Friday, December 23, 2011

Now We Know Why They Call Him Dirty Harry

The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of Dirty Harry.

I don't particularly like television, so I don't really watch a lot of it nowadays. Still, there are a few shows which I enjoy and one of those happens to be Fox's House, M.D. My wife had to turn me onto it because I thought it looked like just another hour-long medical drama in the vein of St. Elsewhere, ER or Chicago Hope. She told me that it was really more of a mystery show (she knows I love mysteries) and informed me that its protagonist, Dr. Gregory House, is a complex, charismatic and provocative character. His antisocial, unethical and misogynistic tendencies are matched only by his brilliant, obsessive and astute mind. Although it jumped the shark a couple seasons ago, I continue to tune in every week. Even through the worst of its outrageously cheesy and absurdly melodramatic plot twists, House himself (superbly played by Hugh Laurie) remains a fascinating character.

Right now, you're probably wondering to yourself why I'm talking so much about House in an article that, given the headline and picture above, is clearly about the 1971 Don Siegel film Dirty Harry, which celebrates its 40th anniversary today. Well, here's my reason. Although it is obvious that House is based on Sherlock Holmes, it occurred to me at a certain point that another fictional character has about equal claim to being a source of inspiration: San Francisco cop Harry Callahan. Harry may not be as brilliant as House, but he has about as much regard for social niceties, can be about as misogynistic and, just as House, always acts in the best interest of those he's trying to help (even if it means disobeying his superiors, putting his own life and career in jeopardy or even tricking, manipulating and sometimes even hurting those he's working to save) in his drive to ensure that justice prevails. The criminals' rights and the rules and regulations that his bosses demand he follow while pursuing those perpetrators concern him less. Harry, like House, just doesn't give a damn and when I realized that in many ways House could be described as "Dirty Harry with a medical degree," I understood not only how iconic Clint Eastwood's brave, tough-talking cop had become but what purpose characters such as Harry, House and their ilk serve for audiences.

Dirty Harry was made in a time when society wasn't feeling particularly safe. This seemed especially true in San Francisco, where the film is set, with the activity of the Zodiac Killer (on whom the movie's psychotic Scorpio Killer, broadly but effectively played by Andy Robinson, clearly is based). Much of that anxiety and frustration ended up being directed at the state and the filmmakers captured it. This anger doesn't seem aimed primarily at cops (indeed the film is even dedicated to San Francisco police officers who have given their lives in the line of duty) but rather to the system for which they work, a system that many people (much like today) felt had gone out of control. It presumed to function in the interests of the innocent but instead came off as more dedicated to preserving itself and/or the rights of the criminals. There is a very strong "anti-authoritarian" attitude present in Dirty Harry.

Throughout the film, Harry's desire to protect civilians from the malevolent force of evil, much to his dismay, constantly gets hindered or thwarted. Consequently, Harry, in essence, becomes a vigilante with a badge. He renounces his oath to serve the law and devotes his efforts to serving justice. In the film's final scene — with the Scorpio Killer in his sights — when he utters those famous lines ("I know what you’re thinking: 'Did he fire six shots, or only five?' Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself., etc.) for the second time in the film, Harry clearly snarls the words with much more rage and menace — his own has changed. The incompetence of the bureaucracy always annoyed him, but he has become so "fed up" with the whole thing that he no longer wants any part of it. After dispatching Scorpio with his Magnum, Harry removes his badge and tosses it away. Obviously, no one planned any Dirty Harry sequels. This truly ends his character's story, not the subsequent adventures where Harry softens a little more in each new film.

When Dirty Harry was released in 1971, it caused quite a stir. Many critics, including Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, articulated concern over the ideas and values expressed in it (with Ebert even calling it "fascist"). While I fully understand having such a reaction, I can't help but think that they are somewhat missing the point of what role such an extreme character can play for audiences and why Dirty Harry proved to be such a commercial success in its day. We all feel oppressed at times. We all feel abused or maligned and we all secretly wish we could act out the fantasies of retribution we have. Fortunately, we don't (or at least most of us don't) act on these impulses. Still, there is something appropriate about wanting to see good triumph and evil punished. Dirty Harry serves as a vessel for pent-up frustrations with our own impotence, an ideal of the kind of courage and tenacity it takes to do the right thing (regardless of the personal consequences) and watching him do what he has to do proves cathartic. We live vicariously through him as he says and does the things that we can't say and do but wish we could. He understands that the law is merely a man-made institution — it is not sacred — and if he must circumvent it sometimes in the name of the greater good, he'll do it. In fiction, one can get away with this. In reality, we don't have that luxury — reality always turns out to be far more complex, messy and nuanced than the simple black-and-white moral universe represented onscreen. So, we watch the rogue endeavors of vigilante heroes such as Harry, House, Robin Hood, Zorro, Batman or, even on occasion, James Bond (such as in Casino Royale when he just marches into an embassy, grabs a guy by the scruff of the neck and drags him out) and rightfully admire, respect and perhaps even envy them. As long as we don't imitate them, they fulfill their proper role in our lives.

Sometimes to do good, you gotta get your hands a little dirty.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Riddle Wrapped In a Mystery Inside an Enigma

The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 20th anniversary of the release of JFK.

While some might be of the opinion that Oliver Stone’s most archetypal movie is Wall Street or Platoon, I happen to think the film which holds that particular distinction is JFK (which celebrates its 20th anniversary today). It is not necessarily his greatest movie, but it is his most significant in a number of ways. In a career littered with provocative, politically charged works, it has proved to be arguably his most controversial. It marked the beginning of a stylistic period in Stone’s filmmaking (a fast, in-your-face approach to storytelling which culminated in Stone’s outrageously anarchic Natural Born Killers). Finally, it was (and still seems to be) one of Stone’s most personal projects: the result of years of research, overwhelming passion and righteous indignation. Indeed, of all Stone’s protagonists, the man at the center of JFK (who is, somewhat ironically, not the titular character) serves as perhaps the best representative of the ideals and opinions of Oliver himself. In reality, the motives and actions of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (the only prosecutor ever to go to trial in the assassination of President Kennedy) are not entirely clear nor always seem purely honorable, but in the film, Garrison — wonderfully played by Kevin Costner — is a man on a crusade, a courageous hero of the highest intentions and noblest stature crying, “Let the truth be told though the heavens fall!” He is the director's alter ego, a lone wolf fighting the establishment in the name of truth, justice and, yes, the American way.

JFK was my first Oliver Stone picture. My dad took me to see it in the theater when I was a sophomore in high school and I was, as the expression goes, blown away by it. Incidentally, he was (and still is to some degree) a major expert on the Kennedy conspiracy, so he was able to lean over and tell me at various junctures "That's true" or "That's not true" which helped orient me in the somewhat overwhelming deluge of faces, names, dates and theories with which I was being bludgeoned. My dad once owned the largest collection of books, magazines, videos and even vintage newspaper articles about that specific event which I have ever seen. After watching the film and concluding that there definitely was a conspiracy and a cover-up, I even read a few of them myself, including the screenplay to the film which contained a footnoted source for every piece of information that Stone wrote into the expository dialogue and/or imagery of the film. It gave me a whole new appreciation for a movie's potential to tell a story which, if not "true" or "historically accurate," is at least "factual." Eventually I became somewhat of an expert myself and years later, after getting married and moving to Dallas, I finally visited the sixth floor museum and Dealey Plaza (the latter of which, I was shocked to discover, is a very small, and intimately contained space). Now, however, having read multiple accounts from different writers arguing for both sides of the conspiracy debate — including this very compelling website run by Dave Reitzes, whose experience with the film is remarkably similar to my own — I have no idea what really happened on that day in Dallas (though I still think there is more to the story than we are being told). However, one thing that has not changed, is that JFK remains a seminal film in my development as a cinephile.

Much can be said about the movie's many stellar qualities, such as the performances from its immense cast (a dizzying collection of such familiar faces as Sissy Spacek, Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, John Candy, Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Gary Oldman, Donald Sutherland, etc). In a nice bit of subversive casting, Stone even got the real Jim Garrison to portray Judge Earl Warren of the Warren Commission. Much could also be said about John Williams' suspenseful and emotional Oscar-nominated music score, but the main element of the film which captivated me upon my first viewing (and which I studied very carefully upon numerous subsequent viewings) was its visual aesthetic. In order to make a film which was heavy on talk into an arresting experience, Stone deftly employed various cinematic techniques that until that time had never been employed with such enthusiastic exuberance nor wild abandon in a historical epic. His approach to shooting and editing the film was considered confusing and indulgent by some and incredibly powerful and innovative by others. I personally fell into the latter camp. Jumping back and forth (sometimes in a seemingly random manner) from authentic to recreated footage, from color to black-and-white and from 35 to 16mm, JFK creates such an apparently chaotic product that people didn't know what to make of it. The more one delves deeper into it though, the more one discovers that there is indeed "method in the madness." Stone's is a stream-of-consciousness approach to examining history, a process that makes no distinction between past and present, between what has happened and what is happening and, perhaps most controversially, between theory and fact. To Stone, history is in the eye of the beholder and he presents so many different perspectives, ideas and judgments that he was essentially, as film critic Roger Ebert proposed, fighting the official establishment myth by "weaving a counter-myth." Not surprisingly, Stone's effort garnered a great deal of criticism from various esteemed news sources. It did not help their case that they were attacking the film well before it had come out and anyone, including them, had even seen it, their zeal and hostility seemingly inspired more by fear of losing their privileged authoritative status than by supposed journalistic integrity and objectivity.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) JFK's notoriety, it was very well-received upon its release in December 1991. The film grossed more than $50 million worldwide, which was impressive considering that the film was more than three hours long, and ended up receiving eight Academy Award nominations, including best picture, best director and best supporting actor for Tommy Lee Jones. It ended up winning two of those awards for the experimental cinematography and editing. It also, much to Stone's delight no doubt, incited a whole media discussion about the Kennedy assassination. Much like the media circus that surrounded the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, all you could see and hear on the news for several months was talk of what actually occurred on Nov. 22, 1963. In point of fact, we probably will never know what occurred. As Pesci's nervous David Ferrie quotes Winston Churchill in the film, "It's a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Still, perhaps whether we ever know the truth (or, to be more precise, know THAT we know the truth since we may already know it) isn't as important as that we never give up looking for it. Maybe the real message behind the film is that the pursuit of truth is more important then the possession of it.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Napoleons of Crime

With the release of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (the sequel to his hugely successful and surprisingly enjoyable 2009 film) only weeks away, I thought I would take a second and look back at some of the actors who have portrayed Holmes' brilliant archenemy Professor James Moriarty over the past century. Although Moriarty only appeared in one of Doyle's stories ("The Final Problem"), somehow he managed to capture the imagination of audiences. Perhaps because he seems to be the only character who, aside from Sherlock's elder brother Mycroft (who is also appearing in the new film), is Holmes' intellectual equal. Holmes referred to him as the "Napoleon of crime" and "the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city... a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order." Moriarty was clearly someone whose mind Holmes greatly admired, even while despising his moral character. Every prominent hero needs a mortal enemy and Moriarty fulfills that role admirably. He is the Joker to Holmes' Batman, The Luthor to his Superman, the Blofeld to his Bond. While Moriarty's screen career is perhaps not as eminent as that of Holmes, it is nonetheless impressive. In fact, a few of the actors who played one role would later end up playing the other (particularly Richard Roxburgh and Anthony Higgins). Naturally this list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a helpful introduction to a character who can be regarded I think as one of the great villains of fiction.

Gustav von Seyffertitz, Sherlock Holmes (1922)

Ernest Torrence, Sherlock Holmes (1932)

Lyn Harding, The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935)

George Zucco, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Lionel Atwill, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Henry Daniell, The Woman in Green (1945)

Laurence Olivier, The Seven Per-Cent Solution (1976)

John Huston, Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976)

Viktor Yevgrafov, Priklyucheniya Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona, a.k.a. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (1980)

Eric Porter, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1985)

Anthony Higgins, Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

Paul Freeman, Without a Clue (1988)

Daniel Davis, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1993)

Vincent D'Onofrio, Sherlock: A Case of Evil (2002)

Richard Roxburgh, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

Andrew Scott, Sherlock (2010)

Jared Harris, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Timeless Love Story

The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 20th anniversary of the release of Beauty and the Beast.

I was recently playing the board game Loaded Questions with my wife, her brother and his wife. It was my brother-in-law's turn to guess. The card asked the rest of us to name our favorite animated feature film. His wife picked Beauty and the Beast. I selected The Hunchback of Notre Dame (although I could just as easily have gone with Pinocchio, The Secret of NIMH, The Prince of Egypt or The Nightmare Before Christmas). Being fairly familiar with my wife's tastes in animated films, I suspected she would name either Sleeping Beauty, The Lion King or Hunchback of Notre Dame as well. To my surprise, she also named Beauty and the Beast. I knew she loved the film, but was not aware that it was her favorite. After her brother correctly guessed all of our answers, I told her I was surprised by her choice because I always was under the impression she favored these other animated films. "I admire aspects of the other ones," she informed me. "I think the backgrounds and music in Sleeping Beauty are beautiful and I like the story and themes of Hunchback, but with Beauty and the Beast, I just love the whole package." I not only learned something new about my wife that day, I was reminded of something that I guess I had forgotten: namely, that Beauty and the Beast (which celebrates its 20th anniversary today) is deservedly one of Disney's most beloved animated features because, unlike numerous others (which can be very uneven), it excels in ALL of its areas. It is arguably the perfect Disney movie.

Beauty and the Beast came at a time when Disney was experiencing a real renaissance in animation. Throughout the '70s and early '80s, some decent movies such as The Fox and the Hound, The Great Mouse Detective and The Black Cauldron were produced, but they failed to achieve the kind of critical or commercial success that had come to be expected from a Disney product. To make matters worse, the live-action arm of the studio (which was churning out such "clunkers" as The Black Hole, Tron and Return to Oz) wasn't faring much better. The studio was finding it tremendously difficult reaching contemporary audiences with its somewhat antiquated material. Their attempt to produce something more "modern" and "cool" with the pop song-heavy Oliver and Company only reeked of desperation. Meanwhile Disney's competitors (including former Disney animator Don Bluth's An American Tail and The Land Before Time) were gaining a lot of ground. So, in the mid-1980s some "new blood," in the guise of former Paramount executives Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, was brought in to change things at the struggling studio and special attention was paid to the once-great animation department. Their plan was to try to recapture the essential elements of Disney's golden age: good stories simply but expertly told with gorgeous animation, interesting characters and memorable music.

The result was The Little Mermaid, an enormously entertaining creation that seemed to include all of the classic characteristics of Disney fairy tales as well as a few new qualities that made it resonate with both children and adults alike. I remember seeing it in the theater with my family in junior high and just being utterly charmed by it. It even went on to win two Academy Awards: one for the score and one for that catchy little tune "Under the Sea," proving that the music was a major ingredient for the film's success. That music came for the imaginative minds of the composer Alan Menken and his lyricist Howard Ashman, the team responsible for the subversive yet immensely melodic off-Broadway hit-turned 1986 movie Little Shop of Horrors. Thus, when Mermaid earned hundred of millions of dollars (much of it from the home video release, the first time a current Disney animated feature appeared in that format) and marked a real return to form for the endangered studio, it seemed only natural that its successor would try to build on the same foundation that it had laid (including the Menken/Ashman songs). Expectations were understandably high and whatever it was to be, they would have to make it something really special.

Disney decided to go with the well-known French fable of a beautiful woman (whose name was wisely changed from "Beauty" to "Belle") who stays in an enchanted castle run by a monstrous beast. Although she is repulsed by him initially, she eventually learns to see the kind, tormented and beautiful person hidden beneath the hideous veneer and in the process warms his own cold heart. In the end, she declares her love for him which transforms him back into the handsome prince that he was before being bewitched by an evil spell and the two live happily ever after. The story had been told onscreen before (most famously in Jean Cocteau's stunning 1946 adaptation La Belle et la Bête) but never in feature-length animation. Borrowing several elements from the Cocteau film (such as furniture within the castle coming to life) but adding quite a few touches of their own (including the heroine's rescue from a pack of wolves by the beast), the animators fashioned a colorful, sweet, funny and at times scary product. Not surprisingly the animation is gorgeous. The design of the beast is a particular standout. Whereas in other incarnations the beast usually resembles a really hairy human, this beast is fully animal with equal parts buffalo, lion, bear and various other carnivorous creatures. Despite all this, an undeniable humanity still comes through loud and clear in the character's facial expressions and body language.

This is no doubt due to the fact that his design was supervised by the eminent animator Glen Keane who has a track record of making huge, lumbering creatures look strangely graceful (see the bear in The Fox and the Hound and Professor Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective). In fact, all of the characters in Beauty and the Beast, from the leads right down to the minor characters, are beautifully rendered with with distinct looks and interesting personalities. This is especially impressive when one considers that most of the characters in the film are sentient household objects such as clocks, teapots, candelabras, etc. The only other animated film I can think of that so effectively turns inanimate objects into living, breathing beings (not including the Toy Story trilogy) is the woefully underrated Brave Little Toaster. Of course, the believability of the characters is aided in no small way by the bravura vocal performances of the excellent cast. Beauty and the Beast followed another wise Disney tradition in that they decided to hire talented actors to give voice to these characters and not A-list movie stars. At the time I saw it, the only voice I really recognized was Angela Lansbury. Even though I was somewhat of a teenage movie buff, I had no idea who Jerry Orbach, Paige O'Hara, David Ogden Stiers and Robby Benson were and I suspect most audience members were like myself. Their ignorance of the actors working behind the scenes helped make it easier to merely accept the characters on screen at face value. Unfortunately, ever since Robin Williams was cast as the Genie in Disney's next animated blockbuster Aladdin, this turned into a practice that seemed no longer viable. Feature animation now appears to be populated primarily with celebrities (which is no doubt why so many distinguished voice actors such as Maurice LaMarche, Frank Welker and Rob Paulsen all have to work in television) and it creates a bizarre disconnect between the figures we see moving on screen and the voice we hear coming out of their mouths. We know that it's Cameron Diaz we are hearing but it is not Cameron Diaz that we are seeing (at least Pixar is trying to continue the tradition of casting the right actors for the roles regardless of their celebrity status).

Another significant development in the history of animation that occurred in Beauty and the Beast was the combination of hand-drawn characters with a completely three-dimensional CGI environment in the now iconic ballroom sequence. It wasn't the first time such a thing was attempted (the climactic clock tower scene from The Great Mouse Detective did the same thing) but this was the first time such a feat was accomplished so seamlessly. Though it may not be quite as impressive to us now, the sight of the "camera" gliding around the characters, swooping down toward them from above and even moving between them as they danced (almost as if we are dancing right along with them) really helped draw audiences even further into what was already an emotionally-charged scene a) because of what was happening in the story at that point and b) because of the lovely title song that was being sung by Angela Lansbury's matronly Mrs. Potts during it. As corny as it may sound, it really is a magical sequence that somehow seems to transcend all of the numerous technical achievements that helped make it so. One would have to be pretty jaded and heartless to not find themselves in some way touched by it.

Like The Little Mermaid, the songs that Howard Ashman and Alan Menken collaborated on for Beauty and the Beast are superb. Clearly modelling their work on Broadway showtunes, every song just pops. There is not a weak tune in the bunch. Also, every song either furthers the story or develops character. The opening number "Belle," for example, introduces the protagonist, establishes how the townspeople feel about her, acquaints us with handsome but obnoxious Gaston who is pursuing her and just generally sets the "stage" perfectly for everything that follows. Gaston even gets his own song wherein the townsfolk sing about how great he is and he in turn agrees with them mentioning all of his accomplishments and hilariously pointing out that every last inch of him is "covered with hair." The big show-stopping number of the piece, however, is "Be Our Guest," a massive extravaganza showcasing a parade of food and cutlery led by a spotlight-hogging candelabra named Lumiere (voiced and sung by the multi-gifted Jerry Orbach). Seriously, Joel Grey's Master of ceremonies from Cabaret has got nothing on him. Finally, the darker and more sinister "Kill the Beast," wherein Gaston reveals his true colors, rounds out an already impressive collection of melodies. It was a no-brainer that the film would receive Oscar nods for its music. The songs "Belle," "Be Our Guest" and "Beauty and the Beast" were all nominated but it was the title song that took home the statuette. What was unexpected, however, was that Beauty and the Beast would become the first animated feature film to ever be nominated for best picture. It was a milestone in the history of animation and made everyone who worked on it very proud. Alas, one individual who never got to see the awards, the critical acclaim or the commercial success that the film garnered was Howard Ashman. During production of Beauty and the Beast it became painfully clear that Howard was dying of AIDS and although he continued to work very hard on the film (helping with the script as well as with the music), on March 14, 1991, Howard died and what was perhaps the most auspicious musical teams since Rodgers and Hammerstein came to a sudden and tragic end. The film's final credits featured one of the most poetic dedications I've ever seen: "To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful."

Although some could argue it was The Lion King that represented the pinnacle of Disney's "renaissance period" (a time when Disney seemed to have the Midas touch, well before Eisner drove Katzenberg away and then proceeded to wreck the very company he had once saved), I think Beauty and the Beast is the true supreme achievement from that era. Everything just came together in such a way that the film managed to catch that ever elusive lighting in a bottle. Twenty years later it still looks, sounds and feels great. Recently it was released on DVD/Blu-ray in a "special edition" which included such notable features as a newly animated music number which was excised before the film's original release (the song was called "Human Again" and it's a charming little tune but I think they made the right decision cutting it as it sounds to my ears too similar to "Be Our Guest") as well as the "work-in-progress" version which the studio courageously premiered at the New York Film Festival. Though it gave birth to several inferior direct-to-video sequels and a successful Broadway show, its true legacy will be as one of the greatest (if not arguably the greatest) animated features that Disney ever produced. The word "masterpiece" gets thrown around a lot, but I feel it truly is a masterpiece, not just of animation but of cinematic storytelling. It is also the last time that a genuine fairy tale was depicted on the big screen. In our increasingly cynical culture, feel-good stories of princesses, monsters, villains, magic and, most of all, happy endings are becoming increasingly rare. Even when a film does attempt to bring a fairy tale to theaters it has to be done in a very sarcastic, self-aware manner (a la Shrek, Enchanted and Tangled); more of a "meta" fairy tale than an honest-to-God "true" fairy tale. Beauty and the Beast is a timeless love story with an enduring message, but it is also in some ways a relic of a bygone era. Unless Pixar's upcoming Brave can reinvigorate the genre, it may be a long, long time before we see another bona fide fairy tale told with such unapologetic enthusiasm and sincerity.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Stealing History

The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 30th anniversary of the release of Time Bandits.

Time Bandits, which celebrates its 30th anniversary today, marked a significant turning point in Terry Gilliam's career. Gilliam first made his mark as the co-writer and animator for the now iconic British comedy troupe known as Monty Python. His directorial debut, which he shared with fellow Python member Terry Jones, was the hilarious Monty Python and the Holy Grail. His second film (the abysmal Jabberwocky) was another medieval spoof which featured Python members Michael Palin and Terry Jones as well as a whole host of typical Python gags. His third film, however, though it still has "Python-esque" moments (and features Michael Palin and John Cleese in small roles), was the first time Gilliam attempted to put on the big screen an actual story full of drama, action, horror and emotion as well as comedy. It was an important transitional point between Gilliam "the American Python member" and Gilliam "the serious filmmaker who tells stories such as Brazil and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." Time Bandits was Gilliam's "breaking out" work. Naturally I didn't know any of this as a kid when I used to watch the film often. I didn't know about Monty Python and I certainly didn't know who Terry Gilliam was. All I knew is that it was a dark and imaginative fantasy adventure that I loved. Needless to say, I still do.

It tells the story of an intelligent young British boy named Kevin (played with a refreshing lack of precociousness by Craig Warnock) whose parents would rather sit on their plastic-encased furniture watching game shows on TV and lusting after the latest electrical appliances than spend time with their son. Kevin, on the other hand, occupies his time reading history books about ancient warriors and great adventurers. One night, while sleeping peacefully in his bed, six strangely dressed dwarfs emerge from Kevin's wardrobe (as if it were Lewis' gateway to Narnia) and drag him with them on an arduous trek through time and space. Kevin soon discovers that these dwarfs were former employees of the Supreme Being who helped assist in the process of creation (specifically designing things such as trees and shrubs), but eventually grew tired of their job and wanted to use their knowledge of the flaws inherent in the fabric of the space-time continuum to their financial advantage. Stealing from God the only map that charts the location of all the holes in existence (which can be used as doorways leading from one time to another), the dwarfs inform Kevin of their plan to rob some of the wealthiest and most famous figures in human history and invite him to join them, which he agrees to do. This endeavor brings them into contact with the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte (portrayed by Ian Holm who had previously played the famous Frenchman in the 1974 TV miniseries Napoleon and Love and would play him again in 2001's The Emperor's New Clothes), legendary Greek ruler Agamemnon (Sean Connery) and even Robin Hood (played as a jolly nice fellow by John Cleese) before ending up on the RMS Titanic (although they mistakenly refer to it as the S.S. Titanic in the film) where they get a little more ice in their drinks than they requested.

What they don't realize is that they are being watched by none other than Evil himself (played with delicious wickedness by David Warner). Incidentally, this is apparently a point of confusion for some critics. Warner does not play Satan. He is not the "father of evil." He is evil incarnate, a personification of the abstract concept. His plan is to overthrow creation itself with the intent of fashioning a world based solely on technology, which allows for his character to make some great speeches ("God isn't interested in technology. He knows nothing of the potential of the microchip or the silicon revolution. Look how he spends his time. Forty-three species of parrots. Nipples for men. Slugs! He created slugs? They can't hear. They can't speak. They can't operate machinery. I mean, are we not in the hands of a lunatic? If I had created a world I wouldn't mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would've started with lasers. Eight o'clock. Day one!"). Although it is never made exactly clear how or why this is the case, Evil presumably needs the map to accomplish all of this. Using their own greed against them, he lures the seven mini-explorers to the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness where he dwells. He steals the map and imprisons them, but they manage to escape.

All of this builds to a colossal climactic showdown between the forces of good and evil where each of the dwarfs (with the aid of reinforcements they gathered from numerous historical eras) attempt to destroy Evil once and for all only to be humiliatingly thwarted each and every time. In the end, it is God himself who shows up and defeats Evil, freezing him in stone. He then manifests himself in the form of a fastidious old Brit in a three-piece suit (a marvelous Ralph Richardson). Just as Evil had some wonderful lines elaborating on his own nature, God has some humdingers of his own ("I am the supreme Being. I'm not entirely dim."). As he enlists the help of the little thieves to help him clean up the disarray, ("If there's one thing I can't stand, it's mess.") he informs them that, in spite of their attempts to escape him, he was in full control of everything that was happening the whole time. In reality, they didn't steal his map. He gave it to them, because he needed a way of testing his own handiwork and, as he observes, "Evil turned out rather well." In the end, he invites them all back to creation again ("We mustn't waste anymore time. They'll think I lost control again and put it all down to evolution.") but leaves Kevin behind along with one overlooked piece of Evil which starts to smoke. As the smoke starts to engulf Kevin, he cries repeatedly for help only to awaken in his own bed still surrounded by smoke. Two firemen burst through the door and drag him from his burning home. His parents are already outside debating whether to run in and retrieve their beloved appliances. Kevin concludes it must all have been a dream until he discovers photographs he took during his adventure in his bag and realizes that one of the firemen looks exactly like Agamemnon. Eventually the cause of the fire is discovered. What looks like a burnt piece of charcoal is revealed cooking in their toaster oven. Although his parents are confused, Kevin recognizes it as a chunk of Evil and warns his parents not to touch it. Ignoring him, they both reach in to touch it and immediately explode leaving Kevin alone to fend for himself.

Terry Gilliam ostensibly wrote the script to Time Bandits over a weekend and it is a work of incredible originality. Filled with memorable sequences (the giant with the ship on his head, the magic act performed for King Agamemnon, the large disembodied head of God chasing the dwarfs down the long corridor) and combining dry, satirical British humor (or "humour" rather) with exciting action sequences and some fairly nightmarish images, Time Bandits is a truly unique film. Gilliam clearly made the film for children (even shooting it, as Spielberg would do a year later in E.T., from low angles to capture the diminutive perspective of the film's main characters) and as a child I absolutely loved it. I may not have understood or appreciated a lot of the social commentary or philosophical/theological dialogue in it, but I enjoyed the madcap ride through various lavish set pieces and familiar faces including Shelley Duvall, Katherine Helmond and Sean Connery (whose appearance in the screenplay was written simply as a joke until someone sent him the script and he, astoundingly, wanted to do it). It actually reminded me a lot of the kind of dreams I used to have as a youngster, with the outrageously random associations, the "stream-of-consciousness" storytelling and arbitrary transitions that seem to make total sense at the time. Time Bandits was Gilliam's first foray into putting dream-like imagery onscreen and he proved so proficient at it that he has duplicated that practice throughout his career. He is, in my mind, one of the few filmmakers who does that convincingly.

Another one of Gilliam's intentions in making the film was to, for a change, prominently feature dwarf actors. In this regard, Time Bandits was ahead of its time. Years before Warwick Davis did Willow or Peter Dinklage did The Station Agent, Gilliam recognized that it was rare in big-budget studio movies that dwarfs were made the leads. Instead they were usually relegated to minor roles in sci-fi/fantasy films (usually as fairies, goblins, elves or other mythical creatures). Although Time Bandits is a fantasy film, the dwarfs are not buried under mounds of make-up nor are included just for the sake of "bizarreness." They are fully fleshed-out, flawed, interesting characters. Each one has a distinct personality and distinguishing appearance. Particular standouts are David Rappaport as the unofficial leader Randall (who sadly committed suicide years later), Jack Purvis as the angry but athletic Wally and Kenny Baker as the lovable Fidget. To this day, roles in movies and TV are relatively scarce for dwarfs, but Gilliam still proves to be one of the most consistent directors in casting dwarf actors in his movies.

Time Bandits was very successful upon its release, earning $40 million at the box office and establishing Gilliam as a uniquely creative and visionary artist with enormous potential ahead of him. Time Bandits has also been referred to as the first entry in what is considered Gilliam's "fantasy" trilogy, a series of stories that highlights the pros and cons of the different periods of a person's life/maturity: the first (Time Bandits) being about childhood, the second (Brazil) focusing on adulthood and the third (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) dealing with old age. In the 30 years that have elapsed since the release of Time Bandits, Gilliam has become a very significant (if very divisive) filmmaker whose work has been at times inspired (12 Monkeys, The Fisher King) and at other times embarrassing (The Brothers Grimm, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). While it may not be his best film (that honor I would probably award to Brazil), it is in some ways his "purest" movie. It is arguably his least pretentious, his most fun and entertaining and, by far, his most innocent and least cynical. Made by a director who barely grew up himself, it is (as the cliché goes) a film for the child in everyone…especially if that child happens to be a somewhat naughty or troubled kid.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Scratching Out a Tune Without Breaking One's Neck

The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of Fiddler on the Roof.

Anyone who knows me fairly well is aware of the fact that I not only have a tremendous love of cinema but of theatre. My infatuation with the stage came in high school when I was cast in four (count ‘em, four) roles in a production of Nicholas Nickleby. That’s when I was, as the saying goes, “bitten by the bug,” and ever since I’ve taken as many opportunities as I can to participate in local plays as an actor or director. One of the highlights of my theatrical “career” was playing Motel the tailor in a production of Fiddler on the Roof during my mid-twenties. It was not the first time I’d been involved in a staging of this show, having helped out with a production done by my old high school a few years earlier. It was also not the last time I would ever see it performed on stage since my fellow cast members and I attended another production of it about a year later. Needless to say, it’s a show with which I am very familiar. It has been, for a long time now, one of my favorite musicals, and it all began with my exposure to the 1971 film. I watched it at a young age and fell in love with it immediately. It has become one of my favorite movie musicals and in celebration of its 40th anniversary today, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on it.

Fiddler on the Roof began as a series of stories written by the “Jewish Mark Twain,” Sholem Aleichem, and published in 1894. They told of a poor milkman named Tevye and his hardships dealing with his six daughters. The stories served as the basis for several plays in both English and Yiddish as well as a 1939 film simply entitled Tevye. However, in 1964 playwright Joseph Stein, along with composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, created what would be the most popular incarnation of this story as well as the most successful and beloved Broadway musical of its day. It was a foregone conclusion then that it would eventually become a big-screen musical (in a time when Hollywood was still making those), and so in 1970 United Artists hired director Norman Jewison to adapt the musical. Having directed such gritty, mature films such as The Thomas Crown Affair, In the Heat of the Night and The Cincinnati Kid, he seemed an odd choice to bring such family friendly fare to the screen. (Indeed, the story goes he was chosen because the producers mistakenly thought he was Jewish.) As luck would have it, however, it was an inspired choice. People tend to forget that while the first half of Fiddler is bright and joyous, the second half is darker and more melancholy, and while the tone of the second half seems more in keeping with Jewison’s sensibilities, he actually handles both halves with incredible deftness.

Jewison’s first stroke of genius was casting the Israeli actor Chaim Topol in the lead role of Tevye. The choice was somewhat controversial because, although Topol had played the part in London, the great Zero Mostel originated the role on Broadway (even winning a Tony for it) and was expected to reprise it for the film just as he had done with the reprisal of his other Tony Award-winning performance of Pseudolus the slave in 1966’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Jewison, however, felt that Mostel’s style, though perfectly suited for the stage, would’ve been too broad and unrealistic for film. He was absolutely right. Mostel was, of course, pretty disappointed with the decision; in fact, two years later, when Jewison directed the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar and wanted Zero Mostel’s son Joshua to play King Herod, Mostel’s reaction was, “Tell him to get Topol’s son!” Topol is a revelation in the part of Tevye, displaying a warmth and wisdom well beyond his years (only being 35 at the time). Indeed, he was rewarded with a Best Actor nomination for his performance. Much of the rest of the cast also comes from the stage and are uniformly good (including the Oscar-nominated Leonard Frey, Norma Crane, Molly Picon, Rosalind Harris and a “pre-Starsky” Paul Michael Glaser, billed simply as “Michael Glaser”).

Jewison’s shrewdness extends beyond casting, however. Wanting to give the film an earthy “period” look (something that is commonplace now but back then was more innovative), Jewison and cinematographer Oswald Morris made the unconventional choice of shooting the entire picture with a stocking over the lens; it can even be seen in a sequence where Tevye is remembering his second oldest daughter as a little girl. Another brilliant decision on the part of Jewison was to get a relatively unknown composer named John Williams to adapt the music for the film. Most of the songs from the show are incredibly memorable (“Tradition,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Sunrise, Sunset”) but when Williams brings his intimate knowledge of the orchestra and bombastic personality to the melodies, helped in no small part by the virtuoso fiddling of the late Isaac Stern, the result is thrilling. Williams won his first Oscar (Best Adapted Score) for the work he did on the film, and it was a harbinger of things to come for the composer.

The story to Fiddler is by now quite well known. In a little village in tsarist Russia called Anatevka, a close-knit community of Jews lives in safety and solitude, trying desperately to preserve their way of life in the face of persecution and socio-political change. This struggle is typified in Tevye, who finds himself constantly warring internally over what to do regarding his five daughters and whom they wish to marry. He expresses these struggles in numerous monologues, songs and prayers to God, usually in the form of an “on the one hand, on the other hand” debate. He often finds himself in precarious situations that he likens to the image of a fiddler on a roof, a musician who is trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck in the process. By the end of the film, Tevye’s three oldest daughters are married (one to a poor tailor, one to a Marxist revolutionary and one to a Catholic) and everyone in the village is driven out by the Cossacks. In the film’s final shot, Tevye invites the symbolic fiddler to follow him and his family to America, indicating that wherever the Jewish people go they bring their traditions, their heritage and their rich cultural and religious identity with them.

When I saw Fiddler on the Roof, I didn’t know much about Judaism and the film served as more or less my introduction to it, but I still connected with the humanity of the characters and their obstacles. One of the things that makes Fiddler work so well is, paradoxically, its universality. Although it is a distinctly Jewish story, all societies can relate to the ongoing battle to hold on to more “traditional” values in the face of an ever-changing world, and this has no doubt contributed to the film’s enduring popularity. (Norman Jewison has said that he is surprised how well the film has been received in various, culturally diverse countries.) The film tends to be absent from “100 Greatest Films” lists that critics, cinephiles and bloggers compile, but then so are a number of other films that are almost universally beloved. (I’ve never seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on these lists either but I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t love that film.) To this day it remains a staple of community theater and high school drama productions all across the land. Topol has become indelibly associated with the character of Tevye and continued to play the role on stage for decades after the film’s release. In fact, a good friend of mine, Bob (the fellow who beautifully portrayed Tevye in the production where I was Motel), got to go see Topol in his farewell tour two years ago. After the show he told the aging actor that Tevye was one if his favorite roles and that he was soon going to be auditioning to play it yet again in another local production. Topol simply said to him, “Be good.”

Monday, October 31, 2011

Paradise Lost

The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 25th anniversary of the release of The Mission.

"All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

An elderly Catholic cardinal stares intensely at us, his hard facial features betraying an expression of complete ambiguity. Is he angry? Sad? Afraid? We don't know. After several seconds he begins to speak. He is dictating a letter to the pope, relaying details of a past event which the film proceeds to show in flashback. His narration explains how Jesuit priests, who set up missions in South America for the education and protection of the local natives, journeyed into the depths of the jungle "to bring the word of God to those Indians still living in their natural state and received in return, martyrdom." We then see one such cleric, stripped to the waist and wearing a makeshift crown of thorns on his brow, being tied to a wooden cross and carried by a group of these Indians (whom we later learn are called the Guarani) down to a river where he is thrown in. He floats away silently, still alive but seemingly resigned to his fate. We watch as he travels further downstream, a grotesque living crucifix adrift in a series of rough rapids, before sailing over the edge of an immense waterfall and plummeting to his death. Thus opens the breathtakingly beautiful and tremendously powerful historical drama The Mission (which celebrates its 25th anniversary today), one of the finest films I personally have ever seen.

Based on actual events that occurred in the territory that borders Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina in the mid-18th century (and, knowing Hollywood's track record for distorting history, no doubt embellishing it), The Mission primarily tells the story of two very different, and yet remarkably similar, men. The first is Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), a kind, noble and patient Jesuit priest who, after the death of his friend, decides to bravely enter the domain of the Guarani tribe. In one of many memorable and visually spectacular sequences, Father Gabriel climbs up the waterfall from the film's prologue, slipping and almost plunging to his own death in the process. His conquering of the falls is the first of many obstacles he must overcome in his quest to finish what his unlucky colleague began.

In a subsequent scene, Gabriel sits calmly on a rock and plays a sweet but elegiac little tune on his oboe as Guarani begin to slowly surround him with their weapons drawn. Though he notices them approach, he continues to play on, his face clearly betraying fear and yet his will proving strong and resolute. Suddenly one native shouts at him angrily, grabs the oboe, breaks it in two across his own knee and storms off. Another one picks up the pieces, examines the instrument as if trying to understand how such a lovely sound could come from it and meekly offers it back to Gabriel who tries to fix it before shaking his head. The native then takes Gabriel's hand and with the consent of everyone else present leads him back to their home. It is a phenomenal dialogue-free sequence about the universal allure of music and the kind of respect that can exist across vast ethnic, cultural and linguistic barriers. In courageously refusing not to be intimidated by these dangerous "savages" as well as not responding with anger or hostility to their destruction of his beloved property, Gabriel begins the first step in earning the trust and admiration of these understandably scared and suspicious people.

Gabriel begins to establish a mission named San Carlos in the heart of the jungle, a sanctuary where the Guarani can hear the Gospel and also be safe from the brutality of the slave traders who capture (and sometimes kill) them. It is here that the film introduces its other primary character: a mercenary named Captain Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) who is so notoriously ruthless that when he encounters father Gabriel in one of his many hunting excursions, Gabriel's assertion that they are "building a mission here to make Christians of these people" is met with the callous response, "If you have the time." However, when Mendoza discovers his younger brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn) in bed with his own fiancee, he angrily kills Felipe in a duel and, unlike his spiritual ancestor Cain, immediately regrets his fratricide afterward. Although the law can't touch him, Mendoza is consumed with guilt and punishes himself by wasting away in a cell refusing to eat or speak to anyone. Into his misery comes none other than Father Gabriel who, in a manner very similar to his initial encounter with the Guarani, bravely confronts Mendoza for the coward that he is (not only refusing to be intimidated by his threats but actually daring him to act on them) and offers him a chance at redemption. "For me there is no redemption," Mendoza laments. "There is no penance hard enough for me." Gabriel asks: "But do you dare try it?" to which Mendoza replies: "Do you dare to see it fail?"

What follows is another magnificent extended sequence wherein Mendoza accompanies Gabriel and a few other members of his order back into the jungle all the while dragging behind him a huge bundle of metallic weaponry (swords, shields, armor, etc) at the end of a rope. It even involves climbing the same waterfall (which becomes a sort of character in itself) Gabriel did. It all culminates in another dialogue-free scene of almost immeasurable emotion and profundity; indeed it's one of the most moving depictions of forgiveness I've ever seen on film (although there is a comparable one in Terrence Malick's latest opus The Tree of Life). Mendoza soon becomes an active part of the seemingly idyllic existence at San Carlos. Grateful for his "second chance" at life, he asks Father Gabriel what he can do in return. Gabriel hands him a Bible and we see Mendoza reading passages from the apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians ("Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing. Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up…But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love."). Indeed, much like Paul, who persecuted Christians only to become one of their greatest proponents, Mendoza transforms from a murderer and trader of the Guarani into their friend and advocate.

Having witnessed enough death in his life Mendoza swears off all violence (as is seen in a sequence where the Guarani invite him to help slay a boar they've hunted and he refuses) and even joins Gabriel's order vowing to protect and serve his fellow man. This, however, proves very difficult as the signing of the Treaty of Madrid reallocates the previously protected lands inhabited by the Jesuit missions to Portugal, which unlike Spain permits slavery. This leads to the section of the film where Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally), the stoic priest who narrates the film, is sent by the pope to appraise the Jesuit missions and decide whether they should continue to fall under the protection of the Roman Catholic Church. In some emotionally charged scenes (where the disparity between good and evil is rarely so starkly drawn), the Jesuits defend the humanity of the Guarani and the virtues of the missions while the plantation owners assert the inferiority and animal-like natures of the Guarani and apply political pressure to Altamirano for a favorable decision. They are such despicable, sorry excuses for human beings that it actually borders on the comical.

Unfortunately, even after visiting the San Carlos mission and seeing the "paradise on earth" that the Jesuits and the Guarani have built together, Altamirano comes to the inevitable conclusion that in order to save the whole body (the body in this case presumably being the "body of Christ," or the church) one must sometimes hack off a limb (the limb being the missions), not unlike another pragmatic religious leader named Caiaphas who determined centuries earlier that it is "better that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation should perish." He tells the Guarani that they must leave the mission, but they do not want to leave. It is their home. When they question the wisdom and authority of this priest, he asserts that they must learn to submit to the will of God. Confused, the Guarani say that it was the will of God that they came out of the jungle and built the mission and they don't understand why God has changed his mind. The Guarani decide to stay and fight. Altamirano tells the Jesuits that they must not fight with the Guarani but that they must instead return to Rome with him. Angry at this betrayal by the church, Mendoza literally takes up his sword again and, along with several other Jesuits (including a young Liam Neeson), joins with the Guranai in defending their home against the colonialists.

The only one who doesn't take up arms is Father Gabriel. Heartbroken at this turn of events, but still unwilling to abandon the Guarani to their doom, Gabriel chooses to stay with them, but he will not kill. On the eve of the impending battle, Mendoza comes to Gabriel to be blessed for his efforts, but Gabriel refuses to do so. "If you're right, you'll have God's blessing," he says. "If you're not, my blessing won't mean anything." The two men embrace and the climactic final showdown soon follows. Alas, the outcome is hardly unpredictable. Nearly all of the Guranai who resist are slaughtered. Mendoza and the other priests are killed in battle. Father Gabriel, who stages a nonviolent demonstration with many of the Guarani women and children, also is killed and his mission is burned to the ground.

Shortly thereafter, Altamirano is seen eating with the plantation owners and he is utterly sickened not only by the news of this massive loss of human life but by their ambivalence to it. "And you have the effrontery to tell me that this slaughter was necessary?" he asks. Calmly and coldly, they tell him that they believe it was. "We must work in the world, your eminence," one of them says. "The world is thus." To this Altamirano replies, "No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world," before gazing out the window and somberly admitting his own culpability in the affair. "Thus have I made it." The film concludes with Altamirano finishing his letter to the pope and, in one of my favorite post-credit movie codas (right up there with Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Young Sherlock Holmes), stares intensely back into the camera as he did in the film's opening image.

The Mission was written by Tony Award-winning playwright (A Man for All Seasons) and two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Bolt (Doctor Zhivago and A Man for All Seasons), whose credits also include other historical epics with decidedly intimate focal points such as Lawrence of Arabia and The Bounty. The Mission was directed by the English filmmaker Roland Joffé, whose only prior feature film, The Killing Fields, won him much critical acclaim and seemed to signal the promise of a great director. Unfortunately, his career since The Mission has been notably unimpressive, with his failures (such as Super Mario Bros., The Scarlet Letter and Captivity) looming much larger than his successes. Nonetheless, in spite of its flaws, The Mission is an extraordinarily compelling piece of work with many superlative elements to recommend it. The performances are uniformly solid but Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro are especially good. The spiritual journeys of these two men are the real heart of the film and both actors imbue their parts with subtlety and soul. De Niro's reticent warrior is perhaps a bit more complex, but Irons' faithful Father Gabriel is no less interesting or sympathetic.

One of the things I love about The Mission is how it doesn't cast its lot with either character at the film's finale. Both men are clearly trying to do the right thing in an otherwise awful situation and even though they disagree as to what that is, the film doesn't judge the actions of either. The film also boasts some gorgeous locales beautifully rendered by cinematographer Chris Menges (who won an Academy Award for his efforts) and the highly evocative film score by legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone not only stands out as one of his best works but has become one of the most popular soundtracks around…even for those who don't typically notice/collect film music. The piece "On Earth as it is Heaven" (the tune played by Gabriel on his oboe early in the film) is a bittersweet melody that haunts much of the film's imagery and the celebratory choral "Guarani" theme (made up of exotic instruments and native-style chanting) lingers in the memory long after the film is over.

Although it received a handful of awards (including the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes) and numerous other nominations, The Mission was lukewarmly received when it was released in 1986. Nobody panned it but few critics praised it as a masterpiece either. Most labeled it merely mediocre and remained rather indifferent to it. Roger Ebert wrote that it felt "exactly like one of those movies where you'd rather see the documentary about how the movie was made" (incidentally, the DVD and Blu-ray release of The Mission includes the hour-long doc Omnibus, which chronicles the making of the film in case he, or anyone else, ever wants to actually do that; I have and although it is fascinating, I still prefer the film itself). Considered by many to be muddled, ponderous, pious and with characters who seemed more like "types" than fleshed-out human beings, it grossed a meager $17 million at the box office and faded into relative obscurity thereafter. Over the years, however, as more and more people have discovered this little-known treasure of a film, it has gained a somewhat more prominent reputation …particularly among religious folk who are drawn to its themes of redemption, forgiveness, faith, courage, love, compassion, goodness, evangelism, etc. In fact, the weekly Anglican publication Church Times picked it as No. 1 on a list of the "Top 50 Religious Films" and in 2004 Arts & Faith ranked it No. 54 on their "Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films."

Speaking only for myself, I find it to be an incredibly deep and thoughtful piece of work; indeed one of my favorite films. In the interests of full disclosure though, I should probably make it known that I am myself a Christian (though I don't belong to any particular denomination) and as such tend to respond favorably to stories that involve people who share my faith and the struggles that they deal with as they attempt to live it out. Many people already now this about me, but it's still a little nerve-wracking to admit that about myself because I realize it is not a popular thing to be right now. There are a lot of Christians out there who are making a lot of noise (as well as a lot of enemies) and as such people tend to lump us all in the same category.

As I believe Dr. Peter E. Dans observes in his book Christians in Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners, it is becoming more and more difficult to find positive portrayals of Christians in movies and TV and far more commonplace to see them depicted as sanctimonious, hypocritical, judgmental, right-wing ignoramuses (see movies such as Paul, Footloose and Easy A as well as TV shows such as 30 Rock, The Big Bang Theory and The Office). Consequently, a film such as The Mission, where the church may not come off particularly well but individual believers are depicted quite sympathetically, resonates with me simply because it goes against the recent trend.

I'd like to think, however, that I can still be objective enough to recognize a good movie (which I think The Mission is) when I see one, whether it tends to paint Christians in a good light or not. I am not particularly interested, for example, in so-called "Christian" movies, partially because they are essentially works of propaganda and I tend to respond to all propaganda the same (whether it propagates something I happen to agree with or not), but also because they tend to be as many critics (including this one and this one) have pointed out, pretty bad. Nonetheless, there are some films that I think could be classified as "Christian" (though I personally don't even really consider that a viable category) that don't fit the usual "faith-based" mold we have come to expect and which I think are far more powerful, existential and artistic (films such as Shadowlands, Chariots of Fire, The Exorcist, Dogma, Chocolat, etc). I think The Mission belongs with those films. It might not be a "Christian movie" per se (whatever that is) but it is a movie about Christianity and its admittedly checkered past (I am not naive enough to think that the real-life missions were as idyllic as they are depicted here) and it appropriates into its worldview many of the truths about life and human nature that draw me to the Christian ideology.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Trust him. He knows what he's doing.

The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Sledge Hammer!.

"If all you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail."

Cop shows are a dime a dozen. For as long as the medium of television has existed there have been cop shows. Consequently, in such an overcrowded genre, which includes such distinguished icons as Dragnet, Adam-12 and Hill Street Blues, it is very difficult for a new one to make a distinct impression on viewers let alone leave any kind of legacy. Thus, in a bold attempt to be different, some producers have had the brilliant idea of doing a comic cop show, but prior to Reno 911, those programs proved to be television poison. Car 54, Where Are You?, Cop Rock and Police Squad! all had notoriously brief runs (although the latter would spawn a very successful comedy movie franchise). Alas, the same fate also befell the satirical 1980s sitcom Sledge Hammer! Despite critical acclaim, Hammer! was consistently second-to-last in the Nielsen ratings and after running only two seasons was unceremoniously canceled. Like its “comic-cop” brethren, Hammer! has developed a cult following over the years but unlike its “comic-cop” brethren, Hammer! has aged remarkably well. In fact, watching it 25 years later it is painfully clear that Sledge Hammer! was, as the saying goes, way ahead of its time.

Needless to say, without Dirty Harry there would be no Sledge Hammer!. In 1971, 16-year-old Alan Spencer saw the iconic Clint Eastwood film and was very affected by it. While the movie was inciting heated debate over whether its portrayal of a gung-ho policeman more interested in protecting innocent people than following the law was fascistic, Spencer astutely grasped the absurd humor of the whole thing. He wrote a script that featured a central character with even less scruples and an even more destructive personality — sort of “Dirty Harry on acid” — and thus, Sledge Hammer was born. However, it would be many years before it reached the television screen. Originally intended for HBO, it was ABC that eventually took a chance on Hammer!. I wish I could report that risk paid off but, as actor David Rasche puts it, “it was not to be.”

I discovered Sledge Hammer! completely by accident. When it premiered on ABC in 1986 it initially followed a half-hour Disney show called Sidekicks (with Ernie Reyes, Jr., Gil Gerard and Keye Luke) that I wanted to watch because it was based on a Disney Sunday Movie I loved called The Last Electric Knight. At the time I thought it was great, but now I realize it was just another second-rate Karate Kid rip-off. However, I do owe the show a tremendous debt because if it weren’t for Sidekicks I wouldn’t have seen Sledge Hammer!. I remember watching the Sidekicks episode on the TV in my room and when it was over I decided to leave the set on rather than turn it off and go to bed. When the next show’s opening credits began I heard this very energetic, macho-sounding theme music (which I would later discover was written by an up-and-coming film music composer named Danny Elfman who would go on to become one of my all-time favorite musical talents) playing over close-up images of a .44 Magnum with an insignia of a sledge hammer imprinted on the handle. After several almost erotic-looking shots of the gun resting on a satin pillow a hand reaches into frame and holds it up next to his face staring at it longingly. He twirls it several times, points it slightly to the left of the camera and then says “Trust me. I know what I’m doing,” before firing it and making what was presumably supposed to be a hole in the television screen. Interestingly, the original idea was to have Hammer shoot directly into the camera Great Train Robbery-style, but the network was nervous it would frighten viewers and possibly even result in heart attacks. Hence, the slightly off-kilter direction of the gun’s barrel was agreed upon as a compromise. Incidentally, I‘d like to make a snarky remark here about television executives overestimating the stupidity of viewers, but I won’t because, according to IMDB, on the night of its debut a Midwest ABC affiliate was indeed “startled by the opening sequence, panicked and threw on the station logo thinking something had gone wrong with their tape machine.” It’s the kind of turn of the events that would fit right in with the absurd spirit of the show itself.

Sledge Hammer! was, as creator Alan Spencer aptly claimed, a “sitcom for people who hate sitcoms.” The main premise was apparently to take every cop show/movie cliché and exaggerate it to the point of absurdity. The humor ranged from pointed socio-political and commentary all the way to goofy, over-the-top slapstick. It essentially did for cop dramas what Get Smart (an admitted influence on Spencer) did for spy stories. It may have been dumb but it was dumb in a very intelligent way. It also was, and this is no small feat, side-splittingly funny. I remember liking it an awful lot when I was 10 but I was genuinely surprised, as I reviewed most of the episodes recently, how often I laughed out loud. Much of the hilarity came from the series’ central character, the sadistic, misogynistic, nihilistic San Francisco homicide detective. Born to parents Jack and Armen (think about it) Inspector Sledge Hammer was the kind of cop for whom excessive force was standard operating procedure, the kind of cop who would brag about violating a criminal’s civil rights, the kind of cop for whom the observation “he shoots first and ask questions later” was not a criticism but a compliment.

REPORTER: We're here at the scene of a liquor store robbery that was thwarted by the man beside me, Inspector Sledge Hammer. Inspector Hammer, tell us what happened.
HAMMER: Well, miss, I was in this store when two thugs entered and threatened the owner with shotguns. At that time, I drew my Magnum and killed them both. Then I bought some eggs, and some milk, and some of those little cocktail weenies.
REPORTER: Inspector Hammer, was what you did in that store absolutely necessary?
HAMMER: Oh, yes, I had no groceries at all.

Hammer’s main ally in his fight with crime (nay, his all-out full-scale global thermonuclear war on crime) was his beloved .44 Magnum. Hammer so adored that gun that he always had it with him. He showered with it, slept with it (and not under his pillow like James Bond, but resting comfortably on the pillow next to him…like a lover) and even talked to it. Yes, talked to it. Hammer was clearly unbalanced and yet still sane enough to realize that talking to one‘s firearm is considered strange. It’s a very funny running gag throughout the run of the series that every time he is caught conversing with his weapon, he would try to shrug it off or make some feeble excuse ("Who are you talking to?" "Uh, nobody."). In spite of his sheer disregard for any kind of human decency, compassion or etiquette, Hammer is a very engaging character. To that end, the charm and charisma of actor David Rasche (The Sentinel, Burn After Reading) goes a long way. Rasche fully commits to Hammer’s more disturbing personality traits without even attempting to soften any of his hard edges, but still manages to make him bizarrely likable. Rasche is truly a revelation in the role and it is no surprise to learn that Spencer wrote the part for him.

Supporting Rasche’s Hammer is the beautiful but tough Dori Doreau, played by the sexy and talented Anne-Marie Martin. In typical cop show/movie fashion, the crazy cop’s partner is very by-the-book. Though she is often distressed at Hammer’s antics, she nonetheless seems to like him. Martin essentially plays the straight man to Rasche’s anarchic antics (though she can be, and sometimes is, hysterically funny herself…especially in “Desperately Seeking Dori” were she gets hit on the head and believes she is Hammer herself). She’s the “99 to his Max.” Rounding out the solid cast is Harrison Page’s long-suffering Captain Trunk. Just as Chief Inspector Dreyfus was constantly irritated with Clouseau, so is Trunk forever upset with Hammer, always reprimanding him, but never able to let him go (because against all sense and reason Sledge somehow manages to get the job done), Trunk usually expresses himself in loud verbal tirades. Years before Frank McRae was shouting “SLATERRRRR!!!” at the top of his lungs at Schwarzenegger’s rogue cop character in Last Action Hero, Page’s police captain was shouting “HAMMERRRRR!!!!!” on prime time TV. Interestingly, Spencer never intended the character of Trunk to be African-American because, although he didn’t mind Hammer’s sexism, sadism and jingoism, he didn’t want Hammer to appear racist. It was Harrison’s sheer volume that won him the role. In his audition he decided to just let loose and go for it and his yelling brought people into the office from other floors in the building. Spencer hired him on the spot.

Another element that contributed to the show’s caliber (sorry) was the pedigree of directors they got. Indeed some of the best episodes were helmed by some of the best directors working in television at that time, such as Jackie Cooper and Bill Bixby. The pilot (“Under the Gun”) was directed with style and confidence by Martha Coolidge (Real Genius) and helped set the standard for everything that followed. I vividly remember watching that pilot. The mayor of San Francisco — John Vernon, who also played the mayor of that same city in Dirty Harry — hires Hammer to bring his kidnapped daughter home. I hadn’t yet seen Dirty Harry at the time (though I’ve seen it since) but it was not necessary to enjoy the over-the-top action and obviously over-the-top humor. One of the most memorable scenes involve Sledge on his way to work one morning in his car (an ugly green Dodge St. Regis with bullet holes in the windshield and a dent in its side) when he encounters a road block. Told by another officer that there’s a sniper on the roof of a nearby building, Hammer asks if the building is empty, goes to his trunk, pulls out a bazooka, levels the entire edifice and calmly declares “I think I got him.”

Dirty Harry was, of course, not the only movie Hammer! spoofed. Robocop (“Hammeroid”), Crocodile Dundee (“Death of a Few Salesmen”), and Witness (“Witless”) were also among those sent up in other memorable episodes. However, the makers of Hammer! were not content to simply satirize then-recent films. They also set their sights on such classics as North by Northwest (“Comrade Hammer”), Vertigo (“Vertical”) and Casablanca ("Play It Again, Sledge”). Hammer! didn’t just take down movies, of course. It also attacked other TV shows. ALF, Max Headroom and particularly Mr. Belvedere took a beating. One of my favorite moments comes when Hammer is in a bar watching a newscast on the TV when he gets up to leave, hears that they are returning to their broadcast of Miami Vice (one of the shows Hammer! was competing with) and blows away the set with his gun. In addition to movies, Hammer! also poked fun at significant cultural phenomena of the period, some of which would eventually become dated references (such the colorization of black and white films) and others which actually anticipated their widespread profusion (such as JFK conspiracy nuts). One of the greatest episodes (“All Shook Up”), written as a love letter to Spencer’s recently deceased friend Andy Kaufman, had Hammer going undercover as an Elvis impersonator (even going so far as to attend “Elvis impersonator school”) to capture a serial killer who’s targeting Elvis impersonators. Although the budget didn’t allow them include any actual Elvis songs, David Rasche wrote some great original Elvis-style music that was used instead. Occasionally, Hammer! would even tackle a serious subject (such as ageism in Hollywood or sexual harassment), albeit in a humorous fashion.

As with all television shows not every episode is a winner, but when Sledge Hammer! was good, it was great. It was a show never afraid to take chances. For example, as the end of the first season approached and it became clearer and clearer that the show would not get picked up, Spencer wrote a season finale that would allow the show to (literally) go out with a bang. In “The Spa Who Loved Me,” a terrorist group steals a nuclear warhead and threatens to set it off if their demands (which include new episodes of Moonlighting) are not met. Hammer, Dori and Trunk find the warhead in a spa and Hammer, after uttering his usual chilling assurance that he “knows what he’s doing,” attempts to disarm the thing only to have it explode destroying all of San Francisco. Partially intended as a desperate attempt to boost their ratings (a confession they got Robin Leach to make at the outset of the episode) and also partially intended as petulant thumbing their nose at the establishment, the outrageous gamble actually paid off. The finale was so highly watched that the network renewed for a second season, provided Spencer would find a way to get out of the apocalyptic ending. In typical Sledge Hammer!-style, Spencer's solution was yet another satirical jab at television…specifically lame resolutions to unresolvable scenarios (such as “it was all a dream”). In the premiere episode of season two, a title card informed viewers that the rest of the season actually occurs five years before the nuclear explosion. The usual credits then roll, only this time with the subtitle “The Early Years." It makes no sense (especially since Doreau was made Hammer's partner in the pilot and here she's seen working with him), but it's clever and hilarious.

The primary sin of Sledge Hammer! was being too good and too provocative for its time. It’s easy to see why audiences didn’t embrace it. It's pretty gutsy stuff. Even if ABC had treated it right (i.e. not pitting it against Dallas and Miami Vice in the first season and moving it around to various time slots in the second season, ultimately setting it against that ratings powerhouse known as The Cosby Show), it still might not have ever caught on. The very subversive sensibility of the show fits in more with the hyper-cynical culture we find ourselves in now than the conservative, homogenized environment of Reagan-era America. The fact that the show, against Spencer’s wishes, included a “canned” laugh track for much of the first season (I vividly remember that) illustrates this very point. At the same time, however, the tone and tenor of the whole thing (even the violence) is all so silly and good-natured that it's hard to believe anyone could take it so seriously as to be offended by it (which many people were). After being canceled in 1988, Hammer! did very well in syndication and both seasons are now available on DVD (sans the insipid laugh track thankfully). My advice, if you haven’t yet experienced this woefully underrated show, is to check it out. You might be surprised. You also might find yourself wondering how on earth the show didn’t catch on…or as Sledge himself would say whenever someone tried to use logic or reason on him: “Don’t confuse me.”