Movie Reviews - 1980s postsSaturday November 17, 2012
Movie Review: Supergirl (1984)
Near the end of “Supergirl,” after Selena the Witch (Faye Dunaway) has been defeated and the Omegahedron, which powers Argo City, the bubbled asteroid of Krypton, is back in Supergirl’s hands, Supergirl (Helen Slater) turns to her new friends, Lucy Lane (Maureen Teefy) and Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure, reprising his role), and begins to ask a favor. Jimmy interrupts:
Jimmy: It’s all right, Supergirl. We never saw you.
Lucy: We never even heard of you.
Jimmy’s turned out to be the truer prognostication. Barely anyone saw “Supergirl” in November 1984 but we all heard about it. We all heard it was awful.
It’s worse than awful. From my notes:
- Wow, this is bad.
- Ouch ouch ouch.
- It’s actually getting dumber.
- OK, this is insanely bad.
It has to be one of the worst wide-release movies ever made.
After Krypto and Beppo, before Streaky and Comet
Supergirl, the character, was created in 1959 during a period of comic-book doldrums in which the rulers of DC nearly destroyed their most lucrative property, Superman, by surrounding him with super dogs, cats, horses, monkeys, and, yes, even a girl. Chronologically, Kara the Supergirl appeared after Krypto the Superdog and Beppo the Supermonkey but before Streaky the Supercat and Comet the Superhorse. Just so you know where she ranks.
The men at DC never quite knew what to do with her. They still don’t. She started out in a skirt, went to hot pants during the ’70s, was killed off in the ’80s. Two years after this movie. Coincidence?
Christopher Reeve was the seventh man to play Superman, including voice-only work from Bud Collyer, Bob Hastings and Danny Dark, but Helen Slater was the first ever to play Supergirl. Really? She never showed up in the “Superman/Aquaman Hour” in the 1960s? She was never a part of “Super Friends” in the 1970s and ’80s? Apparently nobody wanted her. She’s such a non-entity she doesn’t even have an arch-nemesis. No Lex Luthor, Brainiac or even a Mr. Mxyzptlk. Which is how we got Selena the Witch.
Reeve’s Superman was an innocent who knew everything while Slater’s Supergirl is an innocent who knows nothing. She grew up as Kara on Argo City, a chunk of Krypton that looks like an adobe village drifting through space, and was apparently taught nothing by her parents Zor-El and Alura (Simon Ward and Mia Farrow). She says she’s bad at math. She says it like she’s hypnotized. That’s how she spends most of the movie.
Fighting over boys
As “Supergirl” opens, the Omegahedron, which powers Argo City, is borrowed by the well-meaning but tipsy Zaltar (Peter O’Toole). Kara comes upon him in the act of creation.
Kara: What is that going to be Zaltar?
Zaltar: I think, a tree.
Kara: A tree. What is a tree?
Zaltar: A lovely thing that grows on Earth.
It gets worse. Zaltar gives Kara the Omegahedron, with which she creates a dragonfly that flies out of Argo City, through a kind of transdimensionality, and toward Earth, where it plops, yes, into the orange dip of Selena, who is enjoying a picnic lunch with a warlock, Nigel (Peter Cook), while talking of her plans to take over the world. And now, with the Omegahedron, she can! Kara, hijacking a bubblecopter, follows, and emerges on Earth, through a lake, as Supergirl, costumed and everything.
OK: Argo City will die in a matter of days without the Omegahedron. So what does Kara do upon arrival? She smells flowers. She bounces around, testing her powers. She flies above horses. You know: girly things. She briefly goes to a city, where she’s menaced by two asshole truck drivers who get theirs, then returns to a more bucolic setting. She falls asleep, softly, in the woods, and wakes up, softly, near a bunny rabbit. I’m not kidding. Then a softball rolls by. Private school girls are playing a softball game and Kara decides to become one of them. She adopts the secret identity of Linda Lee, after Robert E., and winds up rooming with Lucy Lane, Lois’ cousin, and goes to classes, where she’s suddenly good at math. “Don’t go showing it off,” Lucy counsels, “because nobody’s going to like you.” There’s a mean girl who gets hers, and a studly landscaper, Ethan (Hart Bochner), whom all the girls coo over, including, it turns out, Selena. From her lair in an old amusement park, she kidnaps and casts a spell upon Ethan so he’ll fall in love with the first face he sees upon waking. Selena assumes it’ll be hers. But she’s occupied when he wakes, and he stumbles through a tunnel with his eyes closed, and into the town, where the kids from the school are at the local fast-food joint. He stumbles into traffic. Will he die? Will he open his eyes? Selena’s attempts to control the situation through magic make things worse, and Supergirl has to show up to save the day. All of this takes about 10 minutes of screentime. Meanwhile, Ethan still hasn’t opened his eyes. When he does? He sees Linda Lee. Big surprise. He kisses her. He makes her swoon. And boy does that make Selena mad.
Basically what we have here is a clash between two female super novices, Supergirl, who needs the Omegahedron to save everything she’s ever known, and Selena, who is using the Omegahedron to take over the world, and both are distracted from their primary task because of a crush on a boy. The filmmakers, writer David Odell and director Jeannot Szwarc, couldn’t have made it more insulting if they’d tried.
The triumph of someone else’s will
Eventually Selena, mastering her powers, sends Supergirl into the Phantom Zone, where she meets Zaltar, banished there for stealing the Omegahedron in the first place. He’s also given up. Not her. Her pep inspires him to find a way out, which involves climbing a kind of rockface against a kind of fierce wind. But it’s so difficult she’s ready to give up. “I can’t,” she says. “You can,” he replies. Then he dies. But she escapes and flies from the Phantom Zone right back into Selena’s lair. She stands there, arms akimbo, and declares, “You’ve had your fun, Selena. The game is finished.”
Ah, but it isn’t. Selena creates a monster, which kind of crushes or stretches Supergirl, who cries, again, “I can’t!” Can’t what? Die? Can’t bear the pain? Of the monster or the movie? When she hears Zaltar’s voice telling her, again “You can!,” like he’s Obi-wan Kenobi or something, this helps Supergirl, who’s just a girl after all and thus can’t find the strength and will on her own, find the strength and will to fight back. Then she uses her superspeed, as she should have from the start rather than standing around arms akimbo, to defeat Selena. The power of shadows turns on Selena and her henchwoman, the fairly innocent Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro), and takes both into a … vortex, I guess, where they suffer or die. Who knows? Who cares? We get Jimmy and Lucy’s lines above, and Supergirl flies off with the Omegahedron to finally, finally, deliver it to Argo City, which is surely dust by now.
“Supergirl” didn’t immediately die. It opened Thanksgiving weekend 1984 and was No. 1 at the box office with $5.7 million. Then word got out. It fell off 55% the following weekend, then 63%. Its final domestic gross was $14.2 million. Not even three times what it made opening weekend.
This was six years after “Superman: The Movie” (which opened at $7.4 million and grossed $134 million, to give you an idea of the legs good movies had back then); but despite a $35 million budget the special effects often recall the Superman TV show of the 1950s. The acting is horrible. Slater is all wide-eyed doeiness while Dunaway’s narrowed eyes perpetually flash malevolence. Peter Cook is wasted. Vaccaro is supposed to play comic support, like Ned Beatty in “Superman,” but she comes across as a voice of reason. “I think you’re blowing this out of proportion,” she tells Selena halfway through. “All I’m saying is you can’t go nuts over a landscape guy and a teenager in a blue suit.” It’s as if she’s critiquing the film from within the film. It’s like she’s trapped in her own kind of Phantom Zone. Maybe they all are. Poor bastards. They hurtle through time and space, trapped in this movie forever.
Movie Review: The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981)
WARNING: HI-YO SPOILERS
According to the press kit, “Klinton Spilsbury comes to the role with no acting experience whatsoever.” And he leaves in the same pristine fashion.
--from Bob Lundegaard’s review of “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” Mpls. Star-Tribune, 1981
The above line, written by my father, is one of the greatest cuts I’ve ever read. But now that I’ve actually seen the movie, 31 years later, I wonder if everyone wasn’t a bit hard on Mr. Spilsbury.
Yes, he was awful. But he didn’t direct “The Legend of the Lone Ranger”: William Fraker, who would go on to direct many TV movies and TV series, did. Spilsbury didn’t photograph it, either, in the washed-out, grainy fashion of 1970s movies: László Kovács did that, and by the time of his death in 2007 he was a legendary, beloved cinematographer. Spilsbury didn’t write the horrible lines he says—credit four screenwriters, all of whom kept working—and he didn’t even say the horrible lines he says, since his voice was dubbed, replaced, with the flat line-readings of James Keach, Stacy’s brother, who would not only keep working in the industry but eventually marry actress Jane Seymour, she of the crooked, sexy smile, which is the type of fringe benefit only Hollywood can offer.
What about composer John Barry? There’s an early scene where recent law-school grad John Reid (Spilsbury) is on a stagecoach to Del Rio, Texas, with a few other stock characters, and the coach gets attacked by bandits. The driver tries to outrun them while his second, the shotgun messenger, exchanges gunfire with the bad guys. One of the stock characters, the grumpy one, cries with alarm, “He’s going to get us all killed!,” at which point we get a distant shot of the chase: beautiful sandstone buttes dominating the background, while in the foreground, careering down a dusty path, pursued, comes the stagecoach. And on the soundtrack? Something like the opening theme to “Big Valley” or “Bonanza.” It’s expansive, generic western music rather than, you know, chase music.
How about Merle Haggard? Or do we blame John Barry for this, too? Or William Fraker or one of the screenwriters or some doofus studio-head at Universal Pictures? Exactly who came up with the idea that throughout the movie we’d get the story-song of the Lone Ranger, sung and told, but mostly told, by Haggard, with lyrics from Dean Pitchford, who at this point was mostly known for writing the theme music to the weekly lip-synch fest “Solid Gold.” Who thought these words were good words?
The legend started simply
Just a boy without a home
Taken in by Indians
But still pretty much alone
He had to struggle with strange customs
And his own fears from within
He learned the wisdom of the forest
He learned the ways of the wind
On that last line, by the way, Haggard draws out the word “ways”: He learned the waaayyys of the wind. Yeah.
But Haggard prospered. And that year Pitchford won an Oscar for writing the song “Fame.” A few years later, he would be nominated for “Footloose,” and a few years after that for “After All” from the movie “Chances Are.” People still come to him for work.
Casting directors? Except Jane Feinberg and Mike Fenton also cast “Godfather Part II,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Breaking Away,” among other acclaimed movies, so they seemed to know what they were doing. Their credit right before “The Lone Ranger” is the TV miniseries “East of Eden,” with the aforementioned Ms. Seymour, and an up-and-comer, Hart Bochner, as Aron Trask. Bochner also played the dickish fratboy in “Breaking Away.” He was tall, dark and handsome, and athletic, and he had a firm jawline and was only 24 years old. Hello? Or did someone feel the Lone Ranger had to be a complete unknown—as Christopher Reeve had been in “Superman: The Movie”?
Jesus, how about Michael Horse? In the beginning of the film, a young Tonto is chased by bandits and saved by a young John Reid, whose parents are subsequently killed by the bandits, and who then spends several months among the Indians before his older brother, Dan (John Bennett Perry), arrives to send him to his aunt’s home in Detroit. (Detroit? The Lone Ranger was raised in Detroit?) As they part, Tonto calls him kemo sabe, trusted friend, and gives him an amulet necklace. Cut to: a few decades later when an adult Tonto, now Michael Horse, happens upon a massacre of Texas Rangers in Bryant’s Gap. He checks to see if any of these white men are still alive. Hey, one is. Hey, he seems familiar. Hey, here’s that amulet necklace I gave that kid who saved my life so long ago. My kemo sabe. And what look passes over Tonto’s face at this incredible moment? A small smile. No real concern. No real anything. It’s as if he’s looking through a photo album, rather than at the bloodied, barely alive face of his childhood friend.
This was Horse’s first role, as it was Spilsbury’s, but Horse now has 68 credits, including the TV series “Twin Peaks,” while Klinton Spilsbury has ... one. Just “The Legend of the Lone Ranger.” He appeared out of nowhere and disappeared into László Kovács’ washed-out, grainy sunset. He did this movie and took the blame and we never saw him again.
Who was that dubbed man?
The revenge of Clayton Moore
Success may have many authors while failure is an orphan, but the massive failure of “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” was given a single father, Spilsbury, who hardly acted alone. Or lone.
Was it the goofy name? Was he an ass on the set? I’ve read there was a fistfight or something. Was he gay? I’ve read that, too. There are rumors that his voice was too high and girlish—that’s why the dubbing—but he seems to deny it in this AP piece from 1981. “They wouldn’t have hired me if they hadn’t liked my voice,” he says. Some truth there. And surely his voice couldn’t have been much worse than the nothing line-readings of James Keach.
Was it the Clayton Moore controversy? Moore, a former stuntman, was the most famous Lone Ranger of them all, having played the character on radio and for most of the long-running 1950s TV series. And he didn’t stop. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, he made commercial appearances as the Lone Ranger. He dug it. But in 1975, the Wrather Corp., which owned the copyright on the masked man, was looking to create a movie, this movie, and didn’t want the public confusing the old and the new, so it sued Moore to get him to hang up his mask. He refused but lost at the trial-court level. The verdict pissed off everyone. A corporation has done what no villain could do: It made the Lone Ranger take off his mask! The mojo was awful, the vibes shitty, and all the fans never bothered to show up for the usurper. The reviews were rightly devastating. The movie was supposed to be big, “Superman” big, but it grossed only $12 million, the equivalent of $35 million today, and $122 million shy of “Superman”’s 1978 take.
El bombo. El stinko. Who to blame? Hey, pretty boy’s got a funny name. Plus he was so mean to that Clayton Moore. Remember?
Of silver bullets and kemo sabes
Let’s talk updates. The Lone Ranger was created in 1933 by Fran Striker and George W. Trendler, for WXYZ radio, Detroit (ah, that’s why Detroit), but you need to update this shit. A lot of cultural changes in those 50 years. In “Superman: The Movie,” for example, they made the “S” on Supes’ chest his Kryptonian family crest, which just happens to look like our “S,” and which allows Lois Lane, that giddy, cynical schoolgirl, to name him Superman. That’s smart. That’s a good update.
So what kind of updates do screenwriter Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, Michael Kane, and William Roberts give “The Legend of the Lone Ranger”? How about the silver bullet? Why did this guy start using silver bullets anyway?
Well, after Tonto rescues Reid from Bryant’s Gap and restores him to health, Reid—a lawyer in this version rather than a lawman—is attempting target practice. He misses and the Indian kids laugh at him. So Tonto hands him a silver bullet. “Silver is pure,” Tonto says. “It’s a symbol of justice and purity since the year of the sun.” And sure enough, boom, Reid hits the target dead center.
Which means the Lone Ranger uses silver bullets ... because he’s actually a lousy shot.
The mask? It doesn’t make much sense if Reid’s a lawyer instead of a Texas Ranger, does it? What’s he hiding? That Butch Cavendish didn’t kill him? Does Butch even know he was there? And why not “The Lone Lawyer?” “The Lone Ranger” feels like false advertising here. Dude wasn’t a Ranger.
My favorite update may be the Tonto update. It’s 1981 now, not 1933, and white America is a little less gung-ho about, you know, the slaughter of Native Americans and all that, not to mention having minorities in subservient roles. The Reagan years would assuage some of this collective guilt with a big “Screw you back again,” but in the meantime: How do you solve a problem like Tonto?
Well, first, they have a young Reid save a young Tonto. So he’s cool. Then they have a young Reid learn Indian ways. So he’s really cool. Then they have an adult Tonto save the adult Reid. So they’re even. Then they have Tonto bring Reid back to his camp, where the elders object to the presence of this white man, and where Tonto defends him. Sort of. This is what he says:
Nobody has reason to hate the white man more than I. He has taken from me my wife and my child. But the man I brought here is my brother. ... And if I am wrong, and he proves to be an enemy, then I, Tonto, will decorate my lance with his white man’s hair.
Playing cowboys and Indians
Here. Here’s an example of the tone-deafness of the movie. On the one hand, you’ve got this hard-edged, 1970s-era stab at racial verisimilitude; on the other, during the massacre at Bryant’s Gap, you have this 1950s-era TV-show dialogue. It’s like lines kids come up with when they’re playing cowboys and Indians:
SCENE: Many Texas Rangers and John Reid, the lawyer, are trapped in Bryant’s Gap, fighting for their lives. Bullets are flying everywhere.
TEXAS RANGER WHOM WE’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE (to John Reid): Hi, kid. How do you like being a Ranger? (bang bang)
J. REID: More than anything. (zing, zing)
TRWWNSB: Yeah, great life, ain’t it? (bang bang)
CUT TO: Another Ranger getting shot, falling off his horse, and getting dragged along by the horse.
TRWWNSB: I’ve been a Ranger longer than you’ve been alive. Been in San Anton with big Sam Houston. Fought alongside McCullough in the Mexican War. Rode with Kit Carson and John Coffee Hays. All those years, kid, I learned one thing. (bang, zing)
J. REID: What was that? (bang bang)
TRWWNSB shoots. CUT TO: member of Butch Cavendish gang, who grasps heart and falls into valley.
TRWWNSB: It ain’t the bullet that gets you. It’s the fall.
Do I need to add that, a second later, a bullet gets him?
There’s a girl, Amy Striker (Juanin Clay), named after Fran. John Reid saves her from lechery during the stagecoach robbery. Then her uncle, a newspaper publisher, is hung by the Cavendish gang for his news reporting. Then John Reid joins big bro and the Rangers to go after Cavendish, but before he leaves he and Amy share a good, sloppy kiss. Then... Actually, that’s it, isn’t it? Later, John Reid, or the Lone Ranger, pretends to be a priest to communicate information to her, or get it, I forget which, and he leaves behind a silver bullet, so she knows that... what exactly? At this point, the Lone Ranger hasn’t done shit. No one knows him. No one knows the meaning of the silver bullet. So why does she smile knowingly? She doesn’t know what it means, or who he is, or that he’s John Reid, or that John Reid is still alive. None of it makes sense.
Riding off into the sunset
So, yes, it's tough to wrap my mind around the beginning-to-end awfulness of “The Legend of the Lone Ranger.” Its lack of energy and excitement. Its overexposed graininess. How its tone veers wildly. How it marginalizes its hero, and makes his strengths (silver bullet) result from his weaknesses (bad shot), and how interspersed throughout we get yet another verse from Merle Haggard reading Dean Pitchford’s words that explain the awful thing we’re watching:
What is it that brings two friends together
Or sends the waves to the sand?
And what is it that drives a creature of nature
To reach out to the world of Man?
Just such a creature was this Great White Horse
As wise and as wild as a runaway
And the moment John first laid eyes on it
He swore he'd ride it someday
Just don't tell me you think this was all the work of little Klinton Spilsbury.
Movie Review: Zelig (1983)
I remember the early criticism of Woody Allen’s “Zelig” back in 1983: It was good, people said, but it made you want to see a Woody Allen movie.
The movie is only 75 minutes long, and, unlike “Take the Money and Run,” his earlier, funnier, but less profound mock-documentary, this one is a true mock-documentary, since it never deviates from what a real documentary can show us. “Take the Money” gives us footage of Virgil Starkwell’s high school days, and prison days, and robberies—footage no documentarian could shoot. “Zelig,” by the auteur Woody, gives us nothing that isn’t, in a sense, in the historical record of the 1920s and ’30s. As a result, the Woody Allen character in the film, Leonard Zelig, is doled out in bite-sized bits. We don’t see him much and hear him less.
Hearing his voice for the first time, in fact, is a startling moment.
The premise of “Zelig” is brilliant. In the 1920s, the decade when pop culture began, a man is discovered who has such a need to belong, to blend in, to be safe—who, in other words, has such a wish for assimilation, particularly the post-schtel, post-pogrom Jewish wish for American assimilation—that he automatically changes his physiognomy to blend in with whomever he’s around. With the Chinese, Chinese. With the obese, he turns fat. Sitting with gangsters, his eyes turns cold, his face toughens, and there’s suddenly a scar running down his right cheek. A second later, he’s a light-skinned black man playing in a jazz band. He shows up for a Yankees spring training game and winds up in the on-deck circle, while Babe Ruth takes his swings.
He’s all of these different characters. But when we first hear his voice, seven minutes into the film, in conversation with Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), it’s the familiar Woody Allen character we’ve known and loved forever: quick and buoyant, with an underside of mischief (and, here, mendacity), along with throat clearings and a tendency to land hard on sentence-ending consonants.
Fletcher: What do you do?
Zelig: Who me? I’m a ... psychiatrist.
Fletcher: Oh yeah?
Zelig: Yeah. I work [clears throat] mostly with delusional paranoids.
Fletcher: Tell me about it.
Zelig: Oh, there’s not much to tell. ...I studied a great deal. I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women.
While it’s great to hear his voice, it feels wrong. Leonard Zelig is all about fitting in, while the Woody persona, though influenced by many, including Bob Hope, stands out. It is uniquely him.
I also remember how “Zelig” almost defied criticism, or analysis, since, within it, you had intellectuals—Susan Sontag, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow—already pontificating on the Zelig phenomenon. In this manner, Woody beat movie critics to the punch. Howe, with an amused upturn of the mouth, even states what I just stated above about Jewish assimilation:
When I think about it, it seems to me that his story reflected a lot of the Jewish experience in America: the great urge to push in and find a place and then to assimilate into the culture. I mean, he wanted to assimilate like crazy.
Finally, I remember “Zelig” being a turning point for Woody. He was already our finest comedian when in 1977 he gave us “Annie Hall,” the romantic comedy by which all other modern romantic comedies are measured (and come up short), then “Manhattan,” which put him on the cover of Time magazine, before stumbling with “Stardust Memories” and “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.” Not only was “Zelig” a sign that he was back, but it was the beginning of his great mid-1980s period, marked by astounding originality and creativity. For five straight years, from 1983 to 1987, he wrote, directed and starred in “Zelig,” “Broadway Danny Rose,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Radio Days.” Interestingly, all but “Hannah” are backwards-looking. Three are set in the 1930s.
Leonard Zelig as a Chicago gangster...
...and waiting on deck while the Babe takes his cuts.
So that’s what I remembered about “Zelig.” What I’d forgotten, what came back to me upon a recent viewing, was just how funny the thing is.
There’s this bit about Zelig’s rough childhood:
Narrator: Bullied by anti-Semites, his parents ... side with the anti-Semites. They punish him often by locking him in a dark closet. When they are really angry, they get into the closet with him.
When Zelig is removed from Manhattan Hospital by his half sister Ruth and her lover, businessman and carnival promoter Martin Geist, who exploit him, two former Daily Mirror reporters tell us of Geist’s background:
He was selling the same piece of property to a number of people. Matter of fact, a congressman from Delaware bought it twice.
Then there’s the following bit. I didn’t need anyone to remind me of it, because I could never forget it, because it made me laugh so hard.
It’s that moment after Ruth and Martin Geist turn Zelig into a kind of sideshow freak in the U.S. and Europe, then come to an ignominious end in a lovers’ quarrel over a Spanish bullfighter. Zelig is returned to the care of Dr. Fletcher, who is trying to learn more about Zelig and cure him in her country estate. She hypnotizes Zelig and the sessions are filmed:
Fletcher: You will become completely honest .. .Now how do you feel about it here?
Zelig (speaking slowly, under hypnosis): The worst. I hate the country. I hate the grass, the mosquitoes. The cooking... Your cooking is terrible. Your pancakes. I dump them in the garbage when you’re not looking. The jokes you try to tell when you think you’re amusing: long and pointless, they have no end to them.
Fletcher (discomfited): I see. And what else?
Zelig: I want to go to bed with you.
Fletcher (perks up): That surprises me. I didn’t think you liked me very much.
Zelig: I love you.
Fletcher (genuinely surprised): You do?
Zelig: You’re very sweet. Cuz you’re not as clever as you think you are. You’re all mixed up and nervous. And you’re the worst cook. Those pancakes. I love you, I want to take care of you. ... No more pancakes.
Comedians often talk about how this word is funny and that one isn’t. “Pancakes” is a case in point. It’s the exact right word, the exact right food. Something about it. I can just imagine those leaden things. It still makes me laugh.
“I love you ... No more pancakes...”
Some of the jokes in “Zelig” are so jokey they recall the earlier, funnier movies. The “get into the closet with him” above is similar to the “Take the Money” joke about chain-gang members being locked into a sweatbox with an insurance agent. (Hell is being alone in an enclosed space; real hell, Woody will tell you, is being with others in an enclosed space.)
In “Love and Death,” when Diane Keaton’s character talks about the wonder of Nature, Allen’s character, Boris, responds in classic Woody fashion: “To me, nature is... I dunno, spiders and bugs, and big fish eating little fish, and plants eating other plants, and animals eating... It's like an enormous restaurant.” In “Zelig,” Allen adds human beings to this equation. Slowly, under hypnosis, he tells Dr. Fletcher about his childhood: “My brother beat me. My sister beat my brother. My father beat my sister and my brother and me. My mother beat my father and my sister and me and my brother. The neighbors beat our family. People down the block beat the neighbors and our family...”
You know the “It’s funny cuz it’s true” line? In a way, this is not that funny cuz it’s true. The world is a dangerous place, and the tension for the individual, even in a civil society of relative safety, is between remaining solitary and free or subsuming oneself within the anonymity and safety of the group. Zelig does the latter, we’re told, “like crazy.” Thus the great joke at the end when he winds up in Germany, a member of the Third Reich, near Adolf Hitler giving a speech. The primary joke here is that Woody, one of the most Jewish of comedians, could become a member of the Third Reich in the first place. The secondary joke is how Zelig, awakening from his trance by the appearance of Dr. Fletcher in the crowd, disrupts one of Hitler’s histrionic speeches by waving at Dr. Fletcher. In a way it’s not just Zelig waking up; it’s the individual emerging from the mass. Finally, Nazi-Zelig reveals, without stressing it too much, that what safety there is within a group is always temporary. A Nazi in 1933 was safe; a Nazi in 1944 or ’45 was not.
A Woodyish brownshirt (with glasses) near the real Adolf Hitler ...
...while the real Woody wakes up behind an actor playing Hitler.
There’s another reason I loved “Zelig” this time around, and it didn’t hit me until I re-watched “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.” That movie, which wasn't that funny to begin with, was also mannered in the Woody Allen style. He keeps giving us the still camera shot, where characters converse with other characters off-camera. Sometimes both characters move off-camera and converse. Sometimes it’s so obvious it distracts from the proceedings.
None of that here. “Zelig” is a parody of a straightforward documentary and remains consistently within that framework. It’s not allowed to be mannered.
“Zelig” is the second mock-documentary Woody did after “Take the Money and Run.” Both are great; both are hilarious. One wonders why he never did another. Maybe it's time.
Two-Minute Review: “Coup de Torchon” (1982)
This is one of the more interesting “worm turns” films I’ve seen. In most, the put-upon hero is still brave in his passivity—although his antagonists don’t realize it—but even if he isn't, even if he is a coward, he certainly feels brave once he finally gives back what’s due. That’s the cinematic moment we wait for. That’s our wish fulfillment. Take that, bullies of the world! You could say the entire superhero genre is built upon this moment.
Philippe Noiret, who later played the projectionist in Cinema Paradiso and Pablo Neruda in Il Postino, here plays Lucien Cordier, the lone police officer in a sleepy West African village in the 1930s: Population 1285. He’s a lazy man who wants food and sex and the world to turn right; when it doesn’t, and despite his position, he's not much interested in righting it. He shrugs. His wife, Hugette, keeps her lover, her “brother” Nono, in their same cramped apartment. The local pimps mock him and push him around. The local businessman ignores him. His lover, Rose (a young, full-faced Isabelle Huppert), is beaten by her husband and Lucien does nothing to stop him. In all of this he feels less cowardly than extremely passive, and the worst elements in town, and in people, simply feed upon his passivity.
But there’s gotta be a “one day,” right? So one day he goes to a neighboring town and receives advice — including two humiliating kicks in the pants — from the constable there, and he takes this advice back to the village, where, next to the river in which the locals bury their dead, and whose corpses the pimps use for target practice, Lucien confronts the two pimps, makes them sing a song, and then kills them in cold blood. It’s a stunning turn of events because you don’t see why the worm turns; he just does. Lucien goes from passive to active but his core personality feels the same. If anything he feels more cowardly in taking his revenge.
In this way, all the wrongs in his life are righted. He kills Rose’s husband, Marcaillou, in cold blood, and then literally kicks him after he’s dead. He arranges for the businessman to fall into the slop of his own outhouse. He kills a local, Vendredi, who knows he killed Marcaillou. The innocent are being rounded up, too, but he sees no innocence. His philosophy — this is a French movie, after all — grows heavier and colder. “Better the blind man who pisses out the window than the joker who told him it was a urinal,” he tells Vendredi. “Know who the joker is? It's everybody.” Or so his experience has shown him.
Christ themes are introduced. “I'm not a policeman, George,” he tells the brother of one of the deceased pimps. “I'm Jesus Christ in person, sent here with a load of crosses, each bigger than the next.” He sets things up so that Rose kills Hugette and Nono, and when Rose asks him why, if he was just outside, he didn’t stop her, he replies, his calm, matter-of-factness accentuating his insanity, “If I put temptation in front of you, it's not a reason to use it. I just help folks reveal their true character.” Most fail the test. All fail the test. It’s Judgment Day and it’s not pretty.
“Coup de Torchon” is translated as either “Clean Slate” or “Clean Up” but there’s nothing clean here. Even its lines aren’t clean. Just how cowardly is Lucien in the beginning? Just how insane is he in the end? We don't really know. It's a philosophically bleak but intellectually engaging film. It uses the wish-fulfillment genre to tell us what we don’t wish to know.