The Color Purple

The Color Purple (1985) was Steven Spielberg’s first serious attempt at winning an Academy Award. It didn’t work; the Academy nominated his film for several Oscars, including Best Picture and his coveted Best Director, but failed to win any of them. Should it have won any? On a technical level, this is an exemplary piece of filmmaking, but on so many other levels, it is borderline offensive.

Spielberg was still too much of a show-off and a virtuoso to convincingly and realistically tell the story of poor black sharecroppers in the early part of the 20th century. He clearly wanted to do a humane job of telling the story of Celie, an atrociously victimized young black woman who becomes a wise and independent adult after a lifetime of abuse. But he keeps getting in his own way with all his usual directorial tricks: a camera that never ceases moving, frequently bizarre camera angles that intentionally try to remind us of other movies, and over-the-top handling of his actors. It’s the Temple of Doom of stories about victims.

Celie is a rape victim, helpless in the hands of a rapist father (who repeatedly impregnates her in early scenes and doubly terrorized by a demonically evil “husband” called Mister (Danny Glover). She is beaten, humiliated, raped (there’s that word again), subjected to fierce neglect, and violently, physically separated from her beloved sister, Nettie. In a scene of horrifying violence, Mister drives his hands between the two girls’ faces, forces them apart, and drags the sister across the yard and into the road. At the climax of this emotionally devastating scene, Nettie stops in the road to gesture and dramatically make a melodramatic statement. For some reason, I was reminded of Gone With the Wind at this moment — and not in a good way.

The movie Hollywood-izes what I understand to be a small, eloquent, brutally honest novel, by Alice Walker. It is long, syrupy, production-designed to a T, and directed by a master showman to reach the largest (white) audience possible. It is filled with inappropriate slapstick humor (the black man fell through the roof!), all of which is punctuated by John Williams’ uncharacteristically sticky-sweet score. Mister is portrayed either as a monster or a goofy cartoon character, or both, which is absolutely intolerable given the nature of the violence done to Ceile. And Whoopi Goldberg herself portrays (at Spielberg’s instruction) Celie as a sweet-natured soul who tenderly cares for the monster who has so terribly abused her. Scene after scene shows Celie smiling knowingly as dumb ol’ rapist Mister makes a fool of himself around the house. In one scene, Mister literally sets fire to breakfast, and carries a tray of food upstairs to his mistress with smoke leaking out of his clothes. Guffaw.

Spielberg just wasn’t mature enough to tackle the subject matter; it wasn’t until years later and Schindler’s List that he became a master storyteller in addition to a great director of action. In Schindler’s List, he settled down and stared horror in the face, with none of his usual tricks. But this was because, I think, Spielberg felt a direct emotional connection to the story. As a Jew, he was personally affected by the Holocaust, and angered by the material. He’d already spent much of his career making fun of Nazis (see Raiders of the Lost Ark), but with this movie, he finally got to truly express himself by showing what the Germans actually did. It is a gob of spit in the face of racism, and Spielberg deserved every accolade.

But there’s no sign that Spielberg was directly affected by the horrific racism to which black Americans were systematically subjected in the early years of the 20th century. No sign that he related at all to poor black sharecroppers. There is no hint of the white system of abuse aimed at blacks in these years. Mister grovels disgustingly at a white mail carrier (while stealing Hattie’s letters to Celie), but there’s no sense of society at large. It’s just Mister alternately being a creep and a fool.

It doesn’t help that the movie is almost 35 years old and was followed by a couple decades’ worth of movies by Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, John Singleton, and other directors who would probably take the basic story of The Color Purple and find a lot less syrupy sweetness in it. After making Schindler’s, Saving Private Ryan, and most especially Lincoln, I’m almost positive Spielberg wouldn’t make this movie the same way again. Or then again, maybe he wouldn’t make it at all. Spike Lee could have done a proper Color Purple, but not Spielberg.

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Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino returns with Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood four years after his first pseudo-misfire, The Hateful Eight. It is a return to form for the Pulp Fiction director.

The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in career-best performances, as fading Hollywood action star Rick Dalton and his ultra-laidback stunt double, Cliff Booth. Dalton and Booth are a great screen team and DiCaprio and Pitt are electrifying both together and apart. Oscar nominations are all but guaranteed for both.

The movie chooses as its subject the Hollywood of 1969, an era so long past that Tarantino gets away with making a fantasy world out of it. It’s a bright, colorful Disneyland, where fashionable directors wear ascots and there’s a go-go dancer (or a hippie) on seemingly every corner. Every shot is filled with classic cars from the period and a reference to some obscure piece of 1969 nostalgia, from the movie theater marquees to the television shows and commercials, to the clothes, the hairstyles, the furnishings, and the music — always the music. Tarantino has always shown flair for incorporating pop songs into even the most horrific scenes (take a look at Reservoir Dogs), but Once Upon a Time is all but a Top 40 L.A. radio station with images — a music video for that bygone era.

It’s a joyful experience, just sitting and watching this movie. To say that it unspools at a leisurely pace is an understatement, but hey, the last two Avengers movies have been super-long, and nobody bitched. Tarantino spells lengthy, detailed narratives in which we get to know the characters and their foibles. As was the case with Hateful Eight, this can sometimes be a difficult task, as the characters are not always likable. But here we love almost every character on the screen. Tarantino’s writing is pitch-perfect and his casting equally so. There’s Al Pacino as a lovable movie tycoon, Damian Lewis as a cynical Steve McQueen (more of this cat, please!), Emile Hirsch as a sunny Jay Sebring, Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme, and Damon Herriman as a barely-glimpsed Charles Manson. (I haven’t even mentioned Bruce Dern as George Spahn!) They all sparkle with wit, warmth and likability. This movie is a 180-degree turn from the nihilistic Hateful Eight into a world we’d love to spend hours just exploring.

Though Pitt and DiCaprio are front and center, the heart of the story is the vibrant Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. I shouldn’t have to spell out what happened to the starlet and wife of Roman Polanski, but let’s just say that her tragedy (and those of her friends on that hot August night in 1969) is the unspoken theme of the film … until it explodes into unpredictable (and wildly historically inaccurate) violence. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Tarantino’s other masterwork, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, knows that history can be rewritten, and the Manson murders get the full Basterds treatment here.

The movie’s final 20 minutes are undoubtedly its most riveting and will be talked about for months, even years, to come. To me, Tarantino’s twist ending doesn’t erase the fate of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, and Voytek Frykowski — because what ever could? No, Tarantino’s twist in a way emphasizes what happened to them. In this fairy tale story about a fairy tale place in a time viewed now through the rose-tinted lens of history … which is all but shouted from the title itself … the final shot of this film is a hopeful “what if?” that echoes Inglourious Basterds without ripping it off.

Besides, how much bad stuff could you stand to see happen to the Manson gang? How much of a soft spot do you have in your heart for homicidal cultists? Tarantino has precisely none, and demonstrates it with the ending of this film. It’s as funny and rousing as it is brutally violent. And the whole idea of it — that history would be drastically different if the Manson killers had simply made another choice — is hilarious in the way it drags an unwitting Rick and Cliff into the proceedings. We love these guys because they do what any other sane person would have done when faced with such devils — they act accordingly.

I can’t say enough about DiCaprio and Pitt. Neither has ever been this charming, charismatic or likable, but they are working here with a director they clearly love, and who loves them in return. Tarantino takes DiCaprio’s seemingly bottomless acting abilities and runs with them, giving him the full gamut of emotions (and characterizations) to portray. He spends roughly the entire center of the film in full Western get-up, playing a bad guy and (hilariously) forgetting his lines. Rick is a raging alcoholic and an insecure movie star; he’s struggling to stay relevant, yet remain true to himself. The fact he’s living next door to the hottest couple in town — Polanski and Tate — doesn’t make him feel any better. But what would happen if he could somehow walk through those wrought-iron gates, into Hollywood heaven?

Cliff is a down-on-his luck stunt man who says exactly what he feels and isn’t afraid to take action when necessary. He gets most of the movie’s best scenes, and Pitt very nearly steals the show from DiCaprio. Cliff features in two show-stopping moments: the fight with Bruce Lee (Mark Moh), and the visit to Spahn’s Movie Ranch, which the Manson “family” has overtaken. We are with Cliff every step of the way in both scenes, which are like little mini-movies of their own, complete with beginning, middle and end. (Tarantino’s screenplay will have no peer in the Best Original Screenplay category.) Maybe for the first time ever, we forget we are watching Brad Pitt and simply accept him as the character he’s playing.

The film has two modes: in the first, it celebrates the sheer joy of living and working in Los Angeles in 1969. Tarantino has never been sweeter or more fun. In the second, it suggests that the hippie lifestyle represented the so-called darkness on the edge of town, a harbinger of random violence that would overtake the city (and the rest of pop culture) in the decades to come. We don’t get a real feel for the inspiration behind hippies or “communes” or the social forces that spawned the Manson family; Tarantino simply presents them as a force of nature, or a byproduct of the era. He introduces the hippies by showing some girls digging in a dumpster, gathering food or trash or both, before marching, single file, into the distance, toward a future we can’t comprehend. Cliff keeps flirting with a hippie girl, turning her down twice before finally picking her up on the third encounter. She’s a foul-mouthed, practical girl who offers to give him a blow job as he’s driving her to the Spahn Ranch. There’s nothing trippy or likable or even sexy about this girl; she’s all hard-edged cynicism.

No Tarantino movie would be complete without a healthy dose of controversy, and with Once Upon a Time, it arises over the depiction of Sharon Tate, played by the hugely talented Margot Robbie. Tarantino clearly doesn’t see Tate as a character, choosing instead to portray her as an idea, a symbol representing the true spirit of L.A. in ’69. Somebody, somewhere, though it would be cute to tally up the number of lines Robbie is given to recite and use that number to accuse Tarantino of insensitivity or sexism. I say, fuck off. Tarantino gets a beautiful performance out of Robbie and transforms Tate into something of an angel. I love the scene where Sharon goes to see herself in her own movie (The Wrecking Crew) and very sweetly and shyly uses her “stardom” (fleeting, little-recognized) to bargain her way in for free. It’s almost like she knows this is the only chance she’ll get to be seen as and treated like a movie star. (Given what we know happened to her, this is kind of a tragic scene, and a lovely tribute from Tarantino.) When she goes in and props her bare feet up on a seat back to soak up the love from the audience, it’s a wonderful moment in the film.

Then there’s that ending, which comes from way out in left field and elevates the movie to a whole new realm. I would say that, after all is said and done, it ends perfectly, on a note we don’t expect, with all the characters — real and fictional, living and dead — getting just exactly what they deserve, in the best way possible.

 

 

 

 

 

Still Top Gun after all these years

I felt a twinge of excitement last week when the trailer for the Top Gun sequel (imaginatively titled Maverick) debuted. This film, again starring the ageless and death-defying Tom Cruise, has been “in the making” for more than 30 years (!), and indeed, the trailer looks thrilling, with plenty of shots of U.S. fighter jets “cruising” at high (and shockingly low!) altitudes, promising all sorts of aerial acrobatics and Tom Cruise-y antics. The movie won’t be out until June 2020, but in my head, my tickets are already purchased.

But what is it that makes a sequel that’s tardy by at least a generation seem so exciting? (In addition to, of course, a well-oiled marketing machine.) Well, that has to do with its predecessor, which pretty much defined culture in the 1980s.

I bought the original Top Gun on Blu-Ray and gave it another watch recently. It has taken me a long time to warm up to this movie, but I now regard it as an important piece of late-20th century cinema and a vital component in the career of Tom Cruise. Without this movie, Cruise would be nothing — my guess is that he would have flamed out after that awful Cocktail movie. But Top Gun is truly an experience, all slick surfaces, pulsating rock soundtrack and roaring jet engines. In spite of every reservation that I have about it — indeed, in spite of the movie itself — I can finally say that I not only admire it, but enjoy it.

This was not the case in 1986-87, when Top Gun was all the rage, sucking down box office dollars and selling millions of album copies. The movie was everywhere, and I was sick of it without having seen a single frame. (I was still seriously into Indiana Jones and James Bond — the U.S. Navy was not exactly my cup o’ tea.) It was, and still is, I guess, the first “MTV movie,” written, directed and designed to look good in small clips on the 24-hour music network. At age 16, I watched TONS of MTV — knew every video by heart — further contributing to my weariness of the Top Gun phenomenon.

My point of introduction to the movie, like everyone else’s, was the omnipresent hit single, “Danger Zone.” The film and the song are inseparable; without one, I doubt you would have the other. There is probably no other movie that is so instantaneously associated with its theme song as this one. (Maybe Goldfinger? Or “Over the Rainbow”?) If the sequel somehow manages to snag a song that’s as popular and well-recognized as “Danger Zone,” it will indeed capture lightning in a bottle — twice.

But onto the movie. Hey, it ain’t perfect, and it wasn’t exactly written by Orson Welles. It’s hoary with clichés and filled with plastic interactions between characters. I really don’t care what the movie is about, and never did. Top Gun was pitched and sold by its producers to Paramount executives in an elevator — the ultimate “elevator pitch.” They got their idea for a movie on the U.S. Naval Fighter Weapons School by reading a magazine article. The movie is not much deeper than that article. It is an inch-deep recruiting ad for the U.S. Navy, and as such, it was crazy-successful. I guess that’s something.

Top Gun does indeed make military service look sexy as hell. There is a shot of Cruise, as Maverick, resting in the barracks, and the camera holds on a Navy recruitment poster — “It’s Not Just a Job, It’s an Adventure!” Why the hell would there be a poster like that in the shower at the elite training school? No matter — the recruits were flowing in.

So, aside from all that, what is there? Well, to be honest, there is scene after unforgettable scene that sums up, embodies and defines life in the 1980s, or at least, life as it was lived in pop culture. There is no denying the importance of Top Gun, and no point in resisting it. Having examined the film thoroughly, I can find nothing immoral in it, no reason to dismiss it or even make a snide comment. It is an adventure movie, about a young man coming into his own in the U.S. military, and as such, it works very well. Sure, there were probably other, better movies about the same thing (I’m talking about you, Officer and a Gentleman), but does anyone remember them? Is anyone pumped for a sequel 30 years later? Don’t think so. Top Gun did this sort of thing as well as, or better than, any other film of its kind. Fact.

Yes, but isn’t there a Reagan-era, America First political element to the film? Not that I can find — or, at least, not one that seems relevant today. If you are looking for a reason to complain about a film that worships at the altar of U.S. militarism, okay, that’s one thing, but let’s remember that America does still have its enemies out there, and while they might be using sneakier (digital) methods to attack us, we could reasonably consider Top Gun a reminder of all that makes our country so fucking great, and why we still need to defend it. So, there is that.

Quentin Tarantino, that famous film fanatic, has gone on record describing Top Gun as a metaphor for closeted homosexuality — that Maverick is inducted into a secret club of gay men, as exemplified by the iconic volleyball scene set to Kenny Loggins’ “Playin’ with the Boys”. Sigh. I admire Tarantino, but this is one of those conspiracy theories along the lines of, I dunno, Kubrick secretly filming moon footage for NASA. I mean, you can find any message you want in any film. Maybe this is present in Top Gun, maybe not, but I truly do not care.

So, what’s left? Well, only the biggest ingredient of all: Tom Cruise. This was his third starring role, after 1983’s landmark Risky Business and the little-seen All the Right Moves. While he proved his acting ability in those earlier films, Top Gun made him a movie star, the kind of name that can sell tickets over and above any other consideration. He’s still the biggest star in the world and making good-to-great films, though they more of the action variety (I won’t complain about Mission: Impossible — it’s the best action franchise going). Cruise is irresistible in this movie, its biggest special effect and the sole reason to see it. He sells every scene, every line of dialogue, commanding the screen in a way that dwarfs his co-stars (who are not inconsiderable, considering the likes of Val Kilmer, Tim Robbins, Meg Ryan, Tom Skerritt, Michael Ironside, and Anthony Edwards — whose Goose won’t be back for Maverick). It’s easy to say Cruise is all flash and dazzle, that the role of Maverick was kinda/sorta underwritten — but hey, why quibble? This movie has more than stood the test of time. It still looks like it was made yesterday, and everybody in it is still a big-ass star. It was even made by a revered director, the late Tony Scott, brother to Ridley. It is of its time without feeling a bit dated. Even the technology still seems to work; there are no Nokia flip phones that throw us out of the scene. Top Gun remains a top entertainment.

Which leads me to my only real criticism of the film. You probably saw it coming. That is the relationship between Cruise and co-star Kelly McGillis. It doesn’t work. While Cruise is busy burning a hole in the screen, McGillis is busy flaming out. I won’t say she’s bad, or that she was a bad actress, but I will say that the two are mismatched, and I never bought their relationship for an instant. That said, I am willing to overlook this flaw, in favor of everything else that Top Gun has going for it, 30 years later. This movie is no small achievement, and I have healthily outgrown my reservations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Decoding ‘Under the Silver Lake’

Gut reactions after watching Under the Silver Lake, a noir-type thriller with overtones of Los Angeles movies like Mulholland Drive and The Big Lebowski.

• The movie cannot be taken literally. What we are seeing on the screen is not what is actually happening. It’s a metaphor, with realistic details. There are dream and fantasy sequences that seem real but are misleading; they distract us from what is really going on with this guy, played with loser appeal by Andrew Garfield, which is that he is not only A) losing his grip on reality but B) slowly becoming homeless.

• The plot seems to revolve around a shiftless loser who gets (intentionally) caught up in the disappearance and possible murder of his beautiful neighbor (a girl he hardly knows and, in fact, has just met). He also seems to be on the trail of a notorious killer of dogs; there are “missing” posters of pets up all over town (or at least his neighborhood). Is Sam (Garfield) in fact the Dog Killer? Or is this all just a red herring to distract us from what is really happening, which is that Sam has just been served an eviction notice and is about to get kicked out of his shitty little apartment?

•  Sam gets a phone call from his mother, who encouraged him to watch an old Janet Gaylord movie, but I interpret this as a fantasy. Sam’s mother is dead, and her name was Janet. This is all but made clear by the movie when Sam, at the end of a long night of phantasmagorical carousing, awakens on the grave of Janet Gaylord, a Hollywood actress dead for decades. Sam has nowhere else to go and his potential career in Hollywood is graveyard dead. There is no mother; he mails himself the cassette of the Janet Gaylord movie.

• Maybe Sarah (the missing neighbor) was real, maybe not, but we do see Sam: breaking into a vacant apartment; lurking in bushes and getting sprayed by a skunk, and stealing a picture from a box someone has left behind in her (presumed) apartment. His behavior certainly matches up with someone living on the streets.

• Sam keeps seeing characters on the periphery who may or may not be tied to Sarah’s disappearance. Again, red herring. Nothing is made of the pirate or the sinister shadowy figure that seems to be trailing Sam on his nighttime journeys. These are distractions from what is really happening to Sam, which is that he is losing his home.

• Not only has Sam been evicted for being “criminally” behind on his rent, but his car gets repossessed, leaving him to walk everywhere in Los Angeles. You know who else has to walk everywhere to get around? The homeless.

• Sam is a conspiracy theorist (and NOT a successful actor in Hollywood). He sees patterns in Vanna White’s glances on “Wheel of Fortune” and believes that all forms of mass media contain secret messages decipherable only by the elite rich. He thinks he can discern a secret, coded message or story hidden in the pages of a “zine” about the underbelly of Los Angeles, and invites himself into the home of the zine’s author to talk about it. The author turns out to be batshit crazy. This is obviously a sign of what’s truly going on: people are encouraging Sam to turn his back on society and become homeless.

• According to Sam’s rapidly deteriorating worldview, there are secret maps contained in cereal boxes that, when overlaid atop video-game maps printed in ancient Nintendo magazines, across which are superimposed a chessboard grid, will reveal the location of a super-secret, elitist death cult compound, where all the “real” answers are hidden. Of course, one must first obtain the correct rank-and-file move in chess, which must then be laid atop all the other maps … and it helps to know the hobo code, too, which Sam apparently does know. Does this sound like a sane response to getting handed an eviction notice?

• Sam might have murdered some people, or he might not have. But he’s doing a great job of convincing himself that it’s OK to be homeless. Billionaires live in huts in the middle of wastelands, and there are vast, well-lighted tunnel systems leading to underground bomb shelters, where beautiful women choose to live out the remainder of their lives (stark naked, and with plenty of food). Why not give it all up?

• There are multiple shots of Sam wandering the streets, unshaven, unclean, repellant, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. He doesn’t even have a dollar to give another street bum. There’s no food in his refrigerator. And, he’s street-tough — he beats up some kids who’ve vandalized his car (right before it gets repossessed).

• Many scenes of his “detective” work are all just flights of fancy. Take, for example, the scene where he pursues a white Volkswagon rabbit (get it — white rabbit) to a swank party of elitists, where he thinks three girls might hold an important clue. Significantly, he stalks them through a swimming pool, hiding behind a beach ball. Yet he emerges from the pool with his clothes perfectly dry. Later, he will crash yet another party dressed only in pajamas and muck boots (after a deputy has paid him a visit and threatened to kick him out of his place). He bumps into his ex-girlfriend, who is now successful and has a handsome boyfriend. She regards him with horror, disgust, and pity. This is clearly Sam hitting rock-bottom, but he thinks he’s on to some larger plot involving cereal boxes.

• Apparently, Sam has got all day to chase his little white rabbits. He pats the head of the James Dean Statue at the Los Angeles Observatory, then sits all day beneath a statue of Newton. This leads to his first encounter with the self-proclaimed Homeless King, who materializes from nowhere to lead Sam on a personalized tour of the homeless underground in Los Angeles. Sam is clearly preparing himself for a life on the streets.

• Finally (well, maybe not finally), there’s the scene where Sam goes on a rant against homeless people. “They’re bullies,” he proclaims, after refusing to give a bum a dollar. “They drift around on the fringes.” Um, hasn’t he just described himself, to a tee?

I don’t know that I can fully recommend this movie, but it’s one of those puzzles built around life in Los Angeles. It would make a good double-feature with Mulholland Drive. In fact, I wonder if this movie isn’t the story of how a certain character in that one ended up living behind a dumpster?

Stereo for sale

In the Eighties, if I wanted to watch movies at home, I had a 12-inch B&W television of the portable variety that I could use, as well as (pirated) HBO and Skin-A-Max. If I wanted to play music, I had a Sears SR300 turntable and dual cassette “compact” stereo, which my parents got me for Christmas in, I believe, 1984. The TV was a hunk of junk, but I wish I had the stereo today.

Actually, according to the Interwebs, I CAN have my old stereo, via eBay, for a low-low asking price of $99. There are pictures posted and everything! It is exactly the same as the one I owned as a kid, and seeing photos of the SR300 brought back vivid memories. Unfortunately, this particular stereo does not have speakers, and the seller has warned of a price increase depending on “how far west” the purchaser lives. So it is likely I’ll be foregoing the expenditure.

But, man, the SR300. It was a killer cool stereo back in the day, an upgrade from my old boombox, which kept me entertained for hours from 1983-84. CDs, at this point in history, were unheard of to the common man (or teen), but a dual cassette deck? That shit was the bomb. You could play and/or record! How awesome was that for a 15-year-old living in the sticks?

The turntable, I am sad to say, was already something of a relic. Popular culture had moved on from records to cassettes, and I had moved on with it. Don’t get me wrong, I’d owned a Sound Design turntable for many years and played many records on it. I had a huge pop record collection by the turn of 1985, everything from Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required to CCR’s Greatest Hits and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I also owned several amazing John Williams movie soundtracks on vinyl, including all three Star Wars albums and others. For a kid my age, in the town I lived, I was a true music aficionado.

But the technology was important to me and I loved the portability of not just the boombox, but the cassette tape. The first cassette I ever owned was Simon & Garfunkle’s Greatest Hits, which I played to death in a Walkman. This was cutting edge, leaving vinyl records and diamond styluses far behind. Records tended to warp and scratch and I HATED that. Cassettes soon filled my life; I accumulated dozens of them, gradually replacing and then phasing out my record collection.

Stores phased out records, too; when Wal-Mart quit handling them, that was the end of it, for me. I converted strictly to tape. It always surprised me that Sears manufactured its top-line stereo, the SR300, with an out-of-date turntable; I never put a record on it. My groove was instead with the dual cassette deck! Records were just so … childish.

Of course, I’d grown up desiring a boss sound system, one that included a turntable. My Uncle Ben had owned one, and I grew up around his massive record collection and super-cool Pioneer stereo. It was so fucking sophisticated, watching Ben douse his beloved records with groove cleaner and wipe them clean with those special-made scrubbers (today’s equivalent of lint-free lens wipes, I suppose). His records were always clean and smooth. There was just no better way of listening to Fleetwood Mac or The Police or Zeppelin or Floyd.

Not until tapes came along. Surprisingly, I had no problem making the conversion. I spent my mid-late teens playing tapes, either on my SR300 or, later, in my car stereo. Today, of course, I wish I’d eschewed those stupid cassettes for records! I could have bought all of Ben’s records off him and had the time of my life! (Instead, they were stolen from his apartment in Little Rock.) I never got to hear any of my favorite music on vinyl using my SR300 — a real shame, because that stereo came with an AWESOME pair of cabinet-sized speakers. And, I doubt Mom and Dad paid more than $150 for the whole thing Back in the Day.

I loved my stereo. It always had a special place in my room, along the east wall, with the console dead center and the speakers mounted precisely in the opposing corners (on cinderblocks, the only truly cool design aesthetic). I played it daily, for hours. It was not just a big part of my life, it WAS my life. I experienced so much pop music history on its radio tuner. I heard so many rock classics for the first time on KLAZ or KGAP, everything from Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” to U2’s “With or Without You” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise” and Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.” Decembers were meant for year-end rock countdown shows. I’ll never forget hearing Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues,” or the umpteenth time I heard “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins. All on the SR300. Never on record.

I kept it for many years and then sold it in a yard sale at my then-girlfriend’s house, in the summer of 1991. Music, and the way I’ve experienced it, just hasn’t been the same since.

 

 

 

Young men fighting old men’s wars

In the pantheon of war movies, Platoon, by Oliver Stone, stands tall. I watched the movie again the other night on a streaming service and was amazed at how well it holds up. The film is 33 years old and makes other similar movies look fairly lame in comparison.

Platoon was a big deal on its release in 1986, as it was the first war movie to take an infantryman’s look at Vietnam. I don’t mean that from the perspective of John Wayne-style jingoism. There are no false heroics in Platoon; this is not a fantasy picture in which America emerges as the victor. Sylvester Stallone in 1985 had sent Rambo back to SE Asia to “win the war,” but that view is bullshit. We got our asses kicked over there, and Stone, who was there, knows it.

The movie was shocking in its depiction of violence and the sometimes abhorrent (even extra-legal) behavior of U.S. troops in Vietnam. Audience had been coddled by Gary Cooper and Audie Murphy and Charlton Heston, lulled into a false sense of superiority by Schwarzenegger and Stallone. But what everyone knew, but was afraid to admit, was that Vietnam had been a quagmire, a mistake, a smear on the military and political history of America, and Platoon came along and shouted it from the rooftops. To see that movie in 1986 was an experience unlike any other, and not just for the language and violence. No, the message was that young men were sent by old man to Vietnam, where they fought and died, seemingly, for nothing. That’s the takeaway, and it still hurts after all these years.

Platoon marked a turning point. It was the first time a filmmaker gave us an honest look at war, any war. It is defined by the chaos of the firefight. Though we’ve gotten used to such an approach thanks to more recent war films like Saving Private Ryan (a great one) and Black Hawk Down (another great one), Stone got there first, showing us the war from the troops’ eye view. There are a few military strategists here and there in the movie, but they mean nothing. Bombs and bullets rain down without rhyme or reason, men are killed, and there is no larger significance. You were lucky to survive a single day in the bush. John Wayne would probably have gotten killed.

The movie is unrelenting, pared down, purposeful. It is soaked in grim reality and terribly, terribly sad. I would not call it entertaining. When Charlie Sheen’s innocent young Chris first disembarks in “the Nam,” he’s confronted by the sight of other soldiers going home in body bags. There is a significant moment when he spots an older man whose time in country is up. They exchange stares, the older man’s cynical grin saying it all: You’re screwed, kid, and even if you live, you’ll never be the same. The whole movie is about Chris becoming that man.

We believe every moment, every detail of this movie. More than Apocalypse Now, this movie is Vietnam because Stone lived it. He was Chris. He did drop out to go experience combat firsthand, to see what was happening to the disadvantaged men of America who got caught up in the draft and shipped off to the rice paddies. When Keith David ridicules Chris’ decision to drop out of college and fight, he’s commenting on Stone’s actual life. The movie feels so real because it is deeply personal.

There are two larger figures in the story who may be apocryphal, or perhaps for Stone, represent other soldiers who’ve been combined into single personalities for the sake of the film. One is Elias, the “water-walking” veteran played by Willem Dafoe (in the role that made him a star). The other is Barnes (Tom Berenger), the scarred, hostile, thoroughly untrustworthy staff sergeant. They represent the two extremes of soldiering for Chris, who must choose which man to follow. Elias acts with compassion and mercy, and a sense of proportion; he’s enraged by any senseless act, but unafraid to do what is necessary to survive. Barnes has become a mere killer for whom war is a means to an end, and that end is death. He’ll do anything to advance his own agenda, which is simply to kill. Chris sees the value in each man’s point of view, but is forced to pick a side — or, put another way, to exact justice where justice is due. His crucial decision is the crux of the film.

But Platoon isn’t really about a plot. It’s about the moral gulf that separates Barnes from Elias. Chris represents America — will he come down on the side of justice and mercy, or use war as an excuse to slaughter yellow people? (Fifty years later, we’re still answering that question.) Stone brilliantly succeeds in making us see each man’s side. Barnes has been forced to accept the fact that annihilation has become the official (if unspoken) policy of the U.S. toward the North Vietnamese. He acts accordingly. Elias, on the other hand, knows that the only way to maintain one’s humanity in the face of barbarity is by showing restraint. Neither man hesitates pulling the trigger when lives are on the line, it’s just that Barnes will pull the trigger when it suits him — even if there’s another American in his sights. The way the movie portrays these two opposing points of view, yet gets us to understand, even sympathize with them, is its boldest stroke.

There’s also an undercurrent of political commentary, as the characters remark on the divide between rich and poor in America. (The poor get shipped off to the Nam; the rich set the policies that get them killed.) Chris is a privileged white kid whose very compassion for the poor marks him as soft and privileged. He has the power to make a choice. His fellow soldiers are draftees, poor white boys from the hills, and urban blacks straight from the streets of New York, Chicago, wherever. Chris doesn’t fit in because the war was never meant for him to fight. I can’t say that his decision to join up makes him more admirable.

One thing that struck me early in this film was the number of black actors in the cast. Platoon subtly makes the point that Vietnam wasn’t all fought by white kids. It was fought by black men like Manny and Junior, King and Big Harold, who lived in fear and died in agony. This flies in the face of decades of American war movies, where white men make all the decisions, fight the good fight, kill the funny-looking foreigners, declare victory, and ride off into the sunset. (This applied to Westerns, too, after all those Injun savages had been cleaned up by Randolph Scott.) It’s an upraised middle finger to every John Wayne movie ever made.

The film embraces the counterculture, also shocking in the mid-Eighties. The soldiers openly smoke dope and toss words like “motherfucker” and “cocksucker” like grenades. It portrays them as desperate, angry, downtrodden, cynical, mercenary, and, in some instances, borderline criminal. (A couple of the characters come across as thinly-disguised rapists, and indeed, there is a scene where Chris breaks up the sexual assault of some innocent Vietnamese girls. He is spat upon by his fellow soldiers for daring to show civility in the face of horror.)

There is also a lot of complexity and nuance. Chris is portrayed as an innocent abroad — he succumbs to heat sickness, ant bites, and exhaustion, and mistakes a mere flesh wound for a fatal injury in his first battle — but later physically assaults some defenseless villagers, seemingly out of frustration. Later, he comes to his senses and attacks Barnes, who has murdered not only villagers but also a fellow soldier. In the climactic battle, he embraces his inner warrior and runs screaming into the fight, shooting anything that moves. We can understand the inconsistency; the war is changing him; he doesn’t know who he is, how to behave, or which side is right. Hell, maybe both sides are. We have no idea.

The battle sequences are jarring, numbing, terrifying. We never know where the enemy is coming from. There’s an early night patrol where Chris, fighting sleep, thinks he sees NVA hiding among some trees. Slowly, the enemy soldiers emerge, and I realized that, among other things, surviving in Vietnam meant learning how to see things properly. Other battle scenes portray the headlong rush of combat, with the opposing forces literally approaching each other from opposite sides of the screen. Stone’s tracking camera picks up characters in the jungle, leads them a little, then runs alongside them, cutting to enemy combatants rushing heedlessly into danger. Sometimes, the two sides are both American. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

At two hours, the movie feels like 20 minutes. It is one of the fastest, leanest, most aggressively-paced movies I’ve ever seen, and yet it seems to omit nothing and gives even the smallest supporting role its due. There are no women in the cast, but how could there be? Stone fought alongside men; he has no time for other considerations, and anything else would be false. I have no doubt that some liberties were taken, but you’d have to be a historian or one of Stone’s fellow troops to spot them.

The acting is invisible. The actors simply become troops in Vietnam. But a few stand out. Keith David wins the movie as King, the dope-smoking short-timer who sees through Chris’ bullshit, and calls him out on it. Dafoe brings grit and integrity to the “saintly” role of Elias. John C. McGinley makes a disgusting ass-kisser; it’s a tribute to his skill that we finally identify with him, and sympathize. I will say that future movie star Johnny Depp hardly makes an impression. The only — only, only — questionable link in the chain is Sheen, who’s a little too puppy-dog cute for this movie. It is interesting to think what another burgeoning movie star, Tom Cruise, could have done with this role, but in 1986, he was busy in that Air Force ad known as Top Gun.

Stone, of course, went on to become an A-list director, with JFK and Natural Born Killers still to come. Say what you want about those pictures; Platoon is his masterpiece. It was the best and most important movie of the 1980s.

And here’s some campy racist bullshit, which Stone obviously hoped to discredit:

 

Now which version do you think comes closest to the truth? And which carries more moral weight? Which one do you think gave more of a boost to an aging white movie star’s career? And how bout that wall of punji sticks, conveniently hidden behind a curtain of “foliage”?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bourne movies

The time will probably come when I will feel compelled to revisit the Jason Bourne series, which began in 2002 with The Bourne Identity and ended a few years ago, I guess, with the self-titled Jason Bourne, indicating that good ideas for titles ran out before the box office did.

The series stars Matt Damon as the titular hero, a memory-deprived CIA super assassin on the run from his own employers. In the first film, Bourne is pulled from the Mediterranean with near-fatal gunshot wounds and a serious case of amnesia. The film follows his efforts to recover his memory and avoid capture/assassination by what I can only presume are legions of international killers. There are fights and chases. We are reminded strongly of James Bond, but minus the gadgets and sex.

Bourne is based on a series of Robert Ludlum novels and gets very franchise-y by the second installment, The Bourne Supremacy, on its way to the third film, The Bourne Ultimatum. Various CIA bad guys come and go, all using the Agency’s sinister technologies, listening devices, and henchmen against Bourne as he fights his way toward some version of the truth. I have no idea what happens in the fourth film, Jason Bourne, and don’t care. Don’t even get me started on the non-Damon entry starring the guy who plays Bullseye (or Archer or Arrowman) in those other movies.

As I recall, the most interesting thing about Bourne is that the movies are built around the hero’s inability to remember details about his training, past, childhood, etc. He’s been used and then thrown away by various CIA programs and wants revenge, or to right old wrongs, or something. It’s all very murky. I’m not sure there was enough plot to spread across three films. Say what you want to about James Bond, but each Bond entry stands alone, and 007 never got amnesia, no matter how many blows to the head.

One thing the Bourne movies did was change the way action movies are photographed, and I think that the pendulum is only now swinging back the other (correct) direction. All Bourne films are edited by hatchet or machete. The action scenes are choppy, to say the least. It would be interesting to Google the number of cuts per minute in the typical Bourne action sequence. Too many, I suspect. The fight scenes, shoot outs, etc., are good, but they are also exhausting, and do not show us a lot of what I like seeing, which is the balletic choreography of great action. The Bourne movies took the idea of comprehensible action, chewed it up, and spit it out.

That influence made its way into Nolan’s Batman movies and at least one of Craig’s Bond movies, to their detriment. I’m glad now that the latest Bonds, as well as John Wick and certain of the Marvel movies (Black Panther) has reversed the trend, giving us wide-screen views of actors moving in space. The “vomit comet” approach launched by Bourne seems to have thankfully run its course.

 

 

Father’s Day

My father died in 2007 and I haven’t celebrated Father’s Day since. My daughter and grandkids wish me Happy Father’s Day, but that’s it.

I didn’t really celebrate the occasion even when he was alive. My father and I did not enjoy what might typically be thought of as a “close” relationship.

Dad cut himself off from his family, sealed himself up in his own wounds, sickened, and died. There was nothing I could do to stop it. I finally just got tired of ramming head into the wall where he was concerned.

He was the most stubborn individual I ever knew. Warn him to stop drinking and he’d merely continue. Convince him to check into rehab and he would only escape. Remind him that he had a grandchild to think about, and he’d ignore the advice. Dad did what he wanted, which was to self-destruct. There’s not an obstacle in the world that would have stopped him.

Dad figured everyone else was stupid and that he was the smartest person in the room. Anyone who tried telling him he couldn’t handle anymore drinking was wrong, just wrong. His son was certainly wrong, about everything. Once, when we were having a hesitant conversation about the tragedy of 9/11, I made some passing comment, and he quickly informed me that I was ‘watching the wrong kind of news.’ He was referring to CNN, whereas, he was a Fox watcher. That pretty much ended that discussion.

Thing is, I knew news, and Dad wouldn’t even respect that basic fact. I’d been working in journalism for almost 20 years. I know propaganda and salesmanship from truthful reporting. I’ve made my living at it. Dad just sat in a dark room consuming Fox News. But he was right, and I was wrong. That’s how he lived his whole life. That’s how he approached every relationship. I’m right. You’re wrong. Not only did he have to win, but you had to lose. Or, at least, that was how he viewed the relationship he had with his son.

He took the same view toward his parents. They were wrong about everything. He was right. The same applied to his wife. She was wrong. He was right.

Hell, there’s no point berating a man who’s been in the grave 12 years. But these are the Father’s Day memories that I’m left with, of a man who refused to be wrong, about anything, even as he flushed his life down the toilet. I love him, ostensibly, objectively, but I couldn’t save him. You can’t save anyone.

 

Gross … good, but gross

“Hannibal,” the now-canceled NBC series based on the Thomas Harris novels that included The Silence of the Lambs, is kind of like driving by a car wreck. You know you shouldn’t look, but you do, anyway – and usually regret it later.

I’m surprised this show ever made it to network television. I could understand something like it appearing on one of the cable channels, or on a premium service like HBO, or a streaming service like Amazon Prime (where I’ve been watching it). But for NBC to air a series that is graphically about cannibalism and other forms of human depravity is shocking. Too shocking, I guess, for most viewers – the show was canceled after just a couple of seasons.

So why watch it? Well, because it is, in the final analysis, a good show – brilliantly acted, exceedingly well written, beautifully directed. Each episode (at least in Season One, and so far in Season Two) is like a mini-movie that outdoes the 1991 Oscar winner. The series uses the Harris novels (and Silence) as a jumping-off point, examining the crimes of Dr. Hannibal Lecter before he famously met FBI agent-trainee Clarice Starling. Hannibal’s foil here is Will Graham, who features in the Harris novel Red Dragon. Given the show’s cancelation, we’ll never get to see Clarice in this incarnation of the story. It’s probably just as well.

Dr. Lecter was played magnificently by Anthony Hopkins in Silence and in Hannibal, the 2001 sequel directed by Ridley Scott. (That movie gets a bad rap, but I think it’s far better than you’d expect.) Here he is portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen, that sinister-looking, erudite Dane who once played a Bond villain in Casino Royale.  Mikkelsen is distinctive, but he looks nothing like Hopkins, and plays the character in a completely different way. Hopkins was operatically over the top, but Mikkelsen is quieter, more reserved. His Hannibal is content to pull the strings from way, way back behind the scenes, whereas Hopkins’ Hannibal had already been caught and, thus, had little to lose. Mikkelsen isn’t bad, he’s just … different.

Graham is played Hugh Dancy as a twitching, nervous wreck of a human being. He’s investigating serial murders that have all, in a sense, been perpetrated (or at least directed) by Lecter. (Remember, the cannibalistic psychiatrist hasn’t been caught yet.) Graham is slowly going crazy, so deep inside his head is Lecter. Laurence Fishburne is also in the cast as Jack Crawford, Graham’s FBI guru, who’s smart but blind to Lecter’s sick game. The entire cast is so convincing in their roles that we stop thinking of them as actors.

The murders in “Hannibal” are beyond gruesome. Some of them are sicker than anything I’ve seen in any format. A few have the power to make you wince, look away. If Harris’ novels suggest a plethora of bad ways for people to die, this show adds an exponential number, and develops them in horrifying detail. Yet the stories are so engrossing, and the atmosphere so thick and seductive, that you can’t help but watch. There’s never been a horror series before, but “Hannibal” is – was – just that. A horror movie for the small screen. Watch it …… if you dare.

See what I mean here:

And, here:

Oh, and here is the trailer for the 2001 sequel, which I think is underrated horror:

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