Monday, December 16, 2013

DAMN YOUR PACIFISM!

It's unpleasant, to say nothing of unseemly, to turn this space into an ongoing obit section for my cultural heroes.  I don't write much anymore, and when I do, it seems like it's yet another memorial piece.  And I don't enjoy that, and that's why there hasn't been anything here remembering Nelson Mandela or Doris Lessing or, most recently, Peter O'Toole.

Then Billy Jack dies, and dammit, that shit's personal.



If you were the right age in the 1970s, the half-breed ex-Green Beret ass-kicking pacifist Billy Jack was as big a deal as Bigfoot or Evel Knievel.  The creation of writer/director/producer/star/messiah Tom Laughlin, our Billy first appeared in 1967's The Born Losers, a routine biker picture (albeit one with an unconscionable 113 minute running time, because Laughlin's ego was already in place), but it was 1971's Billy Jack that briefly made the character and the actor household names.

A weird mix of standard drive-in fodder with typical early 70s hippy-dippy mysticism, Billy Jack is less noted as a movie as for how it was sold: A flop in its initial release, Laughlin famously sued Warner Bros. and reacquired the rights to the picture and sold it himself, renting out neighborhood theaters one at a time and keeping all the profits himself.  Both the four-walling of theaters and the accompanying heavy duty TV ad campaign were highly influential--the notoriously awfulindie outfit Sunn Classic Pictures used Laughlin's technique to sell their fake documentaries like The Mysterious Monsters and In Search of Noah's Ark.

And it worked--Billy Jack became a smash hit, and Warner Bros. rereleased it again using a variation of Laughlin's technique ("See it again...for the first time!"), and it was a smash all over again.  It was basically a liberal-populist version of the conservative-populist Walking Tall, and it played small towns and drive-ins forever.

At the box office, if not artistically, Laughlin had even grander visions.  The 1974 sequel, The Trial Of Billy Jack, was again produced in conjunction with Warner Bros., but Laughlin mapped out the ad campaign himself.  It was the first movie to open really wide--over a thousand theaters at once, quite a feat in those pre-multiplex days--accompanied by a massive advertising blitz.  (I remember the full-page color ad in the comics section of The Des Moines Sunday Register!)  It worked--the movie made a then-astonishing $11,000,000 in one weekend.  Those numbers are amazing--that's at the level of Jaws or Star Wars.

Except the movie sucked, and after the first weekend, it tanked.

And thus ended Laughlin's career, basically.  He made a horrible semi-mystical Western, The Master Gunfighter (a "Billy Jack Enterprises Production") and the barely released Billy Jack Goes To Washington...and then he just kind of went away.

Laughlin had been a journeyman actor for over a decade before his big success, with guest shots on TV and bit parts in the likes of Tea And Sympathy and South Pacific.  But Billy Jack--the character and the movie--seemed to change him.  The Trial Of Billy Jack is a terrible, terrible movie, and sitting through it is like spending three hours with your nutjob conspiracy-theory cousin, the kind of guy you assume is a hardcore lefty until you notice his Ron Paul For President bumper sticker, and even if you agree with its politics, you'll cringe at the presentation.

But Laughlin clearly believed.  He meant every half-baked they're-all-out-to-get-us assertion, and to him it wasn't a movie, it was a manifesto.  Clearly, going back to mere acting wasn't in the cards for Laughlin, so his celluloid legacy pretty much begins and ends with the original Billy Jack, the only halfway decent movie he ever made.

And it's weird, because it was such a big deal at the time, how little impact it ultimately made.  Laughlin was a marketing genius, and it's easy to imagine how he could have had a nice career as an action star, a philosophically aware Clint Eastwood, but that's not what he wanted.  He had to tell the truth, man.

As the seventies ended, Laughlin tried his hand (unsuccessfully) at politics, and wrote vanity-press books on psychology and alternative medicine.  And he kept making plans for more Billy Jack movies, including one with the wonderful title Billy Jack's Crusade To End The War In Iraq And Restore America To Its Moral Purpose, which suggests that his ego certainly never diminished.

Laughlin died this month at the age of 82, having failed to bring an end to racism or war or poverty or any of the things his character stood for.  But you know what?  In 1975, my brother Keith dragged ten-year-old me to a re-release of Billy Jack pretty much for the sole purpose of making fun of it.  We counted the number of times the boom mike was visible, we yelled out our own responses to some of the dumber dialogue, we laughed at the action scenes.  But we had a great time watching it, and I've seen it countless times since then, and enjoyed it every time.

So no, Billy Jack didn't change the world.  But he taught me how to watch movies critically, and I'll always love him for that.




Sunday, November 24, 2013

IT'S JUST A SHOW

Things had deteriorated, obviously.  With her cancer, Mom's doctor had already given her less than six months to live.  Plus, there'd been a mix-up on her meds which had caused to to hallucinate wildly, she'd fallen a couple days before and...well, time was running out.

But I didn't want to believe that.  So when I got home from work that day and discovered several messages from my sister telling me Mom was in the hospital, I refused to believe it was anything but a bump along the way.  After all, she still had a few months left; a doctor said so.

When I got to the hospital, I was shocked by how small she looked, how fragile and lost.  The bump on her head from her fall had gotten worse, now resembling some Cronenberg mutation.  And there was her voice, faint and far away but oddly cheerful: "Hi, Honey.  Did you have to work late?"

Yeah, I said.  Sorry, I didn't know until now.

"That's OK.  Have you eaten?"

No, I explained, I came over here as soon as I got the message.

"Oh.  Well, you should eat.  I'll be OK.  It's almost time for Lost, and after that, I'll get some sleep.  What are you going to do tonight?"

I don't know.  I'm kind of worried...

"I'll be OK.  Really.  Go have some pizza and watch MST.  That always makes you feel better."

So I did.  Mom was right--Mystery Science Theater 3000 always made me feel better, could always be counted on to give me a laugh when I needed one.  So I picked an episode at random, Joel and the Bots going to town on the Roger Corman Western Gunslinger.

An odd choice, as it happened.  The movie itself is oddly obsessed with death, and that carries over to the rest of the show, which features this sketch:


Kind of weird, but nothing creepy about it.  Sure, Mom was in the hospital, but she'd be alright.  Wouldn't she?  Wouldn't she?

You can guess what happened next: An early morning phone call, a long, agonizing vigil, bad hospital food, then...well, then she died.

And the bottom dropped out of my world.  Mom was always there, the one person above all others that I could always count on to be there for me, to point me in the right direction, to tell me what I needed to hear.  Without her, how could I go on?

Something else was there for me, though.  In the blur of days following, the visitation and funeral and dread of returning to work and everything else, I wondered if I could ever regain what had been lost.  In the depths of sorrow, could I ever be happy again?  There was one sure way to find out:


Another random episode: I Accuse My Parents.  The intro made me happy, and the episode made me laugh.  A lot.  And when it was over, I knew Mom was right: It would be OK.

I'm writing all this right now because Mystery Science Theater 3000 premiered twenty-five years ago today.  It was hugely influential to the comedy landscape of the late twentieth century, and its lasting impact continues to be felt well into this century.

And more than that, it's the show that kind of saved my life.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

A TREMOR IN THE FORCE

Again, I have been accused--just yesterday--of being a Star Wars geek.  Again, I plead not guilty.

The main evidence seems to be that I know Admiral Ackbar's home planet (Mon Calamari--yes, I do know this), a fact which isn't revealed in Return Of The Jedi, and thus something I could only have learned through reading of spin-off novels, comic books or, at the very least, repeated trips to Wookiepedia.

But I've done none of these things!  (Okay, I visited Wookiepedia one time--just once, I swear!--and oddly enough it was to look up the proper spelling of "wookie" because there was some dispute about that in the very early days of Star Wars fandom and look, never mind how I know about that.)  But Star Wars is Star Wars, a vast cultural thing that everybody knows something about, even if they've never seen the damned thing.

Let me put it this way: I've never watched porn.  (Unless Caligula counts, which technically, it probably does.  Oh, and that one Laura Gemser Emanuelle movie where the girl jerks off the horse and there are a few penetration shots, but they were obviously just inserted (tee-hee, inserted) after the movie was shot, so that really shouldn't count.)  More specifically, I've never seen Behind The Green Door, but I've read two different books on its directors, Jim and Artie Mitchell.  (They invented the lap dance!)  I've also read Sinema and The Other Hollywood and could tell you more about The Opening Of Misty Beethoven than you could ever want to know.

On the other hand, I've never seen any of the awful live-action movies Disney cranked out in the seventies, but if you shouted out their titles, I could probably tell you who directed them without even looking it up.  (No Deposit, No Return? Norman Tokar!  The Shaggy D.A.?  Robert Stevenson!)  Hey, as a bonus, I can tell you that Frank Phillips was the cinematographer and Cotton Warburton edited most of those things, because Disney used pretty much the exact same crew in all their movies back then and WHY DO I KNOW THIS?

But does all this make me a porn and/or Disney geek?  I can tell you who produced both The Genius Of Ray Charles and Pink's Raise Your Glass, even though I don't imagine many people who revere the former have even heard of the latter.  I can quote whole passages of James Joyce's The Dead verbatim.  I couldn't tell you my sibling's birthdays, but if you ever want to know who shot Ilsa, Harem-Keeper Of The Oil Sheiks, I'm your guy.  I can't remember the precise layout of the house where I grew up, but I can remember exactly the details of the mighty River Hills/Riviera theater, where I first saw 2001, Fantasia and, okay, Star Wars, which, granted, yes, I saw five times in the summer of '77, but hey, so did everyone else.  It played theatrically for almost a year.

And it's not like everyone who saw it became a geek.  We liked it, then we moved on with our lives.  If, by "moved on" you mean "continued to fill our heads with ever-widening but essentially useless pop culture knowledge that unfortunately we used as a prism through which to view real life, and found reality wanting".  And if by "we" you mean "me". 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

SO GLAD YOU MADE IT

It's OK.  I'm still here, theoretical reader who probably doesn't even exist anymore.  Well, not here, at this site, actually writing things.  But I'm still, you know, here in the world.  Things get in the way, life goes on, what have you.

But hey!  Here's a little something we haven't done in awhile: Lynda Carter singing!  It's from a 1984 variety special, and if you had told me people were still turning out this kind of crap as late as '84, I'd have said you were nuts.  But here's the eye-gouging, ear-punishing evidence.  Enjoy, or whatever.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

FROM THE LAND BEYOND BEYOND

I can tell you every single detail of that Monday night: the trip form the farm into Perry in Mom's Ford Galaxie, the stop at Fareway for supplies for the evening's entertainment (Shasta cola and an industrial-sized bag of M&Ms), the whir of cicadas sounding from the shrubs on west side of the drive-in, the pink and purple clouds as the soon slowly descended, part of the endless wait for the movie to begin; the flashes of lightning far off to the north, somewhere far away, as the movie finally began.

The movie was The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad.  It had been heavily advertised on local TV, the commercials promising monsters and visual wonders aplenty.  I didn't know then that the movie was nearly twenty years old; I didn't know the name of Ray Harryhausen, though I noted his name in the credits as "Creator Of Visual Effects", and I knew what it meant: He was the man who made the mosters.

Mostly, I didn't--couldn't--know the profound effect those monsters would have on me.  How Harryhausen's cloven-hooved cyclops, with his splayed legs and delicately-curving back, formed an interest in the mechanics of the human body, an appreciation for choreography and dance, or how the slow, painful death of a dragon would haunt my dreams, its stumbling final movements echoed in the sad exits of my own beloved pets.

By the time a skeleton dropped down from the ceiling, grabbing a shield and sword and engaging our hero in a duel to the death (or redeath), my mind was completely blown.  I had never seen anything like this before.  My mom was an adult, she knew things, so I asked her how this sequence was done.  "I have no idea," she answered.

Which convinced me more than anything of the reality my eyes told me: It was real!  There was magic in the world!

And there was, once.  But no more.  Ray Harryhausen, creator of more wondrous sights than any other human ever imagined, died today at the fine age of 92.  The world is a sad place for his passing, but an infinitely better place because he lived.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

SHE'S A NUN! SHE FLIES! WHAT DO YOU NEED, A ROADMAP?

Wow!  It's been--months?  Actual months since I've posted anything here?  Things happen, momentous things, in my life and in the wider world, and this space has remained silent.  But there are still things worth discussing, like, um, this.



The increasing numbers of entertainment providers desperately needing any type of content--whether online services like Hulu and Netflix or specialty cable channels like MeTV and Antenna--has spurred the rights holders of scores of vintage television shows to haul their products out of the mothballs.  Suddenly shows unseen for years are back, and the results are...interesting.

TV has always existed primarily as a way to kill time.  In the pre-internet days, the vast majority of programming was the equivalent of Chuck Norris memes and cat videos on YouTube, a way to spend a half hour here and there when you really had nothing else to do.  If you were watching The Love Boat and the phone rang halfway through it, you'd go ahead and answer, confident that you weren't really going to miss anything.

And it's still that way.  For the last decade or so, many believe TV has entered a golden age of creativity, and the best of what's out there gives that argument some weight.  Sure, dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad and comedies like Louie and Community, but even animated kids shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and cop shows like Justified are astonishing--fully cinematic, but with a novelistic approach to plotting and detail.

But these are exceptions, and there have always been exceptions:  Sgt. Bilko, The Twilight Zone, Route 66, The Rifleman, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Columbo, The Rockford Files.  The cream always floated to the top, but then as now, there's a lot of time to fill.  TV as a whole is as crappy as it's ever been--have you ever tried sitting through an episode of Rules Of Engagement?--but it's a whole lot slicker.  Writing rooms are full of Harvard grads eager to show off their education, which is why even a lowly Disney Channel sitcom will have an occasional reference to Proust.  The directors who set the visual style of the likes of Chicago Fire have been to film school and want to show off their skills for composition and editing, in case it might land them a feature film gig.

Which brings us back to The Flying Nun.  It's safe to say we'll never see its like again.  Sure, we'll see other shows with astonishingly stupid premises--Dog With A Blog is a thing that exists--but there will never again be something this innocent and naive, and by "innocent and naive" I mean utterly incompetent.

Let's look at that intro again.



The opening of a show is meant to get you to watch.  It can lay out the premise or establish the characters or simply bombard you with snazzy images and a catchy theme song.

Or, in the case of The Flying Nun, it can be a clumsily edited assortment of available footage.  There's no flow between the images, no rhythm, no sense.  Ed Wood couldn't have done a worse job.  She's a nun, she's flying, OK.  Other cast members appear, obviously filmed in a studio.  Are they supposed to be watching her?  Their eye movement suggests yes, but the clips we've seen show her at a much greater height, and then--wait.  Now she's walking across a plank?  And suddenly becomes airborne?  But we've already seen her fly!  Shouldn't this have started the sequence?  (I especially love the slide whistle deployed for this bit; that was a hacky comedy device even in Vaudeville.)  And now she's...got a dog?  And the cable holding her up is incredibly obvious...seriously, they didn't have a better take to use in the title sequence?  Another random shot of Alejandro Rey, apparently not realizing the camera was running, then she's crashing through a stained glass window, an image that seems more appropriate for a mid-seventies Italian Exorcist knockoff.  Suddenly she's flying again, exec producer credit, and we're out.

The show itself is a pretty typical relic of its era--flat lighting, ABC-simple plotting, uninteresting characters--but that opening sequence has a maladroit charm.  It's the type of thing that's hard to believe even exists, but like the dinosaur, its time has gone.  TV now is so damned professional.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

MESSRS. K AND H ASSURE THE PUBLIC THEIR PRODUCTION WILL BE SECOND TO NONE

Sadly, I didn't get a chance to see David Chase's Not Fade Away during its run here in Des Moines.  I wanted to, of course--who wouldn't want to see the first theatrical film from the creator of The Sopranos?--but it only played here for a week, the victim of a studio that had no faith in it, destined to be just another obscure red Box rental.

Based on even the most sympathetic reviews, Not Fade Away may not have been a total triumph, but Chase's track record--again: The Sopranos--certainly suggests it would be worth seeing.  A personal film that doesn't quite work is almost always more worthwhile than an easy success.

Sadly, easy successes are pretty much the very best we can hope for when it comes to major studio releases: Toothless PG-13 horror movies, raucous comedies, big dumb action movies and endless retreads and sequels.  That they mostly can't even do these things well is beside the point.  Hollywood's blockbuster-or-nothing mentality is like a diet of nothing but frozen pizza and cheap beer.

To this day, plenty of well-informed people lay the blame for all this at the feet of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.  The massive success of Jaws and Star Wars ushered in the era of the blockbuster, and we've been going downhill ever since.

This is nonsense, obviously.  Yeah, many producers great and small tried to chase the success of those films, much as they tried to rip-off earlier blockbusters like The Poseidon Adventure, The Godfather and The Exorcist.  You can't blame them, after all.  It's a business.  They wanted to make hits.

But that wasn't all they wanted.  The studios were perfectly content to produce and release mid-level, mid-budget movies that weren't designed to be blockbusters.  Since there wasn't much at stake, they could afford to take chances.  Consider something like The Elephant Man: On one hand, as Oscar-bait inspiring story about overcoming physical deformity.  On the other hand, Paramount Pictures entrusted this story to David Lynch--whose only feature at that point was Eraserhead, for God's sake--and was perfectly okay with his decision to shoot it in black-and-white, to make it as weird as he wanted.  And it paid off: Not a runaway smash, but a solid hit.

 Of course, that was when Paramount was an actual studio, as opposed to being merely one vertically-integrated content provider for the Viacom organization.  Throughout the eighties and nineties, studios increasingly became slaves to their corporate masters, and the people making creative decisions came from the world of business, not art.  This explains a lot of the problems with movies today, but not all of them.

I think the real turning point was the TV debut of Entertainment Tonight in 1981, followed quickly by the print debut of USA Today the following year.  This marked the first time weekly rankings of the top-grossing movies became available to the general public.  Suddenly there was a horse race quality to judging the week's new releases.  Will Movie X succeed?  Will Movie Y recoup its massive production costs?  Nobody but Hollywood insiders cared about this previously, but now it was a thing.  Whereas once something like Howard The Duck would have failed and disappeared, now we could read just how much it cost and how much it lost.

The studios, now aware that people were watching, decided they damn well weren't going to take chances anymore.  They commissioned increasing amounts of polling data, and soon organizations like Cinemascore were asking viewers for snap judgements on movies they'd just seen, a practice that didn't exactly encourage nuanced opinion.  (The Sorrow And The Pity--thumbs up or down?)

All this, plus the rise of drooling fanboy websites like Ain'tItCoolNews and review aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes, has changed the very way movies are perceived.  Consider the recent case of Killing Them Softly.  While it has flaws--director Andrew Dominik occasionally strains too hard for significance, and some of his musical choices are thuddingly ironic--it's mostly a very faithful adaptation of a terrific George V. Higgins novel, impeccably made and showcasing an ace cast.  And yet upon its release, the only stories written about it stressed its low grosses and Cinemascore rating of F.  As if this movie was made to be a blockbuster!

A similar story played out in the press over the "disappointing" audience reaction to This Is 40.  Whatever artistic ambition the film may have had is beside the point.  It's not making money, and that's all you need to know about it.  In that sense, Not Fade Away was lucky--it was so low profile, there weren't even any stories proclaiming it a flop.

It used to be an insult when a movie was described as feeling like a TV show.  But I hope the next thing David Chase does is for television.  The movies don't deserve him.