Saturday, July 09, 2016

LOOKING FOR ALBERT BROOKS IN THE NETFLIX WORLD



In the hierarchy of significance in what made news this past week, the sudden availability of the entirety of Albert Brooks’ output of feature films as a writer-director via Netflix Streaming may not carry the urgency of, say, the alarming continuance of African-American deaths under police fire, the attack on a peaceful protest against police violence by shooters who killed five law enforcement officers and wounded several more in Dallas, the ongoing partisan bloviating inspired by the FBI’s decision to not charge Hilary Clinton with federal crimes, or the frightening clown circus of offenses that characterizes the dawning of each new day in Donald Trump’s  presidential campaign. But art can, among many other things, provide a momentary respite from pain, sometimes even while examining some of the more frustrating, self-centric and petty dissonances within our own, or someone’s else’s worldview, and in this Brooks’ films at their best might just be the most unexpected sort of tonic during this weird, desperate and uneasy moment.

That may sound like a strange premise, and as I’m typing this I’m still not entirely convinced that it’s not at least a somewhat facile one. I don’t mean to suggest that Brooks’ films offer some sort of heretofore unexhumed sociopolitical element that, when generously applied, might somehow provide the balm for a society which seems to be intent on tearing itself apart. But in that their subject matter, film to film, is concerned largely with the surgical examination of a persona (that of “Albert Brooks”) whose towering self-absorption is matched only by his inability to see past his own nose, or to appreciate the presence of others (to say nothing of the “other”) only as they orbit and effect his world, there’s probably some satirical value to be gleaned by a potential audience whose insulation increases as our Facebook pages increasingly become our most significant connection to the world around us.

Oh, and let’s not forget the old bromide about laughter being the best medicine. Albert Brooks’ movies are still some of the most fearlessly hilarious movies you will likely ever see. And if for some reason you have not as yet indulged yourself—if, for some reason, you know Brooks’ great, Oscar-nominated work as an actor in Broadcast News, or in movies as diverse as Finding Nemo, Taxi Driver, Out of Sight and Drive, but are ignorant of his brilliant stand-up comedy or the great shorts he directed for Saturday Night Live, from which his feature work naturally evolved—then the bounty made available by Netflix will be an even bigger treat. Among the seven movies Brooks has directed to date, there are three bona fide masterpieces, maybe four, and three others that don’t measure up to those heights  but still bear the pleasurable evidence of a unique comic genius at work. That’s a pretty good batting average. And regarding the ones that fall short, a friend talking to me about Brooks recently said it best: if only other great director’s worst movies were as good as Albert Brooks’ “duds.”


After a series of short films, one made for PBS and the majority for the first incarnation of Saturday Night Live, Brooks took his persona and his poker-faced visual style, which seemed to emerge fully formed from the beginning, and applied it to his first feature. That feature, Real Life (1979), is a scathing satire of directorial hubris built around a parody of the 1971 PBS series An American Family, now considered the first reality TV series, which was originally intended to document the daily life of a Santa Barbara family, the Louds. Instead, it ended up chronicling the breakup of that family through separation and divorce, as well as becoming (and this is the part that really interests Brooks) a furious seminar in media literacy when the Louds later claimed the series, culled down from 300-plus hours of footage, had been edited to emphasize the dysfunction— the disruptive influence of the camera’s presence already having been made clear. 


Brooks structures his movie as a similar familial chronicle, but the on-screen “Albert Brooks,” a nightmarishly neurotic and venally self-absorbed filmmaker who very much resembles the man in Brooks’ short films, is clearly more interested in documenting his own invasion of the lives of his subjects than the people themselves, and he’s only vaguely aware of the ways in which the truth he’s ostensibly seeking is being altered by his crass mauling of documentary license. Real Life handily skewers a movement in cinéma vérité which gets crossed up with the most wrongheaded indulgences of personality cults and first-person gonzo journalism, and it may have proved to be even more chilling in its prescience than Network. Brooks literally burns down the family’s house in order to provide a spectacular finish for his documentary, but of course that fire has long since moved from his metaphor to our Kardashian-infused reality, a TV landscape in which the director is less likely to disrupt his subjects than be absorbed by them.


For me, Real Life is Brooks at his purest, certainly the movie in which his persona and his concerns are most acutely integrated with the consistently surprising wit and meaning of his long takes and otherwise deadpan visual style. But it’s entirely possible that his follow-up, Modern Romance (1981), cuts even deeper-- this is the rom-com from which Matthew McConnaughey, Kate Hudson and all their legions of fans will run screaming. Here Brooks is Robert Cole, a film editor assembling a cheapjack space epic starring George Kennedy, and his work provides just one of the many roadblocks in his relationship with his preternaturally patient girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold), most of them self-generated, of course. Robert is petty and conceited, and also irrationally jealous, but what makes Modern Romance resonate beyond the squirm-inducing limits of Robert’s self-destructive behavior is the way it explicitly ties up the concept of modern romance with that of codependency—this couple’s pattern of break-up and reunion, followed by another break-up which immediately inspires Robert’s desperate yearning for the way things were (that is to say, the way they never were), sends out queasy vibrations long past its ending, which itself suggests these two are tangled in a self-perpetuating web from which they may never escape. 


And if David and Linda Howard, the yuppie couple at the heart of Brooks’ Lost in America (1985), can be considered Robert and Mary’s logical, if not literal extensions, then escape is a fantasy, but hardly an option. At the beginning of this brutally incisive comedy, David impulsively quits his high-paying advertising job, the Howards liquidate their “nest egg” assets, buy a Winnebago and set out to find America and themselves, a journey which David frames as their own wrinkle on Easy Rider—itself a counterculture time capsule which probably holds up better as the sort of inspirational fantasy for which David uses it than as actual life strategy. During a Vegas stopover, Linda lets loose her pent-up rage toward David and gambles away all their money, which sets the couple on a course of savings-deprived self-discovery neither had anticipated. 

But the lessons learned by David and Linda aren’t so much inspirational as they are rooted in self-preservation, specifically the preservation of the values in which their selves are inextricably entwined. Some have found the ending of Lost in America too easy, too abrupt—David jumps at the chance to grovel at the feet of the execs who he previously spurned in order to get his cushy job back. But a return to the comforts and support systems of home and (high-paying) employment were always where these two were headed, so the eagerness with which the film sets them back on that road seems genuinely earned. It certainly doesn’t feel like a betrayal of previously held counterculture values—David only ever pays lip service to the idea of setting off like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, whose own nest egg David points out was secured by a big cocaine deal. One of the many remarkable things about Lost in America is the degree to which Brooks takes a torch to the lingering fantasies of his peers, and at a point on the cinematic timeline just after the popularity of The Big Chill, which came out two years earlier, had done so much to reanimate them. Thirty-one years later, Lost in America still has its finger on the pulse of what really cooled some members of a generation sparked by the energy of revolution, then hemmed in by the unforgiving economics of day-to-day survival.


I consider Real Life, Modern Romance and Lost in America genuine comic masterpieces, and Mother (1996) comes really close to that level too. If it’s a bit more conventionally conceived than his other pictures had been up to that point, Mother is still offers very sharply observed character comedy that doesn’t worry about whether or not Brooks and his frequent co-scenarist Monica Johnson have provided an entirely likable or even pleasant protagonist to build that comedy around.  Here Brooks plays John Henderson, a science fiction novelist with a newly failed marriage behind him (his second) who figures that the best way to root out the issues with the women in his life, as well as those surrounding his blocked creativity, is to move back in with the one woman from whom the conflict seems to have sprung-- his mother, played by Debbie Reynolds. Reynolds, who hadn’t had a starring role in a movie since 1971’s  What’s the Matter With Helen?, is the movie’s secret weapon—she’s so confident, so alert in her comic timing, her every gesture and indication of confusion and age-old annoyance with her son delivered with precision and a glancing touch that renders their 40-year relationship absolutely convincing. Outside of the director’s own presence in his movies, Reynolds delivers what has to be the best performance ever given in an Albert Brooks movie, and that she was virtually ignored during award season is simply unaccountable.


Mother plays like a crowd-pleaser, though in a distinctly Albert Brooks mode, and it’s a little pat in its conclusion. But Brooks and Johnson, and Reynolds, have to be given a huge amount of credit for everything that gets us to that conclusion which, too tidy or no, is still satisfying, and we manage to arrive there without enduring the more obvious pitches for audience acceptance that marked the otherwise agreeable, but in my memory second-tier, Defending Your Life (1991). (Of all the Brooks films now available on Netflix, I’m perhaps looking forward to revisiting this one, if only because so many smart people I know seem to hold it in much higher regard than I ever did. Plus, it’s got Lee Grant and Rip Torn in it.) The Muse (1999), probably the director’s weakest effort, feels like Brooks’ version of The Player—he’s a struggling Hollywood screenwriter, taking meetings and bumping shoulders with celebrities (Jennifer Tilly, James Cameron, Cybill Shepherd among them), who enlists the help of a muse (Sharon Stone)—who may be the incarnation of Zeus’ daughter— to help him get his career back on track. If the concept itself sounds a little more fanciful than the usual Albert Brooks affair, the fancy is compacted by the movie’s too-inside feel, which softens the edges of Brooks’ satirical framework in preparation for the strange sentimentality that the movie settles into. The Muse has its moments, but it’s the only Albert Brooks movie that feels indifferent and underimagined.


I missed Brooks’ last directorial effort to date, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, when it played (briefly) in theaters in 2005, catching up to it only last week courtesy of the current Netflix revival, and based on the largely negative reviews my expectations were certainly dialed in low. I remember mistakenly imagining upon its release that the movie might be some sort of sincere documentary investigation of what makes Muslims laugh, a sort of All Things Considered-tinged undertaking meant to foster understanding and goodwill and long-winded government reports, or perhaps even a more irreverently mounted inquiry along the lines of Bill Maher’s Religulous. So now, after having seen it, my only question remains: What the hell’s the matter with me?! 

Brooks’ last movie is perhaps a little lighter on the “comedy ha-ha” than any of his Big Four, all movies which in their description might not sound funny at all-- my own accounts in this piece don’t exactly make Brooks’ pictures sound like laff riots, even though any random five minutes from any one of them contains more gut-busting comedy than, say, the entire Hangover trilogy. But LFCITMW remains true to Brooks’ raison d'être, that is, the filtering of a global concept—social perception, male-female relationships, generational delusion, parental reconciliation, and now cultural and religious tension—through the neurotic, narcissistic narrowcasting of the “Albert Brooks” persona.


For the first time since Real Life, Brooks plays Albert Brooks by name. Down on his luck in getting acting jobs—all that Pixar money apparently does nothing to assuage his wounded ego over being rejected for the new Penny Marshall movie—Brooks accepts an assignment from a government task force headed up by ex-Senator Fred Dalton Thompson to fly to a post-9/11 Middle East and, in the name of cross-cultural understanding, conduct a study on the apparently mysterious Muslim sense of humor. Brooks balks at the general tenor of the task, but even more so at the proposed 500-page report Thompson insists will be required at project’s end— he’s obsessed with the daunting idea of the report, to the exclusion of any attempt to construct an effective plan by which to even approach the business of inquiring about the Muslim funny bone, to say nothing of whether or not the question should even be broached in such a monolithic fashion.

The hopelessness of Brooks’ charge is indicated early on when it’s revealed that Thompson is sending Brooks, along with two bureaucratic aides (Jon Tenney and John Carroll Lynch), to New Delhi, India, with a planned side trip to Pakistan. New Delhi, it is noted, has a significant Islamic population, but its citizenry is primarily Hindi—it’s clear that Brooks hasn’t landed in Baghdad or Damascus or some other considerably hotter spot. Once Brooks decides that his best initial approach is a stand-up comedy show pitched at the Indian Islamic community, he spends an inordinate amount of time determining just who it is in the city’s teeming population that will comprise his ideal audience. The staged show turns out to be a classic Brooksian scenario of crossed wires, miscommunication and misunderstanding (based on a fundamental ignorance of and disinterest in Islamic culture), and it sends Brooks the would-be comedic diplomat into a frenzy of collapsing confidence and desperation. 


A classic visual gag, in which Brooks and company argue the finer points of their strategy while the splendor of the Taj Mahal, which they’ve come to visit, goes ignored in the background of a beautiful tracking shot, recalls the unleashing of the Howards’ grievances toward each other in Lost in America on top of the Hoover Dam. As David and Linda vent, they are dwarfed by the setting, and as he does in the latter movie, Brooks proves Rick Blaine’s notion that the problems of (two) little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

The initial reception of Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World seems to suggest that the short-sighted presumptions of the Brooks character and the US government, which are perfectly in line with his compulsion to distill the complexities of a given situation down to the finer points of whatever it is that affects his world, were mistaken by the film's critics for the filmmaker’s actual point of view. Brooks the character goes along with the narrow, misidentified focus of the location of the Muslim comedy campaign because it’s the path of least resistance, no matter that it puts him in no real position to achieve the aim for which he initially set out. Strange, and very difficult to imagine then, that it was assumed by many upon the movie’s initial release that Brooks, the writer-director of LFCITMW, had also accepted that misinformation in apparently, and illogically, accepting “Albert Brooks’” self-absorbed methodology, or lack thereof, as his own.


What’s challenging and interesting about the movie, beyond whether or not it generates as many guffaws as previous Brooks pictures—it doesn’t, but it’s still pretty darn funny—is how willing it seems to weave a portrait of a society of Americans almost entirely, willfully ignorant of Muslim culture and the degree to which a steep learning curve should be rapidly undertaken. (No better time than this election year to get that campaign started.) Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World ends as most Brooks pictures do, Real Life being the significant, more disturbing exception-- with order somewhat restored and the Brooks character brought back into the cocoon of the world he knows, safe once again in a state of ignorance which promises no happiness or satisfaction, only relief from the immediate pressures by which the character has been previously taunted. 

Perhaps we’re not as transparent in our neurotic selfishness as “Albert Brooks” is, but as we watch this Albert Brooks movie, and all the others that are now available on Netflix, the folly of that ignorance is there to register even as we appreciate a fearless, ruthless comic vision unique in American movies and laugh in confidence that an asshole such as the one Brooks conjures could never be us.


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Saturday, June 25, 2016

EAT THAT QUESTION: FRANK ZAPPA IN HIS OWN WORDS



Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words takes its title from a song found on the composer’s 1972 fusion album The Grand Wazoo, and there may be no better preparation for the Frank Zappa revealed in director Thorston Schutte’s extraordinary documentary than this command to consume, and then presumably digest and defecate out, the sort of journalistic queries Zappa routinely endured, with patience, smarts and inescapable sarcasm, throughout his career. “Being interviewed is one of the most abnormal things that you can do to somebody,” Zappa explains during a TV interview to a reporter whose expression, an uneasy mixture of intimidation and confusion, remains constant throughout their encounter.

The composer’s testy relationship with the media is one of the threads that unites Schutte’s somewhat unusual approach—there are none of the usual associates, scholars and friends on hand to tell you secondhand (at best) what a genius Zappa was, nor the typical glut of chyrons and identifiers meant to orient you as to where and when you are or to who it is other than Zappa who occasionally speaks, or even the names of the songs you’re occasionally hearing. Instead, the movie’s deft editing style conjures Zappa’s history through an assemblage of observational details—quality of film stock, fashion, the greying of hair— creating a focus which makes the most room possible for Zappa to express his own musical and political philosophy, minus the usual overt and covert cultural filtering. “I feel very strongly about my point of view,” Zappa explains at one point. “I think there are other people who might agree with it if they heard it, and I’ll do whatever I can to say my point of view wherever it can be said.” In creating a film that posthumously allows Zappa to do precisely that (the musician died in 1993 from the effects of prostate cancer), Schutte has crafted a tribute that might have gained approval even from the notoriously exacting musician himself.

(Presumably the surviving members of Zappa’s family are similarly satisfied with the results—the film was produced in conjunction with the Zappa Family Trust—even if those family members are currently at odds with each other regarding the musical and financial legacy of their father.)

Eat That Question is a gift to Zappa’s diehard fans (I count myself among their number), who will be well familiar with some of the places that Schutte’s film takes them. But even if the film proves to be more revelatory to those whose familiarity and understanding of Zappa’s music and his modus operandi registers below the line of fanaticism, it remains fascinating not only as a document of FZ’s testy relationship with the press, but also of the press’s evolving relationship with their insistently irreverent subject.

We see the fledgling avant-garde composer’s early appearance, at age 22, on The Steve Allen Show, performing “Concerto for Two Bicycles”—using two bicycles, naturally—under the comically condescending guidance of the host. In a lesser film, this clip would be framed by talking heads prompting us with perfect 20/20 hindsight to observe what an asshole Steve Allen was for not noticing or encouraging his guest’s creative impulses. But Schutte lets the archival footage speak for itself; we see not only Allen’s good-natured disregard, but also the young Zappa’s sincerity as it mixes up with his desire to play along with, and gently poke at his host’s befuddlement. (Anyone who has ever taken pride in appreciating something which causes their parents some measure of confusion or distress will recognize this impulse.)

It didn’t take long, however before that sort of give-and-take playfulness disappeared almost entirely. Interviews from around the Mothers of Invention period reveal that the musician had developed a healthy disregard of his own as his music became more and more challenging, and that disregard was now more often returned by the guardians of TV culture. At one point, after having resurrected accusations of Zappa having betraying the hippie movement—an accusation that pointedly does not inspire in Zappa the sort of defensive outrage that was intended-- the unidentified interviewer-- Mr. Obvious-- suggests, with no small portion of pity in his delivery, that “there is a deep cynicism in you.” Without hesitation, Zappa responds: “Yeah, and I wish more people would catch some of it!”  


The beauty of Schutte’s movie is that it reveals a confidence borne from an absolute conviction in the ability of its hyper-articulate, yet never hyperbolic subject to hold the room, even at his most sarcastic, employing a dead-eyed stare that could and did wilt unprepared journalists unfortunate enough to step into its focus. Zappa often responded to serious inquiry, however, with cool thoughtfulness—on the subject of whether or not his songs were largely improvised, he replied, “The structure of the songs allows for the possibility of improvisation, but they are pretty thoroughly rehearsed… I don’t like to go out on stage and slop around”.

But his outrage was perhaps more thoroughly documented. Zappa relates that attempts at censorship in his career went as far back as “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black,” a song on the We’re Only in It For the Money album which was surreptitiously edited by record executives who misinterpreted a lyric about a waitress at a restaurant (“I still remember Mama/With her apron and her pad/Feeding all the boys at Ed’s Café”) as a reference to a sanitary napkin. And it’s a thrill of a very precise sort to revisit footage of Zappa taking a cool-headed stand in the early ‘80s, in Congress and on CNN’s Crossfire program, against the almost comic paranoia of Parent Music Resource Center and their crusade against rock music filth. (His parrying with Florida Senator Paula Hawkins on the subject will put a smile on the face of every young Zappa aficionado who grew up to warp the minds of their very own children.) 

It wouldn’t be a surprise if many viewers of Eat That Question took away a dominant picture of Zappa as an angry maverick tilting at the multitudinous windmills of plasticized and processed American culture, because in many ways that’s what he was. But the movie also makes room for the sort of peculiar joy that characterized his experience too. He actively resisted being conscripted as a performing front man. (“We’ve been offered three or four times to play for the big communist party picnic in France… Fuck the communists. I don’t like those people. I do my music for people who like music.”) 


Yet he embraced, with some measure of shock and surprise, the expression of appreciation directed toward him by President Vaclav Havel and the dissident peoples of Czechoslovakia, and after visiting the country in 1990 he accepted Havel’s appointment as Special Ambassador to the West for Trade, Culture and Tourism. For Zappa, who had spent 30 years battling record companies and social institutions and governmental interference over the expression of his own musical creativity and political conviction in the land of the free and the home of the brave, it was a bittersweet moment of validation. Schutte’s film, in laying the foundation for the case for Frank Zappa as something considerably more than a freak, registers the importance of the moment and how it resonates with our own current, somewhat freakish global political climate.


And Zappa himself took an especially mordant glee in relating how “Bobby Brown,” the viciously satirical first-person portrayal of a sociopathic, sexually opportunistic disco-era predator from Zappa’s unusually popular 1979 Sheik Yerbouti album, was embraced by Europeans and made into a #1 hit in several countries, even though he suspected that most who loved it had no idea what the song was actually about. The image of a Norwegian disco full of young people slow-dancing to a ballad sung by a self-described “American dream” who brags about being able to “take about an hour on the tower of power, as long as I gets a little golden shower” is one of the movie’s funniest moments. What’s more, the movie inadvertently highlights the surgery done by Zappa on the song’s entitled, brutally casual protagonist (“Here I am at a famous school/I'm dressin' sharp and I'm actin' cool/I got a cheerleader here wants to help with my paper/Let her do all the work and maybe later I'll rape her”), which has a psychological resonance that is welcome, and unfortunately just as necessary in the aftermath of Brock Turner, as it was when it debuted during the age of polyester slacks and dangling coke spoons.

Eat That Question is, of course, a forum for Zappa’s documented verbiage to take center stage, and it does so, at times gloriously. So it’s curious, from of a movie so focused on words and ideas, that two specific images should have carried so much weight for me. The first is the simple sight of the ear-to-ear grin on Zappa’s face as he stands marveling at the musical invention and sheer dexterity of Ruth Underwood, his superb vibraphonist from 1966 through 1977, as she rips through one of his typically intimidating charts. Anyone who hangs on to the notion that FZ was all work and no play needs to see that grin.


The second comes at the end, our last sight of Zappa in the film, at age 52 and close to death. It’s a simple shot, part of a news program dedicated to the performance of his late-period classical music, of Zappa, bearded, gray, obviously weak, waving the baton with focus and conviction as the orchestra brings forth that signature atonal, rhythmically complex sound and fury. There’s a serenity on Zappa’s face, as if his shortened life were being fulfilled right in this moment, which is inescapably powerful.

In the US especially,” Zappa opines early on in the film, “musicians are generally regarded as useless adjuncts to the society, unless they do something creative like write a Coca-Cola jingle… So if you want to be a musician, you just have to realize that nobody is gonna care.” That’s an observation culled from a bitter realist, one made in the midst of a career marked by creative struggle and commercial indifference, and one which the movie honors. But Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words is, above all else, the empathetically realized story of Frank Zappa’s journey toward being taken seriously as a composer, and in its form and incidental testimony it reveals an appreciative truth that stretches beyond Zappa’s words. For at least 90 minutes that observation of cultural irrelevance is one that his critics, and maybe even the ghost of the great American iconoclast himself, will finally be made to dine on.

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From the film, here’s Frank Zappa on…

Musical Role Models:


“I thought, ‘Boy, if anybody could make a missing like between Edgard Varese and Igor Stravinsky, that would be pretty nifty.’ Then somebody turned me on to an album of music by Anton Weburn and I said, ‘Wow, anybody who could get a missing link between Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern and Edgard Varese, that would be very spiffy.’ Then I heard what some of the stuff sounded like that I had been writing, and it was so ugly that I decided to go backwards and get into the melodic area again. Then people started telling me that my melodies were ugly.”

Nasty Language:

“There is no such thing as a dirty word. There is no word, nor any sound, that you can make with your mouth that is so powerful that it will condemn you to the lake of fire at the time when you hear it. ‘Dirty words’ is a fantasy manufactured by religious fanatics and government organizations to keep people stupid. Any word that gets the point across is a good word. If you wanna tell somebody to ‘get fucked,’ that’s the best way to tell him.”

A Riot Nearly Sparked by the Mothers in Germany in the Late ‘60s:

Zappa: “We had one very negative experience in Berlin. We arrived and we set up our equipment at the Sportpalast. Some students came over there and they said: ‘We would like to have you help us with a political action.’ They wanted to set fire to the Allied Command Center. And I said, ‘I don’t think that is good mental health.’ The minute we came on stage, about 200 students got up and they were waving red banners and they were shouting “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh” and they were blowing horns, and they were throwing things on the stage, and they were calling us the Mothers of Reaction and they tried to ruin the concert. A few hundred people were coming toward the stage.

“So I increased the volume of the music. And this noise was so loud and so ugly, that it was actually pushing them back. It was like a science-fiction story. Meanwhile, there’s all the other thousands of people who were sitting there, looking around. They thought it was something that we might do in the show.”

Interviewer: “There were reports that you called these students fascists”

Zappa: “I did, because I think that there is definitively a fascistic element, not only in the left wing in Germany, but in the United States too. Any sort of political ideology that doesn’t allow for the rights, and doesn’t take into consideration the differences that people have, is wrong.”

Deficiencies in American Education:


“People are just not accustomed to excellence. When you go to school, you’re not given the criteria by which to judge between quality this or quality that. All they do is teach you just enough to be some kind of a slug in a factory to do your job, so you can take home a paycheck and consume some other stuff that somebody else makes. There’s no emphasis in schools in the United States put on preparing people to live a life that has beautiful things in it. You know, things that might bring them aesthetic enrichment. That is not a major consideration.” 

His Image in the Media:

“You don’t see me on normal television very often, you don’t hear the records on the radio very often. If you read about me in the papers, they write about me like I’m a maniac. I’m not. I’m 40 years old and I’m normal, I got four kids, a house and a mortgage. I’m an American citizen and happy to be that way.”

Presumed American Superiority:

“The thing that sets the Americans apart from the rest of the cultures in the world is we’re so fucking stupid. This country has been around for a couple of hundred years and we think we are hot shit, and they don’t even realize that other countries have thousands of years of history and culture and they are proud of it. And when we deal on an international level, with foreign policy and we’re going as this big American strong country, they must laugh up their sleeves at us because we are nothing. We are culturally nothing. We mean nothing, we are only interested in the bottom line. We have Levi’s, designer jeans, hamburgers, and Coca Cola. We have REO Speedwagon. We have Journey. (But) we also have the neutron bomb and poison gas, so maybe that makes up for it.”

The Zappa Aesthetic:

“The easiest way to sum up the aesthetic would be: Anything, anytime, anyplace, for no reason at all.”

How He Wants to Be Remembered:

Zappa: It’s not important to be remembered. The people who are worried about being 
remembered are guys like Reagan, Bush. These people want to be remembered. And they’ll spend a lot of money, and do a lot of work, to make sure that remembrance is just terrific!”

Interviewer: And for Frank Zappa?

Zappa: I don’t care!

Friday, June 17, 2016

THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH: IN MEMORY OF THE BIJOU (1957) AND THE ALGER (1940-2015)



The delightful British comedy The Smallest Show on Earth headlines a great Saturday matinee offering from the UCLA Film and Television Archive on June 25 as their excellent series “Marquee Movies: Movies on Moviegoing” wraps up. So it seemed like a perfect time to resurrect my review of that movie, which celebrates the collective experience of seeing cinema in a darkened, and in this case dilapidated old auditorium, alongside my appreciation of my own hometown movie house, the Alger, which opened in 1940 and closed last year, one more victim of economics and the move toward digital distribution and exhibition.

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“You mean to tell me my uncle actually charged people to go in there? And people actually paid?” –Matt Spenser (Bill Travers) upon first seeing the condition of the Bijou Kinema, in The Smallest Show on Earth...

In Basil Dearden’s charming and wistful 1957 British comedy The Smallest Show on Earth (also known under the far-less evocative title Big Time Operators), a young couple, played by Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, inherit a small–town cinema, the Bijou Kinema-- known to the citizenry of Sloughborough as the Flea Pit-- and decide, in order to drive up the selling price to the local cinema magnate, who wants to tear it down and build a carpark, that against all odds and common sense they’ll reopen the doors and give the business a go. 

They also inherit three elderly employees who have long been part of the Bijou’s checkered history—Mrs. Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford), the cashier who was once also the cinema organist during the silent era; Mr. Quill (Peter Sellers), the projectionist with a more-than-slight penchant for Dewar’s White Label; and Old Tom (Bernard Miles), the janitor who only wants a uniform commensurate with his position and who dutifully provides a fiery solution when negotiations with the magnate hit a snag. These three comprise what passes for the barely beating heart of the Bijou, and if Dearden’s movie seems to end just as the third act is set to begin, it remains a sweet-tempered testament to the blinkered spirits of the Bijou staff, as well as to the fleeting pleasures of nostalgia and the long-lost palaces where past generations learned to love the movies. 

Some of the richest comic highlights of The Smallest Show on Earth come from all the technical foul-ups that come courtesy of the theater’s antiquated equipment—busted reels, focus failures, upside-down images and, of course, the image of sizzling celluloid from a frame on fire, these are as good as a cartoon and a newsreel, the expected bonuses when you buy a ticket at the Bijou. And audiences in 2016 who stumble upon this little beauty on DVD (or on Amazon Streaming Video, where it is currently available) will likely get huge laughs from the movie’s sly comment on the panicked movie industry’s attempt to stave off the deleterious effects of television through unabashed gimmickry.


Unable to afford upgrades to Cinemascope and stereophonic sound, the staff at the Bijou make do (albeit inadvertently) with the hardships imposed on them by the march of progress.  One of the factors of modernity contributing to the theater’s fall into disrepair is a railway which zooms directly past the outside of the auditorium, making the building shake from its faulty foundation to its rickety rafters. However, fortune smiles upon the Spensers as audiences react with wild abandon when the roar of the train outside is accidentally synched to a scene of a train robbery in the western on screen. The rumbling is so awful that poor Mr. Quill, recently having “taken the pledge,” is driven back to drink after throwing himself bodily on the projector to keep it from vibrating off its floor mounts. But the audience sees it as an “enhanced” experience, something they certainly couldn’t get from sitting at home in front of the tube.

Viewers taking in The Smallest Show on Earth 60 years later will think of everything from Sensurround to D-Box, technological gimmicks that, effective as they might be, still probably wouldn’t be as much fun as a well-timed passing locomotive threatening to literally bring the house down. The movie gently satirizes the raucous behavior of working-class audiences in the age of television while serving as a bridge between the rapidly changing landscape of modern entertainment and its own unapologetically nostalgic yearning for days past, when tastes were simpler and ornate palaces built to showcase flickering images of grandeur and adventure were commonplace. Whatever else you might say about them, the rowdy, television-spoiled audiences that (eventually) pack the Bijou are at least having fun, unlike their “sophisticated” modern-day counterparts, whose countenances, lit by cell phone screens, betray the desultory sense that, despite the fact that they’ve paid upwards of $17 to get in, they’d rather be anywhere else than in a theater watching a movie.


Of course, that appeal to nostalgia for days past rings slightly differently in 2016 than it did for the characters in Dearden’s film, who have seen change in the film industry, from silent to sound to color to wide-screen, but who mourn most especially for the days when the theater could be packed for every show, when the movies really were the best and only show in town. Audiences exposed to the movie today might first marvel that there were ever such huge, expansive, ornately designed, single-screen temples whose only purpose was to show movies. Modern multiplexes with 25 screens and a bounty of tentpole blockbusters to exhibit still find themselves appealing to Internet technology to stimulate ticket sales, booking live, high-definition video feeds of operas and other “special events,” and even appealing to organizations like churches to rent auditoriums, all in order to stay afloat in an age when entertainment choices are even more fragmented. Single-screen palaces for everyday exhibition really are, with a few exceptions like the historic Vista Theater in East Hollywood, things of the past. (You'll see the Vista on the big screen this summer as part of Woody Allen's vintage Hollywood-era comedy Cafe Society.)


For me, seeing The Smallest Show on Earth for the first time in 2014 provided its own sort of coincidence, like a train with the word “progress” spray-painted on its engine in in ironic quotation marks rumbling past, but without the pleasant afterglow of an enhanced experience. As I watched the efforts of the Spensers and their staff to raise the Bijou Kinema from the ashes, I couldn’t help but reflect on a couple of beloved movie palaces in my own life that are not now what they once were. In September 2014 it was announced that the New Beverly Cinema was being taken over by Oscar-winning filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and that long-time owner-operator Michael Torgan was out. (Torgan took over daily operation of the theater when his father Sherman, who opened the theater as a repertory cinema in 1978, died unexpectedly in 2007.) Not much more is known now about the specifics of what transpired than when the coup was announced in August 2014, other than it seems to have been precipitated by Torgan’s purchase of a digital projector, to which his notoriously 35mm-or-nothing landlord took extreme exception. In solidarity with Michael, and out of indifference to the heavily grindhouse-tilted tenor of the programming since the theater reopened one month later in October, I ended up taking about a year off from attending the New Beverly.
 
When I returned, for a screening of an IB Tech print of Once Upon aTime in the West, I was delighted to see Michael there, looking happy in a new managerial role that seems to have at least afforded him the occasional night off to spend away from personally running the theater 24/7. I’ve only been back one time since that night—for a Smokey and the Bandit/Convoy combo, though I regret not being able to see their recent Robert Siodmak double bill of The Suspect and Phantom Lady. The theater’s vibe is most definitely Tarantini’s now—programs like that Siodmak pairing are in the minority, ceding to schedules that continue to lean not only on grindhouse and action fare but also on unremarkable artifacts from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s (a double bill of the two Other Side of the Mountain movies were featured recently) that betray a video store geek’s zeal but far less of the well-rounded, well-schooled aura of the revival house as once defined by Sherman, and then Michael Torgan. The bottom line, however, remains that though, yes, the theater isn’t the same, at least the New Beverly is still showing films as one of several tantalizing daily options Los Angeles have at their disposal on the revival cinema scene.


More pointedly, however, 2014 was the year that the movie palace of my own childhood finally closed its doors for what looks like the last time. I saw my very first movie in a theater at the tender age of three. It was Gay Purr-ee (1963), the Abe Levitow-directed animated feature (co-written by Chuck Jones) about cats in the French countryside making their way to the big city, and I saw it at the Marius Theater in beautiful downtown Lakeview, Oregon. The Marius, built in the early 1930s, wasn’t the first movie theater in town—there was a tiny silent theater operating in the early 1900s that introduced the industrial age wonder of the movies to the Irish immigrants and cowpokes who first populated my hometown. (Writer Bob Barry commemorated the theater, whose name I can’t recall—the Rex, maybe?—in his book of local history From Shamrocks to Sagebrush.) But the Marius was my first. I don’t remember a thing about it, and without the help of some photographs I doubt I’d even be able to recall what the exterior looked like—it was closed and remodeled into an office building during the years in the mid-60's when my family briefly moved to California. By the time we returned in 1968, the Marius was gone-- though the remnants of the theater stage are still discernible in the basement of that remodeled building, known since the theater’s closing as the Marius Building, there's no other indication that a movie theater ever stood there.

By the time I returned to Lakeview in 1968, I’d been infected by the movie virus in a serious way. My parents took us to movies at the big theaters near the outskirts of Sacramento—the Tower and the Roseville in downtown Roseville, and the Citrus Heights Drive-in in the bedroom community of Citrus Heights, where we lived—and when we moved back to the rural splendor of Lakeview, I took as full advantage as I could of the opportunity to go to the movies by myself or with friends—something we weren’t allowed to do in the big city. And the Alger Theater, at the edge of downtown Lakeview, just a mile from my house, became my refuge, my oasis, my home away from home. Those were the days of double features, Saturday matinees (with reduced prices!), of driving into town and thrilling to see the lights of the marquee turned on before sundown, beckoning, promising a peek into a world well beyond the limits of what could be offered by my little burg. I dreamt of that place often, the yellow bulb lights dotting the undercarriage of the marquee, glowing and playing off the pale green trim of the theater frontage—it was glamorous, the only glamour my town had to offer, and it was irresistible.

My dad’s side of the family, the Italians, were dutiful Catholics, and as such were well acquainted with Bob and Norene Alger, visible participants in local Catholic culture who owned and operated the Alger Theater and the Circle JM Drive-in Theater on the north end of town—they had owned the Marius as well. Being the son (and grandson) of family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Alger always made me feel welcome. I can remember filing out of many matinees and evening shows and being greeted by Mrs. Alger with a hug, which many of my friends and peers thought was strange because she was rarely any more than standoffish—and sometimes downright cranky—to most of them. She also came down into the auditorium to personally check on me the night I first saw Blazing Saddles, apparently fearing from my relentless laughter that I was in danger of respiratory failure or full-on hysteria. And the very first review I ever wrote, at the tender age of 12, came at the behest of Mr. Alger, who offered me free admittance to the Saturday night showing of Young Winston (1972) if I would provide him a written review of it after mass the following morning. I have no idea why he wanted me to write about it, but when I delivered my little essay, he accepted it with that slightly inscrutable half-smile, which could be easily misinterpreted (or correctly interpreted, I suppose) as a frown and which rarely left his face. I never heard another word about the review, and he never asked me to do it again.    

Though they were overseers of one of the two primary communal entertainment options available to Lakeview back in the day, Bob and Norene felt no need to worry about competing with television. Which was a good thing, because the Algers were anything but show people. They ran the theater with an increasing sense of begrudging duty, and not without a sense— definitely noticed by the general populace— that they were too socially sophisticated for the audience they served. And they didn’t go in for gimmicks or promotions either. The only bonuses offered by the theater came on Christmas Eve (an annual canned food drive matinee which didn’t survive the early ‘70's-- see Dear Brigitte on the calendar to the left); Independence Day (a bare-bones fireworks show for which several pals, including the Algers' son David and I, comprised the mortar crew when I was a teenager); and, best of all, one-night horror shows for New Year’s Eve, Halloween and whenever a Friday the 13th would roll around. The Alger booked a terrific array of Hammer, Amicus and American-International titles for my formative years, allowing me to see films like Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Rasputin the Mad Monk, The Fearless Vampire Killers, The Green Slime, Tales from the Crypt, Asylum, The House That Dripped Blood, Count Yorga, Vampire and countless others that stand as favorites to this day, all projected to a crowd of very enthusiastic screamers.


Audiences at the Alger weren’t far removed from the hijinks of those rowdy delinquents inside the Spensers’ Bijou either. One of the apocryphal Bob Alger stories for me and my buddies came as a result of a Halloween night screening of Tales from the Crypt during which the audience, comprised mostly of high school kids like myself who, unlike myself, were there to do anything but watch the movie, got well out of control. The din started before the opening curtain and continued to increase. And when some sort of projectile flew out of the crowd and landed very close to the screen, it wasn’t long before Mr. Alger marched slowly, deliberately, to the front of the theater, the lights came up, the movie stopped and everyone went silent. “What I have before me, on the floor of the auditorium,” he intoned ominously, as fearsome as Sir Ralph Richardson's cryptkeeper, “is a fresh egg.” He berated the audience for their behavior and threatened to shut the screening down entirely, with no refunds, if decorum wasn’t restored immediately. He even yelled out at one poor bastard who was still cutting up during his speech—“You! In the balcony! I know it was you who threw it!” Even though I wasn’t causing trouble myself, I was terrified (I could only laugh about it later), but I was also secretly glad because, goddamn it, I couldn’t hear the movie, and the last thing I would have wanted was for the Algers to pull the plug on these horror holiday special shows, which I considered a major perk and a significant antidote to the doldrums of Lakeview citizenship.

I went to see everything I could at the Alger. I wanted to see everything I could. But for the general audiences, who during the early ‘70s came out to see just about anything the theater showed—I remember a half full house for Robert Altman’s box-office bomb Buffalo Bill and the Indians, for crying out loud, a phenomenon probably attributable to the cowboy community assuming they were in for a run-of-the-mill western—I don’t think the movies themselves mattered nearly as much as the chance to get out and do something, anything.

And when that movie was done, it was done—there was no going out and talking about it afterward, because movies were rarely seen as anything more than simple diversion. Sometimes the movie was done before it was done. One of the funniest moments in The Smallest Show on Earth comes as a B-western is beginning to wrap up. It’s the last scene in the movie, and the audience, sensing that the meat of the action has finished, jumps up and bolts for the exits before “The End” even has a chance to pop up and cue them that it’s time to leave. The audiences at the Alger were similarly inclined to get on with life rather than savor the cinematic experience they’d just had. I’ll never forget coming home from college and seeing Star Wars with the hometown crowd. As soon as the Death Star exploded, at least 40 people in the packed house grabbed their coats and scooted out of the theater.
 
For all its deficiencies—the inept projection, the frequently misspelled marquee (it was always “Pual” Newman in something or other, and I’ll never forget “Ward Bond 007” in The Man with the Golden Gun), the uncomfortable seats, the indifferent management—the Alger was where I really fell in love with the movies. That love would be deepened elsewhere, but the Alger's lights always seemed to be visible to me from the dark quiet of Southern Oregon nights long after I’d left the town, a glowing reminder of where it all began. 

The Algers closed the drive-in in 1981 after a winter storm ripped the screen in half like a piece of wet paper. They kept the indoor theater open for a couple years after that, but soon retired, and it sat dark for a few months during the early ‘80s, when local folks were finally getting into the swing of the VCR era. It eventually reopened under new ownership in the mid-80s, and competition to keep pace with an ever-shrinking window between theatrical release and home video debut forced the theater to begin picking up releases much more quickly than it ever did under the guidance of Bob Alger. In those days, it wasn’t unusual to have to wait 6-9 months after its national release for a movie to bow at the Alger—Jaws (1975) played at the Circle JM Drive-in during the summer… of 1976. But the video-age Alger was facing a much-changed exhibition landscape. I remember being completely shocked to open up the pages of the local weekly newspaper, the Lake County Examiner, 15 years ago and seeing a tiny ad for the week’s offering at the Alger, Scream 3, which was opening at the Alger the very same night it opened on 3,000 or so other screens across the nation, an unthinkable scenario even five years before then.
 


(These photos of the Alger Theater date from about one to two years after its opening. Above, Gene Autry in Sierra Sue and All-American Coed were both released in 1941, and despite the "1938" notation on the lower photo, given the release date of Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur, the feature advertised on the marquee, the date of this photo is likely sometime after 1942.)

The theater, under new management now twice removed from Bob and Norene Alger, more or less limped into the digital age. Shows were now weekends only, and the theater, which opened in 1940 (see photos above), was beginning to show the effects of a lack of cosmetic upkeep. A ghastly stage had been installed in the mid ‘80s, ostensibly in a move to establish a community theater presence which never took hold, obliterating the first four or five rows of original seats. What seats remained were the original 1940 editions and as butt-numbing as ever; the marquee lights were spotty, every other bulb either burnt out or screwed into a socket that had long since failed to carry current; the façade of the theater was tattered and badly in need of a paint job; and the marquee itself was warped, rickety and weather-beaten, its ability to hold up plastic letters routinely challenged by a stiff breeze. With the cost of keeping the theater open for just three days a week becoming increasingly indomitable, it seemed the writing was on the wall, and it probably had been for at least the first 10 years of the 21st century.  

Much like how the storm that destroyed the drive-in screen in 1981 had presented the Algers a convenient exeunt from the drive-in business, big studio threats to stop providing 35mm prints to theaters, thus forcing small-town operations like the Alger to upgrade to digital equipment in order to stay in business, were the rationale current management needed to call theatrical exhibition in Lakeview, Oregon a permanent day. After several attempts to communicate with the current owners and brainstorm ideas for keeping the theater alive—a theater in nearby Alturas, California, had successfully navigated a crowd-funding campaign to upgrade their theater and make it a community-operated business—I stopped receiving replies to my e-mails, and it became clear that, in response to deteriorating attendance, the owners weren’t really interested in rallying an effort to come up with the money to keep the doors open.

So, in March 2014 the reels of the Alger Theater’s 35mm platter projection system spun their last. The theater, much like Hollywood itself, had long since ceded any attempt to appeal to any other audience beyond the PG/PG-13 market, the only folks left in town who could be counted on to occasionally show up for a movie. It’s grimly appropriate that the last picture show would not be a landmark like Red River (the current Alger management likely being unaware of that movie, or The Last Picture Show, for that matter), or even an adult-oriented audience-pleaser like the recent Oscar-winner Argo. Instead, it was the generic animated movie The Nut Job, and a sadder, more ignominious finale for my beloved theater I couldn’t possibly imagine. According to a report filed by my niece, who was very upset about the theater closing and tried herself to generate some local interest in preserving it, the last show was just as nondescript and lacking in fanfare as one might expect. The end credits playing before an empty auditorium, what there was of the audience having already listlessly filed out, the marquee lights went dark over South F Street, the main drag on which the Alger held dominance for 74 years, and save for one special screening-- author Cheryl Strayed brought the movie version of Wild to town, Lakeview being one of the stops she walked through on her epic journey along the Pacific Crest Trail-- those marquee lights haven’t been back on since. It’s not clear as yet whether the township of Lakeview has even noticed.

Last year I got a message from a friend still living in Oregon who said she’d heard that the Alger was about to be purchased by a new owner, given a digital upgrade and a paint job, and reopened. Did I dream this? If it were true, it would be an unlikely deus ex machina, given the history of this theater, and given the economic straits in which the town is currently mired. It’s the sort of dream of the past and its familiar faces that I wake up from all the time. But no, I didn’t dream it. The message was real. And whether or not the resurrection of the Alger makes the transition from rumor to reality—and the town’s active interest in making it happen cannot be overemphasized-- is a story I have been following closely and will continue to keep my eye on.


Maybe the Alger Theater doesn’t mean the same thing to the current citizenry of Lakeview that it does to me. Maybe it never did. However the general population may have felt, it’s difficult for me to discount the importance such a tiny blip on American culture as the Alger had on the forming of my mind and my desire to see more than what could be offered on the dusty, muddy streets passing outside its doors. If they’re lucky, everyone reading this will have a place like it nestled in their memories, a place where love for what the movies could show us, could inspire in us, the emotions they could stir, was instilled and made foundation for the appreciation of what movies could be that we had yet to understand.

When I see the empty shell of that theater, standing abandoned and ignored at the edge of my hometown, I don’t feel like a piece of me is lost. No, I know right where that piece is at. It’s still inside those doors, in communion with the dusty old red curtain, the forever dimmed house lights running the edges of the auditorium at the ceiling level, the mysterious projection room, from whence all those amazing sights and sounds emerged, the tidy confines of the snack bar, watched over by the old Thornton’s Drug clock on the wall, its timekeeping partner, the one bearing the Lincecum Signs ad, still perched in the auditorium above the door to the back of the screen, stage left. Yep, I’m still in there, sitting in those worn-down seats, waiting for the next movie to start. By a great stroke of fortune, maybe someday it will.

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