Category Archives: 40’s

Not tickled by the magic feather

Charlie-Brown-and-Snoopy-peanuts-34485607-500-371

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the movie “Barfly”:

Jim: “You worked last year?”

Chinaski: “Six months in a toy factory. You don’t know how men suffer for children.”

Recent movies return the favor, according to Luke Epplin in his excellent Atlantic article You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids’ Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?.   Children’s movies now rely on “magic feather syndrome”: the plotline where a misfit child/toy/anthropomorphized animal ends up triumphing in the end by merely believing in themselves, often utilizing the very “defect” that caused them to be an outcast.

A prime example of this (which he doesn’t mention) is when Rudolph is welcomed back into two-faced Santa’s fold after successfully saving Christmas by guiding the sleigh with his formerly-hideous nose.  Epplin cites many other examples: Dumbo and his ears, a garden snail winning a race in “Turbo”, a rat cooking in “Ratatouille”, a crop-dusting plane in “Planes”.  It goes on an on.

He contrasts these with the 1969 animated film “A Boy Named Charlie Brown”, where Charlie LOSES the big spelling bee on the word “beagle” no less.  Charlie returns home and takes to his bed for days.  Linus consoles him by saying that despite losing, the world didn’t come to an end.   Charlie slowly returns to daily life, nobody pays much attention to his failure, and in the final scene he takes a kick at the football Lucy is holding.  In any animated kids movie today he’d kick the ball a mile.  Instead Lucy pulls the ball away, as always, and he ends up flat on his back.   The redemption is in not needing redemption, for this is how LIFE REALLY WORKS, and kids are actually smart enough to appreciate this.

As sleazy as Charlez Schulz has been made out to be in his personal life, “Peanuts” was a gift:  a very sophisticated, humane comic.    I’m reminded also of the”The Muppets”, who also weren’t afraid to make a difficult emotional point (“It’s not easy being green”) but who now have been sold to Disney in order to sell SUV’s and fast food (“It’s not easy being a delicious Subway sandwich in less than 5 minutes!!!!!!!!!”)

Pauline Kael in her review of “The Little Mermaid” makes the point that children don’t need to be spoon-fed,  they thrill to darker elements:

Are we trying to put kids into some sort of moral-aesthetic safe house? Parents seem desperate for harmless family entertainment. Probably they don’t mind this movie’s being vapid, because the whole family can share it, and no one is offended. We’re caught in a culture warp. Our children are flushed with pleasure when we read them ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ or Roald Dahl’s sinister stories. Kids are ecstatic watching videos of ‘The Secret of NIMH’ and ‘The Dark Crystal.’ 

where_the_wild_things_are

The question I’m left with is why are “magic feather” movies so ubiquitous today?   Disney fare from the 30’s and 40’s was significantly more nuanced.   One commentator to the Atlantic article suggests that it’s the stress of a post 9-11 downwardly-mobile world which encourages escapism. For all who feel uniquely stressed, remember that back in the 1960’s the Cold War was going full force and the threat of nuclear war was real. It almost happened with the Cuban Missile Crisis, 7 years before Charlie Brown was shown in theaters.

My guess is that it’s more related to the always-on-yet-emotionally-disconnected nature of e-connected life today.   When you have to be able to respond at any time, you seek refuge, and the only refuge in a competitive world is being the winner.  There is no Charlie Brown in his bed anymore, quietly getting up and putting his clothes on.

The Lady from Shanghai

ladyfromshanghai

 

Despite all mirrors, sharp angles and Expressionistic undertones, I found Orson Welles’ “The Lady from Shanghai” to be lurching and vague.   Most of the reviews I’ve read on it are  heavy on context: Welles and Rita Hayworth were in the midst of a divorce be because of his philandering, Welles was considered “finished” in Hollywood after the movie failed at the box office.  But for once I’ll take a movie on it’s face: I did not care about the characters, I thought the plot overcomplicated, and I did not find Welles at all convincing as a romantic lead or a tough guy,

Supporting actors Glen Anders and Everett Sloane are terrific; Rita Hayworth is luminous though simple (she lip-synchs wonderfully).   Since it’s a murder mystery from the same era, I kept thinking about how the film would have been different if Alfred Hitchcock directed it.   More shock, more icy energy, less of the romantic triangle.

Welles’ vaunted visual effects such as sea creatures magnified in aquarium tanks, and the famous “hall of mirrors” finale, didn’t do much for me, especially when paired with the relatively conventional and boring courtroom scenes.   Welles’ Irish brogue was unconvincing, even distracting, and I found his delivery to be “stagey”, even when delivering the most off-hand of lines.

It’s not a complete clunker, the cinematography during the yachting scenes is fluid in a way you don’t expect from a film made in 1948, and supporting performances are good – Glen Anders, as the half-crazy business partner adds some energy.  When the closing credits rolled though, I felt I had shanghai’d MYSELF by committing the time to see this movie.

Pleasing our mothers, our fathers

generation-war-1671546017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

— SPOILER ALERT.  There are spoilers in this review.  —

“Generation War” is a 5 hour epic that follows the lives of 5 young Germans throughout the course of World War II. Originally titled “Our Mothers, Our Fathers”, it had a successful run as a miniseries on German t.v.

Reviews in the U.S. have been mixed.  David Denby in The New Yorker says “…it may be clunky, even embarrassing, but it’s certainly never dull.”  I’ve seen this same line of exculpation so many times in reviews, perhaps resulting from the desire by the reviewer not to come across as too negative.  Rarely are movies described in the opposite way “….graceful and meaningful but certainly quite dull”.

The main knock on “Generation War” in the U.S. has been that it sanitizes the German war experience avoiding difficult questions about what level of culpability ordinary German citizens had in the rise of Hitler and the atrocities that followed.

This criticism has been less apparent in Germany.  “Der Spiegel” magazine described it as “a turning point in German television”, and claims:

“Germany apparently remains eternally wounded, dependent upon the healing power of remembrance. Germans must live with their trauma and occasionally reopen the wound to prevent it from festering.”

“Generation War” does everything it can to avoid reopening the wound.    It focuses on the collective conscience of a group of 5 tolerant, young, liberal friends, while ignoring the national conscience and the national character that lead to the ascendence of the Third Reich.   The film uses the trope of good Germans versus bad Germans, creating sympathy for these ordinary people against whom so much is happening.

Here is our wacky, close-knit group of protagonists:

GW_black

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remind you of anyone?

friends_black

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The level of character development remains on a “t.v.” level as well, as if there were just half an hour to get to know them rather than 5.  They fall into conventional types: the responsible upstanding one, the sensitive poet, the chanteuse, the “good girl”.   Yes, there is even a Jew.   To be played by David Schwimmer, perhaps, in the American version.

What follows is fairly predictable.  The sensitive one becomes a stone-cold killer (because of his sensitivity) ,  the good girl hardens, the chanteuse sells out, the responsible one becomes disillusioned, and the Jew survives (this is not “Shoah” after all).   In the end the remaining survivors gather at the bar where we met them in the opening scene, to toast their fallen friends.  Unlike “The Deer Hunter” they do not break out into patriotic song.

It’s a near-impossible task to capture the German experience of WWII.  The most successful German war film that I’ve seen is Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot”, precisely because its scope is limited to the experience of life onboard a German submarine.  It should be noted that “Das Boot” too, pits “good” German protagonists against evil Nazis, the difference is that the characters in “Das Boot” begin disillusioned by war.   The opening scene also takes place in a bar, with nervous submariners drinking to the point of vomiting, not innocently clowning and posing for group pictures.   

“Generation War”, if done correctly, would evince a greater tragedy than “Das Boot”, look how far the characters fall, they are all compromised and disillusioned by the end.  But the script is so hackneyed, the direction so obvious (long draw on a cigarette = deep thinking) that we see the end hours before it arrives. The final scene in “Das Boot”, on the other hand, is truly shocking, and we empathize with the characters, despite their mordancy, partially because of the extraordinary plot device of being trapped in a submarine with them (just as being trapped in a stuck elevator would encourage commonality) but also because we have seen them be brave while knowing they are both doomed and compromised and so is everyone else.  There is an unforgettable scene where we witness the German sailors watching men jump from a ship they have just torpedoed, on fire and begging for help.   No one is innocent, and a redemptive story about the perpetrators of the second Great War must proceed from this fact as a starting point in order to be taken seriously.

“Generation War” has been praised for its war scenes: typically shakey-cam speeded-up jittery cuts.  These seemed to be done by a different director, not so of course, and while riveting (“certainly never dull”) this technique evoked that “Sopranos” strategy  of interjecting bursts of violence to “juice” the audience when things were getting heavy or dull.   It also reminded me of U.S. war movies – “Generation War” has been described as a German “Band of Brothers” – which function as action movies, shocking the moral reflection out of the viewer and pouring in platitudes about cameraderie.  The message is always “bad things happen to good people, but at least we have each other”.

In “Generation War” there is a sense that those “bad things” which “happen” include the protagonists own moral failings.  These are limited to a personal rather than societal scale.  When the good-girl nurse turns in her Jewish assistant we have no sense that she was capable of the betrayal,  that she had become morally compromised and had lost the memory of her Jewish friend, Ross, uh, Viktor.  Instead the focus is on how badly she feels afterwards.  The deed is later forgiven in one of the final scenes where the Jewish nurse’s aide  returns, improbably, as a Russian commanding officer, who not only conveniently spares the nurse from rape by the advancing Stalinist troops (something I don’t think the filmmakers wanted to address) but also provides the film’s redemptive dollop by stating, in effect, “this must end somewhere”.

With all its flaws, the best legacy “Generation War” can provide is to encourage us to look at the compartmentalization and moral relativism in our own war films.  Critical praise for movies like “Zero-Dark Thirty” demonstrate how difficult it is to come to terms with the moral failings of our own society.  As it stands “Generation War” is a slick apologia, an immaculately-wrapped present by dutiful German children to their (grand)mothers and (grand)fathers.

 

 

Down the River: The De-Evolution of Boy Scout Handbooks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve always admired the austerity and simplicity of the 8th edition of the Boy Scout Handbook (1972-76), which I read during my harrowing time in the Scouts.  The subtle greens and no-nonsense font complement the inside illustrations, which are impressionistic line drawings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a sophistication that works nicely with the simplicity of the Handbook’s messages: Be a good person.  Be a good citizen.  And the artistry of the  drawings – check out the tension lines on the boy’s pants above, how they meander outside border –  suggest a respect for the (young) reader’s imagination.  There’s a purposeful ambiguity at times: is the boy above Asian or White?  Hispanic?

Although I had a mostly-negative experience with Scouting, my Scoutmasters quit the troop and we disbanded, I continue to enjoy the magical aspirational quality that started with Baden-Powell.  The 8th edition captures this wonderfully.   The design style and artwork tell the reader “This is how things could be.” rather than “This is how things are.”   To any child growing up in the 70’s it was very apparent that the simple wholesome life portrayed by Scouting was at direct odds with the zeitgeist, which was suffused not only with the collapse of traditional values, but also with the collapse of 60’s idealism, which was an alternative set of values whose demise was particularly painful to youth due to its greater respect for children. I can remember when I very young, having “hippies” bending down to speak to me as if I were a person with an opinion, something the “straight” adults rarely did.

What a treat then, to be offered a world that both traditional values and alternative design.  And with a philosophy that looked hopefully to the future:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And in berets no less.  Yet never resorting to comic-book exaggeration, instead offering a reassuring adult sensibility.

 

Today’s Handbook, in comparison, is a 4th of July Happy Meal that someone has dropped on the ground:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first thing you notice is that almost half of the cover is taken up by the patriotic tableaux of a confused looking bald eagle in front of a pixelated American flag.  The eagle looks anxious, as if the inflatable boat is about to come crashing down upon its head.  The Scouts are unidentifiable as scouts, they could be any campers or just kids out on a rafting trip.

This cover reflects anxiety.  The action is down, not up to the stars.  The visual metaphor that today’s youth are being sent “down the river”, that there is no solid ground under them.  And the demographic reality is that they will be forced to prop up the aging population, with few benefits or social safety net of their own.  The eagle has good reason to be anxious.

The imagery is realistic, like a photograph.  It says “This is how things are.” which undermines the beautiful (and useful) fiction that the 8th Edition captured so tenderly and  knowingly.

For something from the WWII era, check out this illustration from my father’s Boy Scout Handbook:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here, the Scout, a Tenderfoot no less, is placed directly in the historical pantheon in between a Founding Father and an explorer.  It looks like an illustration from “Treasure Island”.   And although the collapse of civilization was a distinct possibility at the time, the tone is confident, the Scout’s identity secure.   As always though, I have to point out that the good old times were not so good for those who were different.   I doubt you will see many brown faces in these lovely drawings.

What then would a non de-evolutional edition of the current Boy Scout Handbook look like?   It’s a cliche, but today’s world is even more complex.  There is less direct disappointment than in the early 70s: you no longer see the flag-draped coffins on the evening news, there is no draft and no there are no protests.  Today’s youth are numb.

A solution would wake them up, and make use of the identity-strengthening archetypes, like the WWII edition did.   Another book from the 70’s that offered a way out from the turmoil was the “Whole Earth Catolog”.  It featured all sorts of interesting projects and facts that were clever and low-tech.   A new Scouting handbook would show kids ways to use their energy and resilience to turn reduced prospects for traditional prosperity into a positive rather than a negative.  You can see this with locavore and permaculture movements.  To get kids to turn away from the video game and build a lean-to is a daunting task.

I think a return to seriousness, as opposed to the current edition’s candy-apple style, might be a way of getting through to the younger generation.  A new type of handbook that would convey both “This is how things are” (Wake up!) and “This is how thing could be” (Use this for inspiration).   A darker, more brooding BSA Handbook is the only one that will be successful.

 

1940’s meet the 1960’s: “Go Man Go!”

marquis_haynes.jpg

A charming time-capsule starring another charismatic but forgotten actor, Dane Clark (not the execrable Dane Cook), alongside a young Sidney Poitier, “Go Man Go!” features a bebop score by Slim Galliard, who was a favorite of Jack Kerouac. I wonder what the connection with “On the Road” is — I remember the phrase “Go Man Go” as an exhortation Sal Paradise shouted out to improvising jazz musicians.

Slim Galliard makes an appearance, playing a piano with his fingers upside down for a small gathering of Globetrotters. I love Kerouac’s description of a Galliard concert:

‘… we went to see Slim Gaillard in a little Frisco nightclub. Slim Gaillard is a tall, thin Negro with big sad eyes who’s always saying ‘Right-orooni’ and ‘How ’bout a little bourbon-arooni.’ In Frisco great eager crowds of young semi-intellectuals sat at his feet and listened to him on the piano, guitar and bongo drums.”

“…Then he slowly gets up and takes the mike and says, very slowly, ‘Great-orooni … fine-ovauti … hello-orooni … bourbon-orooni … all-orooni … how are the boys in the front row making out with their girls-orooni … orooni … vauti … oroonirooni …” He keeps this up for fifteen minutes, his voice getting softer and softer till you can’t hear. His great sad eyes scan the audience.”

What kills me is “ovauti“, it makes sense next to “o-rooni” but it’s so weird, where is it coming from? It’s perfect though.

That’s the 1950’s part of this movie, the 1940’s part consists of stereotypical interactions between Clark as Abe Saperstein, Bill Stern (as himself) a hard-bitten but honest sportswriter, and the evil Potter-like sports magnate Mr. Willoughby. The Bowery-Boys-style slang they use — “Hey ya mug! Ya gonna be a chump all your life? Of course you’re invited!” — is the direct precursor of today’s crushingly unimaginative board-room Ebonics appropriation: “Quarterly earnings doubled? Girl, go on with your bad self!”. It was probably just as hard to listen to back then.

The 1960’s part of the movie is best shown in the final scene, Abe Saperstein, arm-in-arm with the Globetrotters, walking triumphantly towards the camera, in a hopeful message of racial healing. Shades of Blackboard Jungle. I can’t recall another movie from the 1950’s that was this hopeful and unabashed about race. Today’s derivative ironic culture cannibalizes sentiment like this.

“Go Man Go” also has something to say about acting. In an early scene real-life Globetrotter “Sweetwater Clifton” speaks some lines about how he likes soda pop (the origin of his nickname). He delivers them woodenly, although with charm. This is the low end of the acting scale.

Raising the bar, Dane Clark as Abe Saperstein, shows real conviction, but he’s always hitting something when he acts. “I’m going to get us into big arenas if it’s the last thing I do!’ (SMACK). It’s as if the director fired him up before every scene (“Now this time really mean it!”) without thinking what the cumulative effect would be. Clark’s “average Joe” always seems to be in a harangue.

The best actor in the movie is Sidney Poitier, in a relatively minor role, who pops up from time-to-time to speak a few impassioned lines. He does so with quiet conviction, and having seen the other actors telegraph and flail, one gets a sense of the star quality of Sidney Poitier.

A couple of minor points about this movie: it is exemplary in showing what I like to call “old-time small basketball court syndrome”, action shot in a remarkably cramped gym. Another film that features this is “Angels with Dirty Faces” where the players are dodging trapezes and other non-basketball equipment as they play on a tiny court.

“Go Man Go” made me think of why, although everyone knows Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, no one knows who did it in the NBA. It turns out that Charles Cooper was the first drafted, Nat Clifton was the first signed, and Earl Lloyd the first to play in a game, all in 1950. Even though it’s complicated, I would think this deserves a little more recognition. Is it because basketball is not “America’s Game”?