Archive for Matt Helm

Trash

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2019 by dcairns

I started out wanting to observe, for what it’s worth, that every single movie name-dropped in ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is terrible, but that’s not quite true. THE GREAT ESCAPE is a fun movie, and FUNNY GIRL is OK. But it’s startling how many stinkers are featured. CANDY is a very unusual and kind of interesting bad movie, and John Dykstra worked on it, so I guess it’s an in-joke too, since he did this film’s model shots (the drive-in crane shot, and the Pan-Am jets). But then we get a poster for Mike Sarne’s JOANNA… holy crap.

Then we have THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S (described by its own director, before it opened, as a piece of crap); KRAKATOA, EAST OF JAVA (the most geographically inaccurate title ever?), THREE IN THE ATTIC (QT once tried unsuccessfully to get star Christopher Jones out of retirement), THE MERCENARY, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, DON’T MAKE WAVES (OK, the last two have Sharon Tate in them so one can understand them being mentioned — but DMW was such a miserable experience it caused Alexander Mackendrick to give up film-making), THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, THE SERGEANT, LADY IN CEMENT…

Vulture’s article on this cites a few actual good films I’d forgotten or missed: 2001, PRETTY POISON, THE BOSTON STRANGLER. So there are good films in the mix: I guess a recreation of 1969, if accuracy is the aim, ought to feature more bad films than good, since that’s the way the balance always swings. But I don’t understand the nostalgia for this kind of stuff.

I suppose true nostalgia could definitially be about ephemera and garbage, stuff that exerts an emotional pull on us despite or maybe even because of its seeming worthlessness. But that kind of nostalgia — “Remember Space Hoppers?” — is pretty useless. It gets its power from an unrelated source — “I was young once” — and the specific things it focusses on are meaningless to others of a different generation.

The weirdest hommage to me is THE WRECKING CREW, a Dean Martin “Matt Helm” movie — I’ve always regarded that series as genuinely toxic. We all know the sixties Bond films are chauvinist; the Flint movies with James Coburn are seriously sexist; but the Matt helm movies are actually misogynistic. The filmmakers sincerely seem to hate women and devote as much screen time as they can to demeaning them.

This makes for an odd, unreadable scene in OUATIH when Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate goes to see the real Sharon Tate in TWC. I like that they didn’t digitally replace Tate with Robbie, or reshoot the movie. But if the intention is to pay tribute, the material used seems a strange choice. But then Tate’s movies are not a glorious bunch, alas: THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS is probably the least obnoxious, and I guess VALLEY OF THE DOLLS has camp value.

I get the impression that the scene is supposed to show Tate enjoying the audience’s reaction to her performance. And I guess maybe it works that way for some. But THE WRECKING CREW devotes most of Tate’s screen time to humiliating her character, showing her as clumsy, stupid, annoying to the hero, while displaying her body at every opportunity. Margot Robbie seems to have a hard time overlooking this, or at any rate her reactions don’t totally convince as those of someone enjoying the experience in a clearly readable way. I think Tate was too smart to have behaved this way, and Robbie is too smart to convincingly act it. There’s some kind of barely-tangible discomfort that manifests itself in a kind of blankness — the smile is big, apparently sincere, but somehow empty and non-specific.

When you see interviews with B-movie starlets looking back on some trash they were in, there’s always a rueful quality, and also a little pride — “At least I was a trouper, I put up with it all.” To me, showing Tate with that attitude to a really dumb, obnoxious movie she was in would give her more credit as a thinking professional.

(Acting watching a movie seems to be hard: when the kids go to see Harold Lloyd in HUGO, it’s maybe the most forced bit of performance in any Scorsese film; Kiarostami, no slouch, made a whole movie focussing on an audience watching an imaginary film, and it’s weirdly pointless and unmoving.)

Look, I know it’s not great film criticism, but I just really, really despise the Matt Helm series. It may be what’s stopped me looking at director Phil Karlson’s earlier noirs, which are supposed to be very good. Although I stumbled on a few fun Henry Levin movies — Henry helmed the two Helms that Phil didn’t film — and they’re modestly enjoyable. Both men seem to be bone-weary, disenchanted and dyspeptic by the time they get to Dean Martin spy caper hell.

In the memoir of gap-toothed comedian Terry-Thomas, he writes about working with Sharon Tate. Like everyone else who knew her, he was struck by her sweetness. She told him she couldn’t act at all, but that he shouldn’t worry, it seemed to come out alright. And he observed that she appeared to be correct: she played her scenes quite naturally, didn’t seem to try to act, and was perfectly effective onscreen. That self-deprecating, insightful and carefree attitude MIGHT leave Tate able to look at her work in THE WRECKING CREW and smile. But I think it’s a more interesting insight than anything Tarantino offers.

TT ˃ QT

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