Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Thanksgiving Post... Three Years On

Don’t anyone tell me to have a Happy Thanksgiving. I don’t do the state-mandated holidays anymore. 

In part, this is because I don’t have any family left in the area. True, my sister lives about twenty minutes away, alone now, but she is family only in the strict biological sense. Regular visitors to this blog will no doubt have unearthed at least some of the bile that I’ve spewed in her direction; but even though I’ve mellowed out a bit in my feelings towards her, the fact is it’s a “Fool me once / Fool me twice” kind of situation. She claims to have reformed. I doubt this very much, but whether she has or hasn’t, never again will I give her the opportunity to prove me right. I’m not nearly the dominant personality that she is, but I have limits, and once you push me up against those limits you will find that I am an immovable object.

People do take pity on me and invite me to their holiday dinners, but intruding on another family’s holiday is just plain awkward. It’s nobody’s fault. 

I don’t see the need for an authorized, mandated Day of Thanksgiving anyhow. If you’re only thankful for life one day out of the year, and even then you’re only thankful because you’re being told that you have to be… then something is wrong with your life that needs to be repaired. 

Three years ago, and for decades prior to that, I was in that boat. I tried it with life, I really did, but it wasn’t working out, and in the end all that I wanted from life was to get out of it. Especially for the six or seven years prior to 2012, life was nothing but a continual, daily torture for me, “torment” not being too strong a word. Thankful? Is the Inquisition victim thankful for the rack and thumbscrews?

I don’t know if it will last, but beginning finally in late 2012 life finally began to turn around. Just being able to be my own Master has a lot to do with it, but ohmigosh, the years between 2010 and late 2012 could have ended so badly for me: instead, I have a home of my own, I have my three wonderful pussyquats, I have my own work, I have peace for the first time ever. And believe you me, I don’t let one single day go by without thanking my lucky stars (and everyone who helped me along the way) for all of that. Even if I lapse once in a while into despair: this is largely biological, and I’m able to mentally work my way back to the truth, which is simply that I’m so god-damned lucky it’s practically unbelievable. From late 2012 until now — these have been the best months of my whole life, and I don’t need a damn holiday to be thankful for them.

No — beyond Halloween I pretty much don’t do modern holidays at all. Winter solstice: that moment when we are halfway through the dark and the days begin to lengthen once again — now THAT is a holiday worth celebrating, and I do mark that day. Celebrate? Yes, I suppose, insofar as a single guy with Asperger’s and no social instincts or inclinations whatsoever can do. But I haven’t celebrated New Year’s in a long time (as one gets older, New Year’s just gets more depressing), and as for Valentine’s Day… pardon my French, but don’t fucking make me puke. Walpurgis Night, more or less corresponding with the pagan Beltane: this one I celebrate. Where All Hallows is the rising of the dark, here is where we put the dark to rest at last. If that’s not worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.

You might say that I’m becoming a pagan — except that I hate ceremony and ritual with a purple passion, and pagan rituals are no less irksome to me than Christian ones. Just let me mark my days, thank you very much, quietly and in my own way, muddling through as best I can. So I won’t wish you a ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ or a ‘Joyous Christmas.’ I wish for you and everyone the same things that I wish for myself: Freedom, Peace, Comfort, Security, and Good Works that mean something to you. And not for just one or two pages in the book of the year.

— Freder.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Two Love Stories, Separated by Sixty-plus Years - and Talent.

I don’t suppose it matters — because the picture is so much fun — but why is The Shop Around the Corner set so resolutely in Budapest? Is it because Ernst Lubitch was feeling homesick for Europe?  Is it because the story, even by 1940 standards, is so very much a contrived fairy tale that the studio believed no one would swallow it unless it was presented as happening in a far-off land? 

It’s very curious. This is the only odd or off-key note in the whole silly, wonderful movie. We are never shown any views of the city, the shop could be located almost anywhere in the world. Indeed, the names of the characters are Hungarian… but that’s where it stops. In all other aspects the employees of this shop are as American as apple pie. After all, we’re talking principally Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullivan and Frank Morgan — the Wonderful Wizard himself, out of Oz and balancing a small department store against a faithless wife. Only two of the supporting characters — including Felix Bressart doing essentially the same things that he did in Lubitch’s Ninotchka just a year before — have even remotely foreign accents, and the young messenger boy sounds as if he was pulled straight off the streets of New York. None of them would seem out of place if the picture was set in say, Chicago at the turn of the century. 

Everything about The Shop Around the Corner is so very damned American that it’s jarring — it pulls you out of the story every time a reference is made to Budapest. It makes no sense! Why, O Why did they do it? 

There’s never any doubt in The Shop Around the Corner as to where the love story is going, what’s going to happen next and how it’s all going to turn out… it’s the kind of picture that the audience can and does write in their heads alongside the action unfolding onscreen. But Lubitch has such a lightness of touch that we can never take our eyes off the thing even when we can practically recite the dialogue alongside the actors. In one sense, the performances are unremarkable: the cast is doing just exactly what they are noted for always doing, bringing to the screen exactly the same qualities that they always bring — but when you’re talking about Stewart and Morgan especially, that thing is always a great pleasure to watch. As for Margaret Sullivan’s Klara — she comes across as more than a little bit of a spoiled brat, and in this she may simply have been playing herself. 

It doesn’t measure up to Ninotchka, but then, what could? If Ninotchka is a beautiful lemon meringue pie of a movie, then The Shop Around the Corner is a perfectly serviceable chocolate cream. Bring a bib and tuck in. It’s nothing you haven’t eaten before or won’t eat again, but it’s tasty nonetheless.

So, if The Shop Around The Corner is a completely artificial and contrived love story that somehow works wonderfully as a cinematic confection, why is Last Chance Harvey, made sixty years later when you would have thought that evolution would have amounted to something, a completely artificial and contrived love story that stinks like last year’s cheese? It is at least as sincerely and skillfully acted; ah, but “sincerity” is the one thing director / screenwriter Joel Hopkins isn’t guilty of.

Dustin Hoffman plays a past-middle-age sad sack with essentially nothing to live for. The first half-hour of the movie is spent more or less gleefully driving spikes into Hoffman’s neck, hammer blow after hammer blow. Just when things are at their worst, here comes a “chance” (Hah!) encounter with Emma Thompson to save his life and make everything All Better. Ms. Thompson works in the international airport in a capacity that is elusive to say the least. Essentially, her character works in the airport because that’s the only place that the Hoffman character could reasonably expect to cross paths with her.

It gets worse, coincidence piled on improbability. In real life, the Thompson character would call the cops on Hoffman — but no, they walk. As they walk, they talk. This takes up a good chunk of the movie, and it’s the best part of the thing… the only part that gives Last Chance Harvey at least a reasonable claim to being a movie for adults, about adults, with no explosions in it. As noted, the performances are as flawless as you would expect. Hoffman is as vested in this as in any of his roles, while Thompson basically has to look tolerant and give a wistful smile every now and then.

At no point is there any kind of a cynical twist that would lend at least a hair of realism to the thing. Even The Shop Around the Corner has an affair and a misunderstanding in it: Last Chance Harvey is just gushing sweetness and light. The final blow occurs just at the end. Unsatisfied with providing phony happy endings for everyone else in the picture, Hopkins backtracks and provides Thompson’s mother (the great and woefully misused Eileen Atkins) with a phony happy ending of her own. Because nobody is compete without love, right? And everybody’s got to be complete, right? Anything less and it wouldn’t be a product of the insipid and unforgivably pandering Modern Cinema. There is a genuine sophistication buried deep, deep, way down deep under The Shop Around The Corner; but beneath Last Chance Harvey there’s only emptiness and manipulation.

— Freder

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Whoever he is behind that Mask...

After forty-however-many years, the 1966 Batman TV series is finally out of legal purgatory, and the long-awaited, long anticipated DVDs are here! I meant to approach them with discipline and limit myself to the two-episodes-a-week that originally ran all those years ago, but as usual my sense of self-restraint is negligible at best: like a pig, I dove right in.

Oh, my; 1966 happened a long time ago, but the premiere of Batman on ABC was one of those moments that you never forget, even if you were only seven years old. There are certain scenes from episodes 1 and 3 that I remember vividly from my first viewing; and I remember going to my bedroom after watching them to draw picture after picture of Batman and Robin, of scenes from the show.

I was one of those kids who didn’t get that it was a comedy. 

Batman ’66 took an awful beating from comics fans throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Maybe this was based on resentment: not just for making comic books, which we took so very seriously at the time, look silly and trivial, but for our own naïveté, for making us realize, once we had grown up enough to “get” the jokes, that we had been duped as children; that the show we watched breathlessly as kids was really an over-the-top pie in the face.

But I suppose the thing has come full-circle: today, Batman ’66 is being as openly (and lucratively) embraced by the comics biz as it was reviled for thirty years prior. Even DC publisher Paul Levitz, who once actively opposed the home video release of this show as “not being the image of Batman” that he wanted to perpetuate, is now on board and happily promoting away as if his job depended on it. Ain’t money wundafil? Don’t money do wundafil things?

The truth is that DC brought it on themselves: stylistically and in content, the TV series is almost slavishly faithful to the Batman comic books as they were in the mid-sixties. With villains whose plots were outright silly and trivial, and Bat-mite here and Bat-everything else there, Batman comics were simply goofy and over-the-top… which is perhaps why DC Comics was, around this time, getting its collective ass kicked all up and down the block by a certain upstart called Marvel and its Master Schemer, Stan (the Man) Lee.

So instead of dissing the Batman TV show, comics fans really should have looked at the comics that it was specifically based on and realized that here was actually a pretty damned savvy and sophisticated realization of a character and series that, by rights, should have been 100 percent unfilmable.

Dosier’s Green Hornet — another series I wish would come to DVD — wasn’t, as I recall, nearly as overtly camped out as Batman, because the comics were that much more sensible; but thank goodness his Wonder Woman series never got made! The pilot alone is enough to make your teeth curl.

But for Batman: these are things I still remember from the first viewing all those years ago: The Riddler cackling away as he prepares to crush Robin’s head in a vise… The Penguin dropping a gigantic umbrella into the middle of a crowded Gotham City street, Bruce Wayne slowwww-ly being rolled into the furnace at the end of that episode. I remember the knockout performances by Gorshin and Meredith and Romero and Newmar, and to a lesser extent by Victor Buono and David Wayne and Anne Baxter and George Sanders. I remember the gaudy polychrome color and the wonky camera angles. And let’s not forget Adam West’s courage, his comedic timing, his still-remarkable voice and the way that he used it. I remember all these things and need little more inducement to weep for a world that’s gone: because it was never just a TV show.

At our house, in those days, we had the only color TV set in the  extended family; and so, when my uncles and aunts and cousins realized that the show was no good without color, they would all come over every Wednesday and Thursday night to watch the show with us… a regular family event.

It was shortly into the second season of Batman that my Father pulled up the stakes around our little family and moved us halfway across the country from Minnesota to Maine. I know this only because we were still living in Edina, Minnesota when the Batman movie came out between seasons one and two. I never got to see that movie in the theaters, but I did get to see the trailer: it was showing in front of a stop-motion animated picture called Willy McBean and His Magic Machine. I had pestered my father and made a general nuisance of myself until he consented to let me go to Willy McBean, but as it turned out I forgot the movie almost immediately, while I vividly remember the trailer for Batman to this day!

The move to Maine was a shock to the system from which TV shows like Batman and Frankenstein Jr. were the only constant. In fact it was Batman that got my parents to finally postpone my bedtime… the show aired an hour later on the east Coast than it did in the middle of the country. 

The point is that we had a Pop Culture in those days. We had a culture that connected us. With only three TV networks, no cable, no internet, if we weren’t actually watching the same show as our friends, schoolmates and families, we at least knew what they were watching. I would argue that there’s no such thing as a Pop Culture anymore, nor can there be, because the amount of entertainment options that we have before us today are so vast that very few of us are on the same page.

The rights battles surrounding Batman ’66 were so lengthy and venal and chewed up so much money that I suppose it’s to be expected that the DVD release is, despite all the touted extras, really a kind of bare-bones affair. The episode menus are utterly generic, the package design is nice, but looks as if it took a skilled designer about an hour to slap together. Ditto the booklet that comes with the set.

But at least the show is here, at last — with the full uncut episodes as they have not been seen since its premiere. The image has been gently restored, although not sweetened. Likewise the sound: a 5.1 surround remix might have been lovely, but wouldn’t have reflected the show as it aired. What we get is the original monaural track… it gets the job done. There’s been some complaining about the price tag, but I got mine for around $150… with all three seasons included on 15 disks, that’s about ten bucks a disk and fair is fair. It seems to me that Just Making This Release Happen was an expensive proposition; if they had to cut costs to keep the price reasonable, they’ve cut in the areas that were best cut.

Given my own druthers, I might only have picked season one. I doubt that I’m alone in this, which may be why the show is only available as a complete unit. Batman burned very brightly indeed for one season, and then, as even Adam West notes, began to flame out in a hurry with Season Two. By season three, the producers were frankly desperate. I could have lived without Seasons Two and Three… but then again, Yvonne Craig wears that Batgirl costume awfully well…

Even to modern eyes, it’s easy it see why these remarkable first season episodes made such a colorful splash in the black-and-white world of the mid-sixties. But what makes Batman ’66 a classic today?

It was much, much more than a simple TV show. It was a Time, and it was a Place. It was a Milepost against which we measured our lives. It was a great, gaudy, polychrome Grand Opera. It was both the beginning and the end of an Age.

— Freder
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