Movie Reviews - 1990s postsWednesday April 02, 2014
Movie Review: Captain America (1990)
“Hey, this doesn’t seem so bad.”
That was my thought 10 minutes into Albert Pyun’s “Captain America,” which was supposed to be godawful. The movie was made in the summer of ’89 for release in the summer of ’90 but it didn’t get released. It just disappeared. It was like they’d come up with a plague germ and needed to keep it isolated in a lab. Two whole years went by before it finally saw light, or a kind of light: it went straight to video. It was so bad that Cap’s co-creator, Jack Kirby, who fought to get his name on the film, fought, after the premiere, to get his name off it. More than 7,000 IMDb users have collectively given the thing a 3.2 rating. That’s the second-lowest-rated superhero movie ever, after “Steel,” starring Shaquille O’Neil. Right: worse than “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” “Supergirl,” “Batman & Robin” and “Catwoman.”
Yet, initially, it didn’t seem so bad to me. It helped that I’d just watched the 1944 and 1979 versions of Captain America, and this Captain America, at least, looked like Captain America: same uniform, same shield, same boots. The origin of the Red Skull in Italy in 1936 had some decent production values, and they did their best to make the pre-Cap Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger, son of J.D.) seem skinny and weak. Sure, the opening scene is melodramatic while the stuff on the homefront with the girl, Bernie (Kim Gillingham), is sappy to the point of silliness; plus the southern accents of the military officers (Michael Nouri, Bill Mumy) are like out of some high school production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” But 10 minutes in I wasn’t seeing godawful.
Then it kept going.
Shooting Captain America at the White House
Here’s the story. Remember: this is the story of Captain America.
It’s 1943. For his first mission, a month after being reborn, a nervous Cap parachutes into a castle in Nazi Germany, where the Red Skull awaits, kicks his ass, and ties him to a rocket ship aimed at the White House. And off it goes. But at the last minute, over Washington, D.C., Cap, still tied up, kicks at the missile and sends it to Alaska, where he’s buried in the snow and ice. The only witness to his heroics is a little boy with a camera, who, inspired, grows up to be the President of the United States!
Fast forward 50 years. In the 1990s, Cap is discovered by ...
OK, wait. Hold it right there.
So ... Captain America, the World War II fighting force, has only one mission during World War II? Which he fails miserably? Then he’s shot at the White House? And only averts complete disaster with some pathetic kicking? Which some boy witnesses from the ground? And considers heroic?
You could do this for the entire movie: reiterate its plot with disbelieving question marks.
After being unfrozen Cap wanders around the woods of northern Canada? And the only two people who find him are the fashion-model daughter of the Red Skull, Valentina de Santis (Francesca Neri), and Sam Kolawetz (Ned Beatty), the best friend of the president, now an enterprising reporter with assassination conspiracy theories? And they converge on Cap at the exact same moment? And Valentina shoots Cap but Sam saves him? Then Cap distrusts Sam and steals his truck and drives it to southern California? And he realizes he’s been frozen for 50 years only when he sees a thong bikini at the beach?
What the fuck?
Captain America is not only not a hero here, he’s not even known. Only two people know he exists: the Red Skull (Scott Paulin), who, from a castle in Italy, plots his nefarious schemes, including the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, and the scuttling of Pres. Tom Kimball’s environmental bill; and Pres. Tom Kimball (Ronny Cox), who, when his childhood hero is resurrected, sends no one in the government, no Army, etc., to find him. Just his pudgy childhood friend.
Eventually Cap teams with Bernie’s daughter, Sharon (also Kim Gillingham), whom he initially thinks is Bernie. This creeps her out so she decks him. It’s supposed to be meet-cute; but at this point Cap has done nothing except lose fights so it just adds to the embarrassment. Then the Red Skull’s minions, who look like mobsters in a Dolce & Gabana ad, figure out where he’s staying and kill both Bernie, now aged, and Sam Kolawetz, the president’s best friend. Cap shows up too late for that. He’s been watching videos about assassinations. When the bad guys track Steve Rogers to the diner, Roz’s Café, where Cap was born, a fight ensues that Steve actually wins.
I.e., after 50 years and an hour of screentime, Captain America finally wins his first fight.
What the fuck?
Then he and Sharon fly to Italy to confront the Red Skull in his castle, where, unbeknownst to Steve, although it’s worldwide news, the Red Skull has kidnapped and drugged (and somehow plans to replace) Pres. Kimball. But Cap saves POTUS and the two men, giving each other sappy thumbs ups, join forces in saving Sharon and stopping the Red Skull and ensuring the passage of a sweeping environmental bill. Then Sharon puts her head on Cap’s chest while Cap looks off majestically into the middle distance.
It’s like they hired a few professionals, readied some B- or C- or F-grade production values, then handed everyone a script written by a 9-year-old.
The question is: Who’s to blame?
Is it screenwriter Stephen Tolin, who has 24 screenwriting credits, including “Masters of the Universe” (1987), “The Craigslist Killer” (2011), and a few episodes of the critically acclaimed series “Brothers and Sisters”? How about director Albert Pyun, who started directing schlock (“The Sword and the Sorcerer”), stayed in a different kind of schlock (Jean-Claude Van Damme movies) and reverted to various other brands of schlock (horror/revenge straight-to-video thrillers)?
Nah. It’s none of these guys. The blame goes to one man: Menahem Golan of Cannon Films. Oy.
Golan, along with cousin Yoram Globus, was responsible for some of the worst movies of the ’80s and ’90s. Apparently these guys had good intentions but a wide appetite. They wanted to make classy movies (“Barfly”), action-adventure (“Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”), and exploitation flicks (the “Death Wish” sequels), but were probably best at exploitation. Their eyes were always bigger than their stomachs. In two years alone, 1987 and 1988, Golan produced 44 movies. If one movie bombed, money disappeared for the others. And their movies were always bombing.
“It’s pretty difficult to make a film when there were times we actually had no money in the bank,” Pyun says.
The new Blu-Ray version of “Captain America” includes a sad featurette, “Looking Back at ‘Captain America,’” with Pyun and Matt Salinger. Both seem like decent guys. Salinger says the script’s best scenes were cut due to lack of funds. “Character stuff,” he calls it. “Nuance.” Pickups were supposed to be done in Alaska but they never went to Alaska. An over-the-top, melodramatic soundtrack was added to over-the-top, whooshing sound effects, which were set against some not-good actors working from a script that actually disparages the WWII legacy of Captain America. And that’s how we wound up with this.
“We did the best we could,” Salinger says, sounding the movie’s epitaph, “given the time we had and the money we had.”
The final insult? Near the end of the movie, with the Red Skull defeated, Cap looks briefly at the camera and smiles. What does it recall? What does it consciously remind us of? Why, Christopher Reeve, as Superman, smiling at the camera at the end of “Superman: The Movie.” That was one of the best superhero movies ever made. This one?
This one did the best it could given the time and money it had.
Movie Review: The Shadow (1994)
WARNING: WHO KNOWS WHAT SPOILERS LURK IN THIS REVIEW?
Of all the pulpy predecessors that Hollywood tried to turn into franchises in the wake of “Superman” (1978) and “Batman” (1989)—e.g., “Flash Gordon” (1980), “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” (1981), “Tarzan, the Ape Man” (1981), and “The Phantom” (1996)—the Shadow actually had a shot. For one, he’s cool. He’s got the long, dark trenchcoat flapping in the breeze, the fedora pulled low, the tendency, as with post-Eastwood action heroes, to shoot first and ask questions later. Plus his catchphrase is one of the greatest of the era: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows, ah ha ha ha ha!”
“The Shadow” (1994), written by David Koepp (“Jurassic Park”; “Spider-Man”) and directed by Russell Mulcahy (Spandau Ballet’s “True”), has a shot, too. It opens the way of Tim Burton’s “Batman”: Bad guys are doing evil—in this case, throwing a Chinese scientist, who witnessed a crime, off a bridge—when a dark avenger appears, scares/kills the bad guys, announces himself, and then, as the music wells, poof, he’s gone.
Except, oh right, that’s not the way “The Shadow” begins. It begins in the opium fields of Tibet, where a man is being dragged into an opium den by two guys, who, a shot later, from inside the den, become two different guys (so much for continuity), and place the hapless man before an evil, shadowed warlord. We think the bad guy is being introduced here but it’s actually our hero, Lamont Cranston, played by a bare-chested Alec Baldwin wearing a long, straggly wig. An American doughboy during World War I, he stayed behind, turned to dope, and became this. He quickly demonstrates his evil ways by shooting both prisoner and trusted aid and leading his minions in laughter. But in the next scene he’s dragged from his bed and taken before a Tulku, or a Tibetan teacher, who says he will turn him into a hero. “You know what evil lurks in the hearts of men,” the Tulku says, “for you have seen that evil in your own heart.”
That’s not a bad idea—the Shadow knows because the Shadow’s been there—but it’s all so poorly handled. Alec is already getting a bit doughy here, the wig looks ridiculous, and, most important, Cranston’s shift from doing evil to preventing it is handled off-stage. After Cranston battles a knife that comes to life, with a fierce, fanged face on the handle, he asks the Tulku if he’s in Hell. “Not yet,” the Tulku replies as the music wells. Then these words appear on the screen:
The price of redemption for Cranston was to take up man’s struggle against evil. The Tulku taught him to cloud men’s minds, to fog their vision through force of concentration, leaving visible the only thing he can never hide—his Shadow.
Thus armed, Cranston returned to his homeland, that most wretched lair of villainy we know as ....
New York City
Seven Years Later
Which leads to the scene on the bridge.
So how did the Tulku change him? Who knows? Why did the Tulku pick him? Who knows? The Shadow may know what evil lurks ... but we know shit about the Shadow. And we never find out.
Some of it still works. Each man the Shadow saves becomes part of his team, and each is giving a glowing red ring and a secret password (The sun is shining/But the ice is slippery); then they communicate through a Rube Goldberg system of pneumatic tubes crisscrossing the city. The whole thing has a secret-club/treehouse vibe to it. It’s appeals to the 8-year-old boy in all of us. “Kids, you can help ‘the Shadow,’ too!”
Plus: “clouding men’s minds” is basically the Jedi mind trick. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how it was ultimately pitched: “It’s Batman, dressed like Darkman, who can do the Jedi mind trick! Can’t miss!”
“It’s Batman, dressed like Darkman, who can do the Jedi mind trick! Can’t miss!”
It does. After the scene on the bridge, Cranston has dinner with his Uncle Wainwright (Jonathan Winters), the chief of police, at a swanky nightclub. Wainwright, echoing or foreshadowing complaints about Don Diego Vega, Bruce Wayne, et al., worries, without much sympathy, that his rich playboy nephew is wasting his life; then he gets word of another Shadow sighting and decides to appoint a task force to the vigilante. At this point, Cranston immediately retreats into the shadows, save for a strip of light across his eyes, and we hear the following:
Lamont: You’re not going to appoint a task force.
Uncle Wainwright: No. I’m not going to appoint a task force.
Lamont: You’re not going to pay any attention to these reports of The Shadow.
Uncle Wainwright: Ignore them entirely.
This might’ve been cool if it hadn’t already been done better 17 years earlier by Alec Guinness; if Cranston wasn’t doing it both family and the law; and if Winters’ line readings didn’t veer naturally toward the comedic.
A second later, Cranston meets Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), who isn’t bad with the ESP thing, either, which is why he decides to steer clear of her. Ah, but fate. Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the last descendant of Genghis Khan, shows up in New York, via museum exhibit, and, determined to become the Emperor of the World, takes over the mind of Margo’s father, Dr. Reinhardt Lane (Ian McKellen, wasted), who works for the Dept. of Defense on a top-secret mission. Cranston pieces it all together, later, with the help of the Chinese scientist, Dr. Tam (Sab Simono), he saved on the bridge:
Tam: I guess you’d call it an implosive-explosive molecular device.
Lamont: Or an ... atomic bomb.
Tam: Hey, that’s catchy.
As with the above, tones are off throughout the movie. Opportunities are wasted. Shiwan Khan is evil with a capital “E.” At one point, he takes a cab, can’t pay, so he clouds the taxi driver’s mind to drive his cab into a gas tank, which explodes while Khan stands there laughing. Mwa-ha-ha-ha! It’s 1930s pulp villainy—right down to the race of the bad guy.
So the atom bomb is built, six years before the real thing, two years before we even entered the war, and Khan uses it to blackmail NYC for ... millions? Billions?
Why the blackmail ruse? He’s just going to blow it up anyway. And why America? It’s 1939. Nazi Germany is on the march with its “master race” and lebensraum talk. Isn’t Hitler your true competition at this point?
The most laughable moment in the movie may be when Lane’s ne’er-do-well and randy assistant, Farley Claymore (Tim Curry), traps The Shadow in a water tank and fills it up with water. Cranston then communicates with Margo, over a distance of miles, to come to his rescue, but when she finally shows up and he’s completely underwater, he still needs to mouth, through the glass window of the door, the words “Open the door.” That should’ve been obvious without the ESP.
Baldwin coasts here. Lone overacts. Ultimately the movie comes down to a battle of minds, but who wants to watch minds battling? Even George Lucas was smart enough to give his Jedis, with their mind tricks, light sabres.
“The Shadow” isn’t horrific but it’s hardly good. In the end, Lamont kisses Margo, then walks off.
Lamont: I’ll see you later.
Margo: Hey, how will you know where I am?
Lamont (smiles): I’ll know...
God, that’s lame. The Shadow may know, but “The Shadow” knows shit.
“The sun is shining.” “But the ice is slippery.”
Movie Review: Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
“Searching for Bobby Fischer” is a traditional three-act story of rise, fall and redemption. Its first act, like the first act of a superhero movie, contains the dawning realization of power: the chess prowess of seven-year-old Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc), who may be the next Bobby Fischer. In the second act, Josh acquires two teachers: Vinnie (Larry Fishburne), a speed-chess hustler at Washington Square Park in New York, who fascinates Josh, and who represents a style of chess that is aggressive, streetwise and American; and Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), a national master at the Manhattan Chess Club, who is hired by Josh’s father, Fred (Joe Mategna), to teach Josh, and who represents a style of chess that is cautious, erudite and European. The two styles and teachers clash, of course, and a rival—seven-year-old Jonathan Poe (Michael Nirenberg)—is discovered, and fear is introduced. That’s why the fall. It’s only when Josh intuitively combines the two chess styles in the third act that redemption is possible and final victory achieved.
I saw the movie when it was released in 1993 and liked it. I saw it recently, after Patricia and I watched Liz Garbus’ excellent HBO documentary “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” and was disappointed. Immediately.
The film, based upon a true story, opens with kids playing hide-and-seek in Washington Square Park. We focus on the birthday boy, Josh, doe-eyed and big-shoed, who runs, hides under a bush, and finds a chess piece there, a knight, lying on the ground. He looks around. He sees men playing various games, vaguely trash talking. Then, reflected in the sunglasses of one of these men, he sees a chess board, and the soundtrack music rises triumphantly. That’s when my heart fell. The moment just doesn’t happen; the moment is crowned with music. In case we might miss it.
The movie keeps doing this. It keeps nudging us. It’s written and directed by Steven Zaillian, based upon Fred Waitzkin’s book, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Zaillian or some studio hand kept bringing up “The Natural,” the Robert Redford film, as a model. The movie is similarly nostalgic, even though its time-frame is recent if unspecific; it’s similarly melodramatic, even though it’s about a real boy rather than a mythic creation. We keep getting magic-hour light, too. That’s probably why its only Oscar nomination was for cinematography. The Academy can’t get enough of magic-hour light.
So is the opening scene the first time Josh discovers chess? We don’t know. When does he become friends with Vinnie? We don’t know. When does his mother, Bonnie (Joan Allen), no longer fear the Washington Square hustlers, as she does initially, but actually prefer them to the uptight and unlikable Bruce Pandolfini? We don’t know.
We don’t get any of that. Instead we get adult reactions and arguments about what to do with Josh. Should he focus completely on chess? Should he focus on it at all? Is Vinnie’s aggressive brand of speed chess ruining Josh’s game, as Bruce contends?
In the middle of a school conference, Josh’s grade-school teacher (Laura Linney) suggests—with everyone, including Josh, within earshot—that Josh needs to think about more than chess. She suggests he’s becoming isolated. Is he? We never really see him in his day-to-day so we don’t know. But we do know that Fred makes sense when he tells her (again, in front of everybody) the following:
He's better at this than I've ever been at anything in my life. He's better at this than you'll ever be at anything. My son has a gift. He has a gift, and when you acknowledge that, then maybe we will have something to talk about.
Good lines. The question is what do you do with it? How do you bring out the gift? The movie ultimately favors a “Let Josh be Josh” strategy. Josh’s second-act fall occurs not only because he fears his new rival but because the game stops being fun for him. Vinnie is fun; Bruce is not. Vinnie hangs outside; Bruce is almost always seen in airless rooms. Vinnie is cool, relaxed, wears weightlifting gloves for no discernible reason; Bruce is erect, tight-lipped, and encourages a contempt for the world, and for Josh’s opponents, that is the opposite of Josh’s natural decency.
So Josh begins to lose. On purpose. Because it’s all too much.
How does Josh revive in the third act? Again: who knows? His father brings his trophies into his room (“These belong to you”), which is a kind of metaphoric gesture (I.e., your talents belong to you, not to me or any other adult). Then he takes him back to Washington Square Park for a game with Vinnie. Then suddenly we’re in Chicago for the nationals, both teachers in tow, where Josh wins by utilizing both teachers’ strategies and by being himself. He offers his rival a draw, for example, before he beats him. In the midst of cutthroat competition, he remains decent.
I actually believe this to be a true lesson: To achieve true success, one has to be as authentically oneself as possible.
I also believe this to be a false lesson. The film implies that to succeed at the highest levels one need not sacrifice anything. Before the tournament, unlike the other poor kids chained to their chessboards, Josh goes on a two-week fishing trip with his father. At the end of the movie, we’re told that Josh, the real Josh, is currently the highest-ranked player in the U.S. under 18. “He also plays baseball, basketball, football and soccer, and in the summer goes fishing,” we’re told.
I wanted to like “Searching for Bobby Fischer” again, but it’s too sweet, too false by half. It forces structure onto a real story and wrecks it. I don’t know if the real Josh Waitzkin went through a rise/fall/redemption cycle but we do know that the real Bruce Pandolfini was Brooklyn-born, easy-going, and popular with his students. Unfortunately a film needs conflict and drama, and Kingsley’s Pandolfini is the route they chose. Shame. It’s sad when a movie is based upon a true story and you walk away thinking, “I didn’t buy it.”
Movie Review: Cobb (1994)
I watched “Cobb” the other night because I mistakenly thought a friend suggested upgrading its standing in my list of the best and worst baseball movies ever made. He'd actually suggested downgrading “Cobb.” He was right.
WARNING: GODDAMN C**KSUCKING SPOILERS
A common conversation among movie buffs and egotists is naming the actor you’d like to play you in the movies. A less common conversation is who you wouldn’t want for the role. I’ll start that one. I wouldn’t want Robert Wuhl to play me.
Case in point: “Cobb,” written and directed by Ron Shelton of “Bull Durham” fame. It’s 1960, and Al Stump (Wuhl), a sportswriter on the rise, is hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of aged and dying baseball legend Ty Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones). Yes, he’s heard the rumors about what a bastard Cobb is. But it’s Ty Cobb. So he drives to Cobb’s home, near Lake Tahoe, buoyant and practically whistling a tune.
Turns out the rumors were off. Cobb isn’t a bastard. He’s a pistol-shooting, morphine-shooting-up, racist, sexist, reckless, abusive and criminally prosecutable bastard.
Stump keeps realizing this for the first hour of the movie. Let me repeat that: He keeps realizing this. Cobb does crazy shit (shoots his gun at Stump) and Stump looks dumbfounded and says “He’s crazy!” Then Cobb does more crazy shit (drives Stump off a mountain road) and Stump looks dumbfounded and says “He’s crazy!” Here’s where a better actor than Wuhl might have helped, might have given us something more than dumbfounded, but that’s all Wuhl’s got. He traffics in dumbfounded.
Why doesn’t Al Stump just walk away? Does he need the gig that much? Not really. Does he need to be near greatness? Maybe. Could the movie have explored this need? Sure, but then it would’ve been a better movie. Instead: in this corner, Crazy, in that corner, Dumbfounded. Ding ding.
It gets worse. In Reno, on stage with Louis Prima, Cobb insults blacks, Jews, women and Louis Prima. Meanwhile, Stump has hooked up briefly, and, under the circumstances, tenderly, with cigarette girl/hard-luck case Ramona (Lolita Davidovich, Shelton’s wife), and the two are slow dancing in his hotel room when Cobb, like a vengeful fury, bursts into the room, decks Stump, and literally drags Ramona to his own hotel room, where he forces her to strip at gunpoint and attempts to rape her. “Now you take off them goddamned clothes,” he says. “Get on the bed,” he says. “Lay down and turn around,” he says.
Not exactly “Pride of the Yankees.”
So what do you do if the hero of your story is really a villain? That’s the dilemma for both Al Stump, writing Cobb’s autobiography, and Ron Shelton, writing and directing “Cobb.”
Stump’s solution is to write two books: 1) the hagiography he shows to Cobb but plans to throw away once Cobb dies; and 2) the real book about their experiences together that exposes Cobb for what he is. Question: Could this second book have even been published in1961? “Ball Four,” which blew the lid off of the pretty lies of Major League baseball, is nine years and a cultural tsunami away.
(For the record, the real Al Stump ultimately published two books: the ghostwritten autobiography, “My Life in Baseball: The True Record,” shortly after Cobb’s death in July 1961, and “Cobb: A Biography,” more than 30 years later, in 1994, in which he revealed the less heroic elements of the Georgia Peach. No indication, in the movie, on the 30-year delay.)
Stump’s solution isn’t great but Shelton’s is worse. First, he makes Cobb almost cartoonish in his villainy. In a flashback scene to his playing days, we see Cobb get into a fistfight at every base (at every base), while in present-day 1960 Jones cackles and grins like Mephisto. It makes his performance as Two Face in “Batman Forever” seem subtle.
Against this, Shelton attempts to evoke our sympathy. Ah, Cobb’s got cancer. Ah, Cobb can’t get it up. Ah, Cobb helps out destitute ballplayers like Mickey Cochrane, who later turn their backs on him. Those guys are mean.
Plus Cobb is always right—and Stump is always wrong—about almost everything. Cobb shoots at a deer with a shaky hand and claims to have hit it in the neck, which Stump denies ... until Stump comes across the dead door in the woods. Cobb says he has final say on his autobiography, which Stump denies ... until he phones his agent and discovers Cobb does have final say. Etc.
Most important, Cobb is honest. “By writing two versions I was becoming what Cobb was not,” Stump says in melancholy voiceover halfway through the film. “I was becoming a liar.” Cobb goes for what he wants—whether it’s that deer in the woods or Ramona in his hotel room—while Stump, poor bastard, poor everyman, equivocates and assumes the best in others. He’s accommodating. And the world shits on an accommodating man. That’s the lesson here. Stump thinks he and his wife, separated for a few months, are working things out, which Cobb laughs at; and sure enough, late in the film, in a cabin in the middle of the night, Stump is served divorce papers. Cobb was right again! So what does Stump do? He pistol-whips the poor bastard serving him. He uses Cobb’s accent and waves Cobb’s gun in the injured man’s face. It’s a worm-turns moment that the movie views positively—or at least comically. See? Accommodating Stump crazy; crazy Cobb counseling caution. Funny.
The true insult in the film is the “Citizen Kane” analogy. The movie begins with a “New of the World” feature, like “Kane,” and it’s also, like “Kane,” a movie-length attempt at uncovering the childhood secret that explains the man. For Kane, it was “Rosebud,” his dying words, and the symbol of his innocent upbringing. For Cobb, it’s the death of his father, a great man, who is killed by this mother. The father apparently suspected the mother of infidelity and returned early from a business trip to spy on her. The mother apparently suspected the shadowy figure outside her bedroom to be a burglar, or worse, and shot him dead. That’s the story we get from Cobb halfway through “Cobb” but near the end he adds a wrinkle. The father was right. The mother was cheating. And it was her lover, her very naked lover, who shoots the father dead. “The last thing my father saw was the face of the man fucking his wife,” says Cobb in Tommy Lee Jones’ plaintive voice. “That what you want to know?”
The scene takes place at the Cobb mausoleum in a Georgia cemetery. And why are they at this cemetery? It just happens to be the place they’re driving by when Stump, after months of abusive behavior from Cobb, finally gets fed up, demands the car stop, and walks out on him. And what sets off Stump after months of abusive behavior from Cobb? Well, Stump has just tried to broker a meeting between Cobb and his estranged daughter, who refuses to see him; then he lies to Cobb, telling him that the woman in the window wasn’t his daughter. Cobb gently calls him on this lie and this sets off Stump. This. Not being shot at. Not being run off the road. This.
A hagiography would’ve felt less like a lie than “Cobb.”
Movie Review: “Red Hollywood” (1996)
WARNING: FELLOW SPOILERS
During the inevitable Q&A after a Northwest Film Forum screening of the 1996 documentary, “Red Hollywood,” with one of the two documentarians, Thom Andersen, in attendance, an audience member, perhaps equally inevitably, objected to the documentary’s very existence.
“Red Hollywood” examines the work of those screenwriters and directors who were blacklisted during the late 1940s and early 1950s. These artists, Andersen and Noel Burch contend, are increasingly portrayed as mere victims of the blacklist, when, as Andersen said in his brief introduction to the film, “They had done something .. working within the confines of the Hollywood system.”
That’s what bothered this audience member, a Jewish woman in her sixties. She thought that that something was accusatory; that the doc made a hero out of Joe McCarthy.
“Why would you think that?” Andersen responded matter-of-factly. “What, in the documentary, would make you think that?”
She admitted there was nothing in there per se. Her objection was more of the “Why give ammunition to the opposition?” variety. She asked, “Why make the documentary in the first place?”
Andersen, in his 70s now, with unruly white hair, is a quiet, contemplative, occasionally apologetic man. He thought, viewing the doc again, that parts could’ve been cut. (I agree.) He admitted, yes, maybe they should’ve talked about the anti-Semitic undertones of the blacklist. But in his response to this question, he wasn’t apologetic. Why did he make the doc? He alluded to the last scene we see: Abraham Polonksy reading, charmingly, from his script to “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here“ (1969), the first film he directed, or got credit for directing, after decades on the blacklist. It’s a scene between the hunted Indian, Willie Boy (Robert Blake), and a woman, Lola (Katherine Ross):
Lola: Willie, are you going to kill them?
Willie Boy: If I have to.
Lola: What do you mean, ”If you have to?“
Willie Boy: I mean if they keep comin'.
Lola: But they're white, Willie. They'll shoot forever.
Willie Boy: How long is that? Less than you think.
Lola: It's crazy, Willie! You can't win. You can't beat them, Willie, ever.
Willie Boy: Maybe... maybe. But they'll know I was here.
That’s why he made the doc, Andersen said. So people will know they were there.
My response to the woman’s concerns, her fear that the doc was right-wing, was essentially: “You’re kidding.” Because my response to Andersen’s contention that the doc shows the political propaganda of the Hollywood communists is essentially: “That’s it?”
There’s just not much there there.
Sure, we see the upbeat, smiling tractor lessons of “Song of Russia” (1943), co-written by Paul Jarrico, who, in 1950, was named before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), before which he himself refused to testify; but the movie was essentially American war propaganda, since it put our wartime ally in a good light.
Yes, we see “Mission to Moscow” (1943), made at the behest of FDR, and co-written by Howard Koch, who was blacklisted by Red Channels in the 1950s. Koch’s other credits include such communist propaganda as “The Sea Hawk” (1940), “Sergeant York” (1941) and “Casablanca” (1942).
Sure, we get scenes where female factory workers pool their resources to rent one fancy place rather than four crappy ones (“Tender Comrade” (1943), by Dalton Trumbo and Edward Dmytryk, two of the Hollywood 10), and, yes, we get scenes that mock business (“We Who Are Young” (1940), written by Trumbo), or show female independence (“I Can Get It For You Wholesale,” from 1951, co-written by Abraham Polonsky), but there’s nothing inherently communist or socialist about any of it. If anything, the tepidity of these scenes demonstrates how overwhelmingly conservative Hollywood in the studio era was—and, I would argue, remains.
No, the real propaganda, the propaganda so powerful we don’t recognize it as propaganda, isn’t from the left at all. It’s this: love leads to marriage which leads to a happy ending; good and evil are absolute and obvious; and the best way for a lone man to achieve justice, for himself and others, is through the use of violence. These are the main messages we’ve been getting from Hollywood for the past 100 years. They are, for all the attacks on Hollywood from the right, essentially conservative messages.
The bigger problem with “Red Hollywood,” though, is structural. If the intention of the documentarians is to restore artistic integrity to the artists by owning up to their political viewpoints, why not focus on those artists? Give us sections on Lardner, Trumbo, Polonksy, and Lawson. Make it clear which films they worked on, and what, if anything, could be read into these films, and what, if anything, got cut. Give us a sense of their lives in Hollywood. Give us a sense of the strength of the left in 1930s Hollywood, and of the strength of socialism among 1930s Jewish communities, and how anti-Semitic all the 1940s and 1950s red-baiting ultimately was.
Instead, the movie is divided into sections, WAR, CLASS, SEX, HATE, CRIME, which is less illuminating than confusing. It causes us to veer between the early 1930s and early 1950s, vastly different periods in American culture. The writers and directors—who they are and what they believed—are mere afterthoughts in this process.
I like Polonsky and ”Willie Boy“ but I might've ended the doc with “Salt of the Earth,” a 1954 film, written, directed and produced by blacklisted artists, which showed, for the first time in any film, a strike from the worker’s point of view. As interesting to me as the film itself, which is available for streaming online, is the critical reaction from Bowsley Crowther, the generally conservative movie reviewer for The New York Times. After delineating the troubled people behind the production, and the troubled production itself, he wrote:
In the light of this agitated history, it is somewhat surprising to find that “Salt of the Earth” is, in substance, simply a strong pro-labor film with a particularly sympathetic interest in the Mexican-Americans with whom it deals ...
The real dramatic crux of the picture is the stern and bitter conflict within the membership of the union. It is the issue of whether the women shall have equality of expression and of strike participation with the men. And it is along this line of contention that Michael Wilson's tautly muscled script develops considerable personal drama, raw emotion and power.
Even let loose outside the studio system, these blacklisted writers, directors and producers, commie bastards all, simply wanted to tell a good story.