Tuesday, August 29, 2006

This week's film recommendations 8/30-9/6

First this week, a mea culpa and an apology. In last week's post, I misrepresented the film Laura (20th Century Fox, 1944), describing the title character as a femme fatale. Whoops! Of course, Laura Hunt is nothing of the sort. In my haste to complete the column, I confused Gene Tierney's performance in Leave Her to Heaven (20th Century Fox, 1945) with her turn as Laura. (That's an explanation, not an excuse.) My apologies to everyone, and a tip of my dunce cap to special agent ML for bringing the mistake to my attention.

Lon Chaney is mistakenly considered a “horror” star by many, thanks largely to his performance as The Phantom of the Opera (Universal, 1925). Although it's based on a novel by Gaston Leroux, every subsequent version of the story—including the agonizing Andrew Lloyd Weber version—owes its very existence to this film. The Paris Opera House was constructed on the Universal Pictures studio lot in Hollywood, making this one of the legendary giant productions of movie history. What really makes it work is Chaney's performance—from behind two masks, he delivers an emotional impact that is astonishing to behold. This is another entry in my growing list of Film 101 entries. It's at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto this Friday, 9/1, 7:30 p.m., with Dennis James, one of the world's top silent film accompanists, at the might Wurlitzer. I've no idea which print they're using (there are several, including the gorgeous 1996 Kevin Brownlow/Photoplay print with the two-strip Technicolor sequence and all the tinting restored), but since it's the Stanford Theatre, you're assured of a thoroughly professional presentation, so go!

What may prove to be the most exciting film series of the year (or at least one of my favorites) starts at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley this Sunday, 9/3, with Fritz Lang's utopian nightmare Metropolis (UFA, 1926) at 3 p.m., and Charles Chaplin's dystopian comedy Modern Times (Chaplin, 1936) at 6 p.m. The series is called The Mechanical Age, and serves as an overview of the 20th century's fascination with machinery and the movies—which are themselves a mechanical product.

The Mechanical Age includes a double bill of Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr.—in which a film projectionist walks into the action on the movie screen—and Dziga Vertov's brilliant exercise in montage, The Man With a Movie Camera, on Sunday, 9/24, a presentation of Magic Lantern slides, cinema's direct predecessor and a chief Victorian thrill, on Saturday, 9/30, a program of silent-era serials involving mechanical threats on Thursday, 9/24, an evening of industrial films celebrating machines, from the Prelinger Archive (with Rick Prelinger himself!) on Thursday, 10/19, and much, much more. Look here for weekly reminders.

Metropolis is one of the essential silent films. Gigantic, mythical, naïve, often overwrought and frequently fascistic, it remains archetypal, even in the wake of its latest restoration. For decades, Metropolis has been incomplete, much of its original footage lost. In 2002, an entirely new version of Metropolis was prepared by the Friederich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, combining all of the known surviving footage in the sequence dicated by a recently discovered shooting script. Gaps in the script's continuity were filled by using stills and title cards describing the missing action. All of the disparate film elements (including 16mm strips) were digitally modified to give the images an overall uniform quality. This is a controversial approach to restoring films, but it seems quite appropriate as a topic for discussion in a series about films and The Mechanical Age .

Modern Times is the last appearance of Chaplins's Little Tramp character, and it's also the last major silent film made in the United States. Released with a synchronized score and sound effects track, the only dialogue heard in the film originates from mechanical devices in the frame (with the exception of Chaplin's own nonsensical musical number). The film also has a political viewpoint that helped his right-wing opponents exile Chaplin from America in the stupidly paranoid environment of the 1950s. As you might guess, both Metropolis and Modern Times are on the Film 101 list.

Hopefully everyone likes Berkeley, as there's more at the Pacific Film Archive. This weekend, there are two nights with a new 35mm print of David Lynch's break-out film, Blue Velvet (DEG, 1986). With Inland Empire (Studio Canal, 2006) Lynch's first feature in five years, premiering at the Venice Film Festival on 9/5, now's as good a time as any to revisit the first commercially-produced, genuinely Lynchian film. (Like you need an excuse!) Blue Velvet remains compelling, and it retains all of the power it had when it shocked audiences on its first release. The brutal and deranged Frank Booth may be the one role that Dennis Hopper will be remembered for. In an inspired bit of programming, PFA presents it on Friday (8:55 p.m.) with Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (1956), a CinemaScope examination of secrets and societally-approved drug abuse in the middle of the post-WWII American community and nuclear family. With James Mason in one of his best performances. Presented at 7 p.m., in a 35mm restored vault print from the Criterion Collection and 20th Century Fox.

On Saturday, Blue Velvet screens at 6:50 p.m., followed by Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious at 8:50 p.m. One year after the war's end, Hitchcock uses the trope of post-Reich Nazi spies in South America to explore dominance, submission and sado-masochism in this still astonishingly effective examination of personal power structures. Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and Claude Rains were never better than they are in this film, but Leopoldine Konstantin almost steals the show as the cruel Teutonic matriarch.

We're not done with the PFA yet. Another clever series starts Wednesday, 9/6 at 7:30 p.m.: Arrr, Matey: Pirates and Piracy. Examining the renewed interest in pirates of legend, in the wake of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), Talk Like a Pirate Day (9/19, me hearties), and the retail component of 826 Valencia, as well as the new corporate driven copyright regulations that are turning more and more of us into piratical outlaws, this promises to be a fun and thought-provoking series. The first program includes the swashbuckling Errol Flynn battling the delightfully unctuous Claude Rains in Michael Curtiz's The Sea Hawk (Warner Brothers, 1940). With the hilarious-yet-chilling The Artwork in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility by Walter Benjamin as told to Keith Sanborn (1996), a four-minute short by Jayne Austen.

Anime fans and Hong Kong cinema enthusiasts will be lining up on Haight Street outside the Red Vic Movie House for The Great Yokai War (Kadokawa, 2005), opening Friday, 9/1, and playing through Thursday, 9/7. This is a live action/CGI anime-style eco-horror-fairy tale that appears to borrow liberally from the work of Japan's most successful animator, Hayao Miyazaki. It's directed by Takashi Miike, who's best known for nightmarish horror films like Gozu (2003). He also directed the 2005 television revival of Ultraman. The trailer for The Great Yokai War looks promising, but the question does remain: why bother re-doing in live-action and CGI what Miyazaki's already done exceedingly well in traditional animation? Let me know if you see it.

Johannes Vermeer was one of the great Dutch artists of the 17th century. Some 35 of his paintings are known to exist. One of them, The Concert, was stolen in 1990, along with 12 other significant works, from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and remains lost today. Stolen, a 2005 documentary by director Rebecca Dreyfus (with cinematography by Albert Maysles), follows art detective Harold Smith as he pursues what has become a personal obsession to locate the missing paintings more than a decade later. It looks to be an interesting examination of the world of high-priced artwork, competitive museums, shady collectors, and maybe the Irish Republican Army. It opens for a one-week run at the Roxie Cinema this Friday, 9/1.


Set your calendars ahead for:
The tenth Madcat Film Festival, 9/12-9/27.
The tenth Arab Film Festival, 9/8-9/14.

Copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Additional notes on Yellow Submarine

There's a direct connection between the fair city of San Francisco and the availability of the 35mm print of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine, and that connection is the one and only Anita Monga, one of the most gifted film programmers in the world.

In 1999, after the film was restored and enhanced (all of the music was remixed in Dolby 5.1, and an excised scene was put back in the film), MGM planned to have one public screening of the 35mm print in London, then shelve it, figuring that VHS and DVD was the only market for the film. Monga, who was programming the Castro Theatre at the time, latched onto her connections at MGM like a bulldog, and after months of wrangling, finally got them to come through with the print for a limited screening. The sell-out houses at the Castro convinced other repertory houses to ask for the print. By the time the unplanned theatrical release ended, it had played in 87 theaters throughout the U.S., grossing nearly half-a-million dollars, according to Robert Heironimus' book Inside the Yellow Submarine (Krause Publications, 2002).

So, were it not for the inspired work of Monga, MGM would probably have shelved, forgotten and lost their expensive, digitally-restored money-maker.

The sad and ironic end to this tale is that the management of the Castro Theatre chose to sack Monga in 2004, for no good reason that they've ever provided. In her 16 years of programming the Castro, she built the reputation of that theater, and helped to make San Francisco one of the best movie-going towns in the world. To what should be their ever-lasting shame, the San Francisco International Film Festival skipped over Monga when filling their executive director position last year, in favor of a publicist from New York, supposedly because hiring a San Franciscan would be seen as "too provincial." This is loony thinking, and betrays the actual provinciality of the board of the SFIFF, especially given that Monga was the protege of Mel Novikoff, the man who made the SF International Film Festival a success in the first place.

So, as you're watching The Beatles do battle with the Blue Meanies this Sunday, keep a kind thought for Monga, and skip the concession stand at the Castro.

There, the rant is over now.

Copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Hot Tix 8/23-8/31

Spent much of this past weekend almost entirely movie-free, at the California State Fair in Sacramento, wallowing in the 21st Century urban version of bucolic splendor mixed with heaping doses of the carnival. Not “carnaval,” but the darker, American version of carnival, the kind with the rides and the midway with games like Skeeball and Ringtoss, all guaranteed to fleece most comers.

This year's theme revolves around super-heroes, and there was a “Hall of Heroes,” of which about 75 percent was dedicated to crap for sale. The remaining quarter included a viewing room with a digital projector screening clips from heroic adventure films (saw about three minutes of a swordfight from The Legend of Zorro (Columbia, 2005), just enough to know that improved filmmaking technology and technique does not make for better movies—Rouben Mamoulian and Tyrone Power, Jr., did it much better in The Mark of Zorro (20th Century Fox, 1940), so did Fred Niblo and Douglas Fairbanks in the original The Mark of Zorro (United Artists, 1920). Heck, Walt Disney's TV unit did it better with Guy Williams in the series Zorro (Walt Disney/ABC, 1957-1959).

Sam Jones, the star of the delightfully bad Flash Gordon (DEG/Universal, 1980) was signing autographs. No sign of Dino DeLaurentiis, Brian Blessed or Max von Sydow.

The piece de resistance in the Hall of Heroes was the Batmobile! The real, genuine, TV show version of the coolest and dorkiest custom car ever made! Apparently it was one of the original cars made for the series by George Barris, that has been extensively and repeatedly modified over the years, but there's a plan to restore it to its original condition. This was the first time I'd ever seen the real Batmobile (I've seen the 1989 version—yawn) and I reacted like a kid.

But, the coolest thing I saw at the fair was a model of the Cerrito Theatre, a 1937 neighborhood screen that has been dark for 40 years, which has apparently been rescued from the grave by a local grassroots effort, and will reopen in October with all of its original murals and architectural details preserved and restored. Look for more news here as I get it myself.

Now, on to this week's films that are so cool, they're hot!
(Please kill me if I ever use that sentence again.)

Top of the list this week is a celebration of the 40th anniversary of The Beatles' last-ever concert, held at Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966. There are four film programs at the Castro Theatre, Saturday, 8/26 and Sunday, 8/27.

Saturday's first show starts at 1:00 p.m. with a performance of the set list from the Candlestick show by Beatles sound-alike band The Sun Kings. Then the 1978 teen comedy I Wanna Hold Your Hand (Universal), Robert Zemeckis' first major film, about a group of crazed fans intent on crashing the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I've never seen it, and Zemeckis often gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies (Roger Rabbit notwithstanding), but it supposedly has a scene of Nancy Allen (Chris Hargensen from Brian DePalma's Carrie) in a romantic clench with Paul McCartney's Hofner bass guitar. That could be just strange enough to be fun. The real treat is a rare 16mm film screening of McCartney's notorious Magical Mystery Tour, the 1967 TV film about the Beatles on a psychedelic bus tour. Features John Lennon as an Italian waiter using a shovel to feed the portly Jessie Robins, portraying Ringo Starr's aunt, and a cameo by the Bonzo Dog Band. It's a film guaranteed to inspire confidence in any aspiring filmmaker: Yes, even I have made a better film than this. But it is a gloriously awful movie well worth sitting through for 55 minutes. And remember, Ringo is the cinematographer! Still, it's got great music: "I Am the Walrus," "The Fool on the Hill," "Blue Jay Way." (Bonzo Dog member Neil Innes would later collaborate with Eric Idle of Monty Python on the legendary send-up of the Beatles, The Rutles: All You Need is Cash.)

Rock historian (no, not a geologist) Ben Fong-Torres talks about the Candlestick concert, then shows footage of an interview he did with McCartney in 1976. (Yes, the Mulleted McCartney! Oh, the humanity. Thank dog The Ramones came along when they did.) Followed by a 35mm screening of Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (United Artists, 1964), the first and best of all the Beatles movies, and possibly the best rock movie ever made (even better than Rock 'n' Roll High School —let it play for a bit—the sound does kick in). Then more sound-alike music from the Sun Kings. Saturday, 8/26, 7 p.m.

Sunday opens with a brilliant idea for a matinee: The sing-along Yellow Submarine (Subafilms/United Artists, 1968)!!!! C'mon, one of the songs is called "All Together Now." It works! Of course, it will be interesting to see everyone try to keep up with George's “Only a Northern Song.” With a 16mm print of The Beatles Live in Washington D.C., a film of their actual first U.S. concert appearance (after the Ed Sullivan Show). Sunday, 8/27, 1 p.m.

It all wraps up with the astonishing 1966 Richard Lester anti-war classic How I Won the War (Petersham/United Artists), featuring Lennon as Pvt. Gripweed, in glorious 35mm Eastmancolor. This is black comedy at its finest. Dealing with the stupidity of war and the class system that enables war, it's reminiscent of Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 and Robert Altman's film of M*A*S*H (20th Century Fox, 1970), only bleaker and funnier. This is the one to see if you can see only one. It will be followed by a preview of the new documentary about Lennon's years as an activist, The U.S. vs. John Lennon, which you've no doubt read all about at my earlier post below. Drew Harrison, lead singer of the Sun Kings will provide a musical tribute to Lennon as well. Sunday, 8/27 at 7 p.m.

The folks at Bay Area Film Events have promised lots of giveaways, prizes and contests throughout the films. For those who can't get enough Beatles, there's a couple of non-film events at the Hard Rock Cafe at Pier 39 on Friday, 8/25. The Sun Kings will play a set following a proclamation of “Beatles Week” by one of Mayor Gavin's staff at 11 a.m. Then, there's a “Beatles Party, ” also at the Hard Rock Cafe and with the Sun Kings, from 4-6 p.m.

Sadly, they tried to get Help! (United Artists, 1965) and Let It Be (Apple/United Artists, 1970), but both of those films are locked in a legal limbo. This trailer is also not on the schedule, but should be seen to be believed. (A tip of the Beatle wig to Agent LC for this gem.)

You can find out more about events an buy tickets here.

Film Noir is a tricky term. Is it a genre, a style, a technique, all or none of the above? Did it begin with John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (Warner Bros., 1941) or Stranger on the First Floor (RKO, 1940)? Is Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (PRC, 1945) the best noir, or simply the cheapest? One thing is certain, though. Most of the filmmakers responsible for noir had no idea that was what they were making. The term was coined by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, and the real study of the form began, again in France, during the 1950s. The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto presents two of the seminal noir pictures this weekend, Gilda and Laura. Rita Hayworth is Gilda Farrell, one of the most astonishingly dangerous femmes fatale ever to rope a mook. Glenn Ford plays the mook, and Charles Vidor directs. Gene Tierney as Laura Hunt almost makes Hayworth's Gilda look like a librarian who rescues sick kittens. Dana Andrews is the shlub. Vincent Price is also on hand to help chew the scenery. These are both on my Film 101 schedule—you simply must see these. Laura plays at 5:55 p.m. and 9:40 p.m. Friday, 8/25 through Monday, 8/28. Gilda shows at 7:30 p.m. nightly, with matinees at 3:45 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. They're in glorious 35mm and black-and-white!

Jesse Ficks continues to exhume the strangest films from the 1970s and 1980s for his Midnites for Maniacs series at the Castro Theatre. This Friday, 8/25, an astonishing triple bill begins with Heartbeeps (Universal, 1981), one of the great “what were they smoking” films. Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters are shiny robots who fall in love, flee their human masters, and attempt to raise a child who sounds a lot like Jerry Garcia (because it is his voice). The cast includes Christopher Guest (Spinal Tap), Randy Quaid, and the always-astonishing team of Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul). Directed by Allan Arkush (Rock 'n' Roll High School), this film is, well, something. Also on the bill is Weird Science (Universal, 1985), with Kelly LeBrock as the scientific abomination created by two hormonally stressed teen geniuses, with Bill Paxton as the abusive older brother. Plus a legendarily awful film about video games, breasts, and flaunting authority, Joysticks (1983, Jensen Farley). The title pretty much sums it up. It all kicks off at 7:30 p.m., with Joysticks starting at MIDNIGHT.

The Pacific Film Archive concludes its retrospective of films by Japanese director Kenzo Mizoguchi this week. Friday, 8/25, sees the first of the final three programs features a brand new 35mm print of Street of Shame (1956), a strange and troubling journey into Tokyo's Yoshiwara red-light district during the 1950s, examining the lives of five women working at the Dreamland brothel, 7 p.m. It's followed by Sansho the Bailiff (1954), set in 11th Century Japan, at 8:50 p.m.

Sunday, 8/27, the PFA screens The Life of Oharu (1952), considered by Mizoguchi to be his best film. It follows the degradation of a 17th Century lady of the court, who loses everything after she falls in love with page. It shows at 5:30 p.m.

Wednesday, 8/30, the series ends with The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), a Meiji-era drama about a woman's self-sacrifice in support of a kabuki actor. It starts at 7:30 p.m.

The Pacific Film Archive also presents a rare look at the father of animation, Winsor McCay, courtesy of one of the modern masters of the form, John Canemaker. McCay created the early comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, as well as the legendary Tales of a Rarebit Fiend. Although he didn't invent cinematic animation, he was one of its earliest champions and stars, with such films as Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and How a Mosquito Operates (1912). Canemaker presents a program of McCay's shorts, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 8/26. Preceding that is a presentation of Canemaker's shorts, Marching to a Different Toon, including his adaptation of John Lennon's drawings in John Lennon's Sketchbook (1986). That show's at 5 p.m.

The Red Vic screens The War Tapes (2006), Deborah Scranton's interesting approach to embedded coverage of the war in Iraq. She gave digital video cameras to three soldiers, who documented their daily lives as they guard the financial resources of the Halliburton corporation. This is not an easy film to watch, as it takes you close inside the war, but it should be seen, especially by anyone with a “Support Our Troops” sticker on the car. Know what you're supporting. It plays at 2 p.m., 4:15 p.m., 7:15 p.m. and 9:20 p.m. Sunday, 8/27, and 7:15 p.m. and 9:20 p.m. Monday, 8/28, and Tuesday, 8/29.

The Roxie Cinema has a couple of interesting documentaries this week. The first, Our Brand is Crisis (Boynton Films/Koch-Lorber, 2006), is a look how political consultants from the United States, including Bill Clinton's lieutenant James Carville, used marketing, lies, rumors, lots of money and dirtier tricks to try to defeat the popular leftist Evo Morales, leader of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) Party, in Bolivia's 2005 presidential elections. Directed by Rachel Boynton, whose previous documentary was People Like Us: Social Class In America (Center for New American Media, 2001), this looks to be a fascinating examination of how the U.S. tries to control “democracy” in other countries—when it's not imposing “democracy” via missiles and ground forces. It opens Friday, 8/25, and plays through Wednesday, 8/31, 7:15 p.m. and 9 p.m. nightly, with additional screenings at 2:45 and 5 p.m. Saturday, 8/26, and Sunday, 8/27.

The second documentary of interest at the Roxie is Dark Water Rising: The Truth About Hurricane Katrina Animal Rescues (Shidog Films, 2006), a look at the volunteer efforts to rescue the animals left behind in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina exposed the United States' callousness last year. This will not be an easy film to watch, but it's one that should be seen by everyone that has a pet or just likes animals. I'd say it should be seen by everyone, but the heartless will simply not get it. You can see the trailer here. Directed by Mike Shiley, who also did Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories (2004), one of the best of the un-embedded looks at America's “finest hour.” (Irony intended.) Dark Water Rising plays one night only, Monday, 8/28, at 6:30 p.m., 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Placeholder: Mark your calendars for Friday, September 1. The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto is showing the inimitable Lon Chaney in the dazzling The Phantom of the Opera (Universal, 1925), with the astonishing Dennis James at the mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ. This is a key Film 101 entry.

Copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.



Friday, August 18, 2006

Friz Freleng: Wizard or Monster?

Today's post is part of a blog-athon on the subject of Looney Tunes director Isadore “Friz” Freleng. Suggested by Brian at Hell on Frisco Bay, a damned fine movie blog, this involves a bunch of bloggers all commenting on the same subject. As soon as Brian's collected all of the links (sometime Monday, 8/21), I'll post my own link to it, so you can check out what other folks have to say about Freleng. As always, please let me know what you think, either by commenting directly, or emailing me at the “You know how to whistle?” link to your right. -- RH

I'd say that it's a safe bet that if you polled those who know the names of the real people who made the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, most would rank them in the following order: #1 or #2: Chuck Jones or Tex Avery, #3: Robert Clampett, #4: Friz Freleng, #5: Robert McKimson, then everyone else, from Frank Tashlin to Abe Levitow to Hawley Pratt, etc.

This ranking is subjective and non-scientific. It represents my experience of which directors most people are aware of. I suspect more people know of Jones and Avery because they have received the best publicity. They've been the subject of more books, articles, films and TV specials than any of the others.

Of course, that might also suggest that Jones and Avery had the most creative success. Their styles are much more distinct than the styles of the others, and are instantly recognizable to even the novice cartoon scholar. (Clampett's style is equally apparent, but his impact on the LT/MM canon is less obvious.)

What does this say about everyone else, including Freleng? While they were all innovative and frequently daring, the sum of their work is less than that of Jones and Avery. As weird as Clampett's Porky in Wackyland (1938) and its colorized doppelganger Dough for the Do-Do (1949)—repainted and enhanced by Freleng's team—are, they're not as surreal as Jones' Duck Amuck (1953) nor as delirious as Avery's Little Red Walking Hood (1937). Porky in Wackyland/Dough for the Do-Do draws attention to its inspiration: the backgrounds are obviously copies of the landscapes of Salvador Dali and Yves Tanguy, the frenetic gags owe less to dada than to the best of Dave Fleischer's Koko the Klown and Betty Boop cartoons. The absurdity of Duck Amuck appears to be primary. The use of inappropriate sound cues and the insertion of an external animator draws attention to the movie-making process itself, making Duck Amuck truly surreal, not merely an homage. Their ability to repeatedly synthesize components of the work of other artists into a new form, as opposed to replication, is what distinguished Jones and Avery. Clampett and Freleng had their moments of brilliance, just not as often as Jones and Avery.

Freleng always seemed to be to be the workhorse of Termite Terrace. Steady, productive, competent but uninspired. What always comes to my mind is the DePatie-Freleng period. When Warner Brothers closed its animation division in the early 1960s, Freleng joined forces with David DePatie to form DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, which hired most of the line staff that Warner's had dismissed. Their big score was the opening sequence of The Pink Panther (United Artists, 1963), which they spun off into a series of cartoon shorts that played in theaters and on television. They also were one of the companies that Warners contracted to produce Looney Tunes until 1968. These cheaply-produced exercises in limited animation and static stories are among the worst of the entire series. Their failure is likely less the fault of DePatie/Freleng than of the budgets set by Warners, but I've never been able to get the sour taste of those late-era Daffy Duck/Speedy Gonzales films out of my mouth.

For this Freleng blog-athon, I thought I'd examine what I believe to be his best and worst work for Warners.

The worst is among the most offensive of the entire series of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips (1944). There's a bizarre cult built around this film, as it's one of the cartoons that Warner Brothers all but denies exist. Its scarcity, coupled with typical knee-jerk responses to perceived “political correctness” makes this cartoon a “holy grail” for collectors. Unlike Clampett's Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarves (1943), another hidden short that manages to be funny despite its use of racist caricatures, Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips is an uninspired mess that would be boring if it weren't so astonishingly revolting.

It opens with what was already a well-worn trope: Bugs Bunny adrift on the ocean, waiting to be stranded on a desert island. Freleng and scenarist Tedd Pierce draw attention to this quotidian device, having Bugs declare that he's “just killing time until the the island that inevitably turns up in these kinds of pictures, turns up.” This reflexive awareness of being in a movie is often one of the best set-up devices in a cartoon, but it falls flat here, thanks to the prosaic animation of the opening. The first shot is of an empty ocean, with a title “Somewhere in the Pacific,” as a scale is rapped out on a xylophone. The camera tracks to the right, then Bugs, off camera, starts to sing “Someone's Rocking My Dreamboat.” The camera moves towards the empty horizon, and the frame dissolves to a new shot of a crate floating on the waves, two long grey ears protruding from the top. Another dissolve brings the camera in closer to the crate, then a cut brings the camera inside the crate to see Bugs. In almost every other cartoon where a character gets stranded on an island, the reveal is handled fluidly through the animation, not through clumsy editing. It's as if Freleng is warning the audience that what's to follow is of low quality.

The animation in this short presages the limited animation style that would define the work of DePatie/Freleng and Hanna-Barbera in the 1960s. There are lots and lots of repeated frames, giving the picture a static and occasionally jerky quality completely unlike most of the LT/MM shorts of the 1940s. Bugs spends an inordinate amount of time talking to himself in this film, providing exposition but mostly continuing to kill time. Of course, better he kill time than what he ends up killing.

In 1944, America was deeply engaged in war with Japan, the “Pacific Theater” of World War II. Racist portrayals of the Japanese weren't simply common, they were all but required. Fearful of what was perceived as an internal security threat, the federal government held some 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans in “internment camps.” Most of these were American citizens. Nearly all of them lost their homes and businesses. Few, if any, had any connection to, or liking for, Imperial Japan. Given the sentiment expressed in Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, it's just possible that these imprisoned Japanese and Japanese-Americans might have been safer than if they had been free to be abused by yahoos inspired by racist dreck like this cartoon.

Bugs' tropical island is inhabited by Japanese soldiers, all drawn in extremely offensive caricature: bowed legs, sloping foreheads, buck teeth, slanted eyes, round-framed eyeglasses and receding chins. They speak gibberish except when they drop into heavily accented broken English when they have to say something the audience must comprehend (e.g., “Oooh, regrettable incident. Not-a-knowing honorable general. Oooh, excuse-a-prease. Ooooh, not-a-wanting make-a hari-kari.” Typing that made me nauseous.). These soldiers are colossally stupid and suicidal. As they pursue the “wascally wabbit,” they make Elmer Fudd look like Albert Einstein.

Of course, when Bugs does battle with Elmer, the ground rules are those of any good cartoon: No matter how many times the mallet strikes the head, no matter how point-blank the shotgun blast, no character is ever really harmed. When Bugs faces the Japanese soldiers (plus one sumo wrestler), everybody but the rabbit dies, albeit off camera. The worst moment may be when Bugs dons a white uniform while delivering “Good Rumor” ice cream bars to the infantilized soldiers. Each confection contains a live grenade. As he distributes the treats among the throng, Bugs chants “Here's yours, bow-legs. Here, one for you, monkey-face. . . Here ya'are, slant-eyes.”

After the massacre is complete, the cartoon completely falls apart. After Bugs notches palm trees with Japanese flags to mark his “kills,” he throws a fit, declaring that he “can't stand peace and quiet.” A U.S. ship sails by, and he furiously tries to flag it down, until he's distracted by a sarong-wearing female version of himself. He howls like a wolf, and she hops away. Bugs then hops after her, and the cartoon irises out. It's not unexpected for Bugs to pursue a female rabbit, but this occurs here without any prior motivation. Unseen during eight minutes of random slaughter, the drag version of Bugs Bunny shows up at the end, is supposed to be taken seriously as a genuinely female bunny, and Bugs turns into the Hollywood Wolf. I know Bugs is narcissistic, but this is ridiculous.

Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips will not be showing anywhere, anytime soon. I've long been a proponent of the idea that films with racist content should be available for viewing by adults, provided that the proper context is set beforehand. Those who cannot remember the past, etc., etc. This cartoon has historic importance as an example of war-tinged racism from the 1940s, but that's all it has. It may be the worst Bugs Bunny cartoon ever made, and it's likely the worst that Freleng ever did. Under no circumstances should this cartoon fall into the hands of an unsuspecting child (or an ignorant adult, for that matter). I viewed this cartoon on a 1992 laserdisc, from The Golden Age of Looney Tunes, Volume 1. After protests, the set was withdrawn by Turner Entertainment, and the cartoon replaced by Racketeer Rabbit (1946) on future printings. If you really want to subject yourself to it, it can be seen at Pistol Wimp's site. It's also part of Dennis Nyback's roadshow Bad Bugs Bunny, which also includes “gems” like Sioux Me (1939) and All This and Rabbit Stew (1941). According to his website, Warner Brothers sent Nyback a cease-and-desist order following a New York screening in 1997. Instead of backing down, Nyback dared them to take him to court, where he knew the news media would have a field day reporting about Bugs Bunny's racist history. Without saying a word, Warner backed down.

(Nyback has several programs of rare and unusual shorts, and he's available to come to your town. Check this out.)

At the other end of the spectrum is Freleng's Three Little Bops (1957), possibly his best cartoon. The late 1950s were a last hurrah for the Warner Brothers cartoons. What's Opera, Doc? (1957), One Froggy Evening (1955), The Honey-Mousers (1956), Robin Hood Daffy (1958), Stupor Duck (1956) and Rocket-Bye Baby (1956) are just a sample of what Termite Terrace turned out as the century moved past the midpoint. A few years later, Warners would shut down its animation department, and cartoons would be banished to television and limited animation, from the brilliance of UPA's Gerald McBoing Boing to the graceless Clutch Cargo.


Three Little Bops stands apart from the other LT/MM shorts, in that neither Mel Blanc nor Carl Stalling were involved. Radio genius Stan Freberg provided the voices and Shorty Rogers did the very hot jazz music, which drives the cartoon from start to finish. The Three Little Pigs are now a jazz combo, playing at the House of Straw. The Big Bad Wolf is an over-eager trumpet player who has talent in inverse proportion to his enthusiasm. Rejected by the pigs, the Wolf blows down the nightclub, then follows them to the House of Sticks, and you get the idea.

From the very first, when the characters that form the title literally bop into the frame, Three Little Bops moves in time to Rogers' musical rhythm. This is reminiscent of the early sound cartoons, the period some refer to as the “Sausage Era” (so named because most characters were designed using sausage shapes). Cartoons from the Fleischer Studio, especially the earliest Betty Boop shorts, are great examples of this style of animation. Everything in the frame moves in time to the synchronized music: city skylines, clouds, streetcars, automobiles, queues of characters waiting to get into a moving nightclub, etc. The early Warner Brothers cartoons used this same technique, and Freleng cut his teeth on this style. You Don't Know What You're Doing (1931) is a great example of Freleng's work in this style. The Piggy character gets drunk, and as he and a buddy drive along in their bopping car, the street undulates, while the skyline rocks and rolls. The movement in Three Little Bops is restricted to the characters—the buildings only move when the Wolf blows them down with his horn—but the nearly perpetual motion gives the cartoon a sense of fun from the very first 24 frame second.

Like the best of the earliest sound cartoons, the music drives the action. Freberg provides a running narration in a style not entirely unlike bebop (but not exactly like it either), that serves to enhance what's happening in the frame, not explain it. When the Wolf attempts to blow down the House of Bricks (built in 1776!), Freberg sings “he huffed and puffed and bleat and blewt/and at ten o'clock was completely pooped” as the Wolf does just that. The audience is already aware of the characters and the story (it is The Three Little Pigs, for crying out loud), so there's no need for any narrative development, and all the effort can be expended on jokes that arise by moving the story to the 1950s jazz club scene. The piano-playing pig provides a Liberace joke, the guitar-playing pig dances like Larry Collins of the Collins Kids. The Wolf's attempts to get into the Bops' act get cornier each time. At one point he enters dressed like a 1920s-era collegiate, strumming a ukulele, another time he comes in dressed in a marching band outfit, beating a drum. The Bops dismiss him easily each time, until he finally resorts to one of the great cartoon standbys: the giant keg of dynamite. Once the explosives are brought onscreen, Freleng wastes no time in dispatching the Wolf, who “didn't get to heaven, 'twas the other place,” where he can finally blow a mean horn. The piano-playing pig declares “you've got to get hot to play real cool.”

Three Little Bops is the opposite of Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips. Three Little Bops moves and flows, Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips is static and poorly constructed. Three Little Bops is all about music and rhythm—a celebration of life. Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips is about death. The two cartoons were made under very different circumstances: one was made at the height of a brutal war, the other was made in a brief lull between skirmishes during the Cold War. Yet it's still amazing to think that two such different philosophies could come from the same director. Freleng, like most people really, must have been a complicated person. It's a shame that diverse nature wasn't better represented throughout the body of his work.

Copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Hot Tix: August 16-22

There are lots more 70mm films this week at the Castro (see last week's entry for my rant about 70mm film), and two competing MIDNIGHT shows. And mark your calendars for a weekend-long film-a-thon to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' final gig, at Candlestick Park, in 1966, coming up Aug.26-27. See Friday's post for a glorious rant about John Lennon.

Do let me know if you actually attend any of these shows. There's a direct email link now, to the right. You know how to whistle, don't you?

Now, this week's picks:

Elvis Presley left the building 29 years ago next Wednesday. To celebrate his assumption by space aliens, the
Parkway Theater in Oakland presents the Elvis D-Day Bash, Thursday, 8/17. Featuring one of the dumbest movies the King of Rock 'n' Roll ever made (and that is one heck of a competition, let me tell you) Clambake (United Artists, 1967), with Shelley (The Donna Reed Show, Coach, “Johnny Angel,” Annette Funicello's best buddy) Fabares, Bill (My Favorite Martian, The Incredible Hulk, Yvonne “Batgirl” Craig's boyfriend) Bixby, and Angelique (Shahna from the “Gamesters of Triskelion” episode of Star Trek) Pettyjohn. Elvis plays a rich playboy who trades places with a water-skiing instructor—also played by the King, and the yoks begin. Songs include: oh, heck, it's 1967! Elvis recorded nothing deserving of his name that year. Look for the mountains of Florida, and a young Terri Garr frooging her heart out. Cari Lee and the Saddle-ites (who sound damned fine—check out their MP3s!) will set the musical tone.

If you have to pick only one
Kenzo Mizoguchi film to see during the retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, Osaka Elegy (Daiichi Eiga, 1938) is it. He explores the colliding worlds of the 1930s in Japan's chief commercial center, Osaka, as he shows us the development of young woman who becomes a mistress to her boss at the telephone company so she can better assist her family financially. As she leaves the traditional ways of her family behind for the luscious art deco world of her capitalist sugar daddy, she finds herself more adrift and over her head. Full of deep focus and traveling shots, this is a glorious proto-feminist film from a nation on the verge of a backslide to imperialism that imperiled the world. Friday, 8/18, 7 p.m. Plays with Ugetsu Monogatori (Daiei, 1956), Mizoguchi's anti-military film set in 16th Century Japan. Plays at 8:45 p.m.

Everyone's seen the picture of
Harold Lloyd hanging several stories above downtown Los Angeles from the hands of a giant clock. See Safety Last! (Hal Roach, 1923), the movie this stunt is from this Friday, 8/18, 7:30 p.m., at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto. The incomparable Chris Elliott will provide live musical accompaniment on the mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ. Lloyd was the third member of the silent era's trio of great comedians, the others being Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and Safety Last! is one of his funniest features. For years, Lloyd's films were unavailable, because his estate refused (at his instructions) to let TV stations cut them up for commercials. Fortunately, because of this restriction, most of Lloyd's features have survived intact, with very little if any damage or loss of quality. His granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, has had the films restored and preserved, and is making them available again, and we should sing her praises high and low for this gift.

Although Midnight Mass is done for the year, Peaches Christ isn't ready to be assumed to her reward yet, as she still has to host the
Underground Short Film Festival, MIDNIGHT Saturday, 8/19, at the Bridge Theater. There are 17 films, ranging from one minute to nine minutes in length, and they're all by new filmmakers. They cover a wide range of subjects and styles, ranging from Deadly Finger and Deadly Finger Returns by Jose Montesinos (which looked damned funny in the festival trailer), to Uphill Both Ways' Sock Puppet Porn (ditto). I've seen one of the films in the collection, Steffen Frech's Torsten Kretchmar: Dunkleheit, and can say that it's brilliantly edited and damned funny. I believe I've also seen another, Dichotomy, by Joe Fitzgerald. If it's the film I think it is, it is visually arresting and insanely complex for a two-minute short. If it's not, I'll just say that Fitzgerald is an incredibly talented young filmmaker who you will worship once you see his work. Really. I do.

It's guilty pleasure time, with a midnight screening of Tron (Walt Disney, 1982), the original, cheesiest and most fun of all computer game movies, in glorious 70mm. See Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan become glowing avatars (now there's a word you don't hear much anymore) in a Pac-Man-inspired “digital” landscape. David Warner is the bad guy. Duh. The “science” is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. The fantasy is so outlandish that Chevy Chase movies seem rational in comparison. The costumes are goofy. The visuals are really cool. But the best thing is the sound. The soundscape of this film is one of the most inspired bits of mechanical fantasy you'll ever hear. And did I mention it's in 70mm!!! Brought to you by the marvelous Jesse Ficks and his Midnights for Maniacs crew, at the
Castro Theater, Saturday, 8/19, at MIDNIGHT!

The war films of the 1930s are remarkable, because if your reference is limited to the past 20 years, it can be hard to believe that Hollywood ever made anti-war movies. But it did, and
Frank Borzage's Three Comrades (MGM, 1938) deals with the horrors of World War I (the first of many “War to End All Wars”) and hints heavily at the economic situation of the Depression era. The screenplay is by F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) from a novel by Eric Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front). Robert Taylor, Franchot Tone, Robert Young and Margaret Sullavan star, 6:30 p.m. Saturday, 8/19, at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. With The Mortal Storm (MGM, 1940), Borzage's frank examination of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany and its impact on the Jewish population. With Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, 8:30 p.m.

It's Gary Cooper nights at the
Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, with a double feature of Love in the Afternoon (Allied Artists, 1957) and High Noon (Kramer/United Artists, 1952), Saturday 8/19 through Monday, 8/21. Billy Wilder directed Love in the Afternoon as an homage to one of his mentors, the master of the witty romantic adventure, Ernst Lubitsch. Cooper pursues French cellist Audrey Hepburn in Paris, using a private detective played by Maurice Chevalier, who just happens to be the cellist's father. 7:30 p.m. each day, plus 3:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Fred Zinneman's High Noon is legendary as the first adult western made in Hollywood. Cooper is the retiring sheriff whose plans to leave town with his new wife (the incomparable Grace Kelly) are interrupted by the arrival of a group of old enemies. The townsfolk refuse to help the sheriff, who now faces a moral dilemma: run away and be safe, or defend a townful of ingrates for no reason other than it's his duty? This one is required viewing in Hildreth's Film 101 course. 9:55 p.m. each day, plus 5:55 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper made two films together, and you can see their second, Desire (Paramount, 1936), at the
Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 8/20 at 5:30 p.m. Directed by Frank Borzage, this is a smart and sexy spy thriller produced by Ernst Lubitsch. The Lubitsch touch combines with Borzage's passion beautifully, creating a film that is as romantic and it is cynical. Dietrich and Cooper are a fantastic screen duo, and this may be their best outing together.

The third film in Deep Mehta's elements trilogy, Water (Fox Searchlight, 2005), caused a firestorm of protest among Hindu fundamentalists in India, who prevented the film from being made in 2000 by burning the sets and then tossing the remains into the Ganges River. Mehta's feminist approach is an easy target for fundamentalists, and by dealing with historic and religious aspects of Indian life, she attracts a great deal of negative attention in her native country (she's lived in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, since 1973). Water was shot in Sri Lanka under a false title, and there is no definite date for its release in India. Set in 1938, during British colonial rule, it details the life of a child bride who finds herself widowed at the age of seven years. Difficult but rich, Mehta's films are a far cry from Bollywood, and provide a glimpse of life as lived by far too many people, still. It's at the
Red Vic, Sunday, 8/20, at 2:00 p.m., 4:30 p.m., and 7:00 p.m., and Saturday, 8/21, at 7:00 p.m. And 9:30 p.m.

Kenneth Branagh may be the Orson Welles of our era. A brilliant actor who proved to be a damned fine film director, undone by a meddling studio who wouldn't leave well enough alone—Nah, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the subsequent damage to his career was Branagh's own damn fault. He should have stuck with the William Shakespeare films, like his stunning adaptation of Hamlet (Castle Rock/Columbia, 1996). The Bard does not adapt easily to film, as his plays are truly of their original medium, the stage. But Branagh makes daring choices (like casting Billy Crystal as a gravedigger) and expands the frame of the play to fit the expanse of the wide, wide screen. There are many brilliant reasons to see this film, from Derek Jacobi's turn as Claudius, to Judi Dench as Hecuba, Branagh himself as the prince, and the titanic Brian Blessed as the ghost that kicks it all off. But the best reason is that the
Castro Theater is showing it in glorious 70mm!!! Sunday, 8/20, 2:00 p.m. And 7:00 p.m.

Jacques Tati's Mr. Hulot character is as iconic in France as Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, and he's just as funny and touching. In 1967, Tati unveiled his grandest comedy with Mr. Hulot, the epic Playtime. In an expensive and grand homage to Chaplin's Modern Times (Chaplin/United Artists, 1936), Mr. Hulot becomes trapped in the bizarre architecture of a futuristic Paris. The mid-century modern architectural styles are skewered relentlessly. Tati literally built a small city of steel and glass as his set. The production took three years to complete, and longer to recoup its investment. It was also the penultimate appearance of Mr. Hulot. At the Castro Theater, in 70mm!!!, Tuesday, 8/22, at 7:00 and 9:30 p.m.

Copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Gimme Some Truth - The U.S. vs. John Lennon

Today's post is a little different. It's not so much about a movie as it is about history—personal and general—that sprang to mind when I saw a trailer that hit me so hard, I put aside the other articles I was working on . I look forward to anything you might have to say about this one. —RH

There's a trailer out for a new documentary called
The U.S. vs. John Lennon (LSL/Lion's Gate, 2006). I cried when I saw it, because it brought back a John Lennon I had all but forgotten, a naïve political activist caught up in events beyond his control, targeted as a threat to a corrupt politician fighting to hold on to power while conducting a hopeless war. Who also happened to have a large influence on the creation of my mind.

The relevance of this documentary to current events is evident when disgraced President Richard Nixon is shown addressing the nation about the Vietnam War. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to George Bush, he says “
As South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater.”

If the documentary is half as good as the trailer, The U.S. vs. John Lennon could be one hell of a movie. It's directed and written by the team of David Leaf and John Scheinfield, who appear to specialize in TV documentaries about musicians. I reserve judgment, as their previous efforts include Rosemary Clooney: Girl Singer (LSL/PBS, 2004), Beautiful Dreamer: The Story of Brian Wilson and “Smile” (LSL/Showtime, 2004) and Sinatra: The Classic Duets (LSL, 2002).


I was on a pay phone in a college dormitory in Storrs, Connecticut, when I learned that Lennon had been killed. The phone conversation was a farewell hiding behind a please-write-often to an ex-girlfriend, as I was days away from boarding the Greyhound bus that brought me to California, where I've lived since. What I remember was my traveling companion, Peter, bursting into the wooden booth, his eyes wild and wet, asking if I'd heard what happened. I thought that the Soviet Union might have invaded Poland, or that the U.S. could have struck at Iran, given Peter's evident panic. When he said “John Lennon's been shot,” my adrenaline must have kicked in, because my perception of reality was suddenly so acute that the words were suspended in my ears, and time slowed. The amber light in the foyer appeared to grow in candlepower, and the sound of the Buzzcocks coming from the stereo in the kitchen was very, very hollow. With Ronald Reagan taking over the White House in January, I was prepared for—even expecting—war, not Lennon's assassination.

My early musical tastes were formed by the Beatles. I was 11 years old when their break-up was announced in early 1970. I'd been aware of their music since I was nine years old—my fifth grade binder was covered with transcriptions of the lyrics to “Help!,” “Nowhere Man,” and other Beatles songs. Abbey Road was the first record I bought with money I'd saved myself. It helped that my parents hated the Beatles. The
current image of the Beatles is as cuddly as a Sanrio character, but they were anything but cuddly in 1970. All my parents saw was the long hair, the beards, the drugs, the LP jacket with a full frontal nude photograph of Lennon and Yoko Ono—and for that matter, Ono herself—and they were frightened for my future.

It might appear laughable in the iTunes era that rock 'n' roll could be considered dangerous, but there was a clear link between music and the politics that were dividing America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Bob Dylan released “Masters of War” in 1963, Joan Baez encouraged young men to refuse to be drafted into military service. San Francisco's
Jefferson Airplane was boldly activist, protesting America's war in Vietnam. Detroit's MC5, who performed at the protest outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago right before the riot began, even had its own arsenal.

My family lived just outside the city limits of New Haven, Connecticut, where the promise of the 1960s counterculture came to an end with the
arrests of eight members of the Black Panther Party, plus its national chairman, Bobby Seale, for the May, 1969, torture-murder-lynching of fellow Panther Alex Rackley, who was suspected by the Panthers of being a police informer.

The first of two trials began in spring of 1970. Students at Yale University joined the Panthers in protests. The school's president, Kingman Brewster, added fuel to the growing fire when he told protesters that he was “skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve fair trials in the United States.” The first week of May saw demonstrations culminating with some 15,000 protesters on the New Haven Green (about two miles from our home, as the crow flies). Governor John Dempsey ordered the National Guard to New Haven, but police chief James Ahern kept them largely out of sight, keeping a lid on the powder keg, although there are reports of minor skirmishes. That same week, another troop of the National Guard opened fire with live ammunition on unarmed student protesters at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four and wounding nine.

In retrospect, I can almost understand why my parents were worried. At the time, I really didn't know what was going on. I was 11 years old, and I liked rock 'n' roll. That blissful ignorance didn't last. It gradually dawned on me that the Vietnam War wasn't going to end any time soon, and when I turned 18, I would be a likely candidate for the military draft. The only way out of the draft was a college deferment, and my folks, neither of whom had been to college (my mother didn't finish high school), weren't in a position to send me to school. My father suggested I consider the Navy, where he had spent the Korean War as a SONAR operator, well away from combat.

I'd enjoyed the feel-good politics of Lennon's “All You Need is Love” and “Give Peace a Chance.” Who wouldn't be in favor of love and peace, if only as abstract ideals? “Instant Karma,” his single from February, 1970, made me think. The music was great, a hard driving rocker with a literally screaming vocal. The label bore the words “PLAY LOUD.” But I had to look up “
karma” in a dictionary. A library's dictionary, because the one we had at home hadn't included the word, which only entered common usage in America after the success of Lennon's song. What I learned was the Hindu definition, which boils down to: your negative actions will come back to you, which seemed to be exactly what Lennon was suggesting:

Instant karma's gonna get you
Gonna knock you off your feet
Better recognize your brothers
Everyone you meet
Why in the world are we here?
Surely not to live in pain and fear
Why on earth are you there?
When you're everywhere
Gonna get your share

This was heady stuff for a Catholic kid who thought he might have a calling for the priesthood. It flies in the face of the basic tenets of Catholicism: That Christ died for my sins, that I can't help but be a sinner, and only by accepting Christ as my savior could I gain everlasting life. Karma suggests I'm responsible for my own fate in this world, and the next, if there is one. This eliminates absolution, the defining event of Catholicism. It bothered me at first that this seemed to make more sense than what I was learning in catechism. But a switch had been thrown in my brain.

About this time, my parents had a party for my father's relatives. Vietnam and the anti-war protests were a major topic of discussion, and I finally understood something that I'd heard from my uncle before. “You've got to remember,” he told my father, “the
g---s just don't have the same respect for life that we have.” I'd been reading about the My Lai massacre in the newspapers, and the entire concept of “we” versus “them” was coming undone in my mind. Did any group of people have more or less respect for life than any other group? If so, wouldn't there be at least one group that wasn't ready to slaugher another? The further realization that each of us was ultimately responsible for our own actions—whether or not Christ died for sins—threw the concept of America's moral superiority into question.

Then Lennon released an album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. A raw precursor of psychobilly, it was a deeply introspective record that seemed designed to demolish the legend of the Beatles. The song “I Found Out” featured the lyric “There ain't no Jesus gonna come from the sky/now that I found out I know I can cry.” It went on to skewer another religious option: “Old hare Krishna's got nothing on you/ just keep you crazy with nothing to do/keep you occupied with pie in the sky/there ain't no guru who can see through your eyes.” “Working Class Hero” offered: “They hurt you at home and they hit you at school/They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool/Till you're so fucking crazy you can't follow their rules.” Lennon was describing his own experiences and offering his own view of the world, but he was also describing my life at that moment.

He delivered the coup de grace in “God,” saying “God is a concept/by which we measure our pain,” then offering a litany of things he didn't believe in, from Jesus to Kennedy to Buddha and finally, Beatles. His proclamation that he only believes in “Yoko (Ono) and me” is frequently and incorrectly cited as a precursor of Tom Wolfe's “Me Generation.” What Lennon was really saying was that no person could realize his potential as long as he sought meaning outside of himself. All gods are false, he says, and he was among the most false:

I was the dreamweaver
But now I'm reborn
I was the walrus
But now I'm John
And so, dear friends
you'll just have to carry on
The dream is over.

Although he'd relinquished his divinity, I found myself looking up to him even more than I had before. His message, which could be distilled to the title of a George Harrison number from the Beatles' Rubber Soul LP, “Think for Yourself,” took some time to take root and grow amidst the citizenship lessons, the “duck and cover” drills, and the fear of eternal damnation. But the looming spectre of being a target in Vietnam was a hell of an incentive to learn how to think. And one of the first things that bubbled up from this new thinking was that I had not yet really formed an opinion of my own—including this new thought. I had formed my first discursive loop.
There were many other influences and causes for my discovery of critical thinking. Books by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, my ninth grade biology teacher (a devout Catholic who was as big a proponent of evolutionary theory as
Stephen Jay Gould), Colin Turnbull's The Mountain People, the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, an interest in science, and my own curiosity were also involved. But I have no doubt that the songs from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band helped to shape my thoughts.

Lennon and Ono moved to New York in August of 1971, and quickly hooked up with the American anti-war movement. In December, They appeared in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at a benefit concert for John Sinclair, the manager of the MC5, who, in 1969, had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for providing two marijuana joints to undercover cops engaged in a sting operation. Many leftists believed that the harsh sentence was due more to Sinclair's support of the Black Panthers (he formed a “partner” organization naively named the
White Panthers) and his anti-war activism. Lennon performed a song he'd composed about Sinclair's situation, and this was noted by an observer for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The feds were interested in Lennon because he had been associating with Yippies Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, and was considering a national concert tour that would directly oppose the re-election of President Nixon.

The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, permitting 18-year-olds to vote in national elections, was adopted in July of 1971, some 30 years after it was first submitted to Congress. Anti-war protesters frequently pointed to the fact that 18-year-olds were being drafted to fight and die in Vietnam, but that they had no voice at the ballot box. The amendment was resubmitted in the summer of 1968, sailed through Congress, and was ratified by three-quarters of the states faster than any previous amendment. It meant that the 1972 election would be the first time 18-21-year-olds—widely considered to be monolithically anti-war—would help to choose a president. These new voters were also believed to be slavishly devoted to rock 'n' roll, and to Lennon. Keeping Lennon from inciting a democratic uprising became an obsession for
Strom Thurmond, a segregationist Republican senator from South Carolina. He advised attorney general John Mitchell that kicking British citizen Lennon out of the U.S. would be a “strategic counter-measure.” Mitchell passed the suggestion along to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which began deportation proceedings against Lennon on March 6, 1972. The reason cited was Lennon's 1968 guilty plea to possessing marijuana—an arrest that was considered by most to be a staged event, with the drugs planted by a policeman notorious for busting rock 'n' roll stars. (The arrest also resulted in Ono's miscarriage.)

A long nightmare began for Lennon, who found himself shadowed clumsily by agents who apparently wanted him aware of the surveillance. The legal proceedings against Lennon continued for more than three years, ending when a U.S. Court of appeals overturned the deportation order in October of 1975. This was 10 months after Rolling Stone revealed the political motivation of the INS by publishing a copy of Thurmond's 1972 memo to Mitchell. In the intervening time, much had happened:

  • Nixon was re-elected, then forced to resign in August of 1974, when it became obvious that he was about to be impeached by Congress for obstructing an investigation into a break-in at a Democratic Party campaign office in the Watergate hotel.
  • Lennon and Ono continued their activism, joining New York anti-war demonstrations, attending the 1973 International Feminist Planning Conference in Boston, protesting outside the South Vietnamese embassy, and releasing an album comprised solely of political songs, Sometime In New York City.
  • Lennon and Ono separated in October of 1973, and Lennon moved to Los Angeles.
  • Compulsory military service in the U.S. ended with the cessation of the draft in 1973.
  • Lennon released three albums with little or no political content: Mind Games, Walls and Bridges, and Rock 'n' Roll. He also collaborated with Ringo Starr on Ringo and Goodnight Vienna, Harry Nilsson on Pussycats, David Bowie on Fame, and appeared in concert with Elton John.
  • Lennon engaged in self-destructive behavior, exemplified by a widely-reported fracas at a Los Angeles nightclub in March of 1974.
  • Lennon and Ono got back together in New York in January of 1975
  • The Vietnam war ended with the withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of April, 1975, and the capture of Saigon by Ho Chi Minh's troops.

After Lennon received his green card, he all but disappeared from public view. On October 9, 1975, Lennon's 35th birthday, two days after the deportation order was rescinded, Ono gave birth to Lennon's second child, Sean. The new father walked away from music and partying and activism, and proclaimed to the world that he was now a “househusband.” Ono ran the family business while Lennon cared for the child. There was no news from Lennon for five years.

I had already moved on. My political and religious views were formed, and they were (and remain) my own, based on readings from diverse sources, many discussions, and my own conclusions. I became bored with Lennon's later records, moving on to the Roches, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, the Ramones, the Dead Kennedys, XTC, the Clash and the Talking Heads. I still loved John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, though. I read anthropology and primatology and worked at a dry cleaning plant and as a reporter and then studied theater at college.

Lennon and Ono released a new album, Double Fantasy, in November of 1980. Ono's songs seemed more interesting than Lennon's. Her staccato wailing and application of “music for non-musicians” to pop rhythms, which had once been universally derided, had been discovered by a new generation of musicians raised in art schools. The B-52s in particular owed Ono a great debt. Lennon's songs were tuneful but innocuous. His lyrics seemed self-absorbed and fatuous: “I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go 'round and 'round/I really love to watch them roll.” But the overall effect was pleasant. It was as if Lennon had borrowed from his former partner's palette, while declining the syrupy cuteness that marred much of Paul McCartney's post-Beatles music.

Then Lennon was killed.

An early death is sometimes the best thing that can happen to a pop star's legend, if not the person. Imagine how insignificant James Dean might be today if we had watched him grow old and fat like Marlon Brando. Would Marilyn Monroe still be an icon if she were alive today as an 80-year-old? How much cooler would Elvis Presley be today if the only image we had of him was the young rocker, not the fat man in white jumpsuit? And how sad is the spectacle of the occasional reunion of the surviving Sex Pistols?


Lennon's post-death legend has been carefully cultivated to ensure maximum marketing potential. Most of his political activity has been hidden. What's left is a middle-aged version of the smart Beatle as a saintly father figure. The image wizards working for EMI/Capitol records, the Beatles/Apple trust and Ono have worked hard to strip the controversy from Lennon, as that might affect sales (especially in the all-important Bible Belt). And sales have grown. Since 1981, there have been four different “greatest hits” compilations (plus one released in 1975). There have also been five albums of unreleased demos and live performances (one of which is a four-disc boxset). There's been an official “John Lennon®
eyeglass collection. There have been two different “John Lennon®” baby collections, ranging from bedding and clothing to a series of limited edition dolls wearing “John Lennon®” baby clothes, from the prestigious (and expensive) “Madame Alexander” company. There's even an “exclusive” set of disposable diapers printed with Lennon's baby-oriented drawings available at Wal-Mart, which in itself represents 32 flavors of wrong.

When "John Lennon®" became a product destined for landfills, his legacy as an anti-war, feminist and civil rights activist was buried. Which, I hope, explains why I cried when I saw the trailer for The U.S. vs. John Lennon. The Lennon I'd forgotten had been exhumed. In the trailer, he's shown at the 1969 Amsterdam Bed-In for Peace, saying “We're selling it like soap—peace or war—that's the two products.” It's nice to see Lennon exploited in service of something I can appreciate.

A preview of The U.S. vs. John Lennon will be shown at the Castro Theater Sunday, Aug. 27, following a rare screening of Richard Lester's 1966 How I Won the War, starring John Lennon. It's part of
The Beatles, 40 Years Ago Today. More about this soon.

Copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

This is just darned funny

This arrived in my inbox today, courtesy of agent EZ. Click, share and enjoy.
I Hate Juice.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Hot Tickets: August 8 - August 15

Before we begin this week's round-up of films so amazingly wonderful that you'll want to kick yourself if you miss them (really), some words about my current favorite thing:

How did I go nine years without making it to
Peaches Christ's Midnight Mass? These midnight screenings of the bizarre, strange, bad and downright weird are just plain delightful. The pre-show sketch she stages for her annual presentation of Showgirls (Carolco, 1995), sending up the film's abominable “volcano dance” is a breathtaking spectacle that gives that mind-bogglingly misogynistic film the buggering it so richly deserves.

Showmanship aside, perhaps the most amazing thing about Christ is her understanding of the films she programs, and her skills as an event booker, a film sleuth, and an onstage interviewer/moderator. For her presentation of Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (20th Century Fox, 1968), she had three stars from this 38-year-old masterpiece, Erica Gavin, Marcia McBroom, and Z-Man himself, John Lazar. At times, Lazar—who was a very early member of San Francisco's own American Conservatory Theater— threatened to run roughshod over the panel and the crowd, but Christ always brought his ego back to earth without ruffling his well-preened feathers. The ability to control a panel discussion while maintaining respect among the participants is a rare gift. Topping the experience off is the well-researched and witty flyer describing each week's show, written by “Bobby B.”

Sadly, this year's Midnight Mass series draws to its close this weekend with one of the great drag spectacles of all time: Mommie Dearest (Paramount, 1981). This film paints a truly horrific picture of Joan Crawford, as remembered by her daughter Christina, then re-imagined by director Frank Perry (his career highlight, unless you want to consider the 1987 TV-movie JFK: A One Man Show with M*A*S*H's Mike Farrell) and four credited screenwriters (there were probably another half-dozen lucky enough to have their names off the credits.) Faye Dunaway's face is frozen into Crawford's late-career mask, and she compensates for the rigid eyebrows by exaggerating every other gesture to the point of absurdity. This is one truly wretched film, and Midnight Mass is the place to see it. The pre-show, Trannie Dearest, will feature Christ and her frequent co-star, Heklina. At the Bridge Theater,
Friday, 8/11 and Saturday, 8/12, MIDNIGHT. Get tickets early. This will sell out.

If ever there was a face made for the big screen, it was
Ingrid Bergman's. You can see her visage 50 feet tall at Palo Alto's Stanford Theater Friday, 8/11, through Monday, 8/14, in two of her best features: Notorious (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, RKO, 1946), and Casablanca (dir. Michael Curtiz, Warner Bros., 1942). They're among the most accessible and frequently seen movies from the classic Hollywood era, but they must be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated, and the Stanford is one of the best places to see them.

Notorious is a delicious thriller with Bergman playing against type as a drunken German living in the U.S. following WWII, pressed against her will into helping to crack a Nazi spy ring directed by mama's boy Claude Rains. Cary Grant is alternately charming and despicable as he drags Bergman into foreign intrigue.

Casablanca is the best example of what Hollywood could do when every component of its assembly line worked. A formulaic programmer given A-picture treatment, it completed the transformation of Humphrey Bogart from second-rate gangster to top-drawer romantic hero, made “As Time Goes By” one of the great 20th Century romantic songs, and gave Claude Rains some of the best lines of his career— “I'm shocked—shocked to learn there is gambling here!”

I've always believed that I awoke to how media totally fails to reflect reality when I realized that almost every character on TV drama shows kept a handgun in their house, glove compartment, cookie jar, vest, garter, etc., and that I knew almost no one with a handgun—and those that did were the sort I wished I didn't know. This is a roundabout way of getting to a criticism of new filmmakers: Enough already with the gritty urban crap about prostitution, drug addiction, mules, gangs and the like. Unless you've actually lived that life yourself, there's not much you can say about it that hasn't already been said by much better filmmakers than you—because your film will inevitably be a fiction based on someone else's fiction, based upon another's fiction in a cascading loop of infinity back to Homer. And no one wants to see that.

That said, there are interesting films being made by new filmmakers who've been inspired by something other than derivative clones of Pulp Fiction, and you might catch one at the
San Francisco International Festival of Short Films, Wednesday, 8/09, through Saturday, 8/12. There is a metric crapload of films scheduled. These are the ones that look promising to me (although I've seen none of them, so be warned):

For Seid, Mimi, and Amelezewd, by Randy Bell, is a documentary about life at an Ethiopian orphanage for children with AIDS, or children who have lost their family to the disease. The film focuses on three kids. It's about real people, in a real, difficult situation that we should all think about before ordering a $4 latte. It's part of a program that runs at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, 8/10 at
California College of the Arts, 3 p.m. Friday, 8/11 at the Roxie Film Center, 9 p.m. Saturday, 8/12 at the Victoria Theater.

Punk Wall, directed by Karen Gleinke, about a houseful of dodge-ball playing punk-rockers (isn't that just the quaintest term now that
Joey Ramone's been dead for five years?) isolated by a concrete wall from their frowning neighbors. I can't tell if it's a documentary or fiction, but either way, it's an intriguing idea, and it's only 20 minutes long. It's part of a program that runs at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, 8/10 at California College of the Arts, 3 p.m. Friday, 8/11, at the Roxie Film Center, 9 p.m. Saturday, 8/12 at the Victoria Theater.

K-7, by Christoper Leone, is the film with all the buzz. It's been in pretty near every damned film festival in the country, and picked up a whole bunch of awards. But we shouldn't hold that against it, nor should we dismiss it because Leone is a Hollywood special effects artist with credits on merde like The X-Files, The Crow: Salvation, and The Cable Guy. A guy's gotta eat. The idea of the film is pretty cunning: a young job applicant learns that his aptitude test results show he's best suited to be a CIA assassin, and he needs to prove he's ready for the job NOW, or forget about it. Forever. (This could be that rare instance where the use of violence is not merely derivative.) On a program at the
Roxie Film Center, 7:15 p.m. Friday, 8/11, at the Victoria Theater, Saturday, 11 p.m., 8/12.

Let's talk about film for a minute. I mean the actual acetate strip that you can hold in your hand against a light source to see a photographic image. This was the media form everyone referred to when they said “movie” until the home video recorder became affordable in the late 1970s. Now people think a piece of shiny mylar sandwiched between two pieces of clear plastic is a “film.” It is nothing of the sort. No film archive in the world uses digital storage as a solution for preserving movies, because all video forms have proven far too volatile. They use film. (Don't get too smug about your DVD collection. In about five years time you'll be in a big hurry to dump them all in favor of HD-DVD or Blu-Ray discs, and you can bet the new machines won't play your old DVDs.
Here's Kevin Murphy—Tom Servo from MST3K—on the topic.)

Film, projected in a theater, is still the best way to see a movie, and the best format in use today is 70mm, so called because that is the measure of the width of the acetate, making it ideal for the wide, wide screen. Most widescreen films are projected anamorphically—the image is compressed to fit on a 35mm frame, then expanded when projected through a special lens. (Check
this out for a good explanation.) So what you're seeing is an image that's been altered by two lenses, or gone through a glass darkly. Fortunately, the Castro Theater still has a 70mm projector, and they're running a bunch of widescreen classics from 70mm prints, Friday, 8/11 through Thursday, 8/24. If you haven't seen them in 70mm, you haven't seen them. My recommendations:

2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, MGM, 1968), Friday, 8/11, 6 p.m. & 9 p.m. This is my desert island film. Difficult, rich, beautiful, cold, frustrating, enlightening, bleak and full of hope, it remains one of the most intelligent films ever made. It's iconic for a reason. (
Here's a pretty interesting attempt at explaining the film—the Flash animation is precious, but the authors are on to something. Well worth checking out.)

Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean, Horizon/Columbia, 1962), Sunday, Aug. 13, 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., Monday, Aug. 14, 7 p.m. This is THE MOST GLORIOUS FILM DAVID LEAN EVER MADE! It's still astonishingly relevant today, and Peter O'Toole gives the performance of his career, as does Omar Sharif. T.E. Lawrence, the titular character was a remarkable person, and I can't help think that if the British government had actually paid him the attention he deserved, we might not be in the damned mess we're in today. Check out
this, this, and this for more about Lawrence.
More widescreen recommendations coming next week!


Kenji Mizoguchi was a pioneer of Japanese cinema. In a career that lasted from 1923 through 1956, the year of his death at the age of 58, he helped to define the movies in Japan. Marked by a lack of closeups, a fascination with desire and a surprising feminism, his films remain important. (Although not without controversy—I'd love to see Manmo kenkoku no reimi, his 1932 justification for Japan's criminal occupation of Manchuria.) The Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley begins a small retrospective of his films with Sisters of the Gion (1936), an unblinking look at life for women in a Tokyo red-light zone, examining the clash of traditional geisha style and the onset of modern, Western prostitution. Friday, 8/11, 8:45 p.m.

Preceding Sisters of the Gion is a film from an American master of desire,
Frank Borzage, Man's Castle (1933, reedited 1938). With Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young as victims of the Great Depression, the film remains refreshingly frank despite the 1938 edits that made it conform to the censorious Production Code Authority. Friday, 8/11, 7 p.m. at the Pacific Film Archive.

Entire contents copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.