(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 16, 2021)
I know what you’re thinking. Halloween is still 2 weeks off, but ’tis the season. Besides, “Halloween” is practically a 4th-quarter long celebration, if you count all the associated holidays…All Saints Day, All Souls Day, All Hallows’ Eve El Dia de los Muertos, Ghost Festival, Guy Fawkes Night, Mischief/Devil’s/Hell’s Night (take your pick), and of course…Samhain. Whichever one(s) you may be celebrating this year-just remember: wear two masks. And if you’re short a DJ, may I offer a few frighteningly apropos suggestions for your party playlist?
ALICE COOPER:The Ballad of Dwight Frye – “I’ve gotta get OUTTA here!” A theatrical paean to the screen actor who played a bevy of loony tune characters, most notably “Renfield” in Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula. Just remember…”sleepin’ don’t come very easy, in a straight white vest.”
BAUHAUS: Bela Lugosi’s Dead – The Goth anthem. “I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead.” We get it.
BLACK SABBATH: Black Sabbath– Album 1, side 1, cut 1: Howling wind, driving rain, the mournful peal of a bell, and the heaviest, scariest tritone power chord intro you’ve ever heard. “Please God help meee!!“Talk about a mission statement.
PINK FLOYD: Careful With That Axe, Eugene – The Floyd’s most ominous dirge is basically an instrumental mood piece, but Roger Waters’ eerie shrieking is the stuff of nightmares.
ATOMIC ROOSTER:Death Walks Behind You– “Lock the door, switch the light…you’ll be so afraid tonight.” A truly unnerving track from one of my favorite 70s British prog-rock bands. Keyboardist Vincent Crane pulls double duty on this list; he had previously played with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (below).
THE DAMNED:Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde– You know what they say: You’re never alone with a schizophrenic! Choice cut from the U.K. pop-punk band’s finest LP, The Black Album.
THE CRAZY WORLD OF ARTHUR BROWN:Fire- Yes, that Arthur Brown…heir to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the forefather of Alice Cooper, and most importantly, the god of hell fire!
THE CRAMPS: Goo Goo Muck–It would be sacrilege not to include the kings of Psychobilly.
I Put a Spell on You– This cat must have scared the living shit out of middle America, smack dab in the middle of the drab Eisenhower era. “Moohoohaha!”
THE DOORS: Riders on the Storm – The first time I heard this song was in 1971. I was 14. It haunted me then and haunts me now. It was my introduction to aural film noir. Distant thunder, the cascading shimmer of a Fender Rhodes, a desolate tremolo guitar and dangerous rhythms.“There’s a killer on the road. His brain is squirming like a toad.” Fuck oh dear, this definitely wasn’t the Archies.
Jim Morrison’s vocals got under my skin. Years later, a friend explained why. If you listen carefully, there are three vocal tracks. Morrison is singing, chanting and whispering the lyrics. We smoked a bowl, cranked it up and concluded that it was a pretty neat trick.
VANILLA FUDGE:Season of the Witch– Donovan’s original version doesn’t hold a candle to this marvelously histrionic psychedelic train wreck. Eat your heart out, Bill Shatner!
THE ROLLING STONES:Sympathy for the Devil- “Something always happens when we play this song.” Famous last words there from Mick Jagger in the 1970 rock doc Gimme Shelter, moments before the cameras (unknowingly, at time of filming) capture the fatal stabbing of an audience member. Now that’s scary.
KING CRIMSON:21st Century Schizoid Man– “Cat’s foot, iron claw, neurosurgeons scream for more…at paranoia’s poison door...” And that’s the most optimistic part of this song!
LED ZEPPELIN: (backwards) Stairway to Heaven– Rumor has it there is a painting of Jimmy Page going all to hell. If you believe in that sort of thing (there are two paths you can go by).
OK, so now I have an excuse to tell you my Star Trek story. Actually, it’s not really that much of a story, but hey, I have some (virtual) column inches to fill-so here goes.
First off, I am not a diehard Trekker (more of a Dwarfer-if you must pry). I enjoyed the 60s TV series, and if I’m channel surfing and happen upon, say, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, or “Space Seed”…They Pull Me Back In (sorry, Mr. Pacino). I never bothered with the spinoff series, but have seen the theatrical films. I tend to agree with the “even-numbered Trek films are the best” theory.
I’ve never felt the urge to buy collectibles, attend a convention, or don a pair of Spock ears for a Halloween party. However, as fate would have it, in my life I have had close encounters (of the 3rd kind) with two cast members from the original show; encounters that (I imagine) would make a hardcore fan wet themselves and act like the star-struck celebrity interviewer Chris Farley used to play on SNL.
In the mid 80s, I was working as a morning personality at an FM station in Fairbanks, Alaska. Our station co-promoted a personal appearance by Walter Koenig at (wait for it) the Tanana Valley State Fair, so I had a chance to meet him. The thing that has always stuck with me, however, was not any particular thrill in meeting “Chekov”, but rather his 1000-yard stare.
It was a look that spoke volumes; a look that said, “I can’t believe I’m onstage in a drafty barn in Fairbanks Alaska, fielding the same geeky questions yet again about the goddamn Russian accent. This is why I got into show business?!” To me, it was like watching a sad, real-life version of Laurence Olivier’s Archie in The Entertainer. And as a radio personality (lowest rung of the show biz ladder) and fledgling stand-up comic (next rung up), I wondered if this was A Warning.
Flash-forward to the mid 1990s. I had moved to Seattle, and found myself “between” radio jobs, supporting myself with sporadic stand-up comedy gigs and working through a temp agency. Through the temp agency, I ended up working for a spell at…at…I’ll just blurt it out: a Honeybaked Ham store in Redmond (I’m sure that there is a special place in Hell for Jews who sell pork; on the other hand, one of my co-workers was a Muslim woman from Kenya, so at least there will be someone there that I already know).
So I’m wiping down the counter one slow day, thinking to myself “After 20 years in radio, and 10 in stand-up comedy, I can’t believe I’m working at a Honeybaked Ham in Redmond, Washington. This is why I got into show business?!” Suddenly, a limo pulls up, and in strolls a casually dressed, ruddy-faced, mustachioed gentleman, getting on in years (hearing aids in both ears). If you’ve ever worked retail, you know that after a while, all the customers sort of look the same; you look at them, but you don’t really SEE them.
As I was fetching the gentleman his ham and exchanging pleasantries, I caught a couple co-workers in my peripheral, quietly buzzing. I put two and two together with the limo and began to surreptitiously scrutinize the customer’s face a little more closely.
Wait…is that…? Nah! Twice in one lifetime? What are the odds? He paid with a check. Name on the check? James Doohan. I kept my cool and closed the sale. As I watched him walk out the door, with a delicious, honey-glazed ham tucked under his arm, an old Moody Blues song began to play in my head: “Isn’t life stray-ay-ay-hange?”
Mr. Doohan has since slipped the surly bonds of Earth, both figuratively and literally:
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry is going where no man has gone before.
Part of his cremated remains will be sent into deep space, along with remains of his wife, Majel Barrett Roddenberry, who appeared on Star Trek the Next Generation as Lwaxana Troi and voiced the computer on multiple Trek series.
Remains of James Doohan (Trek’s Scotty) and pioneering sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke will also be sent into orbit on a memorial flight from the Houston-based Celestis, reports NBC News.
The company, which has been putting remains into orbit for 16 years, will launch its Summerjammer Solar Sail Mission from Cape Cod in November 2014. This will be the first to enter into deep space, and the craft will orbit the sun between Earth and Venus.
Remains from Roddenberry and Doohan have been sent into space on previous Celestis flights. Summerjammer will be launched with an experimental solar sail from NASA, which it hopes will propel the craft with photons from the sun.
This morning, I was enjoying a bowl of instant oatmeal and watching CNN before heading to work, and happened to catch the countdown for the latest Blue Origin flight. I’ve been sort of half-paying attention to the hype surrounding this latest commercial stunt from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, because…that’s basically what it is (more like a glorified human cannonball act, as the spacecraft doesn’t actually go into orbit around the Earth).
That said, I unapologetically remain an original series Star Trek fan (I was 10 in 1966), so I thought it was cool that William Shatner was invited along for the ride (which would make him the first surviving member of the original Star Trek crew to make it into “real” space).
Then something unexpected happened. I started to choke up a little as the rocket took off.
For those of us of “a certain age”, that is to say, old enough to have actually witnessed the moon landing live on TV… the fact that “we” were even fucking able to achieve this feat “by the end of the decade” (as President Kennedy projected in 1961) still seems like a pretty big deal to me.
Of course, there are still some big unanswered questions out there about Life, the Universe, and Everything, but I’ll leave that to future generations. I feel that I’ve done my part…spending my formative years plunked in front of a B&W TV in my PJs eating Sugar Smacks and watching Walter Cronkite reporting live from the Cape.
I think it was those childhood memories, plus seeing Captain Kirk going aloft, that got to me. And once I heard Shatner’s comments after he exited the capsule…I was a puddle:
What you’ve just given me is the most profound experience I can imagine. I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. I-I…it’s just extraordinary. I hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it. It’s so…so much larger than me and life. It hasn’t anything to do with the little green planet we all live in-it has to do with the enormity, and the quickness, and the suddenness of life and death. […] I can’t even begin to express…what I would love to do is communicate as much as possible the jeopardy…the vulnerability of everything. […] 50 miles [above Earth] and you’re in death. This is life and [pointing to the sky] that’s death…and in an instant [as you enter space] you go ‘Whoa …that’s death!’
President Joe Biden on Friday issued the first-ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, lending the most significant boost yet to efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Christopher Columbus toward an appreciation of Native peoples.
The day will be observed Oct. 11, along with Columbus Day, which is established by Congress. While Native Americans have campaigned for years for local and national days in recognition of the country’s indigenous peoples, Biden’s announcement appeared to catch many by surprise. […]
“For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures,” Biden wrote in the Indigenous Peoples’ Day proclamation. “Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.”
In a separate proclamation on Columbus Day, Biden praised the role of Italian Americans in U.S. society, but also referenced the violence and harm Columbus and other explorers of the age brought about on the Americas.
Making landfall in what is now the Bahamas on Oct. 12, 1492, Columbus, an Italian, was the first of a wave of European explorers who decimated Native populations in the Americas in quests for gold and other wealth, including people to enslave.
“Today, we also acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities,” Biden wrote. “It is a measure of our greatness as a Nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past — that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can to address them.”
With that in mind, here are 10 worthwhile films in honor of Indigenous People’s Day.
Arctic Son — I first saw this documentary (not to be confused with the unrelated 2013 film Arctic Son: Fulfilling the Dream) at the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival. Andrew Walton’s film is a classic “city mouse-country mouse” story centering on a First Nations father and son who are reunited after a 25-year estrangement.
Stanley, Jr. was raised in Washington State by his single mom. Consequently, he is more plugged in to hip-hop and video games than to his native Gwich’in culture. Troubled by her son’s substance abuse, Stanley’s mother packs him off for an extended visit with Stanley Sr., who lives a traditional subsistence lifestyle in the Yukon Territories. The initially wary young man gradually warms to both the unplugged lifestyle and his long-estranged father. Affecting and heartwarming.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith — One of the highlights of the “Australian New Wave” that flourished in the 70s and 80s, writer-director Fred Schepsi’s 1978 drama (adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel, which is loosely based on a true story) is set in Australia at the turn of the 20th Century.
Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) is a half-caste Aboriginal who goes out into the world to make his own way after being raised by a white minister and his wife. Unfortunately, the “world” he is entering from the relative protective bubble of his upbringing is that of a society fraught with systemic racism; one that sees him only as a young black man ripe for exploitation.
While Jimmie is inherently altruistic, every person has their limit, and over time the escalating degradation and daily humiliations lead to a shocking explosion of cathartic violence that turns him into a wanted fugitive. An unblinking look at a dark period of Australian history; powerful and affecting.
Dead Man — Rhymes with: “deadpan”. Then again, that could describe any film directed by the idiosyncratic Jim Jarmusch. As far as Kafkaesque westerns go, you could do worse than this 1995 offering (beautifully photographed by the late Robby Müller).
Johnny Depp plays mild-mannered accountant and city slicker William Blake (yes, I know) who travels West by train to the rustic town of Machine, where he has accepted a job. Or so he assumes. Getting shooed out of his would-be employer’s office at gunpoint (a great cameo by Robert Mitchum) turns out to be the least of his problems, which rapidly escalate. Soon, he’s a reluctant fugitive on the lam. Once he crosses paths with an enigmatic Native American named Nobody (the wonderful Gary Farmer), his journey takes on a mythic quality. Surreal, darkly funny, and poetic.
The Emerald Forest — Although it may initially seem a heavy-handed (if well-meaning) “save the rain forest” polemic, John Boorman’s underrated 1985 adventure (a cross between The Searchers and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) goes much deeper.
Powers Boothe plays an American construction engineer working on a dam project in Brazil. One day, while his wife and young son are visiting the job site on the edge of the rain forest, the boy is abducted and adopted by an indigenous tribe who call themselves “The Invisible People”, touching off an obsessive decade-long search by the father. By the time he is finally reunited with his now-teenage son (Charley Boorman), the challenge becomes a matter of how he and his wife (Meg Foster) are going to coax the young man back into “civilization”.
Tautly directed, lushly photographed (by Philippe Rousselot) and well-acted. Rosco Pallenberg scripted (he also adapted the screenplay for Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur).
The Gods Must Be Crazy — Writer-director Jamie Uys’ 1984 cult favorite is a spot-on allegory regarding First World/Third World culture clash. The premise is simple: A wandering Kalahari Bushman named Xi (N!xau) happens upon a discarded Coke bottle that has been carelessly tossed from a small plane. Having no idea what the object is or how it got there, Xi spirits it back to his village for a confab on what it may portend. Concerned over the uproar and unsavory behavioral changes the empty Coke bottle ignites within the normally peaceful community, Xi treks to “the edge of the world” to give the troublesome object back to the gods. Uys overdoes the slapstick at times, but drives his point home in an endearing fashion.
The Last Wave —Peter Weir’s enigmatic 1977 courtroom drama/psychological thriller concerns a Sydney-based defense lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) who takes on five clients (all Aboriginals) who are accused of conspiring in a ritualistic murder. As he prepares his case, he begins to experience haunting visions and dreams related to age-old Aboriginal prophesies.
A truly unique film, at once compelling, and unsettling; beautifully photographed by Russel Boyd. Lurking just beneath the supernatural, metaphysical and mystical elements are insightful observations on how indigenous people struggle to reconcile venerable superstitions and traditions while retaining a strong cultural identity in the modern world.
Mekko — Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, and realistic character study is set in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding in the lead, as a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from his entire cast. There’s a lot more going on here than initially meets the eye; namely, a deeper examination of Native American identity,
Powwow Highway —A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with a blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddha. He has decided that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a quest to “gather power”.
After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off and is waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz keep it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.
This May Be the Last Time — Did you know that the eponymous Rolling Stones song shares the same roots with a venerable Native-American tribal hymn, that is still sung in Seminole and Muscogee churches to this day? While that’s far from the main thrust of Sterlin Harjo’s documentary, it’s but one of its surprises.
Harjo investigates a family story concerning the disappearance of his Oklahoman Seminole grandfather in 1962. After a perfunctory search by local authorities turned up nothing, tribal members pooled their resources and continued to look. Some members of the search party kept up spirits by singing traditional Seminole and Muscogee hymns…which inform the second level of Harjo’s film.
Through interviews with tribal members and musicologists, he traces the roots of this unique genre, connecting the dots between the hymns, African-American spirituals, Scottish and Appalachian music. The film doubles as both history lesson and a moving personal journey.
Walkabout — Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 adventure/culture clash drama introduced audiences to charismatic Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil (who also appears in another film on my list, The Last Wave). Gulpilil is an Aboriginal teenager (“Black Boy” in the credits) who unexpectedly encounters a teenage “Girl” (Jenny Agutter) and “White Boy” (the Girl’s little brother, played by Luc Roeg) while he is on a solo “walkabout” in the Australian Outback.
The sun-stroked and severely dehydrated siblings have become stranded as the result of a family outing gone terribly (and disturbingly) awry. Without making any promises, the Aboriginal boy allows them to tag along; teaching them his survival techniques as they struggle to communicate as best as they can.
Like many of my selections here, Roeg’s film challenges us to rethink the definition of “civilization”, especially as it pertains to indigenous cultural identity.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 2, 2021)
Murray: Nick, in a moment you are going to see a horrible thing.
Nick: What’s that?
Murray: People going to work.
– from A Thousand Clowns, screenplay by Herb Gardner
Jonathan Lute: [after Quint has terrifyingly smashed up his entire office with an axe]
Andrew, darling, you’re always threatening to resign…
– from I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘is Name, screenplay by Peter Draper
Johnny: All right, listen. Does anybody mind if I scream here? Is that okay with you all? Cause I’d feel better for it. It won’t take long.
– from Naked, screenplay by Mike Leigh
It is clear from the outset that Joseph, the protagonist of Aneil Karia’s deeply unsettling yet curiously liberating drama Surge, would feel better for it if he could just …SCREAM.
As he wends through a busy Stansted Airport terminal to his gate security job, Joseph (a mesmerizing Ben Whishaw) displays all the tell-tale signs of a ticking time bomb. He’s relatively young but looks haggard beyond his thirty-something years. He’s twitchy and furtive, with a thousand-yard stare that suggests his soul vacated his body some time ago.
After a dreary shift patting down and scanning an endless parade of travelers, Joseph commutes back to his low-rent London flat, where he plops into his armchair, bathed in the sickly light of a droning TV while wolfing a bland microwaved dinner. He has odd eating tics; when he puts a fork in his mouth he reflexively chomps down as if attempting to bite it in half, and when he takes a drink, he looks as though he’s trying to chew on the glass.
He seems …tense.
Something has got to give, and the trigger is a belated birthday dinner with his elderly parents. He appears to have a strained relationship with his cold and gruff father (Ian Gelder). His mother (Ellie Haddington, who stole the show in the recent 4-part PBSMystery! miniseries Guilt) is more empathetic, but also shows signs of someone who has suffered years of bullying (verbal, emotional…or worse). After a joyless repast, mum serves the cake, and as dad continues to glower and scowl, Joseph finally breaks-literally.
“Don’t you get blood on my carpets!” mum screeches in shock and confusion as Joseph flees after finally succeeding in chewing through the glass (hey…practice makes perfect).
A warning-if (like me) you are prone to anxiety attacks, the ensuing 2/3 of the film has the *potential* to trigger one (telling myself “It’s only a movie” kept me grounded). Put another way, Joseph’s subsequent frenetic bacchanal of self-liberation is a “re-birthing” well outside the parameters of clinical supervision (and decidedly anti-social in nature), all rendered in a dizzying cinematic style reminiscent of Run Lola Run and Trainspotting.
While Rita Kalnejais and Rupert Jones’ screenplay does toy with sociopolitical tropes and character motivations that cross over with Taxi Driver, Naked, Falling Down, and the more recent Joker, Surge is anything but a rote retread of the well-trod “disenfranchised white male going off the deep end” narrative. I found it closer in spirit to Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66, a film that, while equally unsettling, confounds your expectations at every turn.
I’m an Electric Lampshade could be viewed as a kinder, gentler Surge, or perhaps a variation on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Billed as a “documentary-narrative hybrid”, writer-director John Clayton-Doyle’s film centers on a quiet, straight-arrow corporate accountant (Doug McCorkle) who surprises his longtime co-workers by using his retirement party to “come out” as an aspiring pop star. So much for golfing and fishing…
Doug brings down the house with a professionally choreographed and produced video featuring him singing and dancing. Actually, the latter part is perhaps best described as “undulating”, as Doug undulates in that oddly earnest yet arrhythmic manner that 60-year-old men tend to undulate on the dance floor at weddings and bar mitzvahs (that’s why I don’t dance at weddings and bar mitzvahs these days…as a public service).
A co-worker offers Doug a business card for a “finishing school for performers” in the Philippines, adding that if he is serious about giving this pop star thing a go, he should check it out. Casting his fate to the wind, and with the full blessing of his wife (Regina McCorkle) Doug embarks to the Philippines to pursue his dream. What his co-worker failed to mention was that all the students are drag queens (but Doug is cool with that).
There’s not much more to the narrative; Doug hangs out in the Philippines for a spell, gets his first professional singing and dancing gig doing a TV commercial for a Filipino yogurt company, and then heads back to the States to prepare for his concert debut in Mexico. The concert takes up the final 15 or 20 minutes of the film (it feels like 3 hours).
It’s all good-natured enough I suppose, but unfortunately, our aspiring “electric lampshade” McCorkle has the charisma of a night light. And the original music (which is critical, as it runs through most of the film) is duller than dishwater (generic EDM). I have nothing against pursuing one’s dreams …but sitting through this could be a nightmare for some viewers.
Robert “Bobby” Gentile, one of the last surviving named suspects in the infamous heist of 13 artworks valued at $500 million from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, died on Friday. He was 85 years old and had suffered a stroke, according to his lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan.
“He denied having the paintings till his death,” McGuigan told the Boston Globe. “They say he was a bad guy, but he became a friend. He was the last of his kind.”
The Gardner robbery took place in the early morning hours following Boston’s spirited St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in 1990. Two men dressed as police officers gained access to the museum thanks to a night security guard, tied up the two watchmen on duty, and spent the next two hours stealing masterpieces by artists including Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Edgar Degas, and Édouard Manet.
Keep your eyes peeled at those estate sales. You never know.
I’m sure you’re shocked, shocked to learn there is a Netflix docuseries about the robbery, entitled (wait for it…) This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist. I haven’t seen it yet (there are only so many hours in the day), but I have seen my share of heist films …so I thought I’d break into my video vault and pull out a few favorites:
The Anderson Tapes – In Sidney Lumet’s gritty 1971 heist caper, Sean Connery plays an ex-con, fresh out of the joint, who masterminds the robbery of an entire NYC apartment building. What he doesn’t know is that the job is under close surveillance by several interested parties, official and private.
To my knowledge it’s one of the first films to explore the “libertarian’s nightmare” aspect of everyday surveillance technology (in this regard, it is a pre-cursor to Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoiac 1974 conspiracy thriller The Conversation).
Also on board are Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (his first major film role). The smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and Quincy Jones provides the score.
Bellman and True – This off-beat 1987 caper from eclectic writer-director Richard Loncraine (Brimstone & Treacle, The Missionary, Richard III, et.al.). Bernard Hill stars as a computer system engineer named Hiller who finds himself reluctantly beholden to a criminal gang he had briefly fallen in with previously. They have kidnapped his teenage son and threaten to do him harm if Hiller doesn’t help them disable the alarm system at the bank they’re planning to rob.
The one advantage he holds over his “partners” is his intelligence and technical know-how, but the big question is whether he gets an opportunity to turn the tables in time without endangering himself or his son. A unique, character-driven crime film, with cheeky dialog and surprising twists (Desmond Lowden co-adapted the screenplay from his own novel with Loncraine and Michael Wearing).
Bob le Flambeur – This is the premier “casino heist” movie, a highly stylized homage to American film noir from writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville. “Bob” (Roger Duchesne) is a suave, old-school gangster who plans “one last score” to pay off his gambling debts.
The film is more character study than action caper; in fact its slow pace is the antithesis to what contemporary audiences expect from a heist movie. Still, patience has its rewards. The film belies its low-budget, thanks to the atmospheric location shooting in the Montmartre and Rue Pigalle districts of Paris.
Charley Varrick – Directed by Don Siegel (The Big Steal, The Lineup, Dirty Harry) and adapted from John Reese’s novel by Howard Rodman and Dean Reisner, this tough and gritty crime drama/character study from 1973 stars Walter Matthau as a master thief/ex- stunt pilot who gets into hot water when he unwittingly robs a bank that washes money for the mob. I think it’s one of his best performances. If the cheeky dialog reminds you of a certain contemporary film maker, all will become clear when one character is warned that the mob may come after him with “a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.” Joe Don Baker is memorable as a kinky hit man.
Criss-Cross – Burt Lancaster stars in this 1949 noir by revered genre director Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, The Suspect, The Killers, The Cry of the City, et.al.). Lancaster is an armored car driver who still has the hots for his troublesome ex-wife (Yvonne De Carlo). Chagrined over her marriage to a local mobster (Dan Duryea), he makes an ill-advised decision to ingratiate himself back into her life, leading to his reluctant involvement in an armored car heist as the “inside man”.
Great script by Daniel Fuchs (adapted from Don Tracy’s novel; Steven Soderbergh adapted his 1995 thriller The Underneath from the same). Artful, atmospheric cinematography by Franz Planer.
Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round – James Coburn is at his rascally best as a con artist who schemes to knock over a bank at LAX, ingeniously using the airport’s security lock down for the visit of a foreign dignitary as cover. The first half of the film is reminiscent of The Producers; in order to raise the money he needs to finance the heist, he uses his charm to bilk rich women out of their savings.
Aldo Ray, Severn Darden and Robert Webber give good supporting performances. It’s the only real film of note by writer-director Bernard Girard, but one could do worse for a one-off.
$ (Dollars) – In this 1971 film from writer-director Richard Brooks, Warren Beatty is a bank security expert who uses intel from his sex worker girlfriend (Goldie Hawn) to hatch an ingenious plan to pinch several safety deposit boxes sitting in the vault of a German bank (the boxes belong to criminals). The robbery scene is a real nail-biter.
What sets this apart from standard heist capers is a chase sequence that seems to run through most of Germany and takes up 25 minutes of screen time (a record?). The cast includes Robert Webber and Gert Frobe (Mr. Goldfinger!). Great Quincy Jones score.
Heat-This is writer-director Michael Mann’s masterpiece. While it features the planning and execution of several heists and delivers exciting action sequences, at its heart it is a character study.
Robert De Niro portrays a master thief who plays cat-and-mouse with a dogged police detective (Al Pacino). Mann not only examines the “professional” relationship between the cops and the robbers, but by drawing parallels between the characters’ personal lives he illustrates how at the end of the day, they basically seek the same things in life (they only differ in how they go about “getting” it). De Niro and Pacino only have one brief scene together, but it’s a doozy.
The great supporting cast includes Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Wes Studi, Amy Brenneman and Ashley Judd.
The Hot Rock– Although it starts out as a by-the-numbers diamond heist caper, this 1972 Peter Yates film delivers a unique twist halfway through: the diamond needs to be stolen all over again (so it’s back to the drawing board). There’s even a little political intrigue in the mix. The film boasts a William Goldman screenplay (adapted from a Donald E. Westlake novel) and a knockout cast (Segal, Robert Redford Zero Mostel, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand and Moses Gunn). Redford and Segal make a great team, and the film finds a nice balance between suspense and humor. Lots of fun.
Kelly’s Heroes – The Dirty Dozen meets Ocean’s Eleven in this clever hybrid of WW2 action yarn and heist caper, directed by Brian G. Hutton. While interrogating a drunken German officer, a platoon leader (Clint Eastwood) stumbles onto a hot tip about a Nazi-controlled bank with a secret stash of gold bullion worth millions.
Eastwood plays it straight, but there’s anachronistic M*A*S*H-style irreverence on hand from Donald Sutherland, as the perpetually stoned and aptly named bohemian tank commander, “Oddball”.
Also with Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, Gavin MacLeod and Harry Dean Stanton. Mike Curb (future Lt. Governor of California!) composed the theme song, “Burning Bridges”.
The Killing – Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film (nicely shot by DP Lucien Ballard, renowned in later years for his work with Sam Peckinpah) is a pulpy, taut 94-minute noir that extrapolates on the “heist gone awry” model pioneered six years earlier in John Huston’s TheAsphalt Jungle (also recommended!). Kubrick even nabbed one of the stars from Huston’s film, Sterling Hayden, to be his leading man.
Hayden plays the mastermind, Johnny Clay (fresh out of stir) who hatches an elaborate plan to rob the day’s receipts from a horse track. He enlists a couple of track employees (Elisha Cook, Jr. and Joe Sawyer), a wrestler (Kola Kwariani), a puppy-loving hit man (oddball character actor Timothy Carey-the John Turturro of his day) and of course, the requisite “bad” cop (Ted de Corsia).
Being a cautious planner, Johnny keeps his accomplices in the dark about any details not specific to their particular assignments. Still, the plan has to go like clockwork; if any one player falters, the gig will collapse like a house of cards. Also in the cast: scene-stealer Marie Windsor, who plays an entertainingly trashy femme fatale.
Legendary pulp writer Jim Thompson was enlisted for the screenplay (adapted from Lionel White’s Clean Break). Stories have circulated that Thompson never forgave the director for the “screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, with additional dialog by Jim Thompson” billing, when it was allegedly Thompson who contributed the lion’s share of original dialog to the script.
While certain venerable conventions of the heist film are faithfully adhered to in The Killing, it’s in the way Kubrick structures the narrative that sets it apart from other genre films of the era. Playing with the timeline to build a network narrative crime caper is cliché now, but was groundbreaking in 1956 (Quentin Tarantino clearly “borrowed” from The Killing for his 1991 caper Reservoir Dogs).
The Ladykillers (1955) – This black comedy gem from Ealing Studios concerns a league of five quirky criminals, posing as classical musicians, who rent a flat from little old Mrs. Wilberforce and use it as a front for an elaborate bank robbery. To watch Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom working together is a beautiful thing.
William Rose scripted (he also penned Genevieve, another Ealing classic). Director Alexander Mackendrick would go on to helm one of the darkest noirs of them all, The Sweet Smell of Success, in 1957.
Ocean’s Eleven (1960) – This (very) loose remake of Bob le Flambeur is the ultimate Rat Pack extravaganza. Frank Sinatra stars as Danny Ocean, a WW2 vet who enlists 11 of his old Army buddies for an ambitious take down of five big Vegas casinos in one night. Yes, they are all here: Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Angie Dickinson, Henry Silva and the original “Joker” himself-Cesar Romero. Lewis Milestone directed, and Billy Wilder is said to have made some non-credited contributions to the script.
To be sure, it’s a vanity project, and may not hold up well to close scrutiny; but every time Sammy warbles “Eee-ohhh, eee-leaven…” I somehow feel that all is right with the world. Steven Soderbergh’s contemporary franchise is slicker, but nowhere near as hip, baby.
That Sinking Feeling – Sort of a Scottish version of Big Deal on Madonna Street, this was the 1979 debut from writer-director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero, Comfort & Joy). An impoverished Glasgow teenager, tired of eating cornflakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, comes up with a scheme that will make him and his underemployed pals rich beyond their wildest dreams-knocking over a plumbing supply warehouse full of stainless steel sinks.
Funny as hell, but with a wee touch of working class weltschmerz; this subtext makes it a precursor to films like The Full Monty, Waking Ned Devine and Brassed Off. Nearly all of the same principal cast would return in Forsyth’s 1982 charmer, Gregory’s Girl.
Topkapi– I’m sure I will be raked over the coals by some for choosing director Jules Dassin’s relatively lighthearted 1964 romp over his darker and more esteemed 1956 casse classic Rififi for this list, but there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes-eh, mon ami?
The wonderful Peter Ustinov heads an international cast that includes Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Robert Morley and Akim Tamiroff. They are all involved in an ingeniously planned heist to nab a priceless bejeweled dagger that sits in an Istanbul museum.
There’s plenty of intrigue, suspense and good laughs (mostly thanks to Ustinov’s presence). There’s also a great deal of lovely and colorful Mediterranean scenery to drink in. Entertaining fare.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 18, 2021)
You must surrender whatever preconceptions you have about music if you’re really interested in it.
― Cecil Taylor
The Oxford Dictionary defines “harmonious” thusly:
tuneful; not discordant.
That sounds nice. So what is this “discordant” you speak of?
1. disagreeing or incongruous.
2. (of sounds) harsh and jarring because of a lack of harmony.
Well, that sounds unpleasant. But here’s the funny thing about music. There may be rules defining what constitutes “harmony” …but there no rules defining what constitutes “music”. What’s “discordant” to you might be “harmonious” to my ears (and vice-versa).
Miles Davis is considered a “jazz” artist, but first and foremost he was an artist; one who defied categorization throughout his career. The influence of his 1970 2-LP set Bitches Brew on what came to be called “fusion” cannot be overstated. But be warned: this is not an album you put on as background; it is challenging music that demands your full attention (depending on your mood that day, it will sound either bold and exhilarating, or discordant and unnerving).
I was somewhat taken aback to learn the other day that that a scant 6 years before he recorded Bitches Brew, Miles Davis made this comment about pioneering “free jazz” multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy (taken from a Down Beat interview published in 1964):
“Nobody else could sound as bad as Eric Dolphy. Next time I see him I’m going to step on his foot. You print that. I think he’s ridiculous. He’s a sad motherfucker.”
That’s one of the tidbits I picked up from Fire Music, writer-director Tom Surgal’s retrospective on the free jazz movement that flourished from the late 50s to the early 70s.
Call it “free jazz”, “avant-garde” or “free-form” …it’s been known to empty a room faster than you can say “polytonal”. After giving your ears a moment to adjust, Surgal and co-writer John Northrup do yeoman’s work unraveling a Gordian knot of roots, influences, and cosmic coincidences that sparked this amazingly rich and creative period.
Mixing vintage performance clips, archival interviews, and present-day ruminations by veterans of the scene with a dusting of academic commentary, the filmmakers illustrate how it fell together somewhat organically, flourished briefly, then faded away (Lao Tzu’s oft quoted “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long” comes to mind here).
After a nod to Be-bop, the film delves into the work of pioneers like saxophonist Ornette Coleman (his 1960 album Free Jazz gave the category-defying genre a handle) and pianist Cecil Taylor. While artists like Coleman, Taylor (and Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, et.al.) are now considered jazz greats, their boundary-pushing explorations were not universally embraced by critics (or audiences) at the time.
In fact, it wasn’t until saxophonist John Coltrane (“the most high and mighty” as one veteran player reverently intones in the film) released his 1966 album Ascension, that the movement received validation. Coltrane had been paying close attention to the revolutionary sounds coming out of the clubs, and Ascension indicated he had embraced the movement (although it certainly threw many of his fans for a loop).
As a musicologist points out in the film, it might have been easy for critics and the jazz establishment to look down their noses (or plug their ears) and dismiss players like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and their unconventional tonalities as amateurish noodling…but no one could say John Coltrane was an amateur (at least not with a straight face).
The film examines the regional scenes that sprang up, and (most fascinatingly) associated collectives that formed, like The Jazz Composer’s Guild in New York, The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, and The Black Artist’s Group in St. Louis (this was “D.I.Y.” long before Punk). The European scene (primarily in the UK, Germany, and Holland) that was inspired by the American free jazz movement is also chronicled.
Sadly, the filmmakers suggest a collective amnesia has set in over the ensuing decades that essentially has erased the contributions of these artists from jazz history. Here’s hoping enough people see this enlightening documentary to reverse that trend.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 11, 2021)
Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.
― Lenny Bruce
Like many people of “a certain age”, I can remember where I was and what I was doing when President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. I was attending school (2nd grade) in Columbus, Ohio. There was a school assembly. The principal made some remarks, we put our hands over our hearts, recited the Pledge of Allegiance and were dismissed.
I was not mature enough to grasp the historical significance of what had just happened, nor parse the sociopolitical fallout that ensued in the wake of this great national tragedy. All I got from the principal’s remarks that afternoon was “blah blah blah” and something about a magic ring and the end of the world. My main takeaway was that I got to go home early.
In May of 1963, a musician named Vaughn Meader picked up a Grammy award for Album of the Year…but he didn’t play a note on it. Meader was the star of an ensemble of voice actors who were recruited by writers Bob Booker and Earle Dowd to impersonate then-President John F. Kennedy and his family for a comedy album entitled The First Family.
It’s one of the first comedy albums I remember listening to when I was a kid, because my parents owned a copy (filed next to The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart in the built-in storage cabinet of their stereo console). Meader had been doing his JFK impression on stage, but it wasn’t until the surprise success of the gently satirical 1962 LP (7.5 million copies sold-impressive even now for a comedy album) that his career really skyrocketed.
This was, of course, decades before social media existed. Consequently, it would take nothing short of an Act of God to “cancel” an entertainer’s career overnight. Unfortunately for Meader, whatever career boost God gave him with one hand, he took away with the other on November 22, 1963.
As a (possibly apocryphal) story goes, Lenny Bruce was booked for a gig on the night of November 22, 1963. Undeterred by the shocking murder of the President earlier that day, he went on with the show. Reportedly, Bruce went onstage, but said nothing for several minutes, finally breaking his silence with “Boy …is Vaughn Meader fucked.”
Which begs a question: Too soon? Regardless, as Bruce predicted, Meader’s comedy career effectively ended that day. As Oliver Stone said in JFK, “The past is prologue.”
“I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.”
― George Carlin
Fast-forward to the night of September 29, 2001. The nation was still reeling from the horror of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that took the lives of over 3,000 people. The New York Friar’s Club was roasting Hugh Hefner. It was the first significant gathering of comedy heavyweights since the attacks.
The mood in the room that night was tentative. These were professional funny people, but like all Americans they were not in a jovial frame of mind. Nonetheless, the show went on. When Gilbert Gottfried took to the podium, his opener was a real doozy:
“I had to catch a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight…they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”
You could have heard a pin drop. Then someone yelled “TOO SOON!”
Gottfried’s story does have a happy ending. Reading the room (correctly), he immediately switched gears and launched into a venerable joke that comedians have amused each other with offstage for decades. It’s known as “The Aristocrats!” because…well, the punch line is: “The Aristocrats!”
It’s more of an improvisational exercise (or gross-out contest) than a “joke”, as whoever is telling it must embellish the setup, while assuring the premise and punchline remain intact. Long story short, Gottfried not only won back the crowd, but he also had fellow comics in tears as they all enjoyed a much-needed yuk.
Unlike the Lenny Bruce anecdote, this is not apocryphal…it’s on film. The footage originally popped up in the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats but serves as an apt opener for Nick Fituri Scown and Julie Seabaugh’s documentary Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11, which premiered on VICE-TV this week (there is a commemorative showing at L.A.’s Chinese Theater September 11).
The directors enlist comics, Broadway players, late-night TV hosts, SNL cast members, and writers for The Onion to share how they reconciled with a newly sensitized sociopolitical landscape to eventually find a way back to just being, you know – “funny”.
For some, it wasn’t simply struggling with writer’s block or facing glum-faced audiences. Muslim-American performers like Ahmed Ahmed, Negin Farsad, Maz Jobrani, Hari Kondabolu, and Aasif Mandvi recall the Islamophobia they encountered, ranging from having racist epithets hurled their way to outright death threats.
Another phenomenon that arose in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was a pernicious purity test that entertainers (or anyone with a public platform) had to pass with flying stars and stripes, under penalty of becoming persona non grata.
The most well-known example (as recalled in the film) was what happened to comic Bill Maher. Just 6 days following the attacks, Maher was hosting his weekly ABC panel show Politically Incorrect. His guest was outspoken conservative Dinesh D’Souza.
D’Souza was commenting on President Bush’s characterization of the terrorists as cowards. ”Not true,” D’Souza said. ”Look at what they did. You have a whole bunch of guys who were willing to give their life; none of them backed out. All of them slammed themselves into pieces of concrete. These are warriors.” Maher replied: ”We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”
While others in the media (including print journalists, like Susan Sontag) made similar observations, Maher took the most public flak. This prompted him to embark on something akin to an apology tour, appearing on a number of other talk shows to clarify his remarks.
In the meantime Politically Incorrect began to lose sponsors hand over fist, and in June of 2002 ABC pulled it, citing slipping ratings. Maher has contended he was essentially fired for the comments he made about the hijackers in September 2001.
On the flip-side of that coin, what could be more “patriotic” than laughing in the face of adversity? What could be more “American” than pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, dusting yourself off, and (in the immortal words of the late, great Chuckles the Clown), giving them “…a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants”?
I remember watching all three of those programs when they originally aired and being reminded of them again in the documentary was an unexpectedly moving experience. Speaking for myself there is now an added layer of weltschmerz in recalling these moments of national unity and shared compassion, because if there are two things we’ve lost over these past 20 years in America, it’s a sense of national unity and shared compassion.
Just pray we never lose our sense of humor. Because if we do…boy, are we fucked.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2021)
“The reason that society changes is not because ideas are good or ideas are bad. The reason society changes is because powerful people are forced to make concessions when people who don’t otherwise have power stand up.”
– Adaner Usmani, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Harvard, from The Big Scary ‘S’ Word.
Climatologist Michael E. Mann was a guest on MSNBC’s The Reid Out this past Thursday, where he was part of a panel discussion regarding Hurricane Ida’s impact on New Orleans earlier in the week and the related storm system that caused severe flash flooding in several Northeast states a few days later. He made this interesting observation:
Those who had the least role in creating [climate change-fueled extreme weather events] …those are the folks who have the least wealth; future generations, people in the developing world and the global South are bearing the brunt of the impacts, because they have the least resilience, they have the least resources to deal with this problem. […] Climate action is a matter of social justice.
Wait…what? “Climate action is a matter of social justice”?! How did Professor Mann draw the chalk from Hurricane Ida to Karl Marx in one fell swoop? Of course, I’m being facetious. I mean, no one is silly enough to conflate “social justice” with “socialism”. Right? For giggles, let’s Google “social justice” and “socialism”, and see what pops up:
Conservative TV personality Glenn Beck told Christians, “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words… If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop.”
Unfortunately, statements such as this have left even Catholics, who enjoy a rich social justice tradition, confused.
Socialism is defined as economic or political theories that advocate collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. The threat perceived by socialism is that it threatens the identity of the individual because it merges the masses into one common goal or voice.
Social justice isn’t an economic or political theory, but an outlook that seeks to strengthen the identity of the individual because it sees that human dignity derives its meaning from being made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). In God’s image, no one is worth more than another. All are deserving of life and whatever is needed to adequately sustain it.
I’m not a particularly religious person, but I think that last line is a nice tenet. Very nice.
“Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion-hunter
In the jungle dark,
And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen–
All fit together
In the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice–
So many different people
In the same device.”
–Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., from Cat’s Cradle
So if everyone from the authors of a 3000 year-old book of the bible to a prominent 20th Century science fiction writer can reach a consensus that all human beings are all equally worthy, all deserving of life, and all fit together in the same machine…how is it that the very mention of the word “socialism” has become anathema to so many folks these days?
Something to do with our current political climate, perhaps?
In a Director’s Statement regarding her new documentary The Big Scary ‘S’ Word, Yael Bridge writes:
…during the 2016 election cycle, I was personally fascinated by how Bernie Sanders appealed to people who would otherwise vote for Donald Trump, and the vast common ground between two ostensibly opposed political stances rocked me. I realized there is an urgent need for an honest, accessible exploration of today’s socialist ideas as they are being mobilized in America, as well as their historical precedents.
Before you get too excited, Bridge’s film is not all about Bernie. That said, Senator Sanders does pop up several times, as does Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, Professor Cornel West, author Naomi Klein, and other high-profile politicos and activists.
However, if the film has any “stars”, they are two lesser-known figures. They are Stephanie Price, an Oklahoma school teacher and single mom driven to activism, and Democratic Socialist Lee Carter, an ex-Marine who has represented the 50th district in the Virginia House of Delegates since 2018 (frustrated by his travails stemming from a debilitating work injury and no workman’s comp coverage, he launched his political career by Googling “how do I run for office?”).
In addition to eye-opening contemporary illustrations of pragmatic and robust socialist experiments like worker cooperatives and the Bank of North Dakota, there’s a compact history of American socialism, illustrating how key milestones like FDR’s New Deal and the labor movement continue to benefit all of us to this day (Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, better wages, reasonable work hours, workplace safety, etc.).
Some may register the breezy and amiable tone of Bridges’ documentary as a superficial approach, but it prevents the exercise from developing into a dry lecture. I bet you’ll even pick up one or two fun facts along the way (did you know that the Republican party was founded by socialists? I didn’t.). At any rate, there’s absolutely nothing here to fear here except…oh, never mind.
THE BIG SCARY ‘S’ WORD is available on digital platforms and in select theaters.
You’ve worked hard, so here’s a holiday bonus…my Top 10 Labor Day movies:
Blue Collar– Director Paul Schrader co-wrote this 1978 drama with his brother Leonard. Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto portray Motor City auto worker buddies tired of getting the short end of the stick from both their employer and their union. In a fit of drunken pique, they pull an ill-advised caper that gets them in trouble with both parties, ultimately putting friendship and loyalty to the test.
Akin to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Schrader subverts the standard “union good guy, company bad guy” trope with shades of gray, reminding us the road to Hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. Great score by Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder, with a memorable theme song featuring Captain Beefheart (“I’m jest a hard-woikin’, fucked-over man…”).
El Norte – Gregory Nava’s portrait of Guatemalan siblings who make their way to the U.S. after their father is killed by a government death squad will stay with you after credits roll. The two leads deliver naturalistic performances as a brother and sister who maintain optimism, despite fate and circumstance thwarting them at every turn. Claustrophobes be warned: a harrowing scene featuring an encounter with a rat colony during an underground border crossing is nightmare fuel. Do not expect a Hollywood ending; this is an unblinking look at the shameful exploitation of undocumented workers.
The Grapes of Wrath – John Ford’s powerful 1940 drama (adapted from John Steinbeck’s novel) is the quintessential film about the struggle of America’s salt of the earth during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get, Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “…be there, all around, in the dark.” Ford followed up with the Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley (1941) another drama about a working class family (set in a Welsh mining town).
Harlan County, USA – Barbara Kopple’s award-winning film is not only an extraordinary document about an acrimonious coal miner’s strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1973, but is one of the best American documentaries ever made. Kopple’s film has everything that you look for in any great work of cinema: drama, conflict, suspense, and redemption. Kopple and crew are so deeply embedded that you may involuntarily duck during a harrowing scene where a company-hired thug fires a round directly toward the camera operator (it’s a wonder the filmmakers lived to tell this tale).
Made in Dagenham – Based on a true story, this 2011 film (directed by Nigel Cole and written by William Ivory) stars Sally Hawkins as Rita O’Grady, a working mum employed at the Dagenham, England Ford plant in 1968. She worked in a run-down, segregated section of the plant where 187 female machinists toiled away for a fraction of what male employees were paid; the company justified the inequity by classifying female workers as “unskilled labor”.
Encouraged by her empathetic shop steward (Bob Hoskins), the initially reticent Rita finds her “voice” and surprises family, co-workers and herself with a formidable ability to rally the troops and affect real change. An engaging ensemble piece with a standout supporting performance by Miranda Richardson as a government minister.
Matewan – This well-acted, handsomely mounted drama by John Sayles serves as a sobering reminder that much blood was spilled to lay the foundation for the labor laws we take for granted in the modern workplace. Based on a true story, it is set during the 1920s, in West Virginia. Chris Cooper plays an outsider labor organizer who becomes embroiled in a conflict between coal company thugs and fed up miners trying to unionize.
Sayles delivers a compelling narrative, rich in characterizations and steeped in verisimilitude (beautifully shot by Haskell Wexler). Fine ensemble work from a top notch cast that includes David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, Joe Grifasi, Jane Alexander, Gordon Clapp, and Will Oldham. The film is also notable for its well-curated Americana soundtrack.
Modern Times – Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece about man vs. automation has aged well. This probably has everything to do with his embodiment of the Everyman. Although referred to as his “last silent film”, it’s not 100% so. There’s no dialogue, but Chaplin finds ingenious ways to work in lines (via technological devices). His expert use of sound effects in this film is unparalleled, particularly in a classic sequence where Chaplin, a hapless assembly line worker, literally ends up “part of the machine”. Paulette Goddard (then Mrs. Chaplin) is on board for the pathos. Brilliant, hilarious and prescient.
Norma Rae – Martin Ritt’s 1979 film about a minimum-wage textile worker (Sally Field) turned union activist helped launch what I refer to as the “Whistle-blowing Working Mom” genre (Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, etc).
Field gives an outstanding performance (and deservedly picked up a Best Actress Oscar) as the eponymous heroine who gets fired up by a passionate labor organizer from NYC (Ron Leibman, in his best role). Inspiring and empowering, bolstered by a fine screenplay (by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.) and a great supporting cast that includes Beau Bridges, Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley.
On the Waterfront – “It wuz you, Chahlee.” The betrayal! And the pain. It’s all there on Marlon Brando’s face as he delivers one of the most oft-quoted monologues in cinema history. Brando leads an exemplary cast that includes Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint in this absorbing portrait of a New York dock worker who takes a virtual one-man stand against a powerful and corrupt union official. The trifecta of Brando’s iconic performance, Elia Kazan’s direction, and Budd Schulberg’s well-constructed screenplay adds up to one of the finest American social dramas of the 1950s.
Roger and Me – While our favorite lib’rul agitprop director has made a number of films addressing the travails of wage slaves and ever-appalling indifference of the corporate masters who grow fat off their labors, Michael Moore’s low-budget 1989 debut film remains his best (and is on the list of the top 25 highest-grossing docs of all time).
Moore may have not been the only resident of Flint, Michigan scratching his head over GM’s local plant shutdown in the midst of record profits for the company, but he was the one with the chutzpah (and a camera crew) to make a beeline straight to the top to demand an explanation. His target? GM’s chairman, Roger Smith. Does he bag him? Watch it and find out. An insightful portrait of working class America that, like most of his subsequent films, can be at once harrowing and hilarious, yet hopeful and humanistic.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 28, 2021)
It was the time of year just after the summer’s gone
When August and September just become memories of songs
To be put away with the summer clothes
And packed up in the attic for another year
-from “Indian Summer” by The Dream Academy
I know that this is silly (I’m 65 years old, fergawdsake)- but as soon as the last week of August rolls around and retailers start touting their “back to school” sales, I still get that familiar twinge of dread. How do I best describe it? It’s a vague sensation of social anxiety, coupled with a melancholy resignation to the fact that from now until next June, I’ll have to go to bed early. By the way, now that I’m allowed to stay up with the grownups, why do I drift off in my chair at 8pm every night? It’s another one of life’s cruel ironies. At any rate, here are my Top 10 show-and-tell picks:
The Blackboard Jungle– This 1955 social drama is the “anti-HappyDays”. An idealistic English teacher (Glenn Ford) tackles an inner-city classroom full of leather-jacketed malcontents (or as they used to call them – “juvenile delinquents”) who would rather steal hubcaps and rumble than, say, study the construct of iambic pentameter.
The film still retains considerable power, despite dated trappings. Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier are surly and unpredictable as the alpha “toughs” in the classroom. The impressive supporting cast includes Richard Kiley, Anne Francis and Louis Calhern.
Director Richard Brooks co-scripted with Evan Hunter, from Hunter’s novel (the author is best-known by the nom de plume “Ed McBain”). Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” is featured in the soundtrack, which helped make the song a huge hit.
Dazed and Confused– I confess my attachment to writer-director Richard Linklater’s 1993 recreation of a mid-70s high school milieu is due to the sentimental chord it touches for me (I graduated from high school in 1974). Such is the verisimilitude of the clothing, the hairstyles, the lingo, the social behaviors and the music (I’d wager the boomers born a decade before me had a similar reaction to American Graffiti).
This is not a goofy teen comedy; while there are laughs (mostly of recognition), the sharply written screenplay focuses on keen observation. Linklater would be hard pressed to reassemble this bright, energetic young cast at the same bargain rates now: Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Rory Cochrane, Joey Lauren Adams and Nicky Katt.
Election– Writer-director Alexander Payne and his frequent creative collaborator Jim Taylor (Sideways, About Schmidt) followed their 1995 debut Citizen Ruth with this biting 1999 sociopolitical allegory (thinly cloaked as a teen comedy). Reese Witherspoon is pitch perfect as psychotically perky overachiever Tracy Flick, who specializes in goading her brooding civics teacher, Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick).
To Mr. McAllister’s chagrin, the ambitious Tracy is running unopposed for school president. He encourages dim but charming Paul Metzler (Payne discovery Chris Klein, who had never acted before) to cash in on his popularity as a jock and run against her. Payne delivers laughs, but never pulls his punches; he flings open the drapes to offer an unflinching look at suburban America’s dark side (similar to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, released the same year).
Fast Times at Ridgemont High-Amy Heckerling’s hit 1982 coming-of-age dramedy introduced a bevy of talent: Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Eric Stoltz, Nicholas Cage, Anthony Edwards. Oh…and a kid named Sean Penn, as the quintessential stoned California surfer dude, Jeff Spicoli (“Learning about Cuba…and having some food!”). A marvelously droll Ray Walston plays Spicoli’s exasperated history teacher, Mr. Hand.
Rolling Stone reporter (and soon-to-be film director) Cameron Crowe adapted the screenplay from his book, which was based on his experiences “embedded” at a San Diego high school (thanks to his youthful looks, Crowe managed to pass himself off as a student). Heckerling returned to the California high school milieu for her hit Clueless.
The First Grader– Beautifully directed by Justin Chadwick, this 2010 film is based on the true story of an illiterate 84 year-old Kikuyu tribesman (Oliver Litando) who had been a young freedom fighter during the Mau-Mau uprising in the 1950s. Fired up by a 2002 Kenyan law that guaranteed free education for all citizens, he shows up at his local one-room schoolhouse, eager to hit the books. The real story lies in his past. The personal sacrifices he made for his ideals are revealed slowly; resulting in a denouement with a powerful, bittersweet gut punch. Unique and inspiring.
Gregory’s Girl– Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth’s delightful examination of first love follows gawky teenager Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) as he goes ga-ga over Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), a fellow soccer player at school. Gregory receives advice from an unlikely mentor, his little sister (Allison Forster). While his male classmates put on airs about having deep insights about the opposite sex, they are just as clueless as he is.
Forsyth gets a lot of mileage out of a basic truth about adolescence- girls are light years ahead of the boys getting a handle on the mysteries of love. Not as precious as you might think; Forsyth (Local Hero,Comfort & Joy, That Sinking Feeling, Housekeeping) is a master of low-key anarchy. Those Scottish accents can make for tough going, but it’s worth the effort.
Also in the cast: Clare Grogan, whom music fans may recall as lead singer of 80s band Altered Images, and Red Dwarf fans may recognize as “Kristine Kochanski”.
if…. – In this 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson uses the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time. It was also the star-making debut of Malcolm McDowall, who plays Mick Travis, a “lower sixth form” student at a boarding school (McDowall would return as the Travis character in Anderson’s two loose “sequels” O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis forms the nucleus of a trio of lads who foment armed insurrection against the abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters.
Some critical reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film really has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (the uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). That said, one could argue that if…. could be read outside of original context as a pre-cursor to films like Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, The Chocolate War and Rushmore.
Mandy– England’s Ealing Studios are chiefly remembered for churning out a slew of classic comedies. Director Alexander Mackendrick was responsible for several (including Whiskey Galore, The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit), but also made this outstanding 1952 drama about a 7-year old girl (Mandy Miller).
Congenitally deaf since birth, Mandy has been coddled by her well-meaning parents (Phyllis Calvert and Terence Morgan) her whole life. While this has “protected” her in a fashion, it has also made her completely insular and socially dysfunctional. When Mandy’s mother hears about a school that specializes in teaching deaf children to speak using new progressive methods, she lobbies her skeptical husband to enroll their daughter. He reluctantly agrees. Mandy’s journey makes for an incredibly moving story.
Nigel Balchin and Jack Whittingham adapted the intelligent script from Hilda Lewis’ novel “The Day is Ours”. An added sense of realism stems from use of many non-actors; e.g. Mandy’s classmates, who were real-life students from a school for deaf children (Miller was not deaf, which makes her heart wrenching performance more remarkable; particularly in her unforgettable “breakthrough” scene).
The film had a profound impact in the U.K., changing social attitudes toward people with disabilities, who had been traditionally marginalized (if not shunned altogether or considered mentally deficient). Jack Hawkins gives one of his finest performances as Mandy’s teacher. A beautiful film.
To Sir With Love-A decade after he co-starred in The Blackboard Jungle, Sidney Poitier trades his switchblade for a lesson plan; the student becomes teacher. This well-acted 1967 classroom drama offered a twist on the prevalent narrative of its day. Audiences were accustomed to watching an idealistic white teacher struggling to reach a classroom of unruly (and usually “ethnic”) inner city students; but here you had an idealistic black teacher struggling to reach a classroom of unruly, white British working-class students.
It’s a tour de force for James Clavell, who directed, wrote and produced. The “culture clash” narrative is not surprising; as it is prevalent in Clavell’s novels and films (most famously in Shogun). The film is also a great “swinging 60s” time capsule, with an onscreen performance of the theme song by Lulu, as well as an appearance by the Mindbenders (featuring future 10cc co-founder Eric Stewart). Also in the cast: Judy Geeson (in a poignant performance), Suzy Kendall, Christian Roberts, and future rock star Michael Des Barres (the lead singer for Silverhead, Detective, and Power Station).
Twenty-Four Eyes– This drama from Keisuke Kinoshita could be the ultimate “inspirational teacher” movie. Set in an isolated, sparsely populated village on the ruggedly beautiful coast of Japan’s Shodoshima Island, the story begins in 1928 and ends just after WW 2. It’s a simple yet deeply resonant tale about the long-term relationship that develops between a compassionate, nurturing teacher (Hideko Takamine) and her 12 students, from grade school through adulthood.
Many of the cast members are non-actors, but you would never guess it from the wonderful performances. Kinoshita enlisted sets of siblings to portray the students as they “age”, giving the story a heightened sense of realism. The film, originally released in 1954, was hugely popular in Japan; a revival years later introduced it to Western audiences, who warmed to its humanist stance and undercurrent of anti-war sentiment.
Charlie Watts has died. A soft-spoken gentleman, Charlie would sign his notes with a parenthetical “(Rolling Stones)” after his name as if people might not place his name.
Let’s focus on his actual drumming. He played on a small 4 piece 1956 Gretsch drum kit which was more of a be-bop configuration. This minimalism seemed to fit his yeoman’s approach to his job as drummer, no doubt simplifying set-up, getting a consistent sound, facilitating upkeep and minimizing the bane of all drummers – transport. He was not the kind of drummer to use a double-bass drum kit that would spin above the stage (Tommy, here’s lookin’ at you). I would argue Charlie made more with less.
No, Charlie didn’t seek the spotlight, but his legacy of playing on every Rolling Stones song ever made easily cements him as one of the greats of all time.
First and foremost a jazz fan, Charlie had to be coaxed into joining a rock and roll band (apparently by Ray Davies of The Kinks no less). His thundering performance on their early hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” showed no doubt that he could adapt. Charlie could hit the drums hard, even though he used a traditional grip like jazz players do.
When he comes in with a *crack* near the beginning of “Start Me Up”, his heavy snare sounds like one of his disciples, Max Weinberg, who drummed in a similar way on Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”. Getting that sound from a small kit is not only an engineering feat, it requires deep experience in where and how to hit the drums. Charlie had it (as does Max!).
My friend, Dennis Hartley wrote a tribute to Charlie Watts, concluding he was the Rock of the Stones. So true, and yet I think his brilliance also lay in his ability to Roll. A perfectly on-time, metronome-like beat is lifeless (and easily obtained with a drum machine) but you cannot teach a person or a machine to play with the “feel” that Charlie brought.
Call it a slight swing or a shuffle, it can be heard on songs like “Midnight Rambler” where Charlie sometimes swings and sometimes plays with the expected “rock” back-beat. “I like to play straight ahead with a groove,” Charlie once said in one of his rare interviews in reference to his playing on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”. Without Charlie adding that dash of sultriness, the Stones (including Mick’s swaggering hip shakes) would never have lasted as long as they have.
Charlie also had great dynamics and cymbal work. He sometimes had a jerky look when playing the hi-hat and snare together as he preferred to alternate between them (most drummers will play consistent 1/8 or ¼ notes on the hi-hat and simply layer on the snare, typically on beats 2 and 4). Maybe his habit of playing one or the other let him focus his intensity on one thing at a time. It worked, and provided another organic layer to his playing that perfectly fit the sometimes raggedy sound of the guitars.
Charlie was good at letting songs breathe, never overplaying and sometimes sitting out on entire songs. When the drums did come in, they often did with gusto as one can hear on innovative songs like “She’s a Rainbow” or “Ruby Tuesday”. One of his most innovative performances was playing a tabla with sticks on “Factory Girl” (Ricky Dijon also played on conga).
Like the knowing scrape of a boot from a cool cat’s walk, Charlie’s drumming had a sexiness and a *crack!” which is to say he could rock and roll.