Tag Archives: Essays

On mad kings, Mueller’s report, and Altman’s Secret Honor

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 20, 2019)

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It’s been déjà vu all over again this week. 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.

Speaking of the devil, on Sunday CNN premiered the concluding episode of Tricky Dick, a 4-part docuseries about Nixon’s life and political career (recommended-CNN always repeats broadcasts, so don’t despair if you missed it first time around).

It was followed by an hour-long panel discussion about the lessons learned, hosted by Anderson Cooper and featuring journalist Carl Bernstein (who famously broke the Watergate story for the Washington Post with Bob Woodward), former Nixon White House lawyer John Dean, presidential historian Timothy Naftali and former Watergate Special Prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste. When Cooper asked him about the legacy of Watergate, Ben-Veniste said:

“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?”

That was a loaded question, coming as it did 4 days prior to the official (belated) release of the (almost) full Mueller report to the United States Congress and the American people. Of course, everyone on that panel was fully aware that the exhaustive 2-year investigation looking into possible foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, possible collusion with the Trump campaign, and possible obstruction of justice by Trump and/or members of his administration after the fact was about to come to a head.

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.

And so here we are, 45 years after Nixon resigned, and the media, members of Congress and concerned citizens find themselves poring over the 400 pages of the Mueller Report (replete with “limited” redactions) as they ask themselves the other $64,000 question:

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

At least one Congressperson has stepped up to the plate and said (in so many words) “Smoking gun?! Try a field howitzer!” Taking an extraordinarily fearless and principled stance amid the disappointing backpedaling and hand-wringing angst emanating from many of her colleagues, senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren was interviewed Friday night by Rachael Maddow on MSNBC, and did not mince any words:

 “This is about point of principle […] This isn’t about politics. This isn’t even specifically about Donald Trump himself. It is about what a President of the United States should be able to do and about the role of Congress is in saying: ‘No. A president does not get to come in and stop an investigation about a foreign power that attacked this country, or an investigation about his own wrongdoing.’ Equal justice under law, no one is above the law; and that includes the President of the United States. It is the constitutional responsibility of Congress to follow through on that. […]

Because it matters, not just for this president, it matters for the next president, and the next president after that, and the next president after that. I get it…in dictatorships, the government coalesces around one person in the middle and does everything to protect that one person. But that’s not where we live. We live in a democracy, and it is controlled by a constitution. And the way we make that democracy work is with checks and balances. And a president who says, “I don’t have to follow the law, and nobody can touch me on criminal acts” -that’s not right.

The Constitution says that the House and the Senate can do this. […] And every member of the House, and every member of the Senate should be called on to vote: Do you believe that constitutes an impeachable offense? I do believe that the evidence is just overwhelming that Donald Trump has committed these offenses, and that means that we should open proceedings in the House. And then the House can take a vote.”

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 occupying the White House, you will not be surprised to learn that there is a disturbingly prescient link between Richard M. Nixon and Donald J. Trump, in the form of this letter:

 

December 21, 1987

Dear Donald,

I did not see the program, but Mrs. Nixon told me you were great on the Donahue show.

As you can imagine, she is an expert in politics, and she predicts that whenever you decide to run for office you will be a winner!

With warm regards,

Sincerely,

(signed) Richard M. Nixon

 

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.

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 envision 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 release of the Mueller report, 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. Time to wake up.

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

Loud love: Thoughts on Cobain, aging and a top 10 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 6, 2019)

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In my 2007 review of A.J. Schnack’s documentary Kurt Cobain: About a Son, I wrote:

It’s virtually impossible to live here in Seattle and not be constantly reminded of Kurt Cobain’s profound impact on the music world. Every April, around the anniversary of his suicide, wreaths of flowers and hand taped notes begin to cover a lone bench in a tiny park sandwiched between the lakefront mansions I pass on my way to work every morning. Inevitably, I will see small gatherings of young people with multi-colored hair and torn jeans holding silent vigil around this makeshift shrine, located a block or two from the home where he took his life.

This past Friday marked the 25th anniversary of Cobain’s passing. It’s funny how your perception of time recalibrates as you get older. My memory of attending a spontaneous memorial at the Seattle Center along with thousands of others on the day the news broke in April 1994 makes it seem like relatively “recent” history to me. However, when I stop to consider I was 38 then-and that I’ve just turned 63 (not to mention that Cobain has been dead nearly as many years he was alive) …25 years is a generation ago. Even on a good day, Time is cruel. From my piece on Kerri O’Kane’s 2008 documentary, The Gits:

In the fall of 1992, I moved to Seattle with no particular action plan, and stumbled into a job hosting the Monday-Friday morning drive show on KCMU (now KEXP), a mostly volunteer, low-wattage, listener supported FM station broadcasting from the UW campus with the hopeful slogan: “Where the music matters.” I remember joking to my friends that my career was going in reverse order, because after 18 years of commercial radio experience, here I was at age 36, finally getting my first part-time college radio gig. I loved it.

I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to cue up whatever I felt like playing, as opposed to kowtowing to the rigid, market-tested “safe song” play lists at the Top 40, Oldies and A/C formats I had worked with previously. A little Yellowman, Fugazi, Cypress Hill, Liz Phair, maybe a bit o’ Mudhoney with your Danish? Followed by a track from Ali Faka Toure, some Throwing Muses, topping the set with an oldie like the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” to take you up to your first coffee break? Sure, why not? I was happier than a pig in shit.

What I didn’t realize until several years following my 7-month stint there, is that KCMU was semi-legendary in college/alt-underground circles; not only was it literally the first station in the country to “break” Nirvana but counted members of Mudhoney and Pearl Jam among former DJ staff. I was just a music geek, enthusiastically exploring somebody else’s incredibly cool record collection, whilst taking my listeners along for the ride; in the meantime, I obliviously became a peripheral participant in Seattle’s early 90’s “scene”.

Reminds me of a funny story. Within a few weeks of moving to Seattle, I went to see Cameron Crowe’s Singles, which had just recently opened. If you’re familiar with the film, you are of course aware that it is a romantic comedy about a group of (wait for it) young singles living in Seattle, incorporating the city’s contemporaneous music milieu as a backdrop.

At one random point during the film’s opening sequence (a flash-cut montage of various Seattle neighborhoods and landmarks) the entire house spontaneously erupted into cheers and applause. I felt sheepish…I didn’t “get” it. What did I miss, I wondered?

Years later, I happened to watch the film again on cable…and that’s when I caught it. Only then I noticed that during that montage, there’s a momentary shot of a movie marquee. It was the Neptune, the very theater I’d been in when the audience freaked out. I suppose that my point is…sometimes, you can’t see the forest for the Screaming Trees.

In retrospect, I feel blessed to have moved to Seattle at that point in time, as the city was the nexus for a paradigm shift in rock. As Hua Hsu wrote in The New Yorker this week:

The success of Nirvana and other Seattle bands, including Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, changed the music industry. The breakout rise of “Nevermind” suggested that so-called alternative bands and niches could be commercially viable—not just as steady, low-risk earners but as the proverbial next big thing. Major labels began showering loads of money on tiny, Nirvana-esque bands that played a similar kind of “grunge” rock. The “grunge gold rush,” as the journalist Steve Knopper termed it, created boom-or-bust trajectories for bands that might have once settled for modest regional fame. It was no longer hard to find alternative sounds; major labels were desperate to pitch everyone as the next Nirvana.

[…]

After his death, there were articles and nightly-news segments about Cobain’s nihilism, and what his choice suggested about the younger generation. Mostly, I remember listening to “Nevermind” over and over—not as a search for clues (for that, you’d listen to Nirvana’s last studio album, “In Utero,” and its many references to despair and illness), but as a reminder of how unlikely his trajectory had been. It was the first time I’d wondered how you could work both inside and outside the system—whether you could be critical of, say, the corporations underwriting your art while making art that aspired for worlds beyond those realities.

There’s a sort of bittersweet aftermath to this story. “Nevermind” has since been absorbed into the rock canon. Just as kids a couple of years younger and older than me at school had wildly different opinions about whether Cobain was a saint or a sellout, every generation has their own version of the Nirvana legend. Nowadays, Cobain has become a fashionable reference point for musicians across genres, from pop to hip-hop, who want their music to seem brooding and emotional. Dr. Dre and Jay-Z today express admiration for the cultural rebellion that Cobain represented, describing his music as powerful enough to have briefly “stopped” hip-hop’s ascendancy.

Maybe that’s the paradox of alternative culture that’s always been true, only it was our turn to realize it: pop culture is born anew each time an outlaw is discovered. Your pose lives on, even if the seeds of your own rebellion are forgotten.

Saint or sell-out, I don’t care…it’s the music that matters. Nirvana was but one fraction of the “Seattle Sound”, and I think a lot of it has held up rather well. With that in mind, I’ve selected my top 10 grunge-era songs by Seattle-based bands. In alphabetical order…

“Come As You Are” (Nirvana) – Yes, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is iconic, and a fantastic song, but this has always been the most compelling track from Nevermind for me. I find the band’s “MTV Unplugged” performance of the song particularly haunting.

“Hunger Strike” (Temple of the Dog) – Sadly, the history of Seattle’s grunge scene is full of heartbreak and shooting stars. Such was the impetus for this “one-off” supergroup, formed by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell as a tribute to Andrew Wood. Wood, lead singer of early Seattle grunge outfits Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone (the latter band featuring future Pearl Jam members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament) OD’d on heroin in 1990. Cornell recruited Gossard, Ament, their Pearl Jam bandmate Mike McReady, plus Soundgarden/future Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron. Eddie Vedder added vocals on some tracks, including this gem. Vedder and Cornell singing together is beyond sublime.

“Jeremy” (Pearl Jam) – Still one of the most powerful and moving songs of the era.

“Loud Love” (Soundgarden) – The late Chris Cornell had one of “those” voices; a force of nature. There was a raw immediacy in the band’s early recordings, nicely encapsulated by this standout track (and single) from their 1989 sophomore album Louder Than Love.

“Man in the Box” (Alice In Chains) – While this ominous yet compelling dirge has become a classic rock staple, it still doesn’t sound quite “right” coming out of your car radio…as in “how in the fuck did they ever sneak this one into the Top 40?” All I can say is, whatever dark regions of the human soul this tune sprang from, I daren’t even go there to snap a quick picture. Weirdly enough, lead singer Layne Staley tragically died of a drug overdose on April 5th, the same date as Kurt Cobain (but a different year…in 2002).

“Nearly Lost You” (The Screaming Trees) – Another early grunge outfit (formed in the mid-80s) the Screaming Trees got their first major national exposure in 1992 when this catchy number was featured on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s hit movie Singles.

“99 Girls” (Young Fresh Fellows) – OK, they are not super well-known outside of Seattle, but I have a soft spot for the album this cut is taken from, because it was the Fellows’ “latest” when I worked at KCMU in 1992, and my introduction to the band’s quirky goodness. Originally formed in the early 80s, they had a college radio hit with their tune “Amy Grant”, which was a parody of Contemporary Christian Music. Their “sound” is sort of a mix of garage and punky power pop, frequently with cheeky lyrics. This song is a bit of clever wordplay referring to a stretch of Highway 99 (AKA Aurora Avenue where it runs through Seattle city limits) that is infamous as a sex worker haunt.

“Second Skin” (The Gits) – One of the Seattle scene’s greatest tragedies was the loss of this band’s dynamic and talented lead singer Mia Zapata, who was raped and murdered in 1993 at the age of 27 (thanks to the advent of DNA technology, her killer was eventually arrested, convicted and jailed 10 years later). This song was released as a single in 1991.

“Touch Me I’m Sick” (Mudhoney) – I love the amplifier buzz in the intro. Says it all.

“Tribe” (Gruntruck) – This band, which featured members of seminal Seattle grunge outfit Skin Yard leans closer to hard rock, but sometimes…I just wanna fly my freak flag.

Desperate housewife: Criterion reissues Barbara Loden’s Wanda (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 23, 2019)

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Wanda Goronski: I don’t have anything. I never did have anything. Never will have anything.

 Norman Dennis: You’re stupid.

 Wanda Goronski: I’m stupid?

 Norman Dennis: If you don’t want anything, you won’t have anything, and if you don’t have anything, you’re nothing. You may as well be dead. You’re not even a citizen of the United States.

 Wanda Goronski: I guess I’m dead, then.

That remarkable exchange is from the 1970 character study/road movie/crime drama Wanda, an underseen indie gem written and directed by its star Barbara Loden. Previously hard-to-find, a restored edition of the film is newly available from Criterion.

Wanda (Loden) is an unemployed working-class housewife. It’s clear that her life is the pits…and not just figuratively. She’s recently left her husband and two infants and has been crashing at her sister’s house, which is within spitting distance of a yawning mining pit, nestled in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country. We don’t have an opportunity to get a sense of her home life, because as the film opens, she’s on her way to family court.

A protracted long shot of Wanda daintily traipsing through the bleak obsidian moonscape of the coal pit as she heads for court with hair in curlers, white tennis shoes, white stretch pants, white floral blouse and carrying a white purse is…not something you see every day. It’s also an indication you’re in for a narrative with deeply existential subtexts.

When the judge scolds her for being late, the oddly detached Wanda shrugs it off, telling His Honor that if her husband wants a divorce, that’s OK by her; adding their kids are probably “better off” being taken care of by their father. Shortly afterward, Wanda splits her sister’s house and hits the road (hair still in curlers), carrying no more than that white purse. This suggests that either a.) she’s a dim bulb, or b.) freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

The first third of the film is episodic; Wanda wanders aimlessly, stopping at a tavern for a drink. A traveling salesman with a Vista Cruiser buys her a beer, she sleeps with him at a cheap motel. She busts him trying to sneak out the next morning, and just makes it into his station wagon. When they stop for an ice cream cone, he peels out and abandons her.

Nonplussed, Wanda kicks around some dull burg and drifts into a movie theater for a matinee and a nap. When she awakens, the auditorium is empty, and she discovers someone has rifled through her purse and stolen what little money she had been carrying.

Now officially broke, Wanda heads for the nearest tavern. The suspiciously furtive man behind the bar is less than friendly; he tells her to beat it, they’re closed. Nonetheless, Wanda asks him for food and drink. Giving her an incredulous look, he serves her (sort of). Through all of this, Wanda either doesn’t notice or doesn’t give second thought to the sight of the unconscious, bound and gagged man lying on the floor by the cash register.

Her “bartender” is a petty criminal (Michael Dennis) who has just knocked over the joint. His name (as we come to learn) is Norman Dennis, and the ever-malleable Wanda is soon on the lam with “Mr. Dennis”. The couple become a sort of low-rent Bonnie and Clyde.

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

The verité feel of the film (mostly shot using available light) was no accident; in a 1980 documentary by Katja Raganelli included on the Criterion Blu-ray/DVD, Loden explains why she ultimately decided on cinematographer/editor Nicholas T. Proferes (who had worked with documentary film maker D.A. Pennebaker). Of the various cinematographers’ work she had been looking at, Loden felt “[Proferes] really has some feelings for people, and he knows how to show ugly things without it appearing ugly…the ugly side of life.”

In that same interview, Loden also discusses how the project had been percolating for some time strictly as a script, and why she ended up deciding to direct it herself. “I sent it to some directors who liked it,” she recalls, “…they were all men, which wouldn’t necessarily make a difference, but they didn’t seem to understand what this woman was about. I would not take it to studios […] I wanted to make it my own way.” So…she did.

Although she could not have known it then, that decision has been since acknowledged as a groundbreaking move. The number of female auteurs in American film at that time could have been counted on one hand (Ida Lupino is the only one I can think of ).

Wanda also bridges an interesting cusp of second wave feminism’s effect on early-to-mid 70s American cinema. While its protagonist shares characteristics with Shirley Knight’s runaway housewife in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969), Ellen Burstyn’s widowed single mother in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), and (in a more tangential sense) the steadily unraveling suburban housewives played by Carrie Snodgrass in Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), I could see how modern audiences might scratch their heads over how such a passive character who allows men to objectify her and generally treat her like shit could possibly qualify as a feminist heroine.

In a 2003 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, Marguerite Duras interviewed director Elia Kazan about Loden’s legacy (Kazan was married to Loden from 1967 until her death from cancer at age 48 in 1980). Kazan offered some unique insight on her character in Wanda:

“In this movie she plays a character we have in America, and who I suppose exists in France and everywhere, that we call floating, a wanderer. A woman who floats on the surface of society, drifting here or there, with the currents. But in the story of this movie, for a few days the man she meets needs her; during these few days she has a direction […] Barbara Loden understood this character very, very well because when she was young she was a bit like that, she would go here and there. She once told me a very sad thing; she told me: ‘I have always needed a man to protect me.’ I will say that most women in our society are familiar with this, understand this, need this, but are not honest enough to say it. And she was saying it sadly”.

So perhaps the sense of empowerment emanates not from the protagonist, who simply “is who she is” (i.e. a character, portrayed by Loden the actor), but the act of creation itself by Loden the writer and director of the piece (and the very personal place it comes from).

In an essay included as a booklet with the disc, Amy Taubin offers this take:

I thought it remarkable [when Taubin saw it in 1972], in part for the very reason many in the audience dismissed it: Loden’s Wanda was anything but a feminist role model. Rather, she was a version of the characters Loden had been playing on and off Broadway, on television […] She had been typecast as the kind of all-American beauty who believes that male desire is the only measure of her value, and necessary to her survival. […] Responses to the film when it was first released were mixed, with two prominent critics (Pauline Kael and Rex Reed) referring to Wanda as a slut and expressing their annoyance at having to spend time on a movie with such a negligible protagonist. […] Thanks to the feminist energy that has continued to evolve as it has seeped into the culture in the decades since the film’s release, Wanda can now be appreciated as a portrait of a kind of woman who, being no man’s fantasy, had almost never been seen on the screen before.

Hopefully, this release will help give this fine film the wider appreciation that it deserves.

Special guest post: A very, very, very fine house

By Dwight Slade

Note: Dwight Slade is a Portland-based comic with whom I had the pleasure of working with several times during my stint in stand-up. Much has been written about comedians on the road; many such tales are entertaining,  yet tend to be (shall we say) less than “family-friendly”.  Dwight shared an uplifting “road story” on his Facebook page this week that recounts two journeys; a bittersweet memoir about the miles already traveled, and a hopeful peek at what lies around the next bend.  With his permission, I am re-publishing Dwight’s thoughts here. – Dennis Hartley

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In 1983, Bill Hicks and I were sharing a studio apartment in Burbank, CA. The 80’s comedy boom was beginning, and Bill decided to head back to Houston. I was struggling with the LA open mike scene. Sometimes waiting hours to perform 3 minutes at the Westwood Comedy Store or at a brand new, tiny club on Sunset named The Laugh Factory.

My friend Bill Weber called me and said I should come to Portland for the summer. He was going to house sit for 6 weeks. I could stay with him. What a great opportunity…I could do open mikes in Portland while trashing the house of a complete stranger.

When I got to Portland I found a charming, rainy city with a ton of open mikes. I remember taking the TriMet bus over the brown, rusty Hawthorne bridge that crosses the Willamette river and emerges into downtown. I thought to myself, “I can handle this city. Why should I go back to LA and be frustrated and unknown, when I can be frustrated and unknown in Portland?”

I plunged into the open mike scene and found a loving and creative group who had an absolutely unique combination of unbridled support and gritty competition. Dave Anderson, Mike “Boats” Johnson, JP Linde, Dan Deprez, Dawn Greene, Susan Rice, Art Krug and Robert Jenkins. We all found a link to what our lives would soon be about.

Before long we had all graduated to local headliners fueled by a crazy group of fans who loved this brand-new irreverent form of stand up. This was before Evening at the Improv and chain comedy clubs.

I made Portland my home, but spent most of the time on the road.
Cutting my teeth as a middle act all over the US.  Mostly in Nebraska, however. All while raising two wonderful children.

This was so long ago that my first CD, “Weird State,” was printed on cassette.

In 1998, Dave Anderson and I found an opportunity to do talk radio in Portland. I stopped doing stand-up as Dave and I tried to make our mark in talk radio. This was in 2000. Which featured the most contentious election in history. In an awesome stroke of irony, the day the Supreme Court gave the election to Bush, KXL decided to let us go.

I was suddenly without a job and hadn’t performed stand up in a year. I had no choice than to throw myself back into stand up. Maybe that Renton gig wasn’t so bad.

Within a year I had experienced my most creative period. Winding up with a development deal with the company who created Gilmore Girls. I did road work, I traveled to Edinburgh to do the Fringe Festival, went to Afghanistan to entertain troops (US Troops).

All from a small house in NE Portland. This was my home. Where I recharged and healed through auditions, marriages, the kid’s saxophone and flute lessons.

I thought I would live here forever.

I’ve discovered however that I need to rattle my cage every now and then. And there is no better rattling than to move to Boise, Idaho.
Since Whitney accepted her new job with the Idaho Food Bank and we decided to move, I have seen how much the city of Portland has given me. How much it has changed me. My kids have grown into wonderful human beings that know not to laugh at fart jokes in movies; a wonderful marriage and a 17-year-old cat.

That’s why we packed 18 years of accumulated crap that would challenge the worst of hoarders and have hustled over the mountains to Boise, Idaho.

This has entailed a lot of tearing of roots. This was the house where I dealt with my Dad and Mom’s illness; my two brothers’ deaths, Dave, Mike and Bill Hicks.

All from this pretty blue house in NE Portland.

I’m not going far. But wanted everyone to know that I will carry you, and Portland, with me no matter where life’s adventures takes me.

Good clean family fun (not!)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 3, 2018)

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(Now that I have your attention) 50 years ago this month, 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, on this 50th anniversary of the MPAA ratings 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 film critic) co-wrote with Meyer. There are some great 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 (using a pseudonym, wisely).

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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 ultraviolent 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.

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Henry and June – Fred Ward delivers his best performance to date as gruff, libidinous literary icon Henry Miller. The story takes place during the period Miller was living in Paris and 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.

Even though it wasn’t officially rated ‘X’, I feel this underrated 1990 effort from the late writer-director Philip Kaufman warrants inclusion because it was the first film to earn the newly-minted ‘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 (i.e. the “System”).

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. (there are scenes featuring views of male and female genitalia).

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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 many critics at the time, but 42 years on, it begs reappraisal as a fascinating curio in the careers of those 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 he produces on the cheap in his crumbling mansion. Hoskins steals all his scenes as Wonder Boy’s sleazy producer, Big Mac (who is 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.

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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. “Well, this is going to be intense,” you find yourself thinking…and you would be right. Whether the ensuing psychodrama ultimately makes a bold and uncompromising 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 dreck is up to you.

For me, the film has become more fascinating over time (which may have everything to do with being older and presumably wiser). I appreciate Brando’s performance more now. There is an honesty and a vulnerability I never saw in his other roles. Maybe it’s me, but what he shows me in his other films is craft. What I observe here is his humanity.

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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) and her 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 ever win Oscars, John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking character study also helped usher in a new era of mature, gritty neo-realism in American film that would reach its apex in 1976 with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (one year before Star Wars ushered that era to a full dead stop).

Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as the Fagin-esque 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 us with 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.

The last picture show

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 17, 2017)

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6/11/17: Miyazaki sky courtesy of my chintzy Android

 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.”

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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 2 ½ year period of my life (1979-1981) 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 actually 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 of 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 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 venues in particular where I spent an unhealthy amount of time: 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 2 ½ 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.

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Child’s guide to war: A film troika

By Dennis Hartley

(I originally posted this over at Hullabaloo on September 14, 2013. I’m re-posting it with no revisions, because sadly, it’s relevant once more.)

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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

 (*sigh*) So the boys are rattling their sabers yet again, and America girds its collective loins for possible involvement in Syraqistan or wherever (different day, same old shit). So far, it’s a war of words, and I sincerely hope it stays that way (sticks and stones, and all that).

Most disturbing to me about this whole affair is how that endlessly-looped footage of gassed children is being used as a war mongering tool by our own government and an ever-compliant MSM. Yes, it’s horrible beyond words and a reprehensible act by any standards, but I seem to recall a brief and shining moment in this country when such imagery was processed as deterrence to conflict and a call for diplomacy, rather than a base and puerile incitement for vengeance (are American bombs any more discriminate?).

But perhaps I’m the one being childish, what with my naive 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:

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Grave of the Fireflies– For many years, the term ‘anime’ conjured up visions of saucer-eyed cartoon characters in colorful, 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 particularly 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 during 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 commonality between Grave of the Fireflies and the aforementioned Rossellini film worth consideration is that Japan and Germany were the aggressor nations in WW2. An obvious commonality, but precisely my point: The pain and suffering of innocents caught in the crossfire doesn’t know from borders or ideology.

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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.

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Testament– Originally a PBS American Playhouse presentation, this film was released to theaters and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander (she lost to Shirley MacLaine). Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberately paced approach, but pulls no punches.

Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where the afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that a number of nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a whole 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; a wise decision by the filmmakers because it helps us zero in on the essential humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the histrionics and melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amid such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it all so frighteningly believable and 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.”

Michael and me in Trumpland

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 17, 2016)

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Growing up as a military brat is not easy. It’s a nomadic life; not so much by choice as by assignment. In the military, you follow orders, and if you have a family, they follow you. To this day, no matter where I’m living, or how long I have lived there, I feel like a perennial “outsider”.

And so it was, back in the summer of 1968, that my dad received a reassignment from Ft. Wainwright, Alaska (where we had been stationed for 4 ½ years) to Clinton County Air Force Base, Ohio (yes, he was in the Army, but certain Army units were attached there…I could explain why, but if I did, I would then unfortunately have to kill you, and I am a man of peace).

Now, understand that Fort Wainwright was a sizable installation; and my family lived on-base. Living in the “family quarters” of a large army base is analogous to living in a dense metropolitan environment. Nobody is “from” the locality where you all happen to be thrown together; consequently there’s a rich diversity in a concentrated area…social, racial, religious, and cultural.

Not so much in the sleepy hamlet of Sabina (also known as “The Eden of Ohio”), which is where my family ended up living “off-base” from 1968-1969. The 2010 census counted 2,564 souls, of which 97.0% were white, 0.9% African American, 0.3% Native American, 0.43% Asian, 0.07% from other races, and 1.12% from one or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.15% of the population. I don’t have the town’s ethnic breakdown for 1968, but between my memories and my suspicions, those ratios likely have not deviated much since Sabina was founded in 1830.

You’re probably getting the picture here that Sabina’s populace is the opposite of “diversity”. There is also a tendency (I have found) in your smaller burgs, in your more rural areas, for the locals to be less than welcoming to “outsiders” and somewhat clannish (and since we are talking about Ohio, you could spell that with a “k” and not be historically inaccurate).

Now, before y’all get riled up and start to accuse yours truly of “flyover state” stereotyping, or painting with broad strokes (sins of the fathers, and all that), let me say that I am sure 99.9% of the folks currently living in beautiful Sabina, Ohio are good-hearted people…and fine, upstanding citizens.

However, my own personal interactions with some Sabina locals, specifically from autumn of 1968 through late summer of 1969, do not exactly make for pleasant memories. In fact, my 7th grade year was a living fucking hell. I’m aware that nearly anybody you would care to ask has an anecdote about getting “picked on” at school while they were growing up; the law of averages guarantees that you will be bullied at some point in your 12 years of public schooling.

But what I’m talking about here isn’t an isolated incident or two. What I’m talking about is unrelenting harassment, verbal and physical. What I’m talking about is being informed that “we’re going to be waiting for you after school to kick your ass” on a daily basis.

I’d been bullied before, but there was an added element to the intimidation unique to my Sabina experience. This was the first (but unfortunately, not the last) time someone ever called me a “kike” while pushing me around. I managed to keep most of this from my folks, until the day one of these bushwhacking yahoos sat behind me on the bus and boxed my ears so hard I had to see a doctor.

Good times.

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So what does my personal memoir of woe have to do with this week’s film review?  Well, as fate would have it, of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, filmmaker Michael Moore has intuited the Clinton County seat of Wilmington as the perfect microcosm of what he calls “Trumpland” (Wilmington is only about ten miles from my old “stomping” grounds in Sabina).

Michael Moore in Trumpland (***) was an “October surprise” of sorts; sprung by Moore on an unsuspecting public with no advance hype. The high-concept title of this 73-minute film, (documenting a “one night only” performance piece by Moore) says it all…whether you are a fan or a hater-you know this is going to be a “fish-out-of-water” narrative, layered with irony. First, there’s the venue, the historic Murphy Theater. It’s prime benefactor? Glenn Beck (it burns!). And Moore takes pains to point out he’s in Clinton County, which is antipodal to Clinton country.

Aside from an opening montage featuring locals parroting Breitbart memes and reinforcing the more cartoonish stereotypes of the “typical” Trump voter, Moore suppresses any further urges to shoot fish in a barrel. In fact, Moore telegraphed his good intentions not only by making his show admission-free, but requested that “Trump Voters Welcome” be added to the theater’s marquee.

After taking a “show of hands” census to establish how many in the audience support Hillary, how many support Trump, and who is undecided or supporting independent candidates, it appears that he is dealing with a fairly balanced mix. Employing his trademark mix of entertaining shtick and genuine empathy, Moore attempts to build rapport with the Trump supporters, and really seems to get inside their heads. At least for the first 30 minutes…then, he pulls a bait-and-switch.

It’s subtle. After disarmingly confiding he’s never voted for either Clinton, he mentions the chapter “My Forbidden Love for Hillary” from “Downsize This!” to segue into…his forbidden love for Hillary. By the time he’s finished with what morphs into an impassioned summation of the humanity that’s always driven her dedication to public service, obscured and weather-beaten as it may be from enduring years of anti-Hillary vitriol and character assassination, there’s nary a dry eye in the house…Trump supporters included. It is a master class in rhetorical showmanship.

While my description of that rhapsodic interlude could indicate otherwise, the film is not a Hillary hagiography. For example, Moore makes no bones about his disappointment regarding some of Hillary’s voting decisions while she was serving in the Senate; and he promises to hold her feet to the fire on her campaign promises if she wins. But he also waxes hopeful; launching into a speculative Utopian reverie on how things will be once Hillary becomes POTUS (*sigh*).

It was clearly Moore’s intention that Trumpland (filmed October 7 and released a scant 2 weeks afterwards) would ideally be seen by as many people as possible before November 8. However, he was careful to cover all his bases. If there is one consistency about Michael Moore’s films, it is that they are prescient…and already, I can identify at least one nail he hit squarely on the head.

This comes in the form of another speculative scenario Moore lays out, this one for Trump supporters to envision, should the election go their way. Moore assures them that he feels their pain; as a fellow Midwesterner from a manufacturing town in neighboring Michigan, he “gets” the frustrations that have been building up within the ranks of a certain white, working-class demographic, why they are feeling squeezed out, and why Trump might appear to be their savior.

Suddenly, in a wonderfully theatrical flourish, Moore seems to shapeshift into a Trump voter. He talks about how they are going to feel on Election Day, how incredibly empowering it will be to put that “x” in the Trump box on their ballot card. It’s going to be the “…biggest ‘fuck you’ ever recorded in human history” when their boy takes the White House. “It’s going to feel REAL good,” Moore assures them, “for about…a week.” Uh-oh. “A week?” What’s he mean by that?

It will kind of be like Brexit, Moore explains after a suitable dramatic pause to let things soak in. Remember how eager the Brexit supporters were to shake things up in their country, and give a big “fuck you” to Europe? Sure, they “won”. But then, buyer’s regret set in. There was even a desperate stab to petition for a re-vote, spearheaded by many of the very people who supported it!

OK, so maybe Trump voters haven’t quite reached that stage yet, but they will. Their soon-to-be Fearless Leader is sending up oodles of red flags with kleptocratic cabinet appointment after kleptocratic cabinet appointment. Now, that seems to be in direct contradiction to his campaign stance as champion of the working class…d’ya think? So…just give them time (and pitchforks).

That’s what I say about Moore’s film…give it time. And here’s a stock tip: go long on pitchforks.

#  #  #

BTW here’s a great government website that might not be here after January 20. Better cache it.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominees announced: My 5 picks for the 2016 inductees

By Dennis Hartley

While I abhor the concept of tossing creative artists into the gladiatorial pit (art, prose, poetry, music and film are not competitive sports), my sworn duties as a pop culture critic occasionally require me to add my two cents worth of bread,  in regard to such circuses.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced their 15 nominees: The Cars, Chic, Chicago, Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, Janet Jackson, The J.B.s,  Chaka Khan,  Los Lobos, Steve Miller, Nine Inch Nails, N.W.A., The Smiths, The Spinners,  and Yes. Worthy artists all, but (this is what I hate about “contests”) how do I justify my 5 picks (the Hall’s yearly limit for new inductees) without seeming to denigrate the rest? By doing my job and plowing forward (alphabetically):

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  1.  Cheap Trick– The “newest” artists on my list stormed out of  the gate in 1977 taking names and kicking ass as the missing link between the Beatles and punk. While they could be seen as direct descendants of melodic power pop pioneers like Big Star and The Move,  they weren’t afraid to turn the Marshalls up to “11” and rage like balls-to-the-wall rockers . I think that’s why they’re one of those rare bands (like AC/DC and The Ramones) that metal, punk, new-wave,  alternative and pop fans can all get together on. And if you ever get a chance to see them live…do not pass it up!

Best 3 albums: Cheap Trick, In Color, Heaven Tonight

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2.  Chicago– While I’m not fond of their schmaltzy  (if chart-topping) descent into “adult contemporary” territory from the 80s onward, there is no denying the groundbreaking nature of those incredible first three double albums Chicago Transit Authority (1969), Chicago II and Chicago III (what I call their “Roman Numeral Period”). Those early albums were (for the time) a bold fusion of hard rock, blues, soul, jazz, and Latin styles, fueled by the late great Terry Kath’s fiery guitar and accentuated by a tight horn section. Not to mention an impressive catalog of radio hits over the years. Let ’em in, already!

Best 3 albums: Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago II, Chicago III

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3. Deep Purple– It’s criminal that this seminal hard rock outfit hasn’t been ushered into the pantheon yet. They’ve been around since the late 60s, and had a major influence on the genre. There were many lineup changes over the decades (chiefly involving lead vocalists and lead guitarists), but the quality and power of their music never faltered. The most well-known lineup featured one of rock’s great screamers, Ian Gillian on lead vocal, and maestro of the whammy bar Ritchie Blackmore on guitar. Ian Paice (drums), Roger Glover (bass) and Jon Lord (keyboards) completed the classic team.  I must mention the worthy contribution of the  excellent (if less-heralded)  1975 Purple lineup that produced Come Taste the Band, featuring the late great Tommy Bolin (guitar), Glenn Hughes (vocals and bass), and future Whitesnake front man David Coverdale (lead vocals).

Best 3 albums: In Rock , Machine Head, Come Taste the Band

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4. The Spinners– I was also a bit gobsmacked to learn that these guys have not already been inducted. For god’s sake, they’ve been around for nearly 50 years, and should be considered (at the very least) as the godfathers of “smooth groove”. Their classic period was the 70s, when they became the ambassadors for the “Philadelphia Sound” through their fruitful collaboration with songwriter-producer Thom Bell. If “I’ll Be Around”, “Could it Be I’m Falling in Love”, “Games People Play”, or “The Rubberband Man” comes on the radio while I’m in my car, I’ll still crank it up without hesitation and sing along at the top of my lungs (with my windows rolled up…as a public service).

Best 3 albums: Spinners, Mighty Love, Pick of the Litter

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5. Yes– Long before MTV (or YouTube), my teenage self would while away many hours listening to Yes with a good set of cans, staring at Roger Dean’s art, envisioning my own music videos (special effects courtesy of the joint that I rolled on the inside of the convenient gatefold sleeve). Good times (OP sighs, takes moment of silence to reflect on a life tragically misspent). Anyway, why this band hasn’t been inducted yet is beyond me. Complex compositions informed by deeply layered textures, impeccable musicianship, heavenly harmonies, topped off by Jon Anderson’s ethereal vocals; an embodiment of all that is good about progressive rock (I know the genre has its detractors, to whom  I say…”You weren’t there, man!”). R.I.P.  bassist/vocalist Chris Squire, who we sadly lost this year.

Best 3 albums: The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge

The Death Hour: How Hollywood tried to warn us

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 29, 2015)

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I love it. Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups: “The Death Hour”. A great Sunday night show for the whole family.

-from Network, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

There is an oft-repeated lament that Hollywood and/or television has “run out of original ideas”. Which is (mostly) true, but not necessarily indicative of a dearth of talent or creativity in the business. The blame for this particular writer’s block, I believe, can be laid fairly and squarely at the feet of…Reality.

Short of plundering Middle Earth or the comic book universe for ideas, it’s getting harder to dream up a scenario as “outlandish” as, say, having to undergo a security check before taking your seat at a movie theater, or as “unthinkable” as switching on the local TV news and witnessing the horror of what happened to the 2 WDBJ reporters and the interviewee while live on air last Wednesday.

You’re television incarnate, Diana. Indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer.

-from Network, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

While just as horrified and empathetic as anyone in their right mind should be when the WDBY story broke, I’m sad to report that I wasn’t necessarily surprised. It was only a matter of time. The on-camera assassination of two TV reporters filing an innocuous story about a mall seemed a relatively tiny jump from the random murders of two theater patrons in Lafayette earlier this month…who likely assumed they weren’t risking violent death by seeking out 2 hours of escapism at the matinee showing of a romantic comedy.

The common denominator of both incidents was all-too-familiar: An extremely disturbed individual with a legally purchased firearm, which they never should have been permitted to own in the first place. But who am I to judge, because, you know…Freedom. And Tyranny. And The Constitution.

Never mind that in early August, Amy Schumer (star of the film that the Lafayette victims went to see) and now this week, Andy Parker (father of slain TV reporter Alison Parker) have both made public vows to crusade for stricter gun control. As Mr. Parker was quoted, from an article in the August 27 New York Times:

“I’m for the Second Amendment,” he said on CNN Thursday morning, “but there has to be a way to force politicians who are cowards in the pockets of the N.R.A. to make sure crazy people can’t get guns.” Citing previous killings by people with mental illnesses, Mr. Parker asked, “How many Alisons will it take?”

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What is uncommon about this latest tragedy, is that the alleged perpetrator himself was a former TV reporter, adding a chilling layer of irony to the already complex pathology in this case (note all the networks have taken pains to run that file clip of him reporting from a gun shop). This brings to mind a scene from Billy Wilder’s 1951 noir, Ace in the Hole:

Charles Tatum: What’s that big story to get me outta here? […] I’m stuck here, fans. Stuck for good. Unless you, Miss Deverich, instead of writing household hints about how to remove chili stains from blue jeans, get yourself involved in a trunk murder. How about it, Miss Deverich? I could do wonders with your dismembered body.

Miss Deverich: Oh, Mr. Tatum. Really!

Charles Tatum: Or you, Mr. Wendell-if you’d only toss that cigar out the window. Real far…all the way to Los Alamos. And BOOM! (He chuckles) Now there would be a story.

Tatum (played to the hilt by Kirk Douglas) is a cynical big city newspaper reporter who drifts into a small New Mexico burg after burning one too many bridges with his former employers at a New York City daily. Determined to weasel his way back to the top (by any means necessary, as it turns out), he bullies his way into a gig with a local rag, where he impatiently awaits The Big Story that will rocket him back to the metropolitan beat.

Of course, he’s being sarcastic when he exhorts his co-workers in the sleepy hick town newsroom to get out there and make some news for him to capitalize on. But the ultimate irony in Wilder’s screenplay (co-written by Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman) is that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy for Tatum; in his Machiavellian attempt to purloin and manipulate the scenario of a man trapped in a cave-in into a star-making “exclusive” for himself, it’s Tatum who becomes The Big Story.

Could it be that the Virginia shooter was using a similar kind of pretzel logic? Was he surmising that if he couldn’t achieve the notoriety he craved as someone who reports the news, perhaps he’d have better luck by simply grabbing a gun and creating some headlines himself? Was he really that hungry for attention?

The fact that his refrigerator door was papered with photos of himself could be a clue that at the very least, we are dealing with narcissistic personality disorder. It’s only a theory, but there’s a film that eerily presages that scenario, Gus Van Sant’s 1995 mockumentary, To Die For.

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The film centers on an ambitious young woman (Nicole Kidman, in one of her best performances) who aspires to elevate herself from “weather girl” at a small market TV station in New England to star news anchor, posthaste. A calculating sociopath from the word go, she marries into a wealthy family, but decides to discard her husband (Matt Dillon) the nanosecond he asks her to consider putting her career on hold so they can start a family (discard…with extreme prejudice).

Buck Henry based his screenplay on Joyce Maynard’s true crime book about the Pamela Smart case (the most obvious difference being that Smart was a teacher and not an aspiring media star, although it could be argued that during the course of her highly publicized murder trial, she did in fact become one).

There is an even darker, macabre element about the Virginia shooter’s twisted act that, while it boggles the imagination, also has precedent in narrative films. Apparently not satisfied with orchestrating the murder of his victims to full effect in front of a live TV camera, he filmed his own POV version of what the viewers at home saw (it’s almost like he was directing a film, envisioning the different camera angles of the same event). It gets worse. He then proudly posted said video on his Facebook page for the world to see.

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That was once only the stuff of horror movies, like Michael Powell’s 1960 thriller, Peeping Tom. The story profiles an insular, socially awkward member of a film crew (Carl Boehm) who works as a technician at a movie studio by day, and moonlights as a soft-core pin-up photographer. He’s also surreptitiously working on his own independent film, which goes hand-in-glove with another hobby: he’s a serial killer who gets his jollies capturing POV footage of his victim’s final agonizing moments.

It’s truly creepy; a Freudian nightmare. Powell, one-half of the revered British film making team known as The Archers (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) nearly destroyed his career with this one, which, due to its “shocking” nature, was largely shunned by audiences and critics at the time (thanks to Martin Scorsese, the film enjoyed a revival decades later and is now considered to be a genre classic on a par with Psycho).

Several subsequent films can be viewed as direct descendants of Peeping Tom; most notably Manhunter (1986), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), and perhaps more tangentially, Man Bites Dog (1992) and Natural Born Killers (1994).

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Like the main character in Peeping Tom, the psycho killer in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (Tom Noonan) also has a day job that involves film; in this case he works in a film processing lab, which gives him access to the private home movies from which he chooses his victims.

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John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer follows the killing spree of the eponymous character (Michael Rooker) and his partner (Tom Towles). In a particularly chilling scene, McNaughton switches to shaky handheld POV shots of a video gleefully shot by Henry’s partner as they torture and murder their hapless victims.

I feel like I need a shower. If you want a 7th inning stretch…here’s a nice soothing image:

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(Deep breath) Both Belgian directing trio Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel and Benoit Poelvoorde’s Man Bites Dog and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers are sly send ups of the Spree Killer as Media Celebrity conflation. While I wouldn’t consider either film a “ha-ha funny” comedy, they both harbor a chewy nougat center of dark satire beneath a candy coating of Grand Guignol.

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Man Bites Dog (arguably the most upsetting viewing experience of all the films discussed in this essay) takes the mockumentary approach, with a film crew “documenting” the murderous exploits of the protagonist (played by co-director/writer Poelvoorde). Initially, the film crew is objective, but cross the line into becoming criminal accessories.

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Natural Born Killers, weirdly enough, actually features a “live on camera” killing of a journalist who has been tagging along with the murderous tag team (like Tatum in Ace in the Hole, he will use any means necessary to snag an “exclusive”).

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There are several more satirical films of note containing over-the-top scenarios that reality has sadly caught up with, beginning with Woody Allen’s 1971 comedy Bananas. The specific scene that comes to mind in the wake of the Virginia incident involves Howard Cosell (playing himself) doing live TV coverage of a political assassination, as if it were a sporting event.

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Then there is Paul Bartel’s 1975 cult classic, Death Race 2000, depicting a dystopian America where public murder literally has become a popular televised sporting event, in which competing race drivers earn points for each luckless pedestrian they can run over and kill.

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The most recent film in this vein is from an artist who specializes in pushing people’s buttons, so be warned that many viewers will undoubtedly find stand-up comic-turned auteur Bob Goldthwait’s 2012 tragicomedy God Bless America incredibly offensive. His disenfranchised antihero Frank (Joel Murray) is like Ignatius J. Reilly, railing against all who offend his sense of taste and decency (but armed with an AK-47).

Already stewing over his ex-wife’s impending marriage, his little daughter’s detachment, his inconsiderate neighbors and his observation that most of his co-workers are obsessed with reality TV, Frank is pushed over the edge when he loses his job and is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Frank’s first target is an obnoxious reality TV star, but his hit list expands to include wing nut pundits, Teabaggers, and the worst of the worst: people who yak on their cell phones in theaters and Yuppies who deliberately take up two parking spaces. On one level, it’s all quite appalling, but in light of recent events, it simply reflects our contemporary society.

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This now brings us full circle to the most prescient film of them all, Sidney Lumet’s Network. In Lumet’s 1976 satire, written by the late great Paddy Chayefsky, respected news anchor Howard Beale has a complete mental meltdown on air, announcing his plan to commit public suicide, on camera, in an upcoming newscast. When the following evening’s newscast attracts an unprecedented number of viewers, some of the more unscrupulous programmers and marketers at the network smell a potential cash cow, and decide to let Beale rant away in front of the cameras to his heart’s content, reinventing him as a “mad prophet of the airwaves” and giving him a nightly prime time slot.

Eventually, some of the “truthiness” in his nightly “news sermons” hits a little too close to home regarding some secret business dealings that the network has with some Arab investors, and it is decided that his program needs to be cancelled (with extreme prejudice). And besides, his ratings are slipping. So the network hires a team of hit men to assassinate him, “live” on the air.

Unfortunately, as has dogged me in previous such exercises, I come to the end of this study with no solid conclusion, no pat answers. Perhaps senseless is as senseless does. Some people are just bad machines. If we could just keep them away from the guns…that would be a good start. Otherwise, I’ve got nuthin’…except an urge to echo Andy Parker:

How many Alisons will it take?