Saturday, August 29, 2020
Europa ‘51 (AKA The Greatest Love)
Ingrid Bergman first met Roberto Rossellini in 1949. The Hollywood actress from Sweden was so impressed with the Italian director’s work she wrote to him, wanting to collaborate with him.
At this stage of her career, Bergman was a superstar, known for such films as Casablanca and Gaslight, plus her projects with Alfred Hitchcock, Notorious, Spellbound and Under Capricorn. Making a movie outside of the Hollywood bubble, with an unfamiliar foreign filmmaker, was a risk, but one she thought worth taking.
The result was the movie Stromboli, released a year later. In the process, the married Bergman had an affair with Rossellini, who was separated from his wife at the time. The actress and director had a son, who was born two weeks before the American release of the film... and that was around the time Bergman’s troubles really began.
Thursday, August 27, 2020
The UFO Incident
I first became aware of UFO sightings sometime in the mid-80s, and like many people, I dreamed of it happening to me one day. I still believe life of some form other than humanity is out there somewhere, but I suspect the odds of us finding it in our lifetimes is slim at best.
That doesn’t stop people from trying, of course. This 2018 New York article goes deep in re-examining UFO mythology in the age of DT and his proposed “space force.”
If aliens exist, though, why would they abduct and experiment on humans? Do they see us as an inferior form of life? Possible—but I have a hard time imagining the popular image of little, skinny grey men with large, almond-shaped eyes and big heads (and no clothes) as genetically superior.
And at what point did this become the default image for “extraterrestrial,” anyway? (The emoji for “alien” on my iPhone is a simplified version of this.) It’s as if the same species were observing us for over half a century, and if that were so, at what point would they decide we actually are intelligent and talk to us? Or are they not as advanced as we thought? Could anal probes be their species’ equivalent of cow tipping?
Regardless, the notion that aliens have nothing better to do than pick apart our insides persists—and one of the first widely-reported abduction stories was turned into an unusual and unsettling TV movie.
Monday, August 24, 2020
The Rutles: All You Need is Cash
Ten years of this blog and I have yet to talk about Monty Python. For now, I’ll say what practically everyone else says about the British comedy troupe: they’re hilarious, I thoroughly enjoy their material, both on TV and in the movies (I own Holy Grail on DVD), and I could watch them all day. But this is not about Python as a group, just one of them: Eric Idle.
In the sixties, Idle appeared on the ITV children’s show Do Not Adjust Your Set with Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin and Terry Jones and met John Cleese and Graham Chapman as a guest on At Last the 1948 Show.
Idle and the others from Adjust were offered an adult, late-night show at around the same time Cleese and Chapman were offered a series by the BBC. In 1969, after a taping of Adjust, Cleese arranged a dinner meeting between the six of them to discuss a collaboration, and a legend was born.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired on the BBC from 1969-1974, and afterwards, Idle and the others pursued solo projects. In 1975 Idle created the sketch show Rutland Weekend Television, with music by Neil Innes. It was during this period that the two came up with characters that spawned a life of their own.
Thursday, August 20, 2020
Ever since the Spider-Man film rights were acquired by Marvel Studios, their signature character has seen some changes. He got himself a suit of armor designed by Tony Stark. He became an Avenger and travelled with them to outer space. He’s met versions of Spider-Man from parallel universes, including a black kid, a girl, even a cartoon pig!
In the comics, back in the 70s, he was still recognizable as Peter Parker, college kid and part-time freelance photographer—living with his Aunt May, fighting the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus, getting no respect from J. Jonah Jameson and the Daily Bugle. He began the decade mourning the death of girlfriend Gwen Stacy at the hands of the Goblin, grew four arms for a brief time (don’t ask!), became more of a stud with the chicks than in his high school years, first proposed to Mary Jane Watson (no relation), only to get shot down, and ended the decade in a relationship with a burglar called the Black Cat, who only loved him as Spider-Man and could’ve cared less who was under the mask.
At the same time, Marvel Comics’ inroads into Hollywood grew deeper. You may remember the early animated series from the 60s, including the Spidey series with the awesome theme song. Marvel continued to pursue this avenue, but they also looked into developing live-action material for television. The success of the live-action Batman and Wonder Woman series from the Distinguished Competition was no doubt an impetus for them.
If you’re from my generation, you may remember the Spidey skits on The Electric Company, for example, but that was kid stuff. Marvel wanted something that could play in prime time.
Tuesday, August 18, 2020
These are the facts in the brief career of pro football star Brian Piccolo: he was college football’s leading rusher in 1964 at Wake Forest, and was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, finishing tenth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
He was signed by the Chicago Bears as a free agent, after both the NFL and the AFL passed on drafting him. In 1968, the year in which teammate and former Rookie of the Year Gale Sayers injured his knee, Piccolo ran for 450 yards, had 291 yards receiving, and two touchdowns.
In 1969 Piccolo was diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma, and underwent surgery twice. He died June 16, 1970 at the age of 26, leaving behind a wife and three daughters.
Those are the facts... but the facts only tell you so much.
Sunday, August 16, 2020
WSW at ten
I had dreams of popularity and success, and while I didn’t become the next Harry Knowles, that was okay. I made some good friends and I rekindled my interest in writing, and that proved more than enough. And I saw some pretty good movies along the way too.
I like to think my blogging style has evolved over the years to the point where I know what I’m doing. I tried everything in the beginning; I was pretty desperate to please and I believed I had to put out content almost every day. I know my limitations better now.
I’m also less concerned with comparing myself to my peers. They blog for different reasons than me and they have different methods and goals. That’s fine. There was a period where I felt more competitive, like I had to be on a similar plane to them in order to be taken seriously. That might’ve been part of the reason I became a classic film blogger for a year. I’ve been forced to become one again this year but much more on my own terms this time. I like that.
WSW has made my world a little better in the past ten years. But my world today is extremely different than it was in 2010.
Thursday, August 13, 2020
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
In 1977, Roots held American television audiences in thrall like nothing had before by telling the truth about slavery. It was a true television event that opened up new levels of discussion about race relations and acknowledged how far black people have come and how far we still have to go.
Three years before that landmark, however, another television movie told a story about slavery that was not too different; in fact you could say it helped pave the way for Roots.
A novel was published in 1971 called The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines, and I feel the need to emphasize it was a novel, a work of fiction. It references numerous real people, places and events throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, but it is fiction. CBS adapted it into a TV movie that aired in January 1974, with the teleplay by Tracy Keenan Wynn and directed by John Korty.
The star was Cicely Tyson.
Tuesday, August 11, 2020
The Girl Most Likely To...
Joan Rivers might have been the first female stand-up comic I had ever seen. I had seen comedic actresses on TV—Carol Burnett, Isabel Sanford, Nell Carter—but I associated Rivers with stand-up. I would see quite a bit of her on TV, and she was part of the zeitgeist at the time.
I thought she was funny, not so much for the things she said as for the way she acted: gossipy, manic, catty. It’s a safe bet I knew no one in real life remotely like her.
In 2010 there was a documentary on her, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. It provided insight on where she came from and how her distinctive brand of humor originated. I remember she said in the doc, and I’m paraphrasing, something about how “ugly” women made better comediennes. I suspect she was making a distinction from comedic actresses, because we can all think of beautiful examples of those: Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Madeline Kahn.
If this were true, was it a form of compensation? Tina Fey is good looking, no doubt. Would I call her sexy? The word can mean different things to different people. I wouldn’t kick her out of my bed; I think she’d be a lot of fun to be with and would have lots of interesting things to say, and that’s sexy, in its own way. But I think we all know what Rivers was referring to: objective physical beauty.
Saturday, August 8, 2020
Television: Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Perhaps more than any other director of the Golden Age, Alfred Hitchcock was a personality, someone known by movie audiences as well as any movie star, and never was that more apparent than when he made the leap to television in 1955 with Alfred Hitchcock Presents, AKA The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
A weekly anthology of suspense and horror stories, it’s notable not just for the quality of the stories but for how it shaped the Hitchcock persona. His droll sense of deadpan humor was often on display in his movies, sometimes as part of the cameo appearances he’d make in them. For TV, it was like he became an eccentric uncle with whom you were never sure if he was pulling your leg or not.
His introductions to each episode painted him as macabre yet self-depreciating, with a dry wit and a strong sense of the absurd, much like The Addams Family years later. The creepy theme song and the stylized cartoon silhouette of him also helped sell him as an iconic persona that one looked forward to seeing as much as the stories themselves. Here’s a collection of some of his more memorable intros and outros and here are some fun facts about the show.
So nothing fancy here; just my take on a few episodes picked at random. I didn’t realize when I began planning for this post AHP (a half hour) was a little different from AHH (an hour), though it’s all basically the same show.
Thursday, August 6, 2020
With 21 Emmys and three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, James L. Brooks is an undisputed legend of the big and small screens. Let’s count the hits he was involved in creating, shall we: The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Rhoda. Lou Grant. The Tracey Ullmann Show. And of course, The Simpsons—and that’s just TV.
Switch to the movies and you can add Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, all Best Picture nominees he directed and wrote. As a producer, you can even add Jerry Maguire, Say Anything and Big.
Before all of that, though, he was just a TV writer from Brooklyn working his way through the 60s. He had been a copywriter for CBS News, writing for broadcasts and documentaries as well as some work as an associate producer before switching to sitcoms, like That Girl, The Andy Griffith Show and My Three Sons. He created the show Room 222, the second one with a black lead character.
In 1970, he and Allan Burns created MTM. 29 Primetime Emmys later, it made him a major player in television. Here’s a nice appreciation of the show from TV Guide in the context of the pandemic.
In 1971, Brooks tried his luck with a feature film. Thursday’s Game was an ABC movie that didn’t air until April 1974. Gene Wilder and Bob Newhart are two guys who enjoy a poker game with friends every Thursday night. When the game breaks up because of a fight and they need something new to do, Wilder and Newhart are forced to confront their inadequacies in life, especially when Wilder loses his job producing a crappy game show.
This all-star cast looks like a powerhouse now, but in 1971 many of them were not yet household names: Ellen Burstyn (two years before The Exorcist), MTM cast members Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman, Rob Reiner (the same year All in the Family debuted), Norman Fell (five years before Three’s Company) Chris Sarandon (four years before Dog Day Afternoon) and Nancy Walker (same year as McMillan and Wife and three years before Rhoda, not to mention those Bounty commercials). By the time Game aired in 1974, some of these people were better known, including Brooks.
Game feels like the sort of thing the future creator of Terms of Endearment would write. It has its funny moments—Walker plays an unemployment agency counselor, and her scenes with Wilder are cute—mixed with a little drama: Wilder and Burstyn’s marriage is in jeopardy due in large part to his inability to admit he lost his job; he pretends his Thursday night poker game is still going on, but he actually stays out all night with Newhart, which naturally stresses her out. Game is less funny-ha-ha and more funny-ain’t-life-peculiar.
Steve at Movie Movie Blog Blog wrote about Game last year. I agree with him in that the poker scene in the beginning was a highlight and that nothing afterwards is quite as funny as that. The manic explosions Wilder was so great at are reined in and I admit, I kinda longed for more of them, but this isn’t that kind of movie. Indeed, at times Wilder looked like he was exploring his sexy side(?): he has a couple of shirtless scenes with Burstyn and Harper tries to seduce him in another scene. Young Frankenstein this is not.
I’d say Game is worth checking out overall, especially if you’re nostalgic for 70s television.
Tuesday, August 4, 2020
Trilogy of Terror
When I remember TV movies, I remember the epic mini-series of the 80s. They were trumpeted as a Big Deal in TV Guide and they usually had all-star casts, not that I would’ve heard of most of the names, but the point was they got my attention and I watched them, even if I was too young to completely understand what was going on.
As for the shorter, considerably less-than-epic ones, I think I understood even then that they were inferior to theatrical movies. I definitely remember The Day After and how that film stoked our nuclear apocalypse fears. When the Amy Fisher trial became popular, all three networks made TV movies about her! (I forget which one I watched.)
As kids, we also had the ABC Afterschool Specials: young adult melodramas about the issue of the week, usually starring some popular teen actor from television. Here’s a MeTV top ten list. I don’t remember any of these; I think I only watched them sporadically—why would I, when GI Joe and He-Man were on instead?
TV movies get a bad rep, it’s true, but back in the 70s, they aimed a little higher, had greater aspirations, and were more memorable overall. I’ve already discussed some of them, like The House That Would Not Die with Barbara Stanwyck, and Duel, the first feature film directed by Steven Spielberg. This month I’m gonna look at some more, and today we’ll begin with one that developed a huge cult following to become a pretty big hit thanks to a certain terrifying-looking doll.
Sunday, August 2, 2020
Books: The Dreams and the Dreamers
Hollis Alpert founded the National Society of Film Critics in 1966, when he wrote for the Saturday Review. Pauline Kael was a founding member.
Basically, they were a bunch of New York critics who couldn’t get into the more prestigious New York Film Critics Circle, which included major newspaper critics like the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther. Though they were New York-based, the magazines they wrote for had national circulations, hence their name. Every year they hand out best-of awards and are considered a major stop on the road to the Oscars.
This book was of interest because of the period it covered: the early 60s, when the Hollywood studios were on the decline. Alpert discusses the rise of foreign filmmakers, the actor-producer in Hollywood, film vs. theater, movie censorship, the pay-per-view TV experiment, and profiles people such as Alfred Hitchcock, producer Ross Hunter, and actress Jean Seberg.
In his introduction, he discusses the evolving perception of film and film criticism, as a result of what was then a new level of discourse: classes on film in universities, art house cinemas springing up in big cities, serious discussion of movies in other countries like France. He concludes this new audience needs a new kind of critic:
...The movie critic can no longer get by with a slapdash attack on one movie, panegyric of enthusiasm for another. More, whether he knows it or not, is demanded of him. He is expected to have some more than cursory acquaintance with the fields of literature, theater, philosophy, science, art, and music—for movies, inevitably, when they are serious, and even when they are not—touch on all these fields. Sad to report, the average movie reviewer, by and large, is simply not up to the movies he writes about. He may feel at home with a film in which Rock Hudson and Doris Day engage in a game of mistaken identities, but some other level of evaluation is required of him when he deals with Antonioni, Resnais, and Bergman (Ingmar, not Ingrid).
I don’t actively search for the Big Meanings in movies or analyze the style of a particular director or actor unless I feel a strong need to, usually as a result of some personal connection I’ve made with a movie, and if I do, I’m as likely to disagree with the prevailing wisdom as anything else, for reasons I may not be able to fully articulate.
I’m just not that good a film writer. Besides, I like to have some fun in writing about movies, and at times that has meant writing in a... non-standard format. Long-time readers will know exactly what I mean.
Alpert’s writing is illuminating in some places, boring in others, yet definitely written from a distinct point of view. Not quite as lively as reading Kael or Roger Ebert, but as a portrait of world cinema in a critical time of transition, it’s not bad.
The Real Tinsel
Saturday, August 1, 2020
‘Tenet’ to go int’l before US release: start of a trend?
...Warner Bros. said last week that “Tenet” would not have a traditional global day-and-date release — a surprising (though not unprecedented) break from tradition since North America is the world’s biggest film market and remains pivotal for major movies to turn a profit. But the studio hopes to innovate and recalibrate given the fact that foreign markets are already starting to reopen safely and desperately need new Hollywood movies to entice crowds.If theaters in other countries are ready to go and we’re not, then they probably should get to see Tenet first. It’s unfortunate that piracy and spoiler-filled online discussions are the price Americans will have to pay until we can see the movie safely, but maybe it’s what we deserve for not wearing masks.
I’m seeing a lot of talk about the possibility of Hollywood productions moving abroad for the short term. That’s a trend that had started before The Virus: James Cameron, for instance, has been making the Avatar sequels in New Zealand, and after a brief shutdown earlier this year, he’s back at it. I could see some studios relocating to someplace like Vancouver if it was a matter of keeping their doors open and getting new product to those international markets. Meanwhile, streaming and VOD options remain a safe and viable option.
Regarding Tenet: I remain uncertain whether or not I’ll go see it, assuming theaters will be open by September (not a sure thing at all). If this had been a normal year, there’s no question I would’ve been there opening weekend, but the incredible amount of buildup around this movie once again has me questioning whether or not any of it is warranted. I’m sure it is and I’m just being contrary.
I’m more concerned about the possibility that I may have to let go of my attachment to the theatrical experience of seeing a movie sooner rather than later—but I’ll talk more about that later this month. One thing’s for sure: movies and TV won’t look the same once this is over. (Speaking of Tenet, did you know star John David Washington used to play in the NFL?)
More to follow.