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‘Stranger Things 3’ is about growing up and moving on (and yeah, there’s a monster too)

Stranger Things 3

*** Possible Spoilers ***

Modern media lore seems to dictate that The Curse of the Second Sequel is almost an inevitability.  For any successful series, Part III is normally the point where the creative juices run out; where inspiration loses its edge.  When it works, you can say that at least it was made with some care.  When it doesn’t, it can feel like an annuity in action.

Having worked my way through all eight episodes of Stranger Things 3, I am forgiving of several unwise decisions; moments when the nostalgia (it takes place in 1985) doesn’t so much sing as bang a very loud gong.  Seriously, there is a moment when the show stops dead so the kids can debate New Coke.  Later there’s a duet of the theme to The Neverending Story at which you will either laugh or groan (I laughed).  There are moments like that sprinkled throughout this show, isolated moments that can feel uninspired. Luckily they don’t spoil the party.  Stranger Things 3 is a solid third act.  Nothing that creators Mike and Ross Duffer can do from now on will ever match the austere shock and awe of that first season but I think that here there is a lot of good things going on.  I can say that it was definitely made with loving care.

What becomes clear right away is that The Duffer Brothers are not content to repeat themselves.  If you pay attention to the progress of this show, you can see that they are very aware of the special quality of the world they have created.  They know these characters.  They like these characters and they want to see them grow and change.  They also want to evolve as writers.  Stranger Things 3 is more tightly written and better focused then last season which, as good as it was, felt a bit over-stuffed and took too many sideroads – like a bad Stephen King novel, it kept getting distracted by unnecessary details.

Stranger Things 3 is not perfect.  Again, too often clangs with nostalgic brick-a-brack.  But what it has is the loving attention to the characters that I loved so much in Season One and missed in Season Two.  What’s different here is the narrative, which is about the pains of growing up and moving on.  It begins very nicely with the personal relationships.  It is interested in the lives of the characters for a good long while before the spooky stuff starts.

For one thing, the kids are growing up.  In the year and a half since Stranger Things 2, Will, Mike, Dusty, Lucas, El and Max have now steered into the choppy waters of their pre-teen confusion.  Their voices have changed, their bodies have changed, their priorities changed.  Will suffers that heartbreaking revelation that he has to put away childish things.  Mike and El have discovered romance, as has Dusty by dating the classic girlfriend-out-of-town that nobody is convinced even exists.  El is discovering her independence.  Their lives are taking shape.  At the heartbreaking conclusion of this season, everyone – and I mean everyone – has been forced to let go of something.

Oddly enough, the character that seemed to grow the most wasn’t even one of the kids.  It was Hopper, whose hero-cop good guy takes a turn here that I found refreshing.  Yes, he’s a tough-as-nails local Police Chief now faced with a challenge that his police training never prepared him for: being father to a teenage daughter with a boyfriend.  How he handles the blooming romance between El and Mike is classic Dad-puts-the-fear-of-God-into-the-nervous-boyfriend bit but David Harbour’s performance (which deserves an Emmy nomination) is so much fun that you don’t really mind.

The other performance here that really makes this season come alive comes from newcomer Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) as Robin, who works at the local ice cream shop with Steve, the once popular high school hunk who has now graduated and is slinging ice cream at the mall.

Owing much to the Duffer’s talent for character development, Robin begins the season as a stock character, a surly teen working a summer job, but as the plot gets underway, she blossoms into a complex and fully-realized character.  Hawke’s giddy personality reminds you a lot of her mother but she has a vibrant energy all her own.

But if the personalities were all there was to Stranger Things 3 then it wouldn’t be worth much – it would be like a streaming service version of “Party of Five.”  The spooky story this time is a lot of fun because it never feels like a repeat of the previous seasons.  For spoiler’s sake, I’ll try to remain mum but know that from here forward there are some plot details.  So, possible spoilers ahead.

The Russians are coming!  Well . . . actually there’s already here.  Steven and Robin and Dusty uncover a plot involving the Russians, the local mall and the nefarious upside-down gate that has been a thorn in everyone’s side for two seasons now.  More I cannot say but it is interesting the way that this season interweaves elements that are much more grown up than the previous two.

Where the first season leaned heavily on odes to Spielberg and Stephen King, Stranger Things 3 steers into a very clever commentary about mid-80s mall culture, the cold war and Soviet paranoia.  For reference sake, this one leans heavily on James Cameron, George Romero and John Carpenter with hints of Red Dawn and The Terminator thrown in for flavoring.  One of the best things about Stranger Things 3 is the Duffer Brothers’ use of locations: the mall, a military compound, an over-crowded pool, a parade, a failing hardware store; these things don’t feel like settings, they feel like the town of Hawkins is alive and breathing.

Even more colorful are the supporting players.  There’s Priah Ferguson as Lucas’ loudmouth kid sister Erica whose bellicose attitude could have been irritating, but she’s given just enough humanity that she doesn’t become overbearing.  Also in town is Cary Elwes as Larry Kline, the town’s sniveling, slime ball mayor.  There’s also a sweet-natured Russian scientist named Alexei (Alec Utgoff) who is just plain giddy when he discovers the joys of capitalism – particularly Burger King and Woody Woodpecker cartoons.  And there’s even a Russian Terminator (Andrey Ivchenko) who, yes, bears an eerie resemblance to you-know-who.

The one new character who doesn’t work this season, I’m afraid, is the monster.  Born of infested organic creatures and elements borrowed from Invasion of the Body Snatchers they are quickly boiled down to something equivalent to The Blob if it were dripping bones.  It’s a pretty good set-up.  Unfortunately, by the time it rears its ugly head for a final confrontation, it feels like just another CGI monster – think Dormammu if his parents were made of Jello.  Ho-hum

So again, Stranger Things 3 isn’t perfect.  The negative thing that stood out the most was this season’s tendency to tack its nostalgic bits to your forehead rather than let them purr naturally.  Overlaying the best of this season is a shopping montage set to “Material Girl” and an overly-whacky homage to “Magnum P.I.”  Those are fun, at least for me, because they are organic to the plot.  It’s when the show has to stop (as with Lucas’ New Coke bit) the nostalgia becomes a bit overbearing.  That’s not to say that Stranger Things 3 has succumbing to The Curse of the Second Sequel – Heaven’s no!  When it deals with the growth of the characters, that’s when it feels new and original – you won’t see a season finale this year that will come close to the heart-tug of this one.  There’s a sense of loving care that has gone into these characters and their adventures, not just fighting another monster but in battling this thing called life.

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Posted by on 07/07/2019 in Uncategorized

 

It’s the Fourth of July, I’m goin’ down to ‘Nashville’

Image result for Nashville 1975

So, it’s the Fourth of July and I have been on a sort of mental binge, trying to figure out which films appeal to the holiday spirit.  In the case of this most colorful of holidays, my mental compass points inexorably toward Steven Spielberg’s Jaws while the patriot in my aims toward Michael Curtiz classic Yankee Doodle Dandy.  I find that a good number of meatball patriots have gravitated toward Mel Gibson’s The Patriot while at the same time I find distress in the fact that many people these days choose to give their day to Roland Emmerich’s dull-witted Independence Day, a movie that, for me, is really like gorging on a tub of frosting.  It’s sweet, confectionery, but instantly forgettable and of no nutritional value what-so-ever.

My favorite classic of the Fourth of July is a movie that doesn’t appeal to many today because its structure is so erratic, its outcomes are too grim and its individual stories often feel incomplete.  If you know Robert Altman’s work then this shouldn’t be a surprise at all.

Nashville is one of those time capsule movies, a movie that extols the virtues and values (or lack thereof) of the current moment in American history.  It was released in 1975 at the end of a long and difficult period, exactly 42 days after the official end of the Vietnam War and less than a year after Watergate – the Grand Old Opry scene was filmed on the day that Nixon resigned.  It is not a comedy in a traditional sense, nor is a drama in any familiar sense.  The characters cross one another like busy patrons in an airport terminal.  Some we don’t know that well, and others we know all too well, but all of which we wish we knew better.  Any character in this movie could have had his or her own movie.

What appeals to me is Robert Altman’s style.  He often said that he didn’t direct so much as he presided over accidents.  He was a director who was famous for traffic control amid a multitude of actors, a talent he put to good use in MASHMcCabe and Mrs. MillerNashvillePopeyeThe PlayerShort Cuts, Cookie’s FortuneGosford Park and the underrated A Prairie Home Companion. Nashville is my favorite because it encapsulates all of the elements that made Altman a maverick filmmaker. While other directors run down a checklist for their plot and their characters, Altman tears down the fences and allows his actors to roam free, to expand their characters beyond simplistic formulas. He doesn’t rely on heavy plotting but puts his films in the hands of the characters and lets them their own story. He was generous with his actors, often allowing them to improvise and in Nashville, which is predominantly a musical; he even let his actors write their own songs.

The main hub of the story takes place in Nashville in the middle of a major political campaign for an unseen political candidate named Hal P. Walker who is running on a fringe party and announces his candidacy by driving around in a van with loudspeakers. That’s only the framework that leads to the finale. What we see along the way are a gallery of characters who are interlocked within personal and professional relationships, between sad histories, poor life decisions, reconciliations, arguments, donnybrooks and a lot of great music. There are parents, children, brothers, sisters, lovers, co-workers, old friends, ex-friends and total strangers. We meet a lot of different kinds of people, some who act honorably, some who act despicably, and some who hurt others, some who work on other’s behalf and some who only come to around when the chips are down.

I remember years ago when Roger Ebert wrote his essay about Nashville he kicked it off by asking a question that I don’t think has an answer: What is Nashville about?  Since then I have tried to answer that question but I find that it is impossible to answer in one sentence.  You have to take each character and nail down what their story is about but you cannot nail it down as a whole.  We meet a lot of people in this film and many who stay on our minds.

We meet Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), a Loretta Lynn-type who is the virginal sweetheart of Nashville and returns to the city like a homecoming queen but is heavily burdened by a series of health problems (this woman is a paragon of bad luck). When she is alone in a hospital room with her bullying husband (Allan Garfield) we understand where her nervous breakdown came from. She sings songs with titles like “Tape deck in his Tractor” and “My Idaho Home”, songs about her country home where she was raised by her mama and daddy. But when she breaks into a song called “Dues”, about her desire to break out of her marriage, we sense that some of her personal problems have wandered into her repertoire. We also sense that her over-bearing husband isn’t her only problem because just out of her line of sight, she is stalked by a PFC (Scott Glenn) for reasons that we don’t expect.

We also meet Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a smarmy country singer and opportunist who is fond of Nudie Suits and takes on political aspirations when Walker’s political organizer mentions that he should run for Governor. Hamilton sings songs like the self-satisfied “For the Sake of the Children”, a song about a man breaking the news to his mistress that he can’t leave his wife and kids, and “200 Years” a flag-waving far-right number about America that sound like patriotic masturbation.  But but then he has the song “Keep A-Goin’”, a song who’s meaning only really becomes clear in the film’s final scene.

Then there’s Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a nutty woman who claims to be a BBC reporter even though we never see a film crew. She talks a lot of nonsense and uses the excuse that she is making a documentary about Nashville in order to get close to famous people even though she never shows anyone any sort of credentials. She has two scenes late in the film that make us question her sanity. One takes place in an automobile junkyard where she talks to herself, lamenting about the rusting metals hulks being tossed away and forgotten like some sort of automotive holocaust (she compares the rust to dried blood). The other scene takes place in a school bus storage lot where she tries describe it as the stuff of children’s nightmares.

There’s Linnea (Lily Tomlin), a gospel singer raising two deaf children and is in the middle of a crumbling marriage to Delbert (Ned Beatty), a lawyer working on Hal Walker’s campaign. She begins receiving phone calls from a singer named Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) a self-absorbed womanizer who has taken an interest in her. She initially hangs up on him but eventually accepts an invitation to go to a club to hear him sing. That leads to the film’s most beautiful moment as several of Tom’s past conquests sit in the audience listening to him sing “I’m Easy” (a song about a man who is absolutely thunderstruck by the woman in his life). Each woman smiles, thinking the song was written about her, but then the camera settles on Tomlin in the back of the room as she slowly realizes that the song is for her.

There’s Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), Haven’s tough mistress, who drinks heavily and has a stage presence that is seemingly inspired by Minnie Pearl. But that illusion is broken the more we get to know her. Her outward happiness begins to crumble as she confesses her love for Jack and Bobby Kennedy and the hard work she did on their behalf. When she reveals loving memories about the boys, we see a woman who is still shaken by their tragic deaths.

There’s Sueleen (Gwen Welles), an attractive waitress who wants to be a country singer but works harder at trying to be a sex symbol (she is forever stuffing her brassiere). She is a lousy singer but no one will tell her the truth and when she humiliates herself by doing a striptease, a co-worker (Robert DoQui) finally rises up and tells her that she has no talent whatsoever. The problem is the she doesn’t know where to draw the line. We assume that after her humiliation that she will come to her senses but we’re wrong.

There’s Winifred (Barbara Harris), a daffy blonde who wants to be a singer and songwriter. She spends the entire film running from her loud-mouthed husband Star (Bert Remsen) and we don’t assume that she will ever succeed at anything until she is given a chance in the end. She takes the microphone at a crucial moment and really shines.

Functioning around these characters are smaller roles that don’t seem, at first, to have any real significance. Like Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) who’s wife is dying in a hospital. Or Connie White (Karen Black), a Tammy Wynette-type who seems poised to steal Barbara Jean’s spotlight. Or Norman (David Arkin), Tom’s driver who is handed Tom’s guitar and immediately begins playing a baseline that his employer later steals for “I’m Easy”. Or PFC Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn) who appears to be stalking Barbara Jean, even to the point of spending the night by her bedside while she sleeps but who’s intentions turn out to be completely honorable. He eventually clashes with Kenny Fraiser (David Hayward), a loner who is renting a room from Mr. Green and seems like a nice enough guy until it dawns on us that his machinations bears a strange resemblance to Lee Harvey Oswald.

There is a major political undercurrent all throughout this film, mostly negative. This movie was being made while the Watergate scandal was wrapping up (the scene at the Grand Old Opry was film on the day that Richard Nixon resigned). Politics in the American mindset, as well as in this movie, are all about paranoia and distrust. The major political figure in Nashville functions as a sort of Greek chorus in the form of a van with loudspeakers that shouts support for the candidacy of a certain Hal P. Walker, whose political rally gives the film it’s climax. We never see Walker but his truck shouts some oddly sound reasoning about why he should be the next president. He supports something called The Replacement Party, the kind of fringe party that supports political dissidents like Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan and Jesse Ventura.  But oddly enough, as I began thinking back on the film, I thought of Jimmy Carter, a man who stood for many of the things that Walker’s unseen speaker talks about. Although a Democrat, he favored a more personal approach to government, one that did not rely on back-slapping or on listening to advisers but only from what comes from the heart and the head and God above. That kind of radical ideal doesn’t work in our government (consider that he wasn’t asked back for a second term) and, in a way, it sets up the film’s final act. An assassination plot is in the works and it provides not only the film’s great climax but brings out several of the character’s true natures. Consider how Hamilton reacts even though he has been grazed by a bullet or how Winifred takes the microphone and brings calm to the chaos. I love it when a director has the confidence to take his character in a logical but unexpected direction.

Altman has always been generous with his characters by giving them extra dimensions. Most movie characters are written in a three step process 1.) The character. 2.) Their job and 3.) The conflict. The best movie characters are given a fourth element, a dimension that makes them stand out, makes them interesting, gives them elements of their personalities that allow them to do more than just march through tired old plot requirements. Robert Altman spent his career developing characters like that. With Nashville, he strings together a story that is equal parts comedy, musical, melodrama, human interest story, soap opera and political parable.

Yet with all the film’s multiple elements, Nashville is first and foremost a musical. This is the way Robert Altman describes it and indeed the film makes many stops for its musical numbers – nearly an hour’s worth. The actors sing their own songs (Altman allowed them to write them too) and while many are not great singers they are able to sell their performances with assured greatness. The best, by a mile, is Keith Carradine who sings the Oscar winning “I’m Easy” with moving tenderness, a song about a man utterly stricken by the woman he loves. It plays well against a character that seems to have no use for those kinds of sentiments. I also liked Haven Hamilton’s “200 Years”, an sickeningly patriotic bicentennial ballad that could have played on the B-Side of “The Ballad of the Green Berets”. I liked “The Heart of a Good Woman”, a sweet little love song that Haven’s son Bud sings to Opal until her attention is swept up by the presence of Elliott Gould; I was struck by the amazing talent of Karen Black (I had no idea she could sing) as her Connie White takes the place of superstar Barbara Jean and out-performs her by a country mile with “”I Don’t Know If I Found It in You”.

What is amazing about the musical performances is that Altman allows them to continue for four, five, six, seven minutes. It puts you in mind of how little interest is paid to the music in most movies today even in musicals. Most of today’s directors cut or abbreviate their musical numbers down to two or three minutes for fear that the audience will grow restless. But the performers in this movie are allowed to sing their entire song, all the way through. Especially the final number when Winifred sings “You might say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me.” That lyric is repeated over and over until it becomes a rallying cry. Nashville is full of moments like that. It contains the kinds of characters and storytelling structure that is all but gone from today’s filmmaking. Hollywood wouldn’t have the nerve to make a film this jumbled, this deep or this poetic.

 
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Posted by on 07/04/2019 in Uncategorized

 

Killing Connie Casserole: How Stonewall Vilified ‘The Boys in the Band’

Between 1968, when playwright Mart Crowley wrote his off-Broadway hit “The Boys and the Band” and 1970, when William Friedkin turned it into a movie, there were the Stonewall riots.  For the health and well-being of the movie version, this was the worst thing that could have happened.

In June of 1969, decades of abuse, routine arrests and fear-mongering by the police department of New York City against the city’s population of gay men finally came to a head in front of a trashy, mob-owned gay bar called The Stonewall Inn.  The result was a victory for the gay male population, not just of New York but, in fact, the entire country.  History would recall that this singular event would empower the movement toward a larger struggle for equality (though the accuracy of that is in dispute).  Suddenly gays who had hidden in the closet and were routinely harassed by police found a new sense of themselves, a new and powerful spirit that would propel them forward.

By the time of Stonewall, Crowley’s play was still running successfully off-Broadway, but something came out of the Stonewall riots that shifted perspective and damned the film version before it reached the public.  The struggle for gay rights gave gays and lesbians a sense of self-worth, of personal pride and the courage to join the movement for their basic human dignity.  In this new wave of social perspective, The Boys in the Band seemed to be a thing of the past.  The story, about nine men – eight gay and one straight – attending a birthday party where they struggle with varying degrees of sexual identity and self-loathing, was seen by many post-Stonewall activists as a relic, a monument to attitudes that were now a thing of the past.  Many took to calling it the gay male version of a minstrel show.

Upon its release it received a knee-jerk accusation of having been stamped as dated which led to its commercial failure at the box office and its disappearance into the dustbins of history.  Even today the mere mention of The Boys in the Band (the film) is met with a kind of nervousness.  Either you are with it or, in many cases, wholly against it.

Watching the film again recently, I kind of get it.  I think I slightly understand why the gay community tends to reject it.  The Boys in the Band is not a fun experience.  It’s angry, it’s bitter, it has a nonet of characters who often tend to wallow in self-loathing and self-deprecating humor.  Its about a birthday party that starts off friendly enough but the deteriorates into a game a cruel truth-telling that has you wondering if these people will ever want to talk to each other again.  As much as I liked the film, I will freely admit it’s not something that I am ready to spend another evening with.

Yet, by no means, do I mean to say that the film is bad.  I just mean that like Revolutionary Road or Moonlight it is undeniably a solid film but it is not one of those films that you want to kick back with on a lazy evening at home.

The Boys in the Band tells one of those stories in which the setting and the occasion are an excuse to lock several people I a room together, liquor them up and then engage them in a bitter war of truth-telling.  Told in two acts the whole thing all takes place in the New York City apartment of Michael (Kenneth Nelson) who is preparing a birthday party for his longtime friend Harold (Leonard Frey).  As Act I opens we meet Michael, who is a piece of work.  He is a staggering alcoholic filled with self-loathing and bitterness who is Catholic and gay and wishes desperately that he wasn’t either one.  He tells his friend Donald (Frederick Combs) that he hasn’t has been sober for five weeks, but over the course of the evening, that streak will end.

Into the festivities come other guests.  There is a feuding couple Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and his partner Larry (Keith Prentice) whose quarrel escalates when it is discovered that Larry and Donald know each other from the baths.  Also, there’s Emory (Cliff Gorman), a flamboyant uber-queen whose skills at catering have earn him the self-entitled nickname of Connie Casserole.  Also there’s Bernard (Reuben Green), the only black man at the party, and a hunky cowboy prostitute (Robert Le Tourneaux) that Emory has hired as a gift for the guest of honor.

The party is crashed, in many respects, by the arrival of Michael’s former college roommate Alan (Peter White) who is straight but only suspected that Michael was gay.  Why did he call out of the blue, and why was he in tears?  Why is he suddenly contacting Michael after so many years?  It is left up to you to decide but it definitely has a massively dramatic effect on the progress of the party.  Michael was relived that Alan agreed to call him the next day but was buffaloed when he dropped in that night.

The festivities begin pleasant enough, but Alan’s presence makes things, to say the least, a little volatile.  By the time Harold shows up, the drama over Alan has resulted in him physically assaulting Emory and Michael already halfway drunk and the party has descended into chaos.

Harold’s entrance is kind of wonderful.  Director Friedkin frames him darkened in the doorway with the sounds of chaos going on inside the apartment, wearing a tailored suit, cigarette in hand, purse clutched under one arm.  He is amused by what is going on but far from surprised.  Michael berates him for not only being late but also stoned as well.  Harold is armed and ready:

“What I am, Michael, is a 32-year-old ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy, and if it takes me a little while to pull myself together, and if I smoke a little grass before I get up the nerve to show my face to the world, its nobody’s god-damned business but my own.  And how are you this evening?”

Act II is a downward slide into self-loathing Hell.  A series of events of dancing to Motown on the terrace and noshing on Emory’s lasagna (which looks really good) deteriorates as Michael’s issues and drinking escalate.  Alan refuses to leave and Harold sits wearily at the sidelines unfazed by any bit of personal or emotional acid that Michael is ready to dispense.  He’s seen it all before, and knows instinctively that this is all par for the course.

A rainstorm pulls everyone in from the terrace and closes them in Michael’s living room where Michael begins a cruel telephone game of having everyone take turns calling someone they have been in love with.  The expectation is that the self-hatred will end once someone confesses to who and what they really are.  What comes of these forced confessions seems cruel but somehow it humanizes the characters, especially Emory whose out-and-about shell withers when he is forced to call a doctor who once humiliated him.

Finally, it is Michael who has the breakdown.  Pushed against the wall of his own insecurity, he is splashed with reality from Harold: “You’re a sad and pathetic man.  You’re a homosexual and you don’t want to be, but there’s nothing you can do to change it.  Not all the prayers to your god, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you’ve got left to live.  You may one day be able to know a heterosexual life if you want it desperately enough.  If you pursue it with the fervor with which you annihilate.  But you’ll always be homosexual as well.  Always, Michael.  Always.  Until the day you die.”

Harsh?  Yes.  Truth?  Possibly.  What does that say about a culture of gay men who, at the time were told that they were criminals and mentally ill?  What does it say about the misinformation that being gay is a choice?  Harold makes it very clear that it isn’t, that Michael’s reality is inescapable no matter how hard he tries to wriggle out of it.  This was an internal struggle for gay men at the time (and even now) at being born into a skin that much of society wants to eradicate.

By the beginning of the 1970, the social stains that had repressed gays and lesbians were still alive and well.  The portrayal of gays in the movies was usually chaired in a deep melodramatic scenario that almost always ended in death, the most egregious being Suddenly Last Summer in which the gay man in question, Sebastian Venable, was eaten by cannibals.  This was not isolated.

The Boys in the Band was unusual in that it dealt with gay men who not only survived the film but were also portrayed as living, breathing human beings with lives, feelings, histories, joys, sadness, dimensions, senses, affections, passions.  They were a product of a time that regarded them as mentally unstable, dregs of society that the inritauit cum publice thought of as a dirty gutter lifestyle.

Television wasn’t much better.  The same year that Crowley wrote the play, CBS aired a special report called “The Homosexuals” in which Mike Wallace reported on the social stigma of gays in American society the included medical experts who blatantly and openly called it a mental disease.  Gays on television were usually seen as criminals as in a 1971 episode of the Burt Reynolds series “Dan August” featuring a man who kills his girlfriend when she discovers that he is gay.

Crowley’s play, by contrast, was an act of rebellion, a daring insight into the lives of men that few in straight society would dare to consider anything but abnormal.  His story rebelled simply by showing them as sensitive people who had been forcefully and psychologically encouraged to remain in the closet.  The movies saw gays as doomed, and television saw them as criminals and killers.

But by 1970, the crucible for many who had been encouraged by the Stonewall Riots has begun to turn.  For many, The Boys in the Band was a thing of the past, a relic as outdated as blackface.  Today it still wallows in controversy between those who find it insightful and those who find it insipid.  For those reasons, the film didn’t do well and would only find a measure of respect as times went on and gay men became more and more visible.  The aftermath of Stonewall may have made it seem like a thing of the past but those looking deep into the film’s heart can see that it is not irrelevant.

But still the stigma sticks.  This is an angry film.  It’s a bitter film.  It’s often hard to watch.  But I don’t think that it is ever false or insulting.  Crowley is trying to gain an insight, even though some might think that the instruments are too blunt.

Personally, I think the tone and mood and brutal honesty of The Boys in the Band are what keep it such a difficult story to work through.  Again, this is not a fun story.  It is an insight into a culture of men who’s very being had been criminalized, lobotomized and medicalized.  How could anyone live in that social and cultural police state and not feel some sense of psychological torment?  It is important to peer through the historical window and see how far the culture has progressed and how far it still has to go.

Those who demonized and vilified the film for being an Uncle Tom-ism of gay men are really missing something important.  The Boys in the Band is bitter but it’s not outside of the reality of how gay men felt about themselves in real life, despite Stonewall.  How far down did the psychological torment of being ousted and institutionalized by a society that hated them really go?  Do those attitudes still exist despite the current progress?  And even if the film is a depiction of attitudes of the past, why bury it?  Why not see it as a window on the past?  Why not see it as a historical reminder of attitudes that may seem passé but aren’t entirely outside of the realm of reality?  Yes, the film is nearly 50 years old but what does it still have to say?

 
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Posted by on 06/12/2019 in Uncategorized

 

Did YouTube triumph over “Triumph of the Will”?

Image result for Triumph of the Will

By Jerry Dean Roberts

Oh, YouTube!  Your paradoxical shenanigans keep me young.

Like anyone else, I am a prime participant in bizarro world of the video sharing website known as YouTube, either browsing or tinkering with my podcast.  But I am never far from being amazed at the ways in which the pendulum swings back and forth over the kinds of content that the site chooses to support.  Why are some movies available in full on the site while others are not?  Why is some forms of content okay but others are not.  Why are some songs up on the site while others are taken down?  I once got a copyright claim on a video over a copyrighted song but when I replaced it with another audio of the same song it was perfectly okay!?  That’s YouTube.

It seems that every policy that YouTube enacts can and will irritate the internet community.  Last year, the site’s high sheriffs decided to put in place a policy that would only allow videos to be monetized on channels that have at least 1000 subscribers and 4000 hours of watch time in a calendar year.  And, of course, there’s that long-standing cattle flop over the elasticity of the Fair Use doctrine.

Well now, right on cue, here comes another bit of hack-and-slash nonsense to make their polices even more baffling.  This past Wednesday, YouTube announced that it was enacting a ban on hate speech, meaning that any video which promotes and propagates a negative or inflammatory view of a particular race, ace, gender, etc. will be removed.

If it were any other entity, such a policy might not sound so bad, but YouTube is famous for its split personality, for swinging wildly between the kinds of content that it chooses to support.  It raises questions.  Does a news piece from FOX News or MSNBC count?  Would a documentary about the history of the Ku Klux Klan be omitted?  I just watched a Batman serial from 1942 that is replete with anti-Japanese content.  Does that have to go?

As I say, if it were any other entity, we might not care but since YouTube is largely regulated by a famously inconsistent (and broken) automated system, the results aren’t likely to fall within the realm of good common sense.

Yet, the larger conversation over this new policy this week has been the way in which is has fallen on Triumph of the Will, which was removed from the site Wednesday as part of the measure to put the new policy in effect.  That raises a great many more questions.

If you don’t know Triumph of the Will, allow me to explain.  This is a propaganda film released in 1935 featuring a rally at the Nazi Party Congress at Nuremberg which took place a year earlier and was attended by 700,000 adoring spectators.  Hitler commissioned the film by one of the world’s most skilled filmmakers Leni Riefenstahl (his first choice Fritz Lang, sensed Hitler’s growing menace and fled for America).  The film features speeches by Hitler, and his top officers, Joseph Goebbles, Rudolph Hess and Julius Streicher.  It was intended to present the order and pageantry of the Nazi Party in an effort to move the masses into their cause.

Of course, Triumph of the Will disguises the truth.  Anyone who visits the film knows that behind the pageantry lies the horrifying truth.  What is carefully omitted from the film is the terror that was already being visited on Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and anyone that Hitler considered racially inferior or subversive to his cause.  This included several individuals that he had systematically murdered in what came to be known as “The Night of Long Knives” just three months before the movie was filmed.

The hypnotic power of the images in Triumph of the Will are its legacy.  It is one of the greatest examples of the manipulation of propaganda, of moving a country to action.  The film played to packed houses in Germany.  Riefenstahl was hailed for her craft.

Yet, the troubling legacy of Triumph of the Will is that while it canonizes the Nazi Party as a great, powerful and unstoppable force, it is also one of the most seminal and astonishing pieces of filmmaking in the history of the medium.  Yes, it is about Nazis, but one cannot ignore Riefenstahl’s expert use of moving cameras, long focus, aerial photography and cinematography.  Or her use of narrative to make Hitler look like a god – literally the film opens with a shot of his plane descending down from the clouds to the Earth below.  As a technical feat, this is a film that has been as studied as it has been reviled.  Like The Birth of the Nation a generation earlier, which had the Klan as its hero but was never-the-less another technological milestone, its craft cannot be removed from history despite the abhorration of its content.

So, did it make sense for YouTube to take the film down from its site.  I say no.  Anyone approaching Triumph of the Will is already going to see it with the foreknowledge that Hitler was a genocidal madman.  They will already know that his government power put into motion the systematic murders of 6,000,000 of Europe’s Jews plus many more “undesirables” and political enemies.  No one is going to learn anything from this film in the way of Hitler’s racial politics.

What they do get is a first-hand look at the work of a brilliant filmmaker, of how a skilled artist like Leni Riefenstahl could put in motion a piece of carefully crafted, carefully edited propaganda piece that had the power to seduce and move an entire population, many of whom probably had no idea what Hitler was leading the country into.  What one takes away from Triumph of the Will is the sinister ways in which a government edits and sculpts its image to erase the truth.  You can see in its images inspirations that would flourish in later films, including many of the shots from Star Wars.

Removing Triumph of the Will from YouTube solves nothing, achieves nothing and doesn’t change or alter history in any way.  No one seeing the film will have their mind altered.  No teenager will watch the film and be seduced by Hitler knowing the outcome of his machinations.  No one is going to be swayed into a neo-Nazi frame of thinking.  If you know, then you probably already had that in mind when you started the film in the first place.  Perhaps YouTube could be smarter about this.

The lack of logic to YouTube’s actions is not surprising given its history, but one has to think that a more sensible alternative might have been possible.  Perhaps a disclaimer that “YouTube does not support or condone the contents of this video.”  It’s unlikely that anyone watching Triumph of the Will on YouTube would need to be told that, but it still makes more sense than eliminating it all together.

 
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Posted by on 06/08/2019 in Uncategorized

 

Discovering ‘Citizen Kane’: a film-lover reluctantly indulges The Greatest Movie Ever Made.

Image result for Rosebud the sled

Here’s a shameful confession: I am new to Citizen Kane.  Here I am in my late 40s, I’ve spent a lifetime bathing in the cinema, and yet I have circumvented Orson Welles most famous artistic expression out of fear that I wasn’t going to understand what made it so great.  Oh, I’ve seen it several times.  It’s just that until recently, I haven’t been able to see the greatness that film scholars fawn over.

In the last couple of weeks, I have spent more time in the company of Citizen Kane then I probably ever have at any point in my life.  As my two-year-old podcast neared its monumental 100th episode, my co-host Doug Heller and I decided to mark the occasion with what is considered to be the greatest film ever made.  That meant that I was going to have to spend more time with the movie than I had ever had before.  Admittedly, I was not looking forward to it.

Maybe I’m like most people.  When something gets tagged as The Greatest Film Ever Made, I tend to back away.  That’s a height that most films cannot reach.  Is there a greatest film ever made?  No, not really.  The idea of The Greatest Film Ever Made is more of a marketing tagline, as with the work ‘masterpiece’ it has been diluted into a standard that most people associate with words like ‘pretentious’ or ‘priggish’.

Also I’m not an expert.  I have felt that the great mysteries of Orson Welles magnum opus have been lost on me.  Am I not smart enough to see greatness?  Am I missing something?  Is there an element that is lost on me?  Running up to the film in researching it for the podcast, I was not confident that I could ever see the film’s greatness.  I saw a great film that had a hole in the middle.  Something about it left me cold.

I’ll admit, this is largely because I haven’t spent a lot of time in the company of Citizen Kane.  I saw it back in the 80s when I was in high school and I can say that I didn’t understand it.  I didn’t hate it, Heavens no, but there was something distant about it, something not quite satisfying.  I don’t know, I can’t explain it.  When it was over, I never felt that I had arrived at the end of the film but nothing I would call a conclusion.

It was only watching the film again recently that I came to realize that this is the whole point.  It’s not telling you anything new to report that Citizen Kane is a box labeled with question marks and inside we only find more boxes with more question marks.  For the average viewer, this is frustrating.  For the stubborn viewer, this is an obsession.  The mystery of Citizen Kane is the grand mystery of human identity.  How well can anyone ever know another human being?  What are the building blocks that form the person that someone will grow up to be?  Can they really be understood by another person?  Who are we at the end of life, and what is left behind that tells our survivors the story of the person that we are?

In contemplating the mystery of Citizen Kane over the last few days, I have come to a strange and rather bitter conclusion about the nature of life itself.  We’re all going to die someday – hopefully later than sooner, and the time after our death will eventually fade the identity of the person that we were.  In time, all the people that we knew in life will die too and so that identity will fade further and further until we are merely a name on a headstone.  Depressing notion?  Yes.  But it’s not debatable.  The story of Charles Foster Kane is a reminder that this is the fate of even the most famous man on the planet.

Orson Welles paints Kane through the seasons of his tenure on Earth told not by Kane himself but by those who apparently knew him best.  The history of the man’s life is seen in square details at the film’s opening.  Following his lonely and alarmingly cryptic final moment on Earth, the viewer is taken through a whirl-wind of information about the man’s life from his birth, through his troubling formative years, the idealism of his years as a young man, the corruption of his soul in later years and the tragic loneliness of his old age.  The information given to us on the News on the March newsreel is the official record of Charles Foster Kane’s life but it never paints a complete picture.  Who was the man?  Again, who was the man?  Did Rosebud mean anything to anyone but Kane himself?  Can it tell you anything about him as a person?

The mystery of Kane is found in a narrative structure that, for the thoughtful viewer, is really kind of fun.  The journalist Mr. Thompson digs deep for the mystery of Charles Foster Kane by searching for the meaning of his final word through interviews with those who knew him best . . . oh! knew him well.

The movie is told in seven layers that peel back the mystery of this man through several different points of view.  First is the News on the March newsreel which gives us a picture of Kane’s life that will probably not be much deeper than what any biographer would ever write about him.

Second is Mr. Thatcher (George Coulouris), Kane’s legal guardian, whose memoirs recall the early years.  Third is Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane’s avuncular business partner who recalls Kane’s rise and then Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton), Kane’s best friend, who recalls his downfall.  Fourth is Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), Kane’s second wife, who recalls their personal life.  Fifth is Raymond (Paul Stewart), Kane’s butler who recalls the deterioration of Charles and Susan’s marriage.

The final layer is Thompson himself.  Standing in the vast castle that was once Kane’s Xanadu, he has a picture of a man but never found what he was looking for.  For him, the results of his search are no different then the newsreel that set him on this quest to begin with.  Plus, in a fun bit of visual trickery, he mourns his fruitless efforts by cascading a handful of puzzle pieces into a box.

Ironically, he unknowingly stands thirty-feet away from the answer to his question.  Just over there, among the rows of boxes and personal effects lies Rosebud, a sled, an object of Kane’s childhood.  But in a devious and cold-blooded twist, it tells us something and nothing at the same time.  Thompson’s search for the word has an answer, but would tell him nothing.

As a viewer I find that I arrive at the answer to the question only a few steps further than Thompson.  I bore witness to Kane’s last moments, and I know something that Kane took to the grave – the identity of Rosebud.  But what is it?  Why was this sled so important to him?  Was it the last gift that he received from his mother?  Was it, as many scholars conclude, the symbol of the loss of family values as he is taken away to be raised by an affectionless banker?  All may be true but and untrue, depending on who you ask.

So here I am, having finally indulged in the great mystery of Citizen Kane wiser about the film but no wiser about the mysteries that it imparts.  The effect that this viewing at on me was a much deeper contemplation about the mystery of human identity.  When we shuffle off this mortal coil we will inevitably take a great many things with us.  There are those who will have been witness to our journey on Earth and, like Kane, will have many different perspectives.  But none will ever grab the Rosebud at the center of our being.

 
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Posted by on 06/05/2019 in Uncategorized

 

Bowing Out: Tim Conway (1933-2019)

Image result for tim conway on the carol burnett show

Tim Conway, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 85, was one of the funniest people who ever lived, and I absolutely mean that.  He was a gifted physical comedian, on par with Chaplin, Keaton and The Three Stooges.  His comedy was effortless, unpredictable and explosively funny.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the term “rolling in the aisles” was invented in reference to Tim Conway.  At his best, he didn’t simply make people laugh, he made people hurt themselves laughing.  They were rolling.  If proof is needed watch any of his best moments from The Carol Burnett Show and listen to that studio audience.  That’s not regular laughter, that’s the genuine sound of an audience brought to it knees.  Very few comedians could do that.

He spent 60 years in showbusiness and made his way through every medium imaginable from Ensign Parker on “McHale’s Navy” to this work on “The Steve Allen Show” and even the ill-fated “Turn-on”, a misfire from “Laugh-In” creator George Schlatter that the network thought was so bad that they cancelled it while the premiere episode was airing.  There were the movies with Don Knotts: The Prize Fighter and The Private Eyes.  There were the Disney pictures of my childhood like The Apple Dumpling GangThe Shaggy D.A. and Gus.

Conway was always best as part of an ensemble – which is possibly why his own shows never really worked.  He tried a sitcom “Rango” in 1967 which flopped.  As did his comedy variety show “The Tim Conway Hour” in 1970.  After “The Carol Burnett Show”, he would try again with “The Tim Conway Show” in 1980, a show that mirrored Burnett’s show probably too closely and died in a year.  Even when he was the lead in a movie, he had trouble as evidenced by the godawful Billiion Dollar Hobo in which he plays a bumbling dope who stands to rake in his uncle’s inheritance if he can spend a year riding the rails as a penniless hobo.

He was best when he had someone the play off of.  That’s why “The Carol Burnett Show” will be his legacy – he won three Emmy Awards for it.  That show, which ran eleven years from 1967 to 1978 was part of CBS’s legendary Saturday Night line-up called “Murderer’s Row” that also included “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, “All in the Family” and “M*A*S*H” – and was called such because it killed the ratings of whatever shows were running concurrently on NBC and ABC.

Of all of those CBS shows, “The Carol Burnett Show” is the one that has had the least staying power.  Watch any random episode on a given night and you can clearly see that it hasn’t aged well.  Like “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” it is best viewed in a “Best of” format that cherry-picks the best skits, and most often they are dominated by skits involving Conway.  His best bits were the physical ones, whether is was Mr. Tudball, the flappable boss with the Scandinavian accent and unfortunate toupee that inevitably ended up in his face, or artillery captain in the French army who attempts to load a cannon but ends up dropping the ball down his pants.  Or even Mr. Bunny, the rabbit lawyer who tries to keep his professional composure while constantly giving in to his rabbit tendencies.

Yes, Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner made up a company of sketch comedians that cannot be beat, but for my money it was Conway that made it great.  He had an innate ability to not only draw raucous laughs but to also to create those perfect moments when he broke up his co-stars, angling their timing and their professionalism into fits of sweating and stifled laughs.  There was always a moment when Burnett, Waggoner, Lawrence or Korman knew that Conway was trying to get them.  You could see it in their eyes.

One of my favorites was a sketch called “The Interrogator” in which Waggoner played an American POW being interrogated by Conway who was playing a Nazi.  Trapped in a two-shot, Waggoner does a valiant job of keeping his composure as Conway baits him, but when he produced a rosy-cheeked hand puppet of Adolph Hitler from his coat, Waggoner knows all is lost.  When puppet-Fuhrer launches into a squeaky-voiced rendition of “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dina”, you can see that even Conway is trying not to laugh.

Conway’s ability to trap his castmates in stifled laughter fell hardest on Harvey Korman, most evident in a brilliant sketch in which Conway plays a dentist who accidentally stabs himself with a needle full of novacane, first in the hand and then in the leg.  Korman, as the patient, is trapped in the chair and has nowhere to go.  The sketch is funny all by itself but the spice is added by Korman’s failed attempt to keep his composure.

But then it all came back.  Conway’s ability to keep his castmates in stitches finally came back around in a sketch of “The Family” in which his character Mickey recalls the story of two Siamese elephants at a freak show.  True to Conway’s nature, the story gets more and more absurd as Burnett sits just to his left sweating and hiding her face while the studio audience rolls in uncontrollable laughter.  Vicki Lawrence finally breaks the moment by asking “are you sure that asshole’s through yet?”  Conway is a goner.  Does that kind of laughter exist anymore?

Judd Apatow, hearing the news of Conway’s passing had the most fitting tribute, “Tim Conway was pure comedy.”  There is no reading-between-the-lines with that statement because if you know Conway’s work than you know what that means.  He wanted to make you laugh, and to keep you laughing.  You got caught up in his shenanigans and he kept you rolling in the aisles.

 
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Posted by on 05/14/2019 in Uncategorized

 

Bowing Out: Doris Day (1922-2019)

It is difficult to look at Doris Day’s three-foot smile and middle-American pretty face and reflect that here was a woman that was just as vilified as she was glorified.  There are millions who love her for her work in film, television and in her music career, but just as many who despise her for her radical activism on behalf of the ethical treatment of animals.  However, you feel about her, there is no doubt about the impact that she leaves behind.

Doris Day’s activism is a point of contention, but what I am going to take with me are the songs and the films, the declaration of a frilly pink world of chaste sex, designer gowns, Burt Bacharach albums and the full co-ax of apartments designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  Those are the memories that I have, and the ones that I treasure.

Admittedly, I am not the first person to run to a Doris Day movie, but I can observe that if you watch enough, you start to notice something underneath, a subtext that makes her film work more than just silly romantic programmers.  There was something going on underneath her romantic fantasies, something sexy that the credo of Hollywood could only push so far.  Movies of the 60s were a strange ironic conundrum, especially romantic comedies.  America, at the time, was in the middle of the free love movement, but Hollywood was still in the chastity of the 1950s.  The difference was that you could suggest it heavily but you couldn’t show it.

In a lot of ways Doris Day, who died Monday at the age of 97, patented an on-screen image that was so perfectly indicative of the free love generation that it was almost deceptive.  She is so fixed in our minds as the perfect white, cornfed middle-American girl of the 1960s that it is almost a tease that her characters seemed to live a life of sexual frivolity that was abundantly evident, but took place exclusively off-screen.  In her romantic comedies, she defied the convention of television that required women to be the homemaker and housewife and lived her own version of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Manifesto.  She loved men, was attracted to them, wanted them, and probably got them.

Day made three films with Rock Hudson, Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back(1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964) and in all three you never had a single doubt that her characters had sex – or at least were perfectly schooled in what that word meant.  She had a libido, she knew it, and she was very aware of the level that it was vibrating on.  But it was always under the surface; the production code was still in force during her heyday on screen in the 1960s but the times being what they were, she could suggest everything and show nothing.  Maybe that’s what made her comedies so tasty – they were a tease rather than a show.

If subtext was the norm, my personal favorite was Calamity Jane (1953), a musical fantasy in which she plays a tomboy version of the famous wild west sharpshooter who develops a loving relationship with Wild Bill Hickock.  But it’s the not-so-well disguised lesbian suggestions that make the film a great deal of fun, particularly when she a showgirl up and down and declares “You’re the purdiest thing I ever seen.” Then looking too close at the fullness of her bosom questions “How do you hold that dress up there.”  Added to that, the Academy Award winning song “Secret Love” and you’ve got a lesbian perennial for the ages.

No matter what she sang, there was something much deeper in the performance that just a glorious voice belting out Top 40 songs.  Doris Day is that rare singer who could embody a character through song in a way that few could.  Sinatra could do this.  Judy Garland too.  But from Doris, there was something of an embodying quality to her contralto voice that took us inside of the soul of the song.  One of my favorites is her version of “When I Fall in Love,” a rapturous and hopeful ode to the promise of true love, she sings with great delight the inevitability that she will find love, but listen carefully and just underneath you’ll hear a sense of melancholy that true love hasn’t happened yet.  Another is “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” in which I am never sure if she has fallen in love with someone or if it is a faraway crush.  Whatever the case, listen to the tambour of her voice and you can feel the emotions of someone whose mind is completely enraptured by the person that she has fallen in love with.

I could write a thousand more words on what a great star she was.  I know that she was one of those performers whose entire body became part of the act.  She was bright, sunny and cheery.  The kind of person that you gravitate to.  You saw her name in print and you immediately conjured up a feeling of sunshine and happiness with a sense that underneath it all lay a person whose heart was an open book.  How many people give you that?  I’ll never see anyone like her again.

Que sera sera.

 
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Posted by on 05/13/2019 in Uncategorized