Woman in the Moon (1929)

Fritz Lang wasn’t interested in making short movies.

Woman in the Moon was his follow-up to the tremendously successful (and comparatively low-budget) Spies. It finds Lang back to his UFA studio-bankrupting ways; it’s considered one of the first truly serious science-fiction movies I guess Metropolis wasn’t?), and that don’t come cheap.

Industrialist engineer Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch, the star of Spies) visits his old friend Professor Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl) an astronomer who was disgraced thirty years earlier when he announced that there was gold on the Moon to a roomful of serious men with eccentric facial hair. Helius feels he is right, and is, in fact, about to embark on a voyage to the Moon to prove that point. Manfeldt excitedly insists that he must come with, but also warns his young friend that shadowy figures have been trying to acquire his research papers.

600_444828611Helius is also in a funk because his best friend Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim) was faster on the draw to proposing marriage to the forewoman of the factory, Friede (Gerda Maurus, also from Spies – Lang was no fool). That personal problem recedes into the background when Helius is waylaid by an attractive woman (she had Louise Brooks hair, and was obviously trouble, but he ignored my shouted warnings), who steals Manfeldt’s papers; he returns to his apartment to find his safe cracked, and all his blueprints, files, even the scale model of the rocket he is building, have been purloined.

Turner (Fritz Rasp) is a representative of the Five Richest People in the World, and they want to control the gold on the Moon. Unless Helius allows Turner to accompany him, Turner’s minions will destroy the nearly-complete rocket. Helius eventually gives in, after reconciling somewhat with Windegger and Friede, who will join him, Turner and Manfeldt for the trip.

1929_frau_im_019It isn’t until almost halfway through the movie that we finally get our rocket launch, but it’s time pretty well spent. Based on the work of  Hermann Oberth, who literally wrote the book on rocket travel while he was working as a high school teacher, much of the launch sequence is prescient, and familiar to anybody who’s followed NASA through the years: the rocket drawn by tractors from its enormous hangar, the countdown (invented for this movie as a dramatic device, but oh so practical!), a multi-stage propulsion system. Lang had cut his teeth on miniature work with Metropolis, and that pays dividends here – those are astounding shots.

Lang also deals with the concept of zero-gravity – presented as a very short period of time on the trip – pragmatically, with straps hanging from the ceiling and leather loops on the floor for feet. It’s all very well-thought out and satisfying.

Then we actually land, and you can forget about all that science nonsense.

"What idiot designed this? Was it you?"

“What idiot designed this? Was it you?”

I can forgive the rocket cockpit, which has instrumentation that was not designed for ease of use during the crush of G’s Helius knows will happen during the first minutes of launch – that’s for dramatic effect. “That’s for dramatic effect” will cover the remainder of the movie.

Earlier, while the Five Rich People are going over Helius’ stolen files, they watch a film made by an earlier rocket that circled the Moon with robot cameras (good work again, Herr Oberth), and mention that on the Far Side of the Moon, there appears to be atmosphere, and possibly swarms of insects. There is definitely atmosphere, our astronauts find.

I moan and groan, and then remember being thrilled by tales of the Blue Area of the Moon, which is where The Watcher lives, you know. So I can’t kvell too much about that.

screen shot 2013-10-04 at 2.37.32 pmOh, the fact that Manfeldt then pulls out a divining rod to find water, that I’m going to moan about plenty. Instead he finds gold, and falls into a ravine when he tries to hide it from Turner. Turner goes off the rails and tries to hijack the ship, though to what freaking purpose because he has no idea how it works. This results in the shortest gunfight in history, and Turner’s errant bullet hits the oxygen tanks, resulting in there only being enough oxygen for the return trip if somebody stays behind – even if two of the crew are now dead.

This leads to a drawing-the-short-straw scene worthy of a movie almost three hours long, as the cowardly, brittle Windegger overacts mightily and thereby convinces Friede she picked the wrong guy. Then again, Helius is being a dick about the whole thing because he knows and we know that he is going to be the one to stay behind in any case, after drugging Windegger and Friede and letting Gustav launch the ship.

Woman-1Oh, did I not mention Gustav? He’s a science-fiction reading kid who stowed away on the ship (apparently one of the SF stories he read was not “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, where an astronaut’s girlfriend stows away and she has to be jettisoned because there isn’t enough fuel for her added weight). Gustav also does all the heavy lifting getting the supplies and a tent out of the ship for a base camp to accommodate whoever stays behind. In this case Helius and Friede, awwwwww.

There was a ton of supplies in that ship, too, against all rationale. Good thing, too, because the flight only took 36 hours – that’s half the time Apollo 11 took to get to the Moon – but they’re going to have to build a new ship to rescue our lunar lovebirds.

Willy Fritsch said in a recent interview that everybody knew there was no air on the Moon, and the sole nod to lighter gravity is everybody wearing platform shoes that were supposed to be lead, but were actually cork, but as I say: dramatic license. The Moon set is pretty impressive otherwise, with over forty truckloads of sand brought in from the Baltic.

5024topFrauIf Lang could have kept up the dedication to actual science, this movie might have supplanted Metropolis in my rankings of his movies, but the third act becomes wearisome with melodrama and nonsensical plot machinations. Really, the stuff preceding that is so technically competent that the Nazis took it out of circulation in the 30s through the 40s because the rocket was too similar to the V-2 missile… made by men building upon the refinements to rocketry designed by Oberth… and paid for by the advertising budget of Woman in the Moon.

Let’s watch that launch (the ship is being lowered into water because “it is too light to stand by itself.”):

Buy Woman in the Moon on Amazon

 

 

The Wind in the Willows (1996)

PosterYears ago my friend and fellow actor Jeff Lane, while we talking about the pitfalls of children’s theatre, told me about a movie he had seen almost by accident, a movie of which I had never heard: a live-action version of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows directed by Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones, full of sly details for the older members of the audience. That was my modus operandi in the days when I was directing, and I put that in my To Be Tracked Down folder. It took me damned near 20 years to do it, and the reasons why are almost as obscure as the movie’s existence has become.

I’m going to assume a bit of familiarity with Grahame’s novel to move things along. If you’re not, well… reading is good for you.

MSDWIIN EC007The first notice that you’re watching an adaptation geared toward the kids of the 90s is immediate as Mole (Steve Coogan) – who in the book leaves his underground home because he is bored with spring cleaning – is instead rousted from his burrow when a bunch of heavy machinery (operated by literal weasels) destroys the meadow where it is located. Mole goes to his friend Ratty (Eric Idle), and they travel via boat to Toad Hall, because the meadow was owned by the extremely wealthy and extremely feckless Toad (Terry Jones). This is time-saving compression – in the book, Mole has to meet Rat, then Toad.

The_Wind_in_the_WillowsToad is famously obsessed with the latest fads, monomaniacally embracing one for a few days, then discarding it for the next. The most famous of these – leading to Toad’s downfall – is the motorcar, a hot property in the novel’s 1906 setting. Toad’s constant crashes leads to several unnerving encounters with the weasels of the Wild Wood, and an intervention by an old friend of the Toad family, the stern Badger (Nicol Williamson), who places Toad under house arrest and cancels his order for six new motorcars. But the wily Toad will escape, steal a motorcar, crash it immediately, and go to prison for that crime. This is what the Weasels were waiting for, and they take over Toad Hall.

This brief synopsis covers what happens in most of the adaptations of Willows, ending with Toad’s escape from prison and he and his friends re-taking Toad Hall. What I haven’t gone into yet is Jones’ additions, playing off that initial change to the opening scene: the Weasels bought the meadow to build an enormous Dog Food Factory, and they intend to blow up Toad Hall just because they’re weasels. And say what you will about Kenneth Grahame and his novel, I somehow feel that the weasels preparing to drop Toad, Mole, Ratty and Badger into an enormous meat grinder wasn’t even in the preliminary notes for the first draft.

WeaselsI don’t know what this says about Jones, or his view of what would appeal to the kids in the 90s; I will say that I (though as far from a kid in the 90s as you can get) found it tremendously entertaining. This strain of enthusiastic cartoon murder that runs throughout the third act, though, is likely what got the movie a PG rating from the MPAA. There are already tons of much more faithful adaptations in the world; it’s refreshing to find one that is quite its own creature.

The details that so impressed Jeff are about as subtle as one would expect from Jones’ oeuvre, which is to say that they are only subtle insomuch as nobody on screen stops and points at them exclaiming “Cor! Lookit that!” Whenever the ever-present rabbits are used as background characters, they are almost always making out. Similarly for weasels, they are almost always robbing rabbits in the background.

Overall, The Wind in the Willows feels like it’s a production by a well-funded children’s theatre. There is not much done to make the actors look like the animals they portray; Idle has whiskers and a tail, Jones is painted green. Most of the look is instead created by wigs and perfectly lovely costumes, especially Toad’s overly large Edwardian suits and the uniform frockcoats and wigs worn by the Weasels.

Toad, Mole, RatSteve Coogan is properly endearing and pathetic as Mole (even if he does have to follow a truncated Hero’s Journey), and Eric Idle channels a steady British Decency as the boat and picnic-loving Rat. Jones has a tightrope to walk as Toad, making the supercilious ego-maniac with ADHD somehow likeable, and manage it he does. Nicol Williamson is not allowed to have much fun as Badger, but then, that’s the character, innit? (Yes, that was my role in my actor days) Anthony Sher is another standout as the gleefully malevolent Chief Weasel, Stephen Fry has fun as the Judge, and John Cleese jobs in as Toad’s defense attorney, who is so overwhelmed by his client’s guilt that he does a far better job at convicting him than the prosecutor.

Is it Monty Python’s Wind in the Willows? Oh no no no, heavens no. Though I am quite surprised that it wasn’t marketed as such. Ah yes, marketing – you remember I mentioned Jeff’s seeing it almost by accident, and my subsequent inability to find it? There was some sort of shooting war going on between distributors, though I’ve only got hearsay as to causes and whys and wherefores, not much in the way of hard evidence. The Wind in the Willows wasn’t the cause but it was definitely a casualty, as Columbia wound up with the theatrical distribution rights, but Disney the home video rights. Theatrical distribution is vital to home video, and in what I can only interpret as spite, Columbia buried the movie.

Jones and the distribution arm of Columbia

Jones and the distribution arm of Columbia

Jeff’s viewing was one of the cursory screenings in America. There is an infamous tale of Jones in New York City, shooting a documentary, learning that the movie was playing in Times Square. One cab ride later, he found it playing “in a seedy little porno house”.

Disney nonetheless put it out on video in 2004. Ah, there’s the end of your journey, then, you may think. But no, I was still trying to find a copy to watch. My problem was I was looking for The Wind in the Willows. Disney, in order to have yet another movie based on one of their theme park rides, like The Haunted Mansion, had re-titled it Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (some junior marketing executive got lots of three-martini lunches out of that one). I remained unaware of this fact until, I believe, it was mentioned in Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film around 2012 or so. And then I could search for and buy the ancient, non-anamorphic DVD – which is now out of print. You can still buy it crammed onto a single DVD with three other Disney ride movies, and that’s it.

Which is a shame. This marked the end of Jones’ feature direction for almost ten years, and I generally enjoy his work (yes, I’m one of six people who will admit liking Erik the Viking). It kept me entertained for its length, and that can often be dicey for an adult watching children’s fare. The one false note struck is an ancient complaint for me: I regularly curse whoever it was who decided in antiquity that children’s entetainment must always be a musical. I despised these saccharine interruptions as a child, and I regard them no more kindly as an adult. The songs in Willows seem tacked on, with only the Weasel number having any of the wit or creativity of the surrounding material. But they do provide a good-looking sampler which will cue you in to whether or not this is a movie you’ll find worth seeking out (which you should, it’s pretty delightful, and deserving of better treatment):

Buy The Wind in the Willows Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and three other movies on Amazon

 

The Case for Outlawing August

Sorry, folks. No movie pontificating this week, either. I just came off two weeks of wall-to-wall work, and entered this week with free evenings – well, Sunday through Thursday, anyway. Work reared its head Wednesday night, Monday and Tuesday was spent dealing with financial aid for my son’s imminent college career, then waiting for the results of a meeting involving my wife’s school… my imagined week of movie-watching went up up in smoke. I did get one movie in on Sunday, but you won’t hear about it until October.

I won’t watch a movie when I know it’s going to be interrupted. I prefer not to approach things in a piecemeal fashion. It’s just the way I am. I’ve been told I should just let the movie run in the background while I’m doing something else, and I am aghast. That’s not watching a movie. Movies aren’t wallpaper. Not to me, anyway.

This week on "Supposedly Uplifting Quotations That Are Actually Distressing As Hell"

This week on “Supposedly Uplifting Quotations That Are Actually Grim As Hell”

Looking at my calendar for the approaching month ain’t doing me any favors, either. There are end-of-fiscal-year budget meetings that must be televised, and I’m also taking up the slack for some departments that have run out of budget as September approaches. Lacking some credentials, I job in at a lower rate than others. Moving my son into college will, for some reason, take five days. I’m going to try to pretend that is a vacation, which would be nice, I haven’t had one in years.

All this extra work is necessary, of course, because July and August are not satisfied with merely trying to kill you in Texas, they also have to ruin you financially. I challenge any climate denier to live in Houston in the Summer on a part-timer’s salary. They will have as much success as those people who periodically try to eat healthy on food stamps. Unless they’re iguanas and would thrive in an unairconditioned apartment, then the bet’s off.

The “Dog Days” of Summer supposedly go from July 3- August 11, as Sirius, the Dog Star, rises at the same time as the Sun. August is traditionally the Silly Season in the newspaper trade, when off-the-wall stories proliferate. Add to this one of the most bizarre Presidential campaigns in… well, ever. It’s out of either a well-written Stephen King novel or a poorly written comic book. Yet there is a surprisingly wide variety of Kool-Aid out there and an unbelievable number of people willingly drinking it. There are 10-15 things on my social media feeds that make me prematurely tired every morning, and trust me – I don’t need help to be tired.

I realize there’s no way to get rid of an entire month, but I really wish there was a way for us to just all go somewhere else and let the damn month just do its thing, and we can all come back in September, when things are a little cooler, sweep up the debris, and get back to trying to live our lives as anguish-free as possible. August is a horrible, ugly imposition on us all (My apologies to anyone who was born during this month, like my mother and my brother).

There’s a lot more I want to complain about, but who cares, really? Thanks for reading even this far. Next week begins the meeting schedule anew – I’ll have exactly one evening free next week – but who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to return to a bit of what is, for me, normal. I doubt it, but strange things happen in August. Hope to see you here with better, less bitter, results.

Return to Digitalland

I’ve seen some articles where the writer signs off from the Internet for a month or so, and it usually winds up that their lives are improved, as they interact more with the Real World, family friends, people in the street, and find that The Old Ways Were Best, and everyone should log off and take a walk. It’s like Walden for the New Millennium.

I just spent a month and a half without the Internet, and I am here to say this is bullshit.

no-internet-accessI used to have broadband through my local cable company; we parted ways somewhat acrimoniously years ago, and I went to DSL – after all, I was already paying for a phone line, this made sense. That worked out fine for a while, until the landline cut out. The DSL was still functioning, but our phones were dead. The technician who came out informed me it was our phone. I told him that seemed unlikely since I had tried three separate phones with the same result. I insisted he plug his own handset into the outlet, and got the same results I had with three increasingly expensive phones. Then he said he could rewire the connecting but wouldn’t, since he’d just have to do it all over again when I replaced the siding on my house. I could not get him to tell him how he knew I would suddenly get enough money to replace the siding in the near future.

His gift of prophecy was wrong, anyway. Yet I continued on. I attempted to go back to the cable company, but that ended in tears again, as I was getting no signal to their modem and yet they thought I should pay for this. Come to think of it, that was remarkably similar to my experience with the phone company.

LIES ALL LIES

LIES ALL LIES

The sad part is, maintaining the status quo was less work so I did that, rationalizing that I was at least getting stable service from my DSL. Then that service was sold to another company, and everything went to hell. Most of my revenue stream dried up, and I couldn’t afford the non-service I was getting anymore.

So. Back to the Cable Company. I got my self-installation kit. A nice young man came out and put some sort of filter on the existing cable outside. I hooked up the Wireless Gateway™ and watched nothing happen. Then I got stiffed on an appointment three days later (I do not yell at Customer Service Reps because I like to be different. I did, however, tell him what I thought of the technician blaming me for the missed appointment). Then, a week and two days after the Self-Installation Failure, a technician showed up and fixed the problem in about an hour. Therefore, I feel all better about the company.

Also, I never had to wait more than five minutes to talk to a CSR, which is nothing short of miraculous, in my estimation.

My son, however, has better hair than this.

My son, however, has better hair than this.

In this time, I only had access to the Internet at work and on my smartphone. My teenage son probably thought he was imprisoned in a Siberian gulag. My Facebook-addicted wife thought the same. I don’t want to talk about the data overage charges on the cell phones.

Let me bore you further, as to why the Internet is more of a necessary utility to me than a luxury that can be cut out in lean times: as I said, projects I had worked on in the past had reached their conclusion, which also included the paychecks I was earning. I’m glad the economy and the job situation is good for the country currently, but I have to say the market for 59 year-old men with my particular skill set hasn’t widened appreciably. I’m still looking, and every now and then something will come across my LinkedIn desktop that ever-so-slightly sounds like me. I apply and send along my resume.

Just as the Internet drought had begun, I got an e-mail telling me I had gotten the job, and would be embarking on a two-week trial period to see if I fit in; the e-mail listed the job duties again, and what the prospective salary would be. This was all good; finally, a chance to use all these skills and knowledge, and the work seemed pretty exciting, too. The money was good enough to get me out of my current financial hole. I wrote back thanking them, but saying due to the timing, I was about to work the Independence Day weekend at my current job, and would be out-of-pocket for those three days.

I received an e-mail back that my first duty would be to book airline and hotel reservations for a casting director coming to Houston the week after, and a cashier’s check was being cut for me to cover that cost and my own expenses.

Pretty sure this is what the SOB looked like.

Pretty sure this is what the SOB looked like.

My heart sank as I read that e-mail. That was the oldest scam in the books. I had not even done a phone interview at that point, much less talked to anyone face-to-face at a supposedly local company, and they were still sending me a large check via FedEx?

This, I guess, was the Long Dark Tea Time of My Soul. I had spent several days thinking that everything was going to be all right, that things were looking up, hey, maybe there is something to this prayer business, you know? That all went away as I stared at that letter on my phone’s screen. Nothing was going to get better. And someone was actively trying to make it even worse.

My wife was spending the night at a friend’s house, who was recovering from surgery, so I had no shoulder to cry on. I had a Very Bad Half-Hour. I did send her a series of texts about how this had turned out. They probably read like a suicide note.

After the Half-Hour I allowed myself for the pity party, I started getting angry. Not only because I had been promised a better tomorrow, but because they thought I was stupid enough to fall for such a transparent ruse. I took stock – what did they know about me? What had I told them? Name, address, phone number, e-mail address – all things that can be found out fairly easily. No social security numbers or bank info, which would have been the next thing they hoped I was stupid enough to supply (I was supposed to text them a photo of the deposit slip, which I would have painted out the numbers on even if this had been legit).

No, wait, this is probably what he looked like.

No, wait, this is probably what he looked like. Or at least dressed like.

I did as much research as I could on my phone, but it was like I was blind in one eye and on crutches; things I was attempting to do were rendered extremely cumbersome. That Saturday I was going over to Rick’s to watch movies, and I brought a laptop and mooched off his wi-fi. Tracked down who had actually registered the Gmail account that was corresponding with me. Who had registered that “Under Construction” web site for what was supposed to be a long-established company. I reported my situation to LinkedIn. Never heard a thing from them.

I survived the Independence Day weekend (again). Then the FedEx package arrived, and I called the FBI.

The FBI Lady made sure I hadn’t compromised myself, then gave me a list of things to do. There is an online form for reporting stuff like this, which I did at my earliest access to Internet. I called the bank whose name was on the cashier’s check, and the lady there verified that it was a forgery, and told me they had been dealing with this particular operation for three months. No, they didn’t need the check for their files, but thank you.

I filled out the FBI form, probably supplying way too much information (I actually hit the character limit in a couple of fields). If I hadn’t been suspicious before, the fact that the return address on the FedEx envelope was from a healthcare company should have tipped me off. I fired off an e-mail to their corporate office that their account had been hacked.

No! No! This is what he looked like!

No! No! This is what he looked like!

Not everybody is a suspicious bastard like me. Not everybody read with interest about online scams in the early parts of this Digital Age. Too many people have probably fallen for this, or something like it. Did my efforts make this any more difficult for them? Probably not, but it didn’t help them.

Facing that crap without access to online tools made me feel truly alone. So I put my animosity with the cable company aside and said, this time I will make it work. Well, my part of that is pretty small, it was mainly thanks to a tech named Paul that made it work. I’m just getting used to the idea that when I see a movie clip being ballyhooed online I no longer have to say, “Yeah, I’ll have to check that out tomorrow at work.”

My time without the ‘Net wasn’t all bad – I read many books (Hey, it turns out that John Scalzi guy is actually pretty good!), but I also played a lot of solitaire. I created a busywork project that I may now never finish… because it was busywork, but at least it didn’t require net access.

My enforced absence from the Information Highway proved to me one thing, and that is I rely heavily on it for research, Whether it’s the proper spelling of concomitant or what exactly was the deal with the Dick Tracy villain “Oodles”, I grew used to having that at my fingertips (yes, I own a dictionary. Yes, shut up). The crisis with the fake job and constantly having to figure out work-arounds for the websites I manage delineated my need for access in very stark detail.

happyThis Election season may yet cause me to forsake Facebook or edit it to hell and back, but that’s another issue entirely (I am told that living in an echo chamber would be a bad thing). Not being able to be flabbergasted by my fellow humans’ idiocy on it – that’s a problem. I use Facebook and Twitter for business purposes, not simply for excuses to be pissed off.

So yes, modern-day Thoreaus, more power to you and your neo-Luddite ways. Enjoy your non-digital lives. Of course, you’ll never know that I’m wishing you well, because I’m embracing my 64-bit existence.

Now if you’ll excuse me, a buttload of movie trailers just dropped. Holy guacamole, they now play without buffering or stuttering.

It’s like witchcraft.

Medium Cool (1969)

medium cool posterSo I see a lot of people had the brilliant idea to watch Medium Cool this Summer. Something about the looming Republican Convention, I’m sure. There are also a lot of people saying 2016 is 1968 all over again. It isn’t, though there are parallels.

There is unrest. There is seemingly unending domestic violence. There is change in the air, some hope (myself included). All these are playing into that hot-take cauldron proclaiming a carbon copy of 1968. No wonder so many are investigating this intriguing snapshot of that time.

First of all, Haskell Wexler is a name to respect among cameramen and cinematographers. Go look at that IMDb entry, and find out why so many were sad when he passed away just after Christmas last year. Now consider that in 1968, he felt ready to direct a feature film, and that film was nearly The Concrete Wilderness, the story of a transplanted Appalachian boy raising pigeons in the slums of Chicago. The remnants of that story are still evident in Medium Cool, but what we really get is a story about Haskell Wexler.

mc1Robert Forster is John Cassellis, a cameraman for the news department of a local station. We meet him as he’s filming a dead woman at the site of a recent car wreck, along with his sound man, Gus (Peter Bonerz). As they pack up their gear, John says to Gus, “Better call an ambulance.” Despite that questionable intro, we soon find that John has something of a conscience, along with some misgivings about his trade. He tries to follow the story of a black cabbie turning in a lost bag containing ten thousand dollars, against the wishes of his news director. And the day he finds out – to his dismay – that his footage has been routinely turned over to the police and the FBI so they can scope out radical elements, he’s also fired.

watching-tvJohn has also, by sheer accident and misunderstanding, met Harold (Harold Blankenship), the aforementioned boy, and his mother Eileen (Verna Bloom). A romance begins to blossom – there’s something in Eileen that John doesn’t see in his current flame, the nurse Ruth (Marianna Hill). Eventually, John gets another gig jobbing in as a cameraman during the 1968 Democratic Party Convention; he doesn’t realize that Harold, seeing his mother getting intimate with John, has run away and is basically bumming around Grant Park until it’s safe to go home. Eileen, still wearing her yellow party dress from the night before, is similarly roaming the streets trying to find him – as the protests around the Convention begin to move toward the riots that would dominate the media that Summer.

Medium-Cool-Chicago-RiotThis is probably the most famous aspect of Medium Cool, that Wexler and his cameramen (only one or two, past Wexler himself), are actually in the streets filming, and Verna Bloom is right there, wandering around in character, occasionally in harm’s way, as cops in riot gear and National Guardsmen in barbed-wire festooned jeeps get into position. There’s also footage of Forster in the Convention, as in the background we hear things starting to go to shit on the floor. This is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, with everybody on their game. It gets especially tense as you realize that is most definitely Verna Bloom in there, evidencing brass balls the size of Gibraltar, getting those shots. Wexler apparently tried to get her to go home as the situation intensified, and she refused.

One of the most referenced shots involves Wexler, as a National Guardsman – tired of being on camera, perhaps – lobs a tear gas grenade at his feet. As the gas drifts up, you see the camera shakily moving back, and you hear someone say, “Watch out Haskell – it’s real!” Wexler says the line was added in post production, but that it was pretty much what was going through his mind as the first sting of the gas hit him (The shot is in the Criterion Three Reasons clip, below).

Medium Cool1On the other hand, in a shot that was meant to provoke a reaction, Bloom cuts through a line of Guardsman and addresses their commander – in character, telling him she’s looking for her son. The commander waves her through, and even points the way toward someone who might be able to help her.

I referred to the movie as “a snapshot”, because the Convention footage doesn’t have the only message Wexler wants to convey; after the car wreck opening we have a sequence at a party where people are hotly discussing the role of news media, and the increasing danger and resentment they face. Later, in a post-coital talk, Ruth asks a question about Mondo Cane that I also asked when I first saw it at 10 years of age (which sort of explains a lot about me, I guess). John’s attempt to follow up on the cabbie story leads to a discussion of the black experience, circa 1968. John and Gus go on other stories before John’s fall, including the riot training of the same National Guardsmen we’ll see in Chicago, and Resurrection Town near the Lincoln Reflecting Pool, soon after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Resurrection TownThere’s more, more more. A slow pan around a hotel kitchen as we hear Robert Kennedy’s last speech, and if you lived through that time, you know exactly what is coming, and you feel your pulse rate quicken. Mass media critiquing over a TV special containing footage of King’s greatest speeches, about media being complicit in a week-long catharsis so regular business can resume. There is more that was excised, some of which is excerpted in a documentary about the making of Medium Cool called (appropriately) Look Out Haskell, It’s Real involving the politicization of Eileen with a real-life speech by the Rev. Jessie Jackson (Jackson still crops up in the Resurrection Town footage).

GasJonathan Haze was a line producer (yes, that Jonathan Haze, Little Shop of Horrors and a bunch of others), and had connections with the local activists, so Haskell knew where to set up the next day for protest footage. (If you look quick, you can catch footage of Wexler and Haze being treated for tear gas exposure during the riot footage) Even then, there’s a counter-balancing sequence in which John takes Eileen to a go-go, where even in her yellow dress she is quite the fish out of water. There’s a band playing what the subtitles assure us is “Psychedelic rock”, though what is actually playing – out of sync, which makes the strobing and quick-cutting even more discombobluating – is The Mothers of Inventions’ “Go to San Francisco”, which has Zappa singing “Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet/Psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street”.

In a few minutes, though, we’ll be separating the phonies from the real revolutionaries. The real ones will the ones that are bleeding. And they are a diverse lot, not the cartoon hippies Zappa is satirizing.

Medium Cool is a startling blend of the real and unreal, until the viewer reaches a point where one is not quite sure which is which – until the third act, when the reality becomes undeniable – and then that controversial final scene, echoing the beginning, where we are challenged once more to define for ourselves what is real and what is not. And that is a thread that runs through the movie, even though Wexler claimed he had never read Marshall McLuhan – the necessity of the viewer, while taking in the imagery of a “cool medium” like TV, to rise above the simple, non-interactive nature of that medium, to inquire, to judge, to determine what about it is real, if anything.

It may not be 1968 all over, but that central message is more important than ever.

 Buy Medium Cool on Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974)

the-swinging-cheerleaders-movie-poster-1974-1020206557There is sort of sad nostalgia about my relationship with the drive-in theaters of the 70s, especially when it was married to my recent acquisition of a driver’s license. This was the beginning of personal freedom, my friends and I piling into the family station wagon and heading out to the Skyway Twin on the weeknight where an entire carload could get in for one low price. This is where I saw Texas Chainsaw and Torso on a double bill, but it was also where we were sure to see those other magical R-rated movies with titles like Student Teachers and Night Call Nurses. I should say especially sure, because these were important to my budding, frustrated and often confused sexuality.

I was reasonably confident I had seen The Swinging Cheerleaders at some point during this, when my life was full of possibilities and my own innate superiority.

Did you know these sonsabitches were still being made? I did not!

Did you know these sonsabitches were still being made? I did not!

When I found out that Arrow Video was prepping a 2K restoration and blu-ray, I knew I would have to try and re-capture that brief window of time – although this time I would be doing it without hollow sound blaring from a metal speaker hanging on the driver’s side window, without the humidity of a hot Texas night, and without the smell of a burning coil of Pic® Mosquito Repellent. All of these are highly overrated.

It turned out I actually hadn’t seen The Swinging Cheerleaders. I probably would have remembered it better if I had, because director Jack Hill delivers an actual movie.

the-swinging-cheerleaders

Mesa University is having a great football year, thanks to star quarterback Buck (Ron Hajak). The cheerleader squad, though, is down one girl, and who should show up to try-outs but Kate (Jo Johnston), who wants into the squad to research her term paper on “Female exploitation in contemporary society”, which her boyfriend The Campus Radical Ron (Ian Sander) also wants to run in his underground newspaper. Kate is going to find out that Buck is, under his swaggering front, actually a nice guy, and Ron, under his progressive front, is a sniveling weasel. That’s not much to hang a movie on, so the Coach (Jack Denton), Dean Putnam (George Wallace) and math instructor Professor Thorpe (Jason Sommers) are rigging the games to make a fortune in gambling, which makes a much better exposé for Kate, since she’s also found out even cheerleaders can be worthwhile people.

swinging1Well, except for Mary Ann (Colleen Camp), the leader of the squad who hates Kate, because Buck is her boyfriend. Oh, and also she’s the daughter of Dean Putnam. And we haven’t yet mentioned Lisa (Roseanne Katon), our token black cheerleader, who is dating the very-married Prof. Thorpe. And then there’s Andrea (Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith), who is dating running back Ross (Ric Carrott), but can’t bring herself to lose her virginity to him. She’s advised by Kate and Lisa to do it with a stranger, and she winds up settling on Ron, who invites some friends over for a gang bang, which leads to Ross beating the crap out of him, and Ron’s subsequent reprisal against cheerleaders in general and Kate in specific.

The Other Cheapest Special Effect: 70s wallpaper.

The Other Cheapest Special Effect: 70s wallpaper.

Now, you are thinking, this is an exceptional amount of plot for a T&A drive-in flick and you are absolutely correct. In the third act, the trio of faculty gamblers decide Mesa have to lose the big game to State to really clean up, and the uncooperative Buck has to be kidnapped – at this point all those subplots go away in favor of low-budget slapstick action. There is a certain amount of grousing online about this movie, and that is at its core: there’s some nudity from our three main cheerleaders (sorry, Colleen Camp fans, villains don’t get nude scenes), and a whole lot of interpersonal relationships. Like I said, Hill delivered an actual movie, not an excuse for my teenaged self to ogle nekkid women. My middle-aged self is reasonably okay with this.

That cravat deserves its own credit.

That cravat deserves its own credit.

What I tend to be more interested in this Internet age (where it is ridiculously easy to see nekkid women) is the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, and watching The Swinging Cheerleaders allows you see a man who was a master at artful efficiency at work. Arrow Video has Jack Hill on the commentary track, and it is a beautiful thing to hear him talk about directing. He points out which scenes were achieved by simply dressing up a corner of the soundstage (it’s quite a few, including one where they didn’t even bother to throw up some flats), why pacing is so important to a movie, his history with the crew and actors. The Swinging Cheerleaders was shot in twelve days, which is extraordinary – even AIP generally went to eighteen. The sharpness of the new transfer allows you to note that the teams’ practice uniforms are turned inside-out to obscure a real team’s logo, and follow background props as they magically move from location to location. That was a really popular brand of hot plate in 1974, it seems.

Where'd you go, Jo?

Where’d you go, Jo?

Our heroes and heroines are all young and personable – it’s surprising to note that this is Jo Johnston’s sole credit. Colleen Camp is still acting (last seen in Aquarius), Roseanne Katon went on to become a Playmate of the Month and was acting up through the 80s. Rainbeaux Smith, so winning and vulnerable as Andrea, we lost to heroin and hepatitis. The bad guys – all adults, and outsiders to the intended audience, are cartoonish at best, but in the Nixon years, that is what we urgently desired: bad guys that could easily be defeated by good clean Americans.

Arrow Video Cover

I mean, look at that. That is GORGEOUS.

There’s also a new interview with Jack Hill in the extras, 83 years old and sharp as a tack. I sincerely hope he’s writing his memoirs. The Swinging Cheerleaders was made after his back-to-back successes with Coffy and Foxy Brown; this was his shot at avoiding being typecast as The Blaxploitation Director. He hasn’t made a movie since 1983’s Sorceress – from which he removed his name. And that is a shame. Hill could have made it as a director of “A” movies easily, though I suspect he didn’t want to give up the creative freedom small-budgeted fare allowed him. The Swinging Cheerleaders isn’t his best movie, but it’s a solid one. The blu-ray is deserved, if only to hear a legend talk about his craft.

The most amazing thing for me about that Arrow Disc (past the Hill commentary)? As ever, the cover art is reversible, so you can have the movie poster on front, which is my usual preference. This time, though, that cover art by Graham Humphreys is so good, I’m leaving it as is.

Buy The Swinging Cheerleaders on Amazon

American vs Italian Weirdness

There’s nothing wrong with watching good movies. But every now and then, you just need something weird, am I right?

It’s great, though, when that something also turns out to be good.

AafinalposterLet’s start with The American Astronaut, since I’ve been pestered about that one. I used my standard method of hapless examination of Cory McAbee‘s oeuvre, ie., backwards, by watching Stingray Sam first. Episodic, experimental, and entertaining – you should get on that. His first feature-length film, though, is what we’re here to talk about, and those three adjectives still apply, and a lot more.

The Astronaut of the title is Sam Curtis (McAbee), an independent trader whose latest job is delivering a cat to a saloon for asteroid miners on Ceres. In return he is given a “Real Live Girl”, which looks like a beat-up suitcase with a small door in the end. If you open the door, a flickering light is seen, and jazzy music plays. “What am I supposed to do with this?” he asks. Then he asks to use the restroom, but is cautioned: “Be careful. It’s a real toilet.”

Now, be prepared to leave even that minimal amount of normalcy behind.

Sam is going to meet with his old friend, the fruit-smuggling Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor) and hatch a scheme whereby he will trade the Real Live Girl to the head of the Jupiter Mining Colony for the morale-boosting Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast (Greg Russell Cook) – whom Sam had delivered years earlier. He will then take the Boy to the women of Venus, whose sole male finally died after years of service. In exchange for the Boy, he will get the corpse, whose family on Earth is offering a large reward for his return.

But first, a dance contest.

spacemen_fullThe major problem? Sam is being pursued by his nemesis Professor Hess, a birthday-obsessed serial killer who will disintegrate anyone Sam comes in contact with – he only kills people he has no problem with, and is pursuing Sam so he can forgive him and therefore kill him. While hiding from Hess, Sam and the Boy take cover in a barn built in space by silver miners, and pick up another passenger, a guy raised in space in a hydraulic suit so his body wouldn’t atrophy like the miners’. Then on to Venus and its population of women dressed in antebellum dresses, where a plan begins to form in our hero’s head.

So. The American Astronaut is a lo-fi science fiction space western that feels like it was made by David Lynch, and he also decided to make it a musical. A rock musical. That ought to tell you right there if you want to watch it. And even if you don’t, you should. It may seem an odd and haphazard movie, but the design and execution tell a different story. The fact that the most affecting song is given to Hess after a massacre tells of a much deeper story being told.

AmericanAstronautLet me come back to the production design in a bit. I’ll just close out this section by saying that I always find Cory McAbee so handsome and so winning onscreen, that I’m always surprised that we haven’t seen more of him in more mainstream flicks; then again, I’m glad he is where he is, doing what he is. He’s a national treasure, he is, unique and intriguing.

Because the other end to this weirdness is Fellini Satyricon. Now this is a notoriously loose adaptation of Petronius’ novel of the same name, of which only fragments survive anyway. What we have today is pieces of books 15, 16, and 17, so this is like trying to make a movie out of issues 276, 277 and 278 of The  Fantastic Four when you only have a few panels and an ad for G-I-ANT MONSTERS! out of each.

SATYRICONPOSTERSo what we have is a series of episodes in the life of young scholar Encolpius (Martin Potter) who is vying with his friend Ascyltus (Hiram Keller) for the love of a young boy, Giton (Max Born).  (IMDb Trivia states that Fellini chose foreigners for these roles because “there are no Italian homosexuals”, which must have come as a shock to Pier Paolo Pasolini and his posse). This will involve a trip to the theater (Ascyltus sold the boy to a prominent actor), a walk through a brothel once the boy is reclaimed, and then Giton decides to leave with Ascyltus anyway, the tramp, prompting a falling-out between the two old friends and an earthquake.

Encolpius will tag along to a lavish banquet (the movie’s longest scene, not coincidentally the largest surviving fragment), then get scooped up by the slave trader Lichas (Alain Cuny), who will be so smitten by Encolpius that he marries him, but then the Emperor is assassinated and things change and Encolpius fights the Minotaur and holy crap.

Satyricon banquetThis really might be the ultimate Fellini movie, as you spend over two hours thinking, “Yep, that’s Fellini.” Lush, often overwhelming imagery, combined with the most remarkable faces you will ever find committed to film. This is a non-stop examination of decadence and debauchery in the era of Nero and it is never less than hypnotic and mesmerizing. You can, in fact, trace the roots of Pasolini’s masterpieces in the Trilogy of Life directly here (witness the dramatization of a Greek fable as the banquet dies down).

009-fellini-satyricon-theredlistNot a little of this engagement of the viewer is due to the fact that it is so strange. Though we try to frame ancient cultures in our own experience, that approach does not take into consideration that two thousand years ago, these people were shaped by entirely different societal norms and technologies than us; the distant past would probably seem unspeakably weird to us, and Fellini plays this concept for all it’s worth. He even went to pains to make the dubbing a little off, to keep us even more off-kilter (I was reading subtitles, so that never registered on me).

The American AstronautNow contrast this to the production design of American Astronaut (I told you we’d get back here), where the future may actually be too familiar. This is not only necessary for making low-budget science-fiction space western rock musicals, it also makes sense: taking bits of home out with you into space. Of course the saloon on a mining asteroid would look like a cheap dive bar in a strip center. Of course Sam’s spaceship looks like an efficiency apartment, with a single bed, a bookshelf, wallpaper, and crap that needs to be quickly battened down for landings. Neil DeGrasse Tyson may have called during my viewing to inform me that there weren’t really barns in space, but let’s also realize that space travel is going to be a lengthy process, that it would be nice to have someone to talk to during it, and you would more than likely make up songs to sing while you wait to finally get there.

These movies are at two opposite ends of the weirdness dial, different in approach and each offering up their own menus of delights and amazements.When you get right down to it, movies like this are why I started watching movies in general: they are directories of the possible, made possible by genius, talent and a little bit of madness.

Buy The American Astronaut on Amazon (OOP- brace your wallet!)

Buy Fellini Satyricon on Amazon

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