Tag Archives: Essays

Dirty movies: A Top X List

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 4, 2022)

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(Now that I have your attention) 54 years ago, Hollywood submitted to a new voluntary film rating system developed by the Motion Picture Association of America. Films were classified based on their “suitability” for young viewers: ‘G’ for general audiences, ‘M’ for mature audiences, ‘R’ for no one under 16 admitted without a parent or guardian (later raised to 17), and an ‘X’ indicated no one under 17 would be admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, in this 54th anniversary year of the MPAA ratings system we all either love or loathe, I thought it would be fun to mosey over to the media room and curate a top 10 collection of vintage ‘X’-rated movies that may not seem quite so ‘X-rated’ by today’s standards. That said, I strongly caution parents that none of these should be considered “family-friendly”!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If…. – In this 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson depicts the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time. It was also the star-making debut for a young Malcolm McDowall, who plays Mick Travis, one of the “lower sixth form” students at a boarding school (McDowall would return as the Travis character in Anderson’s two loose “sequels” O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis forms the nucleus of a trio of mates who foment armed insurrection against the abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters.

Some critical reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film really has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (the uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). That said, you can see how Anderson’s film could be read outside of original context as a pre-cursor to Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, The Chocolate War and Rushmore. David Sherwin and John Howlett co-wrote the screenplay.

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

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Inserts –If I told you that Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper once co-starred in an X-rated movie, would you believe me? This largely forgotten 1976 film from director John Byrum was dismissed as pretentious dreck by critics at the time, but 46 years on, it begs reappraisal as a fascinating curio in the careers of all involved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He drifts into a relationship with a Vietnam War widow (Verna Bloom) 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 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.

Baby steps: A therapeutic mixtape (redux)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Harry said.

“Bang Bang” – Green Day

“Family Snapshot” – Peter Gabriel

“Friend of Mine” – Jonathan & Stephen Cohen

“Guns Guns Guns” – The Guess Who

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

“In the Ghetto” – Elvis Presley

“Jeremy” – Pearl Jam

“Melt the Guns” – XTC

“Perfection” – Badfinger

“Saturday Night Special” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

“Sniper” – Harry Chapin

“Ticking” – Elton John

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Intermission]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a good job.”

The End

Everyone’s a Captain Kirk

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How fragile we are. Godspeed, Planet Earth.

I Caught It At The Movies: Can theaters survive?

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, but no. I can trust myself to adhere to a common-sense approach, but it’s been my observation throughout this COVID-19 crisis that everybody isn’t on the same page in regards to taking the health and safety of fellow humans into consideration.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

 – Joan Baez

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is…until this happened:

[From The Stranger Slog]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 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 venerable (if a tad dodgy) downtown venues in particular where I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the dank and the dark with snoring bums who used the auditoriums as a $2 flop: The Roxie and The Strand.

That’s because they were “repertory” houses; meaning they played older films (frequently double and triple bills, usually curated by some kind of theme). That 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.

Pointing a way to the moon: Bruce Lee hits Criterion

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 15, 2020)

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TV interviewer: Do you think of yourself Chinese, or do you ever think of yourself as North American?

Bruce Lee: You know what I want to think of myself? As a human being.

At the risk of provoking fists of fury from gentle San Francisco or Hong Kong readers, we here in Seattle consider Bruce Lee a hometown boy. Granted, he was born in San Francisco and raised in Kowloon. However, he lived in Seattle for five years (from 1959-1964). In the early 60s, he attended the University of Washington, where he met and eventually married the love of his life, Linda Emery. And Seattle is his final resting place.

While it’s been on my checklist since I moved to Seattle in 1992, I have yet to make the requisite pilgrimage to Lake View Cemetery to pay my respects to Lee and his son Brandon (my procrastinating skills are as legendary as Bruce Lee’s martial arts prowess).

I have been to Jimi Hendrix’s grave and memorial (in nearby Renton). I only bring this up because I see a few interesting parallels in the life and career trajectories of Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix.

Both are pop culture icons and considered maestros in their respective fields. While both honed their craft in Seattle, neither became superstars in America until they until took their act overseas. Both died tragically young-Jimi at 27, Bruce at 32. With youthful visages forever trapped in amber, their legend takes on a mythical quality.

But as we know, gods and goddesses are purely myth; Hendrix and Lee were merely human beings. And as such, they did not suddenly appear from the skies to wow the masses with their talent. On their way to the top, they had to slog through the same travails as anyone-which brings me to the most significant parallel: both artists had to work that much harder in order to transcend the racial/cultural stereotypes of their time.

(via okayplayer)

Following his London Astoria performance Hendrix was labeled the “Black Elvis” and the “Wild Man of Borneo” by the London press. Rolling Stone even went on to refer to him as a “Psychedelic Superspade,” the latter word used to describe black people who were exceptionally talented. These descriptions foreshadowed the challenges Hendrix faced as a black man navigating a “white” genre of music. But they were also indicative of something else, an unfortunate truth that, still to this day, arguably hasn’t been rectified — that although rock was born from the foundation of black music its creation is credited to white artists. […]

Hendrix was the embodiment and a reminder of that harsh truth, a black artist that had to work twice as hard to succeed in a genre that belonged to his people but now wasn’t seen as such. Because of that, Hendrix received hostility from both black and white people; the former felt he had betrayed his own race for catering to predominantly white audiences with white band mates during a time of Black Power and separatism, while the latter was intimidated by him.

Like Hendrix, as he gained notoriety Lee frustratingly found himself in a “push me-pull you” conundrum, stuck between two worlds. Following his short-lived but career-boosting stint as “Kato” in the 1966 TV series Green Hornet, he began to get more acting offers, but was unhappy about Asian stereotypes Hollywood was continuing to propagate. As his widow Linda recalled in Bao Nguyen’s excellent ESPN documentary, Be Water:

“He refused to play any parts that were demeaning to Chinese people, and for the next few years, he had very few parts.”

The final straw for Lee was in 1971, when he pitched a TV idea for an “Eastern” western called The Warrior. Long story short, the idea was initially nixed, but was later re-tooled as Kung Fu, starring white actor David Carradine as a Shaolin monk wandering the old West. Reportedly, studio execs were reticent to cast Lee because of his Chinese accent.

In a bit of serendipity, Lee was offered a contract soon afterwards to star in several martial arts films in Hong Kong, where Green Hornet reruns (popularly referred to there as “The Kato Show”) had made him a cult figure.

Initially, not all of Hong Kong welcomed him with open arms; in the aforementioned ESPN documentary, family members recall Lee getting local backlash for “selling out” to Western culture and then returning to China as a “big shot” (Lee was born in a trunk; one of his parents was a Cantonese opera star, and he worked in the Hong Kong film industry as a child actor before moving to America). But once his first starring vehicle The Big Boss hit theaters, Lee’s charisma and star quality came to the fore, and such criticism was forgotten.

A string of even bigger hits soon followed, starting with 1972’s Fist of Fury. Now with his own production company, Lee went full auteur for his next project, Way of the Dragon (serving as writer-director-star… and of course, fight choreographer!). At this point, his star was rising so fast that he ended up abandoning his next Hong Kong production Game of Death (which he’d already begun shooting) so he could jump on an offer from Warner Brothers to star in a US-Hong Kong co-production: Enter the Dragon.

The rest, as they say, is history (although sadly Lee died less than a week before the release of Enter the Dragon, which posthumously turned him into an international superstar and remains his most popular and iconic film).

When you consider that Lee’s martial arts legacy and iconography is largely predicated on a scant five feature films, it’s hard to believe that it’s taken this long for a definitive Blu-ray collection to hit the marketplace, but Criterion’s new box set should please Bruce Lee fans to no end.

Cheekily entitled Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits, the set has 4K digital restorations of The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon, and Game of Death. There are two versions of Enter the Dragon included (both with a 2K restoration). One is the “rarely seen” 99-minute original 1973 theatrical presentation; the other is a 102-minute “special edition” with optional 5.1 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.

Just for giggles, they have tossed in a high-def (not restored) presentation of the posthumous 1981 film Game of Death II (which I’ve never seen) and Game of Death Redux, which is “a new presentation of Lee’s original Game of Death footage”. OK then.

While I haven’t had a chance to watch them all yet, spot-checking reveals that these are the best-looking prints of the 5 principal films I’ve seen to date. The extras are plentiful: multiple programs and documentaries about Lee’s life and philosophies, a plethora of interviews with Lee’s fellow actors, as well as many of his collaborators and admirers. There are also commentary tracks and interviews with Lee biographers, Hong Kong film experts and others.

It approaches overkill for the casual Bruce Lee fan, but if you’re a hardcore martial arts fan (sorry, have to say it) you’ll really get a kick out of this box set.

Notes from Ground Zero…and The Twilight Zone

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 7, 2020)

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The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices…to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill…and suspicion can destroy…and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.

– Narrator’s epilogue from “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (1960 episode of The Twilight Zone) original teleplay by Rod Serling

A few days ago, this Tweet by NBC news journalist Richard Engel caught my attention:

Now here was an angle on the Coronavirus crisis that I hadn’t given much thought to. Engel makes a very salient point about “social” side effects of pandemic panic. Many people are prone to allergies or suffer from non-viral chronic respiratory conditions who will be (or already are) getting dirty looks when they’re out and about. I’ve been worried about this myself for several days; the apple and cherry trees have begun to blossom, and (right on schedule) so has my usual reaction: sneezing fits, runny nose and dry coughing.

I currently live in fear of mob retribution should I fail to suppress a sneeze in an elevator.

On the flip side, I must come clean and plead guilty to feeding the monster myself. Earlier this week I was waiting in line at the drug store. Standing in front of me was a man and his young daughter (I’d guess she was around 7 or 8 years old). She was doing the fidget dance. Just as she twirled around to face in my direction, she emitted a fusillade of open-mouthed coughs. I jumped back like James Brown, nearly colliding with the person standing behind me (we’re all a tad “jumpy” in Seattle just now). For a few seconds, I was seeing red and nearly said something to her dad, who was too busy futzing around with his cell phone to notice his Little Typhoid Mary’s St. Vitus Dance of Death.

Thankfully, my logical brain quickly wrested the wheel from my lizard brain, and I thought better of making a scene. After all she was just a little girl, bored waiting in line.

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A lot of sociopolitical fallout from pandemic panic has been on display in recent weeks: fear of the “other” (ranging from unconscious racial profiling to outright xenophobia), disinformation, fear mongering, and the good old reliable standbys anxiety and paranoia.

This got me thinking about one my favorite episodes of the original Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”. Scripted by series creator Rod Serling, the episode premiered in 1960. I re-watched it today and was struck by how tight Serling’s teleplay is; any aspiring dramatist would do well to study it as a masterclass in depth and brevity.

**** SPOILERS AHEAD ****

The story opens under blue suburban skies of Maple Street, U.S.A. in a neighborhood straight outta Leave it to Beaver where the residents are momentarily distracted from their lawn mowing and such by the overhead rumble and flash of what appears to be a meteor streaking though the sky. However, this brief anomaly is only the prelude to a more concerning turn of events: a sudden power outage coupled with an inexplicable shutdown of anything gas-powered, from lawn mowers to automobiles. Concern builds.

This precipitates an impromptu community meeting in the middle of the block, as residents start to speculate as to what (or who) could be to blame for these odd events. A young boy takes center stage. An avid sci-fi comic book fan, he regales the adults with a tale he read recently about an alien invasion. In the story, the invaders infiltrate towns by embedding a family in each neighborhood, until the time is right to “take over” en masse.

The seed has been planted; fear, distrust and paranoia spreads through the block like wildfire, becoming increasingly more palpable with the diminishing daylight. By nightfall, anarchy reigns, and once-friendly neighbors have turned into a murderous mob.

The camera pulls away further and further from the shocking mayhem occurring on Maple Street to a “God’s-eye” view, where we become aware of two shadowy observers (who are obviously the alien invaders). After absorbing the ongoing scenario, one asks the other “And this pattern is always the same?” “With a few variations,” his companion intones with a clinical detachment, adding “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves.” Cue Mr. Serling’s equally omniscient epilogue (top of post).

Obviously, when Serling wrote the piece he was referring at the time to the Red Scare; America and Russia were at the height of the Cold War and nuclear paranoia was rampant among the general populace (in the episode, a character sarcastically refers to himself as a “Fifth Columnist” when accused of being an alien invader by his neighbors).

That said, Serling’s script (like much of his work) is “evergreen”. With its underlying themes about mob psychology, scapegoating, and humanity’s curious predilection to eschew logic and pragmatism for fear and loathing, the “message” is just as relevant now.

Keep your head, be a good neighbor, and don’t forget to wash your hands for 20 seconds.

 

Monsters from the id: Tigers Are Not Afraid (***) & The Spirit of the Beehive (****)

By Dennis Hartley

https://i0.wp.com/d1u4oo4rb13yy8.cloudfront.net/ijyqvsxkhk-1462558803.png?w=474&ssl=1Suffer not the little children: Still from The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

https://i0.wp.com/images1.houstonpress.com/imager/u/original/11348529/tigers-are-not-afraid-3-800x445.jpg?resize=474%2C264&ssl=1Is there an echo in here? Still from Tigers Are Not Afraid (2019)

In my 2009 review of Where the Wild Things Are, I wrote:

Childhood is a magical time. Well, at least until the Death of Innocence…whenever that is supposed to occur. At what point DO we slam the window on Peter Pan’s fingers? When we stop believing in faeries? That seems to be the consensus, in literature and in film.

In Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” only children “see” the angels. Even when the fantastical pals are more tangible, the adults in the room keep their blinders on. In Stephen Spielberg’s “E.T.”, Mom doesn’t initially “see” her children’s little alien playmate, even when she’s seemingly gawking right at him. […]

Somewhere in the course of this long dark night of his 9 year-old soul, in the midst of a panicky attempt to literally flee from his own actions, [the protagonist of “Where The Wild Things Are”] Max crosses over from Reality into Fantasy (even children need to bleed the valve on the “pressure cooker of life”). […]

Max washes up on the shore of a mysterious island where he finds that he suddenly can not only wrestle with his inner demons but run and jump and laugh and play with them as well. These strange and wondrous manifestations are the literal embodiment of the “wild things” inside of him that drive his complex emotional behaviors; anthropomorphic creatures that also pull double duty as avatars for the people who are closest to him.

Growing pains can overtax developing minds; it’s no wonder children often turn to fantasy to absorb the cost. Sadly some, like the young protagonists in Issa Lopez’s modern-day fairy tale Tigers Are Not Afraid, are forced to pay additional baggage fees.

Set in the slums of a Mexican town against a backdrop of warring drug cartels, the story centers on 10-year old Estrella (Paola Lara). Set adrift since her mother’s recent disappearance, Estrella lives in a state of dread.

Her mother was likely abducted and murdered at the behest of a ruthless local politician (Tenoch Huerta) whose approach to gerrymandering is simple: liquidate all non-supporters. His dirty work is handled by thugs that the locals call huascas, supervised by a brutal drug cartel member named Caco.

Even within the sanctity of the classroom, Estrella can find no respite from the horror of her everyday reality; her day at school ends abruptly when a gun battle breaks out nearby, which sends the students diving under their desks to avoid becoming collateral damage.

Soon, the absence of her mother and a dwindling food supply sends Estrella out in the streets, where she encounters a group of orphaned lost boys, led by pistol-wielding “El Shine” (Juan Ramón López).

Shine is reluctant to accept her in his gang; he demands she must prove her worth by assassinating the dreaded Caco. The look on Estrella’s face telegraphs that she is less than enthused about carrying out the request; but desperate times call for desperate measures. Besides, Shine has convinced her Caco is responsible for her mother’s disappearance (he claims to have irrefutable proof; but won’t show her).

It is at this juncture that it is suggested Estrella may possess Special Powers. As she stealthily (and shakily) creeps into Caco’s darkened apartment, where he appears to have nodded off in his living room chair while watching TV, she closes her eyes and makes a wish: “I wish I didn’t have to kill him.” Long story short-it seems somebody already has.

Is it coincidence…or did she “will” Caco to die? Opting to hedge her bets, Estrella rushes back to the gang hangout to give Shine his gun back and tell him she took care of that thing they had talked about. The boys are all duly impressed and accept her into the fold.

Oh…did I mention that she also sees dead people?

Lopez’s film conveys a sense of realism, infused with elements of fantasy and horror. Many have drawn parallels between her film and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth; while I see a connection, I’d say the more obvious antecedent is Victor Erice’s lyrical and haunting 1973 drama The Spirit of the Beehive (which surely inspired Pan’s Labyrinth).

In fact, I was so taken by the parallels that after previewing Tigers Are Not Afraid, I immediately reached for my DVD copy of The Spirit of the Beehive to confirm whether my memory was playing tricks on me (in this type of arcane exercise, it rarely does; however, half the time I wish I could remember where I left my fucking wallet and keys).

The Spirit of the Beehive takes place in 1940 Spain, in an isolated village on the vast Castilian plain. While “The Rain in Spain” may now be playing in your head (please accept my sincere apologies if it is), this is more about the reign of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

This was the point in time when Franco had fully seized power in the country after winning the Spanish Civil War (which had cost the nation nearly half a million lives). Needless to say, everyday life under a totalitarian regime is not healthy for children and other living things.

While she is too young to understand politics, 7-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent, in a remarkably affecting performance) can nonetheless sense the quiet desperation that appears to be slowly consuming her loving but oddly detached parents (Fernando Fernán Gómez and Teresa Gimpera).

While their upper middle-class life affords them a large villa and a live-in maid, Ana and her 9-year old sister Teresa (Teresa Gimpera) are essentially latchkey kids (they’re not living hand-to-mouth like the street orphans in Tigers Are Not Afraid, but are as insular and “lost” in their own way).

When a print of James Whale’s original 1931 version of Frankenstein arrives for an engagement at the village’s tiny movie theater, Ana’s life changes. As filmmaker Monte Hellman observes in his appreciation of the film written for the Criterion DVD edition:

Ana is disturbed by the killing of the little girl in the film and doesn’t understand why the monster is also killed.  Isabel pretends to have the answers to Ana’s questions, but when pressed later, can say only that they’re not really dead.  It’s only a movie, and nothing is real. Besides, she’s seen the monster.  He’s a spirit, and she can make him appear whenever she calls him.

In subsequent scenes, the children play with and at death.  Isabel experimentally attempts to strangle her cat, stopping when the cat scratches her.  She applies the blood on her finger to her lips, as if it were lipstick.  Later, she pretends to be dead to frighten Ana.  Finally, Ana experiences the death of a real person, a deserter from the army whom she befriended.  We feel Ana’s crisis as our own, for we have all passed from innocence to knowledge of mortality at some time in our own childhood.

And so it comes back to the theme as to how children under extreme duress come to grips with trauma; in the case of Estrella in Tigers Are Not Afraid and Ana in The Spirit of the Beehive (or for that matter, young Max in Where the Wild Things Are) it first requires literal invocation of their inner demons before they can be “destroyed”. Or perhaps you can trace it back to J.M. Barrie: “All you need is faith, trust and a little bit of pixie dust.”

 

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.