Archive for Robert Stack

They Go Boom #1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2018 by dcairns

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.

Bwana Bubble

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2009 by dcairns

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So — like a lot of people who’ve read some basic film history, I knew that the first 3D feature was BWANA DEVIL, promoted with the tagline “A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!” There were things I did NOT know, however  —

1) I didn’t know that BWANA DEVIL is based on the same astonishing true-life case as THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS: an unheard-of incident of two man-eating lions who hunted together, finishing off scores of hapless humans and delaying construction of the first trans-African railway.

2) I didn’t know that the film was made by Arch Oboler, genius of scary radio with a background in low-budget noir, and that he carried on pushing 3D into the 70s, long after the rest of the world had given up on it.

domoarigatposterOboler just wouldn’t give up on “Space-vision.”

I had occasion to mention Oboler this summer when I met Bruce MacDonald, director of the stupendous PONTYPOOL, which deals with the power of radio. He mentioned Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. I mentioned Oboler’s Chicken Heart broadcast, in which a giant, ever-expanding chicken heart eats the world, and discovered that MacDonald was familiar with the Bill Cosby routine based on the show, but not the show itself.

It still strikes me as weird that Oboler would come from radio, which uses only the dimension of imagination, sparked by sound, and yet the ordinary two-dimensions of cinema were not enough for him.

Here’s a classic slice of Oboler — listen with the lights out!

Oboler’s cult output also includes the slick psycho-noir BEWITCHED, which I wrote of here, post-atomic survival drama FIVE, and THE TWONKY, a bizarro comic fantasy about an alien visitor who takes the form of a TV set. As a drunken sports coach says, “I used to have a Twonky when I was a kid. A Twonky is something that you don’t know what it is…”

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The big problems with BWANA DEVIL are that (1) it doesn’t really benefit from 3D much at all, and Oboler’s flat, washing-line compositions are a waste of the medium. The lion leaps over the camera every time it appears, but there’s not enough suspense to make us afraid of the thing. Paul Schrader’s CAT PEOPLE gets one thing right — the very tactile  and three-dimensional big cats in the movie feel really alive and present, in a way Oboler’s cut-out creations never get a chance to. What’s needed is some Val Lewton atmospherics, giving the lions the aura of the supernatural the African and Indian characters ascribe to them. The real motheaten beasts in this movie, and the CGI creations in the more modern version (another form of 3D — computer-generated 3D cartoons) are neither real enough nor phantasmagorical enough.

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(2) The wonder of the story depends on the audience carrying it its head the fact that this is TRUE and UNIQUE, two qualities from outside the frame of the movie. We have to remind ourselves, in the midst of important action “Seems implausible, but apparently it really happened,” and “I don’t know much about lions, but apparently they never normally do this.” It’s a story that works brilliantly in the history books and when William Goldman tells it in prose. And the movie begins with a title, “This is a story that was told to me in Africa,” hinting at the excitement he must have felt when encountering this great yarn around the campfire.

Robert Stack tries hard in a role not so much underwritten as unwritten, and Nigel Bruce, the beloved Dr Watson from the Basil Rathbone Holmes films, makes a good fist of his Scottish accent — he ought to, despite being born in Mexico (!) he was a descendant of Robert the Bruce.

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“Take these damn Space-Vision glasses! Take them, I say!”

Much better is THE BUBBLE, Oboler’s penultimate Spacevision production, which draws on some of the pulp mystery and numinous terror of his best radio work. A group of 1D characters is trapped in a 3D town which seems to be surrounded by a giant perspex dome. The town is as incomplete and inconsistent as a movie set reconstruction of Patrick McGoohan’s Village, left half-finished, and its populated by humans reduced to robotic repetition, who “feed” by some kind of gross osmotic process conducted in a queer biomechanical temple. Is there no escape?

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The groovy yet unexplained brainwashing sequence.

Oboler’s direction is much friskier here, with carnivalesque effects created by camera movement and odd angles, but the aesthetic is still one of sticking stuff in the viewer’s eye. Why was Oboler obsessed with 3D if that’s all he could see to do with it? Unfortunately, his compelling premise fizzles out, and a lack of consistency in the characters’ behaviour robs it of a lot of its potential. The crux of these Twilight Zone scenarios is that they only work if played out to their natural conclusions, with the crazy idea followed through step by step with impeccable logic.

But the hackneyed effects are still enjoyable, the underwritten character are played by fresh, unskilled but somehow believable actors, and the idea is a nice, creepy one. If Oboler had only come up with a neat, PLANET OF THE APES-style zinger ending, the movie would probably have found its place as a minor cult object.

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Buy Arch Oboler from Amazon —

Five

The Bubble

Lights Out Everybody

A 3D Couplet

Posted in FILM with tags , , on September 22, 2009 by dcairns

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Robert Stack /

Has a monkey on his back.

(Of course, being as this is from Arch Oboler’s BWANA DEVIL, the first 3D feature, he could at any instant find himself with a lion in his lap also.)