They Go Boom #1

Friday night turned out to be a Vilmos Zsigmond double feature* — I’d bought a second-hand disc of Spielberg’s 1941 and showed Fiona the end credits because I remembered them being funny — she not only laughed at the entire cast screaming as their credits come up —— but at every single one of the random explosions punctuating the end titles. Then she demanded we watch the film. “What else did you buy it for?” Hoist by my own petard! Well, the trouble with certain unsuccessful comedies is not so much that the laughs aren’t there, but that the irritation is. As Spielberg himself diagnosed the problem, the film is just too LOUD. He realised he was in trouble in the edit and hoped John Williams’ score would bail him out, “…but then I realised John was overdoing his score to match my over-direction of Zemeckis & Gale’s over-written script.” In tightening the film to try to save the audience from exhaustion, he took out or compressed quieter character moments, according to co-star Dan Aykroyd, hyping up the intensity even more.

The best bit — whether it makes you laugh or not, it’s spectacularly impressive as a piece of choreography — camera movement as well as people movement.

Spielberg’s favourite comedy is, apparently, IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (“One mad too many”) — which is another way of saying he should never have attempted to direct a comedy. Amid the shouting, the actors who make a good impression and even get laughs are those who take their time and underplay — Lionel Stander and Robert Stack. Aykroyd does his patented fast-talking schtick (he would have gone down great in the thirties), Belushi is a cartoon, and the cast is rounded out with members of the Wild Bunch, the Seven Samurai, and Christopher Lee and Sam Fuller. Nominal hero Bobby DeCiccio is an incredible dancer/stunt artist and I’d like to have seen him do more physical comedy.It’s gloves-off time for Spielberg — he lets his obnoxious, bratty side out, though he did modulate the script to reduce some of the real unpleasantness. Our hero no longer nukes Hiroshima. But there’s a rapey villain — played with gusto by Treat Williams — a real Zemeckis/Gale trope — see BACK TO THE FUTURE — and lots of racial “humour” — I don’t need to see Toshiro Mifune saying “Rots of ruck,” thank you. But I kind of liked that the Americans destroy a lot of their own property but DON’T sink the Japanese sub. No Japs were harmed during the making of this picture. The race jokes are bold, especially viewed with modern sensibilities, but I’m not sure the movie really knows what it’s trying to say with them. Equal-opportunities offense only really works when you have equal opportunities elsewhere.

Spielberg asked Chuck Jones for advice, and the advice was, “Don’t do it.” Jones said you need to have at least one non-crazy character or it won’t work — he cited BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI for the James Donald character — “Madness! Madness!” But 1941 does have quite a few non-mad characters. DiCiccio and Dianne Kay are more generic than eccentric — but the movie never gives us a reason to care about them. They don’t care about anyone else. Example: in the wake of the seriously impressive night-club riot, Kay thinks she’s found DiCiccio — she lifts his head, but it’s just a random sailor, so she drops his head with a thunk and moves on. Moderately funny, perhaps, except we’ve seen it too often in movies, and it’s done cold-bloodedly (OK, maybe distractedly — but if she’s not paying attention to the wounded man, she’s still cold-blooded) and it hurts her character, so it wasn’t worth doing. All the characters we’re supposed to like are stupid or obnoxious much of the time in this movie.Slim Pickens’ character is dumped at sea, last heard screaming “Which way is the coast?” They KILLED him? I really needed a shot of him trudging out of the Pacific surf in his sodden onesie, and that’s not something I say about every film.

Good old Vilmos’s William Fraker’s cinematography is beautiful, but it’s a big part of the problem — combine the 70s’ approach to period, which is tons of diffusion, fog filters as thick as Warren Oates’ glasses, with Spielberg’s love of backlighting, smoke and Fuller’s Earth, and it becomes a little hard to read the action. Forcing the viewer to strain cancels out a huge amount of the comedy and adds to the headache effect with all the screaming and explosions. I think it’s a bit too misty even if it were an Indiana Jones picture. (To shoot RAIDERS, Spielberg gets Douglas Slocombe, who can do atmospherics but who also likes things clean and crisp unless there’s a good reason otherwise. Spielberg enters the 80s leaving behind that 70s period look.

Amazing miniatures work. Only the fairground ever looks like a model, for some reason. The Death Star assault on LA looks amazing. Callback to JAWS is a little laboured. Foreshadowing of JURASSIC PARK is funnier now, though.Oh, it was also a Nancy Allen double bill… In 1941, Nancy plays a woman with a sexual fetish for warplanes — an extrapolation of Carole Lombard and Robert Stack’s business in TO BE OR NOT TO BE, possibly. If we look for traces of autobiography in Spielberg’s work, then we have to say that the character with a fetish for WWII warplanes is HIM — see also the planes in the desert in CE3K, his WWII episode of Amazing Stories, the flying wing fight in RAIDERS, the flyboy antics of ALWAYS, and the rather extraordinary sequence in EMPIRE OF THE SUN where Christian Bayle spies on a sex scene during an air raid. Spielberg is more Ballardian than you’d think.

Meanwhile one couple end up screwing in a tar pit and Treat Williams is last seen being molested while covered in raw egg. Biological sex is messy. Mech sex is clean. Clean like fire. Once we can all upload ourselves into the Oasis, everything will be great.

*Actually, no.

33 Responses to “They Go Boom #1”

  1. Slim Pickens’s characeter does get out of the sea, as does Christopher Lee – you can see both of them briefly in the final shot of the film. There must have been a scene showing this, but it was left out of the released version, and even the expanded “director’s cut”, which has recently been released on Blu-ray.

  2. Beautiful!

    Spotted them — and Pickens’ fleshy upper arm is briefly glimpsed in the struggle right before. SS ought to have established them in the beautiful tracking shot of sleeping protagonists immediately before (which is the only place we noticed Mickey Rourke’s presence in the film).

    So nobody dies in the film, there’s just an exchange of prisoners. We get Lee, they get Belushi — whose abduction is like a grotesque version of Dreyfuss’s fate at the end of CE3K.

  3. “1941” is far and away my favorite Spielberg film.

    Yes I know this is a minority position, but so once was a love Nicholas Ray’s “Party Girl” (which “1941” is like in some respects. The thing about Spielberg is just beneath the surface of the “Good Jewish Boy” who made “Lincoln,” “Bridge of Spies,” “The Post” and of course above all “Schindler’s List” is the anarchist madman responsible for this musical (yes, it’s a musical with one of the greatest dance scenes ever committed to film), who also executive produced the TV musical limited series “Smash” (here’s a number)

    and took on Warner Bros. brass to insist that this key scene for Joe Dante’s “Gremlins” not be cut.

  4. “1941” is a musical about rape.

    It has of course a much-loved precedent

  5. Now here Steven really goes to town (please excuse the Spanish dubbing. This was the largest clip I could find. Spanish is “ironic” in this context as “1941” is about the “Zoot Suit riots” in which the indigenous Latino population was decimated by Anglo thugs

  6. This scene and the opening of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (featuring Mrs. Spielberg) shows his true métier is musicals

  7. I’d love for Stevie to do “Merrily We Roll Along.” But I digress.

    My dear late friend Rick Sanford was both a professional extra and a gay porn star. Ordinarily his extra employment was a day or two per film. On “1941” he kept being called back and was employed for close to a year. He told all his friends about the enormous sets, wild scenes and casts of thousands. It should be pointed out that “1941” is pre-CGI. Everything on screen is REAL. The main Hollywood boulevard set was built to three different scales to accommodate the actual props (ie. the planes) and models.

    Here’s one of my favorite moments.The detail is awe-inspiring

  8. And here’s how I’ll always remember Belushi

  9. (Back to my story) Rick was a good friend of Chris and Don’s. He was memorialized by them in their book October which features a marvelous nude of Rick.

    He was also a big fan of Stephen Sondheim’s. His “nom de porn” in fact was “Benjamin Barker.’ He sent the great mad a picture he had taken of himself posing nude in the ruins of the “Century” a gay porn theater that used to be on the edge of Silverlake. The pose he struck was in homage to this famous one of Gloria Swanson standing in the ruins of the “Roxy” — a pic which inspired Sondheim’s “Follies.”

    Sondheim answered Rick’s missive and they had lovely tryst.

    Rick was taken by AIDS , but managed to complete the book he was working on about his obsession with Jewish men which was published posthumously

    He also left a great many other writings. Here’s a link to them

  10. “1941” is about “War Fever” and the not-so-secret desire of Americans to destroy themselves.

    It had the bad luck to open during the Iran hostage crisis. Mass Audiences weren’t in the mood for this sort of effrontery — even though it involves Stevie making fun of himself.

  11. One of the odd things about ‘1941’ IMO is that Zemeckis and Gale appear to have written one movie, and Spielberg seems to be directing another; this is much more apparent in the longer (and better) director’s cut, which adds more contextual ‘war jitters’ material before and around the demolition derby action of the movie’s second half. Like Zemeckis/Gale’s follow-up “Used Cars”, I think you could argue that the basic subtext of “1941” is that Americans are loud, stupid, pathologically horny and eager for any excuse to get into a fight/show off their military might (“We didn’t start this war, but by God, we’re gonna finish it…!”). Gale cited the character of Ward Douglas as an illustration of the differing viewpoints of the movie — when Zemeckis and Gale wrote the script they apparently had Dennis Weaver in mind for Ward Douglas, and their conception was that this was a guy who was just a little too old to enlist, but who was REALLY ITCHING to shoot the Japanese, and is therefore ECSTATIC when the army deposits a gun in his front lawn. Spielberg by Gale’s own admission was apparently uncomfortable with that kind of racist characterization (this is the same Spielberg who was HORRIFIED at the idea in the “Used Cars” script that Kurt Russell’s goal is to become a corrupt politician and live off graft), so he cast Ned Beatty, with his bow tie and glasses, and the joke basically becomes “Can you imagine THIS dweeb with an anti-aircraft gun…?”; which is funny in its own way, but sort of crushes the running gag of “I will not have guns in this house”, since Ned Beatty in this movie looks like he’s never TOUCHED a gun, much less fired one.

    All that said, I love ‘1941’ — it’s a great big glorious mess of a movie, and you can tell Spielberg is in full-on young tyro mode, organizing frames like Mad Magazine splash panels and mucking about with the Louma Crane and staging incredible miniature dogfight sequences and playing whole scenes in mindbogglingly complex masters BECAUSE HE CAN. I find the energy infectious, even if, as Spielberg himself unkindly admitted, the movie’s something of a “conceptual failure”. (Kubrick’s infamous dictum about ‘1941’ being “good, but not funny” jumps to mind, but I also find it pretty funny, so…) The longer version’s definitely the way to go — it’s still chaotic and ill disciplined, but you can at least see vestiges of the structure Gale and Zemeckis were originally creating; the theatrical version FEELS like it was hacked down in a panic, with scenes thrown out and/or intercut for no sensible reason.

    One “yes, but” note: ‘1941’ was shot by William Fraker, not Vilmos Zsigmond.

  12. Ahah, yes Fraker. Which I NOTICED, but then forgot. Vilmos had done Close Encounters, with Fraker shooting some additional scenes.

    Used Cars is just foul. Strange that the political corruption angle would be a thing Spielberg would fixate on in a movie where Russell murders a family’s dog. The sexual attitudes are pretty consistent with 1941’s puerile obnoxiousness, though.

    Damn, now I have to see the longer version… someday.

  13. bensondonald Says:

    Saw it in a theater. Likewise “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “10”, and “Curse of the Pink Panther”, all peculiar attempts to grab at past Hollywood glories. Like lead-footed 50s remakes of speedy 30s comedies, or location-shot period films that manage to be less persuasive than old soundstage-and-backlot versions.

    One thing I remember was how it seemed to keep starting over. I kept thinking, “Ah, it’s going to be about the crazy pilot throwing LA into a panic”, or “Ah, it’s going to be able this horny couple causing more trouble”, or “Ah, it’s going to be about these two kids caught up in the madness”, or “Ah, it’s going to be about …” Stories bumped into each other, but I kept waiting for one character to take root, either driving the action or haplessly being impacted by everything going on.

    The sheer spectacle was fun, but the biggest legit laugh I remember was the two guys being set up in the ferris wheel as lookouts. As the sensible middle-aged guy surveys the ocean, the nerdy guy slowly unveils his ventriloquist dummy, and you realize the sensible guy is going to be a captive audience all night.

    I saw an interview somewhere in which somebody insisted everybody involved was high on cocaine. But looking at the jawdropping level of craftsmanship and technical competence on display, I doubt it. Was nobody able to step back and see the whole? Or was it that nobody knew how to stop the train once it left the station?

  14. Belushi would have been doing coke. Highly doubtful Spielberg was, even Peter Biskind couldn’t dig up any evidence of that. But after making two giant hits that went massively over budget yet still turned vast profits, he was now all-powerful. Something was bound to break eventually.

    The trouble with multi-strand stories is they take a long time to get started and get developed. TV pilots often illustrate this problem. Once you’re intrigued by all the stories, the film can cut back and forth and you’re hooked. But it can take ages, if it happens at all.

    I’m very intrigued (OK, somewhat intrigued) by this director’s cut, or director’s rethink (since nobody forced Spielberg to change things the first time).

  15. Eddie Deezen is an Axiom of the Cinema.

  16. The longer cut just gives you MORE. The notion that it’s somehow more disciplined is inextricably tied to the wish that “1941” not be the gigantic piece of cinematic insanity that it is. Likewise the notion that Zemeckis and Gale are “bad” and Stevie “good.” Again, he like to play the “good boy” and probably thinks of himself as such. But there’s a Mr. Hyde mise en scene always nibbling at the edges, itching to get out. Still he couldn’t have made “Death Becomes Her” which Zemekis did. And even for a slick cynic like him it pushes an envelope many never knew was there. A film about narcissism made in Hollywood(Capital of Sef-Love) with its full resources.

    It’s one of Meryl’s greatest performances.

  17. I happen to think 1941 is a pretty awesome film, really entertaining, and just brilliant film-making. I think it’s the strongest of Spielberg’s early work (i.e. Sugarland Express, Close Encounters, Jaws) and it’s better than all three of the Indiana Jones movies and most of the 80s and 90s stuff (my minority view is that Spielberg’s real golden period is the films he made in the 21st Century and counting), which has all the same flaws in this film (i.e. race jokes, bizarre mix of tones) but somehow gets normalized because of the action movie stuff going by the side and Harrison Ford’s non-ironic throwback to Old Hollywood machismo. Whereas in 1941, it’s clear that nobody is off the hook, and it works better there.

    The other great movie he made is Empire Of The Sun…with Christan Bale’s only good performance.

  18. I like Empire of the Sun, but it steals too much Lean.

    Note that Eddie Deezen’s puppet, styled after him, is also a dead ringer for young, pre-beard Spielberg.

    1941 at least knows it’s being risque about race, whereas Temple of Doom doesn’t seem to get it at all — because Indians didn’t enter into mainstream American thinking at the time. See also Apu in The Simpsons.

    1941 and its twin The Blues Brothers (Landis is in the former, Spielberg the latter) climax the American comic tradition of Smashing Shit Up, which has now moved over to the superhero movie and CGI and the non-comic post-9:11 skyscraper-destroying fetish which really does seem obsessive, like Hollywood has PTSD and doesn’t know it.

  19. That clip got me thinking. Apart form the muttering in a Richard Lester joint, ADR really is a laugh-killer.

  20. Well, there’s Tati, who dubbed absolutely everything, and Fellini, who could be pretty funny. Excess dubbing in Hollywood movies does tend to mean they’re compensating for something that didn’t work, so it may be more a question of a failed attempt to resuscitate already expired laughs.

  21. The problem with Indians in American movies, and Asians in general (i.e. Arabs, Iranians, Pakistani, Afghans mainly but also Chinese, Koreans, Japanese to some extent), is that we are generally jokes and comic-relief without any depth and seriousness. And in a weird way, Spielberg is some kind of exception to that…as awful as Temple of Doom is, and I mean it is deliberately and intentionally awful in its mean-spiritedness, self-hatred and ugliness…it actually didn’t make Indians funny, it made them into scary evil people…and Amrish Puri as the villain is clearly having fun. But it’s the whole context of the background where you have Sri-Lankan extras speaking Sinhalese, the big map pretending that a landmass bigger than Western Europe combined can be easily summarized by a single river trip from the Himalayas to I am guessing Bengal…(since that’s where Kali is really worshipped, and I mean worshipped, she’s a positive, heroic, popular goddess) and of course the finally where Red-Coat soldiers come to rescue…for a movie that is set in the late’30s, all without any irony at all. I mean that is the great gift that George Lucas (who I peg as the main auteur of the Indiana Jones movies) had. He could do the old-fashioned stuff with a naive seriousness that is without any irony or cynicism at all. It’s both a virtue and a vice. It works in the Star Wars movies, especially the prequels.

    Spielberg improved on that with The Terminal where Kumar Pallana (from Wes Anderson films) gives his best performance, and the character is both comic but also has a serious and heroic quality to him. And of course Wes Anderson is still better with Darjeeling Limited with Warris Ahluwalia and of course he also generally gave the late, much-missed Pallana, more to do later on. But this is a problem that goes back to Blake Edwards’ The Party, where Peter Sellars’ accent is the ancestor for all impressions of Indian people by actors, including the one in The Simpsons.

    Empire of the Sun doesn’t strike me as David Lean at all. I mean it’s got Lean-like qualities but the portrayal of childhood embracing social collapse as adventure and nightmare simultaneously is pure Spielberg. It’s the ancestor to AI and War of the Worlds in that respect.

  22. Oh I just mean Spielberg stole specific shots, quite a few prominent ones.

    How does Sellers’ Indian accent strike you? I know it’s hugely problematic in and of itself, but since he’s known as the great mimic, I’m curious as to whether it sounds anywhere near authentic to you.

    The Millionairess came first, and he’s not playing an idiot in that one, the impersonation is just an acting stunt with seemingly no point to make.

  23. It depends on what the baseline is. India since the colonial time has a middle-class who speak English as a first language and in general you never get any sense of that from the movies, which still make it sound all-pidgin like. And those who learn it second-hand or later…like Sabu Dastagir, a poor madras kid who Robert Flaherty made into a movie star and he spoke English well in the Thief of Bagdad and Black Narcissus, and the other stuff (it’s weird that a pro-imperialist like Korda is progressive on that front). It’s weird that nobody considers imitating him. It would still not be great but at least it wouldn’t sound so bad. I mean obviously there’s a benign imperialist benevolence tied to the 30s and 40s Korda’s productions (which Black Narcissus does criticize)…so it shouldn’t be looked at uncritically but you know learn and improve.

    The thing with Peter Sellars in The Party is that it’s not clear what his background and past is. He’s obviously a poor Indian immigrant, but in the Indian context, the really poor can’t really afford to immigrate to the West, unless they get in with the merchant marine, or the navy, or some other shady stuff dealing with say, smuggling. His accent regardless of mimicry, and it might be accurate to say some Indians (bearing in mind that as Olivier Assayas pointed out when describing his English films, that people who speak English as a second language tend to express themselves more crudely…and that was what he was trying to get across there), doesn’t have meaning, depth or texture suggesting any of that. And there’s a kind of “holy fool” quality to Peter Sellars’ character that presents him as being too naive, I mean an Indian guy trying to make it big in America would have to be ambitious and hungry right. At least that’s how people in India would see it.

    I still think The Party is a good film. And it was quite popular within India, where a lot of its famous gags were repurposed locally. And obviously Edwards wanted to make a comedy subverting and correcting much of Hollywood’s self-entitlement, and showing it from the perspective of an “extra”. It’s just that it could work just as well, and probably better with Chinese, Japanese, Fillipino, Korean immigrants (especially since the former three have a much bigger, and virtually unacknowledged role in American history, providing more context). And having that caricature of an Indian played by a British guy is better than the alternative…having an actual Indian actor play a caricature which goes into Stepin Fetchit…I mean on a certain level Griffith having white actors wear blackface in Birth of a Nation is more acceptable than Gone With the Wind casting African-Americans as subservient loyal slaves. The latter normalizes the former film’s racism and internalizes the lost cause….Of course the real thing is not to make the movies at all…but the fact that they are made is how we are having this debate in the first place.

  24. Well, certainly the racism in Birth of a Nation is naked and the blackface makes it even more obvious, whereas for decades GWTW got a free pass and could even claim “realism,” laughably enough.

    Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is worse than Sellers, I think, because it uses yellowface as interchangeable with clown makeup: the character is ridiculous because he’s Japanese, and casting a white guy is meant to point that up. It’s a somewhat skilled piece of caricature but (1) wrong forthe movie and (2) racist.

    Then there’s Cato. But I love Burt Kwouk. And I guess we’re meant to find Clouseau racist.

  25. bensondonald Says:

    Cato (Kato, ala the Green Hornet?) isn’t too consistent a character. Sometimes he’s the simple flunkey overly-committed to his duties; in a few he’s smarter than his boss (in one he’s obviously humoring Clouseau who’s showing off a new disguise; in another he promptly turns the flat into a brothel when Clouseau is presumed dead); and in others he’s on Clouseau’s eccentric wavelength (accompanying him with utter confidence in the bad disguise Clouseau assigned). Somewhat lazy writing meant he was whatever a gag needed him to be.

  26. Consistency, of course, was not the series’ strong suit. The Phantom changes from David Niven to Christopher Plummer and back, Herbert Lom disintegrates, then recovers, Joanna Lumley changes character between films… films shot simultaneously!

  27. As a lifelong “Used Cars” fan, I have to clarify: Russell doesn’t murder a family’s dog. Toby, the hound who lives on the car lot, is trained to play dead to trick a family into buying a car (and Gerritt Graham is the guy who orchestrates the con.) Carry on.

  28. Have you ever seen the 1941 comic book adaptation that ran (I believe) in Heavy Metal and was later collected in a single volume? As over-the-top and frenetic as the movie it, the comic goes much, much further. And Spielberg HATED it.

  29. Thanks! Well, that definitely helps. Now I just have the nude scene to upset me.

  30. I have seen the paperback of 1941, which was quite something visually, but I never read it. It had a great Mad Magazine meets EC horror comics look. I just read Spielberg’s letter of complaint which is very funny and likable. I recall he also did a foreword to the paperback, which I’d love to read. I do remember it ended with “Be merciful.”

  31. John Seal Says:

    It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was one of my favourite films when I was ten or eleven. This is no longer the case.

  32. I would probably go see it if I could have the full Cinerama experience. But I’d expect to be just as repelled.

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