Wednesday, September 20, 2017

get started on the apocalypse

(We interrupt the planned programming here at The Groundhog Day Project--because my VHS set of Star Wars films didn't arrive and I don't feel like skipping ahead--to bring you a brief bit about mother!--because I saw it again today, and however much it is horrifying some people, I liked it even more the second time than I did the first time.)

Honestly, you probably won't like mother!. I mean, statistically, most people won't like it. Maybe, taking into account the limited scope of this blog and the the side of the Venn diagram of film aficionados who might come to my blog regularly, you're one of the few who will not only like it but love it. An Aronofsky fan, perhaps. A fan of divisive, provocative, polarizing cinema, maybe. Let's get some stuff out of the way right off. You know, SPOILERS.

You're gonna get overloaded with imagery of violence, of gratuitous religiosity, of Jennifer Lawrence's breasts, of a newborn baby's half eaten corpse, and if you've made it that far, you're going to wonder what the fuck have I been watching? What you have been watching is your basic run-of-the-mill allegory about 1) the entire history of mankind's interaction with God and religion by way of the Book of Genesis and the Gospels... With a little bit of the Book of Revelation thrown in, all wrapped up in a nice metaphorical package with a poet husband, his put upon wife, some strangers who happen upon their house even though it is nowhere near anything, strangers who overrun and mangle said house, and the final (?) destruction of that house by the titular mother, herself; 1b) that entire history is going to especially play out over the course of a sequence that lasts somewhere between 15 and 40 minutes (I wasn't checking my clock because I was having an amazing time), and offers up imagery from just about any modern interaction with religion you could imagine--the faithful lining up to be blessed, zealots standing in for the Lord, folks being enslaved, folks tearing edifices down, folks building edifices up, soldiers warring with one another, sudden executions by gun, random old naked guys sitting on the edges of bathtubs, more soldiers, more faithful, more zealots, and a pregnant woman in the middle of it all, reacting as politely and innocently as she can, because that is who she is; 1c) that entire history, plus the earlier bit from Genesis, is not going to make you very happy if you are at all religious, or if you even once were, or thought about being religious, or just believe in God but don't hold any claim to organized religion, because God is an asshole, God is aloof, God is more concerned with the adoration of strangers and hangers on than the love of his wife, less concerned with the murder and consumption of his newborn child than with forgiving the people responsible so that they will go on adoring him, and more concerned with building this entire exercise again when it burns to the ground because he needs more adoring fans than he is with offering his wife a peaceful death; 1d) seriously, if you like your God to be nice and caring and loving, this is not your movie; and there's 2) the environmental angle, because, you see, the "flood" happens because all those strangers who have invaded the house (the first time) don't fucking listen when mother (nature) screams at them that that fucking sink isn't braced yet and all these damn hurricanes in a row have got to be a sign of something, and scientists seems to be pretty much on the same damn page about it... Oh, some of that might have been my own voice interjecting, but really, the house is flooded because some dumbass strangers would rather make out and then bounce up and down like ignorant children than listen to the person who knows what she's talking about because she's the one fixing this house to look nice, and so much of the trouble with the strangers who have invaded the house (the second time) is that there are limited resources, only so many pieces of the house or objects sitting around the house for them to steal as proof they were there, because for some reason a souvenir of some awesome experience is more important than living in the moment of that experience at the moment of that experience... Seriously, the "inspiration" for your beloved poet's latest piece of brilliance walks among you but you're busy tearing down and building up and tearing down, and killing, enslaving, and worrying about theology and ritual and all the bullshit that inevitably separates them further and further from the actual experience of being there, and so the more of you there are, the more you do without thinking, the more you tear down walls and blow up other walls, and break through windows and doors, of course, the "house" around you is going to start falling, and you're all going to end up dead within it or you're going to have to get over your damn egos and try just lifting each other up, lifting up the pieces of the world collapsing around them, and not fighting over who worships which God better than the other; 3) the creative process, finding your inspiration in the people around you, whoever they might be, listening to their stories, taking them in for who and what they are, then find your new piece, slave away for as long as it takes (nine months, or maybe just a day; time is all relative and blurry in mother!), then let the fans come, let them interpret it as they will interpret it because your part is over, man, and it is up to them to love it, leave it, live it, alter it, embrace it, teach it, share it, or whatever, up to them to take it into the larger world, to tell other people about it, to read it, watch it, stare at it, listen to it, meditate on it, echo it in their own art and their own lives, and then you find inspiration again, wherever you can, new strangers, a new partner, a new house, but let the old piece burn and die and fade away if you can't sustain it (and a filmmaker can't keep making the same film (either literally, or because of a lack of creative variety) and stay a filmmaker... Not to mention the film being an allegory for the interactions of male ego and whatever submissive female (or male) he can find (or create) to praise him... Also, note: Rachel Weisz, one of the stars of Aronofsky's The Fountain (my personal favorite of his films, by the way), can be seen briefly at the start of mother!, as the previous incarnation of the titular mother; she's also Aronofsky's ex, and he's now been linked to Jennifer Lawrence, so the film apes reality in that.

At the end of the film, Lawrence's mother tells Bardem's Him, "I was never enough for you." He points out, of course, nothing ever can be, or he wouldn't need to create. The film apes Rosemary's Baby, but in that moment I was also thinking of Hamilton, how it's more than just artists who can never be satisfied, who must keep creating, keep talking, keep writing, keep singing, keep painting, keep drawing, dancing, performing, because, really, why would you ever really want to be satisfied? After his Emmy win this past Sunday, Sterling K. Brown told reporters, "I feel like I have a thousand different people living inside of me and I'm just looking for opportunities to let them all out." Imagine if God were real, and he had all these billions of people we've got (not to mention all those who have come before) inside him, and just needed to get them out. It would be understandable for him to be arrogant and ego-centric, for him to demand adoration, for him to punish us and admonish us when we do not follow his precepts. Now, if he were just a nice playwright and this were all a play, it might be more pleasant. But, instead, we've got this overwrought, overcrowded stage, with no writer, no director, and mother is constantly reminding us that this shit is going to go badly. But, we'd rather fight one another bullshit like whether or not sick people deserve to be taken care of, than to take care of sick people, to take care of the world, to take care of one another in the face of increasingly extreme weather, increasing radical politics and politically-motivated violence, wars and rumors of wars, and there is no reset, because we're neither Him nor mother, we're the random strangers taking up too much space, utilizing too many resources, and fucking up the play for everybody else because there's no script, no end in sight but entropy, and we would rather watch a movie that numbs us than one that makes us think.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

do a little better this time

I can relate to Amos and Theodore right now because sometimes plans go awry. I was supposed to be watching the original Star Wars today. But, 1) I don't own a copy of that film anymore, 2) it costs $17.99 to buy it on Amazon Prime (and apparently isn't available for rental), 3) I actually bought the original trilogy on video on eBay a few days ago hoping it would be here in time, so I didn't really want to spend money on it anyway (and that VHS trilogy did not arrive in time; let's hope it gets her tomorrow), but then this led to a dilemma earlier, 4) I had no movie to watch today.

So, I was looking up--trying to keep things chronological--movies that also came out in 1975 or that came out in 1976 that fit the bill for this month, that is, I watched them a lot as a kid. There were some good movies in those years--Carrie, Rocky, The Godfather Part II, Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Taxi Driver, and two films I've actually watched for this blog before: The Omen and The Outlaw Josey Wales--but not one of those is a movie I watched a lot as a kid, and several of those are movies I never watched as a kid. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was apparently #1 at the box office the week I was born but I never saw that film until I was in college the first time. That's when I was wanting to be a film major at USC and I not only watched films in the campus theater for three different classes I took but would also wander into the theater in my off hours to watch movies that other classes were watching. It was maybe a couple years before I was out of high school, and for a few years after, that I would also watch movies at my sisters' houses that I might not otherwise be seeing at home. Though, to be fair, my mother rented plenty of movies from The Wherehouse or (I think) Music Plus that would be termed "inappropriate" for whatever age I watched them. And, cable television made it so that I could watch plenty of "inappropriate" movies on my own, too. Once I was also old enough to rent whatever film I wanted to watch at the local Blockbuster Video or the even localer Now Playing Video, plus I was officially wanting to major in film and whatnot, that is when I really started watching serious films that I hadn't already happened upon. Essentially, this deconstruction I'm doing this month (and probably into the next month) would not be possible if I came all the way forward to the 90s; there would just be too many films. (And, I think I've mentioned in this blog before, that my obsessive watching of the Oscars, and my attempt to see Oscar-nominated films, kicked in in 1994.)

Basically, there were no movies to add to this current month that fit between The Apple Dumpling Gang and the original Star Wars. So then, it came down to watching The Apple Dumpling Gang again, which meant paying for it again--I thought I had a 48-hour rental--and I wasn't eager but I also didn't have an obvious movie worth upsetting the order of this month. So, earlier, I happen to click on The Apple Dumpling Gang on my Fire TV Box and see that it says Watch Again where it might offer a rental price. Turns out my rental was a 72-hour rental, and as long as I started the movie by 10:18, I'd have one more viewing.

This brought the new dilemma. I had nothing more to say about this film. I mean Knotts and Conway are hilarious, but what am I gonna do--recount their every joke? Or, I could theorize about how Jesse McCord in Snowball Express was a descendant of Henry McCoy here, you know, just because they're portrayed by the same actor. Or Inspector Winship and Dr. Tart were descendants of Amos Tucker and Theodore Ogelvie. (And so was Ralph Furley a descendent of Theodore, because, duh.) McCoy could easily get mangled into McCord over the course of a century. And, Amos and Theodore could have changed their names to escape the law at some point, even deliberately run off to England because there was a lot of heat after some big caper in what might have been the third Apple Dumpling Gang film, if the second had performed better than it did at the box office.

(By the way, if you don't know who Inspector Winship and Dr. Tart are, stay tuned, because I will get to that movie soon enough.)

The Apple Dumpling Gang is on, right now, of course. The kids just happened upon Theodore and he's about to get yanked onto the roof of the bank by Clarice the mule. I'm past the rental time, so if I were to turn off the movie for whatever reason, I couldn't start it up again. Without paying for it again, of course. It's a fortunate thing that the first night with this movie was a late one. That was because of going to the 24-Hour Theater Festival at the high school, where my daughter was directing a play. Tonight, I was in an underground gym, beneath a church over in Pasadena, because that same daughter had gymnastics. There are always things going on. Fortunately, streaming services have made a thing like this doable even with the schedules of work and kids. Still, rentals, when I'm getting picky about what movie I'm watching--for reasons such as this deconstruction of my childhood experience with film--can make it tricky.

(By the way, I just noticed that after Donavan hands Dusty the makeshift ring during their brief wedding ceremony, she puts it on her middle finger. So, then I got distracted and did some searching on my phone, because that's what you do in this day and age. Couldn't find a notable reason why she might use that finger, though. (Since the ring comes off some random bottle in the Sheriff's barbershop, the prop might just not have fit Susan Clark's ring finger, so she put it on the finger it did fit. I didn't notice Dusty having any trouble with the fit, though--trying the ring finger and then having to switch--so, if this was the reasoning, it happened before the take you see in the film.

I found someone mentioning some Jewish thing called Chukot Ha'Akum, in which a Jew cannot imitate Gentile customs. Some guy on some message board theorized that a Jew might wear the wedding ring on a different finger. But then, something like the Wikipedia page on wedding rings would probably mention that. You know, if it was common. Still, I was curious if Susan Clark happened to be Jewish, so that got me over to her Wikipedia page, and there I learned that she was not only the mother in Webster, which I maybe should have recognized her from, she was also Cherry Forever in Porky's. So, I guess Cherry Forever, which sounds like a made up hooker name anyway, is a descendant of Magnolia "Dusty" Clydesdale. Even if her name is Cherry, it's probably Cherry Clydesdale... Or Cherry Donavan, I suppose.

But then, I gotta try to remember, was the hooker's role in Porky's a progressive role as far as feminism goes? I mean, what kind of serious rant can I get into about the progress, or lack thereof, from Dusty to Cherry. Hell, there's a good title about women in film (or maybe just a biography about Susan Clark) somewhere there. From Dusty to Cherry: How Film Won't Let Women Get Ahead.

There's always something. Worth ranting about, I mean.)

So, let us hope that my VHS Star Wars trilogy arrives tomorrow. Otherwise, I might be stuck.

(Or maybe I'll go see mother! on the big screen again so I can talk about that... But what does that have to do with my childhood? Unless that baby in the final act represents me, and all those people consuming him are representative of cinema itself, consuming me over all these many years, drawing me in, trapping me, turning me into some obsessive freak who can ramble on for, well, as long as I have today, with only the briefest sign of an actual point. All for the sake of film...


Monday, September 18, 2017

see you next tuesday

I don't really want to rehash the inherent sexism in a family film made in the 70s--that's just par for the course, another sign of the times that were. At some point, you must take a film on its own terms, let it have its timely biases and its timely treatments of men, of women, of people of color, of varying ethnicities. What then can you take from The Apple Dumpling Gang?

It's an entertaining film. It's funny. It's got heart. It's plot is simple and easy to understand, and Donavan and Dusty ending up a couple is a good ending to the story as offered. That Amos and Theodore ride off with the happy couple and their kids is icing on the cake.

But, what really stands out watching The Apple Dumpling Gang after so many years--and I have seen it in the intervening years, probably most recently in the last 10 to 15 years--is just how well put together it's plot is. (Except for one detail.) The Hash Knife Gang--Amos and Theodore--and their antics are barely connected to the plot for much of the film. Sure, the film opens with them attempting to ambush Donavan as he arrives in Quake City. Sure, they try to rob him again later when he's won $500. Sure, they are there to direct the kids to the Commodore Mine, which leads to the kids finding the giant nugget that drives the rest of the story. And, sure, Donavan (and then the kids, too) is there to almost catch them stealing the ladder to get into the bank. And, sure, they're trying to get into the bank to steal the very nugget the kids have found. But, every one of these things is more coincidence than actual plotting.

To be fair, westerns rely on coincidence a lot. Gunslingers all know one another. Outlaws all know one another. That Wintle and Donavan already know each other is a coincidence at the start of this one. (For an example from another film, that Chisholm in the remake of The Magnificent Seven happens into a job that slides him into a position for revenge is coincidence.)

Dusty cares about other people and has to look after her alcoholic gambler father (plus she seems to do all the actual work for the Butterfly Stagecoach Line). So, she has an interest in the three kids she just delivered into town. This puts her in contact with Donavan because he's a gambler and had a chance at money right when he needed some to pick up what he thought was just a package. Meanwhile, Amos and Theodore are trying to be outlaws, bandits, thieves. But, they are no good at it. (It is mentioned briefly (just over half an hour into the film.) by Dusty that they used to be part of the Stillwell Gang. Amos accidentally shot Stillwell. This will be important later. This is also part of the one detail that isn't all that well put together.) This and the kids' antics makes for all the humor. Well, the Sheriff has some great lines, too.

(Including today's title, which probably went over the heads of anyone who saw this movie back then; since it was surely good wholesome families seeing the film, of course, and good wholesome families don't go for that sort of thing... Imagine me rolling my eyes now, except I surely didn't notice it before. Not until two nights ago. I probably just thought that guy in the barbershop got his shave every Tuesday.

The Sheriff also, as I've already mentioned, mentions seeing Dusty "caught in a cloudburst" (i.e. with her shirt wet from the rain).)

Wintle comes back after Donavan has convinced Dusty to marry him, for the sake of the kids having a mother and Donavan having access to their money and having the kids off his hands. McCoy is literally about to bang his gavel and make it official that the newlyweds will legally be the kids' parents, and Wintle walks into the courtroom. Coincidence. Off screen, the kids learn the Wintle just wants their gold, so they go to Amos and Theodore to get them to steal the gold nugget, leaving nothing to interest Wintle, and the kids will get to stay with Donavan and Dusty.

Then, the not-so-well-put-together bit comes into play. Sure, Dusty has mentioned the Stillwell Gang and Amos' having shot Stillwell, but for the Stillwell Gang to really matter in this plot, they should have been introduced earlier, or Amos and Theodore should have talked about them. That these two think they can be a gang, taking the whole situation in mind, probably comes from actual success they might have had with the Stillwell Gang. That is, the Stillwell gang may have managed some success despite having bumbling fools like Amos and Theodore as members. (Because this is a comedy, the Stillwell Gang isn't all that great at what they do, either, of course.) But, something else has to get in the way of Amos and Theodore really succeeding. I mean, why suddenly would they be any good at this? So, the Stillwell Gang is introduced (not counting Dusty's brief mention 34 minutes in) an hour and four minutes into the film. This is too late really to be introducing characters that will affect the plot in such a big way. In fact, that Amos and Theodore take old, sweating dynamite into the bank in the first place could easily have resulted in the same explosion and the same failure to secure the nugget, and we wouldn't need Stillwell. But, any movie with scoundrels in it--Amos and Theodore, but also Donavan--needs bigger scoundrels. Blackbeard's Ghost needed Silky Seymour to be actively trying to kick old women out onto the street, and for his men to pulls guns on people because that is visual scoundrelry, something concretely villainous while even reminders of Blackbeard's horribleness is mostly in the abstract; in the present, he's a nuisance and a drunk, but he never really does much that is that bad (cheating at the track meet and the roulette table don't count because that is in service of the greater good). Here, we need Stillwell, who is marked with a limp and a leg brace 1) as Amos' accidental victim (hence it makes their conflict in the bank personal) and 2) as an evil cripple. Physical disability as obvious sign of his less obvious moral disability.

Had Amos and Theodore talked about Stillwell early on, or had we seen Stillwell earlier, the plotting here would be perfect. (I imagine this story as drama, the Stillwell Gang introduced at the beginning of the film, and we keep going back to them, witnessing their awfulness, and the tension builds because we know that, at some point in act three, they will find Amos and Theodore again.) The barely tangentially linked antics of Amos and Theodore work as the fool(s) that distract from an otherwise quite simple story that wouldn't require such screentime. But then, they get pulled into the central story more overtly when the kids invite them to steal their nugget (something Amos and Theodore have already failed to do once). Their inevitable failure--Stillwell Gang involved or not--means Donavan and Dusty must stay together because they want to, not because the kids have money and Dusty is willing to be the abandoned wife. It's practically Shakespearean, really. The fools are exactly the twist in the plot that drives it all to the happy ending. It a classic story, that ending would include their wedding, but the cleverness here is that they have already married, legally. In the end, though, with father-in-law and three kids and two outlaws in tow, that is when Donavan and Dusty are really married. Classic romantic comedy trick, question tradition along the way only to uphold it in the end. (And it's not a surprising response, as it were, to the decade before its release.) The film upholds the family structure, "normal" gender roles, and gives Amos and Theodore a way out of town (not that the Sheriff would really have hung them).

Sunday, September 17, 2017

spread your blanket next to mine

That a lonely degenerate like Donavan can learn to care about three orphans or the woman he's convinced to marry him for the sake of said orphans, is a nice thought. That two incompetent fools like Amos and Theodore can not only find one another to spend time with but also manage to (somehow)... thrive seems like the wrong word, but they seem to be doing okay. And, that's a nice thought, too. Then there's the--dare I say it--gender-nonconforming stagecoach driver who... Actually this one is problematic. Over the course of the plot, she is manipulated (nicely) into a sham marriage and being a mother to three orphans because that degenerate Donavan would rather run off to gamble in New Orleans. She has to--according to the film, anyway--eventually wear a dress, and earn Donavan's appreciation, if not his love.

I already suggested yesterday that one detail isn't necessarily sexist--that Donavan is a bad parent figure because he's a selfish asshole and Dusty is a good parent figure because she's a caring person. But, that is sexist because those roles are written that way and played that way because of sexist stereotypes about men and women. I mean, look at Donavan and Dusty. They are both inherently independent...

Except--and I feel like I might use this word a lot tonight--Dusty is 1) introduced carrying children to their father, an easy and easily sexist metaphor for the role women play as mothers while the man is in the waiting room playing poker and smoking a cigar and not having to put any fucking effort into the birth. 2) She immediately defers to her father (the president of the Butterfly Stagecoach line, who just happens to be in this very same town) when Donovan wants to talk to someone in authority. 3) She drives for a stagecoach company called Butterfly, when her family name--again, her father founded the company--is Clydesdale. Rather than take the obvious tack of naming the company after himself, and Clydesdale being the name of a horse, which seems pretty damn appropriate for a stagecoach company, it's Butterfly, because, again, you've got feminize it. (Just like the film has to eventually feminize Dusty. Or her proper first name, which Donavan finds amusing for some reason: Magnolia.) 4) She stops by Wintle's shack (where Donavan and the kids are staying) to share some stew, ends up cleaning up the place a bit, and the kids "settl[e] right down for" her, because she has "a natural way with children." 5) She fawns over a solid brass bed (which she later thinks Donavan bought just to get her into bed (when she said he was "barking up the wrong tree" when she thought he was trying to get more from her than just being the kids' mother) in a store window the way another woman in another film might fawn over a wedding dress; it plays as innately feminine. 6) When it comes time to get married, the Sheriff offers the "trimmings--love, honor, and cherish and all that" Dusty says, "Kind of like to hear it anyway." Like she's been dreaming of getting married since she was a girl.

The movie introduces her as Dusty, the not-so-feminine stagecoach driver, then insists repeatedly that she really just needs a) a man (and some kids) in her life and b) she yearns to be feminine. It's 50s gender roles as 70s backlash to 60s feminism.

Which might not be that bad if Dusty was the only woman in the film. You know, we don't have to take a singular story about specific people to represent everyone of their type(s). But, look at the other women in this story. Celia has to pee a lot, and gets scared by the sight of a rat. That's the little girl. The adult women have no time for the kids until the kids strike gold. While Dusty clearly wants for love and motherhood (according to the film), the other women are all gold diggers (almost literally) who would (in a moment fit for the Bible) tear the little girl to pieces to get at her wealth.

(Sidenote: best exchange in the movie (with the "Celia, stop shaking it" bit a close second) is Amos saying (of stealing the gold nugget) "It's a piece of cake" and Theodore responds: "You mean it ain't gold?")

To be fair, none of the men in town (aside from the Sheriff and maybe the banker) are much good either. Amos and Theodore can't even be proper men without fucking it up.

Dusty is a good person. She doesn't even want the kids' money. But, the film can't let the sham marriage just be a sham marriage. Instead, 7) she must wear a dress and ride off with Donavan and the kids (and her father) to start a new life together.

"It shouldn't be so bad," Donavan tells her as they ride. "I'll be going into town one or two nights a week to play poker."

Because, she's now playing the role of proper woman and proper wife, she responds: "Wanna bet?"

who are you talking to?

Still 1975. (Still not born yet.) Disney again. Except I was actually thinking about how different these childhood films are from the ones I watch now. Yesterday, for example, I watched mother! in the theater and I watched Adventures of the Wilderness Family at home. Today in the theater I watched Beach Rats and I'm watching The Apple Dumpling Gang now at home. Very different movies today. Very different movies today. I mean, you've got a big metaphor for human interaction with the universe, for religion, for male-female relations, for the cult of personality, sacrifice and self-sacrifice, and you've got a family running off to live in the wilderness and finding that some animals are nice and some are vicious... Which, really, taken simplistically, the themes could be much the same. But, Adventures of the Wilderness Family is just so innocent about everything. While mother! includes sex and violence and apocalyptic destruction as well as cannibalism. Meanwhile, Beach Rats is an indie film about a young Brooklyn stoner and his friends. Oh, and he's a closeted homosexual who goes out at night to have sex with men he meets online. But, The Apple Dumpling Gang, which may be about criminals and a gambler, is, like Wilderness Family just so innocent about everything. Even its racism and sexism.

I've come a long way. But, I figure it's all about the subtext. This film favors the criminals. It's funny, but it's also reminding the audience (i.e. me as a kid) that criminals are just regular people who took a different path; they aren't inherently bad people. Donavan (Bill Bixby) is a gambler and a scoundrel, but this film is all about him being humanized.  

And, I thought I might get into a rant about mother!--that film almost tempted me back to YouTube yesterday--but then Conway and Knotts were on screen again, and the kids got into that minecar and Celia said "I'm gonna have an accident" and I forgot what I was going to say. (I may have to actually to a YouTube thing in a couple days.)






Ebert, by the way, calls this movie an "assembly line plo[t] about the adventures of squeaky-clean kids" but in the right moment--

(after a long day and little sleep, because you stayed up watching American Vandal on Netflix until 3am, got up to see a movie in the morning, binged some Fear the Walking Dead while prepping tomorrow's D&D game, then your daughter directed one of the plays in this semester's 24-Hour Theater Festival at the high school up the street, and you didn't even get to The Apple Dumpling Gang until it's well after 10pm, you're already tired, you're hungry, and the expected rants about other films wandered out of your head hours ago)

--this kind of wholesome entertainment...

I must interrupt this thought because Donavan just said "three deuces beats aces over eights" and I don't understand. I thought they were playing poker. The win makes no sense. I mean, in a metaphorical, this-is-a-western kind of way, aces over eights is the worst hand you can have, but in actual, practical poker, it's beating three 2s every time. [Somehow, I have always assumed is was aces over eights, meaning three aces and two eights--a full House. But, apparently the famous dead man's hand is supposed to be just two aces and two eights and a hole card.]

But anyway, this kind of wholesome entertainment is just what you need sometimes. Sure, it's casually misogynist, but it's 1975. Everybody was casually misogynist, I'm pretty sure, even feminists.

I must interrupt my attempt at humor to make a quick point about this film's misogyny. It's actually a pretty easy argument to make that Dusty (Susan Clark) is good with the kids and Donavan not good with them not because she's a woman and he's a man but because she's a nice person who cares about others and he's a selfish bastard who only ended up with these kids because he was desperate for cash in the middle of a poker game. Then again, Donavan's the asshole he is because he's a man, I suppose. (The film makes a regular thing of countering his selfishness with challenges from and comparisons to Sheriff Homer McCoy (Harry Morgan).) ... Then there's this from that same paranthetical sheriff: "Dusty's a fine specimen of womanhood! I seen her get caught in a. Cloudburst once and I wanna tell you!" And, I think I understand. He saw her in the rain and... Either he could see through her clothes and saw that she's not the more "masculine" coach driver that she presents as, or just the romanticism and shine of water falling upon her brought out all her beauty. The Sheriff suggests Donavan marry Dusty for the sake of the kids and the entire film's plot is sexist, but oh so nice about it. "No two people ever got married for a more honorable or worthy cause," he tells Donavan.

(Sidenote: it's interesting that the titular gang really isn't Amos and Theodore (Conway and Knotts, respectively) but the kids; it's the kids who keep asking for apple dumplings. Amos and Theodore actually call themselves the Hash Knife Gang. I can't remember if they've taken on the titular name in the sequel, but that sequel wasn't as successful anyway. And, I didn't watch it so many times as a kid.)











I'll say more tomorrow. Just enjoying the film tonight.

Friday, September 15, 2017

what makes it happen

A note before I begin: tonight's dinner is burritos and there are some chips and dip. This is the kind of meal we used to serve when we'd have people over to watch movies. Of course, there's no actual meat in the burritos anymore, as I'm a vegetarian now. But, it's an echo of the stuff we'd make when folks were coming over to watch a movie like this one... Most of the people coming over to watch movies happened in the latter half of the 80s and into the 90s, I'm pretty sure. But, this "month" is bundling all of it together.

(Secondary note: apparently, I’ve been misnumbering the blog days for the last couple weeks and only just noticed. Today is Day 1141 even though I called yesterday 1040 on Twitter and Facebook.)

Now, on to Adventures of the Wilderness Family one last time.

One scene that undermines some of what comes later in Adventures of the Wilderness Family comes just after the family meets Boomer (the mountain man who wanders into the film, names some animals to make later scenes easier to follow, then wanders right back out of the film). Pat asks, "What would you do if you were out in the wilderness and you had a headache and no medicine?" Jenny answers, "You should boil the bark from an aspen tree... Because that's how they make aspirins, right?" Skip asks about a mark on a tree, Toby guesses a woodpecker, Skip tells him it was a bear marking its territory." Coupled with the earlier scene of the kids doing some book learning in the cabin, this scene suggests that this family is prepared, or preparing, for life in the wilderness. The panic at Jenny's fever later is like someone in a script meeting (though I don't think this film necessarily had such a thing) forgot all about the earlier scene and decided the climax with Three Toes would be more exciting if Skip were out of the picture. On the one hand, the Robinsons are prepared and can handle this--to be fair, they would stick it out for several years (and a recasting of Jenny for the two sequels)--but on the other hand, there won't be much drama when the bear attacks if Skip is there...

Except, Skip isn't all that useful before. The whole family works together to build the bigger cabin. Pat has better... I was going to say luck, but really it's skill. The mother has better skill with a a gun than Skip does. The family dog, Crust fights off the cougar, not Skip. Crust fights off the nice bear, not Skip. It's like the movie wants to build itself on top of second wave feminism but also knows that the audience will inherently see a more dangerous situation if it's just the mother and children (and the dog) in the cabin when Three Toes attacks, the father off failing at canoeing but still managing to get to the doctor (or at least to a working radio; the doctor actually arrives separately). Pat, perhaps because she is skeptical about all this, is the better wilderness parent. She gets the kids to do school work, because they might not always live out there and shouldn't grow up ignorant. She is half of that outdoorsy learning scene described above. She is good with a gun, and even attacks Three Toes with a big stick when he corners Jenny by the river.

If this movie were made today, I could imagine Skip not being a part of it at all... But, that is problematic in itself; that it's hard even for a bleeding heart liberal like me to imagine a film about a strong wife and her supportive husband heading off into the wilderness. It's the patriarchy, and Americanism, and Christianity ingrained in me since childhood. A single mother is easy to work with. But, a mother and wife with a submissive husband? The closest you get to that in popular culture is something like Roseanne, except Dan Conner was not submissive. He just wasn't the center of the show like Roseanne was. Instead, I think of a current FX show, You're the Worst, Lindsay (Kether Donohue) as the put upon wife with her weak-willed husband Paul (Allan McLeod), except as the series goes on, she's the bad guy in that relationship, and as of the new season, Paul is out of the picture. But, that's what I picture with American pop culture when it comes to a strong wife and a weak husband. Actually, that terminology is the problem. That one must be strong, one weak. But, I grew up Christian. Back when I was watching often these movies I'm writing about this month, I was also going to church every Saturday and attending private school Monday to Friday, with daily Bible lessons. I was constantly being told at church, at school, at home, and in popular culture, that the man is the leader of the household, the woman is his supporter, his "helpmeet" as God puts it in Genesis. By 1975, it was okay for the mother to be better with a gun, for the mother to be the one who saves her kids' lives, to be the one who ultimately decides if the family remains in the wilderness. But, Skip is still in charge, even as he says he'll stay only if she wants to. That final moment by the lake actually embodies the problem. It's playing lip service to her agency but one can imagine another argument coming if she actually suggested they head back to Los Angeles. It's easy to imagine that this only plays as it is because it is scripted. Of course, she's going to opt for staying; otherwise, what is the point of the film at all? Had one of the children died, running back to Los Angeles would be the option; this would be a cautionary tale about stepping outside of civilization. This isn't that kind of movie. This is a celebration of the wilderness, a celebration of the wilderness family--just listen to that cheesy title song. Pat can not opt to leave the wilderness. But, the film can pretend she can.






Again, this film is all about family, like Snowball Express. And, whether it's about the wilderness or not, this film certainly suggests that we'd all be just fine if we rejected the big city and pollution and jobs. It won't make every problem go away. But, it would help.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

that loves and keeps us free

You gotta wonder, actually, how detailed the script for Adventures of the Wilderness Family even was. Aside from a few scenes, there isn't much dialogue, the story turns arbitrarily--hey, look, a cougar; hey, look, a bear; hey, look, another bear; hey, look, a random mountain man; hey, look, arbitrary use of slow motion; hey, look, Jenny's sick despite our rather basic attempt to save her from urban pollution--and there isn't really much of a plot, not a formally structured one anyway.

This is 1975, but as I've said before cinematic decades bleed into one another. This is more a tail-end 60s film, a family-friendly extension of the counterculture. Skip Robinson is like a shoulda-been hippie who turned establishment, maybe because he got Pat pregnant and he needed work, because that's how the man says it's supposed to be. Skip tells the pilot of the plane that drops them off, "We thought a lot more than twice" about bringing the family out there. The film hasn't demonstrated that. It's offered an abrupt burst of I-need-to-escape-the-city after a brief glimpse of some pollution over Los Angeles. And, for a resident of Los Angeles, that urge to run away would be relatable, sure. For Robert Logan, who plays Skip, it fits right in with his actual life.

His first big role seems to be on 77 Sunset Strip; he appeared in 53 episodes. But, what I'm interested in is his role as Jericho Jones on Daniel Boone. Introduced in the first season finale--"The Courtship of Jericho Jones", Logan's character wanted to marry the daughter of a Native American chief--he would appear in 11 episodes in season two. According to Frank Martin writing for People, March 12, 1979, Logan left that show over a script dispute and

embarked on a series of Jack London-like adventures. He crewed on a record-setting sail from L.A. To Tahiti. After a stint as a yacht broker (and a divorce from his wife of three years, modern Susan Henning) he set off for Europe and happened into a part in David Wolper's The Bridge at Remagen, then shooting in Czechoslovakia. He was nearly fired for ruining a battle scene by smuggling a girlfriend into the middle of the combat. When the movie crew was evacuated because of the 1968 Soviet Invasion, Logan stayed behind to film a documentary, The Prague Spring, for which he was detained and then expelled.

Over the next few years Logan produced an unsuccessful documentary on American drug smugglers jailed in Spain and lived for a while on a houseboat on the Seine with actor Sterling Hayden. Logan returned to the U.S. In 1973 to start a screenwriting career. After meeting the writer of the original Wilderness Family... He became an actor by chance.

From 1975 to 1981, he would star in 7 films (3 about the Robinsons) set in the wilderness. He did his own stunts for the Wilderness Family series, and received a scar from one of the cougars. The outdoors seems to be his thing. "Sometimes I've been in the Arctic or Europe," he tells Martin,

and I've said, "By God, I wish I could share this moment with somebody special," he says. "Usually, though, there is nobody special. The fulfillment of life is the voyage," he philosophizes. "It's not being there that's important, but getting there.

If anything, this encapsulates what is supposed to be the point to this first Wilderness Family. That's why there's no obvious plot from start to finish, but a series of vignettes about this family that moved out into the wilderness. (The sequels would continue with the vignettes and echo some of those that had come before; The Further Adventures of the Wilderness Family replaces Jenny's arbitrary fever with Pat's pneumonia and the bear Three Toes with a wolf called Scarface; Mountain Family Robinson offers up something a little different with a mining claim on the Robinson's land and Pat's mother back in Los Angeles being sick, so it's Pat's turn to run back to civilization because of someone else's illness.) This is more a scrapbook structure, snapshots of an idyllic life but with the occasional reminder that even away from civilization, life is not always perfect. Structurally, Skip's rush back to civilization to get a doctor for Jenny feels both unnecessary and antithetical to the point of the story. Sure, your kid might still get sick out in the wilderness, but the Robinsons have managed so far, and it's the attack by Three Toes that really matters as the force that might drive them out of the wilderness. Jenny could just have easily been in shock from nearly getting mauled, sans the fever, and Skip could have been around for the final climax... Except, Pat gets to fend off Three Toes instead, something like a shadow of second wave feminism (similar to her having shot, offscreen, two birds for dinner earlier)... Except, even in that, if not for the intervention of the other bear, Samson, the way the film presents it, Pat never would have the opportunity for the kill shot. Meanwhile, Jenny is the one who gets lost and cornered by wolves. Jenny is the one who gets corned by Three Toes initially. Jenny is the one who creates the situation that calls into question Skip's big manly trip into the wilderness. If there were more depth to any of this action, more commentary in the dialogue or even the presentation, the film might be problematic in offering up a masculine fantasy, living off the land, fighting off wild animals, and undermining it through the use of the daughter and the wife. Toby is only ever in danger when he's with Jenny or with Pat.

For its time, of course, the film is harmless. A simple story about a family, who as realize about the wilderness, in the words of Jenny, "There are some bad things, but there's a lot more good things... Like having the best backyard in the whole world, and being together." This isn't a cautionary tale like, say, Into the Wild, nor is it really an aspirational story like, say, Into the Wild. It's just wholesome family fun, with dangerous animals.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

you gotta have respect for things

Adventures of the Wilderness Family is an interesting case, potentially. Watched it a lot as a kid. And, I mean a lot. My sister Bobbie recently informed me that this was the only movie our parents would let us watch on Saturday mornings; that was the sabbath for us.

(And, that I grew up attending church regularly and going to a church-owned private school will become important below.)

I remember hating it, or at least really disliking it. I guess, if I hated it, I probably would not have sat there and watched it every time.

(I also remember associating the opening shot of this film--showing the Bonaventure Hotel being in downtown Los Angeles under construction--with the sitcom It's a Living, which was set in a restaurant at its top, but that's just an arbitrary link, however permanently fixed it is in my head.)

Officially, I thought it was boring. But, I can't have been completely against it to have watched it so often, and to have sat through its sequels more than a few times. The thing is, I imagine, assuming the acting is good and the script itself holds up, that I might actually like this movie today. It has been years since I've watched it, but my recent enjoyment of, for example, Captain Fantastic and The Glass Castle would suggest that I harbor an appreciation for folks stepping away from regular society to live a little more off-the-grid.

(Another movie I used to dread watching as a kid--Jeremiah Johnson, a film I wish I'd been able to fit into my month of Westerns (June 2015)--I have come to rather like as I've gotten older.)

Anyway, now the movie begins...

The opening is closer to Joe Versus the Volcano than Snowball Express, but straight drama. Skip (Robert Logan) working in construction, Los Angeles covered in smog. Meanwhile, his daughter Jenny (Hollye Holmes) is sick, some vague affliction with her lungs. And Skip wants to get away, try a better life.

Four minutes and we're in the mountains. The Robinsons are flown into the middle of nowhere, 25 miles from the nearest people--a ranger station.

Immediately, I am struck by just how willing the kids are. (That the wife goes along with the husband's craziness is par for the course; it's the 70s and this is a family film.) Then the action plays for silliness right away--a raccoon in the stove (not unlike Blackbeard's Ghost) and a bear that eats the family's food as they watch from the roof of their tiny cabin, in the rain. With a different soundtrack, this moment would be pure comedy.

And then the cheesy song kicks in over the chopping wood montage and... Wow.

(Plus, an apparent hole in the Internet: I cannot find the lyrics to that thing.)

Toby (Ham Larsen) is adorable, trying to chop down a tree, pulling the raccoon into his sleeping bag, calling the dog a chicken for not fetching the bird his father just shot. He didn't do much acting outside this series, one other movie and a few tv episodes (including one of Little House on the Prairie).

Random rockslide kills the mother bear and now the family has two bear cubs. Because, that is what happens when you live in the wilderness. Duh.

Cougar Cubs follow the kids home because a) the kids are allowed to wander far from the cabin on their own and b) the family needed even more animals, I guess. Throw in some slow motion running with the kids and the cougars and, I'm not entirely sure at this point what the movie wants. And the father tells the kids "You don't take baby animals out of the forest like that." He literally just took some. Different situation--mother bear was dead--but still...

Returning the cubs, Skip gets attacked by their mother, the dog fights the cougar and, it's like the film can't decide if nature is supposed to be dangerous or not. The cheesy song from before suggests it's all happy freedom time but this... This feels like what we might call today a teachable moment. But, Skip literally tells the kids to go play with the bears as Pat (Susan Damante) dresses his wounds. But, yeah, they "learned a valuable lesson."

And, I'm not sure Skip's and Pat's marital problems (barely touched on as he came up with the big idea to flee the city) went away just because they picked up stakes and moved into a cabin. (Also, I'm not sure if we're supposed to side with Skip or Pat on this one.)






Ultimately, I'm not sure what the movie is trying to be exactly. Is this supposed to make families want to skip town and head for the hills? Or is this a reminder about the dangers of the wild? Frank R. Martin, writing for People in 1979, suggests that this film's success--made for just $405,000, it earned over $62 million--spawned more than just its sequels; it was the reason for Across the Great Divide (which was on my longer list for this month but got left behind) and for The Sea Gypsies (which I don't think I have ever seen). Robert Logan starred in all of these. And, apparently, he wasn't that much different from his character Skip... And maybe I'll write some about that tomorrow. For now, I'm wondering what the point of Boomer (George Flower) was. He shows up, eats a meal with the Robinsons, tells them names for the local animals, then wanders off again. Like Jenny saying grace before an earlier meal, it's a lingering notion of the order we like to think the world has. God gave everything a place, man named those things, and ultimately, this family will tame their little corner of the wilderness. I guess. Local black bear turns out to be tame because of the guy who used to live there, because reasons.






And there's not much structure to this story, either. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Jenny gets sick, somewhat arbitrarily, after the bad bear attacks. And, the message of the film gets even more muddled. Sure, move out into the wilderness. (But, definitely bring this family's dog because he can fight anything and not even be injured.) Sure, don't put much effort into avoiding local predators. But, as soon as your kid gets a fever, go running back to civilization because you are an ill-prepared fool who forgot to bother having any first-aid knowledge, or figuring out what was actually wrong with your daughter before you fled the smog of the city. It's almost like the film has nothing to say at all. But, that's something, too. Like, you know, fuck it. Kid's sick. Run. Kid's sick again. Run again. Doesn't matter to where or from where. Just matters that you do something. That's the 70s, right? Doesn't matter what you do, as long as you do something.






Oh, and do it with your family. And a dog. And maybe some bear cubs.






And, know first aid. And, know how to handle a fucking canoe.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

this poor half-crazed genius

Our progress so far in this deconstruction:

(All, in theory, of course. Plus, it's basically a chicken or the egg problem; like, did I like movies about rebels and outcasts because I already had the interest, or was it my interest that drew me to such movies? Could I already imagine that monsters were human too, and that's something I liked about Young Frankenstein, or was it this movie that formed that notion within me?

Or is it all just coincidence with some of these really early films--i.e. movies made before I was born, and put to VHS in my family's house not by my choice, and not even viewed by me necessarily by my choice; I mean, I took an interest in films before I can remember taking such an interest. If there was a movie to watch, I would watch it. Didn't matter what it was about; I'd give it a shot. And, if my mother didn't already know just how adult the film might be, she might try to cover my eyes (though she usually failed, and always piqued my interest in what I might be missing. For example, when that burly Nazi gets his face torn up by that flying wing's propeller in Raiders of the Lost Ark, my mother tried to cover my eyes. This was in the theater, she didn't know what they were going to show. (And she certainly didn't know the kind of gore I would see in so many movies over the next few decades. The kind of gore I would sometimes seek out deliberately in a film.) And, on the off chance she had actually blocked my view of something--I saw the blood spatter on that flying wing's tail--I think I might have assumed there was more, that I just missed seeing a guy's face get torn up by that propeller, and I swear I remember (or maybe this memory is invented) being disappointed the next time I watched Raiders because I hadn't missed anything. It was a cheap cutaway. Well, maybe not cheap. They wanted that PG rating.

Anyway, before I got to rambling, my point was that it could just be coincidence. My personality may have formed independently of the films I got to watch, the films I would later seek out. But, where's the fun in that?

See, in theory, each film was like a building block in the edifice that was my brain. Like any lesson at school or in church, like any tv show I might watch, like any book I might read. I mean, what is the point of reading a book or watching a movie, or taking a class, if not to affect the formulation and reformulation of your thoughts and feelings? But, then again, you must remember that I don't buy into that escapism bullshit as the reason to go see a movie, even a mindless action movie. Hell, I might be the first one to argue that a supposedly mindless movie isn't mindless at all, that it has, at least in the way it invokes the sociopolitical atmosphere of it's era, something to say about the world and the people in it, even if its content seems less interested in anything beyond primal titillation. Even a bad movie can teach us something about when it was made, about who made it, about things as simple as, say, your friends all turning to vegetarianism. Or simply the monolithic nature of Hollywood and the blocks that keep some people from making it "legitimately" in film, so they turn to making films themselves, damn the budget, damn the quality, just follow your inspiration and get it done yourself.

I exited the viewing of each film differently than I entered. It's one of the theses of this blog--that film changes you and you change film, that the experience of a film is personal; sure, with a particular auteur filmmaker behind it, they might manage to manipulate the audience into thinking and feeling certain things along the way (hell, a bad filmmaker can do that to an extent, or we probably wouldn't call their product a film at all) and most of the audience will have an experience that mostly resembles the same as anyone else's. But, we bring our own mental noise into any viewing, and that affects how we take in the filmmaker's machinations, how we take in the performances. Like, Marty Feldman's innocent smartassedness--that was a performance that grabbed me when I was young. It grabs everyone, of course. Feldman is brilliant here. But, put Feldman next to Wilder's sardonic humor and it's like a lesson in how to be funny without making it look like you're trying. And, I loved it. And, whether it's linked or not, I turned into a sardonic and sarcastic smartass as I got older. Hell, I think I was a smartass well before I knew what it meant to be one. I think I discovered sarcasm before I understood more obvious means of being funny. And of being rude.

We have to take something from a film. Or forget the film entirely, I suppose. And, any film that is truly forgettable... That is worthy of the greatest of lamentations. But then, I suppose even that can tell us something about the filmmakers, about the state of Hollywood, about the world, about ourselves.

But anyway, this is all just theoretical. But, I will proclaim myself an expert in this field, because this field doesn't necessarily even exist, or didn't until now. The deconstruction of my childhood as built by film is something unique. This is my theoretical, my field. So, I am right.)

Blackbeard's Ghost taught me that anyone can be forgiven, that a man can be bad and be good, that it is good to drink and enjoy life, and that pirates are awesome and mobsters and capitalists are bad.

Snowball Express taught me that chasing your dreams is worth it, family matters, if at first you don't succeed (or a donkey engine crashing through your house), try try again, and capitalists are bad (but not too bad, because (see above) anyone can be forgiven).

Young Frankenstein taught me that being eccentric is fine; that you shouldn't worry about the haters; that you can accomplish anything with enough effort, some friends to help you out, and a castle in Transylvania and the riches that implies; and that monsters are human too (and humans are monsters too).

And, I'm not even alive yet. I've got a couple more movies to do before I get to my birth. But, these were movies we had on VHS through the 80s, movies we showed to family friends who came over for dinner and a movie (or two), or that we watched when we were bored, or just needed to pass some time.

(I will skip some movies. Some, like Halloween, I have written about in this blog before. Some just didn't seem as important when I was narrowing down my list. So far, I have skipped but one--another Disney film with Dean Jones and I figured I had enough of those on the list: The Million Dollar Duck. And that one, in retrospect, is such an obvious commentary on stuff like capitalism and and family that I've already covered in talking about Blackbeard's Ghost and Snowball Express.)

Monday, September 11, 2017

what did you do to me?

I'm only on the third film of this "month" of deconstructing my childhood interactions with film. This month might last a few months.

I suggested at the end of yesterday's entry that Young Frankenstein might have influenced my ability (and sometimes, it feels like a need) to appreciate the monster. That is, my ability to pull for the underdog, for the rebel, for those outside the mainstream, the eccentric and bizarre. Throw in Star Wars, for example, which I'll get to later this "month" and it's like 70s cinema was trying to create within its audience an urge toward rebellion... An echo of the real rebellions in the decade before, perhaps. Which, of course, I studied intensively when I went to college (the second time) as an adult. Pop culture of the time idealized outcasts, outlaws, rebels. The Godfather and its sequel. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Taxi Driver. A Clockwork Orange, perhaps the most extreme example. Or just plain ol workaday folk like the cast of Alien or Rocky or Deliverance, the soldiers of Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter, the obsessed electrician of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I wasn't really paying attention at the time, of course. Born in '76, I wasn't really paying attention until the 80s. But, like a fiscal year, a cinematic decade influences a whole lot after it is done. It doesn't just exist within its calendar's edges.

For example, the top two movies of 1980 were The Empire Strikes Back (more of that Star Wars rebellion) and 9 to 5 (which is very much about the same rebellion against office culture we see at the beginning of Snowball Express in 1972, or in Joe Versus the Volcano in 1990... the edges of the decades bleed into one another, Also, certain themes keep returning as long as we still insist on things like the same work schedules, like unequal pay, like soul-draining office environments). Third was Stir Crazy, a comedy about two men wrongfully convicted (which I have not seen in a long time).

The next year would introduce us to Indiana Jones and Arthur Bach. The next year: Dorothy Michaels and the boys of Angel Beach High School. I would see all four of these films in the theater. I would be 6 years old.

And so many films would follow, year in and year out. There would be big action heroes in the 80s, of course, John Rambo, John Matrix, John McClane, Rocky Balboa, Conan the Cimmerian, Martin Riggs, but also losers in need of love, or an adventure: Lane Meyer, Marty McFly, Ferris Bueller, every member of the Goonies or the four kids who went to find Ray Brower's body, those kids who got Saturday detention at Shermer High School, Samantha Baker, Ronald Miller, Keith Nelson, Lloyd Dobler, Billy Peltzer, Daniel Larusso, J.D., and so many more, all the way to 1990's Mark Hunter... Or even 1993's Phil Connors. (As I said, decades' edges bleed over.)

I imagine an entry like this that puts every movie I have ever seen, from obscure 80s stuff like Humongous or The Ice Pirates to the obvious, famous stuff like Amadeus or Platoon. A list of thousands of movies, connecting one to another, tying the themes across time and space, from one theater to another, one video rental store to another. A giant flow chart linking actors Kevin Bacon style... Imagine Young Frankenstein bumping up against Hoosiers or Unforgiven or one of the saddest movies I remember from when I was a kid, 1984's Misunderstood. That last one should have made my list for this "month", even though I might have only watched it twice through, because of its emotional impact. I mean, that's the point, right? Each movie slips in, and a version of it remains, imprints itself in my brain as much as a lesson from math class or bible class (moreso probably than either of those things, really, because movies are inherently more interesting). A good movie sticks with you. And it should. A good movie should affect you and change you, even if only in a tiny way you might not notice at the time. Alternatively, a bad movie also leaves a shadow of itself with you. And it, too, should. Otherwise, why watch a movie? Why watch several thousand? Except to add to all the rest of the information and experience being input into your mind, into your being, into your soul.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

just like old friends

Before I really get into today's film--Young Frankenstein--I was thinking about the similarities this one shares with the last two. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is visited at work to be told he has inherited property. Johnny Baxter in Snowball Express is visited at work to be told he has inherited property. Steve Walker in Blackbeard's Ghost comes to his new locale because of work, but he too is brought to a new location where the new plot gets going. It's an easy in, really. Like offering up the rookie officer, or the new partner, in a cop movie; it invents a definable beginning for the plot for the audience to come into it.

(We're still not to year of my birth, by the way. This is 1974. But, of course, I was not selecting the movies for my family right out of the womb. That would take at least a handful of years.)

It's an easy opening for any film, any story. Take westerns, for example--which, if you're new, I explored through the month of June, 2015. The classical plot, per Wright (1975) begins: "1. The hero enters a social group." Star Wars offers up Luke Skywalker to gradually pull us into the story of the rebellion. Groundhog Day offers up Phil Connors sent off to Punxsutawney to report on the holiday...

Speaking of Groundhog Day, the train conversations behind Frederick--I'm not sure I ever noticed that before. The English version: "Harry, he was at it again." "So, what do you want me to do about it?" "Every day." "Let him, let him." Meaningless conversation. The same thing you might hear anywhere. No context, no details. Just an argument (of sorts) about some third party. But, what follows immediately thereafter, when we've cut from the train to New York to the train to Transylvania, is: "Hans--" well, I'm not sure of the exact phrasing; Google Translate gave me Er war wieder dabei for a German translation of "He was at it again." The woman definitely says "wieder" and the next line was whilst du damit machen isn't what the man says either, but he does say "machen." I tried Romanian, but that wasn't even close. Jeden tag. "Every day." Finally, Lassen sie ihn. "Let him." Regardless of the exact translation, this is the same conversation in another train, another country, another continent. This is the mundanity of the world Frederick is leaving, just like the office Johnny left, whatever Steve had before he went to Godolphin and got that ghost in his life. What Joe had before he headed for that volcano. What Phil had before he got snowed in in Punxsutawney. This is our transition into another world.

"Well, they were wrong then, weren't they?" First notable line that has been oft quoted by me or a few of my sisters.

"Suit yourself, I'm easy" should have been an easily quoted line, but I swear we never used that one. At least not so much that it still sticks.

I wonder--because I grow tired of the bit about getting into the story--how many viewings it was before I knew what some of the lines even meant, like the "What knockers" line. Or maybe this was where I learned that knockers was used to refer to breasts.

The horses responding to Frau Blucher's (Cloris Leachman) name still makes me laugh every time. I don't know how many times I've watched this movie, of course. That's the point to the movies on the list for this "month" after all. But, that last time I watched it was at an outdoor screening in a park in Pasadena not long before this blog started. Another outdoor screening (of Groundhog Day) that same summer led to me finally going ahead with this blog.






At what point did I understand why the creature would be "very popular" for having that "enormous schwanzstucker"? Certainly not the first time I watched this film.






"What the hell are you doing in the bathroom day and night? Why don't you get out of there and give someone else a chance?" Surprisingly useful line over the years.

Igor casually lighting a cigarette just as they get the creature upright is perhaps both the most insanely convenient act in scripting and one of the most funny.






Interesting mistake I never noticed. When they capture the creature in the street to take back to the castle, Inga (Terri Garr) is supposed to give him another sedative. She stabs him with the syringe but never pushes the plunger. Instead, after she pulls it back out, you can actually see liquid spray out as the creature falls to the ground.

And then we have one of the greatest comedic moments every put to film:

Love is the only thing that can save this poor creature, and I am going to convince him that he is loved even at the cost of my own life. No matter what you hear in there, no matter how cruelly I beg you, no matter how terribly I may scream, do not open this door or you will undo everything I have worked for. Do you understand? Do not open the door.

And, mere seconds later, after the creature wakes and moans...

Let me out. Let me out of here. Get me the hell out of here. What's the matter with you people. I was joking! Don't you know a joke when you hear one. Ha ha ha ha. Jesus Christ, get me out of here! Open this goddamn door or I'll kick your rotten heads in! Mommy!

And then Frederick has to actually try talking through it.

Hello handsome. You're a good looking fellow, do you know that? People laugh at you, people hate you, but why do they hate you? Because... They are jealous. Look at that boyish face. Look at that sweet smile. Do you wanna talk about physical strength? Do you want to talk about sheer muscle? Do you want to talk about the Olympian ideal? You are a god! And listen to me, you are not evil. You. Are. Good.

And he holds him.

This is a nice boy. This is a good boy. This is a mother's angel. And I want the world to know once and for all, and without any shame, that we love him. I'm going to teach you. I'm going to show you how to walk, how to speak, how to move, how to think. Together, you and I are going to make the greatest single contribution to science since the creation of fire.

Inga yells from outside the room, "Dr. Fronkensteen, are you all right?"

My name is Frankenstein!

And Wilder's performance is awesome. But this moment is also, despite being deliberately over-the-top and silly, surprisingly heartfelt and real. Something this movie does quite well--mixing the send-up of the old Frankenstein films, but while actually offering up its own story that works. And, in this moment, we're there for the comedy and the emotional reality of it. We can actually feel sorry for this monster, for this man.

And I almost want to move into what this film produced in me already--an appreciation for the monster, perhaps, an appreciation for science. But, I don't just want to watch this one once. More tomorrow.


Wright, W. (1975). Sixguns & Society: A Structural Study of the Western. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

and the air is clear

But, then there’s that music... However dated some of Snowball Express' content may feel, it's got a brilliant effortlessness to it.

Like the bit with the snow falling from the eaves that leads to a snowball fight. The Baxters seem more like an actual family than four actors working. And some pleasant music plays.

(The same pleasant music works as a nice clue for the audience that Baxter won't be seriously injured skiing Nightmare Alley.)

That same effortlessness affects the plot in a... Not a negative way, but a horribly, cutely convenient way. The Baxters open up the rundown Grand Imperial. The water heater explodes. So they can't get a rope tow engine. Instead, they get the donkey engine. They can't get any guests, but then Wally inadvertently sets off an avalanche that blocks a passing train, and they've got guests. But then the donkey engine crashes through the hotel and the guests leave. Johnny and Jesse race in the Silver Hill Winter-National and come really close to winning, but don't. (Meanwhile, Susan has threatened to leave if he goes through with racing, but sure enough, she's there after he loses.) Ridgeway comes to finally buy the property and a last minute reprieve saves the Baxters from failure. It's all quite convenient.

But, it plays less like filmmakers manipulating the audience--as a more recent film with the same plot points might--and more like the filmmakers were all just having a good time, like the whole movie is just a nice jazz riff that they barely realized they needed to resolve in the end.

That shouldn't be a good thing. But, the comedic beats, especially from Dean Jones (Johnny) and Harry Morgan (Jesse) but Nancy Olson (Sue), Johnny Whitaker (Richard), Kathleen Cody (Chris) and Michael McGreevey (Wally) have some good timing and delivery as well.






Mellow even in the face of life-threatening accidents on the ski slopes. Just like the introduction of Naomi "Tightpants" Voight; in a different film, Johnny would be tempted toward an affair and that would be one more bump in the road. But, here, she's such a brief distraction, an interlude in the tune that is the film. Every little problem is given basically the same wait as any other. There is always a solution because this isn't a dramatic film about the struggle to run a ski lodge. It's a harmless, effortless, pleasant family comedy. Even in the end, the convenience of old property contracts bests Ridgeway's attempts to buy the property, and Ridgeway is just going to meet up with Johnny the next day to offer him a loan. Even the cutthroat banker is nice when it comes down to it.

The only notably bad person in the whole film is the kid who makes fun of Richard's apron. And, he's just a kid.

I imagine my usual mellowness. So many stresses from teaching and life, but I play a game of D&D on Sunday, watch a new movie Friday morning (and maybe a movie or two sometime during the rest of the week, not to mention movies for this blog), and I can compartmentalize the stresses away. I am going to try to imagine the music from Snowball Express when life is going crazy. Like everything is just a jazz song... and occasionally it drifts into the blues. But it all just flows.

Friday, September 8, 2017

that she can contribute

There's an echo--or whatever the opposite of an echo is--of Joe Versus the Volcano in the much briefer opening of Snowball Express. Baxter doesn't have a terminal diagnosis, of course. Rather, his great uncle (who he apparently didn't even know) died, and this is Baxter's new lease on life. Get out of the "smudge pot" of the city, the office, and go run a hotel in Colorado.

I just learned this is based on a book called Chateau Bon Vivant--a true story apparently--about newlyweds Frankie and Johnny O'Rear who "arm themselves with a four-hundred-page volume entitled Theories of Hotel Management, two cases of bourbon... and a Vermont beagle" and set about a "twelve-year comedy of errors" running a ski-lodge in Quebec" (Back Cover Description, near as I can tell). Some details have been changed, of course. Frankie is Susan. Johnny is still Johnny but he left the office instead of the navy. Instead of two cases of bourbon, they've got two kids. And, instead of a beagle, they've got a Saint Bernard...

But, I want to back up a bit. To the office.

Christopher Borelli, writing for the Tampa Bay Times in 2011, starts his exploration of "office culture" with an evocative line: "Linda Schroyer got pinched. But then, everyone got pinched. All the women, anyway." Talking about office culture in the early 70s, referencing Mad Men and the realities it echoes. In that brief office bit that starts Snowball Express we see a great little microcosm of that office culture of the time--a lot of white men working on typewriters, one big computer, a water cooler, a time clock, and that one woman... who Baxter draws attention to in his little quitting speech. He awards his stapler to "that man who has logged more hours at the water cooler and managed to survive, Jim Cullen, Mr. Water Cooler himself." He awards his scissors to "George Ball 'cause he demonstrated exceptional courage and ingenuity at last year's Christmas Party when he cut off Mr. Carruthers' tie." Then, he calls out Beverly Boxer for "the outstanding achievement award, my staple remover, goes to that person who has demonstrated that she can contribute the most to office morale. Miss Boxer, I think I can say without fear of contradiction that you have the greatest legs in this office, if not on the whole 40th floor. They have been a distraction. They have caused mad hours wasted. They've made life here bearable." She is, of course, wearing a minidress that shows off those legs. 

And, this is mere moments before we know that Baxter is married with children. But, of course, 1972, this is normal office behavior. "She would always get pinched, patted. Then she would laugh. Everyone would laugh," Borelli continues.

Nobody thought much of it; or rather, nobody said much. She wore a ponytail and a miniskirt--because she wanted to, she said, because she was in her 20s and that's what lawyers in the Statehouse [or, here, men in an insurance office] expected, and because she was looking for a husband.

"It was all a great big game," she said. "And when I got pinched, I even felt like I was getting a compliment. Isn't that funny?"

By today's standards, not really. But, that wasn't today. And, neither is Snowball Express. But, as I said with Blackbeard's Ghost, then and now are all wrapped up together in my head. That is the point of this current exercise here at the Groundhog Day Project, after all. For example, what about this scene with flirty Naomi Voight (Joanna Phillips) and the more nebbish Miss Ogelvie (Alice Backes) next to her on the sleigh with Baxter? Why this juxtaposition of women? Except for more inherent, if not deliberate, commentary on the roles of women at the time. The women of Snowball Express are seven:

Beverly Boxer - has some job at Indemnity and Casualty, has great legs. We don't get to know anything more about her. Oh, and she kisses Baxter on his cheek after he awards her his staple remover.

Susan - Baxter's wife, questioning when she needs to be, supportive when she needs to be, serving the plot as she serves her husband.

Chris - Baxter's daughter, serving little purpose except to be the other child--Richard gets the more useful moments, and Chris' best moments rely on a) her inexperience with alcohol while trying to serve drinks and b) being the barely registering (except for a classic case of pairing the spares) object of Wally's (Michael McGreevey) affection, which just leaves her as desperately crying for Wally to be saved when he falls over the side of the cliff.

Miss Wigginton (Mary Wickes) - Ridgeway's assistant, who serves little purpose story wise but to let the audience know Ridgeway isn't to be trusted... except, Susan voices that concern more directly. In the end, she does turn against Ridgeway, but then it's really Richard who manages the deus ex machina solution to all the Baxters' problems. She's there simply to tell us what a) we would have no other way of knowing any more than Baxter would and b) to explain what it means. Like a secretary for the audience. Richard gets a handshake, a hug and a "good work, son." Wigginton gets nothing, except maybe she's going to lose her job.

Naomi - who is introduced flirting with Baxter, who asks Susan about him later (not realizing she's his wife), and Susan says of her, "You get much nicer to Naomi Tightpants, she might stay through the spring." She, like Beverly Boxer in the office, serves as a distraction in the film. In a different era, Baxter might actually be tempted toward an affair. But, this isn't that kind of film.

Miss Ogilvie - A counter to Naomi... But why? Couldn't Naomi have her room invaded by Stoutheart? Is it funny to see that Baxter, with a good wife back at the hotel, is sitting beside these two very different women? It's as if the film only knows a couple roles for women. They are wives, they are sexual objects, or they are something far from it. There are no in betweens. Not that register in this story, anyway. But, this story, like Blackbeard's Ghost revolves around something more stereotypically masculine, climaxing around a sports competition (track there, a snowmobile race here) that doesn't quite get the win the protagonist wants. Also...

Miss Grable - who might as well have been Miss Ogilvie again, when she serves as Wally's first ski student, serving really as a setup for Wally's fall, Baxter going to save him, the donkey engine mishap getting underway, and the Grand Imperial getting a hole burst in its side. She's just a trigger, not a character.

Did these limited roles matter at the time? As Borelli says, "Nobody thought much of it; or rather, nobody said much." This is after second ave feminism has had a big effect in America, in the office, in the home. And, maybe it's almost a positive that the film offers up the wife and the flirt and the nebbish woman. There should be more to a realistic portrayal of women, but at least they are not all exactly the same.

I could also ask, did I notice?

But, it doesn't matter what I noticed. I mean, consciously. It matters that it was there. That I watched this many times, and so many other male-centric films. The patriarchy writ into the fabric of cinema.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

office hours start at nine


And then there's Snowball Express. Dean Jones again. Disney again. And this one starts with the subversive element--Baxter (Jones) inherits a hotel in Colorado and immediately quits his office job... I'm not even sure what it is that he does. Ah, he says Indemnity and Casualty--I guess it's insurance. That's certainly not symbolic of anything. Nor is his destructive interactions with the office "computer" or the time clock. He assesses his time at the company for his wife like this:

"Yes, eleven years. And in that time I have moved up three rows, from accounts receivable to accounts payable. Honey, I feel like I'm digging myself into a hole. And today, somebody threw me a rope."

She responds: "Do you mean you're just going to give up everything and drag your family off into the wilderness?"

"Wilderness?" What...? Honey, I am taking over as the owner and the proprietor of the Grand Imperial Hotel. Does that sound like a wilderness?" He, of course, hasn't seen it yet. "Susie, this is and opportunity that comes to few men in their lifetime. To stand on your own two feet, and to... And to discover your own individuality in a world where we're all becoming... " She has left the room while he's getting into a rant. "In a world where we're all becoming holes punched in a card." He keeps talking to the dog, but the dog leaves as he keeps talking. "I want to get out of this smudge pot. Get out where the sky's blue and the air is clear and..."

Ironically--I guess--I realized this morning I barely have time for this movie today. Fortunately, it is short. I have it running while I'm doing some work for today's argument & debate class. Work getting in the way.

The movie subverts its own agenda, as it were, right away. Baxter imagines a fancy hotel, getting out of the rat race of the city to run it, but the Grand Imperial is a rundown thing that Chris, Baxter's daughter (Kathleen Cody) understandably balks at spending the night in. The film has essentially taken a piece of the American Dream as replacement for the office--an awesome positioning in its own right--and then forced Baxter into a corner filled with a lot of hard work. One could take the film as an indictment of 60s counterculture or at least the larger backlash to the affluent 50s. (The film came out in 1972. I'm still not even alive, but I would see this movie many times as a kid.) Leave the rat race, you still have to put in a lot of work to succeed. Freedom isn't free, and all that.

Like Blackbeard's Ghost, we've got an old drunk--though Jesse McCord (Harry Morgan) is a very different character than Blackbeard--we've got an evil moneyman interested in taking someone else's property--and here is where it gets interesting: Martin Ridgeway (Keenan Wynn) is a banker, far more legitimate than Silky Seymour (Joby Baker) there. Both films position the good people against the moneyed interests. Of course, both films have a competition on the horizon, one that can save the property in question.

For some classic Dean Jones physical comedy (involving a blue screen, and a stuntman also in this case) we get Nightmare Alley, a ridiculous--but still hilarious after all these years--ski run by Baxter, who clearly knows nothing about skiing.






Throw in some casual jazz riff-style music and the film is so relaxed it's hard to imagine a film like this existing in the present. Too many producers would overwrite too much action, include too many jokes, and make the whole thing just a bit much. As it is, though, it feels effortless.

Even when it's adding maybe one too many ridiculous ski runs. The accident with the donkey engine is almost one too many mishaps. But, the movie would be even shorter if bringing in the skiers from the avalanche-blocked train made everything okay. Hell, it might be an improvement on Blackbeard's Ghost in that (and also an echo, with two ways to win). The avalanche was no accident so taking in those passengers was cheating.


Hours later, I wish I'd written more today. Unlike Blackbeard's Ghost, for example, Snowball Express has at least one line that I reference regularly. When the drunk guy complains about there begin a fish in his drink, Jesse tells him to be quiet, because everyone will want one. One of those references that movies have stuck in the conversation centers of my mind... I will point out others in the movies to come. Tomorrow, though, I think I will watch Snowball Express again. Do I dislike capitalists because of Ridgeway's dishonest ways? Maybe. Have I only gone skiing once in my life because I fear having the sort of experience Baxter does? Maybe.

Footnote--and this one is my mother's doing, not my own--we had a Saint Bernard named Stoutheart, just like the Baxters.