Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bogie and Bacall's Last Flick

Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart): When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.

Some 30 years ago, Bertie Higgins had his only hit song — well, it was a semi–hit — "Key Largo."

It was inspired (supposedly) by the movie of the same name that made its theatrical debut 65 years ago today. I liked the movie, but I never liked the song.

I guess I was too much of a movie purist at that time, in spite of my tender years. But I was a Humphrey Bogart fan, still am, for that matter, and I didn't like to see his work trivialized.

I had seen most of his movies (I've probably seen them all by now), and I knew the song wasn't entirely accurate — nor was it entirely about "Key Largo," the John Huston–directed film noir set in Florida in the years after World War II.

A recurring line gave it away — "We had it all / Just like Bogie and Bacall / Starring in our own late late show / Sailin' away to Key Largo."

Bogart and Lauren Bacall did co–star in "Key Largo," but neither of their characters sailed there. Bogart arrived by bus in the earliest scene of the movie, and Bacall's character was already there, the daughter–in–law of the proprietor of a Key Largo hotel.

I guess Bacall could have sailed there when she first arrived — unless she was born and raised in Key Largo. It was never mentioned in the movie.

(The proprietor was Lionel Barrymore, who was only a couple of years removed from his infamous turn as Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life," the sixth–most villainous character in movie history, according to the American Film Institute. With Barrymore confined to a wheelchair in this one, a new generation of viewers who know him only as Mr. Potter may find it astonishing that such a reprehensible individual in one movie could arouse such feelings of empathy from the audience in another.)

That song also made use of lines that were familiar from "Casablanca," which was a Bogart movie as well — but his co–star was Ingrid Bergman, not Bacall.

Oh, well.

I didn't care for the song, but I did like the movie.

It was the last one that Bogart and Bacall made together, and it was the most chaste of the four, by far.

Movie viewers who went to see it at the theaters in 1948 expecting to see another "To Have and Have Not," in which the Bogart–Bacall on–screen relationship sizzled, undoubtedly were disappointed. Bacall's character was the widow of one of Bogart's Army buddies, a woman who had just about given up on everything but there was still a smoldering sensuality to her.

Beyond a rather liberal interpretation of glances between the two, though, there was no overt indication of an attraction between Bogart and Bacall, with the possible exception of the final scene (and their only interaction in that scene was via ship–to–shore communication technology).

In what was perhaps an odd response, I was reminded of another Bogart movie — "The Petrified Forest" — when I first saw "Key Largo." In both movies, a group of people were being held hostage by a gangster (played in "Key Largo" by Edward G. Robinson).

But there were differences between the movies that, I suppose, reflected changes in America and the world from the depths of the Depression, when Bogie made "The Petrified Forest," to the postwar environment, in which "Key Largo" was made.

In "The Petrified Forest," there were noble perceptions of self–sacrifice, and ample justification was given for the casualties of World War I. It had been, after all, "the war to end all wars."

In "Key Largo," the emphasis was on one's moral obligation to oppose evil and the value of individual lives. (I always thought Claire Trevor, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, was a good example of the latter. She played Robinson's alcoholic and frequently abused girlfriend who showed plenty of dignity in spite of Robinson's demeaning treatment of her.)

In between the two movies, of course, was World War II, probably the greatest and costliest clash (in terms of both lives and treasure) between good and evil in world history. It changed how many people perceived things. Given the fact that "Key Largo" was made against the emerging backdrop of the Cold War, it is hardly surprising that there was a strong we're–all–in–this–together feeling to it.

Bogart himself was the ideal example of this. His character in "Key Largo" began the movie with no confidence in himself and ended it recognizing that it was necessary to remain, as Donne put it, "involved in mankind."

A nice reminder — then and now — that there are still battles worth fighting and winning and even causes worth dying for.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Holiday Road Trip

Cousin Vicki (Jane Krakowski): I'm going steady, and I French kiss.

Audrey (Dana Barron): So? Everybody does that.

Cousin Vicki: Yeah, but Daddy says I'm the best at it.

National Lampoon's "Vacation" series of movies got its start 30 years ago today when the original "Vacation" movie premiered.

In their first screen appearance, the Griswold family tried to visit the fictional Wally World theme park (seemingly modeled after Disneyland) in California in a good–natured parody of family vacations. Over the years, the Griswolds made trips to Europe and Las Vegas. My personal favorite in the series was the one about their Christmas vacation in which they didn't go anywhere.

The Vegas and European vacations weren't all that entertaining, as far as I was concerned, but the one that made its debut 30 years ago today had a lot going for it. Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron played the original Griswold children (roles that went to different actors and actresses in each movie), and they were always my favorites.

That probably had a lot to do with how I felt about the movies.

Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo always played the Griswold parents. They provided the continuity.
Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo): Clark, let's just skip the house of mud. I think Dodge City was enough for one day. Besides, Catherine and Eddie are expecting us.

Clark (Chevy Chase): It's living history, Ellen. But if you'd rather see your cousins, it's OK by me. Personally I'd rather see a pile of mud than Eddie.

But I always felt like I had to re–introduce myself to the kids. Their names were always the same, but the actors were always different. (I must admit, though, I experience the same thing when I see old friends — and their children, who are always several years older than the last time I saw them.)

If I could have, I would have stuck with the two who were in the movie that was released in 1983.

After a harrowing trip from Chicago to the West Coast, the Griswolds discovered that Wally World was closed for some maintenance work — and Clark (Chevy Chase) went, well, a little nuts — to the considerable discomfort of a park security guard (John Candy).

All of the "Vacation" movies seem to have delivered what audiences wanted — easy laughs at the expense of the generally challenged Griswold family.

And the Griswolds were particularly challenged in this movie — starting with Clark being victimized by a bait–and–switch at the car dealer.

Some of the challenges were like that — thrust upon the Griswolds. Others, they brought on themselves.

That's the way it is on Holiday Road.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Not Since the Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor ...

Bluto (John Belushi): Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?

There seemed to be a real nostalgia wave in the 1970s. It was in music, in books, on TV and in the movies. It was everywhere.

I guess it is that way in every decade, for every generation. And I guess it is often nostalgia for the previous generation — for the way things were about 20 years earlier.

Well, maybe not, but that is how it was in the 1970s. Most of the longing seemed to be for the late '50s and early '60s.

By 1978, the time was right for spoofs, and National Lampoon stepped forward with "Animal House." I remember thinking of it as the anti–"American Graffiti" (If you're too young to remember "American Graffiti," it was a nostalgic movie that came out earlier in the decade — and, perhaps not–so–coincidentally — was set in 1962, the same year in which "Animal House" supposedly was set.)

John Belushi was the primary attraction for moviegoers that summer. Karen Allen and Kevin Bacon were making their big–screen debuts. Tim Matheson had been around for awhile, but nearly all his previous work had been on TV. He was a virtual stranger to movie audiences.

Donald Sutherland was probably the only cast member with extensive big–screen experience, but he wasn't the draw that Belushi, a national phenomenon since his Saturday Night Live days, was.

And Belushi was perfect for taking jabs at the establishment, whether it was on campus or somewhere else.

But his hard–partying reputation was particularly suited for lead booze–swigging frat boy. A few years later, everyone learned how tragically accurate that reputation was, but, in 1978, everyone was laughing.

In hindsight, there is often a poignancy to his lines:
"Grab a brew. Don't cost nothin'."

"See if you can guess what I am now. I'm a zit. Get it?"

"They took the bar! The whole f***ing bar!"

"Toga! Toga!"

"Seven years of college down the drain."
Belushi was a funny man. Everyone thought so, and people expected to laugh whenever they saw him.

Expectations may have been somewhat lower for the rest of the crew. Tim Matheson had been around for awhile, but he wasn't a household name until he played Otter.

Thomas Hulce had only been in one big–screen movie (which happened to be filmed in my hometown) when he played Pinto, but he went on to play Mozart in the Oscar–winning movie "Amadeus."

Kevin Bacon made his film debut as a smarmy Omega pledge in "Animal House," and he has gone on to appear in more than 50 movies since then, many of which have been hits.

Karen Allen made her debut in "Animal House" as well, and she, too, went on to appear in some very successful films. I thought she was very attractive when I saw her in "Animal House," and I continued to think so in her later movies.

(I've never seen the Indiana Jones movie in which she appeared a few years ago in her mid–50s, but I've seen pictures of her from that time, and I must say she still looks attractive. Older but attractive.)

You couldn't help empathizing with Allen's character. Her boyfriend was one of the officers in the Delta fraternity, and, on one occasion, she complained to him, "I'm in love with a retard!"

"Is he bigger than me?" her boyfriend asked.

The humor in "Animal House" was like that — it often needed a drummer to do the ba–boom after each gag line.

When I watch "Animal House" today, I guess the character with whom I relate the most is the one played by Sutherland.

An English professor named Jennings, Sutherland liked to be his students' friend, and I, too, enjoy casual conversations with my students — which can make it difficult when it comes time to lay down the law and make homework assignments or schedule exams.
Jennings: Don't write this down, but I find Milton probably as boring as you find Milton. Mrs. Milton found him boring, too. He's a little bit long–winded, he doesn't translate very well into our generation, and his jokes are terrible.

[Bell rings, students rise to leave]

Jennings: But that doesn't relieve you of your responsibility for this material. Now I'm waiting for reports from some of you. ... Listen, I'm not joking. This is my job!

I just concluded my seventh year of teaching, and I know what he meant a lot better than I did the first time I saw the movie. Of course, I was on the other side of the academic fence then!

For me, "Animal House" is one of those movies that I can't pick my favorite line or scene. There were so many great lines and scenes that it is hard to limit myself to quoting or citing just one.

I simply enjoy it every time I watch it because it does what any great comedy should do every time. It entertains.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Tres Hombres Was More Than 'The Blooze'

Forty years ago today, ZZ Top released their "Tres Hombres" album, and people suddenly began to pay attention to that little ol' band from Texas.

It's safe to say the album made stars of the members of ZZ Top (which is appropriate, I suppose, since they hail from the Lone Star State). And its influence continues. Rolling Stone named it #490 on its list of the top 500 albums of all time.

(Mind you, this was way before the members of ZZ Top grew their beards long enough to qualify them for spots on Duck Dynasty. In 1973, their beards probably were of average length.)

It was even before the phase of their career that was ushered in a decade later by the release of the "Eliminator" album and the hits that record spawned, like "Give Me All Your Lovin'" and "Legs."

Those who have been following ZZ Top a long time know "Eliminator" was a real departure from the traditional ZZ Top sound. It was the beginning of their synthesizer period, a time when their albums had several songs that made the Top 10.

Not that I have anything against making a buck. But 40 years ago, ZZ Top was still in an earthy, rough–around–the–edges, guitar–driven period that marked nearly every song the band recorded. Eventually, they returned to that sound in a manner of speaking, but it's never been quite the same as it was when ZZ Top released albums like "Tres Hombres."

ZZ Top released two albums prior to "Tres Hombres," but neither had a blockbuster song that could grab people's attention. Don't get me wrong. The music on those albums was good, and people took a second look at them after "Tres Hombres" was released.

They were a hot little ol' band from Texas.

"Tres Hombres" hit Billboard's Top 10, and it produced the group's first hit single, "La Grange." It's a great song, and it should be. It was inspired by John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen." That one, along with "Tush" from ZZ Top's next album, are, as they have been for quite awhile, ZZ Top's signature songs.

But the song from "Tres Hombres" that I've always preferred was never released as a single.

ZZ Top didn't release many singles in those days. "Tres Hombres" only released "La Grange," but folks who bought the album discovered there was more there. Lots more.

Anyway, back to my favorite ...

"Hot, Blue and Righteous."

When most music lovers want to talk about "Tres Hombres," they focus on "La Grange" — or "Waitin' for the Bus," "Jesus Just Left Chicago" or "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers."

Those are the Texas party songs. The drinking and getting rowdy songs. "The blooze," I've heard them called. Nothing wrong with that.

But "Hot, Blue and Righteous" wasn't hard–driving rock. It was real Texas blues.

It was a nice departure from the more up–tempo, boogie type music they usually recorded. It was smooth, like good sippin' whiskey, with a strong finishing kick.

You could hear that same kind of blues sound on the first two ZZ Top albums, sandwiched in between all the "blooze." You could hear it in "Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell" on the "Rio Grande Mud" album. You could hear it in "Old Man" on "ZZ Top's First Album."

But it never ever sounded like it did in "Hot, Blue and Righteous." Not before. Not since.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Finding a Needle in a Stack of Needles

"It's like finding a needle in a stack of needles."

Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks)

There are certain scenes in certain movies that just stand out in one's memory. Quite often, it seems, those scenes occur in war movies.

For example, if "The Deer Hunter" is mentioned, the scene that probably leaps to mind is one of the Russian roulette scenes — which I still think were the most intense, most riveting scenes I have ever watched. Or if you're talking about "Apocalypse Now," the scene you may be most likely to recall is the one where Robert Duvall says, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

Such a scene — a lengthy one — occurred in "Saving Private Ryan," the Steven Spielberg flick that was showing on America's movie screens 15 years ago today.

I'm speaking of the re–creation of the invasion of Normandy, probably the most realistic depiction of modern war ever filmed. The chaos of the battlefield is evident for more than 20 agonizing minutes. You can almost smell the smoke — and the blood. There certainly is enough of it, but it became part of the landscape — as it probably does in real battles. And when the camera took us under water, there was almost a sense of relief that we had nothing to fear — until we saw bullets ripping through the water around us.

Every time I have seen it, I have felt the urge to look away — but I can't. It is gruesome, yet compelling — like a car accident or a train wreck or something similar we are powerless to prevent and incapable of not watching.

It's that kind of perverse fascination — and yet, a Spielberg movie is so much more intellectually satisfying. Watching the invasion of Normandy at the start of "Saving Private Ryan" is not merely some kind of a guilty pleasure or display of special effects prowess. It is an essential part of the story.

But the landing at Omaha Beach really was only the beginning of the story of "Saving Private Ryan."

The war never really went away, and Spielberg did not shrink from showing it in all its brutality and ugliness. As I say, it was something that had to be told in the context of the larger story. When Spielberg made "Schindler's List," it wasn't necessary to show the violence, only to hint at it most of the time. "Saving Private Ryan" was a different kind of story.

Only those who deny the Holocaust do not know — or say they don't — the extent of the cruelty inflicted on so many. I suppose no one really denies that D–Day happened. Far too many men fought in it, and far too many men died in it.

Yet in the midst of all that gloom, there were some shining moments.

After the D–Day battle was over, it was discovered that three brothers had been killed, their mother was about to be notified of all three deaths at the same time, and a fourth brother, who had parachuted far behind enemy lines, was unaccounted for. He might not have survived the jump, or he might have been killed in action. No one knew.

But the decision was made that a squadron would be sent to look for him and, if possible, return him to his grieving mother. She had sacrificed enough. Thus began an improbable quest — to locate that surviving brother, Private Ryan (Matt Damon). Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) was dispatched with a squad to retrieve the soldier, a mission he compared to "finding a needle in a stack of needles."

Enthusiasm for the mission was relatively high at first, but then when the close–knit unit started losing men, some began to question the mission's validity.
Capt. Miller: He better be worth it. He better go home and cure a disease or invent a longer–lasting light bulb.

I thought "Saving Private Ryan" was a cinematic masterpiece with truly gut–wrenching scenes of combat that gave a realistic depiction of war and a genuinely moving finale. In the buildup to that finale, a dying Capt. Miller told Private Ryan to "earn this" opportunity he had been given to live.

I remember thinking, as I watched "Saving Private Ryan" the first time, how different that portrayal of combat was from the sanitized, gung–ho version my friends and I saw in the John Wayne movies of my childhood and tried to emulate in our games. Surely, this was a more honest representation of warfare, one that young people might respect — even in an age of dazzling special effects.

The same could be said of the ending, in which the now–retired Private Ryan visited the cemetery where Miller was buried. Recalling Miller's final words to him as he stood before Miller's grave, Ryan asked his wife to "[t]ell me I've lived a good life. Tell me I'm a good man."

He sought reassurance that Miller's sacrifice had not been in vain. He needed to know he had earned it.

He may not have cured a disease or invented a longer–lasting light bulb, but if he could believe he had lived up to Miller's expectations, it would all be worth it.

It was the most eloquent example of personal commitment and dedication I have ever seen.

Spielberg received — and deserved — the Oscar for Best Director, but "Saving Private Ryan" lost Best Picture to "Shakespeare in Love." That was sort of a split decision for me.

Many years ago, I remember pulling for "All That Jazz" to win Best Picture because I thought it was the most creative of the nominees. It wound up losing to what I felt was the most realistic portrayal of a common life experience — "Kramer vs. Kramer."

A couple of decades later, I found myself pulling for "Saving Private Ryan," which I believed was the most honest depiction of combat yet committed to film, but it lost to a movie that I thought was arguably the most creative nominee.

Ironic, huh?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Mr. Mom's Missed Opportunity

Thirty years ago, when "Mr. Mom" made its first appearance on America's movie screens, it may have been an accurate depiction of gender roles in society — but I have my doubts.

The family in the movie had a husband (Michael Keaton) and a wife (Teri Garr) and their three children. That's pretty close to the demographic average in America at that time, I suppose.

When the movie began, the obvious daily routine was that the husband went to work and the wife stayed home with the kids.

That rang true for me because that is the way my home was, at least through the first half of my childhood, but then the economy forced my mother to re–enter the work force. As I remember, it was like that for most of my friends — well, the ones whose families still had two parents in the household (and that number dwindled as I got older).

When I was small, it was normal for mothers to stay home. Most did. A few worked outside the home, and that too may have been of economic necessity, but my recollection is that the perception was that a woman was working because it fulfilled her in some way, not because a second income was needed.

But, at some point in my childhood, it became more difficult, if not impossible, for a family to survive on the father's salary alone. Then it became more common for children to come home from school to an empty house, as my brother and I did, and we were expected to do certain things to help with the general maintenance of that house since Mom was no longer at home during the days.

In "Mr. Mom," Keaton's character was fired, and Garr's character went out into the world to be the breadwinner. Keaton's character stayed at home and looked after the children.

I don't really recall a family in my own life that was like the one in "Mr. Mom." That doesn't mean there weren't any families like that. It only means that none of the children in my circle of friends came from such a household.

But that wouldn't really have been relevant, as I say, after a certain point. My friends and I grew accustomed to the idea that no one's parents were at home when school ended for the day.

And that, I think, made "Mr. Mom" a quaint relic of a family unit that didn't really exist in 1983 — if it ever existed to begin with. When the movie began, the family resembled TV families of the '50s and '60s more than it did real families of the '70s and '80s.

I happened to catch a broadcast of "Mr. Mom" on cable about a month ago, and I remembered that it did rather well at the box office. I think I saw it for the first time when it was at the theaters, but that has been a long time so I decided to watch it again to refresh my memory. It was interesting to watch it through 21st–century eyes.

The script by John Hughes was turned into a movie a year before Hughes' directorial debut. Its success — along with the success of another Hughes–penned movie, "National Lampoon's Vacation," that premiered a week later — propelled him into the directorial career that was his for the rest of his life.

If this movie was remade in 2013, my feeling is that it would be more balanced to show the challenges faced by each spouse. Surely there would be many for a formerly domestic woman in the cutthroat business world trying to support her husband and children, and, to be fair, some of those challenges (like what is called sexual harassment today) were explored — but not all.

Actually, comparatively little attention was paid to what Garr's character was facing. Most of the movie — as the title suggests — was about Keaton's transition and the obstacles he encountered — like trips to the grocery store and visits to public restrooms.

Well, that is acceptable, I suppose. I mean, the movie was billed as a comedy, and those scenes were played mostly for laughs. Slapstick, actually.

And the humor derived from the reversal of traditional roles. But, even though the women's liberation movement had been active for about 15 years and it had clearly influenced parts of the culture, the emphasis was still on the father's difficulties in adjusting to domestic life. I remember finding that interesting at the time.

I suppose the really interesting thing — well, let's say the most telling thing — is that Mr. Mom rather quickly became a cultural cliche, much like Groundhog Day did after the movie of that name was in the theaters. I heard several stay–at–home dads called Mr. Mom. Perhaps one or two were, like Keaton, fired from their jobs; the rest were graduate students.

I have never heard the female equivalent in such a relationship (whatever the reason for it) called a Ms. or Mrs. Dad.

An interesting footnote here. When the movie ended and the credits rolled, viewers saw a broadcast of the TV commercial that Garr's character had helped to produce. Moviegoers saw little of what Garr's character went through to get her commercial made. Mostly what they saw was Garr's initial pitch in the conference room, and the mostly negative response she received.

There were all sorts of plot opportunities — along with the opportunity to learn something of substance about Garr's character — that were missed. But, as I say, the movie was about Mr. Mom.

In 1983, "Mr. Mom" was greeted as an entertaining story, not a bad way to spend 1½ hours on a hot summer day.

Today, though, I think it might be criticized for social insensitivity.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Natalie Wood's 75th Birthday

Hollywood has boasted many beautiful actresses over the years, but only a handful have made my personal list of truly great beauties.

That list doesn't actually exist, of course — well, outside my mind, I suppose. But my mental list includes the likes of Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor and Natalie Wood. I'm sure there are others that you readers will think of, but those are the top five on my list.

If she had not died in 1981 under circumstances that are still labeled, at best, mysterious — and if we further presume that nothing else would have killed her in the last 32 years — today would have been Natalie Wood's 75th birthday. If she was alive, she'd be a grandmother. Hard to imagine, isn't it?

It's always hard for me to picture people who died young as they might have been at advanced ages, whether they were famous or not. Whenever the subject of prominent people who died young comes up, it never fails to include the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Marilyn Monroe, John Belushi, Elvis, Princess Diana, and it is always difficult for me to picture them being 30 or 40 or even 50 years older than they were when last we saw them.

I had a friend who died of cancer before his 30th birthday. If he was still living, he would be in his 50s today. I find that very hard to picture. I remember him as he was, and it is hard for me to imagine what he would be like if he had not been dead for nearly 22 years — primarily, I suppose, because I can't really imagine what might have happened in his life in the last couple of decades and how those events might have shaped him.

In a way, I guess, it is the same with Natalie Wood, whether you think of her as a young girl in the original "Miracle on 34th Street" or as a young adult in "West Side Story" or as a more mature woman in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice." She was 43 when she died. How can we know what might have happened in her life that would have shaped her into the 75–year–old we will never know?

I guess the hardest part of imagining Natalie Wood at 75 is remembering her when she was 8 in "Miracle on 34th Street."

I don't remember how old I was when I saw that movie for the first time. I may have been no older than Wood had been when she made it, and I remember having a huge crush on her. I guess she was my first.

Anyway, that is the image of Natalie Wood that always comes to my mind first when her name is mentioned — and, I suppose, always will, no matter how many times I see "Splendor in the Grass" or "Rebel Without a Cause" — or the movie she was making when she died, "Brainstorm."

When Wood drowned while on a yachting trip with her husband Robert Wagner and her "Brainstorm" co–star Christopher Walken, her death was ruled an accident, but many of the details surrounding her death were unknown then and are mostly unknown today.

I remember that rumors were rampant at the time. I always dismissed most of it as idle gossip. Nevertheless, there were parts of the story, however incomplete it may have been, that were disturbing.

It was known that Wood had been drinking that evening and that she and Wagner had argued. But no one could be found who could say definitively how Wood — who was known to have a fear of the water and drowning — wound up in the waters of Santa Catalina Island.

But the case was reopened last year when the captain of the yacht reportedly told authorities that an argument between Wood and Wagner had caused her death. To date, no one has been charged in connection with Wood's death.

After all these years, I'm not really sure if I want to know the truth about what happened to Natalie Wood.

At the time, it was enough for me simply to know that she was dead. I suppose there was a time when I wanted to know if someone had caused her death, but after 32 years, I really don't know what useful purpose could be served. If Wagner really was the cause of her death, would there be anything to gain by putting him on trial now and perhaps imprisoning him? The man is 83 years old.

Wood's family may be seeking some kind of closure. If they are still seeking it after 32 years, I hope they find it — even if it doesn't come in the form they may be hoping for. Thirty–two years is a long time to wait for anything.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Karma Chameleon

"My deepest apology goes to the Trochman family in Detroit. I never delivered a baby before in my life, and I just thought that ice tongs was the way to do it."

Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen)

In the fall of 1983, Boy George and his band Culture Club released what became their biggest hit — "Karma Chameleon."

In an interview, he explained that the song was about "the terrible fear of alienation that people have." People, he said, crave acceptance, and they try to fit in.

Now, I am not — never have been — a Boy George fan. But I have to admit that I have long wondered — partly, I must concede, in jest — if the song was written as some kind of psychological promotion for the Woody Allen movie that made its debut on this day in 1983, "Zelig."

(I mean, it wasn't uncommon 30 years ago for a movie to spend several months at a theater. The home video market was still in its infancy in those days, and theaters still represented the major source of revenue for moviemakers. I could see people who were involved with a theatrical release wanting to have some sort of media boost for sluggish box–office receipts.

(OK, it's a bit of a stretch — but, hey, I'm a writer. What do I know of the ways of marketers?)

Allen directed and starred as Zelig, a mousy, uninspiring sort who, because he so desperately wanted to be liked by others, took on the dominant characteristics of the people around him. This ability made him a celebrity. He was known as the "human chameleon."

Sometimes these characteristics were physical. For example, there was one scene in which he was meeting with a group of native Americans, and he had taken on the long braided hair of the native American. His skin appeared darker as well, but the movie was made in black and white so that wasn't as clear as it might have been.

(It's important to note that this movie was made in the style of a documentary utilizing primarily film clips that were supposedly made in the early 20th century. The parts that were intended to be interviews with modern–day experts were in color — which I always felt gave "Zelig" a kind of a "Wizard of Oz" feel.)

There was another scene in which Allen was with a group of blacks. His skin definitely appeared darker in that scene.

At other times, Allen the director seemed to be using technology that would be put to even greater use a decade later in "Forrest Gump."

That technology involved inserting a character in film footage taken long before. There were some light–hearted scenes in which Zelig was seen with Woodrow Wilson and Babe Ruth.

But then he showed up at Nazi rallies, waving to someone from behind Hitler as the fuhrer delivered a speech, then lowering his arm when Hitler turned quickly to see who was upstaging him.

Allen's Zelig did not acquire a stub of a mustache or Hitler's way of combing his straight, black hair to blend in, but he did don the uniform of a Nazi, which made sense. How else could anyone expect him to be that close to Hitler?

At other times he was visible as a part of the crowd — kind of like when Forrest Gump could be seen off to the side as George Wallace made his stand in the schoolhouse door.

Narrator: The Ku Klux Klan, who saw Zelig as a Jew that could turn himself into a Negro and an Indian, saw him as a triple threat.

Mia Farrow, Allen's real–life love interest for many years, played a psychiatrist who tried to help him through hypnosis. She concluded that his desire for acceptance was so strong that he would change his own appearance in fundamental ways in order to blend in with those around him.

It's too bad, really, that Zelig was a fictional character. He seemed like a lot of fun.

In the movie, he inspired jokes, hit songs and even a dance called "The Chameleon."

If you are familiar with Allen's directorial work prior to "Zelig," you can appreciate the departure this was for him.

He couldn't quite get away from his roots, though. Whenever Allen appeared in any of his movies, his was at least in part an autobiographical character, typically a nonentity who accepted the idea that he meant nothing in the scheme of things.

But Allen's character in "Zelig" wouldn't accept his fate. He sought to blend in with others.

It represented, as I say, a departure for Allen — a premise that was, in comparison and in its way, more positive than his other films.

He won Oscars for "Annie Hall" — and deservedly so — but I always thought he deserved similar recognition for "Zelig."

However, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences only nominated "Zelig" for two Oscars. It won neither.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Bringing a Hemingway Novel to the Screen

"A man fights for what he believes in."

Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper)

I've always felt a bit torn by some of the works of Ernest Hemingway.

On the one hand, there are times when his writing is inspiring to someone like me. I have been writing all my life, but I am little more than a scribbler compared to Hemingway.

But, on the other hand, I find myself concluding that Hemingway had too much fondness for war. He saw it as a great adventure, not the waste of humanity that it really is — or, at least, as I see it.

There are times when it is necessary to fight, and there are foes who must be fought, but that is not a cause for rejoicing.

That doesn't change the fact that I admire Hemingway's writing ability, and I will recommend just about everything he ever wrote to anyone — with that caveat.

When it comes to film versions of his books, that's a different matter. Bringing books to the silver screen almost always seems to require a certain amount of adaptation by the director. Reading the book and seeing the movie are really two different experiences, and sometimes they vary wildly.

In the case of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which made its big–screen debut 70 years ago today, the book and the movie differed primarily because the film did not have much of the political content of the book — a point that reportedly bothered Hemingway a great deal. That isn't really surprising. The novel was Hemingway's opportunity to make his case on the issues that influenced the Spanish Civil War, and he was clearly disappointed when the movie was far more interested in the love story.

(Other than the absence of the political content, I felt the movie was mostly faithful to the original story, which was a romantic drama set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.)

Nevertheless, Hemingway had enormous influence on the production. He chose the movie's stars, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, and both were nominated for Academy Awards for their acting, but only supporting actress Katina Paxinou's acting was rewarded with an Oscar.

Cooper played an American mercenary, an explosives expert on a mission to blow up a bridge. He became involved with Bergman, playing a peasant girl who had been abused by the enemy. Sometimes it was a little hard to imagine that Bergman could be as inexperienced as her character was. "I do not know how to kiss, or I would kiss you," she told Cooper at one point. "Where do the noses go?"

In Hemingway's spirit, I suppose, the action sequences were quite good. They may not seem so polished when compared to more modern action movies, but when the action scenes are compared to movies from their own period, "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is better than any of its contemporaries.

The acting was great — which one would just about expect from a movie that co–starred Cooper and Bergman — even though only Paxinou was rewarded on Oscar night. Cooper and Bergman had some steamy love scenes for a 1943 production, and I have often wondered if they were a little too much for the Oscar voters of that time.

I suppose Hemingway should have been tipped off about the emphasis of the movie when almost no one in the cast was close to being Spanish. A more Spanish cast might have suggested more dedication to the war and less to the love story.

It was the supporting cast that probably did most of the heavy lifting, but Cooper and Bergman certainly had their moments — like when Cooper asked Bergman if she was afraid.
Maria (Ingrid Bergman): Not now. I love you, Roberto. Always remember. I love you as I loved my father and mother, as I love our unborn children, as I love what I love most in the world, and I love you more. Always remember.

Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper): I'll remember.

Maria: Nothing can ever part us now, can it?

Robert Jordan: Nothing, Maria.

In real life, there was a 14–year difference in their ages, but Cooper and Bergman were plausible screen lovers. At times, Bergman's character seemed to idolize Cooper in a way that usually is seen in the reverence of little girls toward their fathers.

American movie audiences had been watching the 27–year–old Bergman for a few years, going back to her 1939 appearance in the American remake of "Intermezzo" with Leslie Howard.

But this was the first time moviegoers anywhere could see her in color.

She was appealing in black and white. I mean, who could forget her in "Casablanca?" Or "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?"

She made some black–and–white movies after "For Whom the Bell Tolls," too. And she was beautiful in all of them.

But she was stunning in color. In my mind, only a handful of actresses could compare to her, even in her later years.

Maybe it was that Swedish accent. Nah, that was only part of the package. It had a seductive sound to it, but that only went so far if the rest of her didn't live up to expectations.

Ingrid Bergman not only lived up to expectations, she exceeded them — which is why I've always felt she was denied an Oscar she deserved.

The Academy gave her the Oscar the next year for "Gaslight," but, for several reasons, I've long thought that was virtually an apology for not rewarding her the year before. Bergman gave many Oscar–worthy performances in her life, but the one she gave in "For Whom the Bell Tolls" may have been her most deserving.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The First Voyage of the Pirates of the Caribbean

"If you were waiting for the opportune moment, that was it."

Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp)

It seems to me that one of the best backdrops for a summer blockbuster has to be a movie that is set on or near water — or anything that one might perceive to be cooling and refreshing.

One of the big attractions of movies is the promise of escapism, right? Usually, you escape through a well–acted, intriguing story — but, no matter how intriguing the story or how top notch the acting may be, who wants to watch a movie that is set in the kind of environment you left behind when you entered the theater?

That isn't a moviegoer's only consideration, of course, but I'm sure that plays a role. "The Shining," after all, took place in a remote resort in Colorado in winter — but the movie was released in late spring. "Jaws" — if not the first summer blockbuster, certainly the first mega blockbuster — came out in late June. And "Lawrence of Arabia" — which was, of course, set in the desert — was released a couple of weeks before Christmas.

I remember, in my childhood, that the movies I usually enjoyed the most were the ones in climates that were opposite whatever prevailed outside. There were a few exceptions to that, but the best summer movies were, as I say, set on or near water or in winter — or anything else that made me feel cooler — which included, I suppose, any movie that could send a good chill down your spine.

Anyway, 10 years ago, "Pirates of the Caribbean" made its debut as a movie. One had to wonder why it took so long.

Pirates of the Caribbean was the last Disneyland attraction that Walt Disney himself helped design. It was unveiled at Disneyland in California in the late 1960s — nearly four decades before the movie version hit the theaters. In the interim, three other versions of the ride were designed and introduced at Disney theme parks around the world.

For modern moviegoers, that's the reverse of the accepted procedure. Usually, there is a hit movie first, and it is followed by an amusement park attraction.

In this case more than a couple of generations came to Disneyland and rode the ride before a movie with the same name appeared in movie theaters.

Well, that is a little misleading, I suppose. It was called "Pirates of the Caribbean" in print and general conversation, but that is really the name of the four–film franchise. The title of each was followed by a colon and the name of that particular episode in the story. "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" is the actual name of the movie that premiered 10 years ago today.

I visited Disneyland once when I was about 15. I don't specifically remember the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but there were times when the movie seemed like an animated version of a Disneyland ride — if only because there was a certain similarity between all of the rides.

No matter.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" was swashbuckling good summer fun. Some effects almost certainly could not have been achieved when Disney helped design the original ride in the mid–'60s; others probably were possible, but they would have seemed more primitive if they had been attempted earlier than they were.

The central character of this and all subsequent "Pirates of the Caribbean" flicks was Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), a rather flamboyant character who, although a pirate, avoided all fights unless his participation was absolutely necessary. Depp truly made the role his own. (Imagine a combination of Keith Richards — according to Depp, the inspiration for his performance — and Depp's earlier portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson.)

(The only other actor I felt could have been as over the top as the role required was Crispin Glover, the dorky father from "Back to the Future" and the title character in the remake of "Willard." Glover brought enough eccentricity to any such part that he played, but I thought Depp did quite well.)

But Depp wasn't the star of "Pirates of the Caribbean." He was entertaining enough, but I've seen several of his movie performances that were better. The real star of the movie, I felt, was its special effects — the animated skeletons and all that stuff.

Probably the greatest drawback to this movie, I thought, was its length, nearly 2¼ hours. As it lurched to its conclusion, I felt that the moviemakers had tried to do too much. I noticed at the time that some of the children in the audience got antsy even though the movie had 20, even 30 minutes remaining.

I happened to catch this movie again on cable a month or two ago, and I found myself wondering, as I watched, about the fates of child stars, one of whom was featured briefly.

Most moviegoers probably already were familiar with Keira Knightley, who was the lead actress. Knightley, who was appearing in TV commercials and making guest appearances on TV shows when she was a child, made her movie debut in "Star Wars Episode I" and her first extended film appearance a couple of years later.

She was already familiar, to a certain extent, to viewers, but the young version of her character was played by Lucinda Dryzek, who was not yet 12 when this movie premiered.

It was a rare movie appearance for Dryzek, who has made a career of TV roles. In her native Britain, she is mostly known in recent years for her ongoing part in a BBC series, Life of Riley.

It's good to see a child star make a successful transition to more adult roles, especially given the kinds of problems many former child stars have had.

Monday, July 01, 2013

'She Loves You' Reaches the Half-Century Mark

If there is one thing you can say about the Beatles, it is that they were exclusively a band of the 1960s — well, I guess that stopped being completely true when a couple of songs were released in the '90s that combined recordings of the late John Lennon and the three surviving Beatles, but it's mostly true.

Other than that, though, the Beatles simply can't be pigeonholed. They experimented with all sorts of styles and sounds, especially in the last two or three years that they were recording together. They were pioneers, huge influences on the bands that followed, and some of their fans will tell you that is what they liked about the Beatles' recordings. They weren't retreads of things that they had done before.

That may be why their songs still seem fresh, all these decades later. You may know the words to "Come Together," but it still has a contemporary sound, almost as if you are hearing it for the first time.

But that isn't true only of the songs the Beatles recorded in the mid– and late '60s. The early songs have their place in the evolution of pop culture as well.

In the Beatles' early days, though, their songs often were clearly commercial, designed to sell not inspire. It often seems to me that is what most 21st–century critics find objectionable.

Such listeners overlook an important point. You've got to give the people what they want before you can start giving them what you want, and the market for recorded music is controlled, as it always has been, by the folks in their volatile teen years. A catchy tune, a memorable refrain — that was what the public was looking for, and the Beatles supplied it in their early albums.

One such song was the one that was recorded 50 years ago today — "She Loves You."

Since the Beatles broke up, it's seemed to be fashionable to discuss or write about their later songs — "Hey Jude," "Let It Be," "Come Together," etc. — whenever the subject of the Beatles is introduced into the conversation.

Nothing terribly wrong with that except it disregards the early songs that brought the Beatles to America's attention in the first place.

Actually, I guess you could say it was Ed Sullivan who brought the Beatles to America's attention — and the 50th anniversary of that will be coming up in February.

But it was their music that hooked people. It was unlike anything that had been playing on the radio.

It's also what people were joking about in the mid–'60s. If you watch reruns of the popular TV sitcoms of that decade, you will occasionally encounter jokes about the Beatles. They were the hot group, the leaders of what came to be called the "British invasion" — and, consequently, easy targets for jokes.

One such popular joke was to mistake the group's name for a type of insect.

Another popular angle focused on the simplicity of some of their refrains. The refrain for "She Loves You," for example, was this — "yeah, yeah, yeah!"

When you hear the jokes that were made when "She Loves You" was at the top of the charts, they seem obvious and dated now, but they were real thigh slappers 50 years ago.

I've heard that the Beatles wrote the song after seeing a Roy Orbison concert in England on June 26 — which happened to be the day that John F. Kennedy delivered his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in Germany.

Shortly before his murder in 1980, John Lennon, in an interview, gave Paul McCartney the credit for the song idea. They had agreed years before to share the songwriting credit on their songs, even if one had contributed much more to the project than the other, but, occasionally, each told the real story behind various songs.

For Lennon, this was one of those times.

And anyone who read the lyrics before hearing the song probably thought it was hopelessly simplistic — but after they heard the song, they were hooked.

I observed recently to a friend of mine that many Beatles songs evoke the sensation of joy, but several of McCartney's songs so relentlessly shove joy down your gullet that you are begging for mercy in no time.

"She Loves You" was an exception to that. It had an infectiousness to it that listeners were powerless to resist.

Still does.

But it could — and can — be tiresome. Hence, I suppose, the jokes about "yeah, yeah, yeah."

But that's a tradeoff I'm willing to accept.

There aren't many jokes anymore about the refrain in "She Loves You," which was released originally as a single and, eventually, was included in compilation albums, most of which (i.e., the Beatles' collection of rarities) were released years after the Beatles broke up.

It does not share the spotlight with a dozen other songs on an album. It does not lean on others, nor does it fly on borrowed wings. It stands alone.

And that makes it a true rarity.