Flesh + Blood - the nihilistic forerunner to Game of the Thrones

When I was young, I subscribed to the then-current notion that people who had a problem with sex and nudity in films were a bunch of joyless scolds and that in the more enlightened environment of the 1980s, people could enjoy the work of freely consenting adults to essentially prostitute themselves.

Since then, I've learned that in the entertainment world, "consent" is a rather elastic concept.  This predated the "me too" movement and was instead founded on my own experience of working in  photography, but the revelations of Hollywood depredations reinforced my sense that this was the norm, not the exception.

Put simply, directors are often weirdos, and they will use their power to coerce actors to do things that they would not normally do under the excuse of artistic expression.  Thus, even the "good" directors who never overtly operate a casting couch can still get their jollies by forcing a fetching young actress to perform a nude scene repeatedly until she gets it "right."

I was reminded of this when I re-watched Flesh + Blood, a hack-and-slash film from 1985 starring Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh (and fearing Bruno Kirby, which was a bit jarring).

It is a tale of revenge and romance set in Renaissance Italy (the title card says 1501) and it is one of those remarkable films where every single character is an awful person.  The least objectionable is Tom Burlinson's young prince, but he's hardly admirable.  The tale follows the misadventures of a gang of mercenaries and their camp followers as they make their way through war-torn Italy.

In the course of their work they are betrayed by their employer, but avenge themselves by stealing his son's (Burlingson's) fiancee, played by Leigh.  In another genre, Leigh's character would have been left unmolested and a hefty ransom demanded, however, that would deprive director Paul Verhoeven of the sordid pleasures of a very graphic gang rape, and we can't have that.

The entire film is grotesque, but in the environment when it was released, it was held to be lurid but insightful and an unflinching look at the period in question.  Whether that is true is arguable, but what is not arguable is that the sheer volume of graphic violence combined with nudity (yes, the two are almost always combined) tells one a lot more about the director than the story.

Again, as a young man, I didn't trouble to think about such things, and while I found the film a bit over the top, I enjoyed the period look (particularly armor) and the various oddball engineering ideas  shown in the film.

However, the story could have been told - and I believe better told - without extended sex scenes, which as an author I find dull to describe and as a viewer embarrassing to watch.

It is useful to recall that the Hays Code was put into place to prevent Hollywood from simply creating peep shows in order to boost attendance.  The result was a golden age of creativity and art.

Conversely, the collapse of the code has seen a steady degradation of entertainment to the point where what was now shocking is mundane.  In the age of streaming porn, peep shows lose their cinematic value.  Flesh + Blood was a product of a time before we reached that point and when "adult films" were hard to find and still carried a social stigma.

The emergence of Game of Thrones as a mainstream product shows that the aesthetic of Flesh + Blood lives on, but audiences now demand more than just the naughty bits to be satisfied.

The Spirituality of Ghostbusters

I recently watched Ghostbusters for the first time in a long time.  It has to have been at least 25 years since I had seen it, largely because it was so ubiquitous in my youth.  In addition to be a smash hit in the theater, it did heavy duty on the TV movie circuit and of course was a popular video rental for parties.

Don't get me started on the theme song.

At any rate, I was pleased to see that it holds up pretty well and being much older, I got some subtle jokes that evaded my younger sensibilities.

Of course, I also approach the subject matter of the film vastly differently than I did as a teenager, particularly after spending the last two years listening to the Lord of Spirits podcast.  Part of why I was willing to watch it again was that I wondered what Ghostbusters looks like through the spiritual lens.

Despite its nominal topic, the film presents a very secular version of the spirit realm.  The protagonists famously use mad science to capture and contain ghosts and it is the application of technology that "saves the world."

To be sure, religious people are seen praying for them, but that's part of the spectacle.  In the end, technology - not prayer - is decisive.

That being said, it is interesting that one of the assumptions of the film is that ancient gods can be real and inflict physical harm.  Since God has often various means to achieve His goals, having the Ghostbusters thwart Goser or Zuul or whoever could be seen as a dismissive wave on the part of the Almighty.

One of the key concepts of the Lord of Spirits is that the ancient gods were in fact real entities and that the sacrifices offered produced tangible results.  As a recent episode pointed out, the rise and fall of various cults is in part explained by the success of the people who worship them.  Wars between the various city-states and later empires were at the time seen as struggles of their gods as well.  The Trojan War was famously a contest that divided the Olympian gods, who repeatedly intervened.

In our modern secular worldview, we see gods as a purely cultural matter and in our contempt for our ancestors assume that the temples and rites were no more than superstition by ignorant savages.

However, as I've mentioned before, cause and effect are not a modern invention, and given the amazing sophistication of ancient metallurgy and architecture - that is, the stuff that has survived - it is the height of arrogance to assume we know more than they do.  In fact, I think we are far less logical, since many "rational" people rather irrationally refuse to consider even the possibility of the Unseen.

It's interesting that Ghostbusters also prefigures the later "ghost hunter" reality TV shows, which clearly seek a secular answer for a spiritual problem.   After I became more aware of the spiritual realm (and the fact that most if not all "ghosts" are likely demons), I asked my wife (who was an avid watcher for a while) how many of the shows were still on.  She replied that many of the first generation had stopped and that the cast had complained that "their work" tended to follow them home.

Well, yes.  Absent a "trap" and a containment field, mucking about looking for the Unseeing armed only with an voltage meter, shotgun microphone and a thermal camera is remarkably stupid.

If only they'd watched Ghostbusters, they'd have known better.



When Edgar Allen Poe met H.P. Lovecraft: Horror Palace

Though I generally disdain streaming services for movie collection, every now and then I'll use the access I'm already paying for to watch something.

Last week it was Vincent Price in Horror Palace.   This is a typical low-budget 1960s horror film but it has an interesting an unexpected twist - some oddball tie-ins to the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

The story is a conventional one - a warlock (male witch) of course played by Vincent Price is burned at the stake by the outraged townspeople in the late 1700s for his various crimes.  He places a curse on the town and vows to return.

A century later, Price returns as a descendant who has inherited the estate.  Naturally he's a decent, secular man who will of course be possessed by his ancestor.  Price excels at these kinds of rules, being kind and warm in one scene and cruel and sinister the next.  That transition is what makes him so fun to watch.

What makes the film stand out is the number of Lovecraftian influences, including references to the Elder Gods, a copy of the Necronomicon, and other flourishes.  I'm not going to say this is a must-own, but it was fun to watch and Lovecraft nerds need to add it to their collection.

Digging into The Equalizer

Okay, I've gone through Magnum p.i. and Miami Vice.  What's next?

The Equalizer.

This show ran from 1985 to 1989, and while I remember seeing its previews, I never actually watched the show.  My wife saw it and liked it, so on the strength of that recommendation I bought the series on DVD.

I'm only five episodes into it, but it's growing on me.  It's got some nice touches and the characters are starting to become more defined.

That may sound strange, but most American TV shows of that era had a premise for their characters, but it was mostly just an archetype.  It took time for the real personality to emerge.

Sometimes, the series didn't really find traction until the second season, but I'm warming to Edward Woodward's character.  He's a wonderful actor, and I can see why the show found a following.

Of particularly interest to me is the gunplay, and I'm enjoying the various 80s-vintage weapons as they show up.

As with Magnum and Miami Vice, a major theme of the show is that the government can't be trusted.  In the present era, that's now subversive, but it was a consistent theme on popular, mainstream shows.

Oh, how the times have changed.


Fall traditions in a time of turmoil

Last night Michigan State opened its football season to a packed house.  The "tradition" of a Friday night game before Labor Day weekend is a new one, only going back a decade or so.  It was not particularly popular, but it seems to be catching on.

East Lansing was hopping last night, and that's a good thing.

I took a few moments to wander outside and listen to the echoes of the game through my quiet neighborhood.  Traffic was light as everyone paused to see whether the Spartans could hold off a second-half rally by Western Michigan.  They did, and I'm sure the local lockup has plenty of overzealous revelers as a result.

If I could describe the mood it would be one of desperately wanted to get back to normal, to forget everything outside of having a good time.  For a few hours, politics fades away and the only question that divides people is what team they're rooting for - a tribalism of the best sort.

We need more of this, and while it's inevitable that election commercials will intrude upon my football watching today, I'll have a quick trigger on the remote to keep them at bay.

I'm also relieved that public schools are finally maskless and places of teenage drama rather than temples of fear and anxiety.  Kids can be resilient, but they need a break from constant warnings of doom for that to kick in. 

It's easy to overlook these things, but when we lost them, we learned how important they are.  Hopefully the lesson will stick around.

The Rise and Fall of Miami Vice

Some TV shows hit the airwaves and have an immediate impact.  There's no need to find an audience or for the actors to settle into their characters, it's full-throttle from the series premier.
Miami Vice is one of those shows.  The look, the scene, the cars and above all the music made it immediately compelling to watch.  Sure, there were some rough edges in the first season, particularly in the way they loaded down Don Johnson's character with a ton of quirks.  His Sonny Crockett (alias Barnett) not only has to balance work with raising his son and save a troubled marriage, he is also a former Florida State football player and a Vietnam veteran and he lives part-time on a sailboat with a pet alligator named Elvis.  Almost immediately writers decide to forget the football thing, Vietnam will fade and his wife will divorce and move away.  Elvis also fades into obscuring within a couple of seasons.
As a writer, I get why they loaded him up.  By 1985, the market was saturated with cop and detective shows.  The format allows for lots of guest stars, but mostly it boils down to "solve the case of the week," and so the only way to achieve separation is to have quirky characters.
Turns out, Miami Vice didn't need that - at least not at first.  While the format was familiar, the setting and approach was unprecedented.  Michael Mann didn't just mix in some new elements, he created a unified aesthetic that combined color, music and aesthetic in an unprecedented way.  Miami Vice wasn't a show so much as a mood.  He also balanced Johnson's quirk-laden Crockett with Philip Michael Thomas' more traditional Rico Tubbs, a New York detective who has a more old-school approach.  Johnson set a fashion trend by combining Armani suits with pastel t-shirts and stubble.  His weapon of choice was a Bren Ten carried with spare magazines in a shoulder holster - about the most firepower one can feasibly conceal.  Thomas was more traditionally dapper and his weapon was the tried and true snub-nosed revolver (sometimes backed up with a short-barreled shotgun).
Their partnership was iconic and within a few episodes, they're a solid team.  The supporting cast is also excellent, particularly after Edward James Olmos joins the team four episodes into its run.  His Lt. Castillo is quiet and stoic, the perfect foil to the flash and energy Crockett and Tubbs (and he naturally uses a traditional patrolman's revolver).
Of course, no dicussion of Miami Vice is complete with looking at the peerless music that was incorporated into the show.  Jan Hammer provided both the main title theme as well as incidental music during the show itself.  In addition to Hammer, Miami Vice featured some of the hottest musical acts of the time and incorporated the sound and lyrics with what was happening on screen.  It was like an hour-long music video. 
Actually, it was more than that.  Especially in the early seasons, musicians actually appeared as characters in the show.  Episode 16 featured Glenn Frey as a drug smuggling pilot.  The episode was titled "Smuggler's Blues" and featured his song of the same name, which was the leitmotif of the episode.
This was typical of the early seasons, and Phil Collins, Frank Zappa and countless other singers got roles that also featured their work.
Everyone who was anyone got involved.  Lee Iacocca and G. Gordon Liddy got prominent parts.
Thus, the show started out strong, refined itself to become even stronger, and then inevitably began to decline.
The first step was the departure of Michael Mann.  Without him as producer, his vision inevitably was compromised.  He had strict rules about the color palette of the show that were no longer enforced.  Even so, the show did immediately decline.
I'd place the hinge point after the third season.  By that point the formula was starting to get stale and even the cast was losing interest.  John Diehl, who played a supporting role as Larry Zito, got so bored that he had his character killed off mid-season and no one replaced him.  Diehl and Michael Talbott (who play his partner Stan Switek), had gotten some interesting (and funny) sub-plots in the first two seasons but the show was starting to take itself seriously, and they were relegated to the background.  It probably did not help matters that the female cast (Saundra Santiago and Olivia Brown) got much better treatment by the writers, often having entire episodes built around their characters.
It was really the fourth season where things started to go downhill.  By this point the writers were starting to recycle material and resorting to gimmicky celebrity appearances (such as Sheena Easton doing five episodes as Crockett's romantic interest).
The romance angle was particularly troublesome.  No one expects the show to shift into a relationship drama, but there were better ways of handing some of the romantic plots for the various characters.  For example, and obvious one would be a recurring role as an old flame in an on-again, off-again relationship.  Instead, the writers mostly kill off the detectives' girlfriends, which quickly loses its shock value and becomes yet another trope.
Probably the final straw was the cliffhanger at the end of season 4 where Crockett suffers a traumatic brain injury and becomes his drug-dealing alter ego.  It's an interesting take on the usual amnesia plot, but it's also a desperation move, and when the three-episode arc ended, the show seemed creatively exhausted.  Even the music was of lower quality.
One of the only bright spots of the last two seasons was Martin Ferrero's portrayal of Izzy Moreno, a street informant who always manages to steal whatever scene his is in.  Ferrero was involved from the start of the show, and turns up whenever information is needed, but is always involved in some con.  As the show deteriorated, these became more amusing, but also more improbable.  Miami Vice was alternately grim or silly, which is impossible to sustain.
As a viewer, I'd stick to the first three seasons.  There's no real story arc, so the best approach is to enjoy the ride at its wildest and then get off before things get boring.

The Shia LaBeouf Conversion

There has been quite a bit of chatter among Catholic circles about the announcement that troubled Hollywood actor  Shia LaBeouf has entered the Catholic Church.

I've always written the guy off as something of a lunatic, which certainly was born out by his previous actions.

Apparently he was making a biopic about St. Padre Pio and it was in researching the role and visiting the sites of the saint's miracles that he felt the irresistible call to the faith.

I'm reminded of other high-profile conversions that didn't 'take.'  After Hurricane Katrina smashed New Orleans, Anne Rice renounced her sinful ways and returned to the Catholic Church only to leave it shortly afterwards (if I recall she was annoyed with the Church's stance on homosexuality, which you'd think she would have known at that point).

I've watched some interview with him and Bishop Robert Barron and he sounds quite calm and indeed eloquent.  Apparently what moved him most of all was the understanding that he could be forgiven for his many sins.  Even if he later stumbles, this is a great truth that needs to be shared.

We all sin, and the Enemy wants to ensnare us in the belief that our sins will never go away and we will always be separated from God.  It's just not true, and the older I get, the more I treasure the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Spies Like Us: try-hard, vanity comedy

Another day, another multi-film 80s collection.  Today's offering is a Chevy Chase/Dan Aykroyd vehicle Spies Like Us.

It's a Cold War send-up of spy films and from the get-go it's clearly a paint-by-numbers affair.  Both actors are playing their favorite idealized roles, which they originated in other, better movies.

Chase plays the clumsy yet suave con artist who has a way with the ladies while Aykroyd is the mega-nerd who talks in cluttered jargon and ultimately saves the world.  Essentially it's Caddyshack meets Ghostbusters, and since the characters are nothing more than tropes, there's no real investment in what happens. 

To be fair, there are a few legitimate belly laughs, but the film feels more like a series of related Saturday Night Live sketches than a cohesive story precisely because the characters are so familiar.

The sketches work because all we have is the one skit.  However, when you run a bunch together, it feels forced and is uneven.  One of the keys to comedy is timing - the jokes have to come in the proper sequence and with the proper spacing to have the full effect.  When it works, you reduce the audience to helpless laughter, because they have just enough time to recover before something new happens.

When it doesn't you get awkward silences, as if a rollercoaster has come to a sudden and unexpected stop.  That's the feeling of Spies Like Us - it gets rolling for a bit, stutters a bit, rolls more but never finds a consistent pace.

And yes, it has a fair amount of political preachiness about bloodthirsty generals trying to start WW III with Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.  You can mix politics and humor, but only if it has the right tone.  If you don't do that, you alienate a bunch of the audience. 

Miami Vice at the halfway point

As part of my return to the shows of my youth and teenage years, I'm going through the entirety of the iconic Miami Vice.

It's an interesting contrast to Magnum p.i.  There are a number of obvious similarities.

Both take place in a gorgeous tropical setting, both of the lead characters are Vietnam veterans who drie expensive sports cars and the plots revolve around weekly guest stars.    In Magnum, they were clients and sometimes villains; in Miami Vice, they're usually criminals.

Of course one was a detective show, the other a cop drama, so the conventions are similar but also different.  Magnum's goal is to solve the case, not get the bust.

Chronologically the shows overlapped each other for a couple of years, and by that time, Magnum had evolved quite a bit.  These were the final seasons, which shook off the show's lethargy and moved forward with multi-episode plots and also a sense of purpose.

Like Magnum, Vice came out of the gate strong, and at this point in its shorter run, things are still moving briskly.  We're getting recurring minor characters and villains.  The first season experimented with some low comedy involving secondary characters, but that did not happen during the subsequent season.  The focus is squarely on Crockett and Tubbs, and when supporting characters get time, it's done is a more serious way.

I will say that the most striking difference is in the soundtrack.  Magnum's soundtrack is great, but it is largely a reprise of the main title or some character-specific leitmotifs.

Vice uses contemporary music, so much so that it times it feels like an extended music video.  The latter show was never the smash ratings success that Magnum achieved, partly because it aired on Friday night, which has smaller audiences.  In fact, I rarely saw it for that reason - as a high school student, there were football games and parties and such.

Still, there's no question that Vice impacted the culture, and watching it is an immersive experience - everything is contemporary, right down to political jokes and issues of the day.  The Drug War was spiraling out of control with street violence reaching its peak in 1990 before beginning a long, gradual decline.  The Cold War was also nearing its culmination, leading to a toxic mix of politics and money.

The show captures this moment brilliantly.  I'm going to be sad when I've finished.


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.