Tribeca 2024: S/He Is Still Her/e: The Official Genesis P-Orridge Documentary (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 15, 2024)

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The title of David Charles Rodrigues’ documentary is a mouthful, which is somehow appropriate because the subject of his film was a real handful. My previous awareness of P-Orridge was only through their involvement with the bands Throbbing Gristle and Psychic T.V., but this unblinking portrait reveals that there was a hell of a lot more going on in that noggin (performance artist, poet, occultist). A fascinating and eye-opening look at someone who not only lived for their art, but over the course of a lifetime, literally molded themselves into a piece of living art.

Tribeca 2024: Restless (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 15, 2024)

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Writer-director Jed Hart’s audacious and blackly comic debut feature is driven by a terrific performance by Lyndsey Marshal, who plays a mild-mannered elder care nurse who likes nothing better than spending her off-hours baking, listening to light classical music, and settling in with her cat for some reading and quiet time. Imagine her chagrin when it becomes abundantly clear that her new next-door neighbor likes nothing better than hosting all-night ravers…every night of the week. Her first few polite requests (usually made around 4am) for the young man and his friends to keep it down are initially met with bemusement, but the situation takes a more sinister turn once she threatens to call the police. The woman’s steady descent into madness and desperation turns a “neighbor from hell” story into a modern Edgar Allan Poe tale. A satisfying revenge fantasy for anyone who’s “been there”, and a solid reinforcement for the old adage, “Watch out for the quiet ones.”

Tribeca 2024: Don’t You Let Me Go (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 15, 2024)

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The protracted opening scene of Ana Guevara and Leticia Jorge’s drama (set at a wake) is so drenched in sorrow and raw emotion that it becomes something akin to grief porn. But just as I was beginning to wonder if this was going to be some kind of endurance test, one insular young woman breaks away from the proceedings to catch some air. Her name is Adela, and the recently departed was Elena, her closest friend since childhood. Adela is heading for her car when she espies a bus that seems to have appeared from nowhere. Intrigued, she boards it.

From this point onward, the narrative shifts from temporal to metaphysical concerns-as this is no ordinary bus (thank you driver for getting me here). Abracadabra …Adela has been transported to a weekend summer idyll with Elena and a mutual friend at a beach cottage. Whether this is a sense memory or a wishful conjuring on Adela’s part is not clear (shades of Tarkovsky’s Solaris). What begins as a sobering meditation on grief and loss becomes an uplifting fable about friendship, love, and savoring every morsel of joy that comes your way.

Tribeca 2024: Hacking Hate (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 15, 2024)

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Move over, Lisbeth Salandar…there’s a new hacker in town, and she’s stirring up a hornet’s nest of wingnuts. Simon Klose’s timely documentary follows award-winning Swedish journalist My Vingren as she meticulously constructs a fake online profile, posing as a male white supremacist. Her goal is to smoke out a possible key influencer and glean how he and others fit into right-wing extremist recruiting.

Vingren is like a one-woman Interpol; her investigation soon points her to U.S.-based extremist networks as well, leading her to consult with whistle-blower Anika Collier Navaroli (the former Twitter employee who was instrumental in getting Trump booted off the platform) and Imrab Ahmed (another one of Elon Musk’s least-favorite people, he was sued by the X CEO for exposing the rampant hate speech on the platform).

This isn’t a video game; considering the inherently belligerent nature of the extremist culture she is exposing, Vingren is taking considerable personal risk in this type of investigative journalism (she’s much braver than I am). Especially chilling is the shadowy figure at the center of her investigation, who is like a character taken straight out of a Frederick Forsyth novel. In light of the high stakes of our own upcoming presidential election and the ancillary right-wing extremist threats, this could be the most important documentary of 2024.

Tribeca 2024: Boys Go To Jupiter (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 15, 2024)

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Well, you know what they say: “Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider, girls go to college to get more knowledge.” Truth be told, I was completely oblivious about the existence of that (alleged) children’s rhyme until I consulted Mr. Google a few moments ago (I never went to college, you see). 3-D animator Julian Glander’s musical comedy fantasy (set in Florida between Christmas and New Year’s) centers on a teenage odd-jobber named Billy 5000 (voiced by Jack Corbett) who is laser-focused on making $5,000.

His pals think he works too much; chiding him for not chilling with them at the beach. When Billy stumbles across an alien creature that resembles a purple donut, he is forced to reassess his raison d’être. Toss in a subplot about an evil orange juice company out to take over the world (or something), and there you have it. Fitfully amusing, in the vein of Clerks and Slacker (the light social satire and absurdist anarchy reminded me of The Firesign Theatre at times). I enjoyed the music soundtrack, which has a pleasant dream pop vibe. For a niche audience.

Tribeca 2024: Brats (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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Linndrums,  teen angst, and synths…oh my! If you are of a certain age, you may recall a distinctive sub-genre of of films that propagated in the early-to-mid 80s. More often than not, they were directed by John Hughes, targeted to appeal to a mid-teens to early 20s audience, and featured mix-and-match ensembles of fast-rising young Hollywood stars like Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, John Cryer, Judd Nelson, et. al.

In 1985, 29 year-old pop culture writer David Blum did a lengthy profile in New York magazine that was initially intended to focus solely on Emilio Estevez. However, after carousing for a few days with Estevez and some of his contemporaries, he came up with a hook for his piece, christening this core group as “The Brat Pack”. The term stuck, becoming ingrained into the pop culture lexicon.

One of those young actors was Andrew McCarthy (Class, St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero). For his engaging documentary, McCarthy set  out to track down some of his fellow Brat-packers to get their take on how this reductive labeling affected their subsequent careers; was it a curse, a blessing, or a little of both?

While it’s fun to watch McCarthy and his fellow actors sharing war stories and commiserating on the ups and downs of early stardom, the most interesting segment is toward the end of the film, when he sits down with a wary and defensive David Blum. To his credit, McCarthy keeps it civil; that said, he does share his feelings with the writer vis a vis how hurtful the “Brat Pack” labeling was to him personally,  asking him if he thought it was “mean”. Blum’s pragmatic response reminded me of the sage advice given to the budding journalist in Almost Famous: “Never make friends with the band.”

20 Big Ones: A Summer Mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 8, 2024)

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OK, it may not be Summer yet on the calendarbut try telling that to Mother Nature:

Excessive heat warnings are set to expire this weekend after daily temperature records have been set across the US Southwest.

Extreme temperatures are expected to continue in California, Nevada and Arizona into Saturday.

An excessive heat warning in Las Vegas will expire Saturday night with temperatures remaining around 115F (46.1) on Saturday and dropping to 112F (44.4C) on Sunday.

Similar to the trend throughout last week, temperatures will remain high at night hovering around the low 80s.

On Thursday, the heat hit 113F (45C) in Phoenix. Record-breaking temperatures led to 11 people taken to the hospital while waiting to attend a Donald Trump rally on Wednesday.

Phoenix will see some slight relief after the heat warning expires Friday night, but the high temperature remains in triple digits for Saturday at 108F (42.2C) and 104F (40C) on Sunday.

National Weather Service (NWS) alerts remain in place on Friday for the wider area, covering a population of around 20 million people.

The heat marks the first round of dangerous temperatures this season with the possibility of excessive heat persisting into next week for some areas, according to the NWS Weather Prediction Centre.

Scientists say extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense as a result of climate change.

Although the official start of summer is still two weeks away, NWS has advised people in the affected areas to limit outdoor activity and stay hydrated.

It earlier warned that there would be little overnight relief from the scorching temperatures.

On Thursday, NWS thermometers showed new highs for 6 June in locations that included Las Vegas and Death Valley. The latter location hit 122F (50C).

The fire department in Clark County, home of Las Vegas, responded to at least 12 calls since Wednesday related to heat exposure, the Associated Press reported. Nine of those callers needed to be treated at a hospital.

Reporting the reading of 113F (45C) at Sky Harbour, the NWS’s Phoenix office said this exceeded the previous high for 6 June that was set in 2016.

Phoenix is America’s hottest big city, and there were 645 heat-related deaths last year in the wider Maricopa County. […]

Temperatures are about 20-30F above average for this time of year.

While heat domes were once described as rare, they are becoming more common and intense because of human-induced climate change, scientists say.

The European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service announced on Wednesday that the world has surpassed one full year of back-to-back monthly heat records.

The climate change service also found that May marked the 11th consecutive month that the global average temperature was at least 1.5C above the pre-industrial average of the late 1800s, which references a period before there was a significant increase in emissions of greenhouse gases.

Scientists say the high temperatures were driven by human-caused climate change combined with the El Niño climate phenomenon.

“We are living in unprecedented times,” Carlo Buontempo, director of Copernicus, said earlier this week.

By the time I get to Phoenix…I’ll be melting.

Hot damn, summer in the city. Speaking of which-here are a few of my fave songs of the season. You’ve heard some a bazillion times; others, not so much.

Stay cool!

Martin Newell– “Another Sunny Day” – Despite the fact he’s been cranking out hook-laden, Beatle-esque pop gems for five decades, endearingly eccentric singer-musician-songwriter-poet Martin Newell (Cleaners From Venus, Brotherhood of Lizards) remains a selfishly-guarded secret by cult-ish admirers (guilty as charged). This summery confection is from his 2007 album A Summer Tamarind.

First Class – “Beach Baby” – UK studio band First Class was the brainchild of singer-songwriter Tony Burrows, who also sang lead on other one-hit wonders, including “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes” (The Edison Lighthouse), “My Baby Loves Lovin’” (White Plains), and “United We Stand” (The Brotherhood of Man). This pop confection was a Top 10 song in the U.S. in 1974.

Jade Warrior– “Bride of Summer” – Here’s a summer tune you’ve never heard on the radio. This hard-to-categorize band has been around since the early 70s; progressive jazz-folk-rock-world beat is the best I can do. Sadly, original guitarist Tony Duhig passed away in 1990. His multi-tracked lead on this song is sublime.

Bananarama– “Cruel Summer” – A more melancholy take on the season from the Ronettes of New Wave. I seem to recall a rather heavy rotation of this video on MTV in the summer of ’84. The video is a great time capsule of 1980s NYC.

Takuya Kuroda – “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” – Japanese trumpeter Takuya Kuroda’s 2014 cover of a Roy Ayers composition is a hypnotic, transporting “headphone song”. Immerse yourself.

The Beatles – “Good Day Sunshine” – The kickoff to Side 2 of Revolver finds Paul McCartney in full cockeyed optimist mode. Everything about his song is “happy”, from the lyrics (I feel good, in a special way / I’m in love and it’s a sunny day) and the bright harmonies, to George Martin’s jaunty ragtime piano solo. Paul has said that he was inspired by the Lovin’ Spoonful.

Pink Floyd – “Granchester Meadows” – This is from one of Pink Floyd’s more obscure albums, Ummagumma. Anyone who has ever sat under a shady tree on a summer’s day strumming a guitar will “get” this song, which is one of David Gilmour’s most beautiful compositions. I love how he incorporates nature sounds. Aaahh…

Joni Mitchell– “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” – The haunting title cut from Joni’s 1975 album, co-written by drummer John Guernin (who also plays Moog). The song also features Victor Feldman on keyboards and James Taylor on guitar.

Sly & the Family Stone– “Hot Fun in the Summertime” – A quintessential summer song and an oldies radio staple. And don’t forget…I “cloud nine” when I want to.

Walter Egan– “Hot Summer Nights” – While it didn’t achieve the gold status of his 1978 chart hit “Magnet and Steel”, Walter Egan’s first single (taken from his 1977 debut album Fundamental Roll) is a minor classic that still sounds so right blasting out of your car radio.

Mungo Jerry– “In the Summertime” – It wouldn’t have worked without the jug.

Marshall Crenshaw– “Starless Summer Sky” – In a just world, this power pop genius would have ruled the airwaves. Here’s one of many perfect examples why.

The Isley Brothers– “Summer Breeze” –  Seals & Crofts wrote and performed the original version, but the Isleys always had a knack for making covers their own. Ernie Isley’s guitar work is superb.

Weekend –”Summerdays” – Weekend was a spin-off of The Young Marble Giants.  Formed in 1981, the Welsh band only released one studio album (1982’s La Variete), but they created a distinctive sound that ages well, compared to many of their indie contemporaries. This breezy number encapsulates the vibe-an infusion of jazz, samba, pop and world beat topped off by Allison Statton’s soothing vocals.

The Lovin’ Spoonful– “Summer in the City” – All around, people lookin’ half-dead/walkin’ on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head. Written by John Sebastian, Mark Sebastian and Steve Boone, this 1966 hit is a clever portmanteau of music, lyrics and effects that quite literally sounds like…summer in the city.

XTC– “Summer’s Cauldron/Grass” – A mini-suite of sorts, all about summer romance, lazy days, and the uh, things we did on grass. Produced by Todd Rundgren.

Blue Cheer– “Summertime Blues” – Eddie Cochran wrote and performed it originally, and the Who did a great cover on Live at Leeds, but for sheer attitude, I have to go with this proto-punk (some have argued, proto-metal) classic from 1968.

The Kinks– “Sunny Afternoon” – This poor guy. Taxman’s taken all his dough, girlfriend’s run off with his car…but he’s not going to let that ruin his summer: Now I’m sittin here/ sippin’ at my ice-cooled beer/ lazin’ on a sunny afternoon…

Central Line– “Walking Into Sunshine” – Gotta walk into the sun, ah-ah. A hook-laden jam by the now-defunct UK funk outfit. If this 1984 club hit doesn’t brighten your day…I’d seriously look into it.

The Beach Boys– “The Warmth of the Sun” – This song (featuring one of Brian Wilson’s most gorgeous melodies), appeared on the 1964 album Shut Down Vol 2. Atypically introspective and melancholy for this era of the band, it had an unusual origin story. Wilson and Mike Love allegedly began work on the tune in the wee hours of the morning JFK was assassinated; news of the event changed the tenor of the lyrics, as well as having an effect on the emotion driving the vocal performance.

Of Yak Dung and Trump’s Tongue

By Dennis Hartley

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“Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known.” – from The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

“[Donald Trump is] a husband, a father, a grandfather and a friend to a lot of people. When you see that happen to him, and I was standing right next to him today, it’s heartbreaking.” -Donald Trump’s defense attorney, reacting to his client’s conviction on 34 felony counts this past Thursday

To quote The Giant in Twin Peaks, “It is happening again.”

Embracing Donald Trump’s strategy of blaming the U.S. justice system after his historic guilty verdict, Republicans in Congress are fervently enlisting themselves in his campaign of vengeance and political retribution in the GOP bid to reclaim the White House.

Almost no Republican official has stood up to suggest Trump should not be the party’s presidential candidate for the November election — in fact, some have sought to hasten his nomination. Few others dared to defend the legitimacy of the New York state court that heard the hush money case against the former president, or the 12 jurors who unanimously rendered their verdict.

In fact, any Republicans who expressed doubts about Trump’s innocence or political viability, including his former hawkish national security adviser John Bolton or top-tier Senate candidate Larry Hogan, were instantly bullied by the former president’s enforcers and told to “leave the party.” […]

The swift, strident and deepening commitment to Trump despite his felony conviction shows how fully Republican leaders and lawmakers have been infused with his unfounded grievances of a “rigged” system and dangerous conspiracies of “weaponized” government into their own attacks on President Joe Biden and the Democrats. […]

At his Trump Tower on Friday in New York, the former president returned to the kinds of attacks he has repeatedly lodged in campaign speeches, portraying Biden as the one who is a “corrupt” and the U.S. as a “fascist” nation.

Trump called the members of the bipartisan House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol “thugs” and said Biden was a “Manchurian candidate,” a phrase inspired by the 1960s movie portraying a puppet of a U.S. political enemy.

It should be noted that Mr. Trump did not elaborate any further on the movie reference, to which my reaction was, “Wait…what? Biden is a ‘Manchurian candidate’?!” This unqualified analogy immediately struck me as textbook projection; and there’s at least one noted presidential historian who concurs:

If there is one thing that all historians can agree on, it’s that history is cyclical. Which is why this seemed like a good week to re-post one of my old pieces that is suddenly new again…

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  March 19, 2016)

Synchronicity: Criterion reissues The Manchurian Candidate

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Would I block you? I would spend every cent I own, and all I could borrow, to block you. There are people who think of Johnny as a clown and a buffoon, but I do not. I despise John Iselin and everything that Iselinism has come to stand for. I think, if John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more to harm this country than he’s doing now.

 –from The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

That’s Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver), in response to Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury), the wife and political handler of Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), who has just asked him if he would have any objection if her McCarthy-esque husband’s name were to be “put forward” at an upcoming political convention.

Thank god that’s from a movie, because, well…could you imagine what kind of chaos would ensue in this country if someone who is widely perceived as a “clown and buffoon” were somehow jockeyed into a position of high office…perhaps even the highest office? I mean, that’s purely something that could “only happen in the movies”, amirite? Anyone?

Here’s what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the members of the American public for suckers. He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat. His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.

-from Mitt Romney’s recent speech regarding Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency

Who said that? Mitt Romney? Really? He denounced his own party’s steamrolling frontrunner in the race for the Republican presidential nominee? I suppose I see some parallels between Donald Trump and the fictional Senator Iselin, but let’s keep this in mind…director John Frankenheimer’s Cold War thriller was made 54 years ago. And the story itself is set in the early 1950s, at the height of the Red Scare.

Those were different times! Back then, the political climate was informed by fear and paranoia. You actually had politicians publicly calling each other commies, fergawdsakes. What is that line in the film, where Senator Jordan is explaining to Senator Iselin’s stepson Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) the chief reasons for the political enmity between himself and the insufferable tag team of Raymond’s Red-baiting stepfather and control freak mother…?

One of your mother’s more endearing traits is her tendency to refer to anyone who disagrees with her about anything as a communist.

Yes, that was it. See? That was then, but this is now. Donald Trump doesn’t go that far.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump on Saturday blamed supporters of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders for protests that shut down his Chicago rally, calling the U.S. senator from Vermont “our communist friend”.

-from The Raw Story (March 12)

Oh. But, in the film, it’s the candidate’s wife who is described as a Red-baiter, so let’s not get carried away. Because if that were the case, this would be getting downright spooky.

[Bernie] Sanders is a communist. I was born in a communist country, so I know when I see them or hear them.

-Donald Trump’s ex-wife Ivana (from Page Six, March 15)

All right…now it’s getting downright spooky.

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Speaking of “spooky”, in January of 2011, in my armchair psychologist’s attempt to answer “Why?” regarding yet another mass shooting, I explored the pathology of the perversely “All-American” phenomenon known as the “lone gunman” via what morphed into a rather wordy genre study.

In the piece, I posed some questions. What is the motivation? Madness? Political beef? A cry for attention? What is to blame? Society? Demagoguery? Legislative torpor? The internet? Then, prompted by last year’s horrible Charleston church shooting, I felt compelled to republish a revised version of that piece.

In the intro to that revised posting, I noted an unsettling similarity between something Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump said in his official campaign kickoff speech to what the Charleston shooter had allegedly said to his victims just one day later:

“When Mexico sends its people (to America), they are not sending their best… (Mexican immigrants) are bringing drugs and they are bringing crime, and they’re rapists.” 

-from Donald Trump’s speech announcing his presidential bid, June 16, 2015

“(African-Americans) rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

-Charleston shooter’s statement to his victims before opening fire, June 17, 2015

Was it coincidence, or was it cause-and-effect? I drew no conclusions then, nor do I now. At any rate, my point is…one of the films I analyzed in the post was The Manchurian Candidate, which is now available in a newly restored 4K Blu-ray edition from Criterion.

The story is set after the Korean War. Frank Sinatra stars as former POW Major Bennett Marco. Marco and his platoon were captured by the Soviets and transported to Manchuria for a period, then released. As a consequence, Marco suffers from (what we would now call) PTSD, in the form of recurring nightmares.

Marco’s memories of the captivity are hazy; but he suspects his dreams hold the key. His suspicions are confirmed when he hears from several fellow POWs, who all share very  specific and disconcerting details in their dreams involving the platoon’s sergeant, Raymond Shaw. As the mystery unfolds, a byzantine conspiracy is uncovered, involving brainwashing, subterfuge and assassination.

I’ve watched this film maybe 9 or 10 times over the years, and I must say that it’s held up remarkably well, despite a few dated trappings. It works on a number of levels; as a conspiracy thriller, political satire, and a perverse family melodrama. Interestingly, each time I revisit, it strikes me more and more as a black comedy; which could be attributable to its prescient nature (perhaps the political reality has finally caught up with its more far-fetched elements…which now makes it a closer cousin to Dr. Strangelove and Network).

Indeed, I found myself laughing out loud at lines like “Yak dung…tastes good, like a cigarette should!” and “…having been relieved of those uniquely American symptoms of guilt and fear, he cannot possibly give himself away” (both delivered by scene-stealer Khigh Dhiegh, as the droll Manchurian brainwashing expert). Sinatra is assigned one of the most quotable lines: “Mr. Secretary-I’m kinda new at this job, but I don’t think it’s good public relations to talk that way to a United States senator…even if he is an idiot.” The intelligent screenplay was adapted from Richard Condon’s novel by George Axelrod.

Good performances abound, but Lansbury is the standout, with a magnificent turn as one of cinema’s greatest heavies. Harvey is heartbreaking as the tortured Raymond. Sinatra is, well, Sinatra (i.e. uneven). It’s been well-documented that he was never a fan of doing multiple takes; frankly it shows and works against him here, particularly whenever he lapses into that Rat Pack patois (he recounts a dream as “one swinger of a nightmare”). It’s not enough to sink the film, but those moments do take Sinatra out of his character.

As usual, Criterion packs in some worthwhile extras. They port over the 1997 commentary track by the director that was done for the original MGM DVD release, as well as an 8-minute round-table between Frankenheimer, screenwriter Axelrod and Sinatra that was recorded in 1987.

New supplements exclusive to this edition include a recent 11-minute interview with Lansbury (engaging as ever at 89), a 21-minute interview with historian Susan Carruthers, and an enlightening 16-minute appreciation by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who gleans a few subtexts I’ve never picked up on.

That’s one mark of a truly great film-the more times you watch it, the more you’ll see.

Previous posts with related themes:

They Can Always Get Him on Tax Evasion

On Mad Kings, Death Cults, and Altman’s Secret Honor

A Sad Sequel: The American Assassin on Film II

Plus ca change: Criterion Reissues Dr. Strangelove

Goin’ Mobile: Top 20 Road Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2024)

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Sam: If I take one more step, I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.

Frodo: Come on, Sam. Remember what Bilbo used to say: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.”

— from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Well… things have certainly “opened up” again:

A record was broken ahead of the Memorial Day weekend for the number of airline travelers screened at U.S. airports, the Transportation Security Administration said Saturday.

More than 2.9 million travelers were screened at U.S. airports on Friday, surpassing a previous record set last year on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, according to the transportation security agency.

“Officers have set a new record for most travelers screened in a single day!” the TSA tweeted. “We recommend arriving early.”

The third busiest day on record was set on Thursday when just under 2.9 million travelers were screened at U.S. airports.

In Atlanta, the world’s busiest airport had its busiest day ever. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport broke a traffic record on Thursday when 111,000 passengers, airlines crew and airport employees were screened at security checkpoints. The second busiest day followed on Friday when 109,960 people were screened, according to the TSA.

With 104.6 million passengers, the Atlanta airport was the busiest in the world last year, according to Airports Council International.

U.S. airlines expect to carry a record number of passengers this summer. Their trade group estimates that 271 million travelers will fly between June 1 and August 31, breaking the record of 255 million set last summer.

AAA predicted this will be the busiest start-of-summer weekend in nearly 20 years, with 43.8 million people expected to roam at least 50 miles from home between Thursday and Monday — 38 million of them taking vehicles.

For most people, Memorial Day Weekend prompts plans for summer getaways and/or road trips. As for me? What Bilbo said. I’m a “stay-cation” kinda guy; don’t dig crowds, traffic even less. If you are of like mind, you’re invited to hitch a ride for a (virtual) road trip this weekend with one or more of my picks for the Top 20 Road Movies.

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Badlands – With barely a dozen feature-length projects over nearly 50 years, reclusive writer-director Terrence Malick surely takes the prize as America’s Most Enigmatic Filmmaker. Still, if he had altogether vanished following this astonishing 1973 debut, his place in cinema history would still be assured. Nothing about Badlands betrays its modest budget, or suggests that there is anyone less than a fully-formed artist at the helm.

Set on the South Dakota prairies, the tale centers on a  ne’er do well (Martin Sheen, in full-Denim James Dean mode) who smooth talks naive high school-aged Holly (Sissy Spacek) into his orbit. Her widowed father (Warren Oates) does not approve of the relationship; after a heated argument the sociopathic Kit shoots him and goes on the lam with the oddly dispassionate Holly (the story is based on real-life spree killers Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate).

With this film, Malick took the “true crime” genre into a whole new realm of poetic allegory. Disturbing subject matter, to be sure, but beautifully acted, magnificently shot (Tak Fujimoto’s “magic hour” cinematography almost counts as a third leading character of the narrative) and one of the best American films of the 1970s.

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Detour – Many consider Edgar G. Ulmer’s artfully pulpy 1945 programmer as one of the greatest no-budget “B” crime dramas ever made. Clocking in at just under 70 minutes, the story follows a down-on-his-luck musician (Tom Neal) with whom fate, and circumstance have saddled with (first) a dead body, and then (worst) a hitchhiker from Hell (Ann Savage, in a wondrously demented performance). In short, he is not having a good night. Truly one of the darkest noirs of them all.

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Five Easy Pieces — “You see this sign?” Thanks to sharp direction from Bob Rafaelson, an excellent screenplay by Carole Eastman (billed as Adrien Joyce) and an iconic performance by Jack Nicholson, this  remains one of the defining American road movies of the 1970s.

Nicholson is an antihero teetering on the edge of an existential meltdown; a classically-trained pianist from a moneyed family who chooses to martyr himself working soulless blue-collar jobs. Karen Black delivers one of her better performances as his long-suffering girlfriend. The late great DP Laszlo Kovacs makes excellent use of the verdant, rain-soaked Pacific Northwest milieu.

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Genevieve  — This marvelous British film from 1953 follows the travails of a young couple (Dinah Sheridan and John Gregson) who  join their bachelor friend (Kenneth Moore) and his latest flame (Kay Kendall) on an annual road trip from London to Brighton as participants in an antique car rally. After the two men have a bit of a verbal spat in Brighton, they agree to convert the return trip to London into a “friendly” race, with a 100-pound wager to be awarded to whoever is first across the Westminster Bridge.

Engaging from start to finish, thanks to the charming performances, and a droll screenplay by William Rose (The Ladykillers, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). Oh, in case you were wondering- “Genevieve” is the name of the couple’s antique car. American harmonica player Larry Adler’s memorable score received an Oscar nomination (unfortunately, Adler’s name did not appear in the credits on the original U.S. prints of the film because of the blacklist). Director Henry Cornelius’ next project was I Am a Camera, the 1955 film that was reincarnated as the musical Cabaret.

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The Hit – Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff and ominous a cappella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”.

Willie relocates to Spain, where the other shoe drops “one sunny day”. Willie is abducted and delivered to a veteran hit man (John Hurt) and his apprentice (Tim Roth). Willie accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm.

As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside toward France (where Willie’s ex-employer awaits him for what is certain to be a less-than-sunny “reunion”) mind games ensue, spinning the narrative into unexpected avenues-especially once a second hostage (Laura del Sol) enters the equation.

Stamp is excellent, but Hurt’s performance is sheer perfection; I love the way he portrays his character’s icy detachment slowly unraveling into blackly comic exasperation. Great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, and Eric Clapton performs the opening theme.

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The Hitch-hiker – This 1953 film noir (directed by Ida Lupino) is not only a tough, taut nail-biter, but one of the first “killer on the road” thrillers (a precursor to The Hitcher, Freeway, Kalifornia, etc.). Lupino co-wrote the tight script with Collier Young. They adapted from a story by Daniel Mainwearing that was based on a real-life highway killer’s spree.

Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy play buddies taking a road trip to Mexico for some fishing. When they pick up a stranded motorist (veteran noir heavy William Talman), their trip turns into a nightmare. Essentially a chamber piece, with excellent performances from the three leads.

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Kings of the Road  — Wim Wenders’ 1976 bookend of his “Road Movie Trilogy” (preceded by Alice in the Cities and The Wrong Move) is a Boudu Saved from Drowning-type tale with Rudiger Vogler as a traveling film projector repairman who happens upon  a suicidal psychologist (Hanns Zischler) just as he decides to end it all by driving his VW into a river. The traveling companions are slow to warm up to each other but have plenty of screen time in which to bond (i.e., at 175 minutes, it may try the patience of some viewers). If you can stick with it-I think you will discover it’s worth the trip.

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Lost in America — Released at the height of Reaganomics, this 1985 gem from director-star Albert Brooks (who also co-wrote the film with his frequent collaborator Monica Mcgowan Johnson) can now be viewed in hindsight as a spot-on satirical smack down of the Yuppie cosmology that shaped the Decade of Greed.

Brooks and Julie Hagerty portray a 30-something, upwardly mobile couple who quit their high-paying jobs, liquidate their assets, buy a Winnebago, and hit the road with a “nest egg” of $145,000 to find themselves. Their goals are nebulous (“we’ll touch Indians”).

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the “egg” is soon off the table, and the couple find themselves on the wrong end of “trickle down”, to Brooks’ chagrin. Like most Brooks films, it is painful to watch at times, yet so painfully funny (he’s the founding father of the Larry David/Ricky Gervais school of “cringe comedy”).

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Motorama  — Barry Shils’ darkly comic 1991 road movie/Orphic journey defies description. A rather odd 10-year old boy (Jordan Michael Christopher) flees his feuding parents to hit the road in pursuit of  his Great American Dream-to win the grand prize in a gas station-sponsored scratch card game called “Motorama”.

As he zips through fictional states with in-jokey names like South Lyndon, Bergen, Tristana and Essex, he has increasingly bizarre and absurd encounters with a veritable “who’s who” of cult film stalwarts including John Diehl, John Nance, Susan Tyrell, Michael J. Pollard, Mary Woronov, Meatloaf and Red-Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea.

What I find particularly amusing is that none of the adults think to question why a 10-year-old (who curses like a sailor and sports a curious bit of stubble by film’s end) is driving a Mustang on a solo cross-country trip. Not for all tastes-definitely not for the kids (especially since the venerable parental admonishment of “You’ll poke your eye out!” becomes fully realized). Written by Joseph Minion (Vampire’s Kiss, After Hours).

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Powwow Highway — A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with an unusual 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 vision 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, only to be 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.

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Race with the Devil – In this 1975 thriller, Peter Fonda and Warren Oates star as buds who hit the road in an RV with wives (Lara Parker, Loretta Swit) and dirt bikes in tow. The first night’s bivouac doesn’t go so well; the two men witness what appears to be a human sacrifice by a devil worship cult, and it’s downhill from there (literally a “vacation from hell”). A genuinely creepy chiller that keeps you guessing until the end, with taut direction from Jack Starrett.

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Radio On — This no-budget 1979 B&W offering from writer-director Christopher Petit is one of those films that I have become emotionally attached to. That said, it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea; in fact, it may cause drowsiness for many after about 15 minutes. Yet, I am compelled to revisit it annually. Go figure.

A dour London DJ (David Beames), whose estranged brother has committed suicide, heads to Bristol to get affairs in order and glean what drove him to despair (while reminiscent of the setup for Get Carter, this is not a crime thriller…far from it). He encounters various characters, including a friendly German woman, an unbalanced British Army vet who served in Northern Ireland, and a rural gas-station attendant (Sting) who kills time singing Eddie Cochran songs.

As the protagonist journeys across an England full of bleak yet perversely beautiful industrial landscapes in his boxy sedan, accompanied by a moody electronic score (mostly Kraftwerk and David Bowie) the film becomes hypnotic. A textbook example of how cinema can capture the zeitgeist of an ephemeral moment (e.g. England on the cusp of the Thatcher era) like no other art form.

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Salesman – Anyone can aim a camera, ”capture” a moment, and move on…but there is an art to capturing the truth of that moment; not only knowing when to take the shot, but knowing precisely how long to hold it lest you begin to impose enough to undermine the objectivity.

For my money, there are very few documentary filmmakers of the “direct cinema” school who approach the artistry of David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. Collectively (if not collaboratively in every case) the trio’s resume includes Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter, The Grey Gardens, When We Were Kings, and Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser.

In their 1969 documentary Salesman, Zwerin and the brothers Maysles tag along with four door-to-door Bible salesmen as they slog their way up and down the eastern seaboard, from snowy Boston to sunny Florida. It is much more involving than you might surmise from a synopsis. One of the most trenchant, moving portraits of shattered dreams and quiet desperation ever put on film; a Willy Loman tale infused with real-life characters who bring more pathos to the screen than any actor could.

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Stranger Than Paradise – With this 1984 indie, Jim Jarmusch established his formula: long static takes with deadpan observances on the inherent silliness of human beings. John Lurie stars as Willie, a brooding NYC slacker who spends most of his time hanging and bickering with his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson).

Enter Eva (Eszter Balint), Willie’s teenage cousin from Hungary, who appears at his door. Eddie is intrigued, but misanthropic Willie has no desire for a new roommate, so Eva decides to move in with Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark), who lives in Cleveland. Sometime later, Eddie convinces Willie that a road trip to Ohio might help break the monotony. Willie grumpily agrees, and they’re off to visit Aunt Lotte and Eva. Much low-key hilarity ensues.

Future director Tom DiCillo did the black and white photography, unveiling a strange beauty in the stark, wintry, industrial flatness of Cleveland and environs.

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Sullivan’s Travels  — A deft mash-up of romantic screwball comedy, Hollywood satire, road movie and social drama from writer-director Preston Sturges.

Joel McCrea is pitch-perfect as a director of goofy populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film. Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he hits the road with no money in his pocket and masquerades as a railroad tramp (to the chagrin of his handlers).

He is joined along the way by an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake, in one of her best comic performances). His voluntary crash-course in “social realism” turns into much more than he had originally bargained for. Lake and McCrea have wonderful chemistry. Many decades later, the Coen Brothers co-opted the title of the fictional “film within the film” here: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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The Trip — Pared down into feature length from the 2011 BBC TV series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of the 6 episodes; which is not to denigrate it, because it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in years.

The levity is due in no small part to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves. Coogan is commissioned by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District and write reviews. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since they’re going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor and comedian Brydon, to accompany him.

This setup is an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it feels improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s unexpected poignancy as well-but for the most part, it’s comedy gold. Director and stars reunited for three equally enjoyable sequels, The Trip to Italy (2014), The Trip to Spain (2017). and The Trip to Greece (2020).

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True Stories – Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. It’s not easy to pigeonhole; part road movie, part social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. Episodic; basically a series of quirky vignettes about the generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray.

Once you acclimate to “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment, I think you’ll be hooked. Byrne directed and co-wrote with actor Stephen Tobolowsky and actress/playwright Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, Miss Firecracker). The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Talking Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”, and several other songs by the band are in the soundtrack.

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Until the End of the World – Set in 1999, with the backdrop of an imminent event that may (or may not) trigger a global nuclear catastrophe, Wim Wenders’ sprawling “near-future” techno-epic centers on Claire (Solveig Dommartin) a restless and free-spirited French woman who leaves her writer boyfriend (Sam Neill) to chase down a mysterious American man (William Hurt) who has stolen her money (and her heart). Neill’s character narrates Claire’s globe-trotting quest for love and meaning, which winds through 20 cities, 9 countries, and 4 continents (all shot on location, amazingly enough).

Critical and audience reaction to the 1991 158-minute theatrical version (not Wenders’ choice) was perhaps best summed up by “huh?!”, and the film has consequently garnered a rep as an interesting failure . However, to see it as originally intended is to discover the near-masterpiece that was lurking all along-which is why I highly recommend the recently restored 267-minute director’s cut. Not an easy film to pigeonhole; you could file it under sci-fi, adventure, drama, road, or maybe…end-of-the-world movie.

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Vanishing Point  — I don’t know if there was a spike in sales for Dodge Challengers in 1971, but it would not surprise me, since nearly every car nut I have ever known usually gets a dreamy, faraway look in their eyes when I mention this cult classic, directed by Richard C. Sarafian. It’s best described as an existential car chase movie.

Barry Newman stars as Kowalski (there’s no mention of a first name), a car delivery driver who is assigned to get a Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco. When someone wagers he can’t make the trip in less than 15 hours, he accepts the challenge. Naturally, someone in a muscle car pushing 100 mph across several states is going to get the attention of law enforcement-and the chase is on.

Episodic; one memorable vignette involves a nude hippie chick riding around the desert on a 350 Honda to the strains of Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen”. Cleavon Little plays Supersoul-a blind radio DJ who pulls double duty as Kowalski’s guardian angel and Greek Chorus for the film. That enigmatic ending still mystifies.

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Wanda – This 1970 character study/road movie/crime drama is an under-seen indie gem written and directed by its star Barbara Loden. Wanda (Loden) is an unemployed working-class housewife. It’s clear that her life is the pits…and not just figuratively. She’s recently left her husband and two infants and has been crashing at her sister’s house, which is within spitting distance of a yawning mining pit, nestled in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country.

When the judge scolds her for being late to a child custody hearing, the oddly detached Wanda shrugs it off, telling His Honor that if her husband wants a divorce, that’s OK by her; adding their kids are probably “better off” being taken care of by their father. Shortly afterward, Wanda splits her sister’s house and hits the road (hair still in curlers), carrying no more than her purse. Her long, strange road trip is only beginning.

Wanda is Terrance Malick’s Badlands meets Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA; like Malick’s film it was inspired by a true crime story and features a strangely passive female protagonist with no discernible identity of her own, and like Koppel’s documentary it offers a gritty portrait of rural working-class America using unadorned 16 mm photography. A unique, unforgettable, and groundbreaking film. (Full review).

Bonus miles! 10 recommended side trips…

 

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Buffalo ’66

Harry and Tonto 

Il Sorpasso 

Midnight Run

Road to Utopia 

Scarecrow 

Sideways

The Straight Story 

Two-Lane Blacktop 

SIFF 2024: Scala!!! (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2024)

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Lester Bangs defined ‘punk’ as “…a fundamental and age-old Utopian dream: that if you give people the license to be as outrageous as they want in absolutely any fashion they can dream up, they’ll be creative about it…and do something good besides.” That philosophy informed the programming for Scala cinema, where the audience was as outrageously transgressive as the film fare. Ditto Jane Giles and Ali Catterall’s documentary, which earns a 3 “Fuck off” rating!