Saturday, July 21, 2018

ON BEING FUNNY IN AN ALTERNATE HOLLYWOOD: BIFFLE & SHOOSTER WRITER-DIRECTOR MICHAEL SCHLESINGER



“Who are you?”

“B-I-double F-iffle. Biffle! S-H-double O-ooster. Shooster! We’re Biffle and Shooster! Need we say more?”

In 1928, the vaudeville comedy duo of Benny Biffle and Sam Shooster made the transition from the stage to the nascent medium of talking pictures with a pair of Vitaphone one-reelers. That move was a modest but immediate success, breaking ground on what would be a string of 20 comedy shorts made by the team for independent producer Sam Weinberg, which would both build on their reputations as worthy occupants of a comedy firmament anchored by stars like Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello, but also cement Weinberg’s standing as a producer who liked to lean a little too heavily upon the blueprint of others. (After a preview of their ninth short, Imitation of Wife, Laurel & Hardy producer Hal Roach approached Weinberg and gently suggested that he “try and be a little more original next time.”) In 1938, Biffle and Shooster parted ways with Weinberg, but they continued to work sporadically in films, including a cameo appearance in Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), which was cut from the film’s original theatrical release.

All of the above sounds the typical trajectory of a vaudeville-to-the-movies comedy team career but for one thing—it never happened. Biffle and Shooster, themselves and their comedy shorts, are actually lovingly crafted fictions, built on a foundation created by actors Nick Santa Maria (Biffle) and Will Ryan (Shooster) and expanded into a series of actual shorts by producer-director-writer Michael Schlesinger, which have recently been collectively released by Kino Lorber on DVD and Blu-ray as The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster. (“Two Madcap Morons on a Mission of Mayhem!”) The collection consists of five of those 20 shorts (the five Schlesinger has filmed so far)—The Biffle Murder Case, a terrific riff on whodunits of the Philo Vance variety; Imitation of Wife, the duo’s aforementioned “tribute” to Laurel & Hardy; Schmo Boat, a late-period (1937) revue shot in two-color “Cinecolor”; Bride of Finkelstein, B&S’s dip into Universal monster/Abbott & Costello territory, which was, according to Schlesinger lore, deemed “too Jewish” by theaters in the South which refused to show it; and the team’s last collaboration, It’s a Frame-up!, which shows the boys to be as entertaining at the last as they were at the first, however hobbled they may have been by the accretion of recycled plots and drastically lowered budgets. (In the real world, It’s a Frame-up! was the first Biffle and Shooster short Schlesinger filmed.)

Misadventures is also a treasure trove of arcana for Biffle and Shooster fans—they’ll get their first peek at B&S’s second Vitaphone short, 1928’s First Things Last, as well as that Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World outtake, improbably unearthed from the Kramer estate, and an outtake from Wife spoken entirely in (badly phoneticized) Spanish. Plus, there’s a B&S Will Rogers PSA, a 1962 interview with the boys, plenty of bloopers, deleted scenes and outtakes, and complete audio commentaries for each short from Schlesinger, Santa Maria and Ryan.

It’s really peachy to have all these shorts collected together— Schlesinger’s craft at making them seem indisputably authentic to the period is a knockabout joy to behold, as are Ryan and Santa Maria’s fully committed performances. The Biffle and Shooster comedies have been created with such fealty to period style, production values, and even, most delightfully, wear-and-tear, that audiences not in on the joke going forward might easily assume that what they are watching is the real vintage deal, though featuring jokesters they may not precisely… remember. (I promise you, I have seen it happen.) However, as with real-life progenitors like Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, the Ritz Brothers et al., audiences may find that prolonged exposure to one Biffle and Shooster short after another can becoming trying. (There are, of course, plenty of folks for whom this will not be a problem.) My suggestion is programming a Biffle and Shooster short as a warm-up before the classic film of your choice—The Biffle Murder Case would pair up with any number of terrific comic mysteries, starting with The Thin Man (1934) or even The Garden Murder Case (1936), and of course Bride of Finklestein will whet the appetite for any number of Universal monster classics. And then you’ll be ready to dig into the delicious package of extras that Kino Lorber, along with Schlesinger and his team of impeccable actors and craftsmen, have put together. 


Schlesinger himself is what I like to think of as a walking encyclopedia of Hollywood history (though far less musty than the average dormant World Book volume which may still be on your parents’ bookshelf), and that sensibility informs every lovingly recreated period detail of the Biffle and Shooster shorts. “I’ve pretty much run the gamut of the industry,” Schlesinger says, certainly a claim that’s far more authentic than anything he ever cooked up about Biffle and Shooster’s Hollywood history.
After starting out in Ohio booking movie theaters, then shifting into distribution, marketing and production after the inevitable move to Los Angeles, Schlesinger soon (well, probably not soon from his perspective) developed a reputation as a pillar in the field of classic film distribution and restoration over 25 years working with MGM/UA, Paramount and Sony (aka Columbia Pictures). Some of the movies returned to theaters or restored for home video under his watch were a slew of Budd Boetticher westerns and Buster Keaton shorts, as well as trifles like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Citizen Kane (1941), White Dog (1982), The Conformist (1970), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), The Boy Friend (1971) and seemingly countless others.

Working in Sony’s home entertainment division, he toiled to make numerous rare features, shorts and cartoons from the studio’s library available for the first time, and in 1993 he delivered the completed version of Orson Welles famously unfinished It’s All True to movie theaters. It’s a tribute to Schlesinger’s eclectic tastes and talents that he also wrote, produced and voice-directed the Americanized version of Godzilla 2000 (1999), which got such good reviews that even Toho Studios proclaimed Schlesinger’s monster a big improvement over their own released version. The emergence of Biffle and Shooster and the first produced short, It’s a Frame-up! (1992), was a natural development.
I was trying to make it as a screenwriter, but I don’t write rubbish, so that clearly was an impediment,” Schlesinger explains of his decision to bring Biffle and Shooster to life. “I finally had to make a picture on my own dime. Let’s see if it leads to anything…though it better be soon!”

Self-deprecating, informative, and entertaining to the last (pick up his audio commentary on last year’s Blu-ray of Billy Wilder’s One Two Three, if you don’t believe me), Michael Schlesinger is one of Hollywood’s genuine good guys. Recently I peppered this renaissance fella with some questions via e-mail vis-à-vis Biffle and Shooster, and, boy, did I get some answers.

Do you remember the moment, or the movie, that made you fall in love with the movies? Did you have parents who loved the movies?

Are you kidding? Eisenhower was president! I can’t even remember what I had for lunch yesterday. Anyway, it wasn’t a sudden “Aha!” moment, just a gradual growing love. I was an only child, so the TV set became my de facto sibling. My folks neither loved nor hated movies; they just went, because that’s what people did in those days. That said, I can definitely point to, of all pictures, The Satan Bug (1965) was the movie that cemented the idea in my head that this was what I wanted to do. Go figure.

Who, exactly, are Biffle and Shooster? Frequently when you hear people talk about these guys the names of Abbott and Costello are invoked, but I suspect the influences and roots run more extensively than that.

They’re a fairly conventional vaudeville comedy team: one rather dimmer than the other. They’re sort of an amalgam of all teams, with some of their own qualities, though they’re probably a bit closer to A&C than any of the others. I wanted not only for the shorts to be different from each other, but for them to be different as well, depending on the scenario. Thus, in Imitation of Wife, they’re like Laurel & Hardy, in Schmo Boat they’re Hope & Crosby, in It’s a Frame-Up! they’re the Stooges (or at least two of them), and so on. It was mainly to avoid repetition from setting in, as well as displaying the guys’ versatility.


Speaking of influences, one of the most delightful things about Biffle and Shooster is the seemingly endless vein of movie references and movie dialogue embedded in these shorts. What's your favorite in-joke reference from any of the shorts? The most obscure one?

Oh, man, there are so many. Two I particularly adore are the Max Davidson “Scream” painting in Frame-up, and Biffle invoking The Susquehanna Hat Company in Schmo Boat. I also love when Biffle slips into a Bing Crosby impression. Never gets a laugh, but it puts me on the floor. As for obscure, maybe the reference to “six delicious flavors” in The Biffle Murder Case; that was Jell-O’s slogan for many years. Nobody gets it, but audiences in 1935 would have, and in any event, it’s not presented as a punch line, so it doesn’t really matter if people miss it. Also in Murder Case, the photo on the table is of S.S. Van Dine, whose Philo Vance stories we were spoofing. In fact, that whole short is laced with whodunit Easter eggs. Bride of Finkelstein, which is my favorite of the bunch, also has a lot of specific horror movie hat-tips. For example, when Finklestein enters, it’s to an orchestral arrangement of Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor—the exact same passage used for Karloff’s similar entrance in The Black Cat (1934). And of course, what would a good horror spoof be without a gorilla? Incidentally, the script merely said, “They do the mirror routine.” Nick and Chris Walas (the Academy Award-winning make-up artist who played the gorilla) worked that out on their own.

My favorite of the shorts is The Biffle Murder Case. I love everything about it, even the intro card describing the movie's supposed history.

Those Blackhawk cards are important for setting up the short for audiences unfamiliar with this kind of comedy. Again, they weren’t necessarily intended to be seen all at once, especially in theatres.

And the great Jackson family in-joke, which I won't spoil. And the special guest appearance by Detective Murphy, played by Robert Forster (“I got three sons and I'd kill 'em all and have a beer afterwards!”).

That’s Lieutenant Murphy! Don’t make me say it again!

But my favorite is Roosevelt, the family butler who, of course, is black. His surprised take during the dramatic stingers, when all the suspects get to look extra suspicious, is priceless. The whole short is a masterpiece not only of duplication of the sort of drawing-room murder mysteries like the Philo Vance stories, but it also leaves room for a lot of sharp observations about race and class, both of the time being referenced-- the late '30s-- and current times.

Well, that was somewhat of a concession to the PC era. If we had a black servant going, “Yassuh, Boss!” and things like that, I’d be roasted on a spit. So, I wrote him as the kind of character Paul Robeson might have played. Alas, the actor I cast dropped out at the very last second, but that got us Todd as a replacement. He was terrific, but he was also several inches shorter, so Roosevelt went from being taller than everyone else to shorter than everyone else. I adjusted his character accordingly, and, since Todd shaves his head, added a line in which Nance addresses him as Stymie. That’s another film buff joke I love that hardly anybody laughs at. As for class, that reminds me of another obscure bit of business. Andrew suspects Roosevelt of sneaking drinks of his scotch. Roosevelt replies that it’s gin, and Andrew replies, “Oh, that’s alright, then.” That’s not a non sequitur gag. Back then, scotch was considered a gentleman’s drink and gin was more the beverage of the lower class. So, Andrew really wouldn’t care if Roosevelt was drinking it; he probably only kept it for company.


I'm fascinated by the visual and aural authenticity you manage to achieve in these shorts-- the “earliest” Biffle & Shooster, First Things Last, is a real marvel in this regard. It's no wonder that several people know who've seen them weren't aware a first that these weren't actual shorts from the '20s and '30s, but instead lovingly recreated homages.

I have an authenticity fetish. Do it right or don’t do it. And it can be done—all you have to do is want to do it. I can’t tell you how it drives me up the wall when I see a period piece and they get everything wrong. I’m fortunate to have a great D.P., Doug Knapp, who knows how to light for B&W, and Scott Cobb, a fabulous production designer. But the real hero is my editor, Bill Bryn Russell, who’s a one-man post-production house. He’s done all of Larry Blamire’s films, so he knows this territory well. I love playing around with color, sound, aspect ratios, etc., and he enjoys this stuff, too. On the Vitaphone short, I told him I wanted a slug at some point when they weren’t moving around. He not only put one in, but he even added a fake bad-splice jump. It looks completely real. He also dug up some of the cartoonish sound effects we used. It’s simply amazing what can be accomplished with digital editing nowadays.

How long does it usually take to get a B&S short from initial concept and screenplay to the finished product? You've made several of these now. Is the process getting any faster?

I can’t answer the question satisfactorily because most of the scripts were written months before shooting, and the editing and post went on for a long time because Bill was squeezing me in between his regular big-time gigs. We shot Frame-up in December of 2012 and all the others consecutively in July of 2014. They were all filmed in 3-4 days each, which is about what most Columbia two-reelers took, so I doubt we could hustle much more than that.

Those intro cards before each feature describe the movies in such loving detail, craftily intertwining real Hollywood history with your made-up version. I’d love to see a Biffle & Shooster feature in which they interact with your alternate Hollywood.

I’m kicking an idea for a feature around, but it’ll have to be somebody else’s money. I do have one short outlined called Vitaphonies where they’re turned loose in a movie studio, so that could address some of those issues. I’m also considering doing one of their radio shows as a podcast, which would give them a chance to have big-name guest stars via impressions.

Are your actors, Nick Santa Maria, who plays Benny Biffle, and Will Ryan, who plays Sam Shooster, as well-versed in Hollywood arcana and lore as their writer-director?

Without question. Like me, they eat, sleep, breathe and live this stuff. It’s in our DNA. Don’t forget, they actually “created” the characters, though they were kind of nebulous before I jumped in and fleshed them out.

The screenwriting credit for The Biffle Murder Case goes to Lou Breslow, a real screenwriter who wrote, among many other terrific movies, Murder, He Says (1944) starring Fred MacMurray and the great Marjorie Main, a movie you introduced me to at the first TCM Classic Film Festival by describing it as a parody of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 30 years before that movie was even made. I'll always be grateful to you for making me aware of this movie, which has since become a personal favorite. But the Breslow touch in Murder Case is typical of your catch-all-of-old-Hollywood approach to these shorts. For those who may not know how IMDb works, who was Lou Breslow?

First of all, except for B&S and executive producer Sam Weinberg, all the names in the opening credits are real. Again, I want them to seem on the level. As for Breslow, I’m a huge fan. He started as a writer, and eventually directed as well. He did a lot of films I love, including No More Women (1934),  36 Hours to Kill (1936), You Can Never Tell (1951) and Gift of Gab (1934), and wrote for Laurel and Hardy, the Stooges and Bob Hope, among others. He had a terrific ear for dialogue, but also was a great constructionist. Most of the writers and directors in the fake credits match the content; for example, for the ones which blatantly rip-off other shorts, I use Clyde Bruckman as the writer. He was quite well-known for, shall we say, recycling.

What constitutes good comedy for the creator of Biffle and Shooster?

For starters, don’t insult my intelligence, don’t bore me, and above all don’t fall back on attitude or profanity as a crutch. You can be dirty, but at least do it as part of a joke. I dig Keaton and Lloyd, but I also love Michelle Wolf and Jim Jefferies. Once you’ve established your characters and a story arc, you can do whatever you want—as long as it’s funny. Still, the greatest TV series ever is The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the greatest movie ever is It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I can’t even hope to aspire to those heights.


*************************************


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

MIDTERMS: THE BEST OF 2018 (SO FAR)



Here it is, the second week of July already, and I feel as though I’ve barely seen anything in the realm of theatrical movies. Compared to the average movie critic anyway, who probably sees three or four (new) movies a week, to say nothing of the ones she/he sees at home. But my movie consumption rate is still probably more ravenous than the average bear, and so at the risk of exposing just how limited my perspective is, I present to you my best of 2018 at the midpoint, ten movies (six of which are already available for home viewing) I think you should catch up with. The first three are particularly good (which is why they get a little more space, I suppose), and at first glance they might seem like strange bedfellows. But each one suggests a different mode of looking at life—quiet, measured, open to unexpected responses—or at the very least, in a world subsumed by superheroes and other forms of sensational overload, a different way of looking at movies, to say nothing of a different kind of movie to look at.

The others on the list are merely terrific. Certainly, it was a pleasure to have seen enough really good movies by July that, in order to keep myself to the traditional ten I had to leave an accomplished thriller like Hereditary or a heartfelt comedy drama like Love, Simon off my list. (I fully expect raised hackles over excluding at least Hereditary in favor of the last two lustrous pearls on my list.) But the less said about the year’s most serious bummers, including Ava Du Vernay’s A Wrinkle In Time, Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline and (sorry, fanboys) the Russo brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War, the better. On to the good stuff.


Paul Schrader's First Reformed is, I think, truly a movie for our moment. It’s an exquisitely tormented consideration of faith (and the lack thereof), the difficult possibility of transcendence, and the seemingly even more difficult act of holding ostensibly opposed impulses of hope and despair in balance without completely losing one's shit. And it speaks to the faithful in terms of what even the faithless see directly in front of them. Ethan Hawke is exceptional as the tortured pastor counseling the husband of a parishioner despondent over the dire implications of climate change, and the transference of that burden of responsibility from counseled to counsellor addresses one of the pastor’s central spiritual crises, a profound insecurity over whether can God forgive us for what we’ve done. The movie is a brilliantly sustained act of tension between the spiritual and the corporeal (and the influence of each on the other), building toward an act of desperate release, of a man trying to make a mark on the world, on his own soul. Hawke’s pastor, exiled in his doubt and overseeing a historically significant house of worship made into a sparsely attended tourist trap under the stewardship of a corporate-style megachurch, truly is God's lonely man. Over all of Schrader's most personal work, including Taxi Driver, with which this movie shares some stylistic devices derived from transcendental filmmakers like Robert Bresson, as well as its suffocating sense of isolation, this film feels the most piercing, the one that hurts the most, the one that offers the possibility of mortification and the bearable weight of an earthly yoke in equal measure as penance for divine deliverance. It's the best movie I've seen so far in 2018.


It's possible that society, especially American society, might have continued to undervalue the contribution of Fred Rogers to civil discourse and the general well-being. But Morgan Neville’s fascinating, unexpectedly (even overwhelmingly) emotional documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  seems poised to become the best of all possible insurances against the man’s ever evaporating from our collective neighborhood. Prior experience with the PBS program which, from 1968 to 2001 provided an oasis for children from the crass relentlessness of most Saturday-morning kid-oriented fare, isn’t required to appreciate this rich overview of Fred Rogers’ achievements as the overseer of a singular corner of television influence. But one’s own memories of spending time in the Neighborhood is likely to make the tears come faster and with more force. And those unfamiliar with Rogers’ work as anything but a Saturday Night Live joke may find themselves surprised by the level to which this articulate advocate for the spirit of childhood (Rogers was an ordained minister whose specific religious views never overtly became part of the program’s content) used his genteel pulpit to help children of the ‘60s and ‘70s deal with some harsh realities, like racism, childhood disease and even political assassination.  Neville’s great achievement, apart from crafting a wonderful, surely enduring film, is to secure Rogers’ reputation as not only a children’s champion in guiding young ones through the process of discovering the world, but one for showing those kids who became adults a way of living in it once their own discoveries had been made.


Probably the most denigrating thing I can think of say about Debra Granik’s intense, affecting familial drama Leave No Trace is that it sports a somewhat generic title which evaporates almost immediately upon contact with the eyes and ears. Not so the movie itself, however. The story involves a PTSD-inflicted war veteran Will (Ben Foster) who has taken himself and his daughter Tom (newcomer Thomasin Harcourt Mackenzie) off the grid, making for them a quiet, if illegal, existence living off the land in a forested park within Portland, Oregon city limits. Once they’re reined in by social service agents and given a taste of being reintegrated back into society, the father bristles, but the daughter realizes that, though she wants nothing more than to be with her dad, a modest life among modest people is pretty appealing too. What’s genuinely marvelous about Granik’s approach, especially with Mackenzie, is the way director and actress make clear the dawning difference between parent and child without pressing home the metaphoric significance. Mackenzie’s Tom eases into a world of new experiences with a child’s natural curiosity—sea horses she reads about in books, flag dancers at a local church, 4-H kids raising rabbits, learning about the temperament and tendencies of hive bees—while her dad remains at a measured distance, his mind never far away from the clarion call of an isolated existence to which he longs to return. By the time Tom declares to Will that “the same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me,” the movie has fulfilled its unhurried journey toward sublimity, with myriad opportunities for its audience to appreciate the nuanced, rarified air of a soul discovering itself, asserting independence, breathing in the world.

The rest of the best, in descending order:

Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
Thoroughbreds (Cory Finley)
Annihilation (Alex Garland)
Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird)
The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)
Blockers (Kay Cannon)
Rampage (Brad Peyton)

Bring on Skyscraper!

*************************************

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION



Saturday, June 09, 2018

SIXTEEN YEARS OF MOVIE LOVE WITH MY HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE



My eldest daughter graduated from high school this week, an event that most parents who have been through it before will understand can be stressful and emotional traumatic, for the eager graduates, of course, but for us old codgers too. For her, the promise of a new road ahead, full of uncertainty, new experiences and challenges, is exciting and frightening in close-to-equal measure. For her mom and dad, even though she’s not going to a school very far away geographically, it’s a signpost of a newfound independence that is only going to gain strength until one day (though not immediately) there will be one less chirping, shrieking, laughing voice echoing through the modest halls of our house.

And for me, it means that my first daughter may not be around as much to keep her old man happy by going with him to the movies. I took her to her first movie, Shrek, when she was only one year old, and the bout of night terrors she experienced that very same sleepless night (her one and only tangle with them, thank God) signaled that she may not have been entirely ready for the wonders of the motion picture. About a year later we embarked on our moviegoing adventure together in earnest (some details about that experience follow below), and it’s been great fun—for both of us, I’d like to presume—navigating the Pixar years (which, if Coco is any indication, are far from over) and into more adventurous and mature terrain as the years passed by.

We saw a lot of classic films together at various venues in and about Los Angeles over the span of 16 years, giving her a much broader base of experience and understanding of what movies were and how they reached the incarnation her generation is most familiar with than most kids her age. And, naturally, I often wrote about the experiences. One of those pieces, "I Didn't Know a Cowboy Movie Could Be So Emotional,"
 touches on a little of our then-nascent journey with classic movies, this one centered around a great screening of John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven.

But the piece that follows here, written in 2008, a couple of months before the Magnificent Seven post, details a moviegoing experience on her preferred turf at the time. I realize that most readers of this column might not be particularly interested in an account of a 10-year-old kid’s movie musical, itself the apex of a schoolyard phenomenon that actually began two years earlier, in 2006, as an unexpectedly popular TV movie. But High School Musical 3: Senior Year is really only tangentially the subject of the account that follows. What I was really interested in writing about was the process of instilling, or trying to instill, movie love in my kids as a natural part of their growing, learning, and maturing process, which is potentially a subject of broader interest that the on-screen antics of the squeaky-clean students of East High and whether or not Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens could keep their love strong. (The lesson on the difference between screen romance and real-life romance would come later.) I think I got at quite of bit of that, at least from one father’s shepherding experience, in the piece I’ve refurbished for you today in tribute to my own daughter’s marking one of life’s first big mile markers. I can only hope that you will agree.

Oh, and Happy Graduation Day, Emma!

****************************


As a relatively responsible movie-going parent, I’ve always been curious as to how much of an influence our children’s response to the movies we take them to work to color our own. One of the first movies I ever took my first daughter to, when she was two years of age, was Monsters, Inc. Of course, she loved it. She even reached up midway through the movie to give me an unsolicited kiss, as if to say, “Thanks for taking me to this movie.” I came away convinced that Monsters, Inc. was a masterpiece of children’s entertainment, and that sublime ending, with Sulley peeking through the doorway at a sleeping Boo, did nothing to dispel that notion. (Neither did my daughter’s resemblance to Boo at the time do anything to dampen my happiness over our experience.) Thus began a history of taking my daughter(s) to the movies, one in which we’ve endured plenty of duds (any chance I could trade in our two screenings of Open Season or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for one more shot at Wall-E on the big screen?), but one which I’ve also had some genuinely lovely experiences. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed movies together (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D) that are unlikely to end up on anyone list of children’s classics. And I’ve been blessed to be able to turn them into fans of the drive-in movie, thanks to that quintessentially American format’s unlikely local renaissance courtesy of theaters like the Mission Tiki Drive-in, the Vineland Drive-in, the Rubidoux Drive-in, and the Van Buren Drive-in.

(There exists somewhere a videotape of me and my then three-month old daughter taken in 2000 at the now-defunct Foothill Drive-in in Azusa, CA, in which I guide her on a tour of the near-deserted lot just before movie time and express my regret that by the time she’s old enough to see them drive-ins will likely be completely extinct. Thank God for my inability to suitably conjure Nostradamus for my inaccurate prognostications.)


Finally, this summer we definitely rode that same wavelength in our mutual adoration of Speed Racer. After spending the movie’s opening day simmering in a downtown jury room awaiting the call that would ultimately never come, I spent a goodly portion of my downtime reading the Los Angeles Times and various other sources (accessed on the courtroom’s $5.00-a-hour Internet access computers) as they proclaimed Speed Racer to be an incoherent dud the scale of which could ultimately bring down its studio, Warner Brothers, after an epic botch of the movie’s marketing. (These were, after all, the bleak days before a certain Dark Knight came and cheered up everybody on the WB Burbank lot.) To celebrate my release from jury duty sans commitment to an actual trial (the system works, folks), I called my daughters and told them to make plans—we were gonna head out to see Speed Racer, my thinking being that if nothing else it would be a boatload of fun witnessing just how far off the rails a major studio movie can go in this age of buttoned-down, micro-precise marketing strategies. At dinner before the movie, we encountered a waiter who overheard us talking about seeing a movie afterward, and when he found out what we were seeing this rather tall, imposing gentleman immediately revealed himself to be a hyperactive member of the uber-geek community. He’d seen Speed Racer earlier in the day (remember, this is opening day) and was hard-pressed to contain his enthusiasm. He implored us to come back and let him know how we liked it, and I thought to myself, “You’re a nice guy, Bub, but you’re not gonna want to hear what I’m probably gonna think about this movie.”

I couldn’t have been less surprised when my daughters began immediately squealing with delight over the candy-colored antics of the Wachowski Brothers’ movie splashing with abandon upon the wide screen. But I kept waiting for that moment when, rather than giving in to the abandon, I had to shut down in the name of self-protection and begin actively rejecting the nonsense. That moment never came. And about three-quarters of the way into the movie, sometime either during or just after the movie’s spectacularly disorienting Fuji race, its track deliberately evocative of the loop-de-loop Hot Wheels tracks of my youth, I turned to my oldest daughter with a huge grin on my face and admitted, “I love this movie!” I spent the remainder of its short summer theatrical run returning to Speed Racer, five times in all, and twice in IMAX, with my daughters and my friend Don, the only other grown-up I know who seems to understand. (The night of the movie’s release on DVD I got a message from him that stated simply, “Have you watched it yet?”)


But then, my kids also loved Open Season. And Indiana Jones and that cheesy crystal skull. And Steve Martin’s remake of The Pink Panther. And Madagascar. And countless other crass movies pitched primarily to their demographic which I, either proudly or sadly, cannot abide. This is the group into which I have traditionally lumped the High School Musical phenomenon. Despite featuring an abundance of tunes that seem to have sprung directly out of a hit-making machine, so insidiously, preternaturally catchy are their hooky melodies, HSM just seemed too Disney-prefab for anyone old enough to be able to draw the line between the adventures of Troy and Gabriella and those of Frankie and Annette. Of course, the entire raison d’etre of HSM is giving the elementary school set a freshly scrubbed look into a universe that they’ll soon be experiencing, with all its real-world complications, soon enough, thank you. And of course, that universe doesn’t resemble reality in any meaningful way beyond the carefully marketed multiculturalism of its casting, which is, I suspect, an issue of far more importance for those who don’t have kids or are looking for an easily accessible ax to grind with the movies. High School Musical is simply the wrong place to go trolling for evidence of social reality, and to knock the series for the absence of cholas in the hallways of East High School, or because the movies don’t deal with the hard-hitting issues like pregnancy or premarital sex that face today’s teens, is to miss the point entirely.

(Peter Travers’ appalling review of High School Musical 3: Senior Year, in the pages of Rolling Stone, seems to me a particularly egregious and desperate attempt to pander to the demographic and presumed tastes of his magazine’s readership, not to mention their prejudices. “If you're gay and/or eight years old, HSM3 is the movie event of the year,” Travers opines. “From the first leering close-up of Zac Efron shaking off sweat on the basketball court before bursting into sappy song, the movie — like the two TV movies that preceded it — is a nonthreatening sexual marshmallow.” Does that sound like an opening sentence written by a man who isn’t in some way threatened by this innocuous entertainment? Okay, we got ya, Peter--- you’re way too smart, and too butch, for this shit. Sadly, Travers’ review is not an isolated instance of his continued assault on the credibility of film critics, not to mention the music of the English language.)

High School Musical is, again, fantasy, the kind that many of us grew up on in various forms, whether it be Annette and Frankie, or the Tammy movies, or even The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. I don’t see a lot wrong with my daughters having someplace to hang their hopes in a pop culture framework for the life they eagerly anticipate as they get older and school gets tougher. It seems to me they have a right to a fully romanticized idea of high school they can revel in, one which will undoubtedly be snatched away from them far too quickly in any case. (And anyone who subscribes to the Entertainment Weekly-fueled enthusiasm over shows like Gossip Girl or the new 90210 and doesn’t admit that they are simply fantasies of another kind, built on puerile sensationalism and exploitation of trendy attitudes instead of googly-eyed innocence, is conveniently deluded.) I have yet to see the first two TV movies, so the duty of taking my daughters out to see HSM3 fell to my wife, who has indulged the girls’ enthusiasm to a far greater degree than I ever have. (I have been, up to this point, exclusively the one who needles my oldest about Zac’s hunkiness and how I far prefer the perpetually plaid-clad Ryan.)

Of course, my daughters loved the movie—I would have been foolish to expect anything else. (If somebody would have concocted a big-screen version of Jonny Quest when I was eight years old I probably would have similarly flipped out.) What was surprising, however, was the report brought back to me by my wife regarding the reaction of my eldest, the eight-year-old. Patty said that, about midway through the movie, during an emotional number in which Troy, Gabriella and Troy’s best friend Chad confront the reality of Gabriella moving to Stanford (“Just Walk Away”), my daughter, never one to hide her emotions, began weeping openly, uncontrollably. Patty attempted to comfort her, but it was clear that our daughter, to whom these characters were close to real people she has seen grow up over the course of three zippy, poppy movies, was taking their dilemma utterly seriously. And it was breaking her little heart. (It made me think of Pauline Kael’s comment about how, for many people whose primary experiences in the movies were the Star Wars trilogy, it’s understandable how, no matter how raggedy the last chapter, the fates of Luke, Han and Leia might be experienced on a deeper level than some might be willing to concede.)


My daughter’s emotional outbursts were not confined to the scenes involving the separation of her friends, however—the tears continued to flow through the end credits, along with the presumably real tears of the actors on screen who, in taking their final bows, couldn’t help but acknowledge their own emotional responses to the ending of a series that has framed their entire teenaged lives. It was this summing-up that my daughter was finally reacting to—she got to experience, through the power of this prefab little musical phenomenon, feelings about a series of movies that has been hugely important to her. Though they scared her a bit and she didn’t initially know what to do with them, those feelings somehow found an outlet and she felt safe enough to express them.

The following Saturday it rained in and around Los Angeles. Stuck for something to do while my wife spent the afternoon working, curiosity got the best of me and I suggested we three go see High School Musical 3 together. Both my daughters were shocked that I even wanted to see it, and they extracted a promise from me that I would not openly mock the movie throughout. I agreed, and off we went to a Glendale auditorium packed exclusively with moms and daughters, and me. (I feel confident in asserting that I was the only male of any age in attendance that day. Take that, Peter Travers.) Turns out that, for this non-veteran of the HSM experience, the third chapter is a pleasant-enough diversion. My tolerance for chirpiness was tested from time to time, and there was a patch when I was fighting off slumber—a frequent occurrence whenever I hit the matinee circuit—but both my daughters helped me through that rough patch (“Dad, you’re snoring! Knock it off!” cried my youngest, and I don’t think I dozed a wink after that.)

As I suspected, HSM3 is very much a product of Andy Hardy-Annette and Frankie lineage, and it has the same kind of enthusiasm mixed with blithe ignorance of how silly it all must seem to those outside its hermetically sealed universe that is either wearying or cheering, depending on your perspective. As a director, Kenny Ortega proves himself to be a fine choreographer. (Hairspray's Adam Shankman was far more limber and adept at mixing the two vocations.) It’s a good thing that the movie is as packed as it is with catchy, well-staged tunes, because all that people-interacting-with-each-other-sans-backing-track stuff seems beyond Ortega’s reach—- most of the interstitial scenes between production numbers are as flatly lit and imagined as a Swedish pancake, with Ortega seemingly content to turn the camera on in sit-com style proximity to his actors and hope that their toothy grins will carry the day. Fortunately, they usually do, at least long enough to get to the next musical outburst. And at least they neatly capture the kinds of dilemmas young people find earth-shattering—divided allegiance to life pursuits and the difficulty of leaving friends behind are this glossy picture’s meat and potatoes. Thankfully free of the pretension and exploitation that pervades most modern depictions of high school life readily available on cable TV, HSM3 is a movie any adult could see through with little effort. But it’s one that this adult can also fairly effortlessly enjoy, with no ties to the previous installments, and I credit that to the movie’s commitment to its retrograde charms in honoring the emotional pact it has forged with its young audience.

Speaking of which, the moment came when Gabriella must leave for Stanford, and sure enough, my lovely, open-hearted little girl let fly the sobs as she tucked herself in my arms for the duration. And I know I was simply reacting to her reaction, but I didn’t resent the fact that I ended up crying too. Any movie that can touch my daughter without resorting to cheap tactics, but instead by allowing her to get to know a group of kids, the corollaries of whom she’ll likely never meet in real life, kids with little else on their mind but their personal loyalties and that intense need to sing and dance, is okay by me. It doesn’t matter that I don’t necessarily think it’s a great movie. This time it’s enough that she does.

*****************************************

Friday, June 01, 2018

BRIGHT LIGHTS, SILVER SCREENS, DIMBULBS: THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES



Way back in September I went out on a Saturday night to an AMC theater to see mother! and came home with a headache, induced partially by the movie and partially by my attempts to convince the manager that the image was too dim and that there was something wrong with the way it was being projected.

(You can read all about my "Saturday Night with mother! here.)

Cut to last night. Here comes this article ostensibly about audiences reacting negatively to the purposely low-light imagery in Solo: A Star Wars Story, which is being rendered almost unwatchable in parts thanks to inept projection, specifically the failure to convert projection configurations from their 3D positions to then show a 2D movie (the root cause of the problem that ruined my mother! screening).

So imagine my surprise when I came across this quote from the linked piece here from Some Dude (AKA "a spokesperson for AMC") who claims that in recent years the creation of a Digital Cinema Manager role has resulted in a noticeable drop in AMC customers complaining about a dim picture:

“Digital Cinema Managers are stationed at our larger, marquee theatres around the country and their specific responsibility is to monitor, oversee, and execute all aspects of the presentation on screen,” wrote the AMC spokesperson. “Essentially, they make sure the image on screen is just as the filmmaker intended. Additionally, when issues arise beyond the capabilities of the Digital Cinema Managers, or at locations that do not have a DCM, we have regional technical support within AMC, as well as great partnerships with our projection partners to assist when necessary.”

When I stopped laughing, I continued to read and got to this comment from Chaplin Cutler, cofounder of Boston Light & Sound, one of the industry’s leading consultants on proper projection and theater construction:

"According to Cutler, multiple factors result in the pervasive issue of dark projection. A dirty window in front of the projection can result in a 20 percent reduction of light. At the premium theater where he saw SOLO, he walked to the back row and saw a double light source, which he said signaled that optics for 3D screening were still on the projector for a 2D screening of SOLO. Cutler added that if 3D optics aren’t perfectly calibrated, they will result in the loss of a tremendous amount of light and an out-of-focus 2D image. 'Leaving the 3D optics on happens more often than theaters would like us to think,' said Cutler. 'Most theaters load their projectors on Thursday night and the timed projectors take care of themselves. If a theater runs 2-D screenings in the afternoon and 3-D screening at night, rarely is there someone there to make the adjustments.'”

Sounded pretty familiar to me. But here's the best part:

"When asked about 2D movies playing through a 3D-enabled projector, AMC said it had mandatory procedures in place at every theatre that prohibits 2D movies playing through a 3D lens."

As Bugs Bunny used to say, it is to laugh.

I'm gonna carry a copy of this quote around in my wallet, and the next time I run into this problem at an AMC I'm going to calmly unfold it, insist that the manager read it, and then politely ask him to eat it before I head on out the door.

**************************************