Saturday, September 15, 2018

17 FOR POSTERITY: THE MURIEL AWARDS HALL OF FAME, CLASS OF 2018



In its inaugural year, 2005, I began writing for the Muriel Awards, a year-end voting collective dedicated to summing up the year’s achievements which features accompanying essays by its members, and I’ve written for them every year since. Six years ago, Muriels creator Paul Clark (the award is named after his beloved guinea pig, and why the hell not?!) initiated the Muriels Hall of Fame, a separate division which is, as Clark puts it, “an attempt to honor the finest achievements in classic cinema.” In order to be considered qualified for Muriel HOF induction, a film must be a minimum of 50 years old, based on the date of release recorded by IMDb, as of the end of the previous calendar year.

Well, the distinguished members of the Muriels Hall of Fame Class of 2018 have been announced. In fact, Clark and the Muriels started announcing them a little over a month ago, on August 11. So, I am only 33 days delinquent in passing along the news, which, given that the oldest among this year’s inductees was first seen 116 years ago, may not be the greatest crime against urgency I could have committed. But still, a month is a month, and I don’t wanna linger no longer.

The cutoff year for the 2018 inductees was 1967, and it so happens that three of this year’s collection of 17 came out in that year, enough for Clark to suggest, in introducing the Muriel HOF picks on Facebook, that 1967 might arguably be the greatest year in movie history, a suggestion which would be, of course, a matter for another debate at another time. But suffice it to say that the 2018 Muriels HOF choices range far beyond a mere 50 years ago; movies from 1963, 1957, 1956, 1948, 1946 (again, three of ‘em), 1942, 1939, 1937, 1933, 1932, 1922 and 1902, all worthy selections, well represent this year’s class.

And, as in years past, each selection is accompanied by a short essay by one of the Muriels voters extoling the virtues of each film, and as in years past it is these pieces that really help make the Muriel Awards stand out, whether it’s the Hall of Fame or the regular year-end features you happen to be reading. Once again, I am honored to have been asked to contribute some words on behalf of one of my choices; a link to that piece, and to all the essays in this year’s Hall of Fame collection can be found below, alongside a little taste of what you’ll get by clicking the link on the title to read the whole megillah. (My favorite this year: Christianne Benedict on King Kong.)

A multitude of thanks to Paul Clark for allowing me to be a part of what is a very enjoyable annual tradition, and to all the contributors who have this year, like in all years since the Muriels began, made the Muriels Hall of Fame a worthy institution in the ongoing commemoration of great classic films.

And now, the Muriels Hall of Fame Class of 2018.

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946; William Wyler)


In somewhat of a departure from most war movies of its time, this one spends its time examining not the conflict itself, what comes after, once the blood has cooled and the body politic returns to a state of equanimity and peace. In its masterstroke of genius, it gives us a clear-eyed and often prophetic look at the symptoms and side-effects of what later become known as post-traumatic stress disorder.” (Donald G. Carder)

Bicycle Thieves (1948; Vittorio De Sica)


“The simplicity of the film's fable-like story may seem like a concession to mainstream sentimentality (which is true), but it's also the key to the film's power and universality. A man, in a recognizable, grounded world, tries to succeed for his family, fails, but survives. Out of this emerges social critique on one level, childhood nightmare on another, and ultimately lasting art.”  (Jeff McMahon)

The Big Sleep (1946; Howard Hawks)


“The central mystery is messy, for sure (just ask Schrodinger’s chauffeur), with a lot of the original text’s more lurid and exciting details excised. But it’s okay, the film itself says to the viewer, what Will Hays doesn’t know won’t hurt him, and so we make a deal with the film, and it creates its own way of speaking the unspeakable. In a way, The Big Sleep is a great way to teach straight people about queer subtext, as Martha Vickers’ exquisite performance as troubled sister Carmen is steeped in letting us know that there is much more happening with her than the film is allowed to show or tell. And truthfully, is there anything not made better by the presence of Elisha Cook, Jr.?” (Jason Shawhan)

Cat People (1942; Jacques Tourneur)


The film’s scenes of Irena stalking her romantic rival after changing into a big cat are justly iconic; cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca sculpts a world of fear out of the delicate shadows. It’s a landmark of expressionistic lighting shot cheap on recycled sets. Its darkest magic, however, is Simon’s performance. The French actress plays Irena as both victim and monster, a tangle of tenderness, vulnerability, guilt, and dysphoria. Disquiet lies across her feline countenance and in the folds of her accent.” (Alice Stoehr)

Freaks (1932; Tod Browning)


“The exploitative fascination with the ‘freaks’ and the chance to gawk at them obviously was a driving factor in the film being made at all (and the ensuing controversy), but alongside the exploitation resides a compassion to imagine a fiction of normalcy and community for them, and a regard for the disabled to be seen. This regard and compassion has seldom been seen since except generally through the prism of big celebrities (able-bodied celebrities) who have feigned disabilities in films designed specifically to inspire general audiences and win awards. This is key to why the only film Jonathan Rosenbaum can compare the poetic Iranian leper colony documentary The House Is Black is Freaks. The mere fact of even allowing certain people to be seen can be considered a radical statement in itself.” (Patrick J. Miller)

Grand Illusion (1937; Jean Renoir)


Through a combination of authenticity of vision, a perfect script, suitably war-torn settings and a host of fine performances, the director conjures up an image of what might be called the last hurrah of the lost generation. Opposing career officers Von Rauffenstein and Boeldieu, aristocratic enough to speak three languages fluently, meet to discuss the dimming of their society by the war. The German carries on, spinal injuries and metal skull plates and all, to ‘give the illusion of serving my country.’ Is this illusion of patriotism the ‘grand illusion’ of the title, or is it rather the illusion of class divide? Men may be from different classes and nationalities, but they remain men, whether they sing ‘Watch on the Rhine’, ‘La Marseillaise’ or ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.’”  (Sam Juliano)

King Kong (1933; Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper)


“Unlike many of its inheritors, King Kong is surprisingly complex. Many films intended for the largest of mass audiences offer every viewer the same experience, like an amusement park ride. But not Kong. By contrast, it is a Rorschach test. The audience gets what it brings to it. Is Carl Denham a hero or a villain? Is the film an admiring allegory for colonialism or is it a critique? Is Kong a lover or a rapist or an allegory for an insecure adolescent suitor? It may be all of these things, or even none of them, depending on where one is in life when watching the film. I once compared Kong’s rampage in New York City to Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, and I was only halfway joking.” (Christianne Benedict)

Night and Fog (1956; Alain Resnais)


“To name all of the unbearably moving subtleties of Night and Fog would be too long for the scope of this piece, but the short’s profound power comes from its perfect union of sound and image. Cayrol’s words, as read with impassive urgency by Michel Bouquet, hold within their matter-of-fact veneer such horror and anguish at this degradation and extermination, one that was driven by a systematic, utterly cold complex of systems. Resnais leaves the viewer with many questions, but he unflinchingly conveys the fundamental contradiction in the normalized conceptions of the Holocaust that persist to this day: it was (and is) at once unimaginable and inevitable.”  (Ryan Swen)

Nosferatu (1922; F.W. Murnau)


The makeup is iconic, but it's in the body language, in the stiff unfamiliar poses and lurching movements. It is no mistake that whenever anyone takes it into their head to make vampires scary again they so often come back to this design, the bald pate, sunken eyes, hands like jagged claws. Vampirism not as an ascent up the evolutionary chain but a long slide down it, nto the feral waiting arms of our worst hungers and impulses.” (Bryce Wilson)

Out of the Past (1946; Jacques Tourneur)


“Although I couldn't name a favorite film noir, Out of the Past is nevertheless one of those movies that I would never, ever part with if consigned to the proverbial desert island. When I think of what we mean by the phrase “film noir,” chances are THIS is the film I'm thinking about. It’s got everything encompassed by “noir”: deep and telling shadows, an inescapable past leading to a bitter doom, and the most fatal of femmes fatale. Robert Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey is the very model of a morally compromised noir hero, one who is tangled in the web of a criminal past, one whose easy morals lead him into a downward spiral. The film builds him out of shadows and into shadows he is consigned.” (Christianne Benedict)

Playtime (1967; Jacques Tati)


“In the category of ‘super-expensive personal visions that basically ruined a director's career,’ Playtime is hard to beat, leading Tati into debt for the rest of his life. And yet, what a glorious folly, a quiet, delicate symphony about the absurdity of everyday urban life that rewards patient observance and attention to tiny details, from the smirk of a waiter to the buzz of a neon light.” (Jeff McMahon)

Point Blank (1967; John Boorman)


“Start watching Point Blank at any point in the movie and you'll immediately be able to tell that it was made in the latter half of the sixties. It's the hair, the clothes. It's the interior decor, full of bright ochres and gaudy mirrors. It's in what qualifies, apparently, as courtship. At the same time, a good fifty years on, the film feels startlingly modern. The past bleeds into the present, just as sound from one scene will bleed into another. Words are repeated, or sometimes omitted altogether; images are refracted. An escape from Alcatraz is told through elision, using stills that aren't ever quite entirely still.” (Hedwig van Driel)

Scorpio Rising (1963; Kenneth Anger)


“Anger seems to be suggesting that, on their own, these men can be human, but once they get together, mob mentality overtakes humanity. An hypothesis later evidenced by Anger’s befriending of Bobby Beausoleil, who then joined up with the Manson Family and murdered Gary Hinman. Any zen found in motorcycle maintenance has been traded in for ephemeral pleasures of group terror. The heightened danger is clear in the second half’s song titles as well: “Torture,” “Point of No Return,” and finally “Wipeout.” The final race was filmed the day after the Halloween party. Anger didn’t have a solid ending in mind while making the film, but when one of the bikers crashed, snapped his neck and died right in front of the camera, he found it. (Kevin Cecil)

A Trip to the Moon (1902; Georges Méliès)


“Perhaps the most potent magic of A Trip to the Moon, certainly its greatest legacy for modern viewers, may be how effortlessly it transports the receptive audience back to a state where everything about the medium of motion pictures was new, marvelous, frightening, too much to process rationally. It leaves us in a mode of receptivity to the gorgeous, lunatic whims of its creator, to the true imaginative magic of seeing and believing, that should be the envy of anyone who, after having seen it, decides to try and tell a story on film. To be transported so wholly into the mind and spirit of a filmmaker is a true rarity, and Méliès set the bar very high very early. It’s no wonder that the trajectory of movie history, and its relentless pursuit of ever-greater levels of spectacle, of ‘realism,’ has had most filmmakers hightailing it in the opposite direction from Méliès’ stylistic marvel ever since.”  (Dennis Cozzalio)

Wavelength (1967; Michael Snow)


Wavelength is useful not merely as perhaps the purest example of avant-garde cinema as an instrument of measuring time, but also as the negative image of narrative. It is everything 'popular' cinema is not. The story is diffuse and handed out in small doses over the 45 agonizing and beautiful minutes of the movie. It has no beginning or end, it's simply occurring, like any given passage of our lives. It stares past, in fact, the action that its director has organized. It too means something, but the film is not defined by the action. It is defined by its own action, a reflexive creation measured in the minutes it ticks by and the slow inches and feet it travels (the length of a loft).” (Scout Tayofa)

What's Opera, Doc?  (1957; Charles M. Jones)


“What’s Opera, Doc? is Jones plopping a standard issue Bugs and Elmer cartoon into a more ominous structure, making it the greatest cartoon Warner Bros. ever produced. As his Road Runner cartoons prove, Jones loves to exercise creative discipline, and he’s a stickler for the obstructions he gives himself. So, spoofing Wagner means incorporating the tragedy and magic integral to his plots. This makes Elmer an actual threat rather than simply a comic foil; his ‘sample’ of spear and magic helmet power is far more accurate in its destruction than his usual shotgun marksmanship. ‘Bye!’ Bugs says to us just after the tree he’s standing under gets obliterated by Elmer’s ‘Flying Dutchman’-scored lightning bolts.” (Odie Henderson)

The Wizard of Oz (1939; Victor Fleming)


“Even taking into account the ways that the studio system has changed since the 1930s, The Wizard of Oz is remarkably idiosyncratic for a movie with near-universal appeal. Dark Side of the Rainbow isn’t an entirely ironic juxtaposition – the movie’s Technicolor renderings of Baum’s world and its characters are genuinely trippy, its more hallucinatory moments amplified by the way they nestled into our consciousness when most of us were kids. And, for many of us, the fear it inspired was as indelible as its sense of wonder; the first time I attempted to watch the film, the first time Margaret Hamilton appeared, I promptly ejected the tape and would have no more of it that day.” (Andrew Bemis)

And some Muriels Hall of Fame 2018 Class parting thoughts from curator Paul Clark.

See you in January, Muriel.

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Saturday, September 08, 2018

BURT REYNOLDS (1936-2018)



This past week Burt Reynolds, perhaps the most self-deprecating movie star to ever cruise to box-office domination, died during a hospital stay in Jupiter, Florida, at the age of 82.  “I’m pretty passionate about my work,” he once said, “even though I sometimes have this realization on the second day of shooting that I’m doing a piece of shit. So, I can do one of two things: I can just take the money, or I can try to be passionate. But the name of the boat is still the Titanic.” Yes, on top of being effortlessly likable and undeniably sexy, Reynolds was naturally funny too. And yes, there are a lot of confirmed pieces of shit floating around out there in which he received top billing. But even if the bad ones in his oeuvre outnumber the good ones (and I would argue that this is indeed the case), and even if Reynolds never developed the sense of daring or artistic depth that characterized the late innings of his closest ‘70s box-office competition, Clint Eastwood, the actor and his grinning, mustachioed mug can still be found gracing some of the most enduringly popular pictures of the period.

Of Reynolds’ early movies, I suppose the softest spot I have is reserved for the comedy western Sam Whisky (1969), in which Reynolds matches wits (and looks) with Angie Dickinson. And his comic cameos in movies like Silent Movie (1976) and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*but were afraid to ask) (1972) made clear that Reynolds’ action roles weren’t always fully tapping his talents. It really wouldn’t be until his self-directed suicide farce The End (1978) that he’d find himself front-and-center going for laughs.

But much of the ostensibly more serious stuff was pretty funny too. The raw punches of The Longest Yard (1974), the prison football classic which marked Reynolds’ first of two collaborations with director Robert Aldrich, had a lot of mean and dirty laughs packed into it, and there are plenty of smiles in store for anyone sidling up to a visit with W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1975) or to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). But Colin Higgins’ adaptation of that randy stage hit wasn’t even Reynolds’ first foray into musicals—that honor would go to Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975), a flop upon release and much derided, though as ripe a candidate for reassessment as anything in Reynolds’ filmography. Of course, the quintessential Burt Reynolds movie is Smokey and the Bandit (1977), has the power to break down even the most resistant viewer’s resolve. Jackie Gleason gets the biggest, most raucous laffs as the apoplectic sheriff Buford T. Justice, but the movie’s ease-on-down-the-back highway vibe is all Reynolds and the Bandit. Even as a CB-loving kid I never much got onto Smokey and the Bandit’s wavelength, but I was delighted to discover just a few years ago that the movie was a lot more fun than I was ever willing to give it credit for, and Jerry Reed’s “Eastbound and Down” theme song is without a doubt one of the great, irresistible earworms in all of cinema.

Reynolds’ association with Smokey’s director, ex -stuntman Hal Needham, would yield five more pictures, each, in my view, lazier and more dispiriting than the last—movies like Hooper, Smokey and the Bandit II, The Cannonball Run, Cannonball Run II and Stroker Ace played as though Reynolds was only in it for the money and the beer. But the breezy charm of the original Bandit (my friend Larry Aydlette calls it the redneck comedy Preston Sturges would have made) can make you forget all those desultory pictures with ease. It still outshines even the career resurgence marked by 1997’s Boogie Nights, which snagged Reynolds an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, though it was not the sort of career resurgence he (and we) were clearly hoping for. It wasn't long before Reynolds and his freshly renewed high-profile backslid into production of another string of forgettable pictures that he seemed to care very little about.

 

My short list of Reynolds favorites would have to include The Longest Yard, White Lightning (1973), Smokey and the Bandit and Sam Whisky, and I am lining up to revisit and reassess pictures like The End, Semi-Tough (1978), Sharky’s Machine (1981) and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. (I don’t need to see 1979’s Starting Over again—after several visits I remain unconvinced.) And when it comes to underrated Reynold’s pictures, the number-one candidate is, to my mind, Hustle (1975), the second of the Reynolds-Aldrich collaborations, a mesmerizing, melancholy, French-inflected policier costarring Catherine Denueve, Paul Winfield and Ben Johnson that is as far from the standard action fare it was sold as, as White Lightning and Gator are from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (And speaking of underrated, I’d put White Lightning in that category too— it shares the bootlegging concerns of Reynolds’ biggest hit, of course, but it has a hard-cut spirit which resides much closer to the dark undercurrent coursing through The Longest Yard than to Smokey’s “What, me worry?” sensibility, and 45 years later it packs an unexpected punch.)

But without a doubt, my favorite Burt Reynolds movie, the best Burt Reynolds movie, is clearly Deliverance (1972), the movie in which he was unexpectedly cast (by his own admission) and which consolidated his increasingly popular personality with that of a real actor with undeniable talent, a bona fide movie star. It’s hard for me to understate how important this movie was for me growing up, in terms of its impact on my kid mind in learning to expand my idea of what the language of movies could encompass, as well as what I was ready for just on a personal level. And today, as we all mourn the passing of its biggest and most imposing presence, I am more grateful than ever that I was able to see Burt Reynolds, John Boorman, Ned Beatty and Jon Voight (no Ronny Cox) gathered together at the TCM Film Festival in 2013 to hear them all talk about it. The following is the story, written for my blog soon after the event, of being at that screening five years ago. The man is now dead, but we all know the answer to the question he himself posed in Boorman’s great film. Who has the ability to survive? Burt Reynolds, especially in Deliverance, that’s who.   

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Once I arrived in Hollywoodfor day two of the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, I settled into my spot toward the front of the theater in anticipation of seeing Deliverance on the big screen for the first time since 1973, when I was a 13-year-old high school freshman. I was already fairly movie savvy at that age, and I’d heard talk about the movie circulating since its release—by the time it made it to our hometown theater the Academy Awards for 1972 had already passed, so word of the grueling nightmares that awaited its four weekend adventurers (and those who bought tickets to see it) had trickled down even to the most isolated corners of Southern Oregon. But even if I knew (more or less) what to expect, my dad, who barely paid attention to the movies, wouldn’t have known Deliverance from Up the Creek. So when I cleverly appealed to his taste for the outdoors and casually suggested that maybe we could go see that new canoeing movie (I needed that accompanying adult to circumvent the “R” rating), he glanced at the tiny ad on the local movie calendar, which conveniently showed only the name of the movie, pictures of the actors looming over a silhouette of three men paddling their boat, and an ominous tag line (“Where does the camping trip end… and the nightmare begin?”), and agreed to take me to see it. Success!

But I did not count on my mom’s interest. Unexpectedly, she decided to tag along, and I ended up sitting between the two of them for the entire movie. As the attack on Ned Beatty and Jon Voight began, I realized I may have miscalculated the situation, and my own comfort level, somewhat. The scene was much more frightening than I anticipated, so much so that upon viewing the movie later as an adult I realized that even at 13 I didn’t fully comprehend what was really going on, even to the point of blocking out some of the more graphic details and suggestions that were right there on screen. And I distinctly remember being aware of my mom staring daggers at me during that scene and at several points afterward, telegraphing just how much trouble I was in for when the lights finally did come up. (Curiously, I have very little memory of my dad’s reaction to the scene.)


Deliverance has, in the years since that fateful night, loomed large in my own personal movie mythology, for that experience with my parents but also because the movie has remained such a powerful and difficult experience all on its own. And I certainly never would have guessed that 40 years after my first somewhat traumatic experience with the movie I would be seeing it again in the presence of four of the men who helped make it. But here I was, in a packed house, the lights dimmed to darkness, watching the silhouetted figures of Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Burt Reynolds and director John Boorman being guided to the stage where, once the lights came up again, they would be interviewed by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz as an introduction to the morning’s beautiful DCP presentation of the movie. When the TCM Classic Film Festival schedule was first announced, only Jon Voight had been lined up to participate in the screening. But as Reynolds, Boorman and Beatty were eventually announced buzz surrounding the appearance began to build, and by the time the panel began the big auditorium was packed. (If only Ronny Cox, Vilmos Zsigmond and perhaps even Billy Redden could have been there!)


To say it was a delight to see these actors and this director gathered together on the same stage to celebrate this movie would be a hugely deficient description. Boorman, 80 at the time, seemed to these eyes as vital and engaged as he did when I saw him introduce Hope and Glory at a UCLA screening 30 years ago, and even though his production has tailed off since 2006 he seemed ready to go, quite enjoying revisiting what must have been a grueling physical experience in attempting to exact visual poetry to match or at least stand beside the language of James Dickey’s novel while on such a logistically challenging shoot. With all respect given to Boorman, Voight assumed the role of éminence grise on the panel, offering a few anecdotes to lead off the discussion (moderated by Ben Mankiewicz) before more-or-less ceding the spotlight to his costars.

Reynolds was delightful in what for him amounted to a somewhat stately repose, his casual wit and charm slowed somewhat by age but not dimmed in terms of pure zing—he still has the power to evoke all those star-making, wattage-sustaining appearances on the couch next to Johnny Carson. He still, near the end of a long career balanced by box-office stardom and eventual audience indifference, seemed in awe of the fact that he was cast at all in Deliverance, a vote of confidence from Boorman which still resonates for him today. “I may have been in 90 movies,” the actor intoned as the panel came to a close, “but I feel like I’ve really only been in one film.” If the line seemed a little honed and polished from use since the 40thanniversary celebrations of this movie began a year or so ago, it was also marked by sincerity, something not always in ample supply among the many arched eyebrows that have marked Reynolds’ long career.

But by far the most amusing was Beatty. At first he seemed to regard the comments of his fellow actors with a kind of gruff mask of stone-faced patience, the kind a beleaguered grandparent might put on in the face of misbehaving children before the inevitable furious eruption.  But when Mankiewicz finally swung the spotlight in his direction, Beatty seized the stage with a theatrical flurry of grumpiness that was a marvel to behold, mock dressing-down the “Hollywood Boulevard crowd” packing the auditorium and simultaneously winking at the two-ton elephant in the room. (“I know why you’re all here!”) The TCM host finally worked up the gumption to ask Beatty about the experience of this being his first movie, the scene being its nightmare centerpiece, and Beatty recalled Boorman worrying over how he felt about playing a scene of such heinous victimization. “Well, it’s acting, isn’t it?” Beatty recalled responding, thus dispelling the trauma viewers of Deliverance have for four decades imagined the actor must have suffered as a result of such on-screen degradation.

The movie itself remains uniquely powerful, one of the most brilliant exercises in foreboding and sustained, indefinable dread I think I’ve ever seen, as well as a savvy and damning dissection of the codes of macho authority so often celebrated without examination in American action thrillers. As I alluded earlier, Boorman finds a way into Dickey’s book by not allowing its specifically literary pleasures to haunt the film in absentia, by infusing even its most placid imagery of water, nature, and nature defiled with the suggestion of the fury and fear present when all hell rises to the surface and sets its own inexplicable course.


And speaking of surfaces, I’d always thought Pauline Kael was probably right when, in her review of Carrie, she suggested that by staging the interrupted nightmare that ends the 1976 film Brian De Palma had managed to pull off the sort of cinematic boo-job that Boorman muffed at the end of Deliverance. But after seeing the movie here, it struck me that while the juxtaposition of the hand rising to the glassy surface of the river with Voight’s Drew lurching up out of bed, away from (but never far enough away from) the horrible memories of his experience, doesn’t have the adrenalized shock of De Palma’s sequence, what Boorman does hardly qualifies as a mistake. Rather than use the hard cut from dream to reality, in Deliverance Boorman employs an appropriately more fluid, fairly rapid lap dissolve to shift between images. The final effect then is not the gasping leap out of the nightmare, but rather something more reflective of the ineffable disorientation one feels, even when awakened with a start, in the transition from a horror-filled dream back into a reality where the horror insists on lingering. It’s a transition that seems well-tailored to the wide-screen nightmare Ed and Bobby and Lewis, and the audience, have just survived.

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                                 (photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Spike TV)

Jon Voight’s Bobby leaves Deliverance haunted. But I have a feeling that Burt Reynolds will rest in peace, his last days filled with praise for his past work from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, who was preparing Reynolds for an appearance in his upcoming Manson-era epic Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Reynolds had been cast as George Spahn, the owner of the ranch which served as the de facto headquarters for Charles Manson and his “family” during the time of the Tate-La Bianca murders. The actor would not live to shoot what might have been a great coda to a long career of making audiences happy, and later in the game making a long list of movies which audiences weren’t even aware existed. But no matter. Though Reynolds is himself now eastbound and down, the legacy of the Bandit, Gator McCluskey, W.W Bright, Paul Crewe, Sheriff Earl Dodd, Hooper and Sam Whisky drive on, with perhaps some long overdue reassessment of Reynolds’ talent as an actor in the wings as well. However, there is no need to reassess the man’s essential appeal. He was and always shall be the very definition of a modern major movie star.

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Saturday, August 11, 2018

THE DESERT HEART OF CHARLEY VARRICK




Had I not recently revisited Don Siegel’s dusty, nail-hard crime thriller Charley Varrick, in fact just the night before seeing Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times (2005), it stands to reason that I probably would not have found myself thinking about the Walter Matthau-starring picture midway through the Taiwanese director’s film. After all, Siegel’s tale of morally ambivalent “heroes,” scabrous, misanthropic villains, and the various levels of grime and corruption to be waded through and scraped off on the way toward accidentally absconding with three-quarters of a million dollars in laundered mob money would seem to have little in common with Hou’s deliberately paced, exquisitely mounted collection of three love stories, each from a different time, each told in a manner most rewardingly compared to the elliptical style of a short story on the page. And yet, as the first episode of Three Times, “A Time of Love,” began to wrap itself around me, rich in the atmospheric imagery of muggy, rain-soaked days, thick with romantic longing in every image of roadside signs and empty streets and hushed pool parlors alive only with the sounds of clacking balls, I began to marvel at how effortlessly Hou had created such a tactile, living landscape through which his two characters are allowed to move and breathe and touch and feel. That feeling led me to ponder other instances in which a director has so casually, yet so effectively rendered locations in such a manner that they almost feel like they could be breathed in through the lungs, locations reflective of the mood of a given piece and even the rocky, unforgiving landscape that makes up the characters themselves.

Thanks to that lucky proximity of having seen it 24 hours earlier, Charley Varrick leapt to mind as a prime example. When it was released in 1973 by Universal, few seemed eager to pronounce claims of artistic integrity for what was perceived as an efficient, brutal crime programmer, no more, no less. But seen 45 years later its sturdy, intelligent design couldn’t be more apparent. As a vehicle for Walter Matthau, who would continue the dismantling of his status as strictly a comic actor begun here in films like The Laughing Policeman and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, it’s an excellent showcase for the star’s ability to project the electrical charges crackling behind his hangdog personage, as Varrick attempts to wiggle out from underneath the greasy, bloody thumb of an increasingly angry and impatient crime syndicate, personified by Joe Don Baker’s grinning hit man and John Vernon’s frighteningly insinuating big boss.

And because of Don Siegel’s unblinking camera eye, his sense of graphic continuity, and his insistence that the places where the chase for Charley play out are just as important for the mood that can be drawn out of them naturally, from their simple existence as landscape, as they are in conveying the ineffable sense of the existential net closing in around him, Charley Varrick’s shadow is a long one, particularly for a movie that is only now beginning to be considered with the deference to classic status that certainly I think it deserves. Most modern noir efforts tend to be too flashy and self-conscious by at least half, but efforts like Brian Helgeland’s Payback and Harold Ramis’s The Ice Harvest, and more recently punchy, unpretentious pictures like Hotel Artemis, John Wick 2 and Scott Frank’s A Walk Among the Tombstones, have reached back through the smoke and wreckage of American action film history toward films like Charley Varrick, and in doing so work to stave off the creative dead-end the form seems to have been mired during since the advent of AVID-enable overediting and general CGI blockbuster-it is. Waiting within that long shadow, for filmmakers with a desire to tread this unforgiving, gravelly road, is the calloused embrace of Siegel’s cold shot to the heart, a movie in which their own curdled spirits are surely rooted.




Each time I see Charley Varrick, the crucial importance of its locations to the realization of the bleak comedy and arid cynicism of the movie’s moral ambiguities hit home particularly hard. The template of the movie is set by Siegel’s attention to the details surrounding the bloody holdup that kicks the movie off, staged within the simple, brick construct of the Las Cruces, New Mexico bank, and outside that bank, along the dusty side streets of the town where children play in the unyielding sun and run for cover once the bullets start to fly. Outside that bank, the heat is palpable within the car that Charley sits and waits outside the bank, along with his partner Harman (Andy Robinson) and their getaway driver, Charley’s wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott), even as they sit shaded by the trees draped around the bank’s front entrance. A bloody shootout ensues, Varrick’s gang directly responsible for the deaths of at least two officers of the law, and they hit the road to attempt an escape. (If there were any action sequence that could prove just how different the ‘70s were in terms of what filmmakers often expected of audiences in terms of moral adjustments to their sympathies, this would have to be one.)



In the aftermath of the getaway chase, which will result in Nadine’s death, Charley and Harman desert the car and don the gear of Charley’s legitimate business— white crop-duster overalls—and make off in Charley’s van, which bears the legend, “Charley Varrick, Last of the Independents.” But they’re stopped by a state trooper on his way to assist in the already-finished chase, and Siegel uses the moment to not only create suspense as to whether Charley and Harman will be recognized (and perhaps kill this poor bastard too), but also to allow us some breathing space after that intense chase, space that we can use to again breathe in the harsh, tactile, literally roadside ambience. I swear I could almost feel the gravel crunching under my feet and the hot air running across my face in this scene. The feel of sagebrush and dust and the foreboding and oppressiveness built into these wide-open spaces is highlighted, subtly, in this sequence, and its methods are carried through the entire film, whether the movie is “luxuriating” in the specifics of Charley’s trailer-park hideaway, a cathouse where Baker chastely spends the night as he moves in for the kill, the stuffy, under-lit interior of a photographer’s shop run by Sheree North, who invests an insinuating sexuality into casual betrayal, or in fascinating found-documentary glimpses of the rundown south end of South Virginia Street (specifically, the immediate area surrounding Fitzpatrick’s Casino) in Reno, Nevada, a city which seems forever tied to the seedy vitality in evidence there when this film was shot in 1972.

In Charley Varrick, the prickly, dusty landscape and its ambience of indifference is inescapably tied to the film’s crisp visual sense, its terse rhythms and its unforgiving and illuminating approach to character and storytelling. Though championed by some sympathetic reviewers in 1973, the prevailing wind at the time suggested that it was most just another unusually brutal sausage from the Universal factory. Yet seen now, it seems undeniable that Don Siegel’s movie is a model of efficiency and expressiveness, especially after the spectacle of witnessing 45 years of less-talented directors thrashing at the hide, and eventually the skeletal frame, of the modern action film, where money and excess and blind demographic pursuits have yielded fewer and fewer artistic returns. Charley Varrick, surely a masterpiece of sun-bleached, Technicolor film noir, has the desert, its prickliness, its fever, its dusty insistence, in its blood and its soul, and the chill of the nighttime shadow of its influence and its reputation is only likely to grow longer, deeper, more resonant as each year passes, and as each new hotshot director tries to outdo the kind of terse, economical style in which its playfully perverse and formally profound pleasures are rooted.

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(This piece originally appeared, in a slightly different form, at this blog on May 26, 2006.)

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Saturday, July 28, 2018

EAT ME: ANIMAL HOUSE AT 40



“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be brief. The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules or took a few liberties with our female party guests. We did. But you can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few sick, perverted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational systems in general? I put it to you, Greg— isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do what you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you bad-mouth the United States of America!”
-- Eric “Otter” Stratton, ’63, Gynecologist, Beverly Hills, California
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Forty years ago, on July 28, 1978, National Lampoon’s Animal House was unleashed upon the world.  A modest, low-budgeted comedy in which its own studio, Universal Pictures, held little faith, it quickly became not only a well-reviewed hit, for a time the highest-grossing comedy in US box-office history, but a genuine cultural phenomenon which inspired a tidal wave of on-and-off-campus food fights, toga parties and general collegiate misbehavior, as well as a seemingly endless parade of movie comedies strung out over the following four decades that would strive to duplicate (with wildly variant degrees of success, of course) its underdogs-vs.-the establishment formula and unapologetically anarchic spirit.
Later this month, in Eugene, Oregon, there’s a 40th-anniversary toga party-centric celebration of the movie being staged to mark the occasion, headed up by the movie’s local casting director, Katherine Wilson, and others who participated in the filming of Animal House on and about the campus of the University of Oregon, many of whom still live in and about that community. But other than a recent onstage cast reunion at the Turner Classic Film Festival, where the movie played to a packed house of nearly 1,000 audience members, who laughed as if it were still 1978, there hasn’t been a whole lot heard from Universal or the press to celebrate Animal House’s 40th birthday, certainly nothing comparable to the reception it received—multiple cast reunions, newspaper articles, a features-packed anniversary DVD, et al.—when it turned 30.
Could they be nervous? The situation is that the 40th anniversary of the release of National Lampoon’s Animal House is occurring during a time when many modern collegiate viewers are looking back on the movie through self-corrective lenses provided by a society of social arbiters who want to insist that art (yes, I used the words “art” and “Animal House” in the same sentence) not be truly representative—that is, voicing opinions, perspectives and notions of propriety they may not be comfortable with which coexist with the ones they feel no hesitation in endorsing. 


Yesterday, the current affairs website Vice published a finger-wagging takedown of the movie’s perceived sins of cultural insensitivity entitled "Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Animal House by Tossing It in the Trash." (The piece’s subheading: “Drunken frat boys don’t seem so charming anymore, and the film’s gender politics are fucked beyond repair.”) The headline and subheading tell you everything you need to know about the piece, written in an unsurprisingly condescending tone by one Harry Cheadle, but it’s worth noting a couple of Cheadle’s observations for the way in which they reflect and attempt to instruct upon the proper way to assess and compartmentalize an “artifact” like Animal House.
First on the writer’s checklist, Cheadle makes much hay of the “boring” use of nudity, especially in the scene in which Bluto spies on a sorority through an upstairs window which, according to him, only horny 14-year-old boys would respond to. (To which I can only respond, “Thank you, God!”) Cheadle also wants to point out that the only “sympathetic” characters in the film are Katy (Karen Allen), the uber-patient girlfriend of Boone, one of the senior Deltas, or perhaps some of the other women exploited by the film’s protagonists. He also notes, with exceeding generosity, that “At one point, one of our heroes thinks about molesting (a) 13-year-old while she sleeps, but decides not to.” 


It will undoubtedly come as news to Cheadle and anyone else armed and ready to topple the statue of Emil Faber which stands in the center of the Faber College quad, but movie history is rife with examples of men and women ogling each other’s unclothed or partially unclothed bodies, and often not with the added benefit of a fourth-wall-breaking visual joke which ties Belushi’s oversexed voyeurism with our own. But that, like Animal House itself, I suppose, is just history.
Cheadle’s noting of the exploitation of Animal House’s secondary female characters reads less like honest concern, or even fair representation of what’s actually on screen in terms of the characters and how they are presented, than the scribbling of someone slightly more worried than he should be about staying on the correct side of the current cultural debate about “fucked-up gender politics.” Cheadle offhandedly tries to score points in favor of his thesis by noting Karen Allen’s comment, made during a recent interview about the film, that “You cringe at (Animal House), but it’s an interesting kind of cringe.” The writer, apparently too absorbed in the sensation of rubbing his goatee in contemplation, forgets to add the rest of Allen’s comment: “What’s great about the film is that it really makes fun of everybody.” (Italics mine, all mine.) Best to forget that last part, I suppose, within a brave, humorless polemic like Cheadle’s.


All this is, of course, to completely ignore the presence of Dean Wormer’s wife (Verna Bloom), hardly a victim in her own extramarital sexual escapades with Otter (Tim Matheson) Delta Tau Chi’s rush chairman and resident playboy. (Except, of course, when the dean, in retaliation, has her shipped off to Sarasota Springs for a “vacation.”) And finally, it seems to escape Cheadle’s eagle eye that during the moment in which Pinto (Tom Hulce) decides not to “molest” the 13-year-old Clorette (Sarah Holcomb), he believes her to be a college-aged girl. Pinto only sleeps with her after she confesses to him that’s she’s deceived him about her age—how’s that for offensive? Again, the joke is on Pinto—he’s been played like the horny freshman he is. But while harvested for a laugh, the ensuing situation, however clearly a case of legally-defined statutory rape, hardly qualifies as a National Lampoon primer on how to bang underage chicks and get away with it. (Our last sight of Pinto is of the offender fleeing the violent clutches of Mayor Carmine DiPasto, Clorette’s bad-tempered and clearly mob-connected father. Calling the Italian-American Anti-Defamation League!)


The Deltas visit to the Dexter Lake Club is the nexus of the critical case against Animal House in terms of race relations, as Cheadle and others have been quick to point out. In another equally depressing piece published in the most recent issue of Oregon Quarterly, “The Magazine of the University of Oregon,” Jason Stone, “staff writer for University Communications,” notes how the movie “mines uncomfortable humor from racist stereotypes” during the Dexter Lake Club sequence. The scene, in case you claim, as do both these writers, to not have seen it for decades or to have almost entirely forgotten it in the pursuit of more worthwhile endeavors, involves the Deltas transporting their dates (obtained through an awful, and awfully funny, bit of deception involving an obituary and a kiln explosion) to the Dexter Lake Club in pursuit of their favorite Negro bar band, Otis Day and the Knights. Earlier in the picture, of course, OD&TK provide the soundtrack for the Deltas’ infamous (and almost quaintly tame, as measured by the 21st-century bar) toga party, where Boone (Peter Reigert) can be spotted wearing dark sunglasses and sitting apart from the dancers, instead positioning himself on a stool, facing the party alongside the band, visibly soaking up their cool and occasionally shouting “Otis!” And now Boone shouts again— “Otis! He loves us!”—as he leads their group, including their unsuspecting dates, into a roadhouse dive packed with, well, Folks Who Don’t Look Like Them. (“We’re the only white people here,” Pinto whispers to Boone, stating the obvious with hushed, deadpan desperation.)
Cheadle, as part of his dismantling project for Vice, mentions that no less than Richard Pryor blessed and anointed the movie, including this scene of the Deltas’ squirming and sweating amongst the black patrons within the leopard skin-lined confines of the Dexter Lake Club. According to an oral history about the movie published in The New York Times in May 2018, Pryor sent a note to the head of the studio who, according to the film’s director, John Landis, was convinced the scene would cause “riots across America.” The great comedian proclaimed in the note that “Animal House was [expletive] funny, and white people are crazy.” That’s a particularly telling comment not only because of the knowledge of Pryor’s own incendiary way with approaching racial politics in his stand-up comedy, but because it provides a clue to the true perspective of the scene itself. Unfortunately, the observation holds little water for Cheadle, who thinks Pryor’s commentary occurred too far in the past to have any relevance for today’s viewers.


It will surprise no one, except perhaps the likes of Cheadle and Stone, that the actual butts of most of the humor in the Dexter Lake Club scene are the Deltas themselves and their misguided attempt to crash an insular social situation which in 1962 naturally would not have welcomed them with open arms. The Deltas, Boone in particular, are targets in a satirical jab over what amounts to cultural appropriation— they want the cool associated with Negro culture by making a show of bopping along with Otis Day, dipping their toes in for a double rock and rye and seven Carlings, and then running for the safety of the frat house when they get called on their game. (Outraged charges have yet to besiege Landis’s follow-up, 1980’s The Blues Brothers, the movie that much more thoroughly follows through on and fulfills the cultural appropriation “crimes” satirized in Animal House, a fact which might have something to do with the glow emitting from all those supremely talented Black folk with which Landis, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd surround themselves.)
The one joke in the Dexter Lake Club scene that lands perilously close to indefensible is the cut from Emily Dickinson College’s Brunella (Eliza Garrett), as she announces her major-- Primitive Cultures-- directly to Otis Day vocalizing the “Ooh-mau-mau” refrain from “Shama Lama Ding Dong.” Perhaps a step too far even for a movie which, as Allen insisted, makes fun of everybody. (Who’s equating primitive cultures and Otis Day? Not Brunella.) But even if it is too much, the joke is no more justification for a green light to scrub National Lampoon’s Animal House from our cultural history than would be Groucho Marx’s racist crack in Duck Soup for getting rid of all traces of that classic film. (Groucho’s joke, "My father was a little headstrong, my mother was a little armstrong. The Headstrongs married the Armstrongs, and that's why darkies were born," is a reference to/jab at Kate Smith’s 1931 recording of a popular song entitled “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which some claim to be a joke on racism, but which never fails to inspire crickets among modern audiences who are engulfed in laughter for the rest of the movie’s 68 minutes. As a time traveler Kate Smith doesn’t travel well.)  


As for politics, Animal House clearly stood not only as a refutation of the innocence myth of American society, in which we’re all supposed to believe that the United States existed in some sort of pristine bubble of purity until Kennedy was assassinated (or until whatever other awful or even trivial political development occurred which you might want to slot in there instead), but as a refutation of the cynicism of the fallout caused by Nixonian politics from which it emerged in 1978. But Cheadle would rather twist the tried-and-true framing of the movie’s central conflict for the sake of a smarmy retort than actually think about what establishment, what swamp, is being attacked by the movie:

“The slobs vs. snobs dynamic seems dated, especially with one particularly nasty slob now running the country and doing a pretty bad job of it. (It makes you nostalgic for the previous generation of country club asshole, who were at least better read.)”

If he’s suggesting that there’s a fundamental social and political difference between Donald J. Trump and, say, Caddyshack’s Judge Smalls, the closest and most primary descendant of the reactionary evil of Dean Wormer, well, then I’d say Cheadle ought to heed the Faber College motto, “Knowledge is Good,” and get himself some right quick.
Cheadle’s holier-than-thou tirade is pretty much par for the course in a culture hellbent on turning the sentiments of liberal politics, once based in freedom of expression and the liberation from confining attitudes to which everyone is expected to subscribe, into hardscrabble conservative dogma about what can and cannot be tolerated in art and culture. It’s a pitiful move which seeks out a roadmap for social behavior and acceptance in art rather than a forum for posing questions and thoughtfully considering them, one which presumes that movies are to be used as guideposts along life’s highways and not as a means for gaining understanding of experience through independent thought. It’s clear what Cheadle thinks about the frat boys in Animal House who behave outside the margins of proper behavior. I wonder what he makes of folks like, I don’t know, the aimless youths of Bande à part, or the familial gangsters of The Godfather, or the ruthless killers who compose the worn heart of The Wild Bunch. Are these also movies to be shunned because their characters exhibit behavior which society in our enlightened times would find “inappropriate?”

So where does Cheadle’s nonsense lead him? Quick. Remind yourself of the title of Cheadle’s piece. And then read his final, withering paragraph:

“We could never wipe Animal House from the face of the earth even if we wanted to; its influence is too vast, and its best jokes are justifiable classics. So put the movie on a pedestal, induct it into whatever hall of fame, move it into a museum, fine. You know who visits museums? Nobody.”
"Even if we wanted to." And it sure sounds like folks like Cheadle want to, if for no other reason that they can continue to pretend they’ve got it all over the unenlightened cretins who came before and left the world in such a fucked-up state. And if you’re not wasting time watching cinematic stains like Animal House, why, that’s all the more time to spend, like Cheadle, not going to museums or availing oneself of any of the other cultural opportunities one might have at one’s disposal. Unless they’ve been previously approved by whatever committee or social movement programs your thinking at the moment, of course.


But as frustrating as Cheadle’s point of view is, I have to say I found Stone’s fence-straddling in the Oregon Quarterly article, entitled "Animal House: Still Funny at Age 40?" just as dispiriting. This is a piece that seems like a J. Edgar Hoover-commissioned hit job, its foregone conclusion prescribed by the dean’s office, or perhaps by the wet-noodle head professor of the Cinema Studies department, who openly frames the perspective of the piece early on:

“`Over the years, as the film endured and grew in local legend it also became an acknowledged part of Oregon culture and the brand of the university,’ notes Michael Aronson, head of the Department of Cinema Studies… `The problem is, the film is bad, really bad… It might be fondly remembered if you haven’t watched it in 30 years, but Animal House is awful; wildly misogynistic, homophobic, and racist.’”
This arrogant quote from a man in a position of power to condition and guide a generation of students to a greater understanding of the power and possibilities of film art (or any other kind), and the way he shuts down all discussion with loaded catch words without bothering (and this may be thanks to Stone and his editors as well) to articulate his claims, gives me chills. And Stone, the dutiful reporter, marches right along under the professor’s guiding principle, accepting claims about the movie, its subject and context, without much investigation. According to Caitlin Roberts, the UO’s director of fraternity and sorority life, “The film does not represent what fraternities were founded on or what our organizations are truly about.” This is an argument that sounds suspiciously akin to the one proffered by Greek system representatives at Oregon in 1977, when the movie was being proposed to school administrators and they were actively protesting the university’s involvement, an argument from which they quickly backed away once the movie became a local phenomenon during the fall of 1977 and then a national one a year later. If Animal House doesn’t represent the lofty ideals or intentions of the Greek system, that’s sort of the point— it’s much closer to another puncturing of the official tidal wave of self-aggrandizing bullshit with which institutions like universities and their social substrata frequently cloak themselves.
And, of course, the reaction of a student audience Stone observed watching Animal House was predictably tepid:

“They thought the plot was overstuffed and unstructured, and too much of the dialogue hinged on insults. They were critical of the gratuitous nudity. More than one viewer described the film as ‘old-fashioned’—an ominous sign with regards to any media artifact’s prospect for longevity. More ominous still, ‘overrated.’ And finally, the judgment that is most gravely portentous for anything intended to be timeless comedy: ‘Not all that funny.’”

Overstuffed? Unstructured?. Too many insults? Well, it’s true that Moliere and Oscar Wilde weren’t available when the script was being written. And God forbid anything be perceived as “old-fashioned,” which, as we all know, is the soul killer of the artistic endeavor, to say nothing of it being a huge obstacle to overcome in terms of a work’s longevity. Because the truly enduring works are those which haven’t had the misfortune of being tainted by time and its peculiar habit of sealing the attitudes, rhythms, presumptions and occasional artistic revelations of the people who made them in celluloid amber. And if I may clear my throat here, isn’t it rather boneheaded to presume that anyone, from Leo McCarey and the Marx Brothers, to Preston Sturges, to Billy Wilder, to Mel Brooks or Harold Ramis or the Farrelly Brothers or anyone else, is necessarily shooting for “timeless” comedy? No, they’re shooting for laughs, plenty of which were in evidence when I saw Animal House with 1,000 other people at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood this past spring, people who also happened to be ignorant of the sealed-off proclamations of the esteemed and surely wise professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Oregon.
Of course, as the professor says, if it’s not all that funny, then into the trash bin of history it goes. Fuck it.
If I could, I’d like to hand the last word in this long rebuttal to what I consider essentially an anti-art argument over to a couple voices of reason and sanity who I’ve communicated with more than once on this issue, both of whom seem to have crystallized the rebuttal in a way that is far beyond the capabilities of my logorrheic self. First, in reaction to Cheadle’s nonsense, my friend Christopher Atwell, a very wise, considered fellow who also knows his way around the subject and application of good humor, wrote this on Facebook:


“These SJ W modern lens articles… always arrive at the unspectacular conclusion that old movies fail to reflect our current woke attitudes. No shit. The writer’s prescription-- to “throw it in the trash”--  is more small minded, stupid, and worthless than the worst offending old movie. The only thing these writers seem to offer today is, “Can you believe how sexist/racist/homophobic people used to be?” That’s not news. Contextualize the work, glean its meaning, have the imagination to maybe try to understand what it reveals about the world that produced it. And if the damn thing is funny, don’t feel you need to clear it with the culture police in order to laugh.”
He continues:

“Just to belabor the point further, by contemporary woke standards, the universe of cartoon shorts is `problematic’ AF. Not just the overtly racist ones the studios have locked away, but a great many of the popular ones. And for a million reasons! All that getting shot in the face. All the ethnic humor. The disability jokes. The gay jokes. Everything. But they are glorious art. Hilarious as the day they were made. And revisiting them with my children proved to be one of the joys of parenting. Am I worried about polluting my kids with negative attitudes and old prejudices? No, because their mother and I are not raising morons. I’m arrogant enough to believe that (our) values are of greater importance to their development than Daffy Duck’s. 
I realize now I grew up in a totally irresponsible era. Films were all the better for it.

And from the great wit of cultural critic and all-around good guy Phillip Dyess-Nugent comes this:

“I have just encountered the argument that Grand Illusion cannot be a great movie because its sympathetic view of its aristocratic characters compromises its wokeness. I am now going to go to Montana and live off the grid. If anyone approaches my door, I will shoot them and feed their bodies to the pigs that I will be working to cross-breed with chickens. When I die at the age of 112, surrounded by the cats I will have taught to communicate in Morse code and to play the stock market, I will have no idea what is going on in your so-called ‘civilized world,’ but I will be the only person who has ever tasted or will ever taste my delicious deep-fried porkchicken chops.”
Thank you, gentlemen. For myself, I have only two words further in defense of National Lampoon’s Animal House or any other movie that ends up in the crosshairs of this particularly disturbing moment in the decline of our culture, words from the movie itself which are emblematic both of its valuable anarchic spirit and the sentiment I hold for pieces like the ones which have caused my blood pressure to spike on this day, the 40th anniversary of a comedy classic. The two words?


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