Saturday, November 28, 2020



As reunions of great collaborators go, it must be one of the least hyperbolic in pop culture history. In 2013, the five surviving members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus—John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin—gathered together in a little flat in London’s Sloane Square, near Knightsbride and Chelsea, for a one-hour sit-down discussion for British television, and they got an unassuming, hour-long documentary out of the process. (Well, four of them were gathered together, anyway. Idle, foreshadowing the current worldwide necessity for the Zoom conference call, appears via satellite feed on a big TV monitor in the center of the room— a Los Angeles resident at the time, he claims to be suffering from having to being awake for the conference at 3:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, while showing none of the ill effects of sleep deprivation.) The Meaning of Monty Python, now available streaming on Netflix, is the Monty Python reunion true fans will have hoped for, recognizing that the time is past for on-stage recreations of the comedic trailblazers’ favorite and/or most famous bits and instead opening up an avenue for the five men to spend ostensibly relaxed time together, reminiscing, analyzing, philosophizing, for the most part avoiding argument, and even, if only tacitly, acknowledging the onset of twilight.

Nobody looks especially comfortable, I suppose, but neither do they look especially uncomfortable—the flat appears intimate and cozy, not unlike some of the only-slightly-skewed domestic environs that could occasionally been seen on some of the Pythons’ more domestically oriented TV sketches. Jones and Palin occupy the left side of the frame, Idle’s monitor, absent the crowning presence of a penguin, both in the center and occupying the camera position for the wide master shot (the better to be seen and interacted with by the other members), and Cleese and Gilliam on the right. There are cuts to unvarying medium shots of the individual men in their chairs as they speak, and to a close-up of Idle shoved tight against the camera on his monitor, alternating with the occasional pull-back to that wide shot. And that’s it for a visual scheme to The Meaning of Monty Python, all the better to focus intently on what’s being said.

After a thoroughly enjoyable and often hilarious warm-up in which the five joke around and settle into the congeniality of the situation—it’s fun to see them all sitting around, referencing their own material as if they were Python fans like the rest of us (“Lemon curry?!” “Luxury!”), a chapter heading designed to recall the dividing sections of their 1983 film announces the shift of the conversation-- “Part I: The Meaning of The Meaning of Life”-- and off we go into a discussion of the Python’s final, Cannes prize-winning feature. Cleese, Idle and Palin are the prime movers of the hour, and they kick things off here with discussion of how the six original members hurriedly (perhaps too hurriedly?) approached the production of the film in the shadow of Life of Brian’s tumultuous reception, as a sketch grab-bag, essentially, and had a lot of difficulty trying to land on a unifying principle and theme. Idle and Palin both confirm that there was about 300% more material written for the film than actually appeared in it, and Idle even mentions one script, entitled Monty Python’s Fish Film (a work Cleese doesn’t even recall), which, while sharing much of that bounty of would-be Meaning of Life material, apparently had even more stuff in it that was ultimately set aside. (The Blu-ray and DVD for The Meaning of Life features new and quite hilarious sketch material used as bonus features, and I wonder if some of that might be among the original rejects.)

But Cleese almost immediately addresses his dissatisfaction with The Meaning of Life, assessing that while, because of its haphazard history at the writing stage, there are some very good things in it, much of it he considers quite bad, unsuccessful in terms of comedic structure or basic laughs. As you might expect, given their anecdotally documented personal history, Gilliam, with Jones one of the film’s two credited directors, bristles at Cleese’s criticism and brings up director Henry Jaglom’s observation (Gilliam: “Remember Henry Jaglom?” Cleese: “Mmm, vaguely.”) that its sketch-oriented nature allows the  stronger material to by default amplify the level of the stuff that might not work so well. It’s to Cleese’s diplomatic credit that he offers his belief that the liver donor section of the film—“The Meaning of Life Part V: Live Organ Transplants”-- to be some of the best work in the film, perhaps of their careers. (In the sketch, he and Graham Chapman, who died in 1989, arrive at the house of an orthodox Jew, played by Gilliam, and, after objections from the expected donor-- “But I’m still using it!”-- forcibly extract, with much grunting and screaming and arterial spray, the vital organ from its soon-to-be-deceased owner.) Eventually pressed by Jones to be more specific as to what he considers “bad” in the film, Cleese eventually admits that he found the sketch in which the soldiers bring gifts to their sergeant on the battlefield before being picked off by enemy fire to be not up to snuff. Cleese also appears baffled by the “nonsense” of the giddily surreal “Find the Fish” segment, which Gilliam happily defends as one of the film’s more enduring and repeatable bits.

As the discussion returns to the difficulty of reining in the material with a thematic through line, Palin and Idle argue that while the quest of King Arthur and the burgeoning political awareness of a defiantly anti-religious figure in, respectively, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, provided a necessary narrative structure, perhaps the lack of an obvious narrative thread is something that weakens The Meaning of Life. Perhaps, as Idle speculates, if they’d been able to follow one character throughout the progression of his life, applying the various chapters to their scabrously satirical approach to the human condition, the movie might have been perceived as more successful. He also reminds his colleagues that in its very fragmented stylistic form, The Meaning of Life is essentially a musical—eight numbers in all, including the justly revered “Every Sperm is Sacred,” which, as Palin delights in recounting to the troupe, lost the BAFTA award for best song that year to “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman, to the great consternation of the assembled audience of the awards.

It is here that I found myself arguing with these great comedic minds. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life did win the Grand Jury Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, after all, a singular achievement and one that no other widely beloved comedy film has ever managed to pull off, before or since. It seems to me that rather than Meaning of Life, it is instead Life of Brian which is probably the spottiest of the Python films in terms of consistent laffs, even if its satirical targets, politics and religion (and the point at which the two meet on the graph of human folly), still stick the landing, and I think that might be because it’s the only one of their features that is built around an obvious narrative progression—how does Brian get from point A to point B to point C(ross)?-- even if, in sequences like Brian’s interstellar joyride, you can still feel the troupe pushing against traditional structure. Of course, there are plenty of moments of isolated brilliance in Life of Brian—Palin’s lisping Pilate (“Incontinentia Buttocks!”) and Jones’s vicious mother of Brian (“That’s Capricorn, is it?”) among my favorites—even if the whole seems unduly weighted with narrative obligations.

But I believe The Meaning of Life is a success in large part because of the absence of a tether to conventional questions of plot and structure, and no matter who’s mounting the argument it seems rather perverse to suggest that a troupe so grounded in fertilizing and harvesting ideas in surreal blackout comedy would be unduly hobbled by that very approach simply due to an extended running time. My own estimation of The Meaning of Life has only grown in 37 years since I first saw it—it’s a formally daring movie, and it cuts, for real, into just about every established institution or idea or inescapable condition that has poisoned history since the onset of human sentience. If anything, the quest for the meaning of life, however facetiously the Pythons may have approached it, does provide more than a blank wall onto which these geniuses might fling their shit in order to see what sticks, and that overriding theme is addressed in unexpected ways, making tangential connections to seemingly inorganically related subjects seem richly germane to that theme.

In other words, The Meaning of Life often stubbornly refuses to do all the work for an audience, and if that is perhaps has been an alienating concept for some viewers, it’s also a quality that the film shares with a lot of great art, one which keeps a viewer like myself returning to it long after having memorized most of the great bits in order to see how the synapses of the structure and the subject still fire, and how that electrical process, in me more than the film, might have changed over time. Cleese, who admits moving to A Fish Called Wanda after The Meaning of Life because the idea of having 40% control as opposed to one creative voice out of six appealed to him, might be accurately describing the haphazard manner in which the movie came together to give shape to his perception of it as a not entirely successful piece of work, but I don’t think that’s an apt way to describe the movie itself.

The Pythons do move on to other subjects, including the origins of comedy (much attention paid here to post-WWII creative forces such as Beyond the Fringe and The Goon Show); the politics of creativity (Gilliam: “Satirizing the modern world is a difficult proposition because it’s so diffuse… It was easier when the class system was core clearly delineated”); why fish are inherently the funniest creatures in the animal kingdom; the television bureaucracy that both hampered and encouraged their artistic freedom at the BBC; and, of course, death and the possibility of an afterlife, a possibility vigorously defended by, of all people, Cleese, who dismisses organized religion outright while reserving credulity for reports of out-of-body experiences in near-death moments. (And speaking of death, the reminiscences of the absent Chapman never rise to the brilliance of having an urn of his ashes parked next to the rest of the surviving members, as happened during one of their previous Python summit conferences, but are instead restricted largely to warmhearted remembrances of Chapman’s prickly brilliance and apparent inability to arrive at the set even close to on time.)

All the while, Cleese and Idle, and perhaps to a lesser extent Gilliam, are the main engines of the conversation that ensues over the brisk and too-short hour of The Meaning of Monty Python, while Palin delivers less frequent but no less hilarious and pointed contributions to the general discourse. But its hard to watch The Meaning of Monty Python without being constantly reminded of the fate that befell Terry Jones, who died in January of this year after living for several years with a degenerative aphasia and eventually succumbing to the mounting effects of frontotemporal dementia. At the time which this documentary was filmed in 2013, Jones was still two years away from an official diagnosis of aphasia, which impairs the ability to speak and communicate, and according to an article in the British publication The Guardian published in 2017, it became apparent midway through 2014, during a performance of Monty Python Live (mostly), a reunion performance held in London, that all was not well in terms of Jones’s health:

“’Terry was always very good at remembering lines,’ (recalls Palin in the Guardian article). ‘But this time he had real problems, and in the end he had to use a teleprompter. That was a first for him. I realised then that something more serious than memory lapses was affecting him.’

Jones… later passed standard tests designed to pinpoint people who have Alzheimer’s disease. His speech continued to deteriorate nevertheless. ‘He said less and less at dinner parties, when he used to love to lead conversations,’ said his daughter Sally.”

Jones is certainly the least vocal participant in The Meaning of Monty Python, seemingly content to sit in his presumably comfy chair and listen to his friends jabber on in their very entertaining way, offering only the occasional comparatively generic contribution to the conversation (“I remember being very frustrated by the exclusion of Life of Brian from year-end critical roundups”), the sort of comments which the other members regard with respect but which spark little in the way of reciprocal engagement. After a few minutes of observing this pattern of Jones’s participation, the sadness begins to settle on his very countenance, and the viewer is left to speculate if the awful disease, such a bitterly ironic ailment to have descended upon such an obviously gregarious and brilliant man, hadn’t already begun to manifest itself even earlier than when Palin noted for The Guardian.

Near the end of the documentary, however, something occurs that might, for any viewer watching in 2013, have seemed oddly humorous in a Python vein, or at the worst inexplicable, but which, judging by the reaction of the other members, might also have been a portent of things to come for Terry Jones. In the midst of one of Gilliam’s comments during the discussion of afterlife options, Jones rises from his chair. He’s the only one to do this during the entire hour, so it certainly counts as a violation of the project’s modest mise-en-scène, one which a director like Jones might well have been coyly aware. Jones begins a slow move toward the camera, which is placed facing the arrangement of chairs on which the rest of the Pythons remain—it is presumably in the same position as a second monitor on which the others can see the Idle feed, which we see placed center among them on the primary monitor. As he does so, and while we viewers are waiting for the reveal of a possible joke, there is a cut to a closeup of Idle’s monitor. He is the only one we see visibly reacting to Jones’s sudden displacement, and that reaction is an obvious mixture of befuddlement and concern. We then see, in the wide shot we’ve seen throughout, Jones approaches the camera, bends down, murmuring and making an unknown adjustment of some sort, before returning silently to his seat, where he resumes listening to Gilliam and Cleese’s conversation which has continued throughout the movement without missing a beat. At one point, Gilliam even looks over his shoulder away from Cleese to glance at Jones, whom he regards without comment while continuing the point he was making. The others, apart from Idle’s initial look of concern, react not at all. It’s The Meaning of Monty Python’s one unsettling moment, not only for the contrast it provides to Jones’s familiar sharpness and its reminder of the unfortunate fate of this most engaging comic artist, but also for its dovetailing into the troupe’s discussion of the inevitable procession toward death (“I’m against it!” chirps Idle), a subject tapped into here but more successfully brushed up against in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

For those whose comic sensibilities, whose very receptivity to comedy, was irreversibly shaped by the work of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a banner which went beyond these six to include the participation of folks like Carol Cleveland, Neil Innes, Connie Booth, producers John Goldstone and Ian MacNaughton, and many, many others, the at-least-partial answer to the query “What gives meaning to life?” (not that there necessarily is any meaning to life, as Gilliam cheerfully reminds us) must include the artistic achievements of these brilliant comic writers and actors. And for those who revere the work of Terry Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam when they were known by the shorthand moniker Monty Python, the hour-long summit meeting that comprises The Meaning of Monty Python is a lovely, challenging, hilarious reminder of the meaning they themselves have brought to lives and life ever since their emergence as the Beatles of comedy in the early ‘70s. In the absence of Jones and Chapman, and in the presence of such a marvelous and influential body of work which continues to resonate and delight, which can likely never be topped, which will illustrate the value of fish slapping contests until the light finally winks out for all of us, well, that work is enough. And therein lies the meaning. Or as Gilliam wonders over the end credits, as the five are heard taking off their mics, “What is this (the documentary) for again?” Ever the optimist, Idle, the author of Life of Brian’s cheerfully nihilistic “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” quickly responds, “For posterity!”


And speaking of posterity, if you have any interest in music whatsoever, regardless of how you feel about the man or his own compositions, I would think that Alex Winter’s epic documentary Zappa would be a must-see. (The film is now streaming on various outlets, including Amazon, Vudu and through various virtual arthouse cinemas, like the Salem Cinema in Oregon's capital city,
 where you can view it at home and supporting struggling independently-owned theaters across the country.) I may have more to say about the film once I’ve let it sink in a bit, but right now I can say that for this giant FZ fan Zappa was, in total, a bit overwhelming, especially emotionally, yet at the same time it wouldn’t have hurt my feelings one bit if it had gone on another three hours. Maybe that fantasy longer version would have had more time to focus on the bands from the ‘70s through Zappa’s last tour in 1988 (The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life) that I loved the most. But as it is, getting a deep dive into Mothers of Invention/Mother’s history, and the avant-garde/classical composition that dominated his interest while he was writing “strictly commercial” stuff, and then the last few years of his life, is thrilling, and the movie has an audio-visual dexterity that is sometimes the talking heads/doc equivalent of Bruce Bickford’s perversely funny animations, or of something like Zappa’s own most playful, pitch-black creations— dense, free-associative, welcomingly weird.

The movie also caused me to remember that Zappa, in the midst of and in the aftermath of the whole PMRC controversy, claimed that he was floating feasibility studies to run against George H.W. Bush for the presidency of the United States. That run never materialized, but I remember saying to more than one person at the time that I would have seriously considered voting for him, and as I sit here considering all the things Zappa stirred up in me and made me think about, one of those things would be that I might still be inclined to cast him my vote again, were he around to make a run. And if he was, what might he have made of the national nightmare which began in 2016 and is now about to close to almost universal scorn and a collective sigh of relief? (Now, there’s the seed for some fascinating speculative fiction, huh?)

I had just returned from my honeymoon in 1993 when I heard that Frank Zappa had died. It was no surprise—his battle with prostate cancer had been raging for a couple of years-- yet it was devastating news. After Zappa had finished, I tried to remember, through fresh tears, if I’d ever cried at the news of a death of a celebrity, either before or since, and I couldn’t think of an instance. Yet even though I knew he was sick and that the outcome was inevitable, I still sobbed when I found out that Frank Zappa was gone. One of the most complimentary things I can think of to say about Alex Winter’s film, beyond its visual dexterity, humor and curiosity, is that, while never sidestepping the man’s aloofness, his contradictions, and all the qualities that one might find to justify the description “difficult,” ZAPPA is a film filled with reasons, musical and otherwise, that might cause one to weep at his sudden absence from the world.


Sunday, November 22, 2020



I’m 60 years old, and though I still have an alarming collection of blind spots in my experience, I have seen a lot of movies in those almost-22,000 spent days. But last weekend I was able to erase one of those blind spots and replace it with a vision of clarity that was, to me, quite unexpected.

Around 8:45 p.m. I started looking at the new Criterion Blu-ray of the uncut, original four-part, four-hour presentation of Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979), based on Carlo Levi’s memoir of his political exile in a remote village in pre-WWII Southern Italy, a time defined and scarred by Mussolini and that fascist regime’s attempt to impose a new colonial presence in Abyssinia, now known as Ethiopia. It had been a long day the day before, and by the evening I was plenty tired— I figured I’d just dip into the disc and take a gander at how it looked, with no expectation of actually watching it, and if I did certainly not getting any further than an hour or so before drifting into unconsciousness.

But the alchemy of the movies is a mysterious thing. From the opening images of Gian Maria Volontè as Levi, bearded, solemn, in repose and surrounded by a multitude of paintings of his own creation, to the title card “1935” imposed over a shot of a train which bears Levi to the town of Galiano, in the province of Lucania on Italy’s southern bootheel, to the slow revealing of a culture in the impoverished Galiano, people, traditions, customs and superstitions left behind in the wake of the rest of the country’s economic development and relentless political oppression, the movie’s patient gaze, its nonjudgmental approach to its characters and their environment is established immediately, and I was transfixed, hooked.

As Levi is introduced to the various people who will expand and enrich his own dissent from the fascist establishment that has made him (and a few others in the town with whom he is not allowed to speak) a political prisoner, I found myself succumbing to its rhythms and knew after 10 or 15 minutes that I was in for the long haul. But it was hardly a chore. It is a rare thing, but when I began truly absorbing Christ Stopped at Eboli I felt myself succumbing to what Rosi wanted to show me, and the way he wanted to show it, in a particular fashion that I can’t recall experiencing often in other films. There was a distinct sensation of my mind and body sinking into the imagery which, on this spectacular new Blu-ray, has a clarity and richness that promises the sort of seduction few movies are capable of fulfilling.


I spent four hours seeing the world of these Italian peasants, who for Mussolini and his enforcers existed simply as subjects and fodder for war, through Levi’s (and Rosi’s) eyes, feeling my way toward an understanding that would, like it would for Levi, I suspect, remain just out of reach while also changing his life forever. And there are sequences in the film that are capable of inspiring tears that are themselves as mysterious as the imagery that inspires them. Levi’s travel by bus to the town occurs during a modest rainstorm, and the sublime reminder of those raindrops on every surface, often imposed over Levi’s face behind the windows of the bus, are subtle reminders of emotions untapped, unrecognized, that will eventually make their way out from the crevices of the world the film so sensitively observes. Later, Levi attempts to teach some of the children of the town how to paint, and I found myself, without any cynical provocations of sentiment projected by the director or the actors, in submission to torrents of emotion that I couldn’t readily explain to myself. Such is the totality of the experience of seeing Christ Stopped at Eboli, which has for me amounted to what feels like a life-changing experience, one that has contained within it the possibility of a genuine expansion of perspective, of yielding to a way of seeing the world that days later feels like it’s in there tinkering with my synapses, becoming an essential part of the blood flowing through my veins. The movie, a giant vision of humanity, feels like it has only begun to expand inside my head. 

I’m 60 years old, and I certainly didn’t expect, sitting by myself on a quiet Saturday night, to discover a relatively less-well-known film that deserves consideration as one of the greatest I’ve ever seen. But that’s what happened. Christ Stopped at Eboli is surely a landmark in this old man’s continuing experience of education about life and the movies, and I cannot wait to see it again.

During our current age of unparalleled worry and despair, which has only been slightly ameliorated by the ongoing exorcism of Donald Trump, a demon who has proven himself as persistent, problematic and pestilent as Pazuzu himself, and whose influence will linger beyond his inevitable expulsion from the White House, sometimes it feels like the thing we (or at least I) need most is a good laugh. And if you are like me, that laugh might feel and sound a little weird when comes along, especially if it comes unexpectedly, simply because the physical sensation of a good guffaw has become a relatively rare thing. So, when I feel like there’s one coming on, I’m a whole lot less picky about where it comes from, especially it comes from a movie. Case in point, Balls of Fury (2007), a post-Will Ferrell-esque sports comedy about a disgraced Ping-Pong champion played by Dan Fogler (an actor clearly having been groomed up to this point to become his generation’s Curtis “Booger” Armstrong), whose life falls into disarray after a humiliating defeat as a young athlete at the Olympics and who ends up on the path to redemption after being conscripted by the FBI to investigate the arms dealer who killed his father. Said arms dealer also happens to be a deranged Ping-Pong fanatic with a fetish for “Oriental” trappings whose annual island-based tournament Fogler will infiltrate in pursuit or justice and revenge.

If all this sounds familiar, it should, for Enter the Dragon is definitely the template point of entry here. The island compound, a feast of Asian design and ambience despite actually being located in the jungles of Central America (a joke the movie doesn’t do a lot with), has its funniest echo in the master of the house, a madman decked in elaborate cheongsam and equally ornate pompadour and pigtails, played by Christopher Walken. Before you can say James Hong or Jason Scott Lee or Cary Hiroyuki Tanaga or Maggie Q, all of whom appear here in largely successful efforts to get laughs and to dash any appearance of pandering to or exploitation of Asian stereotypes, it must be said that Walken’s character is not supposed to be Asian—he’s a transplanted Brooklyn mook who fetishizes the mantle of the sinister Asian kingpin because, well, he’s deranged, but also because Shih Kien did it so memorably as Han in the 1973 Bruce Lee classic, so of course this guy would want to as well. In a career filled with sublime weirdos, this Walken turn is among his sublimiest.

Balls of Fury doesn’t have aspirations to greatness. It is content to shamble along, generating silliness and giggles and, yes, even an occasional belly laugh, and then after about 75 minutes it gets tired and less interested in the jokes than just embracing the formulaic wrap-up one might expect in the forms it parodies an sending its audience on its way. But it’s a fundamentally good-natured picture with a lot of unexpected inserts and asides (my favorite—stock footage of Ron and Nancy Reagan apparently rapt with suspense over the outcome of Fogler’s Olympic debacle) and beautifully timed slapstick—the CGI- enhanced table tennis is a consistent hoot, but nothing is funnier than the outcome of Fogler’s smug attempt to defeat the paper walls of his faux-Chinese palace prison, only to discover some old-fashioned reinforcement on the other side. (That’s all you’re getting from me—see the movie.) And in addition to the cast mentioned above, it features humorous turns from Thomas Lennon (the film’s cowriter) as Fogler’s obscenely arrogant German Olympic rival, who of course finds his way to the tournament; Terry Crews as another overly enthusiastic, pec-tacular tourney competitor; Aisha Tyler as Mahogany, Walken’s sultry, dart-blowing second; and Diedrich Bader, in an amusing flip of one of Dragon’s central plot elements, as the leader of Walken’s harem of kept male concubines, wheeled out for the confused delectation of Walken’s largely male hetero guests. (Only Hong, who is blind, enjoys the gift without either judgment or, apparently, awareness.)

As I implied, the movie peters out around the three-quarter mark, but by then you will likely have laughed (or at least smiled) enough to not much care. Ultimately, it is very simply just good, undemanding company, a welcome distraction from matters far more serious. We have sometimes asked more from our comedies, and sometimes we have gotten it, but right now cheap jokes might just have value well beyond their sell-date or their release date, and the 13-year-old Balls of Fury, whose temperament suits its age perfectly, will paddle your balls with them.


The Anna May Wong vehicle Daughter of Shanghai (1937), directed by Robert Florey (Cocoanuts, The Beast with Five Fingers) is a snappy little thriller that has little filigrees of pre-Code insouciance and transgression—Wong is decked out for maximum sex appeal throughout, even though her character feels somewhat neutered, by and large, by the boundaries of the script and by what Hollywood, despite casting her in the lead and providing the stalwart and talented Philip Ahn as her ostensible romantic counterpart, was willing to let her do. But the movie, written by Gladys Unger (Madam Satan, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) and Garrett Weston, who had a hand in the scripts  for White Zombie and It’s a Gift, starts with a shocker—a plane smuggling illegal immigrants from China (copiloted by a very young Anthony Quinn) is spotted by federal agents, and before the plane has a chance to be grounded, the pilots literally dump their unfortunate cargo, via a floor that unexpectedly opens beneath them, from 10,000 feet into an ocean tomb below. That’s the sort of opening that, in a movie from any era, seals an audience’s attention, and for the first two-thirds of his brisk 62-minute running time, Florey stages the action with sharp detail and flourishes of German Expressionist style that keep the plot humming pleasurably along.

Wong is the daughter of a businessman who has made good in America, but who is under pressure from these same smugglers to channel a new shipment of ready-made slaves into the country. He refuses, and when he takes Wong along to a meeting with some FBI agents (Ahn included) at the mansion of a concerned socialite (Cecil Cunningham), along the way he’s brutally murdered. By sheer luck, Wong escapes the same fate and makes her way to the socialite’s home, where she explains the situation to the woman and the agents, before deciding that she must take action on her own to track down a sleazy associate of her father’s (Charles Bickford) who operates a nightclub which doubles as a hub for the exchange of money for illegal aliens. She’s also keen to seek out the identity of the criminal mastermind behind the whole operation, information that is revealed somewhat sooner than a viewer weaned on mysteries of this sort might reasonably expect.

It’s never a bad thing to see Wong in action, but if Daughter of Shanghai is a reasonably solid showcase for her talents, and itself a more than reasonably well mounted drama of its type, then it is also, perhaps too predictably, also a showcase for the limits of vision ‘30s-era Hollywood had for actors who belonged to different races than the white majority who made films at the time and who went to see them. After a set-up, and a poster, which leads a viewer to expect Wong will tear through the picture, undermining the underworld machinations behind her father’s death in relentless search of truth and justice (or is that simply an expectation imposed by the perspective of a viewer 80 years removed from the time of this film’s release?), it’s more than a little deflating to watch Wong subjugated to the sidelines in the film’s climax, cowering in fear from the shadows as the rest of the cast gets their punches in on the way to “THE END” while she is inexplicably reduced to the damsel in distress. Ahn, however definitely involved in the physical action, is in the end himself rescued by the deus-ex-machina appearance of the villain’s never-less-than-likable Irish chauffeur, whose well-timed crack shot saves his Chinese friends from a fate they apparently were incapable of escaping from themselves.

It may have to be enough that Wong and Ahn and the other Chinese cast members are treated with obvious respect, by the above-board characters in the film and the filmmakers, in Daughter of Shanghai, and that the movie itself is a nifty piece of action filmmaking which gets to its often surprisingly brutal business in the efficient, no-nonsense fashion of its day. The real history of the experience of Asian-American actors in film history is, of course, a sobering counter to the simple joys of a picture like this, but so too is Wong’s luminescent star power its own corrective to the narrowminded dictums of the studios, who couldn’t see actors like Wong and Ahn for who and what they were, even as they showcased them in unpretentious little jewels like Daughters of Shanghai.   



Saturday, October 31, 2020


1) Ricky Vaughan or Nuke LaLoosh? (question courtesy of our main Maine monster, Patrick Robbins)

Both movies, Major League and  Bull Durham, played a big role in my burgeoning interest in baseball when I saw them back in 1988, and I got a big kick out of the idea of a pitcher, Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn,  who had such poor eyesight he had to wear huge horn-rimmed specs to get the ball anywhere near the plate. (“Juuuuuuust a bit outside!”) But despite the fact that to my eyes Tim Robbins still doesn’t look like he’s even seen a pitcher do his thing when he’s on the plate, he’s in the middle of an essential ode to the game. Nuke gets my vote.

2) Best moment in the Friday the 13th film series.

I might previously have said the sleeping bag kill in Friday the 13th VII: The New Blood, but having just seen the movie again last weekend that moment was revealed to be as turgidly matter-of-fact and bereft of humor as the rest of the movie. And I’ve always loved the moment in Part 3, the 3D one, when Jason cleaves the guy doing the handstand in two. But the best? The decapitated killer in the original “classic” (1980) reaching up to check if his/her head is actually missing.

3) Henry Hull or Oliver Reed?

Peter Nellhaus said it best in his answer to this question: It's Reed, because he’s the closest we’ll ever get to Marlon Brando taking that logical next step into lycanthropy.

4) What is the last movie you saw in a theater?

We took our Emma to see Emma. just a day or two before the initial lockdown. I couldn’t have asked for a better sendoff.

5) Best movie casting for a real-life baseball player, or best casting of a real-life baseball player in a movie.

Well, it ain’t John Goodman as the Babe. There seems to be no other correct answer to this question: Jim Bouton as Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye.

6) D.B. Sweeney or Ray Liotta?

I like Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe, but man, he is stuck in one terrible movie. As an actor I’d pick him over Sweeney every time, but Sweeney does Shoeless Joe appropriately haunted in John Sayles’ pantheon baseball history Eight Men Out, so he gets my vote.

7) Given that the fear factor in 2020 is already alarmingly high, is there a film or a genre which you would hesitate to revisit right now?

I was sick to death of it before it moved a step closer from grim fantasy to grim reality, but I care even less now for the post-apocalyptic horror-sci-fi genre, especially entries that have been made in the last couple of years. I don’t even think I’d care to see a Mad Max movie right now.

8) The Natural (1984)-- yes or no?


9) Peter Cushing or Colin Clive?

Clive will, for me and most others, be the OG mad doctor, but Cushing really fleshed the role out, culminating with his great performance as an irredeemably sinister Baron Frankenstein in one of my favorite movies of all time, any genre, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.  

10) What’s the lamest water-cooler hit you can think of? Of course, define “lamest” however you will, but for “water-cooler hit” Dr. Savaard is thinking about something zeitgeist-y, something everyone was talking about the weekend it opened and beyond, something everyone seemingly had to see—The Other Side of Midnight residing at #1 in 1977 for two weeks is not what the professor has in mind.

I’ve avoided it since seeing it on the ABC Sunday Night Movie back in high school, but having recently seen it again all the way through, for me the answer has to be Love Story (1970). This thing only occasionally rises to the level of mediocrity, content instead to just wallow around in the muck and the mire of the worst kind of sentimentality for about 100 minutes. The dialogue is terrible—Segal writes profanity for these characters that would be stones in the mouths of anyone, but Ali MacGraw makes her swears sound like she’s a grown woman who has just discovered the delight of cursing and can’t figure out how to convincingly wedge “goddamn” into a sentence. And though it’s MacGraw who initially plants the seed in his poor, soft head, Ryan O’Neal is the one who has to repeat “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” to a befuddled Ray Milland at the end of the picture. That Milland managed to not crack up on screen repeatedly is a cornerstone in the case for him being a greater actor than anyone might previously have suspected. And speaking of Erich Segal, have you glanced at the book lately? Jesus Christ, you goddamn preppie. How did anyone ever fall for this junk?

11) Greatest single performance in horror movie history.

Going with the first one that loomed into my head when I first considered this question: Lon Chaney as Erik, better known as The Phantom of the Opera (1925).

12) Ingrid Pitt or the Collinson Twins?

As delightful as the Collinsons are in Twins of Evil (1971), I would never pit myself against Ingrid Pitt.

13) Name one lesser-known horror film that you think everyone should see. State your reason.

You can see it this month on the Criterion Channel as Death Line, but I know it as Raw Meat.

14) Do the same for an underseen or underappreciated baseball movie.

The nature of heroism is the real subject of Ron Shelton’s bruising, unforgiving biopic Cobb, in some significant ways the anti-Field of Dreams.

15) William Bendix or Leslie Nielsen?

Leslie Nielsen’s calls behind the plate will live unto eternity, but I’m going with Bendix for strength under adversity in Kill the Umpire.

16) Would you go back to a theater this weekend if one reopened near you?

No. Way too soon.

17) Your favorite horror movie TV show/host, either running currently or one from the past.

I saw Bob Wilkins and John Stanley on KTVU’s Creature Features  out of San Francisco occasionally, but they were always a bit too smarmy for me, and their interstitial bits usually went on well past their sell date. For me, growing up as a teen in remote Southern Oregon, I lived for 11:30 pm on Saturday nights when the transmission from KATU-TV Channel 2 in Portland brought Victor Ives and Sinister Cinema, with supporting players like Head and Ravenscroft, to horror-thirsty outliers like me. Always a double feature that ran close to 3:00 a.m., if you could stay awake that long, and always fun. It was on this program that I saw Night of the Living Dead  for the first time.

18) The Sentinel (1977)—yes or no?

I have a lot of fond memories of seeing it multiple times with Bruce back in our scholastic days—it was always paired with some other horror picture as a second fear-ture—but as much fun as the first two-thirds of it can be (Sylvia Miles is properly unleashed here), the last third, when director Michael Winner goes off the rails into pure carnival exploitation, is truly sickening. So a qualified “no” from me.

19) Second-favorite Ron Shelton movie.

Cobb would be number one, so it’s the Durham Bulls for me. "This son of a bitch is throwing a two-hit shutout. He's shaking me off. You believe that shit? Charlie, here comes the deuce. And when you speak of me, speak well.

20) Disclaimer warnings attached to  broadcasts of films like Gone with the Wind and Blazing Saddles-- yes or no?

No, thanks. I’m fully capable of placing films in their context without Ben Mankiewicz’s guidance.

21) In the World Series of baseball movies, who are your NL and AL champs?

For the NL, The Bad News Bears-- this time "GOAT" stands for "Greatest of All Time," Charlie Brown. For the AL, I'll take Bull Durham. Playoff contenders include Eight Men Out, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, Mr. 3000, Everybody Wants Some! and Ken Burns' massive documentary Baseball.

22) What was the last horror film you saw?

I showed Re-Animator to Emma just last night. Before that, Fred C. Sears’s The Werewolf (1956), which was a hell of a lot better than I ever thought it would be.

23) Geena Davis or Tatum O’Neal?

I saw Geena Davis several times in the late ‘80s, always on Jeff Goldblum’s arm at some movie in Westwood, and I can testify that she was a real-life stunner who inspired a decade-long crush. But on the mound, I’ll take the fire and accuracy of Tatum O’Neal every time.

24) AMC is now renting theaters for $100 - $350, promising a more “private,” catered party-movie experience. What do you like or dislike about this idea?

It’s an interesting notion, but again, I think its just way too soon, even for monitored and distanced get-togethers like this. Besides, the corporation has been, not too surprisingly, I guess, somewhat unimaginative in the films they’ve chosen to make available for their parties—Jurassic Park, anyone? I suppose I should be grateful that they avoided the temptation of Grease or  Back to the Future, but would it have been that difficult to expand the roster of older films just a bit?

25) Name the scariest performance in a baseball movie.

I think it’s gotta be Tommy Lee Jones’s fearless portrayal of Ty Cobb in Ron Shelton’s equally fearless movie. One day I think this movie, and this performance, will be better appreciated, but it’s been 26 years already and it’s still pretty low on most folks’ radar.

26) Second-favorite Jack Arnold movie.

Creature from the Black Lagoon. Top honors go to The Incredible Shrinking Man. That makes two unassailable classics in Arnold’s book, and that’s to say nothing of No Name on the Bullet, It Came from Outer Space, The Mouse That Roared, and one I’ve loved since the Sinister Cinema days, Tarantula.

27) What would be the top five films of 2020 you’ve seen so far?

Just speaking of the top of my head, in alphabetical order, American  Utopia, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy Blache, Da Five Bloods, Emma., First Cow, The Trial of the Chicago Seven and You Should Have Left. What, that’s seven, you say? Oh, well… I know Dr. Savaard personally, so I get a little leeway…

28) What are your top three pandemic-restricted movie viewing experiences so far in this... unusual year?

1) Fellini Roma  watch party with my dear friend Katie, who lives in Indianapolis.

2) Seeing Gremlins with the three ladies at the drive-in.

3) Watching the 1988 cheapo Necromancer with best friend Bruce-- Bruce can be seen for about .5 seconds in a party scene we were both on hand for, at the invite of the movie’s lead, Elizabeth Kaitan (Cayton).

4) Watching the 4K Blu-ray of Flash Gordon (1980).

5) Ushering out my 50s late at night on August 17 with Ken Russell’s Lisztomania. When the movie was over, I was 60 years old.

Okay, again, that was five, not three, but Dr. Savaard said I could, so…