Category Archives: 30’s

Not tickled by the magic feather

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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.’ 

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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.

Cabaret Revival? – “Nein danke”

Here’s a short list of actors who have reprised Joel Grey’s role as the emcee in “Cabaret”: Alan Cumming, John Stamos, Michael C. Hall, Doogie Howser, and now Alan Cumming II.  They do a version of this:

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A louche, drippy, supposed sensuality.   What the role calls for is more of this:

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Grey’s manic clown-from-hell, who takes you places you-know-not-where.

This is because the parts of “Cabaret” that take place outside of the KitKat Klub are ominous and depressing.  They include the strangulation of Weimar Germany by creeping Naziism and a doomed romance between a Jewish greengrocer and the landlady Fraulein Schneider.

Alan Cumming seemed tired and disengaged at the matinee performance I saw recently.   Part of this is just style, watch the energy level change when Joel Grey takes over in this performance at the Kennedy Center in 1998:

The only way to counter the heavy tediousness of the main story, is to witness the spectacle of this talented freak-pixie and his bawdy backup group.

From what I can tell Alan Cumming’s performance was  was exactly the same down to the gesture as in the 1998 show.  I was also inordinately bothered by his pronunciation in the song “Money”, he says “Money makes DE world go around…” when all German speakers that I know would say “Money makes ZE world go around”.  Seems minor but nobody caught that?

At the Roundabout theater, you are seated in a replica of the Kit Kat Klub, which is fun.  Michele Williams hit the notes but was shrill.  My recommendation is to see the 1972 film “Cabaret”, for which Joel Grey rightfully won an Oscar for  Best Supporting Actor.

 

 

Pleasing our mothers, our fathers

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— 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:

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Remind you of anyone?

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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.

 

 

Kitchen Confidential, circa 1933

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Orwell’s squalor-porn masterpiece “Down and Out in Paris and London”  was a precursor to Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential”.   Both deal in the frisson that comes from learning the dirty origins of  high-class restaurant food.  Orwell has been revered as THE objective dry-eyed chronicler of modern life by writers like Andrew Sullivan, so it surprised me to read melodramatic passages such as this:

“The cook had a crise de nerfs at six and another at nine; they came on so regularly that one could have told the time by them.  She would flop down on the dustbin, begin weeping hysterically, and cry out that never, no never had she thought to come to such a life as this; her nerves would not stand it; she had studied music at Vienna; she had a bedridden husban to support, etc. etc.”

It reads like a storyboard for a cartoon, I can picture a little cloud of dust rising up when the cook flops down on the dustbin.   Reminds me a little of Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield talks about shaking hands with a guy who “tries to break all forty of your fingers”.  No one much talks about Orwell the entertainer.

The Charles Nelson Reilly Conundrum

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I’ve recently run into several mid-30’s, culturally hyperliterate NYC women who, when asked if they know who Charles Nelson Reilly is, respond with a blank stare. Although the Krapmeister is no spring chicken, this is making me feel Really Old, it’s putting me into Ian McKellan in “Gods and Monsters” territory.

CNR was a gem, one of the first openly gay comedians on network t.v. I don’t think Paul Lynde was “out” to the same degree.

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Charles Nelson Reilly started out taking acting lessons with Steve McQueen, once married to the lovely Ali McGraw, (see previous post, ed.) He appeared on Broadway and won several Tonys and later became a “game-show fixture”. His spluttering, sailor-hatted, giant-glasses-wearing, ascot-sporting persona was funny and refreshing to me, and I always imagined him as a calm, honorable mensch underneath.

This would distinguish him from Paul Lynde who was also very funny but with an air of menace that hinted at the mean-ass alcoholic he was in real life. There is an apocryphal story of how, as a confirmed kid-hater, he was driven crazy by a squalling baby on a long plane flight. He is said to have left his seat and confronted the baby’s mother, saying “Madam, if you don’t quiet that baby I’m going to fuck it!” It’s bad enough he says “fuck” in regard to the kid but he also calls it an “it”. Drugs, rough trade, booze, early death… standard Hollywood story arc.

But back to me. Why is it that it’s so difficult in the ostensible cultural capital of the world to find a woman who knows who Charles Nelson Reilly is? I’m not big on cultural litmus tests but I’m feeling a little isolated here. Now if I could only find someone who knows who this man is:

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Forgotten actors you must love

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I just saw William Wellman’s “Lost Boys of the Road”[correction:”Wild Boys of the Road”, ed.], a 1933 film about Depression era kids leaving home and jumping freight trains. Frankie Darro stars and is GREAT. What a natural, I don’t know why he didn’t become a big star. He has an ability to convey honesty and decency in a way that isn’t as self-aware as Jimmy Stewart, and not as acidic as Henry Fonda. Interesting facts about Frankie: according to Wikipedia he played jockeys a lot because of his small stature, and played the voice of “Lampwick” the in one of my favorite animated films, 1940’s “Pinnochio”. Lampwick is the bad boy who is turned into a donkey.

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Darro opened a bar in Hollywood called the “Try Again” [correction: “Try Later” ed.] (because that’s what he heard every time he would call Central Casting). He became an alcoholic and died of a heart attack at age 59, on Christmas Day in 1976.