Film

Welcome to the (secular) Poxy-clipse: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

It may seem strange to put it this way, but Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is arguably one of the more realistic depictions of the post-apocalyptic world.

Bartertown is a functional economy and (just as with Road Warrior) you get the crazy punk-meets-tribal look, only it is now more fully realized.   The use of livestock manure to supply natural gas for power generation is actually "a thing" these days and large scale operations can reach a remarkable degree of self-sufficiency.

We also see the progression from nomadic raiders to a growing settlement and a semblance of civilization.

One must make a special call-out to Tina Turner, who is exceptional as the matriarch of Bartertown.  I've said this many, many times before, but strong women in films is nothing new.  It is as old as film (and before that theater) itself.  Her portrayal is marvelous, and her discussion of how she was a "nobody" and is now "somebody" is a wonderful shorthand way to describe her rise to power.

There's also her undeniable presence, something sorely lacking in today's stars.  You can readily believe that she can gain and hold attention.

Amidst all the fun and now iconic phrases ("two men enter, one man leaves!"), there is a sour note that I missed when I saw it back in the 80s but now standing out like a flashing light: a complete absence of faith.

The Lost Children have learned their legend, and ascribed semi-divine power to an airline pilot, but what about God?  There's a reference in the memorial the parents left behind them, but that's it.

I suppose it is a sad commentary on Australian culture that even in 1985 no one would think that parents would teach children their prayers or a little scripture.  If they were trying to flee the urban nightmare, might not one have brought the family bible along with a recording of French lessons?

This hearkens back to something that The Lord of Spirits podcast brought up more than a year ago: the modern assumption that settlement patterns are driven entirely by economics, with religion being a later addition, a luxury item.

The origin for this notion is probably in the settlement of the American frontier - or at least the modern secular interpretation of it.  We see it in countless cowboy movies set in the Old West: the town starts has a tavern/general store, later a jail and then once civilization shows up, a church.

This completely ignores that fact that many settlements were actually built around missionary communities.  Indeed, the United States itself was in large part a refuge for religious communities - the Pilgrims, and later Catholics, Anabaptists, etc. - all came seeking freedom of worship rather than simply a chance to build a log cabin.

Even the Old West was shaped by this drive for religious freedom.  Utah exists in its present Mormon-heavy configuration because the practice of polygamy led to that faith's persecution east of the Mississippi. 

As much as we like to pretend otherwise, humans are spiritual creatures, incapable of existing outside of a moral framework.  Those who claim to be most secular have simply substituted their own divine code, which they delude themselves by thinking is "rational" or "science-based," but it really just a reflection of their own personal priorities.

It would be interesting to imagine a post-apocalyptic world with a religious element - mission settlements built around surviving churches or even a shrine commemorating a miracle during the Downfall.

This brings us to the great irony that Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome itself uses religious language ("Poxy-clipse") to describe the collapse of civilization without any thought to its deeper meaning.


The Road Warrior: fun, but also stupid

The Mad Max series gave a big boost to the genre of "post-apocalyptic" fiction.  Foremost among them was The Road Warrior, which veered away from the Death Wish style social commentary of the first movie and dove straight into life after civilizational collapse.

I'll be honest: this is a pretty stupid movie.  It has plot holes the size of semi trucks and all sorts of hand-waving to push things forward, but it has had a huge impact on the public imagination. 

Which is funny, because the story makes no sense.  For example, there is no reason the protagonists and Lord Humongous can't simple do some sort of barter trade.  Even the most violent barbarian peoples - the Mongols, the Huns, the Vandals, the Goths - were wiling to trade when it was profitable.

Also: where are the firearms?  No, I don't expect craft weapons, but they clearly have the metallurgy to soup up engines - machining barrels and bolts to make crude firearms is no great stretch.  In fact, we know these things exist in places like the Khyber Pass - which is a pretty anarchic place.

All that aside, the movie's distinct look has become part of popular culture, which means that even though it's deeply silly, it can't be classified as anything other than a smashing success.

Truth be told, the whole point of the film is to do a bunch of violent car wrecks.  That's what we really want to see and that's what we get.

There is also a lesson insofar as the people who work to overthrow the existing order often have no clear notion of what comes next.  In that sense, the plague of ultraviolent punk rocker biker dudes serve as a cautionary tale for our present age.

 


The strong finish for Magnum p.i.

In a previous post, I noted that by the end of its sixth season, Magnum p.i. was creatively exhausted.
 
The original focus of the show on Vietnam veterans adjusting to civilian life in the context of a detective show had been played out and the standard 80s private eye tropes were also exhausted.  The fact that the show decided to dig up yet another Higgins half-brother, demonstrated that it was essentially declaring intellectual bankruptcy.
 
Unsurprisingly, the ratings were also tumbling.  Once one of the top shows on TV,  Magnum was being destroyed by NBC's Thursday night juggernaut, led by The Cosby ShowMagnum p.i. was living on borrowed time.
 
In response to this, there were some behind-the-scenes changes.  Tom Selleck stepped up as a producer, giving him more creative control.  The show also moved to Wednesday night, giving it a needed ratings boost.
 
The result was one of the best seasons of the show.  While there had always been call-backs and recurring guest stars, it was until the seventh season that the show embraced multi-episode plot arcs.  This was becoming the norm on American prime time TV thanks to shows like Hill Street Blues, and the writers of Magnum p.i. finally got on board. 
 
This was combined with a sense that the show itself needed to reach a conclusion.   After seven years of production, the characters were visibly growing older and that demanded some sort of acknowledgement.  Accordingly, one of the threads of the season is Magnum himself turning 40 and realizing that being a loafing private investigator dependent on a novelist's largesse was not a sustainable life plan.
 
As the season neared completion, the episodes became ever more closely aligned until the cliff-hanger, where the title character is apparently mortally wounded.
 
In the commentary to the series finale, Charles Floyd Johnson remarks that at the time of filming, it was assumed the show would not be renewed.  When it was picked up for season eight, it was known from the start that this would be the last season of the show.
 
This is probably why the final season had so few episodes.  I initially thought it wrapped in December, but it ran until May, there were just gaps between the shows, probably movies or other specials.
 
As for the finale itself, the two-part episode was apparently controversial, but it works for me.  I don't know if it's possible to have a spoiler for a TV show but those who dislike them can stop reading here...
 
Okay, for the rest of you, I think the decision to have Magnum re-join the Navy makes sense, especially in light of his grandfather's visit.  Magnum had what is known as a "break in service," and it's not uncommon.  He was more than halfway to securing a pension from the Navy, so finishing that up was a logical move.
 
Moreover, the military of 1987 was a step up from the post-Vietnam one he left in 1980.  Some have commented that he jumped up two grades in rank, which is unusual, but in a previous episode he was recalled to active duty as a full Commander so that apparently was still on the books.  I'm not versed in Navy procedures, but they do tend to have a lot more direct commissions than the other services, and given Magnum's unique skills, service record and especially the fact that he's an Annapolis grad, I can see them offering him O-5 with a requirement that he go to the requisite schools upon re-accession.  
 
The other story arcs also work.  T.C.'s reconciliation with his kids and ex-wife naturally flows from the many years of him supporting youth sports teams.  He's ready to be a husband and father and the gap left by his departure was never filled.
 
As for Higgins, er, "Robin Masters," this is the weakest plot point in the whole show, and if you watch it continuously, it does not work at all. 
 
I will grant that after the first few seasons, the writers lost interest in having Robin as a plot element and after that gap, having Magnum speculate that it was all a ruse, isn't completely out of bounds.  That being said, he's a private eye with insider access and would easily be able to see when Mr. Masters' first books were published. 
 
The show seems to have moved away from this in the last two seasons and at one point Higgins challenges Magnum directly, who backs down.  When Higgins appears to come clean in the finale, Magnum is properly incredulous and Higgins' subsequent retraction is appropriate.
 
All in all, it was worth seeing it again, and if I decided to re-watch, I'll definitely avoid the weaker seasons and savor the best days of the show.

Last stand against the 70s: The Thomas Crown Affair

We tend to think in terms of decades because they offer a shorthand way of describing the look, sound and style of a particular period. 

The truth, however, is that time moves in uneven increments.  The late 80s have very different feel from the early 80s, for example.

Probably the starkest peacetime shift in culture happened during the 1960s.  Compare the stylish, sauve, Henry Mancini-themed films of the early 60s with the long-haired look at the end of the decade.

The Thomas Crown Affair is one of those films that takes place at the frontier of two differing eras.  Steve McQueen is generally dapper, a man of means who dressed the part of the establishment type, but under his fitted shirts he's also wearing a gold chain with a large medallion - a very 70s stereotype.

Faye Dunaway is more nuanced, with her outfit conjuring both early 60s business style and the later bra-less 70s look - complete with slightly flared slacks.

This seems like a long digression for a movie review, but it's important because The Thomas Crown Affair is very much a piece of a specific time.  The "perfect" bank caper is dependent on the technology of the time, and the sums of money stolen will - after the end of the gold standard and a decade of stagflation - seem ludicrously small.

Indeed, bank robberies still happen, but it's no longer possible to for a the same type of profit because money is worth so much less.  In a world where nice homes cost $20,000, getting away with $100,000 is quite an achievement. 

The heart of the The Thomas Crown Affair is the dueling match between McQueen and Dunaway, and there are few actors today who could pull it off.  The interplay is a joy to watch.

Another fun part of the film is its experimentation with various split screens, which sometimes gets annoying, but is absolutely a part of the time.  I recall the Disney revival of The Love Bug used this to great effect.

The transition from 60s to 70s was before my time, and as someone who regards 70s fashion as an unmitigated disaster (well, except for the bra-less thing), movies like this are fun to watch.


The doomed hedonism of Caddyshack

Going back and watching the films of my youth has led me to some interesting places.  For example, I came to realize that The Crow is a profoundly Catholic movie.

I'm also seeing comedies in different ways.  Today's discussion is about Caddyshack, which I was too young to watch in the theater and only got the full sense of it as a teenager when it was on VHS.

On the surface, it's a movie vehicle for Chevy Chase (an up-and-coming star from Saturday Night Live) and veteran Rodney Dangerfield.  Add in Ted Knight as a foil and Bill Murray as the weirdo groundskeeper, and the movie was guaranteed to be a laugh riot.

It is still quite funny (in part because of its rudeness), but it is also very dated.  The film highlights the tension between the old White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) establishment and everyone else, from new money to the working class.

If a remake was to be attempted, the caddies would be the villains, deplorable and hateful.  The tale would be about how enlightened and woke people destroyed the rude, obnoxious yard workers, maybe replacing them with robots.

But I digress.

Caddyshack is an anti-establishment movie, but the problem was that the libertarianish dream it embodies of easy sex, casual drug use and thumbing one's nose at convention ultimately leads to greater tyranny.  It's all nice and fun to pick middle class morality, but what replaces it is far more restrictive.

Of course, Caddyshack is also about exposing hypocrisy, and a proper remake would be an even more target-rich environment, starting with people who have "Climate Action Now" signs in the vast yards 5,000 square-foot homes.

The sexual adventurism of the aptly-named Lacy Underall has been replaced by sex police on university campuses.  These not-so-grand inquisitors are supposedly there in the name of protecting the rights of women, but they trample upon every concept of rights in the process.

To put it another way, it seems unimaginable that we could get here from there.

And yet here we are.

 


My mini-China film festival

To focus my thoughts on the China book project, for the last several weeks I've been watching Chinese-centric films.

I started with Curse of the Golden Flower, which is supposedly set in the Tang Dynasty.   I have to admit that when I first watched it, I found it a bit odd but the themes now make a lot more sense to me - both in terms of its ending and also the time in which it was set.

Jumping ahead in history, the next film in the sequence was 55 Days in Peking, which is about the Boxer Rebellion and stars Charleton Heston as, well, himself.  I suppose it's biased against the Boxers, but then again, they were trying to kill all the diplomats and their families which was not very nice.

Props to Flora Robeson as the Empress Dowager.  Ah, for the days when people were allowed to play folks from other races and cultures.  I'm old enough to remember when our betters told us that race was only skin deep, not the defining human characteristic.

After that, I watched The Last Emperor, Super-Long Director's Cut Edition.  Whew!  This should have been a miniseries.  I get why the guy wanted all the extra footage added in, but he should have also included an intermission.  Ah, for the days when data compression required two disks for a movie of this length. 

The big takeaway for me was how deeply weird late Imperial China was and Henry Puyi was also a bit off. 

For a change of pace, we jumped to the 1920s for The Sand Pebbles, a movie that got Steve McQueen and Best Actor nomination.  It's a good film, well done, and covers the forgotten topic of US gunboats sailing around in China.  Hard to believe that Candace Bergen was once mild-mannered and sweet rather than middle-aged and caustic.

Closing out my journey was Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, which is set in Hong Kong as the Chinese Civil War comes to a close.  It's a fascinating snap-shot of Hong Kong before it was entirely paved over with skyscrapers and run by the Chi-Coms.  Jennifer Jones does a great job of being a half-Chinese doctor (or as she insists, "Eurasian").  William Holden plays his usual lecherous self.  Funny how that guy so often ended up portraying a writer on the take.

Anyway, I think the "off duty" attention paid to China kept me motivated to hit my goal of 40,000 words by the end of March.  I am definitely over the hump on this book.  Going forward, the sources are more plentiful, clearer and the lessons of military operations become far more clear. 

I've set a very ambitious goal of having 60,000 words by the end of April and a draft done by the end of May, so we'll see how that goes.


Roadhouse: a movie mostly about Patrick Swayze's butt

Today's nostalgia offering is Roadhouse, another Patrick Swayze vehicle from 1989.

It falls into the odd intersection of revenge fantasy/bar film, but what truly sets it apart is Patrick Swayze's butt.

Actually, it features just about every part of the man on screen, which is an amusing juxtaposition with the usual "boobs and butts" (also rendered as "tits and ass") content of the era.

I take an increasingly dim view of that sort of thing, but at least Roadhouse is an equal opportunity offender.  By this point, Swayze was at the top of his game as a box-office draw, and seeing him as the super-cool elite bouncer who also dances with the lovely women and regularly dispenses with the need for clothing shows just how much masculinity has changed in the decades since then.

In a plot twist reminiscent of Days of Thunder, Swayze falls for the very attractive emergency room doctor who treats his knife wound.  Naturally, she falls for him because look at that glorious bod!

The soundtrack is familiar to fans of Dirty Dancing, and it alternates between 80s compositions and classic 60s tunes designed to set the mood.

There is something like a plot involving a greedy local businessman who tries to run Swayze out of town, but it's one of those tropes that allow the minimum acceptable level of character development.  Like so many movies of this type, the plot can only proceed because none of the protagonists are carrying a revolver, which would have resolved the thing in half the run time.

I've touched on that before, but there is a long-standing trope about good guys being painfully reluctant to act, which in turn allows the bad guys to inflict maximum carnage on the innocent until the hero reaches the breaking point.

From a modern informed legal perspective, in almost every case, the provocations are well across the line of reasonable self-defense.  When I watch these with my friends, we like to call out the moment where the good guy (or gal) could legally plug the bad guy.

Anyway, if one wants to see an almost entirely naked Patrick Swayze (and also some almost entirely naked women), this is the film for you.


Too clever by half: Paris When It Sizzles

As part of my continuing acquisition of DVDs, I picked up a bunch of Audrey Hepburn movies - several of which I already owned.  That's probably the most annoying thing about collecting discount DVDs - they're cheaper in collections but you get more and more duplicates.

At any rate, my wife likes Audrey Hepburn a lot, so I was interested to see a movie I'd not heard of before in the collection: Paris When It Sizzles.

Her co-star is William Holden and I found it strange that I had never heard of it, since a Holden/Hepburn matchup should have produced a great film.

And then I watched it, and now I know why it's forgotten.

The film is about a script writer in Paris (Holden) who has to turn in a script in two days and hasn't written a thing.   Hepburn is the typist who has been sent to put the final polish on the script he hasn't written.

Together they hash out a story and the movie constantly goes forwards and backwards as they put together a plot and naturally they play the starring roles in the love story.

At first, it's very clever, but after a while, it becomes tedious.  It's like the classic Warner Brothers cartoon where Daffy Duck finds himself at the mercy of the cartoonist.  The action will stop abruptly, location and costumes will change, and then it proceeds in a different direction. 

I actually dozed off after a while because it was becoming so tiresome.

That being said, it's a bright, sunny kind of movie with a first rate cast and cool Nelson Riddle score and I suppose as a time-waster, it is entirely satisfactory.  The problem is that it simply doesn't measure up to what one expects from either of its stars.

Which is why I never heard of it.


Formulaic 80s sports films: Youngblood

My wife is a fan of the late Patrick Swayze's work and as a surprise decided to get her a DVD of Roadhouse.  The best deal was a double-disk set with Youngblood which neither of us had ever heard of.

Last night we watched it.

It's not very good.  As I told her last night, I'll likely never watch it again unless I'm making fun of it with friends.

It is, however, a marvelous example of formulaic mid-80s filmmaking.  The star is Rob Lowe, who plays the titular Youngblood - obviously that's his name, but he's also a rising sports star, a "young blood," as it were.  Hah.

The sport in question is hockey, which makes it a little more interesting.  Patrick Swayze plays an older team member who first torments but then helped Lowe.  All is when, and then tragedy strikes, Swayze is injured, and Lowe must doing a synth-heavy training montage to save the team.

Oh, and there's a cute girl who likely thought this would be her breakthrough film but I never heard of her.  She does a topless love scene with Lowe, which adds to the lingering sense of disappointment I felt for her.

As I've gotten older, I find such displays really distasteful.  Given the attitudes of the time, they were widely regarded as normal verging on naughty, but in retrospect, that was just the avalanche of immorality in its early stage.  That's probably fodder for a series of posts, so I'll just note that I'd have preferred the film without it.

In addition to Swayze and Lowe, Keanu Reeves has a bit part as a French-Canadian player, which I found amusing.


The cynical optimism of St. Elmo's Fire vs The Big Chill

I did not see a lot of movies when I was growing up.  There was a time when my father would take me on our weekends together, but once he got remarried, I spent more time watching VHS tapes - usually of things I had already seen.

However, I listened to the radio constantly.  It woke me up in the morning.  When I got home from school, it kept me company.  When I played wargames, it was the soundtrack.  At the end of the day, I listened to it as I fell asleep.

All of which is to say that while I missed the theatrical run of White Nights or St. Elmo's Fire, I vividly recall the music.

Thus, seeing St. Elmo's Fire for the first time was oddly familiar.  I knew the cast of course, having grown up on The Breakfast Club and other Brat Pack films.

I have also recently viewed The Big Chill, and though different in mood, the films have many similarities.

For one thing, both have ensemble casts composed of core group of seven friends (split between four males and three females) with an additional secondary female to round out the story.

Both are "small stories" centered around relationships and maturation and both feature a meandering plot that derives its intensity and meaning from the chemistry and acting skill of the cast.

However, there are some significant differences.

Structurally, The Bill Chill takes place over a single weekend reunion in the aftermath of a funeral.  The action is compressed as long-separated friends catch up with one another and explore where they are in their lives.  The cast is also older, more settled and more disquieted.  They are filled with disillusionment as the idealism of their youth has collapsed before harsh reality.

St. Elmo's Fire is less compressed temporally, with weeks passing as its story unfolds.  The cast is much younger - recent college grads who still know people at their old school.

The attitude that pervades St. Elmo's Fire is much less bleak, thanks in large part to the experience of the elder generation.  The movies were filmed only two years apart, yet they seem to be from different eras.  This effect is heightened by the settings - a fine Southern mansion during the fall vs bustling Georgetown during the zenith of the Reagan era.

The older film looks to the past with its musical selections while eponymous main title of St. Elmo's Fire (subtitled "Man in Motion") is clearly about seizing opportunity.

This  makes it more upbeat and while there are bleak elements to the story (the troubled life of Demi Moore's Jules in particular), the overall tone is one of hope and promise.

This is largely because of the failures outlined in The Big Chill.  The idealism of the 1960s was always completely unrealistic (particularly the type coming out of the University of Michigan), so there was never any possibility of it working.  The despair of that revelation in turn led to a focus on reaping material rewards, and instead of deriving comfort from faith and family, career advancement became the measure of personal success.

Kevin Cline and Glenn Close have arguably the most successful characters in their film.  They have a superlative house, good local reputation and are raising their children in an idyllic community.  Kline even tends meticulously to his physical fitness, in the process reminding others to do likewise.

Yet there is an emptiness to all of it.  The marriage is a hollow shell and none of their accomplishments bring them fulfillment.  It is true that this seems to find resolution during the course of the film, but as I noted in my earlier piece, that development seemed both nihilistic and unrealistic.  It was the product not of organic character growth but the writer's sentimental hope for a happy ending.

By contrast, the characters in St. Elmo's Fire have a much clearer understanding of how the world works.  They are younger than their counterparts, but their youth is also less sheltered.  As already noted, Demi Moore's character epitomizes the pervasive divorce culture that blossomed during the 1970s and the corrosive impact it had on children.

Rob Lowe's character is one of the more intriguing, representing as he does the same sort of immaturity that drives the older generation's actions.  Alone of the group he is a husband and a father, but he is a failure at both.

However, he matures throughout the film.  When we learn that his wife is planning to remarry, he decides that being a "weekend dad" would be unfair to his infant child.  Better to give the gift of a stable family.  Coming in 1985, this is a profoundly thoughtful decision.

In fact, one can argue that that theme of both films is the need to grow up and accept life as it is and that the younger cast is simply a decade ahead of their elders in this realization.