Tag Archives: Essays

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

Lest we forget: Films (and thoughts) for Holocaust Remembrance Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 27, 2024)

https://i0.wp.com/digbysblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/phil-cramer.jpg?w=510&quality=89&ssl=1Phillip Kramer (1892-1962)

The strapping young man in the photo above is my grandfather Philip Kramer (in his late teens or early twenties, to my best estimation). He immigrated to America from Bialystok circa 1910. While the area is now part of the Republic of Poland, Bialystok “belonged” to the Russian Empire when he lived there (ergo, he was fluent in Russian, Polish, and Yiddish).

One of the reasons his family emigrated was to flee the state terror inflicted on Russia’s Jewish population by Czar Nicholas (the Bialystok pogram of 1906 was particularly nasty).

I suppose I have Czar Nicholas to thank for my existence. If my grandfather had never left Bialystok, he never would have met New York City born-and-raised Celia Mogerman (the daughter of Jewish German immigrants). Consequently, they never would have fallen in love, got married, and had their daughter Lillian, who never would have met and fallen in love with a young G.I. named Robert Hartley (a W.A.S.P. farm boy from Ohio) at a New York City U.S.O. Club. They, in turn, produced…me (otherwise, you’d just be staring at a blank page here).

https://i0.wp.com/digbysblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/36867554_10216247821138001_5944935354204160000_n.jpg?w=843&quality=89&ssl=1Two lovebirds on their honeymoon, 1955

Obvious personal reasons aside, I’m thankful that Phil got out of Dodge well before Hitler’s army divisions rolled into Poland in 1939. Needless to say, the Jews of Bialystok fared no better under the Nazi regime than they did during the reign of the Czar. Far worse, actually.

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So through luck and circumstance, Phil and Celie (flanking my mom in bottom row) enjoyed a wonderful life together, creating a quintessential American family. All three of their children did their part for the war effort. My uncle Irving (third from left in the top row) served in the USAAF (he was the radio operator on a B-25 crew that flew a number of missions over Germany). My Uncle Charles (not pictured) served in the U.S. Army (Pacific theater).

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My mother (center above) was too young to enlist in the military, but served in the Civilian Defense Force. The photo was taken on a Brooklyn rooftop during the war (interestingly, it took intervention by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to nudge the recruitment of women).

Thankfully, the Kramer family survived the war. But sadly a great number of their relatives who had remained in Europe did not. And many of them were victims of the Holocaust.

That is why I am thinking about all of them on this Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It appears I am not alone in this contemplation of fate, circumstance, and family roots; which is particularly…complicated this first Remembrance Day since the events of October 7:

Recently, my mother, who escaped Hungary as a young teen in 1943 as the Nazis were closing in, called me from her home in Jerusalem. She was quite agitated, asking why even Israel’s loyal friends seem to be promoting compromise on issues fundamental to its security. She begged me to speak to anyone and everyone I know, from community leaders to elected officials.

As the world marks Saturday, January 27, as the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is clear that my mother needs no such day. The question the Jewish people must be asking is who will benefit from a day in January, 2024, designated to remember the Holocaust? […]

The United Nations, which at the initiative of its Israeli delegation designated the day back in 2005 to build Holocaust awareness and prevent further acts of genocide, now deploys the lessons of the Holocaust against the Jewish people. The U.N. has yet to condemn the explicitly and admittedly genocidal acts of Hamas against Israel on October 7 while its International Court of Justice is trying Israel for genocide in Gaza. If this is the result of remembering the Holocaust, we Jews would prefer they forgot about it. [,,,]

Everyday since Oct. 7, my mother is reminded of and haunted by the delusions of her grandparents and more than a dozen uncles and aunts who naively chose not to join her parents’ escape to Palestine as the Nazi menace spread, only to be turned to ashes in Auschwitz. She often muses aloud about how my father, of blessed memory, a Holocaust survivor, would process October 7th in Israel, October 8th in Harvard, and October 9th in the UN.

It’s not easy being a Jewish American right now, which is why I’ve been reticent to share my feelings on the Israeli-Hamas war (aside from my initial reflexive expression of abhorrence to the prospect of more death and destruction in the region, regardless of who propagates it).

https://i0.wp.com/digbysblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/54g6n0l17uw21.jpg?w=847&quality=89&ssl=1From “Harold and Maude” (1971)

There has certainly been no shortage of historical dramas and documentaries about The Holocaust and the horror that was Nazi Germany from 1933-1945 (on television, stage, and screen). It’s even possible that “WW2 fatigue” is a thing at this point (particularly among post-boomers). But you know, there’s this funny thing about history. It’s cyclical.

For example, here’s how some fine folks were reacting this morning on X to posts that merely acknowledged this commemorative holiday:

Those are some of the nicest ones. But you get the gist.

One could surmise that the lessons of history haven’t quite sunk in with everyone (especially those who may be condemned to repeat it). So perhaps there cannot be enough historical dramas and documentaries reminding people about The Holocaust and the horror that was Nazi Germany from 1933-1945, nu? Or am I just overreacting to a few internet trolls and a current presidential hopeful who, when asked why he never condemned the Neo-Nazis who incited the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 (resulting in the death of peaceful counter-protestor Heather Heyer) -stated that there were/are “…very fine people on both sides”?

After carefully weighing all the historical evidence put before me, I can only conclude that…there were no fine Nazis in 1920 (the year the party was founded), no fine Nazis since 1920, nor are there likely to be any fine Nazis from now until the end of recorded time.

As for those who still insist there is no harm in casually co-opting the tenets of an evil ideology that would foist such a horror upon humanity, I won’t pretend to “pray for you” (while I lost many relatives in the Holocaust, I’m not “Jewish” in the religious sense, so I doubt my prayers would even “take”), but this old Hasidic proverb gives me hope:

“The virtue of angels is that they cannot deteriorate; their flaw is that they cannot improve. Humanity’s flaw is that we can deteriorate; but our virtue is that we can improve.”

Here’s hoping for some “improvement” going forward. That’s why it’s important to look backward sometimes at the lessons of history, so we remain aware of how we don’t want to be. Here are links to some films I’ve written about that might give us a good place to start:

Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today

Aftermath

Big Sonia

Hannah Arrendt

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

The Invisibles

The Last Laugh

Black Book

Germans and Jews

Shalom Italia

Django

Inglourious Basterds

Harold and Maude

Child’s Guide to War: A film troika*

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 10, 2023)

*This is a revised version of an older post that (sadly) is relevant again.

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Have you heard the reasons why?
(Yeah, we’ve heard it all before)
But have you seen the nation cry?
(Yeah, we’ve seen it all before)

-From “War Weary World” by The Call

Oy. It’s been a trying couple of days…

Bertrand Russell said, “war does not determine who is right-only who is left.” That may be pithy, but he’s yet to be proven wrong.

I realize that the 24-hour news channels have little choice but to “recycle” a certain amount of horrific footage as a huge international story of this nature is developing, but I’m old enough to recall when such imagery was processed as deterrence to conflict and a call for diplomacy, rather than a base and puerile incitement for vengeance (not by those reporting the news but as some politicians and pundits have been wont to do).

What I find particularly heartbreaking is the plight of the non-combatants (on both sides) caught in the middle of the mayhem…especially the children.

But perhaps I’m just naive, what with my pacifist wishes and hippy-dippy poster dreams. It’s a complicated world, and I’m just a simple farmer. A person of the land. The common clay of the American West. You know…a moron. That’s why I’m just the movie guy around these parts.

That being said, I believe there’s something that the following movies, or more specifically their young protagonists can teach us about such matters.

And so I’m spotlighting three essential films that offer an immediate ground-level view of the effects of war, filtered through the eyes of innocents, uncluttered by any political machinations or jingoist agendas. Hey, feel free to invite your favorite war hawk over for dinner and a movie. Just make sure that they are taking notes:

Grave of the Fireflies– For years, the term ‘anime’ conjured visions of saucer-eyed cartoon characters in action-packed fantasy-adventures (generally targeting younger audiences). However, sometime around the mid-80s, the paradigm shifted when Japanese production houses like Studio Ghibli began to find international success with more eclectic, character-driven fare. One transcendent example is writer-director Isao Takahata’s 1988 drama, Grave of the Fireflies.

While it is animated, and its protagonists are children, it is not necessarily a children’s film; its unflinching approach and anti-war subtext puts it in a league with Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood.

The story (based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s novel) takes place in Kobe in 1945, and concerns the travails of a teenage boy named Seita (voiced by Tsutomo Tatsumi) and his little sister Setsuko (voiced by Ayano Shiraishi), who are orphaned when their mother perishes in an Allied firebombing raid. After brief lodgings with a less-than-hospitable aunt, the siblings have to fend for themselves. Do not expect a Hollywood ending (I wouldn’t recommend  it for children under 12).

One interesting commonality between Grave of the Fireflies and the aforementioned Rossellini film is that Japan and Germany were the aggressor nations in WW2. The pain and suffering of innocents caught in the crossfire doesn’t know from borders or ideology.

Son of Babylon– This heartbreaking Iraqi drama is set in 2003, just weeks after the fall of Saddam. It follows the arduous journey of a Kurdish boy named Ahmed (Yasser Talib) and his grandmother (Shazda Hussein) as they head for the last known location of Ahmed’s father, who disappeared during the first Gulf War.

As they traverse the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes of Iraq’s bomb-cratered desert, a portrait emerges of a people struggling to keep mind and soul together, and to make sense of the horror and suffering precipitated by two wars and a harsh dictatorship.

Director Mohamed Al Daradji and co-screenwriter Jennifer Norridge deliver something conspicuously absent in the Iraq War(s) movies from Western directors in recent years-an honest and humanistic evaluation of the everyday people who inevitably get caught in the middle of such armed conflicts-not just in Iraq, but in any war, anywhere.

While the film alludes to the regional and international politics involved, the narrative is constructed in such a way that at the end of day, whether Ahmed’s father was killed by American bomb sorties or Saddam gassing his own people is moot.

That message is distilled in a small, compassionate gesture and a single line of dialogue. An Arabic-speaking woman, also searching for a missing loved one at a mass grave site sets her own suffering aside to lay a comforting hand on the lamenting grandmother’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Kurdish,” she says, “…but I can feel this woman’s pain and sadness.”

One thing I can say (aside that this emotionally shattering film should be required viewing for heads of state, commanders-in-chief, generals, or anyone else wielding the power to wage war)…I don’t speak Kurdish, either.

Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film (with a screenplay adapted by John Sacred Young from a story by Carol Amen) was released to theaters and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key approach, but pulls no punches; I think this is what gives her film’s anti-nuke message more teeth and makes its scenario more relatable than Stanley Kramer’s similarly-framed but more sanitized and preachy 1959 drama On the Beach.

Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

Dirty movies: A Top X List

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 5, 2023)

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*sigh* Everything old is nude again. From Sam Adams’ Slate review of Ira Sach’s Passages:

Movie theaters are full, Eurodance is big: Close your eyes and it’s the 1990s again. Adding to the throwback vibe, there’s a new controversy about sex in movies. The story of a love triangle between a German film director (played by Franz Rogowski), his husband (Ben Whishaw), and an elementary school teacher (Adèle Exarchopoulos), Ira Sachs’ Passages premiered to strong reviews at Sundance but was given an NC-17 rating by the Motion Picture Association for its explicit sex scenes. The film’s distributor, Mubi, has opted to release it in theaters unrated, but not before a round of interviews in which Sachs called the MPA’s decision “a form of cultural censorship” and pointed to the ratings board’s long history of disproportionately stigmatizing sex, especially when it’s between same-sex partners.

Created in 1990 to replace the disreputable X, the NC-17 rating, which bars admission to anyone under the age of 17, has fallen almost completely out of use in recent years. Last fall, the Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde became the first major NC-17 release in almost a decade, and it appeared in only a handful of theaters before making its way to Netflix. In an environment where smaller, non-studio films often find their biggest audiences on streaming, ratings have come to feel increasingly less important, verging on irrelevant.

The NC-17 label has also become less important because it’s so rarely called for. Twenty-first-century cinema, particularly in the U.S., has become overwhelmingly sexless, and since violence has never much bothered the MPAA, it’s left the group with precious few chances to whip out its scarlet letter. A reaction against the leering, gratuitous nudity of the 1990s, along with a more recent reckoning with the conditions under which sex scenes are shot, has combined with mainstream movies’ overriding lack of interest in everyday life to leave the movie landscape largely void of moments of physical intimacy. […]

The online discourse about sex scenes often focuses on whether or not they’re “necessary.” Do they advance the plot? Do they tell us something about the characters we don’t otherwise know? Or are they just there to gratify the audience’s voyeuristic urges? I’d argue that, in the case of Passages, sexual explicitness is essential to the plot. […]

I’d also argue, though, that “is it necessary?” isn’t the right question, or at least the only one. Part of what makes movies (and art more generally) important is that they serve as an implicit rebuke to a strictly utilitarian view of the world, the spiritual parsimony that says that the only necessary things are the ones we can’t live without. We don’t need movies the way we need food or water, but we need them to remind us that being alive is more than drawing breath.

Amen.

I made a similar argument in my 2014 review of Lars Van Trier’s Nymph()manic, Vol. 1:

A word about the “controversial” sex scenes, which are being labeled “pornographic” by some. Really? It’s 2014, and we’re still not over this hurdle? I have to chuckle, for two reasons: 1) this is really nothing new in cinema, especially when it comes to Scandinavian filmmakers, who have always been ahead of the curve in this department. Am I the only one who remembers the “controversial” full frontal nudity and “pornography” in the Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow)…which played in U.S. theaters 47 flippin’ years ago, fergawdsake? And 2) at the end of the day, Nymph()maniac Vol. 1 isn’t about the sex, any more than the director’s apocalyptic drama Melancholia was about the end of the world. And as any liberated adult who may have glimpsed genitalia in a film (or locker room), and lived to tell the tale, will attest, that ain’t the end of the world, either.

Back to the MPAA. So who are these people who get to decide when it’s “necessary” to slap an “NC-17” rating on a film, what is their criteria for deciding as such, and how did this rating system even come to be in the first place? First, a little history.

55 years ago, Hollywood submitted to a new voluntary film rating system developed by the Motion Picture Association of America. Films were classified based on their “suitability” for young viewers: ‘G’ for general audiences, ‘M’ for mature audiences, ‘R’ for no one under 16 admitted without a parent or guardian (later raised to 17), and an ‘X’ indicated no one under 17 would be admitted.

It’s interesting that these guidelines (the brainchild of then-association head Jack Valenti, who had resigned his special assistant post with LBJ’s White House two years earlier to take the job) were devised on the cusp of a liberated and boldly creative period of American film-making; one that ushered in the golden era of the 1970s “mavericks” (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, John Cassavetes, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, Terrence Malick, Peter Bogdanovich, and Bob Rafelson, to name a few).

Early on, a fair number of adult-themed Hollywood releases, as well as foreign films distributed here, were slapped with an ‘X’ for “explicit” content. By the mid-70s, the MPAA was reserving most of its X’s for straight-up porn, which due to crossover success of films like Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door and The Devil in Miss Jones had broken free of the underground to enjoy wider distribution and more public interest. This loosened the reins a bit as to what defined “X-rated” in a mainstream Hollywood release.

By the early 80s, you could count the annual number of ‘X’ certifications for mainstream releases on one hand, and by the end of the decade, a newly modified system was set in place. ‘M’ eventually morphed into ‘PG-13’, ‘R’ pretty much stayed the course, and ‘X’ became ‘NC-17’ (no one under 17 admitted). Then there is the sometimes confounding ‘NR’ (not rated) which indicates either a film that has not yet been submitted for a rating, or that it is an uncut version of a film that’s already been submitted. Get it? Got it? Good.

The current iteration of the MPAA ratings system (G, PG, PG-13, R, & NC-17) has been in place since 1990, with sporadic additions of content qualifiers (e.g. “violence”, “language”, “substance abuse”, “nudity”, “sexual content”, and since 2007, “smoking”). The intent of these qualifiers (one assumes) is to help parents make informed decisions.

But is there a limit? One has to wonder if there is a point at which such guidelines become so finicky and specific that they cross the fine line between self-policing and creative suppression (e.g. to this day, an ‘NC-17’ rating is considered box office poison by studio execs, which sometimes puts pressure on the filmmakers to compromise their original vision and re-cut for a more fiscally viable ‘R’). Or perhaps it’s a question of whether the MPAA has remained in lockstep with changing mores. In 1990, which was the year ‘NC-17’ ostensibly became the new ‘X’ (and all it implies) Roger Ebert wrote:

As a category, I think [the “NC-17” rating] may not have entirely solved the problem. The title “NC-17” is so innocuous that it is unlikely to develop the kinds of lurid associations that X had. […] NC-17 is low profile and places the emphasis not on adult content but simply on the fact that such movies are not intended for children. […]

Ratings reformers such as myself thought the new rating should come between the R and the X, instead of replacing the X. That way, you’d have a clear-cut category for movies that were adult in content but did not deserve to be lumped with hard-core. […]

Just as some directors get the right of final cut on their movies and others do not, some directors may be able to float NC-17 projects and others will not. Much will depend on how the rating is accepted in the marketplace. […]

Strangely, sex itself is no longer considered a strong selling point in the movie industry, and even R-rated movies are not as sexy as they used to be. Today’s audiences seem to prefer action and violence. There may be a lesson there somewhere.

20 years later, in a Chicago Tribune piece, film critic Michael Philips didn’t hold back:

I’ve had it with the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings and classifications board. It has become foolish and irrelevant, and its members do not have my interests at heart, or yours. They’re too easy on violence yet bizarrely reactionary when it comes to nudity and language. Especially language. […]

In 1976 “All the President’s Men” won a PG rating on appeal, despite its 11 uses of the f-word. That was a lifetime ago in pop culture terms. More recently the documentaries “The Hip-Hop Project” (17 uses of the f-word and its multifaceted variations) and “Gunner Palace” (42 f-words) secured PG-13 ratings. Even more recently a politically pointed (and very good) documentary, “The Tillman Story,” had 16 uses of the f-word, yet its makers’ appeal for a PG-13 rating was denied.

Here’s the paradox among these inconsistencies: Context and tone, those purely subjective notions, are routinely ignored by the MPAA’s ratings decisions. […]

I don’t care if MPAA head Graves frets about perceived language sensitivities in the South and the Midwest compared to the coasts, which amounts to a generalization even the coasts might find patronizing. I do care about the increasing coarseness and sadism in our mass entertainment. I care about the messages the American movie rating system sends to all of us.

If “The King’s Speech” and “Saw 3D” warrant the same rating, then the system underneath leaves me speechless.

Or, as Jack Nicholson once famously (or infamously) put it (albeit in a more succinct and less film-scholarly fashion). “If you suck on a [breast] the movie gets an ‘R’ rating. If you hack the [breast] off with an axe, it will be a ‘PG’.”

The MPAA doesn’t see a scintilla of a hint of even the tiniest most infinitesimal possibility that their ratings system smacks of censorship. From the MPAA 2018 report:

The MPAA has resisted government censorship since its early days, and the rating system was developed as a voluntary, industry-led alternative to government censorship boards. The focus on providing information to parents about what’s in a film, rather than dictating what can and cannot go into films, serves the dual purpose of providing information to parents to help them make suitable viewing choices for their children and protecting the free speech rights of filmmakers from government intervention. […]

Filmmakers are free to put whatever content they want into their films. The rating board reviews each film on a case-by-case basis and reacts just as parents would, assigning a rating that corresponds with the level of content in each film. The rating board does not take into account the artistic merit of the films it rates. A rating is not a judgment of whether a film is good or bad.

 Fair enough (and you’ll note that I have steered clear of the “c” word until now). But what about “context and tone”, as Michael Philips pointed out in his piece? If members of the board are in fact ignoring those factors (as Philips implies) …doesn’t that make its decisions arbitrary, therefore a form of censorship? Most importantly, who ARE these folks who judge what your kids should or shouldn’t see? From the same MPAA report:

The rating board is comprised of eight to 13 raters who are themselves parents. Raters must have children between the ages of five and 15 when they join the rating board and must leave when all of their children have reached the age of twenty-one. Raters can serve for up to seven years, at the discretion of the Chair. With the exception of the senior raters, the identities of raters are kept confidential to avoid outside pressure or influence.

Look on the bright side. At least it isn’t a lifetime appointment, like the Supreme Court.

Anyway, in this 55th anniversary year of the MPAA ratings system we all either love or loathe, I thought it would be fun to mosey over to the media room and curate a top 10 collection of vintage ‘X’-rated movies that may not seem quite so ‘X-rated’ by today’s standards. That said, I strongly caution parents that none of these should be considered “family-friendly”!

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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – In spite of the title, Russ Meyer’s campy, over-the-top 1970 backstage satire has little in common with Valley of the Dolls (1967). For one thing, the 1967 film had something resembling a coherent narrative. But if you’re familiar with the Russ Meyer oeuvre, you know that “story” is an afterthought. Meyer’s brand was more synonymous with a bevy of buxom babes who beckoned from lurid movie posters; we’ll just say he had a fetish for certain attributes in his leading ladies and leave it there.

It’s not difficult to glean how this entry has built a sizable cult audience over the decades. An all-female band (“The Carrie Nations”) makes the time-honored trek to La-La Land to become rock ‘n’ roll stars. They do make it “big”, but along the way, there’s enough back-stabbing, drug-taking, lovemaking, and heartbreaking to circle the Earth three times.

Roger Ebert (yes, the late film critic) co-wrote with Meyer. There are some memorable lines, like “You’re a groovy boy. I’d like to strap you on sometime” and “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” Ebert also co-wrote Meyer’s 1979 tongue-in-cheek sexploitation cheapie Beyond the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (wisely using a pseudonym).

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A Clockwork Orange –A nightmarish vision of a dystopian England in the near-future. Malcolm McDowell leads an excellent cast as “Alex”, a charismatic psychopath who leads an ultra-violent youth gang. Alex and his “droogs” get their jollies terrorizing the citizenry and mixing it up with rivals. Alex ends up in prison, where he volunteers as a test subject for an experimental “cure” for antisocial behavior. After completing the program, a now docile Alex is let back into society, only to suffer much karmic payback.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ eponymous novel still lives up to its “ultra”-violent reputation, but one hopes that its intended anti-violence message is more obvious to modern audiences (who may also puzzle over its ‘X’-rating). Like many of Kubrick’s films, A Clockwork Orange becomes more prescient by the day. Watching the nightly news will tell you that we are currently living in the “dystopian near-future”.

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The Groove Tube – While many of its pop culture references are now arcane, Ken Shapiro’s 1974 omnibus of irreverent comedy sketches still tickles the funny bone. Loosely framed as a programming sampler from an imagined TV channel, Shapiro and his most *definitely* not ready for prime-time players utilize this platform to skewer sitcoms, talk shows, local newscasts and commercials.

It’s lewd, crude, and guaranteed to offend just about everybody (especially now…oy), but in the fullness of time it’s been acknowledged as a tangible influence on Saturday Night Live (which went on the air the following year). Chevy Chase appears in several sketches, and even more tellingly, a news anchorman character signs off with “Good night…and have a pleasant tomorrow”, which later became a signature SNL catchphrase.

Not for all tastes, but I think it’s a hoot. I should note that while contemporary DVD and Blu-ray reissues indicate an ‘R’ rating, the film was originally released as ‘X’ -rated due to male and female frontal nudity.

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Henry and June – Fred Ward (who passed away in 2022) delivers one of his finest performances portraying gruff, libidinous literary icon Henry Miller. Writer-director Philip Kaufman’s 1990 drama is set in 1930s Paris, when Miller was working on his infamous novel Tropic of Cancer. The film concentrates on the complicated love triangle between Miller, his wife June (Uma Thurman) and erotic novelist Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros).

Despite the frequent nudity and eroticism, the film is curiously un-sexy, but still a well-acted character study. Richard E. Grant portrays Nin’s husband. Adapted from Nin’s writings. For better or for worse, the film holds the distinction of being the first recipient of the MPAA’s “NC-17” rating.

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If…. – In this 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson depicts the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time. It was also the star-making debut for a young Malcolm McDowall, who plays Mick Travis, one of the “lower sixth form” students 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 mates 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, you can see how Anderson’s film could be read outside of original context as a pre-cursor to Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, The Chocolate War and Rushmore. David Sherwin and John Howlett co-wrote the screenplay.

The film was eventually granted an ‘R’ but ran with an ‘X’ rating for its initial theatrical engagements in the U.S. (male and female frontal nudity).

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Inserts –If I told you that Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper once co-starred in an X-rated movie, would you believe me? This largely forgotten 1976 film from director John Byrum was dismissed as pretentious dreck by critics at the time, but 47 years on, it begs reappraisal as a fascinating curio in the careers of all involved.

Dreyfuss plays “Wonder Boy”, a Hollywood whiz kid director who peaked early; now he’s a “has-been”, living in his bathrobe, drinking heavily and casting junkies and wannabe-starlets for pornos produced on the cheap in his crumbling mansion. Hoskins steals all his scenes as Wonder Boy’s producer, Big Mac (aptly named; as he has plans to open a chain of hamburger joints!). Set in 30s Hollywood, this decadent wallow in the squalid side of show biz is a perfect companion for The Day of the Locust.

While I wouldn’t consider the sex scenes in the film overly explicit (especially compared to what you now routinely encounter in any HBO or Showtime original series), my DVD copy (released in 2005 by MGM) indicates it earns contemporary assignation of ‘NC-17’.

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Last Summer – This underrated 1969 gem (later re-cut to earn an R rating) is from husband-and-wife team Frank Perry (director) and Eleanor Perry (writer). Adapted from Evan Hunter’s novel, it is tough to summarize without possible spoilers.

Initially, it’s a standard character study about three friends on the cusp of adulthood (Bruce Davison, Barbara Hershey and Richard Thomas) who develop a Jules and Jim-style relationship during an idyllic summer vacation on Fire Island. When a socially awkward stranger (Catherine Burns) enters this simmering cauldron of raging hormones and burgeoning sexuality, the lid blows off the pressure cooker, leading to unexpected twists. Think Summer of ’42 meets Lord of the Flies; I’ll leave it there. Beautifully acted and directed. By the way, if you’re a fan of the Netflix series Ozark, keep your eyes peeled for Davison and Thomas, who both give great supporting performances (although they don’t have any scenes together).

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Last Tango in Paris –Bernardo Bertolucci’s dark and polarizing 1972-character study about a doomed affair between a middle-aged American ex-pat (Marlon Brando) and a young Parisian woman (Maria Schneider) sparked controversy with audiences, critics and censors from day one (although by today’s standards, it seems much ado about nothing).

Brando is grieving over the suicide of his wife; he and Schneider meet by pure chance when they both show up at the same time to view an apartment for rent. Minimal exposition leads to wild, spontaneous sex between the two strangers.

Whether the ensuing psychodrama makes a bold statement about life, death, social isolation, and the unfathomable mystery of sexual attraction, or plunges the hapless viewer into 2 long hours of histrionics, navel-gazing, and pretentious blather is up to you. Now that I’m older (and presumably wiser) I’ve come to appreciate Brando’s performance more that I did back in the day; there is a raw, unfiltered honesty and vulnerability I never saw in his other roles.

Medium Cool – What Haskell Wexler’s unique 1969 drama may lack in narrative cohesion is more than made up for by its importance as a sociopolitical document. Robert Forster stars as a TV news cameraman who is fired after he complains to station brass about their willingness to help the FBI build files on political agitators via access to raw news film footage and reporter’s notes.

He drifts into a relationship with a Vietnam War widow (Verna Bloom) who has a 12-year-old son. They eventually find themselves embroiled in the mayhem surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention (in the film’s most memorable scene, the actors were sent in to improvise amidst one of the infamous “police riots” as it was happening). Many of the issues Wexler touches on (especially regarding media integrity and journalistic responsibility) would be extrapolated further in films like Network and Broadcast News.

The film was originally rated ‘X’; however, Paramount later appealed the ruling. In 1970 the MPAA overturned its initial ruling and granted the film an ‘R’ rating (with no cuts).

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Midnight Cowboy –Aside from its distinction as being the only X-rated film to earn Oscars, John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking, idiosyncratic character study Midnight Cowboy (1969) also ushered in an era of mature, gritty realism in American film that flourished from the early to mid-1970s. The film was Schlesinger’s first U.S.-based project; he had already made a name for himself in his native England with films like A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar, Darling, and Far From the Madding Crowd.

Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. Also look for cameos from several of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” regulars, who can be spotted milling about here and there in a memorable party scene.

In hindsight, the location filming provides a fascinating historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square (New York “plays itself” very well here). Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

I Want My TCM

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on June 24, 2023)

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“Without TCM, classic movies will die and with them, part of our culture.”

-from the “TCM Mantra”

In 1994, media mogul Ted Turner launched Turner Classic Movies, a commercial-free subscription channel dedicated to airing uncut classic and deep-catalog films ranging from the silent era to the early 80s. At the time of its inception, TCM’s only real “competitor” in the cable market was American Movie Classics, which operated under a very similar programming philosophy.

However, by the early 2000s, AMC (for assorted business reasons) was interrupting film presentations with commercial breaks; and once the channel went down that road, they were soon kowtowing to ad agency and sponsor demands – e.g., being pressed to incorporate more contemporary films into their programming. By default TCM was now the sole haven for classic film buffs on cable TV.

Consequently, over the ensuing years TCM has built a sizeable, passionate, and fiercely loyal coterie of fans (myself among them), as well as a (mostly) genial social media community (we’re not unlike the Deadheads; albeit more Ty Power than tie-dyed).

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I say “mostly” genial, because once the news broke of some developments at TCM HQ earlier this week, those friendly villagers put torches and pitchforks on standby:

It’s not every day that Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson team up. But IndieWire has learned they will today: The three directors have scheduled an emergency call with Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav about the layoffs of Turner Classic Movies’ top brass. […]

The network laid off much of its leadership [on June 20th ], including executive VP and general manager Pola Changnon; senior VP of programming and content strategy, Charles Tabesh; VP of brand creative and marketing Dexter Fedor; VP of enterprises and strategic partnerships Genevieve McGillicuddy, who also served as the director of the annual TCM Film Festival; and VP of studio production Anne Wilson.

These people were responsible for everything from curating lineups, to shooting intros and outros, and for creating original shows, documentaries, and video essays that serve as major contributions to American cultural history.

Scorsese has often said he has Turner Classic Movies on all day in the background when editing his movies with Thelma Schoonmaker. “It gives me something to turn to, to bounce off of, to rest in, to reinvigorate my thinking — just glancing at some image or combination of images at a certain moment,” Scorsese told the Los Angeles Times of his favorite network. “It’s more like a presence in the room, a reminder of film history as a living, ongoing entity.

Spielberg appeared at the last two TCM Film Festivals and in multiple TCM documentaries. Paul Thomas Anderson also was at the festival this year; in that same LA Times article, he called the network “holy ground.” […]

These cuts come as WBD CEO David Zaslav recites what’s become his rosary: He wants Warner Bros. to be a studio for filmmakers. He wants to build bridges with directors who were burned by the previous regime under Jason Kilar, who responded to the pandemic with a unilateral move for day-and-date releases on HBO Max.

If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “I just wanna be left alone to watch The Third Man on my couch in peace while I enjoy a pizza. What’s with all these corporate shenanigans?”

In brief: TCM’s tie-in with Warner dates from 1996, when Turner Broadcasting System merged with Time-Warner. That put TCM and Warner Brothers Entertainment under the same corporate overseers. Then in 2019, Time-Warner was acquired by AT&T, which renamed the company “WarnerMedia”. In 2022 (almost done) following its spin-off by AT&T, WarnerMedia merged with Discovery, Inc. Hence: TCM currently serves at the pleasure of the CEO of Warner Brothers Discovery; that position is currently held by Mr. David Zaslav.

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

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You get up on your little twenty-one-inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

– from Network (1976), screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

Anyway, the reaction to this news on Film Twitter was swift and heartfelt:

Speculation continues to rage regarding what the management shakeup portends for TCM; but this breaking news from across the pond did little to allay “worst case scenario” fears:

It’s the end of an era for the British television landscape: Turner Classic Movies (TCM) UK, widely known as TCM Movies and a cornerstone for film enthusiasts, is preparing for its final act.

This dedicated channel, which has showcased the rich filmographies of Turner Entertainment and Warner Bros., is set to close its curtains on July 6, 2023, marking a poignant farewell for UK’s classic movie lovers.

This sombre news comes amidst a backdrop of global uncertainty for TCM. Across the Atlantic, the future of the American TCM channel hangs in the balance following recent layoffs announced by Warner Bros. Discovery.

As the UK prepares to say goodbye to its beloved classic film channel, the struggle to preserve its American counterpart underscores the ongoing challenges and importance of maintaining the legacy of classic cinema worldwide.

Forgive me, I’m going to curse in “UK” now. Bugger bollocks bloody hell (I feel better).

Still, the news wasn’t all gloom and doom. This glimmer of hope broke on Friday:

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav is attempting to calm the waters after stirring up a storm over Turner Classic Movies earlier this week. Zaslav is moving oversight of the channel to Warner Bros. Pictures bosses Michael De Luca and Pamela Abdy, sources with knowledge of the situation tell The Hollywood Reporter.

The move is meant to reassure the film community after WBD announced a restructuring this week that saw TCM chief Pola Changnon exit after 25 years, along with key team members. […]

According to sources, putting TCM under the auspices of De Luca and Abdy — executives who are well regarded in the film community — will satisfy Spielberg, Scorsese and Anderson. The hope is the trio will be involved in curating for the channel. It’s unclear at this stage if any of the TCM staff who departed earlier this week could return, but sources say WBD is prepared to spend more money on the channel and will not consider selling it.

The key word is “curating”. Because I think the programming philosophy that informs an enterprise like Turner Classic Movies has deep roots in the repertory houses that have all but disappeared. In a 2017 piece about the death of the “neighborhood” theater, I wrote:

Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 3-year period of my life (1979-1982) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260-mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about  (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 60s and 70s cinema.

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit. While I had a lot of favorite haunts (The Surf, The Balboa, The Castro, and the Red Victorian loom large in my memory), there were two venerable (if a tad dodgy) downtown venues in particular where I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the dank and the dark with snoring bums who used the auditoriums as a $2 flop: The Roxie and The Strand.

That’s because they were “repertory” houses; meaning they played older films (frequently double and triple bills, usually curated by some kind of theme). That 3 years I spent in the dark was my film school; that’s how I got caught up with Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Wim Wenders, Michael Ritchie, Brian De Palma, etc.

[*sigh*] Those halcyon days of  power-grazing on repertory theater triple-bills are gone, but for me, TCM is the next-best thing extant. And it would be a damn shame to lose that too. In the meantime, keep fingers crossed-and as TCM presenter /”Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller advised, keep those cards and letters coming, folks.

UPDATE (6/26/23)…

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On mad kings, death cults, and Altman’s “Secret Honor”

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 25, 2023)

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Castle by the sea, fig. 1: Richard Nixon’s “La Casa Pacifica” (California)

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Castle by the sea, fig. 2: Donald Trump’s “Mar A Lago” (Florida).

In my 2008 review of Frost/Nixon, I wrote:

There’s an old theatrical performer’s axiom that goes “Always leave ‘em wanting more.” In August of 1974, President Richard Nixon made his Watergate-weary exit from the American political stage with a nationally televised resignation soliloquy and left ‘em wanting more…answers. Any immediate hopes for an expository epilogue to this 5-year long usurpation of the Constitution and Shakespearean tragedy were abruptly dashed one month later when President Gerald Ford granted him a full pardon. Like King Lear, the mad leader slunk back to his castle by the sea and out of public view. […]

[Actor Frank Langella] uncannily captures the essence of Nixon’s contradictions and complexities; the supreme intelligence, the grandiose pomposity and the congenital craftiness, all corroded by the insidious paranoia that eventually consumed his soul, and by turn, the soul of the nation.

In a 2019 CNN panel discussion regarding lessons learned from Nixon’s ill-fated second term, former Watergate Special Prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste had this to say:

“As I said in my book, written shortly after I left the office [as Special Prosecutor] …For the future, the lessons of Watergate are wonderful, in that the system worked–in this circumstance…but they almost didn’t work. For the future, does it take something more than what we have experienced in Watergate [regarding] the type of evidence: demonstrative, incredibly powerful evidence of criminal wrongdoing for a President of the United States to be put in a position of either resigning, or certainly [being] impeached and convicted?”

Panel member Carl Bernstein was more succinct, offering this take:

“The system worked in Watergate. But it worked ultimately because there was a ‘smoking gun tape’. It’s very questionable whether the system would have worked without that gun.”

Bernstein was referring to Nixon’s self-incriminating statements regarding a coverup and obstruction of justice…captured for posterity via a secret recording system the President himself had arranged to be set up in order to document all his Oval Office conversations.

I probably don’t need to remind you who the occupant of the White House was in 2019. Several days after that CNN panel discussion aired (45 years after Nixon resigned), the media, members of Congress and concerned citizens found themselves poring over the 400 pages of the highly anticipated Mueller Report (officially titled as  Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election) and asking themselves the $64,000 question:

“Is there a ‘smoking gun’ buried somewhere in here…or a reasonable facsimile thereof?”

As we’ve learned in the fullness of time, in regards to allegations of “conspiracy” or “coordination” between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia, the Mueller report concluded that the investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities”.  However, it also said that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was illegal and occurred “in sweeping and systematic fashion”.

As for obstruction of justice allegations, the report “does not conclude that the President committed a crime, [and] it also does not exonerate him”.  On the latter point, the “investigation found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigations”.

The report also states that once Trump was aware that he was being investigated for obstruction of justice, he started “public attacks on the investigation and individuals involved in it who could possess evidence adverse to the president, while in private, the president engaged in a series of targeted efforts to control the investigation.”

Flash-forward 4 years, to earlier this week:

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*sigh* Old habits die hard.

And it’s getting better all the time (it can’t get no worse):

With the spectre of criminal charges hanging over his third bid for the White House, Donald Trump has scheduled a massive rally in Texas this weekend.

The campaign event, planned for Saturday, marks the former president’s return to a traditionally conservative state in which he remains very popular.

But his decision to hold the rally in Waco – best known for an armed standoff 30 years ago – has raised eyebrows.

The 1993 tragedy is seen as a landmark event for the American far-right.

A city of about 140,000 people in the heart of Texas, Waco is celebrated these days as host to Baylor University, the Dr Pepper Museum and the home-improvement reality show Fixer Upper.

Three decades ago, however, it was where FBI agents, the US military and Texas law enforcement laid siege to a religious cult known as the Branch Davidians.

The small, insular Christian sect was led at the time by David Koresh, 33, an apocalyptic prophet who allegedly believed he was the only person who could interpret the Bible’s true meaning.

Under Koresh, the Branch Davidians had stockpiled weapons in order to become an “Army of God”.

Authorities intended to conduct a surprise daylight raid on 28 February 1993 and arrest Koresh, but what ensued was a 51-day standoff that left 76 people dead, including more than 20 children and four federal agents. […]

Two years after the siege, Timothy McVeigh – a young man who had shown his support at Waco and became fixated with the federal response as evidence of an impending New World Order – bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, killing 168 people and injuring nearly 700 others. It remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in US history.

The raid also had an impact on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who – as a young radio host in 1998 – organised a campaign to rebuild the Branch Davidians’ chapel as a memorial to those who had died. Mr Jones was among the most prominent early voices to back Mr Trump in his 2016 presidential campaign.

“Waco still resonates in this anti-government space as something that shows the federal government doesn’t protect people, is out to violate their civil rights, is out to take their guns,” [co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism non-profit Heidi] Beirich said.

“Nowadays that very much feeds into the ‘deep state’ conspiracies that we see on the far-right; the attacks on the FBI; the idea that federal law enforcement is a weapon of Democratic presidents.”

Mr Trump has often drawn on these frustrations, painting himself as the victim of a secret cabal of government operatives and effectively tearing down the walls that separated the mainstream Republican Party from its more extremist and radical fringes.

The former president’s sense of victimhood has only intensified since he left office. His conspiracies about the 2020 election still abound and he has framed the legal action he is facing on multiple fronts as an effort to destroy him.

In my 2013 review of the documentary Let the Fire Burn, I wrote:

Depending upon whom you might ask, MOVE was an “organization”, a “religious cult”, a “radical group”, or all of the above. The biggest question in my mind (and one the film doesn’t necessarily delve into) is whether it was another example of psychotic entelechy. So what is “psychotic entelechy”, exactly? Well, according to Stan A. Lindsay, the author of Psychotic Entelechy: The Dangers of Spiritual Gifts Theology, it would be

…the tendency of some individuals to be so desirous of fulfilling or bringing to perfection the implications of their terminologies that they engage in very hazardous or damaging actions.

In the context of Lindsay’s book, he is expanding on some of the ideas laid down by literary theorist Kenneth Burke and applying them to possibly explain the self-destructive traits shared by the charismatic leaders of modern-day cults like The People’s Temple, Order of the Solar Tradition, Heaven’s Gate, and The Branch Davidians. He ponders whether all the tragic deaths that resulted should be labeled as “suicides, murders, or accidents”.

Keeping Linday’s definition of “psychotic entelechy” in mind:

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“Potential death and destruction”?

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One could also ask if “MAGA” is an “organization”, a “religious cult”, a “radical group”, or all of the above. I mean, they do have a flag:

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I’m just asking questions.

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Nixon famously stated in the David Frost interviews, “I’m saying that when the president does it…it’s not illegal.” Mind you, he made that statement several years after he had resigned from the office of the president in shame, ending a decades-long political career in the most humiliating manner imaginable. Yet he never publicly apologized for any of the questionable actions he engaged in while serving as the President of the United States.

If that pathology reminds you of somebody else…perhaps a specific “somebody” currently vying for the presidency (yet again), you will not be surprised to learn that there is a disturbingly prescient link between Richard M. Nixon and Donald J. Trump, in this letter:

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Nightmare fuel.

How ironic that Nixon, the man who many historians posit lost his 1960 presidential bid because he was not as telegenic as JFK and never did get the hang of the medium (even once he eventually became the leader of the free world) was nonetheless canny enough to recognize a master manipulator of the idiot box when his wife saw Trump on a TV show.

As this post goes to press, tonight’s scheduled episode of Richard Nixon’s Ghost Presents: The Donald Trump Show will have just wrapped up on C-SPAN …live and direct from Waco, Texas.

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Howard Beale: “Why me?”

Arthur Jensen: “Because you’re on television, dummy.”

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Which brings me to why I felt this was the perfect week to pull out my dusty DVD of Robert Altman’s brilliant (and underappreciated) 1984 film adaptation of Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s one-man play Secret Honor (****) to take it for a spin on current events.

Originally titled as “Secret Honor: The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon” when it opened in 1983 at Los Angeles Actors’ Theater, the film is a fictional monologue by Nixon, set in his post-presidential New Jersey office. Part confessional, part autobiographical, and (large) part batshit-crazy postcards from the edge rant, it’s an astonishing piece of writing; a pitch-perfect 90-minute distillation of Nixon’s dichotomy.

Philip Baker Hall (most recognizable from the Paul Thomas Anderson films Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia) pulls out all the stops in a tour-de-force turn reprising his stage role.

His Nixon is at once darkly brooding and explosively feral, pacing his claustrophobic office like a caged animal, swigging Chivas Regal and alternately pleading his “case” before an unseen Court of Public Opinion and howling at the moon (not dissimilar to how late night TV satirists envisioned Donald Trump pacing the Oval Office, wolfing cheeseburgers and unleashing Tweet storms from the Id).

Nixon, who is taping his monologue on a cassette recorder (in a blackly comic reference to his purported technical ineptitude, he spends the first several minutes of the film fumbling and cursing while trying to figure out how to work it) largely speaks in the first person, but oddly switches to the third at times, referring to his “client” whenever he addresses “your honor” (it’s no secret Trump often refers to himself in the third person).

The word salad soliloquies Nixon utters as he prowls the long dark night of his soul in arctic desolation share spooky parallels with the word salad soliloquies that Trump bellows as he prowls podiums in the full light of day at his public rallies.

Nixon frequently rants at his “enemies”. He is particularly obsessed with “those goddam Kennedys”. This is one of the more revealing insights into Nixon’s psychology contained in Freed and Stone’s screenplay; Nixon, ever self-conscious about his modest Quaker roots, is obviously both resentful and envious of the Kennedys’ privileged patrician upbringing, Ivy League education, movie-star charisma, and physical attractiveness.

He also lights into the other usual suspects in his orbit: Henry Kissinger, President Eisenhower, liberals, “East coast shits”, Jews, the FBI, and the media (you know…the “deep state” and “fake news”).

In rare moments of lucidity, he sadly recalls the untimely deaths of his brothers (Arthur, who died in 1925 at age 7, and Harold, who died in 1933 at age 23, both from TB) and speaks tenderly to the portrait of his late mother (although it gets weird when he refers to himself as her “loving dog”…and promptly begins to bark).

Hall is mesmerizing; while he doesn’t physically resemble Nixon, he so expertly captures his essence that by the end of the piece, he is virtually indistinguishable from the real item. It takes substantial acting chops to carry an entire film; Hall has got them in spades.

Film adaptations of stage plays can be problematic, especially in a chamber piece. But since this is, after all, Robert Altman…not to worry. He cleverly utilizes the limited props to his full advantage; for example, the four CCTV monitors in the office pull double duty as both a metaphor for Nixon’s paranoia and a hall of mirrors representing his multiple personalities (shades of the symbology in Pete Townshend’s rock opera Quadrophenia).

It also helps that Hall’s performance is anything but static; he moves relentlessly about the set (in a supplemental interview on the Criterion DVD, Hall recalls the original running time of the play as 2 ½ hours…I can’t begin to imagine the mental and physical stamina required to deliver a performance of that intensity night after night). DP Pierre Mignot deserves major kudos for his fluid tracking shots.

Watching the film again in context of all the drama and angst surrounding the ongoing saga of former POTUS/current presidential hopeful Donald J. Trump, I was struck by both its timelessness as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked power and corruption, and its timeliness as a reminder of what democracy looks like at its lowest ebb-which is where we may be now (sadly).

As Oliver Stone reminded us in the closing credits of JFK: What is past is prologue. Stay tuned.

Baby steps: A therapeutic mixtape (redux)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 19, 2022)

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I hesitate to use the word “victory”, as this one is Pyrrhic at best; but…baby steps:

The families of nine victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting announced Tuesday they have agreed to a $73 million settlement of a lawsuit against the maker of the rifle used to kill 20 first graders and six educators in 2012. The case was watched closely by gun control advocates, gun rights supporters and manufacturers, because of its potential to provide a roadmap for victims of other shootings to sue firearm makers.

The families and a survivor of the shooting sued Remington in 2015, saying the company should have never sold such a dangerous weapon to the public. They said their focus was on preventing future mass shootings by forcing gun companies to be more responsible with their products and how they market them.

At a news conference, some of the parents behind the lawsuit described it as a bittersweet victory.

“Nothing will bring Dylan back,” said Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son was killed in the shooting. “My hope for this lawsuit,” she said, “is that by facing and finally being penalized for the impact of their work, gun companies along with the insurance and banking industries that enable them will be forced to make their practices safer than they’ve ever been, which will save lives and stop more shootings.”

President Joe Biden called the settlement “historic,” saying, “While this settlement does not erase the pain of that tragic day, it does begin the necessary work of holding gun manufacturers accountable for manufacturing weapons of war and irresponsibly marketing these firearms.”

While I was glad to hear the President publicly endorse the settlement, his encouraging words will likely do little to break the Congressional stalemate on pushing through any game-changing gun reform legislation. As the U.S. continues to lead the world in gun-related deaths, the time for action was yesterday (don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk).

Earlier this week on Democracy Now, host Amy Goodman interviewed gun reform activist David Hogg, who certainly didn’t mince words regarding this continued inaction:

AMY GOODMAN: David, first, I want to go to the morning after the [2018 Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School] massacre [in Parkland, Florida] four years ago. You were speaking with CNN and said — amazingly, at that moment, keeping yourself together, considering what you survived and how many didn’t — said action was needed right away to deal with gun violence.

DAVID HOGG [from 2018 archival interview]: What we really need is action, because we can say, yes, we’re going to do all these things, thoughts and prayers. What we need more than that is action. Please. This is the 18th one this year. That’s unacceptable. We’re children. You guys, like, are the adults. You need to take some action and play a role, work together, come over your politics and get something done.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the day after the massacre that you had the presence of mind, David, to talk about what needs to be done in this country, given the horrific attack you had just experienced. Can you talk about from then to now, what you are calling for, what you’ve gone through? Thank you so much for joining us from school. You’re at Harvard now, a student in Cambridge.

DAVID HOGG: Yeah, you know, it’s amazing to look back at that and think about those things that have changed. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, in the couple of months after that, leading up to midterms, we changed gun laws in Florida, a deeply Republican Legislature that has a — basically, the NRA has a stranglehold over. Despite, you know, basically everybody in the establishment thinking it was impossible, we did change gun laws there.

We were able to force the hand of the Florida state Legislature to get over their politics and work together to actually do something. In the time since Parkland, we passed nearly — well over 50 gun laws at the state level. We changed the Dickey Amendment so that we were able to get the CDC to study the effectiveness of gun laws at the state level, and gotten them funding. And on top of that, we have, you know, some of the most pro-gun violence prevention candidates, at least on paper, ever elected in American history.

Now it’s about making them act. And the reason — the thing that we’re calling for right now is specifically for President Biden to do even more that is within his executive power to act to address gun violence. And two of those things are creating an office, a national office of gun violence prevention, and a director of — a national director of gun violence prevention, that can work together to create a comprehensive plan to address gun violence from the federal government and not create just a piecemeal piece of legislation that’s just universal background checks and one other thing or just universal background checks, but comes up with a comprehensive plan for the federal government to address gun violence, regardless of what’s happening in the Senate.

Here’s hoping that this week’s court decision will be a catalyst for meaningful change (although it hinges on the legislative branch of our government to do their part as well). Speaking for myself, my hands are all wrung out regarding this particular subject. As I lamented in a 2018 post I published just several days following the Parkland shootings:

You know what “they” say-we all have a breaking point. When it comes to this particular topic, I have to say, I think that I may have finally reached mine. I’ve written about this so many times, in the wake of so many horrible mass shootings, that I’ve lost count. I’m out of words. There are no Scrabble tiles left in the bag, and I’m stuck with a “Q” and a “Z”. Game over. Oh waiter-check, please. The end. Finis. I have no mouth, and I must scream.

Something else “they” say…music soothes the savage beast. Not that this 10-song playlist that I have assembled will necessarily assuage the grief, provide the answers that we seek, or shed any new light on the subject-but sometimes, when words fail, music speaks.

And so, four years later (to the day) I’m re-posting that playlist (slightly revised), because these songs remain timely. As Harry Chapin tells his audience in the clip below: “Here’s a song that I could probably talk about for two weeks. But I’m not going to burden you, and hopefully the story and the words will tell it the way it should be.”

What Harry said.

“Bang Bang” – Green Day

“Family Snapshot” – Peter Gabriel

“Friend of Mine” – Jonathan & Stephen Cohen

“Guns Guns Guns” – The Guess Who

“I Don’t Like Mondays” – The Boomtown Rats

“In the Ghetto” – Elvis Presley

“Jeremy” – Pearl Jam

“Melt the Guns” – XTC

“Perfection” – Badfinger

“Saturday Night Special” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

“Sniper” – Harry Chapin

“Ticking” – Elton John

A cellar full of goys: The Beatles: Get Back (****)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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We went to see those movies with Elvis. They’d all scream when he came on screen. So we thought “That’s a good job!” – John Lennon, from a television interview.

By the time the Beatles “debuted” on The Ed Sullivan Show in early 1964, they already had a rich 7-year history. The four polished pros in slick suits didn’t simply pop out of Liverpool fully formed; they had paid their dues toiling in sweaty cellar clubs and seedy strip joints (including the pre-Ringo “Hamburg period” from 1960-1962). But for fans here in the colonies, they descended like gods from the heavens.

People of “a certain age” reflexively say they “remember” watching the Beatles perform on Sullivan nearly 57 years ago (whether they did or not). For me that “memory” is fuzzy, for a couple of reasons. On February 9, 1964, I was 7 years old; too young to grok the hormonal/cultural impact of this “screaming ‘yeah-yeah’ music” (as my dad labeled any rock ’n’ roll song he heard wafting from my room throughout my formative years).

Also, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. At the time, none of the local TV stations were equipped to carry live network feeds. We would get Walter Cronkite a day late (the tapes had to be shipped from Seattle via commercial jet). And weekly programs like Sullivan were broadcast anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks later than they aired in the Lower 48. So technically I “remember” watching the Beatles “live” on Sullivan…on a slight tape delay.

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In the Summer of 1967, I discovered two things that changed my life. As much as I would like to be able to tell you that it was body painting and tripping on acid…I can’t. Mainly because I had only recently turned 11. The first thing I discovered was Mad magazine (which undoubtedly explains much to long-time readers).

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The second thing was record collecting. I scored my first-ever haul of vinyl, blowing three months’ allowance at the JCPenney in Fairbanks, Alaska. I bought two LPs (at $3.98 a pop), and a 45. The LPs were Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the 45 was “Penny Lane” / “Strawberry Fields Forever”. That was my gateway drug to all the music (from psychedelic and garage to metal and prog and punk and new wave and everything in between) that has become a crucial element of my life to this day.

Flash-forward 35 years. I was enjoying my first visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. At the Beatles exhibit, I happened upon a glass case that contained some weathered pieces of paper with hand-written lyrics. I lingered over one, which was initially tough to decipher, with all the scribbled-out words and such:

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But you know I know when it’s a bean? Huh? It still wasn’t registering as to what I was looking at. However, when I got to: I think I know I mean-er-yes, but it’s all wrong. That is I think I disagree I realized that I was “this” close to John Lennon’s original handwritten draft of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. My mind was blown. Here I stand, head in hand, with my eyes but inches away from a tangible manifestation of genius.

Suddenly, I panicked. Was I worthy enough to look at it? Should I turn my face away, so it wouldn’t melt like the Nazis’ in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Belloq lifts the lid of the Sacred Object? “Don’t look at it, Marion!” I exclaimed to no one in particular. At any rate, I was overcome; there was something profoundly moving about the experience.

[Intermission]

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By 1969, the Beatles had done enough “living” to suit several normal lifetimes, and did so with the whole world looking in. It’s almost unfathomable how they could have achieved as much as they did, and at the end of all, still be only in their twenties.

Are there any other recording artists who have ever matched the creative growth that transpired over the scant six years that it took to evolve from the simplicity of Meet the Beatles to the sophistication of Abbey Road?

Hindsight being 20/20, should we really be so shocked to see the four haggard and sullen “old guys” who mope through the 1970 documentary, Let it Be? Filmed in 1969 and directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the movie was originally intended to be a TV special but ended up documenting the “making of” the eponymous album (there were also snippets of the band working on several songs that ended up on Abbey Road).

Sadly, the film has since weathered a rep as hard evidence of the band’s disintegration. Granted, there is some on-camera bickering (most famously, in a scene where an uncharacteristically riled-up George reaches the end of his tether with Paul’s fussiness).

Still, signs of a deeply rooted musical camaraderie remain in that outdoor mini concert filmed on a London rooftop. If you look closely, the boys are exchanging glances that telegraph they’re having a grand time jamming out; an affirmation that this is what this band of brothers were put on this earth to do, and what the hell …it’s only rock ’n’ roll.

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The Let it Be movie doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how tumultuous 1969 was for the band. As Ian MacDonald notes in his excellent 1994 assessment of the Beatles’ catalog, Revolution in the Head:

The day after the rooftop concert, the band recorded three songs unsuited to recital in a moderate gale [“Two of Us”, “Let it Be”, and “The Long and Winding Road”] before winding the [recording sessions for the “Let it Be” album] up in some relief. An ignominious failure which shook their faith in their collective judgement, it had pushed them to the verge of collapse. […]

[soon after the “Let it Be” sessions wrapped] a fatal rift in the group’s relationships opened when Lennon, Harrison, and Starr asked the Rolling Stones’ American manager Allen Klein to take over the Beatles’ affairs. McCartney, who favoured Linda Eastman’s family firm of management consultants, immediately opened a court battle which long outlasted the remainder of the Beatles’ career.

The dream was over. Or so it seemed. The boys were not about to go out on a sour note (at least in a creative sense). As Bob Spitz writes in his exhaustive band bio, The Beatles:

The tapes from earlier in the year that would eventually become “Let it Be” languished in the can, abandoned, a victim of haste and sloppy execution. “[They] were so lousy and so bad,” according to John – “twenty-nine hours of tape …twenty takes of everything – that “none of us would go near them …None of us could face remixing them; it was [a] terrifying [prospect].” “It was laying [sic] dormant and so we decided ‘Let’s make a good album again,’” George recalled.

That “good album” turned out to be Abbey Road (which I expounded on further here).

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One drawback with the Let it Be film (aside from the fact it’s been out of circulation for decades and unavailable on home video outside of the odd bootleg) was its relatively short running time. Considering director Lindsay-Hogg had 60 hours of footage at his disposal, the original 81-minute theatrical cut feels stingy; leaving little room for nuance or providing context to the on-camera bickering the 1970 film is chiefly remembered for.

Perhaps predictably in this age of Tweet-length attention spans, there has been much lamentation and rending of garments regarding the decidedly less stingy running time of Peter Jackson’s nearly 8-hour long Get Back, his oft delayed and long-awaited re-edit, sifted from Lindsay-Hogg’s trove of footage (now streaming on Disney+ as a 3-part series). All I can say to those folks is I’ve got no time for you right now, don’t bother me.

The beauty of Jackson’s film is that his extended cut allows room for nuance and context around those storied studio spats, which in fact did not “cause” the break-up of the Beatles; rather they were symptoms of a longtime creative partnership that was literally “aging out”. Three-quarters of the band (John Paul, and George) had been collaborating since they were in their mid-teens; now they were all in their late 20s.

Like any other human being, as each member of the band matured, their individual priorities (as people and as creative artists) diverged. This was evidenced by the release of solo albums from all four members in 1970, the same year Let It Be saw its belated release: Ringo’s Beaucoups of Blues and Sentimental Journey, Paul’s McCartney, John’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and George’s epic triple album All Things Must Pass.

In fact, one of the film’s greatest delights is catching snippets of songs (still in their infancy) that would end up on later solo albums. John sings “On the Road to Marakesh/Child of Nature” which would turn up in 1971’s Imagine (with different lyrics) as “Jealous Guy” and works on refining a few lines of verse for “Gimme Some Truth” (also destined for Imagine).

George runs a song by the lads that he’s “been working on” called “All Things Must Pass” (it’s already well-formed at that stage). Paul noodles out a recognizable bit of “Another Day” on the piano, which would be his first solo single hit in 1971, and the gorgeous intro to “Backseat of My Car” (a highlight of 1971’s Ram).

Get Back apes the basic structure of Lindsay-Hogg’s Let it Be; the shoot (initially intended to end up as a TV documentary) begins with fitful and half-hearted rehearsals on a sound stage in the drafty (and acoustically-challenged) Twickenham Film Studios. Paul tries to play cheerleader to his cranky band mates (leading to some of the on-camera “bickering”, although it mostly manifests as passive-aggressive asides).

Director Lindsay-Hogg comes off a bit fitful and half-hearted himself; obviously self-aware that precious shooting days are passing by with relatively no narrative to hang his hat on, he prattles on through most of the first third soliciting ideas to spruce up the planned live performance that the film will culminate with.

At one point, Lindsay-Hogg has a brainstorm to film the concert in an ancient amphitheater in Libya, with the audience shipped in from England on the QE2, but the lads won’t have it (I assume this vignette inspired the “Stonehenge” bit in This Is Spinal Tap). Interestingly, the 1972 Pink Floyd documentary Live at Pompeii included a live performance filmed at the ancient Roman amphitheater in Pompeii, Italy (interspersed with footage of the band working on Dark Side of the Moon in the studio, à la Let it Be).

Once the action moves to the basement of the Beatles’ Apple Corps offices, where a makeshift recording studio has been assembled, the band (and the film) begins to perk up considerably. With the deadline pressure of the now discarded TV special off the table, the band focuses on laying down some tracks, enlisting Glyn Johns as producer (George Martin is seen popping in and out of the sessions on occasion, but for the first time, he was not invited to be at the helm …which in hindsight was an unfortunate decision).

But it’s not until keyboard maestro Billy Preston joins the sessions that the band really begins to bring their “A” game. Ironically, Preston would have never been part of the equation had George not (temporarily) walked out of the project (“See you ‘round the clubs,” he deadpans to his stunned band mates before storming out of frame).

While on his hiatus, George hooked up with his pal Eric Clapton and attended a Ray Charles gig in London. Preston (who the Beatles had originally met on a 1962 tour with Little Richard) was playing organ in Charles’ band.

George invited Preston to hang out at the studio, and he ended up playing keys on several songs (most notably, “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down”), as well as sitting in on the rooftop set. At one point in the film, Paul asks Preston “Has anyone asked you yet if you mind coming in every day?” Preston beams like a beatific Buddha (as if someone is going to say “Fuck you…pay me” to an invitation to sit in with the Beatles!).

I was fascinated by the presence of gentle giant Mal Evans. An enigmatic member of the Beatles’ inner circle, Evans was their Man Friday; bodyguard, road manager, roadie, P.A., and apparently (as evidenced in one scene) an occasional co-lyricist.

In another scene, Evans registers childlike delight as he “plays” the hammer and anvil on an early run-through of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. Evans was the person who “discovered” Badfinger and brought them to the Beatles’ attention-which got them signed to Apple. Sadly, in 1976 he was shot dead in his home by LAPD officers, who mistook his air rifle for a real weapon (Evans had been struggling with depression).

Spoiler alert: Jackson saves the iconic rooftop performance for the finale (as Lindsay-Hogg did in Let it Be…but how else could you end it?). Granted, it’s a long and winding road of “fly on the wall” observation to get there, but it makes the payoff of finally seeing the band perform several classic numbers in their entirety sound that much sweeter. For some, spending a day in the life with the Fabs may ultimately feel like it’s all too much …. but do you want to know a secret? I watched Get Back and thought:

That’s a good job.”

The End

Everyone’s a Captain Kirk

By Dennis Hartley

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

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What a long, strange trip it’s been. From my original review of the 2009 film Star Trek:

OK, so now I have an excuse to tell you my Star Trek story. Actually, it’s not really that much of a story, but hey, I have some (virtual) column inches to fill-so here goes.

First off, I am not a diehard Trekker (more of a Dwarfer-if you must pry). I enjoyed the 60s TV series, and if I’m channel surfing and happen upon, say, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, or “Space Seed”…They Pull Me Back In (sorry, Mr. Pacino). I never bothered with  the spinoff series, but have seen the theatrical films. I tend to agree with the “even-numbered Trek films are the best” theory.

I’ve never felt the urge to buy collectibles, attend a convention, or don a pair of Spock ears for a Halloween party. However, as fate would have it, in my life I have had close encounters (of the 3rd kind) with two cast members from the original show; encounters that (I imagine) would make a hardcore fan wet themselves and act like the  star-struck celebrity interviewer Chris Farley used to play on SNL.

In the mid 80s, I was working as a morning personality at an FM station in Fairbanks, Alaska. Our station co-promoted a personal appearance by Walter Koenig at (wait for it) the Tanana Valley State Fair, so I had a chance to meet him. The thing that has always stuck with me, however, was not any particular thrill in meeting “Chekov”, but rather his 1000-yard stare.

It was a look that spoke volumes; a look that said, “I can’t believe I’m onstage in a drafty barn in Fairbanks Alaska, fielding the same geeky questions yet again about the goddamn Russian accent. This is why I got into show business?!” To me, it was like watching a sad, real-life version of Laurence Olivier’s Archie in The Entertainer. And as a radio personality (lowest rung of the show biz ladder) and fledgling stand-up comic (next rung up), I wondered if this was A Warning.

Flash-forward to the mid 1990s. I had moved to Seattle, and found myself “between” radio jobs, supporting myself with sporadic stand-up comedy gigs and working through a temp agency. Through the temp agency, I ended up working for a spell at…at…I’ll just blurt it out: a Honeybaked Ham store in Redmond (I’m sure that there is a special place in Hell for Jews who sell pork; on the other hand, one of my co-workers was a Muslim woman from Kenya, so at least there will be someone there that I already know).

So I’m wiping down the counter one slow day, thinking to myself “After 20 years in radio, and 10 in stand-up comedy, I can’t believe I’m working at a Honeybaked Ham in Redmond, Washington. This is why I got into show business?!” Suddenly, a limo pulls up, and in strolls a casually dressed, ruddy-faced, mustachioed gentleman, getting on in years (hearing aids in both ears). If you’ve ever worked retail, you know that after a while, all the customers sort of look the same; you look at them, but you don’t really SEE them.

As I was fetching the gentleman his ham and exchanging pleasantries, I caught a couple co-workers in my peripheral, quietly buzzing. I put two and two together with the limo and began to surreptitiously scrutinize the customer’s face a little more closely.

Wait…is that…? Nah! Twice in one lifetime? What are the odds? He paid with a check. Name on the check? James Doohan. I kept my cool and closed the sale. As I watched him walk out the door, with a delicious, honey-glazed ham tucked under his arm, an old Moody Blues song began to play in my head: “Isn’t life stray-ay-ay-hange?”

Mr. Doohan has since slipped the surly bonds of Earth, both figuratively and literally:

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry is going where no man has gone before.

Part of his cremated remains will be sent into deep space, along with remains of his wife, Majel Barrett Roddenberry, who appeared on Star Trek the Next Generation as Lwaxana Troi and voiced the computer on multiple Trek series.

Remains of James Doohan (Trek’s Scotty) and pioneering sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke will also be sent into orbit on a memorial flight from the Houston-based Celestis, reports NBC News.

The company, which has been putting remains into orbit for 16 years, will launch its Summerjammer Solar Sail Mission from Cape Cod in November 2014. This will be the first to enter into deep space, and the craft will orbit the sun between Earth and Venus.

Remains from Roddenberry and Doohan have been sent into space on previous Celestis flights. Summerjammer will be launched with an experimental solar sail from NASA, which it hopes will propel the craft with photons from the sun.

This morning, I was enjoying a bowl of instant oatmeal and watching CNN before heading to work, and happened to catch the countdown for the latest Blue Origin flight. I’ve been sort of half-paying attention to the hype surrounding this latest commercial stunt from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, because…that’s basically what it is (more like a glorified human cannonball act, as the spacecraft doesn’t actually go into orbit around the Earth).

That said, I remain an original series Star Trek fan (I was 10 in 1966), so I thought it was cool that William Shatner was invited along for the ride (which would make him the first surviving member of the original Star Trek crew to make it into “real” space).

Then something unexpected happened. I started to choke up a little as the rocket took off.

For those of us of “a certain age”, that is to say, old enough to have actually witnessed the moon landing live on TV… the fact that “we” were even fucking able to achieve this feat “by the end of the decade” (as President Kennedy projected in 1961) still seems like a pretty big deal to me.

Of course, there are still some big unanswered questions out there about Life, the Universe, and Everything, but I’ll leave that to future generations. I feel that I’ve done my part…spending my formative years plunked in front of a B&W TV in my PJs eating Sugar Smacks and watching Walter Cronkite reporting live from the Cape.

I think it was those childhood memories, plus seeing Captain Kirk going aloft, that got to me. And once I heard Shatner’s comments after he exited the capsule…I was a puddle:

What you’ve just given me is the most profound experience I can imagine. I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. I-I…it’s just extraordinary. I hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it. It’s so…so much larger than me and life. It hasn’t anything to do with the little green planet we all live in-it has to do with the enormity, and the quickness, and the suddenness of life and death. […] I can’t even begin to express…what I would love to do is communicate as much as possible the jeopardy…the vulnerability of everything. […] 50 miles [above Earth] and you’re in death. This is life and [pointing to the sky] that’s death…and in an instant [as you enter space] you go ‘Whoa …that’s death!’

How fragile we are. Godspeed, Planet Earth.

I Caught It At The Movies: Can theaters survive?

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 17, 2020)

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In 2017, my neighborhood theater, Seattle’s legendary Guild 45th shut down. I took the above photo about a month ago. It breaks my heart to witness the results of 3 years of dilapidation. The witless taggers surely have no clue as to its history.

Sadly that blank marquee could portend the future of theaters, period. From Variety:

[Film critic Peter DeBruge] I saw “Tenet” in a theater […] and it was an unnerving experience. I understand why many people don’t feel comfortable taking the risk. I caught COVID back in early March, so I was operating on the principle that I must have at least some protection from the antibodies — and if that’s not the case, then we can kiss the idea of an effective vaccine goodbye. After driving all the way down to a Regal Cinemas in Orange County, I was disappointed by the way the dozen or so people in that enormous RPX auditorium were all clustered in the center with just a single empty-seat buffer between them. What’s more, nearly everyone had bought concessions, treating an $8 soda as a ticket to remove their masks for the entire film, whether or not they were actively eating or drinking at the time. […] I found myself distracted by the question of whether I could get re-infected by all these inconsiderate fans surrounding me.

DeBruge’s observation regarding the “inconsiderate fans” resonates with me, because that is my personal greatest fear about returning to movie theaters: my innate distrust of fellow patrons. While I haven’t worked out since March, it’s the same trepidation I have for returning to my gym. After a 5-month closure, they sent me an email in early August:

We have good news! We are re-opening the rest of our clubs in Washington on Monday, August 10th at 6am. Thank you for your patience, loyalty and support while waiting for this to happen! You have been missed and we are looking forward to welcoming you back in person. While closed, we’ve been working on changes aimed at making our clubs the safest place you can work out.

The email continued with a 12-point list of caveats and precautions and reassurances and meow-meow and woof-woof, but the paragraph at the bottom was a deal-breaker:

We also encourage you to help keep yourself and your fellow members safe by familiarizing yourself with, and following, current state and local guidelines. As these guidelines stress, please do not visit the club if you are sick or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, and consider postponing your use of the club if you are an at-risk individual.

Thanks, but no. 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 in regards to taking the health and safety of fellow humans into consideration.

OK. I’m being too polite. This may be an exclusively “American” problem at this point:

[Variety’s executive editor of film and media Brent Lang] The problem is that [the film industry] needs rescuing now — it doesn’t have time to evolve into a high-end indulgence. Just as our libertarian-leaning nation was poorly suited to deal with a pandemic that probably demanded a massive government response to curb the outbreak, so too is hyper-conglomerated Hollywood poorly positioned to meet this current crisis.

[…]

[Peter DeBruge] What’s frustrating to me right now is that the studios won’t even show [their big-budget releases] to press. Variety is an international publication, and we’ve always reviewed movies whenever they open in the world. But Warner Bros., Disney and even STX won’t show their films to American critics, either by link or in safe, limited-capacity screenings. But they will show them to critics abroad. What’s the difference? How is London any safer than Las Vegas for “Tenet” or Pixar’s “Soul”? Private screening rooms have been operating in Los Angeles since at least April, and I’ve been to eight in-theater movies in as many weeks. It is possible, and I can attest: The safe but solitary at-home experience is no comparison.

[Film critic Owen Gleiberman]: Peter, that’s just one more example of the cognitive dissonance factor. Why show movies to critics abroad and not in the U.S.? Because the very idea of seeing a movie on the big screen in America has been tainted by COVID. No one is questioning that the experience needs to be made supremely safe. Yet there’s a perception-and-reality dynamic at work. Some people are scared to go back to the movies, but the larger issue is that between the streaming revolution, the rise of COVID, and the fact that so many viewers have been grousing about the theater experience for years (the ads, the cell phones, the sticky floors — we all know the mythic litany of complaints), the notion that going out to a movie simply isn’t worth the trouble has taken root.

But that’s a perception; it’s not a reality. It’s something that can change if we have the will to change it. This is an issue so layered it goes right to the top — by which I mean, it could be profoundly influenced by the presidential election. If Biden and the Democrats win big, I could easily envision them mobilizing to find the funds that could help sustain and ultimately save movie theaters; whereas Trump and the Republicans aren’t interested in saving anything but themselves. Years from now, we’ll look back on this moment not only as a health and financial and political crisis, but as one that raised essential cultural questions. Such as: Does this culture still believe in movie going?

Well, Mr. Gleiberman…I still believe in movie going. I miss sticky floors, the smell of stale popcorn, and paying $8 for a Diet Coke with too much syrup and too little CO2. With that in mind, I’m re-posting my 2017 tribute to the Guild 45th (sorry about the 1000-word intro. Think of it as the cartoon before the movie). Have you found a good seat? Lights down. Psst: Remember to vote on November 3rd…vote as if the future of your favorite neighborhood theater depended on it. OK, previews are starting. Shh…

(The following piece was originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 17. 2017)

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This is the song at the end of the movie
When the house lights go on
The people go home
The plot’s been resolved
It’s all over

 – Joan Baez

“How tall was King Kong?” asks Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), the larger-than-life director of the film-within-the-film in Richard Rush’s 1980 black comedy, The Stunt Man. Once you discover that King Kong was but “three foot, six inches tall”, it’s clear Cross’s query is code for a bigger question: “What is reality?” Or perhaps he’s asking “What is film?” Is film a “ribbon of dreams” as Orson Welles once said?

Those are questions to ponder as you take Rush’s wild ride through the Dream Factory. Because from the moment that its protagonist, a fugitive on the run from the cops (Steve Railsback) tumbles ass over teakettle onto Mr. Cross’s set, where he is filming an art-house World War I drama, his (and our) concept of what is real and what isn’t becomes diffuse.

Despite lukewarm critical reception, it is now considered a classic. A 43-week run at the Guild 45th Theater in Seattle (booked by Rush himself, out of his frustration with the releasing studio’s lackluster support) is credited for building word of mouth and assuring the film’s cult status. There is symbiosis in that story (recounted in Rush’s 2000 documentary, The Sinister Saga of Making the Stunt Man); for as surely as The Stunt Man is a movie for people who love movies, the Guild is the type of “neighborhood theater” that people who love movies fall in love with.

The Guild’s buff-friendly vibe stems from the ethos established by former owner-operator Randy Finley. As Matthew Halverson writes in his 2009 Seattle Met article, “The Movie Seattle Saved”:

Randy Finley didn’t like to take chances when booking movies for the Guild 45th Theatre. He took it so seriously that during his 18 years as owner of Seattle’s Seven Gables Theatres chain, he recruited a small cadre of film-buff confidantes who would join him at screenings and then debate whether what they’d seen met Seven Gables’ standards: Could it generate compelling word of mouth? Would it get great critical support? Did they like the people behind the picture? He took a lot of pride in having run movies like “The Black Stallion” and “Harold and Maude” in his theaters when others wouldn’t. And he took even more pride in turning them into art house hits. “If you went to the Guild 45th when I was booking it,” Finley says, “you would walk out thinking you’d just seen one of the best pictures of the year—if not the best.”

The Guild originally opened circa 1920; it was called The Paramount until the Seattle Theater (downtown) adapted the name in 1930. It went through several ownership changes (Finley purchased it in 1975, adding the venue to his local Seven Gables chain). In 1983, Finley added a smaller auditorium two doors down (The Guild II). In 1989, both theaters (along with the rest of the Seven Gables properties) were sold to Landmark, who have run them ever since.

That is…until this happened:

[From The Stranger Slog]

On Monday afternoon, Griffin Barchek, a rising junior at UW, headed to Wallingford to work a shift at the Guild 45th, as he had been doing roughly 30 hours a week for the past year-and-a-half. He heard the bad news before he even stepped inside. “I was the second person to get there,” Barchek said. “I was told immediately by a disgruntled co-worker outside. Then there was a sign on the counter that said ‘We’re closed for renovations.’”

Though he had no hard evidence to support the hypothesis, he believes the sign is a pipe dream. “Renovations are very unlikely,” he speculated. “It’s probably just closed for good.”

Once inside, Barchek said a representative from Landmark’s corporate office was on hand to inform him and his co-workers that both the Guild and the Seven Gables would be closed indefinitely (“for renovations”), that their services were no longer required, and that they’d all be receiving three weeks’ severance. Barchek said he earned the $15/hr minimum wage for his work as an usher, in the box office, and behind the concessions counter.

“She just kept saying ‘I’m sorry’ and kind of making a duck face,” he said of the Landmark representative. (As has been the case with all press inquiries regarding the sudden closure of these theaters, Landmark has refused to comment beyond saying they are closed for renovations.)

I was blindsided by this myself. Last Sunday, I was checking the listings, looking for something to cover for tonight’s weekly film review (preferably something/anything that didn’t involve aliens, comic book characters, or pirates), and was intrigued by Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled. Being a lazy bastard, I was happy to discover that the exclusive Seattle booking was at my neighborhood theater (the Guild 45th!), which is only a three-block walk from my apartment.

Imagine my surprise when I went to their website for show times and was greeted by this message: “The Seven Gables and Guild 45th Theaters have closed. Please stay tuned for further details on our renovation plans for each location. During the down time, we look forward to serving you at the Crest Cinema Center.”

The Crest (now Landmark’s sole local venue open for business) is another great neighborhood theater, programmed with first-run films on their final stop before leaving Seattle (and at $4 for all shows, a hell of a deal). But for how long, I wonder?

It’s weird, because I drive past the Guild daily, on my way to work; and I had noticed that the marquees were blank one morning last week. I didn’t attach much significance to it at the time; while it seemed a bit odd, I just assumed that they were in the process of putting up new film titles.

Also, I’ve been receiving weekly updates from the Landmark Theaters Seattle publicist for years; last week’s email indicated business as usual (advising me on upcoming bookings, available press screeners, etc.), and there was absolutely no hint that this bomb was about to drop.

Where was the “ka-boom”?! There was supposed to be an Earth-shattering “ka-boom”. Oh, well.

It would appear that the very concept of a “neighborhood theater” is quickly becoming an anachronism, and that makes me feel sad, somehow. Granted, not unlike many such “vintage” venues, the Guild had seen better days from an aesthetic viewpoint; the floors were sticky, the seats less than comfortable, and the auditorium smelled like 1953…but goddammit, it was “my” neighborhood theater, it’s ours because we found it, and now we wants it back (it’s my Precious).

My gut tells me the Guild isn’t being “renovated”, but rather headed for the fires of Mount Doom; and I suspect the culprit isn’t so much Netflix, as it is Google and Amazon. You may be shocked, shocked to learn that Seattle is experiencing a huge tech boom. Consequently, the housing market (including rentals) is tighter than I’ve ever seen it in the 25 years I’ve lived here.

The creeping signs of over-gentrification (which I first started noticing in 2015) are now reaching critical mass. Seattle’s once-distinctive neighborhoods are quickly losing their character, and mine (Wallingford) is the latest target on the urban village “up-zoning” hit list. Anti-density groups are rallying, but I see the closure of our 100 year-old theater as a harbinger of ticky-tacky big boxes.

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Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 3-year period of my life (1979-1982) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260-mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about  (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 60s and 70s cinema.

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit. While I had a lot of favorite haunts (The Surf, The Balboa, The Castro, and the Red Victorian loom large in my memory), there were two venerable (if a tad dodgy) downtown venues in particular where I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the dank and the dark with snoring bums who used the auditoriums as a $2 flop: The Roxie and The Strand.

That’s because they were “repertory” houses; meaning they played older films (frequently double and triple bills, usually curated by some kind of theme). That 3 years I spent in the dark was my film school; that’s how I got caught up with Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Wim Wenders, Michael Ritchie, Brian De Palma, etc.

Of course, in 2017 any dweeb with an internet connection can catch up on the history of world cinema without leaving the house…which explains (in part) why these smaller movie houses are dying. But they will never know the sights, the sounds (the smells) of a cozy neighborhood dream palace; nor, for that matter, will they ever experience the awesomeness of seeing the classic films as they were originally intended to be seen-on the big screen. Everybody should experience the magic at least once. C’mon-I’ll save you the aisle seat.