Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog


“The Americans are good at story telling.  The French are not.”  Holding such a sentiment did not prevent  Jean-Luc Godard from attempting his own takes on genre films – a favorite staple of American directors since the founding days of cinema in the United States.  In fact, the early years of Godard’s career (the late 50’s to the early 60s) revealed a director very much involved in an Americanesque phase.  One of the best films to come from this period is BAND OF OUTSIDERS (French, 1964) starring his wife at the time, Anna Karina.  But this is a Jean-Luc Godard genre film, after all, which means that the picture is virtually plotless and functions mainly as a platform for the “new wave” icon to explore some of his favorite authors, directors, actors and cultural figures. 

Meeting in an English language class, Odile (Karina), Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey) plan to steal tens of thousands of francs from Odile’s rich Aunt (Louisa Colpeyn), with whom she lives in a palatial mansion.  The money actually (can’t really say “belongs”) to the mysterious Mr. Stolz, the Aunts lover, who also lives at the estate.  He came into the money  through tax evasion, and is a symbol of the corrupt capitalist, getting rich while refusing to pay his fair share.  He is a sort of McGuffin in that he is never shown, but is the reason the plot is put into motion. 

But it is Godard’s cultural and artistic obsessions that get the most attention.  The film begins with a flashing montage of the three principals’ faces accompanied by Michel Legrand’s silent movie style music and the final credit on-screen is “Directed by Jean-Luc Cinéma Godard”.  Arthur and Franz may be named in honor of “B” picture star Arthur Franz, and the two constantly enact shootouts from gangster movies.  They remark that Odile has “soft skin”,  possibly a plug for Francois Truffaut’s movie of that name, released the same year as BAND OF OUTSIDERS.  Godard’s idols from the other arts are also mentioned.  Franz is a fanatic for books and in English class the instructor (Danièle Girard) points out that it is not important to know how to say “where is the bathroom”.  It is however, essential to know how to spell “Thomas Hardy”.  Lengthy readings are given of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, as Arthur passes love notes to Odile.  After this, it is back to film commentary.  At the end of class a student asks “How do you say ‘big one million dollar film?'”, an allusion to Godard’s distaste for big budget commercial cinema.  Later, when Arthur asks Odile for a date, he playfully places his closed fist on her chin, pretending to sock her, like so many gangster and private eye movie tough guys.  Arthur wears a Humphrey Bogart style overcoat throughout the film, as does Franz.  The three are frequently seen “bogarting” cigarettes and often pass a pork pie hat between them.  Arthur constantly speaks of Odile possibly “betraying” him, as if he believes in the film noir cliché of the duplicitous femme fatale.  And – horrors – Odile remarks at one point “I hate cinema!  I hate theater!  I love nature!” as though there is something unnatural about the filmed image and performance.

Capitalism, another Godard obsession, is attacked in sharp fashion.  Early in the film, Odile is asked how she plans to explain leaving the house for so long a time to her domineering Aunt.  “I’ll  tell her I’m going shopping”, is her reply.  An innocuous sounding statement, perhaps, but knowing Godard’s hatreds (a key one being consumerism) it must be interpreted as anything but.  In a diner, Odile orders a Coca-Cola – reminding us of Godard’s famous description of the 60’s generation as “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” – fascinated by Marxism but prey to all the capitalist vices.  When discussing the planned robbery, Arthur remarks “better to be rich and happy than poor and unhappy.”  This equating of money with happiness is an attitude the filmmaker must find incomprehensible. 

The power of advertising is decried as a newspaper ad for make-up announces “It’s not just your looks, but your happiness.”  All news and advertising media are seen as a servant of capitalism, polluting us with constant stimuli (visuals and sound), all saying “buy this, think that.”  It apparently has Godard’s head swimming and late in the film Odile challenges Arthur and Franz to go without speaking for an entire minute.  As they attempt this feat, all sounds from the noisy diner – voices, music etc. –  disappear from the soundtrack.  It is an eerie touch and needless to say, one of them cracks before the minute is up.  Modern man, it seems, needs constant distractions. 

Godard plays off traditional romance films and even has Arthur and Odile take a trip to the subway – the bowels of the earth, and Arthur states bluntly that love talk is “crap”.  Something else of interest happens in the subway: The couple see a man seated on the train holding a small white box.  Arthur remarks that the blank expression on his face could be interpreted in wildly differing ways depending on what you imagine to be in the box.  If he is holding a Teddy bear, the expression could be sublime.  If he is holding a stick of dynamite the look may be sinister.  This conversation is a reworking of the Lev Kuleshov film editing experiments conducted in the early years of the Soviet Union, where the same shot of an old man is intercut with different images, as seen from his point of view.  Depending on what he is viewing, his expression will be interpreted in different ways by the audience.  Astute fellows, Godard and Kuleshov. 

The distancing techniques of playwright Bertolt Brecht are employed as Odile sings a mournful ditty while staring directly into the camera.  The song is about the common plight of all people, as she sees it – loneliness.  The use of singing and addressing the audience serve to remind us that we are watching a film.  As such Godard is saying “This is only a movie.  Do not become so involved with the plot, and instead focus on what is being said.”  And the message is an important one, as repeated by Franz at the end of the film.  Speaking to Odile he states, “Isn’t it strange how people never form a whole?  Always remaining separate.”  Thus the title is fully explained: We are all outsiders, 

With Arthur killed in the robbery and no money to speak of, Franz and Odile head off to their futures together – and one last dig at “papa’s cinema”, as the narrator describes a “Technicolor, CinemaScope” film to follow of their adventures.  The narrator is Jean-Luc Godard himself, a wise choice to tell the story of one mans obsessions, hatreds and passions. 

CREDITS: Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.  Based on the novel FOOLS’ GOLD by Dolores Hitchens. Cinematography by Raoul Coutard.  Music by Michel Legrand.  With: Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey, Danièle Girard, Louisa Colpeyn.                             


April 30, 2013 Posted by | 1960's cinema, film directors, French "new wave", French cinema | , , , , , | Leave a comment

fast, cheap & out of control (1997)

Errol morris’ existential documentary “fast, cheap & out of control” (1997) often has the feel of a fellini movie – with its big top scenes and nino rota style music score by caleb sampson.  But if the “circus of life” attitude is prevalent throughout, it is tempered by a somewhat somber mood concerning the human condition.  Somber, perhaps because there is a belief held by some of those interviewed for the film, in the inevitable decline of humanity.  Maybe this is the reason the films’s title and the names of the principal humans involved are all presented in lower case letters.   Well, maybe…

Fast, cheap & out of control, examines the lives and work of four men, all of whom are involved in vocations that are admirably unique.  They are, in order of their first appearances in the film, dave hoover, a wild animal trainer, george mendonca, a topiary gardener, ray mendez, and expert on the naked mole rat and rodney brooks, a robot maker.  Emerging from the exploration of these wildly disparate careers, is the theme of life, human and animal, real and artificial. 

Mendez and brooks began their careers with a fascination for insects – brooks for how they moved and mendez particularly interested in their societal structures.    Brooks as a young man loved to build computers, then became enthralled with the world of robots.  Even after entering a career as a robot maker, he was startled to see one of his creations actually move.  He was responsible for the movement, after all, but was never-the-less intoxicated by the belief that he somehow created a form of life. 

George mendonca, it could be said, is a creator of life as well – specializing in huge animals sculpted from bushes.  A haunting shot, near the start of the film, features a giraffe seen from a low angle, darkened skies pouring down rain.  Stunningly photographed by robert richardson, the “green animal” seems just in time to board Noah’s ark.  This may be seen by some as a strangely apocalyptic image for such a beautiful film, but as we will see, an appropriate one. 

If the men seem exceptionally nerdy, human bonding is seen as essential as told in the story of dave hoover’s developing relationship with a childhood heroe –  lion tamer and “B” picture star, Clyde Beatty.  First introduced to lion taming by beatty’s films, hoover later met his idol in the air force and the two became friends. 

Although all four of these intriguing gentleman are given roughly equal screen time, it soon becomes clear that the circus milieu of hoover’s profession will act as the major metaphor.  As a microcosm of life, it is rarely surpassed.  Fellini was well aware of this and so is errol morris.  Every variety of humans is found here, as well as a startling array of animals.  Morris frequently places commentary by all four subjects over circus footage.  We see images of balancing acts – a man balancing a glass of water on his forehead, dogs balancing on a spinning wheel and women atop large rubber balls.  Life, it would appear is seen by the filmmaker as, indeed, a balancing act – for man and beast alike.  As hoover and mendez attest, we learn by trial and error.  Hoover even had a near death experience in his act, when a lion’s claw got tangled in the band of his wristwatch.  The lesson learned by hoover?  Never wear a watch again – at least not while dealing with man-eating animals.   

According to rodney brooks, evolution is as important in the creation of robots, as he feels it is in man’s.  “Inside the human brain is a reptile brain.  Inside a reptile brain is a fish brain.”  All life is connected – even artificial life, which he sees as an evolutionary extension of man – and the final exalting level of man’s journey.  In a surreal piece of stock footage, we see a man walking a robot on a leash.  The leash won’t be necessary for long.  But george mendonca has a conflicting view, explaining in-depth why hand shears are superior to electric shears.  It is the human touch that makes them so effective. 

Despite this, man is always learning.  As rodney brooks points out, “I seek to understand life by building something lifelike.”  And ray mendez explains that people come to his mole rat exhibits to “find themselves in another social animal, to find common ground.”  And much common ground there is.  Mendez discusses how mole rats are always able to “find the alien in their midst”, sensing by smell (these weird little animals like to roll around in their own feces and urine) which rat may be a newcomer, and behaving with the mandatory scorn.  Hoover feels lions are very conscious beings, always “scheming” , he reports.  Mendez believes the source of stability for all living things is the fear of death.  It keeps us, for the most part, in line.  But there are differences as well.  He states that mole rats are forced to separate the sick and dying from the heard.  By contrast, when the chips are down, humans “culturally let everybody die.”  There is an undeniable air of the poetic, as morris follows these words with a shot of empty shoes at the foot of a circus net. 

The title is explained when brooks discusses a theory that thousands of tiny robots could be used to explore other planets.  Such robots would be “fast, cheap and out of control,”  With many robots, the loss of one or two would be less damaging to the mission.  These comments are accompanied by shots of World War II paratroopers leaping from planes, and are followed by mendez describing how “soldiers” protect the mole rat nest. 

As with all forms of life, keeping animal sculptures (and the plants that form them) alive is a constant battle.  There are heavy storms that weigh them down and, of course, insects.  It may all begin and end with insects – or insect like robots. 

A final note of philosophy comes from ray mendez: “Only in captivity can an animal get to reach old age.”  This may say more about the human condition than anything else in the film.  Eventually,  death is the ultimate fate of all living things, except perhaps, those that are artificially created.  As rodney brooks suggests, all carbon based forms of life may be on their way out.  Stock footage from old clyde beatty serials, shows volcanoes erupting and earthquakes rattling the planet.  After this we are shown a circus clown being chased by a skeleton.  But there is hope for the continued existence of mankind, according to morris, who uses footage of beatty emerging from the ruins with a small boy and other examples of trembling humanity.

The final image is of george mendonca, umbrella in hand, walking through his topiary garden as a steady rain falls on him and his creations.  Errol morris may believe, not in the decline of man, but in what he would probably refer to as man’s proper place in the chain of life.   This is not an apocalyptic rain after all, but rather one conducive to life – in all its forms.

CREDITS: Directed by errol morris. Photographed by robert richardson. Music by caleb sampson. With: dave hoover, george mendonca, ray mendez, rodney brooks.            

April 23, 2013 Posted by | 1990s cinema, American Film, documentary, film directors | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) begins with a witty prologue featuring Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton), Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) and a very portentous thunderstorm. This device is used by director James Whale and screenwriters William Hurlbut and John Balderston to tell the story of FRANKENSTEIN as presented in the first film. This is not only a good way to inform those who never saw FRANKENSTEIN (1931), but is also a perfect opportunity for some very bright and ironic humor. We are told the author of the original novel is afraid of lightning and that she is faint of heart. Lord Byron expresses amazement that such a gentle soul could have written a novel as horrific as FRANKENSTEIN. And then this delicate lady, who sits doing needlepoint while a thunderstorm rages, pricks her finger. She lets out a gentle yelp as she leaps to her feet, with Byron and Percy helping to steady her. The men stand on each side of Mary, her arms outstretched toward them, as they grasp her hands. This moment provides the first of three such connecting images that appear throughout this marvelous sequel. The belief in the alleged fragility of femininity is celebrated and gently mocked at various points in a film rich with visual gems and stark metaphors exploring sexual relationships, religion and family life.

The new story gets off to a spooky start where FRANKENSTEIN ended: a burned out mill at which the monster (Boris Karloff) was supposedly dispatched. The “fiend” however, is still alive and he facilitates a reunion of sorts for a family from the fist film. He does so by murdering little Maria’s parents (Reginald Barlow and Mary Gordon), who have come to the mill to be certain the creature that murdered their daughter is truly dead. This reunion is an example of Whale’s “family values” however weird, and the next scene features DR. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) being returned to his castle (having survived the mill encounter with his monster), his fiance waiting at the door in her wedding gown. This is the night they were to be married and Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) is understandably unnerved. In a reprisal of the shot from the prologue, she is steadied by two attendants as she shakily walks through the cavernous set as designed by Charles D. Hall. This will be her home soon, as she and Henry are about to start a family. Elizabeth is not happy with the way things are starting out and she speaks with trepidation, telling her bed ridden husband-to-be of a “spirit” she fears will take him away. Immediately DR. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) arrives on a matter of “grave” importance. It seems the bad Doctor has an itch to collaborate with Henry in creating a mate for the monster. Pretorius quotes the Bible to explain his strange familial yearning on the monster’s behalf: “Male and female he created them” and “Be fruitful and multiply.” He invites Henry to his bungalow where he displays the fruits of his own experiments: tiny people kept in jars – the Doctor having trouble achieving the right size for his creations. Whale is at his bitchiest here spoofing earlier films. One of the little people bears a strong resemblance to Henry the VIII while another is modeled on the monarch’s wife Anne. Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester had recently starred in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII. Everyone is fair game for Whale’s good-natured ribbing – including the co-star of his current film and her own husband. Despite this enchanting presentation, Henry Frankenstein, who wants nothing further to do with monsters, is unwilling to go along with Pretorius’ plans.

The monster, having his own troubles, is pursued by a mob. Whale’s treatment of this scene and the ones that follow is as wild and iconoclastic as anything found in even the most avant-garde cinema. The monster is captured and tied to a log, his hands above him. He is hoisted vertically into the air before being loaded onto a horse-drawn cart. Whale’s staging makes it perfectly clear: this is a crucifixion, with a most unlikely Christ figure at its center. The monster is taken to a jail cell and chained to what looks like an electric chair. He screams out in agony as the chains, attached to large spikes, are pounded into the ground. He soon escapes his tomb-like confines and later stumbles his way into a cemetery where he overturns religious statues, including one of a Bishop. The town’s people, little more than brutes, are the Pharisees in this new passion play. The sacrifice, who has already risen from the dead (in Frankenstein’s lab) finds refuge in a meeting with a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie – in a heartfelt performance). In the man’s cabin, they reenact the Last Supper, by sharing bread and wine over a small table. All of this is presided over by a crucifix above the hermit’s bed. Both the monster and the blind man are despised by men. When two vigilantes come upon the cabin and see the monster and the hermit together, the first man (John Carradine) remarks “He’s blind!” followed by the second man’s exclamation “He isn’t human!” Though the second man is actually referring to the monster, the two lines are placed together in this way to suggest a reference to the hermit. Like the monster, he is considered less than human – he is not completely “whole”, because of his affliction. In the ensuing struggle, the cabin catches fire, frightening the monster, causing him to escape into the night.

In order to force Henry to participate in his plan, Pretorius has the monster kidnap Elizabeth and hold her hostage. Henry complies. This creation scene is a classic of suspense as well as a fascinating exploration of man’s relationship to his woman. As Henry waits for the return of Elizabeth, the monster waits, just as anxiously, for his new mate. Both the Doctor and his creation are nervous grooms on their wedding nights and we are reminded of another Bible passage: “It is not good for man to be alone.” Franz Waxman’s delicious music score is aided by a beating drum, representing the heart of the new creation, and also the excitement and longing felt by both the first creation and his creator. Just in time a lovely thunderstorm (recalling the prologue) arrives to assist the two scientists in their quest. Henry, at first unwilling, is by now completely wrapped up in the project exclaiming “She’s alive!” as the experiment reaches fruition. Of course, this exclamation could also signify Henry’s elation at realizing Elizabeth will also live.

When the mate is unveiled she is revealed to be none other than Elsa Lanchester, our Mary Shelley from the prologue. Like Mary the new creature is a depiction, in her own way, of classic femininity who needs the Doctors to steady her as she takes her first uncertain steps. This is the third such image in the film, as the story, beginning and ending with a thunderstorm, comes full circle. “The bride of Frankenstein!” Pretorius proudly announces. This could be a joke targeting those who have always incorrectly referred to the monster using his maker’s name. Or could it be that she really is Frankenstein’s bride? Henry has so much invested in the project by this time, that he and his new creation could be seen as one in marriage. In fact, almost the same could be said of his relationship to the first creation – the monster being Frankenstein’s alter ego. This is, after all, a film heavily inspired by the Germans, who have a well known doppelganger obsession. Of course, Pretorious and the bride are linked as well through the crazy hairstyles they share. Horrified by her mate (as many women in arranged marriages are), she recoils in disgust. “She hate me – like others!” the monster says, tears pouring down his cheeks and filling his voice. In this and his final line “We belong dead!” Boris Karloff reveals himself to be an actor able to elicit depths of emotion from the most unlikely of characters.

After allowing Henry and Elizabeth to flee to safety, this broken soul reaches for “the lever” blowing himself, his new bride and Pretorius to bits. But for the other lovers – a very different fate: Henry and his bride-to-be embrace as they watch the castle explode from a distance. The heartbeat from that Franz Waxman score fades out with the rest of the film and though we may agree with Leslie Halliwell’s assertion that BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is “At once the best of the [Universal Studios] horror films and a gentle mocking of them.”, it is apparent that James Whale and his writers were also concerned with more serious themes – deadly serious. Just think of Maria and her parents.

CREDITS: Directed by James Whale. Written by William Hurlbut and John Balderston, from the book FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley. Photographed by John Mescall. Production design by Charles D. Hall. Edited by Ted Kent. Music by Franz Waxman. With Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester, O.P. Heggie, Una O’connor, Dwight Frye, Gavin Gordon and Douglas Walton.

April 16, 2013 Posted by | 1930's cinema, horror films, sequels | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


Walt Disney always wanted to bring classical music to the masses.  His goal was to marry it with powerful visuals, creating a synthesis of movies and music.  In 1940 he did just that with the ambitious production FANTASIA.  The combination of abstract filmmaking early in the movie with a more linear approach in its later reels, was well received by audiences and critics – eventually.  Many at first, weren’t sure what to make of this unique film.  However, with repeated re-issues, viewers caught on, and Disney won new respect from cineastes.  But he wasn’t satisfied.  From the beginning he intended for FANTASIA to be periodically updated and re-released with new material as well as select sequences from the original.  His ultimate dream was finally realized in 1999 with FANTASIA 2000.  None too successfully, in the minds of many, who saw it as a pale imitation.  I – for the most part – disagree, as will be explained in the following. 

With James Levine and the Chicago Symphony filling in for Leopold Stokowski, the first piece presented is Beethoven’s fifth symphony.  As in the first film’s opening with “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, this is an abstract visual feast.  Here geometric shapes take flight and eventually come to gether to form a flock of butterflies advancing toward sunbeams in the sky.  This brief excerpt is introduced using the same film clip that was utilized in the first film to present the Bach inspired piece.  The connection is obvious, as both are inspired by the designs of avant-garde filmmaker and painter Oskar Fischinger.  In fact, Fischinger was hired by Disney to design the “Toccata” segment though Uncle Walt was concerned that the visuals were too abstract.  As a result, they were adapted by Disney artists into a format that the German master renounced. 

With the Beethoven segment, we see themes and concepts that will run throughout the film, in less absolute forms.  The butterflies in particular and the hand of nature in general, as well as the shafts of light that break through the clouds, may represent a yearning of the spirit to roam and explore freely – the higher aspirations of the soul. 

The next clip is introduced by comedian Steve Martin and violinist Itzhak Perlman – in retrospect a bad idea – as are the other celebrity appearances, many laced with unsuccessful humor.  The piece is “The Pines of Rome” by Respighi, and it features beautiful, dreamlike animation of whales frolicking among glaciers and the now required shafts of light peeking through the clouds.  The water imagery is also impressive, here as it is in the rest of the film.  Like the butterflies in the first segment, the whales take flight and make their pilgrimage to the sun and sky. 

Quincy Jones brings us a lyrical moment featuring Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.  The animation is based on the art of cartoonist Al Hirschfeld and tells the story of New Yorkers during the depression.  It also features a gravitation towards the light as it’s final shot – this time the white lights of broadway as a construction worker realizes his dream to become a famous musician.  Gershwin and Hirschfeld – two New york icons – are served nicely. 

Up next, Bette Midler introduces “Piano Concerto # 2” by Shostakovich, and a computer animated version of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”.  A tiny soldier courts a ballerina figurine and is thwarted my a menacing Jack in the box.  The soldier finds himself cast into a sewer, with still more water imagery.  He makes his way to the ocean (yet more!) where he is eaten by a fish which is caught by a fisherman who finds him inside.  The sequence ends with the soldier reunited with his ballerina love, a shaft of light shinning down on them.  Even fragile toys and figurines have yearnings. 

James Earl Jones gives us Camille Saint-Saens “Carnival of the Animals” and a bauble featuring flamingos horsing around with a yo-yo, creating havoc.  It is without doubt the films lightest vignette – a celebration of pure silliness – but with the requisite shafts of light and water imagery.  Longing, after all, can be a joyous experience. 

Magicians Penn and Teller introduce the films holdover from the original FANTASIA – Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and its famous setpiece of Mickey Mouse (with the aid of bewitched broomsticks) inadvertently swamping the Sorcerer’s home with torrents of water.  Sunbeams are always peaking through the doors and windows and of course, there is that giant butterfly conjured in the Sorcerer’s smoke.  Thematically, this is an excellent choice for the new film, as well as being the best sequence in both the original and sequel. 

You may not be expecting animals marching onto Noah’s ark as James Levine introduces Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” – but that is exactly what you get.  This charming episode combines all the previous imagery of the film – water, shafts of light, animals – into a strangely moving story of Donald Duck coordinating the boarding of the animals for Noah.  Donald fears his beloved Daisy has been left behind, culminating in a touching reunion. 

As life, death and renewal are the themes of Noah’s ark, these metaphysical events are also the main thrust of the film’s final segment: Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” introduced by Angela Lansbury.  Spiritual longing and rebirth are once again represented through  symbolism – especially an imposing Elk, which breathes on an icicle at winter’s end, causing it to melt, droplets of water falling to the ground.  The seminal drops give birth to a lovely maiden who further replenishes the earth only to face off against an erupting volcano – the “firebird”  of the title.  Once again the landscape is devastated, leading to rebirth. 

The astounding power of nature is the overall message of FANTASIA 2000.  If the original film celebrated christianity (take note of the final “Ave Maria” segment) this newer work exalts mother nature – unabashedly so.  I will leave it to the reader to decide the merits of this choice by the filmmakers.  But it can safely be said that this is a film for a new era.  While the establishment does not care for its artistic aspects, they certainly approve of the new religion.  Things have changed since Walt’s day.    

CREDITS: Produced by Donald W. Ernst.  Executive Producer: Roy Disney.  Directors (in order of their segments): Pixote Hunt. Hendel Butoy. Eric Goldberg. Hendel Butoy. Eric Goldberg. James Algar. Francis Glebas. Gaetan Brizzi, Paul Brizzi.  Music Director: James Levine.  Production Design by Pixote Hunt.  Hosts: Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Penn and Teller, James Levine, Angela Lansbury.                

April 9, 2013 Posted by | ANIMATION FILMS, classic cinema, musicals | , , , , , | Leave a comment

HEAD (1968)

Premiering during one of America’ most violent years, HEAD (1968) is an interesting time warp experience for modern audiences.  If the film’s preoccupation with the Vietnam war seems inordinate, it must be remembered that in 1968 the nation was embroiled in one of the most traumatic experiences of its existence.  Director/writer Bob Rafelson and co-writer Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson) made HEAD two years before their breakthrough with the ant-establishment classic FIVE EASY PIECES.  Their annoyance –  if not outright anger –  with the manipulative powers of the media, especially television, is palpable in the film.  Also angry are “The Monkees”.  There is a double irony here in that the bubble gum pop band was created especially for TV and that the members were assembled for that medium by none other than Bob Rafelson.  It is an irony not lost on anyone involved, as the movie amply demonstrates.

HEAD begins with an extreme close-up of a red ribbon, which could also stand in for a stripe of the American flag.  The red symbolizes the blood shed in Vietnam in particular and America’s fascination with violence in general – at least as Rafelson and Nicholson see it.  The ribbon is to be cut as part of a ceremony marking the opening of a bridge.  Suddenly (well, not too suddenly, considering how the ribbon cutting drags on) Micky Dolenz sprints across the bridge –  breaking the ribbon – followed by the other Monkees.  They are – in no particular order of importance – Mike Nesmith, David Jones and Peter Tork.  Micky jumps off the bridge leading to several psychedelic minutes of cavorting with mermaids.  Ahhh, freedom…the yearning of all disaffected youth.  A few moments later, the band members perform a song as they appear in tiny TV screens that pop up, one after another, with each line of the ditty.  The song (and the visualization) is all about the bands manufactured status – a gentle self mocking.  The bit ends with the first of the pic’s many war related images: A Viet Cong prisoner being assassinated by his South Vietnamese captor.  This newsreel footage provides a jarring moment and is followed by a close-up of a  teen aged girl screaming – for “the Monkees”.  We immediately know where the film is going, and the rest of HEAD pretty much chugs along on this same track – a series of black out sketches on how the media exploit both tragedy and the public’s need for escapism, leading to TV fare such as “The Monkees”.  The lads are next seen in war trenches where they are assaulted by an American football player in full athletic regalia.  America’s fascination with violence carries over to our sports as well.  The scene ends with the athlete running headfirst into the wall of the trench, knocking himself unconscious, and the filmmakers’ attitude toward the futility of war is made obvious.  

Consumerism is a bi-product of the media and we are treated to several scenes of anti-consumerism, including a desert set one in which Mickey blows up a Coca-Cola machine with a tank.    

After a western sketch (what is more violent than the settling of the West?), the film takes us to a diner where a waitress asks David, “Are you trying to change your image?”  Very possibly, as he is listed in the credits as “David”  Jones, rather than the name with which he had previously been associated – “Davy”.  Despite claims in the opening song, it seems that changing the images of the “monkees” is very much the intent.  Out with the bubble headed pop stars, in with the serious social satirists.  Even if they satirize themselves and their own brand. 

Along the way  several movies are spoofed, including GOLDEN BOY and HUMORESQUE, and the band members express displeasure with the phoniness of show business, as well as their own “plastic” reputations.  Early on, the boys in the band are transformed into mannequins just as they are mauled by a hysterical mob of teen-aged girls. 

A running gag throughout the film has our guys trapped in a giant “black box” as  the hold television has on them – and us – is all encompassing.  In perhaps a dig at many 60’s rock stars’ reliance on Indian Gurus for inspiration and enlightenment, Peter is visited by a Swami who asks “Who is to say what is real or vividly imagined?”  A good question, considering the media obsessed culture of 1968 and today.  At once mocked and begrudgingly respected by Rafelson and Nicholson, this Guru comes up with one of the central ideas of the film: appearance verses reality.  Show biz is fake but the horrors of war are real.  Perhaps the attempt at image transformation  for the “Monkees” will fall just short of succeeding.  As if to inform them of their ultimate insignificance, Frank Zappa arrives to ironically state: “The youth of America count on you to show them the way.” 

The film ends where it began, with the boys jumping off that bridge.  But it was all for not, as they wind up once again trapped in the black box.  This time the box has a picture tube like window, revealing the Monkees to be submerged in water as though floating helplessly in a fish bowl.  Appropriate…Unfortunately, nothing in HEAD is even remotely funny.  With all the imagination and energy expended it should be.  But there are cute cameos by media personalities of the era and just before, as if to point out the arbitrary and fleeting nature of celebrity.  We are obsessed with the famous, but the turnover rate is high.   Among the now (and at the time) almost forgotten "stars" appearing are Annette Funicello, Victor Mature and boxer Sonny Liston. 

CREDITS: Directed by Bob Rafelson.  Written by Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson.  Director of Photography Michel Hugo.  Music by Ken Thorne.  Songs by The Monkees.

With The Monkees (Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, David Jones and Peter Tork), Victor Mature, Annette Funicello, Sonny Liston, Rona Barrett




April 2, 2013 Posted by | 1960's cinema, American Film, film directors | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment