26 July 2011

At Long Last Another Edition of Riku Writes Odds and Ends (Despite the Recent Court Order Asking that I Cease and Desist Odding and Ending)

Last night the better half and I watched In the Loop (2009). It was my second viewing of the film. I really enjoyed it (again) but found it depressing (again). It is so seemingly dead on in showing how a coalition of countries can publicly position itself for war. ITL seems to be a template for the Iraq War (remember that?) though Iraq is never mentioned. There are those government bureaucrats who help war happen, not out of any philosophical bent, but because its their job. They are doing what higher ups want. People will generally just go about "doing their job" without due consideration whether it's sweeping floors, designing brochures or beating the drums for war. Indeed, how often have you heard soldiers talk about "having a job to do." Methinks I'll explore this topic more later....

I read a comment on related to the tragedy of last week in Norway in which a person proudly stated that he practiced "carry and conceal." As the name implies this means carrying a gun hidden somewhere on your person. The commenter was suggesting that wherever he traveled no crazed gunmen would carry out multiple shootings. That simply does not go far enough for me. I carry around a bazooka. If some lunatic gets ahold of a tank I'll be prepared. You're welcome in advance.....

Every now and again, for kicks and giggles I'll read some of the nonsense in my spam folder. I love this one that I got today:


Good day and how are you today?
There is information I think might interest you.  I am Mr.Silas Wiah,
I work with Barclays Bank.  First of all, I do not know if I am talking
to the right person, But I will like you to confirm if you are the owner
of this email ID. Already I have your name and details in our file in
the office,but somehow I am not comfortable and too sure that I am
communicating with the right owner of this email.
That is why I did not mention your Name, if you can prove that you are
the owner of this email ID, then I will furnish you with the information
that I have for you, when I am convinced I am talking to the right
person and will proceed with you.
I am taking this preventive measure because I do not want to talk to the
wrong person because of the sensitivity of the information regarding the
issue.
Other details will be forwarded to you as soon as I am convinced that I
am communicating with the right person.
Mr. Silas Wiah

Ya know what, I'm getting the impression that Silas here wants to make damn sure he is communicating with "the right person." I wonder if I'm said "right person"? If so, Silas has some information for me. Golly, I hope it'll make me rich.....

I used to be in a heavy metal band called Purple Scrotum that played exclusively in  on the Andes Mountain Range. (Please be aware of the fact that I am not now nor have I ever been in a band of any sort and made that bit up. Hell, I don't even like heavy metal.) We mostly played weddings but got occasional club gigs and bar mitzvah....

Guess what I've been getting from Netflix. No guess again.....Cold. Colder. Okay, okay a hint, it's a TV series from the Sixties. No, not even close. Give up? Try looking at the photo. Right! The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Much of the humor holds up. As you may not be aware they were very topical and controversial for their time taking on as they did nothing less than the U.S. president with their pointed humor and satire. And the guests they got! Everyone from Bette Davis and James Mason to The Who and Buffalo Springfield. I am disappointed that the episodes have been edited. What, you couldn't show us all 60 minutes? Sheesh! The show, the Brothers and Tom in particular frequently butted heads with censors and this ultimately lead to the show's premature cancellation. One might consider them TV show martyrs of the Sixties....

People have been been calling, emailing, tweeting and faxing me with their heartfelt thanks that I've been posting a lot less recently. Thanks, I guess. I started a new teaching gig in San Francisco. My students are wonderful, fantastic, terrific, young people from all over the world who get to learn the King's English from a wonderful staff and oh by the way me too. Great fun but along with a long term writing assignment, keeping me hopping....

The sad by product of my busy work schedule is that I've had to quit the Crimean War Re-Enactors club that I was so much enjoying....

As I write these words it is only five more days until Shark Week. Adding to my excitement is the fact that a former student of mine, Andy Samberg, from my early years as a middle school teacher, is hosting the fun for the Discovery Channel. Andy, as I hop you know is an SNL regular and a film star.....

I thank you for your kind attention. This blog relies on donations from readers like you to continue the kind of quality film commentary that you've yet to see here. (Even I'm not sure what that means).




23 July 2011

The Author on Long Ago Trips and a Book He's Reading and a Movie That's Coming Out


 Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
 How I wonder what you are.
 Up above the world so high,
 Like a diamond in the sky.
 From an English Nursery Rhyme

Mind gone, watching me and my mates from a distance. Back now, firmly tucked in with my physical being. Seriously tripping. Freaking out some picnickers whose gathering we walk through with my declaration that "I'm back, I'm back." We keep walking in and around and among the park.....Look at the trees, they're growing before my eyes, then shrinking again. Wow.

No, I'm not high, I am...experiencing...an....altered...state....of...........consciousness. Pyscho-Del-Ick! (Here's an interesting part of the deal: the present tense I'm is in high school. So this is like decades ago that I'm, is, are, doing this to my brain. Or is/was my brain doing this to me? Or is the world doing it to me and my brain. Or. Did it ever really happen. (NO question mark.) Or is life all an illusion. (No question mark.) And did I just blow your mind? (Doubt it. But I blew mine.)

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don't do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she's ten feet tall
- From the song White Rabbit by the Jefferson Airplane

Less than a year before I been laughed at in a social living class when I asked what the difference was between LSD and acid. Now I was on it which is them which is like look at all the colors and the hills are rolling and my God this is weird. No, really weird, like the definition of the word and I love....stuff. This is reality and fantasy at the same time and everything is different that's always be the same and there is only now no then or later and this now is so frickin' intense and beautiful and I see the whole world as like super real and a cartoon and none of these apparent contradictions bother me as my consciousness streams like rivers and oh my God. Far out.

My friends and I talked quite freely as we tripped. Subjects were intensly focused on with razor precision then vanished into the ethos as we skimmed along the rest of human thought that our 16 year old brains were capable of and the colors, man.

We drank wine too. Where did we get it? I wonder all these years later. Probably Mooney stole it. He was also stealing us booze. He died of a drug overdose at age 18. Other friend was Matt. He totally fried his brains on drugs. Last time I talked with him he seemed destined for the looney bin. I was an athlete doing all this stuff. A dyad. Or a schizo. Or really, really confused. Or not, I could never decide. I did all this pyschodelic stuff within one year and quit it forever. Lots of other drugs to come but no more of this mind bending. I didn't mind the bend of the mind, just didn't want to risk the break. Brain opened to new ideas all right. Pandora's box and all. Lid not going back on. But that last trip was a total bummer and I wasn't risking that again.

This all came back because I'm finally reading Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Took me dozens of years to be able to get this close to the Lysergic acid diethylamide again. And this is only reading about other dudes doing it. And check it out, yesterday I come to find out that there's a movie about the Merry Pranksters, those carefree lads and lasses the book follows, coming out in like two weeks. It's called Magic Trip. So this should be in     ter     est     ing.  Talk about the Sixties -- which I totally have, man -- that was a like a really big chunk of it. Turning ON. Seeing the world through a different pair of eyes, though ones that were in your own head...somehow. Wow. Brain spinning, looking out through your ear hole into the mouse hole and seeing the whole of it all. Not that you could ever explain it. But live it? Hell yes! And you saw all the phoniness and the bullsh*t and the f*cking war in Vietnam which was like the total worst thing ever. The opposite about what WE were all about. It was dudes dying and killing when this is a time people should be loving and living and being. To be. The verb. The m*therf*cking adjective: to be! That whole war scene was like the old dudes in suits in Washington and their cocktails and their old worn out values totally bumming this new trip and....

We were out to change the world and one way to do was to change our brain because old style 1950's brains DID NOT WORK. Square was just the beginning of it. We wanted no points, no edges at all. To be round like the tepee. Live like the Indi -- I mean Native Americans. They were cool, like the Black people and the queers and even the really old hip people and anyone really who wanted a newer better world. Man.

So where was I? There was a frequent question of the Sixties, exceeded only by, where am I? Also up there were: who am I? and who was I? But we were trying. Sometimes misguided. Sometimes selfish. Sometimes the other side of addiction leading to death like Mooney's or brain immolation like Matt's, but hey scramble eggs sometimes, ya know?

It was an effort to get away from straight. I'll defend it all my days. We were creative. We were thoughtful. We wanted nothing more than equality, love and peace. Argue with those. We also strongly suggested that people dig deep into their own brains and shovel out some of the crap that accumulates there. Be who YOU are not some version that fits in with some fantasy of what you think you're expected to be. Honesty. A move towards honesty.

Honesty.

"Everything in  everybody's life is...significant. And everybody is alert, watching for the meanings. And the vibrations. There is no end of vibrations." - From The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.

You can take some pretty twisty paths to get there but hey man, the journey is half the fun right? Or should I say the...trip? Yeah, I really should.

I'm supposed to sum up now. Wrap up. Yeah. This post is over but the mind goes and goes. Even when you sleep it dreams. Wow to have waking access to your dream life that would be so cool. But I should say something profound. Or maybe not. Maybe just tell you I do not endorse EXPERIMENTING with psychedelics. It's dangerous, man. Then again so is mountain climbing in Winter or surfing in shark infested waters or driving a car or opening your front door. Pick your poisons, carefully.

I can't recommend what I did but I'm glad I did it because it was for me. Whoever I am. Still not sure...but the trip finding out is like nine tenths of the fun, with our without drugs. Dig.

17 July 2011

The Front, A Film About Doing the Right Thing

I don't necessarily believe in evil, but I do know that humans can conspire to do horrible things to one another. Often these people have great power, they can even be governments. In such instances it is incumbent upon good people to, individually and in groups, rise in opposition. Classic examples include the solo effort of Rosa Parks and the group that was behind her, the Civil Rights Movement. Simply put, bravery is required.

That is the simple but eloquently told tale within director Martin Ritt's film The Front (1976). It is an obvious sort of film that wears its ambitions on its sleeves. Nothing wrong with that. It takes on McCarthyism, an easy target but one worth battering away. Something so odious as blacklisting and insisting that people name names deserves a good going over every now and again, no matter how far in the rear view mirror the 1950's become. It was a shameful period in American history that would be far too easy to see repeated.

The Front is about a nobody named Howard Prince who works as a cashier and bookie. A bookie who can't always cover his bets and frequently has to borrow money from his successful brother. Prince is played by Woody Allen, who had already made a name for himself as a director and was just a year away from shooting into the stratosphere with Annie Hall (1977).

Prince has a friend, Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) who is a recently blacklisted writer. When Miller asks his pal to "front" for him and put his name on TV scripts for 10% of the profits, Prince doesn't hesitate. After all they're friends. Eventually Prince picks up two more blacklisted clients. For Prince this is simply good business and helping some guys out. He does not seem to have a political bone in his body. What does he know from politics?

In working with the TV show, Prince finds a lover, Florence (Andrea Marcovicci) and another friend, a comic actor named Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) who is in the process of being blacklisted because of his inadequacies at naming names. It is through these two that Prince ultimately develops that most valuable and vexing inner voice, the conscience.

It is terribly easy to be apathetic, to be in the large "no opinion" camp. It not only makes life safe, but easy as well. After all, self-interest will keep a person atop what one needs to be aware of in order to survive and prosper. All that stuff and nonsense about "getting involved" or "taking a stand" or -- God forbid -- making a sacrifice, that's for the other guy. The majority of us who have formulated strong views on any topic are far too busy to risk anything by actually doing anything.

Hecky's last words to Prince are a warning: "Take care of yourself, the waters are full of sharks." It's when those sharks circle us, when we look them in the eye and see them devour those around us, that we suddenly take a keen interest in doing more than treading water.

The fate of Hecky, and the nagging morality of Florence, and the lot of those he fronts for, begin to gnaw away at Howard's tough exterior. And when he is finally called before one of those committees that is trying to purify America by rooting out what it considers Communist influence (i.e. lefties of all kind) it is then that Prince becomes a full blown hero. And he does it quite eloquently by telling them: "Fellas... I don't recognize the right of this committee to ask me these kind of questions. And furthermore, you can all go fuck yourselves."

Howard Prince became successful by pretending to be someone else. He paid off debts, bought family members gifts, picked up the check at dinner, moved into a nice apartment, and traveled in more refined circles. By virtue of being a nobody he was able to become somebody. Materialistically he may not have had it all, but it was plenty what he had. But ultimately he gained something more valuable -- himself. There's a lot to be gained by giving it all up in the name of a greater good. For one thing it's a quick route to self esteem. The real kind. People often fantasize about telling the boss to go screw, but imagine doing it to further a belief, a cause. And not just taking on an employer but your own government when it is treading on people's rights.

The Front was written, directed, produced and included in its cast (notably Mr. Mostel) a number of people from the entertainment world who had themselves been blacklisted. The anger that must have lingered, the indignity, was channeled into an excellent motion picture. They made a movie about how supposedly well intentioned men subverted the and skirted around and ignored the U.S. Constitution and in so doing damaged careers and even ruined lives. They centered the story around one man who started the story not giving a damn and went on to be a hero of the cause. Allen, by the way, gave an excellent performance. Today I watched The Front for maybe the fifth or sixth time. It gets better with each viewing. Ritt let the story speak for itself. He had a strong script and a good cast. Best of all he had an important theme centered around a critical period in American history. The film's been around for 35 years and shows no signs of age.

The Front opens and closes with Frank Sinatra's lovely rendition of Young at Heart. It's one of those deals where I'm not sure what they mean by using a particular piece of music, but readily acknowledge that it sure feels right. Here are the lyrics.


Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you
If you're young at heart
For it's hard, you will find, to be narrow of mind
If you're young at heart
You can go to extremes with impossible schemes
You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams
And life gets more exciting with each passing day
And love is either in your heart or on it's way
Don't you know that it's worth every treasure on earth
To be young at heart
For as rich as you are it's much better by far
To be young at heart
And if you should survive to 105
Look at all you'll derive out of being alive
Then here is the best part, you have a head start
If you are among the very young at heart
And if you should survive to 105
Look at all you'll derive out of being alive
Then here is the best part, you have a head start
If you are among the very young at heart

12 July 2011

You Can Watch a Classic Film, a Great One or Just One That's A Helluva Lot of Fun, I Offer Ten Examples of the Latter

There are only so many films that a given cinephile will rank among the greatest of all time. Unlike in, say, choosing a life partner, you can afford to occasionally select a film  that you know going in is just for fun. However there is a hard and fast rule about just- for-fun films, they still have to be good. No need you wasting your time with rubbish. While there are few classics, there are enough fun films to keep you from knowingly dipping into the real stinkers.

Just-for-funs are generally light hearted fare. They may feature some belly laughs, toe tapping songs or exciting chase scenes, but they don't challenge you intellectually. There are some films that would seem to qualify as just for fun films that I don't consider as such. This would be a picture like Duck Soup (1933) which I hold in such high esteem that is more than just for fun -- it's sacred. In a similar vein Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Cabaret (1972) are too important to qualify.

When I watch a just-for-fun film I need a gentle comfy experience, not something I'm going to be awed by. After all a body can only take so much lobster, occasionally one just wants a tuna sandwich. So now that I've beaten this point into the ground, I present ten examples of movies I watch....all together now: JUST FOR FUN!

High Society (1956). On the one hand its a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story (1940) that pales in comparison to the real Mccoy. On the other hand its got Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Grace Kelly and Celeste Holm in the cast. Plus you get Sinatra and Crosby crooning. Their duet of Cole Porter's "Did You Evah?" makes it worthwhile to sit through the rest of the picture. This is such an light and airy film that you swear it can float away. But it is the very definition of what the posting is all about -- fun.

Follow the Fleet (1936). Really, any Astaire and Rogers film could qualify. They are all about fun and nothing else. The character development (such as it isn't) and the stories (as heavy as a 1950's sit com) are all just props around Fred and Ginger's dancing. And when they danced to a song it stayed danced to. I offer Follow the Fleet because the story (with Fred in the Navy) is particularly weightless and it has my favorite all time dance number done to the song "Let's Face the Music and Dance."

Dr. No (1962). Last Summer oldest daughter and I watched all the Sean Connery James Bond films (I refuse to acknowledge the others). Truly any one of them would qualify for this list but why not start with the first one? (However if you want the best of the lot I'd suggest From Russia With Love (1963)). The story lines of the Bond films strain credulity beyond the breaking point, the special effects look silly, but their is stronger emphasis on character development then you see today. And besides, it's Sean Connery for crying out loud.

The Jerk (1979). Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a stupid movie. True, true. But it is also a very funny one. Any film that starts with Steve Martin saying, "I was born a poor black child" is announcing itself as being stupid. And funny. It would be silly to describe The Jerk so I'll just leave you with this soliloquy from it:  I know we've only known each other four weeks and three days, but to me it seems like nine weeks and five days. The first day seemed like a week and the second day seemed like five days. And the third day seemed like a week again and the fourth day seemed like eight days. And the fifth day you went to see your mother and that seemed just like a day, and then you came back and later on the sixth day, in the evening, when we saw each other, that started seeming like two days, so in the evening it seemed like two days spilling over into the next day and that started seeming like four days, so at the end of the sixth day on into the seventh day, it seemed like a total of five days. And the sixth day seemed like a week and a half. I have it written down, but I can show it to you tomorrow if you want to see it. 

Catch Me if You Can (2002). Leonardo DiCaprio has surprised many of us by emerging as a serious acting presence, but in CMIYC he's more the adorable scamp. Steven Spielberg  directed this true story of one the great young con artists of any generation. Tom Hanks is the FBI agent in hot pursuit and he's wonderful too. It's a perfectly charming story and while meaty at two hours and twenty minutes, positively flies by.

After the Thin Man (1936). You'll note the presence of several sequels on this list, they almost never measure up to the original but as in the case of ATTM they're often okay. There were several Thin Man sequels and though I wouldn't swear to it I think they get progressively worse. In any event, this is the second of the series and it's good fun. Nick (William Powell) Nora (Myrna Loy) and Asta are in San Francisco. The story commences on New Year's Eve and don't you know it our heroes can't enjoy their homecoming without a murder needing investigation. There are suspects aplenty including one portrayed by a young actor named James Stewart (whatever became of the lad?). With Powell and Loy leading the way, and tippling away, these stories are always a delight.

Battleground (1949). Ladies and gentlemen I gave you the quintessential World War II film of the immediate post war period. It is also one of the best. This is good ole G.I. Joe at the Battle of the Bulge fighting Nazis and the elements. You have the wonderful stew of a bunch of different sort of Yanks being thrown together and fighting the good fight. There is the camaraderie, the squabbles, the sad death of buddies and heroic deeds. Battleground doesn't flinch at violence as many war films of its era did, but there's not blood and brain matter spewing every which way like in recent cinema. William Wellman directed so you know its good.

The Town (2010). Last year Ben Affleck wrote, directed and star in this wonderful heist film. Jon Hamm played the FBI agent pursuing our anti heros. Rebecca Hall and Blake Lively played the love interests and it is a testimony to Affleck's wisdom that he cast these two lovelies opposite himself. Hall has appeared in and greatly enhanced several films in the past few years. The Town is an improbable story but believable enough to make the action, romance and tension genuine fun. So, yeah, this is a fun movie worth a second look.

Aliens (1986). This is the sequel to the classic Alien (1979) from director Ridley Scott. It pains me to include a film directed by the odious James Cameron, but this is a lot of gory fun. While the original was more a Gothic horror film than sci fi thriller, this is played just for thrills and of those there are plenty. Sigourney Weaver is back and this time she is more the prototypical action figure than the gallant hero of the first film.

Rio Grande (1950). John Ford cranked out countless Westerns and its hard to find a bad one in the lot. Rio Grande is not among his best but it'll do. There is the wonderful teaming of John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara a few years before The Quiet Man (1952). Also much of Ford's usual players were in the cast including Harey Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen and a young Ben Johnson. Oh yes, there are Apaches on the warpath, battle scenes, laughs, beautiful scenery and another Ford tip of the cap to the cavalry.

Hey everybody, this was my 600th Post!!! In lieu of gifts please send money.

10 July 2011

"We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" Norma Desmond Presumably Referencing "The Passion of Joan of Arc"



There's too much talking in talking pictures. Some films, His Girl Friday (1940) comes to mind, are rich in wonderful, witty dialogue. But most movies made these past 80 years feature far more extraneous and not incidentally cliched conversation. Shut up already.

That's one of the reasons why it is such an absolute joy to watch Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) which was made right at the end of the silent era. No one before or since, and I include the likes of Chaplin and Bergman, ever utilized faces better than Dreyer did. We also see here perhaps the finest example of German expressionistic film.

In the Passion of Joan of Arc we mostly see the face of Maria Falconetti who was a noted stage actress both before and after the film. In fact she never appeared on screen again. Why not quit while your ahead? It's a performance that has been called the greatest ever and I'm not prepared to argue against it. In any case she owes a lot to Dreyer who knew how to frame a host, especially one of a face, like Michael Jordan knew hitting jump shots. But she brought a lot to the film, telling us so much, with nary a word. Faces!

Passion is a fascinating film because it is so depressing. And not. It is, like all great works of art, ultimately uplifting and exciting and thus exhilarating. Of course Joan of Arc was the quintessential martyr and viewed as such her story is anything but depressing. There have been numerous versions of her story told on film, many replete with action hero type battle scenes, and none carries the emotional wallop of Dreyer's telling. And his is mostly comprised of the trial.

All these wonderful shots of faces and they are all sans make up. Often shown in extreme close up, shot from below, cut away from and back to quickly and lit in grays rather than sharp black and whites.

In fact there is an often disorienting style in the setting up of shots that serves to emphasize the madness, for Joan especially, of the entire proceedings. It's interesting to note the detail of the sets and how important they are to the picture, yet what a secondary role they play to the faces.

It all comes together for an amazing film. It seems counterintuitive to use words to describe The Passion, it is better seen then described. You can watch on You Tube, Hulu Plus or Nextflix or, of course rent it.

Faces!

06 July 2011

Believe It Or Not Television is Not a Complete and Total Wasteland, I Give 50 Examples to Support this Dubious Claim

I'm not exactly sure what the percentage is, maybe 75%, maybe 90 maybe 99%, but surely the overwhelming majority of what is show on TV represents the waste material of our culture. It's not even recyclable.

There is no better example than what is laughingly referred to as reality TV. Whose reality? Certainly no one who lives in the world outside of television. TV is worse than it was 20 years ago or 40 years ago or in its infancy, primarily because there are so many more hours to fill what with hundreds of channels. There's always been junk on TV, now there is an endless variety of it.

I don't know if there are enough ideas out there to fill all the programming time even if the most creative minds in the world were dedicated to it. So we get dozens upon dozens of rip offs, copycats, remakes, rehashes, and never-should-have-beens.

I have just as hard a time to find something good to watch today as I did when I was a kid. And back in my youth (when dinasours roamed the Earth) we had but five TV stations to choose from. Cable TV was a few years away.

I suppose we should all be thankful that there is so very little for the discerning viewer to sit through on the idiot box. Imagine if TV programming was light years better? We'd have so much less time for such activities as reading, exercise and the age old custom of talking.

But if one sifts through television from it's birth until today, it is possible to find good uses for it. That is, shows or offerings that are actually worth the time. You know, not just place holders, something to have on when you're folding laundry or suffering from the flu or are too tired to do your own thinking. Shows to actually watch and be entertained or edified by. Even both. Here are 50 shows or reasons that I do not quite equate TV with staring into a garbage can. Other than the first three, I do not offer them in any particular order.

1. Movies. I refer of course to the unedited kind not interrupted by commercial. Something unavailable when I was a child.

2. Live sports. It's hard to watch your favorite team in action on the radio. Easy with a TV.

3. Monty Python's Flying Circus

4. The Twilight Zone

5. Seinfeld

6. The Sopranos

7. Dick Cavett

8. The Daily Show

9. The Colbert Report

10. The Jack Benny Program

11. You Bet Your Life

12. Live footage of breaking news

13. Late Show with David Letterman

14. The Simpsons

15. The Honeymooners

16. The Black Adder

17. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour

18. PBS

19. Bill Moyers

20. The Bob Newhart Show

21. Mary Tyler Moore

22. Foyle's War

23. Comedy Specials

24. Roots

25. Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In

26. Documentaries

27. Extras

28. The Andy Griffith Show

29. Doc Martin

30. The Odd Couple

31. Bugs Bunny and other classic cartoons

32. Have Gun Will Travel

33. Fawlty Towers

34. Band of Brothers

35. Taxi

36. Columbo

37. 30 Rock

38. Edward R. Murrow

39. The Larry Sanders Show

40. Saturday Night Live

41. Lonesome Dove

42. Sgt. Bilko

43. That Was The Week That Was

44. Shark Week!

45. Crazy Like a Fox

46. Steve Allen

47. The Rockford Files

48. Burns and Allen

49. The Dick Van Dyke Show

50. Walter Cronkite

05 July 2011

Guido, Lenny, Alvy and Charlie: Four Characters, Four Films More Than Four Thoughts

I was on line at the pharmacy today re-filling the buckets of medications I have to take in order not to see polka dot hippopotami dancing on my walls. I patronize a small locally owned establishment that compensates in with charm for what it lacks in supplies on hand. Today there was a woman in front of me just about having a hissy fit because her prescription wasn't ready. She'd been waiting for seconds on end but to her they were eons. It seemed that the pharmacists had to wait for approval from the insurance company before coughing up her drugs, so to speak. The way I heard them explain it made perfect sense to me. But she was in a state of mind that I've found myself dwelling in. It's the one were your position seems perfectly logical and irrefutable and any delay in getting your goods and or services is an affront.  Angry lady stomped off somewhere to make an angry cell phone call which in all likelihood would not have done a wit to improve her lot. As we all know patience is a virtue and when my turn came and had nearly went I was thanked for mine. That's rather odd considering that generally speaking I am about as patient as a hungry mutt listening to the can opener whirr. But I happened not to be in a hurry and my pills were ready and anyway that "lady" in front of me had set an example of how not to behave.

All of this in some way perhaps serves as a preface for a discussion of the four film characters I've hung out with the past few days. Except perhaps that their imperfections were infinitely more entertaining than the aforementioned customer. They are a film director, a piano player and a couple of comics. One is fully intended to depict a real human being who once walked this Earth, two others represent the movie's directors and indeed one is played by the director. The other is entirely a work of fiction, so far as I know. They are all in superior films, three of which are among my favorites of all time. None of this quartet of gentlemen are perfect. Perfection being exceedingly boring and nothing either to cause laughter or insights.

Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is a great film director. Women adore him,  enough to keep several guys content. He has it all and it ain't enough. He's not so much the main character of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963) as he is the film itself. To what degree his character and his struggles mirror those of Fellini I cannot say. Oh hell yes I can: to a certain degree.

The film itself comes under the masterpiece category. It's one of those movies that has a mind of its own -- a brilliant mind -- and goes where it pleases, how it pleases. Fellini was like that. Guido is a man who has it all and doesn't seem to want any of it. Well, maybe he does, you see he can't quite make up his damn mind. Duller minds would want to grab him by the neck and scream sense into his ear. At least try to cajole him into making the picture he's working on. But he's not happy, except that he is. He's a wonderfully tortured soul who knows how to have a good time (principally with the ladies) while "suffering." That's my kind of angst sufferer. Plus the guy fantasizes about a harem comprised of the women in life. That's entertainment!

Lenny Bruce was a real honest to goodness guy and it's a dirty rotten shame that so few people recognize his name. He broke boundaries, knocked down barriers and blazed trails. In part through the public use of profanity but mainly because he was a comedian who spoke his mind. Lenny Bruce got laughs while riffing on current events and decrying social injustices. He was George Carlin before George Carlin was and Carlin would have been the first to tell you that. Bob Fosse directed the bio pic Lenny (1974) with Dustin Hoffman in the title role. (Watch the film then consider the fact that Hoffman didn't win the Best Actor Oscar and it'll tell you all you need to know about the validity of the Academy Awards.) Lenny Bruce was only 40 when he died. His impact on American society was a huge part of the Sixties Cultural Revolution. Dig it.
Like Allen Ginsberg before him he faced obscenity charges for using forbidden words in public. Unlike Ginsberg, he had a series of legal battles and was not routinely winning them at the time of his death. Ahh yes, his death. Heroin. The list of great artists who have been struck down in their prime, or for that matter before it, because of drugs or booze or both is sadly quite long. Lenny Bruce among them.

I'd not seen the film in a long time and was struck (figuratively and right across the mouth) at how powerfully and accurately it tells Bruce's story. Kudos to the late Bob Fosse and to the thankfully still present Mr. Hoffman. We do not see Lenny Bruce as a larger than life figure (whatever the hell that means) but as a comic who courageously decides to tell the truth. He broke the tradition of comedians who went for easy, comfortable laughs. He evoked laughter by touching upon some of the elemental truths of human nature and the nature of American hypocrisy. That this can be done is taken for granted in a time when The Daily Show and Colbert Report combine hilarity with truth telling. Bruce helped make it happen. If only he had stayed away from the junk....

Some movies never get old. You never tire of them. They always make you laugh. For this they are the embodiment of the word "classic." Case in point Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977). Allen is essentially playing himself, which is to say the character of Alvy Singer is wise and witty, with an emphasis on the latter. Alvy is smitten with the title character (Diane Keaton in an Oscar winning performance) and who wouldn't be? This is a modern love story that cheerfully avoids romance cliches. Alvy is the anti-romantic lead. A bumbling, fumbling, paranoid, jealous, narcissistic boyfriend. Let's add the two p's: pithy and pathos. Pith and pathotic? He's twice married and like Allen himself it seems he'll never find the perfect woman for him. His imperfections are too numerous and help to bring out the worst in the women he woos. Being too smart for your own good, being too self aware for your good, being too introspective for your own good, those are qualities that I can relate to. Me, I blindly stumbled into a relationship with the love of my life. Alvy, as the movie ends, not so lucky.

It's a debatable point, but Allen may have been his most Alleneseque as Alvy Singer. Some would argue that playing yourself is cheap and easy. Some are wrong. Doing your usual schtick is no great chore but presenting it within the framework of a narrative, albeit a comic one, is no mean feat. Alvy is adorable in part because he is not only riddled with flaws but is the first to acknowledge more than half of them. Utterly charming.

There was a period in film when the silent, stoic type of hero was all the rage. Men of few words who guarded their thoughts and feelings closely and buried their personal histories deeply. For an example see Charlie Kohler nee Edouard Saroyan (Charles Aznavour) in Francois Truffaut's second great film (and my favorite) Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Charlie is the titular pianist.

He plies his trade in a modest little Parisian establishment where he is the headliner. But he has a past in which greater fame under a different name were enjoyed. But in discovering the price of his sudden fame a tragedy occurs and Charlie escapes into anonymity. He is flushed out by love and a sibling who operates well below the law. Charlie is not to blame for sad circumstances that befall him. In fact he proves clever, passionate and oft times agreeable, belying his own often wooden exterior. But how innocent are any of us in the fates that befall us? A different path here or there, a stronger plea or evocation, the slightest change in demeanor, can alter circumstances.

Perhaps the guarded and reserved would enjoy more fortuitous circumstances if more often willing to force the action. Still, Charlie has his music and there is always the hope of a new love.