More Human than Human or, Do Atheists Dream of Electric Sheep?

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 i. “I am the business.”

Rick Deckard: is he, or isn’t he, that is the question. Human or android? Blade Runner or replicant?

Inexorably, fans’ perspective on this matter will radically inform their interpretation of the film. To an interesting degree, it may also offer insight into their philosophy regarding morality, and even existence.

It should be acknowledged that while Blade Runner, naturally, owes a considerable debt to the novel it’s based on—Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—the two have significant differences and should be considered as separate entities, at least for the purposes of this discussion.

The central disparity between novel and film is that in Dick’s version, Deckard is unquestionably a human being. In the film, of course, the matter is decidedly more ambiguous; indeed, the concern of how one construes his “true” identity provides the film’s enigmatic tension, and its enduring resonance.

Complicating things further was the decision—at the studio’s insistence, after tepid audience reaction during initial screenings—to have Harrison Ford add hackneyed narration throughout the film, ostensibly to clarify important plot elements (read: to tell less discerning viewers what to think). This unfortunate concession effectively ensured that Deckard was, in fact, to be viewed as a human protagonist.

The movie didn’t do especially well upon its release in 1982 and, with hindsight, seemed almost predetermined to become not merely a cult classic, but an archetype of sorts even within that refined category. Its ostensible flaws as commercial fare remain a credit to its intelligence and ambiguity—two attributes that don’t typically portend box office success. More, what begins as a standard action/detective story gradually expands to become a thoughtful meditation on morality, a tour de force of existentialism.

The 1992 Director’s Cut (which, aside from the insertion of one brief but crucial scene, is actually the unfettered original version) makes a compelling, even incontrovertible case that Deckard’s a replicant after all. Harrison hated the narration and, in fact, hoped by delivering it in a fashion somnolent even for him, it would be discarded. He should have known never to underestimate the judgment and intelligence of studio bosses. Ridley, on the other hand, has remarked that while he too loathed the narration, he felt it was sufficiently obvious Deckard was a replicant. (His sardonic, if refreshing take on the matter: “If you don’t know you are a moron.”)

The pertinent issue, then, is not so much whether Deckard is human; it’s how this cognizance clouds—or clarifies—the sublime climax of the film, where Deckard’s prime target, the replicant Roy Batty, after overpowering (and outsmarting) him, saves his life—then allows him to live. And, while overt comparisons between Batty and Christ might seem banal on a superficial level, it’s his actions and not his character that accords Blade Runner an ethical gravity not found (or necessarily intended) in the novel.

ii. “Wake up! Time to die!”

Of the many questions this film poses, the ones that loom largest involve Deckard’s identity. If, for instance, Deckard’s not a human being, how does this complicate his actions and reactions (and, an implicit question for the audience: how does our knowledge of his true identity color our impression of his actions—and the reactions of others, human and otherwise)? Also, assuming Deckard is a replicant, does it not mitigate the import of Roy Batty’s ultimate decision to liberate him? (Answer: no.)

Batty discerns he’s about to die (or, expire), and harbors no illusions he’s human and that—for him, anyway—there’s an afterlife. He has been made to acknowledge, with certainty, nothing but nothingness awaits him; that existence is not merely arbitrary (a fundamental human dilemma) but, for him, fabricated. Nevertheless, he saves the life of a police officer paid to “retire” him. This act abundantly, if ironically fulfills Batty’s purpose of being “more human than human”. His decision, in this light, to act unselfishly despite recognizing there will be no reward, should be viewed as heroic, and not a little inspiring.

“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave,” Batty says, resignedly, to Deckard. As we’ve seen, these replicants have been created solely to serve the pleasure of the men (gods?) who created them. Earlier models, it’s explained, were indeed used for slave labor; these Nexus 6 prototypes, led by Batty, are endowed with advanced physical and mental abilities. As such, they come to realize—despite being implanted with human memories—that their lives are predetermined, and very brief.

One can understand why they rebel. The revelation that they’re fanciful and expensive experiments is capable of making even nihilism seem quaint, beyond the ken of even the most smugly despondent post-structuralist. Or else a case study of detached deconstruction, taken to extremes that might make even Derrida blush: always-already aware that your reality—and utility—was carefully planned long before you ever assumed consciousness.

This comprehension, with good reason, generates dismay amongst the Nexus 6 replicants, and should arouse empathy from the viewer. How interesting (peculiar, even) that these same parameters, adjusted for aesthetics, are precisely what oblige the faithful to find value and consequence in their lives. Or, put another way, one can imagine even the most reflexively staunch believer appalled by the notion that there is a God, but life nevertheless ceases at death. Cynics can—and do—point out that a totalitarian dynamic based in fear is the very nature of organized religion. If we are, by decree, slaves compliant to our creator here on earth, we’ll be redeemed forever, in Heaven. This is the tacit covenant that makes belief agreeable, if bearable.

It’s inevitable to surmise, with the contextual evidence on offer (via the Director’s Cut), anyone still insisting Deckard’s a human is not unlike one who asserts—often with the self-righteous assurance of the zealot—that without the concept of God (and eternity) there is no grace; no reason for benevolence. This, of course, is merely cowardice disguised as faith: the need to believe says much about the individual and little about the ethos.

As such, we can conclude that because Batty’s act is witnessed and, more, received, it has meaning beyond the gesture: affirming life, and saving a life while one’s own life is ending. Batty’s deed is not an act of rescue so much as one of redemption. It underscores the hopes and fears of every sentient—or at least sensitive—being: What was I? What do I leave behind? What will I become? By living, Deckard keeps Batty alive; by remembering, he ensures Batty’s sacrifice has significance aside from the act itself. Of course, it would have meaning, in the metaphysical sense, even if it was unrecorded.

iii. “All those moments will be lost in time…”

The notion of doing good for good’s sake is an ideal articulated in the writings of difficult artists ranging from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to Melville and Poe. In the 20th Century, after the events that preceded and accompanied World War II, it’s remarkable that poetry, prose, music and movies continue to reinforce a defiance of despair as opposed to a begrudging—or lethargic—acknowledgment of life’s meaninglessness. Put more plainly, ample evidence supporting altruism exists that’s not contingent upon religious faith; indeed, much of it actively eschews dogma.

As humans we create meaning, even if we ultimately resolve that life is meaningless. Our outlook is still the result of deliberation, however dejected. It is, in fact, those insisting only God can imbue meaning (since He created everything) who argue that the absence of God obviates meaning. This position, inculcated by rote, isn’t merely flawed intellectually; it’s defective, morally. The correlation between religious fanaticism and the violence it can inspire—and provide cover for—is well-documented. Disturbingly, the thin line between faith and desolation is reason enough to be grateful many would-be sociopaths are compelled by their belief, or suspension of belief, to determine there’s actual value (or, again, meaning) in their own existence; there’s motivation to choose amity over annihilation.

It is, then, with Batty, that the film turns typical theology upside down.  The redeeming (and, redeemed) character is, in a sense, dying for the sins of others, but will receive neither reward nor restoration. Not for nothing does Tyrell, after confirming Batty’s worst fears, declare him to be “the prodigal son.” Certainly, one could make a career out of the religious imagery invoked throughout the narrative (the nails in the palms, the brutal beating he suffers, the futile entreaty to his creator, etc.).

On a purely practical level, if one reckons that the ends justify the means, the notion of using Christ as a model is commendable, particularly when it results in the pursuit of reconciliation over aggression. Indeed, the idea that organized religion was designed as a self-perpetuating (and quite effective) system to organize and supervise the masses is unoriginal enough to be dismissed as cliché. And yet, considering the ultimate objective of Christian fellowship is to inspire conduct sufficient to earn everlasting life, it’s difficult to argue which is more disingenuous: the self-serving ecclesiastics or those who see through it, yet utilize it for personal gain or to consolidate control.

The figure of Christ is enduringly appealing, as a literary figure, for His acts of kindness and care. But concerning the biblical moments of transcendence, the miracles distance Him from us; whereas Batty’s final gesture is made with the understanding that he’ll gain no favors, here or elsewhere. As such, it would cheapen his sacrifice to give Christianity unearned credit and declare this an act of Christ-like mercy; rather, it’s an enduring gesture of human grace. As such, it remains a persuasive and provocative advertisement for what we’re capable of when we’re most fully human or more, when we transcend our inherent (see: selfish) human limitations. Blade Runner remains the ultimate paradox: a movie about the impermanence—even the construction—of humanity, yet it makes one of the greatest cases for compassion and charity.

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Taxi Driver: 40 Thoughts for 40 Years

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Not many critics would name it as the best American movie, and it probably would rank as few fans’ favorite films. Is Taxi Driver, nevertheless, the most important American film? It is, in the sense that we need our best art to endure; to speak past trends and time, to tell us about ourselves while asking more questions than are answered (otherwise it’s philosophy or worse, literary theory).

Shakespeare’s oft-quoted notion of stories holding a mirror up to Nature has become a crutch if not cliché for describing what art does. As history continues to confirm that we’ve evolved less than we might hope or imagine in the intervening centuries since Hamlet soliloquized, the more relevant issue might be why art matters. As such, it’s probably Oscar Wilde who got it right when he declared “It’s the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

Taxi Driver might not even be Scorsese’s best movie, but it’s definitely in the Top One. Okay, Raging Bull could fairly be considered his ultimate achievement (although substantial credit must be given to the ready-made script and tag-team for the ages from De Niro and Pesci). Mean Streets may, for aficionados, be his most consistently watchable (aside from The Departed, but in terms of aesthetic heft, that comparison would be like an all-star game vs. what the Miracle Mets pulled off in ’69—de rigueur brilliance vs. once-in-a-lifetime lightning caught in a bottle of straw-covered Chianti). Goodfellas, of course, is Goodfellas.

Aside from Taxi Driver, is there a film that continues to address—both directly and indirectly—so much of what makes America simmer and sometimes explode? Network turned out to be so prescient it’s practically a documentary (and would this make Paddy Chayefsky cackle or cry?). Taxi Driver seems to provide both a macro and micro analysis of our combustible American experiment: violence, sex, repression, isolation, exploitation, poverty (for starters) and the ways these phenomenon push and pull on practically everyone, occasionally proving toxic for the least-equipped amongst us.

Two words: Bernard Herrman. Three words: Best Soundtrack Ever.

In the crowded field of contenders, a handful of geniuses easily distance themselves from the competition: Piero Umiliani is Bach, Nino Rota is Mozart, John Barry is Wagner, (John Williams is Stephen King), and Bernard Herrmann is Beethoven. (Ennio Morricone is God.)

There’s also Beethoven-level pathos in the fact that not only was this Herrmann’s final score, but he died literally hours after completing it. Added bonus: as Scorsese was largely unknown during pre-production, the notoriously cantankerous Herrmann was unmoved by the director’s desire to have him score the film. “I don’t write music for car movies,” he allegedly said. Only when he saw the scene where Travis pours peach brandy over his breakfast was he convinced.

Fact: during the immortal “You talkin’ to me?” scene, the screenplay simply read “Travis looks in the mirror.” (A reminder that not only was De Niro once an actor, during his prime there were few better.)

Apparently Scorsese first approached Dustin Hoffman to play Travis Bickle. It’s best to not even imagine how different this movie would have been.

Many other actors were considered for (even offered) the part, ranging from the intriguing (Jeff Bridges) to the preposterous (Burt Reynolds?!).

The fact that Paul Schrader spent some time sleeping in a car before writing the screenplay helps offer insight into the myriad ways everything about Taxi Driver feels so real.

In an interview, Albert Brooks relates the conversation (equal parts amusing and disturbing) where, after filming, Schrader thanked him for helping him “understand” Tom, the one character he didn’t understand.

The stories of method actors being method actors can be hilarious and embarrassing, but at times, instructive. It may seem obvious or facile, but the time De Niro took actually driving a cab around NYC enriches his performance. Just the way he stretches his sore neck after another endless evening is a deft, if subtle touch. It’s also a natural reaction from someone who has pulled some 15 hour shifts.

We rightly mock the onanism of thespians who believe staying in character throughout a shoot confers authenticity. How many actors, today, fresh off an Academy Award—as De Niro was in ’74—would actually spend any (much less substantial) time physically driving a cab?

Also noteworthy is the way De Niro, the ultimate New Yorker, is able to convincingly seem out of his element (on all levels) in The Big Apple. He supposedly studied the speech patterns of some soldiers from the Midwest (while on the set of Bertolucci’s 1900).

The issue of Bickle’s “complicated” views on racial relations is a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) theme that recurs. In the original screenplay, the pimp (Harvey Keitel) and both the Mafioso and bodyguard/bouncer were all black. Consider that, and appreciate the credit Scorsese deserves for his better judgment—creative and cultural—in spite of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s objections.

No matter how controversial his treatment of race, in this or any movie, it’s impossible to pretend Scorsese is not rendering real people, however backward or repellant. Contrast this with another director who courts derisive scandal, Quentin Tarantino, whose characters’ bigotry always seems too gleeful by half. Where Scorsese, at his most incendiary, can credibly claim he’s interrogating certain experiences and observations of an adult with the filth of a city under his fingernails, Tarantino repeatedly comes off like a developmentally arrested video clerk who has lived his life watching movies.

According to legend, the actor intended to play the role of Bickle’s psychotic passenger (George Memmoli, memorable as Joey from Mean Streets) was injured and couldn’t make the shoot. Scorsese gamely stepped in and gave it a shot. Suffice it to say, the results are terrifying, and astonishing. The entire film holds a camera up to NYC’s shadiest back-alleys, and this scene depicts the rotten core inside these hearts of darkness as much as any of the more celebrated ones.

It’s fascinating to hear Scorsese (in interviews and the making-of feature) describing the way De Niro directed him during their scene together.

While so many other scenes continue to be discussed and celebrated, with good reason, De Niro nevertheless gives a clinic even as the camera mostly focuses on Scorsese. His economy of words and movement in this scene are extraordinary: for almost four whole minutes, the only thing Bickle says is “Yeah,” twice.

The best soundtrack scores contain music that can exist entirely outside the films they appear in (or were written for), yet are—for all the right reasons—inseparable from the movies themselves.

Perhaps more than any film, Taxi Driver portrays New York City as it used to be (for better and worse). Adding to an already claustrophobic script, the shoot occurred during a garbage strike over the course of an unusually sweltering summer. One can certainly see, and practically smell the mid-decade grime.

For visual evidence of how much the city has actually changed, this site does some wonderful work.

No matter how many times you’ve seen it—and you know it’s coming—the slow pan-up revealing Bickle’s Mohawk remains one of the more arresting, and disturbing visuals in all cinema.

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The aforementioned improvisation before the mirror is venerated as one of De Niro’s finest moments. For this writer, the unbearable moments that occur as Travis follows Betsy out of the porn movie might best illuminate De Niro’s mastery of craft. Even as his date (and we) cringe that he’s naïve enough to even consider a “dirty movie” (in Betsy’s words) appropriate, the fact that in this scene—and for large chunks of the movie—we feel empathy for Travis, a character we might understandably feel nothing but disgust for, is one of the primary reasons the movie resonates after repeated viewings.

A great many things occur throughout the course of the film, but few of them happen quickly. The languid pace of the action, obviously, reflects the tensions simmering below the surface. It’s possible that Scorsese’s directorial instincts were never quite as impeccable as they are in Taxi Driver. For instance, this: a scene so pitiful even the camera looks away.

Or this. The implication that Travis is rehearsing his own soliloquy (Hamlet meets the narrator from Dosteyevsky’s Notes from Underground), editing and perfecting it, in his mind.

Okay, one more. If I were forced to submit the single scene (in any movie) that best illustrates both loneliness and alienation, and the ironic disparity between what gets sold on TV (as normal, as achievable, as happiness) and what so many people actually experience, it would be difficult not to choose this one.

A lot of actresses auditioned for the role of Iris. Like dozens. Jodie Foster allegedly was not the first choice, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone else doing the role similar justice.

Some serious heavyweights auditioned for the role of Betsy. Cybill Shepherd was far from the most talented of the lot, but she did exude the combination of beauty and banality the part required.

It’s a minor role, but it can’t be overstated how crucial Albert Brooks is for providing humor and fleeting relief from the near-suffocating intensity of the screenplay.

Even when it’s well-intended, we have an inclination to mythologize artists, particularly actors. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially if the work warrants our adoration. That said, shrewd preparation is seldom sexy as improvised magic, but it’s often crucial for a convincing performance. Case in point, Harvey Keitel spending time with an actual pimp (and play-acting as a prostitute to really get a sense of the power dynamics at play) unquestionably provided heft and credibility to his uncanny turn as Sport.

Paul Schrader, naturally—and with Scorsese’s full blessing—scoured the streets to find a prostitute he could talk to. The young lady he eventually met not only informed the final script, she appears (as Jodie Foster’s friend) in the film.

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In terms of bang for buck, is there a character actor from this era who ended up in more epic films than Joe Spinell? In addition to a brief role in Taxi Driver, he also found his way into both Godfather movies, the first two Rocky movies, as well as Cruising, Nighthawks and Night Shift. He should be buried, with a plaque, beneath the Empire State Building.

How many movies have been as flawlessly cast, from the leads to the most minor characters (think Melio in the convenience store, or even the man attempting to rob him, or the Secret Service agent Travis attempts to impress, and not least, Peter Boyle (!) as Wizard).

As reliable and perceptive as Roger Ebert usually was, his speculation that the post-shootout epilogue is a dream sequence has always seemed remarkably undiscerning. Never mind that Schrader, Scorsese and De Niro all are on record as stating the opposite. Never mind that if Travis, from whose point of view we’ve seen all the action unfold, is dead but still “seeing” it undermines the narrative logic. The carnage, horrific as it is, is still only the second most grotesque aspect of the film. The most appalling incongruity is that Bickle’s viewed as a hero. The movie would already be an unqualified success, but with Travis (who, no sentient viewer should forget, was seconds away from attempting to assassinate a presidential candidate) being lionized by the media, Schrader et al. offer some of the darkest irony in cinema history. More, they anticipated an American media that’s only become more culpable for sanitizing or altogether misreading sensational acts because, naturally, sensationalism sells.

Even the ending isn’t really the end. Courtesy of the extremely ambivalent final shot of Travis seeing (or hearing, or sensing) something, and only catching his own eyes in the rear view mirror, the last image the viewer is left with is that Travis remains tightly wound. As the credits roll, one is left wondering if he might be in the news again, inevitably.

Eternal props to Tom Scott.

Apparently De Niro was on board for a sequel. Thank God for the rain that helped wash that garbage from our screens before it ever got made.

Forty years. Wow.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 9/19/16.

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End of Summer (Camp) with a Bat, a Cat and a Clown

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IT IS AN INEXORABLE, if lamentable rite of passage: revisiting mementos from one’s childhood and discovering that, to an adult’s eyes, they’re lacking.

But then, “putting away childish things” is how we avoid arrested development, a condition that impairs critical faculties, stymies meaningful relationships and makes one susceptible to things like libertarianism. (If, for instance, you re-read Ayn Rand and her porcine-fisted prose still seems eloquent, you’ve got some growing up to do; if you encounter her sophomoric metaphysics for the first time as an adult and are inexplicably smitten, you are, unfortunately, a lost cause, both morally and intellectually.)

When I was a child, you would have had to pry the bowl of Boo Berry from my cold, dead hand. Now I understand my teeth would rot on contact, even if I were able to score a box online (apparently this is actually possible; this is America). I used to think a Big Mac (washed down with that non-carbonated orange drink, obviously) was the height of culinary bliss, a sort of pre-adolescent ambrosia. I thought scary movies were, well, scary. In other words, I thought a lot of things. I was even correct about one or two of them.

I thought, for instance, that the Batman TV series was amazing. It turns out I was wrong. It’s not amazing; it’s sublime.

Bear with me. When’s the last time you saw (when’s the last time you thought about) Batman and imagined Adam West instead of, say, Christian Bale or Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson, etc.?

It probably has been a while because, annoyingly, the old episodes are currently unavailable via Netflix and, until recently, even to purchase. And you’ll need a couple hundred bucks to satisfy your curiosity via the box set series. The show does still get airplay on certain TV channels. I know this because I have friends who have kids. Quite serendipitously, I was babysitting one of these little cherubs and per her request (!) we caught a couple of old school episodes. I’m here to tell you, without shame and with inexplicable enthusiasm, it was something of a revelation.

There are several angles I could take here, but my rekindled interest can be reduced to two words: Cesar Romero. The O.J. (as in, Original Joker).

JOKER

Folks, anyone born after 1980-ish probably can’t appreciate this, but for people of my generation, Cesar Romero was The Joker. I sort of recall reading the occasional comic book but don’t have any special memories of how he translated on the page. I do have memories of the laugh, the green hair, the purple suit and the unhinged antics that were, at once hilarious and horrifying. What I did not recall, since I was a kid at the time, was how irredeemably, magnificently campy the show was.

I certainly recall that the original Superman never resonated with me, in part because that show was not old school, it was antediluvian school. Plus, the George Reeves incarnation was always a tad too fascistic for my delicate sensibilities. (Incidentally, am I the only one to recently discover George Reeves died by a bullet wound that may have been suicide? Holy irony, Batman.) Then again, I’ve never been much of a Superman guy; in my formative years it was always Batman and Spiderman, both of whom were funnier, darker and more human.

Anyway, back to The Joker. Obviously Jack Nicholson was tapping into that campy vibe in 1989, but his role, however amusing, was over-the-top in ways that don’t age particularly well (kind of like the movie itself). Not many people would argue that Heath Ledger’s pitch-black, though still sardonic take was not a huge improvement. Nevertheless, before we crown Ledger’s uncanny performance the final word on the subject, we are obliged to return to the beginning. Have you forgotten how unbelievably perfect Cesar Romero was? Check it out:

Any questions?

Maybe it’s the fact that he was a bit older. It also didn’t hurt that his Cuban/Italian descent imparted a subtly exotic, almost indescribably outré edge. This is The Joker I grew up with, and it’s the only arch villain I can imagine actually rooting for—as a child or an adult. Just reading about Romero makes me happy. Check this out. The fact that he refused to shave his mustache—his decades-old trademark—for this role is so genius I can scarcely handle it: like the Joker himself, a recalcitrant rascal. How brilliant is that? The most incorrigible fiend played by an incorrigible, image-conscious movie star with prima donna tendencies? Bliss. And extra marks: if you look at photos or, if you’re smart, find some clips online, you can totally see the impossible-to-conceal ‘stache in each episode. Truth is always odder and better than even the best fiction.

And let’s do a quick sidebar for how outstanding the other bad guys were. Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, anyone? Yes, please. And don’t overlook Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. This trio comprises an untouchable criminal triptych that could not possibly be improved upon. For irrefutable evidence of this claim, please appreciate this clip from the movie, wherein we have Penguin fencing with Batman (making appropriate Penguin noises), Romero’s brown hair obvious under the wig and The Riddler doing some bad ballet on board a boat: it’s the sine qua non of caped-crusading camp. This is the all-in Battle Royale (with cheese), a brawl that involves all the assorted players, because duh. And the capper, when our hero saves the kitten from drowning with the winking send-off “Bon voyage pussy!”. Holy blissful extravagance, Batman!

And lest we forget (how could we forget?) there is Catwoman. Can I get an Amen? I’m a rather huge fan of Lee Meriwether, and everyone has to appreciate the incomparable Eartha Kitt (from Season Three). But let’s not kid ourselves here: it’s all about Julie Newmar. The young me would like to say, Thank you, Catwoman. The adult me would like to say, Will you marry me, Ms. Newmar?

Her perfection as Catwoman, as a woman, period, would suffice, but seeing how she has remained engaged, politically active, and completely down to earth (and appreciative, after all these years, of her fans) makes her as attractive, eight decades on, as she’s ever been. (Swoon.)

And don’t think I’m sleeping on Adam West. I won’t (can’t?) compare him to the subsequent Batmen played in the various movies, but kind of like with The Joker, he did it first and he did it best. He is Batman. A gentleman, a humanitarian, a…dork. His (West’s) goofiness can’t be overstated, and that humanity gives the character a distinct vulnerability. How can you not love this guy?

In addition to everything else, it’s possible that Batman was the first series to jump the shark (or at least repel the shark). Consider the clip, above: obviously the series was straining to keep its edge (or appeal, or whatever) and by Season Three the producers/writers seemed to understand what may have worked in 1966 was not registering in late ‘67. The world, of course, was changing. Hence, we have the most camptastic—and transcendent—few moments of TV I can ever recall watching: Batman and Joker surfing. With bathing suits over their costumes In shark-infested waters, obviously. (And a handy, if obligatory bottle of Shark Repellent, because OBVIOUSLY.) With real surfers cheering from shore. This is a line in the sands of Santa Monica: you’re either with me or against me. I defy you to watch this clip and not join the party.

Summer may be winding down and all of us are getting older every second, but retaining a child-like joy for certain things is still the best way to keep age and cynicism at bay.

So, in closing and with eternal gratitude, the campy, iconoclastic genius of the show summarized in one scene (keyword BATUSI):

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 9/16/15.

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Trumbo, Cranston and Ozymandias

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A few random thoughts while watching ‘Trumbo’.

1. You should watch this.
2. Bryan Cranston remains an American treasure.
3. Can you believe people used to smoke in movie theaters?
4. Without exception –and excluding those who have served in the military– the people who historically have claimed to love America the most are, in no particular order, the most craven, opportunistic, ignorant and dangerous imbeciles of the generations they defile.
5. I’m still not certain if the cliché of film’s depicting writers writing while drinking bourbon and smoking and, especially, wearing ties, helps or hurts our cause. It’s probably a push, as a realistic depiction of authors scribbling in t-shirts and boxers or bathrobes would only serve to augment the confusion and disdain most serious writers inspire. (I get that the old school was different, but even trash collectors probably wore ties in the ’40s. And Tom Wolfe is possibly the only writer who has to write in a suit, and only then for the fruity affectation of it, and not for any aesthetic reasons.)
6. Poets, and novelists, really are and always have been, the unacknowledged legislators, as Shelley pointed out two centuries ago.
7. Speaking of Shelley, and Cranston, this, for all time:

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Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’: A Love Letter to the Process of Making Art

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In Dostoeyevsky’s Notes From Underground the self-loathing narrator proposes that every man has secrets he will only reveal to friends and secrets he must keep to himself. And then there are the things he is afraid to admit even to himself, and the more decent the man, the more things he will find himself unable to confront.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a man less concerned with the answers to uneasy questions than the questions themselves. He is a well-regarded surveillance specialist; a self-employed spy who builds his own equipment and attracts high profile clients who will pay top dollar for his services. As he explains to his enthusiastic assistant (the always-excellent John Cazale), he is uninterested in the personal lives of his clients or what their motivations might be—he just wants to get the job done as only he can do it.

Caul, who claims not to care about the inner feelings of others, goes to great lengths to keep anyone from gleaning his personal thoughts. And from his old-fashioned eyeglasses, coat and tie attire or the see-through slicker he wears rain or shine, he projects the look of a professor or librarian more than efficient sleuth. This is entirely by design: by making himself as ordinary as possible, Caul believes he can keep others from intruding on his personal space—which we quickly understand is, for him, sacred. As such, he is a human coil of simmering tension, all nervous energy and restraint. He is a quiet man with an urgent dialogue endlessly unspooling in his mind. Or, he has several urgent dialogues simultaneously distracting him. Or, he is ceaselessly trying to suppress these urgent, distracting dialogues. That he is unsuccessful is obvious: his discomfort around others reveals the obsessions and idealizations simmering deeply beneath his austere façade.

Gene Hackman, to be certain, had his work cut out for him here. How to take a character that is so intractable and ultimately unknowable, and manage to make him engaging, even sympathetic? Hackman, despite his renowned acting abilities, struggled to fully understand and depict Harry Caul, a role so dissimilar to previous assignments (this is the man who played Popeye Doyle, for God’s sake!) and his own personality. Ultimately, Hackman exposes a man who struggles so fervently to avoid telling anyone anything he inexorably shows everyone everything.

As a result, The Conversation is a tour de force, but it’s a quiet tour de force. In fact, it is just about impossible to imagine a movie like this being made today. Few directors would trust—perhaps with good reason—that audiences would embrace the deliberately languid pace and lack of resolution. In fact, while critically successful (then and now), this movie did not fare well commercially at the time of its release.

Of course, the movie is impossible to separate from the early ‘70s in several important ways. For one, its inescapable political implications (Watergate, wire-tapping) and its art house aesthetic sensibility (The Conversation is one of the more durable experiments to come out of the “new wave” of Hollywood bad boys who briefly had—and took—the opportunity to make movies they way they needed—and wanted—to make them). The Conversation, perhaps more than any of his celebrated films, makes the purest case for Coppola’s genius. The movie’s disconsolate message is tempered by its director’s lack of cynicism (a refreshing trait early on that ended up marring his later work with excess sentimentality and preciousness). Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, is perhaps the only director of that era sufficiently unselfconscious to depict a protagonist so self-conscious he is in constant danger of suffocating.

Also worth mentioning is the film’s uncanny similarities to Chinatown (also released in 1974). In both, an essentially respectable man has seen his best intentions harm others, and vows never to repeat his mistake. In both, a man realizes too late that he has gotten involved (and invested) in something far larger and more dangerous than he imagined. Both films are virtually flawless, from the script to the ingenious structure, the direction, score and acting. Especially the acting. Certainly in the ‘70s there was plenty of “acting” going on, which is why so few (if any) movies have aged (and seemingly improved) with time as The Conversation and Chinatown.

“I don’t have anything personal, nothing of value,” Caul insists at one point, and we know he means it. Or, we understand he thinks he means it. Or we realize, by the end, that he very much wants to mean it. Throughout, we see more than his colleagues, his girlfriend (who he considers overly inquisitive when, after many months, she would like to know where he works, where he lives and why he does not seem to own a telephone), his priest and—most significantly—he does. But the sum total of these subtle insights (the way he avoids swearing, the time he picks up a cookie and studies it for several seconds before putting it back on the plate, his diversion of playing saxophone alongside an LP recording) ultimately shed insufficient light on what makes him tick. This is actually the secret of the film’s success.

In less capable hands we would know everything at the outset: what his back-story was, what he was looking for and what he needed to achieve so we could root for him to “win”. There are, of course, no winners here, but the message of the movie is not nihilistic. By the time it concludes, the culmination of events has slyly served to confirm all of Caul’s skepticism. He trusts no one and thinks the worst of people, which is his personal tragedy. The larger tragedy is that on the few occasions he lets his guard down, or trusted his own instincts, he is proven spectacularly wrong for having done so.

The comprehension that he is involved in an event that might have appalling consequences unnerves him; the realization that he abetted people he would not knowingly have worked for devastates him. But he is not broken, yet. That dissolution is saved for the last scene, a final indignity wherein Caul’s most unimaginable apprehension is realized. After receiving a phone call on his unlisted number, he suffers the humiliation (and terror) of hearing his own apartment being bugged. Panicked, he promptly reduces his apartment to splinters in a fruitless attempt to find the hidden microphone. In what has to be one of the most harrowing scenes in cinema, the camera pans over a desecrated aftermath where Caul plays his saxophone amidst the wreckage. What earlier in the movie might have been construed as a bit of a contrivance (the one-man band playing along with a pre-recorded tune) now symbolizes this man’s lonely disintegration: his record player (along with all his other dispensable possessions) destroyed in the rampage, he must finally face the music, while the sound of an unaccompanied horn cries out his sad song.

Even once the crucial twist is understood, the film remains elusive. It is a darkly affecting drama, but what else? Also an allegory for Watergate (not likely, despite the rather facile, if pervasive critical analysis, considering the screenplay was written in the mid-‘60s)? A commentary on political chicanery? A love letter to the painstaking process of assembling a work of art, bit by technical bit? Some of all of these, to be certain, and several other things, for sure. It’s never quite the same experience once you’ve seen it the first time, but The Conversation warrants repeated viewings. Like the very best films, fresh nuances and details emerge and a deeper understanding and appreciation accrues. Popeye Doyle in The French Connection was the role Hackman was born to play, but his embodiment of Harry Caul should be celebrated as the best work he ever did.

This essay originally appeared in PopMatters and is featured in Murphy’s Law, Vol. One –available now.

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Remembering Michael Cimino’s Masterpiece, ‘The Deer Hunter’

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Imagine this: Michael Cimino, fresh off five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director) and the next big “thing” fails to complete the filming of Heaven’s Gate (1980) and stops making movies, all because he couldn’t handle the pressure of following up on not only the movie he needed to make, but the movie America needed him to make: The Deer Hunter (1978).

Discussion would forever boil down to what masterpieces we were robbed from seeing, how a too-sensitive soul could not stand up to the pressures and pettiness of Hollywood, and so on. Bonus scenario: if Heaven’s Gate were only half-finished when he stopped directing, scholars would write dissertations about whether the next Citizen Kane (1942) got sabotaged, or was never meant to be, or too impossibly perfect to reach completion.

Instead, of course, Heaven’s Gate was finished and, due to its underwhelming commercial and critical reception, so was Cimino.

Over the top? Well, so was Cimino. I mean, have you seen Heaven’s Gate? Or even, dare we go there, The Deer Hunter?

In truth, Cimino’s The Deer Hunter has not aged as well as its younger brother, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), but there are many legitimate reasons for this. Apocalypse Now was always imperfect, and, in ways no one could have anticipated; its very messiness, inscrutability, and shoehorned ending only gain stature as the perfect metaphor for the imperfect fiasco that was Vietnam.

If Dostoyevsky had written about Vietnam it might have been a lot like Apocalypse Now; The Deer Hunter, on the other hand, is possibly the most Tolstoyesque American movie ever made.

The Deer Hunter was a novel on the screen, with plotting, tonal shifts, character studies, and a conclusion that, while equally rushed in its way—including the unforgivable kitsch of the crew singing “God Bless America” at the finalé, which is like being bludgeoned with a star-spangled sledgehammer—tries to tell it straight, illustrating not only the senselessness of what went on over there, but the horror of what happened to the people “lucky” enough to make it back here.

Certainly, Coming Home (also from 1978) had similar designs and was also a necessary turd in the punch bowl for anyone opining that we all needed to just move on. But compared to The Deer Hunter, Coming Home was a novella, or a short story; its scope was narrow and effective for keeping things focused, even if it gets a little fluffy toward the end.

It’s also interesting to consider how the respective films reflect the director’s drug of choice: Coming Home, by the time it’s over, is like taking a steam bath in an opium den; Apocalypse Now rips out of the gate on a cocaine rush, settles into an uneasy acid trip and, by the end, is a whole cocktail of uppers, downers, hash and whiskey—the pharmacological equivalent of whatever was happening, in real time, inside Dennis Hopper’s head.

The Deer Hunter, by contrast, is from an older school: its shot-and-a-beer sensibility is ideally suited for the steel town locale. It’s even old fashioned in its way: the aftermath (a separate war unto itself) was one long hangover, filled with regret, recrimination, and self-loathing. Redemption, too. It also, at times, suffers from the weird mix of self-consciousness (that wedding scene could easily have been cut in half and, with a lesser director calling the shots, it should have been) and shed inhibitions. Was it too many Rolling Rocks that convinced Cimino the aforementioned “God Bless America” singalong was not only a wise, but necessary, decision?

So if The Deer Hunter has not aged as well as most folks in 1978 would have anticipated, its fatal flaw was being, for both better and worse, as perfect as it could have been at the time. There probably wasn’t an American film with such recalcitrant confidence and stunning results, however indulgent, made until There Will Be Blood (2007). Both films have the modest aim of explaining everything, and using one event (Vietnam, the oil industry) to elucidate the tragedies inherent in America’s tendency to overreach, due to greed and inexorable recklessness.

Of course, The Deer Hunter must be celebrated for what it got so right, and while even the best scenes in Apocalypse Now have that quirky genius of lightning captured in a bottle of “33”—kind of like Hunter S. Thompson at the top of his game—Cimino’s masterpiece has a formal elegance, its ambition never overshadowed by its pretensions or showboating. For a study in contrast, consider Platoon (1986) which, while incredible and important for its time, can hardly be watched today without sensing Oliver Stone’s sweaty, self-satisfied mug in every other frame.

It’s regrettable that the movie is best or most often remembered for the gruesome Russian roulette scenes. Those moments were perhaps necessary for anyone delusional enough to think this, or any war, is a reductive contest of good guys shooting bad guys and vice versa (itself a horrific enough scenario to warrant unlimited empathy and funds to assist veterans of these affairs). Even as metaphor, the idea of brothers in arms holding guns to their heads is as eloquent in its insanity as, say, the surreal depravity of a white Alpha male blasting Wagner as he blithely massacres a village of men, women and children: all before breaking out the surfboards.

Again, The Deer Hunter does get war, including the lead up and load out, definitively in its sights, but it manages to also nail the beautiful, if banal simplicity of working class existence: the honesty of that industrious lifestyle, sculpted and fueled by sweat and pitchers of beer.

It takes only one succinct, devastating scene to demonstrate a screenplay worth of suffering in the relationship between Meryl Streep and her used-up and spit out old man. It skillfully captures the way men bond (shooting pool, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”) and fight (“This is This!”). It subtly conveys how alcohol enables dudes to express vulnerability (“I love this fuckin’ place!”).

There’s comic relief, with the immigrant mother browbeating (and beating) her son on the afternoon of his wedding. There are layers of meaning within the insinuation that the bride’s growing belly might not be courtesy of her husband. Then there’s everything about Stan (Jon Cazale): his character, the type of complicated coward everyone has met, and everything about Jon Cazale, whom everyone on set knew was dying while they filmed.

As a movie rightly celebrated for its epic scale and achievement, The Deer Hunter boasts a series of immaculate scenes which, when isolated, deftly encapsulate the whole in miniature, while standing on their own as iconic moments in cinema.

Certainly it’s a tad heavy-handed, but the agitated vet stumbling into the wedding reception foreshadows much that the giddy groomsmen don’t understand, but will. “Fuck it,” he repeats, unwilling to shake hands or even look at the young men he knows (and we know) are about to grow up in an abrupt and ugly fashion.

Flash forward to the first post-war reunion between Michael (De Niro) and Steven (John Savage). Michael, full of obligatory bravado and reassurance, smiles at his wheelchair-bound friend and says “We made it”, then leans in for the hug as the smile—and façade—disappears and he repeats, a forceful whisper, “We made it.” Or, the close-up on Michael who, after skipping his homecoming party, paces in a hotel room, doing everything he can to keep himself intact.

Yet, while certain scenes from the wedding, Vietnam, and in the woods will endure as classics, it’s one of the quieter sequences that packs, quite possibly, the most concentrated punch. Back from a successful hunt, the men have squeezed every morsel of joy out of their final hours before shipping off. Finally, more beers are opened, and a friend not headed to Vietnam (George Dzundza) sits down at the piano. As the others gradually recognize the tune being played (Chopin’s Nocturne #6 in G Minor), the merriment ceases and they pause, reflecting.

In a book, there’d be little choice but to tell; Cimino and the actors are able to show, without words, things both obvious and implied. They stare at each other lovingly, appreciating all that’s brought them to this moment but no longer able to ignore the ways so much is soon to change, and none of it for the better. The scene’s already indelible, but the way Dzundza looks at Cazale (who was about to succumb to cancer in real life) after the last note is played is the kind of perfection that can’t be planned; it’s the rarest instance of life and art imitating each other in the service of reconciliation.

In the end it’s this, along with several other subdued moments, that illustrate innocence not merely lost, but obliterated. It’s ultimately the story of decent men from an increasingly forgotten time and environment, and they, of course, represent the many thousands of men from similar places. They all went off to represent a cause they couldn’t fathom, and those that came back faced a different world that in turn couldn’t, and wouldn’t, understand them.

It’s for telling their story, and putting names and faces on uncomfortable statistics (the dead, the crippled, the suicides) that make The Deer Hunter a different, and better, kind of Vietnam movie. It’s a war story, but it’s also a human story. The Deer Hunter is the type of film that, once seen, is capable of creating the right kind of change. It’s for this, above all, that Cimino should be remembered and celebrated.

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Celebrating Chinatown: The Ultimate Summer Movie (and the Perfect American Movie)

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Chinatown does not usually make the short list of best American films. In fairness, it probably shouldn’t. It will have to settle for merely being the only perfect American film ever made. Perfect? Well, perfection is in the eye of the beholder, and the definition of perfect might include the notion that there is no such thing as perfection in art. Nevertheless, by any number of criteria, Chinatown continues to satisfy more than thirty years on. In the final analysis it’s the magnificent sum of its considerable parts: it’s tragic, it’s hilarious, it’s (at times) scary, it’s challenging, it’s complicated, it is unnerving. It is, in short, America. Or at least it does the near impossible: it articulates the symbiotic relationship between greed and power that props up capitalism, a narrative that played an ever-increasing role in 20th century America. Much could—and should—be said along these lines, and how Robert Towne’s meticulous screenplay was ideal fodder for Roman Polanski’s dark and utterly authentic vision (Polanski also deserves extensive praise for resisting the happier ending Towne wanted).

That’s all well and good, but why does Chinatown remain compelling, and worthy of repeated viewings? Speaking personally, I’ve seen the film at least 15 times in the last 20 years, and each viewing has revealed new layers or nuance, and has only confirmed that initial impression: it’s perfect. The screenplay, the soundtrack, the casting: all unassailable. Memorable scenes? Really, the entire movie is just a series of memorable scenes. Or, more accurately, a continuous stream of indelible moments: Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in the barber shop, covered in shaving cream, angrily inviting the wiseass banker to step outside and “discuss things”; Gittes sardonically lamenting the loss of his shoe (“Son of a bitch! Goddamn Florsheim shoe!”); Gittes telling the dirty joke unaware of his soon-to-be-client and lover standing behind him; Gittes driving frantically through an orange grove to escape some pissed off farmers whose land he is trespassing upon; Noah Cross (John Huston as the flawlessly named incarnation of evil) persistently, and quite intentionally, mispronouncing Gittes name (Mr. Gits); Gittes calling the officious jerk in the public library a weasel; Gittes imploring Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to let the police intervene against Cross (her father) and her unsettling response: “He owns the police!”… the list could go on.

Perhaps most importantly, this is, quite simply a beautifully crafted work, the type of movie that can be savored without the sound on. One example: Gittes sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as day slides into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly masks the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Gittes is about to lift up the rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American dream.

Naturally, Chinatown passes the ultimate test: is it still meaningful, today? Does it still tell us something about ourselves? Sadly, it does. Impossible as it may have been for Towne and Polanski to imagine, there would come a time where public trust of those in power deteriorated beyond even the Watergate era nadir of Nixonland. Today, as the fabricated sheen of Wall Street crumbles around us, we might ask the wizards who wrought this mess the same question Gittes asks Cross—and expect the same answer:

“Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”
“The future, Mr. Gits! The future!”

There it is: the most accurate and succinct depiction of unfettered greed you’re likely to hear. And to see John Huston convey it is to appreciate, and be appalled by, the allure and immorality of depraved power. Jake hears it, and sees it, and for him—and the country—it’s too little, too late. As always. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” his partner admonishes him. But Jake can’t forget it, and we know he won’t forget it. Neither will we.

This essay originally appeared in PopMatters and is featured in Murphy’s Law, Vol. One –available now.

 

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The Strange Case of Dr. Dennis and Mr. Miller (Revisited)

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(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

March, 2009

At issue is not whether Dennis Miller, after 9/11, lost his mind and starting cheerleading for Bush, Cheney and the Iraq War (he did). It’s also not an outrage that, coincidentally or not, he is no longer near as nimble or gratifying as he was in his prime (he isn’t). What’s important to acknowledge is that, while his newer material is sorely lacking, when he was on his game, he was the baddest—and brightest—stand-up comedian in the country.

For those of us who have pined many moons, equal parts impatient and incredulous, for his inexplicably unreleased HBO comedy specials from the ‘90s; it’s time to celebrate an overdue victory. Dennis Miller: The HBO Specials is exactly what the doctor ordered for fans who remember the days when a thesaurus was a requisite part of the experience. A comic who could make you laugh and think is never something to take for granted, as they are always in woefully short supply.

Miller, from his snarky heyday as Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” anchor in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, was arguably the most consistently entertaining, and intimidating, funnyman on the scene. After admiring him in relatively small doses during the “Weekend Update” segments, it was something of a revelation to see him stretch out and hold court for a full 60-minute set. Starting with Mr. Miller Goes to Washington in 1988, Miller has made seven official specials for HBO, all of which are collected in this very reasonably priced and highly recommended set.

When Miller performed in D.C. for his first special it was more than 20 years ago, but somehow seems even longer. Impossible, almost, to recall a time when Reagan was limping out of office and Miller was not yet middle-aged. Indeed, he was young, confident and he had a hell of a head of hair. He knew it, too. At this point in his career Miller took few prisoners and no target was spared from his lacerating sarcasm. Commenting on his recent gigs in the Deep South, he sardonically observes “Talk about Darwin’s waiting room…there are guys in Alabama who are their own father.”

Later he laments “You spend your whole life stopping at red lights, then at the end there’s a cruel irony when you die: they let your funeral procession run the red lights on the way to the cemetery.” Regarding born-again Christians who insist he’s going to Hell if he’s not born again; he says “Pardon me for getting it right the first time.”

Perhaps tellingly, he has an (admirably) prescient take on terrorists, marveling at the ways horrendous acts can be justified in the name of God/religion. This is the lovably bratty Miller, a smart-ass with a heart of cubic zirconium: he was more intelligent and better-looking than you, and that was all there was to it. Chevy Chase, the first “Weekend Update” anchor, had the corner on this market for a minute, and then Miller ran with the baton for about a decade.

In 1990 he recorded Black and White which, for me, is on the short list of all-time post Lenny Bruce stand up concert recordings: it is an absolute tour de force and easily justifies the purchase of this entire set. Miller begins with a muted bang, claiming “I’d like to start off with an impression…I’d like to, but I’m genetically incapable.” For the rest of the special he is at the height of his “more loquacious than thou” phase and it’s a delight to watch how unreservedly he revels in his own brilliance.

A few highlights, taken at random: “I view the reunification of Germany in much the same way I view a possible Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis reconciliation: I haven’t really enjoyed any of their previous work and I’m not sure I need to see the new shit right now”; “I’m in therapy now, I’m so insecure I get depressed when I find out the people I hate don’t like me”; “(TV preachers) say they don’t favor any particular denomination…but I think we’ve all seen their eyes light up at tens and twenties.”

Of his father, Miller deadpans “My old man made The Great Santini look like Leo Buscaglia,” and on the then-new development of interminable automated customer service recordings, “I don’t stay on the phone that long with friends contemplating suicide.” If you’ve never seen this, you owe it to yourself.

They Shoot HBO Specials, Don’t They?, from 1994, is worthwhile just for its ingenious title, but the show is actually quite satisfactory. Speaking of the post-LA riot tensions, he says “I get pulled over by a cop in LA I don’t even fuck around; I just wind the window down and blow the guy.”

Politically, he has few kind words for Bush the Elder, and no fondness for Reagan, but he’s already dubious at the prospects of Clinton being a successful, or accepted, leader. He actually defends Hillary (!) saying, revealingly, “I think she’s a good woman…we need smart people now; maybe she can help.” And this is a crucial component of his subsequent devolution as a comic: he was never a liberal; he ridiculed pomposity and idiocy which is always abundantly represented on both sides of the political spectrum. Of course, he had a particular penchant for calling out the bullying tactics of media blowhards and the baser instincts (fear, power) that the most cynical politicians prey upon, so it’s impossible to ignore the sad irony of seeing him prostrate himself (for a paycheck?) at the fortress of Pomposity and Idiocy at Fox News.

It certainly doesn’t make his old material any less funny; it just makes it a tad bittersweet to look at, all these years later. In any event, and for the record, my favorite moment of the entire show is when Miller delivers an impassioned—and quite moving—defense of James Stockdale (remember him?), lacerating the media (and public) that found him lacking for the sole reason that “he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television”. He ends the show by predicting that the day Dan Quayle (remember him?) successfully runs for president (and he was then threatening to do)” is the day Shelley Winters runs with the bulls at Pamplona.” That’s good stuff.

By 1996 the also impeccably titled Citizen Arcane was in the can, but the first cracks in Miller’s fortress are visible. For starters, he seems a tad lethargic; it turns out the Aspen altitude is getting to him and as he reaches for an oxygen mask, a few folks in the crowd scoff at him. “Well fuck you,” he retorts. “Get a climate!” To be certain, he’s still amusing, and he is still articulate. He offers up perhaps the best summation of Bill Clinton’s frustrating legacy I’ve heard: “The chasm between his potential and his actuality is so vast…and the struggle (to find balance) sets off all his deficiencies.” It’s pretty hard to quibble with that assessment.

But when he observes “we have too many hung juries and not enough hung defendants”, one wonders what his beef is. It turns out, a little bit of everything, as he refers to the US as “one big, violent trailer park.” He is (understandably) outraged at the general inanity of the population, which results in easily duped juries. It just seems odd that for a man so obviously intelligent, he doesn’t (or doesn’t want to) connect the dots between those who are brought to justice and those who have money or influence. In other words, he seems content to scoff at how moronic our talk-show nation has become, but doesn’t seem unduly perturbed that it’s often his fellow celebrities who waltz away from prison time for very obvious—and odious—reasons.

He spends an insufferable chunk of time lambasting the ACLU and has little to say about politicians or the powerful. At one point he declares “I’m looking to make a little bread, build a wall, take care of my loved ones…and stay out of the crosshairs.” Die-hard Dennis Miller fans may have to Windex off their LCD screens after that one.

Miller’s HBO feature for the end of the century, 1999’s The Millennium Special: 1,000 Years, 100 Laughs, 10 Really Good Ones is a terrific idea that is pulled off with aplomb. Miller focuses on the 1900’s and breaks the century into 20-odd year chunks. He does “the news” (relaying the popular stories of the times with his trademark “Weekend Update” shtick): it is clever and mostly funny. There is a trace of a creeping jingoism that would reach its apotheosis in short order.

Miller takes potshots at a few predictable targets: Russia, Germany and (sigh) France; while it’s an exercise of shooting fish in a rather safe barrel; it’s fair to say that the blood, gore and comedy of the last century provide bountiful material. One of the better moments features the famous picture of Elvis shaking hands with Nixon with Miller remarking “And here we see two of the greatest recording artists of the 20th Century.” This one is the last feature likely to prompt repeat viewings.

Flash forward to 2003: we all know what happened in the three years since his last special. The Raw Feed starts off promisingly enough. Miller laments that he does not masturbate as much these days because his expanding waistline obliges him to slip himself the date-rape drug. Later he says “I was raised Catholic: I went to confession the other day and said (to the priest) ‘You first’.”

He retains some spin on his curveball and it is obvious he still belongs in the big leagues. But then he starts in on the Middle East, and things begin to derail as the stand-up turns into an occasionally ugly right-wing rant. As America was about to deploy forces to Iraq Miller, like many like-minded citizens of the time, is blasé to the point of cockiness. He not only returns to the hackneyed ad hominem toward the French, he boasts that once we’ve “won” in Iraq (quickly and decisively, obviously) the French will be sorry that they blew their chance at the spoils. It’s embarrassing.

Then he lays into Sean Penn with the snide pronouncement “Dead Career Walking”. Of course, two Academy Awards later, Miller was about as accurate with that assessment as he was about the course of our overseas adventures. Lest any of this sound like piling on, I’m saving the best for last: Miller actually pauses mid-performance to utter the words “I’d like to thank George Bush for allowing me to respect the American presidency again.” It is, as they say, to laugh—even if it’s for the wrong reasons.

Finally, in 2006 Miller went to Vegas to perform the show recorded as All In. It’s not terrible; Miller is simply too intelligent, too witty and too observant to flop onstage. But one might think he would feel obliged (for the sake of his comedy, for the sake of his integrity) to reign in the rhetoric. Then again, not for nothing is the special is called All In. It takes less than five minutes for Miller to lay into the cowardice of the French.

The rest of the show teeters between Miller’s patented perspicacity and his unfortunate, newly acquired nationalism. Funny bits about being able to access Internet porn anywhere and the plethora of erectile dysfunction commercials give way to longer rants about the dubious science behind global warming, and the benefits of aggressive drilling in Alaska (drill baby drill?). To paraphrase a younger, shrewder Miller, he doesn’t favor any particular political affiliation, but I think we’ve all seen his eyes light up at Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean.

Bottom line: despite his curious and regrettable turn toward the unfunny, Dennis Miller still looms large as one of the five best stand-up comedians of the past 20 years. This egregiously overdue purging of the HBO vaults should come as a welcome relief to fans who remember watching these specials in real time.

Worst case scenario, the first three (and superior) features are all contained on one disc: if you feel obliged to burn after viewing, retain that first disc and put it in the time capsule. The younger generation might be refreshed to see a less bellicose and more beguiling Dennis Miller, and many decades from now, when Miller’s awkward repartee with Bill O’Reilly is a footnote in unintentional comedic history, his greatest work will be remembered, and justly venerated.

http://www.popmatters.com/review/71771-the-strange-case-of-dr.-dennis-and-mr.-miller/

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My David Lynch Dilemma (Revisited)

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(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

There are some movies that require a certain commitment of time to figure out what is going on. David Lynch’s movies, I’ve become convinced, are about trying to figure out what’s going on. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. In its art-for-art’s sake, uber-pretentious, anti-commercial, anti-audience sensibility, Lynch hoists a freak flag that is, upon closer inspection, a fuck you flag. The question, as it is with all challenging art, ultimately must be: is it worth it? His films are odd and unsettling, and they are often unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And yet: is that enough?

Well…take any of his films, then take away the attractive female characters, their inexorable (contractual?) nudity, and the handful of very brief—but very brilliant—scenes, and Lynch’s work seems to be a series of somethings that seek to defy being identified for what they look and smell like. You are left with an oeuvre that seems to separate viewers into three camps: the good (those who claim to “get it”), the bad (those who don’t, or can’t), and the ugly (or, the angry; those who tried to get it, failed, and then, upon repeat viewings, determine that they are unworthy and, most importantly, uninterested).

Consider me ugly. Not angry, but certainly perplexed at the consistent, and reflexive, critical accolades. And let’s acknowledge the fact that Lynch does not merely have fans, he has advocates. Defenders of the faith. Crusaders. As a proponent of acquired taste anomalies running the gamut of high and low culture and all points in between (especially the points in between), I appreciate the allure, and I don’t begrudge it. What I am curious about is, who are these people, and what is it they actually see in these films?

First—and this may well elucidate my dilemma—the only Lynch film that has spoken to me, post Elephant Man, is Wild at Heart, which generally seems to be ranked amongst his weaker efforts. For my money, this one could practically be validated by Willem Dafoe alone: Bobby Peru is not only indelibly sinister, sick and hilariously oleaginous, he represents what is best about David Lynch: extreme weirdness in adept (and mercifully brief) quantities. But the movie abounds with minor tour de force performances by all involved, with Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern doing some career-best work, even when their clothes are on. Wonderful supporting work is delivered by a wickedly over-the-top Diane Ladd and a typically sullen (here bordering on docile) Harry Dean Stanton.

But, of course, Blue Velvet is the one that, in order to assert one’s pointy-headed credibility, you have to sanction. I call bullshit. To be sure, I don’t fall in with the camp who loves it, but I also don’t loathe it; I just think it’s…okay. More bad than good, but containing enough intriguing scenes (“Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”; “Candy Colored Clown!”) to make it memorable. But still. I saw it in the ‘80s, saw it in the ‘90s and have seen it during this decade, and it’s simply impossible to look past the (typically) improbable—bordering on intelligence-insulting—story line, the (typically) maudlin, fifth-rate dialogue, and the ostensibly bold assessment of American sadomasochism that quickly unravels like so much stylized soft porn. Granted, an authentic sense of surreal tension is nailed—then hammered into submission, and Dennis Hopper’s (overboard, over-praised) Frank Booth is scary enough, kind of the like the boogeyman is frightening, despite being fake. In terms of peeling back the layers of plastic conformity of an older (or even contemporary) America, captured in the notable but not revelatory opening scene, it works. That it is considered one of the seminal films of the ‘80s strikes me as disconcerting, akin to the way I’d concede that New Kids on the Block were one of the most successful bands of that decade. Mobs are mobs, even when they are different sizes.

But the mystery train truly goes off the tracks with Lost Highway, the ultimate “you’re with us or against us” entry in the Lynch catalog. For me, it really boils down to two pretty straightforward questions. One, can anyone claim to know what the movie is about? Two, can anyone claim to have actually enjoyed it? Hearing ten different people offer ten different interpretations of a movie is, in one regard, evidence of a successfully engaging work of art. But that sure seems to be setting the bar embarrassingly low for a director with Lynch’s obvious talent. (My personal favorite bent-over-backwards attempt to put lipstick on this pig is the claim that Lost Highway is a highly illusory homage of Ambrose Bierce’s masterful short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. Even making the exceedingly generous indulgence that this is the case, an adaptation of any classic work of literature should actually be good,shouldn’t it?)

Listen: weirdness for the sake of weirdness is fine, and in shrewdly doled out doses, it can be instructive and enjoyable—like eating fish eyes, for instance. And I don’t begrudge Lynch one bit for being that one-in-a-billion artist whom remarkable numbers of critics and fans have designated as their go-to guy. My issue lies with the same fans and critics who lazily defend his work by asserting that anyone who doesn’t like it simply doesn’t get it. Remember Gary Larson’s The Far Sidecartoons? It was true that if you had to explain one to someone, it was hopeless. However, if you had to explain it, you could; it would lose most of its humor and punch, but virtually every one of them was explicable. In other words, it’s a much more impressive—and worthwhile—piece of entertainment if it provokes or even befuddles, but is still, on some level, intelligible.

Granted, all willfully difficult artists will attract ardent (I won’t say fanatical) proponents—to a certain extent, that’s the point of their excessively abstruse vision. Too often, a self-indulgent, or unpersuasive (I won’t say incapable) effort is credited for being authentic because it is impenetrable, and that is where the fans and critics come into play with Lynch. Analysis is unnecessary, it’s already understood that the work is brilliant, and it’s a given that, with Lynch, you are about to see something that confronts your puny, preconceived notions of reality. The less sense it makes, the more adeptly he is revealing how ensnared you are in the linear charade of conventional storytelling. Or the system. Or something. Where this becomes insufferable is when esoteric artistes inherit a priori acquiescence in a fashion too similar to the ideological blank slate politicians count on from their compliant bases. We know how this works: an already-accepted conclusion is invoked, or promoted, and the appraisal (of the product, of the candidate) is liberated from subjective analysis, it’s already understood. Discourse is discarded for absolution in ways that say more about how the viewers view themselves than the film. And perhaps that is, if unconsciously, the entire point?

In the final analysis, I’ll admit that David Lynch is very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t claim to discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble. Beauty, not to mention intelligent design, is always in the brain of the beholder. The question remains: is that enough?

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Harold Ramis: Empathy for the Rebel (Revisited)

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Consider this: a world without Animal House. Or Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day.

I can’t fathom how much less happy my childhood would have been without any one of them. A life without all of them? Unimaginable.

And I know I’m not alone. This is Harold Ramis’s legacy: he brought humor and happiness—the real, enduring kind—to millions of people. In a world (then, now) that is full of quick hits, tweets, 15 seconds of fame, weekend blockbusters, and increasingly formulaic, artistically DOA drivel, and their inevitable, unending sequels, it’s worth noting, and celebrating, funny films that endure. What makes a movie funny, of course, ultimately boils down to subjective criteria. But what makes a movie smart, particularly a funny movie that manages to also be smart, is a respect, if not affinity, with the viewer. Even at his most sophomoric (and the immortal Caddyshack might be the most sophomoric film consistently worshipped by adult males), Ramis was creating characters everyone could recognize and identify with on various levels.

Animal House, which Ramis co-wrote, aside from providing a template for so many comedies that followed, was notable for celebrating the outsiders and losers typically reduced to stock characters. We’re not talking about the underdog, necessarily, as that trope was well established (and predictable); Animal House subverted the entire notion of what being a “winner” meant. Delta Tau Chi was not just the fraternity that accepted the outcasts no other house would have, it was the fraternity full of guys who wouldn’t have any other fraternity.

The misfits and miscreants of the Delta House were rebels with a cause. Yes, they were down for mayhem and shaking things up by any means necessary, but they also lifted a middle finger at convention. They weren’t misunderstood so much as they understood they wanted no part of a culture that equated conformity with success and imitation as the most insincere form of self-flattery.

Naturally, it being a movie, the good guys get the last laugh, but importantly, all the ostensible winners get their comeuppance down the road. As has been widely noted, Ramis & Co. appreciated that the insufferable weasels from Omega House would be the ones working for Nixon and being fragged by their own troops in Vietnam. It’s a conclusion that is satisfying and depressing, because while true in part, everyone knows our country is still mostly run by the Omegas.

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As silly as the movie gets the further it goes along, Stripes is notable for following a similar course: it’s the soldiers who refuse to, or are unable to, become part of the machine who ultimately succeed. It’s a fantasy, but one that adheres to reality: it’s the fat, ugly, unbearably plain citizens who do the dirty work and don’t usually have movies made about them. Ramis’s oeuvre comprised a Hall of Justice for the nerds; people old enough to know there are no super heroes, but young enough to realize we could use them from time to time.

As sheer escapism Ramis’s films are reliably consistent and satisfying. But we root for his protagonists because they are so ordinary, so fallible, so identifiable. Not for nothing was Caddyshack based on his own experiences as a caddy: the material probably wrote itself. Of course, even the best writing is doomed if the perfect actors are not cast. It’s difficult to imagine Caddyshack without Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, but it’s impossible to consider it without both Ted Knight and Rodney Dangerfield. John Candy in Stripes, Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters, every role in Animal House (especially John Vernon as the impeccably named Vernon Wormer), Stephen Tobolowsky in Groundhog Day: Ramis knew he needed the exact fit to sell his stories.

Speaking of Groundhog Day, this is generally considered his masterpiece; the Ramis film any adult can worship without embarrassment or circumspection. Is it a comedy cleverly disguised as a philosophical treatise, or vice versa? Perhaps it’s a bit of both, though it’s difficult, as usual with Ramis’s best films, to imagine a different cast. As a vehicle for Murray, Ramis gave him the opportunity to do some of his best work, and Murray in turn gave substance and nuance to what might have otherwise been a great idea on paper. Mostly, this movie is a slyly large-hearted affair, with the one-two punch of compassion and humanity transforming a repeated gag into something that resonates with repeated viewings.

Speaking of large hearts, while Ramis is rightly venerated for his mind and imagination, there is no doubt that he wrote and directed from his heart. One gets the sense, watching his work, that the plots are not engineered in order for the righteous to triumph so much as Ramis couldn’t bear the alternative. He was humble about his success and that humility informs almost everything he did. It’s the reason so many people quote his scripts and the reason he is arguably the most emulated comedic director of his generation. He was a likeable guy who made likeable films about likeable people. Not a bad way to spend one’s life.

Perhaps the greatest gift an artist can provide is the miracle of making you feel young. When you feel innocent, uncorrupted, optimistic, and it’s not the result of kitsch or sentiment, there is a sort of magic at play. Ramis is one of the best things that happened to kids coming of age in the early ‘80s. He remains one of the best things for us as we’re dragged into middle-age, kicking and screaming.

The coarser our discourse becomes, the more refreshing Ramis’s films remain. Their lack of pretension and cynicism offer a course of defiance, where we smile instead of surrender. We’ll return to his movies partly for nostalgia’s sake, and there’s nothing wrong with that: something making you yearn for a familiar experience has its own type of magic. His films remind us that occasionally, the good guys win. In this regard his work was also the story of his life.

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