Christmas Cheesecake?

Watch it, you sleazebags. That’s my momma (Christmas, 1969).

Ever notice how, if there’s a news show or documentary about ‘69, there’s all this hippie crap and “it was a time of upheaval” and blah-blah-blah?

You never see that in our family photos. There’s no indication of anything upheaving anywhere. This attractive young woman does not look like she’s about to build a bomb or set the student center on fire. Ask my parents about the events of the ’60s and they’ll say “I was busy.” And they were.

My mother was (and is) a curiosity: Catholic school girl who went on to get a math degree (but hated math) and to have a computer career (and hated computers?) way ahead of her time. She was a career woman, but she made a lot of my clothes for the first 5-6 years of my life. I never had a piece of store bought bread till about then, too, since she baked, cooked, cleaned, washed, etc.

Though she would consider herself a feminist in the ’70s (down to the whole fish/bicycle thing), she’d have been the first to warn any woman who wanted to “have it all”. She had it all, and it was a lot of work. And a lot of it worked out in a less than optimal fashion.

Still, I’ve come to be impressed by my parents ability to raise children that survived at all. My mother was an only child (with a mysterious backstory that includes adoption) and my father had a younger brother he didn’t associate with much, and they were both part of that nuclear family culture which assumed that big, close-knit families could be replaced with books by experts.

Of course, my generation was even worse, with the extended family being a distant memory of the previous generation. But we, at least, have the advantage of knowing that the experts are full of it.

Conspiracy

We don’t believe in you-know-who
But we don’t let the kids know it
We’re parents, we’re grown-ups
There’s a line, we have to toe it

But we’re all part of a conspiracy
About this bearded big-fat guy
Who isn’t real, who never lived
Who’s old but doesn’t die

We took them to the department store
We went out on that limb
We told the kids it was you-know who
We said that bum was him

Then we set them on his knee
(To me the knee seemed bony)
Happily they sat there though
Chatting to that phony

Told the kids we could provide proof
(Deceit! Oh how I hate it)
Put out the milk and cookies
I confess I drank and ate it

Then there’s that fib about the North Pole
As if any elves could live there
We helped write and send that letter
Knowing full well it went nowhere

You-know-who comes down the chimney
How could such a fat man fit?
The whole thing is preposterous
Yet we get children to buy it

We have no shame, the lies pile up
You think at least we’d balk
When singing about red-nose reindeer
And snowman that can dance and talk

Well, it’s just a harmless tale
A bit of Christmas fun
Sort of like that other tale
The one about God’s son?

Where angels speak to shepherds
And wise-men troop after a star
And a virgin has a baby!
That’s fetched pretty far

But we adults buy that conspiracy
We toe and swallow that old line
Disappearing milk and cookies?
How about that bread and wine?

It’s enough to make you wonder
It’s enough to give you pause
Maybe it’s just as important
Kids believe in…
You-know-who

–Loudon Wainright III

Christmas Sap-lings

Although I’m not feeling particularly festive this season, I confess to being moved by Scrooge! when it comes on. Except for Die Hard, there are few Christmas movies we watch regularly.

What?

Die Hard is a Christmas movie! What better captures the spirit of the season than “Ho, ho, ho! Now I have a machine gun, too”?

We used to watch It’s a Wonderful Life when it was on constantly, before they re-secured the copyright on it. And it’s still one of my favorites. There’s an NYT article up now about it where the writer takes a somewhat contrary view. Apparently, people are outraged by this opinion piece.

Which I guess goes to show that outrage is the new mistletoe.

It’s actually not a bad article. There are a few points worth refuting, though. Maybe some people actually do think of IWL as a “cheery Christmas tale”, but I don’t know any. It’s a feel-good movie, sure, but not a “cheery” one. In some ways, it’s just this side of Job for cheeriness.

Then there’s the claim that Pottersville is better than Bedford Falls: More exciting, more economically vibrant, etc. I think I’ve read that before, from a strictly economic viewpoint. The author supports his point by citing other resort towns that have thrived where manufacturing has failed.

Those who find merit in this just demonstrate how much closer we are today, as a society, to Mr. Potter than the Baileys.

Pottersville is a slave state: Nobody owns anything but Potter, and nobody does anything without his permission. It produces nothing but wasted lives. It’s probably not even a nice place to visit but you definitely don’t want to live there.

Then the author talks about George’s criminal liability for the loss. This occurred to me, too, since it’s the action that’s criminal whether not the money is replaced. But does a scene with the Inspector agreeing to look the other way–as is implicit during the singing of “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing”–actually improve the movie?

It’s like that alternate ending as seen on SNL (which I can’t find, so here’s another version).

Then there’s a reference to George humiliating Mary (when she’s unclothed in the bushes), and later to him treating her cruelly right before they first kiss. The former characterization is just heavy-handed. The latter shows a fundamental lack of understanding about George and Mary’s relationship.

She, of course, is Bedford Falls to him and George must overcome his attraction to her in order to do what he wants. But when fate intervenes, and he’s given the choice between doing what’s right and doing what he wants, it’s only her that makes doing the right thing bearable.

Also, the article characterizes the townspeople as bitter and small-minded which I think is that “inner Potter” talking again. At the same time, referring to brother Harry as being a slick self-obsessed jerk seems uncharitable, given that he does offer to take over the S&L. And I think he would’ve done it. It’s George who feels he can’t let him do it.

OK, “emasculated” by being kept out of WWII? Really? Would anyone have seen it that way at the time? This was a war when the home efforts kept the war machine going!

The article wraps up with the economic prospects of Pottersville versus Bedford Falls and concludes that P-ville had the brighter future.

Au contraire: Potter did indeed win (and bigger and bigger Potters against more and more Bailey’s), yet given the current econominc situation–in these difficult economic times, if you will–the Potters of the world are busy trashing things while the Bailys of the world are doing fine.

The Bedford Falls are doing all right, too, unlike the Pottersvilles.

Names Dropped.

I got about 80% of the way through a post about all the celebrities I’ve encountered over the years, as a joke response to Troop’s reaction to my chance encounters with Leah Remini. (I naturally responded by constantly increasing the closeness of Leah and my relationship.)

Then I figured, why not list every celebrity you’ve encountered over the years and get it all out of the way. Besides, it would make an interesting/funny post.

But I got up to about 30 and it stopped seeming funny and started seeming sort of tasteless. (In a bad way!)

Go figger.

Ham (Handed) On Wry

Knox, with her vague recollections of The Patriot, nails the movie better than I did in my harangue: It’s ham-handed.

In the ‘90s, after the relative successes of Universal Soldier and Stargate writer/director/producer combo Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich were hot properties. (Unlike a lot of people who apparently went to see Stargate with really low expecations, I saw it years later with high expectations and was quite disappointed.)

The two caught my eye because of their interest in the disaster genre. The ’70s disaster genre. Actually, to get really specific, they were interested in the Irwin Allen disaster genre. (A genre that my cousin, who actually co-owns all or most of the Irwin Allen properties and is remaking them doesn’t seem to be that interested in.)

This is not a genre that produced great movies, even if you’ll sometimes see Earthquake and Towering Inferno given four-stars in the movie listings. (Earthquake isn’t Irwin Allen but I’d guess most people from the ’70s would be surprised by that, since it was a direct mirror of the Allen formula.) They weren’t good, but they were successful.

The original Poseidon Adventure grossed 85,000,000 (1972) dollars on a 5,000,000 budget. According to Box Office Mojo, it was the 36th highest box office film (adjusting for inflation) in 1982. Currently it stands as the 74th highest domestic grossing film (adjusting for inflation).

Or, just to put it another way, my cousin’s $160M remake would have needed to make 2.72 billion dollars in box office to get the same return that $5M did 35 years earlier. And the remake is an utter disaster. (Now, my cousin is a bright and talented guy who got where he was by working at it from the time he was eleven, so I fully expect him to hit one out of the park pretty soon.)

But when the remake was coming out the Fox Movie Channel did a marathon of the original. And as bad as it is, it’s not quite as bad as it was, if that makes sense. The original is a melodrama–or series of melodramas–that happens against the backdrop of a disaster (the ship sinking). This was the Irwin Allen formula, put a bunch of people with issues together in a burning building, and also throw people from different social strata together, and get them to where they resolve the issues with each other through the disaster.

As a formula, it’s positively ludicrous. But it’s also kinda fun. That’s what surprised me about watching the original: How much fun it was. (I mentioned to Knox in the Patriot thread linked at the top here that it’s not always the great movies that are re-watchable.) Ernest Borgnine as the cop married to hooker Stella Stevens (with Stevens being almost completely gone from the original TV cuts of the movie, and slowly re-emerging to find a new fan base over the years). Shelly Winters as the fat former swim champ.

And of course, Gene Hackman as the priest who’s mad at God. Talk about ham-handed! The parallels between Hackman and Jesus are not subtle. Toward the end of the movie, he’s actually yelling at God!

It’s easy to see why the remake of Poseidon fails: It lacks any of the fun. It’s super-“realistic”. The characters are more carefully, and less broadly, drawn and consequently completely forgettable. The effects are spectacular enough but I’m pretty numb to CGI effects these days. (For me, CGI effects peaked in ’94 with the original Jurassic Park.)

What’s more interesting, though, is to look at the Emmerich/Devlin films that were in the same mold and ask why don’t they work? They did four movies in the Irwin Allen style: Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot and The Day After Tomorrow. (You can, at least, give them credit for applying that style to the sci-fi invasion, rubber monster suit and historical drama genres!)

ID4 and Patriot get a lot of oomph out of the actors: Will Smith has made himself a career out of carrying fairly mediocre movies into realm of the watchable. The weaker movies (Godzilla and Day) have less star power. (Recall that in the ’70s, disaster movies had Steve McQueen, William Holden, Paul Newman, Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, Ava Gardener, etc.) But even so, do you remember who Will Smith was in ID4? I don’t. I think he had to have been military–but he’s so unmilitary it’s hard to imagine that’s true.

Jeff Goldblum was a nerdy scientist, I think, but isn’t he almost always a nerdy scientist? In Day one of the Bills (Pullman? Paxton? No, wait, it was Dennis Quaid!) plays the scientist with foreknowledge and Jake Gyllenhall is his rebellious (I think) son.

In other words, maybe the weaknesses have to do with characterization. I can remember Charlton Heston scowling about building codes–and Paul Newman scowling about building codes–in Earthquake and Towering Inferno respectively. But I can’t place Quaid’s face at the meeting where he tells the President about the perils of global warming. I mean, I can, but I can just as easily put one of the Bills there. (Wait, maybe I’m thinking about The Core. Din’t that have a Bill in it? No, that was Aaron Eckhart. Huh.)

I think it goes back to a common theme here on the ‘strom: Inability to perform without irony. I mean, can you imagine it today: A cop married to a hooker and the two of them in constant battles, raking each other over the coals over it? It’s positively “Honeymooners”!

Of course, the priest who hates God but is a heroic figure–very ’70s. Now the priest would have to be a pedophile and personally involved in sinking the boat. The young girl coming of age and finding herself attracted to the priest (and the priest being the balding Gene Hackman, heh)? Hackman is actually mad because God allows evil to exist in the world. Is there a more trite, hackneyed character? But, man, Hackman sells it like he’s never even heard of Job.

I might be wrong, but I think those movies worked to the extent that they did because the makers were willing to sell them hard. And, of course, audiences didn’t need things to be hyper-“realistic”. (They don’t now but they think they do.) But over time, perspectives on what is realistic change, and the “realistic” movies get less watchable while those that knowingly (and successfully) affect a particular theatrical style–like every movie Hitchcock ever made–become more watchable.

I don’t have a neat answer for this one. It could, after all, be sheer differences in movie-making skill. After all, it is the very ham-handed parts of The Patriot that detract from it, while the ham-handed parts of the early disaster movies are what make them watchable today.

Go figure.

The Patriot

I like the Roland Emmerich film The Patriot. It’s the best of a portfolio that borders on the offensively stupid. (OK, maybe some of that is disappointment. This guy should be my hero. But how do you make a worse Godzilla movie than Toho? How do you make a global warming disaster movie which features the cold as a sort-of monster? How do you make so many bad, expensive movies, like 10,000 B.C., and continue to get hired to make more at huge budgets?)

I found myself increasingly irritated by the portrayal of the British. While it was a war and atrocities abounded, I found it hard to believe that the guys who wouldn’t sully themselves to, you know, take cover while shooting, would do anything like the horrific things depicted in the movie.

I remember the controversy at the time and went to look up the Wikipedia entry for the movie; Wikipedia usually carries a “historical inaccuracies” section for every historical movie and I was pretty sure I had read an article on it there (or somehwere). When I went to look, however, there was no entry for inaccuracies.

Then I noticed that there was some controversy, and flipped over to the talk page, where a battle has been raging about the British conduct during the Revolutionary War.

And from a casual reading, the atrocities win out! Some point to this book:

Partisans and Redcoats details the war in the South which was apparently a long list of atrocities (rebels included) and documents Cornwallis’ bad behavior. What’s interesting to me is that the author makes the point that traditional histories just sort of ignore the South completely and don’t talk about Cornwallis until the events leading to his surrender are imminent.

In fact, the author (Walter Edgar) makes a point very similar to the one made in The Patriot: That English atrocities were a big factor in unifying the South against the British. (The ties between them being strong well into the Civil War.)

How about them apples?

I think that makes Mel Gibson 2, Haters 1. (Braveheart, his best historical movie, is also the least accurate.)

In Which You Decide You Can’t Trust My Opinion On Movies Any More

If you ever did, of course.

We watched The French Connection the other night.

Five time Oscar-winning French Connection.

It registered a big “meh”.

Now, if there’s a period of time in the movies that registers a big “meh” from me, it’s the late ‘60s to the late ’70s. Say 1966-1975. Movies from this era tend to have certain elements in common:

1. A mustard yellow/avocado green color scheme. These were popular kitchen colors but the whole decade seems drab and–well, sort of like the ’50s-future gone totally degenerate. One thing TFC had over similar cop dramas is that it wasn’t all this way. There were some very nice shots and some good blocking, some things that presaged The Exorcist.

2. A gawdawful, ugly, brass-heavy score. That’s why John Williams was such a phenomenon with Jaws and especially Star Wars. He brought back the full orchestra and aesthetic music. TFC is slightly different if only in that it relies on some really ugly piano work.

3. An attitude of cynicism and nihilism this generation wishes they could touch. So, in TFC, we have incompetent cops chasing incompetent crooks with a bunch of innocent people getting killed, and the bad guys getting away or getting light sentences because the system is broken, man.

There are probably a lot of other things that I object to, too, but I just plain avoid movies from this era. Even good ones tend to be ruined by one or more of these issues.

The Godfather movies, of course, are both remarkably (and uncharacteristically) beautiful with lovely scores, but the “heroes” are mobsters who are slightly less evil than other mobsters. The Wild Bunch makes sociopaths out of the guys who had been cutting heroic figures in the preceding 50 years of cinema. Serpico has an honest cop lead–but he’s the only honest cop in the world, apparently. Even the Dirty Harry movies suggest that Harry’s the only honest and competent cop around.

The musical dies during this period, with Cabaret putting the nail in that coffin. I love Cabaret, don’t get me wrong, but it cemented the notion that we couldn’t accept the musical as a serious art form. Post-Cabaret musicals would either be fantasies, kiddie pix or the music would have to come from an “organic” source. No more random people breaking out into song and dance.

This was the time of Heston’s Post-Apocalyptic trilogy: Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and Omega Man. The death of the pro-American war movie with The Green Berets. The death, probably coincidentally, of the big-budget animated feature and Walt Disney. The time of despairing features like They Shoot Horses Don’t They and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Not coincidentally, this is both a time critics are often nostalgic for, and a time when box office receipts were phenomenally low.

If not for the (basically) pre-Boomer Spielberg and Lucas, and Roger Corman’s influence, movie theaters would probably be oddities today.

Getting back to TFC: It’s slow–the vast bulk of the movie is people following other people around! The acting is good, of course. It all feels pointless though, and probably that was the point. Between the nihilism and the super-duper chase scene (which has aged like an episode of “Barnaby Jones”), you had a copy story that you could avoid enjoying for the normal reasons, and could “enjoy” for what it said about The Man.

A Big Meh. For giggles, TFC beat the following movies at the 1971 Oscars:

  • Clockwork Orange, A (1971)Stanley Kubrick
  • Fiddler on the Roof (1971)Norman Jewison
  • Last Picture Show, The (1971)Stephen J. Friedman
  • Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)Sam Spiegel (I)
  • Films not nominated that year include Harold and Maude and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

    Proud of the Pride

    If I seem a little prouder than usual of The Boy it’s because he’s been doing some work this week.

    His boss is a long-time friend of mine, so a day of work would’ve been as a favor to me. But my pal has had him come back three days and wants him for the rest of the week, which means that he’s doing good work. The Boy actually went to bed early tonight to be rested for another full day tomorrow.

    He’ll have to scramble a bit to make up the time on his history. He’s doing the ‘60s and ’70s this month, and he has till the end of the month to get it done, but with work and Christmas, this’ll be challenging.

    Legacy of the Panned

    Went to see Moscow, Belgium today with The Boy, who I think can probably claim to be the only 13-year-old male in America to see it. (Not many turning out to see movies about 43-year-old women juggling raising their children with their alienated husband and a truck driver competing for her affections. In Dutch. Or so I’m guessing.)

    So I owe you two. Consider the following in the meantime however.

    Because showing feature films (since about 1950) on a 4:3 TV would leave bands of the TV black along the top and bottom (and a very small resultant picture in many cases), the whole technology of “pan-and-scan” was developed, where a 16:9 (or other) film was reframed as 4:3, roughly along the center but panning to the right and left “as needed” to convey certain film elements. (I swear Blake Edwards used to deliberately frame dialogs with the two characters at the extreme ends of the frame deliberately to mess with that.)

    So this butchery was allowed to continue, and few even commented on it until the ‘80s. As a result, pan-and-scan is still the dominant way films are shown on TV.

    But wait, the widescreen TV is pretty standard these days! Does that mean they’re showing the films as originally shot and framed? In a few cases, yes.

    In most cases, however, the pan-and-scan version is being shown and then blown up to fill the edges of the widescreen TV.

    So, you’re seeing a butchered version of a film, where everyone looks short ‘n’ fat to boot. And while you can override this in some cases, I’ve seen a few situations where the cable overrides the TV controls, locks in the stretch, and seems to refuse to allow the picture to at least be put in the 4:3 frame for which it was designed.

    Reminds me of the fact that lines in text files are still largely delimited by carriage-return followed by a line feed, from the time when they were printed out on teletypes, and the print head was on a carriage that had to be moved all the way to the left, and then the paper scrolled, in order to keep the line of text on the page and not overlapping.

    Technology’s funny, isn’t it? Butchered movies with short fatties–not so much.