Tag Archives: 2021 Reviews

Conspiracy a go-go (slight return)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 20, 2021)

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Note: Monday marks 58 years since the JFK assassination, so I am re-posting this piece (from November 23, 2019) with revisions and additional material.

“Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us. […]

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. […]

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth […] But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

President John F. Kennedy, from his Robert Frost tribute address (October 23, 1963)

“Where were you when Kennedy got shot?” has been a meme for anyone old enough to remember what happened that day in Dallas on November 22, 1963…56 years ago this past Friday.

I was but a wee military brat, attending my second-grade class at a public school in Columbus, Ohio (my dad was stationed at nearby Fort Hayes). Our class was herded into the gym for an all-school assembly. Someone (probably the principal) gave a brief address. It gets fuzzy from there; we either sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and got sent home early.

My 7-year-old mind could not grasp the profound sociopolitical impact of this tragedy; but I have come to understand it in the fullness of time. From my 2016 review of Jackie:

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK) …why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Sadly, anyone who follows the current news cycle knows we’re still looking for Camelot.

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They will run you dizzy. They will pile falsehood on top of falsehood, until you can’t tell a lie from the truth – and you won’t even want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power. Don’t you read the papers?

From Winter Kills (screenplay by William Richert)

The Kennedy assassination precipitated a cottage industry of independent studies, papers, magazine articles, non-fiction books, novels, documentaries and feature films that riff on the plethora of conspiracy theories that flourish to this day.

Then there was that Warren Commission report released in 1964; an 888-page summation concluding JFK’s alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. This “conclusive” statement, of course only fueled more speculation that our government was not being completely …forthcoming.

2019 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the more oddball conspiracy thrillers based on the JFK assassination…Winter Kills, which has just been reissued on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber. Director William Richert adapted his screenplay from Richard Condon’s book (Condon also wrote The Manchurian Candidate, which was adapted for the screen twice).

Jeff Bridges stars as the (apolitical) half-brother of an assassinated president. After witnessing the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be a “second gunman”, he reluctantly gets drawn into a new investigation of his brother’s murder nearly 20 years after the matter was allegedly put to rest by the findings of the “Pickering Commission”.

John Huston chews the scenery as Bridges’ father (a larger-than-life character said to be loosely based on Joseph Kennedy Sr.). The cast includes Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The film vacillates between byzantine conspiracy thriller and a broad satire of other byzantine conspiracy thrillersbut is eminently watchable, thanks to an interesting cast and a screenplay that, despite ominous undercurrents, delivers a great deal of dark comedy.

I own the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD, so I can attest that Kino’s 4K transfer is an upgrade; accentuating cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s exemplary lens work. Unfortunately, there are no new extras; but all bonus materials from Anchor Bay’s DVD have been ported over, including an entertaining commentary track by director Richert (the story behind the film’s production is nearly as over-the-top as the finished product).

Is Winter Kills essential viewing? It depends. If you like quirky 60s and 70s cinema, it’s one of the last hurrahs in a film cycle of arch, lightly political and broadly satirical all-star psychedelic train wrecks like The Loved One, The President’s Analyst, Skidoo, Candy and The Magic Christian. For “conspiracy-a-go-go” completists, it is a must-see.

Here are 9 more films that either deal directly with or have a notable link with the JFK conspiracy cult. And while you’re watching, keep President Kennedy’s observation in the back of your mind: “In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

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Suddenly – Lewis Allen’s taut 1954 hostage drama/film noir stars a surprisingly effective Frank Sinatra as John Baron, the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the (unnamed) President during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town (interestingly, the role of John Baron was originally offered to Montgomery Clift).

The film is essentially a chamber piece; the assassins commandeer a family’s home that affords them a clear shot at their intended target. In this case, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t give me that politics jazz-it’s not my racket!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages). Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

Also in the cast: Sterling Hayden, James Gleason, Nancy Gates, Christopher Dark, and Paul Frees (Frees would later become known as “the man of a thousand voices” for his voice-over work with Disney, Jay Ward Productions, Rankin/Bass and other animation studios).

Some aspects of the film are eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of a European make. Most significantly, there have been more than a few claims over the years in JFK conspiracy circles suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest.

There have been conflicting stories over the years whether Sinatra had Suddenly pulled from circulation following Kennedy’s death; the definitive answer may lie in remarks made by Frank Sinatra, Jr., in a commentary track he did for a 2012 Blu-ray reissue of the film:

[Approximately 2 weeks] after the assassination of President Kennedy, a minor network official at ABC television decided he was going to run “Suddenly” on network television. This, while the people were still grieving and numbed from the horror of the death of President Kennedy. When word of this reached Sinatra, he was absolutely incensed…one of the very few times had I ever seen him that angry. He got off a letter to the head of broadcasting at ABC, telling them that they should be jailed; it was in such bad taste to do that after the death of President Kennedy.

Sinatra, Jr. does not elaborate any further, so I interpret that to mean that Frank, Sr. fired off an angry letter, and the fact that the film remains in circulation to this day would indicate that it was never actually “pulled” (of course, you are free to concoct your own conspiracy theory).

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The Manchurian Candidate – There’s certainly more than just a perfunctory nod to Red hysteria in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cold war paranoia fest, which was the last assassination thriller of note released prior to the zeitgeist-shattering horror of President Kennedy’s murder. Oddly enough, Frank Sinatra was involved in this project as well.

Sinatra plays a Korean War vet who reaches out to help a buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring war nightmares. Sinatra has been suffering the same malady (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they both may have been brainwashed during their captivity for very sinister purposes, all hell breaks loose.

In this narrative (based on Richard Condon’s novel) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command. Some of the Cold War references have dated; others (as it turns out) are oddly timely…evidenced as recently as this past week.

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Seven Days in May – This 1964 “conspiracy a-go go” thriller was director John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate. Picture if you will: a screenplay by Rod Serling, adapted from a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.

Kirk Douglas plays a Marine colonel who is the adjutant to a hawkish, hard right-leaning general (Burt Lancaster) who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The general is at loggerheads with the dovish President (Fredric March), who is perceived by the general and some of the other joint chiefs as a “weak sister” for his strident support of nuclear disarmament.

When Douglas begins to suspect that an imminent, unusually secretive military “exercise” may in fact portend more sinister intentions, he is torn between his loyalty to the general and his loyalty to the country as to whether he should raise the alarm. Or is he just being paranoid?

An intelligently scripted and well-acted nail-biter, right to the end. Also with Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien, and Martin Balsam.

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Executive Action – After the events of November 22, 1963, Hollywood took a decade-long hiatus from the genre; it seemed nobody wanted to “go there”. But after Americans had mulled a few years in the sociopolitical turbulence of the mid-to-late 1960s (including the double whammy of losing Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to bullets in 1968), a new cycle of more cynical and byzantine conspiracy thrillers began to crop up (surely exacerbated by Watergate).

The most significant shift in the meme was to move away from the concept of the assassin as a dupe or an operative of a “foreign” (i.e., “anti-American”) ideology; some films postulated that shadowy cabals of businessmen and/or members of the government were capable of such machinations. The rise of the JFK conspiracy cult (and the cottage industry it created) was probably a factor as well.

One of the earliest examples was this 1973 film, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane.

A speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, it offers a scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible.

Frankly, the premise is more intriguing than the film (which is flat and talky), but the filmmakers deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic. Still, it’s worth a watch.

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The Parallax View – Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 thriller takes the concept of the dark corporate cabal one step further, positing political assassination as a sustainable capitalist venture, if you can perfect a discreet and reliable algorithm for screening and recruiting the right “employees”.

Warren Beatty delivers an excellent performance as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop the Space Needle. This puts him on a trail that leads to an enigmatic agency called the Parallax Corporation.

The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.

The screenplay is by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with a non-credited rewrite by Robert Towne). The narrative contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination, and (in retrospect) reflects the political paranoia of the Nixon era (perhaps this was serendipity, as the full implications of the Watergate scandal were not yet in the rear view mirror while the film was in production).

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The Conversation – Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this 1974 thriller does not involve a “political” assassination, but does share crucial themes with other films here. It was also an obvious influence on Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller, Blow Out (see my review below).

Gene Hackman leads a fine cast as a free-lance surveillance expert who begins to obsess that a conversation he captured between a man and a woman in San Francisco’s Union Square for one of his clients is going to directly lead to the untimely deaths of his subjects.

Although the story is essentially an intimate character study, set against a backdrop of corporate intrigue, the dark atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust and betrayal that permeates the film mirrors the political climate of the era (particularly in regards to its timely proximity to the breaking of the Watergate scandal).

24 years later Hackman played a similar character in Tony Scott’s 1998 political thriller Enemy of the State. Some have postulated “he” is the same character (you’ve gotta love the fact that there’s a conspiracy theory about a fictional character). I don’t see that myself; although there is obvious homage with a brief shot of a photograph of Hackman’s character in his younger days that is actually a production still from …The Conversation!

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Blowout -This 1981 thriller is one of Brian De Palma’s finest efforts. John Travolta stars as a sound man who works on schlocky horror films. While making a field recording of ambient nature sounds, he unexpectedly captures audio of a fatal car crash involving a political candidate, which may not have been an “accident”. The proof lies buried somewhere in his recording-which naturally becomes a coveted item by some dubious characters. His life begins to unravel synchronously with the secrets on his tape.

The director employs an arsenal of influences (from Antonioni to Hitchcock), but succeeds in making this one of his most “De Palma-esque” with some of the deftest set-pieces he’s ever done (particularly in the climax).

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Three Days of the Condor – One of seven collaborations between star Robert Redford and director Sydney Pollack, and one of the seminal “conspiracy-a-go-go” films. With a screenplay adapted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel from James Grady’s novel “Six Days of the Condor”, this 1975 film offers a twist on the idea of a government-sanctioned assassination. Here, you have members of the U.S. clandestine community burning up your tax dollars to scheme against other members of the U.S. clandestine community (no honor among conspirators, apparently). Also with Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow.

Pollack’s film conveys the same atmosphere of dread and paranoia that infuses The Conversation and The Parallax View. The final scene plays like an eerily prescient prologue for All the President’s Men, which wasn’t released until the following year. An absolutely first-rate political thriller with more twists and turns than you can shake a dossier at.

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JFK – The obvious bookend to this cycle is Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film, in which Gary Oldman gives a suitably twitchy performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. However, within the context of Stone’s film, to say that we have a definitive portrait of JFK’s assassin (or “assassins”, plural) is difficult, because, not unlike Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Stone suspects no one…and everyone.

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any prevalent narrative; and that it is by the director’s definition a “speculative” political thriller. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed that Stone himself has stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission (usually referred to as the “lone gunman theory”).

It is a testament to Stone’s skills as a consummate filmmaker that the narrative he presents appears so seamless and dynamic, when in fact he is simultaneously mashing up at least a dozen possible scenarios. The message is right there in the script, when Donald Sutherland’s “Mr. X” advises Kevin Costner (as New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison) “Oh, don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

When you’re young: The Pebble and the Boy (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 13, 2021)

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Reporter : Are you a mod or a rocker?
Ringo : Um, no. I’m a mocker.

-from A Hard Day’s Night, screenplay by Alun Owen

Having grown up in the colonies, I didn’t grok “Mods and Rockers” until 1973, the year I bought The Who’s Quadrophenia, Pete Townshend’s paean to the teenage Mod subculture that flourished in the U.K. from the late 50s to mid-60s. The Mods had very distinct musical preferences (jazz, ska, R&B, soul), couture, and modes of transportation:

My jacket’s gonna be cut slim and checked
Maybe a touch of seersucker with an open neck
I ride a G.S. scooter with my hair cut neat
I wear my wartime coat in the wind and sleet

– from “Sea and Sand”, by The Who

On occasion the Mods would rumble with members of another youth subculture who identified as “Rockers”. They were not as tailored as the Mods but had their own uniforms…let’s just say that they were into leather (as in Tuscadero), motorcycles (as opposed to scooters), and 50s rock (Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry, et.al.).

Here come duck-tailed Danny dragging Uncanny Annie
She’s tehone with the flying feet
You can break the peace daddy sickle grease
The beat is reet complete

– from “Sweet Gene Vincent”, by Ian Dury & The Blockheads

By the time the Who were rhapsodizing about the Mods in their 1973 rock opera, the movement was all but relegated to the dustbins of history. In 1979, Franc Roddam’s film adaptation of Quadrophenia was released. Using the 1964 Brighton “youth riots” as a catalyst, Roddam fashioned a character study in the tradition of the “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in the U.K. in the early 60s. Wonderfully acted by a spirited cast, it’s a heady mix of youthful angst and raging hormones, supercharged by the power chord-infused grandeur of the Who’s songs.

Here is where it gets interesting. Not long after Roddam’s film began to build a cult following in the U.K., a Mod revival took hold. It may be more accurate to call it a “post” Mod movement, as this iteration was more about co-opting the couture than embracing the culture. Did the film inspire this revival? Some have suggested it did.

While the Who was the band of choice for the original Mods, the 80s Mods embraced bands like The Jam, Secret Affair, and The Chords. Not coincidentally, all 3 of those bands are on the soundtrack for writer-director Chris Green’s comedy-drama The Pebble and the Boy.

19-year-old Mancunian John (Patrick McNamee) is not a Mod. But his father was, from the 1980s until his recent unfortunate demise in a traffic accident. John not only inherits his father’s house (his parents are divorced), but his Lambretta scooter, fully bedecked with Mod accoutrements. Coming home after the funeral, John contemplates his father’s bedroom, which is done up like a shrine to The Jam (John only likes “one of their songs”).

Initially, John puts the Lambretta up for sale, but after discovering a pair of tickets in his father’s wartime coat for an upcoming Paul Weller concert in Brighton, he decides that he will ride it to “the spiritual home of the Mods” and scatter his father’s ashes in the sea.

Not long after he leaves Manchester, the scooter displays signs of needing a tune-up, so he looks up one his father’s pals from the Mod days (“Your dad and I first met at a Jam gig in ’81,” he reminisces to John). When his outgoing daughter Nicki (scene-stealer Sacha Parkinson) learns John has Paul Weller tickets, she invites herself along (she has her own scooter). After a few road trip misadventures (usually instigated by the free-spirited Nicki), the pair find themselves short of funds for completing their journey.

The more reserved John wants to turn back, but Nicki suggests they stop in nearby Woking (the Jam’s hometown, of course) to borrow money from Ronnie (Ricci Harnett), another of John’s father’s friends from the Mod days. The somewhat surly Ronnie and his, uh …friendly wife (Patsy Kensit) invite them to stay the night. The next day, John and Nicki hit the road to Brighton, now joined by Ronnie’s oddball son Logan (Max Boast).

Green’s film is like a mashup of Johnathan Demme’s Something Wild and Adam Rifkin’s Detroit Rock City. Green’s writing and directing is reminiscent of Bill Forsyth in the way he juggles low-key anarchy with gentle humor (even when someone says, “Fuck off!” it’s so good natured, somehow). McNamee is an appealing lead (he reminds me of the young Timothy Hutton), but it’s Parkinson’s sly performance as the endearingly boisterous Nicki that kicks the film up a notch. Rubber-faced Boast is another discovery; he’s a riot.

The bucolic English countryside and Brighton seascapes are gorgeously shot by cinematographer Max Williams (not too surprising after seeing that his previous credits include documentaries for Discovery, National Geographic and the BBC). Add a great soundtrack, and The Pebble and the Boy emerges as one of my favorite films of 2021.

“The Pebble and the Boy” premieres November 16 on various digital platforms.

A conference of worms: Smoke & Mirrors (***) & Dune (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 23, 2021)

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I confess that I initially felt out of my depth tackling Jason Baker’s documentary Smoke & Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini. I knew Savini was an actor, primarily from George Romero’s Knightriders (one of my favorite cult movies) and two Robert Rodriguez films: From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and Planet Terror (2007). What I did not know (embarrassingly) was that despite 77 acting credits, he is more revered by horror fans and industry peers for his makeup artistry and (disturbingly) realistic special effects wizardry.

Perhaps I can be forgiven; looking up his special effects/makeup credits, it turns out I have only seen 3 out of dozens.  I am not averse to the horror genre per se, it’s just that I’m not a fan of slasher/gore films; I tend to avoid them altogether.

But since (to paraphrase Marlon Brando in The Godfather) “it doesn’t make any difference to me what a man does for a living” (with the proviso no one is harmed in the process), I plowed forward with an open mind and an impending deadline and found Baker’s film to be a surprisingly warm, engaging portrait of a genuinely interesting artist.

The big surprise is how soft-spoken Baker’s subject is; especially when his resume reads more like a slaughterhouse tour than a fun night at the movies: Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, Maniac, Creepshow, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Trauma, Machete, et.al.

Savini grew up in a working-class Pittsburgh neighborhood and developed a talent for performing magic tricks at an early age. He also became obsessed with the 1957 Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces. He recalls experimenting with various household products to create his own horror makeup, to freak out his family and friends. Obviously, this kid was destined for a life on the stage …or in front of a movie camera.

The most fascinating elements of this predestination were Savini’s experiences in Vietnam, where he served as a combat photographer. Obviously, if your job assignment literally involves focusing on gruesome images day in and day out, it’s going to do a number on your head. Savini describes how he internally compartmentalized the real-life horror of what he saw as “special effects” (which he’d later draw upon for his film work).

Savini also recounts his collaborations with director George Romero, who gave him his first movie gig in his 1976 indie Martin (which was filmed in Pittsburgh). Savini not only acted in the film but created its prosthetic effects. Savini continued to perfect his craftsmanship in higher-budgeted Romero films like Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow.

Some of Savini’s friends and colleagues (Robert Rodriguez, George A. Romero, Alice Cooper, Sid Haig, Corey Feldman) also appear in the film; their consensus is that Savini is a nice guy…even if he makes his living giving us nightmares. In fact, there’s an overdose of people telling us how nice he is (puff piece territory). But he seems like a nice guy. Just attribute all that murder and gory mayhem to …smoke and mirrors.

“Smoke & Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini” is streaming on various digital platforms.

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In an interview published by The Hollywood Reporter in April of 2020, David Lynch made these observations regarding Denis Villenueve’s (then) upcoming remake of Dune:

(Interviewer) This week they released a few photos from the new big-screen adaptation of Dune by Denis Villeneuve. Have you seen them?

I have zero interest in Dune.

Why’s that?

Because it was a heartache for me. It was a failure, and I didn’t have final cut. I’ve told this story a billion times. It’s not the film I wanted to make. I like certain parts of it very much — but it was a total failure for me.

You would never see someone else’s adaptation of Dune?

I said I’ve got zero interest.

If you had your choice, what would you rather make: a feature film or a TV series?

A TV series. Right now. Feature films in my book are in big trouble, except for the big blockbusters. The art house films, they don’t stand a chance. They might go to a theater for a week and if it’s a Cineplex they go to the smallest theater in the setup, and then they go to Blu-ray or On Demand. The big-screen experience right now is gone. Gone, but not forgotten.

Keep in mind, that interview was conducted during the initial lock-down phase of the pandemic. I don’t know about you, but I am still not “ready” to go back to movie theaters. As I wrote in an October 2020 piece about COVID’s effect on theaters:

…that is my personal greatest fear about returning to movie theaters: my innate distrust of fellow patrons. […] I can trust myself to adhere to a common-sense approach, but it’s been my observation throughout this COVID-19 crisis that everybody isn’t on the same page regarding taking the health and safety of fellow humans into consideration.

I’ve noticed a trend as of late where Hollywood studio marketing departments are insisting that you must see their latest blockbuster on the big screen, otherwise you’re just a fraidy cat, cowering in front of your pathetic little 40” flat-screen. Believe me, as a lifelong movie lover I am pulling for the exhibition arm of the industry and want to see them thrive once again, but to my knowledge, no amount of wishful thinking ever defeated a killer virus. As much as I am dying to see the new Bond movie on a big-ass screen, I’ve decided to hold off a while because for me, this is no time to die.

I suppose this long-winded prelude is my way of giving a disclaimer that the following review of Denis Villenueve’s long-anticipated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune does not necessarily reflect the opinions of staff or management of Digby’s Hullabaloo, but those of a fraidy cat, cowering in front of his pathetic little 40” flat-screen.

To put your mind at ease, I’m not going to bore you with a laundry list of how the film does or doesn’t adhere to the author’s original vision in the source novel; mainly since it’s been 40-something years since I read it, and all I can remember is that it felt like homework. It just didn’t grab me like the universe-building works of Asimov, Zelazny, Niven, and similar sci-fi scribes my stoner friends and I were all into at the time.

Obviously, David Lynch is not a fan of his own 1984 adaptation; the first time I saw it 37 years ago I wasn’t either …but in the fullness of time, it has grown on me (as Lynch’s films tend to do). Yes, it has certain cheesy elements that even time cannot heal, but how can you possibly top Kenneth McMillan’s hammy performance as an evil, floating bag of pus, Brad Dourif’s bushy eyebrows…or Sting’s magnificently oiled torso?

It is evident off the bat that Villenueve’s adaptation (co-written by Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth) is more formalized than Lynch’s; he doesn’t leave his cast as much room to ham it up and distract from the business at hand; but rather uses them like chess pieces.

On the plus side, this makes the plot easier to follow. On the downside, Villenueve runs into the same challenge Lynch faced: there are simply too many characters in Herbert’s novel and not enough time within the constraints of a feature film to give anyone an adequate enough backstory to make you care what happens to them.

The cast is led by Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, rising son of “good” Duke Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Atreides (Rebecca Ferguson). By decree of the Emperor (of Space? Still unclear to me after a forgotten read and two films), the House of Atreides has been given stewardship of precious “spice” mining operations on the planet Arrakis.

This does not set well with the former dominant House on Arrakis, led by “bad” Duke Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, who appears to be channeling Lawrence Tierney in Tough Guys Don’t Dance). Duke Atreides’ new gig is further complicated by an insurgency of native “Fremen” (led by Javier Bardem, sans cattle prod) and ginormous worms.

I gave up comparing worm size in grade school, but Villenueve’s worms are more awesome than Lynch’s (there have been significant advancements in digital effects since 1984). Sadly, that’s the best thing I can say about Dune 2021 (or as I’ve nicknamed it, “Spice World 2”). It boasts impressive special effects and world-building, but otherwise, the film is a dramatically flat, somber affair with an abrupt “That’s it?!” denouement. I know sequels are in the works …but would it have killed them to give us a cliffhanger?

Dune” is currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max

13 songs the lord never taught us: A mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 16, 2021)

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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.

CORRECTION: I have been informed by an astute reader that the refrain is “Undead, undead, undead.” I learn something new every day!

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!

Bonus track!

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).

Pleasant dreams!

 

Where the wild things are: Surge (***½) & I’m an Electric Lampshade (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 2, 2021)

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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 PBS Mystery! 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.

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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.

In tune with yourself: Fire Music (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 18, 2021)

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You must surrender whatever preconceptions you have about music if you’re really interested in it.

Cecil Taylor

The Oxford Dictionary defines “harmonious” thusly:

har·mo·ni·ous

/härˈmōnēəs/

adjective

tuneful; not discordant.

“harmonious music”

That sounds nice. So what is this “discordant” you speak of?

dis·cord·ant

/disˈkôrd(ə)nt/

adjective

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).

In a piece I did in honor of International Jazz Day, I wrote:

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.”

Ouch.

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.

Tears of a clown: Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11 (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 11, 2021)

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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.

Good times.

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”?

The filmmakers include three key clips that encapsulate this spirit and the healing power of laughter: excerpts from David Letterman’s emotionally raw yet inspiring monologue for his first show following the attacks (September 17th, 2001), John Stewart’s equally heartfelt opener for his first post 9/11 episode of The Daily Show (September 20th, 2001), and the defiant, rousing return of Saturday Night Live on September 29th, 2001.

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.

 

Happy Marxist Day: The Big Scary ‘S’ Word (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2021)

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“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:

Oh, dear.

(from U.S. Catholic, August 6, 2010)

Is social justice the same as socialism?

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.

Sing us out, Billy Bragg…

From crayons to perfume: Top 10 school flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 28, 2021)

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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:

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The Blackboard Jungle– This 1955 social drama is the “anti-Happy Days”. 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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

…and to sing us out, The Dream Academy

Guest post: Charlie Watts…More with less

By Bob Bennett

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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.