Tag Archives: On Pop Culture

Not necessarily in that order: A (roundabout) tribute to Jean-Luc Godard

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2022)

https://i0.wp.com/digbysblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/image-56.png?w=800&ssl=1

December 3, 1930-September 13, 2022

A film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. –Jean Luc-Godard

Speaking of “non-linear”, that reminds me of a funny story (well, not “ha-ha” funny). I once had the privilege of seeing the late Jean Luc-Godard in the flesh before I had seen any of his films. To be honest, this memory had been tucked away in the cobwebs of my mind until several days ago, when it was triggered by this AP news flash:

Jean-Luc Godard, the iconic “enfant terrible” of the French New Wave who revolutionized popular cinema in 1960 with his first feature, “Breathless,” and stood for years among the film world’s most influential directors, died Tuesday. He was 91.

Godard died peacefully and surrounded by loved ones at his home in the Swiss town of Rolle, on Lake Geneva, his family said in a statement. The statement gave assisted suicide, which is legal in Switzerland, as the cause of death.

A medical report recently revealed the director had “multiple invalidating pathologies,” according to the family statement, which did not specify the conditions.

Over a long career that began in the 1950s as a film critic, Godard was perhaps the most boundary-breaking director among New Wave filmmakers who rewrote the rules for camera, sound and narrative — rebelling against an earlier tradition of more formulaic storytelling.

[JUMP CUT]

Be advised that this will not an assessment of his oeuvre. No one could accuse me of being a Godard scholar; out of his 40+ feature films, I’ve seen 12. And out of that relative handful, the only two I have felt compelled to watch more than once are Breathless and Alphaville.

https://i0.wp.com/digbysblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/image-57.png?w=600&ssl=1

The aptly entitled Breathless still knocks the wind out of me; it was (and remains) a freewheeling, exhilarating poke in the lens of conventional film making. And…sodamsexy. Despite its flouting of the rules, the film is (possibly) Godard’s most easily digestible work. Over the years, his films would become ever more challenging (or downright maddening).

https://i0.wp.com/digbysblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/image-58.png?w=752&ssl=1

Indeed, even my second-favorite Godard film, Alphaville, played hard-to-get with me. From my review of the 2019 Blu-ray reissue:

The first time I saw this 1965 Jean-Luc Godard film I said to myself “WTF did I just watch?” I shrugged it off and forgot about it for about a decade. Then, a couple weeks ago I picked up a copy of this newly restored 4K Blu-ray and watched it a second time. This time, I said to myself, “Oh. I think I got it.” Then, after pausing a beat “No. I don’t got it.” Now bound and determined, I watched it AGAIN several days later.

This time, by George…I think I got it: Godard’s film, with its mashup of science fiction, film noir, dystopian nightmare and existential despair is a pre-cursor to Blade Runner, Dark City and Death and the Compass.

See? I freely admit to being a middlebrow film buff with a high school diploma who’s been to two worlds fairs and a rodeo, but I eventually “get it”. Now, it’s possible the stumbling block that I can’t quite articulate is the “disturbing quality” of Godard’s films that Pauline Kael expounds upon thusly in her 1966 essay “Movie Brutalists: The French New Wave”:

There is a disturbing quality in Godard’s work that perhaps helps to explain why the young are drawn to his films and identify with them, and why so many older people call him a “coterie” artist and don’t think his films are important. His characters don’t seem to have any future. They are most alive (and most appealing) just because they don’t conceive of the day after tomorrow; they have no careers, no plans, only fantasies of the roles they could play, of careers, thefts, romance, politics, adventure, pleasure, a life like in the movies. […]

An elderly gentleman recently wrote me, “Oh, they’re such a bore, bore, bore, modern youth!! All attitudes and nothing behind the attitudes. When I was in my twenties, I didn’t just loaf around, being a rebel, I went places and did things. The reason they all hate the squares is because the squares remind them of the one thing they are trying to forget: there is a Future and you must build for it.”

He’s wrong, I think. The young are not “trying to forget”: they just don’t think in those terms. Godard’s power—and possibly his limitation—as an artist is that he so intensely expresses how they do feel and think.

OK, I think I get it now. Godard was intense. Like a repo man (to paraphrase Harry Dean Stanton). And you know what? Akin to Ms. Kael’s elderly gentleman, when I was in my twenties, I didn’t just loaf around, being a rebel, either… I went places and did things. Like that time I was living in San Francisco and went to see Pauline Kael and Jean-Luc Godard.

[FLASHBACK]

I should back up a second and explain how it was that I ended up seeing Godard before seeing any of his films. From my 2017 essay about the demise of the neighborhood theater:

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

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

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

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit.

[FLASH-FORWARD]

Which brings us back to the news of Godard’s passing this week. I suddenly remembered attending an event in the early 80s that featured Pauline Kael and Jean-Luc Godard onstage somewhere discussing (wait for it) film. But since my memory has been playing tricks as of late (I mean, I’m 66…however the hell that happened), I thought I’d consult someone who was there with me…my pal Digby. She not only confirmed that she and I and my girlfriend at the time did indeed pile into Digby’s Volkswagen to see Kael and Godard (at the Marin Civic Center in Mill Valley, as it turns out), but somehow dug up a transcript of the proceedings.

There was much lamenting and gnashing of teeth when we realized this happened 41 flippin’ years ago (oh, to be in my mid-20s again). Anyway, the evening was billed as “The Economics of Film Criticism: A Debate with Jean Luc-Godard and Pauline Kael” (May 7, 1981). I recall primarily being super-jazzed about seeing Kael (I was more familiar with her work than Godard’s). I can’t recall a word either of them said, of course, but I do remember my surprise at how engaging and effusive Godard was (I had fully expected to see the “enfant terrible”).

Reading through the transcript…I must have learned a lot (it didn’t stick). For the most part, Godard was wearing his thoughtful critic’s hat that evening. Here’s one fascinating exchange:

J-LG: Well, just five minutes ago you told me that I should not hold you responsible for all American film criticism, but I think you are, in a way, just as I feel responsible for the movies I see even if I have not made them.

PK: Oh, no, I won’t accept that. I can’t believe that you personally feel that you are responsible for the work of somebody whose work you hate.

J-LG: Well, let’s take this article, for example. You wrote about why movies are so bad, and you attack (and I disagreed with you) a good fellow you mentioned by name who was Vice President of some conglomerate. You made him responsible for everything that is bad in the movies. I said to myself, “How can one man be responsible for… ?” I mean a movie is made by a hundred people at least. It’s like war. Nixon is responsible, but the American people are responsible for electing Nixon.

PK: Well, let me explain what I mean about the people at the top having that much influence. If the people at the top of the movie company are not primarily interested in movies, but come either from agencies or law firms or the business community itself, if they are from the Harvard Business School, as many of them are, and they are put in to rationalize the business, and if they look strictly in terms of how much money they can get out of a project before it goes into production, that is to say of how much they can be sure of from television, from overseas televisıon, from cable, from cassettes, they know they can get the most money from pictures that have stars or have a big bestseller property. Those pictures are the easiest to market, and so it is the marketing decisions that determine which pictures they will make. And often if a picture comes along that they did not have much confidence in and really couldn’t sell in advance, they don’t do anything for it so that a picture like Melvin and Howard or, say, All Night Long or Atlantic City doesn’t get anything like the promotion of those movies that they are sure of. As a matter of fact, they are embarrassed to be connected with those movies because they assume those movies are going to fail financially and so, inadvertently, they make those pictures fail.

J-LG: Yeah, but it’s not a good reason. It’s right, but it doesn’t describe the reality of making a movie. They alone are not making the movies, the movies are made by the audience, the movies are made by the cinematographers, by the union people, they are all responsible. . . I mean why don’t they sell American cars today?

PK: Jean-Luc, let’s put it this way….

J-LG: No, it’s because who is obeying this order? I try never to obey it. That’s why….

PK: You don’t work in a big studio system.

J-LG: I wish I could (laughter).

PK: But the reason you can’t is the reason I am explaining. It’s the same reason that an American Godard could not work in the big studio system.

Plus ca change

That’s my Jean-Luc Godard story, and I’m sticking to it. As mentioned earlier, I did eventually catch up with some of his earlier work; now that his final reel has played and the lights have come up, I should probably catch up a little more before my end credits start rolling (or they revoke my film critic’s license…whichever comes first). Maybe I’ll begin with his final film and work my way back until I meet myself in the middle. In the end, it’s all relative. After all, as  supercomputer ALPHA-60 says in Alphaville, “Time is like a circle which turns endlessly.”

[FIN]

Tribeca 2022: Chop and Steele ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 11, 2022)

https://i0.wp.com/digbysblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/image-18.png?resize=1024%2C576&ssl=1

Is a moonlighting gig still definable as “a moonlighting gig” if you don’t have a day job? Self-employed presenters Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher are primarily known as creators (and curators) of the “Found Footage Festival”- the duo’s traveling roadshow of truly weird and wacky VHS-sourced clips. What began as a shared hobby for the long-time buds has turned into a years-long obsession with combing second-hand stores, garage sales and dumpsters for tapes…encompassing everything from commercially released special interest to obscure corporate training videos.

But that’s only half the story in Ben Steinbauer and Berndt Mader’s profile. Pickett and Prueher also have a second incarnation as elaborate pranksters. For a brief and shining moment, they became “Chop and Steele”, self-billed as “strongmen” (even if they certainly didn’t look the part). Almost unbelievably, they were able to book numerous appearances on locally produced “happy talk” TV shows, pushing the gag as far as possible before hapless hosts would catch on and immediately cue a commercial break.

They even finagled a taping on America’s Got Talent (although their bit wasn’t aired…and you’ll see why). Chop and Steele’s “career” abruptly ended when a media company brought a lawsuit against Pickett and Prueher. Entertaining, with thoughtful sidebars regarding the sometimes-tenuous relationship between comedy and the First Amendment. Howie Mandel, Bobcat Goldthwait and other admirers add their two cents.

Diamonds in the idiot box: Top 20 TV themes

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2022)

https://i0.wp.com/storage.googleapis.com/hipcomic/p/29d73ebaf9145b4e4392cbddba35e8fc-800.jpg?ssl=1

I’m taking a break from sticky floors and stale popcorn tonight to share my favorite TV show themes. It began as a “top 10” list, but I quickly gleaned that I had assigned myself a fool’s errand with that limitation. So I upped the ante to 15. Then 20 (damn my OCD!).

The Adventures of Pete and Pete – Nickelodeon’s best-kept secret, and a guilty pleasure. Gentle anarchy in the Bill Forsyth vein. I discovered, watched, and occasionally re-watch favorite episodes as an (alleged) adult. You can’t resist the hooks in Polaris’ theme.

Cheers – “Norm!” Gary Portnoy performed (and co-wrote) this upbeat show opener.

Coronet Blue – When I was 11, I became obsessed with this noir-ish, single-season precursor to the Bourne films. This theme has been stuck in my head since, oh…1967?

Due South – Paul Haggis’ unique “fish out of water” crime dramedy about a Canadian Mountie assigned to work with the Chicago P.D. was one of my favorite shows of the 90s (confession: I own all 4 seasons on DVD). It also had a great theme song, by Jay Semko.

Hawaii Five-O – The Ventures were the original surf punks (and they’re from Tacoma!).

M*A*S*H – Johnny Mandel’s lovely chart (ported from Robert Altman’s 1970 film, sans Mike Altman’s lyrics) is quite melancholic for a sitcom-but it spoke to the show’s pathos.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show – This ever-hopeful tune plays a bit wistfully now that Ms. Moore has shuffled off, but hey-as long as we have syndication, we’ll always have Mary.

Mission Impossible – Argentine jazz man Lalo Schifrin hit the jackpot with this memorable theme (he composed some great movie soundtracks too, like Cool Hand Luke). Legendary “Wrecking Crew” bassist Carol Kaye really lays it down here.

The Monkees – Here’s the cosmic conundrum that keeps me up nights: Mike Nesmith was my favorite Monkee…yet the Monkees remain Mike Nesmith’s least favorite band.

The Office (BBC original series) – For my money, nobody tops future Atomic Rooster lead singer Chris Farlowe’s soulful 1967 take on this oft-covered Mike d’Abo composition, but this nice rendition by Big George obviously struck Ricky Gervais’ fancy.

Peter Gunn – Henry Mancini was a genius, plain and simple. Wrote hooks in his sleep.

Portlandia – Somehow, stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (along with series co-creator/director Johnathan Krisel) have mined 7 seasons of material by satirizing hipster culture. Like any sketch-comedy show, it’s hit-and-miss, but when it hits a bullseye, it’s really funny. It’s easy to fall in love with Washed Out’s atmospheric dream pop theme.

Rawhide – “Move ‘em on! Head ‘em up!” This performance explains why Mel Brooks enlisted Frankie Laine to sing the Blazing Saddles theme. I’m afraid this squeezed Bonanza off my list (I’m sure I will be verbally bull-whipped by some of you cowpokes).

Secret Agent Man – This Johnny Rivers classic opened U.S. airings of the U.K. series Danger Man (which had a pretty cool harpsichord-driven instrumental theme of its own).

The Sopranos – For 7 years, Sunday night was Family night in my house. Fuhgettaboutit.

Square Pegs – This short-lived 1982 comedy series (created by SNL writer Anne Beatts) was, in hindsight, a bellwether for the imminent John Hughes-ification of Hollywood. Initially a goofy cash-in on New Wave/Valley Girl couture, it has become a cult favorite.

The Twilight Zone – It’s the Twilight Zone “theme”, but it’s not so much conventional composition as it is avant-garde sound collage (ahead of its time, like the program itself).

Weeds – I suspect many of the show runners of this outstanding Showtime dramedy weren’t even born when Malvina Reynolds recorded this song; but its cheeky social satire is a perfect match.

The Wire – This lauded HBO series is a compelling portmanteau of an American city in sociopolitical turmoil. The Blind Boys of Alabama’s urban blues hits just the right notes.

WKRP – I’ve worked in broadcasting since Marconi, so trust me when I say that this sitcom remains the most accurate depiction of life in the biz. Tom Wells composed the breezy theme, show creator Hugh Wilson wrote the lyrics, and Steve Carlisle performs it.

Everyone’s a Captain Kirk

By Dennis Hartley

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

https://i0.wp.com/cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/211011181750-blue-origin-william-shatner-super-tease.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How fragile we are. Godspeed, Planet Earth.

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

https://i0.wp.com/www.grayflannelsuit.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/vaughn-meader-the-first-family-album-cover.jpg?ssl=1

Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.

― Lenny Bruce

Like many people of “a certain age”, I can remember where I was and what I was doing when President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. I was attending school (2nd grade) in Columbus, Ohio. There was a school assembly. The principal made some remarks, we put our hands over our hearts, recited the Pledge of Allegiance and were dismissed.

I was not mature enough to grasp the historical significance of what had just happened, nor parse the sociopolitical fallout that ensued in the wake of this great national tragedy. All I got from the principal’s remarks that afternoon was “blah blah blah” and something about a magic ring and the end of the world. My main takeaway was that I got to go home early.

In May of 1963, a musician named Vaughn Meader picked up a Grammy award for Album of the Year…but he didn’t play a note on it. Meader was the star of an ensemble of voice actors who were recruited by writers Bob Booker and Earle Dowd to impersonate then-President John F. Kennedy and his family for a comedy album entitled The First Family.

It’s one of the first comedy albums I remember listening to when I was a kid, because my parents owned a copy (filed next to The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart in the built-in storage cabinet of their stereo console). Meader had been doing his JFK impression on stage, but it wasn’t until the surprise success of the gently satirical 1962 LP (7.5 million copies sold-impressive even now for a comedy album) that his career really skyrocketed.

This was, of course, decades before social media existed. Consequently, it would take nothing short of an Act of God to “cancel” an entertainer’s career overnight. Unfortunately for Meader, whatever career boost God gave him with one hand, he took away with the other on November 22, 1963.

As a (possibly apocryphal) story goes, Lenny Bruce was booked for a gig on the night of November 22, 1963. Undeterred by the shocking murder of the President earlier that day, he went on with the show. Reportedly, Bruce went onstage, but said nothing for several minutes, finally breaking his silence with “Boy …is Vaughn Meader fucked.”

Which begs a question: Too soon? Regardless, as Bruce predicted, Meader’s comedy career effectively ended that day. As Oliver Stone said in JFK, “The past is prologue.”

“I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.”

― George Carlin

Fast-forward to the night of September 29, 2001. The nation was still reeling from the horror of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that took the lives of over 3,000 people. The New York Friar’s Club was roasting Hugh Hefner. It was the first significant gathering of comedy heavyweights since the attacks.

The mood in the room that night was tentative. These were professional funny people, but like all Americans they were not in a jovial frame of mind. Nonetheless, the show went on. When Gilbert Gottfried took to the podium, his opener was a real doozy:

I had to catch a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight…they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”

You could have heard a pin drop. Then someone yelled “TOO SOON!

Gottfried’s story does have a happy ending. Reading the room (correctly), he immediately switched gears and launched into a venerable joke that comedians have amused each other with offstage for decades. It’s known as “The Aristocrats!”  because…well, the punch line is: “The Aristocrats!”

It’s more of an improvisational exercise (or gross-out contest) than a “joke”, as whoever is telling it must embellish the setup, while assuring the premise and punchline remain intact. Long story short, Gottfried not only won back the crowd, but he also had fellow comics in tears as they all enjoyed a much-needed yuk.

Unlike the Lenny Bruce anecdote, this is not apocryphal…it’s on film. The footage originally popped up in the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats but serves as an apt opener for Nick Fituri Scown and Julie Seabaugh’s documentary Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11, which premiered on VICE-TV this week (there is a commemorative showing at L.A.’s Chinese Theater September 11).

The directors enlist comics, Broadway players, late-night TV hosts, SNL cast members, and writers for The Onion to share how they reconciled with a newly sensitized sociopolitical landscape to eventually find a way back to just being, you know – “funny”.

For some, it wasn’t simply struggling with writer’s block or facing glum-faced audiences. Muslim-American performers like Ahmed Ahmed, Negin Farsad, Maz Jobrani, Hari Kondabolu, and Aasif Mandvi recall the Islamophobia they encountered, ranging from having racist epithets hurled their way to outright death threats.

Another phenomenon that arose in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was a pernicious purity test that entertainers (or anyone with a public platform) had to pass with flying stars and stripes, under penalty of becoming persona non grata.

The most well-known example (as recalled in the film) was what happened to comic Bill Maher. Just 6 days following the attacks, Maher was hosting his weekly ABC panel show Politically Incorrect. His guest was outspoken conservative Dinesh D’Souza.

D’Souza was commenting on President Bush’s characterization of the terrorists as cowards. ”Not true,” D’Souza said. ”Look at what they did. You have a whole bunch of guys who were willing to give their life; none of them backed out. All of them slammed themselves into pieces of concrete. These are warriors.” Maher replied: ”We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”

While others in the media (including print journalists, like Susan Sontag) made similar observations, Maher took the most public flak. This prompted him to embark on something akin to an apology tour, appearing on a number of other talk shows to clarify his remarks.

In the meantime Politically Incorrect began to lose sponsors hand over fist, and in June of 2002 ABC pulled it, citing slipping ratings. Maher has contended he was essentially fired for the comments he made about the hijackers in September 2001.

Good times.

On the flip-side of that coin, what could be more “patriotic” than laughing in the face of adversity? What could be more “American” than pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, dusting yourself off, and (in the immortal words of the late, great Chuckles the Clown), giving them “…a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants”?

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

I remember watching all three of those programs when they originally aired and being reminded of them again in the documentary was an unexpectedly moving experience. Speaking for myself there is now an added layer of weltschmerz in recalling these moments of national unity and shared compassion, because if there are two things we’ve lost over these past 20 years in America, it’s a sense of national unity and shared compassion.

Just pray we never lose our sense of humor. Because if we do…boy, are we fucked.

 

R.I.P. Yaphet Kotto

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 16, 2011)

https://i1.wp.com/tvline.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/yaphet-kotto.jpg?ssl=1

I was sad to learn actor Yaphet Kotto has passed away at age 81. Most of the headlines today are along the lines of “Yaphet Kotto, star of Live & Let Die…” Well yes, his “Mr. Big” was one of the more memorable Bond villains, but that was hardly his defining role! His other big-screen credits included Nothing But a Man, Across 110th Street, Blue Collar, Alien, Brubaker and Midnight Run. He was also an accomplished stage actor.

He had a stereotype-shattering role as Lt. Al Giardello on David Simon’s brilliant police procedural series “Homicide” (1993-1999) which showcased his considerable acting chops.

My favorite Yaphet Kotto feature film performance is in Paul Schrader’s 1978 drama Blue Collar (co-written by his brother Leonard). Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Kotto portray Detroit auto workers tired of getting the short end of the stick from both their employer and their union. In a fit of drunken pique, they pull an ill-advised caper that gets them in trouble with both parties, ultimately putting friendship and loyalty to the test.

Akin to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Schrader subverts the standard black-and-white “union good guy, company bad guy” trope with shades of gray, reminding us the road to Hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. Great score by Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder, with a memorable theme song featuring Captain Beefheart (“I’m jest a hard-woikin’, fucked-over man…”).

https://i0.wp.com/media2.fdncms.com/chicago/imager/yaphet-kotto-harvey-keitel-and-richard-pryor-in-blue-collar/u/magnum/3553733/bluecollarcolorstill_magnum.jpg?ssl=1

Kotto was also a good sport. In 1994 he appeared “as himself” as part of this fascinating social experiment conducted by Michael Moore for his 1-season series TV Nation. This bit presages the “prank with a point” that has become stock-in-trade for Sacha Baron Cohen.

Same as it ever was. Rest in peace, big man.

I Caught It At The Movies: Can theaters survive?

By Dennis Hartley

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

https://wondersinthedark.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/bogdanovich-last-picture-show1.jpg?w=474

https://i2.wp.com/denofcinema.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/guild-2020.jpg?resize=645%2C409&ssl=1

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)

https://i0.wp.com/denofcinema.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/GUILD-45th.jpg?ssl=1

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.

https://i2.wp.com/s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/98/7b/d3/987bd3113761646ab683139acc44b903.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pointing a way to the moon: Bruce Lee hits Criterion

By Dennis Hartley

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

https://i0.wp.com/i.ytimg.com/vi/VHFwADJV31A/maxresdefault.jpg?resize=474%2C267&ssl=1

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)

https://i0.wp.com/covdio.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Twilight-Zone.jpeg?resize=474%2C267&ssl=1

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.

https://i0.wp.com/cbsnews2.cbsistatic.com/hub/i/r/2014/06/19/e50ccf31-080b-405b-8472-d7996d39eb7a/resize/620x465/658eba94c97a9648b8e539e7f3380ca9/twilight-zone-monsters-are-due-on-maple-street.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

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.

 

A special guest post: On people …and light

By Kermet Apio

Note: Kermet Apio is a Seattle-based comedian with whom I had the pleasure of working with in my stand-up days.  Not unlike foreign correspondents, road comics get a firsthand take as to what’s happening “on the ground” anywhere their job takes them. Kermet shared some thoughts regarding the current situation between the U.S. and Iran in a Facebook post today. With his permission, I am re-publishing it here. -Dennis Hartley

https://i0.wp.com/i.ytimg.com/vi/GuNdVTPk5-A/maxresdefault.jpg?resize=474%2C267&ssl=1

I have been incredibly lucky to have performed in the Middle East twice in the last few years. Travel cuts through all the media sound bites. When you spend time with people and learn about their culture, their history, their foods, and their joys, THEY become your definition of that country. You shake your head at the propaganda because you saw with your own eyes human beings who were kind, funny, welcoming, and love their families and friends.

Bombs don’t fall on a map. They fall on people. For one brief moment I ask you to look beyond the justifications and the talking points. Think about those that will lose their lives and those that will survive with the pain of loss.

I relate more to the everyday people I’ve met around the world than the people running my country right now. The war mongers and profiteers don’t want you to see people, they want you to see darkness. I am hoping we see people and light because that is what’s really there.