Tag Archives: Essays

Swede sweetback’s baadassss song: The Black Power Mixtape ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 1, 2011)

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Diana: Hi, I’m Diana Christensen, a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.

Laureen: I’m Laureen Hobbs, a badass commie nigger.

Diana: Sounds like the basis of a firm friendship.

 –from Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky

The slyly subversive sociopolitical subtext of that memorable exchange between Faye Dunaway and Marlene Warfield in Sidney Lumet’s classic 1976 satire could be lost on anyone not old enough to recall the radical politics and revolutionary rhetoric of the era, but for those of us who are (and who do), the character of “Laureen Hobbs” was clearly inspired by Angela Davis, the UCLA professor-turned activist whose name became synonymous with the Black Power movement of the late 60s to mid 70s.

Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s distillation of the two characters into winking cultural stereotypes, while wryly satirical, was not  far off the mark as to how the MSM spun the image of Davis and other prominent figures like Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale. As I recall, the media tended to focus on the more extreme, sensationalist facets. Police shootouts with Black Panthers, prison riots and U.S. athletes giving the Black Power salute at the Olympic Games made for good copy, but didn’t paint the entire picture of the Black Experience in America.

With the alternative press (and most likely the FBI) excepted, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of investigative parsing going on at the time to unearth the root cause and/or ideology behind the images of violence and civil unrest that the MSM played on a continuous loop. After all, this was, at its core, a legitimate and historically significant American political movement (if not a revolution), and no one seemed to be taking the pains to document it. At least, no one in this country. Sweden, on the other hand? They had it covered.

I know…Sweden. Go figure. At any rate, a treasure trove of vintage 16mm footage, representing nearly a decade of candid interviews with movement leaders and meticulous documentation of Black Panther Party activities and African-American inner city life was recently discovered tucked away in the basement of Swedish Television. Director Goran Olsson has cherry-picked fascinating clips and assembled them in a chronological historical order for his documentary, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Olsson leaves the contextualization to present-day retrospection from surviving participants (Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Kathleen Cleaver and Harry Belafonte), as well as reflections by contemporary African-American academics, writers, poets and musicians. The director restricts modern commentators to voice-over, thereby devoting maximum screen time to the pristine archive footage. And if you’re expecting bandolier-wearing, pistol-waving bad-ass commie, uh, interviewees spouting fiery Marxist-tinged rhetoric, dispense with that hoary stereotype now.

What you will see is a relaxed and soft-spoken Stokely Carmichael, surprising his interviewers by borrowing the mike to ask his own mother questions about her life experience as an African-American woman in America. There are interviews with a jailed Angela Davis, an exiled Eldridge Cleaver (in Algiers), Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton and others; and what really comes through is the humanity behind the rhetoric. Whether one agrees or disagrees with all the means and methods they utilized to get their views across to the powers-that-be, the underlying message is self-empowerment, and a forward-thinking commitment to changing the world for the better.

Speaking of the “powers-that-be”, there are interesting segments on the state response to the movement at the time (infiltration and entrapment, turning a blind eye to civil liberties, etc.) that beg comparisons to our post 9-11 environment (plus ca change…). In fact, the subject of Olsson’s film feels trapped by its 100 minute time constraint; there’s more than enough angles to this largely neglected part of 20th-century American history to provide ample material for a Ken Burns-length miniseries. Olsson weaves social context into the mix by using clips from a 1973 Swedish TV cinema-verite documentary called Harlem: Voices, Faces, a time capsule that lends a sense of poetry to an otherwise straightforward collage

The film is not without flaws; some of the contemporary commentators don’t necessarily lend new insight. Also, Olssons’s commitment to offering viewers a “mix, not a remix” feels unfocused at times (“subjective” doesn’t have to mean “dry”). Still, a film like this is important, because the time is ripe to re-examine the story of the Black Power movement, which despite its failures and flaws, still emerges as one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings that we’ve had in this country (no, the Tea Party shares no parallels, by any stretch of the imagination).

Watching the film made me a little sad. Where is the real passion (and social compassion) in American politics anymore? It’s become all about petty partisanship and myopic self-interest and next to nothing about empowering citizens and maintaining a truly free and equal society. However (to end on an up note), I came across this rousing speech, recently delivered on the  40th anniversary of the Attica prison riot. It gave me hope that the legacy is alive:

Amen, brother.

The punk and the godfather: Brighton Rock (2010) **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 10, 2011)

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It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long. Couldn’t the test of man have been carried out in fewer years? Couldn’t we have committed our first major sin at seven, have ruined ourselves for love or hate at ten, have clutched at redemption on a fifteen-year-old deathbed?

 -Graham Greene, from The Heart of the Matter

 Did you ever get on a kick with a writer? It can be quite a passionate love affair. When I was in my early 20s, a friend loaned me a dog-eared paperback copy of The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene. The diamond-cut prose, compelling narrative, and thematic depth left me gob smacked. “Ah,” I thought, “so this must be that ‘literature’ of which they speak.” It was time to put Ian Fleming and Alistair MacLean behind me and kick it up a notch (when I was a child, I thought as a child, etc.). I had to have more of this.

And so it was that I got on a Graham Greene kick, voraciously devouring virtually every word that he ever fought from his pen. As I plowed through the oeuvre, I began to notice prevalent themes emerging; most notably that whole Catholic thing (for someone like me, with a Jewish mother and a Protestant father, it was theologically fascinating). There was much ado about guilt, mortal sin, clutching at redemption, moral failure, lapsed faith…and more guilt. But you could still “dance to it” (in a literary sense).

The rich complexity and narrative appeal of Greene’s “theological thrillers” certainly has not been lost on filmmakers over the years; nearly all of his novels have been adapted for the screen (with mixed results).

Most have been dramas and film noirs, like The Fallen Idol, This Gun for Hire (based on A Gun for Sale), The Ministry of Fear, The Fugitive (based on The Power and the Glory), The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair (with a 1955 and 1999 version), The Quiet American (twice-made, in 1958 and 2002) and two uncharacteristically lighthearted entries-Our Man in Havana and Travels with my Aunt.

All the aforementioned are worthwhile, but if pressed to pick my personal favorite Greene-to-screen, it would be John Boulting’s 1947 noir thriller, Brighton Rock.

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That film was memorable on several counts. It was stylishly directed (Boulting later helmed one of the early nuclear paranoia thrillers, Seven Days to Noon and the classic comedy I’m All Right, Jack), well-scripted (by Greene himself, along with Terence Rattigan) and topped off by then 24 year-old Richard Attenborough’s indelible portrayal of the central character, a ruthless and ambitious hood named Pinkie Brown.

In fact, Attenborough so thoroughly inhabits the character that you find it difficult to connect the actor who plays this creepy sociopath with the future Oscar-winning director of Gandhi (by then addressed as ‘Sir’ Richard). It’s a tough act to follow, for anyone attempting to do a remake. And guess what-someone has.

For the new BBC Films production of Brighton Rock writer-director Rowan Joffe has, for the most part, kept original characters, chief plot points and thematic subtexts intact, but moved the time period to the 1960s. The story is set in 1964 Brighton; on the eve of the infamous Mods vs. Rockers youth riots which took place at the popular English seaside resort that year (shades of Quadrophenia). Sam Riley tackles the Pinkie Brown role. Pinkie is a low-rung mobster who has been scheming for dominance of his gang.

When his mentor (Geoff Bell) is killed by a rival outfit that is attempting to monopolize the local gambling racket, Pinkie sees an opportunity to upgrade his own status by proactively seeking vengeance on his friend’s killer (Sean Harris).

In their haste to grab the intended victim, Pinkie and his cohorts get sloppy and involve an innocent ‘civilian’, a naïve young waitress named Rose (Andrea Riseborough). A ‘pavement photographer’, intending to take a picture of Rose, inadvertently gets an incriminating shot of the soon-to-be murder victim and his abductors. When Pinkie learns that Rose has a claim ticket for the photo, he ingratiates himself into her life, pretending to be romantically interested.

Joffe’s film left me feeling a little ambivalent. While it is kind of refreshing to see a British mobster flick that isn’t attempting to out-Guy Ritchie Guy Ritchie, this version of Brighton Rock may be a little too somber and weighty for its own good. Moving the time setting to 1964 doesn’t detract from the original, but it doesn’t necessarily improve on it, either (and did it really need ‘improving’?).

In fact, large chunks of the film are essentially a shot-by-shot remake of the 1947 version. Joffe’s version exudes more of a Hitchcockian vibe; it is particularly reminiscent of Suspicion. While Riley’s portrayal of Pinky has a brooding intensity,  he lacks  a certain subtlety that Attenborough brought to the character in the original.

In Greene’s original novel, Pinkie is described by Rose as someone who, despite his youth, seems to “know” he is “damned”, and all of his actions are predicated on this feeling of quasi-religious predestination. Attenborough, I think, embodies that perfectly, while Riley simply comes off as preternaturally evil, like a boogeyman.

Dame Helen Mirren feels wasted as Rose’s employer Ida, who is suspicious of Pinkie and becomes a thorn in his side; oddly, her character (crucial in the book and the 1947 film) seems to have been downgraded. The usually wonderful John Hurt barely registers; not really his fault as his character is underwritten.

Andy Serkis chews the scenery in his relatively small role as the rival mob’s boss, and there is a standout supporting performance from Philip Davis (whose presence also brings a sort of symmetry to the Quadrophenia connection; he played ‘Chalky’, one of the teenage Mods  in Franc Roddam’s eponymous 1979 film). There are worse sins than watching Joffe’s film, but if you prefer to clutch at redemption, rent the original.

A (not so) clear-cut case: If a Tree Falls ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 23, 2011)

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In the mid-90s, I worked at a Honeybaked Ham store in the Seattle area (don’t ask). Normally, I wouldn’t bring that up, but…funny story. Well, not “ha-ha” funny, but it does tie in with this week’s review.

Because you see, that was when I had my personal brush with “eco-terrorism”. I came to work one day, and espied a couple of Redmond’s finest standing outside the store, talking to the manager. Then I noticed  interesting new artwork adorning the windows, writ large in dried ketchup and barbecue sauce: MEAT IS MURDER! It was signed “E.L.F.”.  Apparently, several other restaurants down the street had also been hit (McDonald’s had had their locks glued shut).

So, as I was scrubbing to remove the graffiti, I wondered “Who is this ‘ELF’ …a disgruntled Keebler employee?” I had never heard of the Earth Liberation Front. I remember the manager saying “How much you want to bet this guy fled the scene in  leather Nikes?” “Yeah,” I snickered, whilst contemplating the dried globs of Heinz 57 on my sponge “these suburban anarchists aren’t exactly the Baader-Meinhof Gang, are they?” (I can’t say that I felt “terrorized”).

Flash forward to 2001. I turned on the local news one night, and saw the UW Center for Urban Horticulture engulfed in flames ($7 million in damage). The arson was attributed to the E.L.F. “Hmm,” I pondered, “maybe they are sort of like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, ”

Or are they? According to the FBI, “Eco-terrorism” is defined as:

The use (or threatened use) of violence of a criminal nature against people or property by an environmentally oriented, sub-national group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature.

That certainly covers a lot of ground. One could argue that Johnny Appleseed was an Eco-terrorist. Sure, he’s a legendary conservationist and agrarian icon. However, he was against grafting, which resulted in a fruit more suitable for hard cider than for eating. Hence, the “environmentally-oriented”  Appleseed was “responsible” for introducing alcohol to the frontier. And it’s inarguable that much “violence of a criminal nature against people or property” is committed under the influence. OK, that’s a stretch .

Then again, there are a number of “environmentally-oriented” types doing a “a stretch” in the federal pen right now for non-lethal actions that the government considers terrorism, and that others consider heroic. This is not a black and white issue; a point not lost on the directors of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.

So what type of circumstance can change a nature lover into a freedom fighter? Anyone can make a statement by holding up a sign or throwing on a “Save the Rainforest” t-shirt, but what motivates someone who decides to take it to the next level-throwing on a Ninja outfit and torching a lumber mill in the middle of the night? And what would they hope to achieve? Wouldn’t that just encourage corporations to cut down even more trees to replace lost inventory?

In order to convey a sense of the humanity behind the mug shots, co-directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman focus primarily on Earth Liberation Front member Daniel McGowan, who at the time of filming was facing a possible life sentence for his direct involvement in several high-profile “actions” (including the arson of an Oregon lumber mill) that resulted in millions of dollars in property damage. Holed up in his sister’s NYC apartment (and sporting a house arrest anklet for the first third of the film), McGowan candidly opens up about his life and what led him to change his own M.O. for making a statement from “environmental activism” to “domestic terrorism”.

The filmmakers parallel the timeline and details of McGowan’s personal journey with a study about the development of the E.L.F., adding present day interviews with  his cohorts and archival footage of some of the group’s early “actions” (which were more in the realm of civil disobedience and passive resistance-like sitting in the path of bulldozers and camping out in old-growth trees marked for cutting). McGowan initially became involved with the environmental movement through “mainstream” activities, like “writing hundreds of letters” of protest and participating in peaceful demonstrations.

McGowan became frustrated with what he perceived to be the ineffectiveness of such actions. He sums it up with a rhetorical question: “When you’re screaming at the top of your lungs, and nobody hears you, what are you supposed to do?”

The tipping point for McGowan came in 1999, when he participated in the WTO protests in Seattle. There, through some of the more radicalized E.L.F. members, he became embedded with the relatively small band of black-clad “anarchists” who were disproportionately responsible for most of the property damage that occurred during the demonstrations (the majority of participants made a point after the fact to disassociate themselves from the anarchists).

From there, it was a relatively small jump to the more extreme acts that would lead to his eventual arrest and prosecution (he agreed to a “non-cooperation” plea deal that saved him from life in prison but still saddled him with 7 years and a “terrorism enhancement”).

The filmmakers give equal screen time to some of the law enforcement officials and prosecutors who made the case against McGowan and his associates. Although no one was ever injured or killed as a result of E.L.F. activity (astounding considering that there were approximately 1,200 “actions” perpetrated by the group during their heyday), there are still victims; and some of them appear on camera as well to offer their perspective.

Were these people “terrorists”? You almost have to get back to defining “what is a terrorist?” Or in this case, who are the real terrorists? One interviewee offers this: “95% of the native American forests have been cut down. Trying to save the remaining 5% is ‘radical’?” That’s a valid question. McGowan himself seems to be arguing (in so many words) that in a post 9-11 world, people have a tendency to make a “rush to judgment” without considering the alternate point of view (he suggests that the word “terrorist” has supplanted “Communist” as the demagogue’s dog whistle of choice).

I wonder if the filmmakers intend McGowan’s story to be a litmus test for the viewer (how far out on the limb would you be willing to go for your personal convictions?) If so, that’s a tough one. Part of me identifies with Daniel McGowan the environmentally-conscious idealist; but I don’t think I can quite get behind Daniel McGowan the criminal arsonist. For now, I’m just content to keep recycling and doing my part to think “glocal”. And in case you’re wondering…I haven’t stepped foot inside a Honeybaked Ham store since I quit working there 14 years ago. Those murderous bastards.

Confessions of a Beatle Fan, pt. 1: Living in the Material World ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 15, 2011)

In the Summer of ’67, 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 sex on acid…I can’t. Mainly because I had only recently turned 11. The first thing I discovered was Mad magazine (which undoubtedly explains a lot, to long-time readers). The second thing was record collecting. I still remember my very first vinyl purchase, blowing at least three months’ worth of allowance at the JCPenney in Fairbanks, Alaska. I purchased two LPs (at the whopping price of $3.98 each), and one 45 single. The LPs were Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the 45 was “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever”…all by that band that, you know… Paul McCartney used to be in before Wings.

Flash-forward about 35 years or so. 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 scribbles. I lingered over one in particular, which was initially tough to decipher, with all the crossed-out words and such:

But you know I know when it’s a bean”? Huh? It still wasn’t really registering as to what I was looking at (the mind plays funny tricks sometimes). 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, Oh.My.(Rock) God. This is John Lennon’s original handwritten draft of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. I am bearing witness to the genesis of one my favorite songs. Here I stand, head in hand, with my eyes but inches away from a tangible manifestation of pure inspiration and genius. Suddenly, I panicked. Was I worthy enough to keep looking? Was my face going to 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 this experience.

Devoted Fabs fans may find themselves welling up a bit after viewing a slightly flawed yet still essential documentary from Martin Scorsese called George Harrison: Living in the Material World, which debuted on HBO last week. Clocking in at an epic three and-a-half hours (presented in two parts), it is the most in-depth cinematic portrait to date of “the quiet Beatle”. In fact, Scorsese (who, you may recall, memorably employed Harrison’s “What is Life” for one of the musical cues in Goodfellas) seems to be on a mission to prove otherwise. Harrison, we learn, not only had much to say, but was not shy about speaking his mind; he was no shrinking violet.

Nor did he necessarily spend all of his off-hours steeped in meditative Eastern spiritualism, strumming his sitar. He was, after all, a rock star; along with his three mates one of the most famous rock stars off all time, and wasn’t adverse to fully taking advantage of the perks at his disposal during the heights of Beatlemania. “He was a guy,” Paul McCartney offers coyly (referring to what one would imagine to be a lost decade of revelries that would probably make an ancient Roman blush). Harrison was very spiritual, but like any human being he was not perfect. Scorsese illustrates the dichotomy well, and it’s the most compelling element of his film.

Like its subject, the film is not 100% perfect. While nicely capturing the mood and the spirit of Harrison’s distinct musical eras (via a treasure trove of vintage footage, inter-cut with interviews) there is an occasional disconnect with the historical timeline (the uninitiated may be left craving more contextualization) There’s not too much 60s footage that I haven’t seen before (I’ve seen virtually everything Beatles). Still, Scorsese is such a great filmmaker, he makes what would seem a retread in lesser hands feel fresh and vital.

[Intermission]

Next Week: Top 10 Fab 4 Flicks! (same Beatles time, same Beatles station)

Criterion peddles Kubrick’s noir cycle: The Killing **** & Killer’s Kiss ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2011)

“I like a slow start, the start that goes under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.”

-Stanley Kubrick

To someone unfamiliar with Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre, a cursory glance at his career stats (13 movies over a 46 year span) might prompt some head-scratching as to what all the fuss is about concerning his impact on the medium and influence on countless film makers. But you know the funny thing about great artists? They are defined by the quality of their work, not the quantity (after all, James Dean only starred in 3 feature films).

Indeed, a lot of filmmakers (alive or dead) should be so lucky to have but one entry in their entire catalog that could hold a candle to, say, a Paths of Glory. Or a Spartacus. Or a Lolita. Or Dr. Strangelove. Or something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, or Full Metal Jacket. Even Stanley Kubrick on a relatively “off” day (The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut) handily outclasses any number of titles “now playing at a theater near you” (speaking purely from a technical, artistic, or aesthetic standpoint).

Granted, when compared to his subsequent work, Kubrick’s independently financed 1953 feature debut Fear and Desire, does, I fear, leave much to be desired from a narrative standpoint; but everybody has to start somewhere. That being said, the film (shot, edited and post-synched by Kubrick and scripted by Howard O. Sackler) does feature masterfully composed shots that hint at the then 25 year-old Kubrick’s already highly developed sense of style.

Kubrick did his best to distance himself from the film, suppressing attempts at revivals (allegedly even hunting down prints and having them destroyed). A rare public screening in Los Angeles last fall has created buzz that a restoration and long-awaited DVD could be in the works; in the meantime we’re stuck with (what looks like) a 20th generation videotaped copy somebody posted on YouTube.

Some better news for Kubrick completists arrived earlier this week in the guise of Criterion’s “2-fer” reissue of the director’s second and third films (previously unavailable in Blu-ray editions), Killer’s Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956). The latter film gets star billing on the package, and the former is “demoted” to one of the supplements on the disc; but it’s still great to see both of these early Kubrick gems receiving Criterion’s traditionally fastidious “clean-up” and supplementation (MGM’s SD issues have been available for several years, but were “bare bones” editions with so-so transfers). These two films also represent Kubrick’s own mini noir cycle.

The most renowned of the pair, The Killing, is considered by many to be the director’s first “proper” film, as it was his first with well-known actors and to reach a sizable audience. This was also Kubrick’s first adaptation from a book (from Lionel White’s Clean Break). Legendary pulp writer Jim Thompson was enlisted to work on the screenplay (according to a supplemental interview on the Criterion disc with poet-author Robert Polito, Thompson never forgave the director for the “screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, with additional dialog by Jim Thompson” billing in the credits, when it was Thompson who allegedly contributed the lion’s share of original dialog to the script).

The Killing (nicely shot by DP Lucien Ballard, renowned in later years for his work with Sam Peckinpah) is a pulpy, taut 94-minute noir that extrapolates on the “heist gone awry” model pioneered six years earlier in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. Kubrick even nabbed one of the stars from Huston’s film, Sterling Hayden, to be his leading man.

Hayden plays the mastermind, Johnny Clay (fresh out of stir) who hatches an elaborate plan to rob the day’s receipts from a horse track. He enlists a team, including a couple of track employees (Elisha Cook, Jr. and Joe Sawyer), a wrestler (Kola Kwariani), a puppy-loving hit man (oddball character actor Timothy Carey-the John Turturro of his day) and of course, the requisite “bad” cop (Ted de Corsia).

Being a cautious planner, Johnny keeps his accomplices in the dark about any details not specific to their particular assignments. Still, the plan has to go like clockwork; if any one player falters, the gig will collapse like a house of cards. However, as occurs in The Asphalt Jungle, it’s a scourge of human weaknesses (and the femme fatale of the piece, an entertainingly trashy Marie Windsor, as Elisha Cook, Jr.’s belligerent wife) that ultimately unravels the caper.

While certain venerable conventions of the heist film are faithfully adhered to in The Killing, it’s in the way Kubrick structures the narrative that sets it apart from other such genre films of the era. The initial introduction to each of the main characters, and the account of how each man’s part in the heist itself eventually plays out, are presented in a non-linear, Rashomon-style structure. Kubrick also adds a semi-documentary feel by utilizing an omniscient narrator.

Playing with the timeline to build a network narrative-style crime caper may be cliché now, but was groundbreaking in 1956 (Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is the best modern example of liberal “borrowing” from The Killing). I’m also pretty sure that Christopher Nolan was paying homage in his 2008 film The Dark Knight, which featured a heist scene with clown-masked bank robbers (in The Killing, a shotgun-wielding Sterling Hayden hides his face in a clown mask to rob the track’s loot).

It’s been fashionable over the years for critics and film historians to marginalize Kubrick’s 1955 noir Killer’s Kiss as a “lesser” or “experimental” work by the director, but I beg to differ. The most common criticism leveled at the film is that it has a weak narrative.

On this point, I tend to agree; it’s an original story and screenplay by Kubrick, who was a neophyte at screenwriting at that time (and with hindsight being 20/20, most of his best work was borne of literary adaptations). It could be defined as simplistic (and at a 67 minute running time, plays out its plot points like, say, a weekly episode of a high-production value TV crime drama). But when you consider other elements  that go into “classic” noir, like mood, atmosphere and the expressionistic use of light and shadow, I believe that Killer’s Kiss has all that in spades, and is one of the better noirs of the 1950s.

The film opens and closes in New York’s Penn Station, with the story’s protagonist, an anxious and furtive young boxer named Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) providing a voiced-over flashback narrative as he recounts a rather eventful and life-changing week or so in his life.

Naturally, there’s a beautiful woman involved (it’s a noir rule), and her name is Gloria (Irene Kane). In this case, she’s not a femme fatale, per se, but the quintessential “nice girl next door”. Okay, she is a private dancer, working at a 10 cents a whirl joint called “Pleasureland”. So she is a “nice girl” in the “what’s a nice girl like you doing working in a place like this?” kind of way. Davey and Gloria’s apartment windows face each other across an alleyway; we see them  checking each other out in a voyeuristic manner in some early scenes; telegraphing to the audience that sooner or later, these two will be hooking up.

It is Gloria’s boss at the nightclub, a creepy, low-rent mobster sleaze named Vincent (Frank Silvera) who brings the dark elements to her life (and to the story). The two are in a relationship, about which the much older Vincent seems more enthused than Gloria. In one particularly sordid scene, Vincent yanks Gloria off the dance floor and makes her watch one of Davey’s boxing matches on TV (he knows that he lives in Gloria’s building). The violence seems to turn Vincent on, and he begins unceremoniously pawing at the reluctant Gloria; thankfully, Kubrick quickly fades to black.

A few nights later, Davey hears a woman screaming. He sees Vincent assaulting Gloria, and dashes over to help her. Vincent also gets a good look at Davey before yanking Gloria’s shade down. By the time Davey gets to Gloria’s pad, Vincent has fled. Davey comforts her, and…you can guess the rest. Vincent’s jealously-fueled rage eventually puts their lives in great danger.

There are two things I find fascinating about this film. First, I marvel at how ‘contemporary’ it looks; it doesn’t feel as dated as most films of the era (or could indicate how forward-thinking Kubrick was in terms of technique). This is due in part to the naturalistic location photography, which serves as an immersive time capsule of New York City’s street life circa 1955 (much the same way that Jules Dassin’s 1948 documentary-style noir, The Naked City preserves the NYC milieu of the late 1940s). It’s possible that Martin Scorsese may have studied this film before making Raging Bull, as there is an arresting similarity between the boxing scenes in both films, particularly in the highly stylized manner that they are photographed, lit and edited.

Second, this was a privately financed indie, so Kubrick (who served as director, writer, photographer and editor) was not beholden to any studio expectations. Hence, he was free to play around a bit with film making conventions of the time. Several scenes are eerily prescient of his future work. A dream sequence, shown in film negative, that features a sped-up tracking shot racing dizzily through Manhattan’s skyscraper canyons, immediately calls to mind the “beyond the infinite” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Then there’s a climactic showdown between Davey and Vincent, set in a storage room full of naked store mannequins, that takes a macabre, comic turn when they start whacking each other with plastic body parts, recalling the final confrontation between Humbert and Quilty amidst the discombobulated contents of the rundown mansion in Lolita, and to some degree, the scene in Clockwork Orange in which the ultra-violent Alex bludgeons one of his hapless victims to death with a comically oversized “sculpture” of a phallus.

It’s a bit tough to follow that last bit of imagery with anything, other than to say that for Kubrick fanatics, Criterion’s new edition of these two gems is the reissue of the year!

Wolves, lower: The Wolfman **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 13, 2010)

Inga: Werewolf!

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein:  (startled) Werewolf?!

Igor There.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein:  What?

Igor (pointing) There…wolf. There…castle.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein:  Why are you talking that way?

Igor:  I thought you wanted to.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein:  No, I don’t want to.

Igor:  (shrugs) Suit yourself. I’m easy.

 -from Young Frankenstein.

 Why are people so fascinated with the concept of vampires and werewolves? I suppose it’s something to do with those primal impulses that we all (well, most of us-thank the Goddess) keep safely locked in our  lizard brain. Both of these “monsters” are  predatory in nature, but with some significant differences.

With vampires, it’s the psycho-sexual subtext; always on the hunt for someone to penetrate with those (Canines? Molars? I’m not a dentist). There is a certain amount of seduction (or foreplay, if you will) involved as well. But once consummated, it’s off to  the next victim (no rest for the anemic). In criminologist terms, vampires are serial date rapists…so why  do people find that sexy?.

Werewolves, on the other hand, are much less complex. They are spree killers, pure and simple (“He always seemed like such a sweet, quiet guy. Until the full moon.”) With them it’s all about the ripping, and the slicing and the dicing.

Vampires are quite self-aware of their “issues”…but they can’t stop doing what they do. They have highly addictive personalities-which is an element a lot of people can identify with on some level (with me, it’s chocolate…and yes, you may call me Count Chocula).

Werewolves, on the other hand, generally have no cognizance of their actions, until perhaps after the fact. They have true schizophrenic personalities, which I think makes them the scarier creatures. I suppose that even those of us who are not homicidal maniacs can relate on some level (“I did what last night? Jesus, I’ll never get that drunk again!”). Werewolves scare us because they remind us of the duality that exists within all human beings; after all, Hitler and Gandhi walked the planet at the same point in history.

My favorite “monster movies” don’t necessarily involve characters literally shape shifting into wild beasts. One example is Jean Renoir’s 1938 thriller La Bete Humaine (reworked by Fritz Lang as the 1954 film noir Human Desire) with the great Jean Gabin as a train engineer plagued by blackouts, during which he commits horrendous crimes, usually precipitated by sexual stirrings. And who can forget Elvis’ immortal line from Jailhouse Rock, after an uninvited advance: “Ah… sorry, honah. It’s just the beast in me.”

You know what “they” say-it always comes in threes; especially in Hollywood, where the studios have recently been on a Victorian kick. As of this weekend, we have Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman snapping away in theaters, on the heels of Sherlock Holmes and The Young Victoria. Basing their film on the eponymous Lon Chaney Jr. classic, director Johnston and screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, who adapted from Curt Siodmak’s 1941 script, have re-imagined a few elements, but are fairly faithful to the original.

The film opens with a vintage Hammer Studios vibe. It’s England, 1891. There’s a full moon, an old dark manor, and (wait for it) a fog on the moor. A terrified man is fleeing from an unseen bestial horror, as fast as his Wellingtons can carry him. Not fast enough.

Local myth attributes a recent spate of these brutal killings to an elusive  creature of unknown origins. The villagers are a superstitious lot, believing they have been cursed; naturally, the nearest group of Gypsies is suspected. This is the milieu that an American actor named Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) finds himself in when his brother’s mysterious disappearance precipitates a return to his boyhood home and a wary reunion with his estranged father (Anthony Hopkins).

Lawrence has not returned at his father’s request, but rather at the urging of his missing brother’s fiancée (Emily Blunt). The elder Talbot’s misanthropic demeanor has not exactly endeared him to his neighbors either, and when an inspector from Scotland Yard (Hugo Weaving) arrives to investigate, they happily cast their suspicions in the direction of the Talbots. Through fate and circumstance, Lawrence becomes suspect #1, and a dark family history unfurls.

Was this a necessary remake? 69 years seems a respectful moratorium. Johnston’s film does evoke the mood and atmosphere of the original; it’s fitting homage to Universal’s classic horror era (which also includes wonderful creature-less chillers like The Scarlet Claw, my personal favorite of their Holmes series). The transformation scenes are genuinely creepy, and creature effects master Rick Baker’s prosthetic work is aces. Danny Elfman’s gothic score fits in nicely.

On the down side, despite the impressive cast, no performance stands out; even hammy Hopkins seems oddly detached. While I can appreciate that Del Toro was trying to “internalize” the inherent tragedy of his character, he never gets to develop it fully-which could be due to the rushed narrative in the second act. There are some interesting peripheral characters introduced (like a Gypsy seer, played by Geraldine Chaplin, who we don’t get to see enough of these days) but again, they are ultimately given short shrift.

Fans of old school Gothic horror will fare best. While the film has graphic violence, it stops  this side of gratuitous (unlike the odious “torture porn” genre, which has given horror movies a bad name). With a sharper script and more plot development, they could have had a minor cult item. But for the time being, Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Boris Karloff can continue to rest easy.

Nice sweaters: Adieu to TV’s At The Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 21, 2010)

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Being a renowned film critic on the blogosphere, I am often stopped by strangers on the street; and if there is one question that I am inevitably going to be asked, it is this one:

“Sir? Would you know if the Route 27 bus stops here?”

Maybe after that question, the one I am most frequently asked is:

“What ever made you think other people might care about your opinions on cinema?”

Well, if you must pry (“I must! I must!”), there are a couple pop cultural touchstones that nudged me toward upgrading from Annoying Movie Geek Who Never Shuts Up at Parties to Aspiring Film Critic. First, there was this 1985 panel by Matt Groening:

Depending on your screen size, the graphics may not be 100% legible, but here’s the gist:

 Are you qualified to be a clever film critic?

  • Did you have no friends as a child?
  • Do you salivate at the smell of stale popcorn?
  • Do you thrill at the prospect of spending a career writing in-depth analyses of movies aimed at subliterate 15-year-olds?
  • Do you mind being loathed for your opinions?

The four types of clever film critics: Which do you aspire to be?

  • Academic type: boring, unreadable
  • Serious type: reveals endings
  • Daily type: nice plot summaries
  • TV clown: nice sweaters

For advanced clever film critics only:

Can you use “mise-en-scène” in a review that anyone will finish reading?

“Hey,” I thought, after passing milk and Cocoa Puffs through my nose, “I could do that!” Unfortunately, however, the internet hadn’t quite taken off yet, and if you wanted to be a clever film critic you still had to try to get a job at like, an actual newspaper or something. Besides, I was too busy at the time chasing a broadcasting career (funnily enough, after 35 years in the business, I’m still “chasing” it).

All kidding aside, there was a more significant touchstone for me, which preceded Groening’s satirical yet weirdly empowering observations. In the late 70s, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. This was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time, 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).

Also keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and the video stores were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional screenings of midnight movies at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV, but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my fellow culture vulture pals for the 260 mile drive to Anchorage, where they had more theaters.

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, and thinking they had a pretty cool gig; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to be taken seriously as a film critic (most of those films just didn’t make it out to the sticks).

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Then, in 1978, our local PBS television affiliate began carrying a bi-weekly 30-minute program called Sneak Previews. Now here was something kind of interesting; a couple of guys (kind of scruffy lookin’) casually bantering about current films-who actually seemed to know their shit. You might even think they were professional movie critics…which it turned out they were.

In fact, they were professional rivals; Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel wrote for competing Chicago dailies, the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune . This underlying tension between the pair was always bubbling just under the surface, but imbued the show with an interesting dynamic (especially when they disagreed on a film).

Still, I always got a vibe that they treated each other with respect (if begrudging at times) and most importantly, treated the viewers with respect as well. You never felt like they were talking above your head, like some of the traditional film essayists who were “boring, unreadable” (as Matt Groening describes the “academic types” in his panel above). Nor did they condescend, either.

This is where I part ways with Groening; his “TV clowns” reference above is clearly directed at Siskel & Ebert, but I would reserve that description for someone more along the lines of a Gene Shalit. One thing these two did share was an obvious and genuine love and respect for the art of cinema; and long before the advent of the internet, I think they were instrumental in razing the ivory towers and demystifying the art of film criticism (especially for culturally starved yahoos like me, living on the frozen tundra).

Last weekend, with minimal fanfare, A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips, the most recent hosts of At the Movies (the long-running weekly syndicated review show that Siskel & Ebert created after they parted ways with the producers of Sneak Previews back in 1982) each gave their farewell soliloquy and quietly closed up the balcony for good.

That’s too bad, because during their relatively brief tenure, Scott and Phillips brought an erudite and thoughtful discourse to the show that had been sorely lacking for some time. To be sure, the program went through a lot of personnel changes over the years, and not always for the best (would it be tacky to mention Ben Lyons by name?). Although Ebert remained a stalwart fixture until health issues precipitated his 2006 departure, I thought that the show never quite recovered from the absence of Siskel (who died in 1999).

As Scott and Phillips rolled a collage of vintage Siskel & Ebert clips, I found myself unexpectedly choking up a little. Granted, the model pioneered by Siskel and Ebert may now seem staid and hoary in the era of Rotten Tomatoes, but its historical importance and effect on some of us “of a certain age” cannot be overlooked.

So Roger, should you happen to be reading this (not likely, but I can dream, can’t I?) and to Gene, wherever you may be, somewhere out there in the ether: FWIW, I humbly offer my two enthusiastic thumbs up.

This film is rated NCC-1701: Star Trek ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullbaloo on May 16, 2009)

Wait a sec…these guys look familiar. Where have I…

Ah! Sie sind von die Zukunft!

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?”

You can only recycle a movie brand so many times before there is no where left to go but back to the beginning. The James Bond series reached that point with Casino Royale in 2006, 44 years after Dr. No. It now appears that the Star Trek franchise (blowing out 43 candles this year) has taken a cue from 007, and gone back to unearth its “first” mission.

Gene Roddenberry’s universally beloved creation has become so ingrained into our pop culture and the collective subconscious of Boomers (as well as the, um, next generation) that the producers of the latest installment didn’t have to entitle it with a qualifier. It’s not Star Trek: Origins, or Star Trek: 2009. It’s just Star Trek. They could have just as well called it Free Beer, judging from the $80,000,000 it has rung up at the box office already.

The filmmakers seem shrewd enough to realize that while it may not matter to casual moviegoers that the principal characters are being somewhat “re-imagined”, they still have to take steps to ensure that they do not provoke a fanboy jihad. And the best way to tap dance your way into obsessive Trekkers’ little pointy-eared hearts? Incorporate the original Roddenberry ethos. As box office numbers indicate, they have the “live long and prosper” part down, but-how does the film hold up in the “ethos” department, you may ask?

Rather nicely, actually. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is suitably bold, charismatic, and cocky. And he is younger than usual. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is suitably hyper-intelligent, stalwart and coolly logical. He’s also younger than usual. And he is older than usual; but I won’t go into that (it’s no secret that Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance-so you can figure it out from there).

Not that the plot really matters. Suffice it to say that it involves a time-traveling Romulan (Eric Bana, heavily disguised by the prosthetic face and oddly resembling Anthony Zerbe in The Omega Man) who is stalking Spock throughout the continuum for his own nefarious reasons.

The reason  plot doesn’t matter is because the best Star Trek stories are character-driven; specifically concerning the interplay between the principal crew members of the U.S.S. Enterprise. And it is here that director J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have delivered in spades.

The actors are given just enough signature lines to establish a reassuring nod and a wink to those in the audience who are familiar with the original characterizations; yet thankfully they have been directed to make the roles very much their own, never sinking into a self-conscious parody or merely “doing an impression” of their respective original cast member.

Pine and Quinto are quite adept at capturing the core dynamic of the relationship between Kirk and Spock as it was originally (and so indelibly) established by Shatner and Nimoy. Karl Urban steals all his scenes as Dr. McCoy, and in the film’s most inspired bit of casting, Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) proves a perfect choice as Chief Engineer Scott. Zoe Saldana, John Cho and Anton Yelchin (as Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, respectively) round off the principal crew members, all players tackling their roles with much aplomb.

The film is not wholly without flaws (a lackluster villain, so-so special effects) but the tight direction, sharply written dialog and energetic young cast outweigh negatives. Hell, this one might even shatter my “even numbers rule” (it’s the eleventh film, if you’re counting). I know this isn’t 100% kosher, but I’m rating Star Trek 4 out of 5 possible Honeybaked Hams. And it was a pleasure serving you, Mr. Doohan. Wherever you are.

Tip-toe through the P-patch: No Impact Man ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 26, 2009)

“Yeah, but I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket, Andre. I mean, because New York is cold in the winter. I mean, our apartment is cold! It’s a difficult environment. I mean, our life is tough enough as it is. I’m not looking for ways to get rid of a few things that provide relief and comfort.” –Wallace Shawn, from My Dinner with Andre.

I don’t know about you, but I’m with Wally. And Kermit the Frog. Because, dammit, it ain’t easy being green. Oh, I suppose I feel pretty good about myself when I toss the empty cereal box (made from post-consumer fibers and printed in soy ink) into the recycling bin, bring my reusable bag to the farmer’s market, or screw in a low-wattage compact fluorescent bulb, but does that mean I’m doing my part to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint? After watching the new eco-doc, No Impact Man, it would seem that my crimes against Mother Gaia are running a close 2nd to those of Capt. Hazelwood.

Filmmakers Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein document the efforts of blogger/author Colin Beavan to spend an entire year making as little environmental impact as possible. Operating under the supposition that there are more than a few self proclaimed “environmentally conscious” wags out there who don’t  practice what they preach (and humbly considering himself to be among them) Beavan set out to put his mulch where his mouth is.

Beavan decided that if he was really going to go for it, he would have to convince his dazzling urbanite wife, Business Week writer Michelle Conlin (a classic New York neurotic) and their toddler to join in as well. So how does a family of Manhattanites pull this off without leaving their metropolitan cocoon? This paradox provides plenty of rich narrative compost for the filmmakers, and they cultivate it well.

Any food that the vegetarian family were to consume in the course of the experiment would have to come from local growers (although, dwelling in the heart of New York City, they had to fudge the definition of “local” a tad). Much to Michelle’s chagrin, this meant no more Starbucks (the inevitable scenes dealing with her caffeine withdrawal angst, while initially amusing, begin to feel a little stagy).

Electricity was right out, so they dutifully shut down the breakers in their apartment. Automated transportation was also nixed, only walking and biking allowed (elevators were also verboten). And lastly, they make what is arguably the ultimate sacrifice: no material consumption (during a thrift store visit, Michelle gazes wistfully at a used Marc Jacobs bag; the look on her face speaks volumes about the twisted pathos of consumer culture). When Beavan announces that toilet paper is off the list, the, erm, shit really hits the fan.

Despite the obvious “Dah-link I love you, but give me Park Avenue!” parallels, it’s not exactly Green Acres; after all, this is a serious-minded documentary, not just going for the quick yuck. In fact, one of the more fascinating aspects of the film is its exploration of the outright hatred that Beavan receives from some quarters.

In one scene, he mopes at his laptop, so befuddled and browbeaten by all the negative comments on his blog that he’s ready to just throw in the towel on the whole project. Ironically, some of his detractors accuse him of being the very creature that he set out to prove to himself that he wasn’t-one of the hypocritical “green fakers”.

Even one of his consultants, an urban gardening expert, questions his sincerity. He proffers that Beavan’s wife writes for Business Week, “…for which millions of trees are cut down on a regular basis in order to promote the thoroughly fallacious propaganda that American corporate capitalism is good for the people.” He’s only getting warmed up. He concludes: “If it’s your contention that it evens out because she doesn’t take the elevator in your 5th Avenue co-op…I have to say you’re either dishonest, or delusional.”  Ouch!

For me, the most pragmatic takeaway from the film stems from one of Beavan’s more thoughtful observations. Perhaps the point is “…not about using as little as we can possibly use…but to find a way to get what you need, in a sustainable way.” The major question that looms is: why are some people so threatened by the very idea of “thinking green”? Beavan offers that perhaps it is “…the idea of deprivation that scares people the most” – which of course brings us back full circle to Wally’s lament from My Dinner with Andre that I quoted at the top of the post.

Short of chucking it all and joining an Amish enclave, I think it’s possible to be “green” and enjoy some comforts of modern technology without feeling guilty about being alive in the 21st Century. For Wally, it’s the idea of losing the use of his electric blanket. For me, it would be my DVD player. And my DVD collection. OK, and my cable service, and my DVR. I will happily sort out all my garbage, buy locally (when feasible) and avoid using my vehicle whenever practical, but you’ll only get my Universal Remote…when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Electric Kool-Aid acid reflux: Taking Woodstock ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 5, 2009)

Bob & Carol & Ted &…uh, has anyone seen Alice?

“If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”. Don’t you hate it when some lazy-ass critic/wannabe sociopolitical commentator trots out that  old chestnut to preface some pompous “think piece” about the Woodstock Generation?

God, I hate that.

But I think it was Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane who once said: “If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Or it could have been Robin Williams, or Timothy Leary. Of course, the irony is that whoever did say it originally, probably can’t really remember if they were in fact the person who said it first.

You see, memory is a funny thing. Let’s take the summer of 1969, for example. Here’s how Bryan Adams remembers it:

 That summer seemed to last forever
and if I had the choice
Yeah – I’d always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life

Best days of his life. OK, cool. Of course, he wrote that song in 1984. He’d had a little time to sentimentalize events. Now, here’s how Iggy Stooge describes that magic time:

 Well it’s 1969 okay.
We’ve got a war across the USA.
There’s nothing here for me and you.
We’re just sitting here with nothing to do.

Iggy actually wrote and released that song in the year 1969. So which of these two gentlemen were really there, so to speak?

“Well Dennis,” you may be thinking (while glancing at your watch) “…that’s all fine and dandy, but doesn’t the title of this review indicate that the subject at hand is Ang Lee’s new film, Taking Woodstock? Shouldn’t you be quoting Joni Mitchell instead ?”

Patience, Grasshopper. Here’s how Joni Mitchell “remembers” Woodstock:

 By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration

She wrote that in 1969. But here’s the rub: she wasn’t really there.

There was a point in there, somewhere. Somehow it made sense when I was peaking on the ‘shrooms about an hour ago. Oh, I’m supposed to be writing a movie review. Far out, man.

My point is, there’s always been a disconnect between “Woodstock”  the romanticized representation of a generation, and the actual “Woodstock Music and Art Fair” event that took place near Bethel, New York in August of 1969. In other words, can “anybody” who was of a certain age and mindset in 1969 rightfully claim (like Joni) that they were “there”, in spirit, and that it was a beautiful, groovy thing?

Or, did you have to physically attend the event, parking miles away, slogging through a muddy sea of humanity, with only a slim chance of getting close enough to the stage to identify who was playing?

And in spite of the impression given by Michael Wadleigh in his brilliant rock doc, Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music (whittled down from over 300 hours of footage into a 4-hour film), the sound system reportedly left much to be desired, and many of the bands (by their own admission) did not give career best performances.

None of the main characters in Taking Woodstock get that close to the stage, either (although some do ingest certain substances, play in the mud and take a figurative wallow in the counter-cultural zeitgeist of 1969). For the most part, Lee doesn’t set out to just reenact the grand canvas of the event as has already been depicted in Wadleigh’s iconic documentary (what would be the point?).

Instead, he has opted for a far more intimate approach, based on a memoir by Elliot Tiber, who helped broker the deal between the producers of the music festival and the Bethel Town Board to hold the event there after the permits were refused for the originally intended location in the nearby  town of Wallkill, N.Y.

Elliot is played by stand-up comic/first time leading man Demetri Martin (a former writer for Conan O’Brien who you will most likely recognize from sporadic appearances on The Daily Show).

In 1969, he is living in the Village in N.Y.C., eking out a living as an interior designer. When it becomes clear that his aging parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) are overextending themselves trying to  keep their Catskills motel business afloat as the bank threatens foreclosure, Elliot heads back home upstate to become their Man Friday. Serendipity eventually puts Elliot face-to-face with concert producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff).

Seeing little more than an opportunity to sell out the motel for a few weeks and give the business some much-needed cash flow, Elliot (having no idea that he is playing a pivotal role in enabling what is destined to become  the high-water mark of the 60s counterculture movement) introduces Lang to a local farmer, Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who has some spacious fields that might fit the bill.

There is some resistance to overcome from grumpy neighboring farmers, as well as consternation from a local Town Board members about the idea of their sleepy hamlet being overrun by a bunch of Dirty Fucking Hippies (this part of the tale takes on a Footloose vibe).

“Dramedies” can be tricky. Too much drama curdles the comedy. Too much comedy can sabotage dramatic tension. Unfortunately, Lee’s film takes a fair stab at both but doesn’t fully succeed at either, leaving you with the cinematic equivalent of tepid dishwater. There are also a few  intriguing backstories hinted at, but never explored.

That being said, there are a couple decent sequences; particularly a protracted vignette in which Elliot,  trying to work his way closer toward the stage, gets waylaid by a mellow couple, camped out in their VW van. The pair, played with doe-eyed blissfulness by Paul Dano and Kelli Garner invite Elliot aboard for a nice little trip (which doesn’t involve any actual driving-wink wink). It’s a very sweet little interlude, beautifully played by all three young actors.

If you are really hell-bent to skinny-dip in nostalgia, you needn’t scratch your head over Taking Woodstock. Dim all the lights, plug in the lava lamp, light up the bong, then “take Woodstock” (the original documentary) off the shelf. All together now:  “Gimme an ‘F’…”