Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Night of the Alien Invasion

I was reminded today, when I went to the campus to advise the newspaper staff, that this is the 75th anniversary of the broadcast of Orson Welles' radio adaptation of "War of the Worlds."

It was performed by Welles' "Mercury Theatre on the Air" group, which included the likes of Ray Collins, Joseph Cotten, Arlene Francis and Agnes Moorehead among others.

Roughly the first 40 minutes of the 62–minute CBS broadcast were presented as news bulletins reporting an alien invasion. The bulletins apparently were quite convincing — aided, no doubt, by the fact that the drama had no commercial interruptions — and a mass panic ensued.

Well, it was said that there was a mass panic, but there has been a debate over just how many people actually did panic on the night of Oct. 30, 1938. The number that has been settled on is 6 million.

That sounds like a lot, but it is actually about one–fifth the audience of rival NBC.

Welles and his group were criticized by some for the allegedly deceptive nature of those news bulletins, but the broadcast opened with a passage from the novel that described the aliens' intentions and noted that the events in the drama were set in 1939 — the following year.

Listeners who came in on the broadcast after that opening wouldn't have known what was going on — but such a listener, if he/she really listened to the broadcast and used some logic and common sense, could have figured out it wasn't real. At one point, the broadcast announced the start of a battle — only to announce not only the conclusion of the battle but also a body count within a minute.

Of course, you have to remember the context of the broadcast to understand why some people panicked. War was in the air in Europe. Within a year, the Nazis would invade Poland; within two, they would be in Paris.

In fact, the Radio Research Project studied the Halloween Eve broadcast and concluded that roughly one–fourth of the estimated 6 million listeners believed it was real — but most did not think Martians were invading. They believed the Germans were invading.

I have to think they were predisposed to react as they did.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Agatha Christie's Final Literary Effort

I'm quite certain you could not say that "Postern of Fate" — Agatha Christie's novel that was published 40 years ago this month — was the best thing that Christie ever wrote.

Nor was it the last book she published.

But it was the last book she ever wrote.

She lived a few more years after the publication of "Postern of Fate," and one more book was published in her lifetime ("Curtain," Hercule Poirot's last case), but it was written decades earlier (as was the last Christie book, "Sleeping Murder," Miss Marple's last case, which was published posthumously).

The story didn't deal with either Poirot or Marple, Christie's two most popular — and most frequently used — detectives. Instead, it was something of a return to her roots — to Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, early but seldom used detectives who, unlike Poirot and Marple, had aged along with Christie. That may have been her way of addressing the stages of her life.

Anyway, in "Postern of Fate," Tommy and Tuppence had purchased a property they intended to renovate into a retirement home. While they were unpacking, Tuppence happened onto a collection of children's books; it was when she was looking at a book by Robert Louis Stevenson that she noticed that portions of the text had been underlined.

This had been done in an apparently random manner — until Tuppence noticed that it wasn't words but letters that had been underlined. On closer inspection, Tuppence found that the letters formed a series of sentences that said that someone named Mary Jordan did not die of accidental causes and that the author of the sentences knew who was responsible.

Although retired, Tuppence still had a taste for intrigue and began investigating. She was convinced that the coded message was not a prank.

Turned out there had been a Mary Jordan on the property many years before, and she had died by what was considered an accident. Apparently, the cook had picked some herbs that were poisonous and put them in the salad.

The more Tuppence looked into the matter, the more she discovered. Even after many years, the gossips in the town remembered Mary Jordan and that she had been involved in something that had to do with secrets of some kind. There was even a suspicion that Mary Jordan hadn't been her real name.

Tuppence's seemingly harmless investigation took on more sinister overtones when the elderly gardener (who remembered a lot of what had happened in those earlier days) turned up dead himself.

I first read the book when I was a teenager. It wasn't until I was an adult that I began to think about certain things that had always bothered me.

For example, Tommy and Tuppence at times seemed to be suffering the kinds of effects of aging from which Christie herself probably suffered. Conversations were repeated frequently before Tommy and Tuppence seemed to grasp their significance. As a result, readers were inclined to reach some conclusions long before the detectives did.

Christie was 83 when "Postern of Fate" was published. I don't know a lot of the background of her manuscript. Perhaps she had been writing it for years and was imagining, as writers do, what things would be like for her characters, given the conditions and limitations she had imposed on them in the story. Perhaps not.

Most reviews I have read of "Postern of Fate" suggest that it was possibly the worst book she ever wrote, that she should have stopped before she did.

Maybe so.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Reminder to Make the Most of the 'Living Years'

"Say it loud, say it clear.
You can listen as well as you hear.
It's too late when we die
To admit we don't see eye to eye."

Mike and the Mechanics

I've never been a Mike and the Mechanics fan.

That sounds as if I don't like their music, and that isn't true. I always enjoy listening to their songs when they come on the radio. I've just never bought one of their albums or CDs.

On this day 25 years ago, I was about two–thirds of the way through my first semester of graduate school. I was also working full time for an afternoon newspaper.

I was busy, too busy to keep up with the latest music releases.

But I heard Mike and the Mechanics' hit from their second album, which was released 25 years ago today — "Living Years" — and spawned the hit song by the same name.

I have always felt that "Living Years" the song was so successful because it was so honest. And I am more convinced of that today than I was then. You see, even though I had experienced personal losses — several of them, in fact — by that time in my life, I guess I still felt that, somehow, I (and the people who were important to me) would go on indefinitely.

Of course, I know that isn't true. Maybe, deep down, I knew it then but wouldn't admit it, but I will admit it now. I don't know what happens when we die, but I do know it is something everyone will do. I can't prove that I am going to die. I just know that I will.

I think I can handle the knowledge that I will die. I guess I'm still not sure how I feel about the deaths of people who are important to me. Maybe that is because I have lost too many without telling them things I wanted to tell them. If I have any real regrets, that is it.

That is why "Living Years" speaks so powerfully to me today. Even now, I find that song as moving as I did when I first heard it — perhaps even moreso because I have endured personal losses since the song was released that have a great deal of relevance.

I can't say that I know much about the album "Living Years" because I've never listened to it. I heard the title song many times back when it was on the radio, and I liked it. At that time, I really didn't think much about the message — at least in personal terms.

But it took on a whole new meaning for me after my mother was killed in a flash flood nearly seven years later. There have been other losses for me in the last quarter of a century, but that is probably the greatest.

I guess it is only human for people to have issues with their parents. Sometimes those issues are really significant; other times not so much.

And most of the time, people die before those issues are addressed. That can scar those who are left behind. I know.

It is probably the rare individual who can say that, when his/her parents died, he/she had resolved all their unspoken issues and the air between them had been cleared. In my own case, there probably weren't any major issues lingering between Mom and me. There were just things I wanted to say to her, things that would have made it easier for me to say goodbye and deal with her death.

I'm sure my mother knew all the things I wanted to tell her. I just didn't say them. I guess I always figured there would be time.

I don't know if I have ever told anyone this, but the main reason — if not the only one — that I decided to enroll in graduate school was because it was what my mother wanted for me. I have been thankful for my master's degree many times and for many reasons over the years, but the truth is that I probably wouldn't have pursued it if not for her. I probably would have been content to stay where I was and continue to do what I was doing.

I suppose that, no matter how old one is when it happens, it is a painful experience to lose your mother. I remember what Sports Illustrated's Peter King wrote after the death of his own mother (although not word for word). He said something to the effect of: "No matter how old you are when it happens, it feels strange to be a motherless child."

Of course, "Living Years" was about the relationship between a son and his father. But its message really applied to any close relationship that ends with no warning, and that message is worth repeating any time.

An old friend of mine, who lost his father when he was 12, reminded me of this song on Father's Day this year — the ideal day to mention it and just in time to mark the 25th anniversary of its release.

I recall when my friend and I were teenagers, seniors in high school. For awhile, he insisted he would not go through our high school graduation ceremony because his father was not alive to share it with him.

We talked about it, and he eventually decided to go through the graduation ceremony. I don't know if anything I said persuaded him, but I was glad he chose to do that. His mother was still living at the time, and I remember telling him that it would mean a lot to her.

I don't know if that influenced his decision. He's never mentioned it to me. I guess I have always believed that it did.

Regardless, there was one time a few years after our graduation when my friend's mother and I were alone together, just sitting in her living room and chatting about old times. I made what was, for me, an offhand remark about one of our classmates and something that happened during the graduation ceremony. It was a very ordinary kind of thing, or so I thought.

Originally, our high school graduation was scheduled for the football field, but it rained the morning of the ceremony, and the whole thing was very nearly moved into the gymnasium. The school board — or whoever it was who made the decision — waited until practically the last minute before declaring that things would proceed as planned.

The chairs, which had been put in position the day before, had been dried off, but nothing could be done about the surface of the football field, which was soft and wet. One of the classmates ahead of me was wearing shoes that really soaked up water, and I told my friend's mother that this classmate made a rather loud squishing sound as he walked across the stage to accept his diploma.

I laughed, and she smiled, but I thought I could see her eyes glistening at the mention of the graduation ceremony. I know she wasn't getting choked up about my classmate's soggy shoes.

I think it meant something to her that my friend went through graduation — maybe she knew somehow that he had been thinking about skipping it — and I'm glad he decided to participate in it after all.

I only live a few miles from my own mother's grave. Sometimes — and for a variety of reasons — I feel the need to visit it. Often when I do, I speak to her — almost as if she could hear me. It seems like a natural thing to do. When she was alive, she was the one I turned to for advice when I faced difficulties in life, and I speak to her now the way we once spoke to my grandmother when she was in dementia's grip.

I'm not really religious. I've gone through phases in my life in which I sought the answers — hasn't everyone? — but, when you get right down to it, I don't really think that my mother can hear me when I speak in the cemetery. Why do I do it then? I don't really know.

Maybe it's because there's a part of me — probably a very small part but a part, nonetheless — that concedes that there is a possibility that there is an afterlife.

And maybe it's because there are still things I wish I had said to her in her living years.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

'The Last Hurrah' of a Machine Mayor

Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy): One more regret at my age won't make much difference.

Spencer Tracy must have had a lot of fun making "The Last Hurrah," which premiered 55 years ago today.

He played the longtime mayor of an unidentified New England city (presumably Boston) where his character had grown up in an Irish Catholic ghetto. It was undeniably a drama, but there were some humorous moments. Tracy's character clearly wasn't above cutting some corners, and he had compromised his principles from time to time, but he knew how to be a mayor, and, apparently, he was an effective one.

His was the kind of political character who has mostly disappeared from the American scene, the creation of a machine that ran everything, and "The Last Hurrah" tells the story of how such characters started to become extinct in the second half of the 20th century. Tracy's character had embarked on his final campaign, but the rickety machine was losing its grip, and Tracy was challenged by a political neophyte backed by Protestant community leaders.

He invited his nephew, a sports writer whose employer was supporting his opponent, to observe his campaign up close and write about the transition from old–style campaigns to the more modern campaign that he expected to be waged on TV and radio.

He never mentioned the Internet. That really would have been prophetic in 1958.

The hands–on campaign style of Tracy's character was something I saw frequently as a child in rural Arkansas. The candidates/office holders in our machine were experts at putting up the appearance of normalcy, and they practiced the glad–handing, back–slapping brand of campaigning at every fish fry and all the other public gatherings — and, when they couldn't scrape up enough votes from the living, they stuffed the ballot box with votes from the dead, courtesy of local cemeteries.

Because of the efforts of my parents and people like them who worked to have voting machines used in our county, I was able to see, at a young age, our machine shatter like a cheap mirror.

Of course, none of the people who ran things in my home county had the charisma of Spencer Tracy, and maybe it took a Spencer Tracy to make the movie's apparent message plausible — that a little corruption was a good thing. At least, that was what I took away from John Ford's movie.

But, if I could have had the opportunity to discuss it with Ford, I would have asked him where one draws the line. How much corruption is too much?

I guess it was best not to dwell on things like that, though. It took away from a wonderful performance by Tracy (but, honestly, did he ever give any other kind?). As I say, he must have enjoyed making this movie and, as always, it was almost as much of a pleasure to watch him on the TV screen as it must have been to watch him on the silver screen.

I won't tell you if Tracy's character won or lost that election, but I will tell you that he announced that he would not run for governor — and suffered a heart attack that proved fatal.
Roger Sugrue (Willis Bouchey): Well, at least he made his peace with God. There's one thing we all can be sure of — if he had it to do over again, there's no doubt in the world he would do it very, very differently.

Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy): Like hell I would.

Well, he may have been a crook ... but he was an honest crook.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Mysteries of Ice Station Zebra

David Jones (Patrick McGoohan): I once killed a man called Jones. Though not for that reason, of course.

I once heard "Ice Station Zebra," which premiered on this day in 1968, described as the ultimate Saturday afternoon movie.

And that's probably a pretty good description. It was a good action–thrilller, ideal for watching in a dark theater on a Saturday afternoon — even if it was difficult at times to follow the cloak–and–daggeresque Cold War plot.

Rock Hudson played the commander of a nuclear submarine who was ordered to rescue British personnel at a weather station in the Arctic — but that was really the cover for a classified mission of which only a mysterious Mr. Jones (played by Patrick McGoohan) knew the details.

Mr. Jones was one of three mysterious passengers on the sub. The other two were an anti–Soviet Russian defector (Ernest Borgnine) and the leader of a unit of Marines assigned to the mission (Jim Brown — that's right, the same Jim Brown who terrorized NFL defenses for years). At times, the dialogue crackled.

Inevitably, there were conflicts, even before the submarine experienced a mishap with the torpedo tube that left one man dead and the rest of the crew starting to comprehend what was going on. The crew didn't know the details, of course, but, by that point in the story, they had seen enough to connect some of the dots.

I don't know if the special effects would be terribly impressive to modern viewers, but, it seems to me, the effects were pretty good for the time. I wasn't the only one who thought so. Apparently, they were good enough to earn an Oscar nomination for visual effects — although not good enough to win.

In fact, for me, the special effects were the true stars of the show. I know they weren't as good as the special effects today, but, as I say, they were good for that time.

That doesn't mean I didn't think the actors did a pretty good job. And the story itself was pretty good. Turned out, both the Soviets and the Americans wanted what was on a satellite that landed near Ice Station Zebra. Both sides not only wanted what was on the satellite but also to prevent the other side from getting it. That latter objective may have had more importance than the former.

Thus, it was a problem for the crew of the submarine when they reached Ice Station Zebra, and the thing for which they had been sent was nowhere to be seen. At that point, the mysterious Mr. Jones and the other two nearly equally mysterious passengers revealed their murderous true colors.

Hudson's character was constantly caught between the agendas of the other three, but, after the film's intermission, McGoohan filled Hudson in on the details — well, some of them.

I have to think that the last half of the movie was weaker than the first. Supposedly, the reclusive Howard Hughes watched "Ice Station Zebra" over and over in the last years of his life, and, given the movie's early strengths, it isn't difficult to see the attraction.

(And, come to think of it, southern Nevada probably was a pretty good place to repeatedly watch a movie set in the Arctic.)

There was a lot of fighting in the second half of the movie, and some of the international characters wound up dead, which set up an ironic conclusion, in which Hudson's crew proceeded with their rescue mission while a news story on a teletype machine hailed it as an example of cooperation between West and East.

I never read Alistair MacLean's novel, upon which the movie was based, but I've heard that the film was mostly true to its source material — which was similar to two real–life events from the late 1950s. The primary differences apparently were the names of the submarine and Hudson's and McGoohan's characters' names.

Critic Roger Ebert didn't care for "Ice Station Zebra." He called it "a dull, stupid movie" and expressed disappointment in the special effects.

To each his own, I suppose. Director John Carpenter called it a "guilty pleasure."

Life Wasn't Always Pleasant in Pleasantville

David (Tobey Maguire): They're happy like this.

Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon): No, David. Nobody's happy in a poodle skirt and a sweater set.

When "Pleasantville" premiered on this day in 1998, film critic Roger Ebert wrote that it was "one of the year's best and most original films," but he acknowledged that it "sneaks up on us."

"It begins by kidding those old black–and–white sitcoms like 'Father Knows Best,' " Ebert wrote, "it continues by pretending to be a sitcom itself, and it ends as a social commentary of surprising power."

As Ebert observes, the director, Gary Ross, wrote "Big," in which Tom Hanks played a boy who was trapped in an adult's body.

"Here the characters are trapped in a whole world," Ebert wrote.

I thought it was a clever premise, and it was carried off flawlessly.

At the beginning of the movie, the world was (presumably) the modern one (albeit 15 years ago). A brother and sister (played by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) broke the remote control while fighting over what to watch on TV, and a mysterious repairman (Don Knotts) showed up with a strange substitute remote control that he gave to Maguire.

After the repairman left, the fight resumed, but the remote transported the two of them to the world of the 1950s, in which everything was black and white.

In their new world, Maguire and Witherspoon had different names and different parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy). They were in the world of the Parkers, the subjects of a TV series in a marathon Maguire's character originally planned to watch. Now, they had to assume the identities of the children in the series.

In the idyllic 1950s world, everything was wholesome — excessively so. For example, in Pleasantville an entire brigade of firemen retrieved a single kitten from a tree. Life was always pleasant in Pleasantville. The temperature was even a constant 72°, and there was never any rain.

Maguire and Witherspoon agreed that it was best not to rock the boat, and that was fine with Maguire's more introverted character, but Witherspoon was too hip for the Leave It To Beaver scene. She had sex (a previously unknown notion in Pleasantville's world, where spouses slept in twin beds) with her boyfriend, and gradually color began to seep into the black–and–white world, sparking all kinds of changes.

Some of those changes were good, like the interest in painting that the change encouraged in malt shop attendant Jeff Daniels. And some weren't so good, like the rift that was created between Allen and Macy.

Then the movie morphed into the social commentary that Ebert mentioned.
"People, people ... I think we all know what's going on here. Up until now everything around here has been, well, pleasant. Recently certain things have become unpleasant. It seems to me that the first thing we have to do is to separate out the things that are pleasant from the things that are unpleasant."

Big Bob (J.T. Walsh)

The town was divided between the traditional black–and–white folks and the radical "colored" folks, which led to a surprising and uplifting conclusion. In his final role, J.T. Walsh, as the town's mayor, and other civic leaders imposed rules that were intended to squelch this spread of color.

For example ... "The only permissible paint colors shall be BLACK, WHITE or GRAY, despite the recent availability of certain alternatives."

It failed, as most attempts to muzzle creativity do, leading to a trial in which Walsh's character, angered by the changes in his town, burst into color himself.

I can think of no better summary for "Pleasantville" than the one offered by Ebert 15 years ago.

" 'Pleasantville' is the kind of parable that encourages us to re–evaluate the good old days and take a fresh look at the new world we so easily dismiss as decadent," he wrote. "Yes, we have more problems. But also more solutions, more opportunities and more freedom."

Monday, October 21, 2013

Telling the Tale of Special Kind of Men

"There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, 750 miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it: The sound barrier. Then, they built a small plane, the X–1, to try and break the sound barrier. And men came to the High Desert in California to ride it. They were called test pilots. And no one knew their names."

Opening narration (by Levon Helm)

With the recent death of Scott Carpenter, John Glenn is the last of the Mercury Seven astronauts who is still standing.

Their adventures are part of American history now. It is easy enough to read their stories, to learn of their accomplishments, to see how space travel came to be seen as routine by ordinary folks because a handful of extraordinary men had the courage to explore the unknown.

A lot of folks living today simply don't appreciate how hazardous it all was when it was still new to everyone. There were no guarantees of success.

Those early, tentative steps outside Earth's atmosphere seem quaint to 21st–century eyes, I suppose. The first couple of flights lasted less than half an hour, the next three only a matter of hours. It wasn't until the sixth flight that a man spent more than a day in space.

That was also the last one–man mission.

All that was before my time, but my grandmother told me stories of how seemingly everyone was caught up in what was happening, and people held their breath as the rockets lifted off, uncertain what would happen when a huge vehicle was thrust into the sky with enough force to burst through the atmosphere — and one lone man sitting at the top, hurtling into the heavens.

There was so much that people didn't know then. I guess that is hard for people of this century to comprehend. But those astronauts were latter–day pioneers, daring to run into the darkness.

As a student of history, I found the story that was told in "The Right Stuff," which was released as a movie on this day in 1983, rang true to what I had been told and what I had read. In fact, I read much of it in Tom Wolfe's book, upon which the movie was based.

"The Right Stuff" never needed to create dramatic moments. There were many human dramas in the lives of the Mercury Seven.

Scott Glenn played Alan Shepard, the first man in space whose historic journey lasted only 15 minutes. That mission would seem laughably short to folks today, almost like a Saturday Night Live parody, but it was met with a hero's welcome, a ticker–tape parade and a visit to the White House to dine with President and Mrs. Kennedy.

The astronauts' wives, who felt they had made a deal with NASA to be supportive of the program and to make sacrifices in its name, believed they would be repaid for their loyalty the way Shepard's wife had been. But when the mission of Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) was regarded as a failure because the capsule sank, Grissom's wife (Veronica Cartwright) bitterly complained about the unfair treatment they received.

"I thought I was going to be Honorable Mrs. Astronaut," she said, "and I ended up being Honorable Mrs. Squirming Hatchblower."

Perhaps it was inevitable that the mission of John Glenn (Ed Harris) got the most attention in the movie. He was the first to orbit the Earth and, consequently, witnessed things no man had seen before.

"It takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially when it's on national TV."

Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard)

But the movie was really a salute to Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier and, although not one of the Mercury Seven, the test pilot against whom all other test pilots were judged.

When it comes to heroic figures, it's hard to beat Yeager. He withheld the fact that he had broken his ribs while on a horseback ride with his wife (played in the movie by Barbara Hershey) so he could fly the experimental X–1 — and, in the process, he became the first man to break the sound barrier, to conquer "the demon."

Yeager was a persistent presence in a true story that read like a novel and had the same feeling in the movie. It was funny, poignant and thrilling to watch a dramatization of the by–the–seat–of–our–pants approach to space travel that was taken by people who really had no idea how to do what they were doing.

The risks were many, and the rewards, by comparison, were few.
Girl at Pancho's (O–Lan Jones): I just noticed that a fancy pilot like Slick over there doesn't have his picture on your wall. What do you have to do to get your picture up there anyway?

Pancho Barnes (Kim Stanley): You have to die, sweetie.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Sex Romp in Space

"A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming."

Barbarella (Jane Fonda)

"Barbarella" is an example of a movie that isn't particularly well received when it is at the theaters, but it gradually gains acceptance after it completes its theatrical rounds and emerges as a cult favorite.

Modern movie fans may only know Jane Fonda as the 75–year–old woman she is today. But 45 years ago, "Hanoi Jane," as she was known for her political activities, was young and beautiful — and her director/husband, Roger Vadim, cast her as the lead in his space–age, pseudo–science fiction (and relatively soft porn) movie.

Almost everything in "Barbarella" — which premiered on this day in 1968 — was said or done with one's tongue pressed tightly against one's cheek.

And, to be honest, it was an amusing little flick. I doubt that I would want or need to see it a second time — and, since I first saw it many years ago, I haven't wanted or needed to see it again. But I think it is worth seeing once — if only to catch a glimpse of what people in 1968 thought was funny (or, perhaps, what people in those days thought other people thought was funny).

That wasn't the only thing viewers could glimpse. "Barbarella" was also an excuse to see Fonda in various stages of undress floating in weightless environments.

There was actually a plot — kinda sorta. It was a flimsy one, really more of an intergalactic "Wizard of Oz" with Fonda playing a kind of 41st–century psychedelic version of Dorothy.

But instead of obsessing about yellow brick roads, ruby slippers and the Emerald City, Barbarella obsessed about sex.

Now, young people do tend to obsess about sex. But "Barbarella" threw in a new — and, in its way, prophetic — wrinkle. Barbarella was accustomed to a kind of virtual sex. Actual physical sex with another person was an experience she had never had.

Discerning viewers observed that an absence of physical sex would make it problematic to conceive — except that this was, of course, the 41st century. I don't think the issue of conception was ever addressed, but I suppose it could be assumed that science had found other ways to achieve that.
Barbarella: Make love? But no one's done that for hundreds of centuries!

I don't know if it was intended to be as farcical as it turned out to be. As I say, the plot was a bit contrived. Well, more than a bit. See, Barbarella was sent to find a missing scientist named Durand Durand. It was while she was on this mission that Barbarella discovered physical sex.

That was about it. The rest was filler.

The movie may be more noteworthy for inspiring the name of a popular 1980s band (after slightly changing the spelling of the scientist's name).

I'm pretty sure Vadim and the film's backers didn't expect it to tank at the box office the way it did — and it would have taken remarkable psychic abilities to foresee how "Barbarella" would become a cult classic.

Yet that is precisely what happened.

Who knew?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Short, Unhappy Life of Sylvia Plath

I was speaking with a friend about the movie "Sylvia," which made its debut on this day in 2003. My friend said he thought it was a good movie but depressing.

Well, of course, it was depressing. It was about Sylvia Plath, a writer of poems and short stories who suffered from depression and reportedly attempted to kill herself a few times before she finally succeeded in 1963.

The movie account could not help but be depressing. To tell the story of her life without being depressing would be like trying to tell the story of Richard Nixon without mentioning Watergate.

It was a knowledgeable and reverent movie. It just wasn't much fun, and it didn't have any wisdom to share about Plath's death.

Like many creative types, Plath was a disturbed person. In the movie about Plath's life, Gwyneth Paltrow, in the title role, spoke of how her life changed radically when, long before she turned 10, she lost her father.

While it is tragic for a young girl to lose a parent, it couldn't have been too much of a surprise. Otto Plath was in his 50s (and suffering from undiagnosed diabetes), a fact that wasn't mentioned in the movie.

Anyway, whether she did actually try to kill herself before she finally did in February 1963, it is pretty clear that she was unstable throughout her adult life.

All of which made for a challenging part for Paltrow to play. She never really had the chance to show any warmth — or, for that matter, humor. Nothing that would have made her seem more human.

Nevertheless, I felt Paltrow rose to the occasion, giving a suitably haunting performance. She even resembled Plath — well, sorta.

There were similarities in their lives as well as their faces. Paltrow lost her own father around the time she was making "Sylvia." She was much older than Plath when she lost her father, but she was the same age when she made the film that Plath was when she killed herself.

Like Plath, Paltrow has two children. And her mother, Blythe Danner, played her mother in the movie. That was a nice touch.

Daniel Craig probably would not have been my first choice to play Plath's husband, Ted Hughes. But his performance did manage to restore credibility to Plath's charges when they were running low on the empathy meter.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Hughes' role in Plath's death remains murky at best. It is known that he was unfaithful in the year leading up to Plath's suicide, and the couple had separated months before Plath succeeded in killing herself. To my knowledge, it has never been established how much of a part those events played.

Feminists who survived Plath tended to believe Hughes was involved in or contributed to her death in some way. There were even attempts to alter Plath's grave marker by eliminating the Hughes surname.

(For his part, Hughes was said to be devastated by Plath's death. Reportedly, he wrote to a friend that Plath's death meant the end of his own life — yet he outlived her by more than 35 years.)

Most women who must confront infidelity in their marriage manage to survive it; some even thrive. With Plath's history, though, it is not inconceivable that her husband's affair would be the thing to push her over the edge.

I thought Paltrow was effective with what she was given — which was a character who was always unhappy.

Now, back to the resemblance of Paltrow to Plath.

As I have mentioned here before, I am a big fan of historical movies, but I am kind of picky. If I know what the subject of the movie looked like in life, I expect the actor or actress portraying that person to be close to matching my mental image.

I have long thought that Paltrow was one of the most beautiful actresses of her generation; earlier this year, PEOPLE magazine apparently agreed with me when it named her the most beautiful woman of 2013.

Plath was, by no means, an ugly woman, but I don't think she was quite the beauty that Paltrow is.

The pictures I've seen of Plath are not unpleasant. I simply find her a bit plain, especially when compared to Paltrow.

(Reminds me of conversations I used to have with a co–worker. She told me that she had been told by others that she looked like Julia Roberts. I always smiled and said nothing when she said that to me. I never saw the resemblance.)

Yet Paltrow managed to look quite a bit like Plath (whose actual picture you can see to the left). Some folks have said there was a strong resemblance to begin with, and maybe there was, but I never really saw it, at least until I saw the movie. Then I did.

I don't know what Plath sounded like when she spoke, though. When I saw Oliver Stone's "Nixon," I was a bit put off at first by the fact that Anthony Hopkins neither looked nor sounded like Richard Nixon. I was young when Nixon was president, but I do have a vivid memory of how he looked and sounded.

Even so Hopkins managed to capture Nixon's personality, and I think that may be what Paltrow did with Plath. She may have looked a bit like Plath, she may even have sounded like her, too, although Plath, like many writers, seems to have shunned the spotlight, preferring to let her writing speak for itself.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Telling the Story of the Boston Strangler

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that "The Boston Strangler," which premiered on this day in 1968, "requires a judgment not only on the quality of the film (very good), but also on its moral and ethical implications."

And, as a journalist, I agree. The Boston Strangler case was terrifying for the people in the Boston area and disturbing for everyone else. A film account needed to be faithful to the known facts, to promote knowledge instead of fear — but, as Ebert pointed out, "real events [were] being offered as entertainment." In my opinion, the movie was a clear attempt to capitalize on emotion, a tactic that has been used more frequently in the years that have passed, presumably because it was mildly successful in 1968 (the movie earned more than four times what it cost to make it).

Ebert felt the movie was a "deliberate exploitation of the tragedy of Albert DeSalvo and his victims." And that, I think, is a legitimate complaint.

But one of the things I have learned is that the truth is often up for grabs, especially in the movies. Then as now, people wanted easy, satisfying answers like the ones they saw on TV shows like Perry Mason (today I suppose it would be Law & Order), even if the facts have to be manipulated.

And the DeSalvo case was loaded with inconsistencies and other factual issues.

Ebert complained that the movie wasn't as "beneficial and ... educational" as its defenders claimed, but he seemed to buy the basic premise, that Albert DeSalvo (played in the movie by Tony Curtis) was, in fact, responsible for killing 13 women in the early 1960s.

And he never stated how the movie could have been educational.

It is important to remember that the crimes and DeSalvo's arrest and conviction — and the premiere of the movie about the case — all occurred in the 1960s. That was at least a quarter of a century before most people ever heard of DNA evidence. Until then, physical evidence linking DeSalvo to the killings was tenuous. It was only through a confession he gave after being arrested on a rape charge that he became a suspect.

In fact, DeSalvo was never convicted of any of the Boston Strangler killings. He was convicted of a series of rapes. Henry Fonda gave his usual stellar performance as the investigator who interrogated DeSalvo and obtained his confession to the crimes, and Ebert had praise for him. Curtis, too. Ebert wrote that Curtis "acts better than he has in a decade."

But his complaints didn't really address the fact that the story seemed to have been written to fit a particular worldview. In that way, I have always likened it to the Warren Commission report on the Kennedy assassination — which is ironic, I suppose, since one of the Boston Strangler's victims was killed the day after the assassination.

The Warren Commission has been accused of overlooking or glossing over some things that didn't fit a preconceived conclusion. I have my own thoughts on that, and that is another discussion for another time, but I definitely believe that the Boston Strangler case was that way.

Of course, if the technology to obtain the necessary evidence didn't exist 50 years ago, there wasn't much that could be done about it. But even after that technology became available, there were questions about the cases that remained unanswered.

Ultimately, DNA evidence did link DeSalvo to at least one of the victims, but there were too many variations for one killer to be responsible for all, some continue to say. There was a wide disparity in the ages of the victims (the youngest was 19, the oldest was 85), they belonged to different demographic groups and occupied different social positions, and the methods of killing weren't the same. Some were strangled, some were stabbed, some were beaten.

Even now, suspicions persist that more than one killer was involved — or that DeSalvo was not involved.

But, at the time, apparently there was a widespread belief that the killings were the work of one man. The justice system — and then Hollywood — encouraged that conclusion.

In telling the story, the movie utilized a split–screen technique that was popular at the time — and continues to be used today.

It is a technique that can be easily misused or overused, but sometimes it can be effective, which was what I thought of its use in this movie.

The story was that DeSalvo had a split personality — the homicidal one and the devoted family man. Neither, apparently, was aware of the other's existence, and the split–screen technique was probably the best way to illustrate that.

It was also a powerful method for showing the growing fear and tension in the city.

Forty–five years after its debut, it remains a potent drama, but I urge first–time viewers to watch it with more than a grain of salt. Legally, the case of the Boston Strangler may be closed — or practically closed — but there are probably as many issues surrounding whether DeSalvo acted alone — or whether he was even involved at all — as there are with Lee Harvey Oswald.

Monday, October 14, 2013

When Hollywood Acknowledged Rape

Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster): You don't understand how I feel! I'm standing there with my pants down and my crotch hung out for the world to see, and three guys are sticking it to me, a bunch of other guys are yelling and clapping, and you're standing there telling me that that's the best you can do. Well, if that's the best you could do, then your best sucks!

Thirty years ago, in 1983, the story of a woman who was raped repeatedly by a group of men while others looked on and cheered in a Massachusetts bar made national headlines.

I guess it was around that time that the pendulum on attitudes about rape in this country began to swing in a different direction. Before 1983, the prevailing attitude held that a woman brought such an attack on herself through her behavior and/or what she was wearing. (Actually, that continued to be the prevailing attitude after 1983, too — and, in some places, it remains the prevailing attitude, but not as many.)

It took five years, but the Massachusetts case forced Hollywood to deal with rape in a more direct manner than it ever really had before. Hence, "The Accused" premiered on this day in 1988. It wasn't a literal history of the 1983 case. Rather, it was a fictionalized account — and it was a story that, by 1988, movie audiences were ready to see.

Jodie Foster starred as the victim of a gang rape. The story that emerged was one of a young woman who had argued with her boyfriend, dressed provocatively, took some drugs and danced and flirted in a bar. This was the justification for three men raping her on a pinball machine (in real life, as I recall, it was a pool table).

The attorney who was assigned to the case (Kelly McGillis) wasn't happy about the assignment and wanted to drop it. Eventually, she entered a plea bargain that called for the rapists to serve some jail time for "reckless endangerment" — her thinking was that a defense attorney could use Foster's history against her and wind up getting all the attackers acquitted of a rape charge — but it wasn't enough for Foster's character, who felt cheated of the opportunity to tell her story in court.

At that point, Foster's character began to really engage in some reckless behavior. She plowed into a pickup truck — turned out the driver was one of the witnesses to the rape, and he propositioned her. She wound up in the hospital because of the collision, but she came out of it determined to bring charges against her rapists and those who had encouraged them.

And she persuaded McGillis' character to pursue justice with her.
"Mr. Paulsen has told you that the testimony of Sarah Tobias is nothing. Sarah Tobias was raped, but that is nothing. She was cut and bruised and terrorized, but that is nothing. All of it happened in front of a howling crowd, and that is nothing. Well, it may be nothing to Mr. Paulsen, but it is not nothing to Sarah Tobias, and I don't believe it is nothing to you. Next, Mr. Paulsen tried to convince you that Kenneth Joyce was the only one in that room who knew that Sarah Tobias was being raped — the only one!

"Now you watched Kenneth Joyce. How did he strike you? Did he seem especially sensitive, especially observant? Did he seem so remarkable that you said to yourselves, 'Of course! This man would notice things other people wouldn't.' Do you believe that Kenneth Joyce saw something in that room that those three men didn't see?"

Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis)

So McGillis brought charges of "criminal solicitation" against the witnesses who had cheered and encouraged the assault. It was a clever ploy, reminiscent of cases in the 1960s when murder charges weren't likely to succeed in most Deep South jurisdictions, and the best strategy for federal litigators was to charge participants with civil rights violations.
Kathryn Murphy: Listen again ... "A person is guilty of criminal solicitation if he commands, induces, entreats or otherwise persuades another person to commit a felony ..."

Paul Rudolph (Carmen Argenziano): You can read it to me until you're blue in the face, I am not gonna let you prosecute a bunch of spectators ...

Kathryn Murphy: They're not spectators. They solicited the rape.

Paul Rudolph: Do you really want to ask a jury to lock up a bunch of people for clapping and cheering?

Kathryn Murphy: Clapping? Cheering? Pushing? Goading? Getting the rape going and keeping it going!

Nearly two years ago, I wrote about a 1982 movie called "The Seduction," and the marketing of that movie tells you everything you really need to know about attitudes toward sexual assault and stalking roughly six years before "The Accused" hit the theaters.

I don't think anyone was killed in "The Seduction," but stalking was a prominent theme — even though I don't think the term was in use at that time — and implied in it was the threat of violence, even death. It was billed as an "erotic thriller," which is ironic, given that most women who have been stalked would say there was nothing erotic about it.

The same thinking has been applied to rape for generations. Truly awful behavior by men has been enabled by others who said the victim asked for it, or something similar. That attitude clearly influenced the initial treatment of Sarah Tobias' case in "The Accused." She had a checkered past, and the prosecution chose to pursue reckless endangerment instead of sexual assault in large part because of concern that the defense would pick away at her history, resulting, as I say, in acquittals.

Unfortunately, that probably was a realistic treatment of the deals that lawyers made all the time in those days. I covered the police and court beats for awhile, and I saw my share of deals being made. I knew what motivated lawyers then, and I am sure it motivates them now — the desire to win or, at least, to not lose or be perceived as having lost.

I could understand when I covered the police and the courts how ordinary people, unaccustomed to dealing with the legal system, could be confused, angry and frustrated by the routine maneuverings. And Sarah Tobias was frustrated when McGillis struck a deal to make sure the defendants would get some jail time. To McGillis, it was a victory to get something instead of nothing.

But it was obviously more than that to Sarah Tobias. She had been violated multiple times in front of a room full of strangers. She wanted a jury to hear her story, to know what she had suffered and to impose what she believed was an appropriate sentence.

I thought the movie was well done, and Foster won a much–deserved Best Actress Oscar for her performance. More than that, I thought "The Accused" was one of those significant movies that actually has an influence on cultural attitudes.

It made an important contribution to our growth as a nation.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Man Against Nature

I suppose there were two names that hovered over John Sturges' project, "The Old Man and the Sea," which premiered on this day in 1958 — Ernest Hemingway, who wrote the original novella, and Spencer Tracy, a much–beloved actor, possibly the most beloved of his generation, who played the Old Man in the movie.

Little needs to be said of either, I suppose. Hemingway has been admired for decades for his writing style, so accessible to ordinary readers, in no small part because he continued to follow the style rules of the Kansas City Star, the newspaper for which he worked as a teenager — "Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative."

(I find that credible. I spent many years working for newspapers, all of which followed Associated Press style religiously. I haven't written for a newspaper in quite awhile, but I still write in AP style. It's a part of me now.)

Anyway, I guess that accounts, at least in part, for the popularity of the book — although I wouldn't underestimate the story and the brilliant character study of the Old Man, whose name in the book was Santiago.

And what can one say of Tracy? He was a legend nominated for Best Actor nine times — an accomplishment in that category that has been matched only by Sir Laurence Olivier.

In the movie Tracy was called Santiago by The Boy, but my memory is that most of the time he was simply called the Old Man. It's been awhile since I read the book, but in Hemingway's novel, I believe he was referred to as Santiago more often. He was still called the Old Man but not as frequently.

Well, anyway.

Both the book and the movie told the story of the Old Man's solitary battle with a marlin. The Old Man was a Cuban fisherman who had gone 84 days without landing a fish and had gained a reputation for being extremely unlucky. Because of this, the Boy had been forbidden to go fishing with the Old Man and was encouraged instead to go fishing with the more successful fishermen from the village.

(By the way, the Boy had a name in the book, too, and it may have been mentioned a time or two in the movie, but I don't remember for certain.)

The Boy continued to visit the Old Man, though. He brought him food and talked about baseball with him.

Early on the 85th day, the Old Man once again set off in pursuit of a fish, and the rest of the movie was really more of a character study than a telling of his battle with an enormous marlin. Still, the battle played an important role. After hooking the marlin, the Old Man was dragged farther into the Gulf Stream in the next two days and nights than he ever intended to go.

On the third day, the marlin was visibly tiring, and the Old Man was practically delirious. He managed to pull the fish close enough that he could stab it and end its life, but he called it "brother" even as he did so.

Ever since I first saw the movie, I have marveled at how calm the seas were. There were hardly any waves for Santiago to face. He was able to devote all his attention to his struggle with the marlin. I don't remember now if that condition was mentioned in the book — or if it was a by–product of filming on a Hollywood set.

Nevertheless, an epic struggle it was. For Santiago, it was his ultimate test as a man — and, after he won it, he pondered the price the magnificent fish would bring as he turned his boat for home. In the book, though, during his battle with the fish, the Old Man had decided that the marlin had proven himself, and no one would be worthy of eating him.

That was not a problem because sharks were drawn to the carcass by the blood in the water, and they devoured most of it even though Santiago tried valiantly to fight them off. He lost his harpoon in the process and tried to fashion a makeshift harpoon by tying his knife to an oar, but that, too, was lost.

When the sharks had been repelled, though, the Old Man spoke to what was left of the fish, even though it could not hear him (and would not have understood him if it could). He explained that he had gone out farther to sea than he had intended, and he apologized to the marlin.

Only a skeleton remained when the Old Man finally returned to shore. Exhausted, he collapsed in his bed in his modest shack and fell into a deep sleep. While he slept, a group of fishermen congregated around the boat and looked at the skeleton.

In the years since I first saw "The Old Man and the Sea," it occurred to me that it was reminiscent, at times, of two other movies.

It reminded me of "Jaws," obviously, because of the role other sharks played in the story — although they weren't the focal point of the story (and the shark footage was real — no mechanical sharks were used in the '50s).

And it reminded me of "Cast Away" — a story of a man struggling against the elements (and talking to an object that was incapable of responding).

Tracy was nominated for Best Actor, but he lost the Oscar to David Niven. The other nominees were Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis — pretty formidable lineup.

I always thought Tracy was ideal for the role. I doubt that anyone else could have been plausible in it.

Hemingway's book, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1953, was well received, coming on the heels of what may have been his most disappointing work. It was also his last book to be published in his lifetime.

Most of the time, writers aren't particularly pleased with movie adaptations of their work, but my understanding is that Hemingway was pleased with this movie. Leland Hayward, the producer, reported that Hemingway was even complimentary of Tracy — and the two of them were known to have argued.

Sturges, however, was not as pleased with the final product. TIME reported he called it "technically the sloppiest picture I have ever made."

We should all be so sloppy.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

On the Road With U2

On this day 25 years ago, U2 released its "Rattle and Hum" record, the double album soundtrack for the movie by the same name — which wasn't released in the United States until the next month.

Critics were mixed in their reactions, but the album was quite successful, and, as far as I was concerned, there was no secret behind its success. U2 was a rising force in popular music at that time, and its power was best observed when it fed from the energy of the live audience.

The original concept was to document U2's tour of the United States in 1987. As a result, songs that were recorded in the last 25 years are not to be found on the album or in the movie.

But many of their best songs are to be found on it — like "Desire," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and "Pride (In the Name of Love)" — along with cover versions of songs like "Helter Skelter" and "All Along the Watchtower" and a duet with B.B. King that produced a smash hit, "When Love Comes to Town."

It became one of my favorite albums when I bought it.

But my favorite track on the album probably received little airplay when the album was released. "Bullet the Blue Sky" may have been a little too long for most radio stations, at 5:37, and it was never released as a single, anyway. For a disc jockey to play it, the DJ had to know it was there and play it directly from the album.

In my experience, most DJs did not know it was there. I discovered it when I got the album.

For several years, I worked with a young man who was a devoted U2 follower. He had all their albums on CD — and, I confess, I copied some tracks from him.

I've still got 'em, and I listen to 'em from time to time.

And I have a CD of "Rattle and Hum" that I play frequently. Not all the way through. Just certain tracks.

I always listen to "Bullet the Blue Sky," and I often listen to "God Part II," which was something of a sequel to John Lennon's "God" and refers to another Lennon song, "Instant Karma," in its lyrics.

(Yesterday, by the way, would have been Lennon's 73rd birthday. I always wondered if that figured in the timing of the album's release, given the regard that Bono and the rest of the band have for Lennon.)

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

A Remake By Another Name

Most movie remakes are, to borrow from Yogi Berra, like deja vu all over again.

And "Mogambo," which was released 60 years ago today, was no exception.

Many years ago, I was watching a movie from the early 1930s on the late, late show called "Red Dust." I had never heard of it before, but I saw it in the listings, noticed that Clark Gable was in it, and decided to watch it.

When I did, I had the feeling that I had seen and heard the story before — and I had. It was, essentially, the same story with only a few deviations. The first movie was set in Indochina, the second was set in Africa, but darn near everything else was the same.

Well, except for one big thing. "Red Dust" had more energy, more sizzle. In spite of the improvements in filmmaking that had occurred in a couple of decades, "Mogambo" lacked something. "Red Dust" made "Mogambo" seem tame.

In "Red Dust," Gable was the overseer of a rubber plantation. In "Mogambo," he was a safari leader.

In both, he was the center of attention from two women, a primary love interest (Jean Harlow in the first, Ava Gardner in the second) and a married woman as a secondary love interest (Mary Astor in the first, Grace Kelly in the second).

Frankly, it was kind of disappointing. I mean, I would have expected this kind of setting with Gable, Gardner and Kelly — and director John Ford behind the camera — to be a cinematic slam dunk, but it really wasn't. Not compared to what it could have been.

Everything turned out the way viewers probably secretly hoped they would — Gable wound up with Gardner, and Kelly remained with her husband. The movie might have been made in Africa, but it was a Hollywood production.

In real life, I've been told, Gable and Kelly had an off–screen relationship that fizzled when their age difference (Gable was more than 28 years older) became too great to ignore.

On screen, though, the sparks — such as they were — were between Gable and Gardner, not Kelly.

I've often wondered if the so–called Hays Code was the reason "Mogambo" was so uninspiring, at least when compared to "Red Dust." The Hays Code imposed restrictions that would seem prudish compared to modern movie standards. "Red Dust" was made in the early days of the Hays Code, when movies could still get away with things they wouldn't be able to get away with for decades.

Perhaps that isn't fair. "Mogambo" did have some things going for it — it was shot on location, for one thing. "Red Dust" wasn't filmed in Indochina — it was filmed on a studio backlot in Hollywood, as I understand it — but Americans wouldn't be familiar with Indochina for another 35 years so it really didn't matter. I'm sure the studio heads figured no one would know the difference, and they were probably right.

Most Americans probably weren't too familiar with Africa, either, in 1953, but they likely had more of an idea of what Africa should look like than they did of Indochina.

Whether they did or not, what they got in "Mogambo" was the real thing, and the cinematography really was remarkable for its time. At the Academy Awards, though, Gardner and Kelly were rewarded with nominations, but the technical aspects were entirely overlooked.

And that, I think, is a shame. Gardner (nominated for Best Actress) and Kelly (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) were good, but I've seen both perform better. Gable wasn't nominated at all, and I have no problem with that. His role in "Mogambo" wasn't one of his best performances.

The material in "Mogambo" wasn't terrible — but neither was it great, and, while I have heard some people describe Gardner's performance as the best of her career, I'm inclined to think that several other performances were better.

I've always felt that Kelly was a rare mix of beauty and talent. There was a vulnerability to her performances that was very appealing, and I thought that vulnerability may never have been so striking as it was when Kelly played the young and lusty Linda of "Mogambo." Her character projected a cool reserve, but there was a smoldering sensuality beneath it.

I guess you could say that about all the roles she played — especially her roles in Hitchcock movies, which always seemed to bring out that quality in her performances.

It was still early in her career, though, and Kelly played a character that was a lot like the one she played a year earlier in "High Noon." She didn't begin to show her range as an actress until a year later, when she made "The Country Girl," for which she received her only Oscar.

I guess the biggest problem I had with "Mogambo" was that it never really made up its mind whether it was going to be a love story or an adventure movie. Ford seemed to want to make "Mogambo" a story worthy of Hemingway — and there were plenty of jungle scenes — but the star power of the cast seemed to pull him back to the love triangle.

In the end, I guess you could say the love triangle won. Again, this is a Hollywood production we're talking about.

But sometimes I think it was more of an adventure story. That's the real problem with remakes.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

A Real History Lesson

Twenty years ago today, I was baffled by the timing of the debut of "Gettysburg."

1993 was a good year for the movie to come out. You see, as a student of American history, I knew that the actual battle occurred 130 years earlier — in July of 1863 — and the famous address that Abraham Lincoln gave at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery was in November of that year.

But the movie made its debut in October, which has no connection to the Battle of Gettysburg at all.

That's quibbling, I suppose, because, other than the timing of the release of the movie, I have few complaints about it. I was already familiar with the story of that three–day battle, and the movie was faithful to the events.

I've been studying American history nearly all my life. I don't remember now whether I gravitated to a study of history on my own or if someone influential in my life introduced me to it and encouraged my interest in it. Maybe it was the stories of heroism and valor that drew me to history.

There were plenty of those at Gettysburg.

Over the years, I have grown excited about the release of a movie that was about some dramatic time in history, but most of the time I have been disappointed. For whatever reason, many filmmakers seem to feel a need to embellish stories that need no embellishment.

Not so with director Ronald Maxwell's "Gettysburg." That was a wise decision. The Battle of Gettysburg needed nothing added to it. It was the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. There was plenty of drama to be found in that fact.

But it was once you went beneath the surface that you found the real drama, and Maxwell touched all the right buttons.

The film focused on the most noteworthy figures from that battle — Robert E. Lee (played by Martin Sheen), James Longstreet (Tom Berenger), Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) — whose individual stories told the bigger story of the battle.

I remember when I first saw this movie — on cable — and decided, after I had seen it, to give a tape of it to Mom for Christmas. After she saw it, she asked me if the Chamberlain character had really existed, and I told her he had.

Chamberlain was a college professor from Maine whose unorthodox battle strategies produced an astonishing Union victory on Little Round Top — and may well have altered the course of both the battle and the war.

I'll never forget the look on Mom's face when I explained to her that the Chamberlain story, as presented in "Gettysburg," was absolutely true. None of it was made up.

Mom probably heard the story of Chamberlain and his bayonet charge on the second day of the battle, but it slipped her mind. She knew about Pickett's Charge, of course. Everyone — or nearly everyone — has read about that in their history books.

But the odds against Pickett's Charge were quite long — the Union had captured the high ground much earlier in the battle, and the Confederates who executed the charge had to cross an open field for more than a mile. They were sitting ducks for a barrage of Union fire. By the time of the charge, the outcome was already known.

It was different the day before at Little Round Top. The Union held the high ground then, too, but it was reeling from some setbacks, and the Confederates had a real opportunity to succeed with a flanking maneuver. Chamberlain's troops held off the Confederates as long as possible, then, with ammunition running low, Chamberlain ordered the charge.

As I say, had it not been for Chamberlain, the battle and the war might have been lost, and history would have been changed.

"Gettysburg" was the kind of historical movie I'd like to see more frequently — a good, solid history lesson delivered by a top–notch cast and a director who understands that the story alone is worth the price of admission.

Discovering Shakespeare

I guess just about everyone knows the story of "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare's tale of star–crossed lovers from feuding families.

I don't know how many movies have been made of that play over the years — four or five, perhaps? And there was a period of time there, spanning about five or six years, when public TV aired about half a dozen of Shakespeare's plays per year. I don't remember specifically, but I'm certain that "Romeo and Juliet" must have been one of them.

My point is that there have been lots of versions of that play available — in fact, I think a new one is slated to premiere later this week — so if you're a fan of the Bard and you want to see "Romeo and Juliet," there is no shortage of productions from which to choose.

I've seen a few of the productions that have been preserved on film and/or video tape, and I think I would recommend director Franco Zeffirelli's movie, which made its debut on this date in 1968.

That probably was the first version I ever saw, and I saw it in school. My sixth–grade English teacher showed it to us, but she only had us for about an hour each day and the movie was nearly two hours and 20 minutes long so my memory is that she showed it to us over a period of three days, and on the third day, we discussed the movie after its conclusion.

One of the things I appreciated — although I probably didn't realize it at the time — was the fact that Zeffirelli cast actors to play Romeo and Juliet who really were teenagers — just as Shakespeare intended. They were believable.

I didn't understand everything in the play (I think it was the first time I ever saw a Shakespeare play, and it was a challenge just to understand 16th–century dialogue), but I could comprehend enough to know that these were supposed to be two very young people, folks who were close to my age, not my parents' ages.

Later on in life, I recall seeing other movie versions of the play and being struck by how old the stars were. It really prevented me from fully appreciating the story.

But Olivia Hussey, who played Juliet, was a little bit older than the Juliet of the play — but only by a year or two, not a decade or two like some of her predecessors. Likewise, Leonard Whiting, who played Romeo, was perhaps a year or two older than the Romeo in the play, but, again, most of the Romeos who came before him were much older. Sir Laurence Olivier provided the narration.

By and large, sixth–graders are an immature bunch. I say that knowing that, although I was probably more serious than most of my peers at that age, I had my immature side, too.

And my memory is that we all giggled at the mushy stuff ... you know, the kissing scenes and scenes where more of Hussey's breasts could be observed — oh–so fleetingly — than usual.

Such a thing is normal for boys of that age, I guess. For girls, too, I suppose, but I was never an adolescent girl. I remember that Hussey inspired a lot of conversations among the boys on the playground during the days we watched that movie — then our attention shifted to something else.

I don't remember any conversations about the realistic nature of the casting, but I do remember thinking about it — even if I wasn't old enough to think — or communicate — in terms like realism.

Nor do I remember how the post—movie discussion went. A roomful of 12–year–olds probably didn't offer too many deep insights.

And my teacher probably felt frustrated. I am a teacher now, and I know how it feels to plan a lesson and really believe that you've found a way to make it fun and interesting and meaningful for your students — only to discover that it falls far short of your expectations.

I don't know where that teacher is now. If I could, though, I would thank her for opening up the world of Shakespeare to my young eyes and ears.

Her efforts were not in vain.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Living in an Alice B. Toklas Recipe

Guru (Louis Gottlieb): Do you know yourself?

Harold Fine (Peter Sellers): I'm trying to know myself.

Guru: You will know yourself when you stop trying.

Harold Fine: I'm trying to stop trying.

My mother was a huge fan of Peter Sellers.

Mostly, though, I think she liked his work in primarily British films from the 1950s and, especially, his performances in the Pink Panther movies. She also liked him in "Being There," Sellers' last film to be released in his lifetime.

I don't know if she ever watched "Dr. Strangelove." We never talked about it — even though it is one of my favorite movies.

Nor did we ever talk about "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas," which is also one of my favorite movies. It made its theatrical debut 45 years ago today.

It's a bit dated now. I mean, the whole thing revolved around the generation gap and the rest of it just expanded from there.

In the many years that have passed since 1968, I think many people have concluded that there was no more of a generation gap then than at any other time. Sure, the generation gap exists. It always has. The older generation has never really understood the younger generation and vice versa. It just got a lot more attention in 1968, when young people were protesting a war in which many were being compelled to fight by their elders.

Sellers played a character named Harold Fine, a 35–year–old lawyer (a square, to use the lingo of the times — and to use Harold's very own self–description — and a bit of a nebbish). He was living a very establishment kind of life with an establishment kind of fiancee and an establishment set of Jewish parents.

Nothing exciting ever seemed to happen to him. It was a very buttoned–down kind of life.

Until Leigh Taylor–Young (in her first film role) came on the scene.

Harold: I've got pot, I've got acid, I've got LSD cubes, I've got ... I've got this thing here ... I'm probably the hippest guy around here. I'm so hip, it hurts!

Familiar only to viewers of TV's Peyton Place, Taylor–Young probably was the perfect choice to play Nancy, a free–spirited and previously unknown young thing who was decidedly not establishment.

A better–known actress might not have been able to pull it off, but Taylor–Young's relative anonymity worked in her favor. Audiences could focus on the character and not the actress.

And she was quite a character. After spending a night at Sellers' place and waking up after he had left for work, she made a batch of marijuana–laced brownies for him — thus inspiring the title.

Sellers' character was inspired to abandon his square lifestyle and pursue love or inner peace or whatever the young and the restless of 1968 were pursuing when the movie hit the theaters.

I didn't see it when it was in theaters. I saw it many years later when I was in college, but I'm sure my reaction would have been the same if I had seen it on a big screen. I thought it was a wonderful, even sympathetic, satire of the counterculture of the late '60s.

As I say, it is quite dated now, but it is still entertaining, thanks mostly to Sellers' knack for comedic timing. That was a big reason why, I believe, "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas" avoided the fate of most social satires of the day, which tended to portray hippies as a threat, and instead made the young people of 1968 seem simply goofy but, essentially, harmless.

Lassie Is 70 (That's 490 in Dog Years)

It's hard for me to imagine a time when Lassie wasn't synonymous with the ultimate in a loving, devoted pet — and, as a result, the butt of jokes in which Lassie was some kind of superdog whose bark could be interpreted by its humans (i.e., "What's that you say, Lassie? Timmy fell down the well and broke his left leg in two places?") — but there was such a time.

I know that because the very first Lassie movie made its debut on this day 70 years ago. It stands to reason then that, before this day in 1943, no one knew who Lassie was.

In fact, she was never who moviegoers thought. Lassie was played by a male dog named Pal, and subsequent Lassies were played by Pal's descendants.

The adults in the movie were fairly well known to movie audiences in 1943.

Two movie veterans, Donald Crisp ("Mutiny on the Bounty," "The Life of Emile Zola," "Jezebel," "Wuthering Heights," "Knute Rockne, All–American," "How Green Was My Valley") and Elsa Lanchester ("The Private Life of Henry VIII," "The Bride of Frankenstein," "David Copperfield," "Sullivan's Travels"), played Roddy McDowall's parents.

Nigel Bruce, who played Dr. Watson in many Sherlock Holmes movies (and was featured in "Rebecca," Alfred Hitchcock's first American film), played Elizabeth Taylor's grandfather.

For viewers in the 21st century, "Lassie Come Home" isn't of interest only because it is the origin of the Lassie franchise.

It was practically the screen debuts of two youngsters who went on to have successful movie careers as adults — McDowall and Taylor.

I always thought it was easier to recognize McDowall in "Lassie Come Home" than Taylor. He was four years older and and had already appeared in several movies, including a Best Picture winner, and his face had taken on some of the characteristics that made it so recognizable as an adult. His voice did not yet sound like it would when he was grown up, though. It still had kind of a squeaky, boyish quality (come to think of it, didn't McDowall's voice continue to have kind of a squeaky, boyish quality when he was an adult?).

Most of the time, though, Taylor looked like any other 11–year–old girl. She was pretty in the way that 11–year–old girls usually are, but I doubt that very many people could look at her in "Lassie Come Home," which was only her second film, and see in her face the young woman who would win so many hearts later in her life. Yet there were times when the camera caught her face at a certain angle, and you could see the beautiful woman she would become in just a few short years.

Taylor's voice was already there. Well, perhaps not the same as it would be in her more adult roles, but she certainly sounded a lot like she would in seven years when she played Spencer Tracy's daughter in "Father of the Bride" — or even the next year, when she appeared in "National Velvet."

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Taking the Midnight Express

My memory is that there were a lot of gritty movies coming out in 1978.

"The Deer Hunter" came out that year; so did "Coming Home," each in its own way an indictment of the Vietnam experience.

And "Midnight Express" was released in 1978. It had to be one of the grittiest of them all.

"Midnight Express" wasn't about Vietnam. It was about a young American (Brad Davis) who was caught trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey on this day in 1970 and ended up doing hard time in a Turkish prison.

The movie got its name from the prison slang expression for an escape attempt.

And there was plenty from which an inmate might want to escape — disease, sadistic prison guards, a justice system that was biased against Americans and allowed prosecutors to appeal acquittals or what they saw as insufficient sentences.

It was a nightmare, and director Alan Parker did a great job of painting a grim picture for the audience.

There were moments in "Midnight Express" that would make anyone cringe. It was a brilliant examination of human frailties and shortcomings and how they were exploited and abused by those in power.

Those on the receiving end often snapped, and Davis' character did snap a couple of times.

On one such occasion, his girlfriend (Irene Miracle) — with whom he was traveling when he was busted in the movie — came to see him a few years after his incarceration, and she was shocked by what she saw.

She brought a photo album with her. Money was inside the photo album, and, for the benefit of anyone who might be listening to their conversation, she told him there were pictures inside of his old friend "Mr. Franklin from the bank," and she encouraged him to escape as soon as possible, whenever he saw an opportunity.

And he did.

The story seemed entirely plausible — and parts of it were legitimate — but it exaggerated some things to achieve a desired effect.

Big–screen audiences may have had their first real look at Davis in "Midnight Express," but I knew him from a couple of earlier TV productions — the TV movie "Sybil" and the smash hit mini–series "Roots."

I have always felt that Davis' life was a tragic one, more tragic even than many of the roles he played, and the role of Billy Hayes in "Midnight Express" was a tragic one in many ways.

He was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid–1980s and died of assisted suicide in 1991.