevitably compared to Lincoln, in presidential style he may be closer to George Washington).   
Effectively, Obama ruled so the next president of color might be (simply) "president."  Even in 2008, there were grumbles: a black man takes center seat only with an elder white male as backup/spotter.  To avoid doubts over precedence (after Dick Cheney), V.P. Biden had to be typically ceremonial.  To his credit, he kept place.

Still, with continued racism among existential threats, Biden's 2020 candidacy is problematic.  Unfair or illogical as it may be, his nomination could make Obama seem more, not less, like the beneficiary of a cynical bargain.  Obviously, Biden can't be historic in the same way, but a Biden presidency puts Obama in his shadow, at least temporarily.  The prospect is exacerbated if Biden is a notably great president, or a bad president or, even, a mediocre president during especially crucial times. 

Many resist such esoteric analysis: we (should) choose a leader based on substance, on fitness, not from supposed hypersensitivity over past associations.  Nevertheless, the Democratic race, so far, has been characterized by notable hostility to Joe Biden -- arguably, more than expected -- with offense taken to his word and deed.

In this light, even with his bold-print resume, name recognition and confidence to spare, Biden can't be president -- not because he lacks ideas -- not because "handsy" -- from circumstance.  The chip on his shoulder, lately, might suggest he knows (his "Wise Mind" knows).  Like the gaffe-prone John McCain and Mitt Romney, Joe Biden runs against Barack Obama, if only in the American imagination.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

everything has a reason: lensing Apocalypse Now in the Phillipines

The good thing about a compulsion: there's always next time to get it wrong right.

The Vietnam War was eerily similar to U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: a quagmire in a far off, developing, non-white nation, sold with lies and testosterone.  The major difference was (is) the military draft.  The calling-up of 2 million men to serve in Vietnam inspired mass protests during the war, and thereafter, survivor's guilt.  The guilt, in turn, fed the war on terrorism, initiated by non-combatants George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

The survivor's-guilt boom left traces in our movies.  Initially, Vietnam vets on-screen tended anti-social and/or violent (e.g. The Enforcer, Black Sunday, Lethal Weapon, The Indian Runner).  The scapegoating didn't take, not for lack of trying, but Vietnam was a national disgrace that couldn't be shunted to a subset.

We embraced veterans in the mid-1980s: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (right; opened 1982), Platoon (1985, by veteran Oliver Stone), Hamburger Hill and Full Metal Jacket (both 1987), and on TV, Tour of Duty and China Beach.  The debt settled, on-screen vets turned comfortably cartoonish, whether frankly (The Big Lebowski) or not (Forrest Gump).   

The signal year, though, was 1978.  That cycle played it both ways, with sympathetic soldiers or vets nevertheless defined by mental and physical breakdown.  The Deer Hunter won Best Picture, and Coming Home, Oscars for Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, but Apocalypse Now may have aged best.  It inspired a celebrated documentary (1991's Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, by Eleanor Coppola), as well as a substantially longer director's cut in 2001.

As Hearts of Darkness documents, survivor's guilt informs even the publicity around a Vietnam film.  The filmmaking-as-combat conceit was mocked in 2008's Tropic Thunder.  Still, Apocalypse Now came oddly close: the planned 16-week shoot lasted over a year, the obstacles including a typhoon, Martin Sheen's (near-fatal) heart attack, and the Filipino government's repossession of helicopters and pilots (to fight a communist rebellion).  As in Vietnam, there was drugs and alcohol.  Armchair doomsayers decried the ballooning project, its commander due for a fall (Coppola was coming off the Godfather films and The Conversation).

These troubles were largely predictable.  Various locales can double for Vietnam; the troubled Philippines was the director's choice.  In Hearts of Darkness, George Lucas recalls warning friend Francis: 
If you go over there as a big Hollywood production, they're gonna kill you.  The longer you stay, the more in danger you are of getting sucked into the swamp.
Excise "Hollywood," and these words apply to the Vietnam War.  But maybe that's the point: epic-film production as masochism, to exorcise survivor's guilt.  If such motivation was (largely) unconscious, it didn't stop Coppola capitalizing once the film was done.  The ringmaster's immortal words at Cannes, 1979:
My film is not a movie.  My film is not about Vietnam.  It is Vietnam.  It's what it was really like ... the way we made it was much like the Americans were in Vietnam.  We were in the jungle -- there were too many of us -- we had access to too much money, too much equipment -- and little by little, we went insane.  
It's not just the movie's director, star and co-writer John Milius (reputedly blacklisted after his militaristic Red Dawn, 1984): various figures would receive displaced punishment.  Newspaper heiress Patty Hearst spent a year as a domestic terrorist, then 22 months in prison.  CBS and Mike Wallace were sued by General William Westmoreland; years later, Dan Rather was baited with fake documents.  Bill Clinton was impeached; Colin Powell, recruited for deception.  Others caught hell for exaggerating their service (Tim Johnson, Richard Blumenthal).  Jane Fonda got off easy: an apology, and penitential aerobics.

As voters, we avoided a vet as president (John Kerry, John McCain).  As ticket buyers too, we'd  avoid triggers: males of draft-age became stars only in their mid-30s (examples include Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Patrick Swayze and James Woods).  Other than Oliver Stone, the most prominent (real) veteran in Hollywood seems to be Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue).

If Francis Ford Coppola wanted to show appreciation to veterans, he could have merely talked to them, and, perhaps, arranged film-industry internships.  Americans aren't particularly known for restraint or self-awareness.  If so, we might've avoided the quagmire of 2032.