The ABCs of March, Part Two

Yep, I’m still hard at work, doing the Letterboxd March Movie Madness challenge. That’s a movie a day, A for March 1st, B for March 2nd, und zo weiter. I’m even working a day ahead of time, because I know I have an unavoidable 12 hour work day on the 24th, and that ain’t gonna leave me in no movie-watchin’ condition.

Our latest chunk:

Emperor of the North (1973)

Emperor of the North spanish1933 was a pretty dismal year for America; the Great Depression is in full effect, homeless families are everywhere, and the nation is struggling to get back on its feet. But we’re not here for any Grapes of Wrath-type stuff, we are focusing on just one small part of the culture at that time: the hobo nation and its bellicose relationship with Big Railroad.

A career hobo who goes by the moniker A Number One (Lee Marvin) is King of the Road, Emperor of the North Pole, and a number of other sobriquets amongst his peripatetic brethren, but there is one thing he hasn’t yet accomplished: riding on the train of an infamously murderous conductor called The Shack (Ernest Borgnine), who has never allowed a hobo to survive a stolen ride on his train. In fact, our introduction to the man involves him bopping an oblivious tramp on the head with a large hammer and then laughing while the screaming man is cut in half under the wheels of the train. Complicating matters is a youthful braggart calling himself Cigarette (Keith Carradine), who spends his time either learning from A Number One or double-crossing him.

Emperor of the North is a pretty unique picture, providing some interesting insights into the clannish hobo culture and the dynamics of a freight train crew. The battle of wits between The Shack and A Number One provide the best parts of the movie, with the wily hobo generally a step ahead, but hampered by the extra, at first unwanted, baggage of Cigarette. A final betrayal by the callow youth causes the death of one crewman and the serious injury of another, and by this time we’re ready to let The Shack have his way with the treacherous whelp; but instead we get what we came for, a knockdown, drag-out fight between Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, using every weapon to hand that can be found on a moving freight train: chains, planks of wood, a fire axe.

1171129587Carradine actually manages to deliver a level of complexity into a thankless role; we see him actively choosing to make the bad decisions. Marvin is his usual cool bastard, but Borgnine… man, Borgnine is channeling every bad guy he ever played in his career, and The Shack is his ultimate, a man so consumed by anger he seems constantly on the verge of a stroke.

The film and entertainment world lost a lot of good people in 2012, but none of them punched me square in the heart like the passing of Ernest Borgnine. It affected me way more than I thought was possible, for a man who I had never met. I grew up with Quentin McHale, first when McHale’s Navy was first being broadcast, then in syndication, but it was during those first broadcasts that my Mom watched the movie Marty on TV one night. I watched it because it had McHale in it… but the sweet-natured butcher is only slightly similar to the fast-talking PT boat captain. Marty, of course, was Borgnine’s Oscar-winning performance, at even at that young age, I was aware I was watching something special.

1171129518Here was an actor who couldn’t be called handsome, or thin, but was operating at the top of his field. It wasn’t until later I became acquainted with his work as a heavy in other movies – From Here to Eternity, Bad Day at Black Rock – his characters are all over the map, from the gruff gladiator teacher in Demetrius and the Gladiators to the genial, mentally-challenged Cabbie in Escape from New YorkRED is a fairly tepid thriller elevated by its amazing cast, and it was genuinely satisfying and edifying to see Borgnine crop up in that. I miss him terribly.

Ahem. Anyway, see Emperor of the North. It’s very good.

Flareup (1969)

flareup-movie-poster-1969-1020254226Raquel Welch plays Michele, a Las Vegas go-go dancer in a time when it was possible to make a good living out of it as a respectable career choice, ie., never, except in FantasyLand. One of her dancer pals just got a divorce from an unstable type (Luke Askew, of course), who proceeds to gun her down in front of a ton of witnesses, but decides the only other ones worth killing are Michele and the other dancer. He later manages to run over the other dancer and the cop protecting her, and Michele heads off to Los Angeles to hide in plain sight by dancing at a club there. She falls in love with a nice guy (James Stacey), so now Askew has to kill him, too.

There are some things to like in Flareup. Raquel is always easy on the eyes, and the relationship building between her and Stacey may be slow and deliberate, but it’s fairly believable. It’s that word “believable” where the rest of the movie gets into trouble. We’re asked to believe that Michele is a feisty loner, an independent woman. All this is fine until the filmmakers decide that this means SHE IS A COMPLETE AND UTTER MORON. She repeatedly turns down and even escapes from police protection. She uses the fact that Askew killed both her friend and her police escort as an excuse, ignoring that if another armed policeman had been on the scene, everybody might still be alive.

rwelchflareup0106woThe movie’s other major flaw is allowing Askew to constantly catch up with Raquel, and almost pulling the trigger on her, only to be foiled by the sudden appearance of a cop. Flareup  is a total tease in this department, employing that device no fewer than three times, maybe more. The movie doesn’t inspire careful note-taking, or much of anything, really.

Outside the appearance of a few topless dancers (no, pervs, Raquel does not work topless) and the demise of Askew at the end, this could easily be mistaken for an overly-long Movie of the Week. Though if you want to see a movie where Raquel Welch is saved by a pistol-packing Action Gordon Jump, this is your chance.

Go Tell The Spartans (1978)

go_tell_the_spartansThis was supposed to be Good Night and Good Luck, which is even on The List, but I couldn’t find my copy of that. As I’m trying to only watch movies during this I’ve never seen, I turned to some movies I bought at the 12 for $50 sale at the WB Shop. It’s an older disc, with a 4:3 image of what wasn’t all that widescreen, but grumble grumble.

There was a sudden flap of Vietnam movies in the late 70s , and I had seen all of them, except this one, the first to hit the theaters (as an aside, I’m talking about real Vietnam movies, not Rambo or any number of Italian thrillers starring Chris Mitchum. Although I saw them, too).  It was released in 1978, barely three years after America had pulled out, and in an attempt to deal with that still-pulsing wound in the national psyche, it’s set in 1964, when we were still sending in “military advisors” without that being a euphemism.

Burt Lancaster is Major Barker, a career man since World War II who constantly finds himself dismayed and puzzled by the conflict around him. A group of new recruits comes in, and the understaffed Barker has no choice but to put them in charge of establishing a garrison in an abandoned village that the French gave up on ten years before. We get the standard types from central casting: the gung-ho second looey, big on regulations but short on experience; the veteran of the Korean Conflict, who knows what works in war but is burnt-out; the druggie, the draftee who volunteered for the duty, blah blah blah. Of course, once the garrison is established, the Cong take an interest in it, and our green recruits re going to get a swift education or die.

Hong and Wasson in Go Tell the SpartansGo Tell The Spartans has all the distinct tropes of what will constitute the Vietnam movie: the nighttime attacks, the attempts to understand and reach out to the native population, the betrayals that result from such attempts, the inability of the Western war machine to deal with a conflict that was so markedly different from any recent war. It manages to trot out all these and make a pretty decent war movie besides. Lancaster is terrific, and special kudos to first-timer Marc Singer as Barker’s executive officer and Craig Wasson as the mysterious draftee who “sure has a way with the dinks”. Also along are Evan Kim as the number one interpreter and chief torturer, “Cowboy” (man, Evan Kim should have had a much bigger career than he wound up with) and the always welcome James Hong, as a South Vietnamese soldier who bonds with Wasson despite the fact that the only English he knows is “A okay!”

Not a great or essential Vietnam movie, but a good one.

The Holy Mountain (1973)

theholymouWow. What a weird movie.

It’s tempting to leave the review at that (I certainly did on Letterboxd) – any attempt to fully describe The Holy Mountain is going to get bogged down in itself. Stripped to the minimum, it is a tale of a thief (Horacio Salinas) who is taken in by an alchemist (writer/director Alejandro Jodorowsky himself) for his plot to assemble the most powerful people in the land, run them through an accelerated enlightenment program, and using these newly-minted masters to assault the table of the nine immortals who sit atop the Holy Mountain, and take their place as gods.

holymountain2To say the journey is psychedelic and surreal is understating matters. The first half hour is nearly speechless, one bizarre image after another. As a vendor at a long-ago convention told me, “If you like seeing toads dressed in Aztec costumes get blown up, this is the movie for you.” Once we start getting introduced to the Alchemist’s chosen, “the most powerful people on the planet”, we shift into the increasingly absurd and humor so black it absorbs any light in its presence. These are awful people creating everything that is wrong in the world, and one is concerned that these are not the types of people you want to ascend to godhood – until you consider it later (especially if you’re an old hippie like myself) and you realize the Alchemist knows exactly what he is doing – these are the people that need to be taken out of the World, for the World’s own good. (Also, as the Alchemist proves earlier, the purest gold is made from shit)

If there is an actual flaw in the movie (for me, anyway – this flick is an incredibly subjective experience) it’s the voyage to the Holy Mountain and the rituals/exercises the party has to go through for enlightenment. But I’ll also concede that it all seems old hat to me because in my sophomore year – about this time – my unbearably cool young English teacher, Mrs. Watson, recommended Carlos Castaneda to me. And in the bright remove of those early 70s, it is amazing to me that those books were in my school library. Still, one can’t tell a tale of shamanism without showing some shamanism, so here we are.

screenApparently The Holy Mountain  was going to be the most expensive Mexican movie ever made, but wound up costing less than its projected $1.5 million budget. As with Jodorowsky’s other works, the imagery is rich and lush, and I’m surprised he brought it in for less than that. It is colorful, spellbinding, and absolutely berserk. You’re either going to watch it, or not. Personally, I advise watching it. Unlike some, I’m going to advise watching it sober, or at least as far away from any actual psychotropics as you can get. I won’t be responsible for anyone ignoring that particular piece of advice.

The Stanley Kubrick Project: Full Metal Jacket

When I was a younger man… still-in-college young, God’s Gift To Theater young… word came down the pike that Stanley Kubrick was searching for young men for his next movie.  That news hit the drama department like a rock in a pond, which is to say there was a brief amount of activity, which gradually faded away. You were required to send in a tape, and in a small college in the wilds of Texas, there weren’t a lot of resources for that, not at the dawn of the 80s, anyway. Besides, none of us had an agent, and I had done enough writing at that point to know what a “slush pile” was, and what happened to most of the manuscripts/resumes that wound up in one.

Just as well, knowing what I know about Full Metal Jacket these days.

It seems there were two great spurts of Vietnam movies, first in the late 70s, then another later in the 80s. In the 70s, the country was still a little psycho about the subject, and the result was Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and the relatively restrained Boys in Company C. In the 80s you had First Blood Part Two: Rambo, the Oscar winner for Best Picture Platoon, and once again, apparently arriving late to deliver an appropriate coda, Stanley Kubrick and Full Metal Jacket. I’ve seen all of these, so much so that they all tend to blur into one huge swamp of tropes and setpieces, into one huge movie with a hell of a running time… but I find the scenes that really stick out for me come from Kubrick and Coppola.

There are a lot of similarities between The Boys in Company C and Full Metal Jacket, which doesn’t help my befuddled brain, but at least a scene involving soccer was cut from Full Metal, so I can still clutch at that difference. Both movies start at boot camp, where highly-trained drill instructors wear down, tear down and build soldiers; that which can be broken must be broken tout d’suite so it can be repaired or replaced and units formed that will kill on command. Where Full Metal Jacket forges its own unique identity in the crowded Vietnam movie market is Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, played by R. Lee Ermey in a star-making turn(well, perhaps not star-making, but it resulted in regular work, which I’m sure he’ll take as a consolation prize). Himself a retired Marine (and then only retired due to injuries), not only does Ermey bring life knowledge but an apparently infinite supply of insults, slurs and creative vulgarisms to the role. You fear him almost as much as the recruits, but you cannot take your eyes off him.

The entire first act takes place on Parris Island, as our major characters Joker (Matthew Modine) and Cowboy (Arliss Howard) navigate the grueling eight weeks of basic. The nicknames, of course, are supplied by Hartman, as is the name of  Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’onofrio, in his film debut), the recruit who can get nothing right, and who boot camp finally, truly breaks, with tragic results.

The second act finds us in-country, with Joker assigned to writing for Stars and Stripes, (much to Hartman’s disgust). Joker is pretty much dedicated to staying out of the line of fire and keeping his cameraman, Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) the same. The 1968 Tet Offensive brings the war to their doorstep, however, and Joker and Rafterman find themselves embedded in the Lost Dog Squad (including old buddy Cowboy), who are charged with clearing the bombed-out city of Hue.

This is the third act, again establishing a difference with other Nam movies, which tended to put the war in the jungle or villages of thatched huts; Kubrick’s production designer, Anton Furst, takes an abandoned gasworks near London slated for demolition, and working from photos of Hue after Tet, began the demolition with an artist’s eye. It makes for an enveloping, harrowing portrayal of urban warfare. In the next 24 hours, the Lost Dog Squad will go through three squad leaders, eventually finding themselves lost in the wrong part of Hue and trying to get to the right coordinates, only to find the most dreaded obstacle in any theater of war: one determined sniper with uncanny aim and a near-unfindable location amongst the ruined buildings.

Back at the beginning of the movie, Hartman demands to see Joker’s “War Face”, prompting a scream and the usual derision from the sarge, “Bullshit! You don’t scare me!” The War Face is something that the movie returns to, over and over again. It’s the Full Metal Jacket that Pyle references in the horrific end to the First Act, meaning not only the copper sheath surrounding the lead in his M-14’s ammunition, but also, the War Face, the protective armor the soldier puts around his psyche. Joker, separated from Parris Island, returns to the jovial smartass he  tried to retain during basic, wearing a peace button on his body armor and “Born to Kill” painted across his helmet. Still, in their barracks, the journalists match their war faces and full metal jackets against each other, trying to impress with the number of times they’ve seen action. This dick-measuring contest is cut short by Tet, and although fearfully muttering they are not ready for it, the training takes over and the assault on the base is repelled.

Once he’s reunited with Cowboy, Joker’s War Face comes out again in a pissing contest with Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), a character who is basically Pyle without the breaking part. Bristling with ammo belts, he tries to impress Joker with his alpha maleness, until the two are separated, like opponents in a schoolyard scuffle. Later, under sniper fire, Joker is finally going to have to go to the place the Marines built inside him, and take a life, face-to-face. The Full Metal Jacket will only take you so far; eventually the bullet must be fired.

Kubrick’s approach to Vietnam is fairly documentarian; the steadicam fluidly following the men as they crouch and run through shattered concrete canyons. There are a few things that seem out-of-place in a Kubrick movie – the contemporary rock music, as in any Vietnam flick, and a segment with the soldiers being interviewed by a news crew, which had been done by the TV M*A*S*H* years earlier.

Most of the time, however, Kubrick tries to not manipulate your feelings, except through images. There are a couple of times he can’t resist trotting out the black humor, though: Hartman proudly holding out UT Tower sniper Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald as prime examples of Marine rifle training, and a Colonel dressing Joker down for his peace symbol, assuring him that “One day, this peace business will blow over.”

But overall, it’s a solid movie with a problematic structure, seemingly split into two different movies: the one set on Parris Island, and the other in Vietnam. The major problem with the second half is that there is no R. Lee Ermey in it, constantly barking and propelling the story forward. He is deeply missed once we’re in country. And frankly, there’s another Nam movie considered a masterpiece that shares the problematic third act: Apocalypse Now, where once Martin Sheen arrives at his destination and Marlon Brando enters the stage, the movie is suddenly struggling through hardening amber. Yeah, I also watched Apocalypse Now again. Sort of had to.

Actor Dorian Harewood, who plays Eightball, says he asked Kubrick if Full Metal Jacket  was his answer to Apocalypse Now. Kubrick replied, “No. It’s my answer to Rambo.” And there you have it. For some reason I never much cared for PlatoonApocalypse Now is more a nightmare set to film than an attempt at historical accuracy. But in my mental lockbox, where I store imagery and experience, Full Metal Jacket remains my Vietnam of note, capturing so well the banality of hours of boredom interrupted by seconds of terror, and the fact that men that were still not much more than boys were given the power of life and death, and set loose on a landscape not their own.