Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Tuesday, Dec 5, 2006


The difference between men and women transcends clichés and simplistic psychobabble. It surpasses planetary platitudes to Venus and Mars and hormonally charged cheats to spell out a specific, basic diversity. If you want to believe all the bullshit, the X and Y chromosomes have never seen gene to gene, and a battle royale of the sexes has existed as long as there’s been biological gender. The conflict between the reproductive roundelays exists as a perceived never-ending engagement between emotion and detachment, machismo and tenderness.


Even under today’s enlightened code, the sapien of the species is supposed to be programmed to hunt and gather, fight and conquer. Under this Neanderthal new deal, the so-called weaker sex is predestined to bear the children, nurture their needs, and serve the warrior in whatever way he wants. But somewhere in the social firmament, an agenda-based movement was started, a faction to finally free the female, to make equality and parity a priority, no matter the sexual category. For the most part, it has half-worked. We have elevated the woman to the status of a strident know-it-all, the best bet for figuring out the glass ceiling corporate scheme and making sure our kids are raised right and barely irregular. In the new millennium, the female has been stripped of her physical identity, fostered by a non-stop diet of deception and expectation to become both dominant and submissive, mother and father. But decades before, it felt like women could actually overcome, that they could defeat the male monster of the id and run the world better.


3 Women is this feminist pre-manifesto deconstructed. It’s the notion of femininity diagrammed and dissected. It’s the final act of the paternalistic society’s stage play as the good old boy network is swept back into the primordial ooze and the non-objectified superwoman takes control of the political climate. It’s a film as figment, a fractured mirror on the caregiver and the careless. It’s magnificent. It’s frustrating. And it’s one of the best movies of the 1970s.


Millie Lammoreaux works in a geriatric spa in the desert of California. One day, she is asked to train a new girl, a childish imp named Pinky Rose. Among her co-workers, Millie is a vacuum, an empty space where no one dares tread, but Pinky finds the mannered gal fascinating. She even begins to emulate her. When Millie’s old roommate moves out, Pinky takes her place and soon, she and Millie are inseparable. Millie brags about the boyfriends she has (which don’t exist) and her skills as a cook (which are questionable at best). Pinky just absorbs it all, drinking in the dry, droning personality. Millie takes Pinky to her favorite drinking spot, an off-road tavern built around a ghost town theme called Dodge City owned by Willie and Edgar Hart. They also own the gals’ apartment complex, the Purple Sage. Willie is an artist. She paints strangely erotic alien murals. Edgar is an ex-stuntman who hides his machismo behind a roguish rummy’s grin. Willie is pregnant with their first child.


Millie soon realizes that Pinky is becoming far too much like her. She feels her life disintegrating and her identity slipping away. When a planned dinner party for friends falls apart, Millie hits the town, looking for excitement. When she comes home with her far too familiar “date,” it drives a wedge between her and Pinky that results in a near-tragedy. The resulting psychological fallout from the event leads to personality and paradigm shifts, with roles reversed and even lost. Another tragic event leads to a final resolution between Willie, Millie, and Pinky. It is these 3 Women who must reclaim the nature of the female, to save it from being constantly eroded away by everyone around them.


Without a doubt no single director better represented the auteur nature of the experimental 1970s better than Robert Altman. His string of important, groundbreaking motion pictures, beginning with 1970’s M*A*S*H up and through 1978’s A Wedding marked a streak of stellar innovative directorial romps, each one testing the cinematic limits of audio, visual, storytelling, and acting. Altman believed in himself first, his images second, and the actors third. If the first three things gelled, then the narrative and the audience would take care of themselves. His technique revolved around seeing life unaffected through a totally stylized, myopic view. He allowed dialogue to overlap and disappear, letting the viewer fill in the blanks and overhear only what was necessary in order to secure his point. He never let subject matter unnerve him and treated all issues, from war to love and back again, as if they were composed of the same emotional sentiment (and usually, he was right).


Somewhere in the early ‘80s, after the misunderstood Popeye suggested he had lost his way, Hollywood and the creative community gave up on Altman, figuring that his impressionist mantle was usurped by such strong, dreamscape directors as David Lynch and—recently—Paul Thomas Anderson. But Altman is to American movies what Fellini was to Italy or Kurosawa was to Japan. He took the typical Tinsel Town language for film and retranslated the text, breaking down barriers where need be and reinventing the jargon whenever it was required. Movies would not be what they are today without the idioms imagined by Robert Altman. He remains a truly monumental figure.


That is why 3 Women is worth celebrating. It represents Altman’s ultimate interior masterpiece (it can be argued that both M*A*S*H and Nashville have bigger scopes to scrutinize). It is a magnificent mixture of reality and fantasy fashioned into what in the end looks like an attempt at a modern mythology made out of the snippets of sense memory. Based in a personal dream that Altman once had and liquid in its tone poem parameters, it’s a film that suggests just the slightest amount of story, but manages to create an entire eerie universe out of visuals, location, and intention. It contains perhaps two of the best performances ever given by actresses on film and manages the Herculean task of turning the deserts of Southern California into an oasis of unfulfilled dreams and lonely lost souls. 3 Women is all about the process of dignity development, of discovering who you are and what you represent within the natural order. It moves beyond its simple men versus women, us versus them philosophy to paint a portrait of humanity as a work in progress. As the tagline (taken from a French movie poster) suggests, it’s the saga of how one woman entered into the life of two others and found a facet that eventually connected them all. The way in which this intermingling is accomplished, though, leads to questions of sanity vanquished and innocence vanished.


On the most basic of levels, 3 Women is a movie about personality theft. It’s the story of how an unfinished female named Pinky enters into and subsumes the life of a lonely medical assistant named Millie. Millie is also an empty entity crafted out of advertising and social stigma. She is formed out of fashion magazines, educated by articles she reads in the beauty parlor periodicals, and is living a life in which all homes and gardens are better and her housekeeping incurs a seal of goodness. Yet she is all but invisible to those around her. She is ignored and mocked—never to her fragile face, but behind her ever-bending back—and yet feels utterly connected to the individuals around her. When Pinky walks in, she is childhood and brattiness personified. She disregards the rules and shirks her responsibilities. To this wayward woman-child, the world is a playground and everything’s a toy, including Millie’s existence. Thus begins the slyest of plans: the gradual takeover of Millie’s quintessence, of her knowledge of processed foods and quick kitchen shortcuts. Pinky wants to take all the hopes, the dreams, and the designs that this isolated social butterfly has fixed for herself and swipe them, using them to create the soul she is sorely lacking. How this psyche stealing occurs and the backlash that results from it are at the core of 3 Women‘s plot.


There are other elements of individuality at play here, issues hinted at by Altman in his treatment of the ancillary characters. We meet a set of twins and learn how their identities are as different as their outer shells are so very much the same. The façade plagued singles scene is also explored, with the swinging residents of Millie’s homestead, the Purple Sage Apartments, reduced to nothing more than players in an arcane alcohol or beer ad. All the men have one-syllable names like Tom or Dave, suggesting the one-night stand nature of their being. The woman are interchangeable and unimportant, more like arm candy than actual paramours. And then there are the elderly, those exiled members of society shipped off to homes and spas to pass away their final days out of sight of the young. These non-descript collections of wrinkles and memories are either dismissed outright (Pinky’s aged parents attend to her when she is in need, and she claims they are imposters) or ordered around like inventory in life’s holding dock. All Millie’s potential dates are unremarkable, assembly line residents at a local hospital, indistinct doctors who hit on her when they sense she is vulnerable (and easy), and the carbon copy crowd down at Dodge City, who shoot, either a gun or the bull, as a means of making a small connection to the “dudes” around them. Indeed, men are the litter along the landscape in 3 Women‘s wonderland of women. They represent a necessary evil, something that society says each lady should strive for. But they rarely appear to be worth the effort, and oft times become more expendable than dependable.


On a deeper, more monumental level, 3 Women is the representation of a new mythology for the female, a reinvention of the traditional Greek design with all its classical internal elements accumulated and acclimated for the new world order. Plainly stated, Millie is our hero, our wide-eyed fool who has lived with all the aspects of her life neatly arranged and organized. There have been no real experiences except those that she’s read in magazines or heard about on television. Into that ordered and sheltered void comes Pinky, a temptress, a disrupting force of naughty nature looking for a victim for her mental vampirism. She plans on stealing Millie away from herself, as both a suggested and actual detachment for her current existence. For Millie, paradise is Dodge City, a garden of earthly delights draped in men and meaning. Within this exterior ecstasy of exhibitionism lives Willie, the mentor, the driving force for femininity in reservation. She offers both a goal and a warning for Millie, a chance to see what she could become, both for her benefit and detriment. Lingering around this playground for unrequited passions is the beast, Edgar: violator, instigator, and unapologetic ruiner of all around him. Throughout the various locations for this interpersonal quest are mandalas, murals to spiritual anarchy and role-playing redolence that serve as an omen for the shape of things to possibly come. It is up to Millie to weed through the temptations and the tribulations, to experience the suffering and the sanctuary to come out clean and reborn on the other side. Her saga, her epic poem of personal growth and acceptance, is the new legend Altman is making.


He is also rescaling the family dynamic for a new culture based in divorce and nuclear unit dissolution. Millie needs to find her place in this scattershot hierarchy, to move beyond the marketing suggestions for career gal glory and discover what her actual life is all about. Pinky just wants to be Millie, and when she can’t accept the unexpected responsibility, she reverts further to a state of near womb-like regression—even attempting a return to its watery depths. Willie just wants to be a mother, to validate her socially mandated place as a mature married woman. The agonizing act of birth, an incident that changes all 3 Women forever, underlines the beginnings of what would become the eventual youth coup of all communal ideals. We no longer live in a world where adults dictate the rights and duties owed and won. Instead, parents hoping to protect their offspring mandate the limits to freedom and liberty for all. Without a child to certify Willie’s place—artistic ability being totally unimportant—the trio of ladies need to reconfigure their formation, to link into each other and form a new kind of reciprocal relationship. So when the ending reveals the final design these females have constructed, we at last understand our current state of anxious affairs. They become like Shakespeare’s weird sisters in Macbeth, or the Fates from Greek folklore. They are predicting the path that many will soon follow while weaving their own life strand. Their lasting configuration is one being created by Clotho/Millie, shaped by an optimistic infant named Lachesis/Pinky, and controlled and ended by the final word of wisdom, Atropos/Willie.


Yet there are other elements of the fairy tale, symbols and icons that reveal the truth inside this sometimes surreal character study. Altman’s use of visual representations is legendary, but nowhere is it more prominent than in 3 Women. Water is a major thematic image in 3 Women; it’s tide turning, cleansing, life giving, and essence drowning properties are present in almost every single frame. Millie and Pinky work for a geriatric home where mineral springs provide the majority of the medicinal healing. Willie uses the bottom of swimming pools—both abandoned and active—as the canvases for her freaked out mosaics. Pinky meets one of her two Fates at the hands of a body of liquid. And all the women are finally bonded by an event that starts with the breaking of water and utilizes the liquid to protect and surround a prenatal life.


It requires acting of a rare and dazzling tenure to make all these implied personalities and personas come to life, and Altman finds an amazing cast to carry it with breathtaking grace. Shelley Duvall has never given a better performance than she does here, managing the magnificent feat of turning the jabberbox joke Millie into a truly remarkable heroine. In this pitch perfect turn, Duvall plays the pattering misfit with no internal monologue in a strangely involving and sympathetic manner. She personifies the outcast so well that you instantly connect with her cockeyed attitude and suffer the setbacks and insults right along with her. Sissy Spacek is so shockingly benign in her portrait of a manipulative demon that she transfixes you every time she is on screen. Pinky goes through the biggest personality arc in the film, and yet Spacek never makes the psyche shifting obvious or overt. She merely “becomes” someone new, assuming the identity that she so desperately lacks. And then there is Janice Rule, a trained New York stage actress, essaying the complicated and mostly silent role of Willie Hart, the haunted, melancholic artist. Married to a man who is now a stranger to her and compelled to paint murals of tortured sexual beings in jackboot tableaus, hers is a performance of the eyes and the posture. Rule’s Willie seems to be encumbered with the weight of all women on her shoulders, full to bursting with the hopes of all mothers-to-be. Through this absolutely staggering performance, Rule finds a way to show knowing and naïveté, familiarity and foreignness in almost every move.


And they have all come to take their place in Robert Altman’s cinematic masterwork. 3 Women is his living art. Altman uses his camera as a paintbrush, his performers as his oils, and the desert as his canvas to blend and smudge and spackle together a work that transcends its elements to mimic the greatest of great works. Altman’s direction can be mannered and manipulative at times, but here he seems completely liberated and fluid, moving his mysterious motion picture along on his skill with tone and his ability to engage. Like David Lynch, who explored his own split personality parameters in the equally evocative Lost Highway, this is the closest Altman’s ever come to capturing a dream on film, and the results are spellbinding. 3 Women is a lost treasure from the 1970s, as important in the oeuvre of auteur theory as Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and Apocalypse Now. It represents the pinnacle of American moviemaking, the opportunity to see a unique voice functioning well within his aesthetic capabilities while exploring new areas of motion picture nuance. From its tiny moments of observed excellence to the purposefully opaque fantasy sequences and shot selection, 3 Women is a classic of monumental proportions, a timeless elegy to the moment where women stopped being victims or chattel and reclaimed their femininity for the whole world to witness. 3 Women is one of the rare films that completely understands the concept of womanhood—from cradle to grave, from child to child bearer. How a man of many craftsman colors could conceive of such a stoic statement is unbelievable. 3 Women is the new myth, the starting point for the legend of gender relations. And it’s a perfect example of what makes movies so magical


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Monday, Dec 4, 2006


Wallet worn out yet? Credit card crying “Uncle” under the strain of your increasing personal penury? Well, too friggin’ bad! Tinsel Town is not done delivering potential materialistic mandates for your ever-growing list of compulsory consumer purchases. After all, with a pair of the summer’s biggest titles just now hitting B&M shelves (and many more on the way before 25 December) and a non-stop barrage of catalog and reissue content, your cash is guaranteed to be strapped for weeks to come. Hoping you believe in the otherwise noble sentiment that ‘giving is better than getting’, marketers are making it harder and harder to avoid the digital domain as a potential gift category. Even when the titles are less than tantalizing, the presentation and packaging can boost a forgettable effort into a full-blown blind buy. Here’s something to ponder, however. If it really is the thought that counts, what does it say about you when a loved one unwraps the collector’s edition of Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector. You better have your excuses ready in advance. The other choices chasing your checkbook this 5 December include:


1900: Special Collector’s Edition

*
Bernardo Bertolucci’s follow-up to his international hit Last Tango in Paris turned out to be a five hour and eighteen minute epic spanning 45 years in a small Italian town. Centering on the rise of fascism and the role communism played within the populace, the Mediterranean maestro cast Frenchman Gerard Depardieu and American Robert DeNiro as his heroes and filled with screen with images both beautiful and baneful. Some of the content pushed the limits previously set by Tango even further, and to this day, several sequences involving young boys have never been shown in the United States. While more than a few film fans find it all rather rough going – it is a very long 318 minutes – there is no denying Bertolucci’s connection to the material – or his inherent artistry.



Grey Gardens/ The Beales of Grey Gardens: Criterion Collection

*
Documentaries don’t get more spellbinding than this look at wealth in decay and the lives of two women, both lost within their own insular universe of privilege and pain. Brothers Albert and David Maysles struck subject matter gold when they discovered Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale (cousins of famed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) living in reclusive squalor in the title estate on the Hamptons. Eager for the attention they once held as members of high society, the pair were happy to “perform” for the directors, letting down their guard just enough to see the substantial sadness inside. The 1975 masterpiece is now supplemented with an amazing contemporary companion piece, arguing for the timelessness of both the Maysles moviemaking prowess and the Beale’s quiet desperation.



PopMatters Review


How to Eat Fried Worms


Based on Tom Rockwell’s classic kids novel, this story of bullies belittled and invertebrate guts digested should have been a fun family classic. But somewhere along the line, director Bob Dolman (whose only other credit, 2002’s The Banger Sisters, does not bode well for his filmmaking acumen) loses the lessons and overdoes the gross outs. Granted, in this post-millennial maelstrom of mixed juvenile messages – parents push safety while allowing questionable content to guide their wee ones – such an entertainment approach may be defendable. But silliness always needs to be balanced with substance, less the whole endeavor grow unruly. Dolman does have a good eye for underage talent, and there will be certain kids who could care less about a message. They’ll just want more of the sticky, slimy stuff. For them, the title tutorial will be sickeningly satisfying.



PopMatters Review


Idlewild


As Big Boi and Andre 3000 of Outkast went from multi-platinum recording sensations to disgruntled bandmates on the brink of imploding, the announcement that their next effort would be an old fashioned movie musical sent many of their fans reeling. How would these hip hop heavies, responsible for reinventing the genre with their style defying indifference to the rules, actually match up against the song and dance classics of Hollywood’s Golden era? The answer was…confusing. Idlewild‘s over the top flights of fancy, loaded with visual finesse and pop art poetry lacked the cohesive narrative that drives most song and dance showcases, and the aural element provided by the duo definitely lacks the sonic internalizing of a Broadway effort. But writer/director Bryan Barber, creator of many of the group’s classic videos, proves himself a fine filmmaker. He saves something that otherwise feels slightly self-indulgent.


 


PopMatters Review


Miami Vice*
It was an interesting idea on the part of writer/director Michael Mann: take his seminal TV series that seemed to define the ‘80s and strip it of every last iconic element. Then mix in heavy doses of star power (in the form of Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx), modern technology (cellphones, laptops) and illustrate the new 21st century version of the undying drug trade. The results should be realism reinvigorated. The only factor he left out was the fun. This is a deadly serious, almost expressionistic thriller, a movie where tone takes precedent over almost everything else on the big wide screen. Filmed in digital video for that Collateral-like look, and loaded with breathtaking imagery, there’s no denying that Mann has a flare for the epic. Sadly, the rest of the movie feels underdeveloped and superficial.



PopMatters Review


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest*
It’s hard to fathom why critics ganged up on this wonderful follow-up to the original seafaring adventure. It had so much more of everything that made the first movie great – more Johnny Depp, more insanely inventive villains, more tantalizing thespian eye candy (Mr. Bloom for the gals, Ms. Knightly for the guys). Still, reviewers treated it as some reprehensible pretender to the scallywag throne, condemning it to walk the pedestrian plank. We here at SE&L couldn’t disagree more. For us, this second portion of POTC is the reason why we anticipate the summer season year in and year out. It perfectly encompasses the best that blockbusters have to offer especially in this overly ironic age. Is it overlong, narratively convenient and piled high with occasionally contradictory concepts? Absolutely – and we wouldn’t want it any other way.


PopMatters Review


Pulse (2006)
Signaling the exact moment when the J-horror fad died in America, this reimagining of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2002 masterpiece Kairo forgets the first rule of any adaptation – try to keep what made the original so compelling in the first place. Instead, screenwriters Ray Wright and Wes Craven give filmmaking novice Jim Sonzero very little to work with outside the standard “technology is evil” idea (a minor part of Kurosawa’s creative conceit). Filmed in a manner that desaturates all the colors out of what is already a dour setting, this is the motion picture equivalent of mildew. Instead of mimicking the first film’s snowball approach, where small moments gather and build toward an apocalyptic ending avalanche, we get typical teens trapped in a sloppy spook show. While it can be visually arresting, Pulse pales in comparison to its source.



PopMatters Review


And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 5 December:


Bleak Future*
As a standard maxim, certain cinematic elements just don’t mix. Perhaps the most obvious example is any attempt at mixing science fiction with comedy. It’s like oil and water. Luckily, Brian S. O’Malley never listened to this routine rule of thumb. If he had, we wouldn’t be blessed with the remarkably engaging, absolutely hilarious end of the world insanity known as Bleak Future. Like George Miller mashed with Peter Jackson, this satirical shape of things to come is simultaneously smart and stupid, realistic and retarded, inspired and insipid, wholly original and a complete and utter rip off. It is also one of the oddest, most endearing entertainments to come out of the outsider arena in quite a while. It’s a gangly geek fest just waiting for the right collection of nerf herders to embrace its cool cult craziness.


 


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Sunday, Dec 3, 2006


If it were possible for one filmmaker to represent both the best and the worst that film has to offer, if one director can be both an artist and a hack, brilliant and unbelievably bad, that man would be Bob Clark. For nearly four decades, this amiable auteur (or faux-teur, depending on your interpretation of his canon) has made both exemplary examples of cinematic excellent and movies so mind-bogglingly poor that Ed Wood and Dr. Uwe Boll should sue for bad film copyright infringement. It’s an interesting dynamic to consider, especially if you believe in the notion that talent trumps ancillary elements like acting, scripting and viability of material. Even in the course of his stumbles, Stephen Spielberg’s unmistakable style notoriously shows through. But in Clark’s case, his efforts are like motion picture multiple personality disorder. You never know which version of the man - talented or intolerable – you’re going to get.


So, the real issue becomes - is Clark a good filmmaker occasionally falling into an abyss of artistic atrocity, or a major league motion picture bungler who turns luckily lucid on occasion. It’s a comparison that’s fraught with several sizable creative caveats. You see, aside from his 1983 take of Jean Shepherd’s hilarious short story collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (reconfigured and retitled A Christmas Story), Clark’s recent legacy is overwhelmingly negative, from remarkably mediocre efforts like Turk 182, Now and Forever and It Runs in the Family to out and out outrages like Rhinestone, Loose Cannons, and the squalid Baby Geniuses films. There’s also the belief of time tempering critical consideration – both pro and con. Clark’s Porky’s, seen by many as a likeable lowbrow coming of age comedy upon its initial release (1982) now gets mentioned along with other known examples of excrement like The Karate Dog. On the opposite end, a one off exploitation effort like She-Man (1967) has found a new life (and respect) thanks to grindhouse preservationists Something Weird Video.


Black Christmas is a perfect example of this two-pronged dilemma. In 1974, no one was quite ready for a holiday-themed slasher film where an unseen killer stalks and slays a group of sorority girls, all the while spewing insane, schizophrenic ramblings. Dark, sinister and incredibly disturbed, Clark’s Christmas remains the natural link between Michael and Roberta Findlay’s slice and dice sex films (highlighted by the fabulous Flesh trilogy) and John Carpenter’s genre rejuvenating Halloween. Yet thanks to a marketing campaign that made the movie look like a blasphemous spree-killing First Noel sleazefest (the narrative occurs over the holiday season, but that’s where the Yuletide significance ends) and the lack of significant star power (John Saxon and Margot Kidder where the film’s known names), Christmas came and went without much more consideration.


Now, three decades later, it is finally acknowledged as a pure post-modern masterpiece, a weird and wicked exercise in terror by a man who (believe it or not) made his initial cinematic splash in the horror genre. Unlike the hippies vs. zombies zip of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, or the Monkey’s Paw via Vietnam thrills of Deathdream, Clark’s clever Xmas creature feature fascinates the notoriously picky macabre fan because of everything it fails to do. After decades under the splatter spell of Freddy, Jason, Michael and others, it’s hard to imagine this sort of film without an identifiable killer at the center of the story. But Clark purposefully eschews showing us “Billy”, the babbling bad guy with no internal monologue whatsoever. Using an inventive, first-person POV whenever Bill is up to his life-taking tricks, the director keeps his villain invisible. All we see – or better yet, hear – are the horrific imaginary confrontations occurring in Billy’s head. Sometimes spoken out loud (in truly terrifying obscene phone calls to the sorority girls) and sometimes reserved for our killer’s demented thoughts, there is more inherent fear in this aspect of the film than in a dozen, derivative deaths.


But Clark doesn’t stop there. By providing no clear motive or connect to the victims, and never resolving the issue of identity, even at the end, Black Christmas balks at being an open and shut scare film. Instead, it uses the purposeful happenstance of Billy’s “arrival” at the sorority (it is just a random place to hide from a previous, perverted crime) and the indiscriminate way in which life is tripped up and taken to deliver unheard of suspense in a mid-70s movie. In many ways, Christmas stands right along side such well-known terror titles as The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Carpenter’s Hitchcock homage. Yet because of his incredibly uneven track record, Clark and Black Christmas can’t get the respect they deserve. Instead, a seemingly unending stream of subpar efforts blot out the occasional positives in the man’s varied oeuvre.


Indeed, just like a massive pendulum, Clark’s critical favor always seems to do a deserved about face, moving from ‘easily celebrated’ to ‘undeniably shitty’. Loose Cannons illustrates just how low his reputation can go. Much worse than the Sylvester Stallone/Dolly Parton pariah Rhinestone (which could have never worked, considering the casting and the concept – singer must turn cabby into crooner) and easily usurping the intelligent infant idiocy of the Baby Geniuses films, Cannons is cause for concern from the minute the movie announces its premise. In this dim crime comedy, Hitler made a porn film and it has fallen into the hands of some underground nogoodnicks. Two detectives – Gene Hackman and Dan Ackryroyd - must buddy up and figure out the shady pseudo-pornographic doings before the 90 minute running time expires. Oh, and Danny boy suffers from a surreal psychological disorder which causes him to impersonate famous characters from cartoons and TV shows. 


Yes, it’s as baffling - and BAD - as it sounds, which is shocking when you consider that the screenplay was written by the Mathesons – famed father Richard (I am Legend) and his son Richard Christian. Obviously formulated as a starring vehicle for the rapidly receding power of the former SNLer, Cannons can’t decide if its plot, or its peculiar idea of comedy (Ackryroyd ad-libbing and riffing through a painful parade of “alternate” personalities) is its most important element. It’s literally a movie making up its cinematic rules as it goes along. Oscar winner Hackman seems flummoxed by everything around him, from Danny’s vile voices to Dom Deluise as the most sexually suspect flesh peddler in the entire adult industry. Even worse, the whole Fuhrer f*ck film angle is so shockingly out of character for the narrative – Cannon‘s constantly positions itself as a simple cop/buddy actioner – that its justifiably jarring, and along with the uncompromising amount of onscreen violence, Clark seems to forget the first rule of film – consistent tone is everything.


In fact, that appears to be the problem with many of the man’s movies. When a supposed family film about super smart bratlings hangs the majority of its so-called humor on the suggestion of severe child endangerment, when the schmaltz of a heavyweight Hollywood melodrama – in this case, the legendary Jack Lemmon weeper Tribute – gets lost in a journeymen like lack of staging and emotional substance, overall atmosphere begins messing with your movie. In something like Deathdream, or Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Clark finds ways to invest his fear with infrequent funny stuff, yet he never once undermines the general mood. But in uneven efforts like From the Hip or the Porky’s films, Clark’s concept of continuity appears to be set on ‘random’. He will introduce uncomfortable sexuality one moment, absolutely uncalled-for slapstick another.


Yet none of this addresses the question of why Clark’s career is so sporadic. It doesn’t explain Black Christmas (or his sensational Sherlock Holmes effort, Murder by Decree), or unravel the mysteries of Rhinestone‘s repugnance. It would be easy to say that Clark is a “personal” filmmaker and be done with it, suggesting that he succeeds when he’s personally interested in a project, and tapers off when his dedication wanes. Maybe there is something to the whole ‘source material’ argument. After all, how could a movie about Nazi nudie films possibly be good? Truth be told, when one pays close attention to Clark’s career, he really is just a lucky stiff whose many missteps fail to fully destroy his irregular reputation. Heck, even A Christmas Story was initially dismissed as a soft, silly seasonal effort and more or less failed at the box office. It took a few years away from the spotlight, and millions of reruns on Ted Turner’s cable networks, to reestablish the film’s family classic stance.


What’s clear from all this filmic archeology is that Bob Clark makes bad movies. His 40 years in the business are riddled with them. Fortunately, he’s also delivered a couple of major (and minor) masterworks. Instead of viewing him like a series of peaks and valleys, it’s best to imagine him as lying in an endless ravine of rot, floundering around like a wayward cinematic soul, only capable of occasionally seeing the light of legitimacy. Time will not rescue him. It is hard to imagine that, decades from now, people will be comparing Loose Cannons or Baby Geniuses to other important artifacts. In fact, it’s safe to say that Clark will be less heralded, and more hated, for his numerous works of noxious nausea. But oh those amazing mountains. It is clear that many a genre maven would gladly trade a gargantuan gorge of Porky’s just to view the summit of something like Black Christmas one more time. Perhaps this justifies Clark’s entertainment existence. Or maybe it makes it that much more confusing. One thing’s for sure – such a puzzling quandary will definitely be Bob Clark’s true lasting legacy. 


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Saturday, Dec 2, 2006


The whitest man in the world (he’s an albino—get it?) sets up shop in his super sweet high tech van (complete with quadraphonic stereo and self destruct button) on the outskirts of an original Stuckey’s rest stop, Canyontownville BFE. After listening to a kick ass eight track of “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group (because he’s an albino—get it?), he proceeds to poison the hillbillys’ drinking water with a vial of Nickelodeon gak. The minute the retarded residents imbibe the brackish brew, they turn all green (and it ain’t from envy). Feeling the need to spread destruction and mayhem, these rejects from the Dr. Seuss’ sequel Bartholomew, the Oobleck and an Uzi set about stabbing, shooting, and scaring the pathetic population of the small town.


The sheriff is too constipated to do anything but lurch about in intestinal distress, and his deputy dog daughter is a floundering reject from the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. So as the marauding maniacs render their victims pale with terror (because he’s an ALBINO!!!—UNDERSTAND!?! …oh wait…), it’s up to a runaway cop, a whizzed off lawyer, and his halter top challenged wife (who learns that experimental nerve tonic and silicone just don’t mix) to save this Podunk paradise from a Nightmare at Noon, or maybe 12:23. But if they don’t hurry up and figure this fracas out, our pasty purveyor of all this panic will get away squeaky clean (because he’s an alb…oh, forget it).


Nightmare at Noon, the delightfully deranged action thriller from Nico Mastorakis and Omega Entertainment, is out to do two things and two things only. Mind you, they do both of them very well, but there is not even an attempt at any other aspect to modern moviemaking. They do not create believable characters or craft a clever, tight sci-fi screenplay. They just can’t provide scenes of complex action or dire suspense. And no, there’s not a chance in Chaucer they will manufacture believable zombie killers or authentic high tech gadgets. No, you see, Nightmare at Noon is all about SHOOTING GUNS and BLOWING STUFF UP! YEEEHAAAW!!! That’s right folks! Break out your Anarchist’s Cookbook and dust off that membership to the NRA, because this lunchtime lunacy is a mindless celebration of the meat and potatoes joy of discharging gunpowder. MASSIVE QUANTITES of gunpowder.


If the Chinese could have imagined, a few hundred centuries ago, that the mixing of saltpeter with charcoal and sulphur would result in such a saleable commodity (especially to the effects stunt crew on Nightmare), they would have hopped their hinders down to the local patent office for a trademark on the mayhem maker, in perpetuity. This is one completely wigged out motion picture that, honestly, wants nothing more than to celebrate the explosion, be it from a rifle, a car gas tank, or George Kennedy (another kind of methane reservoir altogether). When last we left Greek director Nico Mastorakis, we were wiping the layer of sleaze off our corneas after being subjected to his cinematic cesspool known as Island of Death. Obviously attempting a kind of direct to video atonement for his previous misdeed, he decided to cut out the emotional middleman and offer the action fan what they truly crave. THAT’S RIGHT—DANG BLASTED GUNS GOING OFF AND GOBS AND GOBS OF STUFF BLOWING UP!!! WHOO BUDDY!!!


There are actually a couple of high quality moments in what is basically a love letter to Alfred Nobel and his superfly TNT. There is a sequence where Kennedy, his daffy daughter, that oddly monikered Wings Hauser, and Little Peep’s Daddy Bo Hopkins walk down main street, Western style, watching as all manner of murderous pandemonium detonates around them. Daddy’s little deputy also has a nice scene where she chases down a murderous mother tormenting her should-have-been-Newt baby girl with a bloody butcher knife. And both the drive-in showdown and the helicopter chase at the end have a decent action aggression to them.


But really this is just a “hope they rent it” retail product, devoid of even the smallest amount of cinematic sense. Logic leaps out the window like Michael Jackson’s progeny, as the tiny western enclave at the center of all this silliness possesses that most wonderful of all narrative non-realities: guns that never need reloading. Characters in this film uncork several trillion rounds of metal projectiles, and magically (obviously with the help of Second Amendment zealot pixies) they can simply squeeze the trigger and always find more. Canyontownvillecity is also the home of the arsonists’ ultimate amusement, the volatile inflammable victim. Every time someone crashes a car, falls to the earth, or is thrown from their motorcycle, they are accompanied by a huge fireball, like the umlauts on a German verb. It’s all part of the film’s fixation with conflagration and shrapnel. Some lover of mindless government conspiracy sci-fi sprinkled quasi Dawn of the Dead-head air rifle ridiculousness may get off on the bad script, worse performances, and lack of narrative closure. But if you simply sit back and let the chemical bombasts pontificate, you will get your C-4 rocks off.


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Friday, Dec 1, 2006


There is no more miserable a miser than Ebenezer Scrooge. Proprietor of Scrooge and Marley moneylenders, practically every merchant in London owes a debt—not of gratitude but of usury—to this horrible old goat. While Scrooge seems to hate all of life in general, there is no more wretched a time for him than Christmas, a season of good cheer and generosity. Owning neither of those aforementioned emotions, but imbued with a substantial wealth of wickedness, the terrible tyrant dismisses his nephew’s holiday invitation, bullies those collecting for charity, and hollers at his hapless employee, the humble Bob Cratchit. Indeed, Scrooge considers the entire celebration a load of “humbug,” and can’t be bothered with its benevolence.


However, things will not be quite so normal this Christmas Eve. Scrooge is shocked to find himself visited by the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, who warns the villain of his vainglorious ways. Marley further condemns Scrooge to be visited by three other spirits—the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Be—to show Ebenezer that only by allowing the festiveness of the feast into his soul will he be able to avoid a horrible fate, both in this world and in the hereafter. It will be a journey both enlightening and frightening as a standard Christmas carol turns into the portents of doom for one Ebenezer Scrooge.


Perhaps better at capturing the spirit of Dickens’s beloved Christmas classic than the exact particulars of the plot, Scrooge is still a potent, powerful Yuletide treat. Made in 1970 near the end of the musical’s prominence at, and dominance of, the box office (Oliver! was a universal smash—and Oscar winner—just two years before), this recasting of A Christmas Carol and the tightfisted Ebenezer Scrooge was the brainchild of legendary lyricist Leslie Bricusse. Famed for his partnership with Anthony Newley (the two were responsible for such time-honored favorites as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Stop the World! I Want to Get Off, as well as some well-remembered duds like the original Doctor Doolittle), Bricusse decided to go it on his own in this, his second solo outing providing both words and music. The results are something splendid indeed, a mix of Old World Victorian sentiment with traditional big-budget musical splendor, creating a sumptuous figgy pudding of a film.


Granted, Bricusse is not blessed with Newley’s gift for instantly hummable melody (only the rousing “Thank You Very Much” and “I Like Life” tend to stay with you after the final credits roll). But thanks to the daring, dynamic direction of Roland Neame (The Poseidon Adventure, Hopscotch), the superficial tenets of the tunes are replaced by a real feeling of lushness and depth. Neame gives us a London circa 1860 that we can really sense and experience.


There is an amazing sequence toward the beginning of the film—as Bob Cratchit buys his family’s Christmas feast—where the class system in English society is clearly and cleverly delineated (Cratchit buys the same items as the rich patrons do, with either side of the street representing the chasm in financial standing and means). From the gloomy expanse of Scrooge’s creepy mansion to the iconic elements that we expect from A Christmas Carol (the boisterous Spirit of Christmas Present, the cadaverous Spirit of Christmas Yet To Be), Neame’s eye for detail and design land us squarely in the time and place of this striking, sensational vista.


One of the main reasons why this version of Dickens’s classic is so potent is that Scrooge does a very nice job of rounding out the title character. Usually portrayed as a strange, psychotic skinflint who needs to be bombarded by glad tidings and fear factors before he repents, there is almost always a kind of whiplash schizophrenia to the character as he’s been personified over the years. But in Albert Finney’s case (with additional thanks to Michael Medwin’s wonderful script), this Scrooge is a bastard to be sure, yet one with a heart once much softer, but now hardened by the hardships of life in general. Allowing us a chance, through vignette and song, to learn how Ebenezer Scrooge was abandoned as a boy, unloved as a child, and confused as an adolescent youth, the buildup of personality layers make the parsimonious prig more pitiable than vile. Surely, he says things that stink of sadism and scorn, but there is also a hint of sadness and sorrow in those terrible tirades.


At only 34 years of age, Albert Finney is absolutely brilliant in this film, giving perhaps one of his best Method performances. Some could confuse the occasional theatrics and desire to be even more direct with the role as over-the-top histrionics. But remember what was just said before—Finney was only thirty-four at the time he made this movie, and never once do we doubt Scrooge’s position, age, or resentment. Indeed, when we see the older and younger Ebenezer together during a Christmas Past flashback, we are taken aback for a moment by how startling the actor’s transformation is. Hunchbacked, barking his orders in bitter bon mots, and contorting his face in an attempt to hide all the hidden pain he is feeling, Finney is fabulous, the main reason why any fan of A Christmas Carol would want to visit this song-filled retelling. With a remaining cast that is equally adept at playing both the seriousness and the celebration of the story, you will probably not find a better performed version of this tale anywhere.


Another plus for Scrooge is its attention to terror. Other versions of the Dickens tale forget that it is supposed to be a ghost story, a spook show in which ethereal elements conspire to convert a penny-pinching soul. Instead of serving the spiritual aspects to heighten the horror, many of these miscues downplay the phantasms for a more syrupy, saccharine take. Thankfully, Scrooge avoids this silly soft soap to give their take on A Christmas Carol some spectral teeth. As the ghost of Jacob Marley, Alec Guinness is brilliant, bringing a resigned evil to the role of the messenger of the macabre. His Marley even manages to survive a forgettable song to guide the scared but surly grouch through a whirlwind of creepy spooks (the effects are very good for pre-CGI creations). Though the last act journey to Hell seems a tad out of place (obviously used to really get the message across about Scrooge’s afterlife fate), it is this decision to heighten, not hide, the horror that makes Scrooge such a sweet, substantive seasonal treat.


And don’t be put off by thoughts that this is a musical; indeed, it plays more like an operetta than a song and dance production. Finney is in fine voice (perfectly matching his character’s crotchety conceits), and the compositions all have a mostly downbeat tone, lending the sentiments that much more seriousness. Certainly, the penultimate number “Thank You Very Much” is carved out of the same West End wood as, say, “Consider Yourself,” “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It,” or “Every Sperm is Sacred” (with the Pythons’ lifting some of Scrooge‘s staging for this wacky Meaning of Life sing-along), but when Scrooge and his lady love Isabel share their romantic intentions, it is with a little set of sonnets, each intermingling into the other to perfectly capture the mood and melancholy of their doomed relationship. Too bad Bricusse couldn’t find the same sort of salient melodic cue for his other heart-tugging number, Tiny Tim’s “The Beautiful Day.” Though achingly rendered by boy soprano surprise Richard Beaumont, the tune is so minor, so tossed off and over with before it can settle in and have an impact, that we almost forget it is supposed to be Tim’s signature internal joy.


Indeed, most of the music in Scrooge is equally evasive. Bricusse’s desire to downplay the showstopper for a more muted, emotional scoring leaves the audience a little bewildered as to why the harmonious moments need to be included at all. The “Christmas Children” number gets annoying by the 15th or 16th inclusion of the word “Christmas,” and “December the 25th” is just an excuse to run the “-ith” rhymes into the ground. While the finale, in which Scrooge experiences his change of heart and gives presents to everyone in town, does a nice job of wrapping up the aural attractions by reprising almost every song sung, what Scrooge really needed was a sonorous end number, something like “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide, or “Being Alive” from Company. Though it’s rather nitpicky to intone the lack of dynamics in the soundtrack, the truth is that for any and all of its minor flaws, Scrooge simply “feels” right, presenting the Dickens favorite in a totally fresh and yet completely familiar light


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